Category Archives: Word Spin

Seth gets pedantic about semantics.

YOUR SETHCRATIC GUIDE TO THE Q IN Q&As

In the interest of full disclosure—and Seth-promotion—the spirt of this rant, and other works of Sethiquette, is now available in my book, How to Cure Yourself of Narcissism.


Hello there. I understand you’d like to ask a question of our honoured speaker.

Ah, yeah—that’s why I’m in line.

Excellent, would it be possible to get a preview of what you have in mind?

A preview?

Yeah, just a quick sampler of your question.

Why?

Well, the moderator’s asked me to make sure everyone’s fairly brief so that there’s time for lots of questions.

Yeah, don’t worry: I’ll be quick.

I believe you, but the moderator really wanted me to double check.

Um, okay fine, I was going to say something like, Hi There. Dr. Hockey-Expert. Thank you for your presentation on the state of the National Hockey League. I agreed with a lot of what you had to say. Although, there were a few things I didn’t agree with—I don’t really see a problem with the offside challenge rule. I mean we want to get the call right, right? Like, if we don’t care about getting the calls right, what are we doing there? So, yeah, I enjoyed your presentation, but—

Okay, sorry, can I stop you there?

Um, okay, but I was just getting warmed up.

I see that, yes. But I’m just noticing that you’ve already put in 20 seconds of introduction, and we haven’t even gotten to the content of your question yet.

Right, so?

Well, it’s just that—as I mentioned—there are a lot of people in line to speak to the presenter, and at the rate you’re going, your question is going to take up half of the Q&A session. Ideally, according to Sethiquette guidelines, it’s best to keep your question to no more than thirty seconds.

Thirty seconds? How?

Well, maybe you could trim your general thoughts on Dr. Hockey-Expert’s presentation and cut straight to your question.

[Long sigh.] Fine, I was just being polite, but I’ll cut the intro.

Awesome, thanks. So do you mind trying again?

[Short sigh.] So, as I was saying, Thank you for taking my question, Dr. Hockey-Expert. I have three comments and a question for you—

Right, sorry to interrupt again, but—I don’t know if you heard—just a minute ago in her introduction to the Q&A, the moderator requested that everyone just ask questions and not provide sermons?

Yeah, I’m asking a question.

Yes, but you’re also prognosticating three comments. That sounds suspiciously like a serm—

What are you talking about? Three comments aren’t the same as a sermon.

Right, of course, but I think the moderator was being playful with the term “sermon,” and just meant to request that everyone try to hone their commentary down to a single interrogative statement.

But my comments are a vital set up for my question.

I’m sure they are. And, if this were any other sort of conversation, I wouldn’t pester you about it, but unfortunately there are a lot of people who want to ask a question, and even more who want to hear Dr. Hockey-Expert speak, so if you talk for a long time, we’ll have fewer questions, and less time for Dr. Hockey-Expert to reply.

Okay, fine, I’ll be quick. How’s this? So it seems to me that the NHL would benefit from more goal scoring. Like have you ever gone to a game and wished there were fewer goals? No! Goals are the name of the game. Actually, I was talking to my friend, Jane, about this yesterday. She had this funny idea that if the NHL allowed more goals—

Okay, can you hang on again?

What? What’s happening?

Ah, yes, just as I thought. I believe you were in a bit of trance there while you were asking your question.

How do you mean?

Well, you were just kind of following your words obediently wherever they went without really checking to see if they were helping you get to the heart of your question.

Yeah, I was really on a roll, wasn’t I? I felt like I was all by myself, just riffing, without anyone else around. It was pretty freeing, actually.

I can imagine. And, if this were a therapy session or a poetry slam, I’d be cheering you on. But, since we’re in this limited-time Q&A set up, I think it would be best if you tried to plan out your question to avoid unnecessary tangents.

Unnecessary tangents? I was telling a funny story.

Fair enough. If that story was vital to your introduction, please ignore my suggestion. But I suspect the story was more of a spontaneous aside than a planned expedition.

Yeah, it just popped into my brain in the moment. So what?

Well, it’s just that, if you indulge every passing sidetrack that pops into your brain while you’re at the microphone, it will be very difficult to find your way back to the point of your inquiry.

That reminds me of the time my sister got lost on her way to work because she decided to take a shortcut around some construction, and she got mixed up which way the water was.

Yeah, that’s funny. To avoid your sister’s fate, I suggest you create a quick verbal map for yourself of the key points you’ll need to establish your question.

I had that before! But you said I couldn’t make all three of my comments before my question!

Right, I see how that’s confusing. But I believe those three comments were going to be three distinct points. Whereas I’m looking for the key elements that will give your lone, specific question its best chance of being understood.

I’m pretty easy on the ears, Sethcrates. I think I’ll be fine.

I can’t argue with that. But you know how sometimes—when you ask a question at a Q&A—the expert misunderstands what you’re talking about, and so answers a different question.

Yeah, it’s pretty embarrassing for them.

Possibly, but also I submit that—if you don’t have a clear structure that leads ever-so-definitively to your final query—it can be hard for someone who doesn’t know you to realize exactly what you’re getting at.

Fine, so what goes into this verbal map?

Well, that depends. Let me ask you this: which one of these would be the best supporting material for your question: a joke, an anecdote, or a quick paraphrase of information?

Yeah, all of those sounds good.

Right, but for the purpose of this exercise, please pick just one option.

Um, okay, well, I’m pretty funny, so I’ll go with a joke. There’s this one about an insomniac dog that I think’ll illustrate my question perfectly.

That’s great. But, before you unleash your humour, there are two things to remember about jokes during the Q&A. First, since we’re not at a dinner party, you again want to be as succinct as possible.

Check.

And also, be aware that after you finish the joke, Dr. Hockey Expert—who’s pretty funny, himself—might want to retort.

That’s fine.

Right, but I bring it up because if the speaker does attempt to joke back, you may be tempted to ignore their retaliatory humour because you weren’t anticipating it. And that can make you look like you were in possession of a good joke, but not a sense of humour.

I don’t like that. Hmm, okay, I’ll just outwit them right back.

Fair enough. If a brilliant retort to their retort lands beautifully in your mind, please share it with everyone in the room. However, if nothing delightful arrives in your moment of need, there’s no need to panic and try too hard to come up with a scintillating reply. In fact, you can actually build rapport with both the speaker and the speaker-aligned audience if you let the speaker win the funny.

But you said I wasn’t supposed to ignore their joke! Make up your mind, Sethcrates.

Again, I apologize for the confusion. But there’s actually a third option between ignoring and winning, and that’s to simply laugh at the speaker’s joke, perhaps adding in a “Yeah, exactly.” You can then smile and continue on with your question.

This is getting too complicated. Maybe I’ll do an anecdote instead.

Great, that can be nice groundwork for your question. But just remember: in order to be brief, you want to avoid chasing tangents during your story. Try to stick to the essential beats of—

I never chase tangents. Well, except maybe this one time when I was in a job interview, and the man interviewing me was so tall that he made me nervous. I don’t usually get nervous… well, except this other time when I was playing basketball, and I—

Yeah, that’s good to hear that you don’t usually chase tangents, but when you’re in front of an audience, it can be easy to lose track of what you’re saying, so again I suggest investing in some serious planning of precisely what story parts will make it into your final draft. That should help you to avoid Sudden Tangent Syndrome.

Yeesh. That sounds complicated, too. What was my other option?

Well, you could provide a quick backgrounder of where your curiosity lies, and then segue straight into your question.

Actually, that’s not bad, because I have a lot of expertise as well as some pretty heroic accomplishments in the area I want to ask about, so I’d be happy to provide a good chunk of my background.

Right, sorry, that’s not quite what I meant by backgrounder. Poor word choice on my part.

But I like the idea!

I understand. But the thing is: introducing yourself in such self-flattering detail can be risky. Unfortunately—unless those points of accomplishment or heroism are vital to establishing the legitimacy of the content of your question—they may sound suspiciously like resume and/or virtue signalling if they aren’t phrased just right.

Okay, so how do you want me to map the background of my question?

Well, let me ask you this: what provoked the question you want to ask?

Well, I was confused when Dr. Hockey-Expert said we’d never see another Wayne Gretzky ever again, and I wasn’t sure if he meant that was because we would never see someone as talented again, or that today’s game wouldn’t allow for Gretzky’s skills to flourish as much.

Fair enough—that’s a useful distinction. And, if you put a question mark on the end there, you’ve actually got a pretty clear and concise question all set to go already.

Really? Wow, I’m awesome. How did I do that?

Well, you first paraphrased the content that led to your curiosity, and then you segued quickly into your actual curiosity. Beautifully done.

Awesome, so I’m all set then?

Nearly. I just have one more concern. How are you going to close your question?

Um, I dunno—I’ll know when I get there, I guess.

Yeah, see, that’s an issue. A common problem amongst those suffering from MQS—

MQS?

Oh, yeah, sorry, Meandering Question Syndrome.

Okay, go on.

Well a common symptom is that—after all the work of getting into the line for the Q&A, and then listening to others pontificate—many MQSers will feel delighted to finally have their place at the microphone, and so won’t want to give it up. Consequently, even when the heart of their question has been clearly understood by everyone present, our noble MQSer will continue throwing words on a fire that is already blazing. They’ll just keep on meandering about the same point, and they won’t stop—

Aren’t you kinda doing that right now?

Oh, right you are. Thank you.

Yeah, you’re welcome, Captain Hypocrite. So how do I avoid that?

Well, the most effective system is to pay attention to your words as you’re saying them. When you hear yourself complete the goal of your question, get out of there. But, if you have trouble listening to yourself while you’re talking, watch the mouth of the person to whom you’re directing your query. If they stop their nodding and start taking a breath, that means they’re about ready to respond, which means they believe they understand the Q in your query, and it’s okay for you to STOP.

All right, thanks, I will. Okay, I’m up next to ask a question. See you.

Okay, good luck.

Won’t need it, thanks… Hello there, Dr. Hockey-Expert. I have three comments and a question for you…

THE FREE EXPUNGE OF IDEAS V: Define Your Way To Infallibility (Part 1 of 2)

“A person who only knows their own side of an argument knows little of that.”

—SethBlogs paraphrasing social psychologist and Heterodox Academy co-founder, Jonathan Haidt, paraphrasing philosopher and free speech defender, John Stuart Mill.

THE FREE EXPUNGE OF IDEAS SERIES:

I: I MAY AGREE WITH WHAT YOU SAY BUT I’LL FIGHT TO THE DEATH YOUR RIGHT TO SAY IT.
II: NO QUESTIONS ASKED

III: ONE OPINION FITS ALL
IV: NOTHING TO SEE HERE
V: DEFINE YOUR WAY TO INFALLBILITY (1 of 2) (you are here)
VI: THE INFALLIBILITY CLOAK (2 of 2)
VII: THE SHAME OF THE GAME 


“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

William Goldman (via his character, Inigo Montoya) in The Princess Bride.

THE ALLEGED PARADOX:

As imagined by the ancient thinker, Plutarch, there are two candidates vying for the title of the Ship of Theseus. First, there is the ongoing ship that has continuously flown Theseus’s flag for the past, say, 20 years. It has travelled from port to port, and floated on missions on behalf of Theseus with the same licence plate number throughout. (Let’s call this Continuous Theseus.)

But, as it has been injured along the way, the Ship of Theseus has had its parts replaced one by one over that same double decade. In fact, we are to imagine that, as of today, every individual piece of the ship—whose escapades we have been following—is now distinct from its original part. Meanwhile, all of the discarded original pieces have been re-assembled by an archivist to recreate the original ship. (Let’s call this Original Theseus.)

The question, then, is do we have a paradox of two ships that are the same ship?

My answer has always been that the apparent contradiction is simply a linguistic dispute resulting from the fact that we have only one word for two concepts, functional vs. molecular identity. If you’re discussing the ship that has carried out the missions of the Ship of Theseus, then HMS Continuous is your boat. Whereas, if you’re interested in the very matter that was used in the first instance, then HMS Original will be your choice.

So, in my view, this not a paradox; instead, there is more than one way to define identity (and both are useful notions that we should feel free to use so long as we’re clear about which we’re utilizing).

Meanwhile, I believe that many discussions of our controversial friend, Feminism, have had similar identity confusions. Many self-described “feminists” insist that the work they do is, by definition, identical to their philosophical mission statement, i.e. the pursuit of social, economic and political equality between the sexes. (Let’s call said goal Definition Feminism.)

Definition Feminism has a lovely, egalitarian sound to it; the trouble is, some of us perceive that—in action—many self-described feminists seem to be agitating for something that encompasses much more (and less) than gender equality. (Let’s call any of these applications of Definition Feminism, Action Feminism.)

To avoid confusion, then, I contend that, we should do our best to distinguish Definition Feminism from those flying its flag while on board a different ship.

THE SHIPS OF FEMINISM:

A feminist is described as a person who believes in social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. Why is this so confusing?”

Feminist and comedic singer/songwriter, Katie Goodman, in response to some young female celebrities not calling themselves “feminists.”

If you consider yourself to be a feminist, I don’t ask that you immediately accept that any particular Action Feminism is distinct from the pursuit of gender equality. All that I request for now is that you consider the possibility that it could be. History demands that we recognize that sometimes philosophical ideologies that sound noble—by their definitions—can be misapplied (intentionally or accidentally) by their practitioners.

(As always, consider George Orwell’s Animal Farm for an illustration of this phenomenon.)

Such a distinction between theory and attempted practice is a natural consequence of human fallibility. Most of us are imperfect, and so our ability to apply our best ideas may be undermined by our intellectual and moral limitations.

So, if it’s possible that an ideology—even one as noble of spirit as Definition Feminism—can be accidentally or intentionally misrepresented by imperfect practitioners, then a crucial means of protecting ourselves from such wolves in feminism’s clothing is to make sure that we question not just the best ideals of feminism, but also the arguments of its alleged advocates.

If you are a feminist, you might believe that the majority—if not the entirety—of feminists are doing good work. However, how can we know this if there are no means of checking that those flying the flag of Definition Feminism are indeed matching its best intentions?

Similarly, most scientists may be sincerely trying to produce the most reliable scientific studies possible, but we require them to use both a rigorous double-blind scientific method and peer review that try to disprove the resulting claims, to ensure that we catch errors (even unintentional ones). I cannot conceive of a reason that feminist philosophers and researchers wouldn’t benefit from the same oversight.

Nevertheless, in the current state of gender discussions, many feminists—whether they are as virtuous as their best definition, or as morally flawed as their harshest critics suggest—have managed, by a variety of brilliant methods, to evade vital criticisms. Instead, when they do or say something that seems dubious to critics, in lieu of arguing their side, Action Feminists will often point to the definition of their movement, and suggest that those who disagree with their particular contentions clearly disagree with equal gender rights.

This will not do. Perhaps such Action Feminists can prove all of their claims, but they cannot do so by using the best ideals of their movement as cover. The question remains whether they are, in fact, sailing the true ship of Definition Feminism, or some other ship, that looks like it in name and mission statement, but in fact is doing things beyond (and/or less than) feminism’s scope.


In Part II of this essay, I will describe eight ways in which Action Feminists subdue criticism by appealing to the virtues of Definition Feminism for protection.


THE FREE EXPUNGE OF IDEAS SERIES:

I: I MAY AGREE WITH WHAT YOU SAY BUT I’LL FIGHT TO THE DEATH YOUR RIGHT TO SAY IT.
II: NO QUESTIONS ASKED

III: ONE OPINION FITS ALL
IV: NOTHING TO SEE HERE
V: DEFINE YOUR WAY TO INFALLBILITY (1 of 2) (you were just here)
VI: THE INFALLIBILITY CLOAK (2 of 2)
VII: THE SHAME OF THE GAME 

DEAR WRITERS: WHEN YOU TALK TO THE AUDIENCE, DO YOU HEAR US TALKING BACK?

“Talking to the audience” is my term for the technique that some television, film, and play writers employ to unnaturally transmit contextual information, via their characters’ dialogue, to their audience. That is, they force their characters to supplement their natural communication with clarifying circumstantial details for the benefit of us viewers: such scripted characters are heard saying strange things that they otherwise wouldn’t if they were allowed to live their lives as if no one from another dimension were watching them.

Here are a few of my favourite examples of this troubling tendency:

(1) BACKSTORY COMMUNICATION:

Jenny is talking to Jim, whose arm is in a cast.

JENNY: Hi, Jim. How’s your broken arm from when you fell off your motorbike?

Jenny’s specifying of the particulars of how Jim got his broken arm is not for Jim’s benefit (since Jim likely already knows why his arm’s so sore right now), but instead is an indirect message from Jenny’s author to us so that we’ll know why Jim is wearing a cast. If Jenny were allowed to speak to Jim without the obligations of communicating to us peeping audience members, she would have likely just said, “How’s the arm?”

(2) EXPERT-TO-EXPERT DETAIL SHARING:

When two scientists in a show are talking about something with which they are quite familiar, but their author realizes most of their audience is not, we often get the following result:

JIM: Did you get any conclusive results on the DNA test?

JENNY: Well, in order to check for a viable match, I need to first apply X scientific process to determine results.

JIM: And, when you conduct that test, you’ll be able to see definitively whether the DNA sample matches that of our victim.

JENNY: I concur, doctor.

Admittedly, sometimes one scientist might not know the procedures or knowledge of another, but all too often in such dialogue, they tell each other things that they would have learned in scientist grade school and so would find quite condescending to be lectured upon at this advanced stage in their careers.

(3) RELATIONSHIP IDENTIFICATION:

Sometimes a writer might want us to know right away how two characters know each other, so they’ll offer the following dialogue.

JIM: Nice outfit, sis, are you going somewhere fancy tonight?

In my experience, real people rarely refer to their sisters as “sis,” but instead call them by their first names (or nicknames). This is not universal, so if the author of this dialogue honestly believes that Jim would refer to his sister as “sis,” then all’s swell in love and dialogue; however, I’ll be watching. If, during all other interactions in the plot, the character Jim nevermore says “sis” to Jenny, then we know for sure that in that anomalous first instance, Jim’s author was sending us a message (“By the way, these two are siblings!”).

Whenever I hear an author calling out to me in the above and other ways, I find I am removed from my engrossment in their plot because the show is so conspicuously reminding me that its characters do not have free will, and instead are agents of the writer-god who created them. (In fact, sometimes, I’ll talk back to television characters when they are talking to the audience so that I can see if their awareness of my existence will translate into them being able to hear me.)

Thus, from witnessing the works of many authors who don’t utilize this embarrassing information dissemination service, I would like to offer those who do a few proven suggestions for how to avoid it:

(1) Use a narrator. Narrators are amazing! Their job is literally to talk to the audience for you, so they can offer meta comments about your characters’ lives without poisoning their dialogue with strangely unnecessary details. For instance:

NARRATOR JENNY: There was Jim. I hadn’t seen him since the day that he broke his arm falling off his motorbike.

JENNY: Hey, how’s the arm?

(2) Tour your world through the perspective of a character just arriving in its grounds. So, for instance, your experts could be explaining their procedures to a newly-minted scientist just out of university.

(3) If in doubt, let the audience figure out the details for themselves. In most cases, if your world is well developed, we’ll be able to determine who’s who and how everyone is related to each other as we watch. Most of us have been watching popular entertainment since we were old enough to hold a remote, so we’re actually really good at extrapolating details that aren’t yet there. We’ll generally do this by a constant series of trial-and-error estimates as to what’s going on, which we’ll correct as we receive new evidence.

So, for instance, when we see that Jim and Jenny are really familiar with each other, we’ll estimate that they have a shared history. As we see them talking about each other’s separate dating worlds, we’ll guess that they’re either friends or siblings, and when one says to the other, “Did you hear about Uncle Charlie?” we’ll determine that they’re probably related, and so on. We really don’t mind doing that. It’ll be our pleasure.

DIALOGUES OF THE QUESTION BEGGARS

One can never speak the same language twice. It’s always changing and every time you dip your lips into it, one of your words means something slightly different from what it used to indicate to your audience. I admit that I am a resister. I do not like that words so often lose their meaning because of what is most cathartically described as laziness.

I realize that the words that I and others wish to protect are themselves probably corrupted versions of prior definitions that were once jealously guarded by previous linguistic conservationists. And I recognize that language comes to mean what we understand it to mean, and so if the ever-changing lexicon continues to carry with it the power of communication such that we can semi-accurately read each other’s thoughts when we put sounds in the air, or symbols on paper, then it is difficult to prove my and others’s suspicion that the alterations significantly harm society.

That is all fine and melancholy, but there is one piece of language that I believe deserves extra protection because it has lost its meaning illegitimately. When I was in university studying philosophy, I met a professor—let’s call him Beggins, since I don’t remember which of my teachers he was—who introduced me to my favorite expression of all time:

PROFESSOR BEGGINS: So, when people quote Plato to me, I feel that they are, in a sense, begging the question that I give a damn about what that self-righteous pupil of Socrates had to say. Questions?

SETHBLOGS: Excuse my ignorance, Professor, but what does it mean to be caught “begging the question”?

BEGGINS: Dear me, you don’t know what it means to beg a question?

SETHBLOGS: Not so much, no.

BEGGINS: Well, my good lad, I think you will find it a very useful phrase: it refers to occasions where you are in a debate, let’s say about whether Plato ever uttered a useful word in his life, and in response to your contention that he did not, your opponent says, “Of course he did because, after all, Plato had so many wonderful things to say.”

SETHBLOGS: So?

BEGGINS: Do you not see? Your opponent has laid claim to a conclusion that takes for granted the answer to the very issue that is in dispute. It is the equivalent of attempting to prove that God exists by noting that the Bible says he does.

Beggins’s example led my intrigued brain to recall a recent conversation I’d had at a party:


JEN ACQUAINTANCE: How come you’re not drinking?

SETHBLOGS: I’m not really into drinking.

ACQUAINTANCE: Why?

SETHBLOGS: I don’t really like the idea of my brain being messed with by a foreign substance.

ACQUAINTANCE: Oh.

Awkward silence.

SETHBLOGS: Um, and also, I hate the taste of alcohol.

ACQUAINTANCE: Oh yeah, I hate it, too—so you just have to make yourself get used to it, and you’ll be fine.

SETHBLOGS: But that assumes I want to acquire the taste.

ACQUAINTANCE: Of course you do! Everyone wants to drink. It’s fun!

SETHBLOGS: But I’ve told you I disagree with that. Don’t you need evidence beyond just saying that everyone likes it?

ACQUAINTANCE: Well, I’m entitled to my opinion, aren’t I?

SETHBLOGS: But—


The professor beamed as he witnessed me coming to his conclusion.

SETHBLOGS: Wow, yes, I hate it when people beg the question.

BEGGINS: As you should.

SETHBLOGS: So, forgive my continued ignorance, but where did this invaluable expression come from?

BEGGINS: Well it turns out that in a formal debate—in order to hasten the event along one can ask one’s opponent to concede a particular point or “question” that could otherwise be debated. But if one gets greedy and requests the concession of a point that contains the very issue at question in the debate, they are begging that question.

I was immediately in love. This “begging the question” pointed to something I had experienced (and probably committed myself) many times before, but had never known how to itemize. When someone claimed as self-evident the conclusion at stake in a greater debate, they were begging the question. Brilliant! I now had something to say to combat such philosophical infractions. Imagine, I thought:


SETHBLOGS: But I don’t want to get drunk.

ACQUAINTANCE: Come on, everyone likes getting drunk sometimes.

SETHBLOGS: I think you’re begging the question there.

ACQUAINTANCE: Oh… I guess you’re right: I simply re-stated my thesis—which assumed the conclusion that’s in dispute—as if it requires no evidence, even though you’ve already indicated that you disagree with it. I’m terribly sorry.

SETHBLOGS: That’s quite all right.


How glorious life would be with “begging the question” at my side! We dated for a while, and then I married it into my conversation and told my friends about it. Some companions even liked it as much as I did. But one cruel day that begs for the Kleenex box, some TV or radio personality got an ear on it, and guessed it meant something different from what the philosophy gods had intended. I suspect it happened in a philosophy bar one end-of-term evening:

PROFESSOR BEGGINS: Socrates had it coming, old boy.

PROFESSOR RIVAL: Preposterous! He was defending the intellectual discourse.

BEGGINS: Yes, well, given that he refused to let his friends break him out of jail, his execution was tantamount to suicide. And suicide is wrong.

RIVAL: What makes you so certain suicide is wrong?

BEGGINS: Because suicide is the murder of oneself, and murder is wrong.

RIVAL: Ridiculous: I don’t believe suicide is generally considered murder.

BEGGINS: That begs the question, old boy.

JOHN NEWSMAN (eavesdropping to himself): What a lovely phrase.

RIVAL: No it doesn’t.

BEGGINS: I think it does.

RIVAL: Does not!

NEWSMAN: I’m sorry to interrupt—

RIVAL: Glad you did.

NEWSMAN: Thank you. So, why don’t you let him just ask the question?

RIVAL: What question?

NEWSMAN: The one that he was begging for.

BEGGINS (laughing): Very droll, my good fellow.

NEWSMAN (to himself): Wow, a cool-sounding phrase and it makes people laugh. How charming.

If only the eavesdropping media had thought to check their internet for the definition of “begging the question,” the phrase could have been spared. Instead, without a philosophical adviser to influence them, various TV and radio personalities went ahead and guessed at the meaning for themselves by translating the words literally:

JARED AUTHORBY: In my latest novel, I investigate the intersection of gender and curiosity as it relates to hunger.

JOHN NEWSMAN: That begs the question: what’s your favorite food?

SETHBLOGS (from the television sidelines): What?!

AUTHORBY: Well, I like it when my friends eat crow.

NEWSMAN (chortling): Good one. Your humour begs the question: what’s your favorite joke?

SETHBLOGS: Oh no! You think “begging the question” means literally that someone has said something that begs (for) a particular question to be asked! No, no, stop that!

At first it was just the occasional television and radio pundit who misused the phrase (in spite of my constant heckling for them to stop), but apparently “question begging” wears with it a certain aroma of sophistication because soon any television or radio personality fond of saying things like, “Frankly,” regardless of whether they were being particularly direct or candid, was suddenly noticing questions being begged (for) all the time:

SUSAN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think government subsidies have gone too far.

NEWSMAN: Frankly, that’s an intriguing notion, which begs the question: how far do you think the government should have taken the subsidies?

It was torture for those of us who loved and cared for the phrase. Eventually, the infestation leaked from the media into the minds of civilians:

FREDDIE SALESMAN: Excuse me, ma’am, but I notice that you’re looking at this TV, which begs the question: do you have any questions about it?

JANICE CUSTOMER: Thank you, yes; in fact, your question begs a question of my own: how much is it?

SALESMAN: That begs the question: do you want quality or do you want to save a few dollars now, and then regret it later?

CUSTOMER: That begs the answer: quality please!

SALESMAN: It sure does!

SETHBLOGS: No it doesn’t!

And so the original—and I still like to say—“true” definition of the expression has been slaughtered. The other day, I even heard a Yale-educated professor “beg the question” and then ask it. The hostile, yet accidental takeover is nearly complete as those of us who still want to protect the phrase have great difficulty communicating it successfully:

SETHBLOGS: Professor Beggins, doesn’t that beg the question?

BEGGINS: All right then, go ahead, my good man.

SETHBLOGS: No, I meant that the quote you read begs the question.

BEGGINS: Yes, very good, young man, I’m interested to hear your question. Please proceed.

So there we are. This useful expression that had once lived obscurely, but precisely and helpfully, in philosophy classes has been kidnapped by greedy newscasters who were not satisfied with the bounty of phrases already available to indicate that a question had been inspired in their brains. What was wrong with “raises,” “provokes,” or “invites” a question?

POLLY POLITICIAN: We are considering our options regarding gun control.

JOHN NEWSMAN: Well, that provokes a question—

POLITICIAN: “Provokes a question”?

NEWSMAN: Yes, exactly.

POLITICIAN: That’s a bit humdrum for an important interview, don’t you think?

NEWSMAN: Why?

POLITICIAN: It’s a boring segue: give me something with a little more pizzazz.

NEWSMAN: Like what?

POLITICIAN: I don’t know: maybe you could abduct a cool phrase from another discipline and use it as though it means “provokes a question.”

NEWSMAN: Good idea. I tell you what: tonight I’ll go to the nearest philosophy bar to see if I can appropriate a phrase of theirs.

No, there was no such dearth of segues that explained the pundits’ commandeering of “begging the question.” Instead, it was simple vanity: the abductors enjoyed the sound of the obscure phrase, and so decided to try it on. Such an attempt to curry respect via impressive language instead of high-quality ideas is not new, and is too omnipresent a foe for me to attempt to combat here, but I do note that, where one reaches for an expensive word or phrase without understanding its meaning, one risks identifying oneself as a fraud.

For instance, years ago, a snobbish and self-absorbed co-worker struck up conversation with me in our office hallway:

CO-WORKER: So, what do you do when you’re not working here?

SETHBLOGS (surprised to be asked and hesitant to answer): I’m attempting to be a writer.

CO-WORKER (justifying the above hesitation): Oh, yeah? I’m a writer, too.

SETHBLOGS (impressed with how quickly the snob brought the topic to himself): What do you write?

CO-WORKER: Poetry.

SETHBLOGS: Cool: do you have a particular genre you focus on or—?

CO-WORKER: No, I want my poetry to be for everyone: I don’t want it to be above anyone. I’m not into that, you know, egalitarian stuff.

Now, I have no quarrel with someone who doesn’t know what “egalitarian” is. However, if he wants to announce his high-level intellect by using a big word, then his audience may in turn be tempted to judge the truth of his claim by checking to see whether the impressive language was used correctly.

The great arbiter of expression, George Orwell, argues in Politics and the English Language that stringing together prepackaged phrases without fully considering what they mean is a linguistic abomination that generates vagueness of expression and feeble mindedness (and worse, political oppression!).

Hear, hear! If my favorite expression had lost the monopoly on its words because another worthy concept required those words in particular, I would have accepted the theft of meaning.

STAR McATHLETE: I wouldn’t take steroids unless I really needed to: after all, as my mistress says, they’re way over-priced.

NEWSMAN: That makes me want to ask you something, but I’m not sure how to tell you that what you’ve said has provoked a question.

McATHLETE: Well, if you’re not comfortable transitioning from my statement to your question, then I can’t—in good conscience—answer it.

NEWSMAN: Fair enough. How to put this? I felt that what you said contained some surprising details—for instance, that you have a mistress—that kind of begged for a question.

McATHLETE: “Begged for a question”—that’s rather clunky, don’t you think?

NEWSMAN: Too wordy?

McATHLETE: Maybe drop the “for” and see if that tightens it up.

NEWSMAN: Nice.

If that had happened: if the television personalities had, by their own invention, discovered “begging the question” to be a useful phrase for their interviews and commentaries, I could have accepted the phrase invasion, and moved on. But that is not what happened; instead, the expression has lost its purpose because of an accident of guessing. The vain newscasters—who liked the way the phrase made them feel about themselves—were so sure that it meant what it sounded like, that they helped themselves to its succulent flavor.

Therefore, against the crime of intellectual laziness and vanity, I will keep fighting. I know that I will fail. The old meaning of my favorite phrase will continue to dissolve into the new one.

KATEY SONGSTRESS: In this song, I bastardize the word “irony” to mean any old thing, like coincidence or bad luck.

JOHN NEWSMAN: Begs the question: do you find this interview to be ironic?

SONGSTRESS: Which begs my own question: do you think it’s ironic?

NEWSMAN: Nicely begged. Which, in turn, begs the contemplation: I wonder where the expression, “Begs the question,” came from?

SONGSTRESS: I don’t know: maybe, in olden days, you had to pay to ask a question.

NEWSMAN: Interesting, that begs an explanation request: what does buying a question have to do with begging it?

SONGSTRESS: Well, imagine a grocery store in olden times:


OLDEN CUSTOMER: Thanks, I’d also like to get a pack of ten questions, please.

OLDEN CLERK: Sure, you want a bag for that?

OLDEN CUSTOMER: Yeah, bag the questions, please.


NEWSMAN: Makes sense to me.

SONGSTRESS: It really does, doesn’t it?

Yes, eventually the former meaning of question begging will simply be a footnote in the mouths of expired philosophers. But for me to retreat because of likely failure would be to beg the question that one should give up the good fight in the face of futility.

NEWSMAN: Good question, indeed!

And so the rant begins anew.

VERBAL PRODUCT PLACEMENT

When someone sends a message on Twitter, and they are quoted either by themselves or someone else, the current convention is to say, “X tweeted Y.” Not since the phrase “X xeroxed Y” has a company been so pleased with the public’s use of a corporate verb to express their actions. I think it is time to show some resistance to this portion of Twitter’s master plan to dominate our lexicon.

When someone “tweets” something, they are writing it in the public domain. Thus, if I choose to quote a public figure, is it necessary to say that “Jim Carrey tweeted Y,” or could I not say, “Jim Carrey said/wrote/stated Y”? Is there anything gained by always crediting Twitter when referencing a comment from it?

Until this phenomenon, the branded medium by which people express an idea has not been universally indicated when quoting them. That is not to say that media nouns have never become verbs; sometimes we might say, for rhetorical purposes, that Dickens “penned” a phrase, but not always. And never do we say that Shakespeare “Bic”ed a play or that Austen “Random House”d a novel. I acknowledge that the word “tweeted” gives an audience more information than they would have gained from a simple “said” or “wrote,” but is that extra detail always useful to our understanding?

It seems to me that, when speaking from the first-person perspective, noting for one’s audience that one is quoting a tweet can often be useful. For instance, the phrase, “I said that I will give up alcohol” may mean less than saying, “I tweeted that I will give up alcohol” because the latter tells us that it was a public announcement. (But even then, one could simply state that they made the announcement “on social media” or even “on Twitter.” One doesn’t necessarily have to transform Twitter into the verb of the sentence, which makes the social media outfit an essential component of one’s phrasing).

When journalists are quoting celebrities or academics, however, we can assume that their subject’s statements are public, and therefore, amalgamating the expression with its platform is not as universally necessary as the constant usage implies. Nor does it appear to be consistent with how we refer to other carriers of correspondence. In my estimation, for instance, the press is less likely to identify the medium of communication when discussing non-Twitter statements. For instance, if a politician makes a remark at a press conference, the location of the remark is not always identified, and the phrase “X press conferenced Y” is never used.

Thus, I believe the statement “X tweeted Y”:

(1) narrows our expression (as we seem to be using the verb in any case that it applies, instead of employing the linguistic discretion that we would when referring to statements made in other media), which in turn

(2) harms our language aesthetically, and

(3) plays into mighty Twitter’s hopes and tweets for world linguistic domination.

On its own, Twitter’s ability to infiltrate our language in this omnipresent way is not going to break the dictionary, but if we don’t resist, then the next global online phenomenon will try to do the same, and soon our sentences will look like a collection of billboards. Ultimately, the phrase “tweeted” may be relevant and informative more of the time than I am estimating here. Currently, however, this is hard to know because we are using the phrase indiscriminately and are thus giving special privilege to Twitter that we do not offer to other communication media.

I’m not anti-capitalist, and so I’m not saying that the word “tweeted” should never be used; but I dislike the product placement in our sentences, and more significantly, I fear that such uncritical language usage is homogenizing our expression.

THE BEST OF LANGUAGE, THE WORST OF LANGUAGE

WARNING: The following entry features two seemingly unrelated babbles, but I hope they will come together in the end.


Part 1: THE BEST OF LANGUAGE

I have recently made a pact with myself to read the novels of Charles Dickens. I met him as a kid, when my dad read to me Great Expectations, which may have given me a false expectation of the writer since my dad, along with my mom who read books to my siblings and me, is one of the greatest readers aloud of books that history has ever known. Both of my parents provide pathos in their tone that enlivens the spirit of every character. My particular favourite was the lawyer with the thick fingers, Mr. Jaggers, to whom my dad’s voice delivered a confidence and intelligence that would have left Perry Mason jealous. I then read Hard Times in university (at the instruction of a professor), which I think must be one of Dickens’ few concise works, as it didn’t take long to get through. I recall it being humorous, in spite of its dark themes, but embarrassingly I don’t remember much about the story, so from it alone I still cannot claim to have verified Dickens’s greatness.

So, this year, I decided to take on A Tale of Two Cities, in part because it is so well introduced by Dr. Frasier Crane in the excellent sit-com, Cheers

FRASIER (reading to his less literate bar buddies): “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times—“

NORM: Wait, whoa, whoa, whoa. Which was it?

FRASIER: Just stay tuned, Norm. “It was the age of wisdom; it was the age of foolishness. It was the epoch of belief; it was the epoch of incredulity.”

CLIFF: Boy, this Dickens guy really liked to cover his butt, didn’t he?

—but also because I wanted to have the work read to me as an audiobook during my many free times on transit, and the audio version for A Tale of Two Cities was available at a good price on my local internet.

The book, I quickly discovered, would have been more appropriately given the label of “Hard Times,” both for its characters, and for its reader (listener), as there are many passages of description that baffled my mind. Upon two or three listenings of the bulkiest sections, however, I understood most of it, and whenever the characters spoke to each other, the story soared. Each person in the narrative has a distinct character (and voice provided by the amazing narrator, Peter Batchelor, who proves himself to be a worthy Dickens-reading understudy for my dad) as their lives mingle together with both the nuance of a true story and the unexpected turns of a mystery novel. Dickens’s puzzle pieces fit so well together in service to the grand story, and yet all of the characters act as autonomous beings, never wavering from their individual motivations.

The finale of the Tale arrived in my ears as I jogged the New Westminster sea wall; with a cool wind in my face, I was stunned as each of the characters collided into a perfect heart-palpitating conclusion. I was forced to come to the following determination: Charles Dickens is the greatest novelist whom I have met so far.

After the tale was done, I dialed up the audiobook store again, and selected David Copperfield because it was both selling at a good price, and because my new friend and narrator, Peter Batchelor, would be supplying his voice again.

I was warned, upon this choice, though, that I might find it to be aggravating because, in the novel, Dickens apparently spends much of his time telling stories from the past in the present tense. Uh oh.

Part 2: THE WORST OF LANGUAGE

I have been ranting (in my non-blog life) for a while now about the omnipresent usage of the present tense to describe events that happened in the past. I understand that, when telling a story, rendering it in the present tense can sometimes create the impression that the narrator and listener are experiencing it as it happens. However, the trend has turned to a requirement in the media. One of my two radio stations, CBC, insists on utilizing the present tense in all of its documentaries to the point that, when experts join the discussion to give their belated perspective on events, it is often confusing which parts of the discussion are current and which are past. Moreover, interviewers often don’t even give their witnesses the option of using the correct tense.

INTERVIEWER: So what are you thinking when you first see the dragon?

SCIENTIST: Well, I’m thinking: that’s the biggest rhinoceros I’ve ever seen!

INTERVIEWER: And when do you realize that you’re dealing with a dragon?

SCIENTIST: Well, I’m talking to my colleague, Dr. Expert about it, and she says that rhinoceroses don’t breathe fire, and so I realize I’m onto something. My rival Bernie McSkeptic says it’s the greatest discovery of the 20th century.

INTERVIEWER: Bernie the dragon skeptic was there, too?

SCIENTIST: No, he just said that now on his Facebook page. He’s listening to this interview.

INTERVIEWER: Oh, I see, well let’s get back to the story. I understand you’re worried that your puppy is going to be eaten by the dragon?

SCIENTIST: Oh, yes, he chases the dragon initially, but he escapes, and I’m totally relieved.

INTERVIEWER: Me too!

SCIENTIST: But then he gets eaten a few minutes later.

INTERVIEWER: Oh, I thought he survives?

SCIENTIST: He does… initially. And then he gets eaten.

All right, that’s enough. I realize I may have exaggerated the point a wee bit here, but the fact is: often, when listening to stories on the radio, or in a television documentary, it can actually become confusing at various moments in an interview whether the speaker is describing their current thoughts on a past incident or their past thoughts as they happened in the then-present.

Thus, I have come to the following demand: all media should desist in wielding this tool completely because they are incapable of using it sparingly in particular incidences where they think it will bring specific tales extra significance. Instead, like underlining every word in a document, they use present tense storytelling almost exclusively, and so the technique has lost both its power and its clarity.

Conclusion: THE MAGIC OF DAVID COPPERFIELD or PAST TENSE

David Copperfield begins with the phrase, “I am born,” which sets the tone for a novel that, although it is told from the perspective of a time long passed its events, nevertheless dips into the memory of its protagonist, and so sometimes shares those memories from his perspective of re-living them.

Amazingly, though, ten chapters into this tale told in two tenses, not once has Dickens irritated me. The majority of the story is cheerfully described in the correct, past tense, but occasionally the narrator zooms in on a sequence and gives a verbal snapshot about what he was feeling at the time of the event. The result is never confusing, but always clearly delineated as an exception. I, as a reader (listener), always know when the storyteller is providing a close-up memory that he is feeling as though it is happening again in the present tense, and when he is panning out from the story and offering his long distance perspective of the past.

And so I am tempted to reverse my call for a ban on the present tense in past tense storytelling in the media. But not quite. Instead, I will now authorize the following middle ground: anyone in the media who possess something near Dickens’s skill may use the present tense for past descriptions. For future reference, all others must stop immediately.

 

NEWS MANUFACTURER OF THE YEAR

Every year, The Canadian Press poles the nation’s news editors for the purpose of naming its annual Canadian “Newsmaker of the Year.” This year the vote determined that an alleged murderer who posted evidence of his crime on YouTube was their man. Consequently, many politicians and citizens have condemned the collective decision and have petitioned the news agency to take the title away from the accused.

The protestors argue that such recognition for the suspected murderer is both disrespectful to the victim of the crime and simultaneously gives the alleged villain more of the very attention he seemed to be seeking. They argue that “Newsmaker of the Year” sounds a lot like “Man of Year,” and so gives other potentially dangerous individuals impetus to do something equally cruel in pursuit of fame. I agree.

But, while I concur with all of the above points, I’m not convinced of the protestors’ conclusion that the CP should have found a “Newsmaker of the Year” who had made a positive contribution. To my mind, if the Canadian Press is going to have a “Newsmaker of Year,” then—given that the making of news is often the province of negative agents—on what definition of “newsmaker” would murderers be excluded? Instead, I think the only way to avoid championing horrific acts is to for the CP to abolish this careless contest of significance that is the “Newsmaker of the Year” program.

The Canadian Press’s editor-in-chief, Scott White, explains that “Newsmaker of the Year” is neither a popularity contest nor a commendation. He argues that editing out unpleasant newsmakers from contention would be like excluding certain politicians from an election. This is an interesting analogy, except, while freely voting for government is a crucial aspect of running a democracy, a newsmaker election seems to have no journalistic purpose other than crowing a top newspaper seller. So, if White’s right (and I think he is) that the only way to have a “Newsmaker of the Year” is to sometimes allow for murderers to receive an extra shot of fame for fame-seeking behaviours, then maybe we don’t need to name a top newsmaker each year. The risk of copycat crimes outweighs the benefits of a self-indulgent poll.

I don’t see anything wrong with looking back at the significant stories of a past parcel of time. If the Canadian Press wants to review the previous news year for us and discuss the most significant stories, then could they not achieve such results without creating the impression that the most followed event of the year has won some sort of newsmaking championship?

In similar meta-news-manufacturing, CNN and other 24-hour news stations often ask their viewers to vote on what is the top news story of the day, so that the anchors can then refer to the top choice as “the most popular news story.” What for?

Once again, such voting and ranking creates a callous celebratory tone as it connotes an audience’s appreciation for certain stories. Whether those “voting” are enjoying the negative stories or not, the language of such polling gives an impression of approval. But, again, for what purpose? Do we really need to know what story people think is the “top” story of the day?

I could accept the legitimacy of such information if it were under the guise of viewer analysis or feedback. Perhaps questions such as “What is the most significant story of the day to you?” or “What story should lead our news coverage?” would be reasonable if the news agencies presented the results as a sociological look at its viewers without the fanfare of a beauty pageant. But, instead, the presentation of these surveys is akin to a simple top ten list that allows news followers a chance to “play along” with the news as though it were a game show.

While such polls of the day are immature, The Canadian Press’s “Newsmaker of the Year” is both childish and reckless. Many have argued that giving an alleged murderer a grand designation is wrong because it is nourishing his malevolent ego. I agree, but to my mind the greater crime here is that this manufactured title is giving potential killers a bigger carrot of fame to chase.

UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF LAZY JOURNALISM IV: Extra Sensory Presumptions (Of Intention)

Journalism is vital to a free society; so, too, is criticism of the media. And yet SethBlogs doesn’t see as much oversight of the media’s methods as there is for other vital societal resources. SethBlogs suspects that this oversight oversight provokes a lazy complacency among our favourite journalistic representatives.

UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF LAZY JOURNALISM SERIES:

I: THE USEFUL CRUELTY OF SCRUTINY (OF IDEAS)

II: EXTRA SENSORY PRESUMPTIONS (OF EMOTION)

III: SMYTH vs. THE FALSE DICHOTOMY (OF ROLES)

IV: EXTRA SENSORY PRESUMPTIONS (OF INTENTION) (you are here)

V: THE EMPEROR HAS NO QUESTIONS (ON SEXISM)

VI: THE EMPEROR HAS NO QUESTIONS (ON RACISM)


In Episode I of this series, I wrote about a bad habit of many journalists to infer the emotional states of the people (hereafter “newsmakers”) they’re covering based on the newsmakers’ expressed emotions. The reporters syllogisms were as follows:

PREMISE: Newsmaker appears to have/is describing emotion X.

CONCLUSION: Newsmaker has emotion X.

I countered that this is a leap of logic wherein the reporters have assumed an infallible power of reading minds. The simple flaw in their logic is easily illuminated by noting the fact that humans sometimes misrepresent themselves. The only conclusion that could truly be drawn from the above premise is that:

SETHBLOGS’ ADJUSTED CONCLUSION: Newsmaker seems to have emotion X.

Or better yet:

SETHBLOGS’ READJUSTED CONCLUSION: Newsmaker says he/she has emotion X.

As with any other subjective conclusion, it should be up to the news audience to determine whether they think the newsmaker was sincere or not.

I did not receive a lot of feedback on this commentary, and so I suspect that it seemed to some to be a petty correction. That is if someone is crying, then surely we can assume they’re upset about something. I wouldn’t disagree in our everyday lives. If we see a friend seeming to express great emotion, I think it would be reasonable to assume (unless we suspect from experience that they have a habit of utilizing such alleged emotion for an advantage) that they are sincere, and so worthy of an expression of compassion. However, when reporters treat those in the news as though they are incapable of artifice, they are undermining their claims to journalistic objectivity. Consider the following two very recent examples, with which I intend to reinvigorate my argument against this crime against journalism:

(1) In the United States, President Obama will soon be nominating a new high-powered person to take on the role of Secretary of State to replace the outgoing Hilary Clinton. Most indications are that his first choice is US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, while his second choice would be Senator (and former Democratic Presidential candidate) John Kerry. There are many politics enveloping each choice, one of which is that, if John Kerry were approved, he would have to give up his Senate seat, which would give a recently-defeated Republican candidate an excellent chance of taking his spot. This would be good for the Republicans. Therefore, when the Republicans express grave concern about Susan Rice’s candidacy, they may (at least in part) be playing politics. Nevertheless, I heard the following on MSNBC:

REPORTER: The Republicans are very upset by the possibility of Susan Rice’s appointment.

This reporting statement gives credence to the notion that the Republicans have sincere reservations about Ambassador Rice. Maybe they do, but by framing this statement as an objective assessment of emotion, the broadcaster has told the audience that they have every reason to trust the political party’s “concern.” I doubt that the reporter was trying to influence us in that way (since it is, after all, a Democrat-leaning network); instead, they were most likely once again under the influence of lazy journalism. In lieu of taking the time to describe exactly what they could objectively see and hear, they rounded off from their nearest perception (that the politicians sounded upset) to fact (that the politicians were upset).

This is why I argue that—even in cases where it seems patently obvious that an emotion is sincere (such as with apparently grieving people)—reporters should be obsessive about never saying more than they can legitimately claim to know. Instead of referring to someone as “sad,” they should describe what they actually witness, perhaps that “the person’s voice faltered,” and then we the audience will draw our own conclusions.

(2) In Canada recently, a man was arrested at the border for allegedly trying to smuggle kids (who weren’t his own) into the US. His stated justification was religious, and so the radio station said, “X man believes Y religious precept.” Such a statement presumes that the man is not a religious con artist. Hopefully, we the audience might still suspect the insincerity of the man’s religious claims, but we have to consciously see past the broadcaster’s credence-giving statement. None of us knows what any other person believes: we only know what each other says. But, by couching religious claims as “beliefs,” broadcasters imply their sincerity, and so fallaciously create the impression that all devout religious representatives are equally devout religious believers. This is a serious leap of shorthand. Religious spokespeople already have extreme power in our world; they don’t need the extra benefit of being treated as though they always say exactly what they truly believe.

In short, it is not the job of journalists to tell us who to trust; all we need is facts.


UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF LAZY JOURNALISM SERIES:

I: THE USEFUL CRUELTY OF SCRUTINY (OF IDEAS)

II: EXTRA SENSORY PRESUMPTIONS (OF EMOTION)

III: SMYTH vs. THE FALSE DICHOTOMY (OF ROLES)

IV: EXTRA SENSORY PRESUMPTIONS (OF INTENTION) (you were just here)

V: THE EMPEROR HAS NO QUESTIONS (ON SEXISM)

VI: THE EMPEROR HAS NO QUESTIONS (ON RACISM)

CAPITAL OFFENCE

In the interest of full disclosure—and Seth-promotion—the spirt of this rant, and other works of Sethiquette, is now available in my book, How to Cure Yourself of Narcissism.


Okay, I admit this one is mostly a pet peeve, and I feel bad even bringing it up, as some of my favourite people indulge, but it’s time I took a side: I believe it is silly to write without capital letters.

(1) THE FORMAL CASE

Personally, whenever I read an email message expunged of capital letters, the message seems to me to be encumbered by laziness (unless the communication came via a phone that lacks easy capitalization). The writer does not seem to feel that I, as a reader, deserve the expense of effort they would have needed to utilize their SHIFT key.

But who am I to judge? If my fellow email corresponders choose to type without grammar, spell check, or capital letters, that is their right. Perhaps they enjoy letting the letters fall where they may without the confines of “correctness.” And maybe in particular social communication circles, going uncapitalized is simply the preference of the group because it is perceived as easygoing.

Nevertheless, I think it is worth noting that, in certain cases, following some rules of language can be a way of showing our correspondents that we respect them—kind of like not accentuating a burp during a dinner party. And so the more formal, and the less we know someone, the more I think such belches of grammar and spelling can stand out.

I have recently witnessed job applications in which candidates omitted capital letters from their cover letters. Baffle me! Can they really expect a professional agency to take them seriously if they don’t take themselves seriously enough to apply the occasional SHIFT key to our initial interaction? Should the employer also expect a high five instead of a handshake during the interview?

(2) THE PET PEEVE CASE

Now—just for fun—I’m going to try to make the case against a capital-free existence even in personal correspondence. In my humble suspicion, capital letters have a useful function in our language: I think they help to alert the reader to natural punctuation breaks in our paragraphs, and so make our writing easier to digest on the first pass.

I’m in favour of using original styles to communicate material, and so I wouldn’t make this argument if I could see a single benefit to excluding capital letters.

As far as I can tell, there are four possible arguments for a expunging the SHIFT key from one’s typing vocabulary:

(2.1) EASE

Perhaps non-capitalizers think that the SHIFT key is far too labour-intensive given its modest gains. As you wish: if the shift-free genuinely believe that pressing an extra button once or twice a sentence is a significant waste of time and calories, then I support their decision. However, I do request that they check their data. When I’m at my keyboard, one finger hits the SHIFT key while the others keep on typing, so I don’t actually find shifting takes any extra time, nor in fact, many extra calories (indeed, my shifting finger does not seem any more buff than my non-shifting fingers).

(2.2) TREND/HABIT

It seems some have cut capitals from their emails because of the text-messaging boom. When one is typing on one’s small phone, capital letters are often more difficult to employ, and so, I think, much more acceptable to exclude. As a result, given the popularity of non-CAPS-texting, capital letters may seem passé to some even when they’re easy to apply. Moreover, because people are used to going capital-free in text messages, they may argue that it’s simpler to maintain that habit in emailing as well.

My argument here would be that text messaging is a form of communication shorthand. Since each letter costs a lot more energy to type on a phone, it’s all about finding the simplest message to get your point across. “c u b4 the show,” for instance, gets “See you before the show” done on a smaller budget. That makes sense to me.

Similarly, in the past, Morse Code left many words out so as to send only the most pertinent information; this does not mean, though, that when famous sea captains wrote tell-all books about their experiences, they wrote in simplified beeps of language. No, it was merely the Morse medium that gave them that exemption. The definitive convenience within one does not have to undermine quality of the other.

(2.3) PERSONALITY

Probably the most common explanation for removing capitals from one’s writing is that of personality. Anti-capital snobs believe that they have a unique flavour of being that is illustrated by their lack of oversized letters. I do not intend such a shiftless existence any harm, but I must ask the practitioners of this theory if they are aware that many people have used the very same “unique” same small-lettered technique before them.

(Indeed, I understand that the now expired poet, e.e. cummings, was one of the first to go capital-free. Most commonly, he de-capitalized his poetry and sometimes signed his name sans capitals. Some speculate, however, that he offered the latter as a gesture of humility as opposed to a recommendation for others to do the same.)

Not that things worth doing have to be unique or original (good manners, for instance), but, if one’s reason for excommunicating the capital letter is because they think it illuminates an originality of personality, I must suggest that it does not.

(2.4) AESTHETICS

A friend of mine has explained that she uses the no-capital system because she likes the look of it. Fair enough. The only thing I can say to her is that most of the time one’s written words are meant for other people to read, so might it not be worth considering whether they enjoy such diminutive lettering, too?

Moreover, given that written language is generally meant for communication, does she not worry at all that she might be giving up clarity for the sake of looks? Or is going capital-free the ultimate victory of fashion over substance?

(3) THE COUNTER CASE

For those who would like to take me down via an appeal to hypocrisy, I freely acknowledge that I have probably made at least one grammatical error somewhere in this message. However, please note that I have specifically tried to avoid such mistakes. In contrast when one goes capital-free, one is choosing to resist.

UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF LAZY JOURNALISM III: Smyth vs. The False Dichotomy

Journalism is vital to a free society; so too is criticism of the media. And yet SethBlogs doesn’t see as much oversight of the media’s methods as there are for other vital societal resources. SethBlogs suspects that this oversight oversight provokes lazy complacency among our favourite journalistic representatives.

UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF LAZY JOURNALISM SERIES:

I: THE USEFUL CRUELTY OF SCRUTINY (OF IDEAS)

II: EXTRA SENSORY PRESUMPTIONS (OF EMOTION)

III: SMYTH vs. THE FALSE DICHOTOMY (OF ROLES) (you are here)

IV: EXTRA SENSORY PRESUMPTIONS (OF INTENTION)

V: THE EMPEROR HAS NO QUESTIONS (ON SEXISM)

VI: THE EMPEROR HAS NO QUESTIONS (ON RACISM)


This may seem like a small matter, but I think it is a symptom of how many in our media unduly segregate their subjects into only black or white. Consider the following fallacious phrases that I have witnessed in the media:

“Is the new gas tax going to help the environment or is it another burden on families?”

“Are boiled lobsters animal cruelty, or are they good eating?”

Um, why can’t it be both?

Use of such ridiculously black vs. white phrases is so prevalent in our media that I have come to the speculation that the use of false dichotomies may be taught in broadcasting and/or journalism schools:

PROFESSOR: All right, what you need to do for every issue is ask the audience to choose between the top hope of each side of the argument.

STUDENT: What if the answer is somewhere in the middle?

PROFESSOR: Boring! Remember: Black or white will excite! Grey won’t pay!

STUDENT: Right, I forgot.

PROFESSOR: Memorize it!

STUDENT: So how do we do it?

PROFESSOR: Okay, give me a significant government policy.

STUDENT: How about the recent plan to build a major new transit line?

PROFESSOR: Good, what’s a possible benefit of this policy?

STUDENT: That it’s good for the environment and will reduce congestion.

PROFESSOR: Okay, and what’s a criticism of it?

STUDENT: That it’ll cost lots of taxpayer money.

PROFESSOR: Perfect! Here’s your headline question: “THE NEW TRANSIT LINE: ENVIRONMENTAL HERO OR MAJOR TAX BURDEN?” Now everyone has to move their thinking to one side or the other!

It is the popular media’s craving for the simplicity of definitive answers, I suppose, that provokes them to invoke false dichotomies—in spite of the fact that false dichotomies are among the great enemies of logic. To quote myself in the Twitter version of SethBlogs:

“You either agree that false dichotomies are a blight of human communication or you believe in violence against puppies.”

Which brings me to my very important hockey-based point. Well-known hockey player, Ryan Smyth, who grew up in Edmonton, Alberta and has played most of his hockey career for the Edmonton Oilers, is famous for his ability to go into the tough areas in front of his opposition’s net to score goals. Hockey pundits, therefore, categorize him as a tough-nosed veteran player and nothing more.

No hockey commentator whom I’ve heard has noticed that, when he’s not in front the opposition’s net, he moves like the most iconic and distinct Edmonton Oiler skater of all time, Wayne Gretzky. I’m not saying that Smyth possesses the Great One’s magic skills (who could?), but his stride and passing motion look more like the all-time NHL scoring leader than any player I’ve ever seen.

This should not be surprising given that Smyth would have learned his love of the game while Gretzky was winning Stanley Cups for his city’s team, and so the young Oiler fan might have patterned his style after his hero. Smyth lacks Gretzky’s bounty of abilities, obviously—perhaps part of the reason he added a toughness to his repertoire since he couldn’t score 200 points a season like his idol—but Ryan Smyth, in spite of being a lumbering skater, is—to my eye—one of the best passers in the league.

And yet TV announcers who follow him always seem surprised when he provides a great pass—I’ve never heard them acknowledge that it’s a regular part of his skill set. I guess they’ve long answered the question:

“Is Ryan Smyth tough in front of the net or is he a great passer?”


UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF LAZY JOURNALISM SERIES:

I: THE USEFUL CRUELTY OF SCRUTINY (OF IDEAS)

II: EXTRA SENSORY PRESUMPTIONS (OF EMOTION)

III: SMYTH vs. THE FALSE DICHOTOMY (OF ROLES) (you were just here)

IV: EXTRA SENSORY PRESUMPTIONS (OF INTENTION)

V: THE EMPEROR HAS NO QUESTIONS (ON SEXISM)

VI: THE EMPEROR HAS NO QUESTIONS (ON RACISM)