Archive for the ‘language’ Category

The Optical Illusions of the Soul

November 20, 2011

Google “optical illusions” and you will pull up a huge number of moving and stationary, black-and-white and color, geometric and random drawings that have in common the ability to look first like one very definite image, and then like a totally different one, to the normal human eye. I just finished reading a Dan Simmons novel, Flashback, which had pretty much the same effect on me, not for the first time. Reading Ayn Rand does the same thing. So do some of the postings on this blog. They make me acutely aware that my fondest dream may be your worst nightmare. Dunno whether I am the only person for whom my fondest dream may be my worst nightmare. That, of course, is why we Wired Sisters are multiple.

I’ll start with the religious version of this phenomenon, which I used as a Rosh HaShanah discussion last year under the title The Abrahamic Split. Some bibliographical and linguistic notes: Rabbi Michael Lerner is the author of Jewish Renewal. “Milhemet Mitzvah” is, in traditional Jewish thinking, a war which is commanded by the Holy One, as opposed to wars which are either optional or forbidden. The only one of these that everybody seems to agree on was the conquest of the land of Canaan by the Israelites on their way out of Egypt, the subject matter of the second through fifth books of the Bible. “Midrash” is how the various scholars explain what the biblical characters did between the installments of the text. What Woody Allen does at the end of this discussion is also midrash. Maimonides was a twelfth-century rabbi, scholar, philosopher, and physician, whose views of scripture often seem to come out of left field. So here it is. Next posting will be the political angle.

Over recent decades, we have become conscious of a double voice in the Jewish tradition, a voice on one hand of “love your neighbor as yourself” (Deuteronomy 6:5), and on the other of “remember Amalek” (Deuteronomy 25:17.) Those of us who follow political and religious controversies are all too aware that this double voice is duplicated in Islam ([Qur’an, Sura 2:256] “There shall be no compulsion in religion…. [Sura 18:29] Proclaim: “This is the truth from your Lord,” then whoever wills let him believe, and whoever wills let him disbelieve”, and on the other side [Sura 47.4] “When you encounter the unbelievers, Strike off their heads. Until you have made a wide slaughter among them…” Similarly, Christians can quote the Gospel of Matthew: ” Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5: 44-45) Or they can call down the wrath of Heaven in the form of Crusades, new and old. Before the Crusades, after all, was the Jihad. And before the Jihad was the Milchemet Mitzvah. After a while, some of us find the lazy way out. We decide that the Holy Blessed One was speaking only in the words of love and mercy. We who hear that voice, among all the Abrahamic faiths, can talk to each other. But we need pay no attention to those, in all three faiths, who hear the voice of cruelty and revenge. Rabbi Michael Lerner, in Jewish Renewal, even suggests that that voice is not the voice of God at all.

Let us leave aside for the moment Whose voices those are, on both sides of the Abrahamic split. Let’s look at where, historically, they are first heard. I think the Jewish tradition first hears them both, side by side, in the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, which is the root narrative of all three of the Abrahamic faiths (Genesis 22:1-19.) Abraham hears the voice of the Holy Blessed One, at night, tell him to take his son up to the Mount and “offer” him. Michael Lerner will tell us that that was not the Holy One’s voice. Maimonides will tell us that it was a prophetic vision meant to show us how far one may be expected to go in obedience to Heaven—but that the actual Akedah may never have happened at all. The Muslims tell us that the son designated for offering was Ishmael, not Isaac. The Christians tell us that the whole thing prefigured the sacrifice of Christ. But let us assume for the moment that what Abraham heard was really the voice of Heaven. He certainly behaved as if he believed that. He took the two “lads” (midrash tells us they were Ishmael and Eliezer) and Isaac, and all of the paraphernalia of sacrifice except the sacrificial animal, and walked three days toward a place “to be announced.” When they got there, Abraham apparently knew this was the place, even though he did not hear any divine voice saying “Okay, here you are. Up on that mountain there.” He looked up and there it was, without so much as a “You Are Here” sign.

But Abraham also never quite comes out and says that Isaac is to be the victim. Is this because the voice in his vision told him only to “offer” his son, and not to kill him? Some of the midrash points in that direction. Other midrash, coming from the time of the Rhineland massacres a thousand years later (when the Crusaders stopped off on their way to the Holy Land to kill enormous numbers of Jews), will not accept that lawyer-like parsing of words. That midrash depicts Isaac preparing himself to be killed, and asking his father’s help to be a worthy victim. Indeed, in some of that body of midrash, Isaac is actually killed, and then revived.

At any rate, Abraham sends the “lads” away, binds his son on the altar, and raises his knife. And then he hears another voice. The text says it is the voice of an angel or a messenger, but we are familiar by now with the ever-shifting line between the Holy One and the angels, between Principal and Agent. “Lay not your hand on the child,” that voice says, “nor do anything to hurt him.” Abraham, confused, stops, frozen, his arm raised. He is here to do what he has been commanded. Now he is commanded to stop. What does he do now?

Completely distracted from what he has so painfully nerved himself to do, he looks around, and sees a ram. The Ram. Sees him “after,” “behind,” in Hebrew “achar.’ The Hebrew in such a construction, would normally have been “acharav”—behind him. Midrash makes much of the oddness of the locution here, based on its axiom that the Holy One does not waste words. Does “achar” mean, as it often does, “in the future”? Maimonides thinks so. Is Abraham seeing the generations after, looking back on the story as we are doing now, and asking himself, not only “what does the Holy One want me to do?” but “what does the Holy One want all of us to do, for generations to come”? Abraham, after all, is a prophet. Prophets have visions. They see the future. Or futures.

The Ram is caught in the bushes—“basbaq,” a locution that, in modern Hebrew, means something like “in the turmoils of everyday life.” Which is something more likely to happen to us than to rams. Or is Abraham the one who is caught in turmoil? At any rate he resolves the turmoil by taking the ram from the bushes and substituting him for Isaac on the altar, where he completes the offering.

The midrash makes this ram the raw material of Jewish ritual for centuries afterward. “The ashes of the parts burnt upon the altar formed the foundation of the inner altar, whereon the expiatory sacrifice was brought once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the day on which the offering of Isaac took place. Of the sinews of the ram, David made ten strings for his harp upon which he played. The skin served Elijah for his girdle, and of his two horns, the one was blown at the end of the revelation on Mount Sinai, and the other will be used to proclaim the end of the Exile, when the “great horn shall be blown, and they shall come which were ready to perish in the land of Assyria, and they that were outcasts in the land of Egypt, and they shall worship the Lord in the holy mountain at Jerusalem.” And of course we have been blowing the ram’s horn, the shofar, during the Days of Awe, for the same purpose. For the purpose, in fact, of making us hear once again, and again and again, that other voice of Heaven, holding us back from the ultimate violence.

The only midrash I have been able to find that brings these two voices into simultaneity, if not harmony, comes from, of all people, Woody Allen.

“And so he took Isaac to a certain place and prepared to sacrifice him but at the last minute the Lord stayed Abraham’s hand and said, “How could thou doest such a thing?”
And Abraham said, “But thou said —”
“Never mind what I said,” the Lord spake. “Doth thou listen to every crazy idea that comes thy way?” And Abraham grew ashamed. “Er – not really … no.”
“I jokingly suggest thou sacrifice Isaac and thou immediately runs out to do it.”
And Abraham fell to his knees, “See, I never know when you’re kidding.”
And the Lord thundered, “No sense of humor. I can’t believe it.”
“But doth this not prove I love thee, that I was willing to donate mine only son on thy whim?”
And the Lord said, “It proves that some men will follow any order no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice.”

But the Tradition is not comfortable with that view either. We do not discard one of the divine voices in the Torah because it is cruel, or cast doubt on its reality because it was “only” a prophetic vision, nor because the Holy One was only joking. All of those are tempting, and we are honest with ourselves about the temptation. But in the end we side with the Sanhedrin, as it ruled between the strictness of the rabbinic school of Shammai and the humility and humanity of the school of Hillel: Elu v’elu divrei elohim hayyim—These and those are both the words of the Living God—but the law—our law, because we are only human–must follow the merciful school of Hillel.


Politics and the English Language II

July 27, 2010

Far be it from me to aspire to the heights of Orwell on this subject. But it seems to me that there are things he missed, perhaps because he had too much faith in the intelligence of the average reader, or because that intelligence has gone downhill considerably since Orwell’s time. Today, it seems to me, we need to look, not at how writers deliberately deceive readers, but at how readers accidentally but inexorably deceive themselves in the process of reading. One of the basic axioms of communication, although it gets little attention from the “experts” today, is that if anything can possibly be misunderstood, it will be. In fact, there are reliably predictable ways in which that misunderstanding can be expected to happen. Textual scholars as early as the fifth century C.E. discovered some of them in dealing with different manuscript versions of the same text, because obviously the copyist of one or the other manuscript had copied wrong where they differed. A whole set of rules emerged on how to choose the variant most likely to have been the original–for instance, always choose the most difficult version of the text, since an erring copyist is most likely to have miswritten by simplifying the original.

A similar process has been proved to be at work in the development of rumor–Gordon Allport has written a short classic work on the subject. As a story circulates, it will become simplified; the inconsistent elements and apparent digressions will disappear; gaps in chronology will be filled; and in general, the story will develop a plot of its own, dominated by the elements the various tellers consider most important.

At the other end of the spectrum is the drafting and reading of legal documents. Lawyers construct documents with the assumption that every word counts, both by itself and in relation to the document as a whole. And they read other people’s documents with the same assumption, on the lookout for a word unwisely inserted or omitted, resulting in a meaning more favorable to one’s own client that to the drafter. Which accounts for a great deal of the apparent repetition in legal documents (“give, devise, and bequeath,” “on or about May 15, 1974,” “lease, sell, let, convey,” and so on)–it is an effort to make sure nothing useful to one’s client is omitted.

Unfortunately, the discipline of reading a document with careful attention to the meaning of each word, its relation to its context in the document, the import of the document as a whole, and the document’s relationship to its social/political/ historical/economic/etc. context, is normally reserved, among non-lawyers, for the Bible or the Constitution. Those of us engaged in writing less weighty material have to anticipate that it will be read the way most people read most things–once-over- lightly, with ample opportunity for the same distortions that account for miscopying of texts and the development of rumor.

To begin with, what most people read is almost never precisely what was written, once we get beyond the basic simple sentence of ten words or less. Most people not only do not absorb everything they see on paper, they actually add to their understanding of the material things that were never in the original. And, worse still, the average reader is most likely to distort his/her reading when it involves the things most important to her/him.

Which brings us to the drafting of political documents, which are intended to be instruments of persuasion. The whole point of a well-written political document is to speak to the reader about something the reader considers important–and is therefore most likely to misconstrue. The better the writer succeeds in addressing the reader’s deepest concerns, the more likely the document is to be misread.

Specifically, the first words to go, ‘twixt writer and reader, are the qualifiers–“most”, “many”, “some”, “occasionally”, “frequently”, “rarely”, and so on. You see qualifiers all over the place in advertisements, because the advertisers’ lawyers put them in so as to avoid charges of false advertising from the FTC’s lawyers. But the only reason anybody else uses qualifiers is to avoid flak for over-generalizing or sounding dogmatic. For that purpose, the use of qualifiers almost never works–usually, the reader ignores them entirely, and is likely to consider the writer dogmatic and over-generalizing anyway. At best, the more sophisticated reader may conclude that the writer is dogmatic and over-generalizing, but has competent legal counsel.

Next to go is the Ritual Disclaimer/Concession to the Other Side’s Arguments. The purpose of inserting it is to sound reasonable, and to avoid sounding dogmatic. The actual result is, in most cases, that the RD/COSA is either ignored and the writer’s position taken as unreasonable and dogmatic anyway, or, worse still, it isn’t ignored, and the reader concludes the writer either doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or lacks the courage of his convictions. Sometimes the reader even ignores the RD/COSA on the conscious level and concludes the writer is unreasonable and dogmatic, while nonetheless retaining the subconscious suspicion that the writer also doesn’t know what he is talking about and/or lacks the courage of his convictions. The only exceptions to this predicament that I have seen are the rare instances in which a writer actually does a brilliant job of stating the opponent’s best case, and then demolishes it. That takes rhetorical genius rarely seen in today’s political arena.

At the other end of the political writer-reader gap is another set of problems. The first occurs when the writer(s) water down an originally unified and clear position in order to sound reasonable and avoid alienating possible supporters. In practice, the less likely supporters will probably ignore the modifying statements, and construe the document in pretty much the way the writer(s) originally intended, if not stronger. The more solid supporters of the original position may resent its dilution.

The second problem occurs when the original document is the fruit of hours of painful negotiation among different factions, some of whom are not willing to sign a statement unless it says “some As are Bs,” while others cannot associate themselves with it unless it says “most Bs are not As,” and still others will denounce it and its authors in the public press unless it says “many Bs are Cs,” and so on. Here again, the readers are likely to interpret the statement in the most extreme possible way. Indeed, the readers with different positions on the issue in question may well read the statement in contradictory ways. Most likely, each will read it in the way s/he finds least acceptable, so that a compromise statement may succeed only in alienating several opposing factions at once.

The third and most difficult situation occurs when the writer’s original position is inherently complex and ambiguous, and cannot be stated simply without losing its meaning. In which case, the meaning is doomed, at least until the next generation’s textual scholars get hold of the statement, if they ever do.

Additional handicaps can be imposed upon the already-irksome writer-reader relationship, for instance if the intended reader is in some way handicapped beyond the range of “normal” distortion in comprehending what s/he reads–e.g., by being only marginally literate (an increasingly prevalent problem among even the most intelligent younger readers) or by not being fluent in the writer’s language.

I’m not suggesting that careful word-for-word drafting of political statements is a total waste of time. But those who engage in it should at least know what it is useful for. It can be very useful as a way of clarifying one’s own thinking. Where compromise among differing factions is involved, the process can be useful in clarifying and sometimes even reconciling their differences. Where the making of a statement is itself an act of political commitment, doing it on the basis of a lowest common denominator, so as to involve the largest possible numbers of people without diluting their fundamental beliefs, is an excellent organizing tool.

But all of these are benefits for the writers, and do not involve the writer-reader relationship at all (except insofar as the process of gathering signatures and endorsements may transform readers into honorary writers.) What we cannot expect of a political statement written on the merely cognitive level, is to transform a public readership into a constituency.

I’m not saying that that transformation is impossible. But it has to be done with language deliberately calculated to invite emotional reaction rather than analysis. Analysis rarely changes anybody’s mind about anything; at best it serves to rationalize a choice the emotions have already made. Obviously, some very corrupt and dangerous politicians have used this fact to perpetrate atrocities through the ages. But I think it’s possible to use emotional appeal honestly, in the service of a cause that can be justified by an honest analysis. That, gentle reader, must await the writing of a whole other essay.


The Zapping of the American Mind

March 15, 2010

In Chicago some years ago, a controversy arose within the police department about its normally energetic and successful drive for employee contributions to the United Way. That year, many police officers decided not to make their usual generous donations. The cause of this mass defection was a United-Way-funded program making an attorney available by telephone to consult with people who have just been arrested for any misdemeanor or felony. The time frame in question is the interval between arrest (and the concomitant, mandatory recitation of the Miranda warnings in the suspect’s primary language) and the arraignment/bail hearing. And the purpose, according to the proponents of the program, was to make sure the suspect really understands that he has the right to remain silent.

Many police officers were outraged at a program which virtually guaranteed they would get no information from criminal suspects. Since that is precisely the point of the Miranda warnings–with which the police have coexisted more or less comfortably for over forty years–I find it hard to sympathize with them (although, of course, they have every right to choose not to fund such a program.)

But as an English teacher, I am deeply concerned by the necessity of such a program. Face it, by the time an offender is old enough to be tried as an adult (even in Illinois, which sometimes allows such arrangements for 12-year-olds), he has probably heard the Miranda warnings recited at least fifteen hundred times on prime-time cop shows and in movies, quite aside from any occasions on which he may have heard them “live” in the course of personal encounters with the law. If he still needs a lawyer to tell him that “you have the right to remain silent” means “shut up until your lawyer gets there,” that says something very disturbing about the way the average American processes information.

This problem arises in plenty of places other than police stations, and is not confined to poorly-educated people with scanty knowledge of standard English. In one of my college classes, an intelligent, literate student who speaks standard English with no accent whatever barely escaped disaster on my one-hour midterm exam. The instructions indicated clearly that questions 1 and 2 were 15 minutes each, and question 3 was 30 minutes. The student told me afterward that she read the instructions carefully (which I always remind them to do), including the time limits–and then spent more than 50 minutes on the first question.

In my other incarnation, as an attorney, I once had a client who promised to make a substantial payment on fees he already owed me, if I would represent him in a pending hearing. After the hearing, I asked him when I could expect the payment. He said something like “I won’t be paying that.” I asked him whether he recalled making the promise–he did–and then I asked him what he had meant by it. “I don’t know what I meant,” he replied. Now, that may have been only his rather ungraceful way of avoiding admitting that he had made that promise solely for the purpose of inducing me to represent him when he really needed it, and had never had any intention of paying me. Which, however disturbing it may be, is a problem in ethics, rather than in processing information.

But I have seen too many parallel cases to believe that. The problem–which probably has some Greek-root neurological name known only to Oliver “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” Sacks–is not a perceptual disability, but the inability to allow information to influence behavior, even in the most crucial situations (like that of the recent arrestee in the first example.) Socrates, who held that all evil results from ignorance, would be dumbfounded.

Or is it inability? Is it perhaps a habit, long-hidden from consciousness and therefore almost impossible to break, a habit of resisting the impact of information on our behavior? Is it, perhaps, a necessary but overused defense mechanism arising out of a culture in which we are bombarded with constant demands that we stop, go, don’t smoke, see, hear, visit, buy, above all buybuybuy? Is ignorance the last refuge of the free mind? That would certainly explain the fact that most Americans–even highly educated intelligent people in intellectual occupations–will not admit to having learned anything in high school. And indeed, most of the first two years of college in this country (unlike the rest of the world) for all but the smallest elite, consist of a hasty review of what the students were taught in high school, precisely because they either did not learn it, or because they felt obliged to forget it immediately upon receiving their diplomas (in rather the same way the Pythagoreans postulated the soul, going from its previous incarnation into rebirth, was required to forget everything it had learned in its previous lives.)

There is similar resistance to allowing oneself to be influenced by religious objurgations. (Indeed, the willingness to actually pay attention to “preaching” and change one’s behavior as a result, is often regarded as proof positive of having joined a “cult”) and political speeches. Jurors regularly ignore judicial instructions (though studies indicate that may really be a problem of comprehension), and many of them also ignore evidence.

Unfortunately, of all of the sources of information in our universe, advertisers actually seem to have done the best job of circumventing customer resistance, apparently by casting their message as much as possible in terms other than informational. They try to provide either a non-cognitive esthetic experience which leaves the customer with a good feeling about the product, or a non-cognitive bonding experience which–especially among young male customers–builds loyalty. Information is not only irrelevant to those kinds of messages, it actually gets in their way.

Another source of such resistance may be the American legal system, with its proliferation of unenforced and often unenforceable laws. “It’s none of anybody’s business how fast I want to drive!” one respondent was quoted as saying in a newspaper article on people who drive 55 mph in the left lane (Chicago Tribune, Section 2, p. 1, 5/1/95). “It is…judgmental to decide how fast another driver should or should not travel. If and when I am stopped for speeding, I have no quarrel with receiving a ticket….However, I don’t appreciate another citizen justifying traveling just the speed limit in the passing lane in order to keep my speed in check.” Another respondent said “If I choose to risk a ticket by traveling at a more efficient rate of speed, the only people who need be concerned are myself and the local state trooper. To those who mistakenly believe that they are in danger simply because I am going faster than the arbitrarily-set speed limit, all they need to do is move over. To those who feel it is their job to keep me within the limits of the law, butt out!”

If, for instance, Chicago’s ban on downtown street parking (in effect for the last fifteen years) had been enforced, there would be no need for the various physical barriers erected outside the federal building after the Oklahoma bombing to prevent car bombings. Similarly, there have been numerous cases of a legislator proposing a criminal statute, only to find out (usually from his embarrassed research staff) that the conduct it would penalize was already forbidden by another law currently on the books but long forgotten. The NC-17 movie rating (not a law, but a voluntary regulation of the film industry) essentially means “R–but we really mean it this time!” If they had really meant it last time, it would be unnecessary. We try over and over again to command changes in behavior, and the only result is the piling of one ineffective prohibition on top of another (something the behaviorally savvy Jewish tradition specifically forbids, by the way. If you are going to eat bacon, you don’t have to have the pig ritually slaughtered.)

“Preaching,” “scolding,” and “nagging” are the words we use for any kind of discourse intended to change our behavior when we don’t want to change it. But ultimately, all information gets treated like “nagging” by most people most of the time.

And, as noted earlier in the case of the Delinquent Defendant (the Cashless Client?), this resistance to information affects not only how we deal with what we hear, but also what we say and how (if at all) it relates to what we mean. If I will not change my behavior because of what I hear or read, I also won’t change it because of what I say, nor will I expect you to pay any serious attention to what I say. (In the words of the old song, “How could you believe me when I told you that I loved you, when you know I’ve been a liar all my life?”) Probably the most outrageous example of this phenomenon in recent legal history was a case in Juvenile Court in Cook County, Illinois about twenty years ago. The state’s child welfare agency sent two neglected children who were in its wardship to an out-of-state foster home, and then made virtually no attempt to oversee their care. They kept filing reports, though–based on absolutely no information–that the children were doing well. A couple of years later, one of the children died as a result of abuse by the foster family, and the other was hospitalized with severe injuries. The office of the Public Guardian sued the child welfare agency for gross negligence in failing to check on the children regularly and report accurately. The child welfare agency responded by challenging the right of the Public Guardian’s office to bring the case, on the basis of a conflict of interest, because the Guardian’s office had believed the reports! (The Court didn’t buy the argument, fortunately.) We seem to have accepted all too readily the oriental maxim “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Anybody fool enough to believe anybody about anything (even once) deserves to be deceived, exploited, and railroaded. The deceivers are merely doing business as usual and cannot be held responsible for the consequences of the behavior of others who choose to believe them.

I have spent a fair amount of time in class explaining the legal consequences of various kinds of mendacity in the media, and my students have no trouble grasping that what Rush Limbaugh says about Hillary Clinton is probably libellous and what Ronco says about the Vegematic is probably fraudulent. But most of them have real trouble grasping why it matters. “Of course people lie on television,” they tell me. “That’s what television is for.” Which is a close relative of the old joke about how you can tell when (name your favorite crooked politician) is lying–”His lips are moving.” The medium is the utter absence of any reliable message. Orwell’s prediction of Newspeak–the total corruption of language to make a vehicle of political control–turns out to have overshot the mark. In our efforts to avoid Newspeak, we have turned American English into Nospeak–a vehicle of nothing at all. To choose to believe any communication, and modify our behavior in accord with it, is a tremendous and terrifying leap of faith, which most of us make once or twice in a lifetime, at most.

What, if anything, can a teacher do to breach the barrier between perception and behavior? How do we get across to students hardened against “nagging” the antiquated notion that letters have sounds, words–and combinations of words–have meanings, and it really matters whether you say “uninterested” or “disinterested”, “lie” or “lay”? Does repetition do it? (Probably not, or they’d come out of high school knowing a lot more than they do.) Is there a way to slip under the barrier, using the techniques of advertising? This is precisely what “Sesame Street” has done, with pretty good results. Can an individual teacher, without the high-powered special effects and resources of a national television show, do nearly as well? Or can a more subtle esthetic approach quietly dissolve the barrier, without the student even realizing it? I have known this to happen, often under the influence of poetry (either reading/hearing it or writing it.) “To every door,” says the Talmud “there are many keys, but the greatest key of all is the ax.” Or do we just keep throwing out bits of information and hope that some of them stick? The barrier is almost never completely impermeable (that way lies autism), but the things that penetrate it are likely to be an oddly-assorted and not especially useful conglomeration. Merely throwing out as much high-quality information as possible in hope of raising the quality of the total mix is too haphazard to be satisfying to most teachers (or for that matter, preachers, writers, poets, and politicians.)

Most commentators who predict the demise of literature, or of a particular literature or language, have done so largely in hope of getting credit for single-handedly reviving it. The current generation of English teachers and professional “naggers” has no such high-flown expectations. Most of us would be happy if high-school graduates would remember their sixth-grade grammar long enough to complete a sentence whose subjects and verbs come out even. We pity the high school teacher whose job seems to amount to painting the Mona Lisa on sand. We try to talk faster, so as to keep our instructions within the limits of our students’ current attention span, but we are not yet capable of being the “One-Minute Teacher,” and it’s probably just as well. Long ago, an unnamed talmudic wise guy asked the scholar Hillel to tell him the whole law “while I stand on one foot.” Hillel actually had an answer: “Love the Lord your G-d with your whole heart and soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. This is the whole law and the prophets. Everything else is commentary.” But he could not resist adding, “Go and study it.” Presumably sitting down.

Jane Grey

By Any Other Name

March 9, 2010

Back in the year 2000, Preston King returned to the United States. Sorry, that’s Mr. Preston King. Actually, it’s certainly Professor King, who is head of the Political Science Department of Lancaster University in England. It’s probably Doctor King, which is usually how a person gets to be “professor.” And how he got to be Professor King of Lancaster University in England (rather than Professor King of some other university in his native land, the United States) was by insisting on being called “Mr.” by his draft board in Albany, Georgia, in the late 1950s. The draft board felt that “Preston” would do just fine, thank you, for a draft registrant of the “Negro” persuasion (they had called him “Mr. King” for a while under the mistaken impression that he was white.). King was unwilling to comply with any orders issued by an administrative agency which could not be bothered to address him as it would address a white registrant in the same situation. So he refused to comply with his induction order, and was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Instead, he headed for England, and established his career, his life, and his family there (where his daughter is now a Member of Parliament.)

King came back because President Clinton pardoned him in time for him to be able to attend the funeral of his brother. His family simultaneously mourned his brother and rejoiced over his pardon. Even the judge who originally sentenced him supported the pardon.

Many people under 45 may be just barely aware that there was ever a draft, or that people ever refused to comply with it. Some really erudite types may know that people resisted the draft during the Vietnam War. But Preston King’s act of resistance happened before Vietnam was a twinkle in Robert McNamara’s eye, and it was resistance, not to war, but to a particular form of racist rudeness. Some years later, another African-American, a woman from Alabama named Mary Hamilton, was cited for contempt of court and sentenced to jail for refusing to give testimony in a criminal proceeding unless the prosecutor addressed her as “Miss Hamilton.” The Supreme Court reversed her conviction within a couple of years*–a lot faster than Preston King got his pardon.

Both these stories may seem downright quaint to younger people today, even young African-Americans. So far as I can tell, nobody under 45, regardless of race or national origin, is willing, under ordinary circumstances, to admit to having a last name, much less insist on being called by it. I had occasion, some months ago, to deal with the corporate bureaucracy of some company who had warrantied a consumer gadget that was giving me trouble. I dealt most of the time with a young woman who gave her name as “Sue.” I made the mistake of calling outside the outfit’s business hours once, and got a voice mail that offered to connect me to the directory. The directory began by telling me, “If you know your party’s last name….” and I realized that “Sue” had never entrusted me with that information. Then I realized that, probably, the only people who did know her last name were her fellow workers, her personal friends, and her family. That was a shocking revelation, for one raised on Emily Post–the last name has now replaced the first name as the index of intimacy. I fleetingly entertained the fantasy of the lovestruck swain going down on his knees and telling his inamorata, “Mary, I love you. May I call you Miss Jones?”

Since that incident, I have made a practice of asking for last names when dealing with telephone voices and live functionaries. Most of them reply that their employer has a policy forbidding them to give their last names to customers. Which makes sense, sort of, because it is obviously against their religion to use the customer’s last name more than is absolutely necessary (i.e., the first time they call, to make sure they don’t have a wrong number.) The only way to tell the difference between legitimate callers and telemarketers is that the latter not only call you by your first name, they use it as often as can be grammatically justified, as a way to forge fake intimacy with a possible customer.

A closely related counter-phenomenon has turned up in the law governing the enforcement of child support laws. A woman claiming government assistance either in collecting child support from the father of her child or in getting any of the mingier substitutes for what was formerly known as “welfare” in the absence of such support, is expected to supply the appropriate government agency with not only the first and last name of the alleged father, but his Social Security number and date of birth. It is hard to imagine any of that information being part of the sweet nothings people whisper in each other’s ears in intimate moments. But apparently we expect the ardent male to provide it to the object of his momentary passion, even when we no longer believe he has any obligation to give his last name to the person to whom he is trying to sell aluminum siding. Last names are intimate. Social Security numbers and dates of birth are even more intimate. First names are for strangers.

Apparently this indiscriminate use of first names is viewed, by those who indulge in it, as “friendly.” Fine. I like my friends to call me by my first name. But strangers are not my friends. Not yet, anyway. By definition. The way a stranger stops being a stranger (without necessarily becoming a friend yet, as opposed to an acquaintance) is by introducing himself or herself to me, by both names. Depending on the situation, this may be the time to say, “But you can call me First-name, if you like.” Or I may introduce myself first, by both names, and possibly invite first-naming.

Most of the telephone voices and live functionaries I deal with either don’t introduce themselves at all, or introduce themselves only by first name. Either way they still insist on first-naming me repeatedly without ever being invited to do so. Even my bank’s ATMs call me by my first name. This behavior does not impress me as friendly. It impresses me as rude and presumptuous, and gives me great fellow-feeling for Mr. Preston King and Miss Mary Hamilton. Would I be willing, like them, to give up my native land or my freedom rather than suffer rudeness gladly? So far, I have not even been offered the choice.

So here’s a revolutionary suggestion to those whose business brings them into regular contact with the public, especially that part of the public whose members are over 50 or were reared in some other culture: don’t call people by their first names unless you are invited to do so. When making contact, introduce yourself by first and last names, and wait to be told how the other person wishes to be addressed. Dealing with the public is difficult enough without raising unnecessary hostilities at the outset. Remember that some of the people you deal with may still be willing to suffer exile or jail rather than put up with rudeness.

* 376 U.S. 650 (1964)

Jane Grey(that’s Ms. Grey to you)

Lies, Hypocrisy, and Other Good Things

February 18, 2010

We have just finished celebrating the birthdays of George (“I cannot tell a lie”) Washington and Honest Abe Lincoln. Perversely, this spurs me to wonder if perhaps truth-telling is overrated. The Bible, BTW, does not endorse it wholeheartedly. Some biblical religions do, some don’t. I don’t claim to know enough about Islam to deal with this issue. But our current cultural and legal valuation of truthfulness is at best self-contradictory and at worst outright hypocritical. It is now, in many places, a crime to inflate one’s resume (though not, apparently, to lie to a job applicant during an interview.) Using a pseudonym now borders on illegal. The law has not yet dealt with telling a date you’ll call when you have no intention of doing so, or giving an over-eager suitor a fake phone number (I used to use Dial-a-Prayer.) But it’s only a matter of time.

Okay, once a history major, always a history major. Here’s what the Bible (the Jewish scriptures, to be exact) says about truthfulness:

In Genesis XVIII, 12-13, after G-d tells Sarah that she (at the age of 90) will bear a child, Sarah responds pretty much the way most women would: “At my age I’m going to roll in the hay again? And my husband is no spring chicken either.” But when G-d recounts this conversation to her husband, Abraham, He diplomatically leaves out the part about Abraham’s age. (From this the rabbis deduce that, if even the Holy One will lie to preserve peace in the family, it is permissible, and may in some situations be mandatory.)

In Exodus I, 15 – 20, Pharoah orders the Hebrew midwives “When you bring the Hebrew women to birth, you shall look at the [baby’s] genitals; if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, then she can live.” But the midwives feared G-d and did not do what the King of Egypt ordered them, but kept the babies alive. And the King of Egypt sent for the midwives and said to them “Why have you done this thing and let the boys live?” And the midwives said to Pharaoh “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; they are like animals, and by the time the midwife gets there, they’ve already given birth.” And G-d, we are explicitly told, dealt well with the midwives. Clearly, the biblical Author approves of their conduct.

Similarly we have the lies told by Rahab to protect the Israelite spies hiding in her house in Joshua II, 1-4, and by Michal to protect her fleeing husband David from the wrath of her father Saul. The upshot seems to be that lying is permissible in a good cause, the cause favored by the Holy One. Whereas Leviticus XIX, 16 tells us not to “go up and down as a talebearer among your people,” regardless of whether the “tales” in question are true or false. Truth told for a bad purpose is wrong; lies told for a good purpose may be praiseworthy.

The rabbis of the post-biblical and talmudic era had a slightly different, and more varied, take on this issue. For instance, someone who is seriously tempted to commit a scandalous sin (probably something to do with lust) is advised to “go away where he is not known, let him put on black clothes, don a black cloak, and do the black deed that his heart desires, rather than profane the name of Heaven openly.” (Moed Katan 17a–(R. Ilai))

On the other hand, they also urge those aspiring to virtue to quote correctly (Meg. 16a), to engage in commerce honestly (Makkot 24a), and not to speak one thing with the mouth and another with the heart (Baba Metzia 49a). We are also told that any scholar whose inside is not like his outside is no scholar (Yoma 72b)

These inconsistencies make more sense in the light of anthropological analysis, such as that of Jane Jacobs (Systems of Survival), who tells us that “deception for the sake of the task” is generally accepted or even praised in warrior/nomadic cultures (viz, the Trojan horse) but really frowned on in mercantile cultures. So we get the Jacob cycle, which is a battle of the pastoral tricksters, and then in the Holiness Code, Lev. XIX: 35-36, we get all kinds of stuff about honesty in weights and measures which the rabbis expand into general business honesty. Post-biblical Jewish culture, of course, is entirely mercantile, so this is the tradition that gets carried on, at least partly because nobody legislates against what nobody does.

A couple of digressions: rabbinical mercantile ethics require honesty not only about what is actually being bought and sold, but about possible gains and losses from a transaction. Modern theories of negotiation, however, presume that compromise is possible only if the possible gains don’t get into the picture.

And what about that ultimate bastion of warrior culture, West Point, and its minutely onerous honor code? . The code forbids cadets to “lie or cheat or tolerate those who do.” It has been in effect officially since the 1920s, and unofficially since the founding of West Point in 1802. What would Jane Jacobs say about this? In absence of any comment from her on the subject, I venture to suggest that it is not meant to outlast graduation and commissioning. Either it is a really pervasive form of hazing, or a form of verbal discipline equivalent to the physical discipline of the “brace” posture. Among the West Point and Annapolis alumni who subscribed to the honor code were Dwight D. Eisenhower, who later engaged in elaborate and successful deception about D-Day, and a much less successful lie about U-2 spy plane flights over the USSR; Maxwell Taylor, who collaborated in years of multi-layered deceit of the American people about the military activities he was carrying on in Southeast Asia on their money and in their name; and world-class perjurer Oliver North.

Anyway, getting back to religious views of truth and lies, Christian views on the subject vary from the Jesuit (“mental reservation” is sometimes justifiable) to the Kantian (it is never ever permissible to lie, no matter how noble the purpose.) The Jesuit approach begins with whether there is an obligation to tell the truth about a particular subject to a particular person. If someone demands from you information to which they have no right, and will not take “none of your business” for an answer, you have the right to use “mental reservation”–that is, to tell part of the truth and withhold the rest, “reserving” it silently in your mind. The classic example is of the person approached by a mugger and asked, “Do you have any money?” The person has every right to respond “No,” with the unvoiced addition, “Not for you, anyway.”

But Sir Walter Scott, writing only a few years later than the Jesuits, in
The Heart of Midlothian
, depicts a young Scottish working woman, Jeannie Deans, who walks from Lothian to London to plead with the Queen for her sister’s life. Along the way, she is accosted by Bad Guys (p. 284). “Stand and deliver,” one of them tells her. “I have but very little money, gentlemen….,but if you’re resolved to have it, to be sure you must have it.” The brigand responds “This won’t do…. We’ll have every farthing you have got, or we will strip you to the skin….” But his colleague points out “No, no Tom, this is one of the precious sisters, and we’ll take her word for once without putting her to the stripping proof. Hark ye, my lass, if you’ll look up to heaven and say this is the last penny you have about ye, …we’ll let you pass.” In other words, her religion (presumably hard-line Calvinist Protestantism, the ultimate mercantile religion) forbids her to lie, even to robbers, so they will believe her if she tells them she has no money. This is, by the way, a very minor plot excursion in the novel; the issue never comes up again, and Scott does not consider it especially important.

Enough of historical scholarship. What about US law over the last 40 years or so? (more…)

Things the Bible Would Have Said if the Author Had a Better Quote Book

September 8, 2009

Warning: this is yet another rant from Jane Grey on people who cite the Bible without bothering to read it.  If you’re not in the mood, go buy some popcorn.

That Other Blog Over There just attributed “hate the sin but love the sinner” to Jesus.  The Other Blogger Over There is usually much more biblically literate than that.  A swift resort to Google tells us that nobody knows who really said it first, but everyone who bothered to check it out reports that it is not to be found anywhere in the Bible.  Which is consistent with my own research.

“God helps those who help themselves,” OTOH, is definitely Ben Franklin.  “To thine own self be true” is definitely Shakespeare.  “With malice toward none, with charity to all” is definitely Lincoln. All of them have, at one time or another, been attributed to the Bible.

The Bible, similarly, says absolutely nothing about abortion, and nothing directly about same-sex marriage.  And everything it says about homosexuality, it says in paragraphs adjacent to pronouncements about adultery, for which it recommends essentially the same punishments (except for the Sodom and Gomorrah story, which can be read several different ways, and which Jews and Christians in fact do read very differently.  The traditional Jewish reading of the story sees the Sin of Sodom as powerful people doing it to powerless people, rather than men doing it with men.)

The finer points of modern textual criticism enable us to determine that, even if all that stuff about wives submitting to their husbands is in the Bible, it wasn’t really Saint Paul who said it, but some cheap knockoff, which is kind of nice.  And, while ignoring Revelation may be easy for us Jews, we don’t get off that easily from looking at Daniel, which was in fact one of the sources of Revelation.  (Arguably, Revelation is a cheap knockoff of Daniel, in fact.)

But then, one of my dearest friends, of blessed memory, once talked a Jehovah’s Witness missionary off his doorstep by quoting scripture at him in English and Hebrew until the poor guy gave up.  Let’s hear it for a little learning (not, BTW, a little knowledge.  See Pope’s “Essay on Man.”  Not the Bible.)

Jane Grey

A Few Words About–Words

August 11, 2009

As a former English teacher and proofreader and a current lawyer, I get easily upset by abuse of the English language.  First there are the redundancies—you know, like “ATM machine,” “HIV virus,” and “PIN number.”  This summer’s biggies are “Latina woman” and the subject line of emails, which these days almost always reads: “Subject: re: whatever.”  “Re:” means “subject.”  (I think some people think it’s short for “regarding.” It isn’t. “Re” is Latin for “thing,” literally.)

Then there is the use of quotation marks as what one commentator has called the poor man’s boldface.  Now that everybody has boldface, can’t we just restrict quotes to their original purpose—indicating the reproduction of somebody else’s words?  Apparently that was part of the problem with Sarah Palin’s use of the phrases “death panel” and “level of productivity in society.”  The elitist literate few actually thought she was referring to something somebody else had said, and faulted her for not naming her source. In fact, she was just being snarky, which should have surprised nobody.

Again yesterday I heard the word “foreclosure” pronounced on NPR with the accent on the first syllable. Where on earth does that come from?

Have I missed some real bloopers?

Jane Grey

Dear Sir or Madman

July 16, 2009

Yesterday’s Yahoo news carried a piece on avoiding typos in one’s resume and cover letter to prospective employers, pointing out that the recipient would probably dump the offending documents in the nearest recycle bin upon catching the first such typo.  As a former English teacher, I can certainly sympathize with that response.  On the other hand, I suspect that most prospective employers are themselves ignorant of alot of such typo’s, and mere HR staffers would be even moreso.  Indeed, between you and I, many such solecisms were originally the fault of misguided English teachers to begin with (such as my son-in-law’s 4th grade teacher, whom he swears taught him never to use “and me”) and are therefore much more likely to be committed by people who really care about proper usage.

Of course, the corrolary to this rule is that many job applications may land in the circular file, not because of they’re poor grasp of English usage, but because of the recipients.

Jane Grey

A Vocabulary Exercise in Virtue

July 7, 2009

David Brooks and Charles Murray are depressed because we don’t use words like “dignity” and “duty” any more. They have a point.  A lot of good words have fallen into disuse over the last century or so.  “Piety,” for instance. “Sublime.”  “Sin,” “Vice,” and “Virtue,” except in the context of diet and exercise.  It would be hard to imagine Bernie Madoff using any of these words, even in the course of lamenting his failings.  Well, heck, it would be hard to imagine Bernie Madoff lamenting his failings.

Back in 1999, Jed Purdy tried to start an anti-irony movement that might have rehabilitated some of the good old Victorian words.  It seems to have pretty much fallen flat.  The last time anybody advised me to be careful for my dignity was when I was in high school, and the teacher who gave us that advice was a source of giggles for weeks afterward.

So here’s an exercise in expanding our moral vocabulary:

The Four Cardinal Virtues—Prudence, Courage, Justice, and Temperance: Courage and Justice do get a fair amount of use, though not necessarily the way Aristotle would have liked.  We are a lot more concerned about other people treating us with Justice than about being just in our dealings with other people.  And we talk about Courage, often, when we are really describing gall, nerve, or chutzpah.  Charles Murray says we don’t talk about Prudence or Temperance at all, rather than risk derision.  Perhaps we make up for our reluctance to talk about Temperance by having created an entire spiritual path to support it, the Twelve-Step Movement.  Prudence gets no such backup, at least not since Bush Senior espoused it and got laughed out of office in 1992.  Let’s try to use each of these words once a week, in its original meaning.

The Seven Deadly Sins—Pride, Anger, Envy, Greed, Gluttony, Lust, and Sloth, get a surprising amount of attention on the History Channel, of which I am a late-night aficionado. lists 10,638 “results” for a search of “Seven Deadly Sins.”  What none of these respectable sources do, as nearly as I can tell, is approach the subject without irony.  Who am I to blame them, when my college roommates and I spent most of our sophomore year devising ways to commit all seven of the deadly sins within 24 hours? (Needless to say, Sloth was the deal-breaker.) Face it, we like sin.  We admire it.  Let’s try to use each of these words, without irony, at least once a week.

Let’s try to use the words “sin,” “vice,” and “virtue” in some context other than diet and exercise, at least once a week.  And then tell us all how other people respond and how you feel about doing it.


The Silent Alphabet

July 3, 2009

(contributions welcome)

A as in ?

B as in deBt

C as in indiCt

D as in WeDnesday

E as in icE

F as in

G as in liGht

H as in ligHt

I as in busIness

J as in ?

K as in ?

L as in waLk

M as in Mnemonic

N as in ?

P as in Pneumonia

Q as in ?

R as in ?

S as in horS d’oeuvreS

T as in cloThes

U as in ?

V as in ?

W as in ?

X as in Grand PriX

Z as in ?

Jane Grey