A few years ago, the email system at the college where I was teaching went haywire. Long-deleted emails came back to life and circulated randomly throughout the system. Some found their way to the President’s computer, and embarrassed faculty and staff members had to explain past events they’d assumed were both private and forgotten.
I don’t know whether any of my emails took that journey, but it wouldn’t have mattered if they did. When email first came to the college, a wise friend told me to treat all my electronic communications as if they were public property. I was smart enough to heed his advice: no gossip, no secrets, no snide jokes.
So the point is that we should all be careful with email, right? Wrong.
Today’s topic is dissemination, a term Jacques Derrida used to describe the random – often problematic – journeys that language can take.
If you’ve studied postmodern linguistic theory, you know that many mistakes we label “human error” can actually be laid at the door of language. All behaviors involving words are risky. Wise politicians try to avoid issuing flippant statements that can surface later in an opponent’s TV ad. Professional broadcasters are taught to treat all microphones as if they were live. And many of us learned as teenagers that there’s no safe place to hide a diary.
Let’s return to that wise advice I was given when I started using email – and expand it. You’re reading this blog because you want to sharpen your writing skills. One of the most important lessons you can learn is to treat all written communication with respect. You never know when your own words will take off in an unforeseen direction:
- someone accidentally hits “reply to all” instead of just “reply”
- an instructor shares something you’ve written with another student or instructor
- while you’re out of the room, someone reads a piece of paper on your desk
- someone looks over your shoulder at your computer screen
- an intimate letter you’ve written is passed around to other people
- someone misses the point of a joke and accuses you of racism or sexism
Another story. One evening I went to a meeting in the office complex attached to a church. Because the speaker function on the phone at the receptionist’s desk hadn’t been turned off, everyone at the meeting heard a parishioner leave a lengthy voicemail message – intended only for the pastor – about his marital problems.
Of course the pastor should have leaped up and intercepted the message. Because he didn’t, I assign most of the blame for that violation of privacy to him. But it’s also true that anyone could have walked into that complex and played back the saved messages. Those things happen.
Language is powerful, that power can be used for both good and for ill, and – most important – the person actually using the language cannot control where those words go and how they’re used.