Thursday, March 19, 2015

Words Mean (1 Sept. 2014)

[Aside.] […] Still harping on my daughter: […] I'll speak to him again.—What do you read, my lord?
Words, words, words.
What is the matter, my lord?
Between who? (Hamlet 2.2.191-94)

            Many Americans get exercised over what they see and hear as violations of Good English. Fair enough: It's a God-given and Constitutionally-protected right to complain. Indeed, I suspect that the variety of sentences in the most ancient language that followed the variety: "Cave bear behind you!" was the rest of the likely meaning, "You idiot! I told you not to go into that cave. But would you listen …? Noooo!" Much of the time, however, those of us who complain about language usage complain about the wrong things.

            For example, there are people who'll be mildly or more upset that Hamlet says "Between who" and not "Between whom," and there was at least one editor who corrected Shakespeare's English in Richard III so that the villainous Richard says in one edition "To whom" and not what Shakespeare much more likely wrote, "To who".

            I'm going to keep harping on quite different issues, harping here on the occasion of two significant mistakes appearing in significant debates.

            One is in Senate Bill 967: Student Safety: Sexual Assault, passed by the California General Assembly and on the desk of Governor Brown for action before the end of September 2014. I'm sure I'll return to this Bill in later posts, but for now I just want to note that it includes a reference and a half to investigations of sexual assault where "alcohol or drugs were involved" (§ 1.2.C.8 [I think; numbering in legislation can get arcane]).

            Now, as a practical matter, two crucial issues with campus rape are first, identifying, arresting, charging, convicting, and putting in prison for lengthy sentences serial rapists; and second, and relevantly here, changing undergraduate folkways of alcohol use and abuse: specifically the logical (after its fashion) but dangerous "Get smashed, get stupid, get laid."

            I will stress again the phrase as a practical matter, as in as a practical matter, Black parents do well to instruct their sons how to act deferentially when confronted with cops, especially White cops; as in as a practical matter, Liberal or Radical Feminist parents do well to say to their kids of any sex, gender, color, sexual preference or whatever, "Like hell you're walking through that neighborhood in that outfit at this hour of the night!"

            Yeah, we are all free in much Libertarian and Leftish theory to wear whatever we want, and walk where we want; to get drunk out of our minds and pass out in the middle of a drunken orgy; to mainline Rohypnol while waiting for a date to return from the bathroom. Free maybe: free as many Libertarian and Black and Lefty parents will insist — when not advising their kids on what is prudent.

            So as a practical matter, it is important to limit reckless drug use by women and twinks and underage folk at campus parties, and the most important drug to limit is ethyl alcohol imbibed for the purpose of getting hammered.

            Talking about "alcohol and drugs" in such contexts is a really, really bad idea since the phrase implies that alcohol is not a drug and somehow not a potentially dangerous drug. When trying to limit sexual assaults, the phrase people should use is "drugs, especially alcohol."

            The second phrase I'll continue harping on appeared yet again in my local newspaper, and is repeated much of the time Americans argue about abortion and the large, contentious set of issues around abortion: "when life begins" — as in, "The crucial question in these issues is when life begins."

            Yet again, no, that is not the question, and it cannot be the question starting from a simple point of belief and fact in the Abrahamic religions and among anyone familiar with biology after, say, 1668, or at least after, 1859. Between the time of Francesco Redi and Louis Pasteur there was firm disproof and discrediting of the ancient theory of "spontaneous generation."

            As Genesis saith mystically and Redi, Pasteur, et al. demonstrated scientifically, life doesn't begin, it began, and has been passed on, each living thing reproducing "after its kind," except when you get mutations and such — but that's another argument.

            Once life got started it got handed down that was and remains pretty much that: no significant new life would get spontaneously generated because (1) getting life started seems pretty difficult to pull off, and (2) anything new and close to alive would very quickly get eaten by an organism more sophisticated, which would likely be the closest organism around.

            Abortion and the issues related to it do not have to do with what's living or dead or non-living but what is human or close enough to human that we should see he/she/it/whatever as a "person under the law," with a right to life.

            A fertilized egg, embryo, fetus, or baby — sperm and egg as well— are all living things. That's easy. When you get a person is difficult. So we don't want the figurative waters muddied by bringing in "When does life begin?" and we don't want the damnable arrogance of seeing things as alive only if they're human.

            They knew better than that in Biblical times, which is why there are strict rules about killing and eating animals but much less fuss about killing plants, and we know, or should know, that plants are alive (it has to do with what creatures have "the life-breath"). Indeed, "we" know nowadays — i.e., anyone with the education to already know or who has the time, skill, and resources to look it up — we know or can look up that way more of life on Earth is microbial than human and that most of the cells in and on our body are microbial, not human.

            We humans can and should privilege human life — I just chopped up carrots and lettuce and feel no guilt — but we should know that we are either special only because God said and say so, or we're not particularly special at all.

            It is indeed "common usage" to say "alcohol and drugs" and ask, "When does life begin?" "Alcohol and drugs," though, implies the lie that alcohol is somehow not a drug or that the only drugs that really count as drugs are drugs the State declares illegal. Questions about when life begins are either diversions or the arrogance of assuming that only human life counts as life.

            It is such issues that the "Word Police" need to get after. If we lose the "m" on "whom," it will be no big deal.

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