When something which someone says can be interpreted in multiple ways, we are in danger of coming to an understanding which is different to their intended message.
This malleable way of communicating can be cunningly used against us when the communicator absolves himself of any responsibility for how his words are received, taking cover under the umbrella of equivocation.
This ambiguous communication technique is used everywhere, in sales, in advertisements, in the promotion of ideas, ideologies, in tourism, in religion,and in politics. It is our responsibility to figure out, through all the tools at our disposal (repeated questioning, research, etc.), whether we have correctly understood what has been transmitted to us. And after making sure we understood the message correctly, to analyse it and make decisions accordingly.
Can I choose whichever meaning I prefer?
Ambiguous communication can be very convenient for the listener, because they can choose their preferred meaning. And when the chosen meaning coincides with someone’s deep desire, most of the time, reason is set aside, and their choice is based on passion.
The king Cresus of Lydia (a kingdom in present-day Turkey) gives us a famous example of this situation. The eastern border of his powerful kingdom was the Halys River, beyond which stretched the mighty Persian Empire, ruled by Cyrus. According to Herodotus, Cresus consulted the oracles of Delphi, who told him that if he “crossed the river Halys, he would destroy a great kingdom.” Blinded by this unclear promise, Cresus crossed the river and attacked Persia. He was unsuccessful, aroused the wrath of Cyrus, who entered Lydia with his armies, and conquered the capital of Sardis. Thus, in 547 BC, the words of the oracle were fulfilled: a great kingdom was destroyed. It was Cresus’ own kingdom.1
Ambiguous messages must be interpreted correctly, so as not to hurt us.
If the authorities announce, for example, that an unvaccinated child has died of measles, those who oppose vaccination will emphasize that the child died of pulmonary complications, refusing to see or understand that, in reality, “complications” were caused by measles, which could have been kept away by a simple measles vaccination.
Can I choose to understand a statement in a certain way, or exploit it’s ambiguity for what I want? Of course I can, but the negative consequences that affect me or my loved ones will not be kind to me.
When evil is cunning
Misunderstanding can be deliberately used to deceive, to hide the truth, and to make the receiver of information believe otherwise, while the transmitter of information takes refuge in ambiguous expression. For example, a cigarette company has been sued for misleading smokers, launching and presenting “light” cigarettes as less harmful than usual. A company spokesman said the phrase “light” actually referred to the flavor, not the contents of the cigarette. Obviously, smokers did not think about the aroma, but about the fact that light cigarettes would have contained less tar and nicotine2, i.e. they would have presented fewer health risks.
Obviously, advertising, designed to give a favorable impression of a product, can not cancel all the scientific documentation linking smoking to various cancers. Such a presentation should be evaluated as objectively as possible. Scientific and non-partisan information on the subject must also be included in the analysis.
Another situation which arises from the malleability of meaning an expression has is encountered in the religious field when the word “soul” in the Bible is interpreted by most people, including biblical teachers , as “independent spiritual substance, independent of the body, which gives man life, individuality, and personality, and which is of divine origin and with eternal essence”.
It is amazing how this meaning is attributed to the word “soul”, presented as immortal or eternal, while never in Holy Scripture are the words translated by “soul” accompanied by the attributes immortal or eternal3. On the contrary, in the book of Ezekiel, from the Old Testament, in chapter 18, in verse 4, the prophet says, “The soul that sinned, it will die.”
These words from Ezekiel are in perfect harmony with the meaning of the word “soul” in Scripture, because by “soul” the Bible simply describes the living human4, in flesh and blood (who one day dies), or the deep inner thought of man (that perishes with the deceased)5, or often, life itself.
Failure to recognize the biblical meaning attributed to the word “soul” leads to erroneous conclusions, which, from a Christian point of view, can affect not only earthly physical life, but eternal life (because a whole theology develops around this notion of the soul which imposes religious practices and beliefs on man that may distance or bring him closer to the divine will, revealed in Scripture). In this case, too, there is a need for objective, scientific, non-partisan analysis of the word “soul”, i.e. extraction of the meaning of the word only from the Bible, directly from the source.
Thus, the message we hear carries with it a meaning that can be honestly conveyed and understood. At the same time, there are many reason why it can also be wrongly transmitted or misunderstood. When we are on the receiving end of a message, it is our duty to make every effort to ensure that we have correctly understood what has been said to us, and after we have ensured that we have understood correctly, we have all the prerequisites to decide how to apply this information to our lives.