On Context

Context – it’s everything!, it’s everywhere, and without it we miss the point As an example of context, and by way of getting a solid definition, I like to start by looking at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and etymology.[i] This allows us to make sure we’re all on the same page. We’ll delve deeper into issues of terminology and definitions in later posts.

The OED defines context as, “circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood.” Etymologically, “context” comes from the Latin contextus, meaning “weave together” – as in textiles. Here, the etymological background is useful, because we see that the idea of context comes from the notion of the “thing” being a part of a larger whole; part of a tapestry or backdrop in which the object of interest is found.

Context gives us the other half of the story. It’s the backdrop against which the events, statements, and ideas should be projected, to make sense of them. Everyone’s had the experience of entering a room, or a conversation, only to hear the last line of a statement, the punchline of a joke, and be left entirely in the dark. Although we hear the final piece of information, the absence of the rest of it leaves us confused. An easy example is just hearing the line, “…and that’s why Hitler was right.” This is a good example, because the statement is very dicey – we can’t just nod our head in agreement, because we are lacking the context that makes the distinction between supporting genocide or investing in highway infrastructure. Without the appropriate context, we have trouble understanding the point, and getting all the information.

Part of the problem comes from not knowing where our attention should be focused. If we focus on the wrong part, we easily draw the wrong conclusions. We may become offended, where offense is not a reasonable position. We may agree, where agreement is not reasonable. We may ask unreasonable questions, or fail to ask crucial ones.

This, of course, leads us to the question, how do we find the context? While there is a number of ways to do so, I prefer getting the following six questions answered.[ii] This works for spoken statements and written texts.

  1. Who is the speaker? Knowing the speaker/author, allows us insight into their areas of expertise, agenda and motivations, biases, perspectives, etc. these factors help explain several of the following questions as well.
  2. Who is the audience? Knowing who is being addressed plays a crucial role in understanding the context. We deal with boards of directors meetings differently than we do with our close friends and family. We have different styles of communication, different degree of jargon-usage and technical complexity. There are simply things we do not say publicly – generally known as tact.
  3. What is the content? Content is the executive summary of the ideas being communicated. Obviously, if we do not have a firm grasp on the content, our ability to understand what is being communicated drops precipitously. Generally, if you cannot summarize the content in 3 sentences or less, you do not have a firm grasp on it.
  4. What is the delivery method? We often confuse content and delivery, and extra care should be exercised to make the distinction. The same content can be communicated across a variety of delivery methods. Here, the definitions of the speaker and audience are also important, as that relation can heavily influence appropriate means of communicating the content. For example, Noam Chomsky, Department of Justice, and Chris Rock may deliver essentially the same content on race relations between the minorities and the police. Their methods of delivery, however, will be very different. Further, if Chris Rock uses the DOJ method, he’ll be out of business. If the DOJ uses Chris Rock method, there will be a public apology and people getting laid off. The delivery method also carries a host of connotations about its appropriateness, based on the three previous questions.
  5. What is the general context? The general context requires us to answer questions like: who, what, where, when, how, and why? Some of these overlap with the previous four questions, but some are entirely unique in this category. For example, the question of when is crucial in distinguishing between racist and non-racist speech. Mark Twain, a known abolitionist, uses terminology in his Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn that would get an author blacklisted today. However, considering when he wrote, we can easily understand that the kind of terminology available to him, and the kinds of stigma associated with that terminology simply does not match our modern standards. Similar examples can be seen in the selection of terminology by MLK and Malcom X, where the modern usage of the exact same terminology (other than by way of direct quote) would have an opposite implication.
  6. What is the intent? This is, perhaps, the most difficult question. Unlike the previous ones, where an objective analysis was applicable, the question of intent resides solely in the mind of the author/speaker. As a result, we have no direct access to the intent. However, this does not remove us from answering this question entirely. If we can answer the other five questions, the issue of intent generally resolves itself. While we may not have certainty, we do have high confidence in the answer we arrive at. This process is something like making sure that it walks, flies, and quacks like a duck – at which point our conclusion of “duckness” becomes justified. Intent matters, because it allows us to read charitably those statements that may otherwise seem inflammatory or out of place.

If we cannot answer these 6 questions, we are missing context. Missing the context means that we’re seeing only part of the picture. While the parts missing may be irrelevant, they may – just as easily – be crucial. The only way to make that determination is by getting the rest of the context, and then making the call.

Let’s take a look at a great example of context being everything. We have two images:

In both cases, we have a triangular shape, with an open bottom. However, figure 1 is the Greek lambda (letter “L”). Figure 2, on the other hand, is the Chinese character ren – meaning “human.” By themselves, the two symbols are very similar – and if your handwriting is anything like mine, the two will look fairly similar on paper. Nothing about their shapes is inherently Greek or Chinese, and nothing about their meaning is given in the shape alone. So, to understand what we’re looking at, we need to know the context in which these symbols appear.

But it gets better, or rather, more complex. Even once we know its Greek meaning, the context of figure 1 makes the difference between just seeing a letter, feeling safe, and running for your life. This comes from the fact that the Spartan shields featured the lambda as a symbol of Spartan military. If those shields are on your side, there is a feeling of safety. If those shields are charging at your position, there is a feeling of existential dread and a need to run for your life. If the letter is printed on a page, then there is no need for either. In this case, context is everything.

The same complexity arises with the character ren (figure 2), depending on its usage. You could use it to say something like, “the human was eaten by a bear,” in which case the context is sparse and the meaning direct. But, if we find the term in the Analects of Confucius, the connotations of what it means to be human are going to feature very prominently – and so the context again becomes everything.

Now that we have seen the importance of getting the context right, and an easy way to make sure we’re getting it, let’s turn to the question of context manipulation. This is an important question, and a good example of how we can be misled into getting the context wrong – for any number of reasons.

Context manipulation changes everything. Whether we’re leaving out any particular question from the list, or adding things like sarcastic tone, changes in context can change the entire meaning of the text or speech. For example, in the Hitler example above, failing to note that the issue was about tourist benefits of highway systems, means that the entire conversation can be cast as some sort of Nazi-supporting rant. Similarly, failing to note the context my own usage of that line, means that I could be cited as having claimed that, “Hitler was right.” Yet, as bad as either case would be, media manipulation of context can be a lot worse, and can turn people into saints, monsters, or terrorists with ease.

Case in point, the Orlando Nightclub shooter was reported to have pledged allegiance to ISIS, while on the phone with authorities, during the massacre. With that “context,” his actions seem to be a terrorist attack by the group against targets in the US – a rather scary prospect. What was not reported – at least not in the same bombastic style, is that the shooter also pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda and Hezbollah. The thing to note here, by way of meaningful context, is that Al Qaeda and ISIS are not merely opposed to one another – they’re actively trying to exterminate one another. In fact, as noted by McCants, the pro-Al Qaeda groups worked with the US military in 2006-7 to kill off ISIS in Iraq.[iii] More confounding was the allegiance to Hezbollah, given that they are a Shi’a group – and ISIS considers all Shi’a to be their mortal enemies, and kills them whenever they get a chance. Al Qaeda and Hezbollah are not on much better terms, either.

Failing to note the additional “allegiances,” and certainly failing to note the incoherence of simultaneous multiple claims, means that the Orlando Nightclub shooter was painted as some kind of a radicalized terrorist (lone wolf and other analogies abounding), instead of a lunatic with a questionable relation to reality – that he was. This does not detract from the tragedy of the events, but does demonstrate how missing a small piece of the context can shift the entire picture of reality.

Failing to understand the context is equivalent to looking at a single strand of a tapestry, and making judgments about the whole – or looking at a single pixel, and making judgments about the whole image. Even if we subscribe to the idea that the whole is only the sum of its parts, the lack of context means that we’re not even looking at all its parts. The sheer silliness of the approach is apparent as soon as we attempt to apply it in circumstances where we do know the context.

The real trick is recognizing that we are lacking the context. Once this is known, the process of finding the context is easy, because we have a “known-unknown” – i.e. a thing we don’t know, but are aware of our ignorance. The problem comes when we are faced with “unknown-unknowns,” and are unaware that we’re lacking information. The six questions above, and other similar devices, are useful precisely in helping us identify whether we’re lacking context, and whether we need to go looking for additional answers before passing judgment.

While it is obvious that context is needed in order to make information functional, and make decisions on valid premises, what is commonly forgotten is that it is our responsibility to find the context. Despite the push for Facebook and other media outlets to police content and remove fake news, the responsibility of fact-checking and contextualization falls to each individual alike. As the saying goes, “ignorance of the law…” The shifting of blame for the lack of our own efforts may help us feel better, but it does nothing to remedy the problems we create through ignorant action. Thus, we must consider ourselves individually responsible for seeking and contextualizing information. Anything else is an abdication of our basic human attribute of rationality.



[i] The OED – Oxford English Dictionary – is always a handy reference guide to terminology. Etymology of terms (study of word origins) can be very useful – it helps us isolate the intent of the terms, and can often shed light on what is and is not supposed to be covered by the term usage. Etymonline.com is a handy resource for initial etymological analysis.

[ii] This particular layout has been borrowed from Nouman Ali Khan’s lecture on linguistics.

[iii] McCants, William. The ISIS Apocalypse. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015. Pg. 35.

7 thoughts on “On Context”

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  2. This was extremely informative. Understanding context and perspective enables the the reader to be empowered. After reading the above article I have acquired the tools necessary to get the author’ core argument. As well as an extra layer of decrement.

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