Last summer, Brian Matthews wrote a post concerning context, especially about attitudes toward technology. If you would happen to look at my previous posts, you might notice that the word context shows up a lot. The idea of context goes hand in hand with my thoughts about dialogue. This post described an apparent downside to context.
Some of Brian’s sentences really stick out: “Context is an interesting phenomenon. When conversations or attitudes from one space merge or are invaded from the outside, there is a good chance for misunderstanding to occur.” And “this person had no context for the conversation.” And “Our personal and emotional investment is very different, perhaps, making it impossible for us to understand each other?”
I have a series of immediate reactions to this. The second quote makes it sound like Brian’s problem actually wasn’t with context, but rather with a lack of context. The third quote makes me want to point out that, if two people don’t understand each other, trying to understand the context would be the best remedy. I think both of these things are true.
But let’s deal with that first quote, because I think that’s a good point. When encountering new ideas or beliefs, it can be difficult to actually understand what it is that you are encountering. History is littered with examples of this. Sometimes, those misunderstandings have had catastrophic results. We could reduce the examples just to language barriers, and the list of misunderstanding would still be miles long. Does that mean that context actually has a dangerous side?
Context by itself is neutral territory. How we experience context depends much on our travel companions. If entered alone, it can be a strange and frightening journey. However, if entered with a friend (even if they don’t agree with you), the opposite will likely be true. I experience this when I travel, as does everyone. We rely on guides of all sorts ranging from books to relatives who live in the area to which we traveled.
I would argue that, within his description of the situation, Brian does not take the necessary second step of dialogue. The difference between the two experiences centers on what he points to as misunderstanding. With dialogue, the likelihood of misunderstanding diminishes. This is hard to develop many times. That is the true root of the problem, rather than context, and this is what Brian experienced. But when he wrote about his experience, he actually took the second step, likely helping someone to better understand his views because he gave them a guided tour of his context.