Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Hi, I'm Rich, and I'm a Simple-Minded Literalist

After their fashion, they were kind of cute: picture the Macbeths at age 18, or Claire and Frank Underwood of House of Cards as high-school sweethearts. Now reduce their evil by two-thirds and their cunning by half, and you have the two students in my career who took the time and exerted the effort to do some really nasty critiquing of my teaching.

Or one aspect of my teaching, personality, and way of being in the world.

What angered them was that I was a simple-minded "Literalist" and I had marked down the young woman of the pair for using words inexactly in her writing in a College Composition course (at Miami U, Oxford, Ohio, some time in the late 20th century).

This story would be totally irrelevant to anyone except to me and the couple if it weren't for "journalist Salena Zito’s analytical couplet on the surprise winner of [US Presidential] Campaign 2016 [... that] The press took Republican Donald Trump 'literally, but not seriously' [...], whereas Trump’s supporters took him 'seriously, but not literally.'"

The quotation above is from Charles Lane in an opinion piece published 16 November 2016 in The Washington Post, and Zito's differentiation between taking Trump "literally" and "seriously" has become a commonplace — and we're on our way to that degree of familiarity with Lane's advice that we should take Trump both literally and seriously.

I'd expand that advice and recommend taking every speaker with power both literally and seriously, while allowing, and allowing a lot, for the possibilities of such figurative language as hyperbole — and allowing for plain old bullshit and lying.

One example I gave was a coach demanding "one hundred and ten percent dedication to the team." I suggested pointing out to the coach that his demand was clearly figurative — there can only be 100% dedication to anything — but also excessive. He obviously wasn't demanding 110% dedication, but he was demanding a blank check, so to speak, and it would be well if team members got him to clarify by pointing out they had demands on their time — school, work, family — that were also legitimate and pressing and make a counter- offer of a very generous 30% dedication. 

There's a good chance that even star athletes would be thrown off the team — I once won a bet with some students that coachly authority would trump winning and that even a tennis coach would purge a disobedient player — ahem, there's a good chance any uppity high school or college players trying to negotiate dedication would be cut, but the point would be made.

If you can help it, it don't allow other people to make unlimited demands on your time, not unless you're a bonded pair and you really, really love and trust the other party. 

WORDS MEAN, goddamn it, and if "I want 110% dedication" doesn't mean "110% dedication," it does mean an open-ended demand that you should be very careful in allowing. 

Later in my career, I was going to learn the paradoxical Daoist teaching that no one lies. The paradox is resolved with the very sensible idea that if you listen carefully enough you can figure our what the person is really trying to say — but I'm pretty sure you have to be a Daoist sage to do that reliably.

Where we have trouble taking people literally or seriously is with pathological liars, of which I've met another couple. More exactly, I dealt with, let's say, a congenital liar in senior year of high school and was one among a number of people who had to deal with a pathological liar in college.

The congenital liar was a guy — we'll call him "Todd" — somewhat on the periphery of my life but still a friend and kind of classmate. (Chicago schools divided up by semesters, and he graduated the same year I did but a semester earlier.) Anyway, he was someone I was friendly with and had no reason to doubt him when he said he was taking ... let's call her Dolores to the prom. I did have reason to doubt him when Dolores asked me why I hadn't asked her to prom, and I told her because Todd said that she was going to the prom with him, and she said "Huh?!" and then some stronger things, and I went off looking for the first real fight since I was seven. Todd won, but I owe him this much: he was my introduction to the idea that some people would lie for the hell of it; that even when there was no reason to lie, some people might.

More powerful blows to my worldview came in college, when I learned that some people could behave with literal malice: i.e., that they would hurt someone not for any profit for themselves, not for revenge, but just to hurt someone they disliked. (In literature, I learned of people who just hurt other people — period; Shakespeare's Iago says he hates Othello, but maybe he doesn't; he may just despise everyone). More to the immediate point, I and the guys I lived with learned about pathological lying.

After his fashion, he was a cool guy: president of his pledge class, and, he said, working his way through school, including working at the job we offered him at the house, work beyond his chores as a pledge. And he was just cool, a smooth talker, personable — and an obsessive, compulsive, pathological liar who could make you think you'd gone crazy because he could assert obvious untruths with more assurance than most of us could talk about what was right in front of us.

After our experience with this guy, we had a new rule for our chapter: A pledge caught in lies was "depleged," and the burden of proof was on him to be repledged, and if he couldn't do that we'd pay whatever it cost for him to move out of the house and elsewhere. An honest, plain-speaking character in Shakespeare's King Lear describes the most contemptible of the villains in that play in terms of, "Such smiling rogues as these," who "Like rats, oft bite the holy cords a-twain" that bind together people and society. Our cool, personable, pathological pledge wasn't that bad, but he was on the continuum.

When lies become constant, words no longer really mean, and that way lies social chaos.

So in good, simple-minded fashion, let us take seriously what people say, especially people with power — and start with the literal meaning of words and then work through the dangerous and wonderful complexities of language. 

And, while we're at it, let us hold the President of the United States to standards of exactness a competent teacher and pretty nice guy like me would hold college frosh to — and to standards of honesty a bunch of undergrads ca. 1962 could figure out they had to hold themselves to in order to live together even as a group of 50. If Mr. Trump says he'll torture prisoners and kill the families of terrorists, and we elect him president — which under the Electoral College system favoring small states and rural folk we did — then we've written that figurative blank check for actions up to the rack and more elegant means of torture, and the killing of children. This isn't "110%": torture and the murder of children (and the torture of children in front of their parents) are indeed possible: we can be sure of that since they have been done. And if someone recommends doing such things, and you empower him to do so, well that is exactly what almost half of the US electorate have done.

WORDS MEAN, damn it: often in complex ways, but they do indeed mean.

1 comment:

  1. Whenever a coach or someone demands "one hundred and ten percent dedication" (or whenever you make fun of such mathematically flawed admonitions), I'm reminded of this song from the favorite PBS show of my childhood: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDqrW85RECE