When I was teaching at the University level I tried to convey to my students a number of real-world examples of some of the basic communication principles that guide communication (and misunderstanding) patterns – often without them knowing it.
This post can help you understand how Social Justice advocates use a sleight-of-hand on unsuspecting innocent people in order to control the conversation.
What is Metacommunication?
Think of this as an out-of-context lesson in Communication Theory. There are three basic concepts that are very useful to know when analyzing communication patterns, whether it be political debate, interpersonal relationships, or even business communication.
[Updated Note: I’ve written about this in more detail and with clearer examples, in case you wish to learn how this concept is affecting modern political and social discourse.]
In short, if you ever find yourself confused about how and where misunderstandings happen, try to think of it in these terms and it will help isolate where a misunderstanding comes from.
Here are the three basic concepts:
I know, I know – when I first heard of this I thought people were playing a joke.
You can think of the definitions like this:
- Communication: Talking about something
- Meta-Communication: Talking about Talking about something
- Meta-meta-communication: Talking about Talking about Talking about something
Yeah… not helpful. Let’s try this:
- Communication: Content
- Meta-Communication: Talking about the Content
- Meta-Meta-Communication: Talking about Talking about the Content
Hmmm… getting closer. Let’s look at an example
- You go and see a movie. The movie is the content that is communicated to you (communication).
- Afterwards, you sit down with your friend and talk about the movie (metacommunication). It’s a good conversation and your friend makes some good points that you want to share with people.
- Later, you want to talk about the good points that your friend makes with someone else. So, you talk about the conversation you had regarding the movie (you talked about talking about the movie) – Violá! Metametacommunication
This is one of the most innocuous examples I can think of. Many times, however, the examples are far more unpleasant. Let’s take a look at a generic interpersonal encounter that isn’t quite so friendly.
“My boss really pissed me off today.”
“He said my report was late when I know it was on time”
“Have you sat down and talked with him about it?”
“Why do you always do that?”
“Why do you always try to fix things? All I wanted to do was tell you about my day. I didn’t expect you to step in and control everything”
“I wasn’t trying to control anything.”
(Later, with the marriage counselor)
“Tell me what happened.”
“I came home from having a rough day at work, and as soon as I tried telling him about it he started barging in, trying to fix everything. Just like he always does.”
“I did not! All I did was ask a simple question.”
In this hypothetical example, our unfortunate couple (thankfully who is seeing a counselor!) is showing us clearly what the different types of communication are.
The content of the communication was the discussion about the day she had. When she got upset at his reaction, she decided to start talking about the way he communicated, rather than continuing to discuss the original content. In other words, she made the metacommunication the focus of the conversation. So, instead of talking about the original subject (content), she decided to talk about how they talk about these kinds of things (“why do you always do that?”).
When they went to the counselor, they began discussing that metacommunicative process. By talking about the metacommunicative state they “always” seem to find themselves in, they were discussing a metametacommunicative process.
And here is where things get messy. When the metacommunicative state becomes the content, when the topic of discussion becomes what you’re communicating, it’s extraordinarily easy to get lost and confused.
You can see how quickly and easily – too easily – it is to slide into different states. If we had examined the conversation a little longer, we could have seen them fall headlong into a tennis match between the different communication states – moving from the content of the communication (the bad day at work) to the metacommunicative state (how they talk about these kinds of conversations) and even into the metametacommunicative state.
Applying to Real Life
I’m not convinced that my students got it, to be honest. For me, this was as intuitive as could be. I became very adept at figuring out that when people were talking, it was rare that they were actually talking about what they thought they were talking about. Most students just wanted to pass a test and get a grade, and this was true throughout history as it is today.
Knowledge of this power to change the discourse comes easily for some more than others. Once people find a way of distracting a conversation by slipping (or “up-leveling”) a conversation into a metacommunicative state, they can befuddle debate opponents, or slip into ad hominem attacks without their victims even realizing it.
Public life and academe have become bastions of this. Nearly every conversation about “Social Justice” falls into this category. Identitarian politics are all metacommunicative.
By being able to avoid talking about the actual content of communication, they can shift the focus elsewhere – usually using some sort of metacommunicative litmus test (“are you qualified to talk about this content?”). As it is possible to completely rewrite the subject of a conversation by shifting it into a metacommunicative state, these approaches play a leprechaun dance around the matter, all the while gleefully decrying no willingness to have a “serious debate.”
In another post, I’ll be talking more explicitly about how this works with direct examples. Then, I’ll show you a real-life example of how dangerous this really is. For now, I’ll leave you – dear reader – with an exercise for your homework. Look at the meme below and see if you can map the metacommunicative state to the conversation.
Until next time…
Well, I will be interested in Part II. But, I like how you have set things up here. I should note, however, that source credibility does factor into how to evaluate the validity of the content. But, what I think that you are saying is that you start with the expression of content (communication) first before dealing with the source credibility — or, in how you are setting it up, source legitimacy (metacommunication). And, you are right — in too many occasions the content is not heard — or even prevented from being heard — because of discussions of whether the source possesses the “legitimacy” to even express the content. That’s dangerous! That’s not what the First Amendment is all about.
For example, I don’t agree with many things Ben Shapiro says. But, he should be allowed to speak on campuses without there having to be tons of security because the protests cross from free speech into oppression. Shapiro should speak, and people can evaluate whether or not he is full of shit. And, people should be allowed to protest, so long as they are not disruptive to Shapiro’s speech (and, of course, so long as they are not violent). The First Amendment talked about the right of the people to peaceably assemble, not to prevent the right of a speaker to speak.
Anyway, you are on to something.
Thanks! Of course, you are absolutely correct (big surprise there, eh? :). I was trying to provide a “crash course” in the concept that was short enough to be read in a side-bar to the next blog (which is considerably longer). Source credibility is definitely a factor, but as I’ll argue in the next piece, it is that very factor that they are using as an a priori test, instead of a post facto evaluation for communication.
In other words, using a metacommunicative test for prior restraint on speech versus a subsequent punishment is, indeed, dangerous.
And, I agree — too often a metacommunicative test is being used as a priori restraint (and, I will confess that a number of communication colleagues who theoretically argue against a priori restraints, are less committed to their prohibition in practice). You can evaluate the content of a speech after you hear the speech. You can then evaluate the quality of the argument and assess the credibility of the source. But, that is after the content is expressed, not before.
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