“To be clear, even an implication of a criticism toward one member of a group does not imply equal condemnation toward any other member, nor does a criticism regarding one aspect of a specific person or idea reflect on all possible affiliations of said person or idea.”
(If I say I don’t like someone’s choice of shoes, it doesn’t mean I don’t like how they slice their cheese, nor that I hate everyone who wears the shoe in question or whether they wear shoes at all.)
If I criticize someone, it is possible that person could be or has been: a veteran, a husband or wife, a conservative or liberal, a fisherman, a politician, a collegiate sports fan, a christian, or a rodeo clown. Criticizing an aspect of someone’s life does not allow the careless reader to expand any such criticism toward all other members of the same group, membership, or interest – or even to stretch it inappropriately to include attributes or issues not even mentioned in context to the criticism.
For example, if I criticize a politician for being dishonest in the context of his policies, nowhere in my criticism is the fact that he is a veteran mentioned. It is immaterial to my argument. I’m not condemning other veterans, either. Likewise, if I point out that a female sports coach needs to focus more on academics, I’m not condemning her or any other woman – I’m discussing er commitment to academics. If a gay man hits my car and I sue him, I’m not suing him because he’s gay, I’m suing him because he was driving blind-folded in reverse, at night, with no headlights.
There are several argument fallacies that apply to this of idiocy:
Argumentum ad hominem, Confirmation bias, Ecological fallacy, Fallacy of quoting out of context, Red herring, Ignoratio elenchi…
No matter how harshly I might criticize someone’s political leanings or policy, someone’s possible status as a veteran is irrelevant, as his attendance at Harvard or the University of Oklahoma. It boggles my mind how stupidly people jump to say that I’m criticizing a person based on a criteria that the person objecting to has erroneously included in his argument.
If you’re going to reframe an argument, at least try to do so properly – or in such a crazy fashion that no one will notice that you’ve pulled a fast one on everyone.
As I’ve aged, I have started to learn that arguing over language or words can be fun, especially if I learn something. One thing I hate about myself if I catch myself doing it, though, is being one of the asshats mentioned in the Slate article linked above.
As Matthew J.X. Malady writes: “Those who use their advanced knowledge to embarrass or humiliate others are the absolute worst. Yet, for whatever reason, language bullies don’t seem to get this, or they don’t care. Either way, they are out there at this very moment, lurking, lying in wait, ready to pounce. (They know you used the word nonplussed improperly the other day, and you will be hearing from them shortly. So prepare to feel dumb.)”
To avoid most encounters with language bullies, all you need to do is to avoid internet forums, comment sections, and similarly anonymous writing. I’ve learned that most language bullies don’t really practice their art directly to one’s face. Some of it is due to the realization that they know they are being asshats and the other part is that being clever in person is devilishly hard to do in real time.
The goal for all of us should be to wait until a language bully emerges and lashes out. At this point, our efforts should be focused toward pointing out the stupidity of their attempt and making them feel as if they are on the defensive. Not because they are right or wrong, but whether they are behaving right or wrong.
It will make language more fun for us all.
Below is a story written by my childhood friend Mike. He wrote it a few years ago and it is one of the best examples of nostalgia short story form that I’ve ever read. Not only because I’m involved, either. I later did a revised version, but this one is the simplest and most direct.
It was the summer of 1981. Reagan was in the White House, Styx was on the radio, and I was about to enter junior high school, about to cross that bridge from elementary school just like the Billy Goats Gruff. The promises of junior high school, with its class changes, personal lockers, real sports teams, and cheerleaders, beckoned like the green grass of the far meadow. The threats of junior high trolls- adolescence, puberty, and ninth graders- were nowhere in sight yet, especially on that hot August day. What was in sight was a financial quandary. I needed twenty dollars to rent a trumpet to participate in band, which was another cool thing about junior high school. A kid could be in a real band with a real instrument making real music, and I’m not talking about one of those plastic flutophone-recorder gadgets from grade school, either. Real instruments.
The only problem, however, was that my mother did not have twenty dollars. I know, because I pestered her until I was sure that she was not withholding the money to keep her house noise-free. She remembered quite well the flutophone days. I had no other prospects lined up, and I certainly didn’t have that sort of cash stashed away anywhere. Things looked bleak to be sure. Then, like a messenger from Heaven above, my dear friend, Bobby, came to my door to announce that my problems were solved. Bobby was a couple of years older and already in band. Bobby did not need the money for instrument rental, however, because he played the French horn. The French horn is a school-owned instrument, with no rental fee required. He told me that we had been offered a job that would pay us each twenty dollars, exactly. All we had to do was mow five acres with a high-wheeled Yazoo mower. Five acres, a push mower, and twenty bucks apiece, I thought. What could go wrong?
Five acres, you say? I exaggerate not. These five acres were on the side of hill, too. I mean really on the side of a hill. I am not telling some “when I was in school we walked to and from in the snow uphill both ways with old men throwing rocks at us” story, either. And if you aren’t familiar with the Yazoo push mower, suffice to say it is probably the heaviest push mower made. Mowing with a Yazoo is like pushing a Chevette. But with visions of financial gain and future trumpet glory, Bobby and I accepted the job.
On the first day of mowing, we arrived at the homestead and got to work right away. Five acres does not mow itself. All day long we mowed, one pushing the Yazoo while the other rested, switching when the first got tired. We mowed. We mowed forever. It was the longest day of mowing that I have ever known. As heavy as the Yazoo was, it seemed to gain weight as it ate each strip of grass. Each strip was hopelessly thin however, and progress was slow. If only the cutting width of the mower matched the length of the machine, then we could have finished in a third of the time. It became dreadfully obvious that the Yazoo, while a fine mower, was not the best choice to push mow five acres with.
Finally, the day was coming to a close as the sun started to lower in the west. We had only succeeded in mowing about half of the five acres. Weary from the day of labor and daunted by another day of the same, we decided to take a break. I couldn’t help think that the builders of the pyramid had it easier than we did. I was willing to bet that the rocks they moved were lighter than the Yazoo we were pushing. We stood exhausted near the top of a steep slope that was near the north end of the property, overlooking a small creek that bordered the estate. We rested comfortably after a hard day’s work, but little did we know that a near-death experience was waiting for me at the bottom of that hill.
I have tried in retrospect to determine just how the discussion between Bobby and me came about, but I can’t remember how or who or when the question of debate arose. I only know that a theory was proposed, either by Bobby or me, that a person could ride on top of the Yazoo mower down the hill, jump off of said Yazoo, and stop the Yazoo from plummeting into the creek below. A part of me believes that I was duped into defending the belief that it could be done. Whether that is true or not can only be answered by Bobby, but he either does not remember or does not want to disclose such a thing. After a time of spirited debate, it became apparent that a real life test was needed to settle the argument and determine a victor in the dispute. As I was the advocate that the feat could be accomplished, I was the obvious candidate for test pilot.
I climbed atop the Yazoo and sat upon the motor. The sweat forming on my brow was not from the heat of the August day. I was internally trying to find a way to bow out of the experiment. Bobby, sensing my second thoughts, quickly challenged me with words that no self-respecting twelve year-old can back down from. My fate was quickly sealed as I gave a gentle push with one foot to get the Yazoo going. As the red mower quickly picked up speed and rocketed down the hill, I learned three things: No other mower would “handle” as well as the Yazoo with the high wheels in the rear, no man in history has ever traveled as fast on a Yazoo push mower as I was, and NO MAN, EVER, could ride the mower to the bottom of the hill, jump off, and keep the Yazoo from flying into the creek.
The mind is capable of great thought in time of approaching peril. I realized quite quickly that I had left out an important factor in my earlier argument. The Yazoo was not mine. And though I knew that I could not stop the Yazoo, I knew I must try. I had a terrifying glimpse of my future in which I would have to mow these same soul-eating acres for the rest of my life to pay for Yazoo. The bottom of the hill rushed at me, precious seconds lost. At the bottom of the hill, I jumped off of the mower, and grabbed for the handle. With speed and grace and skill that I have yet to match in my lifetime, I was able to successfully dismount the machine and grab the handle. Instant joy turned to instant horror as the Yazoo jerked my 115-pound body horizontal to the ground. A bystander viewing the scene at that split second might have marveled at the sight of a flying Yazoo push mower and the airborne young boy trailing quickly after it. Thankfully, I was unable to hold on to the mower, which flew over the six-foot drop into the creek below.
I turned to look at the top of the hill. My former friend was gasping for breath in a silent scream of laughter. I had to make a choice: Return to the top of the hill and beat him to death or save the Yazoo from a watery grave. I decided to kill Bobby later as I slipped down into the creek below. Luckily, the water was only a couple of feet deep. I tried in vain to push the mower up the steep face of the drop-off, but 115-pound boys cannot push Yazoo mowers straight up a cliff of six feet. Bobby had since made his way to the bottom of the hill. The tears streaming down his face were not in sympathy for me, and every time he regained any semblance of composure, a mental replay of the event would start the laughing fit once again. I turned the Yazoo down-stream and waded the mower to a low bank where I was able to get the mower back on the ground it was meant to mow.
The Yazoo would not start. “My God in Heaven,” I thought. “I will have to mow this stupid five acres for the rest of my life: My own personal Purgatory to pay for a push mower.” I quietly pushed the Yazoo up on the porch of the residence. Luckily, the owner was not home, and my mother picked us up minutes later. My wet clothes were explained by a voluntary swim in the creek to cool off from a long day of work. She seemed to buy the story. The story I would have to sell the next day would not be bought as quickly. I had already planned to play dumb as to the reason the Yazoo suddenly didn’t work. “Worked fine yesterday,” I would say, with a stupid twelve year-old look on my face. Bobby, who shared half of the guilt, agreed to stick with the same story. The Yazoo had just died in its sleep, or so we wanted the owner to believe. We thought it might work, as there was not visible damage from the ride. The story was our only chance.
I did not fall asleep easily that night. I practiced my lines until finally the exhaustion caught up with me, and I slept. The ride to the estate the next day was like a slow walk to the principal’s office. The homeowner had already left for the day, so all of my rehearsing would have to wait. Just to go through the motions, we pulled the cord of the mower. In true Yazoo fashion, it started right up and mowing continued, with a joyous and thankful heart I might add. I learned later that a wet spark plug had been to blame. An eternity later, the five acres was finished and twenty dollars each was paid. No mention of the Yazoo land speed record was said to the owner of the land and the mower. Nor was this tale told for many years after. God had saved me from death and debt, just like He usually does. I also learned many other things from the experience, including the toughness of a Yazoo, the importance of thinking things through, and the beauty of the French horn. It’s a school-owned instrument you know.
The following is what I wrote on Amazon, serving as a review of the book:
“…Whether you are a history buff or simply enjoy heart-felt stories, James Huffman has compiled an artfully executed and eloquently-spun book of memories about one of his relatives as she grew up in the Ozarks.
Instead of focusing on arcane details, the author weaves emotion, historical fact and simple language into a written image of what life was like for one little girl growing up in the depression era. Unlike a true biography, the book captures the love and mysteries of her youth without losing any magic by being historically true.
Were someone to attempt a telling of my life, I would hope that the story would be as compelling as this author’s tale.
Even though the book is obviously a labor of love for the author, anyone with an open heart will enjoy this book. As you read this book, you will find yourself imagining that your family would have been lucky to have grown up with a similar story..”
I’ve written a few other people, trying to get attention for the book. Jim published the book in 2011. I’m not sure how it got past me, but it is a gem of a book. It is rare to find anything historically accurate that touches the heart strings. Most books become bogged down by overly-immersing the tale in details. Maybe it is Jim’s academic and pastoral experience that has tempered his writing style.
Get a good cup of coffee and a quiet corner somewhere and read this book. It will make your day better and also probably inspire you to try to be as simply eloquent as possible.
This post will be edited and reposted infrequently, both as a reminder to anyone reading and as a warning to myself. Especially for those of you who might have family, friends, or enemies. (These three categories are often fluid.)
We are all subject to fatigue, brain farts (medical terminology – sorry), inattention, sloppy thinking, etc. Mistakes will happen, words will escape our grasp, and meanings will be implied that weren’t supposed to be.
Sometimes, even when you are willing to write perfectly, you lose the initiative and get lazy. This type of writing often turns out to be the simplest possible method of expressing yourself, but you won’t recognize lazy writing until you start to revise it.
Even the best writers sometimes fail at adequately expressing ideas.
Everything written can and will be taken out of context. And when you least expect it. And in the worst possible way of interpreting it. If you write a few words about why you dislike licorice, your words will be later applied to indicate that you hate small children and drink your own urine.
Sometimes, what we write is used in context and still wrongly interpreted either through the reader’s malice or through lousy writing.
Every reader has active filters, affecting the meaning of words. Not all such filters can be avoided by stellar writing. (A crazy person can pick up your words and falsely believe that you are threatening their lives. An argument to the contrary doesn’t appease the crazy person – it only serves to amplify the belief.)
Continuing to explain an idea after a reader or listener has expressed hostility or less-than-gentlemanly response is a waste of time. You can’t “win” once this occurs. Stop trying.
Being right is an illusion. When you were younger, you falsely believed your ideas and actions to be correct; you aged and discovered that many of your thoughts, actions, and beliefs were probably just dumb. This process is still going on – but you can’t see it. That’s part of the human condition.
Even on a particular subject, people who have studied the subject exclusively their entire lives cannot agree. This is true with hard sciences, and it is doubly true for “soft” or subjective ideas. Someone is wrong – and usually, everyone is wrong to a certain degree, including me. And you, too.
Since everyone knows that I preach that it’s okay to change your mind if you’ve learned something new or experience something honest or new in your life, be prepared for the infinite shelf life of the modern written word. You might have espoused horrible ideas when young and later recognized the error of your ways. However, when you’re 35, don’t be surprised when a self-serving revisionist uses what you once believed as current evidence of your stupidity, vileness, etc. They’ll quote you at your worst possible moment. That you no longer think it will be irrelevant.
Waiting until you are perfectly able to express yourself usually means you’ll never get around to it.
I can’t testify about other people in this regard. However, I personally sit at idle in regards to many ideas. If something isn’t in my field of vision or life, it either lingers in the background or never penetrates my consciousness. That’s a good thing. Having a selective filter keeps me happier.
When I sit down to attempt to discuss or elaborate on my opinions, I find myself going down blind alleys and considering strange alternatives to what I had previously thought. I enjoy that feeling, even if it makes me think that perhaps I’m not as logical as I would have hoped.
Every once and a while, I find myself changing what I believe based on my attempt to write about it. I wonder how often this occurs with other writers.
Before asking “Who is this idiot?” please remember that most people can’t write significantly better than you or me. When you factor in that many funny and insightful people can barely write at all, the issue becomes less important.
I’m no Pat Conroy, nor do I aspire to be. But at least I don’t have ‘blank page syndrome’ like almost everyone I know. It’s easier to say nothing and hope no one notices you in your dusty corner of the world.
Are we afraid that people will ridicule us? Don’t they already? And the ones who are most likely to ridicule are people that are just plain annoying anyway.
Is someone a writer when they are paid to do it? Only when they are paid or when they earn most of their living doing it?
Most people aren’t smarter than you or me, either. They probably are REALLY smart about a subject but this specific education doesn’t translate into unilateral respectability. Everyone seems markedly smarter than us – but it’s not true. I’m still finding out that most people I think are geniuses secretly believe in some crazy stuff like paranormal hauntings, aliens, or religious dogma involving magic underwear, transmutation, etc.
For the record, being well-versed in sports trivia is a mark against you. Sorry, but it’s true.
Start writing blogs or important emails with no intention of polishing or “perfecting” the content.
Get your basic idea across and then stop worrying about filling in the cracks. You are going to be misunderstood anyway. Just like in real life.