I have a confession. The high school me would have worn a MAGA hat. I may also have smirked on occasion. I was the kid who, when taking a political affiliation test in Civics class, was off the right side of the chart. That doesn’t tell the full story, though. Our teacher was a radical liberal (and a good sport). I was a hotheaded sophomore. It’s obvious what those tests are trying to do, so I purposefully answered all the questions so as to get the maximum Conservative score. I think I only missed one. For me, at that time, politics was a game. That’s not to say I didn’t believe in anything, but provoking my fellow students and especially teachers with talking points from Rush Limbaugh was fun on its own merits. The verbal jousting was a form of entertainment and a way to exercise my quick wits. If I’d had access to such a powerful provocation as a MAGA hat, I’m sure I would have availed myself of it. And I didn’t even like hats at the time.
Although I never attended any rallies (that would have involved leaving the basement), I can see myself in the Covington Catholic kids. I WAS that kid. So it’s odd to hear commentators talk about the hats as if they were an indication of irrepressible racism, a characterisation which fueled the false narrative that initially sprang up around the whole unfortunate event. More likely they are symbols of a youthful brashness and arrogance and rebelliousness on a similar plane as dying your hair blue or wearing spiky clothes. I suspect there are similar motives driving the adults who wear them, too. Trump supporters have embraced the name “deplorable,” reveling in the condescension of the mainstream. The more the hats bother the left and draw howls of racism, the more they will wear them. Not because they genuinely wish to express racism (though some may), but because it’s a kind of sport in which the hats are the uniform and the cries of racism are the boos of the opposing crowd. That doesn’t make it a good thing, either. One would hope to grow out of such demonstrations. The teens didn’t handle the situation well, and they arguably are handling the aftermath even worse, but they did handle it more or less like teens. What excuse does everyone else have? The modern political arena is enfeebling of us all.
The broader concern, however, is about the way we view symbolic actions, not just the wearing of hats but the flying of flags and the erection of monuments and the use of slang and the unearthing of old statements on twitter. We can collectively jump to a conclusion based on a hat because we no longer bother to consider any a person’s motives nor care to hear their meaning. All that matters is what we think of it, that we are offended, that we believe it is racist, that we believe the end results are bad, that we don’t like it or the person it supports. The boys’ actual intentions in wearing the hat are irrelevant. We hear only what we want to hear and see only what we want to see.
Perhaps it is the result of deconstructionism, where generations of educated people were implicitly and explicitly taught that language had no objective meaning, which is another way of saying that the author doesn’t ultimately determine the meaning of his words. Or maybe it is simply a product of an online environment which requires quick responses and often lacks the context necessary to make personalized judgements. Whatever the reason, the effect is troubling.
Communication requires a shared understanding. You must believe that words have meaning outside of your own thoughts or it would be pointless to say anything. Likewise, you must believe that those listening to you will understand your words in roughly the same way you do. If you understand the word “cat” to mean a furry quadruped often kept as a pet but someone else understands the word “cat” to be a delectable, cream-filled pastry, then using the word “cat” when speaking to that person will be highly confusing, to say the least. It’s not quite the confusion of people speaking foreign languages, where the lack of understanding is obvious. In this case, you believe you are speaking the same language but are unaware (or insensitive to) the difference in interpretations.
Words often have many meanings, so genuine disputes between them are possible, though they may not be so outlandish. When that happens, how should the meaning of a word (or symbolic action) and a person’s intent in using it be decided? If your friend in the example above said they loved to eat cats after dinner, you might understandably be alarmed and revolted. However, upon finding out that they had understood cats to mean a pastry and not a housepet, would you maintain your revulsion and insist that he was really a secret feline-devouring monster? Or would you laugh and excuse him for the misunderstanding? In a dispute over meaning, the final arbiter must always be the speaker’s interpretation (though not necessarily, it must be said, his post-hoc explanations), however wrong you might consider it. If you get to decide, not only is it grossly arrogant to think you know his meaning more than you do, but how can he ever know what words to use? With every utterance he risks confusion or ridicule or offense. Most likely, he will just stop talking to you. In general, such disputes in meaning must be minor and infrequent, otherwise we will have to accept that we do not speak the same language at all and communication is impossible.
Such deference to the speaker does allow some measure of abuse (think of every time you’ve heard someone say their comments were “taken out of context” in an attempt to avoid their plain meaning), but not allowing it is far worse. Willfully insisting on our own understanding alienates us not only from others in different places and contexts, but also those in the past and in the future. The meaning and usage of words changes over time, so to claim that an author’s understanding isn’t the determining factor in intent is to say that dead men are constantly changing their minds. How we interpret and apply the lessons of great literature, for example, can be different for every individual according to their circumstances, but the meaning of the author’s written words don’t change regardless of what we choose to do with them. That most people can’t get away with using the n-word today, in an environment where it’s an extreme taboo by broad consensus, is understandable. Anyone living in America today should know better. That Mark Twain can’t get away with it is bordering on ludicrous. If we can’t at least partially judge a word based on its original intent (as best we can understand it), then what is the point of saying anything? Not being careful or sensitive about the words you say and their predictable effects on your audience is a character flaw. Not having any control over the meaning of your words is a terrifying absurdity. If you’re intentions don’t matter, then nothing is safe to say. You will be praised or destroyed on the whims of others you may never know or live to see.
If you think a MAGA hat is a statement of racism, if you think Obama was a secret Communist, if you think pro-life is about controlling women or pro-choice is about population control, if you think border security is about white supremacy, if you think welfare is about keeping the poor dependent, then you are engaged in this type of thinking. You aren’t actually listening or attempting to understand what the person in question is saying. Rather, you are claiming secret knowledge of a person’s true meaning in spite of every statement and argument to the contrary. Even if you believe the practical results of a position are different than what is claimed, that is not proof of bad intent. You are placing your own meaning over the plain meaning of the words or symbol or action. You might even be right on occasion. Sophists do exist. But to treat everyone that way is, in fact, to create your own language which only those who agree with you can understand or adhere to (which is why your enemies always seem to be the ones with bad intentions). The result will be confusion and contempt and separation. Sound familiar?
So next time you see a MAGA hat, try to understand it as the person wearing it rather than the person viewing it. You may not like it—and that may be one reason they are wearing it—but try to take it for what it is. It’s not a secret code. It’s a hat.