Manner and Meaning

Here's how they do it in Congress: "My esteemed friend and colleague, the renowned legislator, has long had my deep respect, but in this issue he has been poorly served by his staff, and needs to check the facts personally." What that means is: "My political enemy is an idiot and hires idiots."

This disconnect between manner and meaning is a good thing in Congress, since it minimizes brawling, while allowing free expression. Would it also be a good thing in your mind?

Before you answer, "Of course not," consider context. When your petulant child says, "I hate you!" that really means, "I'm mad at you!" Teaching manners would be teaching how to keep the context. Lovers who "break up" every few months do that by dropping the context of a continuing relationship. While the congressman with his flowery language is confirming the context of cooperative government, the lovers assume that each dispute is a war. Disconnection between manner and meaning is less in the congressman than in the lovers.

The purpose of good manners is to convey that you don't want to fight. If others seem to assume you do want to fight, perhaps the problem is that your manners do not convey the context of peaceful reasoning. Good manners toward an enemy would be a lie if you intend physical assault, but the truth otherwise.

The way to handle manner and meaning in your mind is to take account of both, but never confuse one with the other. A friendly con-artist is telling the truth with his manner. He does not want to fight you; he wants to trick you instead. The stiffly formal professor is telling the truth with his manner. He wants a context of reason and respect, whether or not he knows how to use reason or give respect.

To drop manners from your mind is to drop context. To confuse manner with meaning is to ignore reality. If I say, "There is an invisible gremlin in that chair," my manner is that of relating an observation. That is, my manner is a lie. If you are taken in by that lie, you answer seriously, as if I had actually said something.

An arbitrary statement is an assertion without any evidence to connect it to reality. It has only manner, and no meaning. If you have formed the habit of keeping manner and meaning separate in your mind, you judge the manner, but not the meaning, since there is none. You do not say, "That's wrong, the chair is empty." You say, "Why the absurdity?"

The penalty for discarding manners is the same as for taking manners as meaning: you lose the distinction between them. You respond to one as if it were the other. You take an honest disagreement as a threat. You think the congressmen are really buddies, and the con-artist actually likes you. You think an unsupported declaration must be taken seriously, and a good argument is bad if put bluntly.

To learn the habit of separating manner from meaning, imagine the same thing said in an opposite manner, and the opposite thing said in the same manner. Think of the congressman saying, "My opponent is an utter jerk, but he is absolutely right about this issue." The difference between manner and meaning is the difference between attitude and truth.

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