Possible or Probable?

One of the vexing things, at least to me, is the too frequent tendency to read and use a writer’s words carelessly, especially at those points where one wants to disagree with him. I am sure there are lots of reasons for this, some of which may be simple matters like reading comprehension or carrying one’s own assumptions into the words. What concerns me, though, is when the fairly obvious point of certain words is ignored in order to bring a criticism based solely on a possible meaning of those words. The goal in criticism isn’t that kind of nitpicking. It is to interact with what an author intended to say, that is, with the most probable meaning of his words.

Maybe an example would help. Let’s say you and I are golfing together and I push my drive wide right of the fairway into a patch of trees. We begin looking for my golf ball. As we search, you ask me, “Where do you think it landed?” I reply, “It could have landed anywhere.” Eventually we give up and I take my penalty stroke. Later that day, you bump into a mutual friend and decide to report to him that you think I am careless with the truth. This mutual friend asks why you would say that and you reply, “Because on the golf course today he said his tee shot could have landed anywhere. Does he really mean that his tee shot could have landed forty miles away in Toledo? That’s a conclusion I could come to based on his words.” Frankly, I hope our mutual friend looks at you in amazement and then proceeds to tell you that you are an idiot. Of course my words possibly could mean that the ball left the golf course, but the context of my words and the nature of such an idiom would clearly show that such an interpretation is highly improbable. If you are concerned about genuine understanding, then you are after the probable meaning, not just a possible meaning of someone’s words.

Perhaps I am mistaken on this, but it seems that I see this most often done when an agenda is driving the interpretation. Usually that agenda focuses on discrediting someone or someone’s work, and the method employed is serving that agenda, not the truth. I fear it is becoming part of our culture—a lot of talk radio and the shout-at-one-another cable shows operate like this. I suppose I can understand when lost people twist the truth to serve their own agendas, but it is hard to understand how God’s people can justify this.

None of us are above using weak arguments or misunderstanding what someone has written or said. I certainly am not trying to claim absolute purity on this point. I believe, though, there is a clear line between using a person’s possible meaning to build a straw man and actually engaging the probable meaning of his words. I think it is a breach of good faith to twist people’s words like this. It reflects a lack of trustworthiness in the critic and/or a lack of trust in the one whose communication is being criticized. So, don’t be an idiot.

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