Friday, July 1, 2011

Grammatically Correct Argumentation

More than any other development, it is speech’s capacity to convey complex, abstract ideas which separates humanity from other animals. Language grants us the ability to transmit complex ideas between independent minds, allowing for such things as education and culture to flourish.

Along with our upright stance, which opened our hands to tool making, the ability to form complex syllables is one of the few human activities which has shaped our very biological evolution after diverging from other apes (the anatomy of modern speech does not appear in the fossil record until about 50,000 years ago).

Language has power. There is perhaps no other idea more correctly grasped by religions the world over that is ignored by atheism. Buddha talked of right speech leading to right action. According to Genesis, YHWH spoke the universe into existence. Many religions have words of power which are said to carry the ability to protect or harm. Every religion has certain types of speech which are taboo.

It occurred to me recently that a lot of criticism is, for lack of a better word, grammatically incorrect. Because of this error in grammar, which I will get into briefly, people have not only been fooled, but they daily fool themselves and each other.

My realization is this: we have either learned independently or have been taught by others that we should criticize nouns, when we ought to be criticizing verbs.

Suppose Bob says something that offends Sally, and Sally in turn calls him a racist. In this instance, they failed to use language properly.

In all likelihood, Bob did not intend to offend Sally, but even if he did, she was in error to label him negatively. Why? Because she has no way of knowing if Bob is a racist, unless she also happens to read minds. Rather, all she knows is that something he said was perceived by her to be racist. Therefore, the proper response is for her to say, “I think what you said is racist,” not to call him a racist.

Christians don’t have a name for this, though they have a phrase which defines it: “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” You can secularize it in many ways, like “Ignore the speaker, criticize the speech,” or “Respect the thinker, attack the thought.”

The idea is, a person’s words are best thought of as fundamentally apart from the individual saying them.

Why? Well, for one thing, we tend to label people unfairly. In our above example, Bob ceases to be Bob, in a sense, and is instead “a racist.” Just analyze the language of that for a second: rather than seeing an individual and seeking to get to the bottom of what Bob meant to say (which is probably not as bad as what he said, though maybe it is), Bob is labeled as “a racist,” just one out of some vaguely defined group of racists, which makes him easier to dismiss and simply ignore.

This is not a constructive use of language.

In that example, Sally is not really angry at Bob, she is angry at what he said. Words are an abstract thing, and Bob said them, so it appears to make sense to blame Bob. Indeed, he is responsible for them, and he is to “blame” for them, but Sally would probably find more success treating Bob like the same person she saw him as before he said those things and address his use of language.

Bob may have no idea how his words are interpreted by another person. Assuming he doesn’t realize what he said will be taken as offensive, being called something he isn’t (like “a racist”) won’t help at all. It will instead probably lead him to exhibit hostility towards Sally, which is ironic because he should be angry at her words, not her. He’s really just angry at this whole process, where a noun is attacked because a verb originated from it.

But suppose he even meant to say what he said, and he knew how it would be taken. This gets us to the heart of the matter, and why the scenario I have presented in fundamentally different from, say, a crime.

When a person commits a crime, real and tangible harm has occurred. Crime, in this case, is not necessarily tied to legality. Instead, crime is defined philosophically (for these purposes) as when one person is tangibly harmed by another. Saying something that offends someone is fundamentally different from physically harming someone.

We address a person when a true crime is committed because we cannot take back an action, and we are also interested in discouraging actions of that nature in the future. Historically, we formulate punishments for crimes as a deterrent or as a form of removing an unwanted person from society through exile, imprisonment, forced servitude, or death.

Some see certain kinds of speech as criminal, and I do understand why. After all, words can harm. However, words can only harm you if you let them. Unless you are being detained and forced to endure constant verbal abuse without the opportunity to escape, it’s not really a crime for someone to say something you don’t want to hear.

If Bob says something racist because it’s racist, Sally has a lot of options on how to handle it. She could be dismissive, never knowing what he meant or if he was serious. She could question further and perhaps find out the motives behind why he said it. And if he didn’t just say it out of shock value or in a misguided attempt at a joke or even just because he didn’t know better, if he turns out to really, truly be racist, even then, she can choose to keep asking questions or to just walk away.

Ultimately, walking away may seem safer and easier, and it’s certainly the most common choice, but it does a disservice to Bob.

I would be a failure if I didn’t change over time. I’m not perfect, so failing to alter my ideas and methods is ultimately the easiest (and laziest) way to fail. And I don’t just say that because it’s what conservatives do; that’s just a coincidence.

I’m sure I’ll still say plenty of offensive things, but I need to tone down what I say, especially in interacting with others. For one thing, you guys are enormous pussies. With all due respect, most people are soft-skinned, whiney little bitches who couldn’t stand up for themselves if their lives depended on it. I see that more clearly than ever. But the truth is, no one wants to hear that, and saying things like that (unless I’ve waited until the very end) will cause people to tune me out.

I know people can’t help it. I don’t blame them. It’s not easy to look beyond something offensive. When someone is shooting arrows at you, the first impulse is to shoot arrows back. Ideally, though, we should address the sting, that point where the insult sunk deep and hit something true. But if their aim is off and they are missing, even then, why attack them when you can use their ineptitude as an opportunity to disarm them?

Of course, this is all easier said than done. This certainly has not been my practice while blogging. Still, for a former writing tutor, remember a rule like “ignore the noun, attack the verb” is something I think I can remember.


  1. bret - maybe your word games are little more than mental masturbation?

  2. Good post, and you're right. But all good intentions go by the wayside when we feel rage. And of course, there's so much to rage about these days. I lash out on my blog, too. Sometimes I just can't help it. There are so many cruel idiots out there.


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