What is context and why does it matter?


In 1871, Otto von Bismarck engineered the unification of Germany. When he was forced out of power in 1897, he said that things would probably start to collapse within 20 years, and that a European war would probably break out thanks to “some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.”

In 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria decided to go check out the provinces and hold a parade on a day of national significance to the colonized Serbs. He was assassinated, and World War I broke out, which led to World War II.

This is not to say von Bismarck was a miracle worker or could predict the future. He merely understood the context of the situation.

Learn something: Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, Blueprint for Armageddon Episode 1 »

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Navy pulled a surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Territory (Hawaii was not yet a state). The attack marked America’s entry into World War II.

It also marked the beginning of the end of the America First Committee, a large anti-war group that shut down on December 10 of that year.

This wasn’t the tie-dyed hippie peace, love and understanding anti-war movement we all know from movies about Vietnam. And it wasn’t the “hate the war, love the troops” anti-war groups we know from the more recent American wars.

This was a “we’re white Protestant Americans, screw everybody else” group. They were hard-left isolationists. They wanted to make sure America didn’t bail out Europe (you know, again, like after the first World War). They wanted America to turn away Jews fleeing the Holocaust. They wanted to shut the borders, cut off aid, and rely on homegrown everything — avoid all international trade as long as possible.

This was an organization claiming 850,000 paid members. 850,000 people who wore pins and carried signs and hung posters that said “America First.”

So you’ll forgive me if I can’t get behind Republicans using “America First” this campaign cycle.

Significantly, we’ll remember the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor a month after the presidential election.

If you think I’m being over-sensitive about this context, look back on how World War I got started: A government official went into a territory that wanted to be independent without being cognizant of the history of the date he picked.

Context is everything.

What is context?

It’s content outside of of a vacuum.

Think of a rainbow. On a t-shirt. A purple t-shirt.

In the 1950s, nobody would have made that t-shirt. It didn’t mean anything to anyone. Now, it’d be popular, especially with a particular segment of the population. Why? Context.

A Red Sox cap would have meant nothing to anyone in 1840. “Why is there a ‘B’ on your cap, sir?”

When Kelvin and I started our podcast, we started with the premise, “A black guy and a Jew walk into a bar.”

We can use that premise not just because we are a black guy and a Jew who occasionally enjoy going to a bar when we’re in the same town, we can use it because of some context.

First of all, “a [blank] and a [blank] walk into a bar” is a common setup for jokes, so it has some cultural meaning.

Secondly, we’re not sensitive about our cultural identifications — our “othernesses.”

If you were to randomly walk up to a black guy and a Jew and greet them as such — “HEY! It’s a black guy and a Jew!” — you’d better hope they have good senses of humor.

That’s context, and it’s important.

The Selfie Stick would have sold horribly in the 1980s. Nobody was taking selfies.

Marketing? Maybe. Timing? Maybe. Cultural context? For sure.

While I’m not a proponent of “political correctness,” I’m also not a proponent of hurting people intentionally to prove a point. But above all, I’m a proponent of understanding context. If you don’t understand context, you don’t get to criticize people for feeling how they feel.

For instance, you don’t get to tell Dana Schwartz she’s overreacting when someone calls her a “filthy oven-dodger” if you don’t have the context of people trying to kill everybody like you.

You don’t get to belittle the relationship between adoptive parents and children if you don’t know firsthand what it’s like to be part of a family that might be called “non-traditional.”

You have no context. Get it? Good.


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