Ethics,  Language,  Politics

Generous Interpretation – The Bedrock of Good Relations

Relationships only work when we generally impute good motives to the speakers of sentences. Due to the nature of natural human languages, vagueness and ambiguity are inevitable in speech. Every-day talk is not supposed to be precise. But it works well because we assume the best of other people.

At least in public discourse in America, this assumption is no longer true. It seems we assume the worst motives in other people (at least of those whose political opinions are not the same as our own). Even when we agree with them, we appear unable to impute good motives to our opponents (let alone when we disagree).

One’s policy in hermeneutics–the interpretation of text–is always to assume the best in the writer – that he or she intends to tell the truth, that there are clear distinctions in the mindĀ even if not necessarily in speech. The job of a listener is rather like a court of law – to assume the innocence of the speaker until proven otherwise.

Sometimes this takes hard work – one has to fill in the blanks and act generously towards other people. But the bedrock of good relationships is the hard work of generous interpretation. If we want a family, church, workplace, town, or country that is harmonious, it will take work – not to fight each other but to speak truthfully and interpret generously.

This is not incompatible with the sinfulness of human beings – it does not require that we view each other as essentially good. Rather, it requires generosity on the part of a listener. Generosity is not a listener’s obligation; it is given freely and it is given to those who may be just as prone to sinful speech as we all are. But without such generosity there can be only animosity. And with enough of that there can be only strife.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.