Words Mean Things: “Out of Context”

We’re introducing a new feature on this blog called “Words Mean Things.” It’s where I explore various phrases that have come to be used in pop conversation as defensive or offensive rhetoric, but are completely divorced from any substantive meaning.

The inspiration for this feature and today’s entry comes in the comments for yesterday’s post about Dawkins. Quoted partially.

Way to take on [sic] paragraph out of context and write an essay condemning him. Do you have too much time on your hands?

I have since asked James for the context that makes his statements better and have received no reply, so I assume he’s merely been too busy.

However, there are many people far less scrupulous than James who don’t realize that “out of context” has a meaning and is not code for “thing that makes somebody sound bad.”

Let’s explore.

“Context” refers to the information surrounding something. Data is rarely clear in a vacuum, and is rather influenced by other data surrounding it that gives you, the observer, a sense of perspective by which you can accurately determine meaning from what you are seeing.

This is an aspect of science that particularly confuses Creationists. You see, when we discuss the mountains of evidence for evolution, we are talking about context. We understand how gravity and time work, for example, so we know that things on the bottom of piles got there first and are therefore older, so when we find a fossil that appears to be in an earlier stage of development for various traits buried deeper in the ground, we can draw a provisional conclusion that it may be a transitional fossil to something we found higher up from something that will be found lower. Keep in mind that this is a highly, highly simplified example.

Now, let us take that same fossil discovery and put it to a Creationist. Whether they want to admit it or not, for that discovery to not be consistent with evolution, either time or gravity would have to work differently in order to deposit fossils someplace in the ground that they wouldn’t otherwise be if they were consistent. So, Creationists often try to pick apart the validity of the find itself (often referring to Piltdown Man), rather than addressing that it was found exactly where we predicted it would be. That is taking out of context.

How about another example?

Out of context things are often used in the service of comedy. For example, one of my favorite Tumblrs is Archie Out of Context, which takes one or two panels from Archie comics and separates them from the rest of the comic, letting you draw your own, mostly sexual, conclusions. Here’s twenty that are absolutely hilarious, including a few of my favorites (“Oh! So Jesus is a giant Aspirin tablet!!!”).

One could also argue that the humor in comedies of errors results from taking things out of context. The Life of Brian is a great example, where we have poor Brian of Nazareth who is assumed to be the much hoped for messiah, despite nothing in his life indicating that this is the case. He’s a fairly unremarkable guy who has his every action re-written in order to fit the new context that others have developed for him, such as in this, one of my favorite scenes:

The “context” of the scene that we see is that Brian is running from a mob of fanatical devotees who want him to lead them, and he loses his shoe in the process. However, the zealots don’t understand that he is a normal guy with no wisdom to impart. They have taken the event out of the context of his life and inserted it into the context of a messiah giving them guidance. The shoe stops being a mistake caused by being in a hurry and is now The Sign.

Now that we know what “context” is, let us see how “out of context” is abused.

Remember this ad from the last presidential campaign that seems to have President Obama saying, “If we talk about the economy, we’re going to lose”?

It was the first Romney ad that came out for the general. But when we took at look at when and where that line was actually said, we see that Obama was actually referring to a quote from a John McCain staffer in the presidential election before that. He was trying to summarize the attitude of the McCain campaign at the time, which was suffering from its party identification with the president and Congress that helped put us in what we were just realizing would be one of the worst economic disasters in American history. In this case, context demonstrates that what is being implied is the exact opposite of what was said.

On the flip side of that, last June Rep. Trent Franks from Arizona commented that, “The incidents of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low,” in order to justify having no rape exception in his 20 week national abortion ban. When he was hit from the left for the statement, he claimed he was “taken out of context.” In this case, that is nothing but a dodge, because nothing he said around that statement in any way changes that he was basically ignoring the 32,000 pregnancies that result from rape every year, nor would it make his statement any more relevant (i.e. even if only one woman got pregnant from rape, shouldn’t she not be forced to carry her rapist’s baby?).

It is in this second vein that I am taking claims about Dawkins being “taken out of context.” Maybe there is more to the article that I am missing, but so far it doesn’t look like anything that was said around those quotes changes that he appears to be speaking for his classmates regarding whether they were affected by their molestation, that he recognizes degrees of molestation, or that he thinks that you can’t judge people in earlier generations for their horrible behavior based on social expectations of the time. And taking in further context of previous statements he’s made, it’s directly in line with a demonstrable callous indifference to people who are not just like him or capable of serving his interests.

And that is what “out of context” means.