In more than 40 years of column writing (not continuously, but in every decade back to the 1960s), I’ve learned a couple of things.
One is that you can never be sure what’s going to provoke a reaction, so it’s pointless writing something with the sole intention of stirring people up. Columns that you think will bring the sky down on your head go unremarked, while some that you think innocuous unleash a barrage of condemnation. (There was a time when I would have said that religion was the exception to this general rule; that anything touching on religion was bound to rattle people’s cages, believers and non-believers alike. But we are now such a secular society I don’t think even that’s true.)
Another thing that I’ve learned is that no matter how carefully you try to express yourself clearly and unambiguously, you cannot control the meaning that people will take from what you write. People will see what they think they see, or in some cases, whatever their prejudices lead them to see.
This was confirmed again last Friday when I happened to hear comedian Pinky Agnew on The Week That Was, the weekly slot on Kathryn Ryan’s radio programme in which guests comment in a supposedly humorous way on the events of the week. Pinky lined me up for a bit of stick over something I’d written in my Curmudgeon column in the Dominion Post a few days before (see below on this blog).
Fair enough – but perhaps she should have taken a deep breath and read my column a second time before launching forth.
According to Pinky, I’d been “yammering on” about New Zealanders’ propensity for wearing black. Yammering on? My dictionary defines “yammer” as to complain loudly and at length, but my reference to New Zealanders’ fashion sense consisted of just one paragraph in an 820-word column.
Well, okay – we all indulge in hyperbole. But then Pinky accused me of specifically targeting women - "he's criticising women of course" - and Wellington women at that. In fact my column didn’t single out women. I used the all-inclusive pronoun “we” (as in, “how drab and sombre we all look”), which I thought made it pretty clear that I wasn’t making any distinction between men and women. (As it happens, I’ve written several times in the past about the dull conformity of the clothing worn by the corporate male.)
And where on earth did she get the Wellington angle? My column was prompted by my observations in Auckland Airport. How could someone read the word Auckland and see Wellington? Your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps Pinky can explain.
An Auckland friend of mine who heard her was as nonplussed as I was. She emailed me later in the day: “I have just read your blog and for the life of me can’t understand what that woman was going on about. I gathered from her comments that you had been talking about women in Wgtn. The only mention you made was of people – not women – at Auckland Airport.” She had wondered whether Pinky was talking about another column not yet posted on my blog.
You could perhaps excuse Pinky if my comments had been made on radio or television. Something said on the airwaves is gone a moment later and there’s often no way to confirm you heard what you thought you heard. But a newspaper column? It’s not hard to check. It’s there in black and white, and these days on the Net for good measure.
I can only conclude that Pinky took the meaning she did from my column because she had me typecast as a sexist male. The human mind indeed works in peculiar ways. As a columnist, there's no way to counter this.
Incidentally, that Curmudgeon column also confirmed anew the other lesson referred to in the opening paragraph of this blog post. I would have thought that if any subject covered in the column would provoke a response, it would be the reference to tragic tech geeks and their hunger for new devices to play with. But no; it was my mention of our fondness for sombre clothing that wound people up, generating two stories with pictures in the following day’s paper – one on page 1 and another on page 3 – and 75 comments on the Stuff website, ranging from incoherent and sub-literate to sharp and insightful (all the latter, of course, being from those who agreed with me).