I came across the term “Charitable Interpretation” the other day. It recommends that, when critiquing someone else’s statement, do so “in the most rational way possible and, in the case of any argument, considering its best, strongest possible interpretation”. It caused a moment of chagrin because I am often uncharitable (although not to the extent of Cathy Newman (link) during her interview of Jordan Peterson).
For example, in a previous blog post (Fundamental Canadian Values), I chastised Justin Trudeau for part of his 2018 New Year’s statement, “Let’s move forward together, put those values into practice”, choosing to read it in such a way that implied that he doesn’t actually think they are Canadian values yet! A more charitable reading was possible, and I regret not choosing it.
Digression: Uncharitable reading is likely a contributing factor to the polarizing political echo-chamber part of the Internet that I discussed a previous blog post (How many Internets are there?)
But . . . an interesting thing happened as I was writing this post; my moment of chagrin passed (although my regret did not) and I saw value in a more nuanced view of the principle of charitable interpretation, because a simplistic application can too easily excuse sloppy arguments and sloppy thinking. In the example above, Trudeau’s wording in this 2018 New Year’s statement is too open to mis-interpretation. My reading was uncharitable but he also bears some responsibility. Rather than forcing the reader to choose between a multitude of reasonable interpretations, shouldn’t most of the onus for precision lie with the author?
Karl Popper once wrote “Always remember that it is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood; there will always be some who misunderstand you”. The strong form of charitable interpretation seems to propose a weird addendum to that statement “ … and that means that you don’t have to choose your words particularly carefully”.
I like the idea that reading is a partnership between the author and the reader. The author is responsible for being as clear as possible and the reader is responsible for being as reasonable as possible . . . and it’s embarrassing that for me it took the writing of this blog post to articulate something so basic.