I’ve commented before in my self-proclaimed classic Shut Up article that miscommunication is not the cause of all conflict in the world, in spite of what our teachers often say (in fact, quite the opposite). Nonetheless, it is a cause, and I do fear that it grows worse every day, in part because our society’s value systems (or memes, memeplexes) are becoming increasingly ill-equipped to handle it. I might touch on that more later, but my main goal this time around is to show by means of example how our increasingly advanced methods of communication as a society is actually undermining our ability to communicate, and is thus helping to cause conflict.
Sarcasm, for example, is possibly the most blatant form of miscommunication, and it’s intentional. “It’s not just comedians and dicks anymore,” as Seanbaby puts it. Lying is also intentional, but unlike sarcasm, lying will not cause confusion in a one-shot scenario. Consider Ford Prefect asking Arthur, “Look, are you busy?”, to which he responds, “Well I’ve just got this bulldozer to lie in front of, but otherwise–no, not especially.” This is confusing. First, because it doesn’t accurately reconstruct Arthur’s cognitive structure that he is in fact busy, and second, because Ford doesn’t understand sarcasm. Now, one could argue that if Arthur had simply lied and said, “No, I’m not busy,” the effect would be the same, because in both cases, the wrong cognitive structure is reproduced in Ford’s mind. However, in the case of lying, Arthur would know for certain what was communicated to Ford, whereas with sarcasm, even the person guilty of using it can’t be sure how it will be interpreted, even amongst the most savvy of conversational combatants.
So what’s the problem, then? I mean, everyone in the real world understands sarcasm, right? And it’s funny, right? I disagree. The day-to-day sarcasm we encounter is not funny–it’s just a simple and sloppy method of telling the same tired old joke over and over and over again in a marginally effective way. “Ha ha! I said one thing, but really meant another! Can you guess what I really meant? Ha ha!” (Incidentally that is my favorite personal response to sarcasm, right along with pretending I’m an idiot and just don’t get it at all, causing them to explain and thus ruin their “joke”.)
Not everyone understands sarcasm, either, though this may not be obvious and also hard to believe. I did recently encounter a situation in which this is obvious, however, and where my linguistic shortcomings eliminated this de novo assumption and thus eliminated all sarcasm. I was recently in Indonesia, where I happened to meet a nice girl. While her “not so good English” was better than my Bahasa Indonesia, we still didn’t have enough mutual proficiency to pull any advanced linguistic tricks. In other words, we each had to remove all assumptions (about Stranger) we would normally make when encountering someone who speaks the same language, including the assumption that the other person is socially savvy enough to understand (and execute) sarcasm. Even other cues, such as voice inflection and body language, could not be trusted to communicate sarcasm for a variety of reasons: the heightened importance of those cues, cultural differences, and unfamiliarly with one another’s accents.
So what happened, then? We said what we meant to say; we said what we wanted the other to understand. We knew we were going to have communication problems, so any apparent misunderstanding was clarified, rather than taken incorrectly to heart and used maliciously later on. Sarcasm has no place in such a scenario. Some might argue that sarcasm is fun, but so is communication, because communication is sharing, and there is plenty of sharing to do for two people who have just met.
Unfortunately, sarcasm is a meta-meme; it affects all other memes. Fortunately, it only does so under one condition: a common language runtime. Placing barriers to communication nullifies it. No matter how many barriers to communication there are in the world, however, sarcasm will always be a dangerous one, because it is not culture-specific. It does not depend on the expressiveness of the language itself to spread. While different languages may not be able to express sarcasm as well as others in written form (languages without verb tenses or gender differences), or others in verbal form (languages that have rigid tonality), all are nonetheless capable. While sarcasm is universal, specific applications of it are not.
Each language thus provides a unique framework for which memes–including the sarcasm meta-meme–can survive. A catchy meme in one language won’t catch on in another. Compare “The grass is always greener on the other side” to “The other Shaltanac’s joopleberry shrub is always a slightly more mauve-y shade of pinky russet.” See, it just doesn’t work.
In the book Snow Crash, we learn why the mythical Babel Infocalypse was necessary: if everyone understood the same langauge, and a virus of the mind were let loose in that language, we’d be doomed. The linguistic hacker-god Enki realized this and therefore devised a killer meme that disabled the common language runtime. I posit that a world with many languages has evolutionary advantages similar to how a species benefits from genetic variety. Unifying the world under a single language (or having everyone learn the same few languages) would not be a good thing. Sarcasm is just one example of why this is so.
Obviously sarcasm can’t be stopped. You can’t stop people from learning languages, either. You can’t expect the world’s values to change so radically that people won’t use it. It will persist. All you can do as an individual is to use it with discretion, and then punish those who do not.