On Rituals and Meaning

WGD recently gave an interview on Parallax Optics, On Orthodoxy, Idolatry, and Iconoclasm. It’s a dense piece that could easily stand to be 10x longer, but I think the point is basically about how we understand the world.

WGD talks about the cycle of iconogenesis/iconoclasm, particularly in the context of modern politics:

Iconoclasm is therefore the elimination of local faith loci (I often use the term “intermediaries” when discussing divine loci, because the infinite creator is ineffable, and our minds seem to require a compiler). In Judaism this is largely precluded by preventing the formation of these loci (although the Black Swan is pretty impressive when one does form), but progressivism has no pre-emptive measure, creating an iconogenesis/iconoclasm cycle that moves at the speed of information. …

Progressivism is, in some senses, the willingness to destroy or route around a locus. In our modern times, with any meritorious loci destroyed as quickly as it is discovered, progressivism is forced to turn iconoclasm itself into a locus. …

Progressivism is a cult of iconoclasm. We have had more unintentional change in the last two centuries than at any other point in human history, and progressivism has ridden that change into social disintegration, which has allowed will to power to overwhelm social restraint. To clarify, iconoclasm is a natural instinct, and is a useful tool in the right context. Divorced from its appropriate context, iconoclasm is a spiritual cancer.

My basic reaction:

The universe is real, but much vaster than we can really comprehend or deal with in any practical manner, so we have to divide it into useful chunks. The chunks we happen to chose are not arbitrary; they are only useful inasmuch as they are real, and are useless if they are not real.

A dog, for example, is a real thing. It is different from a cat or a wolf. A dog is a real part of the universe.

Words, however, are arbitrary. They’re random collections of sounds we ascribe meaning to. It doesn’t matter that “dog” has the sounds d-o-g in it. It would work just as well if we used the sounds c-a-n-i-s or p-e-r-r-o to denote a domesticated canine. But we use “dog” because we have a common, agreed upon understanding that this collection of sounds signifies something.

Being arbitrary in sound does not make it arbitrary in meaning.

Words are arbitrary, but the things they refer to are not. We have words for the wider dog family, including foxes and wolves: canines. We have a word for general domesticated animals that live with people: pets. We do not have a word for “the set of things that includes only dogs and dinosaurs,” because this is not a useful category: it does not refer back to a real set of things.

Words are the smallest unit of meaning. Cultures build up layer upon layer of meaning through things like a common stock of songs we’ve all heard and literature that we’ve all read and can allude to (“Alas, poor Yorrick, I knew him well”). This accretion of meaning allowing us to increase the conceptual density of communication. I don’t even like Shakespeare that much, but we have hundreds of years of culture and communication built on him, so we can’t just toss him out in favor of a “non dead white male” without losing something important.

Removing these arbitrary cultural norms (on the grounds that they are “arbitrary”) leaves people unmoored. We end up with idiotic things like corporations referring to “people who menstruate” instead of “women” because they are afraid of offending the screeching masses who want disassemble language. These people object to the conceptual density of “woman” and so insist on breaking it into its component parts, but this makes communication much more difficult. Language forms symbols and layers of meaning naturally and attempting to pull that apart is unnatural and damaging: 

Culture goes well beyond language. We have clothes and games, rituals and holidays.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry gives the best explanation I have seen of the importance of rituals:

It was then that the fox appeared. …

‘Come and play with me,’ suggested the little prince.’I’m terribly sad.’

‘I can’t play with you,’ said the fox. ‘I am not tame.’

‘Oh! I beg your pardon,’ said the little prince. Then, after a moment’s thought, he added:
‘What does “tame” mean ?’ …

‘Something that is frequently neglected,’ said the fox. ‘It meam “to create ties” … To me, you are still only a small boy, just like a hundred thousand other small boys. And I have no need of you. And you in turn have no need of me. To you, I’m just a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you shall be unique in the world. To you, I shall be unique in the world.’

‘… My life is very monotonous. I run after the chickens; the men run after me. All the chickens are the same, and all the men are the same. Consequently, I get a little bored. but if you tame me, my days will be as if filled with sunlight. I shall know a sound of footstep different from all the rest. Other steps make me run to earth. Yours will call me out of my foxhole like music. And besides, look over there! You see the fields of corn ? Well, I don’t eat bread. Corn is of no use for me. Corn fields remind me of nothing. Which is sad! On the other hand, your hair is the colour of gold. So think how wonderful it will be when you have tamed me. The corn, which is golden, will remind me you. And I shall come to love the sound of the wind in the field of corn…”

The fox fell silent and looked steadily at the little prince for a long time. ‘Please,’ he said, ‘tame me!’

‘I should like to,’ replied the little prince, ‘but I don’t have much time. I have friends to discover and many things to understand.’ …

‘You have to be very patient,’ replied the fox. ‘First, you will sit down a short distance away from me, like that, in the grass. I shall watch you out of the corner of my eye and you will say nothing; words are the source of misunderstandings. But each day you may sit a little closer to me.’

The next day the little prince came back.

‘It would have been better to come back at the same time of the day,’said the fox. ‘For instance, if you come at four in the afternoon, when three o’clock strikes I shall begin to feel happy. The closer our time approaches, the happier I shall feel. By four o’clock I shall already be getting agitated and worried; I shall be discovering that happiness has its price! But if you show up at any old time, I’ll never know when to start dressing my hearth for you… We all need rituals.’

‘What is a ritual?’ said the little prince.

‘Something else that is frequently neglected,’ said the fox.

It’s what makes one day different from the other days, one hour different from the other hours. There is a ritual, for example, among my huntsmen. On Thursdays they dance with the village girls. So Thursday is a wonderful day for me! I can take a stroll as far as the vineyard. If the huntsmen went dancing at any old time, the days would all be the same, and I should never have a holiday.’
So the little prince tamed the fox.

Not all rituals are good or important. Of course not. We can make a very long list of terrible rituals humans have come up with over the years. But that does not mean that all rituals are bad. Indeed, most rituals humans have come up with are probably good.

The rate of technological change in modern society is such that we have been forced to give up a good many of the rituals that we used to find pleasant or comforting. This is not all bad–we have gained a great deal of nice technology in exchange–but it takes time to build up new, functional rituals to replace the old.

Anyway, it’s an interesting interview, so I encourage you to read it.

Meditations upon Language

There is a certain frustration in not being able to express thoughts in a clear, unadulterated, perfectly understood form. This is impossible. There’s no point in whining about it, only in trying one’s best, anyway.

I run up against the limits of common language fairly often–at least once a week, if not five or ten times–when I find that there exist no words exactly suited to my purpose. A graceful word that sounds perfect given the cadence of a sentence may carry an unwieldy baggage of political connotations, or the word that perfectly expresses a particular notion may be grammatically awkward and ungainly. I generally aim to both produce pleasant writing and avoid overly-charged political language, but there are times when this is impossible. Ethnonyms are particularly prone to politicization. Should I refer to the nomadic or formerly nomadic descendants of Indians who’ve lived in Europe for several hundred years as “Gypsies” or “Roma”? “Inuit” or “Eskimo”? “Indians” or “Native Americans”? For each of these, you can find members of the relevant group who prefer Term A and dislike B, and members who, likewise, prefer Term B and dislike A. And no matter which term you pick, someone out there will assume that you are making a political statement about those people.

Heck, I used to know a man who preferred to refer to himself as a “Negro.”

In general, I try to stick with the most commonly known term; if two terms are equally known, I tend to use both. “Roma” I assume is fairly obscure, whereas “Native American” is clear, if clunky. (“Indian,” while actually the term a small majority of Indians preferred last time I checked, has the unfortunate confusion factor.) But there are times when innovation could be useful. “POC,” for example, is a mere three letters long and well-known. But it is severely tainted by politics, making it unsuitable for anything attempting even a vaguely neutral stance, or anything aimed at a non-leftist audience. Then I am left with some clunky phrasing, like “people who aren’t white.”

It would be lovely to be able to write posts that appeal to everyone, but words the left uses to distinguish its writing are anathema to the right, words used on the right are likewise anathema to the left, and neutral territory is generally regarded as simultaneously inadequately right and left.

Moderatism is possible, but neutrality is nigh impossible, whether I want it or not. So posts have their audiences, and the language selected accordingly, along with a heavy dose of my own bloody-mindedness, with the inevitable result that the language will never be perfect.

For example, Nick B. Steves recently expressed dissatisfaction with the use of the word “fascism” to denote generically authoritarian regimes in the post, “Increasing Diversity => Fascism.” I agree that “fascism” is really an unideal word. Unfortunately, “Increasing Diversity => Lots More Laws” or “Increasing Diversity => More Authoritarian Regimes” just doesn’t have the same cadence, and makes for an awkward title. (Also, the post was originally composed as a direct response to the sorts of people who’d inspired it.)

(There are those who argue that one should not write with an audience in mind, but that writing should instead be some sort of pure emanation of your soul/id/creativity/whatever. This is bollocks. All language exists in order to communicate something between the sender and the receiver, whether that be spoken language or written language. If I wanted to write something where the intended audience is just myself, I could, and I would write it in my diary and keep it there instead of posting it on the internet. Once something is put out there, it exists to convey a message to someone outside of myself, and therefore needs to be able to do so. If it cannot, then I have failed.)

I try to aim for an “intellectual but friendly” tone, but the tone has changed over time, which occasionally leads to confusion, especially if posts get shuffled around in the schedule. “Once a Political Position Becomes Popular, it has already won,” is one such post. Attempting coherence:

Mainstream political positions change over time. For example, the majority of people once opposed gay marriage, but now the majority support it. Two hundred years ago, being pro-slavery was a fairly mainstream political position, while believing in full racial equality was far outside the mainstream. Today, these positions have reversed.

People who are advocating a political position that is gaining popularity but not yet dominant or has not yet won all of its objectives often get very worked up about the fact that any vestiges of opposition remain, leading to increasingly strident demands that everyone need to toe the line and fall-in with the new position.

Of course, in a world with more than one person in it, there will always be someone who disagrees about something; in a country with 300+ million people, you can find tons of people who disagree with you! You can even find people who think they’re telepathically communicating with the CIA. The mere existence of people who disagree with a position does not mean it is not dominant.

How do we know whether a position that only a minority of people agree with is “winning”, in the sense of becoming steadily more dominant?

Look at who is advocating the position. Movie stars, popular musicians, Cathedral leaders and the “popular” people, at school and on the internet. Thought leaders shape and influence other people’s opinions; people want to look and act like elites.

People often make a big deal out of how brave they are for taking a popular position. There has been nothing particularly “brave” about being pro-gay rights for the past two or three decades; no one has been sued for being willing to bake a gay cake. Neither is Caitlyn Jenner “brave.” It is taking the opposition position that has cost people jobs, freedom, and money.

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Sometimes the problem is long-windedness increasing the noise:signal ratio. “Transsexuals Prove that Gender is Real,” may have been one such post. The TL; DR version:

  1. The idea that “sex is biological, gender is a social construct” is bollocks. Sex=gender.
  2. All trans people I have known in real life have obvious chromosomal or hormonal conditions leading to improper gender development.
  3. I suspect this is true of the majority of trans people.
  4. Trans people don’t actually act on the radical feminist claim that gender is some random, made-up thing invented by the patriarchy to oppress women. Rather, they pick a gender and then try to actually live like it.
  5. Note that this does not require you to agree that a trans person “is” a particular gender; it is merely asserting that they are trying to live as one.

I’m sure there have been some other things that were unclear or inelegantly or improperly worded, though I can’t think of them off the top of my head.

In the meanwhile, have a lovely day.