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Would You Hire Amelia Bedelia?

Posted by Bethanny Lawson on September 2, 2015 at 11:00 AM

Do you believe words have meaning? If they don't or didn't have specific meaning, what would the effects of that be? For example, if a judge were able to define justice as “whatever I say it is” would he actually be able to administer justice? Would justice even exist?

As an author, deconstructionism of language is one of my biggest pet peeves. Not only is it annoying, but it is something that I know cannot be let go. Words mean something. They are intended to mean specific things, and those meanings simply cannot be allowed to be altered by personal taste or preference.

What is deconstructionism, anyway? The Free Dictionary puts it well. Deconstructionism is “a philosophical movement and theory of literary criticism that questions traditional assumptions about certainty, identity, and truth; asserts that words can only refer to other words; and attempts to demonstrate how statements about any text subvert their own meanings.”

Have you ever played any word association games? Where someone says a word, and you say the first thing that pops into your head when you hear that word? My mom and I played that game today. Some words we used were red, beautiful, and gentleman. What do those words bring to your mind?

The thing is, different things will come to different people's minds when they hear the same word. For example, what did you think of when you heard the world “gentleman?” I bet it was different than my answer. But does that mean the word is defined differently for each of us? Not at all. Unfortunately, people have started to make it that way, and the word gentleman is one that has been soiled.

What makes a gentleman? Most people will respond that a gentleman is someone chivalrous, kind, polite, possessing good manners. However, this is not what the word “gentleman” has always meant. A gentleman used to be someone with a coat of arms and some landed property, as C.S. Lewis explains in “Mere Christianity.” He states that “when you called someone “a gentleman” you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not “a gentleman” you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman.

Lewis goes on to explain that now the word “gentleman” cannot be used for any useful purpose because it does not give any true information about a person. It is a term of praise, rather than a term of description, and thus only tells us the speaker's attitude or opinion towards whoever they choose to call “a gentleman.” The word has effectively been stripped of any useful meaning at all.

Some words have been soiled. Gentleman is one of them. Red, on the other hand, we still agree on. In most definitions these days though, people disagree. For example, most people believe art cannot be defined. I say it can be. At the very least we can define what is good art and what is bad art. There must be truth in the arts. If we say we cannot define what is good and bad art, we provide a perfect place to feed people lies. When all is good and truthful, there is no possibility for evil and dishonesty. These days art is left far too open to personal interpretation, including literary art, or the art of using words efficiently, effectively, artfully.

The problem in interpreting any literature comes when the reader stops asking what the text means and begins to ask instead what it means to them personally. To help us apply that principle to truth and meaning in language, another example is appropriate.

Some of my favorite books as a child were the Amelia Bedelia books. If you've heard of Amelia Bedelia, you probably either find her antics entertaining or downright irritating. If you tell Amelia to make a sponge cake, she puts in real sponges; ask her to change the towels, and she cuts them into new shapes. Amelia's problem is not only that she takes things too literally most of the time, but also that she is focused on her own interpretation of the words in the instructions that are given. Amelia could fix the problem simply by asking herself what the person giving the instructions intended, what did their words mean to them?

When art is something to be determined by the individual, all art becomes of equal value. However, imagine a very young child with no training banging on piano keys compared to the great composers of the past. I believe it is fairly easy to say that the truth of the matter is that the great composers created and performed beautiful works of art, but the child banging the keys is not creating or performing anything of artistic value.

People do try to take true meaning out of art, especially the art of language. Generally, they mean well. However, the result is more often confusion and the ruination of language for any useful purposes.

Art is a means of communication. Without clarity in communication everything becomes chaos. If anyone tries to use the word “gentleman” in its original sense today, they must explain themselves. We cannot allow the same thing to happen to all of our language.

While Amelia Bedelia may be an entertaining book to read to 1st graders, I doubt you would hire her to clean your house or watch your children. And a world, where the definition of the word justice (or of words in general) can be determined by individual preferences, quickly becomes a dangerous place to live.

Categories: Redeeming the Arts

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