Charleston and Billings

The day of the big vote came and, as an intern, I was assigned the task of checking off delegates' names after they had voted.

This was a Baptist gathering — the biennial convention of the convention — so the vote was largely symbolic. Baptists don't have a formal hierarchy. We don't really even have "denominations" per se. But Baptist churches are loosely organized in conventions where we work out the ways we cooperate on collective efforts like the commissioning of missionaries or the electing of officers for our pension boards or getting bulk discounts on hymnals and flannelgraphs.

We also vote on "statements of concern." These are public statements, but they're not binding on congregations or on the individuals who are members of those congregations. Their only real force is to say that on this day, in this place, X number of Baptists gathered and said Y with one voice.

But to say that something is symbolic is not to say that it is meaningless. Nonbinding, symbolic resolutions can mean a great deal — particularly if what they're resolving is to condemn who you are as a person.

This particular biennial gathering was abuzz over one especially controversial "statement of concern" on homosexuality. It called on Baptists to reject "the homosexual lifestyle, homosexual marriage, ordination of homosexual clergy or establishment of 'gay churches' or 'gay caucuses.'"

It also served, like most religious fights around this matter, as a proxy war over how and why we read the Bible. Proponents were pushing this statement, hard, as yet one more way to assert that the Bible is infallible — by which they meant, necessarily, that their interpretive scheme and the interpretations it produced were infallible.

I didn't agree with the way they were insisting the Bible must be read. Nor did I like their apparent willingness to treat gay people as nothing more than proxy pawns and cannon fodder for their culture war. The proponents said they were standing up for truth and righteousness, but they just seemed mean.

That meanness revealed itself further among the various speakers who rose in support of this resolution. Their short speeches tended to expand on the implicit fears and mythologies hinted at in the euphemistic statement itself. Those code phrases like "homosexual lifestyle" were unmasked further in all their ugliness.

The debate had the air of a witch hunt. I wanted to be elsewhere. I wanted to say something, but it wasn't my place or my role there to speak and I wouldn't have known what to say anyway.

So the day of the big vote I made an armband with a pink triangle on it and tied it to my sleeve. No one asked me what it meant, and I'm not sure how I would have answered if they had. I went about my intern business, making copies and distributing folders as the final debate on the resolution proceeded and no one said anything to me about it all day.

Well, almost no one. Coming back from lunch, I held open the door to the Charleston, W.Va., convention center for a group of delegates walking behind me. One woman smiled and started to say thank you, then suddenly puckered up into a scowl and just sort of grunted before pointedly walking to the other set of doors. By that point I'd forgotten I was even wearing the armband and it took me a moment to figure out what I'd done to offend her.

The conclusion of the debate was depressing and the vote itself even more so. I dutifully sat at a table off to the side, crossing off names as the delegates cast their votes and then, as soon as  it was over, I ducked away to a back room where some of the other staff were awaiting the final tally.

"So what's the deal with the armband?" one of the execs asked me.

I tried to tell him. I talked about the occupation of Denmark during World War II, and how the king helped to protect the Jews of that country by donning the yellow star himself and urging all his people to do so too. (I didn't realize then that this story was just a legend — one which, as Snopes describes it, is "not true in its specifics" but "true enough in spirit.")

"So you wore that to show people that you think you're the king of Denmark?"

"No, I just … I thought I should …" I gave up and took it off and sat there, silently, until word came that they were posting the results of the vote on the big whiteboard in the hall.

A large crowd was gathered in a semicircular mob as the woman in charge of tracking such things wrote the final tally on the board: 1,124 yes; 539 no; 46 abstentions.

It wasn't even close. The anti-gay resolution had passed by a more than 2-to-1 margin. Meanness won. Maybe it was just symbolic, but it didn't symbolize anything good or anything I could feel proud to be a part of.

I just stood there, staring at the board as the crowd began to disperse — two thirds of them celebrating their latest culture-war victory, the other third looking sad.

"You took it off."

I realized someone was talking to me and turned to the old man. "The armband you were wearing," he said. He looked very tired. "You took it off."

I nodded.

"I just wanted to say thank you. That meant a lot."

"Oh …" And before I could think of anything to add to that he smiled a sad smile and walked off.

Symbolic, but not meaningless. But not adequate, either. Whatever it was I was trying to do didn't work mainly because, unlike the righteous Danes of that legend, I was trying to do it alone.

A few years after that Baptist gathering in Charleston, we got to see how this is done properly.

Billings, Mont., got hit with a wave of hate crimes — racist and anti-Semitic graffiti, vandalism and bomb-threats directed at a local synagogue. This was during Hanukkah, and windows were broken in houses displaying the menorah.

So volunteers painted over graffiti. They printed up thousands of paper menorahs and almost everybody put them up in their windows.

And then they did this beautiful, beautiful thing:


The closer you look at that picture, the cooler it gets. Symbolic and not just meaningful, but power-ful.

This ad hoc response eventually formed into a movement of sorts called Not In Our Town.

The original Billings group is still active, and there's a national organization too, which I've linked to in the sidebar via the picture of the minaret and crescent moon, because this time it's not menorahs. (I originally posted that photo-link under the name of the group, "Not In Our Town," but then I worried that it looked like the opposite of what I was trying to convey there.)

I added that link because, just now in America, the lessons and example of Not In Our Town seem particularly important.

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  • hapax

    Okay, back from dinner — stuffed chicken breasts and MadGastronomer’s roasted Brussels sprouts, for the record — and more on the Topic that Interests Nobody but Me.
    Back to your first argument:
    1. Medieval Catholicism was not effectively providing a big tent, either because the credal tent was too small or because people who were already in the tent were still getting declared “Not-Us” and persecuted.
    I think that “too small” is kind of hard to argue. I mean, it looks pretty big *to me* because I’ve read a lot of wild and wacky doctrinal stuff that was seriously argued without “persecution” (people *disagreed* with it, sure, but Fox News to the contrary, people not agreeing me =/= persecution), not to mention the pretty wide range of practices acceptable under canon law — really, you can find support in Gratian (the principal compilation of medieval canons) for doing darn near ANYTHING, if you look hard enough. The veneer of Catholic orthodoxy and orthopraxis was wafer-thin (and I mean that in a literal sense!) for most of Europe during the early and high medieval period.
    But yeah, that’s from an insider perspective. I can say “you can teach anything you like about the relations of the Persons of the Godhead as long as you can somehow cram it into the paradox of the Trinity” and it looks pretty broad to ME; on the other hand, if your arguing from the perspective of, say, an atheist materialist, it’s all angels dancing on the head of a pin. So that’s a YMMV type of discussion, that I don’t think can be resolved.
    As far as people in the tent being declared “Not-Us” and being persecuted, and your citation of the Inquisition …. well, the medieval Inquisition didn’t work like that. It really didn’t.
    You can make a good case that the Spanish Inquisition did work very much like that, but that was much later, and pretty much in direct opposition to the canons governing the system. There were specific cultural and political reasons for the way the Spanish Inquisition worked, but there isn’t any justification for it. It was horrible, and inexcusable, and it’s probably inevitable that the earlier Inquisition is going to be looked at in it’s light.
    But the medieval Inquisition worked more like… oh, a very very rough analogy would be like the grand jury system. There wasn’t an Inquisitorial office in every diocese trying to ferret out hidden cases of Bad Thinking and Practice, just itching to turn Us into Them.
    Rather, the way it usually worked is that there would be a civil disturbance of some sort, and the crime (and it was a civil crime) of heresy or schism would be made before the secular authorities; these would usually declare themselves of investigating the facts of such a case, and call in the Inquisition (or more properly, inquisitions, since they were generally one-off investigations under the direction of the local bishop.)
    Now, like a modern grand jury (which has been famously described as willing to indict a ham sandwich if the prosecutor wants to), I’m not saying that these inquisitions were particularly fair or unbiased. And — like some modern prosecutors — civil authorities and bishops in alliance with civil authorities frequently abused inquisitorial tribunals for political and corrupt ends (the shocking land grab of the Aquitaine by the French king and his allied bishops being a particularly egregious case).
    But if you read the records of the actual inquisitorial investigations (and they kept meticulous records, which are surprisingly well preserved), it is difficult to come away with the impression of the Church build[ing] a pretty small tent to begin with then [saying] to a bunch of the people in the tent “You’re hogging all the juice, so we’re kicking you out.
    Instead, the inquisitors seemed almost desperate to find any pretext to say “Yah, you believe some pretty wacky things, but you’re really Catholic, right? Right?” Minor penances (wearing special clothing, saying certain prayers, etc.) were routinely handed out, and just as routinely ignored, for both the great and small fish caught up in the these tribunals, provided that they could find some way to incorporate the accused “inside the tent.”
    About the only way to get the harsh punishments (and yes, they were cruel and vicious and despicable) was to proclaim yourself outside. There were plenty of good reasons to do so, of course; we’ve both alluded to the hypocrisy and and corruption rampant in the medieval church.
    But in most cases, being included was explicitly seen as the desirable outcome, and implicitly seen as the norm. Just about the only way to get “kicked out” was to kick yourself out, in so many words.
    This is getting too long, so I’ll look at Galileo (who is an interesting case, although pretty far past the period I was talking about) in another post.

  • Spearmint

    I don’t think of them as esoteric terms, because I use them all the time, and I don’t want to sound condescending by explaining them. Obviously I erred on the wrong side of the line.
    I don’t think you did, honestly. Pius, you know I love you, but… you’re on the internet. In a verbal debate before a lay audience it would be different, but in this context, I don’t think you have to worry too much about preemptively defining terms of art unless you happen to be K. Chen and your version of “terms of art” includes the entire English language.
    I don’t think that you’ve provided evidence to back up #2, because the “Mughals and Moors” were Muslims, and I argued way back in my first post that Islam was *more* effective than Christianity in this topic, in that its “creed and canons” equivalent (the Shahada and the Five Pillars) were even simpler and more “objective” and unambiguous.
    Sorry; I was really unclear there. If we’re talking about tolerance in a general sense then I think our unit of comparison has to be the whole community- medieval European Christendom, in other words, rather than just Catholicism, or the Soviet Union rather than just the Bolsheviks, or what have you. Otherwise trying to determine group boundaries degenerates into Xeno’s paradox and the comparisons potentially become ridiculous- every belief system has subsects; do the Franciscans count as a different church than the Dominicans, or do Catholics get to be one “group” because they all answer to the pope, but your local synagogue is also one “group” because the rabbi doesn’t technically have a superior? Then the Catholics are going to look really diverse just because they’re vastly bigger, and scale is going to totally distort the comparison.
    So I think the question needs to be structured as “Does being dominated by a credal religion as opposed to a non-credal religion make a society more tolerant?” On the whole, medieval Catholics set the boundary of society at “You have to be a Catholic,” which puts them behind the Moors or the Mughals right out of the post, since they were willing to some extent to let non-Muslims be part of society. (I’m actually not sure how they would have felt about Muslims of the wrong sect- it’s quite possible that despite the broadness of the Five Pillars they would have been less tolerant of Muslim heterodoxy than medieval Catholics would have been of Christian heterodoxy.)
    And the Mongols and Romans had no interest in converting people at all, so long as Roman subjects were willing to be polite to the Roman pantheon. So on that axis they win the pluralism prize, although not so much on the “Letting people not from our ethnic group have actual political power” axis.
    That’s another reason I think we have to make our units of comparison societies rather than churches- the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches are without historical analog in their federal structure. Ancient religions and Eastern religions simply aren’t structured that way- you don’t get empires dominated by the cult of a single god that expect everyone to switch to that cult. Diaspora Judaism was totally diffuse, and Islam had the Caliphate but they’ve always been pretty half-assed about it; they seem to operate on a consensus about a few main points of faith rather than an actual hierarchy.
    And there was not any sort of internal investigation and purging for not being “Real True Romans”
    Well, the Jews, but there was consensus about their lack of RTRness, and even then they got purged less because they were insufficiently Roman and more because they were a giant pain in the ass. The Romans had community norms too, they were just “Shut up and be subjugated already” rather than “Believe X, Y and Z.”
    I’ll address those in a bit, when I no longer have three people, a dog and a bird all simultaneously yelling for their dinner.
    That takes priority, I think. XD

  • hapax

    Okay, last (I promise!) on this, unless somebody asks for clarification (which is entirely probable, since I do lapse all too often into technical language or allusions when I talk about this stuff)
    I’m not arguing against it because I think you think it was okay to kill Galileo as long as the real motivation wasn’t heresy, I’m arguing against it because I think you think it means the Galileo trial isn’t relevant to your thesis. Whereas I think if the Church can kill someone they dislike on a pretext of heresy, then clearly credalism isn’t doing much to protect diversity.
    Okay, yeah, I said that stuff on Galileo really really badly. I do think his case was very relevant, but because of the way it played out in specific interaction with the wider context.
    The papacy had no particular problem with Galileo’s scientific writings. They weren’t *popular* in the Holy See, but Galileo and the pope (before elevation) were pals, and Urban had significant respect for the new science. Basically, Galileo was told, “go ahead and publish, but give a nod to the Church’s teachings on this topic” (another case of trying to include ideas by giving them a veneer of orthodoxy)
    And Galileo did include the church’s teachings, but whether in innocence or malice (opinions differ, I personally lean towards “a combination of cockiness and cluelessness”) managed to present it in such a way as to give a definite gloss of “go away, the grown-ups are talking” to the Pope’s own words.
    In other words, whether advertently or inadvertently, Galileo had raised the stakes from “the Church teachings are wrong on this particular issue” to “the Church has no authority to teach in this general area.” Whether he was wrong or right in this particular case (and yes, I think Galileo was right, or at least much much less wrong than Urban), the issue is no longer “can this particular belief be reconciled with the Creed?” to an attack upon the very foundations of the whole institutional authority of the Church to formulate creeds.
    Now there was certainly precedent for this sort of repudiation — the fourteenth century smackdown of John Whatzis, uh, XXII by the University of Paris is a good example — but in this particular case this particular Pope was embroiled in the fallout of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, and specifically in several wars that hinged about precisely this bone of contention — whether or not the Pope has authority in the temporal sphere.
    If he had been more visionary (or less craven, take your pick), Urban might have risen to this way in a way that you, and I, and practically every modern person person would have preferred, and accepted a drastic curtailment of the Church’s claims. I don’t find it particularly surprising that he didn’t. In fact, such an outcome would be an immense revision (and in some ways abandonment) of the credalism that I argue underpins the institution of the Catholic church.
    What I do find somewhat surprising, considering the magnitude of this challenge, is how incredibly lenient the Church was to Galileo. Rather than being “killed on the pretext of heresy”, he was treated with respect and courtesy. He was allowed to recant with the extremely light penance of saying a few psalms (which, iirc, he did not even do himself, but engaged someone to do on his behalf). Upon the condition of accepting the Church’s authority to speak on these matters (the issue of importance to the papacy), he spent the rest of his life with a pension, receiving visitors, continuing his research, and publishing his greatest scientific works.
    Do I consider the Church’s treatment of Galileo to be “good”, or “right”, or “fair”? Hardly. Do I think it provides evidence against my argument that the main impetus of credalistic organizations is to include the greatest possible diversity of views within the fence of acceptable teachings and practice? Again, I would say no.
    And now, I really will shut up, unless somebody has a specific question about something I said.

  • hapax

    Okay, I lied — but I really want to give all credit to this: That’s another reason I think we have to make our units of comparison societies rather than churches because I think it makes an excellent point.
    Really, when I started this line of thought I was comparing credal to non-credal Christian denominations, which is a far more narrow field of comparison.
    I got sidetracked into grand sweeping generalizations about medieval Christianity because, well, that’s what I am interested in and know the most about, and it Seemed To Fit.
    But you make an excellent case that I’ve fallen into the trap of comparing apples to durians and probably should stop pontificating quite so much in a venue where someone is Actually Paying Attention. :-)

  • @hapax: That is an incredibly awesome summary of the Galileo Affair. One point that may be quite minor altogether but which I find really interesting all the same is that the church’s decision on heliocentrism wasn’t “Fuck off, it contradicts scripture,” but rather that Galileo couldn’t prove that it was physical reality, and not just a convenient theoretical model that did a better job of modeling the movements of the heavens than the kludge they were currently using (I assume that had he produced a space telescope array and shuttled a few cardinals up to it to take a look for themselves, they’d have dismissed all charges. I don’t actually know what sort of realistic proof someone could have made that would have met with their standards of evidence. Of course, technically some of what Galileo was claiming was actually wrong (That the entire rest of the universe moves around a stationary sun and that orbits are circular), so they may have had some semblance of a point on the matter). What they objected to was the jump Galileo made from “This theory makes the math come out right” to “The Church is stupid and wrong, while I, Galileo, have discovered the Real Absolute Truth Of How The Universe Works!” — not even “You don’t get to trump us on the matter of Real Absolute Truth,” so much as “If you want to trump us on the matter of Real Absolute Truth, you’d better put your money where your mouth is.”
    Which I think has some interesting parallels with intelligent design, aside from the fact that it appears Galileo actually kinda was behaving the way that creationist-devised strawman scientists behave

  • So, there’s a wedding tomorrow, and I’ll have no time to post, and I want to get this up:
    They apparently say, “Peace be with you” in English, and in Arabic calligraphy, and also the keychains have several other languages.
    They have keychains, necklaces, and bracelets. I’ll probably be ordering within the week.
    Do I need to worry about cultural appropriation with these? The Koran, from what I’ve googled, uses the phrase, but then again, so do the Roman Catholic Mass.

  • I just want to say “Thank you” to this community. I don’t post very often, but I do enjoy reading the threads. I sometimes feel like I’m watching a slow moving zombie apocalypse back in the US, the rage one. Between the tea party people, the anti community center that we are going to call a mosque to gin up the hate people, to the racist anti -immigration people, I really think the hate an anger are like a spreading contagion. The I come here and read Fred’s posts and your comments and the despair is eased somewhat. Thank you for that.

  • I don’t think you did, honestly. Pius, you know I love you, but… you’re on the internet. In a verbal debate before a lay audience it would be different, but in this context, I don’t think you have to worry too much about preemptively defining terms of art unless you happen to be K. Chen and your version of “terms of art” includes the entire English language.

    Spearmint, I feel it a common courtesy to avoid jargonizing excessively. Or, if one must, to be willing to define the terms if asked. Which hapax is doing.
    I rather think you would be entitled to ask me what an eigenvector was if I kept discussing them. For me to come back at you with “well, you’re on the Internet” would be to throw you to the mercies of the Wikipedia page which is less than helpful.
    Actually this gives rise to an amusing anecdote: Apparently a philosophy professor had a love of math language in inappropriate contexts and kept referring to eigen-this, eigen-that and confusing the hell out of the poor students.

  • @Pius: The site I use often when I encounter any esoteric terms is this one:
    It consolidates different answers from various sites, and often gives more succinct definitions than wikipedia (and wikipedia is one of the sites it includes in its consolidation, if you want to go deeper).
    As far as defining terms in the post, there’s a gray area of terms that I wouldn’t know if they were technical enough or not to add a footnote to define ’em; for instance, if I used “quid pro quo” for some reason, I wouldn’t know if that needed the extra element of defining it, because it’s not obvious what it means but it’s also used in various writings a lot. If I used a barely-used technical term like ekpyrotic universe* though, I’d have a clearer idea that it’d be helpful to include a definition for those who wish to have it. Basically, if asked I’d of course oblige, but in the original post, I wouldn’t want to make either assumption of my vocabulary being equal to everyone else (and getting densely technical on some subject), or the assumption of it being above everyone’s (and having dozens of definitions clogging up the comment, and coming off as an ass at best ;0) ). So the result is I often err on the same side of the terminology use as hapax, and I’m not completely sure how best to soften that (high use of technical terms that I may no longer be aware just how jargonistic they are).
    *Refers to a theory (based on string theory) that the Big Bang was the result of the collision of two older universes (or more technically, branes) rather than a singularity (and that a Big Crunch/new Big Bang will result from a future collision); I don’t believe it’s gained much traction in the physics community (but I’m not completely sure either; for the past few years, my area of study has shifted mainly to math). An extreme example, I’ll admit, but the quickest that came to mind when I was trying to think of a “clearly esoteric term that shouldn’t be used without also explaining what it means at the same time it’s used”. :o)

  • @Erik Bloodaxe: That exact theory (well, not the term “ekpyrotic”, but anyway…) was discussed in The Endless Universe. Quite fascinating, actually. :)
    Personally, I try to avoid Latin terms myself and replace them with their English equivalents. While I understand most of them, some (as you saw) I do not, and using Latin when one is not conversant with its use is probably unwise (though “et cetera” has entered the English lexicon very widely, as one of the exceptions). The same is true to a lesser extent for Greek terms that are not in wide use in English but have a definite meaning in certain branches of psychology or philosophy.
    Jargon is value neutral, but it can be used on purpose for reasons that go beyond “condensing lots and lots of verbiage about a concept into one word”. To this end, the pedagogy of a subject can be geared towards accidentally or purposely making students not understand a subjedct, or it can be geared to giving them an understanding of it.
    One of the fastest ways to lose people is to fail to adequately take your audience into account. I worry that when I get the chance to teach a course, I’ll do exactly that and be mournfully staring at the carnage wrought by the final exam. :O

  • mmy

    @hapax: more on the Topic that Interests Nobody but Me.
    I can’t speak of the others here but it really interests me. Because my mother thought that history was the most interesting thing ever and that a child should be allowed to read any book they had the skills to read I grew up hearing and reading about things like this.
    Go for it.

  • Raj

    Pius Thicknesse: Apparently a philosophy professor had a love of math language in inappropriate contexts …
    Pythagoreans just have to be right about everything; even things that don’t square with the roots of their arguments.
    Sorry to go off on a tangent; I hope I haven’t caused the thread to meander sinusoidally. Then again, perhaps this post could be integrated into the matrix of the thread.

  • Will Wildman: Sweeping generalisations absolutely never work out.*

    *sage nod* Only a Sith deals in absolutes, after all.

  • MaryKaye

    Also, the means of kicking people out should be open and aboveboard, and subject to scrutiny; and the kicking-out should be accomplished with the absolute minimum of violence and harm. It’s easy for group norms to become a cover for a powerful individual or coalition to throw out anyone they don’t like. Transparency can help with this.
    But any healthy group needs a means to remove people from it. Pretty awful things happen if it doesn’t have that means.
    There was a religious group (withholding details here) that found one of its members was untrustworthy around children. After some debate, they decided that X wouldn’t be allowed around children unsupervised at any time. This seemed to solve the problem. But, a decade later when I became aware of the situation, most of the individuals who’d made that initial call and who had been keeping an eye on X were gone. Some folks had heard “X is not good with children” but they were dangerously underinformed about why. The net effect was to put children in danger.
    There was a different religious group one of whose founders became aggressive towards other members–not physical aggression, but attempted blackmail and other kinds of social aggression. The group tolerated this for a long time, trying various interventions which did not work. Then Y attempted to have someone’s children taken away on false grounds, which was such a severe crime against community norms that the group finally acted to remove Y. A lot of damage had already been done, and in fact the group disbanded fairly shortly thereafter. I don’t think the members ever felt safe with one another again.
    You could, of course, equally pile up stories on the other side of the line, where groups’ right to remove people was used as a tool of aggression and abuse. They’re both very real possibilities. But taking away the right of removal doesn’t work to curb the abuse. Developing better techniques to do this sort of thing right–morally, compassionately, without excessive bias in any direction–that’s what can help.
    It’s hard. In my years with my own religious group I drew the short straw twice and had to explain to someone why they weren’t welcome anymore. Part of the reason I’m not involved with public paganism right now may be that those experiences were so damned painful, both at the time and in the playing-out afterwards.

  • Steve Morrison

    I usually use to look up unfamiliar terms. Actually, I’ve installed a search plugin which adds Onelook to my search window.

  • P J Evans

    @ MaryKaye
    A group I belong to kicked out a guy, years ago (before I joined), for theft/burglary. Later (still before I joined), he tried to rejoin and was turned down, firmly.
    People still tell the story about why he was kicked out in the first place, because someone that dim will think that All Is Forgiven based solely on the idea the everyone will have forgotten.
    Institutional memory can be very useful.

  • @Pius: I know what you mean on the course-teaching point; I’ve so far had a couple years experience teaching discussion sections in math, and the lower-level the class was, the more anxiety I had about trying to avoid using any terminology that would be above their material, but also to not assume they had less mathematical background than they did and come off condescending. Having a better way to assess what their background in math was would’ve helped a lot. ;0)
    And it looks like that book is by the same authors who came up with that theory, so I’d have been surprised if they didn’t talk primarily about it. ;) I’ll have to check it out, once I’m done with the dozen or so books I’m reading now. :) Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  • MercuryBlue

    syfr, those are gorgeous, thank you!

  • Art

    Spearmint, I feel it a common courtesy to avoid jargonizing excessively. Or, if one must, to be willing to define the terms if asked. Which hapax is doing.
    I don’t really think things like “qua” are “jargon” as such. They may be above the standard seventh-grade reading level used as a standard for print journalism, but they don’t “belong” to any particular discipline or field of study, unlike the term “eigenvector”.
    I mean, I suppose you could make the old Arts-vs-Sciences argument that snobbish arts majors are jerks for thinking that their specific weird esoteric culture is the domain of all educated people while the scientists are ghettoized and the Second Law of Thermodynamics should be exactly as current a cultural reference as the “To be or not to be” speech from Hamlet, but I’m really not very sympathetic to this argument.

  • hapax

    the Second Law of Thermodynamics should be exactly as current a cultural reference as the “To be or not to be” speech from Hamlet
    Heat can’t pass from the cooler to the hotter
    You can try it if you like but you far better notter
    ‘Cause the cold in the cooler will get hotter as a ruler
    ‘Cause the hotter body’s heat will pass to the cooler …
    and so forth.

  • OK, that would make an excellent way to teach physics! ;) (British comedy is so awesome!) Thanks for sharing, hapax!

  • I don’t really think things like “qua” are “jargon” as such. They may be above the standard seventh-grade reading level used as a standard for print journalism, but they don’t “belong” to any particular discipline or field of study, unlike the term “eigenvector”.

    I typically haven’t seen “qua” in books, even when I’ve seen “QED”* used as the punctuation-end to a proof.
    I would classify it as in-that-grey-area-where-the-term-creates-confusion, because it’s not like “et cetera”.
    I wasn’t thinking of it as an arts vs sciences thing either, but as I see it, developing a habit of using Latin where English has an equally precise meaning can come off as not considering the audience.

    * “Quod Erat Demonstrandum”, and not “Quantum ElectroDynamics”. And yes, I do actually know it means “that which is to be/has been demonstrated”.

  • hapax

    developing a habit of using Latin where English has an equally precise meaning can come off as not considering the audience.
    It is a bad habit, and one I don’t mind at all being called upon.
    Especially since I’m quite sure I’ll do it again — it’s very much a disciplinary hazard*. I had one prof for whom it became a running joke of what we called “termae-technicae-technical-terms” — in an effort to remain accessible to his audience, he pretty much delivered every lecture twice, immediately translating from German, Greek, or Latin into the exact English equivalent.
    So feel free to deliver a gentle smack if I become obnoxious again.
    *although it DID allow for what we all thought was a very funny gag with the punchline “Two yellow kerygmas of the Urgemeinde with neums!”

  • *immediately looks all the words up*
    Two yellow proclamations of the early christians with singing?
    I guess it loses something in the translation. *curses good jokes that don’t survive the linguistic wringer*
    (That said I’ve seen some really good renderings of East German jokes XD )

  • hapax

    Actually, the joke was “What’s yellow, sings, and has ten points?”
    (It’s a riff on a common grade school joke. But yeah, you kind of had to be there.)

  • Will Wildman

    This is the first time I have encountered anyone else who knows Flanders and Swann’s thermodynamics song. I am filled with a fuzzy warmth that will subsequently be carried via convection to equalise the overall room temperature.

  • Art

    I typically haven’t seen “qua” in books, even when I’ve seen “QED”* used as the punctuation-end to a proof.
    I would classify it as in-that-grey-area-where-the-term-creates-confusion, because it’s not like “et cetera”.

    Whether or not something is like “et cetera” is a matter of individual perception, though. There are some people for whom “et cetera” is not like “et cetera”.
    Other than taking the precaution of doing what actual mass-market newspapers do and running everything we write past an editor with a style guide to boil it down to an American seventh-grade reading level, the fact that everyone has quirks and idiosyncrasies of language is going to create unavoidable problems in communication. And it’s probably better for those quirks to be dealt with on an individual basis than to try to quash the feature of language that makes language most interesting and unique from person to person, which is choosing what feels like the right word for the right moment.
    I wasn’t thinking of it as an arts vs sciences thing either, but as I see it, developing a habit of using Latin where English has an equally precise meaning can come off as not considering the audience.
    That’s just it, though — this semi-pretentious use of “qua” *does* have a meaning that isn’t totally conveyed by using the English word “as”. The “qua” thing is a signal that I’m specifically using it as a shorthand for the rather long-winded meaning of “The characteristics that specifically define a class of referents to which a reference points as being associated with that reference, being named here specifically in contrast to those characteristics that are extraneous or irrelevant”.
    There are other things that saying “religion as religion” could mean, like “When religion is being religion and not acting as something else”, and “religion as religion” by itself invites the annoying carping “But what could religion possibly be *but* religion? That’s a meaningless statement! A is A!” kind of response.
    That’s why “jargon”, if you want to call it that, exists — words have shades of meaning and using one word rather than another often makes the intended meaning clearer than if we always used the “simplest” word possible for every possible use of a word.
    That doesn’t mean everyone should be expected to have a 200,000-word vocabulary or excuse rudeness toward those who need a word explained to them or free one of the responsibility of trying to know one’s audience. And it certainly doesn’t justify the obnoxious practice of intentionally using highfalutin language for no other purpose than to signal one’s level of erudition (which is doubly obnoxious because it generally means picking words because they sound cool rather than because they’re the right word).
    But all that said, I still think that calling for a blanket “Stop using these weird words or pre-emptively explain them before you do because you should know that ordinary people don’t use them” proscription is an overreaction. (Because of the subject matter of this post I myself have become a bit paranoid about using words that might get accused of being “jargon”, but I’d still rather say “idiosyncrasy” and take the chance that someone might need the definition of that word explained than intentionally talk down to people.)

  • Hawker Hurricane

    Pius Thicknesse: Apparently a philosophy professor had a love of math language in inappropriate contexts …
    Pythagoreans just have to be right about everything; even things that don’t square with the roots of their arguments.
    Sorry to go off on a tangent; I hope I haven’t caused the thread to meander sinusoidally. Then again, perhaps this post could be integrated into the matrix of the thread.
    Posted by: Raj | Aug 28, 2010 at 09:22 AM

  • Original Lee

    I haven’t read the comments yet, but I thought this link might help cheer you up a little:

  • 3. Shortly after my birth, my father, the King, abandoned the creed of his forefathers and became a Wesleyan Methodist of the most bigoted and persecuting type. The Grand Lutheran Archimandrite, determined that the innovation should not be perpetuated, caused me to be taken away by stealth and brought up by a highly respectable Baptist minister here in Podunk, IA. Six days ago, the Methodist monarch and all his Wesleyan court were killed in an insurrection, and soon I will return to declare myself King of Denmark.
    ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

  • Those were hearts, dammit. <3333

  • Tetsubo,

    You just gave one of the best examples I can think of for why organized religion is evil. I am a theist. I fully believe that every human being needs a spiritual belief to be in balance with reality. But I also feel that organized religion is the biggest mistake our species has ever engaged in. This is why.

    I think you’re throwing out the baby and keeping the bathwater.