Thursday, June 30, 2011

“Dick” is a four-letter word (On Vulgarity)

Vulgarity appreciated by the non-vulgar
MSNBC Suspends Halperin Over Obama Slur (New York Times)

vulgar |ˈvəlgər|adjectivedated characteristic of or belonging to the masses.

     OK, so now we hear that reporter Mark Halperin got suspended from his MSNBC job because, during an appearance on a generally jokey and informal morning political talk show, he said that the President, during a recent news conference, acted like “kind of a d*ck.”
     Now, I doubt that the President, a well-tempered gent, acted badly during that press conference. But let’s not get into that. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the President did act badly. Please understand that I want to talk about Halperin—or, rather, about Halperin’s statement—not about the President.
     How did he act badly? Well, let’s say (for argument’s sake) that he was a bit of a jerk. That is, he was “contemptibly obnoxious,” for that is what “jerk” means, according to my Mac dictionary.
     What if Halperin had opined instead that the President acted like “kind of a jerk” at the press conference? I think you’ll agree that, in that case, few would have objected. He might be criticized for (supposedly) opining about the President’s character—that's not his job, they'll say—but not by many and not for long.
     I submit that, in some sense, “jerk” and “d*ck” are synonyms. When I’m talking among friends, I sometimes convey the jerkitude of a person—in an anecdote or whatever—by saying that he’s a “d*ck.” In my mind, I would convey almost exactly the same assessment (or accusation) were I to use the word “jerk” instead.
     “D*ck,” when it isn’t someone’s name or a reference to a detective, is a four-letter word, and “jerk” is not. (You know what I mean.) “D*ck” is, or can be, a profanity.
     But what does that mean?
     Uh-oh, this is liable to be complicated.
* * *
     Obviously, this use of the word “d*ck” is vulgar. Let’s focus on that.
     To say that a word (or person, etc.) is vulgar is to say that it is “lacking sophistication or good taste”; it is “unrefined” (my Mac dictionary).
     Yes, yes. But I have known lots of people, and I’ve known the sophisticated and the unsophisticated. Roughly speaking, in my experience, sophisticates do not observe dictionaries’ “vulgarity” rules. Many of these people—well educated, mild-mannered, usually thoughtful—are happy to spout so-called vulgarities, though, in their mouths, such words do not drag them, or the moment, or the company to some mean or lowly state.
     Sophisticates love “The Sopranos.” That show was loaded with profanities and vulgarities. Bumpkins love stuff like “Walker: Texas Ranger.” Dang.
     My view is that many of us, an apparent minority, recognize the power of much “vulgar” language. And so we are attracted to these words. No one who loves words (as so many writers do) hates “vulgarities” and that is because vulgarities often say so much and sometimes say things better than their refined correlates. They tend to be loaded with lots of nifty “extras.”
     Naturally, some vulgarities say things, or are tied to attitudes, that are intrinsically ugly and wrong. Perhaps some vulgarities are beyond the pale. (Think of the “c” word used against women.) It is possible that there is no way to detoxify some vulgar words or phrases. If we “use” such language, we do so while manifestly adopting a persona. Decent people don’t just use them, unless they're at the end of a twenty-foot pole.
     But it’s one thing to call your girlfriend a “c***.” It’s quite another to describe some jerk as a “d*ck.” I’m here to defend d*ck, not c***.
* * *
     Most of us are multilingual in the sense that we speak differently to different audiences. For instance, the way that one speaks with one’s parents and the way that one speaks with one’s close friends are often very different.
     Such multilingualism is appropriate. I can tell my best friend that Mr. X is “kind of a d*ck,” but generally I can’t use that word to, say, dress down an obnoxious student in class. I can inform my brother that, owing to recent events, “I’m f*cked,” but I can’t make that point in the same way talking to my dean. It just wouldn't do.
     Notice that, despite my making these adjustments, I can manage to be myself and to be open with people. For instance, I might tell my dean that my new circumstances are decidedly unfortunate—communicating the same thing I told my bro, though without the assumption of closeness and deep mutual understanding that prevails when I’m with my bro. I might prefer to convey my point as I do with my brother—for that way conveys more and manages a more severe punctuation—but there’s liable to be trouble if I do that, since my relationship to my dean is (mostly) professional.
* * *
The vulgar prefer vulgarity eschewery
     So what are we to make of Mr. Halperin’s remark?
     Remember, we’re assuming (for the sake of discussion) that the President really did act like “kind of a d*ck.” And suppose that Halperin observed this and was asked by friends what he made of the President’s press conference performance.
     Well, says Halperin, he was “kind of a d*ck.”
     Well, OK. 
     It makes a difference that Halperin was (it seems) among friends. The particular program in which Halperin made his remark tends to bring friends and colleagues together for informal chats about politics. Its charm (I’ve seen it a few times) depends to some extent on chumminess and informality. It generally eschews dead seriousness. 
     So (asks Mr. Host): Halperin, friend-to-friend, what did you really make of the President’s performance yesterday?

     Well, to be honest, he was kind of a d*ck.
     Sure, whatever.
     But there’s more. The hosts of this program seemed to be egging Halperin on. “Go ahead! Tell us what you really think! We can bleep it out!” And so he said it.
     But, for some reason, they didn’t bleep it out. (Somebody should talk to the man with the button. He's a screwup.)
     Given the nature of this program and the nature of this particular conversation (between friends), Halperin’s remark strikes me as utterly unobjectionable.
     —Except that it was broadcast on TV. So, in a sense, the conversation included all those ears out there in the dark, hundreds of thousands of ‘em. Given that circumstance, it really won’t do for this journalist to call the President a “d*ck.” The journalistic community does best when it presents its members to the world as though whether or not the President acted like a jerk just isn’t important. It does best when it presents its members sans vulgarity.
     And here’s journalist Halperin saying that the Prez acted like a d*ck. Oh my.
     Journalistic professionalism is not fostered by presenting absurd fictions—e.g., that journalists do not notice jerkitude when it occurs or that they do not use vulgarities. It is, however, fostered by journalists’ suspension of these things when they present themselves before the world. Halperin, insofar as he was “before the world,” messed up.
     That judgment is understandable, even inevitable. It’s a little dishonest. It reeks of marketing and piety and similarly unseemly pursuits. And yet we understand it. Anybody with half a brain can see that journalists can “be professional” despite noting jerkitude and even calling the President a d*ck. But we don’t want to get into all that. It’s too complicated. Better to insist on certain standards to avoid all this complexity and distinction-making. Keep it simple. Act like this. Wear this mask. (The teaching profession is similar in this regard.)
     So Halperin messed up. Is that a big deal? I don’t see how. Still, everybody now needs to go through the motions of upholding the “standards of objective journalism.” Yes, yes. Halperin will be immediately suspended. MSNBC will issue an apology. Yadda yadda.
     But let’s hope that this Halperin guy is back in the harness after a few days.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

For the sake of our gravest desiderata

     I occasionally write for the Mission Viejo Patch. One of my colleagues on the Patch (the admirable Mr. Shripathi Kamath) recently posted a brief discussion of the “ethics of torture” in which he seemed to argue for the moral necessity of torture under special circumstances. (See The Ethics of Torture, June 10, 2011)
     I joined in the discussion, which was a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly (mostly good though).
     Eventually, I posted the following:

G: There are occasions in which opting for the use of torture (on, say, a captured terrorist) will increase the chances of acquiring information – specifically in cases in which such information possibly would prevent moral disaster (e.g., the detonation of a nuclear bomb in a city)
—then (and I take this to be Shri’s core insight) it is morally odd (and by no means incontrovertably wise) to adopt an absolute prohibition/condemnation against the use of torture, for such prohibition would seem to allow moral disasters—situations even more regrettable (from a moral perspective) than the instance of torture.
     Philosophers have long known that, in contemplating extreme circumstances—as actually arise in, say, the setting of national leadership—paradoxes (I use the term somewhat loosely) emerge. Thus, for instance, Gregory Kavka* once argued that, to bring about the morally best outcome, it may be necessary for some individuals within a society to become morally corrupt—in order to act under special circumstances in a manner in which no decent moral being would act (namely, by retaliating against a nation’s nuclear onslaught with a reciprocating [and pointless] nuclear onslaught, for the sake of effective deterrence).
     A utilitarian (of a classic variety) always acts to bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But it would seem that, in doing so, he or she will be obliged on occasion to violate individuals’ rights (e.g., one will sacrifice a healthy hospital orderly in order to save three patients by employing his healthy organs). But if everyone were a utilitarian, and if that were known, then everyone would live in fear of becoming the next utilitarian sacrifice to “the greatest happiness”—and this would ipso facto lower the level of happiness in society considerably.
     Thus, paradoxically, a utilitarian would not seek that everyone be a utilitarian.
     Many years ago, some philosophers began considering morality and moral principles from two perspectives: from the individual’s perspective and the perspective of a moral being who has the opportunity to decide on the rules and practices that would be adopted by everyone in society. Arguably, one would be in a much better position to maximize happiness (or minimize violence, pain, etc.—or, indeed, to achieve any overarching goal) if one had the latter perspective and could somehow enforce it or cause individuals to act accordingly. (Example of such theorizing: John Rawls’ mid-50s essay, “Two Concepts of Rules.”**)
     It seems clear that no society can flourish in which free and informed members are permitted acts of violence (including torture) as means to their goals, however noble. On the other hand, arguably, a community can together reflect on that general perspective mentioned above and in this way see the wisdom or desirability of permitting torture for cases such as G above.
     In a sense, we already approach some matters in this fashion—or at least some of us individuals do. I would argue that no large society (perhaps there should be no large societies!) can survive (and thus flourish) without a military and a substantial army. Further, no large army could function if it allowed its soldiers to exercise moral autonomy. And in fact, actual armies (certainly ours) operate in a manner that discourages autonomy among individual soldiers. (Unsurprisingly, we are not very honest with ourselves about this.)
     I have generally refrained from applying my usual demand (of persons) that they exercise moral autonomy in the case of soldiers (and other classifications) exactly because of this recognition that, as a matter of practical fact, no military can function if it encourages precisely the sort of character that, normally, we hope to instill in our children.
     So my perspective (here) parallels Kavka’s.
     I am somewhat of a communitarian, and so I (in some sense) hope that my fellow-citizens will be moral and will encourage virtue in their children. I would be pleased by the prospect of a society in which the norm among individuals is moral seriousness and the attending of one’s moral character. In such a society, individuals would be encouraged (presumably by their parents, but perhaps also by “society itself”) to achieve moral autonomy—i.e., the ability and disposition to act with moral seriousness and own responsibility for themselves and their actions. (Please excuse my informal language.)
     But I don’t see how a large army could function (especially during time of war) were that autonomy to be permitted or encouraged for soldiers qua soldiers. And so one confronts a kind of dilemma.
     And, for me, the dilemma is mitigated or alleviated by that higher perspective that sees the necessity of soldier non-autonomy relative to our society’s gravest desiderata. That is, that perspective is in some sense compelling, from a moral perspective. It is as compelling, perhaps, as the need for the condemnation of torture.
     I offer the above with no slight tentativeness.

   *Some Paradoxes of Deterrence (Gregory Kavka, 1978)
   **Two Concepts of Rules (John Rawls, 1955)

Friday, June 10, 2011

The same old irrational exuberance

     This morning, I noticed the above video posted at the Orange Juice Blog. It is a brief and interesting presentation by Internet guru Jim Gilliam entitled, “The Internet is my Religion.”
     Well, I watched it and left the comment below:
     I enjoyed Gilliam’s presentation and will acknowledge that he has quite a story to tell, but I do wonder about the label “humanism” applied to him and, frankly, about his philosophy also. Humanism—yes, a notoriously ambiguous term—is often viewed as a non-theistic (godless) philosophy that embraces the notion of the power of human faculties—especially reason. Gilliam has surely abandoned theism and embraced human capability, but his embrace of reason is questionable, for he does seem to embrace “faith,” or something very like it, and it is faith (one might argue) that makes religion religion more than does embrace of the supernatural. Yes, Gilliam was saved in part by internet activists, but his rescue had more to do with medicine and the phenomenon of individuals choosing to make their organs available to others—both pre-dating the Internet. And so why does he attribute the miracle of his rescue to the Internet and not to these other things, which surely are more fundamental to the event? At a certain point, Gilliam reminds one of the charismatic preacher who, having roused his audience with stories of happy accident, human kindness, and whatnot, commits the usual non sequitur: it’s Jeeeeeesus.
     Gilliam simply replaces Jesus with the Internet. So, what we have here is not humanism but a new, but a typical, religion—a thing with an utter failure of logic at its core.
     (Note: someone with a sounder training in the Humanities would not have made Gilliam's mistake—namely, conceiving and exhorting his godless, human-centered philosophy as a religion—something relying on "faith.")