Sass, Offense, “Does Politeness Beat Truth?”, Criticism, Identity, Respect and 3 hands…

MLR (full name: m. lewis redford), a blog ‘follower’ of mine and most interesting chap, said:  “I have sniffed around here and like the sass of the place. I shall return …”

To which I replied: ”Glad you like what I’m doing here. I’m assuming that ‘sass’ refers to my attitude and style of writing. I started to think about the monicker ‘sass’ and it turned into another vastly expatiated piece, so I have removed it from my little reply.“

This piece is evolving as I write it, so I’ll try to say what I’m on about here, ahead of the actual amble. 

Most of what I write here in my scraplog is provisional in both the obvious sense that I might not have finished writing it, or in that I’m still trying to work out what I think or believe.

I am reminded – not in that grand oratorial way that some commentators have, when discussing a Miliband or a Huhne, of saying “I am reminded of Cicero, who said…”, not like that, but actually reminded by way of something my friend Rory Heap remarked on, making a point – with which I agree – that nothing is ever finished and we therefore should not be too concerned about sharing the unfinished with the reader. (I’m hoping he’ll write it up.) The thing what I was reminded of is my own dear Principle of Provisionality, which I shall write up, here, shortly.

~~~ TBC, TTFN, Monday, January 23, 2012 6:09 PM ~~~

Having my scrapbloggings labelled ‘sass’ was intriguing. On the one hand, I take it as a compliment that I might be quick witted and clever; on another I’m worried about being seen as disrespectful, and on the thinking hand*, I’m really really worried about the decline of ‘Speaking The Truth’ in favour of ‘My Opinion Is Important Because It Is My Opinion And Is Not To Be Challenged’.

(*obscure reference to the 3 handed aliens – ‘Moties’ in the novel ‘The Mote in God’s Eye’ by Niven and Pournelle. Both terrible writers of prose, but superb explorers of ideas as a double act, and superb storytellers. Proper old-fashioned sf, not brass loincloth fantasy or cyberpunk lasers and leather jackets.)

So I find myself again thinking about Ph.Ds and public opinions, and public intellectuals, and offense and science and stuff.

Can I just say, quoting my favourite bumper-sticker (why don’t we have them over here?), a rejoinder to the likes of “I heart Jesus”:

“SCIENCE: THE ONLY RELIGION THAT WORKS EVEN IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE IN IT”

Take that! Ok, here’s what I writ so far, earlier, before realising that this was going to be a biggie…

I guess (an americanism I allow myself on an occasional basis) that my ‘stance’ (if you’ll allow that descriptor) is notable in some way, in our strange times.

Wanting to speak truth, risking offense – notable, perhaps.

Sad if true, and I fear it is.

Strange times, indeed.

Our times are strange for many reasons; here’s one:

WE LIVE IN A WORLD

WHICH PLACES A BIGGER PREMIUM ON

POLITENESS THAN TRUTH.

I find this horrifying and scary.

I caught myself about to type ‘concerning’ which is the meejah word that MPs and journos and ‘experts’ on the radio like to use when they mean ‘worrying’. They like ‘concerning’ because it is not plain english, it is not from the vulgar demotic, quotidian anglo-saxon lineage of our language, rather it is an ugly, weaselly, pretentious, posh, pompous, distancing, latinate abstract polysyllable which can be deployed to indicate – while you are on the radio, at least – the extent to which you give a toss because others expect you to, or you feel that you ought to, ‘professionally’. Not to be confused with actually giving a toss.

A made-up true fact-type example:


She lost her job and was worried about how she was going to feed her family.
-versus-

The minister said that the rise in single-parent unemployment was very concerning.

The c-word is on a roll in our society, being eagerly adopted by a wide range of customer service types (who are increasingly hired to mainly tell lies on behalf of their employer), to avoid committing actual empathy while appearing to care deeply – as in “We at Dinoburger find it very concerning that one of our customers found a dead mouse in one of our Velociburgers. We pride ourselves on….”

So, horrifying and scary.
Not just worrying.
Not just (pah!) ‘concerning’.
Horrifying and scary.

Speaking the truth used to be valued. Free speech used to be valued. The potential for offending someone was judged to be balanced by the potential enlightenment (as in The Enlightenment) to be gained. A risk-benefit analysis.

I have had some critics over the years – I have been accused of offensiveness in my communications from time to time. Certainly I have annoyed several folk.

Is annoyance the same as hurt feelings? just asking…

I want to emphasise, here and now, that every time I learned that someone’s feelings were hurt, every time, I was cut to the quick. The very last thing I was trying to do, wanting to do, the very last thing I wanted to do was to hurt people’s feelings. I hate doing that. I hate seeing the hurt on their faces. 

(when I can see their faces – most of the time we can only imagine their faces in front of their computers)

Maybe I’m just inept. Maybe it is possible to talk about things without causing someone offence. Maybe I don’t have the skills to discuss without offending. Maybe. As you will guess, I don’t believe that.

I value discussion/debate/dialogue/truth-seeking, explorations, possibilities, the other hand, the other points of view, all that, more than I value hurt feelings.

I fear that this makes me, increasingly, a bad person in the eyes of many.

I fervently wish that this were not so; and I will, in mitigation, say only this: I do not seek, when I speak, to offend.

And if I do offend, I do not do it unnecessarily. I do not seek to hurt the feelings of listeners.

So, after that word from our sponsors (that’s me)

I repeat: speaking the truth used to be valued.

Free speech used to be valued. The potential for offending someone was judged to be balanced by the potential enlightenment (as in The Enlightenment) to be gained. A risk-benefit analysis. 

Yet now we have the inviolable freedom to believe any old rubbish (like MMR causes autism), with dire consequences for ‘society’ (back in fashion, apparently). In the case of MMR, a dangerous reduction in ‘herd immunity’ (googlit) to childhood illnesses. Protecting YOUR child from autism comes at a price – OUR children get ill.

From wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MMR_vaccine_controversy#Impact_on_society

“Refusing to vaccinate a child is dangerous not just for that child but for entire communities. //
He then related some of the human impact caused by the 2008 measles outbreak in San Diego //

“A child whose parents refused to vaccinate him traveled to Europe and brought home the measles. That family exposed 839 people, resulting in 11 additional cases of measles. One child too young to be vaccinated had to be hospitalized. Forty-eight children too young to be vaccinated had to be quarantined….”

Remember ‘our children’? They’re the ones that aren’t  important as ‘your children’. When you say’ we must protect our children’, you usually mean your children. 

There’s a real, savage, LordoftheFlies-mental ‘tragedy of the commons’ here, driven by the same individualism that values my stupid opinions above proper science. Science, remember? The only religion that works even if you don’t believe in it?

(Tragedy of the commons from Wikipedia:
”The tragedy of the commons is a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen. This dilemma was described in an influential article titled “The Tragedy of the Commons”, written by ecologist Garrett Hardin and first published in the journal Science in 1968.”
Thanks, Wiki, I hadn’t realised it was said only in 1968 (an interesting year) I expected it to be from Victorian times – some patrician like Wallace or Huxley.

OK back to sass, and boldness and cheek and disrespect and truth and Voltaire-ianly defended rights. 

(There’s a whole piece to be written about truth and science and research and Ph.Ds and politics and opinion and offense, but I’m not going to attempt it here….)

‘Sass’ – a quick etymologoogle:
Possessing the attitude of someone endowed with an ungodly amount of cool. 
(Urban Dictionary)
That I like!
butt….
Rude and disrespectful; impudent.
2. Lively and spirited; jaunty.
3. Stylish; chic: a sassy little hat.
[Alteration of saucy.]
Random House Webster’s College Dictionary
1. (adj.) sassy 
impudent; fresh:
a sassy child.
2. sassy 
boldly smart; jaunty:
a sassy outfit.
Etymology: (1830–35,
Definition of ‘sassy’ Princeton’s WordNet
1. (adj) fresh, impertinent, impudent, overbold, smart, saucy, sassy, wise 
improperly forward or bold
”don’t be fresh with me”; “impertinent of a child to lecture a grownup”; “an impudent boy given to insulting strangers”; “Don’t get wise with me!”
then I found this: http://www.princessfreezone.com/pfz-blog/2011/8/31/dont-ever-call-me-sassy.html

A lovely little discussion of the way that ‘sassy’, in the context of the junk thrown at young girls by retailers – t-shirts and dolls, and suchlike, actually means something combining tarty with cheeky. As a fully-grown white man from the North of England, I do not think this particular subsidiary cloud of meaning can readily be appliqued upon my polo shirt.

So…
So far, I’m getting cheeky (when applied to kids) and bold (when applied to clothing). Both are aspects of bold, though, are they not? The child who is observed to be bold will often be judged to be cheeky by a disapproving adult.

There is a linguistic phenomenon one sees from time to time, in which perjoratives applied to children, become positives when applied to young women; sassy is a perfect example. A lovely example of embedded sexism in society: if you are an attractive young woman, you are given permission to be cheeky, but woe betide you if you want to be taken seriously in a proper job like, butcher, baker, candlestick-maker, teacher, lawyer, cop.

I’m not sure what grown men are supposed to be. Stoic? Certainly not sassy. Oops.

Here’s another definition, ‘from the interweb’:
Sassy describes someone or something that is lively, bold and a little feisty. (adjective)
An example of sassy is a quick witted, clever girl.
YourDictionary Definitions. Copyright © 2012 by LoveToKnow Corp.

So MLR, it looks like you are extending its usage to include grown men. The meaning twists and turns in this context, and for me, the senses of ‘quick-witted, clever … lively, bold and a little feisty“. come to the fore.

Then I found these views on Yahoo Answers:

  • there is sort of a slang definition that hasn’t been added to the dictionary yet meaning aggressive or rude but in a cool or cute way, but it’s actual meaning is just disrespectful
- Talking back to, usually an authority figure, especially parents by a child.
- One who talks back in an arrogant manner.

Hmmm. If we extend ‘sass’ to a grown man, then are we implying that he is being disrespectful?

I suppose I am disrespectful to many types of people in public life. I do not respect MPs just because they are MPs; some I respect for their actions or views, others I similarly abhor. I do not automatically respect people with Ph.Ds: in many walks of life, I find that wisdom is more likely to reside in an articulate thinking practitioner of an occupation than it is in the holder of a Ph.D in the study of that occupation. (Perhaps I am finding, as I finks abart it, that I am making a distinction in my thinking between kinds of Ph.Ds: we have the purely scientific Ph.Ds, like nuclear physics or biology, versus the upstart soft sciences like sociology, now joined by that unholy child of the university expansion – the academic study of an occupation. Yes, I conclude, I do respect a proper Ph.D. in nuclear physics more than one in sociology.)

Am I coming up against the manners of the prevailing times again? Probably. Respecting other people’s rights to say stuff they believe, being more valued than respect for the truth? I fear we all doomed.

I’l close for now with this: 

That’s Offensive!: Criticism, Identity, Respect (Hardback)
(ISBN 10: 1906497796 / ISBN 13: 9781906497798 )
Stefan Collini

 “That’s Offensive!” examines the common assertion that to criticize someone else’s deeply held ideas or beliefs is inherently offensive. This idea, Stefan Collini argues, is unfortunately reinforced by two of the central requirements of an enlightened global politics: treating all people with equal respect and trying to avoid words or deeds that compound existing social disadvantages. In this powerfully argued book, Collini identifies a confused form of relativism and a well-meaning condescension at the heart of such attitudes. Instead, Collini suggests that one of the most profound ways to show our respect for other people is by treating them as capable of engaging in reasoned argument and thus as equals in intellect and humanity. Collini’s ideas are timely and controversial, addressing deep issues about identity and human agency. His maxims – do not be so afraid of giving offense that you allow bad arguments to pass as though they were good ones, and do not allow your concern for the disadvantaged to exempt their beliefs from the kind of rational scrutiny to which your own must also be subjected – provide solid guiding principles for dialogue in our world today.”

Let’s repeat his maxims: 

• do not be so afraid of giving offense that you allow bad arguments to pass as though they were good ones
• do not allow your concern for the disadvantaged to exempt their beliefs from the kind of rational scrutiny to which your own must also be subjected.

Is that sass? I hope so.
 

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