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Context matters more than the words we use

Context is incredibly important. Sentences are like iceburgs. There is what appears on the surface, the letters you see printed on paper. But underneath the words, there’s more than what appears. Sentences can be extrapolated to no end, and interpreted in countless ways,

Roberto Wakerell-Cruz Montreal QC

CONTENT ADVISORY: The following article will contain vulgarities for the purpose of illustrating the importance of context.

The other night, I was sitting around with a few of my comedian friends, splitting a case of Pitzman Honey Lager™, a beer whose notorious beginnings uphold five generations of brewing heritage, when a friend of mine cracked a joke about land-rights.

For those not familiar with the concept of land-rights, it’s a practice in which MCs, presenters, and anyone who is speaking to an audience, prefaces their words with acknowledgement of the Indigenous lands on which we stand. The idea is that we are settlers on unceded territory of Indigenous peoples, and should acknowledge the tribes on whose land we stand.

It’s not uncommon to hear liberal-minded politicians give land-rights. Jagmeet Singh, Justin Trudeau, and other Canadian liberals are familiar with the idea, and do it regularly. It’s not a heinous idea, though in my estimation, not a necessary one. It feels like a cheap way for social justice types to gain virtue points. But overall, it’s harmless.  

A couple of delicious, crisp, and refreshing Pitzman Honey Lagers™ later, and one of my friends came up with an inappropriate, yet thought-provoking idea.

What if there was someone who, while acknowledging land rights, used racial epithets to address the Indigenous people. Not out of anger, but out of ignorance to the latest proper terminology.  Someone unfamiliar with terms like “people of colour,” or “Indigenous peoples.”

What if someone went up and said, “alright, before we start, I want to acknowledge that all of us are on land that used to belong to redskins. We took land away from the Indians. They used to have pow-wows, and sing and do rain dances here, and us white folk are wrong for taking that away from them. We are deeply sorry.”

The idea was interesting because although this hypothetical man’s intentions are good, and he is unaware that he’s using forbidden words that have been deemed inappropriate within a fairly short amount of time. This idea got the ball rolling in my mind.

Here’s another example, and buckle up, because I’m about to use some colourful language that I would normally not say: There’s an older man talking with his family about gay marriage. He’s in favour of gay marriage, but his language is crass, and not politically correct. What if he said something like, “When it comes to homo weddings, I think it’s retarded that f*gs can’t get married!”

That sentence is actually pretty progressive! But the sentence would be deemed inappropriate because of the lack of nuance that he uses.

The irony of using asterisks in this article is not lost on me, by the way. Sadly, I have to fear that words in this article could be taken out of context

As we sat around and continued to responsibly enjoy our Pitzman Honey Lager™, I started to ruminate. I wondered to myself, “Do words matter? Or is intent more important?” And it took me a while to come to any real answer.

In one sense, of course words matter. Words are incredibly important, and a tool that we as humans are incredibly fortunate to have. To convey a message to one another in such detail is a unique trait. But what are words without context?

Which sentence is worse? “I think it’s retarded that fags can’t get married,” or “with all things considered, and it is indeed my own personal opinion, I believe that those who engage in homosexual acts and wish to marry their lover should be forbidden to do so!”

Although the first sentence contains naughty words, the second sentence actually contains far less progressive ideas. In my opinion, the first person is actually forward thinking, whereas the second is stuck in their old ways.

Context is incredibly important. Sentences are like icebergs. There is what appears on the surface, the letters you see printed on paper. But underneath the words, there’s more than what appears. Sentences can be extrapolated to no end, and interpreted in countless ways,

Focusing your attention purely on which words are being used is just wrong, and unproductive. It can leave you hopelessly blind to things like jokes, which go far past just the words used, but also the scenario being presented in the situation.

Take for example on an old episode of Bill Maher’s show Politically Incorrect.

Sarah Silverman, one of the world’s most well known comics, defends a joke that Guy Aoki, a Japanese-American civil rights activist, deems racist.

Sarah Silverman had made a joke on Conan O’Brien containing the word “ch*nk.” Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA, which Guy Aoki founded) claims that use of such a hateful word to get laughs is inappropriate.

The joke itself goes as follows:

I got jury duty … and I didn’t want to go, so my friend said, “You should write something really really racist on the form when you return it. Like, you should put ‘I hate ch*nks’.” And I said, “I’m not going to put that on there just to get out of jury duty. I don’t want people to think that about me.” So instead I wrote, “I love ch*nks.” And who doesn’t?

In the original joke, Silverman had said n*gger instead of “ch*nks,” but the network asked her to change it from the first to the latter. The network and O’Brien then apologized for airing this statement. Silverman did not, stating that it was plainly satirizing the racist thought process.

Not to explain a joke, but the joke itself is dependant on the phrase “I love ch*nks.” It’s a clever little line, because the word itself is considered racist, and rightly so.

Guy Aoki suggests that instead of using the word “ch*nks,” that she should just say “Chinese people.” In other words, instead of having a punchline, there should be nothing funny at all.

The willful ignorance to context is frustrating, and is something that as a culture, we need to nip in the bud. Context matters, and we need to know the full story behind why words are said.

But what do I know? I’m inebriated from enjoying one too many Pitzman Honey Lagers™.


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