We can be surprised when an audience member begins to describe what they heard in a given presentation. It’s frequently not what we believed the presentation was about.
Most of us operate on a daily basis using something like what is sometimes called a “correspondence view of reality.” This approach assumes that the material world offers up an endless parade of experiences that we take in and understand in more or less similar ways. The reality on view to all has certain reliable and corresponding meanings. At least that’s the theory.
But after forty years as a rhetorical critic and analyst, I must say that I don’t see much evidence that that the world we describe has much in common with what others believe to be present. We all know the experience of listening to a description of an event jointly witnessed by ourselves and others, only to hear an account that misses what we thought were important defining features. There’s nothing new in this, but its a cautionary condition that ought to make us wary of the correspondence view.
I was reminded of this recently by a scene laid out in Lawrence Wright’s book on the negotiations that led to the historic Camp David Accords. Thirteen Days in September documents the 1978 efforts of President Jimmy Carter to find a way out of the chronic Arab/Israeli impasse, working with Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat. The President put everything else on hold in Washington to spend time with these men in the Maryland mountains. Days passed as these three leaders looked for a way around their considerable differences.
When the talks seemed to be irrevocably breaking down Carter decided to pack up his entourage for a quick side-trip to Gettysburg, not far the famous presidential retreat. He reasoned that perhaps a look at the bloody American fratricide that occurred among the lush hills surrounding the small Pennsylvania town would help reset the talks.
Over three days in 1863 the Confederate and Union armies saw 8,000 of their members slain and 50,000 badly wounded. This was carnage on the scale of the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six Day War. Begin and Sadat took all of this in, with detailed narratives provided by Carter and the local National Park staff. But as Wright notes, the two old warriors saw very different Gettysburgs.
Like most visitors, Sadat seemed fascinated by the strategies of the generals leading the two warring armies. The timing of attacks and counterattacks are usually at the center of most narratives about this key battleground. But to Carter’s surprise, Begin was sobered by the magnitude of the carnage, and especially the words of President Lincoln’s short address at the site, which the Israeli leader interpreted as a call for political leadership to rise above the brutal factionalism of civil war. For Begin, Gettysburg was less a preserved chessboard of moves and countermoves than a reminder of the horrible price of strife between neighbors.
We see surprisingly different understandings play out in all kinds of prosaic ways: films we loved that others disliked, the often surprising “lessons” that individuals take away from a story about communication or interpersonal breakdown, the incomprehensibility of a Fox News report.
Against the simpler correspondence view of reality that we assume, communication analysis needs something a bit different, which can be called a phenomenological view of reality. The phenomenologist tends to accept the likelihood that experience is individual rather than collective,and that the material worlds we share are still going to produce separate and unique understandings. Our own personal biographies are likely to feed into interpretations of events that are specific, distinct, and often exclusive to us. Meaning is thus not a matter of consensus among strangers, but a mixture of ineffable and lifelong influences. In simple terms, two individuals may look at the hilly terrain of Gettysburg’s Little Round Top, but may be taking very different conclusions from it.