Saturday, September 1, 2018

Say what you mean!

Over forty years ago (while attending Dalhousie Law School in Halifax, NS) I regularly dined with a close friend and her family (parents and in-laws). We always anticipated the promulgation from Uncle Stanley: "Very tasty indeed". Nobody pretended to believe him.  But it sounded pleasant.  It was in addition an excusable comment.  The mantra guaranteed the unspoken but collective notion that poor Uncle Stanley had lost it (he was just plain weird).

Apparently we were all guilty of the preference for savvy over substance, politics over position.  Silly Uncle Stanley was at least pardonable - he didn't seem to know any better.  Even if he did know what he was saying (namely, that he was just being polite), nobody condemned him outright because that was all Uncle Stanley ever said. He spent the remainder of the evening mute as a mule (perhaps a politically astute posture but nonetheless mendacious).

Aside from the political value in saying the "right" thing, I have a greater root objection than the obvious offence of pure calculation. Nor by the way is the issue, "What is the right thing?" Rather my partiality is, "Say what you mean".  Unfortunately this seemingly simple assertion is muddled by what people conveniently call principle, a catch-all designed to contaminate the rhetoric with the appearance of acuity. To reinforce the strength of the assertions, principles are often vastly (and mysteriously) enlarged - which while uplifting one's ineffable greatness has little if any improving consequence upon the original deceit. The tortured philosophic and sometimes strangely scientific commitment to principle takes on a life of its own but rarely relates to what if anything one originally meant to say, much less whether one said what one meant. It's the principle that matters (or so the saying goes).

Make no mistake, principle is the resource of the unimaginative. Having principle to rely upon affords a way to authenticate and remove oneself from the fitfully uncomfortable and complicated duty to speak one's mind. This condemnation is not one to be exalted by insisting that it is based upon a manifest epiphany.  The truth is, what you mean to say seldom connects to principle.  Instead our intentions are more frequently prompted and governed by our visceral inclinations - the generic summary of which is humanity (best understood in the same manner we understand what is generally meant by animal instinct). While I readily acknowledge there is a huge difference between being human and being an animal, I don't translate that dichotomy into the unrelated ability to say what you mean.  Specifically I avoid the consolation that principle elevates our intelligence above human nature.

I can imagine that there are those who instantly resile at the possibility of perfection without principle. To assure you that this fear is irrelevant I happen to think that the intuitive preference of mankind is community, agreement and sensibleness - not for example guns, god and money as is alleged to apply to the likes of Mike Pence (possibly the next president of the United States of America after the initial Trump perversion subsides, which it will). I believe in "the divine sonship of every man" (Thomas Paine) or what is less poetically characterized as the fraternity of society. What I don't like is the blind dependence upon formulated principle.  Certainly there can be principles which underscore what one says or means; but it is backward to assume that the thought followed the principle - rather it is the other way around.  This sustains the primary and exclusive importance of saying what one means - we can get to the literary or axiomatic portrayal of the content later, much later.

Having said such compelling things about the importance of humanity, I am equally quick to confess my own humanity which isn't always as pleasant as what Uncle Stanley was saying.  Undeniably the persuasion of base emotions like vengeance, ridicule and arrogance are more entertaining and stimulating than such saccharin promotions as fairness and equality.  In fact those lateral dialogues are probably the only two elements of Natural Law (as opposed to man's law) which maintain any worthiness.  Otherwise the principles which normally support our laws are mainly vehicles for self-interest and advancement. I don't think that regrettable result is either predictable or unavoidable. Even if man's laws are contrived (and for example don't emanate from divine intent) there is no reason those laws cannot be contrived to support social compatibility. The temporary consumption of principles is ultimately unsatisfying; it doesn't really appeal to our fullest appetite (which as I say I consider to be like-mindedness and concord). For those who insist upon the pragmatism or veracity of their principles I can accept that decision - but only insofar as it isn't grounds for defeating the larger goal of community (alignment).

I am not prepared to dismiss the reality of differences which can exist because of the accidents of birth, circumstance, health and opportunity.  But neither am I about to suggest the foundation for those differences has anything whatever to do with principle.  I am for example as easily inflated by a conversation with a well-educated physician as I am with a forthright pauper.  Sometimes principles are but a small complement to the shallow mind; their verisimilitude is frequently a stretch from plausibility.  Better to say what you mean.

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