The Problem of Opinions

Stating one’s opinion on any subject, from the most mundane to the most profound issues, is a risky business; whether in speaking or writing any method of putting forth one’s thoughts into the world involves taking deep and grave risks. Beyond the obvious danger of finding oneself in deep disagreement with one’s fellows, be they colleagues, friends, relatives, lovers, or mere fellow interlocutors; there is a graver risk. For while disagreement can sometimes lead to unpleasantness, if handled correctly it can also lead to mutual learning, understanding, and interesting discussion; whereas, the graver risk of stating opinions has no real potential for benefit, at least at first brush.

The danger of stating opinions is that once stated there are two option one has, either to become rooted in this position, or one day to admit one was incorrect and state one’s new opinion. The first option leads on into a deep and unsettling intellectual position of either refusing to accept new information an arguments that go against one’s previously stated opinion (stagnation of opinion, obstinateness) or performing twists in thinking to make new arguments fit old positions (mental gymnastics). In short, this is intellectual dishonesty and a refusal of growth. Let me be clear, it is perfectly acceptable and intellectually honest to have strong opinions that one defends in the face of all new arguments; however, this is only commendable to the point that well principle stand firm there is still change. Having firm principles is honest and commendably, being an obstinate dogmatist that refuses to engage with other, different arguments is neither commendable or decent, intellectual behavior. Again, to be clear, I want to point out that there will be times that even the best will fail to not slip into heatedness, unnecessary fervor, and/or inflective dogmatism; however, I cannot stress enough, it is out of these failures that we must arise, do better, and be better, though we will fail time and time again, each failure must serve as a reminder to do and be better.

The other path in this option is no less odious and no less common. It is often called “mental gymnastics,” a term which though tending to be used negatively, gives a fairly accurate idea of what goes on. A new argument presents itself, one that would seem to require a change in opinion, but instead one just works around it, in a dishonest way. Often this takes the form of accepting premises but reforming conclusion by sneaking in new premises. This is dishonest; the honest answer to new arguments is either to find a reasonable challenge and critique of them, or let the new arguments shape one’s opinion. I want to be clear, one should not change their opinion based off the last argument they have heard, this is as dishonest as dogmatism; however, one must open their beliefs to round criticism and robust counterarguments, not necessarily accepting or rejecting criticisms; but countering with reformed, better-honed, more robust arguments. In creating more robust arguments one’s opinions necessarily change, if only slightly, for it is impossible to robustly respond to counterarguments from a place of mere dogmatism and poorly thought out principles. This is why every ‘school of thought,’ in any field, is a place to start, never a place to end.

In all this the second option for action after stating an opinion has shown through, namely to admit one was incorrect and state one’s new opinion. This is difficult and rare, for it is much easier, much more comfortable to remain stagnate, to stop at the point of first thinking and never push forward. At least in that case one runs no risk of people finding old statements of opinions and taking that as current statements of opinions. This is a real danger, especially of stating opinions in the public form; however, this should not prevent one from either stating one’s opinions publicly or changing one’s opinions publicly. For as Cicero wrote: “if we are not ashamed to think it, we should not be ashamed to say it.” Furthermore, any honest person will admit that continued thinking about any subject will often lead to some changes in opinions, slight to major; there is one simple illustration of this: since all thinking on subjects is essentially a conversation (cf. Richard Rorty; this is why, for example, the Platonic dialogues are dialogues), it is understandable that as one hears more voices in the conversation, one’s opinions will change; it is also understandable that one has not, at any one time, heard all the voices that have spoken, are speaking, on a subject. For example, if opinions were formed purely from reading, it would be nearly impossible to never be encouraging new voices with new arguments, given that millions of books are published, have been published, since the advent of printing. Thus, though it is dangerous to share one’s opinions at one time, it is worthwhile; it is also worthwhile, in fact, perhaps noble in some cases, to publicly changes one’s opinions based on new arguments, so long as one is always changing their opinions (this is empty-mindedness, not thinking). It is difficult to place oneself in this uncomfortable position, but as Spinoza says at the end of Ethics: “Everything excellent is as difficult as it is rare.”

What I Write When I Should Be Writing

Writing and reading are so seemingly essential to modern life, especially modern academic life. This might seem odd to people that believe that the advance of technology would destroy the written word. However, the internet has not devalued the written word but made it more powerful and omnipresent. Now, the majority of the American populace is literally surrounded at all times by more written information than ever before in human history. Furthermore, though places like Amazon may have “killed” (a ghastly metaphor) the brick-and-mortar bookshop (though not in all cases); they have not “killed” the print book. Indeed, this seems odd given the advance of devices and apps such as the Kindle, Google Books, and iBooks; for some, ebooks truly rule the day, but for many people physical books are still very much desired and used. Positing why this is the case can only be pure conjecture, utterly tainted by personal preference. However, I believe that the there is something in the physicality of tangible books that make them appealing to many people; there is also the aspect of visibility. It is impossible in most cases to tell from a passing glance what someone is doing on their smartphone, tablet, or laptop. Maybe they are reading an ebook, or maybe they are scanning Facebook; it’s a mystery. Whereas with a physical book there is no mystery, it is easy to tell at a glance when someone is reading a physical book. Moreover, I would hazard a guess, that a third aspect contributing to the continued presence of print books is a desire to differentiate activities.

There is a serious danger when one is reading on a screen to flit to something else, a game, a social media app, etc. This can seriously damage one’s reading; indeed, only the dedicated reader will not yield to temptation when a boring section of a book occurs. Clearly, there is a danger to flit between tasks with a physical book as well. It is all too easy to put a book down during that dull section. However, I would posit that there is a fundamental difference in these two types of task switching. Fliting between apps on a smartphone is as simple as putting down a book, but far less physical and, thus, (I would guess) far less memorable. Whereas after putting down a physical book it is still there in what can sometimes be oppressive physical omnipresence, reminding one of the task they’ve abandoned; switching apps on a smartphone is easily forgotten, it is easy from minute to minute to go from iBooks to Facebook to Twitter and on and on, without returning to iBooks. Closing out the app removes the presence of the book as does shutting down one’s Kindle or other e-reader. The book is in some sense gone, vanished, not, as with physical books, oppressively omnipresent. Giving up reading Gravity’s Rainbow on a reading app is much simpler than abandoning it physically. The file takes up no physical space, it does not stare one in the face every time they pass their bookshelf; in short, electronic books are more easily forgotten than physical books. Furthermore, I believe that many people probably want to differentiate their tasks, between “screen-time” and “non-screen-time;” especially with the growing body of evidence that screens are changing our brains [1]. I think it is safe to say that print books are going nowhere anytime soon. However, this does not get us any closer to why reading and writing are so fundamental.

It seems odd that something so artificial has shaped the modern world in more ways that it is really possible to fully comprehend. It is hard for any literate person to imagine a world without writing; I do not mean that it is hard to imagine what it is like to be illiterate. This is something, I think many can easily imagine, though I doubt many can understand the deeply unsettling emotionality of adult illiteracy. However, I think that to imagine being illiterate, or actually to be illiterate, presumes literacy. The lack assumes to the presence. To imagine being blind, or to be blind in reality, necessitates that sight exists. Similarly, illiteracy necessitates that reading and writing exist. This is why imagining a world totally without reading and writing is so difficult. However, stepping back from our phenomenal present existence and considering writing from a distance we can see that it is strange and artificial.

Speaking and listening are deeply natural for humans. We are linguistic creatures. This is evidenced by the fact that all humans in all places speak some language or another from infancy onward. Indeed, even deaf individuals develop and use language, though not spoken, that is deeply and structurally linguistic every bit equal to spoken language. Language is what people do. Many in the modern literate society, such as the United States, would unreflectively assume that writing is just as natural, evidenced, no doubt, by its omnipresence in society. However, upon reflection it becomes clear that writing isn’t natural. It is artificial. Consider indigenous societies that even today do not write. They are non-literate societies – NB they are not illiterate societies; they are non-literate, meaning that they live without writing and not without the knowledge of writing.  Of course, many of these indigenous populations are now illiterate societies, having been brought into contact with the written word. However, it should be clear that writing is not something natural in the same way that speaking (or signing) is natural.

Writing was invented a few times in a few places, the big ones are Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Mesoamerica; but there are other places where writing was invented, for example Crete and the Indus valley. For a long time a theory called monogenesis ruled the day. The theory held that writing was invented once, in Mesopotamia, and spread from there to Egypt; however, more recent finds have shown that the Egyptians invented writing on their own. Obviously, China and Mesoamerica (the Maya and Aztecs) were not in contact with the Mesopotamians, and thus could not have stolen writing from them; though this was, for obvious reasons, never seriously postulated. (Now, if certain people are correct, monogenesis may yet be saved, as obviously the aliens invent writing and gave it to everyone; but until there’s actual concrete evidence for these “aliens” it’s safe to say that the Egyptians and the Mesoamericans invented writing independently.) From these inventions of writing, the idea spread and morphed along the way. Soon Phoenician traders had developed what would become the alphabet, though they didn’t have vowels in their version. These traders spread their invention around the Mediterranean. The Greeks took hold of it changed some letters from “barbarian” sounds to vowels, thus creating the alphabet the majority of the world uses today (the “Latin” alphabet is an Italian variant of the Greek and the Cyrillic is a Slavic variant) [2]. All of this should show that writing is far from natural, in the sense of innate. It may have become naturalized because of its singular ubiquity but it is, nonetheless, created, artificial. Writing is an art and a gift that those of us in literate societies too often take for granted.

We’ve lost touch with the art of writing in two senses. The first is the rather forgivable loss of appreciation for the beauty of the written form, as handwriting and calligraphy slip more and more to the periphery; however, this loss is not so great given that writing began as something merely functional in many ways, after all most early examples of writing are basically accounting records. The second loss is much graver, we have, I fear, lost touch with the art of writing in a broad sense. By this I mean that we have lost the sense that there is an art to writing; that writing is something special, that it is something to be grateful for, and something to appreciate and cherish.  I fear that writing has become something so merely functional, so basic, and so base that it has lost all meaning to most literate people. It may be unclear what this loss means, but I fear that its implications are as deep and wide. If we forget that writing is something special we run the risk of relegating it to merely another technological tool, something to be used without much thought; something, moreover, to be abandoned if something better comes along. We forget that though writing is an artificial gift, it is a gift nonetheless, and has deeply changed our world. Forgetting the art of writing is forgetting the power of writing.

It cannot be denied that writing is the most power thing people have ever invented. This claim is bold but true. Certainly, inventions like the wheel, the utilization of fire, and guns have shaped the world and qualify as important inventions. However, the knowledge of these things can only be transferred in two ways: speech or writing. Indeed, the oral tradition is the older option, useful in many cases, but severely limited in scope. In the oral tradition things are passed down generation to generation in a direct line, this means that if any one part of the chain is broken the knowledge is lost. Since the oral tradition is also limited to the size of a human community, a break in the change is more likely than with writing. In writing, knowledge can skip a generation, or more, as long as the text isn’t lost. For example, it is possible for anyone to become a Scholastic scholar even if no one else in the family ever read St. Aquinas. Furthermore, unlike the oral tradition, writing is not limited to the size of any one human community; any one can learn the language of a text and read, regardless of their membership in a particular community. An additional benefit of writing is that written information is less prone to change in meaning than oral information. One need only think of the children’s game where something is whispered alone a chain of people and the message is changed, often extremely, by the end of the chain. Writing allows not only for the widespread and, generally, accurate transmission of technical knowledge for building wheels and weapons; it also, more importantly, allows for the spread of the most powerful thing in human history: ideas.

I believe that it is ideas that rule society and history. Indeed, to quote Ludwig von Mises [3]: “The history of mankind is the history of ideas. For it is ideas, theories, and doctrines that guide human action, determine the ultimate ends men aim at and the choice of the means employed for the attainment of these ends.” There is no better way to disseminate ideas than writing, itself an idea of sorts. Writing allows for the spread of ideas regardless of context, place, time, culture, or any number of factors that limit other means for spreading ideas. With the advent of the printing press the spread of ideas in writing grew faster, freer, and wider. With the ideals of universal education and literacy that blossomed in the mid twenty century, though never fully achieved, the advance of writing was finalized as universal. It is a tragedy that in all this the medium of advance has been largely forgotten and ignored; writing hardly receives a seconds thought as it is used to spread ideas around the globe. It is hardly considered that it is writing that heralded scientific revolutions, writing that convinced men to send armies to march across the globe to advance written ideas, writing that championed the ideals of world peace and an end to war, writing that simultaneously sent people to their deaths and promised that there would be death no more. Writing is a neutral tool as all tools are, the hammer can be used to destroy as well as to build, no less can writing. Nevertheless, it is the unique providence of writing to be that omnipresent tool that is used for every imaginable end. War and peace are penned in the same medium, racism and antiracism proclaimed with the same tool, theology and atheism championed in the same form. Writing and the advance of ideas, thus the advance of history, are inexorably linked. Writing as the basic representation of spoken language in symbols is often, unfortunately, overlooked and forgotten; its unique place in history and society overlooked; however, in a different sense writing is hardly ever overlooked or forgotten.

Writing as prose or poetry; writing as essay; writing as literature; in short, writing as the thing taught in English classes, is rarely overlooked. Compositional writing is the likely the first thing that jumps to people’s minds when they think about writing. Organized writing rules the day, in books, newspapers, magazines, and even television and movies (which use written scripts). There is no doubt that organized writing is important and world-changing; however, it is thoughts of composition, of order, that remove one from the wonder of the medium itself. As important as good composition may be, it is impossible without the presence of the medium of writing itself. A well written piece is something to be admired and praised but without the letters it is impossible. It is important that in composition we forget about the letters in favor of the words, or even forgetting the words in favor of the structure of a piece; however, though this leads to good composition it also leads to a loss of wonder and appreciation for writing qua writing. It is important that we take time to learn what makes a good composition a good composition, but it is equally important that we take time to reflect on the medium of composition itself: the art of this artificial thing that was invented a few times and in a few places; the beauty and power of the invention that changed the world; the might of this tool that we call writing. Writing is the most human of inventions and tells the most human of stories.

 

[1] See here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cravings/201609/how-internet-use-is-shaping-our-brains

[2] For a more in depth history of writing, watch Thoth’s Pill by Nativlang here:  https://youtu.be/PdO3IP0Pro8.

[3] von Mises, L. (1977). Planned Chaos, p.62. Foundation for Economic Education: Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.

Should The Word ‘Very’ Really be Avoided?

There is a great deal of writing advice on the internet warning people against the use of the word ‘very.’ The reasons everyone should avoid using ‘very’ in their writing range from that ‘very’ has become so weakened that it has no intensifying purpose anymore to the claim that using ‘very’ is simply lazy writing. It ought to be noted that in none of this writing advice do people give a legitimate stylistic or grammatical reason to use their suggested alternatives in place of an adjective modified with ‘very.’ Claiming that ‘very’ is a weak or lazy word is not really a stylistic justification for avoiding it; in fact, there may well be stylistic reasons not to avoid using ‘very,’ as the aggressive use of large words can make one’s writing seem awkward, or like they have just discovered how to use a thesaurus. To be clear, large and complex words have a clear and important place in writing; however, they should never be used simply to avoid the word ‘very.’

Indeed, if one of the supposed reasons to avoid ‘very’ is that it has become so weakened to lose all meaning, one ought to avoid the intentional overuse of words to replace ‘very.’ In fact, the intentional use of replacement words to avoid ‘very,’ does more to damage good written style and language use than the “overuse” of ‘very.’ To quote C. S. Lewis: “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.” Furthermore, many of the alternatives suggested to replace the use of ‘very’ actually lead to a difference in meaning between the original adjective modified with very and the alternative. Let’s take some examples (from the infographic found here):

“very afraid: fearful;” the problem with this one is that fearful and afraid mean exactly the same thing, fearful does not imply a greater intensity of fear than afraid, therefore if one wishes to express that someone has intense fear they could not use fearful in place of very afraid without failing to convey their actual meaning. [1]

“very boring: dull;” dull does not meaning the extremely tedious or uninteresting, i.e. very boring. In fact, dull has more senses than boring and to replace the “very boring” with “dull” could VERY easily (notice that I didn’t use “effortlessly”) completely alter the meaning of a sentence. Example: “that professor is very boring” [meaning: the professor is extremely tedious] changed to “that professor is dull” [possible meanings: (a) the professor lacks excitement; (b) the professor is stupid].

Oh I love this next one:

“very dull: tedious;” that’s right folks, when you want to intensify an adjective don’t! Instead, use one of the possible definitions of the un-intensified version of the original. Dull means tedious! Therefore, it is impossible for tedious to mean very dull, since if it did dull would also already mean very dull!

“Very colorful: vibrant;” this doesn’t work, since vibrant refers to a color’s brightness, whereas colorful refers to the amount of colors or the brightness of something; so to replace very colorful with vibrant is to lose not one but two meanings as one loses both the reference to amount of colors and to the intensity, since vibrant does not mean ‘intensely colorful.”

“very perfect: flawless;” the problem with this is that instead of replacing the phrase “very perfect” with a synonym of perfect, one should just cut the word “very” from the phrase, as it is simply redundant.

There are some on the list that work well like “very stupid: idiotic,” as idiotic means very stupid. However, the biggest flaw of this list is that many of the replacement words of synonyms of the original adjective without adding any intensity. Indeed, to get the same sense out of “tedious” as out of “very dull,” one would have to say “very tedious.” I fully agree that having a larger vocabulary is a positive thing for which everyone should strive; however, the way to get there is not to dispense with the use of the word very and replace it with “better” alternatives, since that is not the sign of a larger vocabulary but a sign of a thesaurus user. Meaning is nuanced and complex, different words mean different things to different people, part of having a large vocabulary is welding it well, not shoehorning words in places they don’t really fit. Perhaps, for some “tedious,” does, in fact, mean “very dull,” but that still doesn’t change the fact that in everyday speech and writing there is a place for “very dull.” If it is the most efficient way to get one’s meaning across, and one doesn’t have some other commitments in writing (class style guides for example), use the words and phrase most fit for the writing.

[1] I am using the definitions of Oxford Dictionaries online.

One further point, despite the widespread belief among people using larger words in writing doesn’t actually make one sound more intelligent and may actually have to opposite effect if overused. Thus, one should use the words one thinks best fit the situation. See the study by Oppenheimer, D. (2006). Consequences of erudite vernacular utilization irrespective of necessity: problems with using long words needlessly, Applied Cognitive Psychology 20, 139-156. DOI: 10.1002/acp.1178.

Lexical Expander 5: Offing

Word: Offing

Definition:  (1) a distinct part of the sea that can be seen from the shore; (2) a position distant from the shore; (3) in the offing: (a) at a distance but within sight, (b) in the near future.

Example:  Mary collected her thoughts and realized that a confrontation was necessarily in the offing

Rarity:  rare, bottom 40% of words (Merriam-Webster)

Etymology:  early 17th century, off + ing

Word in Use: Light Rain In Offing For Madhya Pradesh And Chhattisgarh”

Why I like this word: The main use of this word is in the phrase: “in the offing;” which is a rather useful phrase for speaking both about physical objects within sight and about things happening the near future. Overall, it is a versatile and useful word.

The Lexical Expander 4: Afterwit

Word: Afterwit

Definition:  (1) later knowledge; (2) wisdom or knowledge that comes after an event, usually too late

Example:  A few hours after the argument had ended James hit upon the perfect piece of afterwit.

Rarity:  Extremely rare, bottom 20% of words (Merriam-Webster)

Etymology: after + wit, late 16th century.

Across languages:  French: esprit de l’escalier; German: Treppenwitz

Why I like this word: This word is both very rare and extremely useful; often in life one realizes something too late. Furthermore, it is the best translation for the German, Trappenwitz, (literal: staircase wisdom), a word sometimes toted as “untranslatable.” Perhaps, those that believed Trappenwitz  had no one word English translation will now be experiencing afterwit.

Random Thoughts on Politics

This is another collection of short pieces on my random thoughts, this one happens to be political in nature. I understand if you dislike politics and don’t want to read this, I swear that I will be returning to languages soon and then some philosophy stuff. Anyways here are some random thoughts on politics.

Immigration and Refugees

This is a big topic in light of recent events and yet I can only bring myself to barely care. That probably makes me a terrible person, oh well. The reason I barely care is that in my ideal world neither of these things would be issues, but this isn’t my ideal world so they are. I’m for free and open immigration, I’m for letting refugees enter the United States; however, I’m against all forms of the government getting involved in either of these matters. There are ways of privately helping refugees and those are what we should be engaged in. No immigrant should receive government money, not because they’re immigrants but because governments and by extension government money shouldn’t exist.

I know I’ll be criticized, if only silently, by many. One criticism is “what about national borders, national sovereignty, or national culture.” Granted the last one usually doesn’t have the word national tacked on the front but it is certainly implied. Well, I don’t care about national anything because I don’t believe nations should exist, not in some weird one-world government meaning of the phrase but in a localist way that everything should be run locally. Simply put, I don’t think governments, certainly not national governments, should exist and therefore I don’t believe in the nation-state as a justification of anything. Oh and on the culture thing, people seemed worried about “losing their culture.” I’m really not sure what that means. Culture is not a stagnant thing, it is a constantly changing process, a negotiation made each and everyday by each person. Another criticism is that “we don’t want violent people coming into this country.” On some level I agree, I mean no-one should be violent period. That actually leads me to disagree on a much deeper level with this sentiment. First, there are already violent people here, I doubt it will be that much worse if some people come into the country. Second, as I stated above I don’t believe in the whole nation-state thing so there is no “our country,” there is a piece of geographically territory that is ruled by an entity founded on force that for some reason everyone insists on asserting is “one and unified.”

Maybe you can see why I am basically apathetic on this issue. People seem to want everyone to adopt a pro-immigrant/refugee policy stance of an anti-immigrant/refugee policy stance, but either way they want you to have a (governmental) policy stance. That makes it tough for me, because both sides are wrong due to the fact they both of them believe that government must be involved; whereas, I don’t.

Hate Speech and Free Speech

I have declared before that I am a free speech absolutist and I am. In my opinion all speech should be free including what is commonly labelled “hate speech.” This is not a generally accepted or even tolerated position, which to my mind shows the lack of nuance in people’s thinking. Let me explain. To begin with let me state plainly: I despise bigotry and despise bigoted and hateful speech. However, that does not mean I think it should be banned or in any way silenced. This is where people seem to lack nuance; many seem to believe that if something is terrible, evil, or vile that it ought to be banned or silenced. However, this creates more problems than it solves.

When speech is open and free there is more responsibility. Silencing speech removes responsibility for that speech, the speaker of hateful words goes into hiding, makes all their comment anonymously, and never takes responsibility for their speech. Furthermore, silencing removes the possibility of openly combating the ideologies that lead to hateful speech. Moveover, silencing does not kill hatred, it grows it.

Let me be clear: I understand the psycho-emotional damage of hateful and derogatory speech. Hateful speech is despicable; however, that doesn’t mean it should  be silenced. No, it should be made openly and combatted openly and decisively. Moreover, it must be combatted with respect if for no other reason than to be unlike the bigot. As Marcus Aurelius wrote: “The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.” Hate speech is disgusting but it is free speech and thus must be allowed. By the same token, it must also be decry and freely combated at every injunction without silencing or disrespect. If allowed to be openly express it is unlikely to last long in the market of ideas, as Louis Brandeis said: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

Note: Hateful action is not speech. Violent must never be allowed. It must always be denounced.

Respect and Listening to Each Other

It seems as though no one can listen to each other any more, if they ever could. In all matters of disagreement people seem to only shout at each other and never engage in meaningful and free discourse. Moreover, not only can people not listen to other viewpoints, they feel compelled to constantly insult and belittle everyone that disagrees with them. There never seems to be respectful discussion instead it is merely insulting each other. All sides engage in this shameful practice and it works because it captures people’s emotions. However, at the end of the day respectful discussion and debate have better results than emotional appeals and insults. Not that this is anything new. Insulting opponents seem to have always been a tacit, but they’ve never been a tacit that should be accepted. Hopefully, we can all try to be better at listening and being respectful even of those we most disagree with (i.e. don’t call people names!).

Taxation and Federal Programs

I recently saw a post on a social media platform that asserted the minimal cost of certain “threatened” federal programs, including schools, museums, and arts funding. The post asserted that the cost to fund these various programs is only around 22 dollars per year for each taxpayer. It also asserts that the posters are happy to give up this money to keep these programs in operation. Interestingly, the post uses the correct terminology for taxation, saying “please take my $xx.xx;” take is the correct verb since taxation is theft. However, that is not the part of the post that made me want to write about it. I want to write about this post because it shows an odd twisting in logic. Imagine if someone said that these programs should be privatized, run not by government but by private means. There would be massive uproar, likely from that same people saying that they are happy to have their money taken to fund these federal programs. They would claim that if these things were privatized no one would give them money. However, they have asserted that they are happy to have their money taken to fund them, so by simple logic they should be happy to fund them privately. If you think that the government should fund something, then you should be able to see that it will be funded privately! If you are happy to have your money taken to fund a federal arts program then you should be equally happy to fund a private arts program. Unless of course, you just say that you’re happy to fund all these things because you think it makes you sound decent, civilized, or cultured, when in actual fact you don’t give a damn about whatever it is you believe the government should be funding.

The Federal Department of Education

Upon the confirmation of the Trumpian Secretary of Education there has been an outpouring of discontent. Justifiable or not, people dislike the new Secretary of Education for various reasons for her policy proposals, her lack of experience, or just the fact that she’s a Trumpian. Nonetheless, I don’t take issue with people that disapprove of her, nor for that matter people that approve of her. Either way, they’re wrong. I don’t care who’s in charge of the department, because the department shouldn’t exist. I’ve now uttered, actually written, the fatal words. How dare I claim that the Federal Department of Education not exist! Think of the children! Apparently, the Federal Department of Education is the only thing keeping children in the Bible Belt for being openly taught creationism in science class, ya know, because parents and teachers are too stupid to make decisions. That’s the point, I’m at most a localist, I believe things should be run locally, in fact, I would say we should run things at an even smaller level, but that’s a different comment for a different time. Schools should be run locally and by and large they already are. The Department of Education has rules and regulations, sure, but if you really have so little faith in the states (especially southern states) to educate without them, do you really believe they aren’t already ignoring as many rules as they can get away with? There are going to be bad schools with or without the Department of Education, and the benefit of not having it is that you wouldn’t have to worry about a Trumpian being in control of it.

Homosexuality and Abortion

I am a Christian. If one is tempted to stop reading at this sentence because one presumes from the title and the preceding sentence they know what I’m going to say, STOP. The point of this is not to expound on my own specific beliefs about these two subjects, but instead to decry that in the contemporary conversation in and around the Christian faith these two subjects have become possibly the biggest areas of debate. I feel that this is an abomination far worse than any other. These two issues have hijacked the faith and are doing a very good job of obliterating it. Ultimately the debate over these two issues within the Christian community and with the broader community is a distraction from the true message of the church.  

The message of the church is one of love and salvation, not hatred and damnation. When in the Gospel of Mark Jesus is asked “Which commandment is first of all?” his reply is “love the Lord with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12: 28-31; emphasis added). Notice that Jesus did not say, ‘the greatest commandment is the prohibition of homosexuality and the second of abortion,’ or, ‘love your neighbor, unless you have determined that you are the right judge and have determined them to be an unredeemable sinner.’ The point should be clear. The commandment of Jesus Christ, who Christians are supposed to follow, is one of love.

Furthermore, it is not the place of any individual however knowledgeable in the Bible or however self-righteous to judge their fellow humans. That job is reserved solely to God. But it seems because of homosexuality and abortion people conveniently forget about John 8: 1-11, the story about the adulterer about to be stoned to death for her crime. Do any of the most virulent haters of homosexuality and abortion recall verse 7? You know the one where Jesus says: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” No? Funny, they must not have included that in the “I don’t want people to be Christians except if they parrot my every word” version of the Bible.

I could go on but I’ll cut to the chase. Whether or not homosexuality and/or abortion are sins in all cases doesn’t really matter. If they are and one subscribes to the view that all sins are equal before the eyes of the Lord, then why do these two things get discussed and decried more often than say disrespecting one’s parents. For that matter, if they are indisputably sins, then so is not loving your neighbor no matter what their sins are. Thus, if, as some that decry homosexuality and abortion so often imply, those living in sin are going to hell, I suppose they’ll have fun with the people they spent their lives hating. If these things aren’t sins then the issue is moot. Overall, they are just a cancer on the church that causes people to lose faith, to distrust the church, and to lose sight of what really matters. There are many other debates to be had that might actually matter than on things that in the scope of it all are trivial. I say they are trivial in the scope of things because if  they are indeed sins then they are no different from any other sin in that if one truly and completely repents one’s sins are forgive. That’s the message of the faith after all. And, again, if they are not sins, then they aren’t issues at all. Furthermore, the work of the church in the world is far more complicated than holding the “correct” position on certain issues. The work of the church is love for the world with the message of salvation. After all, love is the message of the faith, not hatred as it seems many are being lead to believe.

Everything’s a Metaphor

The word metaphor is generally refers to the figurative use of one word or phrase to describe another unrelated word or phrase. It is non-literal. For example, “time is money,” is a metaphor, because time is not literally money. However, as the title of this post suggests I am using the word ‘metaphor’ with an expanded, (you might say, metaphorical), meaning. Let me explain why everything’s a metaphor.

When someone says, “I like this coffee,” what do they mean? This is fairly cut and dry, no metaphor in sight; they mean just what they have said, i.e. they enjoy the coffee they are drinking, just finished, or saw the bag of, etc., which precise meaning is context dependent. That’s all very well and good, but what do they really mean? That may strike the reader as a strange question but here’s my point. The metaphoric is omnipresent in everyday use of language. When one says, “I like this coffee,” what they mean to convey is the nebulous and impossible to precisely define conception of enjoyment of “this” coffee. Ask them why they like this coffee and you may be treated to a soliloquy on its aroma, taste, mouthfeel, or some memorial-emotional connection. Yet, ask them why they like that taste, that aroma, etc. and most will be at a loss to explain. A great deal of human experience is hidden from conceptualization by both outsiders and ourselves.

Thus, everyday language, and even more precise academic language, cannot capture everything one means. At best language can hint at the outside world and the internal mental world.  I think this hinting is best described as “metaphor.” Furthermore, much of people’s everyday speech is not as direct and simple as, “I like this coffee.” A great deal of the time, interpersonal communication, especially among friends and family, involves shared secrets, inside jokes, and communicative short-cuts.  Here, there is yet another level of abstraction, thus another level of metaphor.

One criticism of this view maybe that it is a little thin on explanatory power. For example, of what is the phrase “I love you” a metaphor? Well, it is a metaphor of the experience state of the feeling of love for the loved person by the speaker. Great, says the detractor of my view, but what exactly does this actually explain? Here is the problem; it doesn’t really explain anything, because it cannot. Language is metaphorical, therefore trying to explain on metaphor leads to another metaphor and on and on. This is why even the very statement that everything’s a metaphor is a metaphor. Where does this leave us?

This position does nothing to one’s everyday life. Language is still the same; ideas still remain as they were. Might this position affect one’s world view? Perhaps, but it needn’t. Just because language is ultimately a collection of imperfect metaphors about the world, doesn’t mean that knowledge is unattainable, or that this or that thing doesn’t exist, or that language isn’t one of the best tools (if not the best) we have in life. As Haruki Murakami wrote: “A certain type of perfection can only be realized through a limitless accumulation of the imperfect.”

On 2016

As the year draws to a close, it is a perfect time to reflect on the year and look to the future.

According to some 2016 has been the “worst year” (e.g. here). Indeed, some very bad things did happen in 2016. Here’s a brief list: celebrities died, the United States continued to be a statist nation that elects presidents who have too many powers, there were diseases, there were wars, terrorism, other things anyone doesn’t like happened. How sad. I mean compared to 2016 all other years fail to even register as bad, for example: 1916 with the Battle of Somme; or the Plague years; or 1941-1945, with the Holocaust; or 1520-21 for the Aztec (fall of empire); or any of the years 1861-1865 in the United States.  I think my point is clear, 2016 wasn’t all that bad, it wasn’t great but there has never been a “great” year if you think about it.

Beyond the nostalgic view of some golden pass, every year looks pretty bad but also pretty good. Here’s the long and the short of it. People die; fight; make choices others think are wrong, stupid, dangerous, or whatever; bad, even terrible, things happen, often to good people; there are diseases and wars and potential despots and dictators. However, there are many positive things that make life worth living, for example (without getting religious): the sun continues to rise and give warmth; people fall in love, make friends, and build communities; cures for diseases are found; disasters are avoided; people innovate more and more every day. Indeed, it is true that there are many, many things that are terrible in the world, but there are just as many things that are wonderful. Certainly, some things are looking down, but just as many things, if not more, are looking up.

There is an important point here that is easy to miss. All of us are very good at projecting problems into the future, both our own problems and the world’s problems; but we are very bad at predicting the innovations, the solutions, and the ideas of the future. If you truly believe that 2016 was one of the worst years ever, than it should be a starting point to inspire new solutions. Indeed, that’s what has happened before. Many things have gotten better over the time. Disease, violence, war, and poverty have decreased over time; whereas, life expectancy, literacy rates, and standard of living have increased over that same time. Indeed, if you think about it, one of people’s biggest complaints about the year is that it “took” so many celebrities.

First of all, the year does not “take” any one, the year doesn’t do anything. People die during the year, not because of the year, but because of any number of things including: age, health conditions, lifestyle choices, accidents, or a combination of these things. More importantly, it shows how go things actually are that one of the biggest complaints about the year is that so many famous people have died this year. It is true that anyone’s death is a tragedy, but it hardly makes a 2016 any worse. I also understand that many people that bemoan this year aren’t complaining mainly about the death of celebrities but about war (a legitimate complaint, but overall this year was better than, say one hundred years ago – WWI), or, sadly much more likely, political votes not going how they would have liked.

First it was Brexit (a truly ridiculous word, but never mind) and then it was the election of Donald Trump. Let me be honest, I think the British vote to leave the European Union was a good thing (light your torches) and I am a harsh critic of Donald Trump and I voted against him (for Gary Johnson). Let’s talk Brexit for a moment, I believe that it was the best option not because I believe strong nationalism is necessarily a good thing, nor do I hate immigrants; furthermore, I think the average British person that voted in support of Brexit did not vote nationalistically or because of some deep and profound hatred of immigrants; I would hazard the guess that most of them were simply unhappy with the increasing power of the EU. I understand that one can think I am totally wrong and that’s perfectly okay and won’t ruin my year. Now onto Donald Trump; if his election actually ruined your year, I’m sorry. I really am. You see, if it truly ruined your year you obviously are under the twin delusions that (a) the US president is all powerful and (b) government and society are actually the same thing. Guess who also has these delusions: people that blindly support Donald Trump. Will he be a great president, no; a good president, maybe; a bad president, maybe; a terrible president, maybe; a dictator, no.  If you are honestly afraid of Donald Trump, you have a problem; there’s a difference between being literally afraid of him and thinking his policies will be bad.

The president is not all powerful, they cannot do anything they wish, the likelihood that one will become a death camp administering life-long dictator is low; not impossible, but very, very long while this country is at least somewhat stable. The likelihood that Donald Trump will become dictator for life is next to zero, as is the probability of him jailing those that dissent. There is a simple reason: everyone is on guard about his actions before he has actually assumed power. The moment he does something debatably unconstitutional he will have hundreds if not thousands of people fight him in the courts.

More deeply, politics is not life. Government is not society. At most it is a poor and distorted reflection of society. We must not allow government to replace society, the bullet to replace the book, or the black-and-white thinking to replace nuanced, gradated thinking. In the end, life will go on no matter what individual is the president of the United States.

2016 has been a mixed bag, but every year is. Think back to any other year and you’ll find that there were just as many negatives as 2016. Perhaps, the problem is looking for the negatives. If one looks to be saddened, outraged, or otherwise made upset, they have ample opportunities and outlets. 2017 is fast approaching and it will be just as much a mixed bag as 2016. Maybe, just maybe, if we all try not to find ever more things to be upset by and to divide ourselves over the world can continue to improve. I hope that 2017 will be a year of increased intellectual dialogue, informed and nuanced thinking, and ever more free discourse.

Pulling away from this wide view of the year and towards the personal, you are the only one that can determine how the year was for you and how the next year will be for you. In the words of Marcus Aurelius: “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”