The Words We Use — Language is fluid, isn’t it?

Since the time of Cro-Magnon orators, we have continuously and thankfully modified our languages.  Now there are many hundreds spoken, and many hundreds more have slid back into the recesses of time. And all this is a good thing. Had changes not occurred, we never would have had metaphors or s’mores? Yes, language changes with the times and the complexity of the world in general. This linguistic mutability is for some however a heady wine. Wine, and especially a good wine, can enhance a meal while it improves digestion, and it aids in the defeat of free-radicals. Similarly, changes in language can enhance good rhetoric, while aiding in the digestion of new ideas, and it helps clarify vagueness. However, like wine on the lips of some, changes in language can be committed for change-sake, a heady sense of self-empowerment, or a sad but general detachment from the value of standards.

There are agencies that actually inspire seemingly random, screw-cap changes in our language – at least in the English language – creating changes for the sake of catchiness. These catchy words and phrases, along with words born in the vacuum of lexical deficiencies, are picked up and proliferated across our land by the various media. Accepting the validity of anything posted on social media especially, no matter how dubious or pointless, furthers the corruption of our language. We become besotted with these jingly changes, spewing them into our own communities. And they are infectious – or rather—and forgive me for saying it, “They go viral!”

What then is the result? Do we have a better understanding of any thought that might have been subtly embedded? Well, that’s a tricky question. In the first place, so much of what is written or said has no particular meaning. The speaker or writer may simply be trying to evoke a reaction, not a thoughtful assessment, from the listener or reader. Anything like meaning is just an empty carton, wrapped in glib gift wrap, giving the impression of meaning. It is intended to sound ‘a way’: funny, comforting, threatening, etc. But, hey, actual thinking is calorie costly work. No, no! Life is supposed to be fun and feel good. Entertainment over information. Thus, the second reason that better understanding is unlikely is that the reader or listener, more often than not, wants reassurance, not reasoned argument. Bias affirmation not cognitive stimulation. So, two halves of a communication: sender and receiver – half of the model has no meaningful message to deliver, and the other half has no interest in analyzing one. So, ignore everything I’ve written so far and just enjoy the catchy bits. We go on, however.

We know that it happens, but how?

Beowulf Manuscript from https://mymodernmet.com/old-english-manuscripts/, 24 Aug 2020

How ever did we get to this point? To begin with, the English language has indeed been changing since well before it was even Old English – Anglo-Saxon, a Germanic tongue. Beowulf (shown here) represents the state of language around 1,000 years ago. The change since then has occurred over the last 1% or so of the whole course language. So change is natural and it is certainly going on pretty much everywhere today, but perhaps a little more quickly.

By the way, this bit says:

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning.
ðæm eafera wæs æfter cenned,
geong in geardum, þone god sende
folce to frofre; fyrenðearfe ongeat
þe hie ær drugon aldorlease
lange hwile. Him þæs liffrea,
wuldres wealdend, woroldare forgeaf;
Beowulf wæs breme blæd wide sprang,
Scyldes eafera Scedelandum in.
Swa sceal geong guma gode gewyrcean,

Even when neither invasion nor rising mercantilism is the source, languages cross boundaries in other ways. The more people travel or emigrate, the more they take their language into new places. “Tobacco” came back to Europe from the Americas as both a product and a word. Food and other consumables often enter the language and are easily adopted. Though sometimes the adoption is not so easy. “Hot dog” was brought to France during the Second World War. The word was rejected from the official French language under the dictatorship of the Académie Française, but it might have seemed more acceptable to the French people than the source food name, Frankfurter.Historically, there are three ways that languages change. The first of these is simply conquest and submission. In 1066, the Anglo-Saxons who ruled the south and east of modern England were displaced by Norman conquerors. The latter spoke Old French – Latinized Gallic probably influenced by Norse, since the Norse had established a colony in Normandy as they had in Dublin and Scarborough and many other places. Skipping the complexities of the era, Norman French of the then ruling class merged with the Saxon German of the peasantry and smaller estates, because they needed to be able to communicate with one another. Their pidgin became Middle and then Modern English over 500 years of so. We maintain some of the features of that pidgin, such as the Saxon cow () in the barn becoming the Norman beef (boef) on the plate.

The Académie Française, by the way, has had only some success in stopping changes to French. The conservative linguistic scholars simply came too late to the game. French, like all languages, has suffered or enjoyed gradual vocal drift, for example. Vocal drift is a change that has brewed over hundreds of years. Did the French always drop the final consonant sound of words? The result of vocal drift is easy to see in the current differences in American and British English speakers, and is even apparent in regional differences across America and across England. We learn to form the sounds of our language as babies, and that there would be slight differences in what is formed is not surprising. Children spend much of their speech practice with other children. This allows changes from one family to influence children from another family. Vocal drift is especially common in vowel sounds. We all tend to take several vowels (ă, ĕ, ŭ) toward the schwa sound, eh, for example.

The third change mechanism is word addition often resulting from advances in civilization and technology. Since civilization is about living together, language would have to evolve with it. At some point, farmers tell their hunter neighbors that it’s okay to hunt on their land because otherwise the animals might eat the food plants they had planted there, which seem attract animals, such as deer. “You planted food plants?” “Yes, indeed, and I call it a farm. So, please, hunt the deer on my farm, but don’t crush the crops.” “Crops?” These days, we are swamped with technobabble, of course, and that’s actually a big part of an emerging problem. English isn’t just evolving to meet changing needs; it’s become a form of (self?)-entertainment, and it’s degrading. And while my efforts may be as pointless as those of the Académie Française, I will appeal to the consciences of thoughtful, communicative readers such as yourselves to hold out against the corrosion of English.

As now, language had an explosion around 450 years ago. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the printing press and Protestantism in Europe engendered a fairly large increase in those who read. That in turn supported the amount of writing that was going on. Language needed to standardize. The vocabulary of the times—more properly called a lexicon—in the village of 100 was bumping into the lexicons of other villages, and moreover, the lexicons of places such as the court in London. Shakespeare helped the explosion. He created hundreds of new words, mostly out of old ones, such as “eyeball.” Now, I rush to the defense of Willie here; he had good cause for creating a new word and he didn’t run it into the ground with over use. The thing he was writing about needed a better word than any that existed, and it was needed to complete an iamb. Shakespeare’s inventions didn’t degrade the language. They met a need and they were not, and did not become hollow catchy sounds. Many became words commonly used today. That’s no longer the case.

Today we are dealing with forces changes to our language that do not meet a need and which are becoming overused and often used so far from their origins, if they even have one, that they have become superfluous and utterly meaningless. It is as if we are emptying meaning and poetic charm out of English. Trendy words that have supplanted English existing words have become unclear in their meanings. They are pseudo-words, junk words.

Many such changes are purely gratuitous. For decades cute, slang-veined spelling was the change of frivolous choice. “Quick” became “Kwik.” How very “kwaint.” That slang-creating trend has metamorphosed, or, in the truncated, digital-age cant, “morphed.” Thus we see some of the changes as auditory abbreviations. A few, such as President Coolidge’s conversion of “normality” to “normalcy,” are probably the deposits of lexical ignorance; the speaker didn’t know there was already a word for the desired meaning. More recent are the changes that are truly unnecessary, and cannot be overlooked as cuteness, laziness or ignorance either.

They are changes for change sake, pointless and a little crude. One such change is the generation of new words by converting a noun or less often an adjective into a verb, usually by adding “ing,” an act I call “verbing”. The classic “verbed” word is “priority,” used as “prioritize” to mean “set priorities.” It was probably born of not knowing that “prioritize” was not a word, but could appear to be by adding a Latinate suffix, the classic way to shift parts of speech. It is has become accepted now and so is a real language change, not just kitsch verbing. Such questionable changes are represented by such words as “texting.” A text is a set of words usually in print. The term distinguishes words from images or other visual features. When we send text from one mobile device to another in the form of a words-only message, are we “texting” or worse “messaging”? Surely, we are not so strapped for time that we can’t say, “Send me a message,” rather than, “Text me.” “Cover me in text?” A “text message” is already moreover redundant, since messages are text for delivery.

Handling new technology derived words is challenging. Considering the bright lines that distinguish engineering and mathematics from linguistic cognition, philosophical discourse or other humanities, one hardly wonders that computer hardware and software engineers are recasting language into a digital system that computers can handle. And we even speak of programming languages, which create systems where the exact same input will always return the exact same output. Since computers can’t deal with the emotional ambiguities of organic people, technology-based language must limit our ability to speak our feeling to them. That’s not all together a bad thing. We become a bit more bilingual, and we know that’s good for brain development and concept formation. This bilingualism however can engender pidgin language. Bilingual Spanish/English speakers may use Spanglish. Perhaps OS/English speakers will adopted Compuglish.

Perhaps the most glaring of these language corruptions springs from the screens of the Mac computer. That’s word high jacking. Macs used icons as switches or buttons displayed on the screen meant to activate something, usually to start a program running. The icon was a little picture that may have represented something about the program’s function, such as a typewriter picture to represent a word processor. Maneuver the cursor to the icon and press the button on the mouse and the program would start running. This is exactly what is meant by the word “icon,” an image through which one could access some dynamic. The word is taken from religious worship where icons were images, such as paintings or statues, representing deities or saints. By appealing to such images, the spirit of that entity would inhabit the image and be accessible to the supplicant. An icon was not just a symbol or emblem of something representative of an idea or category. It became, when called upon, the very thing it represented. The icon wasn’t worshiped; it was a connecting mechanism like a telephone that connects us via a direct hotline. So what is meant by an iconic song? “Iconic,” the adjective form of “icon,” suggests that the noun it modifies is in the nature of an icon. The saint or computer program that comes to us hears our prayers or inputs. The answer is that “iconic,” as it is used today, means nothing. Its incredible overuse and consistent misuse have rendered it completely without meaning. It is simply a mot du jour. Not using is the only fault; it leaves one out of step. Using it however means nothing, but it sounds good. While this is a very apparent dilution of meaning through the change of language, its use pales when compared to intentional misdirection. Beyond just emptying words of their meaning to leave a vacuous smiley face, words are being twisted further to elicit emotional arrays beyond the glib into the grim.

Avoiding meaning is not enough it seems. Today changes to our language are often meant to confound understanding while drawing out a reaction – often buying something, voting for someone, targeting something or just filling an empty ego with primal sounds. The dilution of the language paves the way for this. The use of buzz-words is often effectively calculated to fall on ears open to the sound of things, but deaf to any thought behind the sounds, thus bringing forth the desired reaction even when it conflicts with the best interest of the listener. There are many buzz-words in our cultural lexicons that do this. It’s seldom necessary to create new ones. Remember that the word doesn’t necessarily carry any meaning, and when it does, it might be unclear or twisted. These words make us feel some way, but what do they tell us?

Speakers shift their rhetoric from reason to passion by the choice, placement and repetition of words that sound good or scary or promising. Our intellect could be reached by these emotional appeals through reason, but that would require a little background knowledge and some reasoned consideration of ideas—reaction v. evaluation. We can be reached with a few well-chosen, incendiary words. A word such as “lying” needs no explanation. It’s bad and whatever is attached to it is bad too. So a lying newspaper is a bad newspaper. It doesn’t need to make sense and it doesn’t need to be true; it’s bad [full stop]. And as it has no real meaning, can it be true or false? If the words describing people and events have no real meaning, the veracity of those words has no foundation. There simply is no true or false—right or wrong, just linguistic sociopathy. Without some sense of truth or falsehood, some sense of right or wrong, no one can be held accountable for anything, because there is no accounting. Everything is what it is—empty moving sounds, ink on paper, vibrations in the air. This is argument without reason, winning by manipulating emotions through clever management of charged language—language without standards.

English is a rich, even precise language with something close to 50,000 words in use. College educated native speakers probably recognize between 25,000 and 30,000 words, if they are widely and well read, and use about half that number, less in speaking than writing. Overusing words therefore thins out the meaning that may have been intended, leaving only an imprecise impression. Worse, creating new words that don’t add anything more to our understanding of one another seems a bit of a disconnection with the whole point of language. Shouldn’t language attempt to transmit the complex abstraction and imagery of our thoughts as closely as possible with a clear comprehension and recreation in someone else’s thoughts? Other media can carry the abstractions, such as art and music, but these only stimulate dreamlike, abstract thoughts or feelings, by tapping into remembered feelings. Such thoughts and feelings can vary greatly, or may be absent, and are certainly not the same between two individuals. Words are for sharing ideas. Words hold and share power and clarity of thought when used with this intent. Using a word for its cuteness—for its entertainment value—seems like a petty vanity that discourages thoughtful persons from taking such a speaker or listener seriously. Moreover it opens the way for deception and manipulation. Language competence makes us more resistant to deception and manipulation, and empowers us to be thoughtful people in control of our own lives. Is the pen not mightier than the sword?

“But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.”

—George Gordon, Lord Byron

A Letter from Joe

Dear Mr. President,

My wife and I were having a conversation this morning about what we might do after the outbreak of civil war. I just thought I’d write to let you know how much I admire the facility with which your words, and that cute little O shape your mouth makes–like a little horn, have brought this country to its knees, ready to throw itself into war.

However, would you please direct those loyal men who fight for you, young and old, to look elsewhere than our house for violent engagement? We have nothing you want; we’re educated, thoughtful and compassionate people. We aren’t the sort of people you would like to hang out with. We have no land to speak of–just a little city plot with a cozy little bungalow–not even a spare bedroom for a guest, paying or not. Before retirement, we worked in education and public health, causes you might have heard of. They turn no profit of the monetary kind, just happier, healthier people.

Well, I had better let you get back to your golf game. I know your boys will take care of all that nasty work you have ahead of you, suppressing and intimidating democrats. So, here’s hoping you succeed in being the last man standing–alone in the United Graveyard of America. Have a nice day.

With due regards,
Joe Average

The ‘New Far-Left Fascism’?

Let’s see. Go to Wikipedia and look these things up.

Fascism is a form of far-right, authoritarian ultra-nationalism characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition, and strong regimentation of society and of the economy which came to prominence in early 20th-century Europe. The first fascist movements emerged in Italy during World War I, before spreading to other European countries. Opposed to liberalism, Marxism, and anarchism, fascism is placed on the far-right within the traditional left–right spectrum.

Wikipedia

So, under a fascist government, the people are all responsible to the state. Right?

Ed.


Anti-fascism is opposition to fascist ideologies, groups and individuals. The anti-fascist movement began in a few European countries in the 1920s, and eventually spread to other countries around the world.

Wikipedia

It was at its most significant shortly before and during World War II, where the Axis powers were opposed by many countries forming the Allies of World War II and dozens of resistance movements worldwide. Anti-fascism has been an element of movements holding many different political positions, including social democratic, nationalist, liberal, conservative, communist, Marxist, trade unionist, anarchist, socialist, republicanist, pacifist and centrist viewpoints.

Wikipedia · Text under CC-BY-SA license

So, that’s pretty clear; over the last hundred years, anti-fascism has meant opposing anything in the “far-right” fascist camp, making anti-fascism to the left of fascism. Right? Fascism’s as far right as you can go; so anything else is to its left..

Ed.


Socialism is a political, social, and economic philosophy encompassing a range of economic and social systems characterized by social ownership of the means of production and workers’ self-management of enterprise as well as the political theories and movements associated with such systems. Social ownership can be public, collective or cooperative ownership, or citizen ownership of equity. There are many varieties of socialism and there is no single definition encapsulating all of them, with social ownership being the common element shared by its various forms.

Wikipedia

So, socialism is just about how the people are invested in everything, or at least most things. It’s about sharing the wealth of the state (Ouh, the workers owning Amazon?), but not about how the government is run. Right? So, are the people responsible to the state then, or is the state responsible to the people.

Ed.


Liberalism is a political and moral philosophy based on liberty, consent of the governed and equality before the law. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but they generally support free markets, free trade, limited government, individual rights (including civil rights and human rights), capitalism, democracy, secularism, gender equality, racial equality, internationalism, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion.

Wikipedia

So, this sounds a lot like the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights in the first ten Amendments. But the “limited government, and individual rights” part sounds like 20th Century Republicans, while the “civil rights and human rights” sounds like 21st Century Democrats. It sounds like the government is responsible to the people, but not so much about protecting them from the differences the people see among themselves. Right? Sounds like the Tea Party folks.

Ed.


Left-wing politics supports social equality and egalitarianism, often in opposition to social hierarchy. It typically involves a concern for those in society whom its adherents perceive as disadvantaged relative to others as well as a belief that there are unjustified inequalities that need to be reduced or abolished.

Wikipedia

The political terms Left and Right were coined during the French Revolution (1789–1799), referring to the seating arrangement in the French Estates General. Those who sat on the left generally opposed the monarchy and supported the revolution, including the creation of a republic and secularization, while those on the right were supportive of the traditional institutions of the Old Regime.

Wikipedia · Text under CC-BY-SA license

So, that doesn’t sound so awful, and it seems as if leftists would have the state actively support civil rights and human rights as well as individual rights. Right? And the Constitution says that the exercise of one right may not impinge on the rights of another.

Ed.


Okay so what the hell is the president talking about when he “…Warns Of ‘New Far-Left Fascism’ At Mount Rushmore…?” (NPR) He seems to count on people’s inability to understand what they hear as long as it has a good beat and you can dance to it. (Who remembers Dick Clark?) I can’t believe Trump is as ignorant as he assumes his audience to be.

Meanwhile, back in the good old District (not state) of Columbia (not Capital), is Mopey Barr setting up a Putinesque take over of the presidency, based on the extreme emergency of Covid-19? Perhaps we could have Donald Trump as president for life with extreme emergency powers – our own Führer. What’s that brown stuff on your nose Bill?

Responding to the Covid-19 Crisis

As we suffer through the lockdowns, shut-ins and stays at home, we have time to look around and see how others are handling things. Some of us are working from home, some are working from home and caring for children at home, and some are essential workers whose children are not in school and who cannot afford daycare on their often low end wages. For those who must go out for work, for food or just for relief from being shut in, every day runs a risk of bringing home a potentially serious illness. And in this case, we’re playing a game of high stakes poker. Our children, parents or other household members are the stakes in this ‘game.’ ‘Winning’ the bet, we can keep them, but the odds are really good – 10,000 to 1 says we win, a sure thing – for every encounter with someone who may or may not be infected. Of course, those encounters who are ‘sure’ they’re not infected, and so don’t behave so cautiously, can shift those odds. Touching any stressors yet?

As we watch around our communities, it is clear that most people understand the risks and are inconvenienced but realistic about them. It’s unlikely that more than a handful of people would actually want to be responsible for using their absent or light symptom infection to harm others, and fortunately only a small percentage of people are dismissive of the callously potential danger they pose. The question concerning them is: How many rabid dogs will we tolerate in our community? After all, it’s all about communities, large and small.

The world today is seeing a pandemic of proportions not seen before, and we are ramping up to control it, as we must. Our resources are being stretched. Our fears are being stoked. And our thinking is being clouded by political agendas and news marketing strategies. Is protecting our lives and livelihoods the ultimate goal of what’s being done to get control of the pandemic, or are our votes and dollars metaphorically coal being shoveled into the boiler to keep the train running down the tracks even as the passengers are dying in and being pushed off the cars as we go? And who decides how it will go? We are smart enough to know that 1.) we don’t know it all and 2.) we deserve answers to questions like these.

Before we make demands on those in power, we need to do some research. If we make demands and get those demands met only to find we made matters worse, accept it or not, we are responsible for the harm that results. If we do the research, ask the questions, consider some options before setting the demands, we improve the chances of success and can accept responsibility for having done the best that can be done, no matter the outcome. Research is a recipe: get ideas and inputs from as many people and places as possible, and consider all the ideas in terms of doing the most good for the most people on into the future if possible. The alternative recipe is a recipe for disaster: ignore other people’s ideas and input and do what you like best, especially when it does the most good for yourself. That recipe is a bit like Russian roulette, maybe a good choice, maybe not. Bang.

“But,” you say, “we have to deal with the crisis now!” And I agree, but we must also deal with the outcomes from those decisions and with moving on post-crisis in a world that will be changed. Doing it all is important, or we will be right back where we are now, asking why we dismantled something, or why we didn’t have a more comprehensive plan. The next crisis won’t be a walk in the park, but a crisis will come and it can be another hurdle or it can be a crushing disaster that kills tens, maybe hundreds of thousands, maybe millions. So as we deal with the crisis now, we must gather as much information about what’s working and what’s not as we can, and we must start shaping it into a more secure future. If we learn that having done something differently, giving a better outcome than expected, document it and add it to the plan for the next time. And since things we try this time, whether they succeed or fail, give us more options for all times, we should examine them all. When those options have better results than what we had been doing, more effective and/or more cost effective, keep them. This last piece is extremely important.

‘Overcoming’ and ‘moving on’ can be replaced with ‘overcoming’ and ‘moving forward.’ We can come out of this better positioned not just for tomorrow’s crisis, but for every tomorrow. If my house has ground water seeping into the basement, and I lose that house to a tornado, I have some options. I could find and buy a new house. I could rebuild my house on higher, drier ground, if I have some. Or I could rebuild my house on the same foundation. Choosing to rebuild on the same foundation may be the only affordable option of course, and that’s sad but very real. If, on the other hand, at a time of such a disaster there were some public help when I lose my leaky house, would it seem to make sense to build on that leaky foundation?

We don’t have the resources now, but what if we set up something before the next house loss disaster. I spend a few thousand dollars a year for insurance on things I own. Is it unrealistic for all property owners to contribute fifty dollars a year to fund disaster relief, to help those unable to meet the uninsured costs of a disaster? When run at scale, change could be implemented rather painlessly. This is not the best or only solution, but as I sat here thinking this up and typing, I realize how much a little thought from many of people could create considerable resources for big change.

Change is difficult. It requires will and effort. Yet, change is actually easier during and immediately after a crisis when earlier shortcomings and their painful results are laid bare; it provides the will to change. Complacency defeats change because it provides little will to put out any effort. If we were ever to get back to normality, we would be building back on the same leaky foundation. We need to think beyond now and embrace change.

We take on the crisis when it comes. We learn from that what we must do differently the next time, and plan for it. And we look at how our efforts have given us better, while affordable, ways to carry on our everyday better designed lives by designing those strategies into our  ongoing institutions.

In the 1980’s I was teaching in a, then, junior high school. One day, my principal announced with certainty, as he often did, that “We’re getting there.” I pointed out to him that when we are going somewhere and we get there, we stop. I didn’t think he should encourage us to decide to stop going any day soon. From my point of view, when I got to the end of the year with my seventh graders, I was looking forward to getting going with a new bunch when we’d start over in the fall. Life is like that.

We’ll get through the Covid-19 pandemic, but let’s hope we never get over it.

Surviving the Covid-19 Lockdown

I was preparing what I would contribute to our online meeting this evening. It springs from what I have been thinking about and what has pretty much got me down recently. I see how people around me are stepping forward to help out and be united in surviving Covid-19, and I see how politicians are willing to let people die in the advance of their agendas.

Our weekly meetings were supposed to be about “surviving the pandemic and exploiting its opportunities.” I thought it would help people feel more connected and positive by sharing successes and spotlighting hope. Perhaps more control over what people say… Perhaps a tighter seminar format… Yet venting is important too, but it seems to descend into recrimination and emotional stagnation.

Now I wonder if that isn’t just us being who we are. Maybe we are masters of our own doom; we just have no good map for choosing which paths to take. Perhaps all we can do is take it one step at a time and continue to move forward and accept what comes and move on.

My contribution for this evening

Getting through:

Do: Yard work, bike rides and reading…and Prime Video

Avoid: Lakes and parkways, Millennials with little kids on bikes on the sidewalks, the news

Getting on:

We speak of coming out of this better in some way. In that statement are two assumptions that contradict history.

First is the assumption that we will come through the medical and financial crises and be free of any remnant of it. No. We carry our history with us forever; we will be forever affected by it. There is no getting over it. It would be like saying we have passed through the shift to agrarianism or the Industrial Revolution, and are no longer carrying the affects with us. This pandemic is miniscule by comparison, but it will be with us always.

Second is the assumption that humans will be changed by this. The only thing that changes about us is the scale and scope of our actions. We’re using Zoom which has boomed from the situation and increased our capacity to interconnect, and it has made us more easily and more often the victims of invasive and malicious behaviors. The Great Plague of the 14th century did bring an end to the Hundred Years War. 600 hundred years later, the French and Germans were back at it, again. During that plague, a business arose in body disposal. The carriers of the dead were paid per corpse, some of which were only near death. Those carriers would leave articles of clothing along the streets to promote further infection. What changes is how we exploit situations: for good or bad. And Good and Bad are entirely subjective. We only believe they are absolutes.

As humans we have always been vessels of great promise and disgusting wretchedness. That isn’t going to change and there’s plenty of evidence of that out there now. Get set for new ways to do what we have been doing for at least the last 5 millennia. It is the tension between our extremes that defines us. It is the conflict the drives the plot of our story. And where each of us comes down on that conflict defines our character.

Lions and Tigers and Memes, Oh, My!

I’ve just been reading about “memes,” in a Times article. I had to laugh.

Here’s part of the letter to the Times:

   I am a Gen X-er who generally speaks proper English and am a “digital native.” (Hey, kids: We built these tools that you claim as your own.) When I respond to a text or email with “O.K.,” I mean just that: O.K. As in: I hear you, I understand, I agree, I will do that. If I reply with “K,” I’m just being more informal.

   However, I have been informed by my Millennial and Gen Z co-workers that the new thing I’m supposed to type is “kk.” To write “O.K.” or “K,” they tell me, is to be passive-aggressive or imply that I would like the recipient to drop dead. To which I am tempted to respond, “Believe me, if I want you to drop dead … you’ll know.”

 Two Letters of Generational Separation, Caity Weaver,
 The New York Times, app.nytimes.com, 24 Nov. 2019

   All right – or should I say, “kk” – the writer encountered an “obstacle,” a challenge to his(?)  – the text sort of sounds like it, but, he is just a guess – to their self-entitlement. “I invented the digital age – so Ha!” quotes they. (Hmmm – “quote they?”) And wasn’t there ARPNET before s/he was even born? Yet, s/he does speak “proper” English.

   Meanwhile the columnist’s response that follows is coherent and somewhat measured. However, it does dive into a discourse on generation and gender, and gender positioning and boundary defining… Well, she “agendizes” her response. (“Agendizes” isn’t a word, but I couldn’t help a little youthful “verbing.”) So, is “Ok” even a meme? I mean really? (ambiguity intended)

   So here’s Wiki’s take on memes:

 Meme

   From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

   A meme (/miːm/ MEEM) is an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture—often with the aim of conveying a particular phenomenon, theme, or meaning represented by the meme. [sort of an icon without portfolio (ed)]  A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.

   Proponents theorize that memes are a viral phenomenon that may evolve by natural selection in a manner analogous to that of biological evolution. Memes do this through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance, each of which influences a meme’s reproductive success. Memes spread through the behavior that they generate in their hosts. Memes that propagate less prolifically may become extinct, while others may survive, spread, and (for better or for worse) mutate. Memes that replicate most effectively enjoy more success, and some may replicate effectively even when they prove to be detrimental to the welfare of their hosts.

from which I’ve taken out note numbering, etc.

    Perhaps it is a new life form. I suspect this definition was submitted by someone who has thought much about memes and has articulated much of that thought here. When I create an image out of her or his words, it’s something like a children’s cartoon wherein a character speaks words which stream out of its mouth and another character busily gathers those words and bunches them into a ball that itself becomes the thing the words represented – let’s say a running dog. Big dog, little dog, friendly or vicious? The ambiguity of text has always allowed for variation of interpretation. That’s why clear writing has long demanded precision. Memes are all interpretation with no intent intended – anti-precision.

   I’m getting closer to the “obstacle.” The letter writer is chasing her/his tail about the “proper” use of something that does its job poorly and is generally void of intention. Precision is demanding, and it exposes the complexity and inadequacy of language to ever express the vagaries and nuance, and especially the unique nature of a thought. Just like writing a ten volume history of the world leaves out an unimaginable amount, just speaking a sentence leaves volumes unsaid. A similar problem then exists for the receiver – the listener. When we hear or read something, we have to make meaning out of it. Vibrating air molecules and printer’s ink cannot hold meaning. We have to unravel the meaning from the crude symbols of language. In doing that we call on previous experiences with the words – singly and in combination – and with all the other clues, such as intonation, pauses, facial expression and gestures in face to face communications, for which ALL CAPS, italics, underlining and color are poor and capricious substitutes. I’ve tried to be precise here, but you, and god, only know what you’ve just read.

   Well, have you figured out the obstacle yet? OK. Oh, I’m supposed to use the Gen-Z accommodation “kk” here — or I could just be more precise. Here then is the obstacle: The hyper-fluidity of contemporary language has moved speakers and listeners, and writers and readers increasingly away from precise use of a rich and powerful language toward a polymorphic set of trendy phrases. As a mode of language use, memes hang somewhere between colloquial language, which will stay fairly persistent, and slang and jargon, which are more ephemeral in the case of slang and more exclusive in the case of jargon. As much as memes are generational, they fit both of these; they will pass with the next generation and they are tied to the media channels of the day, e.g. social media.

   What does this mean then! Well, it has to do with power for one thing. As I said, language, and I believe English rather exquisitely, is powerful. Its enduring impact alone attests to that. Think of the phrases from Shakespeare embedded in our common surroundings – “To be or not to be,” – specifically a suicidal thought, often extrapolated to any monumental decision. Think of President Reagan’s words 50 years gone – “Tear down this wall,” specially referring to the Berlin Wall in 1997, now applicable to any impediment to unity and harmony. Yet where does the power in these words lie? It isn’t in the words; it’s in how we read them. It’s what happens in the reader’s mind when hearing or reading these words. The power like the meaning is in the impact. Reagan directed his word toward Gorbachev and the East Germans, and they were meant to “feel” the power. At the same time, people in the West were meant to feel that power as theirs, creating the power Reagan was channeling. With memes, there is a very different power dynamic occurring.

   When people feel disempowered they may try to create, rearrange, circumvent or destroy externals they consider to be oppressing them. Sometimes it’s fighting back and sometimes it’s just lashing out, but it’s a complex natural response that allows us to survive and mature. Powerlessness oppresses many “categories” (really hard to find a baggage free word here, sorry) – race, religion, ethnicity…but universally childhood.

   Children are almost universally oppressed, that is, denied power. (An aside: premature empowerment of children has many interesting long term effects, the discussion of which far exceeds this essay. I’ll stick to how this impacts language.) One way to wrest power into one’s own words, or at least into the words used by peers is the creation of new words or word sets for ideas commonly held among peers. This is slang – gen code. Most of it passes out of practice as the young age. It’s cool that some sticks around, but the more far-out bits die ungraceful deaths. Slang is exclusive of older generations, thus it retains power among those who created it. Jargon works similarly, but with expert group rather than age – geek speak, jock talk, theologian esotericisms. Expert groups probably don’t feel disempowered; quite the contrary. They want to wall their power in, however. Both groups wish to be exclusive, and that exclusivity can be used as a lever to shift power.

   Memes have moved generational linguistic strategies along a different route, however. No better example may exist than “OK, Boomer.” this meme says pretty much what that strategy is: a demand that the older speaker affirm the younger listener’s existing, if limited, interpretation of the world. Other, non-affirming statements are noise or attacks. Such demands are simply immature. Who do you know who is immersed in their own reality, and accuses speakers of irrelevance or hostility if they disagree with this individual? What if we take someone else’s pet phrase and assign it a different, contrary meaning? Can we then accuse the speaker of intending the new meaning when using the phrase? Gotcha!

   There is a troubling counter positioning that underlies the generational meme war, and by the way, at least the last three generations have been in this boat. I can’t speak to the Boomers’ involvement, being a member of that generation, but the Anti-war Movement would seem to sit in there as well. In all of these generational power grabs, there have been two disturbing takeaways. First, because they focus on what seems accessible to influence, such as language, they fail to access the underlying levers of power to make actual cultural change that will persist. It is therefore not surprising that – and this is the second thing, not much change happens. “OK” to “kk” will not shift any power, in any form, to Gen-Z people. It will not raise their esteem in the eyes of their elders, who already hold more power. Memetic shifts will not gain them much more respect; rather they may only gain grudging obligation. Worse, as a species, we won’t get much better – but probably not much worse either – at raising our children to understand that, like so much in life, real power is acquired not by wresting memetic minutia from others, but by sharing understanding of what matters. Maturing can be a process of integrating our needs and wants into the general flow of resources and rewards through cooperative effort and universal returns. “Kk” will bring us no closer to bringing our children or us to this understanding. Meanwhile we struggle in contention and seek primacy, and thus squander the power we have on such diminished rewards.

   Empowerment can be weighed not by how others’ action makes us feel, but by how our own actions make us feel. And if we weigh power as one might weigh wealth, as an external to be accumulated, we are doomed to disappointment. We are trying to strip other’s power to increase our own, but their loss will not make us feel better about ourselves, only, in a twisted way, “better” than the person whose power we’ve stripped. We can’t make our lives better by making other people’s lives worse. That’s dominance, and it fits the reasoning of a maladjusted 9 year old. A mature person gets it that doing good feels good; all boats rising – an enduring meme. Another enduring meme: “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” (In case you’ve forgotten, the rest of that is, “It’s all small stuff.”) For purely self-empowering reasons, I want you all to feel empowered, to do good work and make this a better world for all living things. If you do, my power will have increased too, and I’ll feel better about myself.

   So thanks to George Lucas, my final meme: “May the Force be with you.”

I Have a Couple of Questions

Is there a global network of Nationalist terrorism? An innately human system tending toward militant Tribalism? Is there a widely held belief that humanity is genetically designed to live in a world of homogeneous cultures*, isolated from and hostile to other cultures, and entitled to dominate, exploit and destroy other cultures by the virtue of might in the guise of need?
What is the basis for such a system? Are there valid scriptures declaring the intentions of superhuman beings or forces for such a system? Is there historical, anthropological or archeological evidence that demonstrates the relative success of species populations who enjoy better survival status when they break into competing groups – tribes? Is there evidence that localized packs or tribal groups are more genetically stable when they do not incorporate genetic material from outside their tribe? Is there any philosophical, psychological or medical evidence that militant conflict improves the quality of life for the greater number of members of the tribe?
Is there any authoritative documentation, historical evidence or demonstrable rational that supports the superiority of the tribalist world? And if not, what drives such a wide spread and apparently sociopathic delusion?
Oh, make no mistake about it: I have answers to these questions. I think more people need to ask themselves these questions, and be prepared with answers to them.

*Culture: a community of people who share language, traditions and beliefs, which may or may not include the belief in a right to a certain geographic space and a qualification of “racial” purity as defined by certain physical characteristics. Such a community could be called a tribe or nation.

The Second Coming

William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

——————————————————————————-

The classic example of Modernism lies in the line “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” which by extension declares that there is a moral or social “center” from which we have lost hold, spiraling into the darkness of the unknown, ungoverned by any moral core. This is Yeats’ response to the world of the First World War, a war among wealthy, powerful, rather degenerate and often incompetent European monarchies fought by everyone but them.

How appropriate then for our Post-Modernist time when the world is racked by oppression, conflict, discord and violence in a chaos of the Ongoing World War, a war among wealthy, powerful, degenerate and often incompetent world autocracies, many of whom make war on their own subjects.  If there ever was a moral center, it has faded into complete obscurity.

What “rough beast’s” hour is coming around now to save us? How long must we wait for anything to come from without to save us from ourselves?

———————————————

The great lesson of history, well recorded in our Humanities: We have learned nothing from history, except how to repeat it, as this phrase has often coined.

A Tribute to Dr. King

I have just been listening to a couple of African American guests on a talk show. Both, as far as I could tell were perhaps in their 30’s and roughly comparably educated.
The first identified many ways that our U.S. society has been structured to maintain an inequitable and unjust system that uses race as a lever for applying power. He suggested that we must change the culture, and suggested some broad ways this might be done. Our culture – a complex cultural milieu, I would say, as there is no uniform cultural state for all the people – is the ultimate driver of any systemic or institutional change. Changing culture, under the best of circumstances, is a challenge.
The second speaker spoke about the inequities, largely in access to realizing aspirations, and generally economically expressed. Her general message seemed to be that things were worse now than they had been in her past – presumably the 90’s, and that it felt very defeating. Whether she got to what should be done to change things, to stop and perhaps reverse the decline, I don’t know. I was frankly unimpressed by what sounded like a complaint against not having gotten the fortune she deserved from life. This was a seemingly healthy, educated young woman who had recently had a book published, but the closest she came to speaking out for those very oppressed by conditions was her use of the first person plural pronouns.
When I was teaching, roughly half of my students were African American, many from low income or homeless/highly mobile situations. I sought readings by writers whose backgrounds were not unlike my students. I once asked if, in their experience, the students thought things were getting better, worse or staying the same for people of color. I didn’t ask this question again, however. Most of the students said nothing, but a couple took angry exception to having such a conversation.
I didn’t pursuing the topic. It was moving farther from our academic goals, but I wonder now about the reticence. Was I out of bounds for opening this discussion? I enjoy (albeit ashamedly) white male privilege. There are many accidents of birth that burden us with guilt. Or was their reluctance from a sense of pointlessness, bitter resignation to society’s chains? Or was it something else? A fear that it could become an avouchment of the guilt of their “accident of birth?” Was it that, as a representative of the system, I held power, not to be relinquished, and therefore not of any benefit to the African American case, and possibly a harm. Yet I was really, perhaps selfishly seeking affirmation of my observations from outside the situation that things really were, or seemed to be in decline.
Open forums are of course necessary, complex and difficult. But recognizing that a problem exists certainly is a good first step. Better still is envisioning a goal – one that is rewarding, but realistically achievable, generally legitimate and challenging enough to engage thought and energy. Then the problem becomes more clearly definable as what is keeping us from that goal. After that, developing and carrying out a plan to resolve the problem and achieve the goal become the hard work of positive change.
These are ancient algorithms, and on this day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2019, it seems a blind miss not to point to the great leaders of our Civil Rights Movement were by whatever avenue informed on moving against the problems that kept people from that mountain top. It was an historic period of our history as well and a significant and powerful action. Where has it left us though?
Perhaps we should stop worrying about whether things are better or worse; they’re not there yet. Perhaps it’s not so important that life isn’t fair or that the tangibles of injustice spring from the ephemerals of culture. Perhaps having a plan isn’t enough if we haven’t defined and generally agreed to a clear destination. Dr. King moved the plan forward toward a destiny. Yet that plan lost steam when the destination became increasingly unclear, fragmented and divergent. We make our own destinies, but when those are unaligned, we’re on the way to destiny in a bumper car ride.
Right now, it seems like more than anything, we need to get our destiny, which is not just the destiny of Black people but of all people, back to a rewarding, achievable, legitimate, challenging and defined destination. If it holds all of these conditions, its attainment will be so empowering that it could spark the further march to solving some of the even more daunting problems, such as saving the planet. The hardest part will be effectively redefining and agreeing upon our destiny, our mountain top. This will probably require another charismatic leader. When has this not been the case?

Yelling Fire

So if yelling “Fire!” in the crowded auditorium is not free speech but a disruptive and dangerous act, what would it mean if someone started to whisper “Poison gas! Pass it on.” Would that be free speech? Many free speech advocates are perhaps no more than adrenaline driven anarchists who revel in the spreading of incendiary discourse and hate speech through digital media outlets and social networks. Does this fall under American rights?

Will the courts take on a clarification of where free speech ends and dangerous speech and gestures and symbols begin, and how we can judge which is which? Free speech, as has the right to bear arms, seems to have run aground on the centuries old question of adhering to the letter of the law, or Constitution, or to the spirit of the law. Without a clarification that accurately describes in words the intent of such laws, putting aside how much the nuance of American English, and the milieu of contemporary life have shifted over two hundred plus years, we must get moving on creating practical mechanism for protecting the rights of the many without empowering perpetrators and threatening victims.

I suspect all of the creators and drafters of the Bill of Rights had that at heart. If we can’t accept that, then it’s time to reexamine what it is be an American.

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