Hate Talk

It has always been so: using emotive language to describe those people we detest reduces them to things. Such is the case with people we don’t happen to like — or want to kill in violent confrontations called “war.” Not long ago the Japanese were called “Japs,” and the Germans were called “Krauts.” We devise hateful names to describe those we hate and want to kill in the name of God and all that is good. It seems to work: it reduces human beings, as noted, to things to be dispensed with.

We now find ourselves living in a society in which our feckless leader has labelled his enemies in order to generate hatred of those things or people he has determined are his enemies — and therefore the enemies of us all. Thus are the Democrats now called “the party of crime. . .  too extreme and dangerous to govern” as they are derided as enemies of the Republic for which we stand. And this is only one example of the way this man uses words (often incorrectly) to generate strong emotions in his followers. He loves to hold rallies, as did one of his predecessors who also generated hatred in his followers, in order to feel the glow of admiration and even worship — and convince himself that he is loved and admired. The Germans thought Hitler was the new Messiah; many Americans now think our president is the savior of this country. The parallel is at times quite striking — and alarming.

But, let us take the word “Democrat,” as an example. If we are to save this nation and make “America Great Again,” we need to recall that we have always been a two-party democracy. Granted, there were no formal parties at the outset, but there were those who favored a Republic (like Jefferson) and there were those Federalists who favored a watered-down monarchy (like Hamilton). Folks lined up on either side of what was then a budding two-party system. Eventually those parties took on the names “Republican” and “Democrat.” The former were the remnants of the Federalists preferred by Hamilton and the latter were those who favored a popular government, like Jefferson. In any case, the two parties were seen to be the way the country divided itself and politics became a game of balancing and compromising the differences in order to find a middle ground that all could live with. Compromise was the key word.

The game of politics can become ugly, as we all know. And the rules were frequently rewritten and often even forgotten. But the way it worked was for men and women of differing political views to come together and seek a middle ground. You scratch my back and I will scratch your back. That was then. This is now. Among certain folks in this country at present the word “Democrat,” like the words “socialist,” and “liberal” have become terms of derision, if not of genuine hatred. And the notion that one should compromise with the opposition strikes many as heresy. This is worrisome.

To ague that we are going to make America “Great” again by labelling those who oppose us with hateful names is absurd. To call the Democrats names is insidious and blind to history. And the tendency to point to that party (or any party for that matter) as the cause of all that is wrong is nothing less than an attempt to ignore wrongs that need to be corrected and to point elsewhere for those mistakes we all make. Whether we like them or not, those who disagree with us are the ones we have to live with and while we can agree to disagree we must draw the line at calling them names and dismissing them as enemies of the state, dirt to be swept away. That way lies totalitarianism and it is anathema to everything the Founders hoped would follow from establishing this Republic. Worse yet, it breeds hatred and contempt and when fostered by fear, as we know from the past, it can lead to tragedy on a grand scale.

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Facts (As Opposed to Opinions)

I wrote this in the early years of this blog, but, with a few additional comments added, it seems especially relevant today with “false facts” floating around us. And, Heaven knows, we need a respite from the truly ugly political shenanigans going on.

One of the most popular segments on E.S.P.N.’s popular Sports Center is called “Cold Hard Facts,” and it consists of one or more “experts” sitting down and giving his opinions about upcoming sports events. The confusion here between “facts” and “opinions” is instructive. We seem to have lost sight of a rather important distinction.

While there is nothing we claim to know that should ever be held beyond doubt, there is certainly a basic distinction between an opinion — which can be silly or sensible — and a fact which has the weight of evidence and argument behind it. It is a fact that water freezes at 32 degrees fahrenheit. It is a fact that objects fall toward the center of the earth. The most reliable facts are in the hard sciences and in mathematics (though there is some discussion whether a mathematical formula is a fact or simply a tautology). But even when an expert tells us that the New England Patriots are sure to win the game on Sunday, that is an opinion.

As mentioned, opinions can be silly — as in “there’s a monster in my closet,” or sensible, as in “don’t raise the bet when holding a pair of twos — unless you are a really good bluffer.” And opinions can differ in degree, some being more likely or more probable than others. But they do not cross over into the territory of fact until the weight of argument and evidence is so heavy it cannot be moved. Thus the opinion that smoking causes cancer became fact once the correlation between the two became very nearly inviolable (there are still exceptions). And the opinion that humans are evolved from lower forms of animals became fact when the weight of evidence became so heavy it could no longer be ignored — except by looking the other way.

One of the big controversies in our schools, especially in the South, is whether “intelligent design” is a fact or an opinion, that is, whether or not it should be taught along with the theory of evolution. But as there is no possible way to disprove intelligent design and there are any number of ways one might try to disprove evolution, the latter can be regarded as fact whereas the former cannot.  Intelligent design, the claim that human evolution is guided by a Creator, is a matter of faith. It may have plausibility, but it cannot be proved or, more importantly, disproved. This is where Socratic doubt comes in.

The secret to Socrates’ method was to doubt until we could doubt no longer. At the point where a claim seems to be beyond doubt, we can claim it is true — so far as we know. The key to the Socratic method was questioning and attempting to disprove. That is the key to scientific method as well. Claims become factual to the extent that they can no longer be disproved. If there is no way to disprove a claim, even in principle, it cannot ever rise to the status of fact. The Freudian position is usually denied the status of fact precisely because it cannot be proved — or disproved, even in principle. Still, it functions as an explanation of many of our human foibles and can be regarded as plausible.

We can talk until we are blue in the face about who was the best basketball player ever, or whether the souls of evil persons will suffer eternal punishment, but since no claim we make could ever be proved false, we never get beyond the realm of personal opinion. The claim that the polar ice caps are melting is a fact. The claim that humans are part of the cause of global warming is an opinion, though it is probable. And in this case, it would be wise to treat it as fact because even if it turns out to be false, it hasn’t cost us a great deal to seek ways to reverse the trend. And if it turns out to be true, we will have taken steps to solve a serious problem facing our earth.

Distinctions help to clarify our thinking. When they are glossed over, it leads to confusion. That is my opinion, but it seems plausible. That is the most I can say until further review.

Good People Doing Good Things — Betty Kwan Chinn

A good woman going good things to help others.

Filosofa's Word

You are going to fall in love with today’s ‘good person’ …gateway-to-life.pngHer name is Betty Chinn, and as you may have already guessed, she is originally from China.  I’ll let her tell you about the days of her childhood …

Betty-Chinn“I was born in a very good family. I’m one of 12 kids. And then in the 1960s, they had the Cultural Revolution. My mom was a US citizen and a Western educator. My mom believed in God, religion. Because my parents had religion and education, my family was a target for the government.

I was separated from my family and I lived on the street by myself. I had to wear a sign on my neck that said, ‘I’m a child of the devil.’ I had nothing to eat, hungry all the time. Every time when I asked for food, I was beaten up by people. Torture, separation…

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P.C.

I have been re-reading Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the “Narcissus” and was put in mind of the terrible constraint the P.C. movement has placed upon those who would teach the young and how so many of us are becoming word-impaired as a result of the claim that certain words must never be used because they might hurt someone’s feelings. To be sure, we must be careful about hurting one another, but when all are victims, as seems to be the case at present, none are victims. In any event, the constraint that has been placed on ordinary discourse seems to me to be a step in the direction of shrinking minds that are already tending toward empty. In that spirit, I reprint here a post I wrote several years ago about this movement and the threats it is to open discussion of important issues, not to say the reading of classical literature. [This post, among many others, is collected and collated in my non-selling book Alone In The Labyrinth which is available for a nominal fee from the publisher, Ellis Press or from Amazon. (wink, wink, nudge, nudge.)]

Philosophers are fond of making distinctions. For example, I am careful to point out the difference between “need” and “want” in explaining that many of the things we insist we need are simply things we want. Such distinctions can go a long way toward clarifying our thinking and helping us to see our way through a tangle of words, show the fly the way out of the milk bottle in Wittgenstein’s delightful image. Many years ago Bertrand Russell wrote an essay in which he made a distinction between “use” and “mention.” He noted the vast difference between using a word, say an offensive word, and simply mentioning that same word. Thus if I say “Judy is fat” I am using a word that many people find offensive, especially Judy. If I say “Fred said that Judy is fat” I am merely mentioning the offensive term and the difference is important and fundamental. But we have lost sight of this distinction, especially in academia where political correctness demands that we neither use nor mention offensive terms — words that might possibly be found offensive to someone else.

Some years ago I wrote an article for a professional journal in which I defended Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness against the libel of the novelist and critic Chinua Achebe who insisted that people avoid Conrad’s novella altogether because it and its author are both “racist.”  He made that claim on the grounds that in the novella Conrad plays fast and loose with the word “nigger,” which is almost certainly one of the most offensive terms in our language. My defense was based on the point that when a novelist like Conrad used the term he put it in the mouth of a seaman at the turn of the last century who would most assuredly use the term without giving it a second thought. The novel is not “racist” because Conrad is simply telling a story in which the term is used by his narrator. Conrad himself is simply mentioning that fact. Again, the distinction Russell made is key here. Conrad is not a racist, nor is his novella. His narrator may have been, but the charge cannot be laid at the feet of the novelist.

But, as I have said, this distinction is lost on those who would protect victims from words they might find offensive. And while I respect the motivation that has led us to this point — to protect sensitive people and avoid hurting their feelings — it is clear that the situation has become extreme and is now putting a cramp on communication at so many levels. In addition, of course, everyone now claims to be a victim. It is especially problematic in our colleges and universities where this sensitivity to others’ feelings has become excessive.  As a result, according to a recent (9/15/17) essay in The Atlantic, “the new political correctness is ruining education.” In addition to ignoring the distinction between use and mention and insisting that any and all uses (or mentions) of certain words must desist (or else!), officials and students themselves in a great many institutions of higher education also wave the red flag at what are called “trigger warnings.”

“For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism and domestic violence can choose to avoid those works which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.”

Now, clearly the motivation of those who call for this sort of avoidance cannot be called into question. But this concern is clearly out of control. Those who would teach are denied the opportunity to free young minds and open them up to the world around them which, unfortunately, is a source of a great deal of discomfort. Clearly, the use of  offensive language is different from the mention of those words that might possibly offend. We need to recall that distinction and move past this sort of censorship, remaining sensitive to others’ feelings, but not so concerned that we cannot say or write what needs to be said and written. However, the Atlantic article notes that concern over political correctness and trigger warnings has created a bleak atmosphere on college campuses across the nation.

“The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than [concern over political correctness], it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into ‘safe places’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make them uncomfortable. And more than [P.C.], this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness.”

And this despite the fact that making young adults “uncomfortable” is precisely what they need in order to become educated persons. As Jerry Seinfeld has noted in refusing to perform on college campuses because of the atmosphere of “vindictive protectiveness,” we need to keep our sense of humor. And we also need to keep our sense of balance before we fall off the edge of an increasingly small platform of politically correct terms that doesn’t allow us to say what needs to be said or read what needs to be read in order to provide students with the education they so desperately require in an increasingly confusing world.

 

Balance Of Power

In the early years of the eighteenth century, Baron De Montesquieu wrote his famous The Spirit of the Laws in which he noted:

“. . .there is no liberty, if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and the executive. Were it joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subjects would be subjected to arbitrary control; for the judge would then be legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with violence and oppression.”

This principle, the separation of power, was the cornerstone on which this nation was founded. The founding fathers had read Montesquieu and took what he said to heart as they knew first-hand of which he spoke. Our lessons are just beginning.

Atlantis will be a reality

Well worth pondering.

musingsofanoldfart

Back in the early 1970s, an interesting and different song by Donovan called “Atlantis” hit the airwaves. It spoke of the destroyed world consumed by the sea. As sea level rises, the city of Miami will become a future Atlantis.

Earlier this week, a PBS Newshour piece called “Will climate change turn Miami into a future Atlantis?”, Henry Briceno, a research scientist from Florida International University, used the phrase to define his city, “we are doomed.” Sadly, this is the second scientist I have heard define Miami’s future demise.

Hurricanes have caused Miami planners to build for strong winds. Yet, they have not paid enough attention to the encroaching seas. Miami is built on porous limestone, so sea water can more easily come in. Sunny day flooding has occurred more frequently and pumps and pipes attempt to take the water back out to the bay. It is even worse during…

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Words

    “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
    “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

It’s interesting, to say the least, how folks bandy words about, making them mean what they want them to mean — not unlike Humpty Dumpty who pays them extra when they work overtime.

Take the word conservative, for example, which ought to include such things as environmentalists who are regarded by many so-called conservatives as liberal “tree-huggers.” Environmentalists are dedicated to conserving our world. But those conservative critics are really dollar conservatives who care only about the bottom line, the profits that are frequently the result of attacks on the environment. There are also intellectual conservatives who are dedicated to preserving those ideas that have helped to create a better world. I number myself among such types. And then there are those liberals usually identified as democrats who advocate human freedom and number among themselves the bleeding heart liberals who react in a programmed manner to all types of human pain and misery — real and supposed. They leave their minds on the shelf and lead with their gut. Endorsing political correctness, they also head the attack against the Canon in the universities and all books written by “dead, white European males.” The pain and misery resulting from this attack, in the form of uninformed and confused students with shrunken minds, is ignored in the name of “social justice” — which can be loosely translated as “what I want to be the case.”

Oddly, it is quite possible for someone to embrace a number of these positions simultaneously and without inconsistency. One can be, for example, a democratic socialist who seeks greater social equality through democratic means.

Socialism, according to Karl Marx, is the economic system that arises upon the death of capitalism, an economic system that feeds on the rotting carcasses of exploited workers — speaking of human pain and misery. Karl Marx was convinced that the state would commandeer the means of production and socialism would result. But eventually the workers would themselves own the means of production and all would share equally — an economic system, called Communism.  Many an intellectual in the early part of the last century embraced the ideals of Communism until, like George Orwell, they discovered that so many of those who said they were promoting Communism were actually fostering totalitarianism and were responsible for the death of millions of their fellow humans — all in the name of “equality,” and “justice.” It is worthy of note that Communism, as embraced by Marx, resembles in important ways the Christianity preached in the Gospels.

And speaking of Christians, there are those who claim to be Christians and who are quite happy with their own prejudices and even preach hatred against all of those they regard as different from themselves. These should be called nominal Christians, as they are Christian in name only. The real Christians, who are rare, are those who do the right thing because it is the right thing and try hard to love their fellow humans, as was preached by the original (and some might say the only) true Christian. There are some who seek to do the right thing, as our beloved blogger Jill Dennison tells us each week, pointing out those who truly deserve our respect and admiration. And, I dare say, many of those people are not even nominal Christians! So it goes.

In any event, words do have relatively fixed meanings, as our dictionaries attest. But, in the spirit of Humpty Dumpty, many of us think that meaning, like truth itself, is something we make up and which dances to the tunes we play. This leads us, as we are becoming increasingly aware, toward a relativism of the meanest sort, a relativism in which hate comes to mean the same thing as love and truth is a fabrication of those in power whose private agenda centers around themselves and their ugly urges toward more and more power. It pays us to beware and to tread carefully, to make sure we know whereof we speak and insist that those claims that we are told are true have the force of evidence and argument to support them. And we should make sure folks say what they mean even though they seldom seem to mean what they say. Otherwise our minds will become prisoners of those who delight in making others a means toward their own ends.

 

Intelligence

IN 2008 Northwestern University Press published a collection of essays by Lionel Trilling edited by Leon Wieseltier under the title The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent. Wieseltier chose the title because one of Trilling’s teachers, John Erskine, had once published an essay by that title. The problem I have with this title is that it makes no sense whatever and given that Trilling was a brilliant man he would have known this. The collection is in some way an insult to the man Wieseltier hoped to praise. There is no question he held Trilling in very high regard, but he should have given the title of the book more thought.

The title makes no sense because we cannot have an obligation to be intelligent. We either are or we are not intelligent. As Immanuel Kant argued many hears ago, “ought implies can.” We cannot choose to be intelligent, though we can choose to be as intelligent as possible. Thus the title “The Moral Obligation To Be As Intelligent As Possible” would have made sense. But it is a bit cumbersome and was doubtless rejected on those grounds. Again, we can try to be intelligent. Indeed, according to much of the collective wisdom of the Western tradition, we have a moral obligation to develop our potential, including our mental capacity, and not to waste it.

Our president and his minions have set the benchmark for intelligence at a very low level. In addition, the electronic toys the kids are addicted to have been shown to diminish intelligence. Popular culture and the entertainment industry have replaced “high culture” and civil discourse. And our schools don’t see intelligence as having any real value. But then intelligence in this country has never been regarded as an especially good thing, a thing to be sought after as desirable in its own right. Ours is a nation of practical folks who have always been suspicious of those who exhibit intelligence, those “eggheads” so derided not long ago. The notion that we should pursue knowledge for its own sake and not simply because it may someday translate into greater profits for ourselves and the companies we might happen to work for is anathema in this culture. And, to a lesser extent, it always has been, despite the fact that the founders of this nation were a remarkably intelligent group of men, as were the two presidents we revere most highly — namely, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. But, then, consistency has never been our strong forte.

Moreover, it makes no sense to say that we have a moral obligation to do something we cannot do. I cannot tell you, for example, that you really should leap off the highest building in town and fly — where “should” reflects the moral obligation to do just that. This makes no sense whatever. Thus, if intelligence is something we are either born with or not, then it makes no sense whatever to tell someone that they really should be intelligent. Even the phrase reflects the nonsense at the heart of the demand. But the notion that we should all, in this day and age, try as hard as we can to become as intelligent as possible makes perfectly good sense — despite the current cultural pressures to be as stupid as possible. Wasting our time and our minds on electronic toys, social media, violent movies, and listening to mindless people shouting at one another on television is not designed to make us smarter. It is tantamount to wasting our talents, our potential as human beings, our potential as a specific human being with specific abilities and talents.

We pay lip service to this idea when we note that “the mind is a terrible thing to waste” (or as Dan Quayle said in this regard, “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind. . .”  Quayle knew whereof he spoke.) And our sitting president who spends his time tweeting inanities and taking mulligans on the golf course at the expense of the American taxpayer is certainly not my choice to be captain of the intelligence corps. But he is revered by countless Americans who see him as the Great White Hope, a man of extraordinary intelligence (as he insists he is) who will lead us to a brighter tomorrow. Probably not. Certainly not if we continue to waste our minds on trivia and toys and ignore the obligation to try to be as intelligent as possible and to elect politicians in the future who exhibit at least a modicum of intelligence.

Good People Doing Good Things — The Teacher & The Bridgebuilder

More good people doing good things in a world gone a bit mad at present.

Filosofa's Word

Today I have not one, but two ‘good people’ for you, and … a surprise ending!  If these two people don’t bring a smile to your face and a song to your heart, then I don’t know what will.  Gronda … grab your box of tissues. For today’s story, we travel to Kenya on the African continent …


The teacher …

Can you imagine being engaged at the tender young age of five, being expected to leave school to marry, bear children and become a homemaker in your early teens?  That is exactly what was expected of Kakenya Ntaiya, who spent her childhood in the small Maasai village of Enoosaen in Western Kenya. She was the oldest of eight children, working hard alongside men tending the fields and helping her mother haul water and care for her siblings. The family was very poor, but young Kakenya would dream of a…

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Home Sweet Home

In a short story about the fictional Prince Roman, Joseph Conrad provides us with the following description of the hero’s attempts to “move on” from the premature death of his beloved wife:

“What were men to him with their sorrows, joys, labors, and passions from which she who had been all to him had been cut off so early?

“They did not exist; and he would have felt completely lonely and abandoned as a man in the toils of a cruel nightmare if it had not been for the countryside where he had been born and spent his happy boyish years. He knew it well — every slight rise crowned with trees amongst the plowed fields, every dell concealing a village. The dammed streams made a chain of lakes set in the green meadows. Far away to the north the great Lithuanian forest faced the sun, no higher than a hedge and to the south, the way to the plains, the vast brown spaces of the earth touched the blue sky.

“And this familiar landscape associated with the days without thought and without sorrow, this land the charm of which he felt even without looking at it soothed the pain, like the presence of an old friend who sits silent and disregarded in some dark hour of life.”

There are a number of things about this passage that are worth reflecting upon. To begin with it is pure poetry written by a man working in his third language, a man who had spent the majority of this adult life at sea. But it also speaks about the lost sense of connection with the earth that so many of us experience without realizing it, a connection with the earth-mother, as Jung would have it, She from whom we all came and to whom we will all return. A spirit and a place we seem determined to destroy in our blind pursuit of profit.

But, more than this, perhaps, is the lost sense of home that so many of us seem to be experiencing, we who are in a tizzy to go somewhere else, to turn our backs on the familiar. I do wonder sometimes if we as a culture that is in such rapid motion might have lost something precious in disconnecting with the earth and having no place to call home — no place, really. No place like Prince Roman’s at any rate.

In my own case, if you will allow, I was born in Charlottesville, Virginia and had moved more than a half-dozen times before I was sixteen years of age — “uprooted” as we say (and note the term). It seemed to me we were always packing and going somewhere else. As a Freshman in high school I was enrolled in three different schools. And I transferred as a Sophomore to a fourth. Even after high school I moved more than eight times until reaching a place in a small town that I can honestly call “home.” And, significantly, here in this small town I am surrounded by many families that go back several generations. And while my case may be a bit extreme, I dare say it is not uncommon in what students of culture have characterized as a “mobile” society. As a people we seem always to be in a hurry, on the move, going somewhere where we are not, where the grass is greener, we hope. It must, certainly, contribute to the general malaise we all feel. I do wonder.

In reading Conrad’s story I have the sense that there is a piece missing in the puzzle we call “life.” A piece that we might all benefit from finding again — if we can. An “old friend” who sits beside us in “some dark hour of life.”