My college rhetoric professor (shout out Dr. B) once said to our class that meaning exists inside of people. That may seem obvious, but for me, it was a profoundly different way of thinking about meaning. She located meaning so specifically. Inside of people. This planted a seed in me to consider the world differently. In rhetoric classes, we analyzed texts. Not just language, but texts in the broadest sense of the word—any artifact with even a hint of persuasion. Speeches, commercials, art, the marble print on a classroom desk that was not, in fact, made of marble. Before Dr. Bezanson made this statement, I probably would have said meaning exists in the text, or maybe within culture, or the audience. But locating meaning within the text is too static for its fluid, shifting nature. Culture sounds like something close to people, but still outside of them. The audience is closer, but the word audience abstracts the individual. Dr. Bezanson explained to us that people are meaning making machines, not just in the fact that people create texts—artifacts to be consumed by others—but that they create meaning within themselves.
And that is why you’re right about a lot of the things you think. Not everything, of course. I’m almost positive you’re wrong about all sorts of facts. The world of facts, causations, and truths is a tricky, difficult place. You might get a couple math problems right, and maybe you know that mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. But I will go out on a limb and claim that you know very few facts. Facts are hard. And most of your life is not about facts.
You’re right about Bitcoin.
You’re right about the death penalty.
You’re right about how your ex treated you.
You’re right that the original Star Wars movies are better than the newest ones.
You’re right about fat shaming.
You’re right about Jesus, and Buddha, and Allah.
Most of the things that matter to you have been made up—by you or someone else. It doesn’t mean they’re not real. They are. They matter to you because people made them. They have consequences because, in some cases, they are enforced.
Yes, a consensus may exist. Oppositions stake their claims. We do not all have equal influence or reach. But, I think it is empowering to know that you yourself generate meaning. You do it all day long. Yes, you can “find” meaning. You can take your cues from culture, from others in the audience, you can find it in the text. But the common denominator in all of those is your interpretation. Take what you want. Leave what you will. Join the dialogue. Or don’t. And be happy knowing that you’re right.