Using Context to Understand Content
The context and content of any situation are always powerful contributions to the way people view different things. People in modern society may see that content and context have equal importance, but others may not. Everyone’s perspective is different and everyone’s perspective changes through time. “The Power of Context: Bernie Goetz and the Rise and Fall of New York City Crime” by Malcolm Gladwell demonstrates how powerful context may be in many different situations. He gives many explanations to why a man named Bernie Goetz shot four young men on the train in 1984. In “Homo Religiosus”, Karen Armstrong writes about the different beliefs and religions that people followed. She tells her readers about the myths and rituals that were involved with those religions. In “Homo Religiosus” she demonstrates that people’s perceptions of religion from early times in history have changed completely compared to perceptions of religion in modern times. In selections from Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, Krakauer writes about his journey and experience into the wild where he searches for an understanding on what caused McCandless’s death while also revealing McCandless’s journey in the wilderness. All three texts depict how people’s perspective may change throughout time. Gladwell, Armstrong, and Krakauer demonstrate how context gives people a new perspective that greatly influences the way they understand the content of a situation.
Context greatly affects people’s perception of any type of situation. If we were given a situation and was not given any context, then we would start to make quick judgments. For example, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the Questioner and Contestant experiment. The Questioner comes up with questions based on his or her interests or expertise. Gladwell states that after the quiz, “the Contestants rate the Questioners as being a lot smarter than they themselves are” (Gladwell 162). However, the Contestants were not informed that the Questioners were knowledgeable in the subject of the question they were asking. This shows that since the Contestant was not given much context behind the quiz game, the Contestant made a judgment that the Questioner was smarter than him. People may also make a quick judgment when reading “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer. For example, when Krakauer questioned the men that discovered McCandless’s body, Gordon Samel and Ken Thompson state, “The kid didn’t know what the hell he was doing up here…The paper said he’d shot a moose, that told me right there he wasn’t no Alaskan. There’s a big difference between a moose and a caribou… You’d have to be pretty stupid not to be able to tell them apart” (Krakauer, 217). From there it can be seen that the two Alaskan hunters, Samel and Thompson, made judgments on McCandless based on what they saw when they discovered McCandless in the abandoned school bus. The hunters were not aware of what McCandless was trying to achieve on his journey into the wild and instead the Alaskan hunters automatically assumed that McCandless was just a stupid kid trying to survive in the wild. All of these judgments are made because people were not given much context of the situation. Context greatly affects the way people interpret the content.
When some context of a situation is given, a new perspective is created. If people are presented with a situation with some context then we start to gain more meaning and more understanding of the situation. For example, when Gladwell talks more about the Contestant and the Questioner he states that “The result will come out in the same way even when you give people a clear and immediate environmental explanation of the behavior they are being asked to evaluate: that the Contestant is being asked to answer the most impossible biased and rigged set of questions” (Gladwell 162). Gladwell demonstrates that if the Contestant is given some form of context, the Contestant’s understanding of the situation will be changed. The Contestant’s opinions change because then he or she knows that the Questioner created the questions to the Questioner’s expertise. Gladwell states, “There is something in all of us that makes us instinctively want to explain the world is around us in terms of essential attributes: that person is smarter than I am” (Gladwell 162). Gladwell writes about how the Contestant’s opinion changes because the Contestant wants to look for an explanation or excuse as to why he or she did not know the answers to the quiz. The Contestants change their point of view because their judgment changes from how they were dumber than the Questioners to how they weren’t actually dumb; they were just being questioned based on subjects they did not understand. If the Contestant were to be the Questioner, then the Contestant would make questions that he or she has interest or expertise in. In Armstrong’s “Homo Religiosus” we can also see how people’s perspectives change when there is more context provided. For example, Armstrong states in her text, “The initiation ceremonies marked the adolescent boy’s rite of passage from childhood to maturity… When they reach puberty, boys are taken from their mothers and put through frightening ordeals that transform them into men” (Armstrong 25). Armstrong gives a situation with a lot of context and reason to why boys are put through an initiation ceremony. The boys in Armstrong’s text relate to the Contestants of Gladwell’s text because they are both being put through trials that change their perspectives on their situations. The Contestants’ understanding of how smart the Questioners were changed, and the boys of Armstrong’s essay change their understanding of their religion while going through the initiation ceremony. As for Krakauer, he goes into the wild himself and sees the moose that McCandless killed, then Krakauer’s perspective changes. For example, Krakauer states, “The ungulate McCandless shot was exactly what he’d said it was. Contrary to what I reported, the animal was a moose…the boy made some mistakes on the Stampede Trail, but confusing a caribou with a moose wasn’t among them” (Krakauer, 216). This demonstrates that Krakauer went into the wild to see for himself and proved that McCandless did shoot a moose, and the Alaskan Hunters were wrong. Then Krakauer’s perspective began to change because all these critics thought that McCandless was stupid for mixing up a caribou and a moose. Krakauer’s point of view on McCandless changed because McCandless was not as stupid as the critics made him out to be. All three texts provide many examples of how a person may create a new perspective on a situation when reason and explanation through context is provided.
When people change their perspective on a situation, it gives them new understanding and judgment of content. For example, when Gladwell commented on the Contestant and Questioner experiment, he says, “We are a lot more attuned to personal cues than contextual cues” (Gladwell, 162). Gladwell is trying to say that people pay more attention to the opinions rather than the context of the situation. The Contestant said that the Questioner was smarter than him, although the Contestant was just not as knowledgeable in that subject area. The Contestant had a new perspective and changed his judgment on content. Another example would be that throughout Armstrong’s essay she analyzes how the boys that go through the initiation ceremony change. Armstrong states in her text, “if the initiation is skillfully handled, it can lead to a constructive reorganization of the young man’s powers. He has faced death, come out the other side, and is now psychologically prepared to risk his life for his people” (Armstrong, 25). The boys that go through the initiation are forced to go through many frightening trials, but after the initiation is over their entire outlook on life has changed and it gave them a new understanding and connection for their religion. The boys have changed their perspective and it gave them a new understanding of the men that they have become. Another example from Armstrong is when she states that “Before the modern period, most men and women were naturally inclined to religion and they were prepared to work at it. Today many of us are no longer willing to make this effort” (Armstrong 27). Armstrong demonstrates that people’s perspectives on religion have changed from believing in their religion because it gave their lives meaning to believing in their religion because someone told them to. Also in Armstrong’s text she demonstrates how her perspective on religion has changed which gave her a new understanding of the content in religion. Other than Armstrong, Krakauer presents himself as an example of a person that changes his perspective on a situation, which leads to a new understanding of content. Krakauer writes in his text that he and his friends “talk about this peculiar person whom none of us ever met, trying to get a handle on how he came to grief, trying to understand why some people seem to despise him so intensely for dying here” (Krakauer 217). As Krakauer went on his own journey his perspective changed and he uses the context from McCandless’s past with the moose to try and understand the content that explains why McCandless died. All three texts show how when a person’s perspective changes on a situation, it effects their understanding of content.
In conclusion, situations without and context given may cause people to make quick judgments. However, when situations are presented with a lot of context and detail, it causes people to create a new perspective. Then along with this new perspective it gives people new understanding of content based on the context given. Krakauer, Armstrong, and Gladwell demonstrate this relationship between context and content and how strongly both context and content affect people. Before people read into the context of a situation, they might make judgments that can be seen so negatively. Context greatly affects the way people understand content.
Krakauer, Jon. “Selections from Into the Wild.” The New Humanities Reader 4th Edition. Wadsworth, Boston, MA (2012) 202-222. Print. Armstrong, Karen. “Homo Religiosus” The New Humanities Reader 4th Edition. Wadsworth, Boston, MA (2012) 21-38. Print. Gladwell, Malcolm. “The Power of Context: Bernie Goetz and the Rise and Fall of New York City Crime.” The New Humanities Reader 4th Edition. Wadsworth, Boston, MA (2012) 151-165. Print.