bullets and red pills in an armed country

Image: Eduardo Berliner


The construction of meaning and the place of intentionality in this process

"All of our social policies are based on the fact that their [Black people's] intelligence is equal to ours, despite all the tests saying no." that statement was uttered, in the distant 2007, by James Watson – Nobel Prize winner for having discovered the structure of DNA together with Francis Crick. In an interview with the British newspaper The Sunday Times, James Watson – whose specialty is molecular biology, not evolution of the species – used unscientific arguments to support his thinking: “People who have dealt with black employees do not believe that this [equal intelligence] is true”.

At the time, such statements generated intense reactions, James Watson was pointed out as a racist, had lectures suspended and, then aged 79, ended up having his retirement anticipated – a kind of cancellation before la lettre. In your apology, stated: “To all those who drew conclusions from my words that Africa, as a continent, is genetically inferior, I can only deeply apologize. That was not what I meant. And more importantly from my point of view, there is no scientific basis for this belief.”

This story seems to us an example for reflecting on an important linguistic theme: the construction of meaning and the place of intentionality in this process.

"That was not what I meant"

James Watson's allegation is far from being an exception in the apologies of those who are caught in prejudiced or violent statements in general. Recently, something similar happened with the influencer Thiago Schutz who, seeking to intimidate actress and comedian Livia La Gatto for satire, wrote to her: “You have 24 hours to remove your content about me. After that process or bullet. You choose".

The message, sent privately, was released by Livia La Gatto, who, for quite reasonable reasons, interpreted it as a threat to her own life. The episode had great repercussions (in the news and, obviously, in the world of memes), and Schutz produced a video in which, although he does not even pretend to apologize to the person who was attacked, he resorts to the good old “I was misunderstood”.

Reproduction of post on social network

Of good intentions the textuality is full

As in the sad episode involving James Watson, the Brazilian influencer resorts to intentionality to build his defense – even if he adopts a less humble tone than that of the Nobel winner. Thiago Schutz claims he was misunderstood, as he would have used “bullet” in a figurative sense, not referring to weapons, but like the popular expression “putting a bullet” – something like “going forward”, “doing what must be done”. According to him, the choice would be between being prosecuted or “resolving in another way”.

For his argument to sound acceptable, however, it would be necessary to superimpose intentionality on other more relevant and palpable criteria of textuality, with emphasis on situationality and coherence itself. The problem is that assuming such a strategy would make any textual analysis impossible, since every reading could be refuted by the enunciator's "meant to say". The reader/listener, in this case, would be a passive figure, which has been overcome by language studies for some time.

Construction of meaning and situationality: language in use, not vitro

Undoubtedly, the term “bullet” is a great example of a polysemous word, which can name sweets, war artifacts, narcotics, among other less usual meanings. In addition, as the influencer recalls, “putting a bullet” can indeed be synonymous with “going forward”. However, when we analyze the term in this way, we disregard important knowledge of modern Text Linguistics (TL). Using the happy expression of Luiz Antônio Marcuschi, the parameters of Textual Linguistics make it possible to analyze more than phrases or words vitro, but the text as a social event, organized according to some very tangible criteria.

Among these criteria, situationality considers the text as “an action within a controlled and oriented situation”. Bearing this principle in mind, interpretation necessarily requires considering not isolated words, but the concrete situation in which the text takes place. Applying this to the analyzed case, it is seen that Thiago Schutz adopts a very resolute tone (as he himself recommends in his performance as coach), stipulating a deadline (“24 hours”) for Livia La Gatto’s content to be removed from the air without her suffering consequences. It is not a dialogue between friends and the mention of a possible lawsuit allows identifying such a speech act as a threat.

In this situation, interpreting “bala” as “solving otherwise” would require ignoring the illocutionary force of the utterance (threat), which, in the given situation, would be unjustifiable (and, in the case of the threatened person, even imprudent).

Coherence as an interpretative principle

In addition to situationality, it is worth mentioning coherence as another relevant criterion of textuality. In general terms, it is through the principle of coherence that, when interpreting a text, we seek to identify the unity and continuity of meaning - as Ingedore Villaça Koch and Luiz Carlos Travaglia teach1. This unit depends both on the semantic correlations between text passages (internal consistency) and on correlations between the text and historical and social knowledge of its surroundings (external consistency). Establishing such correlations is the task of the readers/listeners, however, referring to Luiz Antônio Marcuschi2, “the text must allow access to coherence, otherwise there would be no possibility of understanding”.

With this principle in mind, some considerations are in order. In the discourse of self-titled groups “redpills”3 (of which the influencer presents himself as an exponent), female figures are seen with distrust (not to mention animosity or misogyny), to the point that affective relationships with them are treated as potential obstacles to male success. In addition, in his direct contact with the comedian, the boy does not resort to greetings or other forms of courtesy, peremptorily demanding the removal of the content. Add to that the arms race that has gripped the country, especially among conservative groups. What reasons would there be for not understanding “bullet” as a synonym for “ammunition”?

What do we mean...

The episode itself, although highlighted in this column, requires more legal than linguistic measures (although linguistic analyzes may be part of this). Going beyond it, we highlight the importance of understanding the construction of meaning as a historical and social process, with well-studied principles, and not as something merely subjective. From “didn't mean” to “didn't mean”, dialogue is undermined and, sometimes, democracy itself.

*Henrique Santos Braga He holds a PhD in Philology and Portuguese Language from USP.

*Marcelo Modolo is professor of philology at the University of São Paulo (USP).

A first version of this article was published in Jornal da USP [https://jornal.usp.br/?p=617136]


1KOCH, Ingedore Villaca Koch. TRAVAGLIA, Luiz Carlos. textual coherence. São Paulo: Context, 1990.

2MARCUSCHI, Luiz Antonio. Textual production, genre analysis and comprehension. São Paulo: Parábola Editorial, 2008, p. 122.

3 The term refers to the film Matrix, in which the protagonist knows “reality” after ingesting a red pill.

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