Interpretations and Conflict

I once had a conversation with a friend of mine about a game he was running that we were both in. Specifically, about three antagonists, all of whom were aside from one little issue some of my favorite characters in the game. (As we all know, I love a good antagonist.) There was a point that I’d found that he hadn’t realized I’d take issue with, and I think hadn’t even noticed was there; it certainly wasn’t deliberate. All three of these characters were women who had risen above what their type constrained them to be by asking for help from other people. He read this as a sort of transcending—screw society saying we shouldn’t do this, we’re going to do it anyway. I read it as a dependence—the only way they had gotten this power was because of their supernatural leg up—and possible to interpret as having some interesting side issues.

Who was right? We both were.

Interpretations are the biggest danger a creator of stories runs into. After all, it’s hard to fully match people’s knowledge, backgrounds, experiences and other shaping factors, so you get to a point where person A who grew up in culture B or as a member of sub-group C or knowing about specific reference D notices something that person Z, who shares some but not all of these elements, doesn’t. If you’re lucky, you get a nice reasoned discussion about it, even when the person with the perception didn’t put it in the best of terms (again, personal example here, I once riffed to one of my GMs about an issue I’d had with his world that included claiming the predominant culture “idolized masculinity”; almost anyone else I know would have berserked at that, but his response was that he was surprised, but that he could see where I got it. WOW.). If you’re not lucky, it turns into an argument.

It’s easy to respond immediately to someone else’s interpretation of something with “That can’t be right. Go look at it more closely.” To assume that they’ve just missed something important, or they’re seeing things that they want to see. Particularly if it’s your creation they’re criticizing, or if they’ve just pointed out a flaw in something you love to bits. But that way lies shouting matches, or bitterness, or any of a number of things you really don’t want to get in your social groups.

It’s easy to assume, if you’re the one criticizing, that your target is just being defensive. They might genuinely not notice the thing you’ve pulled up, or they might not understand the logic process that got you from Point A to Point L. But that’s also going to get you three hours of arguing with people when you should be doing something productive.

One thing I find quite useful is applying a technique that shows up a lot in Suzette Haden Elgin’s Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense series. It’s called Miller’s Law, and what it boils down to is “Imagine what the other person is saying might be true, then try to figure out what it might be true of.” While Elgin applies it to conversation, I tend to try to apply it to literary critique and game issues. This sounds like a rant, but from this particular perspective it might take this point into account. Hey, maybe the fact that I haven’t come up with any of this sort of interaction could be interpreted as disapproving of it and not just not trusting myself to do it right.

What it all boils down to is that interpretation is individualized. Unless you’ve got extremely good reason to believe that someone’s trying to see something or completely mistaken, odds are they’ve probably got a point. So what’s best to do is trace their logic backwards until you figure out where it and yours diverge, then figure things out from there. You may not want to consider their viewpoint true, and that’s your own beef, but you need at least to be able to recognize it as valid.

I apologize in advance for any non-clarity on this post. It’s a very, very fresh topic.

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