Class Warfare Blog

November 30, 2020

Fascinated by Trivia

Filed under: Culture,language,writing — Steve Ruis @ 9:59 am
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Americans and the British are often described as being two countries separated by a common language. As an editor, I find myself editing works written by British people, among others, and there are definitely subtle differences between American usage and British usage. You are probably aware of things like spelling differences, e.g. honor and honour, color and colour, etc. and both region’s slangs are vastly different, but other things are more subtle.

For example, in punctuation Americans use double quotation marks, “ ”, first and then if something quoted is nested inside of that quote we set that off with single quotes, ‘ ’. The British do that in reverse order.

What stimulated this post was I was reading a piece in the New Yorker than began “On November 22, 1820, the New York Evening Post ran a perfunctory book ad that was none too particular in its typesetting:

WILEY & HALSTED, No. 3 Wall street, have just received SYMZONIA,
or a voyage to the internal world, by capt. Adam Seaborn. Price $1.

This advert was printed in 1820 in America and includes the British practice of treating collective nouns as being plural rather than singular. So, in the U.S. we might say “the team was devastated by the loss” whereas the Brits would say “the team were devastated by the loss.” In British English the word team infers multiple team members so is treated as referring to a plural thing, whereas in the U.S. the “team” is one thing and so is treated as a singular thing. In this case the publisher is clearly at least two people and is treated as a plural, with “have just received” rather than a singular, with “has just received.” (E pluribus unum?)

The quotation indicates that the American practice was either the same as the British practice at that time or at least was not fully transformed into the American practice with some doing it one way and others doing it the other.

You, of course, are wondering why anyone would care, but apparently a great many do. As a college professor, even teaching a subject like chemistry, I took seriously my responsibility to teach my students how to write. (Every chance I got to talk to an employer of students such as mine I asked them “What could we be doing better on behalf of our students?” and to a person, they responded with “Technically they are fine, but if you could teach them to write better, that would be very helpful.” It was almost as if employers of STEM students got together in their secret base to create this talking point.)

So, as a teacher of college freshmen, I gave up T-F, multiple choice, and fill-in-the-blank test questions and asked but two kinds of questions: one which required a calculated answer (with the reasoning displayed clearly or explained) and one that required a short, that is paragraph length, essay answer, e.g. an explanation, or a description, etc. By the end of the semester my goal was a 50-50 distribution of these two types of questions.

And do not think I was not envious of those biology teachers who ran their mark-sense (Scantron) answer sheets through our mechanical reader and had their midterm exam scored in under ten minutes. (I gave my tests on Fridays so I would have the hours needed to read and score them and be able to return them at the next class meeting.)

I was in the unenviable position of having to explain to my students why being clear in one’s writing was very valuable. I told them that if they said in a job interview “I be excited about working here.” that they would not get a job offer. People, including employers, do not think logically; they usually respond to their gut feelings about people and people who speak or write and make gaffes are generally considered to be “not up to par” and are passed over.

I am musing on “why I give a shit” about obscure grammar points. Partly I had to know better than my students what was and wasn’t acceptable in written language and partly I was curious. I became known as something of a grammar grouch, a despicable sort of human being who is constantly correcting people. (Yes, I am recovering; thank you for caring.)

I also know that all of these rules are entirely arbitrary. Yes, they have been established to promote clear communication, and this can be critically important when laws and contracts are drafted, but I know of no laws regarding the topic per se. We just go along to get along.

As an editor, my main goal is to preserve the voice of the author. If I have met them and spoken to them (this is becoming increasingly rare), I want to hear their voice in my head as I read their piece, because that is what will happen when people who know the author read that piece. If you do not understand this, consider the college freshman who writes a short essay that reads as if written by a college freshman but then abruptly transitions into formal encyclopedia English or even British encyclopedia English. Gosh, do you think they did a little copy and paste plagiarism? It is not that hard to tell the voice shift in reading such things, so readers who know the author can tell if I rewrite a part of their piece in my own voice . . . instead of the author’s.

When editing British manuscripts for our magazine, I use American punctuation for our largely American audience but retain British spellings (colour, honour, etc.) to preserve the author’s voice. For the one book I edited for a British author, I preserved both the British spellings, but also the British punctuation (which was quite a test).

Yes, I know I am weird, kinda proud of it. Just wanted to share a little of the consequences of being weird . . . like me.

Addendum Oh, and the book, Symzonia, is considered by some to be the first American foray into science fiction.

September 23, 2020

We Are Oh-So-Kind . . . to Ourselves

I was reading an article about some Native American archaeology and came to this statement “In the 1800’s, European settlers drove ancestral Wichita people from their native lands, leading to the destruction of their villages and communal traditions.”

I have made this point before but am still struck by the terminology.

If someone invaded your community and forcefully ejected you from your homes and farms, killing many of you in the process, would you refer to them as settlers . . . or invaders? Was not this land already “settled?” In this instance they are talking about a “city” of possibly 40,000 Native American inhabitants.

But European “settlers” “drove” the people off. It sounds like they are referring to cattle or buffalo which could be “driven” to another location.

By what right were these things done? Oh, God told them it was okay for the Europeans to make war on the indigenous peoples they encountered, in order to bring Christianity to the natives. Gee, you’d think this was an educational mission instead of a land grab.

At the time, Europe had recovered from the repeated decimation of the population of Europe due to the Black Plague and other plagues and was overpopulated. The “European settlers” were searching for land, land that could be tilled, land that could be mined, land that could make them rich. They came as soldier-farmers. They didn’t work in their fields without their guns nearby, because the people they stole the land from wanted it back.

These were not settlers. They were an army of invaders. And we are descended from them.

And President Trump wants our schools to teach that we did nothing wrong. Sure we took their land, but we gave them the Bible. From Mr. Trump’s perspective, this was a great deal, and American deal, an exceptional deal.

And the winners of the deal get to write and re-write the history any way they want. Mr. Trump’s way is what we will get if he is re-elected.



September 10, 2020

Sometimes a Lede Is Enough

Filed under: Culture,language — Steve Ruis @ 8:54 am
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I occasionally run posts starting with “Sometimes a Blurb is Enough” usually focused upon online book pitches, but the same applied to articles in “magazines.” This is from Today’s The Guardian.

Gosh, I wonder why a feminist voice stating “I Hate Men” would not be welcome among men? Is great puzzlement.

And the “right” to not like men? WTF? One’s likes and dislikes hardly constitute a basis for a right. How about, “I demand the right to not like vanilla ice cream!” or “I demand the right to prefer Fords over Chevies!” It seems that one neither has a right to like or dislike anything. Nor is anything opposing these likes and dislikes.

Publishing or broadcasting your likes and dislikes, however, can have consequences. Recently a blogger lost her job for public condemning the company she worked for in her blog. Others have lost their jobs from posts about their racial likes and dislikes. They were fired for bringing disrepute upon the company they worked for.

Everyone can harbor what most of us would consider abhorrent likes and dislikes if they just keep their mouths shut about them. People who really like child pornography can have normal lives if they do not manifest that into a law violation. All one would have to do is keep that ‘like” within the privacy of their own mind.

You also do not have a right to spew anything that comes to mind, however, and I give the tried and true example of screaming “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

And how would I ever know if someone I was talking to didn’t like men? I don’t like idiots per se, but I do tolerate them and respect their right to exist and even speak their minds. So. maybe people who don’t like men should have a tee shirt or something to identify their “dislike” and so not keep us in the dark.

July 2, 2020

I Am So Tired of OMG

Filed under: Culture,language — Steve Ruis @ 10:13 am

It seems when people express any kind of wonder or awe or surprise or excitement, they respond by uttering “Oh My God!” (OMG). Christians tend to substitute “Oh My Gosh.”

Aside The “gosh” used by Christians has the benefit of a hard G sound so is a good substitute for God. The “gosh” stands for the Land of Goshen which was named in the Bible as the place in Egypt given to the Hebrews by the pharaoh of Joseph, and the land from which they later left Egypt at the time of the Exodus. It was located in the eastern Delta of the Nile, lower Egypt. Since the Exodus is fictional, possibly the land is, too.

This OMG exclamation is so ubiquitous, that I cannot remember what we used to say in such circumstances before this term became prominent. Children of the 60’s used to say Awesome! and “Far out! a lot. Go back a bit further and “It’s wonderful, it’s marvelous” was popularized by George Gershwin.

I am oh, so, tired of OMG, which I think began as a manifestation of Valley Girl Speak, but I may be wrong about that.

Will someone please invent a less irritating substitute?

June 23, 2020

Typography Evolves, Not Necessarily for the Better

Filed under: language,Technology — Steve Ruis @ 10:54 am
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I am a bit of a typography snob. I work as an editor and I work with people in their teens and their nineties. I note that people quite old tend to show some quirks of their past. For example, at one time English, as German still does, capitalized most nouns. We have moved away from that practice, but some older writers overcapitalize. It was also the practice to have a space before colons and periods which is no longer the practice, so as mentioned, things change.

There is also a slow morphing of compound nouns. In the 1930’s it was quite common to see to-day and to-morrow in print and now the hyphens are gone. This is a common process. A place in one’s home to have a fire becomes a fire-place and then a fireplace. The same thing happened to sail-boat, foot-path, black-face, skin-head, and dog-house.

Currently we are seeing another transition, one I hope does not stick. This is the recent practice of only capitalizing the first letter of an acronym, an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word, for example NASA. Back in my early days these things were typed out thus: N.A.S.A., F.B.I., and C.D.C. After a while we dropped the periods as being superfluous and so we got: NASA, FBI, CDC, CIA, SCOTUS, etc. This was acceptable because there were very few other situations in which words were formed from all capital letters. No one would be confused seeing NASA instead of N.A.S.A. But now I am seeing Nasa more often than not.

If the “all capitals” rule for acronyms is taken away, as is becoming the current practice, the possibility of confusion increases a great deal, especial for young or new readers of English. I tend to approve of such changes when they either (a) simplify communication or (b) make communication more accurate. In this case I don’t see what is saved. If I type <cap lock>,n ,a ,s, a, </cap lock> instead of <shift> n, a, s, a, I am not really saving a lot of effort.

I went to Wikipedia to consult a list of acronyms (and their ilk, such as initialisms) and I limited myself to just those starting with A and C.

Some of these, such as CAP, which stands for Civil Air Patrol, would easily be misunderstood if written as Cap, possibly referring to a piece of headgear, especially if the word begins a sentence, which always begin with a capitalized letter anyway. Others of this kind are:
FOE  Friends Of The Earth
ACE  Allied Command Europe
ADAGE  Air Defense Air to Ground Engagement (simulation)
AID  U.S. Agency for International Development
AM  Amplitude Modulation
CARP  Computed Air Release Point
CART  Championship Auto Racing Teams
CATS  Computer Active Technology Suspension
CIAO  Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office
CIS  Commonwealth of Independent States
COBRA  Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985
COIN  Counter-Insurgency (military)
COPE  U.K. Committee On Publication Ethics
CORE  Congress of Racial Equality
CREEP  Committee for the Re-Election of the President (Nixon)
Plus there are any number of these which could appear to be a person’s name, the first letter of which is typically capitalized.
TERI  Tata Energy Research Institute
ANA  All Nippon Airways
COLT  Combat Observation and Lasing Team (military)
CHiP  California Highway Patrol

Since these came from lists with just these two letters of the alphabet, I am sure there are hundreds of other terms that could also be sources of confusion.

I do not intend to adopt this new practice and hope that it dies out over time as being counterproductive.

How do such things get started? I do not know, but my guess is in magazines. Magazines are always looking for typographical ways to appear trendy, on the forefront of the topic they cover. Magazines are responsible for article and book titles now being formatted as if they were sentences (few are), which I believe emanated from ad copy. A header in an ad, if it appears to be a sentence with no “full stop” at the end encourages people to keep reading to find closure for the idea begun to be stated.

April 12, 2020

The Words We Use to Protect Ourselves, Thus Doing Irreparable Harm

Filed under: History,language — Steve Ruis @ 11:35 am
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I was viewing and reading the other day and came across two rather extraordinary statements. Here they are:

The buffalo hunt was an instrument for opening the west to settlement.”


“(referring to the early civilizations on the Nile, Indus, and Yellow rivers) Bountiful agriculture produced grain surpluses to feed these ever more populous settlements, the rulers coordinating the labour of growing workforces to construct impressive civil engineering projects like expansive irrigation systems, roads and canals, to further increase food production and its distribution.

Do you see what they have in common?

Both are descriptions of brutal treatment of the majority of a population for the benefit of someone other than the population itself, using breezy language.

The phrase “opening of the West to settlement,” is fascinating. The “West” referred to is the American West and the entire history of the “settlement” of the American West is rife with Indian troubles. Every time “settlers” started “settling” they were attacked by Indians. Damned savages! If only they had been civilized!

Well, the reason the “settlers” were attacked is that the land they were “settling” was already settled by Native Americans. The Anglos were invaders, in the terms of a subsequent generation, they were squatters on other people’s land. There was no need for “settlement” as that had already taken place. There were already people living on that land and the march west, was nothing more than an invasion that generated a genocide of immense scale.

Settlers, my ass. Of course, as a youth I swallowed this bilge easily. By accepting the term “settlers” I was accepting that the land was not “settled” and so was “open for settlement” by brave god-fearing white folk, like me. I believed the “Indians” attacked because they were savage, war-like people. In college I realized that most of what I “knew” of Native Americans came from the myriad cowboy movies I had viewed. And formal history wasn’t much better because of these words that were chosen to salve our egos, words like settlers, instead of invaders or conquistadors.

And the second quote. Egad, talk about white washing.

“Bountiful agriculture produced grain surpluses” uh, exactly how did this happen? Hunter gatherers got together in a barn one evening and one of them convinced the others that this agriculture was going to be a really good deal for them, so they all switched over? Sedentary agriculture was a disaster for many, many people before it got going and even after. People had a major reduction in variety in their diets because instead of having different harvests of fish, game, fruits, plants, and whatnot with the seasons, they spent all of their time in a much more labor intensive practice: farming. Because they ended up eating mostly what they grew, instead of what Nature provided, their teeth rotted, their children grew up smaller, and their health deteriorated because of the disease pits formed when so many people lived so closely together. A drought, or flood, or poor harvest for any reason mean starvation.

Oh, but, “the rulers coordinating the labour of growing workforces.” I am sure were a great help, providing guards to make sure the workers didn’t run off and in acquiring slaves by capturing the populations of whole villages in the vicinity. The rulers soon found out that forced labor is expensive because of the numbers of guards needed, so they created the concept of god-kings to recruit invisible gods guards who worked for free. It is hard not to do a task a god or god’s emissary says you have to do.

And, oh joy, all of those “impressive civil engineering projects like expansive irrigation systems, roads and canals, to further increase food production and its distribution” were really helpful . . . to the workers? No, I don’t think so. The distribution network was taking the grain they produced elsewhere, to feed people like soldiers, that couldn’t be afforded before the imposition of forced labor agriculture. Thus, agriculture allowed the elites to make war for fun and profit, again not with any benefit to the workers creating the surpluses that fed the elites and their minions.

And, did you notice the phrase, that the grain surpluses were in part “to feed these ever more populous settlements.What was being settled? Empty land? Why? The ever growing populations were created by the grain surpluses and a biological law which says that the population of a species will expand to the limits of its food supply. If you didn’t have the grain surpluses or didn’t make them available to people, the populations would not grow. So, who benefited from this? Not the workers. There never was much of a benefit to the workers at all. Grain was a crop that could be dried and stored. Otherwise food preservation was quite difficult. There is some evidence of mastodon carcasses having been immersed in arctic temperature lakes as a form of preservation, but most food spoiled fast, so it was eaten as soon as it was harvested as a general rule (a whole mastodon being a bit of a challenge). There was no surpluses for hunter-gatherers as a general rule. But because grain can be dried and stored and kinda sorta will keep you alive if you eat it, it was something that the elites could tax . . . by force, mind you, that could be spent (in trade, as food, etc.) later. So, agriculture was by the workers for the grain the elites wanted and the elites didn’t care fuck-all for the workers. Most of them were slaves anyway and treating them well wasn’t necessarily an advantage, certainly not an economic one.

Such breezy truncations of history, like the above, hide the incredible damage done by the elites of the general masses of people under their influence. And what about the poor buffalo which were hunted almost to extinction “to open the West to Settlement.” What a crock of bullshit. The buffalo were hunted to extinction to make a profit, for everyone in line from the frontier buffalo hunters to the wearers of buffalo hide garments in the East. No one hunted out the buffalo to win a “war” against the Native Americans, thus opening up the West to settlement. (See, no Indians here . .  well, left any way.)

By accepting such tripe we salve the wounds we should all feel when thinking back on our history. There is much good and much bad. Both encourage us to do more good in the future. By turning the appallingly bad into a “good” neither informs us of our capabilities or warns us of the dangers of certain paths we might take into the future. Ego protection should never be the watch word of history, but we have allowed it to be so in this country and are still working to massage the past to make us look better. (Look up debates over Texas school books for American history of late for examples.)

December 4, 2019

The Hero: A Book Report

Filed under: Culture,language,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 9:33 am
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I finished reading The Hero by Lee Child, author of action thrillers, most prominently those involving his main character, Jack Reacher. And I promised you a book report.

This is a quick read and quite enjoyable as it the author’s riff on what defines the word “hero.” He uses as a framework the evolution of humankind, focusing on the genetic bottleneck that occurred about 2500 generations ago in which the human population of Europe and its surrounds fell to about 4000 individuals (due to an ice age, you know). He believes that that event shaped us into the people we are. To quote him:

Conventionally our long, eventful seven-million-year evolutionary journey is thought of as an inevitable ascent toward ever-increasing perfection. Which it might be. Or not. It depends on where we started. Who are we descended from? Who was my 1,198-times great grandmother? What kind of person survives an eight-hundred-generation Ice Age? Such a thing doesn’t happen by accident. Potential survivors didn’t sit around hoping for the best. They spent eight hundred generations kicking and clawing and killing and stealing. Maybe they started on the Neanderthals. Then they started on each other. Conditions got worse. The nice guys died out. By the end the human population was reduced to the nastiest handful. My 1,198-times great grandmother was one of them. One of a savage, feral, cunning bunch. They would kill you as soon as look at you. They would steal your food and shelter. A ferocious will to live, with the emphasis on the first part.

Along the way to this conclusion, Mr. Child dissects the meaning of the word hero, from its initial meanings to the almost total meaningless it has now (ordinary firefighters are labeled heroes without having done anything heroic . . . for political reasons). Mr. Child explains why this happened:

The entire purpose of story is to manipulate. Previously who was doing the manipulating didn’t matter very much. It was always just some random person, with talent and energy, and no real agenda beyond some kind of empowering encouragement, which was intended to help the community as a whole anyway. But now there was a state, however rudimentary, and a government. There was an elite, and a hierarchy stretching out below them. There was power and control. The New Stone Age. A new system. Perhaps too long ago and too small and too prototype-crude to be given names from later periods, but all authoritarian and totalitarian governments need to control the story.

The bottom line is that Mr. Child, he of a classical education and quite erudite, has foresworn the use of the word “hero” as being meaningless . . . now.

This is a quick and good read, quite thought provoking.




December 3, 2019

Simple and Impossible

I love it when things come together, in this case a PBS history of Hanukkah and a blog discussion of Christian ethics. Here, in a nutshell, is the core of the discussion of Christian ethics:

“The Bible says a lot of good things. Fundamentally, as Jesus says, the rule of law comes down to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Heartwarming, 100% a principle to live your life by, good job Bible (though it is bizarre to say that the Bible is its origin).”

I think this “law” is a classic exhortation of an impossible goal. Is it even possible to “Love your neighbor as yourself?” I think it is not. In the hierarchy of things we value, we place ourselves at the top (anybody who says otherwise is virtue signally or deluded or lying at the same time). This is because of a certain practical situation. You cannot serve, help, protect, etc. any of those you love if you die first. You must preserve yourself, so you can protect, etc. others you value. (Yes, it is that simple. Not even lemmings are lemmings.)

Under yourself, are your immediate family: your spouse, your children and then your extended family, your parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. (We have names for these relationships for a reason.) Then, past that point there is your tribe and I use this term loosely as people see it differently. These are your extended in group, people you care about, at least theoretically. (Governments try mightily to extend your in group to the borders of the country … and no further (loyalty, patriotism, love for the Vaterland, etc.).

Biologically and socially, we have invested a great deal in making signals for who is and who isn’t in our in group. We have: language (people who didn’t speak Greek were called barbarians), hairstyles, hats and other articles of clothing (flag lapel pins, special underwear, shawls, religious uniforms, etc.), membership in certain groups (religions, churches, Knights of Columbus, Republican Party, etc.), and so on. So, if you are in conversation with someone and they interject “Praise the Lord,” you know who you are talking to.

Okay, so the PBS special? I found it fascinating how the memes of Hanukkah celebrations are supported, passed on to new generations, and used as a binder of Jewish society (which is what memes are for and why they are “transmitted” and survive). All of the ceremonies, special foods (latkes, yum!), songs, games, etc. involved in these festivities establish a common background for all of the people in their particular “in group.” This helps bond people into the group and helps to identify who is and isn’t in the group. (If you don’t know what a dreidel is, you ain’t in the in group.)

Which brings us full circle to Christian ethics. The admonition to “Love your neighbor as yourself” intended that neighbor to be someone in your in group. At that time “foreigners” just did not buy a place in your neighborhood and settle down. Jews lived with other Jews, so “Love your neighbor as yourself” actually means “Love your neighbor Jew as yourself.” It was not designed to include everyone. There was no point, especially in a group that is related genetically as Jews were. (The hostility directed at modern converts is a residue of this feeling. Those converts may be Jews, but they aren’t family.)

And, even when so limited, this admonition isn’t really possible. It was posited, possibly in good faith (no pun intended), as a standard that could not be met but could be strived for, a standard everyone fails at some times, and so it also bonds the in group. And it certainly wasn’t directed at “humanity.”

And, as an aside, the decrying of the secularization of the Christmas holiday (including the Fucking War on Christmas), is a bemoaning of the loss of any grip the Christian churches had on this “holy day.” Festivities were often centered in the church (when the church got over its opposition to the festivities all together) with nativity plays, special services, etc. Now, many don’t include the church in their plans art all. Thus Christians don’t have a powerful meme sharing program to identify with as the Jews have in their Hanukkah festivities. And they bemoan its loss.

November 7, 2019

Morality and Manners

Filed under: language,Morality,Philosophy,Reason,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 7:40 am
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I frequent the Quora site and since I am interested in atheism, I see the question “If you don’t believe in God, how can you be moral?” and its many variants over and over and over (and . .  over . .  <sigh>). . . . This “question” is more of a statement than a question and is usually categorized as a “Gotcha Question,” right up there with “If God is all-powerful can He make a rock even He cannot lift, Father?”

An interesting variant of this question showed up this morning in the form of “Atheists, do you respect other people’s beliefs though you yourself do not believe in a deity? It is morally right to respect people’s beliefs, right?

The obvious answer is “no;” respecting other’s beliefs has nothing to do with morality. Consider Hitler’s profound belief that Jews were abominable and were to be exterminated. But then I realized that the questioner hadn’t used the best words available for his question. I believe he meant to say “Atheists, do you respect other people’s religious beliefs though you yourself do not believe in a deity?” Just because others often compound ordinary beliefs with religious beliefs, we should not fall so easily into that trap. If this is the intended question, and it seems to be, then the Hitler example is not all that good, although one could make an argument that the hatred of Jews was promulgated by Christianity. So, how about another example, how about Pope Urban II? Around the year 1095, he gave a speech calling for armies to embark on a crusade to the Holy Lands to take back Jerusalem from Muslim rule. Between 1096 and 1291, this speech was the impetus for eight major expeditions into the “Holy Lands” where untold numbers of unspeakable acts of savagery resulted in 200 years of bloodshed, and more than 1.7 million deaths. Should I respect old Urban’s belief that Christians are the rightful rulers of Jerusalem as opposed to the Jews who were there first or the Muslims, who were in possession of it at the time, both of whom are partial “rulers” of that city today?

I think there are many religious beliefs that are less mainstream that most people would find it difficult if not impossible to respect: any Scientology belief, for example.

Another immediate thought I had was it should be good manners to strive to understand someone else’s belief before adopting an opinion on that belief and to not just dismiss it out of hand. And, then . . . manners . . . manners? Why are there no questions regarding how we can have manners without God? Why are their no Christian manners? Surely manners are on the same spectrum with ethics and morality. Even if it were not immoral to covet one’s neighbor’s spouse, surely it would be bad manners? Aren’t manners intended to help us live together amicably, just like ethics and morals?

And where did manners come from when there isn’t a peep about them in the holy scriptures? Surely manners couldn’t have been created by people and, ugh, be like, you know, subjective and everything.

October 31, 2019

The Meaning of Meaning and Purpose of Purpose

I have been having a running disagreement over two words with John Branyan. This disagreement emerged, I think, from my opinions that life has no intrinsic purpose, nor an intrinsic meaning either. These opinions were mocked by Mr. Branyan, who is very good at mocking. (Hey, some opinions should be mocked . . . yes, I am talking about you, Flat Earthers.) He apparently wanted to debate those opinions and I did not, which created another point of disagreement.

Actually, to clarify my opinion I expanded upon my original comments and shared that I thought all “purposes” and “meanings” were quite synthetic, that is fictional, that we make up such things to provide a narrative for our lives.

Consider the following scenario.

*** Start of Scenario ***

The Earth seems to be about 4.543 billion years old. If some aliens happened to fly their spaceship by 300,000 years after Earth’s Birthday (EB hereafter) they would have seen a planet still very, very hot but also covered to some extent with water containing possibly some monocellular life. Puzzled, they wondered what was the meaning of this? What was the purpose? They decided to come back later.

When Earth had it’s 1500 millionth anniversary of its birth, the aliens dropped by again. Their records showed their prior visit and now this planet had cooled considerably and the surface water, much in abundance, was teeming with monocellular life but nothing else. Again, they wondered what was the meaning of this? What was the purpose? . . . and decided to come back later, which they did 3 billion EB. Everything was much the same: no plants, no animals, vast oceans, but now they discovered that there was some multicellular life present. And, as before, they wondered what was the meaning of this? What was the purpose? . . . and decided to come back later. This time they waited until 4 billion EB and voila, there were plants and animals, some very, very large. Some of the animals ate the plants others ate the animals that ate the plants. Some animals walked, others ran, some swam and some even flew. The land was very green, the animals multitudinous. What was the meaning of this? What was the purpose? . . . they decided to come back later. They did so 4.542 billion years EB (1 million years ago). Life had become very much more diversified. The very large land animals were largely gone and smaller animals had grown much more numerous and varied. But none of these species possessed a language they could comprehend so communication with any of the denizens did not seem possible. Wondering what all of this meant and what its purpose was, they decided, since the pace of change seemed to be accelerating, to come back shortly, which they did just now. They found the planet covered by this one species of mammal, which had languages and cultures, oh my. Excited, they established communication with several of these cultures independently so they could compare notes afterward. Once mutual communication was established, each contacted group understood the questions “What was the meaning of this? What was the purpose?” but had completely different answers to those questions, so no consensus existed as to why this planet existed the way it did and what its future might hold. Puzzled, the aliens decided that they had better things to do and decided not to come back.

*** End of Scenario ***

So, just when did the meanings and purposes of “all of this” get created? Did they exist earlier than that last visit? Is great puzzlement.

John asked (I am paraphrasing) “If meanings aren’t real, what are dictionaries, then?” Words have meanings, otherwise we would not be able to communicate. A word I thought “meant” one thing and you thought “meant” another would make communication difficult, especially if there were a great many words being used that fit into this situation. But do your meanings and my meanings line up, exactly or even at all? Are they the same? If you ask college students to write definitions for a list of words, you will find amazing variation in those definitions, almost to the point of unintelligibility. If you ask two of those students to defend one of their definitions to one another, a conversation would take place, information exchanged and usually the two agreeing that they “meant” the same thing or that the word “means” different things in different contexts.

As an example of this consider the following hypothetical conversation:

Mom: How was the game DeSean?
DeSean: It was okay.
Mom: How did your friend play?
DeSean: He was bad, very bad!
Mom: Oh, I am sorry to hear that.
DeSean: No, we won, and he was great!

So, for at least a sizable fraction of this culture, “bad” has become “good,” the usual exact opposite of what bad “meant” at some point in recent time. Apparently we allow people to make up meanings, even contradictory ones, as they wish.

And dictionaries, well, they are for when we encounter words whose meanings are obscure or just unknown. But, if you read a dictionary definition of a word, do you then know what it means? How about when “bad” meaning “good” hadn’t showed enough legs to get included in a dictionary? And, you may have noticed that all of the definitions found in dictionaries use words found elsewhere in dictionaries! These meanings are not objective, they are subjective! Oh, my, oh, oh, oh. . . .

We make up the meanings of things to be able to communicate. Enough good will exists that if there are misunderstandings we negotiate what was “meant” so as to be clear about that . . . and this happens a lot because what one person’s meaning for a word is can be quite different from another’s. (Especially when you consider there is more than one language.)

Christian and religious apologists believe that each of our lives has a purpose. This is linked to their belief that we have been “created” as only created things have purposes and only the creators know what those purposes are, although they may try to communicate, aka share, that purpose with the curious. When sentient entities create things, they often do such things “for a purpose” that is “for some reason or use later.” Other times we create with no purpose (doodling, noodling, whittling, etc.) A whittler may be making shavings of wood for the purpose of using the shavings to kindle a fire . . . or . . . they may be just passing the time doing something rather than nothing . . . or . . . they wish to create something pleasant to the eye to give as a gift . . . or. . . . The very same activity could have a multitude of purposes and no one by the whittler can tell you which was the “actual purpose.”

So, the belief that “life has meaning” that “life has a purpose” is tied to life being created by someone or something that can articulate what their purpose was in making the creation, but . . . but just because the creator had a purpose, the creation doesn’t inherit that purpose as its own. A painting, deemed to be a lovely piece of art, originally was created to get paid and satisfy the aesthetic senses of the painter and patron, can become an investment or a gift or symbol of a decadent society or whatever. Similarly, if we were created by some creator god, that god’s purpose in creating us also puts us under no obligation to accept that as a guiding principle to live our lives. We are not bees or ants, we are not created to be anything in particular.

And, for those of us who cannot believe the fairly tales that are our creation myths, any of them, since there was no creator, there is no purpose coming from the outside to inform our lives. If we want our life to have a purpose, an inner, conceptual guide for our life, we are free to create one . . . or not. But, unlike “meanings” no one has compiled a “dictionary” of generally accepted purposes for us to consult when we are confused. We are on our own.

And that is good . . . or bad . . . or, well, you know what I mean.

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