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Tutorial: Meaning and Understanding (the basics)

Sentence: The big hat was put on the cat.

There are two meanings here:

  • 1) The meaning intended by the writer
  • 2) The meaning understood by the reader

 

And two acknowledgements:

  • The meaning intended by the writer cannot be known with absolute certainty.
  • The meaning understood by the reader is subjective.

 

Subjectivity: Depending on who the reader is, the meaning they take from the sentence may differ. People, children, space aliens – each will have a different interpretation of the word ‘big’. Also the standard size of a cat is likely to differ by geographical location. If you live in a jungle in India for example a bengali tiger may represent your standard ‘cat’. How large will the hat therefore need to be to qualify as big by comparison to this mighty cat? Is it on his head, or like, on his body? There are so many questions…

With that in mind, have a read of this Task B essay and the comments which follow. This should help demonstrate why meaning theory is important on the GAMSAT.

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“Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand” – Mark Twain

“Laughter is the best medicine” is a phrase that suggests the resultant joy from laughing is powerful enough to cure ailments. Conversely, Twain implied that it is so powerful that it could be considered a weapon, capable of emotional destruction. These two trains of thought lead to an issue regarding the hidden intentions of laughter; between bringing happiness to all involved, or bringing mirth to some at the expense of the other. This essay aims to investigate the virtues and vices of laughter, specifically laughing at the expense of oneself, and consider an appropriate level for its use.

Self-deprecating humour aims to belittle the person speaking in an attempt to bring happiness to those around them, and is generally non-serious in nature. It can be seen as a means for professionals to seem less imposing, in areas such as teaching. This makes the professional seem as though they too are capable of making mistakes, which in turn makes them more relatable to the audience. It also shows that the speaker is able to laugh off their own inabilities and mistakes, which lightens the negative response that would have been received otherwise. Finally, if a person is able to laugh at a mistake that they have made, the impact of the laughter of the rest of the group will be less hurtful, providing armor against the assault of the laughter.

There is a limit to the benefit of poking fun at oneself, and when that limit has been breached the result can be deleterious. If a self-deprecating joke is made that fails to come across as a joke, the audience may take the comment literally, which damages the speakers credibility. Additionally, if the self deprecating joke is made regarding a group which the speaker is associated with, this may be met with some opposition from other members of that group, who do not approve of the humour. Comedian Tyler Perry has frequently been condemned by critics as counterproductive to African American society, as his films often show him cross dressing while acting in caricatures of African American women. It could also be argued that continual self-mockery could lead to a damaged emotional state and psyche, undoing the intentional effect.

In order to properly perform this style of humour and avoid damaging relations between groups or the emotional and mental wellbeing of the speaker, a balance between self-deprecating and traditional humour can be employed. In some cases, self-deprecation is more acceptable, such as circus clowns and the television program “Australia’s Funniest Home Videos”. In these instances, the person being mocked has some sense of anonymity, either through clown makeup or grainy camera footage, which preserves their emotional state by detaching themselves from the cause of the laughter. Knowing when to draw the line when the joke has gone too far is another means to maintain this balance. Comedian Dave Chappelle exemplified this when he ultimately found his sketch comedy to be mocking the African American community and subsequently cancelled his show.

In conclusion, self-deprecating humour has value in making the speaker more relatable, while also protecting themselves from their own shortcomings. It can also damage their credibility and hurt people they associate with. Finding an appropriate level of use to this type of humour is key to maximizing its effect while mitigating the damage done to others. When Twain said that against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand, he did not consider if the person being laughed at was laughing too.

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Depth of thought – good
Organisation – good
Spelling/grammar/sentence structure – good
Demonstrating understanding of the quote – poor

Overall: The essay is well written and the student’s thoughts are clearly expressed. There are few mistakes which is rare to see in an essay this length. However their response towards the heading quote appears convoluted and suggests that they spent little time thinking about its meaning and more time thinking about what they could write about laughter in general.

 

Additional Comments:

I’d like to address three sentences which I feel exemplify an issue with the student’s logic.

1: “Laughter is the best medicine” is a phrase that suggests the resultant joy from laughing is powerful enough to cure ailments.

This is not necessarily true. The phrase states that laughter is the best medicine, not that this result of laughter is. If a patient had a potassium deficiency we might agree that ‘bananas are the best medicine’. We would not then leap to the assumption that it is the feelings that arise from eating the banana that are themselves the real cure.

Laughter brings joy – sure – but there are other effects of laughter and we can’t necessarily say which, if any, are definitely causing, or contributing to, the healing effect.

 

2: Twain implied that it is so powerful that it could be considered a weapon, capable of emotional destruction.

It would be more accurate to say one of the following:

One might deduce from Twain’s statement that laughter has the potential to be wielded as a destructive weapon.

If one consider’s Twain’s statement literally, they may understand laughter to be a powerful weapon.

The difference is that in the student’s sentence he is suggesting that Twain made these implications himself. In the new sentences, we are acknowledging that an interpretative act has taken place. We are acknowledging that we have ourselves attributed this subtle meaning to Twain’s description of laughter.

These sentences are more accurate because this is actually what has happened. We will get more marks for demonstrating this self awareness of our own interpretative process because it scores points under ‘depth of thought’ and ‘understanding the quote’.

 

3: When Twain said that against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand, he did not consider if the person being laughed at was laughing too.

This is a big assumption to make. It is an unsupported statement of opinion which he has ended the essay with, and it strongly suggests that the student did not fully understand the quote.

One simply cannot know what Twain considered, or for how long he sat philosophising before he came out with this line.

To laugh at something is to undermine its meaning. Off-stage, comedians are known for their emotional instability. A surprisingly large proportion of famous comedians suffer from depression. Who is to say their ego has not been smashed by the onslaught of endless laughter and self-mockery? Their lives are literally a joke, which leads many to ponder existentialism endlessly.

It could also be argued, for those that are psychologically stable, that when a comedian on stage laughs at himself, he is not truly laughing at himself. He is laughing at the facade of showmanship which he has presented to the audience – the facade of a personality with which he has temporily identified. It’s easy to laugh at this character on stage for it is not really him. It is just an act. And in this way he protects his true self, his off-stage personality, from attack.

I’m not saying these perspectives are necessarily more correct than those expressed in the above essay, I’m just demonstrating that there are always different ways of looking at something. Recognise that a sentence does not have a meaning until you read it and attribute a meaning to it. For I may read that same sentence and understand something completely different from it.

If you have not spent time considering all the possible things Twain might have meant, you cannot say for sure that he did or did not consider x.