Notes and Comment Blog


Judy, Judy, Judy

Jul 6th, 2004 8:17 pm | By

Here we go again. What is it about Judith Butler that makes people come over all delusional? That causes them 1) to exaggerate her fame and celebrity and stardom and name-recognition in an utterly grotesque manner and 2) causes them to overestimate her real as opposed to apparent or fame-related importance, interest, originality, ‘insight’, profundity, originality, and brilliance?

Well, I suppose one answer is, shall we say, a certain lack of nous. At least on the evidence of this article in Salon that seems to be one answer. [Note: you have to click through a brief advert to read article.] For instance there is the sentence ‘Butler even made headlines in the New York Times when she won an award for “Bad Writing” — writing that was too theoretically obtuse, a trademark of postmodern critique.’ Oh dear. That freshman Comp mistake of conflating ‘obscure’ and ‘abstruse’ and thus saying ‘obtuse’ when it’s not at all what one means. That’s embarrassing (doesn’t Salon have editors?), especially coming from someone who is in such a frenzy of excitement over Butler and her way with language. Of course it’s also pretty funny. Yes, a trademark of ‘postmodern critique’ is indeed that it is way too ‘theoretically obtuse’ but I bet you didn’t mean to admit it!

And there’s also the fact that Nussbaum’s famous takedown of Butler was not in the Atlantic Monthly. (Were all the editors in the Hamptons that week, or what?) So, who knows, maybe the answer to the question in this case is just that that’s what one does for a sloppy puff piece. But all the same, the level of coercive flattery is remarkably high.

These were the Culture Wars, and fighting on the front lines were tenured humanities professors from America’s elite universities, proponents of what has come to be known simply as Theory. Armed with the insights of postmodern philosophy, they shocked and awed through their intellectual acrobatics…

Hmm. Wars, fighting, front lines, armed with – yeah, right. Muy macho. And insights, intellectual acrobatics that shocked and awed. In your dreams. And that sly bit about ‘what has come to be known simply as Theory’ – no it hasn’t ‘come to be known’ as that, the ‘Theorists’ themselves have done their best to force the rest of the world to think of what they do as ‘simply’ ‘Theory’, by calling it that three times in every sentence. And yet still, the only people who think that what English and comp lit teachers do is ‘Theory’ are – wait for it – English and comp lit teachers. And the writers of articles like this one.

…author of the now classic Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, one of the defining works of queer theory…academia’s equivalent of a platinum album…her seminal work…provocative political essays…immense success…there was even a fanzine, Judy!, printed in her honor…fellow academics, who may or may not have envied her popularity…

And then we move directly to mention of the Nussbaum article. You know, I really, really doubt that Nussbaum has the faintest shred of envy of Butler’s putative popularity. I really strongly doubt that Nussbaum would prefer to have written the books Butler wrote rather than the ones she herself wrote. I know I wouldn’t. I know if I could wave a magic wand and have written either, say, The Fragility of Goodness or Sex and Social Justice, or Butler’s Collected Works, I would not choose the latter. No verily, not even if I could be a ‘superstar’ by doing so, nor would I bother envying Butler her supposed stardom, any more than I envy Britney Spears hers.

That sounds like just mockery but it isn’t; there’s a real point behind it. There’s something badly wrong with the kind of thinking that mixes up fame with quality – that gets in such a fever of excitement over Butler’s superstardom and popularity that it becomes quite unable to see that her actual books are not particularly good. In fact it’s just another version of the kind of thing we were looking at the other day: of groupthink and social pressure, coercion and majority opinion-mongering. (It’s especially ironic since another basic idea of the article is that ‘Theory’ and its epigones are Outsiders, radicals, embattled martyrs of thought, nonconformists.) It’s such a basic point – popular is not the same thing as good, majority opinion is not the same thing as truth. And the attempt to admire people for being hugely popular and radically nonconformist at the same time is something of a mug’s game, frankly.



The Fahrenheit 9/11 Files

Jul 6th, 2004 2:30 am | By

And now to be serious again. Or maybe not so much serious as slightly less egomaniacal. The discussion of Michael Moore’s new movie rages on. Or not really rages, perhaps, but several people are talking about it. Todd Gitlin, for example, who has some reservations –

But now a pause for a moment of conscience. Let intellect have its due. Moore cuts plenty of corners, so how good can that be? Compelling? Useful? Moore specializes in hodgepodge. He jokes his way past the rough edges. He’s neither journalist nor documentarian, for he doesn’t set out to discover what he doesn’t already know. To patronize Michael Moore by calling him useful is to give him a pass for shoddy work, sloppy insinuations, emotional blackmail and all–around demagoguery.

I haven’t seen ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ so I can’t comment on that in particular – well I can, of course, and I’ve been known to comment noisily on movies I haven’t seen, but I won’t right now, is what I mean. I haven’t seen ‘Bowling for Columbine’ either. But I watched ‘TV Nation’ when it was on, and I’ve seen the earlier movies – so I certainly do know what Gitlin means. But I also know what Gitlin means later on in the article:

So give Moore a cheer for this…because, in the thick of a rolling political emergency, he’s packing in blue–state crowds and blue–niche–of–red–state crowds and who–knows–what–color–in–purple–state crowds. Fahrenheit 9/11 opened as the highest–grossing nonfiction (some would quarrel with the label, but never mind) film of all time. Its average box office take per theatre beat out – good God – Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.

Yep. I’m in two minds, I suppose, because I think nonfiction movies ought to be actually nonfiction movies, but on the other hand – the left is so pathetic and hapless and ignored over here, it is very difficult not to rejoice that his movie is packing them in and his books are best-sellers. Very difficult indeed, so difficult that I don’t even try.

The issue is also being discussed at Crooked Timber and Normblog and Crooked Timber again.



Big Al

Jul 3rd, 2004 1:07 am | By

That article of Steven Waldman’s has sent me to dear old Alexis de Tocqueville, the darling percipient frog that he is. Because Waldman’s whole schtick in that article is just exactly the kind of thing Tocqueville, and, inspired by him, John Stuart Mill, had in mind. The old majority opinion trick – the old ‘We all think this so you’d better think it too or else, and never mind whether it’s true or not just shut up and think what you’re told.’ I actually don’t think Waldman is really talking about Kerry there, I think that’s just a pretext – a disguise, a mask, a beard for what he really wants to say, which is that Most Americans believe in God and so all of them ought to and they should be subject to non-stop social pressure and accusations of elitism, coastalism, intelligentsia-wannabeism, and any other kind of thought-crime we can think of if they refuse. (Waldman for instance is toying with the idea that people who refuse to believe are racists, because a lot of African-Americans are believers. He doesn’t actually say as much, but the implication is there, like a faint but bad smell.)

So here is some wisdom from Democracy in America, Volume I chapter 15.

The authority of a king is physical and controls the actions of men without subduing their will. But the majority possesses a power that is physical and moral at the same time, which acts upon the will as much as upon the actions and represses not only all contest, but all controversy…
In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them. Not that he is in danger of an auto-da-fe, but he is exposed to continued obloquy and persecution…He yields at length, overcome by the daily effort which he has to make, and subsides into silence, as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth…
Monarchs had, so to speak, materialized oppression; the democratic republics of the present day have rendered it as entirely an affair of the mind as the will which it is intended to coerce.

1835, this was published. Isn’t it interesting how consistent we are.

Absolute monarchies had dishonored despotism; let us beware lest democratic republics should reinstate it and render it less odious and degrading in the eyes of the many by making it still more onerous to the few…
…there can be no literary genius without freedom of opinion, and freedom of opinion does not exist in America. The Inquisition has never been able to prevent a vast number of anti-religious books from circulating in Spain. The empire of the majority succeeds much better in the United States, since it actually removes any wish to publish them. Unbelievers are to be met with in America, but there is no public organ of infidelity.

Unbelievers are to be met with, that’s still true. But do they fill the newspapers and airwaves? Not on the planet I live on, they don’t. Some of our commenters seem to have found a different planet – and I hope they’re right and I’m wrong. I hope any day now the mass media will fill up with articles and comments urging Kerry to honor the separation of church and state. But, once again, I’m going to avoid breath-holding.



Proud to be Abnormal

Jul 1st, 2004 9:10 pm | By

We’ve seen some stupid stuff in the You-Have-to-Believe-in-God department, but this pile of steaming nonsense in Slate is really – well, hard to believe. Get this part, for example:

But in general, most Republicans and most Democrats are pretty religious. The stark differences are at the extremes of each party, and, as so often is the case, the big question is whether the extremes will define the party as a whole. Most Republicans aren’t conservative fundamentalists, although it sometimes seems that way given the proclivities of the leadership. And the Democrats have their own version of that same dilemma, and it’s affecting the most important arena there is-this year’s presidential race: Will Kerry’s Democrats act like the Party of Secularists even if they aren’t?

See? Catch the sly move there? Define secularism as ‘extreme’ – and bob’s your uncle, the job is half done. This is a very, very popular move in US public rhetoric, of course: invent two ‘extremes’ by deciding in the echoing vaults of your own mind that This is the Polar Opposite of That and that therefore the truth of the matter lies between the two. But of course that’s a ridiculous approach for a lot of reasons – reasons having to do with the arbitrariness and artificiality of the categories, just for one thing. But even more, that idiotic formula ignores the need to examine the issue on the merits – on the truth, and on political questions about secular versus religious government.

Of course, that’s not what the author wants to do with this article. He wants to coerce everyone to avoid ‘extreme’ secularism and head for the safe middle with everyone else. Moral blackmail, is what that kind of thing is. David Brooks went in for the same kind of moral blackmail the other day, and Steven Waldman quotes the very line that I quoted in the News link: ‘New York Times columnist David Brooks (who’s still my favorite conservative)) nailed it precisely when he said of his fellow countrymen, “Their President doesn’t have to be a saint, but he does have to be a pilgrim. He does have to be engaged, as they are, in a personal voyage toward God.”‘ But Waldman, of course, quotes it approvingly, whereas I quoted it with disgust. He has to be engaged, as they are, in a personal voyage toward a figment of their imaginations. Oh does he. Notice he’s not required to be engaged in a personal voyage toward Zeus, or Athena, or Ganesh, or Ra, or Ashtaroth – and that in fact if he were, that would not go down very well. Nor is he supposed to be on a trip toward Spock, or Hogwarts, or Julien Sorel, or Hamlet. No, there’s just one literary character that we’re supposed to pretend is not a literary character but Really Real and kindly looking after us in spite of all the evidence that nobody at all is looking after us in any way.

But then the article gets even worse.

First, if Kerry’s uncomfortable with religion then he’s uncomfortable with Americans. Media managers love having him photographed riding a motorcycle because it shows he can connect with regular folks, who apparently all ride motorcycles, too. If Kerry’s really secular, he’s abnormal.

Abnormal? Abnormal?? Is that really what he meant to say? Couldn’t he have chosen a slightly better word or phrase? You know – not like the majority, that sort of thing. Non-conformist, non-majoritarian, different. But abnormal? But. Perhaps it’s useful to know what they think of us.

Second, the fact that people view Bush as a man of faith is very much connected to their viewing him as decisive and steadfast, two of his strongest assets. A man of faith is a man of conviction, and vice versa. So, Kerry’s unwillingness to talk about his faith feeds into one of his great weaknesses, his reputation as a waffler.

Well, see, I would put that quite differently. I don’t admire Bush’s decisiveness and steadfastness, because it’s notorious that he’s unreflective and uninformed – that he prides himself on making snap decisions and then refusing to budge. Well guess what – that’s not always the best way to do things, especially not for someone who’s ignorant and unthinking to begin with. Viewed that way, Bush’s ‘faith’ probably gives him far too much confidence in his own judgment. He thinks God is helping him. Yes, but what if he’s wrong about that? Then that conviction is not such a great idea, is it.

Finally, he needs to talk about his faith because it would strengthen him on the most important issue of the campaign—terrorism…when the country is at war, people appropriately look for signs that the president has real strength. Americans believe that one of the most important sources of inner strength is faith.

One, no they don’t, because I’m an American and I don’t. Speak for yourself, pal. Even if 95% of Murkans agree with you, you still don’t get to speak for all of us. And two – inner strength is another one of those dual-edged swords, isn’t it. We can all think of some other people who got a lot of inner strength from their ‘faith’ too, can’t we. Enough inner strength to go to flight school, and buy plane tickets, and get through security with their box cutters, and – you know. No thanks. I prefer the kind of ‘inner strength’ (whatever that really means, in fact) that’s based on open eyes and rational thought.



Certainty

Jul 1st, 2004 12:07 am | By

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Bush administration is not entirely popular with scientists. The Independent tells us that more than four thousand of them have signed a petition by the Union of Concerned Scientists demanding an improvement.

“Successful application of science has played a large part in the policies that have made the United States the world’s most powerful nation, and its citizens increasingly prosperous and healthy,” the report says. “Although scientific input to the government is rarely the only factor in public policy decisions, this input should always be weighed from an objective and impartial perspective to avoid perilous consequences. Indeed, this principle has long been adhered to by presidents and administrations of both parties in forming and implementing policies. The administration of George Bush has, however, disregarded this principle.”

A good point, but of course the Bushies aren’t going to care. They care about other things, and petitions from however many scientists don’t seem like the kind of thing that will change their minds. A loud voice from the clouds might, but probably nothing short of that.

What has transpired, Lewis Lapam noted recently in Harper’s Magazine, which he edits, has been “the systematic substitution of ideological certainty for reasonable doubt across the entire spectrum of issues bearing on the public health and welfare… [a] rejection of the scientific method in favour of the conviction that if the science doesn’t prove what it’s been told to prove, then the science has been tampered with by Satan or the Democratic Party”.

Just so. And it’s not (obviously) only the trendy academic left that goes in for that kind of thing, even though it’s the trendy academic left we’ve mostly chosen to pick on. (Because they’re funnier, that’s why. Next question.) That’s a very good point that Lapham makes (the Indy seems to have spelled his name wrong). Woolly people like to accuse science of too much certainty (along with scientism), but it’s ideologues (and, often, woolly people) who really go in for certainty, who take belief to be something like parental or romantic love, something you’re supposed to commit to unconditionally and never under any circumstances change your mind about. Individual scientists of course can make that mistake, but science as a discipline quickly slaps them upside the head and makes them stop. Ideology smiles sweetly and says ‘Well done.’



Piling On

Jun 25th, 2004 8:39 pm | By

Poor old Theory. It’s getting attacked from all directions these days. (Hurrah! Oh that’s not kind. But hurrah!) We read Dawkins on the subject a couple of days ago, and yesterday saw that Theorists were almost absent from Prospect’s List of Top Intellectuals, and now here’s the Australian and the New Statesman joining in. (Hurrah!) Poor Theory, how sad. (Good for us though. Perfect timing for dear Dictionary of Fashionable Bollocks, eh.)

Both articles are really quite scathing. (Hurrah! Now stop that at once or I’ll take the keyboard away and send you outside to play.) Really quite unmealymouthed.

Drat. Between the time I linked to the NS article in News, and now, the NS has (I guess) stuck the article in its paid section. At least, I could read it an hour or two ago and can’t now. So won’t be quoting from that one then! You’ll have to take my word for it (unless you’re a subscriber of course) – it was not bland or ‘respectful’. Neither was Luke Slattery in the Australian:

This sounds, I admit, like a specialist subject. But nothing could be of more universal interest than knowledge, learning and education…The disturbing thing is that once theory poured into the academy, it set like concrete. By the mid-’90s it had become a suffocating orthodoxy. A professor confided in me around that time that theory had become the desiderata of all new work in the humanities – it was the only way of being intellectual. In this period I began challenging theory in print, and then parrying the many histrionic responses from academics who seemed to think theory was above criticism (certainly from a journalist). In hindsight it was not theory that I found so alarming (a few weeks ago I found myself re-reading Barthes); it was the servility of its academic acolytes, the herd mentality of entire branches of learning, and the fragility of intellectual pluralism.

Yup. Some Theory is quite good, if one can manage to read it at a distance from the baa-ing of the sheep. Some of it, on the other hand, isn’t. But, poor thing, it seems almost cruel to say so now.

And speaking of the Dictionary (yes we were, right when you dozed off) – I got a copy yesterday. Of the bound proofs. It looks – well I just can’t tell you. Elegant, gorgeous, stunning. And you can leaf through it. Just imagine. You can flick through the pages, if you see a cross-reference you can go right to it. It’s so easy. Really, seriously, it is a beautiful typeface and layout. You’ll like it.



Where are the Rock Stars?

Jun 24th, 2004 9:16 pm | By

Lists are always good fun. Top ten this, favourite fifty that, best one hundred the other. A few years ago when a US publisher issued a list of the best 100 English-language novels of the past century, there was quite a frenzy of discussion and disagreement. We all had quite a good time shrieking at one another ‘Tobacco Road?!? Are they kidding??’ Then a few weeks or months later there was a piece in the NY Times Book Review (I think) by A S Byatt (one of the judges) who pointed out how limited the pool of books was they had to choose from, and how further limited their choices were by the rules of the judging. The upshot was that they were forced to pick books that more of the judges had read as opposed to ones the judges thought were actually good. So yes, they were kidding. The Siege of Krishnapur (say) was not chosen because not enough of the panel had read it, and various mediocrities or worse were chosen because a lot of the panelists had read it. So the criterion was (it turned out) not actually best at all, but simply ‘read by the most members of this particular set of people, regardless of whether they’re any good or not’ – quite a stupid criterion, really, and not how the list was billed. So lists can turn out to be even sillier than they look.

But that’s no reason not to discuss them, is it. So let’s discuss the Prospect list of Top intellectuals. Or maybe not so much the list as someone else’s discussion of the list. It starts off well, and goes on for several paragraphs well – simply noting what sort of intellectual is not on the list, as opposed to hand-wringing about it. (Not that hand-wringing about it is necessarily a bad thing – it depends on what sort of intellectual, or indeed ‘intellectual’, is in fact not on the list, doesn’t it.) There’s even one bit of quite good news.

Perhaps even more spectacular is the demise of literary and cultural theory from its high point in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Eagleton (again) is the sole survivor on this list. Otherwise, theory remains isolated in its academic tower, cut off from the general culture by jargon and obscurantism.

And by a third thing, perhaps, which is their tendency to think they know quite a lot about every conceivable subject and ought to say so on every possible occasion. Anyway, it’s cheering to find that there aren’t great preening crowds of them on the list.

And this is a good sign too –

Another strong group are the social and political essayists. Again, the variety is noticeable. Instead of “isms” or Orwell’s “smelly little orthodoxies,” we have diverse styles and approaches. The personal voice stands out – Michael Ignatieff, Timothy Garton Ash, John Gray, AC Grayling, Christopher Hitchens, Ian Buruma, Noel Malcolm. They have other features in common: a strong sense of political morality, internationalism and most of them are first-class writers. They are Orwell’s children, taking on big issues in good prose.

I’m not keen on John Gray and don’t know Noel Malcolm, but I like the rest, some of them a lot. And I like the genre. I like essays and essayists, and social and political essays and essayists in particular. I like writers who actually have something to say. I would disagree with the ‘Orwell’s children’ line, because I think they’re better than Orwell. I’ve been coming to the conclusion that Orwell is over-rated. I used to over-rate him myself, but I’ve been re-reading him lately, and frankly a lot of his writing was just plain tired and flat. Hack writing. Hitchens writes rings around him even on a bad day. But that’s a quibble, and I agree with the paragraph overall. But then things get strange.

The list may also seem curiously old-fashioned. It offers little room for the new “isms” that have broken through in recent decades: feminism, multiculturalism, postmodernism. There aren’t many young voices: few under 45, hardly anyone under 40. It is very middle-aged, and also very male and very white.

Well is it really all that surprising that a list of public intellectuals is heavy on people over forty? Intellectualism is a cumulative thing, after all, because knowledge is. And for that matter so is fame, and reputation, and the CV. The people on the list have been doing their intellectual stuff for enough decades so that people recognize them as public intellectuals. A few people can manage that by age thirty or thirty-five, but it usually takes longer. (I agree about the male thing though, if only because the first name I looked for was Marina Warner’s, and I was annoyed not to find it. It’s absurd that she’s not there.)

Then it gets worse. A lot worse.

The absence of new cultural forms and the media may surprise some. Why does this list smack of the common room and the think tank and not Britart and cool Britannia? Two names from television, none from advertising and no film directors. Of these, film is perhaps the most striking absence. There are some first-rate British film critics (David Thompson, Mark Cousins and Anthony Lane among them), and major British directors (Mike Leigh and Ken Loach among an older generation, Roger Michell and Michael Winterbottom among the next)…Youth culture is another striking absence. Instead, we have the traditional intellectual: scientists and historians, social theorists and policy advisers. It feels very grown-up and sane, maybe even dull. Perhaps the problem lies in the definition of “public intellectual.” Are the criteria which inform this list now out of date, part of a vanishing intellectual culture that disappeared with Noel Annan’s dons and the Third Programme? Is that why there are so few representatives from popular culture?

Advertising? Advertising?? Since when is advertising anything to do with being a public intellectual? It’s public all right, but what’s intellectual about it? It takes some verbal skills, to be sure, but that doesn’t equate to being an intellectual. And advertising’s close connection with lying for profit surely disqualifies it. And as for directing movies – isn’t that an art or a craft or both rather than an intellectual activity? I would have thought so – unless we’ve suddenly re-defined the word when I wasn’t paying attention. And then youth culture. Huh? Again, what’s that got to do with intellectualism or intellectuals? All of this might be mere observation, except for that word ‘problem’. ‘Perhaps the problem lies in the definition of “public intellectual.”‘ Or perhaps it doesn’t, because perhaps there is no problem. Perhaps what you see as dull because grown-up and sane, other people see as interesting because grown-up and sane. Lunacy and childishness are not absolutely always fascinating, as a matter of fact they can both be immensely boring. So if you long for the young and the hip and the consumerist, start your own list, and don’t call it a list of public intellectuals.



Delicate Regard

Jun 23rd, 2004 10:35 pm | By

This is a brief but interesting interview with Richard Dawkins. (My colleague did a longer and of course much more thrilling one which is included in What Philosophers Think.) For one thing, he talks about a subject we too are interested in, as you may possibly have noticed. He answers the very odd question ‘Another of your pet peeves is Post-Modernist scholarship, and you satirize a few writers from this school in your book, A Devil’s Chaplain. Isn’t your problem with these academics simply that they are poor writers?’

I don’t think they are poor [writers] at all. They are dominant alpha males in the academic jungle and, in some cases, are ruining the careers of honest scholars who would make an honest contribution.

To be fair, or do I mean strictly accurate, a lot of ‘Post-modernist’ writers are very bad writers indeed – but they are not necessarily the ones Dawkins has in mind, and others are indeed good writers but crappy thinkers. All rhetoric and no thought. You can find traces of such ‘scholarship’ in various corners of B&W.

But even more, I like his reply to a question about his ‘polemic voice’ –

I do it because I feel strongly about things … especially about double standards, hypocrisy, failure to think clearly…I am very hostile to religion because it is enormously dominant, especially in American life. And I don’t buy the argument that, well, it’s harmless. I think it is harmful, partly because I care passionately about what’s true.

Well, same here. No doubt that’s one reason Dawkins is one of my favourite writers. The double standards problem is one we’ve been noticing a lot lately. I was a bit shocked to find a glaring example of double standards – of explicit, declared double standards, which is to say a declaration of ‘special’ status, of need for special protection, on the part of religion – in Martha Nussbaum’s new book (Hiding from Humanity). I shouldn’t have been shocked, because I’ve read such an argument from her before, in her reply to Susan Moller Okin’s ‘Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?’ – and I think I did a N&C on my shock at the time. But I was shocked anyway, even though I shouldn’t have been. Nussbaum admires John Stuart Mill, and bases much of her argument in this book on On Liberty – but she also takes him to task for not being ‘respectful’ enough of citizens’ comprehensive doctrines:

But to claim that freedom of speech promotes truth in metaphysics and morals would be to show disrespect for the idea of reasonable pluralism, and to venture onto a terrain where one is at high risk of showing disrespect to one’s fellow citizens. Mill is totally oblivious to all such considerations. He has none of the delicate regard for other people’s religious doctrines that characterizes the political liberal…In On Liberty he does not hesitate to speak contemptuously of Calvinism as an ‘insidious’ doctrine…One may sympathize…without feeling that he understands the type of mutual respect that is required in a pluralistic society. I agree with Rawls: such respect requires (in the public sphere at least) not showing up the claims of religion as damaging, and not adopting a public conception of truth and objectivity according to which such claims are false.

I hate to say it, because I admire much in Nussbaum, but I find that idea truly staggering. I did read and re-read, and go back and forth between the various places where she discusses all this, to try to clarify whether she is talking about laws and the state, or about writing and public discourse. Some of the time she is talking about the former, but not all of it. She really is – as far as I can tell – saying that Mill should not have written what he did about Calvinism, and that no one should say such things ‘in the public sphere at least.’ That ‘such respect requires (in the public sphere at least) not showing up the claims of religion as damaging, and not adopting a public conception of truth and objectivity according to which such claims are false.’ So people ought (in order to be decently respectful) to ‘adopt’ a public conception of truth that will not contradict religious claims. People ought to choose their ‘conceptions’ of truth on the basis of whether they are respectful enough of the sensitivities of other people as opposed to – well, you know, whether they in fact think they get at the truth or not. That’s a pretty good description of just exactly what B&W was set up to oppose: deciding what is true on the basis of extraneous factors like ideology or whose feelings might be hurt, rather than on the basis of one’s best understanding of the evidence and logic of the matter.

So in short that is a very forthright statement of exactly the idea I’ve been puzzling over for a few months now: the idea that religion ought to have some sort of special, protected status that no other kind of human thinking gets to have. But what it doesn’t do is say why. Why religion should be immune from challenge when socialism and capitalism, for example, are not. Why religion should not simply accept public discussion and disagreement and argument on the same terms as any other set of human ideas. For the sake of ‘respect,’ yes, she does say that, but she doesn’t explain why that should apply to some kinds of ideas and not others. Because religion is consoling? But so are other ideas and beliefs that are not protected, so that’s not it.

But for my part, I have to agree with Dawkins. I don’t think double standards and ‘special’ protection and delicate regard and ‘not showing up the claims of religion as damaging’ (especially not that!) are a good idea at all.



Trio

Jun 22nd, 2004 9:49 pm | By

A few items related to religious-nonsense item I commented on yesterday. Richard Chappell quotes from another amusingly (or irritatingly, depending on what sort of mood you’re in and how many people there are on how many construction sites in your immediate vicinity and earshot running power saws, jackhammers, cement mixers, anonymous grinders and roarers and screamer-mechanisms – I myself have three such sites and who knows how many people and deafening pieces of equipment, so I’m not sure I’m entirely sane today) bit of religious confusion on his blog:

A lot of New Zealanders, I think, are very nervous of the word ‘religion’ because they think it’s indoctrination, but the danger is if you miss that whole dimension of intellectual debate out, you deprive young people of the opportunity to engage with some of these really important issues, such as genetics, or the war in Iraq.

Eh? One can’t talk about the war in Iraq or genetics – genetics?! – except under the auspices of religion? Really! That will come as a suprise to a lot of people – geneticists, for example. Apparently the danger is if you miss that whole dimension of learning to think clearly out, then you confuse religion with intellectual debate and intellectual debate with religion, and the next thing you know you’ve turned into a sheep and are being chased by a lot of horrible slavering men in running shorts.

And Pulp Movies has a comment on the same Mary Kenny piece.

So there you go. Religion good. Secular bad. No thinking. No understanding of the range and subtlety of moral choices. Just a simple black/white dichotomy. Mary Kenny seems to be frighteningly unable to recognise that any values other than her own have any worth whatsoever.

It’s good to find allies, and it may be that if enough people squawk about this kind of thing – this blithe assumption that you can’t have morality or moral thinking without religion – people will eventually become just a little more aware of how absurd it is, and even stop saying and thinking it and start saying and thinking more sensible things instead. Or maybe not, but it’s something to shoot for anyway.

And there’s an entertaining item at Pharyngula that indicates religion may not be so good for ‘family values’ after all. Personally I don’t care much, because I’m not keen on family values to begin with, but since the religious side often likes to claim a monopoly on the things, it’s fun to see the claim gainsaid. And no one can dispute PZ’s final point:

The actual numbers unfortunately show that there is a bit more to marriage than just godlessness, though—I guess atheism is no panacea. All it does is give a substantial boost to one’s charm, wit, intelligence, health, and beauty.



Kabbalah Madonna

Jun 21st, 2004 11:59 pm | By

A kind reader, by which I mean Norm Geras, emailed me to point out this absurd piece by Mary Kenny in the Guardian. Norm has already made some pointed comments about it, so I’ll try not to go over the same bit of ground. But there’s really quite a lot to say, because there’s quite a lot wrong with the piece (and the pervasive way of thinking it typifies), so I think I’ll manage to find a few words.

But first I’ll point out one of Norm’s most amusing remarks, in reply to Kenny’s utterly ridiculous ‘Faith is a feminine thing.’

I have some questions here. First, how does Kenny know that faith is feminine? She doesn’t say. But I can think of a few counter-examples: the Pope, Desmond Tutu and a Jehovah’s Witness I once made the mistake of inviting through my front door for a chat. I’m compiling a more comprehensive list but won’t be able to post it till… I’ll have to get back to you on that.

Yeah, it does take some brain-cudgelling, doesn’t it. Hmm, hmm, let’s see, male-type people in the religion game. The Pope? Oh, Norm already said that. Umm – gosh this is hard – oh, how about the Archbishop of Canterbury? Yes, that’s one. Err – that guy on Oxford Street with the ‘End is Nigh’ sign? Is he still there?

So anyway. More seriously.

They want to give their children values. And they quite often feel a stirring of these transcendent values themselves, at about the same time…If you don’t believe me, look at the evidence, and visit a church, chapel or synagogue on a day of worship: you will find that at least two-thirds of the worshippers present are women, and 90% of these are mothers.

How the hell does she know what percentage of the women she sees in various random (note indirect article: a church, not my church, or St. Boniface-on-the-Green’s church, but any old church) religious gathering places, are mothers? Eh? Do they wear badges? Are they marked in some way? Or is she just extrapolating from statistics on what percentage of women are mothers. But that’s not safe – in fact it’s question-begging. For all she knows all the women in those religious gathering places are not mothers, and have come in either to rejoice at their freedom or to pray for conception. She doesn’t get to assume that 90% of any given gathering of women consists of mothers and then tell us ‘See? Look at all the mothers!’

But of course I also wanted to quote the stark nonsense about ‘transcendent values’ even though Norm already has. Note the quick assumption that values are ‘transcendent’ values, and also that church or synagogue attendance has some obvious connection with wanting to give children ‘values.’ And then yawn violently and think about something else.

Then there’s this absurdity:

It is a fairly well-kept secret that feminism originally arose among religious women in the 19th century: from Hannah More and Josephine Butler in Britain to Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the US, feminism was an offshoot of evangelical Christianity, and that spiritual energy still hovers.

How could it possibly be a secret? Were there a great many atheists in the 19th century? Especially among women? (No, I’m not making Kenny’s point for her. The rarity of atheism among women in the 19th [as well as earlier] centuries is a contingent historical fact, not nonsense about the inherent ‘spirituality’ of women.) Of course feminism arose among (mostly) religious women in the 19th century – what other kind of women would it arise among? All those emancipated intellectual women living in their own book-lined flats in London and New York? News flash – there weren’t a lot of women like that in the 19th century. Naturally most 19th century feminist women were religious. It doesn’t follow that they have to go on being now.

For many women, perhaps even most women, some form of religious sensibility is what gets them through the night, and helps them lead the examined life, too.

Possibly. And possibly the same is true of many, perhaps even most men, too. So what? People can always learn to lead the examined life in a secular manner, after all. People change – even women do.



Damn Elitists!

Jun 18th, 2004 8:57 pm | By

I watched part of an old ‘Frontline’ on tv the other evening. ‘Frontline’ is one of the few fairly good shows on US public tv – actually one of the two, I would say, ‘Nova’ being the other. US public tv is so mediocre it’s painful. (And public radio is even worse. But that’s a separate subject.) It was about ‘Alternative’ Medicine. One part of it I found particularly extraordinary – an interview with Utah Senator Orrin Hatch. I’ve always disliked Hatch, frankly. He’s very conservative, and he has an irritating voice. He sounds like someone who’s trying to soothe a rowdy room full of six-year-olds – in fact I suppose he sounds a bit like Mr Rogers. Mr Rogers was a very nice fella, but I’m afraid those soothing calming bland voices make me want to punch something.

But that’s neither here nor there. Hatch could have an irritating voice and still be a good Senator. (Though perhaps not one of the best. It may be that a really good voice is basic equipment for a Senator. That’s an interesting question…but not the one I want to look at right now.) But there’s more wrong with him than the voice. The excerpt from the interview was about a 1994 bill he sponsored that de-regulated ‘dietary supplements,’ which means that the FDA (the Food and Drug Administration) cannot monitor dietary supplements in the way it can (and must and does) monitor drugs. It can only act after a supplement has been shown to cause harm, after it has gone on the market. Here is what Hatch says on the matter:

We had to take on the whole FDA and the whole raft of left-wing groups that believe that everything in our lives should be regulated and that we can’t– we’re so stupid as a people, we can’t make our own decisions and that we’re so dumb that we don’t know what’s good for us. It’s the attitude that government should tell you everything you should do. You don’t have any right to make any choices yourself. And they threw everything but the kitchen sink at us, but we had the people with us. And the reason we had the people is because a hundred million people have benefited from dietary supplements.

I’ve heard a lot of infuriating right-wing rhetoric in my time (as we all have) but that takes the biscuit. Though it certainly is impeccably conventional – the right does just love to pretend that any form of safety regulation amounts to assuming that people are stupid. But Hatch of course doesn’t bother explaining how all these brilliant people are supposed to know what’s in the bottles on the shelves. What – we just know by looking that the contents are safe? Are what they claim to be? How? How, exactly, do we know that? How do we look at a heap of gleaming capsules and divine what is inside them? Do we carry a laboratory with us when we go to the store and buy our vitamins and other supplements?

And I was reminded of Hatch’s comments when I read this Guardian article in which the Health Secretary, John Reid, makes a similar kind of claim.

The health secretary, John Reid, angered health campaigners and anti-smoking groups when he said yesterday that smoking is one of the few pleasures left for the poor on sink estates and in working men’s clubs. Mr Reid said that the middle classes were obsessed with giving instruction to people from lower socio-economic backgrounds and that smoking was not one of the worst problems facing poorer people…He said he was an advocate of informed choice for adults, rather than bans, describing himself as favouring empowerment, rather than instruction. Mr Reid fears advocates of a ban are behaving as if members of the public are incapable of coming to their own sensible decisions.

He favours empowerment rather than instruction? What can that mean? Are the two in tension? Are they mutually exclusive? Does learning something disempower people? If so, how? But that’s a trusty bit of rhetoric. If there’s something you disagree with, if you can manage to frame it as someone assuming other people are stupid, you’re on your way to victory, however nonsensical the claim may be.



Summer and Autumn

Jun 17th, 2004 11:17 pm | By

Horrible day here. In the upper 80s. The air quality doesn’t look too bad – the sky at the horizon is not brown – but it smells terrible outside all the same. It always does once it gets this hot. Heated-up car exhaust, I assume. I don’t like summer much.

But never mind that. The Dictionary gets printed next week. Once that happens, you see, it will be a book. Rectangular thing, open on three sides, pages with printed words on them. Something one can hold in the hand. Something one can read more or less anywhere – on the bus, in the park, in the checkout line at the supermarket, on the treadmill. That’s much harder to do with a stack of pages open on all four sides, a stack that can blow all over the room if a breeze comes in the window. No doubt that’s why some clever inventor thought of binding – fastens the thing down, you see, and makes it easy to turn the pages without making a mess. Wonderful invention, books.

I know, you’re thinking I’m very naive and fatuous, going on and on about one little old book. All very well for you, of course, you write books every day, but it’s all new to me. Well plus there’s the fact that I am naive and fatuous, of course; that has something to do with it.

So it will be printed and then before long it will be published, and then you will be able to read it. I’ll sign your copy for you if you like. I might zoom over to London when it comes out, just so that I can jump up and down and squeal and generally act like a fool. I might as well, after all, because it’s not as if I’m not one. The weather will be cooler by then, too.



Freedom From Atheism

Jun 16th, 2004 1:47 am | By

Update on last Comment –

And there is the Supreme Court decision (or non-decision) in the Pledge of Allegiance case. Students will go on invoking the deity in public (state) schools for now, thus making sure we don’t go overboard with this separation of church and state stuff. Don’t forget, freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion, any more than Adam and Eve means Adam and Steve. No, religion is still mandatory in God’s country. (Of course, the Pledge is not actually required, so young atheists can just refuse to recite it and laugh cheerily when their devout classmates beat them up in the playground. Ain’t liberty grand.)



High Tension

Jun 15th, 2004 11:40 pm | By

A lot of vexed religious issues around at the moment. There is the Vardy foundation which wants ‘to take over seven comprehensives and turn them into Christian Academies promoting Old Testament views of the world’s creation. This includes the claim that it was made in six days, 10,000 years ago.’ There is the never-ending stampede of both political parties in the US to outdo each other in god-bothering. There is the prospect of Shari’a in Ontario (and the campaign against it). There is a group forming to ‘defend’ the hijab. And there is the Begum case, which is under discussion at Crooked Timber.

So, one way and another, there is a lot of debate and discussion of this question of special rights for religion and religious believers, especially in matters of education. One thing that doesn’t seem to get discussed much, no doubt because of the very reluctance to challenge religion head-on that I’m talking about here, is that there is (surely) an inherent tension between education and religion. At least, depending on how one defines both terms. But surely education that really is education is not supposed to teach counterfactuals. Nobody wants schools teaching that the French Revolution happened in the 14th century and the Black Death happened in 1927. A lot of education is not as straightforwardly factual as that, of course; not as answerable with a yes or no, true or false. But still – schools usually distinguish between fiction and the other thing; they don’t teach Jane Eyre as a biography. So where does that leave religion? Religion can of course be taught as a subject without asserting anything about supernatural entities – but religion as religion can’t. In short, it seems to me there is a radical tension between schools’ responsibility to refrain from teaching falsehoods, and religions’ commitments to their version of the truth. This is no doubt why religions want special rights, but it’s also why they shouldn’t have them.



Special Rules

Jun 13th, 2004 11:39 pm | By

And on a more serious note, on the same David Aaronovitch column – he does make a number of important points.

His argument seems to be that it’s a human right to attend a denominational school and given these may be further away from home than the local school, parents should not be subject to the same penalties as those whose child’s journey results purely from choice. In other words, a religious choice in education is a matter of freedom of conscience, whereas any other kind of choice isn’t. Steam emerges from every orifice at this. Especially when the barrister adds: ‘When I got married we promised to bring up our children in the Catholic faith and so we put them through a Catholic school.’ This is the non sequitur upon which he bases his claim to be accorded superior treatment. Perhaps he would like a little sticker for his car that reads ‘Free parking for monotheist pupils only’.

Well, he probably would like exactly that. Religious believers often seem to take the idea of their ‘special’ status and special rights so for granted that they are unable to see how odd that idea is, no matter how carefully anyone tries to explain. But why? Why should people have special rights because they believe in a deity? It is a pervasive (increasingly so, I think) notion, but one that I have a hard time seeing the logic of. Is it kind of like endangered species legislation? That things that are vulnerable need special protection? And belief in a deity is vulnerable because it depends on ‘faith’ as opposed to evidence and logic? Is that it? That’s the only reason I can think of, really. But if so…surely the reductio is pretty obvious. Should we give special rights to astrologers and people who think there’s a Disneyland on Jupiter, and withold them from people who try not to believe six impossible things before breakfast? That could end up having some unfortunate results, one would think.

What is going on here, I think, is an attempt to protect the young from modernity…One proselytiser for Muslim education who sends out letters to the media captures this very well. When there was a conviction for an ‘honour killing’ in London last autumn, this campaigner argued that the victim, killed by her father, ‘was educated to be a Westernized woman, instead of a Muslim’…This is a social agenda, as much as a religious one. It was argued by a pro-faith school columnist that at least the two great faiths – Catholicism and Islam – permit equality to believers and co-religionists. But they don’t. If they did there would be women priests and women imams. My fear is that this emphasis on faith schooling is an attempt, albeit unconscious – to return us to the days before feminism, an attempt which affects all of us.

But it’s difficult to talk honestly about the subject, in part precisely because of the ‘special rights’ idea – because believers think their beliefs should be protected from discussion or question. And some believers, I have reason to know, seem to think that the very fact that they are believers means that nothing they do can be wrong – pretty much by definition. So they feel perfectly cheerful about launching torrents of sexist, obscene raving at wicked unbelievers like me. I should know, I have the spittle-flecked (virtually speaking) emails to prove it. (I have a feeling I get a double if not triple dose because of being a female. Uppity women just do piss some people off, you know…)



Punk Eek

Jun 13th, 2004 9:55 pm | By

I can’t resist – because it made me laugh too hard just now when I read it. An update on the comma question – another example of the ‘eats, shoots and leaves’ phenomenon. This is from a column by David Aaronovitch in the Guardian:

This week a local barrister is looking into whether the scheme breaches human rights legislation according to the Hampstead and Highgate Express.

Oh? But why? Why does anyone care about HR legislation according to the Ham and High? And what about the Brixton Tribune or the West Kilburn Times? What’s their take on human rights legislation, eh?

Well you see what I mean. What a difference a comma can make.



Belief

Jun 12th, 2004 10:16 pm | By

Quite a lot of atheist material lately. There is this review of Nicholas Everitt’s The Non-Existence of God in The New Humanist

…some theists maintain that asking for reasons to believe in God’s existence is beside the point. The demand for reasons in this context is, they say, either blasphemous or vacuous. As Kierkegaard put it, echoing Luther, belief in God is a matter of faith; it’s not like our ordinary belief in the existence of things like tables and chairs, which can be justified or shown to be false. Everitt is impatient with such manoeuvres, and dispatches them rather effectively.

Good. I wonder if he also dispatches the maneuver we’ve noticed a lot in these arguments – what one might call the having it both ways maneuver. Claim that God is ineffable, transcendent, beyond our understanding or anything we can say about it, etc etc, but nevertheless be more than willing to say all sorts of things on the matter. What it seems to mean in practice is: God is ineffable therefore atheists can’t say anything on the matter, but theists on the other hand can and should say whatever it occurs to them to say.

Two sets of rules, one might say. The author of this article on discrimination against atheists might say, for example. Apparently there is a general belief that there is really no such thing as discrimination against or ill-treatment of atheists, but Margaret Downey has researched the question and found otherwise. She has also found a likely reason the problem is not recognized:

One would think that any atheist who had experienced discrimination would be eager to submit an affidavit. Instead, the fear of suffering further discrimination as a “whistleblower” was widespread. Some victims told me that they did not want to go public lest still more hatred come their way. This is the trauma of discrimination, just the sort of intimidation that discourages discrimination reports and makes it difficult to find plaintiffs for needed litigation.

Downey presents a few examples of small-town persecution – harassment, threats, firings, pictures of Jesus left on one’s desk, organized shunning, stalking with a butcher’s knife. I read somewhere recently – I forget where, but I think it was in something I linked to – about the nice old tradition of the much-loved atheist in every US village. That’s bullshit. In most of the US, atheists are greeted with venom and hostility unless they maintain complete silence on the matter (and sometimes even then).

And finally there’s this article on Bush’s superstition by Edmund Cohen, who seems to have taken a surprisingly long time to notice.

Until recently, I had not seriously thought that supernaturalism or superstition could be an issue of concern as regards the second Bush presidency…Surely that establishment must have vetted its candidate well enough to rule out nominating an unstable religious eccentric. When he speaks in churchly terms, surely he is only employing regional idiom and one cannot take him literally.

Er – no. The Republican establishment does a staggeringly bad job of ‘vetting’ its candidates. The Democratic establishment doesn’t do any better, mind you – because it’s not about vetting, especially now that the primary system is so much more important than it once was.

According to [Bush confidant] Robison, there are but two worldviews: Biblical Christianity and Relativism. Biblical Christianity represents the “Absolutes.” By “Relativism,” he means complete lack of criteria for distinguishing right from wrong or truth from falsity. All those who are not Bible-believers are ipso facto Relativists. For Robison, liberal Democrats, Islamist terrorists, and all others who are not Christian Bible-believers count as Relativists and are therefore all interchangeable with one another.

Yep, I know the type, I’ve even (to my sorrow) had conversations with one or two. I’ve been informed that people who ‘acknowledge’ no higher authority have no ability to feel remorse – which is quite an interesting idea. No wonder the believers go in for shunning and threats.



Nussbaum

Jun 12th, 2004 2:10 am | By

This was a nice little coincidence, or confluence, or something, this morning. I started reading Martha Nussbaum’s new book Hiding from Humanity and then when I got on the computer I found this interview with her. It’s an interesting and amusing interview, too.

As for philosophers, I find Mill the most soothing because I imagine him as a friend to whom one would like to talk. Most male philosophers of the past are not the friends of women, but Mill is.

I like Mill a lot. And come to think of it, one of the things I like in him is one of the things I like in Nussbaum, too: they’re both extremely lucid.

The interviewer asks ‘Is it the legal expert, the academic, or the philosopher in you that gets angry about specious arguments (say, Judith Butler or Allen Bloom)?

I really don’t like bad arguments, but what I especially dislike are bad arguments put forward cultishly, with an in-group air of authority. I think that philosophy should stick to its Socratic roots, as an egalitarian public activity open to everyone. Thus even some admittedly great philosophers, e.g. Wittgenstein, inspire me with unease because they allowed a cult to grow up around themselves and wrote undemocratically. Heidegger was guilty of the same, but he is a much less distinguished philosopher than Wittgenstein, and he also did bad things in politics.

Exactly – ‘bad arguments put forward cultishly, with an in-group air of authority.’ That’s exactly it, that’s why it gets up my nose so when people worship Butler. It’s that cultish, in-group thing – it drives me insane. And that’s probably why I love Mill and Nussbaum, because they are as I said so lucid. They do the exact opposite of what Butler does. She makes a few small ideas obscure; Mill and Nussbaum make an ocean of large ideas utterly clear. They make philosophy ‘an egalitarian public activity open to everyone’ rather than a smelly little orthodoxy just for the trendy few. Down with cultishness, up with lucidity.

The new book is enthralling so far. And in another bit of serendipity, it’s also very relevant to this discussion about the relationship between Theory of Mind and empathy, and my suggestion that empathy and related qualities are cognitive before they’re emotional. Nussbaum talks about exactly that subject:

…it is quite unconvincing to suggest that all emotions are ‘irrational.’ Indeed, they are very much bound up with thought, including thoughts about what matters most to us in the world. If we imagine a living creature that is truly without thought, let us say a shellfish, we cannot plausibly ascribe to that creature grief, and fear, and anger. Our own emotions incorporate thoughts, sometimes very complicated, about people and things we care about.

So there you are, you see – I went to all that trouble to say something Nussbaum had already said. She goes into the matter further in an earlier book, Upheavals of Thought, which I’ve looked into but not read yet.



Mattering and Meaning

Jun 10th, 2004 9:51 pm | By

We were talking about meaning the other day. I read something in Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained that seems relevant:

So the conscious mind is not just the place where the witnessed colors and smells are, and not just the thinking thing. It is where the appreciating happens. It is the ultimate arbiter of why anything matters…It stands to reason – doesn’t it? – that if doing things that matter depends on consciousness, mattering (enjoying, appreciating, suffering, caring) should depend on consciousness as well.

Mattering is about caring – therefore (surely?) meaning is related to caring – perhaps is another word for the same thing, or both words name the same thing but from different angles. I said much the same thing in the Comment – ‘Yes of course, we want to think our lives (hence the world they take place in) matter, have significance and importance, ‘mean’ something – something more than what they mean to us.’ Meaning is about what matters to us: what matters to us is what we care about. (At least, that seems to be part of what meaning is. I’m not claiming it’s an exhaustive account, and I don’t think it is, I think there’s more to it. But it’s a part.) All these words and ideas circle around a common knot or core. What is important and significant is what we care about, what matters to us, what means something to us. We could think of meaning, caring, importance, as sorting-devices: this item matters and that one doesn’t, because of what I care about, what is important to me. All a bit circular and subjective, obviously, but then that was my original point: that subjective is exactly what meaning is, and therefore it’s a bit of a dodge to claim that religion ‘gives’ meaning – it only gives it because we decide it does.

Caring is also interesting in a slightly different (though related) way: as motivation, as the engine that keeps our forward momentum going. This is (I take it) what Damasio is talking about in Descartes’ Error: people who have a kind of brain damage that impairs their ability to care even though it leaves cognitive abilities intact, can’t function properly. They don’t do anything, because they can’t decide among possibilities – even though they can understand and state pros and cons – because they don’t care. Indifference is a paralyzer, it seems. Which we all probably know from experience with depressed people or with depression. Depression plays hell with motivation.

We also know it because we know that ‘I don’t care’ can be a terrible, an appalling thing to say. It’s mildly rude even as an answer to trivial questions (What shall we make for dinner? Coffee or tea? Red or white?), and it’s brutality or worse as an answer to non-trivial questions or statements – ‘I’m frightened,’ ‘she needs help,’ ‘you hurt him when you said that,’ ‘there’s a genocide going on.’ Or for that matter ‘I love you,’ ‘she won first prize,’ ‘he’s safe.’ There’s a reason ‘Don’t care was made to care, don’t care was hanged’ was such a popular nursery saying. We need to care ourselves, and we need the people we care about to care too, or at least not to tell us they don’t. About some things we need everyone on the planet to care.



Punctuated Equilibrium

Jun 9th, 2004 10:45 pm | By

I find this a little bit amusing. Not the whole thing, just one part of it. The whole thing is a discussion of Eve Garrard’s second piece on Amnesty International at Normblog. That’s not particularly amusing, turning as it does on the murder, torture and general pushing-around of millions upon millions of people around the world. No, not an amusing subject. What amused me was just one item at the end of Chris’ post.

Finally — and I’m picking nits now — Eve writes that “the idea that the force of an argument should be materially altered by an (allegedly) misplaced comma is … delightful and charming.” It may be, but my complaint focused not on the force of the argument but on its meaning , and it is pretty commonplace that commas can and do alter the meaning of sentences: Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

Well there you are, you see. It’s not only tiny words (she not he, here not there, on not in) that can alter the meaning of sentences, it’s little marks that don’t even represent a vocalization, that represent at most a pause or a tone of voice (? sounds one way, ! sounds another), but can separate an adjective from a noun or change a noun to a verb or otherwise change the meaning of a sentence.

I’m all the more aware of this because it comes up in proofreading, at least it does when I’m the proofreader. The editors of TPM like to make fun of me for adding a comma at the end of a list. Well, ha ha, very droll, but I have my reasons – because commas do make a difference. The one at the end of a list is optional, it’s true, but I often like to exercise the option and insert it, especially when the list in question is a list of phrases rather than single words. A list like ‘this, this, this, this and this’ is not too bad, but a list like ‘this does that, that does this, those did these and these did those’ can be confusing – it can be unclear whether the last clause is actually two clauses separated by ‘and’ or all one clause with an ‘and’ in the middle. Unless you add a comma before the ‘and’ – which is why I often do just that. So mock mock mock all you like, but it does make a difference. As, of course, Eats, Shoots & Leaves has reminded everyone lately.

But then other times – for instance when I’m writing as opposed to proofreading – I leave commas out with wild abandon. I perpetrate chaotic unpuncutated headlong sentences of a kind that one is taught not to perpetrate when one is twelve or so. Not invariably, but it’s something I have a tendency to do. Some sentences just seem to need to be uttered all in one breath, without punctuation (i.e. without pauses), so I write them that way. Then on reading them I sometimes realize – they will work if readers hear them exactly the way I heard them in my head – but what is the likelihood of that? So sometimes I decide to punctuate them in a more conventional manner. But not always. Yes, that’s nice; and your point is? Nothing – just that even commas, even those little tiny silent marks, are something one can lavish thought on, and that can alter the meaning of sentences. Odd, isn’t it.

I wonder if commas have Theory of Mind.