Compassionate Interpretation


Today I am putting in writing some very personal thoughts on how to best communicate online and otherwise.

We all know the importance of interpretative charity in online discourse. Without it, we are bound to waste precious time and mental resources chasing dead ends which can be easily avoided by assuming that the interlocutor is both capable and willing to engage in rational conversation. Charitable interpretation can be surmised as the practice of giving precedence to interpretations that maximize the truthfulness and correction of arguments. Charitable Interpretation is essential for civil debate, bypassing unproductive exchanges to arrive quicker at the core of the matter at hand so that each argument has a chance to shine. Charitable Interpretation is a recipe for politeness and intellectual honesty but says very little about emotions and ethical considerations. To address those concerns, I propose a similar concept.

Compassionate Interpretation goes a bit further, using a similar procedure to incentivize interactions that also achieve an amenable emotional resolution between the parties. So, while Charitable interpretation allows for productive debate by assuming the most cogent version of an argument, Compassionate Interpretation allows for serendipitous and emotionally enriching exchanges by assuming the interpretations which would lead you to believe that the interlocutor is the most ethical, virtuous, and worthy of sympathy.

When practicing Compassionate Interpretation, one must assume that statements made by others are not only reasonable but also interpret such statements in a way that is least detrimental to their morals. When more than one possible interpretation is possible, the Compassionate Interpreter must choose that which would not equate to a negative opinion of their morals.

By doing that, you avoid needlessly aggravating potential friends and allies. You also give a chance to those that require a change in worldview to improve their morals, stimulated by your kindness and optimism towards them.

On writing this, I remember of how much compassion, patience and kindness I need from others. That makes it easier for me to dispense compassion towards others.

I’ll give an example using myself.

I’m a black man. Suppose that someone tells me the following phrase: “I do not understand the appeal of rap music”. For some, that statement might indicate that the utterer holds, in addition to a musical preference, a negative opinion of black culture as a whole, which might entail that they hold some kind of prejudice against black people. Or it could simply mean what their words indicate on a surface, literal level: they genuinely do not understand what is appealing about rap music. As a Compassionate Interpreter, I give precedence to the latter. If, in the future, I accrue evidence telling me otherwise, I may revise my interpretation.

As is the case with Charitable Interpretation, there are situations in which a blanket application of Compassionate Interpretation might lead to unfavorable results. That would be the case of a truly malicious individual who intends to exploit our goodwill to cause all kinds of havoc. The principle would still apply, with a few adjustments. When encountering pernicious elements, the Compassionate Interpreter might feel compelled to interpret their actions as the consequence of ignorance, some kind of mental suffering, or traumatic experiences that led them to adopt ill behavior. However, compassion should not be mistaken for foolishness or naivety. A compassionate attitude does not prevent strong measures against wrongdoing. In online spaces, the best recommendation in these cases is to disengage completely and report the wrongdoer on whatever platform you are in.

In writing this, I share something very dear to me, in the hopes that it may lead to some good and helpful thoughts in the minds of the reader.