Dr. Larry Burriss: ‘Meaning’



When I was a senior in high school we studied a poem about life in the city.    The teacher adamantly stressed that the poem was an allegory about the American dream.  Few in the class agreed with her opinion, but after all, she was the teacher and she knew best.
     Well, it just so happened that the author of the poem was invited to speak to the class, and sure enough, someone asked him if there was any significant meaning behind this particular poem. And guess what he said: no, it was just a simple little poem about life in the city.  No hidden messages, no symbolism no allegory.

     The point here is that in many instances, what we get out of a news story, speech or slogan, not only what the messenger means, but what we bring to the experience as well. 
     Of course, the messenger may be saying one thing, but for any number of reasons, may mean something entirely different. 
     And to confuse the situation even further, we may actually interpret a message one way, but say we think the speaker is saying something else entirely.
     Unfortunately, we end up in a situation of “I think you think I think you think.”  And that path leads to insanity.
     Of course, what is often forgotten in these exchanges is the fact that absolutely no one can read another person’s mind.  So the statement, “I heard you say this, but you actually believe that” presupposes you actually know what the other person is thinking.
     This kind of thinking can sometimes lead to humorous misinterpretations between friends and family members.  But on the international level these kinds of errors have led to serious international problems, and in a couple of instances nearly led to nuclear war.

Larry Burriss, a professor in Middle Tennessee State University’s College of Mass Communication and president of the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame, welcomes the crowd before the induction ceremonies at the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters conference in Murfreesboro for the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame. (MTSU photo by Andrew Oppmann)

     The lessons here are we perhaps need to back up and ask, “Is what I hear what you actually mean?”  I bet that one little question could solve a myriad of personal, national, and international problems.
     I’m Larry Burriss