Category Archives: Language

Islamophobia, Homophobia, Christophobia, & Policophobia

“Not every aversion is a fear, and not every fear is a phobia.”—Aaron Haspel

we-the-peopleAt a certain point in the not so distant past, we started saying that everyone who has a problem with Islam is “Islamophobic” and everyone who has a problem with homosexuality is “homophobic”. To some extent this made sense. After all, many of the most virulently anti-gay guys I knew in high school were out of the closet and openly gay by the age of 25. It’s obvious now, but only in retrospect, that their bizarre hate-on for gays was really just a kind of self-hatred, a fear of their own repressed desire for some hot man-on-man action. The term “homophobic” fits guys like this like a glove.

But it doesn’t fit guys like Ralph (not his real name), the super-conservative, Christian fundamentalist father of a gay friend of mine. Ralph thinks homosexuality is wrong. He’s totally against gay marriage. And he would never watch Modern Family. Yet he really loves his gay son and totally accepts his son’s partner. I’ve seen Ralph with them: and he’s genuinely kind and openly affectionate with both of them. There’s some real love there. And definitely no fear. Describing Ralph’s anti-gay “thing” as a manifestation of “homophobia” is, well, bullshit. The shoe just doesn’t fit.

The term “Islamophobic” is fraught with similar difficulties. If we’re talking about a guy like Alexandre Bissonnette, the shooter who killed six people at a Quebec City mosque last weekend, it fits like a glove. Bissonnette wasn’t radicalized by traumatic first-hand experiences with terrorism or war; he was radicalized by fake-news sites like Rebel Media and Breitbart News. The term “Islamophobia” applies equally well if we’re talking about the anti-Muslim hysteria that flares up from time to time among hicks in homogeneous hamlets like Hérouxville. After all, these people have never seen a Hungarian, much less a hijab. Their ignorance is astounding. They don’t know any actual Muslims and their knowledge of Islam is wholly a product of media misrepresentations of Muslims inflected by the paranoid imagination. Referring to anti-Muslim antipathies of this stamp as a manifestation of “Islamophobia” makes perfect sense.

But, truth be told, the nastiest “Islamophobia” I’ve encountered wasn’t in rural backwaters like Hérouxville; it was in diverse cosmopolitan centers like Montreal, Los Angeles, Sydney, Baltimore, and New York—amongst Christians and Jews who’ve had to flee the Middle East. Most of these people have had first-hand experience with real persecution at the hands of Muslim majorities, much of it decidedly horrific. Their businesses were destroyed, bank accounts seized, places of worship trashed. Some of them were even tortured, kidnapped, ransomed. And these experiences have, quite understandably, left deep scars. Have they earned the right to demonize 1.6 billion people? Of course not. But saying that their problem with Islam is a manifestation of an irrational fear of The Other seems unfair, and lumping them together with the likes of Alexandre Bissonnette seems decidedly unjust.

I would never say that demonizing all Christians is okay. But if you’ve got a chip on your shoulder because you grew up gay in a Pentecostal household, in the heart of the Bible Belt, surrounded by people who treated you terribly, I get it. I’m not saying it’s okay. But I get it. I might think you’re a bit of a bigot but I’d never call you a Christophobe. I’d never say that your problem with Christianity is a manifestation of Christophobia (the fear of Christianity). Likewise, I would never say that demonizing all cops is okay. But if you’ve got a chip on your shoulder because you grew up poor and black in inner-city Baltimore, surrounded by cops who habitually mistreated you, I get it. I’m not saying it’s okay but I’d never call you a Policophobe. I’d never say that your problem with cops is a manifestation of Policophobia (the fear of police).

I’ve spent a great deal of time talking with students, friends, and family members about the horrible massacre that happened at the Grande Mosquée de Québec eight days ago. Trying to make sense of it. Trying to have an honest and open conversation about what’s wrong with our society. How we can fix it. How we can do better. How we can prevent things like this from happening in the future. Many things have become clear to me as a result of this process. One of them is that the term “Islamophobia” isn’t nearly as useful as I once thought it was.

Sam Harris eats our lunch once or twice a month on his podcast precisely because he can easily drive a truck through the conceptual holes in “Islamophobia”. So long as we keep implying that everyone who’s got a problem with Islam is motivated by a kind of irrational fear of The Other, it’s easy for Harris (and others like him) to make us look ridiculous. All he has to do is bring people on his program like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Gad Saad: people who’ve got horrific stories to tell. Stories that are unfortunately true. Stories which would seem to indicate that a generalized fear of Islam makes sense. Do we really need a clumsy concept like “Islamophobia” to describe the anti-Muslim bigotry in our midst? Probably not.

—John Faithful Hamer, Twilight of the Idlers (2017)

Dictionnaire Diabolique

020active listening, n. Pretend listening.

alternative facts, n. Bullshit. Example: Grant was caught having sex with his wife’s best friend. And there was smoking-gun proof: a sex-tape made by a private investigator hired to check up on him. But Kellyanne says she can get him off. She’s gonna present his wife with some alternative facts.

apocalyptiboner, n. The feeling of great enthusiasm and excitement which washes over some people when they contemplate the complete destruction of the world. Example: Everything he said about the impending crisis made sense, but the glee in his voice was downright disturbing. He could barely conceal his apocalyptiboner.

appetude, n. Hunger-induced bitchiness. Example: Look, I know it’s been a long ride, but I’ve had just about enough of your appetude.

attachment parenting, n. Parenting.

cc-ebomber, n. Machiavellian colleague who regularly sends out passive-aggressive emails, cc-ing everyone, whose sole purposes are to: take credit for other people’s work; cast aspersions on colleagues; and give their superiors the impression that they’re taking care of business.

codependent relationship, n. Meaningful relationship.

cuck, n. Full-grown man. Example: Peter is a really great husband and father who treats women like human beings. He’s such a cuck!

dis-disease, n. Degenerative disease of the soul characterized by a hypersensitivity to real and imagined insults. Starts out as garden-variety touchiness but grows into an obsessive concern with disrespect. Before long, the sweet kid you once knew has turned into a hateful, poisonous adult who harbors resentments for decades, keeps a detailed record of every past “dis” (real or imagined), and prayerfully pages through a hateful little Naughty List each and every day.

down-to-earth, adj. As unexceptional as me; devoid of excellence; that which does not make me feel inadequate, insecure, jealous, or envious.

elites, n. Smart people who disagree with me and can demonstrate precisely why I’m full of shit.

I’m boredinterj. Entertain me.

I’m fine, interj. I’m not fine.

interdisciplinary, adj. Undisciplined.

irrational, adj. Not convinced by your rationalizations.

like buzz, n. The endorphin rush that follows a well received social media post.

liker’s remorse, n. The deep sense of regret that washes over you when you realize that you’ve liked something horrific on Facebook.

Luthecostal, n. A polite Protestant who speaks in but one tongue; the offspring of a Pentecostal and a Lutheran.

narcissitter, n. Single person who manages to strategically occupy an entire four-top table at a coffee shop.

networker, n. A person who treats human beings like instruments and pretends to care about people they don’t care about because they think they might be useful to them at some point in the future.

nostalgiagasm, n. An emotionally ejaculatory experience brought on by an intense wave of nostalgia. Example: Had an intense nostalgiagasm last night whilst listening to The Pet Shop Boys. It was actually too much to take. Had to turn it off right in the middle of “Being Boring”.

philosopher, n. A person who fails to see that the unexamined life is in fact well worth living.

poster’s remorse, n. The deep sense of regret that washes over you when you realize that you’ve jumped into a social media debate and posted a stupid, ill-informed comment. Especially prone are those who comment on articles before reading them.

primal cellscream, n. The sound you make after your cell phone falls into the toilet.

privilege laundering, v. To conceal, or downplay the significance of, one’s privileged origins by (a) fabricating a history of oppression outright, or (b) stressing the importance of an underprivileged ancestor. Highborn patrician Publius Clodius Pulcher unwittingly inaugurated a pernicious political tradition when he reinvented himself as Joe Average to get elected in 59 BCE. Our upper class is filled with Richie Riches masquerading as self-made men. In fact, my guess is that the number of rich people who conceal their privileged origins in 21st-century America is roughly equivalent to the number of noblemen who hid their humble origins in ancien-régime France. My friend Clayton Bailey refers to this process as “privilege laundering”. Ambitious social climbers used to invent aristocratic ancestors; these days, they fabricate histories of oppression and talk incessantly about their underprivileged ancestors. Example: It was privilege laundering of unprecedented proportions. Almost everything about dread-locked Rachel was a lie. Her enslaved ancestors didn’t exist and her interracial heritage was a sham (she kept her skin dark by tanning on the sly all year round). Her ghetto accent and gangster mannerisms were all part of an elaborate act (she had in fact attended one of the most expensive private schools in the country). What’s more, all of her stories about “coming up hard in the hood” were, we discovered, complete and utter bullshit too (she was in fact raised in the lap of luxury, in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city).

pryrrhic victory, n. When a BS artist within an institution—who specializes in PR, cc-ebombing, self-promotion, and little else—succeeds in seizing control of a project he didn’t create, doesn’t really understand, and is thoroughly unprepared to manage. Example: After wresting control from the pilot, he realized that he didn’t know how to fly the plane. It was a pryrrhic victory.

redemptioner, n. A callow emigrant from Proletaria to Professionalia who pays for the voyage to middle-class America by going into debt for an unspecified period (usually a decade, though frequently much longer). A redemptioner is enticed to take on mortgage-sized student loans by poverty and/or shrinking job prospects.

revolution hawk, n. Activist who advocates revolutionary violence without knowing anything about revolution or violence.

Sanctimonium, n. Newly-discovered element; a self-righteous metal; most recent addition to the periodic table. Silvery-gray in color, and surprisingly lightweight, Sanctimonium has been classed on the periodic table with Preachium, Pontificatium, Moralium, Priggium, and the rest of the self-righteous metals. Although it is found in trace amounts everywhere, concentrations seem to be especially high in Canadian water.

scalarious, adj. Scary and hilarious.

sharer’s remorse, n. The deep sense of regret that washes over you when you realize that you’ve shared something stupid on social media. Especially prone are those who share articles before reading them.

sociologist, n. A person who believes everybody’s blinded by social forces, everybody but sociologists.

surreal, adj. Not like the movies.

teaching critical thinking, v. Teaching students how to think like you.

trumping, v. Spending an inordinate amount of time on the Internet obsessing over Trump’s latest antics.

Twitter feed, n. An ongoing stream of messages that lets you know who all the good people are ganging up on at the moment.

unreasonable, adj. Not convinced by your reasons.

white knight, n. Decent human being who refuses to participate in the bystander effect. Example: Did you hear about that Good Samaritan guy who helped the woman from Jerusalem who was badly beaten, robbed, stripped naked, and left for dead on the road to Jericho? Bet he was just trying to get laid. Such a white knight!

—John Faithful Hamer, Being a Philosopher in Social Media Land (2017)

26 Most Annoying Expressions in English

yqabt1. IT’S THE BEST PART. The person who says this wants you to eat something gross (like the green stuff in the lobster). And they’re lying to you: they know it’s not the best part. If they eat “the best part” in front of you, they’re simply showing off, like that drunk uncle of yours who ate your pet goldfish on a dare in 1983 and ruined Christmas.

2. YOU CAN’T GO WRONG. The person who says this is trying to get you to buy something you don’t need because it’s “on special”. Or they’re trying to rationalize the fact that they just bought something that they don’t need because it was “two-for-one”. More often than not, the person who says “you can’t go wrong” just did.

3. WELCOME TO MY WORLD. The person who says this is a professional victim who resents your pain the way heavy-weight champions resent up-and-coming rivals. They wish to diminish the significance of your pain, take the focus off of you, and place it back where it belongs: on them.

4. STEP UP. The person who says this would like you to believe that they’re exhorting you to do the right thing; more often than not, however, they’re simply trying to get their way by wrapping themselves in the flag of the family, the fatherland, the future (or some abstraction: like liberté, égalité, or fraternité). Saying “this is what’s good for me” or “this is what I want for selfish reasons” would be far more honest. But also far less effective. So they tell you, instead, that it’s time to “step up” for your country, your company, your family, your department, your people, etc.

5. GET OVER IT. Telling someone who’s heartbroken to “get over it” is sort of like scratching an itch with a razor blade. Example: “Look, I know you were madly in love with him. I know you were supposed to get married next month. I know he left you for your little sister. I know he ran off with all of your savings. And I know that all of this happened a few days ago. But would you just get over it already!”

yqadg6. CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE. This expression was once uttered in the spirit of John 8:7, wherein Jesus famously tells a group of men who are about to stone a woman to death: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” But it’s now uttered in precisely the kind of sanctimonious spirit Jesus despised: the self-righteous spirit of the Pharisees, who love to perform their good works “on the street corners to be seen by others.” These days, the person who says “check your privilege” is in all likelihood little more than a schoolyard bully who’s trying to silence you.

7. WHEN YOU’RE MY AGE. This is a snooze button masquerading as an argument. Instead of addressing your concerns, the person who says “When you’re my age . . .” forestalls them.

yqcld8. KIDS THESE DAYS. Hand-wringing moralism vis-à-vis the young is almost always to be found amongst those with a scandalous capacity for amnesia. The flames of self-righteousness burn most brightly in grownups with a special talent for denial. By contrast, adults with the greatest tolerance for the peccadilloes of youth are invariably those who remember what they were like at that age. Alas, true compassion, and genuine humility, are to be found, more often than not, amongst those blessed (and cursed) with an exceptionally good memory.

yqchy9. LEAD, FOLLOW, OR GET OUT OF THE WAY. The true purpose of this stupid expression is to silence dissent, quell criticism, and encourage passivity. The inclusion of the word “lead” in this MBA mantra is dishonest. The person who moralistically admonishes you to “lead, follow, or get out of the way” doesn’t really want you to take the lead. They have no intention of relinquishing control of the situation, addressing your concerns, or reconsidering the wisdom of a particular course of action. They want to lead. And they want you to shut the fuck up.

10 MOVING FORWARD. A radical denial of history; corporate-speak for “I refuse to take responsibility for my actions or learn from the past.” Example: When asked about the Trump administration’s latest diplomatic blunder, Sean Spicer said: “Look, there’s no reason to dwell on the past. We’re moving forward.”

11. EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON. Much as I’d like to, I just can’t bring myself to believe that everything happens for a reason, or that life (or “the Universe”) is nearly as fair as the Law of Karma suggests. All to the contrary, I think the world we live in is a profoundly unfair place. If we want the world to be a better place—if we want justice—we have to make it happen. We can’t passively sit back and wait for Karma or Divine Retribution to right every wrong and fix everything that’s broken. This is, I think, the true (and profoundly radical) meaning of Marx’s dictum: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

12. TELL IT LIKE IT IS. Just as a well-meaning desire to please can easily become little more than a fig leaf, used to conceal cowardice, a well-meaning desire to be honest—and “tell it like it is”—can easily become little more than a convenient rationalization, used to condone cruelty, and justify a despicable desire to hurt and humiliate others. Example: “Look,” said the asshole, “I’m not an asshole, I just like to tell it like it is.”

13. ME TIME: “My problem,” said the self-absorbed narcissist at the yoga retreat, “is that I’m just too giving. I really need to learn how to be a little more selfish. How to set aside a little more, you know, me time.”

14. IT’S ALL GOOD. Um, no, it’s not.

15. HISTORY’S WRITTEN BY THE WINNERS. Anyone who says that the most memorable histories were written by winners hasn’t read the Old Testament. Losers make great historians. And winners often can’t be bothered: because they’re too busy having fun (enjoying the spoils of war), too busy building and maintaining the empire, or simply illiterate. History isn’t written by the winners; it’s written by those who write. Especially those who write histories. This is the macabre meaning of one of Aaron Haspel’s darkest aphorisms: “The tyrant concerned for his reputation must concentrate his fire on the inarticulate, who don’t leave pesky memoirs behind. Kill peasants, not Jews.”

16. OFF THE CHARTS. In Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” But in the real world, exceptional people are exceptional. If you say “off the charts” often, there’s something wrong with your charts.

1080cv17. HE MEANS WELL. The person who tells you that their friend means well wants you to ignore the evidence of your own experience and accept what they’re saying about their friend’s secret intentions on faith. They want you to ignore the long list of shitty things he’s done and said to you over the years, things which would lead most reasonable people to conclude that the guy’s an asshole. Still, much as it pains me to admit it, I must confess that I’m often charmed by this simple faith in a friend. Everyone deserves to have at least one friend like that! A friend who always seems to see the best in you. Even when it’s not there. There’s something so sweet and innocent and touching about these faithful folk, just as there’s something sweet and innocent and touching about kids who still believe in Santa Claus. Example: “Look, I know he raped a few girls back in college. I know he stole $20,000 from his best friend in the world. I know he’s still got those spousal abuse charges hanging over his head. And I know about that whole hit-and-run thing. But trust me, deep down, he’s actually a really nice guy. He means well.”

yqaex18. PRESSURE MAKES DIAMONDS. Then the privileged prick piously proclaimed: “Pressure makes diamonds, son.” To which I wittily responded (years later, in retrospect, and only in my head): “Sometimes it does, you patronizing putz. Pressure does, on occasion, transform a lump of coal into a diamond. But this is the exception, not the rule. Most of the time, pressure just grinds people down: into coal dust.”

19. CALM DOWN. Telling someone who’s losing it to “calm down” is sort of like putting out a fire with gasoline.

20. MANSPLAINING. Rebecca Solnit’s description of “mansplaining” is clear, precise, and painfully accurate. It’s also incredibly funny (in a sad and pathetic way; you know, the way dark comedies are funny). For instance, I once watched two clueless dudes take it upon themselves to school my wife in the intricacies of climate change politics at a dinner party. These guys—whose entire knowledge of the subject was, we later on discovered, based upon one TED Talk and last Sunday’s New York Times—continued to tell her “what’s what” even after I told them that she was an expert on the subject! Even after she’d made it abundantly clear to everyone within earshot that she was indeed an expert on the subject! Even after she’d also made it abundantly clear that these guys had no idea what the fuck they were talking about! So yeah, I get it: mansplaining is a real thing. And it is indeed obnoxious. But you’ve gotta demonstrate that you’re being mansplained, you’ve gotta demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about; you can’t just assert it. As my friend Jed Trott puts it: “There is no problem with the idea of mansplaining but it requires an argument. You can’t just drop it and walk away from it like a fart in an elevator.” Dropping the mansplaining bomb in Social Media Land has become sort of like saying: “Hmm, that sounds just like something Hitler would say.” Those who wield this weapon no longer feel the need to justify their claims. What they want, what they’ve come to expect, is automatic deference. And that’s precisely why “mansplaining” is the most recent addition to this Rogues Gallery. Calling people out for mansplaining has become little more than a schoolyard bullying technique, yet another convenient way to silence critics and shut down debate.

wam_custard_bikini21. LET’S DO LUNCH. Unless you’re a sitophile who wants to slip your junk into my sandwich, can we please just HAVE lunch together? I just can’t seem to get used to this stupid expression. When someone says “Do you wanna DO tacos tonight?” I invariably blush and say something like: “Not tonight, honey. I’ve got a headache.”

22. REACH OUT. As my friend Andrew Miller rightly observes, unless you’re a member of The Four Tops, you should never say that you’re going to “reach out” to someone at work. A simple phone call will suffice. Seriously, is there a secret government facility in Wisconsin where they program the mindless robots who spew out this MBA crap? Guess I should touch base with some stakeholders, reach out to some content producers, put together a PowerPoint, and come up with an action plan. Then we can have some consultants get to the bottom of this.

16117359_10211841808547123_1797845291_n23. IF YOU’VE GOT MONEY, YOU STOLE IT: This is a myth perpetuated by economically-illiterate lefties who couldn’t run a dep and sleazy Wolf-of-Wall-Street types who wish to normalize their sociopathic behavior. Growing up in a working-class neighborhood, I couldn’t tell you how many times I heard this expression: “If you’ve got money, you stole it.” It was an article of faith, part of the creed. And I believed it wholeheartedly well into my twenties. But I’ve long since discovered that it’s simply not true. There are plenty of honest ways to make a fortune.

24. IT IS WHAT IT IS: Sometimes “it is what it is” because you keep saying that it is what it is.

25. BE REALISTIC: As the philosopher Susan Neiman rightly observes in Moral Clarity (2008), when you tell someone to “be realistic” you’re really just telling them to decrease their expectations: “It’s a sentence you use on someone who is younger than you are, or someone you want to feel that way. He still has dreams and goals you’ve given up, or never had in the first place, and they are a standing challenge to the limits on life you have long since accepted. He wants more of the world than the world tends to give. Realizing his plans would require changing pieces of reality you believe to be fixed. And so you meet him with a palette of platitudes about human and other sorts of nature, the most harmless of which seems to be the well-meant advice to be realistic.”

26. TO MAKE A LONG STORY SHORT: The phrase “to make a long story short” is usually uttered at the beginning of the second half of the long version of a short story. Example: Dad said “to make a long story short” whenever he realized that one of his stories was going longer than it ought to. It let us know that he wanted to wrap it up but couldn’t seem to do so.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

Education and Entertainment

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”—Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach (1888)

Dina Goldstein, “Gods of Suburbia” (2014)

Marshall McLuhan once quipped: “Anyone who tries to draw a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.” I’ve had this quotation displayed prominently on my office wall ever since I started teaching at John Abbott College. I know this idea pisses off a lot of my colleagues, but I must confess that it seems perfectly obvious to me. After all, when you’re entertaining a person, you’ve got their attention; when you’re boring them, you don’t. And how can you possibly teach someone anything if you don’t have their attention? If J. K. Rowling proved anything with the Harry Potter series, it’s that the average kid’s attention span is much longer than most teachers would have you believe. Perhaps our students’ supposedly short attention spans aren’t a function of some underlying problem—requiring drugs and therapy or sanctimonious finger-wagging—but rather a function of terrible teachers and ridiculously boring classes.

Art’s power to change hearts and minds stems precisely from the fact that it’s entertaining. We often forget that the shocking proposals concerning censorship in Plato’s Republic (376d-392c) are predicated upon on a deep respect for art’s power to shape souls. Harriett Beecher Stowe’s antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) got through to many people who had more or less ignored the preachy pleas of angry activists. The same is probably true of television shows like Modern Family. When the Christian Right protests against the sympathetic portrayal of a gay character on a television show, they’re silently acknowledging the ability of entertainment to educate. Truth be told, I suspect that they respect art’s power far more than those who mock McLuhan.

If we were playing Trivial Pursuit and the question on the card was Which American university has the most extensive foreign languages program? you’d probably guess (as did I) that it’s Harvard (or another Ivy League school)—perhaps UCLA, NYU, Penn State, or the University of Chicago. But if you guessed one of these schools (or any of the other usual suspects), you’d be wrong. The correct answer is quite surprising: Brigham Young University—the über-conservative Mormon university in Utah, known for being fiercely Republican and openly hostile to feminists, homosexuals, and intellectuals. BYU is owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It’s the largest religious university in the U.S.; it’s also the third-largest private university in the country.

“BYU states in no uncertain terms the religious goal of its education,” writes the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in Cultivating Humanity (1997): “students are to be taught ‘the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ.’” Personal piety is expected of students as well as professors, and the academic freedom of both is severely circumscribed: “Phi Beta Kappa, the national student scholarly honour society, has repeatedly refused BYU’s request for a campus chapter, on grounds of its restrictions on academic freedom.” What’s more, BYU is one of the whitest universities in America (“total minority enrollment stands at 4 percent”). Alas, BYU is not devoted to diversity and liberal, cosmopolitan values. Even so, BYU’s commitment to foreign language instruction is second to none: “No university in this country,” notes Nussbaum, “offers more foreign languages—including rarely taught languages of Australasia and the South Pacific, Persian Farsi, Haitian Creole, some Native American and some African languages.”

The reason for BYU’s commitment to the teaching of foreign languages should be obvious: the LDS Church takes the Great Commission at the end of Mark’s Gospel very seriously: “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). Though the narrowly goal-oriented nature of this enterprise is somewhat sketchy, I must confess that I can’t help but admire the straightforwardly pragmatic wisdom of the Mormon approach. Mormon missionaries want to spread their ideas, their worldview, their values—not their language; as such, they speak in the common tongue of the people they wish to convert. Mormon missionaries don’t arrogantly expect their would-be converts to work hard to learn how to speak their language and understand them; they don’t expect their would-be converts to employ their idiosyncratic specialist’s jargon, their rarefied dialect. Alas, the same cannot be said of most academics, especially progressive academics writing in the Humanities and the Social Sciences. They seem to revel in being thoroughly incomprehensible.

To some extent, as Max Weber rightly observed nearly a century ago, this is inevitable. In Science as a Vocation (1918), he maintains that the academic life is fundamentally incompatible with the political life. Both are deeply noble callings, but you’ve got to choose between them. Those who refuse to choose, those who try to be both, invariably do neither well. Their wishy-washy commitment to the truth undermines the integrity of their scholarship, whilst their inability to communicate in plain speech undermines the effectiveness of their activism. The political success of Eugene Debs is a case in point.

No leftist has ever connected with American voters more than Debs. He got a million votes for the Socialist Party whilst he was in prison and the country was at war: a stunning political achievement. Yet I find it telling that the doctrinaire urban Marxists of his day—the cool kids, the intellectuals, the hipsters, the academic leftists—treated Debs with contempt. He got no respect. The intellectuals in the big northern cities thought Debs’s usage of farming metaphors and religious imagery was repulsive, and they thought his knowledge of the intricacies of Marxist theory woefully inadequate. Yet Debs could communicate their core concepts like no other. Why could he do this? Because he wasn’t another one of those philosophers who wants to sit on the sidelines and interpret the world in some new and novel way. He was, like the author of Theses on Feuerbach (1888), an activist who believed that “the point is to change it.”

The words we choose betray us: our primary loyalties and preferences are revealed by them. For instance, when you’re speaking, when you’re writing: do you go with le mot juste, the word or phrase that exactly captures your intended meaning, in all of its complexity, in all of its subtlety? Or do you go with the word or phrase that’s second best, or even third or fourth best, because you know that your intended audience will actually understand what you’re saying? If you’re an academic at heart, or an ideologue who loves preaching to the choir, you’ll go with le mot juste every time. But if you’re a teacher like me, or an activist or an organizer, you’ll do whatever you have to do to get through to your people—because, as Saul Alinsky puts it in Rules for Radicals (1971): “It does not matter what you know about anything if you cannot communicate to your people. In that event you are not even a failure. You’re just not there.”

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

Living Language and Fallacy Fetishism

“every word is a pocket into which now this, now that, now several things at once have been put!”—Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits (1886)

I remember laughing out loud when John Ralston Saul defined the word “dictionary” in The Doubter’s Companion (1994) as: “Opinion presented as truth in alphabetical order.” I’m suspicious of dictionaries. Always have been. But I’m even more suspicious of those who love dictionaries. There’s a certain kind of guy who gets visibly aroused whenever he talks about the the ironclad certainty of dictionary definitions and grammatical rules. He’s got a visceral hatred of ambiguity, uncertainty, and doubt. What he wants, more than anything else, is to nail reality down, once and for all. He shakes his fist at Living Language, soaring far above him in the sky, and mutters menacingly: “I will catch you in my nets! I will clip your stupid little wings! I will put you in my cage! I will make you my pet! I will make you my slave! And if I can’t catch you with my nets, I’ll shoot you! And stuff you! Put you on my wall with the rest!”

The_Gay_Divorcee_movie_posterWhen you deprive language of its freedom to be somewhat slippery, squishy, and imprecise, you deprive it, as well, of its talismanic power to illuminate the world around us. Language can’t be nailed down because it’s alive. And, like all living things, it’s in a constant state of evolution. Random mutations abound. New meanings emerge. Old meanings die. Existing meanings are modified. Such is the nature of language. For instance, the word “gay” has changed quite dramatically. In A Child’s History of England (1851), Charles Dickens said of Thomas Wolsey: “He was a gay man”—meaning, of course, that the great Cardinal Wolsey was a cheerful, lighthearted, happy man, not given to bouts of melancholy; a man who loved life and knew how to have a good time. Gay didn’t mean homosexual in 1851. Indeed, it didn’t take on that meaning until well into the twentieth century. But by now, in 2016, the new meaning of gay (homosexual) has completely eclipsed the old meaning of gay (joyful)—so much so that homophobic jocks at Abbott don’t want to be caught reading Nietzsche’s Gay Science (a book I assign often). One guy—the quarterback, if memory serves—went so far as to make a cover for his copy of The Gay Science. Though it pains me to admit it, the cover was actually quite pretty.

Fullscreen capture 2015-06-014There are distinctions which remain richly meaningful and useful in practice, despite the fact that they are patently false in theory—which, to my mind, calls into question the usefulness of a certain kind of argumentative prissiness. It’s not unlike the problems faced by grammatical outlaws. If speech acts like “I ain’t got nothing” and “I ain’t feeling good” communicate clearly within a particular context whilst, at one and the same time, violating the rules of grammar and logic, what’s wrong, the lawless language or the rigid rule? Fallacy fetishists defend the rigid rule every time; meanwhile the poets, who always seem to side with the living, say the fault lies with the grammatical rule. But I’m inclined to think that here, as elsewhere, we can live and let live: by upholding the linguistic convention most of the time and—at one and the same time—remaining open to linguistic innovation. We have to remember that language is alive, just as we’re alive, and, as a consequence, it’s in a constant state of evolution. Demanding that linguistic conventions stay the same forever is about as silly as telling your ten-year-old to stop growing up.

yfbtoWhat bugs me most about fallacy fetishism is that it’s so often used, not to uphold reason, but to undermine common sense. The use and abuse of the “ad hominem fallacy” is a case in point. If a shoe salesman goes on and on about how much I need another pair of shoes, I should probably consider the source. That being said, it would be stupidly cynical of me to conclude that everything the shoe salesman says about shoes is suspect simply because he’s a shoe salesman. After all, he could be an honest man, an honourable man, who’s telling the truth. Maybe I really do need another pair of shoes. Still, the facts remain the facts: the shoe salesman has a vested interest in selling me as many pairs of shoes as possible. Most would conclude that taking this into account is entirely reasonable.

But the fallacy fetishist begs to differ. So he pulls you over and shows you his badge: “Afternoon, ma’am: name’s Patrick the Patronizing. And I’m an officer of the law—The Law of Logic—sworn to serve and protect the good citizens of Reasonable Land. What ya did back there, ma’am: well, it was a clear violation of The Rules of Argument™. But I’m gonna let you off this time, gonna let you off with a warning. But mark my words: if I catch you mentioning the vested interests of that shoe salesman again, I’m gonna have to cite you for speeding through an Ad Hominem Zone.” He’d like you to believe that evidence of this kind was declared INADMISSIBLE by The Supreme Court of Logic long ago—usually, alas, because he’s a shoe salesman impersonating a police officer.

The Tragedy of CategorizationThinking about things, analyzing things, invariably involves categorization of some kind: you stereotype, you pigeonhole, you make distinctions. It’s a messy business, no doubt about that. Sometimes it’s even ugly. But the best we can hope for are finer distinctions and more accurate categories. Getting rid of categories altogether, getting rid of all generalizations, would ultimately unravel language itself. These imperfect instruments we refer to as “words” are all we have, and if we wish to make sense of the world, we have to use them. Are the limitations of language a problem? Sure. But they’re not a curse. Only the rigidly dogmatic see it as such. Like the dream of a selfless scientific objectivity, the dream of a language purged of all ambiguity—a pure and precise language, a language of Science—has been sometimes noble, sometimes silly, sometimes dangerous, and sometimes benign, but always destined to failure. Be that as it may, there’s no reason to despair. So long as your attitude towards language is sufficiently playful and poetic, you’ll be able to say whatever it is you need to say. Well, um, sort of.

I once spent the better part of a wedding reception arguing with an investment banker who adamantly maintained that all sorts of seemingly altruistic actions were, in fact, selfishly motivated. We went around in circles for hours and hours, downing whiskey after whiskey, until I asked him what, in retrospect, I should have asked him at the beginning of the night: Do you think anything we do, no matter how seemingly sweet, can be called altruistic? Nope, he said. Everything we do is selfish. Alas, I realized at that point, much to my chagrin, that we’d been talking past each other for hours. I was working with a rather conventional understanding of the word “selfish” whilst he was working with a decidedly nonstandard, and altogether idiosyncratic, definition, a definition so capacious that it could house the whole of human action. When a word’s meaning is stretched this much, it ceases to mean anything. As the philosopher Dmitriĭ Vladimirovich Nikulin quite rightly observes, in On Dialogue (2006): “Every theory should have its limitations: if it explains everything, it explains nothing (in particular).”

IMG_5661-0051Playing with language the way that toddlers play with play-dough is tempting. No doubt about that. But it’s a temptation that we ought to resist, especially when we’re talking politics, for at least four reasons: (1) Words like “fascist” and “racist” and “misogynist” are like plastic bags: you can stretch them a bit, but they break and become useless if you put too much stuff in them. (2) It betrays a troubling lack of interest in facts, history, reality, and truth; e.g., comparing the situation of anglophones in Quebec to the situation of South African blacks under Apartheid discredits you in the eyes of anyone with common sense. (3) It undermines your credibility in the eyes of those you wish to persuade, as it suggests that you’re either a fool or a charlatan; viz., either you have no sense of proportion, and are thus stupid, or you have no intellectual conscience, and are thus untrustworthy. (4) It degrades discourse by reducing all of it to propaganda. Social trust is based, to some extent, upon a democratic faith: in language and each other. When we play fast and loose with definitions we undermine that trust, and make meaningful dialogue rarer than it might otherwise be. Reasonable conversations are undermined, not by those who compare apples and oranges, but by those who compare apples and hand-grenades.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

Miniscule Matter?

“The punster, the grammarian, the nitpicking fact-checker
all display contempt for what is being said.
They counterfeit attention.”—Aaron Haspel,
Everything: A Book of Aphorisms (2015)

MINISCULE MATTER? The philosopher Joseph Heath recently published an op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen about the state of Canadian higher education. It's pretty much gone viral, and for good reason: it's provocative, well-argued, and, to my mind, pretty much right on. Even so, the first person to post a critical review of Heath's article in the comments section didn't take issue with his thesis; instead, he faulted Heath for spelling

The philosopher Joseph Heath recently published an op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen about the state of Canadian higher education. It’s pretty much gone viral, and for good reason: it’s provocative, well-argued, and, to my mind, pretty much right on. Even so, the first person to post a critical review of Heath’s article in the comments section didn’t take issue with his thesis; instead, he faulted Heath for spelling “minuscule” like this: “miniscule”. As it turns out, this alternate spelling of the word has been living in our linguistic country for over a century now. Which begs the question: Isn’t it time we granted him full citizenship? Or, at the very least, permanent residency? Regardless, treating him like an illegal alien seems, at this point, rather odd. Shouldn’t we just grandfather him in?

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2015)

If It was Good Enough for Jane Austen, It’s Good Enough for Me

“I would have every body marry if they can do it properly.”—Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814)

Fullscreen capture 2015-02-010When I was in high school, my teachers told me that I couldn’t use the word “I” in a formal essay. I was taught to refer to the human race as “mankind” or “man” (e.g., Man’s Search for Meaning). When referring to a hypothetical individual, my teachers maintained that masculine pronouns such as “he” and “his” ought to be used (e.g., When the average student contemplates his future in these difficult economic times, he invariably worries about whether or not he’ll be able to find a good job after he graduates).

When I was an undergraduate at Concordia University, my professors told me that using “I” in a formal essay was perfectly acceptable. What’s more, they told me that referring to the human race as “mankind” was sexist; “humankind” was to be used instead. My professors also told me that using masculine pronouns to refer to the hypothetical individual was sexist. But they never really provided me with a viable alternative, making philosophical essays especially difficult to write. Most of us got around the problem by avoiding personal pronouns altogether. When personal pronouns were absolutely unavoidable, we generally resorted to the gender neutral “they”.

When I was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, my professors taught me that “they” referred to more than one person; it was plural, and could not be used to describe a hypothetical individual. Thankfully, these professors did provide us with alternatives. But they were all more or less ugly and awkward (e.g., “he/she”, “he or she”); even the best of the proposed compromises, which involved alternating between “he” and “she” throughout your essay, proved, in practice, awkward. Still, I’ve been preaching this grammatical gospel to my students for years, dutifully correcting their improper usage of the word “they”.

But I’ve just recently learned that “they” is a perfectly acceptable all-purpose gender-neutral pronoun. Shout it from the rooftops at the top of your lungs, friends: Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we’re free at last: “they” is a perfectly respectable singular pronoun. Come on, folks, if it was good enough for Jane Austen, then it’s good enough for you and me. YES, this is indeed what keeps me up on a cold March night. And NO, I refuse to get a life.

—John Faithful Hamer, Twilight of the Idlers (2017)

One of my Favorite Philosophical Problems, and Why I Study Philosophy

One of my favorite problems in philosophy has always been the classical problem of induction. (I will explain what it is in a moment!) Admittedly, this is partly because at barbecues and other social gatherings, the problem of induction really brings to the fore two things I passionately want to share with others: (1) What philosophy is and what philosophers of today even think about; (2), how mind-blowing—and fun—some of these philosophical problems really are. Philosophy produces a lot of food for thought, and I guess I’m just a big Hungry Hungry Hippo®. Continue reading One of my Favorite Philosophical Problems, and Why I Study Philosophy

Voting “OUI” in 1995

Oui1995referendumTwenty years ago today (on October 30th, 1995) Canada came close to a messy divorce: the final count was No: 50.6% vs. Yes: 49.4%. Like many progressive anglophones, I voted “OUI” in the 1995 referendum. Laugh if you must, laugh if you will, but those were the days when separatism still looked like a left-wing enterprise—to a young and extremely naïve voter like me. I believed, as did many of my friends, that if the separatists won they’d create a northern-European-style social democracy—a sweet little Sweden right here in North America. This prospect was especially attractive to me at 21, because North America seemed to be veering further and further rightward, into shockingly heartless neoliberal territory.

But those days are long gone, and no one, not even the most naïve new voter, believes that a separatist victory would lead to a socially-democratic Quebec. We might as well face up to it: the separatist movement has lost its soul, as has the Parti-Québécois. They no longer even try to appeal to the better angels of our nature. The PQ now appeals to all that is worst in the Quebec psyche: our fear of difference, our fear of change, and our irrational sense of victimhood. Look, every party has its dark side, but there’s nothing left of the progressivism that once kept the PQ’s demons in check.

When I was a kid, growing up here in Quebec, the Parti-Québécois was a party of idealists. Sure, many thought they were misguided idealists, but few doubted that their hearts swelled with noble intentions. Where did that Parti-Québécois go, the Parti-Québécois of René Lévesque?

—John Faithful Hamer, Montréalais de souche (2017)