The Difference Between Word and Message

It has come to my attention that many discussions about controversial issues tend to lead to conflict due to a lack of appreciation of the difference between word and message. For example, if a person were to say that 93% of blacks are murdered by other blacks, it would likely lead to a heated, and unproductive, debate, even assuming that the fact touches upon a legitimate issue that warrants exploration. Why? Because by stating this fact, one would sound like a racist, even if one weren’t. In other words, there is an important possible difference between what one is saying and the message one is sending.

It should be recognized that by claiming the above fact about black murder rates, a person could be approaching the issue for at least two different reasons. One possibility is that a person believes that black-on-black crime is a legitimate and serious issue that should be discussed. The other possibility is that a person wants to justify racism or express racist beliefs. And without being able to truly know what motives a person has for stating such a fact, the reason will be unclear.

The recognition of the difference between word and message does not entail denying that there is good reason for people to look beyond the actual statement another person makes. In other words, it is not unjustified that someone suspect another person of racism if that person were to state the above fact. And the reason why is because people often make statements to convey messages that are not encapsulated in the words of the statements themselves. Many people do refer to the high murder rates of blacks by other blacks to justify or express their racism. The unfortunate effect of this phenomenon is that some people’s statements will be misinterpreted. Perhaps a person does think that the issue warrants attention and is willing to approach it with an open mind and sincere heart. And if it is true that the issue is worthy of serious discussion, then it would be unproductive if others accuse that person of racism, for that would not only insult that person but would also leave the issue unaddressed.

With all of this in mind, I suggest that both the hearer and the sayer of a statement keep in mind the important distinction between word and message. This would, at a minimum, require the following: if you are the sayer, try to imagine whether your statement could be sending a certain message that you do not intend to send; if you are the hearer, try to figure out whether the sayer of the statement is intentionally sending a message that she is sending.

By the way, if you are curious about the above-stated fact, it is correct. That said, the corresponding percentage for white people is about 86%. The reason why these numbers are so high is because people tend to kill other people they know, and most people socialize within their own ethnic group. For more information, see http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2014/nov/25/rudy-giuliani/giuliani-93-black-murders-committed-blacks/