What dictionaries do and are for

I should start keeping a record of arguments I have with people where, at some point, they look up a word in the dictionary, and on the merit of the definition there, declare themselves the winner and refuse to entertain any further conversation.  (Next time it happens, actually, I'll probably refer them to this blog post.) The thrust of the argument is generally:

ME [word] has certain subtexts, connotations or unavoidable connections which are relevant to its use in this conversation.

OTHER Nuh-uh!

ME It's hard to prove connotation, but having grown up in the same culture as me, you must have noticed it. I believe you're arguing in bad faith if you insist that connotation doesn't exist.

OTHER looks up the word in the dictionary.

OTHER Look, see? [Word] (n./v./w.e) [The definition, repeated verbatim, usually skipping over the full list to cite only the example most useful to their argument.]

ME The dictionary isn't the final say in word meaning.

OTHER presses his or her fingertips into his or her ears and hums loudly.

OTHER La-la-la! I can't hear you!

ME facepalms.*

I'm not saying dictionaries are useless.  They're a valuable resource -- we need some widely accepted touchstone for discussions about the meanings of words.

But that's exactly the point -- dictionaries are a starting point for discussions.  There's no sense in which it's acceptable to treat the dictionary definition as the final say in an argument.**

Dictionaries aren't created by the High Council of Words and their Meanings.  They're made by people, who look at the way words are already being used, and do their best to capture that in an easy and accessible way.  They do it in very small print, and in a very short space, because they're creating a general reference, not writing essays on each word's meaning.

Dictionaries change over time, and even words that haven't changed for centuries have context that isn't captured within the definition.

I remember in high school learning about Denotation and Connotation.  Words have their literal meaning, but they've also got inseparable baggage -- meaning that's there, lurking whenever the word is used, but which doesn't strictly adhere to the explicit meaning of the word.  That baggage is important.  It's often more important than the literal definition, and it's usually what sparks arguments about word meaning.

There's nowhere to look up connotation, and no one source you can point to and say, "There.  There it is."  It's the feeling you get because every time you hear a word in your life, it's surrounded by some or all of the same other words or ideas.

Connotation is the vehicle by which difficult issues, like racism, sexism or anti-intellectualism, pervade every form of communication even though they very rarely stick out in a clear way.

So, to anyone in my future with whom I argue about words:  if you try to end a conversation with a dictionary, I will hit you with it.†

*Yes, I do  feel weird about the fact that the format I chose for that exchange requires me to use the word 'me' incorrectly. **Unless the argument is, "What's the [specific publication of a dictionary] definition of [word]?" †Violence is never the answer.

Role Models

I have lots of role models, so I expect it shouldn't be too surprising that I think they're serious business. I've blogged about some of my thoughts on them before, so that seems like a pretty good place to start.

Your role models and philosophical heroes sort of have to tell you that it’s worth living.  That’s not what makes them special.  I mean, it’s what makes them special as human beings, but it’s not what makes them special among notable people.

We can’t all affirm life in the same way.  Walks in the woods make some people feel deeply connected with humanity.  For me, the thing most intimate and uplifting about a long walk in the woods is seeing the glow of city lights in the distance, knowing there’s a place close enough to see its aura where people have come together to live and cooperate.

The reason this comes to mind now is because Ze Frank is starting up a new show, and he's about as close as it comes to the quintessential internet role model.  His new video, "An Invocation for Beginnings," is inspiring in all the ways I need to get myself started working.  He seems to say aloud all the secrets that artists have to know, and have known throughout history, but which tended not to be mentioned, out of pride or machismo.

I learned about Ze Frank in more depth than the 'How To Dance' videos through another pair of role models, the Vlogbrothers.  And I've got other role models, too -- Neil Gaiman, Greta Christina, Tim Minchin, pretty much all the people I like to learn about, I do so because I'm inspired by them in some way.

That's what I mean to say when I say role models are important.  Plural.  Because it's important to have a lot of them.  Having just one doesn't really do much to teach you about yourself.

We develop our self-identity in relation to other people, but if you only rely on the people immediately around you you'll only rise to the standards of your immediate community.

Role models, if you've got a lot of them, provide the necessary examples to develop a sense of self that fits into the sort of life you aspire to.

Inspired love

I wasn't a huge fan of the Great Gatsby in high school.  I mean, I liked it, but I din't love it.  And while I knew it was a famous book for a reason, it never really grabbed me. Then, I started watching Vlogbrothers videos, and I saw John Green's videos about the Great Gatsby.

The way John Green talks about the Great Gatsby persuaded me to see the book in a new light.  I've read it again since, and found it significantly more compelling.

Which, to my mind, raises a question:  is my affection for the Great Gatsby less legitimate because it's inspired by the evangelism of a vlogger I admire?

I would imagine not.  When I first read Gatsby I was a teenage high schooler, insufficiently aware of the existence of the wealthy to contextualize them and, at the time, sufficiently uninspired by the American dream (and not yet sufficiently contemptuous of it) to connect with Gatsby's struggle in a meaningful way.

John's videos persuaded me to look at the story again, this time during the Occupy Wall Street movement and after the market crash.  The first time I read it was during the exact parallel of economic times to the time in which it's set, but I didn't yet have that context.

On the other hand, it's not hard to imagine people sneering at me, calling it an affectation that I've come to like a classic book more only after I learned that someone I admire likes it.  Considering the frequency with which people raise that sort of criticism (first in a sort of scattershot across the internet, and then, more pointedly, in <sarcasm> serious conversations among friends about my character flaws </sarcasm>) it's hard not to consider whether there's something to it.  It's not as though I don't have the insecurity necessary to hammer in wedges of doubt about the things I like and care about.

By the way, this post was inspired by my discovery that there's a Great Gatsby video game.  Check it out.

Dead Man's Switch

It's spring break this week, so there won't be a Philosophy through Film post for class.  But I watched Mean Girls with my girlfriend today, so I think I will write about that some time this weekend. In an interview with Ryan North that I can't find the source of at the moment, he talked about programming his web presence with an emergency function, which would begin wrapping up his affairs if he were to fail to check it for a certain length of time.  I think it was something like 10 days.

It would post final comics, divulge his passwords and financial information to trusted confidants, and otherwise smooth the process of concluding the continuity of his on-the-grid existence.

In the novel I finished earlier this year, among many other things I speculated about people whose online presence might continue onward after they die, when vastly more of human experience is conducted online.  This isn't a new idea, obviously, but I think it's one of the more interesting conceptions of technological immortality.

It occurs to me now that it might be possible, and might even be necessary, for people who want to avoid that sort of thing happening to set up a system by which their online presence is archived and dismantled after they die.

I wondered about the reasons someone might do this.  Maybe they believe in the soul, and feel that their own soul having departed, an entity continuing their presence would necessarily be insufficient.  Maybe they feel that the online presence might become corrupted, or believe that continuity of physical form is the ultimate marker of continuity of existence.   And I imagine there would be a great deal of squick factor.

But like most biases about computers and consciousnesses, I think over time these objections would fade, and the dead man's switch, if it becomes necessary, will inevitably become obsolete -- or, at least, extremely fringe.

Charity Debt

So, I found out about five minutes ago that J.K. Rowling isn't on Forbes Magazine's list of billionaires.  Prior to this discovery, I wasn't aware she should have been.  But as this article explains, she's only off the list because she's given too much of her money away to charity:

"New information about Rowlings' estimated $160 million in charitable giving combined with Britain's high tax rates bumped the 'Harry Potter' scribe from our list this year," stated Forbes.

Naturally, none of this likely bothers Rowling, who from the beginning has made giving back a priority for her wealth.

“You have a moral responsibility when you’ve been given far more than you need, to do wise things with it and give intelligently," she said in a past interview.

This made me think about my amount of charitable giving lately.  (None, apart from Kiva's recent promotion offering 25 dollars to lend for free.  So, arguably $25 but still none.)

I'm in a lot of debt right now, so I can't afford to start giving money.  But last time I had a job, I wasn't giving regularly either -- I gave some, when it occurred to me and was convenient.  But I didn't have a regular donation schedule set up, and that bothers me.

So, I'm going to start a new list in my book:  my charity debt.  Every month, I'm going to pick a charity, write its name down on a line, and add a $5 debt to them.  When I have more steady work and have paid off my more pressing debts, it will be $5 or 5% of my monthly income, whichever is more.

This month's charity will be Planned Parenthood, which has a convenient $5 minimum.  I'm sure I'll have more to say in the future about my philosophy of charitable giving as it develops, but offhand I imagine I'll be mixing it up between health organizations and homelessness relief in the US, responsible aid in the developing world, and direct donations to specific artists who produce work for free.  (Aaron Diaz and Jeph Jacques deserve my money, for instance.)

I hope to stick to this for the rest of my life, well into my extravagant wealth, when 5% of my income for a month would be like winning the lottery.  Or, maybe at that point I'll divide it up a little...  And maybe give away a larger percentage.

God would be just another mind

One of the things that annoys me about the study of philosophy is how frequently philosophers equate "God" with "Absolutes."  Even atheistic philosophers generally concede to the claim that, if God* exists, it naturally follows that there is an objective morality, truths about experience, right and wrong aesthetic judgement, etc. This really bothers me.  I can't see any sense in which, if God existed, it would be anything other than just another mind, thinking and acting within the universe.  Its conclusions would, therefore, be just as subject to the criticisms raised by nihilism and relativism than anyone else's.  Its positions would be better informed, but if there's no moral law in the universe outside God, its positions are just as subjective as everyone else's.  On the other hand, if there were universal moral laws built into the physical law of the universe, then there's no need for God to vouchsafe them.

You could argue that God has access to the moral laws that humans don't, but then God is just an intermediary -- a glorified Priest, officiating the will of the real Deity, the uncaring universe.  In that case, the only advantage God gives us is as a tool of increased perception.  From there, all the traditional problems of the existence of God are still present, but if you argue that, you would have to concede that even if there was a God, there's still objective right and wrong.

I'll be posting my Pulp Fiction post later tonight, but this was bugging me so I wanted to get it down.

And, for the record, I think meaning and morality are inherently subjective premises, and the most valid way to sort out which elements can be extended beyond the individual is pragmatism.

*I'm capitalizing it because I'm using the term to refer to a single, omnipotent, universal entity, rather than the broader sense of god which would include more limited, personal gods like Zeus or Jesus.

I'm getting more and more annoyed with Socrates

The more I learn about the Socratic philosophers, the less I like them.  I'm still quite fond of Aristotle for pointing out the principles of moderation, which, though insufficient, are still a much better argument for healthy living than most others I've come across, and I've never particularly liked Plato -- another point in favor of Aristotle:  he didn't agree with Plato too much. But the more I read about Socrates, the less I feel like he was actually a uniquely challenging and brilliant individual, and the more I feel like he was probably the ancient Athenian Ron Paul.  Lots of oversimplified ideas, that get really good press because it's easy to see why they seem like they spit all over pre-existing knowledge, and hard to see why they really don't work.  I mean, imagine if in 2000 years, all we had left of knowledge about Ron Paul was a bunch of Libertarian newsletters?  The man would seem like a saint, and the rest of Western civilization would look like fools for ignoring him.

Of course, I don't know that Socrates was actually an annoying Libertarian-esque pseudo-intellectual.  But apart from that, I'm still annoyed with the degree to which he's celebrated as an iconic figure in history and treated like the founding father of thought.  Issac Newton had it right when he said that intellectual achievements stand on the shoulders of giants.  And all things considered, Plato contributed more to developing knowledge than Socrates did, and Plato was wrong about pretty much everything.

On level, I'm pretty sick of talking about philosophers who covered material we know to be wrong.  But beyond that, I think over 2000 years is enough time to get sole and specific credit for general principles with which a thinker is loosely and non-exclusively affiliated.  I bet with a little digging, we could find a Socrates-like character in every historical tradition around the world.  That stuff is public domain by now, and should be taught that way.

The thing I don't like about Walt Whitman

This post isn't really going to be about Walt Whitman, at all.  But I really want to get this idea off my chest, and it's 3:30am and I can't sleep and this has honestly been bugging me since I was seventeen. There are loads of role models out there, who seem sort of very different or very the same depending on how you look at them.  It's a particular category of same-ness, that I'm going to try to put my finger on, but for a ballpark, here's a list:

  • Camus
  • Sartre
  • Nietzsche
  • Whitman
  • Emerson
  • Kierkegaard
  • Socrates
  • Plato
  • Aristotle
  • John & Hank Green
  • Alan Moore
  • Neil Gaiman
  • Baudelaire
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley
  • Lord Byron
  • Terry Pratchett
  • Greta Christina
  • PZ Myers
  • Buddha
  • Gandhi

These aren't similar people.  These are people with huge differences, and in some cases these are people with fundamentally non-overlapping fandoms.  Like, I'm not at all a fan of Plato or Whitman.  I don't agree with everything Buddha or Gandhi said.

But they've all got this one big thing, in the middle, where they're all basically pushing the same agenda.  Nietzsche would call it life-affirming.  They've all got this thing, where they basically just don't believe it's worth wasting any of the time you get, being alive.

And that makes it really hard to explain why I don't like all of them, why I don't agree with some of them, why I have a bit of contempt for a few of them.

But the thing is, that big thing in the middle isn't the only thing any of them ever talk about.  Nietzsche is annoyingly into music and dance.  Emerson is, to my taste, way too in love with nature.  I could see myself getting behind Alan Moore, but there's a certain degree to which I don't want to go that far down the road of a lifestyle of eccentricity.  (And I don't very much like my home town.)

Your role models and philosophical heroes sort of have to tell you that it's worth living.  That's not what makes them special.  I mean, it's what makes them special as human beings, but it's not what makes them special among notable people.

We can't all affirm life in the same way.  Walks in the woods make some people feel deeply connected with humanity.  For me, the thing most intimate and uplifting about a long walk in the woods is seeing the glow of city lights in the distance, knowing there's a place close enough to see its aura where people have come together to live and cooperate.

And, frankly, arguments about whose happiness is better are a pain in the ass.

The right to eat fish

One of the more infuriating arguments I've had in the last few months centered around this premise:  "Liberty is the only important government guaranteed right, because all other rights are meaningless without it, and necessarily follow from it."  It was from this premise that the person with whom I was conversing argued that we didn't need a constitutional guarantee of healthcare, or amendments to address copyright issues, or basically any legislation, because if you just took the liberty guarantee seriously, a perfect system of governance inevitably follows. By way of analogy, I would like to explore this premise by proposing a different fundamental right: the right to eat fish.

The right to eat fish obviously guarantees the right to life, because you can't eat fish if you're dead.  And it guarantees the right to property, doesn't it?  Because you have to be able to own fish in order to justifiably eat them.  It guarantees the right to healthcare, at least insofar as you're protected from becoming too infirm to eat fish.  And it must guarantee the right to eat a variety of foods, because if your diet isn't balanced, you won't survive for very long to continue eating fish.

It guarantees the right to good copyright legislation, because without vigorous cultural discussion, our right to eat fish falls into jeopardy.  It guarantees the right to good legislation because a badly run government can't effectively guarantee the right to eat fish.

This argument is plainly stupid, and so, I would argue, is the claim that liberty is the only fundamental right.  I last discussed this in my post, Fundamental Rights: last-in, first-out? where I pointed out that holding life as the only really paramount fundamental right is inherently destructive of the other rights.  I would argue that holding any right as more fundamental than other rights, if you believe those rights to be valid, is inherently destructive to those rights, and it should be apparent why if you just look at all of the obvious flaws in the guarantee to fishy rights.  If that is the most paramount right, then the best way for the government to protect it would be to imprison everyone and feed them only fish.

Now, not all rights-claims boil down to imprisonment.  A guarantee of liberty, for example, necessitates failing to regulate people's behavior in such a way as could seriously risk other people's lives or pursuit of happiness (or access to fish).

I want to reiterate what I said before:  the rights-based system of government works best when all rights are held in tension against each other.  All rights must be compromised, but no right can be ignored.  Our liberty is limited in protecting our lives, and the lives of others.  Our pursuit of happiness is limited in protecting our own lives, others' lives, and others' liberty, and our lives are protected by limiting our own liberty, the liberty of others, and everyones' pursuit of happiness.

(By the way, why is pursuit of happiness a fundamental right?  That's a terrible fundamental right.  Pursuing happiness is practically guaranteed not to cause it, and places the responsibility for happiness on the citizens, no matter their circumstance, rather than on the government to govern in such a way as to maximize incidental happiness.  More on that later.)

I dislike the superbowl

I know, right?  Crazy.  Me, the nongendered Doctor Who geek, and I'm not that big a sports fan.  Who would have thought. Normally, though, I'm neutral towards sports. I don't care, but I don't care enough to dislike them.  The superbowl is different.  The superbowl is a lot like Christmas, actually -- it's one of the occasions in the American calendar where, no matter how you feel about the thing, you can't escape it.  I can't remember the last time a superbowl passed where I didn't, at the time, know who was playing, and I can't remember the last time I actually watched the game.

It's worse when the Patriots are playing, too, because I live in New England, where no one will shut up about it for the next week when the Patriots play.  And it doesn't help that the most popular sports event in the US is associated with my least favorite sport.  I'm not sure I know why I dislike football so much more than all the other sports, but I know that I do.

On the bright side, it gives me a shallow excuse to post this Mitchell and Webb sketch:

If any sports fans are reading, I respect your entertainment preferences and hope my personal distaste doesn't come off as a claim of objective judgement.

Talk to you tomorrow.

There was a woman crying on Route 93 earlier tonight

I was in a car going south on 93 earlier tonight, and we passed an accident.  Or, the remains of an accident.  There were police cars, firetrucks, and I'm pretty sure there was an ambulance.  I only saw one car.  The doors were gone, and it had obviously been on fire.  About ten yards past the smoldering wreck, there was a woman, in a sweater, crying. I don't know what happened to her.  Maybe she'd been driving.  Maybe she hadn't. Maybe there was another car, and maybe she'd been in it.  Maybe someone she loved had been killed.  Maybe this was the worst night of her life.

It seemed to me that the worst thing about this particular sort of tragedy, apart from the awful things it has in common with most other sorts of tragedies, is that it's played out in front of thousands of insulated, isolated observers.  Thousands of little judgments being formed about her by complete strangers, at a time when she's completely unable to defend herself, and wouldn't be able to if she could.  She might have known, or might have avoided thinking about, that some people were angry at her for holding up the traffic.  Others were judging her as having poor driving skills, or imagined her being drunk.  Some people might be drawing conclusions about her political or ideological affiliations, based on their own private biases.  Some were probably just thrilled to see a fresh accident.

I doubt my writing about it here is helping minimize the exposure she must have felt, but I hope she knows that at least some of the people passing her noticed her suffering as more than an inconvenient traffic jam.

I have only seen one cool thing today

That does not reveal details of my personal life which one or more people I'm close to would be uncomfortable with. That thing is Gotye's song, "Somebody That I Used To Know."

This is one of those songs that, to me, manages to tug strings I'd forgotten were there, and remind me of a huge spectrum of stories from my past -- some related, some not.  It's been echoing in my head all day, which is good because it's a good song, but not so great because it's a little bit haunting.

Sometimes I have days like this, where it seems like everything that's happened is a little too personal, all the stories springing to mind a little too close to the bone.  I realize that probably makes my blog a little bland sometimes, but it's hard to dig down to those sorts of roots without a good reason -- it's often painful, and sometimes it can alienate people I am or once was close to.

Maybe I'll have something cheerier tomorrow.  'Night.

I think I've been unfair in my judgment of vanity plates

For a very long time, I've found most vanity plates deeply unsettling.  The ones that referred directly to the car itself seemed fine, but plates that made a claim about one's identity -- approximations of phrases like "Daddy's girl" or "Three kids, one male two female" came off to me as incredibly reductionist, and, well, creepy. In retrospect, though, I think I haven't been giving some of those plate types the proper benefit of the doubt.  When a license plate is obviously a name for the car, I've been comfortable dismissing it as a description of the car, not its driver.  I didn't assume that the driver was trying to encapsulate their whole selves in a single word, especially not where that word was a description of one's station within one's family.

But family dynamics make a lot of impact in decisions about buying a car.  A license plate that reads something like "Soccer mom" doesn't necessarily mean that its owner considers that the most fundamental truth about herself.  It only really suggests that she felt it was important information about the car.

In the past, I've separated license plates into two categories in my mind: the ones that obviously represented merely an aspect of the person, and the ones that tried to capture the whole.  But there's really no way I could genuinely make that distinction -- on reflection, I think the categories I was really extrapolating were: the plates that imply qualities I like or am neutral towards, and the plates that imply qualities I dislike.  I was needlessly vilifying swaths of people based on my own subconscious and semiconscious biases.

These sort of things are important when you're an otherwise irritable driver, you know.  Anything that makes the trip more stressful makes me more likely to drive like an asshole, and I hate letting myself have excuses to do that.

Christopher Hitchens is dead

I want to apologize now for my indulgence here, because this is going to be a very personal and self-centered essay.  There are going to be a lot of people in the coming days who will write beautiful summaries and explorations of Hitchens's character and life, far better than I could. Earlier this year, when I was going through a pretty rough emotional patch, one of the phrases that kept floating into my mind was, "Christopher Hitchens has cancer."  It seemed resonant, in that sort of way irrelevant things can tend to.  It seemed to capture the character and flavor of my time.

And for a long time, I believed he was going to die.  Like, soon.  But then, he kept not dying, and I started to wonder whether he wasn't going to pull through, somehow.

I cared about that, not because he was a personally important person to me, he wasn't a friend, or a loved one.  He was a hero, and still is.  But even in that sense, he's not one of the most influential people in my life -- he wouldn't make the top five, though he'd certainly make the top fifty.

That feels weird to say, so soon, but when talking about a man who made a point of being as honest as he possibly could, with himself and with others, even in the face of social scorn, I think it would be wrong to lie, even a little bit, in this post.  Though, for the sake of a concise and almost-coherent post, I must necessarily leave some things out.

I found out when I was leaving a movie -- I went to the new Sherlock Holmes midnight showing with some friends.  When I came out, I checked my cell phone.  There was a text, it was about an hour old, and it said, "Hitchens died."

I decided that I was going to have a drink in his honor, tonight.  Whiskey, although I haven't got any Johnnie Walker right now.

There's something sort of dull and aching about the way I feel at the moment, like the emotions, the grief and loss, are waiting in the wings, ready to pour out.  But I feel like they aren't going to.  Not until it starts to feel real.  When I read PZ Myers and Greta Christina and Hemant Mehta talk about it, when I begin to hear the inevitable discussion in the atheist community, when people who are much better at putting words together than me start to bring into sharp clarity why Christopher Hitchens really mattered, I think it'll hit pretty hard.

And of course, I know that Hitchens had a voice and a perspective and a way of being that'll just never be replaced in the cultural dialogue.  I know there's no one who could step up to the plate to be the new Hitchens.  But I think that's okay -- one of the things I took from his work is that it's vital to have your own voice, your own views, and to be your own person.  I don't think Hitchens was right about everything, but I think he was right that it's vital to stand up for what you believe, not for what the nearest party to your views believes.

I can't get my flask to open -- the cap is stuck.  I've been trying periodically throughout writing this post.  So I guess I'm not drinking tonight.  But this seems to be pretty good, too, as a narrative finishing point.  We live in a universe of which we're not the center.  Humans, even humans that mean a lot to a lot of people, sometimes die of complications related to cancer in the middle of the night on a Thursday.  Sometimes, you get the news in a text message from a friend who you worry is coping a lot worse than you are.  And sometimes, even when it feels like the perfect gesture of mourning is a glass of whiskey in honor of the dead, the damn cap is stuck.

I'll miss you, Hitchens.  But I'm glad for the body of work you left behind, much of which I've still not read -- I've got time with you, yet.

I get mail!

So, I recently wrote an article for my school paper about why you shouldn't donate to the Salvation Army. It got responses. It got the first responses this paper has got this semester not directly from a current or former staff member. (If I remember correctly.) The responders were angry. One claimed that I do not have a soul. My favorite argument came up, in a letter preemptively insisting that free speech guaranteed my obligation to print their letter.

I don't intend to address the attacks on my character in my response (which will follow the printed letters, unedited) because it's irrelevant and I don't want to waste page space validating their attacks.  But the comment about my soul really bothered me.

I don't have a soul.  Neither does the letter-writer.  Souls don't exist.

But even if you disagree, it's illustrative of the predominant view in the United States that not being religious makes you evil that people consider it an insult on the very core of one's ability to be moral to claim that a person "doesn't have a soul."

Beyond that, though, I've noticed more and more that people seem to defend much more vehemently and with much more emotion and energy positions they don't really believe are true than positions they are firm in.  With the one exception of the civil rights movement, in which both sides fight bitterly, but only one tends to be on shaky ground, the other motivated by outrage at the massive dissonance between the obviously immoral reality and the incredibly clear solution of not marginalizing people based on irrelevant qualities.

I'm guilty of it, myself -- it's not a quality I'm particularly proud of, but I don't think anyone reading this could honestly argue that they don't feel that impulse.

It's not something you simply lack, if you're a good person.  It's a tendency one has to be mindful of.  I try to develop checks to confirm with myself whether I'm irrationally defending a position I don't really stand behind, because I feel I've been backed into a corner.

I don't think that's the case with the Salvation Army piece, and I intend to calmly defend my article in a follow-up response to the letters.  But, while I understand the motivation that lead the writers to respond, I don't respect or admire it.

Just because an orginazation calls themselves a charity doesn't mean they can't be assholes.

On the coming up with of titles

I hate coming up with titles for things. I mean, occasionally, there are situations where a title just seems really right.  But in my experience, when that happens (like in the case of my second novel or every band I've ever been in) the primacy of the title led to really sucky content.

Most of the time, though, I'd rather just call the thing by a number, or a rough description of its contents.

So I find it troubling that there seems to be such a strong presumption in the contemporary educational/creative climate that a title is a mandatory part of a work.  Like, if you fail to come up with a creative title, you have failed to write an essay/story/poem.

Which seems sort of unfair to me, because it seems obvious to me (and apparently no on else) that writing a title is a completely different artform.

Titling things is closer akin to haiku or epigram than it is similar to writing an exploratory essay.  I don't need for my titles to speak deeply to the resonant depths of my work.*

I recently lost points on two essays (which I got back at the same time, and so didn't have time to adjust) for titling both of them, "On '[name of the poem that is the subject of this essay]' by [name of the person who wrote that poem]".   I'm not entirely happy about this, though I understand why I lost those points, because in my ideal college experience I would title all of my papers with the course number (e.g. ENG101) followed by a dash and a number code indicating which paper that is.  So, ENG101-5, or ENG101-12/8/2011.  Followed by a name, or even just my student ID because all those numbers jammed up next to each other

ENG101-12/8/2011 00208999

(not my real student ID) has an aesthetically pleasing impersonality to it, and would make me feel more comfortable with the idea that my expression is coming through in the prose itself, the work that is the flesh of the assignment, rather than an overt acknowledgement of the specific authorship** and a flashy or not-so-flashy opening in a brief, arguably witty and definitely irrelevant poetic form.

For the record, in my head, I'm totally writing this in the voice of author/vlogger John Green, of the Vlogbrothers.  It is appropriate to read it while imagining that I am talking way too fast really close to the camera.

 

*And, by the way, that's another thing that bothers me about it -- the title-obsessed crowd seem to always  be the same people who insist that the author can't comment on their work, which supports my contention that they don't really believe the writer can't comment, they just believe that it's mandatory that they do it in obscure, arcane ways like trying to make a symbolism keystone out of the title or writing other works that are meant to clarify the positions being misinterpreted in other works.  But that's another day's rant. ** I'm not supporting death of the author here but I do think that in an academic setting it's better to focus on the work itself than the authorship when evaluating it for credit.

A mild inconvenience re: doctor's office

So, I had a doctor's appointment today.  When I was on my way out the door, my mother expressed surprise that the doctor was open today, it being the day after Thanksgiving.  I assumed it was just an unusual case. When I got there, though, there was no one there.  The door to the office was locked, and nobody answered when I knocked.  I called and left a message, explaining that I had showed up and there was no one there.

When I returned home, my parents were indignant.  Apparently, they consider it the height of rudeness to make a mistake about scheduling appointments, six months in advance.  I didn't particularly care, but I suppose they're entitled to waste emotional energy on a tiny organizational error affecting one person.

If they get this worked up over doctors' scheduling mistakes, it's no wonder they haven't got the time or energy to find out about what's going on with the Occupy movement.

The valid ad hominem

[Note: I intend to use some mildly NSFW language in this post.  I don't know why I'm so anal about warnings on  that topic, but I am, so, well, shove it.] The title of this post is slightly misleading, but gets at the heart of what I want to say.

Thesis:  I think there are circumstances in which it's valid, in an argument, to call your opponent an asshole.  I think there are circumstances in an argument where the fact that your opponent is being an asshole is grounds for rejecting their argument.

The particular case I have in mind is when your opponent is arguing in bad faith, which I will define here as pursuing a purpose other than the reasonable and fair resolution of the argument.

You can identify when someone is doing it by the feeling you get during the conversation.  If your opponent says something, and you feel stricken by an inability to refute it, because it's inconsistent with the basic presuppositions necessary to stage the conversation, they're being an asshole.

It's hard to respond, because what they say is usually something that would be perfectly valid in a certain kind of conversation, but which is, or should be, self-evidently invalid in the one you're having.

For example, if you're arguing with your boyfriend (let's assume you're monogamous, committed, and open to relationships with men) because he got head from a girl at a party the previous night, you might claim, "You cheated on me."

If he were to respond, "The construct of cheating in a relationship implies ownership, which is ethically indefensible," he's an asshole.  Not because that's an indefensible ethical position, but because if he believed that, he should have brought it up at the start of the relationship.

It's not that he has to be wrong for his point to be invalid.  It's that his point is inappropriate in scale to the conversation that's going on.

Another good word for what he's doing in this conversation is being pretentious.  Ask me some time and I'll rant about that word for hours, but in this case it definitely applies.

On that count, I feel I should point out that it goes both ways.   Throwing out abstract ethical arguments in a specific-case conversation about a real, immediate issue can be pretentious.  It isn't always -- your hypothetical boyfriend had told you about his views on cheating early on, bringing up that you knew that was how he felt would be legitimate.

But it's also pretentious to attempt to pull an abstract conversation down to the level of immediate, every day life.  This is something a lot of people who aren't liberal arts majors do.  (There are definitely people who don't, and I love them for it.  If you can tell the difference between a conversation you understand and one you don't, and subsequently contribute or not based on that knowledge, thank you.  From the bottom of my heart.)  People who do this are assholes.

For example, if you and your hypothetical boyfriend are having a conversation about the nature of truth, and he says, "Ultimately, there's no meaningful difference between truth and lie -- all language represents a distortion of reality in such a way as to make it convenient for other people to handle.  It's impossible to make a true statement."

And you respond, "Bullshit -- it is, for example, true that you cheated on me last week."  You're being a pretentious asshole.  (We're assuming this is a different conversation entirely, not a continuation of the earlier one.)

In both examples, one of you is refusing to play ball by the implied rules of the context.  In these cases, I think it's okay to just call the other person an asshole.

Why?  Because implied rules of context are complicated.  I could talk about them for hours, and probably wouldn't be able to get most of the people I talk to to understand what I meant.  It's about as reasonable to expect someone to be able to explain exactly what someone's doing wrong when they break those rules as it is reasonable to expect the average man-or-woman on the street to explain the financial crisis.

People tend not to like thinking of their minds as being too complicated for them to explain.  It's outside our comfort level in a way that accepting that our circulatory system is too complicated for us to explain just isn't.  Assholes exploit that discomfort by cheating in ways most of us can't articulate, and don't really want to have to think about.  Often they'll use the subsequent tongue-tied phenomenon to declare success.  But that doesn't make them right.  It makes them assholes.

On Vegetables

I've been thinking a bit about my diet lately. I'm a weekday vegetarian -- that is, Monday through Friday, I don't eat any meat -- that includes fish, chicken, and bacon, a point which some people struggle with.  And on the weekends my dietary restrictions are entirely lifted.

I'm amazed at the number of people who seem to have a problem with this.  There are absurd numbers of people who seem to have an actual problem with vegetarianism, of any sort, at all.

I'm seriously starting to consider becoming vegan, not because I feel any strong ethical compulsion, but just to piss off all the people in my life who whine if I ever go a weekend without eating a fracking steak.

My experience with weekday vegetarianism over the last year or so has highlighted the absurdity of the cultural trope that vegetarians, especially vegans, try to shove their lifestyle down your throat.

I know a few vegans, and a lot of vegetarians.  I have never -- literally, never -- had a conversation with a vegetarian or vegan in which they were remotely pushy about their diet or moral convictions surrounding them.  It only even comes up in the context of a meal, when they politely turn down food that breaks their dietary rules.

You know who's pushy about it?

Meat eaters.

Obviously, it's not all of them.  Plenty of people I know accepted my decision to eat less meat in stride.  Plenty more were surprised, but when I explained my reasoning they accepted it.

But I've been amazed at the number of people who just won't let it go.  They make a point to make snide comments about vegetarians when they know they're in mixed dietary company.  They pressure me or others to have "Just a little," and in the case of my particular diet, affect a tone of deep concern if I ever go a weekend without stuffing as much meat down my throat as I can.

It was over six months into my diet change before my friends and family stopped trying to actively talk me out of it.  A lot of them still pressure me to agree that this shouldn't be a permanent lifestyle change, just a temporary decision.

I'm seriously tempted to give up meat entirely just so I don't have to be in the same group as these people.

"Normal"

I have some terrible habits of getting annoyed at totally innocuous things.  And one of the big ones that bugs me is when people exclaim, "There's no such thing as normal."  Or, "What's a 'normal' person, anyway?"  As though they've come up with something deep and profound. It's not really fair of me to be annoyed by it, because it honestly is a pretty profound piece of knowledge, and for the purposes of the context where it usually comes up, it's a better position than the alternative.  I'm certainly not about to promote the status quo for the sake of consistency.

But I can't help but be irritated by the presumption so often carried with it that the idea of 'normalcy' is a nonsensical concept in every possible context.  Even referring to human behavior, the idea of 'normalcy' has certain useful applications, though it's got plenty more opportunities for misuse.  But apart from that, the idea of normal has extremely valuable applications in things like science and medicine.  Acknowledging the existence of a baseline provides a filter to spot unusual circumstances.

Which, I suppose, is exactly the point these people are making.  That it's not fair, and not legitimate, to use any abnormal behavior a person exhibits as a reason to single them out for special attention or scrutiny, especially by people in positions of authority.

It still bugs me, though.