So then, let us talk about one of our standard shifts or evasions. This is not unique to any particular generation—people have always done this—but I can say that in our generation, this particular form of dishonesty has been declared one of the New Cardinal Virtues. It has always been hard to deal with, but we have now made it a thought crime to say something critical about what everyone sees.
Let us first illustrate the technique from a common domestic situation. Wife tells husband what they are having for dinner that night, and he says, with just a hint of exasperation in his voice, “We’re having lasagne tonight?” She takes offense at his tone, and they have a quarrel. In the course of that quarrel, he defends himself by pleading the dictionary. “All I said was (monotone) ‘We’re having lasagna tonight?” It turns out that the hint of exasperation referred to earlier, which his wife would need to have been deaf, dumb, and blind not to notice, is not to be found in the dictionary anywhere. And so it is with scads of other things.
What we say has certain denotations, which can be looked up in the dictionary. But what we say (and do) has a host of connotations, which communicate a lot, but which also bring with them the lusted after deniability. “I didn’t say that!”
It turns out that we communicate with one another in a host of different ways, and what can be found in the dictionary does not necessarily constitute the lion’s share of what is going on. The dictionary does not contain the color of that red convertible, eye rolls, a scarf thrown around the neck in a rakish, devil-may-care attitude, well-placed grunts, the pregnant pauses in the conversation, or some young twinklebuns sashaying down the street like he was in Manhattan or something. In fact, Manhattan itself is a connotation.
As with all communication, some people are fluent and others are inept. Non-verbal cues can misfire just like regular talk can. Take the unattractive girl who makes herself decidedly more unattractive with that attractive tattoo. She just does it, and the rules are that the world must pretend. The world must preserve her bubble. We all must look off into the middle distance, whistling.
Whether competently done or not, if anyone is so gauche as to repeat back in verbal form what everyone in the room just saw and grasped as the Meaning of Said Event, we have all been trained to react as though that person were attempting to read hearts. But if the subject didn’t say it, then the only other place meaning could reside in down in his heart, and the critic cannot see the heart. Take that.
Come on, people. Does meaning reside in a strut? Does meaning reside in a grimace? Does meaning reside in bedroom eyes? Does meaning reside in a yin/yang tattoo on the right calf? Does meaning reside in that little italicized accent on lasagna? Does meaning reside in ironic cowboy boots, as distinguished from Merle’s manly footwear? Does meaning reside in a high and tight haircut? Of course it does, and we all know it. Movie directors use such cues constantly in order to communicate mood, meaning, metaphor, and more.
But if you are hardy enough to say so, particularly if your observation contains any trace elements of critique, then you will shortly find yourself singing the lead soprano in a skunk opera somewhere, being pelted by vegetables that are past their “sell by” dates.