Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Sorting out what it is to be respectful and disrespectful (“The obvious”)

     I try to be careful about how I talk about people—I mean when they’re not present.
     I have a friend who seems truly to live by the rule of saying nothing about someone they aren’t willing to say to his face.
     I often think about that rule. Is it wise? If so, why?
     We live in a culture that is big on respecting others. The concept of “rights” has much to do with that, I suppose. We know to respect others—for instance by not interfering with their affairs, not taking what is theirs, and so on. Often, it is obvious what is demanded by respect for others.
     But not always. I think that, in the past, we made a greater effort to provide a kind of catechism of respect and politeness and morality. Children were taught how to behave, what to do and not do. The content of such teachings must have seemed arbitrary to children (often even to objective observers!), but much of it does make sense relative to the overriding idea that one is to respect others as having a kind of significant moral standing, requiring constraint on our behavior relative to them.

     (We can view the somewhat [or very] rigid package of dos and don’ts sometimes recognized in a culture as the product of an effort to arrive at a way of life that constitutes “respect for others,” among other things. [Here, the elements of right action are made meaningful by the goals or values that are expressed by them.] We might feel an obligation to honor every element of such a package, even knowing that the package, and many of its elements, is likely flawed, imperfect. [“We’ve got to stick to the plan,” says the general, in the face of mounting losses.])

     In the wild and wooly U.S., the land of never-ending unconscious social experimentation, much that is traditional is lost, including much of the kind of instruction referred to above.
     I often think about this.
     Parents, of course, are conscious of a responsibility to instill in their children a proper regard of others. They might even consciously suppose that many of the “dos and dont’s” taught to their children are aspects or manifestations of “respect for others.” That is, these details are in the service of that larger goal.
     We can imagine a society in which an ongoing “sorting out” of what it means to treat others with respect goes on. This would be sensible especially in a society that is accustomed to endlessly changing roles, practices, etc.
     In a society much more bound by tradition (especially in the interactions between persons) than our own, it might seem obvious that the traditional teachings are prima facie adequate to anything that might come along. There might not be a consciousness of the need to sort anything out. A respecter of persons might simply insist on doing things as we’ve always been taught to do them.
     That’s not our society.
     It seems obvious to me—though it is clearly not obvious to everyone—that respect of others demands that one tread carefully in discussing others’ lives, especially the lives of those one knows. Most of us, I think, recognize that “gossip” is vicious, though we might not conceptualize this in terms of respect. Freely speculating about others’ lives, even when it is not attended by schadenfreude or malice or envy, also strikes me as an obvious “sin” as regards the obligation to respect others. It is perhaps a natural extension of the notion of gossip understood as a vice.
     My dictionary defines gossip as “idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others.” Other dictionaries seem to provide the same meaning.
Gossiping is not just talk, but “idle” talk. After all, one might have a very good reason for discussing a rumor or delving into others’ affairs. (A psychologist, a parent, a spouse.) Such discussing and delving isn’t always objectionable.
     The gossip gossips because doing so is enjoyable, not because it is necessary. We want to say that gossips are enjoying themselves at others’ expense. And that’s wrong.
     “But I’m not saying it to them!” insist the gossip who is called out. “What they don’t know won’t hurt them!” they add.
     I’m not so sure about that. In any case such talk—behind someone’s back—feels like deception. It also seems to be an instance of using a person. One who discovers that they are the object of gossip is offended. When one finds out that others have gossiped about one, one feels disrespected. One is inclined to say of the gossipers that one’s affairs are none of their business.

* * *

     My family poses challenges for me with regard to gossip and related talk, for they talk about other people all the time. I have come to find such talk to be objectionable and disrespectful. I say that I have “come to” find it objectionable because I was raised by these people, and they freely—not quite unashamedly—gossiped about others routinely when I was growing up. I do not recall participating in it much, but I certainly heard quite a lot of it.

     (A few years ago, my cousin J moved to Kentucky after a divorce with her husband of many years. Her only child, a son, was 19 years old and seemingly on track to become a policeman. Given these facts, my folks immediately drew the conclusion that J had “abandoned her family.” It was not obvious to me that she had done any such thing. None of us really knew the details of J’s situation. It seemed to me that my folks had no basis for such a judgment. I said so, and that ruffled some feathers.
     (After a while, it became clear that J was living on a ranch there in Kentucky. There was some other woman around for a while. This fact immediately inspired my folks to speculate that J was “now a lesbian.” They would discuss J with knowing and disapproving looks.
     (“Good grief!” I said. “First of all, you have no basis for that conclusion, and second, why are you speculating about what goes on in her life? It’s none of your business.”
     (Let’s just say that my folks responded to my remark as though I had told them that they were fishwives. Naturally, they were offended.)

     My mom more or less gossips routinely. She also enjoys discussing the lives of famous people, people in the news, et al. (Is that gossip?) When she and I are alone, I usually respond to such blather with obvious indifference or with the remark, “I don’t want to talk about these people’s lives. Could we please talk about something else?”
     My father seems generally disinclined to participate in these discussions, but he does not object to them either.
     He has no compunction about criticizing people, including famous people, that he does not like. He is from Europe, and I suspect that there is an older and more settled practice of pontificating about politics and current events—typically at the dinner table—than exists in the U.S. In any case, one obviously attractive activity for many people is to spout off without reservation about the failings of famous and important people—while it is plain that the spouters make no effort to get their facts straight or even to know at all what they’re talking about.
     Perhaps owing to the influence of his children (?), my father has grown less crass in this regard, more likely to soften his judgments of politicians, et al., and to consider alternative views.
     My mother is not a political pontificator. On the other hand, she still gossips and discusses the lives of others (to be fair, she has never been what one might call a terrible gossip).

* * *

     My folks, and especially my father, have always seemed utterly uninhibited about noting others’ physical beauty or lack thereof. “God, she’s ugly,” my dad would say about the famous comedic actress on the screen. Anybody whose face might flash upon the TV would get an automatic attractiveness (especially an unattractiveness) assessment.  “Imagine waking up to that face!” my dad would announce. My mom would just smile. This is what people do, in their world.
     For whatever reason, they are less liable to do this now—possibly because of my years of pushback—but they clearly still feel no compunction about assessing people’s attractiveness in the world.
     Admittedly, this failing (if that is what it is) is very common. I have good friends—seriously decent people—who routinely note others’ physical beauty of ugliness. I always cringe. I rarely say anything. I’m always thinking, “Poor dear. He (or she) can’t help having the face that he has!”
     Why doesn’t that factoid inhibit people more? I hesitate to launch into a moral correction of my friends though.
     Somehow, with my folks, it’s different.

     Mostly, people are what they are. That is, their features are not really matters of choice. Isn’t that obvious? (Apparently not.) I am horrified to think that people are shunned or treated badly or “talked about behind their backs” owing to some feature provided by indifferent nature, something they had absolutely no say in. And, really, most of us pretty much are what we are. The notion that our moral and physical natures are “choices” strikes me as an ugly and stupid and deeply unfortunate fiction, a source of endless oppression.
     We are here to fight such things not to participate in them!

* * *

     Today, at lunch, my mom referred to a holiday postcard from an old couple my family knows but hasn’t seen for many years. The postcard had a photo on its cover. At one point, my mom, referring to the photo, mentioned that Mrs. X “seems sick, doesn’t she?” (It was a gossipy remark, not an expression of concern. –I could be wrong, I guess.)
     Well, first of all, Mrs. X is 88 years old, and my mother doesn’t often see pictures of her. So, likely, mom was struck by how old looking Mrs. X is compared to the last photo of her she saw.
     Second, everyone at the table was well aware that Mrs. X has been suffering various ailments that might make her look old and tired, etc.
     So just what was the point of mom’s remark?

     “Oh, come on!” I said. “Why do you have to say that?”
     “What? It’s true!” said mom.
     “She can’t help the way she looks, so why mention it?” I said.
     Mom sputtered forth some explanation.
     I walked over to the adjoining room, visiting with my cat, Teddy, who I had brought with me. My dad got up and said something pleasant about Teddy’s attitude. I said: “At least he doesn’t talk trash.” –This was meant to be lighter than it came out. I was pretty sure my mom heard me.
     Worried that mom misunderstood my remark (she’s an immigrant with a sometimes tenuous understanding of English) and that she might be offended and even hurt, I explained that “talking trash” refers to talking about other people.
     “I know what it means!” she said, obviously annoyed.
     Well, I know my mom. She is very inclined to take offense based on misunderstandings. Happens all the time. So I clarified my remark further. I said, “Saying that you’re talking trash doesn’t mean that you’re trash; it means that you are talking about other people, criticizing them. OK?”
     “That’s not what it means to me!” she roared. I knew then that I had lit the fires of inevitability. As I feared, she “understood” my remark to be implying that, in some sense, she is trash. But no, that’s not what I meant.
     It matters not.
     I said: “Listen, what matters is what I meant, and I meant what people normally mean by saying that somebody is talkin’ trash; I meant that they were putting down others. It in no way implies that the talker is trash. OK?”
     “I have my own meaning of the word!” roared my mother. “And that’s not what it means to me!”
     Good grief. I said: “You can’t have a private meaning for a word or phrase. I word means what people normally mean by it, not what some oddball hearer misunderstands it to mean.”
     “You’re just using your meaning, and I’m just using mine!” said mom.
     --Yes, yes, I know. I am an idiot. I should learn to walk away in silence, cut my losses. Obviously.
     I said: “No, I’m not using my meaning, I’m using the meaning of the phrase ‘talkin’ trash.’ It’s the meaning you’ll find in a dictionary.”
     It was plain that, to my mom, I was just pulling things out of my ass. Now, from my perspective, I was doing anything but that; from my perspective, it was as though I were saying, “the sky is blue.”
     By now, mom was disgusted. It was then that the wisdom of silence finally took control of me. I grabbed Teddy and headed home.
     But there’ll be hell to pay. “He has no respect of his own mother!” she’ll say. And there is nothing to do about that except to wait for time and events to wash away the whole business from mom’s or anyone else’s attention.

* * *

     Owing to my training and my profession, I think a lot about such things as respecting others and what that entails. I think about rules such as “never say anything about someone you’re not willing to say to their face.”
     So some things seem obvious to me.
     Often, they’re not so obvious to others.
     And so, once again, I’ve got my aged mother upset; I got her thinking that I have no respect for her. She feels that way because I tagged her yet again for her actions that, in my view, are disrespectful of others.
     I dunno.
     At one point today, I told mom, “I don’t think you understand how hard it is for me to hear this stuff you say all the time.”
     But, obviously, she can’t possible understand a remark like that. It is hard to listen to my folks say some of the things they say and to watch them do some of the things they do. But objections accomplish nothing.
     I understand that they are what they are—that they lived in a world very unlike my own that produced certain ways of being and acting and thinking and feeling.
But some of this stuff—it just won’t do, will it?

* * *

     We should have an ongoing sorting out of the implications of our values. That would be a good thing.
     But we need to do it together.

     That’s not always possible.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Justice’s invisibility (the psyche's invisibility) [unfinished]

     Plato’s great dialogue, Republic*, is said to be about the virtue of justice—being just. The participants in the conversation—Socrates, along with Polemarchus, Glaucon, Adeimantus, and the others—seek a definition. In Book I of Republic, the sophist Thracymachus angrily interrupts the conversation, providing his famous definition according to which just conduct is nothing more than “the interest of the stronger.” The view has been variously interrupted. I rather like the interpretation according to which, for Thracymachus, morality is the successful hoodwinking of the poor and weak by the strong and advantaged. (Very much like contemporary American society.)
     Socrates engages in dialogue with Thracymachus and, in the end, embarrasses the latter, who is made to acknowledge the failure of his definition, if that’s what it is. But some of the participants, especially Glaucon, are dissatisfied, and so they launch into an elaborate challenge to Socrates to reveal that “being just” is desirable to the just person, not only for its consequences—avoiding trouble, a good reputation, etc.—but especially in itself. That is, just as the joy one feels in hearing one’s favorite music or eating one’s favorite meal is desirable “in itself,” being just is thus desirable and to an extreme extent such that the tortured just man is better off than the unjust man with power and luxury and, somehow, a great and enjoyable reputation for being just.
     I want to draw attention to some assumptions in this discussion regarding the nature of justice and the psyche (soul). One might suppose that “being just” is a pattern of behavior, and, indeed, for much of the Republic’s discussion, it is. For instance, it is a pattern of behavior in the account of justice ascribed by Glaucon to the many, according to which justice is peaceful and respectful conduct agreed upon with all others, not because it is in any way attractive, but because, though unattractive, participation in the agreement is the only means of avoiding continual insecurity and harm.
     At the beginning of Book II, Socrates and the others do not seem to view justice as a pattern of behavior. What is “being just” if it is not a pattern of honest and respectful conduct? Well, it is that quality of self such that that conduct is natural to it. It is that feature of the psyche—an arrangement or configuration (or ?) reliably producing just conduct.
     Might this be an inclination or tendency and nothing more? –I have in mind here any state of affairs or condition of self—its nature is otherwise irrelevant—that yields this pattern. It would contrast with a “something” that alone produces this pattern of behavior, a something whose nature we keenly desire to understand—and this seems to be the thinking of Socrates’ crew.
     But why? What if the something were, say, an aversion to elderberries? If this is the end of the trail, then surely we have somehow lost our way.
     Perhaps one assumes here that the something is nothing like an aversion to elderberries. It is more like a formula or directive or notion that, once apprehended, is received with satisfaction and joy—an intellectual MacGuffin. Socrates’ MacGuffin—the three parts of the soul sticking to their proper work—strikes me as being about as satisfying as an aversion to elderberries. When I behold the spectacle of a person invariably conducting him- or herself with justice, I am impressed; when I behold the supposed spectacle of a soul whose parts work—well, I guess that could be like exploring a shiny, new Porsche, a thing that dazzles in its mechanistic elegance and perfection. But Socrates never opens the hood, as far as I’m concerned. What is “the reason” if it itself does not have desires and passions? How can “the reason” direct the soul unless it itself has desires and passions that yield goals?
     The Book II discussion of justice assumes that “being just” is a condition of the soul (psyche), and it is more than just the soul’s disposition to act justly. (It’s this elderberry/parts business.) The discussion also seems to assume that the soul is opaque to oneself—or at least hard to discern—and that is the assumption to which I now wish to draw attention:
[Glaucon tells Socrates:] Thrasymachus seems to me, like a snake, to have been charmed by your voice sooner than he ought to have been; but to my mind the nature of justice and injustice have not yet been made clear. Setting aside their rewards and results, I want to know what they are in themselves, and how they inwardly work in the soul….
. . .
[Adeimantus tells Socrates:] The cause of all this, Socrates, was indicated by us at the beginning of the argument, when my brother [Glaucon] and I told you how astonished we were to find that of all the professing panegyrists of justice … no one has ever blamed injustice or praised justice except with a view to the glories, honours, and benefits which flow from them. No one has ever adequately described either in verse or prose the true essential nature of either of them abiding in the soul, and invisible to any human or divine eye; or shown that of all the things of a man's soul which he has within him, justice is the greatest good, and injustice the greatest evil. … I speak in this vehement manner, as I must frankly confess to you, because I want to hear from you the opposite side; and I would ask you to show not only the superiority which justice has over injustice, but what effect they have on the possessor of them which makes the one to be a good and the other an evil to him. And please, as Glaucon requested of you, to exclude reputations…. Now as you have admitted that justice is one of that highest class of goods which are desired indeed for their results, but in a far greater degree for their own sakes—like sight or hearing or knowledge or health, or any other real and natural and not merely conventional good—I would ask you in your praise of justice to regard one point only: I mean the essential good and evil which justice and injustice work in the possessors of them. Let others praise justice and censure injustice, magnifying the rewards and honours of the one and abusing the other…. And therefore, I say, not only prove to us that justice is better than injustice, but show what they either of them do to the possessor of them, which makes the one to be a good and the other an evil, whether seen or unseen by gods and men.
     Socrates and the others are proceeding, it seems, on the assumption that, if “being just” is what it’s cracked up to be, it must be desirable, and very much so, in itself to he who “has” it (if that is how we should put it). But no one has ever identified that desirability. Why?
     The answer seems to be that justice, as a quality of soul, “is invisible to any human or divine eye….” –And that, I suppose, is because the soul itself is “invisible,” or largely so. Perhaps it is more obscured than invisible. I shall refer, then, to the assumption of the invisibility of the soul (IOS). Alternatively, we might refer instead to the assumption of the obscurity of the soul (OOS).
     When Socrates takes up the challenge, he seems to emphasize the obscurity/invisibility of the soul:
   I told them, what I really thought, that the enquiry would be of a serious nature, and would require very good eyes. Seeing then, I said, that we are no great wits, I think that we had better adopt a method which I may illustrate thus; suppose that a short-sighted person had been asked by some one to read small letters from a distance; and it occurred to some one else that they might be found in another place which was larger and in which the letters were larger—if they were the same and he could read the larger letters first, and then proceed to the lesser—this would have been thought a rare piece of good fortune. Very true, said Adeimantus; but how does the illustration apply to our enquiry?
   I will tell you, I replied; justice, which is the subject of our enquiry, is, as you know, sometimes spoken of as the virtue of an individual, and sometimes as the virtue of a State.
   True, he replied.
   And is not a State larger than an individual?
   It is.
   Then in the larger the quantity of justice is likely to be larger and more easily discernible.
     The soul—or at least the soul qua just/unjust—is hard to discern. It is hard to discern somewhat like distant letters are hard to discern visually. And this, I suppose, is why no one has ever sung justice’s praises as a state of the soul; it has simply never been discerned.
     I’ve always been bothered by the “small letters/large letters” analogy. If one sought to read the distant letters and discovered that the same letters could be viewed more closely, why would one bother to attempt to read the distant letters again upon having read the closer ones? (The translations I have examined all seem to have Socrates portray an effort, in the end, to go back to trying to see those distant letters.)
     Perhaps I’m reading too much into the analogy.
     Problems arise, too, in making sense of the indirect State/Soul strategy that Socrates and the others agree to follow, for there is a prima facie problem with it. The group will construct the ideal State and then attempt to identify justice, the greatest virtue, there. Upon doing so, they are “fortunate,” as they now prepare to discern justice in the soul.
     But how are they fortunate?
     Well, one might suppose, they are fortunate because they have already discerned justice, and, having done so, they will more readily recognize it as they view the soul. But that would be to assume the correctness of their definition of State Justice. In fact, however, the participants to the conversation treat that definition of justice derived from their construction of the Republic as a hypothesis to be confirmed by turning, now, to another instance: the just soul. But, of course, confirmation can occur only if their examination of Soul Justice does not depend on their definition of State Justice, for otherwise they are caught in a circle. Isn’t there a contradiction in embracing a strategy of “confirmation” (confirming the definition of State Justice by finding Soul Justice) while embracing a strategy of “guidance,” as one seeks Soul Justice? Confirmation can only occur if finding Soul Justice does not depend on the previous definition of State Justice. But the whole point of constructing the ideal state was to make it easier to discern Soul Justice, and it can make that project easier only insofar as their definition of State Justice is correct—not a mere hypothesis to be confirmed.
     Now, in fact, Socrates and the others proceed into the soul to find justice there with what they regard as a hypothesis of the definition of justice. And then, when they seem to find that the soul, like the state, has three parts, they seem to feel that they have achieved confirmation…. [to be completed]

 Back to obscurity of the soul…. [Where I’m going with this is a point about the Free Will debate based on a point made by Plato and that we would seem to have to agree with….]

 *I’m using Jowett’s translation of The Republic.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Scenes from a mob movie (the absurd fire)

     In my Intro course lectures on Free Will, I sometimes imagine a world in which “action events” randomly occur, just as—or so I’m told—electrons suddenly and inexplicably change their energy states down there in atom land. “Why did that happen?”, we ask, only to be told “there is no why. “That’s just the way it is, universe-wise. Shuddup.”
     The point is that such actions, if they were to occur, wouldn’t be “free” any more than a coerced action (“Gimme your money or your life!”) would be free. These action events are absurd, not free.
     On the other hand, I kind of appreciate absurdity, at least up to a point.
     Lately, here at good ol’ IVC, it’s become the land of absurd fire—i.e., the land of getting fired—mysteriously, opaquely, and so on. Perhaps not for those who are actually getting fired—well, we just don’t know about them—but certainly for everyone else, looking and wondering WTF just happened.
     But, of course, these firings are highly non-random. There’s definitely a “why,” but, in this case, we just don’t know what it is. And it’s not because the universe is being weird again; it’s because certain people are determined to keep the cause obscure. Darryl C, we’re told, is required to maintain silence. No doubt the same is true for Helen L.
     But wait a minute. It just won’t do—will it?—this business of harsh things happening to people and then deliberately turning these events, for all observers, into pseudo-action events or electron firings. Among human beings—moral, decent creatures—such brute factual absurdity is at least disconcerting, morally. In the moral universe, we need to know what happens to people, and why it happens to them, so we can know that what's happening to them isn’t wrong.
     The absurd fire. Why do people do such things? And what are the grounds for complaint about them?
     Part of the answer comes up in a piece that appeared two days ago in the NYT: Fired? Speak No Evil. It’s about an editor who is suddenly fired and is told to sign a document—or else no severance:
     What brings me up short is clause No. 12: No Disparagement. “You agree,” it reads, “that you will never make any negative or disparaging statements (orally or in writing) about the Company or its stockholders, directors, officers, employees, products, services or business practices, except as required by law.” If I don’t agree to this nondisparagement clause, I will not receive my severance — in this case, the equivalent of two weeks of pay. Two weeks? Must be hard times out in San Francisco, or otherwise why the dirt parachute — and by the way, is that the sort of remark I won’t be allowed to make if I sign clause No. 12?
. . .
     ...[A]s quaint as this may seem, giving up the right to speak and write freely, even if that means speaking or writing negatively, strikes me as the unholiest of deals for a writer and an editor to accept. Though such clauses don’t technically violate the First Amendment — I’d be explicitly agreeing to forfeit my right to speak freely if I signed clause No. 12 — such a contract has a paralyzing effect on the dissemination of the truth, with all of truth’s caustically cleansing powers. To disparage is but one tool in a writer’s kit, but it’s an essential one. That a company would offer money for my silence, which is what this boils down to — well, I’ve seen many a mob movie about exactly that exchange.
     The increased prevalence of nondisparagement agreements is part of a corporate culture of risk management that would have us say nothing if we can’t say anything nice. And yet it occurs to me that if a company isn’t strong enough to be reproached, then it simply isn’t strong enough, period.
     Mind you, I’m not looking to disparage Byliner. The company has made a few mistakes in my view (firing me perhaps being a relatively minor one), but what fledgling enterprise does not screw up from time to time during its shakedown phase? It’s not that I necessarily want to disparage, but I want the freedom to do so, to be able to criticize, to attack, to carp, to excoriate, if need be. I want to tell the truth, even if it isn’t pretty.
     That’s why I won’t sign clause No. 12. Byliner can keep the money. I’ll keep my self-respect.
     Darryl and Helen aren’t editors or writers, and so I’m not suggesting that they have no self-respect. Just no job.
     But the action, the coercion for silence, demanded by a mob, is about the same.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

This is your college on drugs

From Dissent the Blog:

assume - to suppose to be the case, without proof: you're afraid of what people are going to assume about me | [ with clause ] : it is reasonable to assume that such changes have significant social effects | [ with obj. and infinitive ] : they were assumed to be foreign.*
1. Today's visit by students of the California Corporate College caused the predictable parking snafus. One could see students (et al.) anxiously prowling the lots. A colleague explained that she was a half hour late for her class, owing to the fubar. [Note: college administration seems to have declared war on instruction at Irvine Valley College, now regularly creating parking snafus for the sake of questionable events such as this one, thereby causing students--and instructors--to be late for class, etc.]

2. At about 11:40, I wandered over to the IVC PAC and entered. The "California Corporate College" event was in full swing, and the hall was pretty full. Somebody was yammerin'.      I've got nothin'.
3. I assume that the sun will rise in the morning. Does that make me an "ass"? Don't think so. 
     Note: someone who does not make that assumption is mentally ill.
     And suppose that someone really said that "it is reasonable to assume that such changes have significant social effects"? (See def. above.) Only an ass would insist that it is unreasonable to make that assumption.

4. Insisting that one does not "assume" any such thing would make one an ass. If not an ass, at least a liar. 
     "I am aware that it is at least possible that the sun will not rise. And so I don't really assume it." —Here we have someone who is used to changing words' meanings to save a foolish idea. —A liar or self-deceiver.

5. It's pretty clear, I think, that the truth about assuming is as follows: the phenomenon of assuming comprises a range of cases from the reasonable (and, in truth, more than reasonable) to the unreasonable (foolish or even mad). Hence, some assumptions are foolish (i.e., ass-making) and some are not. It depends on the case.
     Why overstate the case, declaring all assumptions to be foolish? Just what is the matter with you?

6. It's like the familiar blatherage that "you can be anything you want to be." Well, no. Obviously not. Sure, there are some who need to be encouraged to try to do or achieve things. Yes, there are some who falsely or foolishly underestimate what is achievable as a goal. Be that as it may, it does not justify such idiotic blatherage as "you can be anything you want to be."

7. In this country, when we plan an event, we tend to turn it into a circus. Fighting cancer, for us, is no sober enterprise; it's pink ribbons and "races" for cures. And when we seek to correct an error, we overcorrect and create a new error:
Your vote counts. (Sure, they count it. But it doesn't "count" in the sense of having a bearing on the outcome.) You can be anything you want to be. (Well, no. Yes, quite possibly, you have underestimated the opportunities available to you. But it takes strength to aim high and miss. The miss could send you spiraling downward. Do these idiots have a slogan for spiraling depressives too?) There are no limits to what you can achieve! (Ditto.) This is your brain on drugs. (C'mon. Kinda depends on the drug, doesn't it? And what about that martini in your hand, asshole?) Celebrate yourself! (I should celebrate myself? What if I'm a lout? A lazy ass? A Tea Partier?)
*My Mac's dictionary

Sunday, July 28, 2013

When Uncle Ted said he shot the fuzzy bear

Comic and comedian
[comic, n.] 
...A comic actor; = comedian....
. . .
1961 J. McCabe Mr. Laurel & Mr. Hardy (1962) i. 38 ‘Stan,’ he said, ‘why do you want to be a comic?’  
Oxford English Dictionary
     Whenever you enter into a dispute about the meaning of a word or phrase, you’ve entered a mine field. That’s partly because a word, even one approached as appearing in a snapshot of the present (as opposed to: as a thing traveling across time), doesn’t exist in one community but in many overlapping communities.
     And then there are philosophical issues that enter the picture. Sheesh.
     It’s easy to make a case that the noun “comic” and the noun “comedian” are synonyms. In making that case, however, you rely on standards that are clunky and insensitive: dictionaries and the like, things that require so much work that their issue is sporadic and occasional. There just isn’t the manpower to keep on top of swiftly moving subtleties, on so many fronts, in usage. (For instance, see the OED's definition of "begging the question" below.)
     CONSERVATIVES. People disagree about how to conceive the meaning of a word. Some tend to tie meanings down to some alleged essence: the “original” meaning or some “official” act of standardization by authorities. That approach isn’t always wrong (in my opinion), though (again, in my opinion), it usually is.
     That’s what I think anyway. More about that later.
     "Conservatives," in this narrow sense, are, of course, more liable to insist on the "correct" meaning of a term of phrase. If words have essences, and given that word meanings tend to change, well, then, obviously, there will be divergences from those essences and thus reasons to squawk.

     FREE-FLOATERS. In general, I’m happy to view meanings as detachable from any such essential basis. I certainly see the point of conservatism—insisting on a particular "real" meaning or distinction in the face of drift (or inadvertent invention) among the hoi polloi. For instance, there’s a good reason for maintaining the distinction between, say, “inferring” and “implying” when many others routinely obliterate the distinction.* And there's a good reason to maintain use of the word "phenomenon" to refer to any observable event—even as every element of popular culture (it seems) persists in using it to refer to the paranormal.
     Typically, in these struggles, the conservatives eventually loose to the masses, overwhelmed by shear usage. When that happens, continued conservatism is just silly.
     Take the “misuse” of the phrase “begging the question.” True, current usage is obliterating a valuable customary*meaning, thereby making the English language less rich and expressive. But the new usage is by now so familiar and widely accepted that, with few exceptions (e.g., my classroom), it is pointless to keep insisting on “the correct meaning.”

     RIGID DESIGNATION. When I was a philosophy student, a battle raged over how best to understand proper names. Are they disguised descriptions or are they “rigid designators”? That is, when I speak of Socrates, am I essentially referring to the teacher of Plato? (That’s a description, a "sense.") If so, then it would be nonsensical to suggest that Socrates never knew Plato. Necessarily, the "teacher of Plato" knew Plato.
     Alternatively, might it be that, in truth, “Socrates” refers (because it originally referred) to some humble, unreflective fisherman and, owing to a confusion, we’ve ended up referring often to this peasant, erroneously supposing that he was a great and influential philosopher (who taught the likes of Plato)? Here, the term is causally linked to the person originally "christened" with it, and thus no description is essentially tied to it. Accordingly, it is coherent (albeit controversial) to suggest that Socrates never knew Plato.
     This view may seem crazy but, in some instances, it seems correct.
The "fuzzy" look
     What would the “rigid designator” view (or at least its spirit) look like when applied to ordinary terms (common nouns, adjectives, etc.)? Well, just as “Socrates” has always referred to the original Socrates, even if, by now, our understanding of this individual is largely mistaken, term X—(say) the adjective “fuzzy”—originally was a particular description, and, though we may have drifted over time from that original description, the “actual” and "true" meaning is that original description.
     That's an absurd view. Suppose that, originally, “fuzzy” was used to say that a thing had spikes. But language changes, and now we have something else in mind by "fuzzy." Surely it would be a mistake to insist that, when Uncle Ted said he shot the fuzzy bear, he was “really” saying was that he shot a spiky bear. –No, he was saying (and he was "really" saying) that he shot that other kind of bear, the fuzzy kind. That the term "fuzzy" once meant "spiky" is simply irrelevant. The meaning of a term is what people mean by it, not what people long ago meant by it.
     (Of course, some scholarly communities comprise those who use terms fully cognizant of [at least some of] their histories. For them, subtly, word histories somewhat intrude on meaning—i.e., what they mean by words now. They play with words, gently sounding their histories, like strings on a guitar.)

     SEMI-CONSERVATIVES (SEMI-FREE-FLOATERS). I think that one could justify taking a semi-conservative view. Perhaps it’s like this: words (and phrases, etc.) tend to change in meaning over time, a phenomenon that (at least sometimes or to a degree) parallels natural selection, “improving” the language. But the process can also be insidious. Useful meanings (e.g., “begging the question”—as the phrase was used fifty years ago) are sometimes gradually erased in favor of a minor (or a non-) enrichment of the language. At such times, there's a net loss for the language. Under these circumstances, for the sake of maximal communication, especially within, say, some specialist group (philosophers, logicians), it would make sense to attempt to hold the line at least for a while (for the sake of clear and effective communication), to insist on the “traditional” meaning (i.e., the meaning they've recognized for a while, whether or not it was the "original" meaning). I used to do that in my philosophy classes. I was quite the traditionalist, word-wise.
     Suppose that one has lost the battle with regard to the "ordinary meaning" of the term. Suppose that efforts to preserve the once-traditional meaning of "begging the question" (BTQ) as "the" meaning are a failure. Virtually no one, outside a special group, recognizes the once-traditional meaning. The special group would of course preserve this (now) specialized meaning, though it would not insist on that meaning outside the narrow group.
     This appears to be the fate of the term "begging the question." What was once simply "the meaning" of BTQ becomes the meaning of BTQ only as a technical term. Meanwhile, owing to an error that became viral, a (non-technical) meaning of BTQ ("the" meaning in broader society) has been established.
     It’s still true, I think, that, among educated speakers, “infer” does not mean “imply,” and that’s a good thing, though it does separate people into the "educated" and the "uneducated." As college instructors, we engage in such segregations every day. As educators, we're part of a crew that participates in the enterprise of preserving the language and maintaining its power. Some publishers and publications, I think, view themselves as part of this crew. They do what they can as "Meaning Police." That's not always conservative. The MPs, while preserving the useful, can also admire innovation.
     Alas, as preservers of the useful (etc.), they are only slowing the inevitable. In time, of course, "infer" will simply mean "imply." The educated elite (if that group continues to exist) will probably have to throw in the towel and speak and mean like everyone else. To do otherwise would be ridiculous.

* * *
6. To take for granted without warrant; esp. in to beg the question : to take for granted the matter in dispute, to assume without proof. . . . 1788 T. Reid Aristotle's Logic v. §3. 118 Begging the question is when the thing to be proved is assumed in the premises.
Oxford English Dictionary; note: this is the only meaning OED recognizes. 
beg the question 1 : to pass over or ignore a question by assuming it to be established or settled 2 : to elicit a question logically as a reaction or response
Merriam-Webster Dictionary
* * *

     Earlier, I suggested that one can make a “conservative” case for the synonymity of the nouns “comic” and “comedian.” Dictionaries will tend to support this position.
     I don't want to get into the weeds about the latter point. I'm thinking of a particular dispute.
     Yesterday, my mother, my sister, and I were discussing the old Ed Sullivan Show, a popular program that lasted until about 1970. Mom said that she watched some old episodes. She referred to the old "comics" on that show. She referred to one in particular, a woman.
     "Joan Rivers?" I asked.
     "Yes, she was one of them. But there was another one."
     We attempted to identify the comic. I mentioned all of the female comics I could think of from the 50s and 60s: Phyllis Diller, Totie Fields, et al. Mom wasn't thinking of any of those, she said. Eventually, knowing that my mother can use words eccentrically (for her, English is a second language), I decided to mention some comedians.
     "Are you thinking of someone like, say, Carol Burnett? Lucille Ball?" I asked.
     I added: "of course, they aren't really comics."
     My mother looked at me blankly. My sister joined in this. "Of course they're comics!" said sis.
     No, I said. Burnett was a comedian all right, but she's wasn't a comic. Neither was Lucy.
     They were uncomprehending, or simply unconvinced. Luckily, the conversation ended there.
     So that's the dispute.

* * *
Uncle Ted and friend
     It’s easy to find people—estimable people—who insist that there is an important difference between the term “comic” and the term “comedian.” Comics are one group, comedians are a somewhat different group.
     Are they wrong and the lexicographers right?
     Here’s an example from someone from the world of stand-up comedy:
     A comic is a comedian; a comedian isn’t necessarily a comic. It’s the square and the rectangle argument (for nerds who remember geometry AND read this blog).
     This entry is dedicated to defining and understanding the differences between a comic, which is short for stand-up comic, and a comedian, who performs comical material.
     Stand-up comedy is the art of standing on stage and performing material to elicit laughs from the crowd.
. . .
     “Comedian” is a much broader term. A comedian is someone who performs comedic material in order to elicit laughs. This can be accomplished through acting in movies. Examples of movie actors who are comedians would be Bill Murray or Tom Hanks. It can be accomplished through funny songs, such as done by artists Weird Al Yankovic or Dr. Demento. A comedian can host a variety show, like Conan O’Brien or David Letterman. It can be established through a radio show, like Howard Stern. Comedians can also perform team improvisation/“improv”, like on “Who’s Line is it Anyway?” It can even be accomplished by doing stand-up comedy. Here’s where the square/rectangle argument comes into play.
       You’re considered a comedian if you’re doing any performance that gets a laugh, including stand-up comedy. However, you are ONLY considered a comic if you do stand-up comedy.
. . .
     …[S]tand-up comics develop unique skills in order to prep and deal with the live-audience environment. While being a comedian also involves a lot of skill and practice, the difference is dependent on having a cast, a script, and, often, being able to reshoot/re-do scenes that don’t work the first time. Ultimately, as a stand-up comic, if you fail on stage, the only person you have to blame is yourself. The flip side of this, of course, is that when you succeed on stage, the only person responsible and deserving of praise, adulation, and the great things that come with success is yourself. (Comic vs. comedian: what's the difference?)
     Here’s another example from someone outside the world of stand-up comedy (and even outside of the English speaking world!):
     Every comic — now a term exclusively reserved for stand-up — has had to face boos, catcalls, hecklers and even legal notices. (Comic Vs Comedian.)
     I think that these people are part of a community (or, in the second case, have significant exposure to such a community) where a particular distinction between “comic” (a kind of comedian) and “comedian” (the more general term) has come to exist and to be important. Without doubt, in their world, this difference in meanings exists.
     And the likes of me—we've tapped into that community's conversation, have to an extent adopted its language. My guess is that the larger society is gradually doing the same.
     But who knows.
     Does that make this usage correct and the approved “dictionary” usage incorrect? Well, yes and no. There are settings where I’d have to agree—"yes, for you people (scholars at Oxford?), 'comic' and 'comedian' are synonyms. There's no good reason why you should adopt this newer usage—though, of course, you should be aware of it, if you're going to listen to and communicate with those who are tapped into popular culture." (If they're Oxford dons, that's not likely to be the case.)
     But I would say that, being a non-conservative about such matters.

     *We can distinguish at least two different kinds of case: (1) There exists an established meaning (of X) and then, somehow, a new meaning crops up and competes with it (such seems to be the case with "begging the question"). Here, we're inclined to speak of "error" or perhaps neologism; (2) there are two distinct communities and one meaning (of X) is embraced by one community while another meaning (of X) is embraced by the other. I suspect that the "infer/imply" situation involves the second kind of case. The "educated" have their meaning; the uneducated have theirs. Neither error nor neologism is involved. Consider also the situation with regard to the distinction between inductive and deductive arguments—conceived differently between philosophers/logicians, on the one hand, and rhetoricians, on the other. (No, philosophers and logicians do not define a "deductive" argument as going from the general to the particular.) I have found that many philosophers/logicians are not shy about placing this particular meaning difference in a third category, related to the first: (3) changes (improvements) are made by the proper authorities in defining X but, unfortunately, some group persists in using the outdated meaning. See for example the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which asserts: "It is worth noting that some dictionaries and texts improperly define 'deduction' as reasoning from the general to specific and define 'induction' as reasoning from the specific to the general. These definitions are outdated and inaccurate."

     **Customs can exist in isolation, of course. The logician's use of the word "valid" has long been customary in philosophy/logic, but that custom is unknown to most speakers of the English language. As near a I can tell, the phrase "begging the question" long had its home in the fields of logic (etc.) and rhetoric. At about mid-century, however, persons outside those fields picked up the phrase, misunderstanding its meaning, giving it a new meaning. The new meaning spread like wildfire and is about to choke out the old one entirely. Now, there are very few places where I can say that a speaker or writer has "begged the question" (as logicians understand this) and be understood.

The deductive/inductive distinction
Realism vs. nominalism
The meaning of "argument" (rhetorical, logical)