Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Billy Beck on Tuscon

When I make my rounds of the blogs, Billy Beck is almost always my first stop. It should be yours, too.

His post on the recent shooting in Tuscon is quoted in its entirety for truth.

So, Sue had written...

"This has always been a violent culture from day one, a little common sense (short supply) and pause a beat before saying something isn't asking too much is it?"

And I told her:

@ Sue: Throughout their history, Americans were the most commonly sensible people in the world. A central problem now is that great and important swathes of the language no longer refer to reality. (This is what language is supposed to do: to raise the cognitive output of the human mind to a perceptual level -- writing or speaking -- for transmission of concepts.)

How and why this has happened is a long story, but it's important to understand two crucial aspects of it:
  1. Although it's been going on for at least a century, this decay was drastically accelerated in the irrationality of the 1960's and its wake. (I am personally convinced that this condition is actually symptomatic of a deeper epistemic problem: the ability to think; to integrate concepts from the sensory material of reality, is disappearing, and the language reflects that. There are also, I think, elements of feedback in this dynamic, in which a decadent language must have certain implications for cognitive proficiency, especially among the young.) 
  2. A general long-run result of all this must be that more and more people just don't know what to say anymore, and don't mean anything when they say anything at all. (Interesting question: how much of a margin is there between those today with that condition of confusion and flat-out psycho-loonsters of the sorts that have existed forever?) When the language is corrupt, then the transmissive and receptive elements of reason itself are destroyed: there is no way to talk to anyone about anything, including matters with direct bearing on life and death.
Violence sublimated in political metaphors has always run through the public conversation in various rivers, nevermind the fact that the nation was born in violent revolution. What you called "common sense" was once, in part, a clear-eyed ability to perceive reality and act up to it. Now, I wasn't the first to mention the Tucson murders in a political context: just exactly that is what's been on nearly everyone's mind when the subject comes up. I will point out, however, that attempting to attribute this monster's behavior to ideology at all is only barely worse than observing the rush to do it. More important: if we're going to talk about the dreadful effects of every sort of hate speech in the political sphere, then I -- for one -- don't mind starting with every sort of metaphorical "war" that some commissariat announces with bloody sickening regularity since (in my lifetime) Johnson's "War on Poverty" and Nixon's "War on Drugs".

Wanna know why?

It's because words mean things, and crazy people think they're taking reality seriously when words don't mean things anymore.

I contend: the most dominant and rising element of irrational force in American culture is government, and more and more people are starting to live down to it.

The spoken language, the written word and mathematics are the most powerful tools mankind has yet invented for understanding the reality around us. Equally important is that the above tools allow mortal humans to transmit that knowledge to others even after death. The discoveries of Isaac Newton in Physics and Mathematics may have been made before but because he wrote them down in the Principia, they became part of a common pool of knowledge future humans could draw on.

They are not, however, magical tools.

I think that, of the three, it is pretty obvious that mathematics best embodies clear and logical thinking. Because of that it can also provides good examples of how a lack of a shared context leads to misunderstanding.

For example if I ask you what is the sum of 360 + 1 you will probably say "361". That is good answer but in a polar coordinate system the answer "1" may be equally correct. If I ask you what is the results of adding 3 to 11 I expect you will say "14". However looking at a clock face, you will (hopefully) see that, in that particular counting system, the answer "2" is also correct.

Circular number systems are very useful in the real world (ask any programmer about the modulo operator) but that fact stresses the importance that each side in a conversation be aware of the underlying assumptions. Obviously it would be a disaster if the architect designing a building used 11 + 3 = 2. It would also not be very pretty if a navigation program returned your longitude as 361° 92' 75".

Clarity is good; vagueness is bad. That is, I think, the thrust of Billy's argument above. When a word is used without a shared meaning in context, the results are unpredictable.

In the case of those who seek power over others, there is a benefit to promoting vagueness. Words are the tools we humans use to communicate ideas to each other. Corrupt the language and you corrupt that process. It would be as if the words and symbols in the Principia were replaced with gibberish before anyone had a chance to read and understand it.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Off topic comments will be deleted. Comments with spelling or grammar errors may be deleted unless they have hoplophobic or statist content in which case they will be highlighted and ridiculed.