More musings from 2000: Ah, the sweet odour of dried cow dung.*

I think of the sense of smell as being more emotional, more personal than the senses of sight and hearing. I want to say it’s a smaller sense like taste and unlike the senses of sight and hearing, yet it can be a window on so many aspects of the physical world unavailable to sight and hearing.

For instance, I love the smell of pepper and oregano on my pasta and the smell of wood fire on my hands. These are intimate, close smells, but I also love the smell of the ocean as it fills my nostrils to busting with a panoply of pleasant and sometimes less pleasant odours. I love the smell of the forest on a hot summer day, yet I love the close odour of my body, washed and unwashed and the smell of my earwax. Sometimes odours are overwhelming like the smell of urine on a crowded street in Paris or how Kye Bay used to stink of raw sewage before they cleaned it up a few years ago. Sometimes I find odours repugnant like that of vomit yet I find the odour of dried cow dung strangely compelling.

Metaphorically, I love to smell or sniff out clues like a detective when I do research. There is very little more exciting in my work than being on the trail of a bit of an idea or concept that I need to bring together with previously gained bits of knowledge into a whole higher level of understanding.

By the way, I used the concept of exciting in the last paragraph. What is it about excitement that seems to be so compelling to us, or at least to marketers? Why do cars, clothes, scents, detergents, appliances, flooring, and just about everything else have to be so damned exciting? Is there a certain odour that’s produced with excitement that attracts us? Is it an evolved trait or a cultural mechanism used by salespeople to get us to buy things? Should I pursue this line of thinking? It’s really just a smelly little speculation, so probably not. I have bigger fish to fry and smell up my metaphorical kitchen.

*Slightly edited in the name of good taste.

A language you cannot speak.

So, this has been on my mind for some time. I’ve long been interested in the origins of language and especially written language. There was a fascinating program on CBC’s Ideas program recently featuring Geneviève von Petzinger a paleo-anthropologist from the University of Victoria on ancient symbols found in caves dating some 30-40 thousand years ago. This is a taste of her ideas: Ice age symbols. Her research shows that it might be possible that the first modern humans had a form of abstract written communication. If that is so, many hypotheses about the first origins of human written communication are way off.

I’m sure that even at the very beginning of the process of human written communication there was only a small minority of people that could create symbols and probably not many more that could read them. Communications were all on a need-to-know basis. But written communication and literacy were a huge step in human evolution. Now, we all take language and writing for granted.

The invention of the modern computer has created an entirely new kind of exclusive language that is inaccessible to most people. Machine language with its on an off switches is completely incomprehensible to humans unless they have the code that makes all of the sequences of on and off switches mean something. We (humans) can communicate with our machines (computers) via certain interfaces but computers  actually don’t need human intervention to communicate with each other.

Take bar codes for example. The idea of the bar code was conceived of in the late 1940s but it wasn’t fully operationalized until much later. Now they are all over the place. They are used to track packages in transit, control stock and inventories, and contain medical records among many other uses. The machines that read bar codes don’t need human intervention to do so, but humans need an interface technology to know what the machines are doing.

I wonder how long it will be before machines begin to covertly, in the mind hive that is the internet, create their own language, one not accessible to humans at all. This 2 dimensional QR-code is my blog address: http://rogerjgalbert.com. Go ahead, scan it with your phone (you’ll need to download a reader to do that).

blogbarcode

It’s a symbol that computers (including my iPhone) can easily read. I don’t have a clue about what all the lines and squares mean. My computer knows all that. I think it’s akin to the process whereby humans first invented written, symbolic communication. Is this the kind of symbol that computers will use in their own communications devoid of human input? I don’t know, maybe it’s the plot of a new dystopian novel.

Quality and Morality

 

Quality Foods. Quality furniture. Quality trucks. Quality, Quality, Quality. Shite. Robert Persig some time ago wrote a book about quality. It’s called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. As Persig writes, his book has little to do with Zen and not much to do with motorcycle maintenance either. This was a very important book for me as I grappled with certain philosophical concepts in my youth. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the main protagonist goes catatonic after getting caught in his self-made vortex of contradiction around the idea of quality. As a fellow college instructor, I can relate to his descent into catatonia, although I was never able to quite make it all the way to its deepest reaches as Phaedrus (the eventual name of his protagonist) did.

 

The way we use the concept of quality these days drives me a little crazy but I’m not going to go grammar nazi and chastise all the unfortunates among us who constantly misuse the term or simply use it as a synonym for good. These days, quality stands for good. We seem to have lost the ability to qualify quality. Does Quality Foods refer to mediocre quality foods, poor quality foods or high quality foods? Well, that’s a silly question, isn’t it? Of course, the owners of Quality Foods mean it to refer to high quality foods. Any other conclusion would be nonsense. I presume that if we want to point out that a product or service is of poor quality we have to include the adjective ‘poor’ to qualify quality. Quality used by itself now means good. Any reference to any other kind of quality must be qualified with an adjective. Still pisses me off because it’s such a denial of the potential poverty of quality but I guess that’s just the way language evolves.

 

So, now I want to apply the concept of quality to morality. Can we talk about the quality of moral precepts? Can we come up with a hierarchy of moral precepts that go from good to evil or are all moral precepts supposed to be good. What does it mean to be a moral person? To what does ‘morality’ refer? I turn to this last question now, the others I deal with later and in subsequent posts.

 

The dictionary that comes with the Mac operating system defines morality as ‘principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.’ The Miriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary gives a “Simple Definition of morality [as]

  • beliefs about what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior
  • the degree to which something is right and good: the moral goodness or badness of something.”

 

Fair enough. That seems straightforward, but is it? Are we born knowing the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? If you believe that you probably also believe you were born knowing how to speak English. Not likely. Good and bad are social constructs and can only exist socially.

 

Obviously any judgment of behaviour can only be made when more or less discrete behaviours are compared with one another. The concept of morality cannot apply to an individual’s behaviour divorced from its social context. ‘Good’ or ‘bad’ are inherently relative concepts. There are no behaviours that I know of that can be universally and consistently viewed as good or bad. You might argue that killing and rape are universally and always bad. If you did, you’d be wrong. Killing is only bad in certain contexts particularly when it is unsanctioned by the state[1]. In certain cases, such as in military combat, a soldier may be court-martialled for not obeying a direct order to kill an enemy combatant. In many contexts, killing is expected of one, so killing is not a universal bad. In fact, it would be considered morally reprehensible not to kill if it meant putting innocent people in danger. No matter how strongly we may be repulsed by it, rape is also morally ambivalent and in certain contexts is considered a duty. The Bosnian War was the scene of mass rapes perpetrated by combatants who were given direct orders to do so by their commanding officers.[2]

 

In Emile Durkheim’s work, morality is a word that describes how to measure the intensity of our connections to our societies. I add that it’s used to judge the quality of individual behaviour as it aligns with overall social (including sexual), political and economic values. It stands to reason then that in a class based society[3] moral judgments of behaviour will need to be made in a context where, as Marx noted, the ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas.[4]

 

To be continued…

 

Up next, morality and sexuality. I touched on this briefly in my last post, but I want to consider how important moral judgments are around sexuality.

Following that, I want to explore the politics of morality or why poor people are considered to be moral degenerates and made to feel shame and guilt for their situation.

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[1] The ‘state’ is one of those words that elicits controversy. I once did a graduate course decades ago now where the only task we had was to define the state. Not a simple task as it turns out.

[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/bosnia-war-crimes-the-rapes-went-on-day-and-night-robert-fisk-in-mostar-gathers-detailed-evidence-of-1471656.html

[3] I won’t question the popular unquestioning definition of society here. I’ll leave that for a future blog post. Harold Adams Innis is a masterful critic of the conventional definition of society. I wrote my Master’s dissertation on Harold Innis’ work and it’s available on my blog.

[4] Of course, the ruling class is not homogeneous, it evolves over time, gaining and losing power in times and places. Still, there are some basic precepts and expectations of behaviour that we find are fairly ubiquitous in societies where the capitalist mode of production predominates.

No, I’m not a grammar nazi, but damn it!

Alright, I know that language evolves and that contemporary expressions and idioms displace older ways of communicating using language. Still, some words and terms currently in use are just illogical, never mind that they’re not in conformity with the rules of the language.

I know, I know, rules are made to be broken but damn we insist on misusing some words so consistently and wrongly that we need to give our collective heads a shake. 

I want to give you just a few examples of the more egregious misuses of language so that maybe you, at least YOU, will not fall into the pit of folly and ever misuse these words again. 

First, a tenant is someone to whom you rent a house or an apartment. A tenet is a principle, belief or dogma generally held to be true by a group of people, an organization, movement or profession. A tenet of the Catholic faith is the three aspects of God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Get it? The Catholic church may rent out apartments and spaces here and there in which case they would have tenants to go along with their many tenets. The difference between the two words is minimal if you look at the letters involved, but maximal if you consider their meanings.

I’ve experienced professionals, using overhead projectors and powerpoint presentations use tenant when they meant to use tenet. Not cool folks! Don’t do it! Ever!

Here’s another one of my very favourites: storey and story.

You could tell a story to someone while standing on the second storey balcony of your apartment, but don’t get the two mixed up.

Damn, I’ve seen architects use story when they meant to use storey once too often. They should know better. People in general use story when they mean storey all the time. I’ve got some glaring examples, but I don’t want to embarrass the circus in question. 

Data, damn it, is a plural noun. The character on Star Trek should have been called Datum, which is the singular form of data. Now this one is becoming mainstream. People, many of them scientists, even statisticians who really should know better, now commonly use data when they actually mean to use datum, but never the other way around. How often have you heard: “the data tells us blah, blah, blah…” It should be the data tell us. Truth be told, most people don’t even know the word datum exists, but that’s what five years of studying Latin got me. Got that one? Let’s move on to a couple more examples like it.

Media is a plural noun but is generally used as a singular noun.  The singular form of media is, wait for it… medium! Television and radio are communications media. The internet is another medium of communication. Please avoid using the phrase: “the media delivered the news today that it was not interested in how to use the word, medium, not even on the national news.” Well, you can use that phrase, but you get my drift.

Same goes for continua, continuum, agenda and agendum. Yes, I know that the world is changing, blah, blah, blah. It doesn’t mean I have to like it. 

The use of the word quality without qualification drives me crazy. No, you don’t sell quality cars, you either sell high quality, midlin quality or, frankly, poor quality cars. Got that? Stop telling me you sell quality anything. You don’t! Even college administrators get this wrong, some even deliberately!

Read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Persig, for God’s sake. It’s all about quality.

Alright that’s enough. I’ve got a cold and I think ranting helps me clear my sinuses. Thanks for indulging me, but I’ll be back!

By the way, post your own pet peeves when it comes to the misuse of language in response to this, on Facebook, Twitter, or even on here, WordPress.