Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Problem With “No Problem”

French marketplace

I believe that the spoken forms of courtesy are the grease that lets our creaky social machinery, as well as our badly joined—as in a cabinet whose drawers and hinges aren’t quite aligned—personal senses of self-respect and shared obligation, function within tolerable limits. Speaking those little, objectless sentence fragments like “please” and “thank you,” as our mothers taught us, is what keeps us all from screaming, leaping, and tearing at each other’s throats.

In the same way, those almost pointless physical courtesies, like making eye contact with the people you just met, to show that you are both an interesting person and willing to communicate in depth, or offering your empty hand, to show that it doesn’t hide a weapon—or, in some cultures, offering a short bow, to expose your neck as a sign of trust—are all ways that we signal not just our common humanity and a benign spirit but also our willingness to take risks in meeting strangers and new acquaintances halfway.

Almost all such polite phrases in common usage are archaic forms, spoken relics with the sharp edges and the grammatical functions worn off.

“Please,” for example, is a much-shortened form of “may it please you.” That is, with the thought fully spoken: “Do this for me only if it would give you pleasure to accommodate my request.” You see an echo of this in the French form: “s’il vous plait,” or literally “if it pleases you.” The French verb plaisir, which has its root in the Latin placere, means not just being pleasant but also enjoying or finding satisfaction. This is a fairly gracious way of thinking and acting. This little verbal elision says, “I know that you have freedom of action and can make choices in how you do things. My request is probably going to be a burden on you in some fashion, and I don’t want to cause you any trouble. So consider complying only if it would give you pleasure or satisfaction.”

In modern usage, at least in American society, “please” has become some sort of code word for an intended enhancement, like adding “really” or “very” to a descriptive adjective. The word “please” has acquired the effect of saying, “I’m serious about this.” So, from someone trapped in a locked room: “Let me out! Please let me out!” This goes back to the childhood escalation of entreaty: please, followed by pretty please, and ending pretty please with sugar on top.

In the formula “may it please you,” the verb is in the subjunctive mood. This is an element of grammar that almost nobody teaches anymore, which means that students may have a hard time recognizing and using it, although it still sticks in the ear and in the mind, and it represents something we all more or less understand.

We all learn about the three basic tenses in English: past (something happened), present (something is happening), and future (something will happen). But these tenses also have their completed or perfect and their uncompleted, progressive, or imperfect forms: the perfect implies something that happened once and is now over and done, while the imperfect implies something that has happened before and may still be happening and recurring. In addition, we can work the changes of past, present, and future as verb forms from the viewpoint of one of the non-present tenses. You can use English to indicate something that happened in the past from the viewpoint of the past tense itself—such as, “I had gone to the store”—or something that is in the past from the perspective of the future tense—“I will have gone to the store.”

All of these tenses—which you learn in depth when you study the grammar of English root languages like Latin and Greek—are in the indicative mood, which deals with actions that really did, do, or will occur. But English and most other languages also have the subjunctive mood, describing what we hope or expect but are not certain will occur, or an occurrence about which we want to express some doubt. “May it please you,” in the example above, is a wish that honoring the request will be pleasing to you, not a statement that the request will automatically be pleasing. In the same way, when a person says, “God bless you,” it is not a statement of fact, that God actually does bless you, or a command in the imperative mood, “God, bless this person” (which is on the same plane as “Dog, sit!”). Instead, we are saying “[May] God bless you”—which is a hope, a wish, and an offering of benediction that the well-wisher is not in a position to grant him- or herself but that is for the Supreme Being to provide.1

When we say “Thank you,” things are a little more straightforward. Here the elision is simple, just dropping off the subject of a complete sentence: “I thank you.” No subjunctive need apply: you are offering actual thanks, an acknowledgement of a benefit received, and perhaps an obligation to return the favor in the future. This is that bit where we graciously entertain a risk: we are saying that we do accept the obligation to one day respond in kind. As adult individuals able to stand on our own two feet, we are shy about receiving gifts and favors. The usual word is “gratis,” meaning “free,” which goes back to the Latin gratia, meaning favor or kindness. To receive a favor or a free gift puts one in a lowered position, because only children, servants, and slaves expect to receive something for nothing. So we express thanks, with the implied obligation to return the favor, which puts us back in a position of social equality with the giver.

The response of the giver used to be, in American and in most English-speaking societies, “You are welcome.” This phrase has its roots in the words of a householder or host greeting visitors: “You are well come,” meaning it is good that you have come; your arrival is appreciated; and by extension, my house and my hospitality are at your disposal. You can see the sense of this in the opening song by the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret: “Willkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome! Fremder, étranger, stranger. Glücklich zu sehen. Je suis enchanté. Happy to see you. Bleibe, reste, stay.” That is, to tell a person thanking you that they are welcome is to return and thereby nullify the obligation. “No, this was mine to give, and no obligation is created.” This is a pleasantly gracious turn of phrase.

But more and more in American usage I hear—and receive for my spoken thanks—the phrase, “No problem.” The underlying message here is quite different: “Providing this gift or favor, or doing this service for you, did not inconvenience me. Serving you has not been a problem for me.” Perhaps, if we want to be kind, we can interpret the message as: “I recognize that I am here to serve you. That is my purpose—and therefore not troubling to me.” But still, there is a reversal of message and a diminishment of intent here. Not “I grant you freely without obligation, as a host offering hospitality,” but “Your implied demand for service has not inconvenienced me.” Or “Your being in a position to receive a favor—as a small child or servant—might have inconvenienced me, but I want to let you know that it didn’t and I reject the notion that I had any obligation to give you a gift or provide you a service in the first place.”

Thank you and You’re welcome are a yin-yang pairing, the simultaneous creation and removal of a feeling of obligation, engendered by an originating act of kindness. The reply of No problem denies the intention that original act. In this way, it feels like a rejection of politeness rather than an expression of it. Perhaps I’m being over-sensitive, but to hear “No problem” when I try to thank someone leaves a faint taste of disdain in my mouth and in my mind.2

1. The clue that a speaker is using the subjunctive is a verb conjugation would normally sound and feel wrong. For example, the third person (he, she, it) conjugation of please is “pleases,” as in “It pleases me to see you.” But “If it please you” leaves the matter in some doubt or to be hoped. Similarly, when you see “helping” verbs like “may,” “would,” or “should,” you are often dealing with the subjunctive.

2. But cultural tastes differ. In two languages and cultures that are widely separated by geography and affinity, the Spanish use “De nada” and the Russian “Nichevo” to say the same overt thing as the English phrase “You’re welcome.” Both the Spanish and the Russian translate as “It’s nothing”—as does the French “Pas de quoi”—which is pretty close in semantic content to “No problem.” But I still find the English “You’re welcome” more gracious.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

When Wars Will End

Chinese women marching
Terra cotta soldiers

When I was growing up, I remember a tee shirt with the motto: “Be Reasonable, Do It My Way.” As with most such shirts, the intention was to be amusingly ironic. But I find it amazing that many people, especially in the realms of politics and economics today, actually think like this. No, not that they would ever voice this motto, because formulating this thought aloud in words would show them how fatuous is this idea compliant control. But still, it lurks there in the back of their minds: “I’m right, you’re wrong, we’ll all get along when you just shut up, listen to me, and obey.”

For the person who unconsciously subscribes to this tee-shirt motto—or who can look at it, read it aloud, and still fail to find the irony—the people around them must be something other than real, live, self-actuating, independent, and strong-minded human beings. Maybe the subscribers believe they are surrounded by a species of fleshy ghosts, or puppets, stick figures, and imaginary characters, like those in a book or play. For the subscribers, other human beings may have faces and voices, but their thoughts, their reactions, and the words that come out of their mouths are somehow unrelated to reality. For the people who believe Their Way is the Only Way, the intentions, opinions, aspirations, and desires of other people are simply unimportant, fictitious, or wrong—on the order of “You can’t really believe that, can you?”

We live in a world of varied opinions. Freedom of thought and action is not just an abstract idea, to be written somewhere on a dusty parchment and forgotten when convenient. The human ability to approach ideas, propositions, and profound beliefs as intellectual objects, to dissect them, to weigh the evidence for and against each side, to reach a conclusion, and then act on it … this is all a function of each human being’s having a unique brain inside a physically separate body. Perhaps all protozoans exhibit common reactions to their environment, based strictly on their genetic code and the interactions of their internal proteins. Perhaps all fish, frogs, and reptiles are predictable in their behaviors, based on the primitive structures of their vertebrate hindbrains. But when you get into the class Mammalia, where the brain starts developing different lobes and functions, learns from its environment, and can overcome its reactions, all bets are off and groupthink becomes a relic of the distant past. Even dogs have different personalities and operate with their own senses and ideas.

Yes, there have been societies with monolithic social and political structures: Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Maoist China, and North Korea under the Kim regime. We are all familiar with their rallies and parades, with row after row of soldiers marching in step, usually followed by military vehicles which, lately, are towing intercontinental missiles.1 You can look at the newsreels and the pictures and think that everyone in these societies must think the same: ants with jackboots and armbands. But note also that every one of these societies has an active bureau of secret police and—somewhere out in the country, away from the cities—a growing population of political dissidents in labor camps.

So, the people who march in step and who stand out in the sunshine with their arms raised—that is, the members of these societies who don’t go into the labor camps—do they all really think alike? Are the mottos of the national party and the image and words of the dear leader really engraved on their hearts? While it’s not possible—not yet, thank God—to open a person’s skull and examine his or her brain from the outside to see the content of its innermost thoughts, I believe that even there we would find a diverse mix of ideas, intentions, and reactions. Some people actually believe the party mottos and the leader’s words because they have heard the arguments, weighed them to the best of their abilities, and agree with them. Some believe because the arguments are easy to understand and affirm, and the person—for a variety of reasons—doesn’t think or care much about politics or economics, or the greater questions to which political and economic thought applies. Some believe that by saying the words and mimicking belief in them they can be part of the larger thing that is moving through their lives whether they want it or not. Some smaller fraction of this group believes that if they say the words loudly enough and show other signs of commitment and support they can get ahead in their job or their living situation—that they can climb on the back of the beast, ride it, and perhaps one day even be allowed to take the reins. And others believe that the beast is here, is a fact of life whether they want it or not, and the course of greatest safety for themselves and their family is to pretend to show it their support.

Even in the heads of the jackbooted soldiers marching down the street—aside from immediate concerns about missing a step, scuffing the shine on their boots, or being caught with their uniform in some other kind of disorder—you would find this diversity of beliefs and expectations.

Even in the social dimensions where belief is the basis of a group of people coming together in the first place, you will find that they all have different ideas and opinions. From the simple words of a carpenter and later a rabbi who lived two thousand years ago, how many varieties of Christianity have spawned, encountered schisms, and split over issues like the nature of the godhead, the nature of sin and right and wrong, the meaning of the words as they are written in the texts, and even the substantial nature of bread and wine? Even a supposedly monolithic religion like Islam, which adheres to the words of a single man exactly as they were written down from his lips, has split into factions over the rights of his successors, the importance and interpretation of certain passages above others, and the proper form of obedience. Even the simple and direct message of the Buddha has generated two versions of the proper way to observe and follow it, plus cultural variations in every land that has adopted Buddhism. Religions like Christianity and Islam will often act or react in a monolithic fashion when expanding into new territories or confronting outside opposition, but all the while their adherents are thinking, interpreting, adopting, and preparing to set up another sect or create a new schism.

People cannot help but have different ideas. In every land, in every generation, the restless human mind examines, interprets, adapts, and sometimes discards the thoughts and beliefs, patterns and traditions that wash across groups of people like the waves in an ocean. In reality, most people cannot hold a single belief or thought in their heads for all of their lives. Most groups larger than an extended family or small tribe cannot remain cohesive for longer than a generation—and some not even until the next election.

Whether a person believes in and cares deeply for a political or economic proposition or tradition; or follows it only because mother, father, or a teacher once voiced it and the person him- or herself really doesn’t care; or follows it because his or her neighbors are suspicious, will whisper among themselves, and will one day turn the person into the secret police … various societies tend to build up standing waves of belief and tradition that in turn will engender consolidated political and economic actions. Societies in this state of temporary conformity, at the crest of the passing wave, will sometimes try to spread their rigid social, political, or economic order to other groups and countries. And then, in an excess of enthusiasm, war will break out, soldiers will be enlisted for fighting and killing instead of just marching, and human beings will endure the results in terror and misery.

When will the world come together in harmony? When will the various religious sects recognize that their functional similarities outweigh their doctrinal differences and join together in uniformity? When will all of the Earth’s nations agree on a single political or economic principle and a social order that is not tainted by the interpretations and cultural characteristics of one group or another? When will they put off their differences and give up their quarrels? When will the wars end?

Only when we can put off our restless human mind, stop thinking and examining the propositions of everyday life, and become something more like fleshy ghosts or stick figures than active, thinking human beings … That is, never.

1. I find it telling that the Western democracies, which allow wide latitude for political and religious dissent, don’t hold these monolithic rallies and military parades. When was the last time you saw members of the military services marching in lockstep down Pennsylvania Avenue? Not on the Fourth of July: our national parades are a time for high-school marching bands, costumed dance troupes, veterans groups, and balloons. The active-duty military only come together and march in step to honor a fallen president.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Sense of Honor

Puppet master

I’ve been reading disturbing stories on social media about honor violations at this nation’s military service academies like West Point and Annapolis. Evidently—and there is much controversy on both sides as to how much of this is true—standards are eroding and cadets are becoming less observant, both of their own actions and those of others. For the record, the honor code states: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” This is verbatim from the Virginia Military Institute. Other academies’ codes are similarly simple and direct. The penalty for any violation is an honor hearing usually followed, if the infraction is proved, by expulsion.

Having a code of conduct at school is nothing new nor particular to military academies. Most institutions of higher learning have codes, more usually involving academic honesty and issues like falsifying research data, sharing test answers, and plagiarizing the work of others. But “lie, cheat, or steal” covers those nicely, too. The intention is that anyone who passes out of the institution’s gates with either a military commission or an academic degree is presumed to reflect the institution’s traditions and values. The person is not just in possession of new knowledge that he or she did not have before, but the graduate has also acquired a sense of responsibility, as well as an understanding of and loyalty to certain patterns of thinking and acting. He or she can be trusted in the wider world to function in a particular way in relation to others. A complete education is not just about knowledge but also about core beliefs and accepted attitudes and obligations.

This is an old-fashioned idea about what education does for both the individual and society. And it calls into question the modern substitutes for traditional brick-and-mortar university learning that are now available through online teaching resources like the Khan Academy. I am all in favor of competition—especially the kind that can be offered easily, cheaply, and without the expenses associated with printing textbooks, physically traveling to remote locations, and finding room and board there. Competition like this opens educational opportunities for more people. But I also question whether a person sitting on his or her sofa, reading HTML texts, watching prepared videos, listening to online lectures, and passing online tests, will acquire the sense of academic community, identification with a particular way of being and presenting oneself, and adherence to institutional ideals that attendance away from home in a college or university environment can provide.

And perhaps my reservations no longer matter. If a university or military academy education has stopped being a life-changing experience, intended to mold the individual’s character, and has now become just another expensive commodity, like a Mercedes-Benz or an address in the upper East Fifties, then the old assumptions no longer apply. If the quest for a university education is now totally commercial, with the goal of receiving a piece of faux-parchment signifying validation of one’s academic success, no matter whether obtained through honest study or by fraudulent shortcuts, then the modern student might as well skip the tedious classroom discussions and sit at home in front of a computer screen, soaking up and regurgitating knowledge and then receiving a convenient Diplomate® app for easy display on his or her smartphone. Then the only thing he or she will really miss is four to six years of binge drinking and hookup sex.

The whole point of an honor code, especially in our military service academies, is that we expect our future military officers—and the educated technocrats from other universities, who will eventually run our society—to be special people. We expect them to have all the fluff and laziness, the willingness to succumb to temptation, and the selfishness of thinking about their personal goals, their precious careers, and their own skins ahead of the lives and safety of others and their duty to the nation—to have all of that ground out of them. We expect them to be fearless in facing hard facts and making hard choices. We expect them to be the sort of people that others can look up to, obey, and perhaps die at their command. Without this kind of moral training, this sense of honor, the graduates who become commissioned officers or trained professionals are just ordinary people—and perhaps cowards and thugs—who happen to have a special set of skills.

Honor is an old-fashioned idea. It seems quaintly 19th-century today. And it has been under attack for most of the 20th century.

In my terms, a sense of honor is nothing less than the codification of the superego—also known as the “parent” in Transactional Analysis—provided that this inner voice has been properly prepared and firmly established by the person’s mother, father, teacher, priest, coach, and perhaps his or her drill sergeant. In my family, with strong parents on both sides, we heard a lot of “That’s not the way we do things,” “That was a bad choice,” “Don’t be selfish,” “Don’t be small,” and similar admonishments spoken directly into our faces. If a child does not get such a thorough grounding in moral issues and proper choices by the time he or she reaches puberty, then rules that come later in life—even simple ones like “Do not lie, cheat, or steal”—will have little effect. The sense of personal honor, of obligation to something larger and more important than self—and hence “super” ego—will simply not exist within the adult’s mind. Either that, or it will exist but only as an abstraction, an intellectual curiosity, like quantum mechanics, and not something personally relevant and vital to his or her situation.

In traditional Western civilization, men have been ingrained with a sense of honor along the lines of “Do not lie, cheat, or steal,” combined with admonishments to be strong, to protect the weak, to have a firm purpose concerning our jobs and careers, to provide a good home to our families, and to be good citizens. Men are expected—were expected—to become brave soldiers, honest workers, and loyal companions.

Women, on the other hand, have traditionally had a separate sense of honor bound to their role as mothers and the founders of families. A woman’s honor has traditionally been completely physical, centered in her virginity. A woman might lie, cheat, and even steal—in fact, she was often expected to cultivate a certain artfully deceptive nature—but she was expected to defend the space between her legs, reserving it and her sexual favors only for authorized males. And that authority was always defined by other males—father, brother, husband—except in the singular instance that she might choose one man to love and cherish (and presumably obey) for the rest of her life, and tra-la-la. This was the traditional way a society that places great store in family relationships and transfer of property through inheritance tries to keep bloodlines “pure” and avoid giving favors and estates to the products of casual bastardy.

Now that women are taking a more active role in the greater society outside the home and attaining positions of authority, power, and respect, we have to widen the notion of female honor as well. We must expect women to become the same kind of brave soldiers, honest workers, and loyal companions that we require of men. A sense of honor is now a universal human requirement, not reserved to any gender roles.

Unfortunately, the trend in modern society has been moving away from any sense of honor at all. I saw this during my university days in the late ’60s, when I started meeting self-avowed hippies. The hippy lifestyle is based on doing what feels good rather than doing what feels right and appropriate. Smoke a joint, take hard drugs, get drunk, get laid, tune in, drop out—it’s all about personal gratification. That, and not being so awkward and gauche as to call other people’s values and actions into question. People with a sense of honor, with the built-in stop code that makes them think about the consequences of getting stoned or laid, were—and still are—considered “uptight,” “square,” and “rigid.” That is, unhip, uncool, and unpleasant.

A society of careless hedonists, who have no internal moral compass more sophisticated than “It feels good, so do it,” is easier to lead and control. You can sway them with cheap amusements and petty freedoms. And when you turn your back on them, they will sink down in a kind of beatific stupor rather than rising up in arms. Careless hedonists have no grit or gumption—old-fashioned words!—no expectations or goals beyond the next moment, and no sense of self that might wake up and say “No, not here,” “That’s wrong,” and “I won’t do that.”

A sense of honor is considered unfashionable these days, and so is optional. Is it any wonder then that our universities and other institutions, even our military service academies, are willing to let it erode? Is it any wonder that notions of honor and duty are fading into the past?

Or have they merely gone underground, among those of us who remember, waiting for a better day?

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Sensitivity as Vulnerability

Puppet master

When I was a child, my parents were relatively strict. They brooked little in the way of nonsense—and no sass—from me and my brother. They taught us how to be sober, industrious, capable adults. They wanted us to be strong, not so that we could terrorize the neighborhood or gain unfair advantage over our fellow men, but because life is unpredictable and sometimes hard, and you never know when you will need strength, will power, and sober attention to survive it. And they did all this without preaching or ever using words like “sober,” “capable,” or “strong.” They operated instead through setting examples and by turning common experiences into life lessons.

In our household, weakness and disability were not failings to be ashamed of but limitations to be overcome. If we were not strong in some area, then practice in order to become strong at it or find a way to compensate for the weakness. If we ever should have a disabling condition, then then we would compensate it, fix it, or cope with it in silence. If we made a mistake, then admit the error, try to correct it, and move on. Apologize as necessary, but only from a position of confidence and personal strength. As people with good standing in the community, a good education and proper upbringing, and access to family resources, we were supposed to be among those on whom others could count for assistance in emergencies or call for help in time of need.

The family ethos was to pay our way, do our duty, support the local community and the broader civilization, and stand on our own two legs. That was what it meant to be an adult in the larger world. We didn’t impose on anyone. We asked for no special favors. But we also kept what belonged to us and took care of it. And we didn’t back down from doing what was fair and right, either for ourselves and family or for others in our circle and our community.

But now I sense a change in the culture around me. It seems that people these days act—or are expected to act—as if disability and weakness were sources of strength and pride. They have become a sign that the community, the culture, the world owes you special consideration if not a bounty and some financial compensation. Maybe the world does owe you that, especially in particular cases like a civil suit, breach of contract, or class action, but my father would have suggested you’re a fool to expect that anyone else is actually going to pay it. Count the money after it’s in your hand.

The current culture also seems to suggest that a bristling sensitivity to personal sleights, to acts of disrespect based on gender, race, or ethnicity, and to loss of face or character in any situation should be appropriate to a well-balanced adult. And that these damages to the spirit must be redressed as a form of social justice and should carry the same weight as physical injury or damages to health and property. My mother would have called this attitude “wearing your heart on your sleeve” and suggested that this is not a survival trait.

For one thing, being overly sensitive and ready to take offense puts you in the crosshairs of the world’s bullies, road-ragers, and careless or thoughtless people. Your sensitivity makes you vulnerable to the hurts that life is all too ready to dish out, and it will require you—if you are consistent and conscientious in your approach to the world—to be constantly on the verge of taking offense and then being forced to take action. In the way that I was brought up, this is too much like work. Far better to develop a thick skin, ignore the offense—but mark the offender for future reference as someone to distrust or avoid—and then go on about the business that is important to you.

For another thing, wearing your hurts, your desires, and other aspects of your personal self so openly seems … insecure. In my family, what a person really thinks and feels, desires and needs, likes and dislikes are all matters for discussion only with other family members and intimate friends. An adult, a well-balanced individual with business to attend to, wears a personal face for that inner circle and a public face for everyone else. To expose those hurts and desires to the world at large is to give potentially unfriendly forces too much information. Your enemies—or those with an interest in becoming such—will know how to practice on you. The situations that can make you register offense or psychological hurt are usually related to your own insecurities and your inner sense of weakness or inadequacy. Why would you want to show the world at large any other persona than that of a self-sufficient, responsible, capable, balanced adult, someone with unknown access to personal and physical resources, and with unguessable limits as to your patience, tolerance, and goodwill, or to your capacity for animosity and rage?

Asking others to give you their pity and support and suggesting that they must act carefully and walk in circles around you to avoid giving you offense is a bad strategy. It is asking too much of the world. Living your life on those terms is putting yourself and your weaknesses at the center of others’ concern. That’s a nice situation, if you can get it. But the reality—as any well trained and well brought up child would know—is that you are just not that important. Not to the world. Not to the public space beyond your family and your intimate circle. And perhaps not even to them.1

To believe otherwise is conducive to neither spiritual nor physical strength. It is, in my view—and in the view of my parents and the generation they represented—a sign of weakness and vulnerability. What the world, that public space, and most of your family and friends expect from you as an adult is strength, capability, patience, persistence, and the ability to cope.

1. Unless, of course, you are the actual Prince of Wales and not the pauper Dauphin-in-hiding.