Archive for the 'Language' Category

Negligibly alive

The other night when I was sitting in my room someone started painting me and my room with a laser pointer, and for a moment I was mildly concerned that I was about to be assassinated, especially since the beam was coming from one of the dorms of those envious bastards across the street at Lesley University. Then of course I realized that I’m not important enough to get taken out, and even if I was I probably wouldn’t be important enough for it to qualify as an assassination, but would just be a simple murder. Which was sort of a bummer, even considering I had just survived an entirely delusory brush with death. I wonder just how important you have to become to qualify as an assassinee. One assumes that there’s some sort of political or religious motive, but I’m pretty sure if someone killed the president intentionally it would qualify no matter what the reason, because he’s a major political figure, but after all holding such a position or the existence of a political reason to be killed are in the end just expressions of the fact that you’re a big deal. It’s like a secret title, perhaps even a silver lining to getting whacked. Now if only we could so crown more heads of state.

What does that mean, exactly?

Shani Davis

After showing the (wildly tape-delayed) footage of Shani Davis winning the 1000m in the Olympics, the bobbleheads on NBC mentioned a couple of times that he was the “first African-American to win an individual gold medal in the Winter Olympics”. Okay, interesting, especially after Bryant Gumbel’s comments, but what does it mean, exactly? As everybody knows, “African-American” is the standard media euphemism for “black”, so I spent a good five minutes trying to figure out if NBC was trying to tell me that Davis is the first black American to win an individual medal or whether they might have actually meant that he was the first black person, regardless of nationality, to win an individual medal (I immediately discounted the possibility that they meant he was the first American of African ancestry, regardless of race, to have won an individual medal; white people from Kenya and Arabs from Egypt never get called African-Americans, even when they are).

When I whipped over to later, I assumed the headlines in the above screencap were the answer to my question: certainly ESPN appears to be claiming he’s the first black person, period, to win individual glory. But the article linked from the “first black” head only talks about black Americans; it makes no mention of other nationalities.

If you believe Knight Ridder, Davis is, in fact, the first black athlete to win individual gold at the Winter Olympics. Which means that NBC, ESPN and various other media outlets we’re sure to hear from in the next few days are so ingrained in their habit of using “African-American” to mean “black” that they are implicitly denying the existence of the hundreds of millions of non-American black people around the world.

One can only imagine that this is exactly what Malcolm X was hoping for when he introduced the term.

Okay, so you won the argument. So what?

Over at Catallarchy, Micha Ghertner discusses “How To Tell You’ve Won An Argument;” namely, when your opponent concedes that his position is less coherent than your own, you’ve won. Now, I don’t want to dispute his point, but rather to question how relevant it is. I’ve touched on this before, but I’m a bit dubious of the notion that the “correct” position is the one that wins arguments between advocates of two different positions.

Obviously, in the first place, there’s nothing to prevent both arguers from being wrong; the relative lack of coherence of one of their positions means, at best, that the other’s position is “less” wrong (assuming that even makes sense and assuming that coherence is a measure of correctness).1 But this is somewhat superficial (and besides, already mentioned and acknowledged in the comments to Ghertner’s post); more importantly, I want to cast doubts upon the parenthetical assumption I made above, that coherence is some sort of infallible metric for measuring correctness/validity.

In fact, Ghertner (perhaps unconsciously) alludes to this very issue when he quotes Wittgenstein’s famous seventh proposition from the Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Within the context of the Tractatus (as an attempt to construct or at least describe a perfect language), this supports the notion that being right and being coherent are synonymous, but Wittgenstein himself later rejects this perspective and, to me, the more apropos quotation is: “Explanations come to an end somewhere” (Philosophical Investigations, I§1). That is, no argument (and certainly none about abstract principles) is completely coherent; we always run up against that whereof we cannot speak and therefore must be silent. The question is simply at what stage in the investigation we enter the realm of unsupported assertion.

And even if we scale back our expectations and choose to embrace the position that manages to maintain coherence as far back as possible, there’s still no guarantee that we’re on the right track. Although much of the world can apparently be explained without the need to stipulate a deity, this doesn’t really make it any less likely that theism is right. In the words of Chuck Klosterman:

Math [or, perhaps more fittingly in this context, logic] is the antireligion, because it splinters the gravity of life’s only imperative equation: Either something is true, or it isn’t.

In fact, if we really want to get all Wittgensteinian about this (not that we necessarily should), we might even begin to question those positions which do appear to be coherent:

In the actual use of expressions we make detours, we go by side roads. We see the straight highway before us, but of course we cannot use it, because it is permanently closed. (PI, I§426)

Anyway, getting back to whatever semblance of a point I was trying to make, when someone admits that their position is incoherent, that does indeed mean that they’ve lost the argument, but I just wonder how important that really is. Giving up your high-paying job and live-in girlfriend to go back home and take care of your sick mother isn’t going to win a lot of arguments if we’re taking logical coherence as the criterion of victory (seriously, think about it), but that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do. That doesn’t mean that coherence is totally irrelevant to what is right/correct, either (and, I should point out, in the above example helping your sick mom isn’t necessarily the right thing to do; as is almost always true, it depends on the circumstances), but let’s not give argument-winning more importance than it merits. Or, as some smarmy new-age intellectual might put it, in the pursuit of knowledge, our goal shouldn’t be to win arguments, but, rather, to discover truth.

1. Since I’m quoting Wittgenstein anyway, I might as well include the relevant quote for this as well:

The law of the excluded middle says here: It must either look like this, or like that. So it really—and this is a truism—says nothing at all, but gives us a picture. And the problem ought now to be: does reality accord with the picture or not? And this picture seems to determine what we have to do, what to look for, and how—but it does not do so, just because we do not know how it is to be applied. Here saying “There is no third possibility” or “But there can’t be a third possibility!”—expresses our inability to turn our eyes away from this picture: a picture which looks as if it must already contain both the problem and its solution, while all the time we feel that it is not so. (PI I§352)