When kids are learning to read, a good teacher gives them as many tools to use. Young readers are taught to sound out words they don’t know, words and concepts are repeated, and stories are put into a form that are familiar and warm. All of these help us even as adults along with one more critical tool – context, a bigger whole than the details that support it. Context comes from the pictures that support the text, either in a kids’ book or a magazine, but it also comes from the text itself. It also happens to be something that is fading from our culture altogether in strange and chilling ways.
The word “context” means to “interweave”, with the definition given as “The parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning”. In other words, it’s a network of connections in the text that allows us to make sense of it. Understanding an essay or speech often forces us to get into the personality of the person who wrote it, the connections they make to prior work or, if it’s an older piece, the historical time in which it was written. As surely as words themselves change meaning in English, context can often be tricky to establish.
Without context, statements stand on their own or borrow their meaning. That’s the nature of the “sound bite”, or small phrase that begs the reader or listener to use a broader cultural context to make sense of what’s being said. The more we rely on these kinds of phrases, the more we ask people to refer back to something that they already understand rather than enlighten them about a new idea – the “sound bite” is inherently conservative (small “c”) in nature.
We live in a time that is defined by this kind of speech. What’s dangerous is that it’s happening at a time when there is a tremendous cultural split, meaning that the “sound bite” is always going to exclude one group that doesn’t “get it” right off the bat. That’s the problem with relying on an outside context.
Ditching context is not just some right-wing trick, however. The tendency to “re-mix” or “mashup” songs is often a deliberate way of taking a work and putting it into a new context that is completely stripped from what the original author intended. In that case, there’s an implied context – the general hip-hop or rap scene and the need for new dance music. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But what this re-work of old work is all about is making a scene or movement tighter and more focused on itself. It’s also a way of excluding people who don’t get the riff, but it at least has an artistic merit – artists have been riffing off their own scene as long as there have been artists.
Lately, I’ve seen a number of “mashups” of politicians ripped from many speeches over the course of time. It’s a handy trick that allows the person assembling the piece to place phrases out of context in a way that the original speaker never intended. It’s also almost always used to make people look dangerous, crazy, or just stupid. As a person who tries to push the boundaries of our perspective and make new connections, I’m sure that anyone who wanted to totally diss me could easily go back through Barataria and find many riffs, ripped out of context, that make me sound arrogant, mean, crazy, or one dumb bunny.
These “mashups” and “sound bites” are just the most obvious examples of our political and social speech being ripped from any useful context, however. What is the context for Balloon Boy while the story was unfolding? What is the context of most of the stories that you see on the teevee nooze? How often are stories unfolded in a broader context that allows them to be understood on their own?
We all learn in pretty much the same way we did when we were kids. Context is critical to how we understand our world and get whatever control we need over our lives. The problem is that context requires either a strong cultural connection or a lot of time to develop. Rapidly changing times and deep cultural divides are killing the first method, and one-line “sound bites” are obliterating the second. Without context, people are left in the dark and powerless to understand their own world. That’s not a good thing for a Democracy.