Understanding and Choice of Words
I’ve been trying to pay close attention to words in recent weeks. Separating meaning from intention, and denotation from connotation. One word in particular that I’ve felt tremendous need to clarify lately is the word “understand.”
I’ve seen insults fly from those in my general political camp directed against anyone who expresses an interest in “understanding” why people might vote for a hard-right nationalist sociopath in a presidential election (or vote for no one because they came to the conclusion that his establishment opponent was “just as bad”). In doing so, people almost universally confuse the meaning of the word "understand."
The way that we often use the word “understand” is interchangeable with the verb “excuse.” If a friend confides that he is going to call in sick at work because he lost a promotion to a friend, we reply with “I understand” or “I get that.” Those phrases carry along with them a certain level of forgiveness; even sympathy.
Understanding frequently implies some level of sympathy and that’s rarely a problem because we are so frequently seeking only to “understand” the mundane and the largely inconsequential. In dealing with far more grave and complex situations, the precise meaning of our words becomes far more important.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “understand” as follows:
(1) To perceive the intended meaning of
(2) To perceive the significance, explanation, or cause of
That same dictionary defines the word “excuse” as follows:
(1) To seek to lessen the blame attaching to
(2) To overlook or make allowances for
To understand someone is simply to acknowledge that I follow a person’s logic; that I have taken note of the reasons underlying a person’s thoughts or actions. To make allowances for that logic or seek to lessen the blame attached to those thoughts or actions is an entirely different matter. I have no interest in excusing anything. Quite the opposite actually.
Holding someone accountable requires knowledge of what that person did and why they did it. Enumerating the negative consequences of a decision is a waste of time if the decision-maker doesn’t care about those consequences (or doesn’t consider a set of consequences to be negative in the first place). Exposing the logical and moral flaws inherent in a decision is a waste of time if I do not understand the decision-maker’s train of thought or moral compass.
To seek to understand does not require that I excuse anything. I want to understand a decision that I believe to be wholly destructive not only for others but for the person who made it. I want to understand that decision the way that an architect wants to understand trigonometry or a mechanic wants to understand firing pistons. Knowing why a combination of angles has a certain strength or how efficient one design is compared to another requires study and collection of information. Solving problems requires knowledge of the subject.
Solving a problem requires knowledge of the problem, those involved, and the context in which it arises that is as close to complete as possible. It doesn’t require convincing oneself that the problem isn’t really a problem at all or that it doesn’t exist, any more than it requires convincing oneself that the problem isn’t worth solving.