Communicating

I post here a piece I wrote many years ago and which seems to be even more relevant today as we swim in a sea of gibberish and tweets and the elections are about to begin. I have updated it a bit.

Once upon a time, long ago, after humans had freed themselves from the primeval ooze and struggled to stand upright, they gradually invented language in order to communicate with one another. Initially, it was through pictures and gestures, but eventually they developed an alphabet and put words together. All of this was in order to communicate their ideas and feelings to one another, to make clear what they had in mind.

It was thought for many years that language was the one thing that separated humans from other animal species. But then it was discovered by people like Wolfgang Köhler that chimpanzees could communicate with one another and it was later learned that they could even teach one another the language. Then we learned that other animal species also have communication skills and even something similar to language. This was about the time when humans were losing their own use of language. Coincidence? Probably. But in the event, humans discovered their vocabularies shrinking and their ability to grasp such things as compound sentences slipping away. It was about the time when they started playing with electronic gadgets designed to increase their ability to contact other people and, presumably, to communicate with them. Coincidence? Almost certainly.

But, it turns out, the idea is no longer to use language to communicate with one another. Language is now for self-expression. We use it to tell others how we feel or, at best, to order pizza. We discovered that we don’t need a rich vocabulary or complicated sentences. We can use images and gestures. Just like our ancestors. 😜

The problem is, of course, that language is necessary for thought and as language becomes impoverished so also does our ability to think. This is demonstrated, if we require a demonstration, by the alarming number of people who support Donald Trump. Obviously, these people have lost the ability to think. I haven’t been listening at doorways, but I would wager they can’t speak, either. The problem is that language was initiated in order to make it possible for us to communicate with one another. And this means that a fairly sophisticated vocabulary along with the rules of grammar and usage are also necessary if we are to tell each other what’s on our mind and find out what is going on in theirs. The point was wonderfully made by John Barth in his novel The End of The Road in which the hero, Jake Horner, is dealing with a reluctant student in his basic College English class. The student insists that because language came before grammar we don’t need grammar. After a lengthy Socratic exchange between Jake and the student, Horner concludes as follows:

“. . .if we want our sentences to be intelligible to very many people, we have to go along with the convention [the rules of grammar]. . . You’re free to break the rules, but not if you are after intelligibility. If you do want intelligibility, then [you must master the rules].”

But, it would appear that a great many of us are like the student in this exchange: we don’t want to obey the rules of grammar because ultimately we are not really interested in communicating, in intelligibility. Language is simply a device we employ to express ourselves. Period.

In a word, we as a species regress. And as we regress we are surrounded by a growing number of problems that require careful thought and imagination. This at a time when thought and imagination have become impoverished by “advances” in technology and the growing influence of the entertainment industry whose motto is: take it down to the lowest level in order to attract the largest audience. Educators have followed suit, lowering expectations and providing their students with electronic toys. Coincidence? Perhaps. But a bit unnerving none the less.

Thus we discover around us folks whose attention is directed at the toys in their hands — even when they are next to one another — and who find it difficult, if not impossible, to say what they mean or understand what others say to them,. But since language is no longer about communication, since it is now about self-expression, it really doesn’t matter. As long as others know that I am angry, hungry, or sad, that’s really all that matters. If they don’t understand what I am feeling so much the worse for them. It’s all about me. I don’t need language. 🙂

Purblind

Our enlightened president recently noted that if we had fewer carona virus tests there would be fewer cases. Now we know (he has told us) he is the smartest man on the planet, but this is close to the stupidity he evidenced when he recommended that we drink Clorox.

The notion that if we don’t test there will be fewer cases rests on the absurd assumption that if we don’t see it then it isn’t there. I honestly think this man actually believes this. He is nothing if not sincere.

But this is delusional. There are facts and there are realities and no amount of strong belief can change those things. I cannot fly unassisted and I will not live forever. I don’t want to believe these things, but that doesn’t alter the facts.

I don’t want to join the parade of president-haters. It’s too exhausting and not very productive. Life is too short and attention to what the man is doing on a daily basis is certain to shorten my life which is already approaching its end. But I do believe that as a trained philosopher I have a responsibility to point out that what we want to be the case is rarely, if ever, what is the case. It’s an epistemological truth: facts exist independent of thought. And truth is a correspondence between what we believe and what is the case, independent of us. As much as I want the virus to be over I still realize that it is still killing people and as an old fart with a disease I am smack in the middle of the target demographic (as they say).

This is why I get so worked up when I see the delusional people going about their business as though the virus is over. Business demands that sports return as soon as possible, so the various billionaires who own the professional sports teams fall all over themselves trying to make it happen — as do college presidents. The colleges are even considering going ahead with collegiate football even if there are no students in the stands. Billions of dollars are at stake. There is even talk about holding the motorcycle rallies in Sturgis, South Dakota again this Summer because it is a celebratory year. So thousands of folks from around the country will gather there for a few days of fun and fames and then leave and take away with them hundreds of cases of the virus they can spread back home.

What we have here is a failure to communicate, as Strother Martin once said. There are a great many people out there who simply refuse to believe what they are told — even by experts with no axe to grind. So we open things up and express our surprise that folks are getting sick again. The numbers rise and we ignore the facts because we don’t want to believe them.

I have said it before, many times, and I will say it again. America is living in the Age of Entitlement when children are told they are terrific even when their work simply doesn’t measure up and all are supposed to succeed even though this empties the word of all meaning: when all succeed, none succeed. Thus do we refuse to recognize true excellence when it stands before us. Since they were very young the children of this country have been told they can walk on water by their parents and teachers. They grow up and, being unused to anyone saying “no,” they don’t hear the word — or see the writing on the wall. They cannot walk on water. Sorry about that.

Whether we like it or not, this virus has not gone away. It still sickens and kills and we need to remind ourselves that what we want to be the case may not be the case at all. In a word: for the first time in our lives, we may have to do something don’t want to do.

And we are demonstrating that we can’t handle that message very well. This does not bode well.

 

 

One Story, LOTS Of Good People

A truly uplifting story.

Filosofa's Word

Antonio Gwynn is an 18-year-old high school senior in Buffalo, New York.  Two years ago, Gwynn’s mother died and he was taken in by a friend, Duane Thomas.  On May 29th, Gwynn participated in a peaceful protest against the brutal murder of George Floyd, marching for hours.  Finally, tired, he went home to get some rest and watch videos of some of the nationwide protests.  But, what he saw when he woke the next morning stunned him.

He saw that his hometown’s peaceful streets had turned violent after he left, with a confrontation between protesters and U.S. marshals in front of the federal courthouse, windows smashed at downtown businesses, and protesters reporting that they had been hit by police rubber bullets.

“I was sad to watch all of that. There was a huge mess downtown. I thought, ‘I should go out there and clean it all up.’”

And…

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The Other

I repost here a piece I wrote many years ago but which still seems relevant. At the very least it helps us alter our focus from the pandemic and the protests — not to mention the upcoming election.

The latest item in the stack of daily horror stories that we call “news” is about students harassing and even threatening bus drivers, teachers, and administrators. As a recent Yahoo story tells us,

The most recent school safety report from the National Center for Education Statistics, the data branch of the U.S. Department of Education, found that 5 percent of public schools reported students verbally abused teachers on a daily or weekly basis. Also, 8 percent of secondary school teachers reported being threatened with injury by a student, as did 7 percent of elementary teachers.

And we wonder why our education system is on the ropes! We refuse to pay teachers what they are worth and complain when they want to make enough to live on while at the same time we expect them to raise our children for us. It is clear even from this small sample (and we have no idea how many people refused to respond) that many of our children have no idea what the word “no” means. They suffer from an enlarged sense of “self” fostered by unlimited time in front of the TV and playing video games (which help isolate them and convince them that they are the center of the world) while their parents are off somewhere else trying to make enough money to pay the bills. The parents, accordingly, are being irresponsible by ignoring their children and refusing to teach them such elemental things as “manners.” What they are teaching their children are lessons in irresponsibility: do your own thing and the hell with others. It’s hard to determine which is the “cause” here since there are multiple factors involved.

For some time now as a culture we have rejected the notion of authority as a bad thing — even the authority of expert opinion. Now everyone has an opinion about everything and all are equal. As Ortega y Gasset pointed out some time ago,

“Today the most average man has the most mathematical ‘ideas’ on all that happens or ought to happen in the universe. Hence, he has lost the use of his hearing. . . There is no reason now for listening, but rather for judging, pronouncing, deciding. There is no question concerning public life in which he does not intervene, blind, and deaf as he is, imposing his ‘opinions.’” [Ignoring the fact that some opinions are more reasonable than others is a part of our preoccupation with self.]

We have also rejected notions such as discipline and discrimination, both of which are now regarded as bad things, taboo.  Both are, however, essential to a responsible, intelligible, well-ordered, world. Contrary to popular misconceptions, none of these things causes repressed egos. When properly guided they merely cause a redirection of energy into productive avenues of expression.  However, as long as we continue to read and hear on all sides that the self is the only thing that matters, reject even legitimate authority as bogus, and identify freedom with lack of restraint, simply, we must learn to expect our kids to pick up on the hints. They take their clues from what is going on around them; they are not stupid. Unschooled and self-absorbed like their parents, yes, but stupid, no.

I recall a good friend of mine who was the school superintendent at our local school. The gym was located in the school building near the classrooms; he went out to the gym one day not long ago because a student was shooting baskets and making a racket instead of attending classes; because of this he was disturbing those students who might have wanted to learn something. He told the boy to stop and go back to class. The boy turned to the man (the school superintendent!) and told him to f$%# off — and he continued to dribble the basketball and shoot buckets! My friend didn’t know what to do: he wasn’t strong enough to physically manhandle the young man and the local police weren’t an option if he wanted to avoid a scandal (which he did). If he suspended or expelled the student he would have to deal with the parents who would invariably take the boy’s side (because he is their son and can do no wrong). But he decided to suspend the boy anyway. As expected, he was severely criticized by the boy’s parents and their friends (it’s a small town) and was eventually “let go.”

Anecdotal? Yes. But symptomatic of the larger problem: our kids are learning to be irresponsible because they are surrounded by irresponsible adults. Clearly the parents should have supported the superintendent here. We are in danger of reverting to barbarism where the strongest (and loudest) rule. But “might” does not make “right.” The kids must learn, and we all must recall, that “civilization is above all else the will to live in common,” to quote Ortega once again.  We need others in order to become fully ourselves: we cannot go it alone, no matter how brave or audacious we think we are. But the first step is to acknowledge and above all respect the legitimacy of others’ interests even when they conflict with our own. We seem to be losing that and it is in danger of tearing us apart.

Once More Into the Wind

I repost here a piece I wrote in 2012 to show how much impact such posts have on current affairs (!) and because I do think I stumbled on a few good points — with the help of other seminal thinkers. I have added a few comments to bring the post up to date. 

The revelations highlighted in a Chronicle of Higher Education recently about the “Millennials” and the study that shows them to be much more “me” oriented than previously thought is really not all that surprising. The phrase “the me generation” has been used for some time now, and what this recent study shows is that “generation” should be plural.

Christopher Lasch wrote the definitive book on the subject back in 1979 when he noted that

“.. .the collapse of parental authority reflects the collapse of ‘ancient impulse controls’ and the shift from a society in which the values of self-restraint were ascendant to one in which more and more recognition was given to the values of self-indulgence.” (The Culture of Narcissism)

Increased “self-indulgence” in the absence of a strong parental authority figure, according to Lasch, leads invariably to narcissism. In a word, permissive parents in the 1960s and 1970s were regarded by a prominent social psychologist as the root cause of the narcissism that was becoming prevalent at that time and has grown exponentially since then.

But, if this does not astonish us, we can see the same insight suggested in the pages of a novel written 50 years before Lasch wrote his book. Edith Wharton, in Twilight Sleep  is making fun of Mrs. Pauline Manford the flighty, empty-headed do-gooder who seems to be able to embrace numerous contradictory ideas comfortably at the same time. She is busy at one point in the novel forming a League of Mothers (!)

“against the dreadful practice of telling children they were naughty. Had she ever stopped to think what an abominable thing it was to suggest to a pure innocent child that there was such a thing in the world as Being Naughty? What did it open the door to? Why to the idea of Wickedness, the most awful idea in the whole world. . . how could there be bad children if children were never allowed to know that such a thing as badness existed?”

Now there’s logic at work for you!

Though permissive parenting was a theme soon to be picked up by every pop-psychologist who could find a publisher, it is possible that Wharton may have been poking gentle fun at A.S.Neill’s Summerhill project which had started up in England a few years earlier. Summerhill was a “free school”  which had no requirements whatever and just let the kids hang out until something struck their fancy at which point, presumably, they would start to learn. The assumption was that they would not learn anything unless they were interested in it, which is absurd — though it is certainly easier if the child is interested. That’s the teacher’s job, after all.

Cassandra before a burning Troy.

If Wharton was making fun of the idea, she was joined by such eminent thinkers as Bertrand Russel, among others, who ridiculed Neill’s experiment. But to no avail. The idea caught on in England and gave great impetus to the “child-oriented” progressive movement in the schools in this country as well. It is still very much in evidence in the self-esteem movement which is simply the latest episode in this rather tiresome and ill-conceived “never-say-no” educational “theory.” In fact, the entire movement, combined with an economic system that encourages competition among individuals and the accumulation of as much stuff as possible in the shortest amount of time, leads to generations of students who have turned into adults preoccupied with themselves and their own well-being which they pretty much define in terms of material success.

Thus, much of the fuss over the “Millennials” is misplaced and should really be focused on the tendency toward cultural narcissism that Christopher Lasch identified in 1979 and which began at least as early as 1924 when A.S. Neill started Summerhill. Those of us who worry about the continued survival of Western civilization are almost certainly joining the Cassandras that have spoken up throughout history. The ship has sailed and the wisest course of action might well be to simply wait and see where it ends up. The problem with this laissez-faire attitude, however, is that narcissism leads to excessive violence, as Lasch has shown, and a society made up of expanding numbers of violent people preoccupied with their own material well-being is not likely to care a helluva lot about those around them or the world they share in common with millions of others on the planet.

How does this relate to the behavior of so many around the world who seem oblivious to the fact that they endanger others when they fail to wear a face mask during a pandemic? Need I ask?

One Small Voice

I would like to add my small voice to the din surrounding the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman. As a resident of Minnesota I am especially embarrassed by the actions of one of those pledged to serve and protect in what I regard as our best and largest city. It is beyond reckoning. But it happened. And it happens.

As one who was raised in Baltimore, Maryland throughout my adolescent years, I saw some of the blatant racism that pervades the South. Now for those who don’t regard Maryland as a Southern state because it remained neutral during the Civil War, I would simply point out that the state is below the Mason-Dixon line and is in some ways fiercely Southern. Perhaps it’s precisely because it did remain neutral during the Civil War. Now many in that state seem to be out to prove that they, too, are Southern rednecks.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I do not mean to tar all Southerners with the same brush.(And I certainly don’t mean to imply that racism is peculiar to the South. The recent events in Minneapolis prove otherwise.)  Many Southeners are fine people who are just as upset by the murder of Floyd as am I. But there are those in the South who wear their bigotry proudly on their sleeves — as there are Northerners as well.

I was a student in high school in Baltimore in 1954 when the Supreme Court decided that schools should not be segregated and recall vividly making my way through angry crowds at the end of the school day in order to get the bus back home.

In addition, one of my black classmates in college attended a Catholic Church in Annapolis, Maryland during her first year in college. At the end of the service the priest took her aside and told her that there was another Catholic church on the other side of town “for you folks.” I was astonished and deeply embarrassed on her behalf, but not altogether surprised. I had worked throughout my high school years in a grocery store in Baltimore with two black delivery men who often told me of their anger and pain and I listened in stunned silence. What does one say? I recall one day when one of them looked at me and said “I can take most of the hatred, but when I take my family out for a drive on a Sunday it pains me to see the signs that read ‘No Colored.’ What do I tell my kids?” I had never even noticed the signs before he mentioned it. As I said, Maryland could be as fiercely Southern as Mississippi.

The George Floyd murder has the world in a buzz and one only hopes it isn’t the usual outrage that follows such an event and goes nowhere — like the outrage that followed the shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. We can explain the carnage as an expression of bottled up rage and frustration that has followed this event, but surely we cannot justify it — just as we can explain Hitler’s hatred of the Jews while we can never justify it. Let’s hope the outrage in this case that has expressed itself in the trashing of private property results in positive steps taken to make sure that this sort of thing never happens again. The problem with the carnage, of course, is that many will focus on that and forget what it stems from.

However, it does seem as though the graphic pictures of the policeman with his knee on the throat of the black man handcuffed and pinned to the ground by two other policemen takes the fact of racism in this country to another level: that it makes us realize that the determination of football players such as Colin Kaepernick to protest a few years ago were not out of order, but  a timely reminder that there is hatred and bigotry in this country and that the black population have been the brunt of much of it for many, many years.

What is one to do? That is the burning question of the day and it is heartening to see people around the country talking about steps that can be taken to thwart these sorts of events and help make the world safer for the black population in this country. Black Lives Do Matter. Indeed. What is especially heartening is to see the growing numbers of white folks who are joining with their black brothers and sisters to help see that at least some of the deep-seated racism in the country is brought into the air and dissipated. One can only hope.