Muddled intentions, specific intentions

One important thing FIML practice has showed me is that people very often—more often than they realize—attribute specific, clear intentionality to the speech of others when that speech actually originated out of a muddled state and was not clear or specific at all to the speaker.

I think we do this because as speakers we have better knowledge of the rich ambiguity that is our mind, while as listeners we know, for the most part, only what the speaker has said, or rather what we think we heard them say.

In many other posts we have discussed hearing words incorrectly and the consequences that can follow from that. In this post, let’s confine ourselves to a listener’s attributing a more specific intentionality to the speaker than the speaker intended.

A crude example might be a drunk at a bar mumbling to himself. Another drunk walks by with his girl on his arm. Hearing the mumbling, he asks, “Did you say that to her?” In saying that, he is attributing intentionality where there was none.

Sometimes, the drunk at the bar will explain that he was just mumbling. And sometimes he will own the intentionality being attributed to him.

In that case, he might say, “Yes, I did. What are you going to do about it?”

Misconstrued intentionality surely leads to many fights.

But those of us who don’t get drunk in bars like that never do anything similar, right?

Not so. We do it all the time. We frequently hear the speech of others as having more specific intent than they meant.

Whenever we listen, we do so with the network of semiotics and language that subsumes our perceptions. Thus, whatever we hear will tend to confirm or be contextualized by that part of our subjective network that is most active at the time or that seems to apply best to what we are hearing.

Our use of that network for understanding the speech of others is hurried, quick, and often wrong. Our listening makes sense to us, but is almost never in full accord with what the speaker said, especially as so much speech initiates in vague or muddled states of mind. Speech is often groping while listening often is less so.

For example, if someone expresses a political view that we have recently been thinking about and that irritates us, our listening will very likely attribute a more specific or pointed intentionality to the speaker than is justified.

If we agree with what the speaker said under the circumstances described above, much the same thing will happen though our attribution of specific intentionality will be favorable rather than unfavorable.

These examples are the polite forms of the barroom brawl versus barroom camaraderie.

Notice also, the tendency we humans have to frame these sorts of errors as dichotomies. Either you are insulting my girl or we are all best friends.

Furthermore, notice that we also have a strong tendency to own the more specific intentionality being attributed to us by the listener. In the bar, you might decline the fight, but in another location you might lock horns with someone who attributed a specific intention to your muddled or idle expression of a vague political “view.”

Next time you think you heard a specific intent in the words of a friend, ask them if that was indeed their intent. Be careful when asking because if they are not experienced FIML practitioners, they may agree to own an intention they never had or that was far more muddled than it had seemed to you (or them in the moment of speaking).

My guess is a great deal of what we say is sloppier or more muddled than even we ourselves realize. This is simply how we are and how we really use language. You can’t male speech perfect.

The ‘Semiotic Age’ or the ‘Age of Signals’

From Pater Tenebrarum’s recent piece The Taming of Deluded ‘Conspiracy Theorists’?:

Look who is warning us again about the great harm conspiracy theories are doing to the minds of impressionable citizens everywhere: Cass Sunstein has emerged at Bloomberg, to once again plead for ‘correction’ of the many conspiracy theories that are disseminated on that pesky new medium, the intertubes, seemingly without inhibition. Contrary to the infamous paper in which he described how to precisely combat the spreading of false information that lacks the government’s seal of approval, he doesn’t list his favored censorship and disinformation techniques outright this time, but it is certainly implied that ‘something must be done’.

With regard to conspiracy theories, there is a long history of dangerous thought entering the minds of deluded citizens. There were people who long doubted the official version of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, or those who believed that the government’s minions were capable of thinking up other ‘false flag’ activities such as ‘Operation Northwoods’, or the poor confused souls who argued that Iraq’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’ were a trumped-up pretext for war based on thoroughly politicized intelligence, or the mean-spirited¬† traitors who charged that the US military killed a Reuter journalist and his helpers in Iraq and then covered it up, or the completely delusional paranoiacs who asserted for many years that the NSA was literally recording everything. Next they’re going to say that the official version of the WTC attack lacks credibility, in spite of its enshrinement as unassailable truth following the government’s decision to investigate itself! (Source)

No one has found a good name for our age. The Modern Age has come and gone as has the Post-Modern Age.

I propose that we are now living in the “Age of Signals,” the “Age of Signs,” the “Semiotic Age,” or even the “Semaphorm Age,” if we want to be more clever. The basis of this sort of term is the signal or the sign. Everything in the universe signals. When people signal each other, we use signs. Signs are communicative entities that carry meaning.

Computers and electronic media use signs. In this Age of Signs, people now battle each other through signs and symbols as much or more than with physical weapons.

In the essay above, Pater Tenebrarum battles Cass Sunstein (and, in my view, wins hands-down) over semiotics, or signs.

Sunstein has a long history of advocating clandestine government control of what citizens think. In his own words, Sunstein says, “our main policy idea is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories.”

Obviously, the term “conspiracy theory” is a loaded semiotic. It is a “sign” that neutralizes ideas Sunstein dislikes. The term originated with the intelligence services after the JFK assassination. It was designed to marginalize people who doubted the Warren Commission Report.

“Conspiracy theory” or “conspiracy theorist” is one of the most successful propaganda semiotics ever invented and Sunstein’s upfront use of the term should be an immediate warning to alert readers.

Tenebrarum does a good job of refuting Sunstein, and I hope readers will take a few minutes to read his essay.

The battle between these two is a fine example of semiotic battles that are raging all over the world. To name a few—the long-range US goal of starting a war with Iran, steadfastly ignoring the US role in overthrowing Yanukovich in Ukraine, the removal of fundamental Constitutional rights in the USA, and so on.

There is a long list of hot-button and little-or-no-button (destroying the Bill of Rights) issues in the world today. Gladiators still do battle on the field with real weapons, but more than ever the important battles are fought for the hearts and minds of the public through well-placed semiotics.

Semiotic valence

In a previous post, I introduced the concept of semiotic wells. A semiotic well is like a space-time “gravitational well” within a semiotic network. By this, I mean that part of the semiotic network has some heavy things in it—primary semiotics that pull other nodes within the network toward them.

For example, someone with the view that they have some sort of personality will tend to associate many of their perceptions and thoughts with the features of that personality. Their belief in their personality type will tend to make them see and understand the world in those terms.

I doubt that “having” a personality is all that much different from having a hobby. And I bet most people can move from one personality type to another about as easily as they can move from one hobby to another.

Of course there are constraints and limitations in the development of hobbies just as there are in the development of personalities.

We can gain profitable understanding of the mind by conceiving of it as a network of semiotic units. It is a network because the semiotic elements of the mind are all interconnected. It does not take much imagination to connect any semiotic element in your mind to any other. Apple-red-communism. Or apple-pie-American.

By association we can connect anything in this way.

Every semiotic element in the mind has a valence. In different contexts, the valences for any element will differ, and oftentimes they are neutral, but they are there. A semiotic well organizes valences as well as meaning, intention, belief, value.

For some people, speech is used to socialize, to make friends, to gain and keep access to other people. The valence of major parts of their semiotic network is aimed at socializing with others. People of this type are pleasantly excited when others compliment or reciprocate their social valences.

In contrast, for some other people, speech is used to share ideas, to analyze, to teach and to learn. The valences of their semiotic networks are primarily aimed at sharing ideas. People of this type are pleasantly excited when others reciprocate these valences.

Many semiotic wells and semiotic valences are formed accidentally, randomly, arbitrarily. Once we take on any bit of meaning, even if only slightly, there is always a chance that it will snowball into a significant semiotic well.

The Beatles alluded to this when they sang Had it been another day/ I might have looked the other way/ And I’d have never been aware/ But as it is I dream of her tonight.

This doesn’t just happen with love but with many of our other interests. We form semiotic wells—sometimes very quickly—for what are often very trivial reasons or no reason at all.

Much of what we are comes about through accident or chance. This happens because semiotics and the ways valences become attached to them are frequently very simple. Once a semiotic well begins forming it often grows, and as it does it pulls in or rearranges elements from other parts of our semiotic network.

Once a well is formed or given to us, it can greatly determine how we perceive the world and what we value in it.

This is why propaganda succeeds so well, and is sort of easy to do if you have a lot of money and access to important public forums. All a propagandist has to do is start your mind in one direction and then add more information and more valence. Most people see the world in terms of simple dichotomies, so all the propagandist needs to do is decide what they want and contrast it favorably against what they don’t want.

Want war? Make the public perceive the enemy you want as an enemy, then add info while increasing valence. Columnists will write many thousands of words about the desired war, but the basic sociology of it for the general public is always very simple.

Of course sometimes the trick fails. With Syria the basic formula—terrorists/poison gas/war—failed, probably because the public had been fooled too many times before with similar formulas (Sadam/WMD/war).

If you can see past words and feelings to the core of the semiotic well, you will see that many things in this world are quite simple. It is no accident that people communicate largely in very simple terms.

Semiotic networks and semiotic wells

Semiotics are the signs and symbols of communication.

Words, images, sounds, gestures, phrases, whole sentences, books, fields of study, and so on are all semiotics.

Within any one mind, semiotics are interconnected in a network. I am pretty sure we can speak of a single network in most, if not all, individual minds, but if you want to think of there being several distinct networks in a single mind, that would be fine.

Of course, the semiotic network within any one mind will have sub-networks and, most assuredly, many weird connections among its parts, its semiotic units and/or sub-networks.

When humans conceptualize space-time, we often use the notion of “gravity wells” or “gravitational wells.” Our sun sits in the center of and causes a gravitational well that is a description of the “bending” of space-time.

I want to borrow that sense of “gravitational wells” and use it to describe something called “semiotic wells.”

A semiotic well is like a solar system or galaxy in that it constitutes a system of semiotic elements that are all held together by the “weight” of some of its members. A “semiotic well” is a gravitational bending within a semiotic network.

For example, a trained botanist will have a semiotic well about plants and another well within that well about their particular specialty within the field of botany. To that botanist, many perceptions and events will circle in and around that semiotic well. They will know things about plants and see things in the world that those of us who are not trained in botany will not see.

The same can be said for any profession.Doctors, lawyers, therapists, translators, carpenters, plumbers, farmers, and so on; each will have a semiotic well, or wells, associated with their profession. All of us also have semiotic wells associated with our hobbies and main interests, and many other things.

One of my best friends is a janitor and he knows and see things about human messes and how to clean them that I would never have appreciated without his input. He also has a good sense of humor about his work.

And sadly, he also feels bad about his work sometimes. Though his friends and I know he is a sterling character and have great respect for him, he can’t escape knowing that he is working a low-status job and that very few people appreciate him for what he does.

This brings in another semiotic well, or an aspect of his basic janitorial semiotic well, that is emotional. My wonderful friend sometimes feels bad about what he is doing and finds it very hard to climb out of those feelings. It really is as if he has fallen into a well and can’t get out; he can’t escape the “gravitational well,” the semiotic well, of how he thinks most people in society see him.

He is caught at the same time in both a cultural semiotic well and a subjective semiotic well. His subjective well is very complex but a big part of it is his view of what others think of him.

Now, I think the same is true for all of us. Our professions create one kind of semiotic well, while the way we think society perceives our profession creates another well. Many of the semiotic elements of these wells are highly subjective and depend greatly on idiosyncratic perceptions and assessments.

What I want to do now is largely replace the concept of “personality” with that of semiotic wells.

The advantage of doing this is that we replace an ambiguous term with one that has discrete elements that can be discovered, changed, and moved around.

The gravitational “sun” at the center of my friend’s occasional depression is not his “personality” but his job, the drudgery of it, and, probably most importantly, how he thinks others see him as someone doing that job.

This describes a semiotic well that sometimes is so strong it pulls in his perceptions of many other things not connected to his work at all. And then all of that creates more wells that involve his wife, children, and friends. He can become a semiotic well to them.

But it is not just janitors who can feel that way. Doctors can get depressed because everyone they see feels bad. All day long, they have to deal with people at their worst. And sometimes they make mistakes that cause terrible feelings of guilt or helplessness.

The examples above are clear, I hope, because they are concrete and involve things we all know about.

Some other examples of semiotic wells are our fears, doubts, neuroses, memories, conceits, shame, pride, intentions, and so on. If we conceive of these sorts of subjective items as being aspects of our “personalities,” we won’t analyze them, or we won’t analyze them profitably. We will dwell on them instead.

If we think of them as semiotic wells, we will be more likely to see that they are networks of meaning that are made up of real things—the signs and symbols of communication. Communication happens within the mind as well as between minds.

My friend’s mind is infected with the signs and symbols of having a low-status job. In much the same way, but less concretely, all of us are infected by the signs and symbols of our semiotic wells, both subjective and external semiotic wells.

Our memories, fears, doubts, biases, and much more can become semiotic wells. And what we think others think of our jobs and our “selves” and deeds can also become semiotic wells. And what others really do think can become semiotic wells.

The terrible thing about this is we cannot discuss it with most people. But we can discuss it with some people and, given the right circumstances, we can analyze any semiotic well you can think of. We can discover what their parts are, how they interconnect, and which elements are “heaviest” and why.

Through analyses like that, we can reconfigure our semiotic networks and wells. By calling them into consciousness, especially with the help of a partner, we can fully understand them as we recontextualize or reconfigure them. Oftentimes, we will discover that an element that seems to have great weight, need not have so much weight. We might discover that some elements are false, especially if those elements are how we imagine what others are thinking.

If my friend, for example, could see what I really think of him—and not confuse my mind with what he thinks society sees—he would probably be amazed because I think he is a very clever and dignified person who does difficult work selflessly, mostly for the good of others. I have taken him as a model of human behavior at its best in many things. I have told him this, but he doesn’t seem to believe me because the force of his semiotic well about it is too strong.

Forming semiotic wells seems to me to be a primitive aspect of thought and communication. Transforming them through analysis seems to be a way to generate the escape velocity needed to free ourselves from them.

Not all semiotic wells are bad, but many of them tend to become bad even if they started out good. This happens because they can quickly ossify, or become static. Once you see yourself as “having such-and-such personality,” you will tend to turn the rich network of your mind into a simple semiotic well. Or once you see your friend as having this-or-that trait, you will tend to turn the rich network of their mind into a semiotic well.

Worst of all, most of us do this to each other constantly. Members of small groups, companies, work stations, towns, or churches tend to nickle-and-dime each other to death over static semiotic wells that can be generated from even the shallowest of ambiguities.