“Well written and an interesting perspective.” Clan Rossi --- “Your article is too good about Japanese business pushing nuclear power.” Consulting Group --- “Thank you for the article. It was quite useful for me to wrap up things quickly and effectively.” Taylor Johnson, Credit Union Lobby Management --- “Great information! I love your blog! You always post interesting things!” Jonathan N.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Entitlement to Exceptionalism

John Blake of CNN asks, “Have you ‘walked the aisle’ to ‘pray the prayer?’ Did you ever ‘name and claim’ something and, after getting it, announce, ‘I’m highly blessed and favored?’ . . . If this is you, some Christian pastors and scholars have some bad news: You may not know what you’re talking about. They say that many contemporary Christians have become pious parrots. They constantly repeat Christian phrases that they don’t understand or distort.”

For example, some Christians refer to “the rapture” without realizing that it is out of sync with historical Christian theology before 1850. According to Marcus Borg, a theologian, “People who speak Christian aren’t just mangling religious terminology, he says. They’re also inventing counterfeit Christian terms such as “the rapture” as if they were a part of essential church teaching. The rapture, a phrase used to describe the sudden transport of true Christians to heaven while the rest of humanity is left behind to suffer, actually contradicts historic Christian teaching, Borg says. ‘The rapture is a recent invention. Nobody had thought of what is now known as the rapture until about 1850,’” Borg says. Representing something as “a part of essential church teaching” without knowing what one is talking about evinces the “I can’t be wrong” attitude that typically goes along with ignorance in modern society.

For someone to say, “I name and claim this house as mine" is really just a desire to possess it; the expression "name and claim" is simply a subterfuge for greed (a basic desire for more).  Accordingly, the prosperity gospel facilitates, or enables, greed, rather than constraining it. According to Blake, prosperity Christians, who believe that God rewards true belief with material wealth, “don’t say ‘I want that new Mercedes.’ They say they are going to ‘believe for a new Mercedes.’ They don’t say ‘I want a promotion.’ They say I ‘name and claim’ a promotion.” However, it is impious in a religious sense to claim anything, not to mention something as profane as a job promotion. Moreover, the “claim” evinces a certain presumption to having true belief and furthermore that God the Omnipotent is constrained by the positive correlation between a certain belief and material riches. That is, besides providing a subterfuge for greed, the nonsensical phraseology represents an over-reaching by mere mortals in religious terms. Religion here functions as a lever dispensing coins.

Unfortunately, the practice of using words beyond their meaning or even incorrectly—essentially making a fool of oneself without realizing it because one thinks one can’t be wrong—pervades modern society. In business parlance, for example, some practitioners try to manipulate by urging others to “win the future.” Now, what exactly would a future lost look like? Does it even make sense? I suppose it would have to mean death, for a future lost is no future at all, and this to a human being is death. In fact, the daily grind in business is continuous rather than having a definite end-point in the future, as in a game of basketball. To refer to business managers therefore as “champions” and to urge them to “win success” mangles an already-overstretched sports analogy.

To join in and banter something about that does not make sense makes one quite the fool, even if one is doing so simply to fit in. For instance, just because other business practitioners talk of “growing” their business (or, God forbid, “growing success”) does not mean that what applies in one sense to living organisms and in another to an entire economy (e.g. "economic growth") is something one's business "does." One does not grow a business. This represents an incorrect use of the verb. Furthermore, economic growth does not mean that profits grow; rather, net income increases. Engaging in verbal slippage, wherein a word is used extrinsic to its meanings, only makes one look stupid.

Typically, an ulterior motive is the culprit behind the disregard, or lack of respect, for how a society delimits the possible meanings of words in the interest of communication. The intentional lapse is akin to historical revisionism. In both cases, selfishness is combined with disrespect for society as a whole. Too bad if you don't understand how I'm using a word; even if it's not in your dictionary, you need to adjust because I'm going to use the word as I please. To go on and broadcast one’s ignorance in a commercial goes beyond stupidity to present one's greed and desire for self-promotion without any hint of shame. Unfortunately, such promotion of even a nonsensical use of a word or phrase, such as "winning success," can result in a multiplier effect wherein pretty soon everyone is applying it to anything even in spite of the vacuous meaning. In other words, the word itself loses its definitive meaning because it is being applied as a empty form indiscriminately. However, just because people agree to treat "winning success" as substantive does not mean that the phrase has any meaning. We can all agree and behave as though the emperor is wearing clothes when he is quite naked. Similarly, treating nonsense as though it had meaning does not in itself proffer any substance.

Even in everyday sayings, insipid or banal expressions can catch on like wild fire. For example, it is common to ask someone, “How is your day going?”—as if the day was yours (i.e., as if the day belonged to the person). It simply does not make sense. “How is the day going for you?” would be better. Unfortunately, a herd, once on the march, does not verve from its well-worn path. As still another example, waiters and waitresses typically ask their customers during the meal, “Are you still working on that?” When I hear that while I am eating, I am tempted to reply, “No, but I am still eating it.” Does one “work on” food like one works on a project?  I think this particular practice is merely carelessness combined with a habit of repetition and small talk. The extent (and limitation) of jargon can itself be off-putting (as evincing a certain fakeness).

Using words or phrases that one does not understand is contemptible enough; the herd-animal mentality that accompanies speaking as though chewing cud is downright unseemly. In other words, the sheer repetition of the phrases—as if the speaker is simply lazy or unwilling even to “mix it up a bit”—is disturbing. Add to this the word-game element, such as in saying “let’s win the future” in order to manipulate others to work harder (i.e., the ulterior motive), and a hidden agenda is evident. Deliberately misusing words in order to manipulate is odious. Of course, the managerial race might reply that it is marketing: snazzy little slogans that don’t make sense. However, it could be asked whether looking stupid detracts from a marketing campaign.

By way of explanation, I suspect that the claim involved is the key. That is, the distorted or nonsensical phrases are manifestations of excess democracy whereby everyone feels entitled to use words differently and thus in a new sense. In feeling entitled to create a new definition for a favored word, we presume that the current usage does not pertain to us, and, furthermore, that others are obliged to recognize our own construction. Consider, for example, how socialism came to “grow” a new meaning in 2010 at odds with its actual meaning. The new, politically convenient meaning essentially was stolen from “government regulation,” but this didn’t matter to those who felt entitled to make the switch. Such entitlement extends even to using expressions that do not even make any sense.

It is the entitlement wherein use itself justifies, independent of whether there is any meaning. It might be a bit like playing God in the sense of being creators. Ficino, a priest who lived in the fifteenth century, argued that by virtue of having a soul, we human beings are creators, or gods, on earth because we are able to mold its resources for our use. There is a certain arrogance involved in viewing ourselves as gods on earth, even as being able to create new meanings for words at odds with their extant meanings and even with making sense! In spite of creating nonsense (creation ex nihilo in reverse?), the self-anointed creators tend to get annoyed when their "right" to create even nonsense is not recognized. Indeed, they presume that the extant meaning is obliged to defend itself—as if somehow the new meaning (or lack thereof portrayed in terms of meaning) were de facto the default simply in being created ex nihilo.

Here is a project: try correcting a nonsensical or incorrect expression and watch the resentment ensue. You are presumed at fault for pointing it out by the very person who has overstepped. Even a vacuous meaning simply continues unabated, oblivious to having been flagged and uncovered. In the United States, for example, people having earned one degree in law or medicine somehow think they have doctorates in those academic disciplines simply because they have made a lateral move after receiving a first degree in another school/discipline (the lateral move having a political rather than an academic underpinning). For the record, a doctorate must be a terminal degree (i.e., the highest degree possible for a given academic discipline—e.g., the J.S.D. in law and the D.Sci. M in medicine, for which respectively the LLB/JD and MD are prerequisite, hence they are not terminal!), contain a comprehensive exam (prior to graduation, hence by professors rather than an industry board) and a dissertation of substantial original research (i.e., not a senior thesis in medicine). Even in spite of an over-reaching, unquestioned entitlement on the basis of an undergraduate program in law or medical school (i.e., two years of survey courses followed by senior seminars—not even including a major, unlike the B.S. and B.A.), the self-vaunting professional is apt to presume that he or she cannot be wrong. Survey courses—there's a clue, Sherlock. In fact, the "professional" is even apt to resent being corrected (being so used to being looked up to) instead of being ashamed for having erroneously claimed to have earned something. This mentality, I’m afraid, may be part of modernity in general and perhaps American culture in particular.

Error itself may even be presumed to have a certain right to (an over-reaching) hegemony over truth in an epoch wherein higher education is typically reduced to vocation. Critical thinking is incorrectly thought to be superior to analytical and synthetic thinking because what matters is decision-making and problem-solving. How eclipses why. We cannot be wrong about this, or anything else, for we are all above average—all entitled to recreate society’s artifacts (and even religion) in our own personal images. Ultimately, reality itself becomes a screen filled with the projections of ourselves. At work, we are all professionals. We presume that we are in the club. Some customers are “members.” Meanwhile, as per our own presumed entitlement to presumption, no one is watching the distended, or bloated, store. To borrow from Nietzsche, no one is watching the herd but the herd itself, which is in actuality wandering as though in blindness before the dawn. Certain herd animals, wanting so to dominate the herd, have relegated the cowboys by nonsensical utterances, which to the men on horses sound like garbled cud being spewed by imbeciles not worth rounding up—not tasty enough, being so full of themselves.

John Blake, “Do You Speak Christian?” CNN, July 31, 2011. http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/07/31/do-you-speak-christian/?hpt=hp_c2