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Accidental Multitasking

August 26, 2013

I will eventually discuss the book of James in this article but I won’t start there.  Instead I’d like to start with a rather esoteric discussion of language.  Speech (by which I mean an act in which language is used and not specifically audible words) can do any and all of three different things: communicate information, function as an action, or communicate emotional intent.  Every act of speech does all of these even though some acts of speech do one of them much more than the others1.  One could imagine a triangle in which each tip of the triangle was one of these categories and the triangle itself represented the possibilities for speech.


Some speech would be quite near one tip of the triangle.  The statement, “Siberian tigers are the largest members of the cat family alive today,” is almost entirely informational.  “I hate you,” is almost entirely a statement of emotion.  “I do,” said at a wedding as part of wedding vows is primarily an action – by saying these words one has performed the action of getting married.  (Other speech-actions include granting people permission to do something, giving orders, and voting.)  However, very few acts of speech manage to be only one of these things.  Saying, “I do,” at a wedding is an action but also communicates information (the witnesses now know that you are married) and emotion.  Information frequently comes with emotional content of some type.  Saying, “Nikola Tesla is responsible for alternating current, the method by which electrical power is distributed in all modern power grids,” is informational.  Indeed, it looks like the sort of thing one might find in an encyclopedia entry or in a textbook.  However, it also tells you how you should regard Tesla (he’s a brilliant man who made an important contribution to modern life).  The information changes your emotions in regard to Tesla and so the information is not merely informational (even though that is its primary intent) but also emotional.  Indeed, it would be almost impossible to pull this aspect out of certain sorts of informational speech.  How could you describe what Tesla did in regards to alternating current without impacting the listener’s emotional state towards him?  The only real option is to convey no new information.  If someone already knows this information it does not change their emotional state.  If they are so confused by your explanation that they don’t learn anything they might also experience no change in emotional state towards Tesla (although they probably would receive some emotional communication from you).  Even my simple example sentence about tigers could carry emotional content.  For many of my students saying that Siberian tigers are larger than other living cats is equivalent to saying that they are cooler than other living cats and should be favored more than other living cats.

This brings us to the title of this article, accidental multitasking.  When we speak we often intend to only act, only inform, or only alter emotional states.  We almost always do at least two of these.  We have all had experiences in which the unintended thing we did with our speech became very noticeable.  Academics have a tendency to criticize ideas bluntly but without malice.  One expects one’s friends in academia to tell one when one’s ideas, experiments, or papers have flaws.  I have certainly experienced situations in which what is for me informational communication (“Everything you just said about Hindu theology would be considered incorrect by a theologically-minded Hindu”) has communicated personal dislike or contempt.  This brings us back to James.  It is my contention that a lot of what James says about speech is concerned with these accidental extras that ride along with every statement we make.

Much of James 3 deals with the issue of teaching.  Those who teach will be judged by a stricter standard and so teachers especially must be careful of how they live their lives.  Two clear examples of accidental multitasking come out of this chapter.  First, there is the issue of blessing God with one’s tongue while also cursing humans with it.  The obvious implication of the discussion that follows is that one cannot be serious about blessing God while also cursing human beings.  In this case cursing people is probably an emotional act of speech intended to convey only dislike.  It might also be informational in signaling dislike (but this is probably never its main intent) or an action (a serious call for supernatural forces to strike someone down, a much more common aspect of cursing in the ancient world).  However, cursing someone is not supposed to convey information about God.  What James points out is that it does.  When one person curses another they may think they are expressing an emotion or asking for an action but what they are also doing is describing their lack of seriousness towards God and His commands.  They have just informed listeners (both those targeted by the cursing and those standing by) that this particular person does not take God very seriously for all their words to the contrary.

The second good example from James 3 is the call to show wisdom and understanding not by imparting information but by good conduct.  A teacher who imparts good information but says bad things on other channels is apparently trumped by one whose information is nothing special but whose conduct speaks to their devotion to God.  It is important to this argument that speech not be just one thing or another.  The person who uses speech to build up their neighbor emotionally is also telling us information about whose rules they regard as most important (God’s) while someone who separates their church-speech from their common speech and uses their speech abusively outside of a religious context tells us a lot about themselves too.

Several other examples in James deal with this theme.  One of the most famous passages in James is the section about how faith without works is dead.  James addresses the person who sees someone suffering and tells them to be well.  This is perhaps a more complicated example but the person who merely wishes a suffering person well without making an attempt to help (that is clearly within their ability in this case) is doing two things: they are communicating an emotion and taking an action.  However, their action is pathetic.  Because their action is nothing more than a wish when it could be so easily followed up on it undermines the emotion and shows that the whole act of speech is just a show for others.  James points out that to make the emotional communication credible the action must match the expression of emotion.  The mismatch signals that the emotion is fake (which in turn signals that whatever this person says about loving their neighbor is also questionable).

What interests me most about this is that we tend to want to view speech through the lens of our own intent.  We intend to communicate information and so we feel it is unfair when we get judged for the emotion that we communicate (something that happens to me a lot).  We intend to communicate emotion to one person and communicate information about another or about ourselves but feel that it isn’t entirely kosher for someone else to use this information.  Unfortunately speech is not so simple.  We leak extra meanings when we speak and others pick up on these for good or ill.  We never or almost never communicate only information, only emotion, or only action.  The parts of speech that we aren’t intending are often less guarded and guided and may say more about who we really are than we would like.

By itself this would merely be an interesting way to envision something that we all do (build profiles of people from the extra valences on what they say).  What is interesting is that James holds his audience accountable for these extra valences and in doing so ends up holding them accountable for who they are (not accidentally in my opinion).  James is able to build an idea of being a whole Christian person from the careful monitoring of all aspects of speech.  Perhaps it is worth revisiting James’ care about speech, especially the parts that we didn’t intend to say.

[1]While any act of speech can be mapped into these categories this does not mean that these are the best or only categories to use when discussing speech.  Instead, this set of categories is designed to help us think about particular questions and other sets of categories might help us better with other questions.  An example of this sort of thing can be found in foreign policy.  For some questions it is helpful to categorize countries based on their style of government.  For other questions this is irrelevant and what really matters is how those governments feel towards your country.  Neither category is the correct one and being able to flexibly switch between categories actually helps one think more clearly.

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