All The More Reason

Manufactured Problems for the Bored
January 31, 2007, 9:23 pm
Filed under: Language

I had the privilege once to sit in on the following conversation within an academic institution (as best as memory can serve).

A (woman) – You know, let’s say an artist wanted to have a bigger audience, she would have to consider changing the medium which she works in.
B – Hmm mmm.
C (man) – Pardon me, I couldn’t help but notice that just now you used the feminine pronoun to describe both men and women.
A – Oh dear, did I? Oh my goodness, I didn’t mean to.
C – Yes, I just caught it there. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything…
B – You know, there should really be a pronoun that’s gender neutral.
A – (breathes in, dramatic pause building) Herm.
B & C – Sorry?
A – Herm.
B – …Oh, as in both her and him?
A – (satisfied grin on face) Yes, herm. People should use the word ‘herm’.

Well, I won’t bore you all with the trailing out of that little doozy except to give a few thoughts of my own which are quite possibly mirrored by other ATMR readers (or not? Let the debate begin!).

‘Herm’ tastes about as good on the lips as a door would; blunt and dull with zero calories. More to the point, I believe there are at least two viable options in English for the gender–neutral out there. One could go with ‘one’. One could also go with the plural ‘they’, and ‘their’ for the possessive. In most cases, one is referring to a general group of individuals anyways, so the ‘they’ is not that out of place. Of course, one could just stick with either ‘he’ or ‘she’, or if really obsessed by worries of sexism, go with both at the same time. The only thing I would add, though, about the use of both ‘he’ and ‘she’ at the same time, is that it complicates sentences. Perhaps this is worthy of its own entry on this blog, but considering how much people go on about the dumbing of language, it’s amazing the ways in which people manage to complicate it all the same.

Our original example of societal one–up–manship (pardon, one–up–hermship) most likely occurs in many different shapes and forms throughout the Anglosphere. I shudder to think of the other manufactured personal pronouns in their wake (shim? heir?).

Jonathan Smith

On the Subjunctive
January 30, 2007, 9:54 pm
Filed under: Language, On..., Uncategorized

The recent post here on ATMR on sneezing got me thinking about one of my favourite subjects: the subjunctive. Without going into too much detail, for fear of displaying too much ignorance on my part, the subjunctive is a mood in grammar which describes a wish or desire. Here’s an example from a piece by Hitchens.

In spite of testimony from the Dutch police, who assured the court that the building was now one of the safest in all Holland, a court has upheld the demand from her neighbors and fellow citizens that she be evicted from her home.

The use of the word “be” denotes the use of the subjunctive. The neighbors demanded something, and as such there is an uncertainty attached. I would argue that most native english speakers, regardless of whether or not they’d ever officially heard of the subjunctive, would find the shift to the infinitive “is” very awkward sounding in Hitchens’ sentence quoted above.

Well, I could go on about the subjunctive all day, and indeed hope to in the future on this blog, as I believe it tells us a lot about ourselves and is just so inherently fascinating anyway. But, as I mentioned at the beginning, my reason for thinking about the subjunctive was due to the phrase “Bless you” mentioned in a previous post here on sneezing. Now God is in the third person and if it were the indicative used here one would say “God blesses you”. Saying this would imply that one is actually observing God in the process of blessing you. But, one is saying “Bless you” in the hopes that God will put your soul back where it belongs before it gets ideas of its own and finds a better carrier.

Deciding to no longer say “Bless you” is limiting the already very limited usage of this brilliant mood within the English language (other languages have this mood too, d’ailleurs). From my perspective, forgoing its use in the name of reason needs better justification. I say this, because a central aspect of human nature is the desire for things to be better. Desire can be expressed in many ways within the language and, as I stated at the beginning, even has its own mood. Removing one of the most consistent reminders of the subjunctive’s existence from the english language, by consciously no longer saying “Bless you”, carries its own costs too. Perhaps that could be put into the debate about whether or not the use of this expression has outlived its time. I ask that all sides be considered before too rash a decision is taken.

Jonathan Smith

On Sneezing
January 29, 2007, 6:22 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

As you might expect, contributors to All The More Reason apply the highest and most rigid standards of logic and rational thought to their everyday lives. Superstition and mumbo-jumbo are constantly, and actively, rejected. Jonathan Smith often spends hours at the weekend purposefully seeking out ladders to walk beneath; Justin McClintock celebrates Xmas (with an X), but only because his mother would be upset if he did not. Allow me to give you an insight into my own Enlightened mind.

I work in an office of four people which, as a consequence of its size, is extremely friendly and comradely. Not a single cup of tea is brewed without prior inquiry as to the others’ need for refreshment; a trip to the shop to buy biscuits will, as a matter of strict propriety, involve running an errand for anyone who requests it. It is therefore with some trepidation that I have decided to engage in an exercise that could upset the gentile balance of my workplace. Perhaps irrecoverably.

At this time of year, it is common for those of us with less than robust immune systems to have a more or less ever-present cold, with the attendant secretion of mucas that is sometimes euphemistically referred to as ‘the sniffles’. Sneezing is an obvious and inevitable by-product of this condition. A ritual that is no doubt familiar to you has entrenched itself in our office. It goes something like this:

Me: (sneezes)
Colleague 1: Bless you!
Me: (sneezes again)
Colleague 2: Bless you!!
Me: Thank…(sneezes again)
Colleague 3: Bless you!!!
Me: Thank you.

Now, as we all know, the origins of this archaic sneeze-rhetoric are to be found in the aged belief that when one sneezes, the heart stops, the soul leaves the body and can – in the absence of godly intervention- be snatched by an evil spirit. It’s a perfectly sound thesis, and, admittedly, I have no way of knowing whether or not my soul has ever been snatched by any spirits, evil or otherwise. Purely on the basis of what little I know of medical science, the contingency strikes me as remote. It is probably something that insurance companies would hesitate to provide cover for, not least because risk-assessors would inevitably have to delve into our personal sneeze-histories to an intolerably intrusive extent. (I find it stressful making a claim for a stolen mobile phone; I can only imagine having to furnish Endsleigh Insurance with a list of occasions on which I may have ‘sneezed alone/sneezed whilst sleeping/sneezed on public transport in an “unfriendly” [see appendices] carriage’, in order to qualify for my no-claims bonus. But I digress.)

For reasons of philosophical consistency, I have therefore decided to reject the superstitious flummery that accompanies the body’s involuntary response to irritation in the nasal passages. Henceforth, I shall accept blessings, but I shall no longer dispense them. The first post-Enlightenment sneeze was a tense affair. My colleague let rip, her heart momentarily ceasing to function and her earthly soul, and phlegm, spilling out over the work-surface. In spite of the weight of over eight hundred years of tradition, I said nothing. There was deafening silence, followed by a rather pointed…‘Bless Me’. Wisely, she was taking no chances.

Of all the small, everyday rituals that we unthinkingly undertake each day, the ‘Bless You’ is probably one of the most insignificant. I don’t seriously mean to suggest that anyone uttering the formula genuinely believes in – or even knows of – its provenance. They are (the worrying self-benediction of my colleague aside) just being polite. And I, by extension, may justifiably be accused of being rude and petty. So be it. Perhaps, several hundred years ago, I would have been accused of something far worse.

It is of interest to note here that in the 17th century, the act of sneezing was believed literally to ‘clear the mind’: this belief actually started something of a craze. Aristocrats would use snuff to artificially induce a sneeze, thereby proving both their privileged credentials and, ironically enough, their clear-headedness. As a consequence, the sneeze was often employed as a token of disapproval when something idiotic was uttered by someone from whom idiocy was to be expected. The passing of time and the application of reason has, again, eroded this once widespread habit, its residue still apparent whenever we say that something is ‘not to be sneezed at’.

On the vast spectrum of inherited irrationality, these examples probably sit nearer to ‘touching wood’ than, say, refusing to shake the hand of a menstruating woman. Irrationality is not always the preserve of the irrational, and where this incongruity rears its head, the culprit is normally unthinking tradition. Its dead weight is often so great that the revelation of an underlying superstition can prove an arduous task. But it should never be impossible. A single nudge may be insufficient, but a collective nudge by hundreds, thousands- even millions – of the clear-headed can lighten the load. It is incumbent on all of us to treat all of these supposedly serious things with the triviality they deserve. And in so doing, let us not be accused of being trivial ourselves- it’s a serious business. And not one to be sneezed at.

Michael P

Double Agent
January 28, 2007, 12:54 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Here’s an interview with Stephen Colbert. He is an American comedian who has a show which is a sendup of the news of the day. His twist is that he takes on the persona of a right–wing crank. Stephen Colbert the man, though, is anything but a right–wing crank. And so, this show has earned a lot of popularity with the Left because they’re in on the joke, and think that this caricature of right–wingers is hilarious. Here’s a quote which shows some of the difficulty that comes from dancing with two public personas (click the “print this” link to have the whole article one page).

Colbert’s character is a comedic high-wire act, and as the crowd beneath him gets larger, and louder, and more distracting, the act gets trickier still. “We share the same name. But he says things I don’t mean with a straight face. On the street, I think people know the difference. But I’m not sure, when people ask me to go someplace, which one they’ve asked.”

Well that is a devil of a pickle, isn’t it? Obviously actors have faced this dilemma before, and some refuse to play roles that they feel puts themselves in a bad light. How can we look at this without falling all over ourselves spouting contextuality, perspective, and obscure references to Kurosawa? I’m not sure it’s entirely possible.

Having said that, how different is what he’s doing from what spies have done for ages? One is required to say things with a straight face that one doesn’t believe in, and to do this again and again and again. I realise that some people are more immune to the effect this could have on their own psyche than others, but all playing this game have to hope the home side never forgets whose side they’re on.

Jonathan Smith

What is Britishness?
January 26, 2007, 3:13 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

When Gordon Brown becomes Prime Minister later this year, I am reliably informed that the idea of ‘Britishness’ will be a central theme of his tenure. In his speech to the Fabian Society recently, Brown framed this concept as embodying ‘progressive values’, namely ‘liberty, fairness and responsibility’.

Politicians have often appealed to the idea of ‘Britishness’ as a convenient shorthand for the values that they feel, personally, to be important: from the ‘Bulldog spirit’ evoked by Winston Churchill to rally a nation at war, to the rather more soporific nostalgia of John Major recalling the bygone imagery of ‘’old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’ in order to illustrate his ill-fated ‘back to basics’ approach. The language of patriotism, if not the last refuge of a scoundrel, is certainly a convenient bolt-hole for a politician struggling to find a way to convince an audience of his central point.

Brown can be indicted on similar charges. Those values that he has described, laudable as they may be, are not peculiarly British. To talk of ‘liberty’ is misleading. The idea of ‘liberty under the law’ is most certainly a concept that has firm roots in this country; it is commonly cited as one of the great virtues of the ‘idealised’ British constitution. To confuse this with ‘liberty’ per se though is little more than Whiggish sentimentality: what is ‘liberty under the law’ if not a warrant for lawmakers to take away that liberty on a whim? ‘Rights’ are a far more potent tool with which to defend individual freedom, but the British constitution does not provide such safeguards.

New Labour often talks of rights accompanied by responsibilities. Tellingly, the latter are mentioned by Brown, but not the former. The link between the two is spurious in any event: the very essence of rights is that they are unfettered and inalienable, not redeemable like Green Shield stamps once the requisite amount of ‘responsibility’ for their exercise has been shown. Perhaps Gordon Brown means to say that Britishness is about responsibility to others. Taking a narrow view of history, i.e. one that begins in 1945 and ends in 1979, this may be so. At a stretch, one could characterise the NHS as a peculiarly British expression of solidarity, but its method of operation is rather more Soviet Union than Albion in style.

The meat in Brown’s rhetorical sandwich is ‘fairness’. Without further elucidation, this merely seems to be harking back to the hackneyed idea of British ‘fair play’. While living in France, I noticed that people would often refer, tongue in cheek, to le fair play whenever an example of British perfidy was recounted (e.g. ‘Mais Belmarsh,, ce n’est pas ‘le fair play’, huh?’). This is surely an object lesson in the dangers of both annexing and trade-marking certain virtues for one’s own nation.
The French are by no means innocent of this; after all, the words ‘liberte, egalite et fraternite’ are etched into the facade of every public building in the country. But at least they have, on paper at least, made a legal commitment to making these ideals a reality. Incidentally, the eagle-eyed amongst you will notice that Brown’s formula of ‘freedom, fairness and responsibility’ is not all that far removed from this. Could it be that his idea of what it means to be British is in fact that most un-British of things….French!?

Any commentator asked to consider aloud what it means to be British will usually be able to elicit a smug chuckle from his audience by smirkingly pointing out that the very exercise of self-examination is ‘un-British’ in itself. In doing so, they seemingly forget that in order to be able to characterise something as ‘un-British’ they must themselves be referring to some bogus national standard of self-restraint. Although it may be neither British nor un-British, the exercise is pointless unless the values elicited have a normative, rather than a purely descriptive function. This means having the political courage to codify a set of progressive aspirations in constitutional and legally enforceable form.

Other than providing a demagogic shortcut between the heart and the head, wrapping one’s values in the Union Jack performs more or less the same function as the Emperor’s new clothes. Rhetorically ‘nationalizing’ progressive ideals gives credence to the erroneous notion that there are no such things as universal values; just culturally-specific quirks of history. Let us aspire to these ideals, let us celebrate them, but let us also ensure that their enjoyment is, in fact, without borders.

Michael P

A French Watergate?
January 25, 2007, 11:50 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I wonder if this will pick up any steam, or if like Clearstream, will be too complicated for most people to follow.

Edward Fitzgerald QC
January 25, 2007, 7:23 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

This is an interview with Edward Fitzgerald QC. Fitzgerald has acted as defence counsel to some of the most notorious and heinous criminals in Britain and the Commonwealth, including Abu Hamza.

For him:

‘the legal process is an attempt to civilise our emotions of revenge.’

Well said.