BARRETT: Understanding misunderstanding

Tom Barrett

My Uncle Rob is a conspiracy theorist of sorts and a cynic through and through. With his shoulder-length hair, his virtuoso abilities with a guitar and his uncanny ability to tell you exactly what he thinks about anything and everything, he is somewhere between Jimmy Page and George Carlin.

He’ll tell you how the music industry is run by greedy corporate execs who could care less about artistic value if it doesn’t mean money in their bank accounts. He’ll rant about corruption in the Church and our nation’s government. Just this past Christmas, he was lecturing my 13-year-old sister about the United States’ psychological warfare campaigns during the early Cold War era. The most confusing part about his ravings is how he seems so frustrated and confused by the fact that what he says to us does not immediately strike us as common sense.

As a child, I would just dismiss these soapbox rants as Uncle Rob just being Uncle Rob, but since coming to college I’ve been startled by how many of his polemical arguments have turned into legitimate class discussions.

Looking back at aspects of the Church’s history – such as the selling of indulgences – it is easy to see that this institution’s past is not as pristine as we would like to believe.

With the recent impeachment of Gov. Rod Blagojevich in Illinois, corruption in our government has become something we can no longer sweep under the carpet.

And there have been hundreds of declassified files from the Cold War Era that clearly display the United States’ past support for subversive movements in foreign countries to halt the spread of communism.

If my professors and my uncle are saying the same exact things, then why do my professors seem entirely credible, while my uncle is so hard to believe?

Of the limitless list of things that divide us from other people, perhaps language is our biggest barrier. While it’s nearly impossible to converse clearly with someone who speaks a different language, there is also a gaping chasm that separates us from speakers of our own language.

While we all use the same words, these words can assume slightly or even vastly different meanings for each of us. Even the simplest of words like “good,” “love” and “success” can have varying connotations, all depending on the individual.

For example, I have a friend with whom I have many discussions about religion. He describes sin as more of a disharmony in the world as opposed to the more traditional view of sin as a transgression of some eternal rule. The word “sin” is very simple, but its meaning can be quite subjective.

These discrepancies in how we define our words can become problematic when we try conveying our thoughts to other people. Though a certain concept may be completely true and though the words we use to describe it may seem crystal clear to us, the person or people we are speaking with may simply not connect with the words we use.

So what does any of this have to do with my uncle?

As I said earlier, though he may seem eccentric at times, much of what my Uncle Rob says has a lot of truth to it.

The problem is that he does not recognize why no one else gives his thoughts any credibility. Though his opinions may be well-grounded, he does not express himself in a way that will allow another human being to connect with the words leaving his mouth.

Instead, he comes off like an angry conspiracy theorist and not someone whose arguments you would immediately support.

My uncle’s inability to sell anyone in my family on his beliefs is an exaggerated form of a problem that we all share in talking to one another. In order for us to express ourselves truly we must try to understand where the person we are talking to is coming from. For example, if my uncle were able to hear himself from my little sister’s perspective he would understand that she does not even know what the phrase “psychological warfare” means and that, to her, it seems like something out of a wacky kids’ spy show. Our words can betray our thoughts, true as they may or may not be. Only through an effort to understand others can we be understood, and vice versa.


Tom Barrett is a senior philosophy major from Colonia, N.J. He can be reached at [email protected].