Caring for Words, VI: The Internet

December 30th, 2017

I’m hardly the first to write an internet post to warn about the downside of the internet. For the record, the irony is duly noted. The internet is not intrinsically bad. Developers of any newly available technology understandably emphasize its benefits. “This,” we are told, “is a tool to do something desirable,” even if we hadn’t previously noticed that particular desire. When, with use, downsides are discovered, we are often reminded that tools are morally neutral – it all depends on how and to what end they are used. Such reassurances, however, obscure the moral complexity of any technology that makes some actions easier – and more likely – than others. When obstetricians started using ultrasound technology in the 1960s, no one predicted the effect it would have on male:female birth ratios in Asia.

With all the benefits digital connectivity brings, I know from experience what a time drain the internet can be, with some attractive new diversion always a click away. The parallels to other addictions are manifest. I know the ways my use of search engines and social media makes me an unpaid worker for Facebook and Google. I know that otherwise courteous people post or text personal attacks they wouldn’t dream of saying face-to-face. I know internet comment boxes are where reason and civility go to die. I know how text abbreviations and emojis make it easier to write unimaginative or just plain bad sentences. I know frequent internet use makes me a poorer reader. I know all of this, but I have yet to learn how to use this technology without falling into its traps. I have reason to believe I’m not alone. Read the rest of this entry »

Caring for Words, V: Orwell or Huxley?

December 29th, 2017


The term “Orwellian” is used often enough, usually with some sense of dictatorial or centralized social control maintained through propaganda, misinformation, and language restriction, augmented by ubiquitous surveillance and brutal punishment of nonconformers. “Orwellian,” like “Nazi,” is commonly employed to indicate social conditions not only indisputably bad, but as bad as they can get. Americans, in particular, are forever wary of limits on expression, though often with some reservations about expression of content they disagree with. “Don’t tell me what to say or do,” we say in unison, and assure ourselves in the same words – but with no hint of irony: “I think for myself.”


Yet what if social control is more readily achieved – indeed, has to some degree already been achieved – not by telling people what to say or do, but by giving the masses what they want? What happens to the practices of attention required for careful reading in a world of infinite distraction? Is a common narrative possible when there are two hundred cable channels, a news source for every wavelength in the political spectrum, and an unlimited array of websites to choose from? What sense of history remains when all our electronically mediated stories are refracted through the lens of current prejudices? What if George Orwell wrote a more influential novel, but Aldous Huxley was more prescient? Read the rest of this entry »

Caring for Words, IV: Politics

December 28th, 2017

The power of language can be directed toward many ends. One of these ends is yet another form of power: political control. In egregious cases, language is openly manipulated, degraded, and deformed. Politically-motivated language distortion, however, is rarely so transparent. More often, ugly realities are carefully obscured through strategic abstraction, while the indefensible is excused with distracting rhetorical flourishes. Many who’ve seen combat know all too well what the mind must do to rationalize killing another person. How often do we read or hear of lifelong racists who maintain cordial relations with one or two individuals of color? Political operatives can tell you how a well-chosen label frames an issue to their advantage. These sicken language in indirect and subtle ways, less likely to provoke resistance. Here’s the rub: the critical skills necessary for the “informed citizen” to tell rhetoric from reality depend on the language’s robust health. Read the rest of this entry »

Caring for Words, III: Worse than a Lie?

December 27th, 2017

To call contemporary political discourse “a culture of lies” may be giving politicians, promoters, and pundits too much credit. When words, whether by choice or convention, are detached from shared experience or verifiable reality, speech devolves into amusing games and struggles for power. Wisdom yields to sophistry, knowledge to opinion, arguments prefer ad hominem to evidence. In this environment, to knowingly lie becomes, in a strange, inverted way, a moral achievement. Read the rest of this entry »

Caring for Words, II: Quantum Uncertainty

December 26th, 2017

Words, like quantum particles, will not be pinned down. However meticulously you fix them in the arc of a sentence, they quiver and jump the moment you turn away. They’re fickle and unruly even when you care what – and how – they mean. It’s this quantum uncertainty that makes metaphor at once surprising and fitting, as long as one maintains, in the words of Wendell Berry, “…a humorous intelligence, always mindful of the exact limits in within which the comparison is meaningful.”[1] Those who imagine they can make a word mean whatever they choose, thinking it will caper to a tune like a trained monkey, are wounding the language and undermining their audience’s trust. However strange it may seem, for some that’s precisely the goal. Read the rest of this entry »

Caring for Words, I: Words Themselves

December 25th, 2017

Καὶ ὁ Λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν
The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:14)

Christmas, 2017, a celebration of “the Word made flesh,” arrives even as the degradation of our discourse – the way we talk to one another – accelerates. With the currency of “fake news,” “post truth,” “alternative facts,” and contemptuous labels like “snowflake,” and “conspiritard,” it’s been a bad year for American English.

Though the crisis is most apparent in what now passes for political discourse, it’s not the fault of one man, one party, or one ideology, but the logical consequence of choices and habits over many years, some of which seemed perfectly reasonable at the time, that rapidly evacuated precious words of meaning, beat others to airy thinness, and discarded still others as obsolete. Sickened words form diseased sentences, and what thoughts they sustain become stunted, shallow, or helplessly sentimental. If an unchanging language is dead, a language that openly trades in lies, jargon, and euphemisms suffers from metastatic cancer.

Words have always mattered, have always been slippery, have always been potent, and so they have always been dangerous, particularly in the mouths and pens of those amassing power. This is not the first time words have been so abused, nor will it be the last. Perhaps they are always abused, sometimes more conspicuously than others. For these twelve days of Christmas (December 25, 2017- January 6, 2018), I plan to share the observations of better writers than I on the misuse of words and how we might better care for them. Read the rest of this entry »

My Life With Dogs

August 2nd, 2017

                                                                                                                           

I read the following post at the Glen Workshop, on August 1, 2017. The essay originally appeared in the Good Letters blog associated with IMAGE magazine in June, 2010, under the title, “The Mutt and Me.”  “Jaeger,” the dog mentioned below, died unexpectedly in February of this year. He has been succeeded by “Samson,” (see photo) yet another mutt, who is slowly learning to curb his puppy energy and mischief, but my wife and I still miss the big galoot who preceded him. 

Humanity is readily divisible into two groups: those who divide humanity into groups and those who don’t. The wise—even those among the dividers—learn to hold their tongue among the former. More than matters of taste, the position one takes in intractable arguments reveals something of one’s interior life. Realist or Nominalist, PC or Mac, Whitman or Dickinson—such disputations are endless, fascinating, and deeply personal.

When it comes to the debate over cats and dogs, some humans fight like…humans. Many of us living in our planet’s rich and leisurely North have some stake in the matter, preferring one or the other species, though some don’t care, some can’t abide either, and others truly love both.

Here’s my confession: I’m a dog person. Read the rest of this entry »

Here Comes Everybody

June 27th, 2017

“And here comes everybody-
The closet renegades
The weary, hungry soldiers
From the children’s lost crusade
Here comes the restitution
We’d all but given up
This evening we’re content believing
That love will be enough”

  • Joe Henry, “Love is Enough”

 

I can’t say whether James Joyce had, as some people claim, the Catholic Church in mind when he spun the phrase, “Here Comes Everybody,’’ in Finnegan’s Wake. You’d have to ask Joe Henry what he meant when he used it in a song on his luminous CD, Civilians. I know this – it gets to the heart of last weekend’s conference at Notre Dame: “Trying to Say ‘God’: Re-enchanting the Catholic Literary Imagination.” Latino bishops and queer poets, Jesuit astronomers and everyday mystics, recovering alcoholics and college deans, all gathered in auditoriums, classrooms, and hallways, their conversations pulsing with creativity and generosity. Oh, yes – and love, too – the kind that changes lives. What better time and place to out yourself as a wretched Papist in a world that insists you keep such things to yourself.

 

Thanks upon thanks to Jessica Mesman Griffith, Jonathan Ryan, and Ken Garcia for planning and pulling off a first-time, unqualified success of a conference.

 

Some personal highlights:

 

Talking to Brother Guy Conosolmago, Director of the Vatican Observatory, about “big-idea” science fiction and the unaccountable explanatory power of mathematics in a mysterious universe. Read the rest of this entry »

A Poem by Malcolm Guite

January 31st, 2017

 

My friend (and master of the sonnet form), Malcolm Guite, published the collection in which this poem appears in 2012. Inhospitality to strangers is nothing new. It may help to remember that “xenos,” the Greek word from which English derives “xenophobia,” and “hospes,” the Latin word from which it derives “hospitality,””hospital, and “hospitable,” can mean, in their respective languages, “stranger,””guest,” and “host.” They derive, in turn, from the Indo-European root, “ghos-ti,” “someone with whom one has reciprocal duties of hospitality.” Whether the United States welcomes strangers or not is a matter of policy that has varied wildly over its history. Jews and Christians (and Muslims, though I speak of Islam with far less knowledge) have a religious duty to welcome the stranger. I am frequently reminded by others that “religious”” reasoning has no place in “secular” decision-making. Given the currently accepted constructs of “the religious” and “the secular,” that’s likely to be true. Reinhold Niebuhr, Barack Obama’s “favorite philosopher” and “favorite theologian,” came to see society as so tainted with sin that the nation-state could not and should not live by Christian ethics. Again, that may very well be true. Christians, however, must reckon with Matthew 5 through 7 and Matthew 25:31-46. “Xenophobia,” it turns out, is not so much fear of the stranger as it is fear of being the host. I trust we shall be judged accordingly.

Christ the King

Mathew 25: 31-46

Our King is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,
Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: ‘I am thirsty’.
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.
And if he should fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King.

Splinters of Light We Choose Not to See

December 5th, 2016
Sun light spectrum reflection on the wall

Sun light spectrum reflection on the wall

I am an interested follower of US politics, and though I occasionally make provisional judgments on certain issues, I hope I’m not partisan in any conventional sense. The narrow and one-dimensional liberal-conservative spectrum so dominant in US political discourse oversimplifies and distorts what we know of reality, as if one could understand everything about electromagnetism by acknowledging no more than the tiny spectrum of light visible to human eyes. In the long, lamentable story of US relations with indigenous peoples, however, there’s more than enough bad behavior to encompass the liberal-conservative spectrum and beyond. It might be good to recall some splintered fragments of that history. Read the rest of this entry »