The Rhetorical Which

Should we maximise our capabilities, based on our limits?

Or maximise our limits, based on our capabilities?

As to the basic message, here, I actually don’t see too much hair-splitting. Both are aimed at action constrained by circumstance. The difference, I think a lot of people would propose, is the optimism or pessimism found between the two phrases although, even saying that, I think we blend within ourselves attitudes from both.

As for me, I feel more given to the second phrase, maximising our limits based on our capabilities, for its seeming more empirical, more driven by circumstance. Let’s take stock of our resources, and get on with it. Limits that exist will obviously present themselves as obstacles or else, well, they wouldn’t exist. And not only can those limits be reached, maybe they can even be stretched or overcome. This then becomes the task, and thank goodness for capabilities – and there’s the blending. Even empiricists have that esoteric side.

In the first phrase, similarly, something must exist – capabilities – or else they wouldn’t exist! So they must be maximisible (a word I just invented) in a way that hasn’t yet been, well, maximised. The first phrase is all about potential, what could be, if we just find a way to maximise our capabilities. Fist pump, exclamation point. In the culture I’m most familiar with, I suspect people – at least initially – would consider this first phrase a kind of optimism.

Okay, maybe not, since its basis is limitation, and that hardly sounds all warm and cozy. Still… in the first phrase, limits are a mystery to be solved, a challenge to overcome, an adventure: you can do or be anything you want, if you just believe in things. Set some goals, too, obviously – you can’t just go through life living on hope alone. Maybe I’m giving myself away; remember, I feel more given to the second phrase.

If the first phrase is optimism, the second could only be blunt, blanketing, clinical pessimism. But, like I said, I think we tend to blend, and I know I seldom feel satisfied with polarised options. So, even feeling more given to the second phrase, I won’t call myself a pessimist or even lean in that direction. And, yes, that means I won’t call myself an optimist either. Regardless, as I feel more given to the second phrase, I feel good about it for a couple reasons… relying on my capabilities means I have them and can use them, exclamation point, which means my limits can be pushed and stretched and even overcome. Fist pump! In neither phrase is there any lack of opportunity. In fact, each leaves room for the other.

For me, optimism and pessimism aren’t found in phrasing. Sure, we can play with words and come up with ways to objectify our capabilities or our limits. We can arrange syntax a certain way and suggest some interpretations, as I’ve just been doing. But, like I said, the basic message in both phrases is simply action constrained by circumstance. Attitude, tone – these are traits, and traits we find in people. Words describe, and tools are helpful. But it’s people who do the living.

Life has got to be about the verb.

Gettin' Busy Livin'.png

‘Tis the Season to be Silly!

Here’s a curiosity… I wrote this thirty years ago in Grade 12 for – wow! wee! – the high school newspaper. Good lord, thirty years. When you’re able to say such-and-such happened thirty years ago, and remember it…

!!!!!

Sigh. Beats not remembering, I suppose. While we’re at it, how about a wow-wee for thirty-year anniversaries: diamonds, pearls… joy buzzers? Better watch your back at the reunion, folks.

So what do I remember? My Journalism teacher, Mrs Sullings, had been waiting for me to overcome writers’ block and finally granted me an extension until the following issue, figuring I’d never make the deadline for end-of-March.

I really appreciated that from her but now felt all the more determined (and a bit guilty…) to meet the deadline the next morning. I remember sitting on my bed later that afternoon, struggling woe-is-me, and finally just flipping through the thesaurus as some desperate chance-worthy way of inspiring an idea. I think it was “rapscallions” that got the ball rolling, and from there, as the saying goes, the thing just wrote itself! Then it got buried on page 7 because every newspaper has a layout crew. Joke’s on me, I suppose.

Fringe benefit, though… the next time I nearly missed a deadline, for the June edition, Mrs Sullings wasn’t nearly so concerned. She left that to me, that time.

I’m pretty sure this is the second piece I ever wrote for a public audience, as in something actually published somewhere, out of my hands. Boxing Day - Humbug!.jpgThe first was a few months before, this Boxing Day editorial for the December edition, although officially my class hadn’t switched over yet – you either went from Journalism to Creative Writing in January, or you were vice-versa like us. Admittedly, neither piece is rocket science, much less brain surgery, but hey, every piece does more than just fill its own space in the puzzle. A curiosity, like I said.

So here ‘tis! a piece from the past, yet as much for posterity inspired! O Come, all ye Jokesters, unite!

(If you’re interested, click here, here, or here to learn a little more about the history of April Fools’ Day.)

 


‘Tis the Season to be Silly

March 1989

With the end of March comes the eagerly awaited Spring Break, and with Spring Break there is invariably April 1st – All Fools’ Day.

April 1st is the pressure release for everyone whose desire to become a practical joker just can’t be contained another side-splitting minute. Jokesters, jesters, and clowns alike all join together in an harmonic convergence of comedy, where conventional precedents of whimsy are discarded, long-established antic-morals know no bounds, and the quest for the ultimate in rusing excellence reigns supreme.

But as one may expect when the wells of witticism have run dry (as is the case in the world now), spotting any sort of Page 7.jpgexuberant attempt at outlandish tomfoolery proves more difficult than raking wet leaves with a plastic fork. And the Ministry of Education has hardly accommodated the desires of those jovial few desperately striving to keep April 1st, the Prankster’s Paradise, from losing all significance in this once derisory society of ours.

In its infinite wisdom, and unquestionably sound methods, the Ministry has conveniently arranged things so that April Fools’ Day occurs in the middle of the holidays, thus eliminating any hope of school-time merriment. In all fairness to the government, though, they (unlike you or me) wouldn’t recognise a cavorting rib-tickler if it walked up and shook their hand with an electric buzzer. Because of this, school must be dropped as the hostel of hilarious high-jinks.

Where, then, can one perform those pie-in-the-eye shenanigans and still achieve slapstick perfection? Home seems a logical place to start. And why not? For the abundance of potential targets, direct family ties keep anger broiling at a constant low, which is a major determining factor when dealing with the art of rabble-rousing, as are the many options open to the aspiring mischief-maker while on a mission of mirth.

There are the obvious escapades like exploding cigars and fake barf, or such monkey tricks as switching the salt and sugar, baking chocolate EX-LAX brownies, or stretching Saran Wrap over the toilet seat. As well, there are some old favourites to fall back on during instances of carefree nostalgia, like the bucket perched above the half-open door, or replacing the shampoo with NEET. Even the family car isn’t immune, as some skylarking rapscallions decide that switching on the radio to full volume, the windshield wipers to maximum speed, the air-conditioning to its coldest setting, and just about anything else located on the dashboard before the ignition is started, can provide for boisterous buffoonery in the highest degree.

Frozen Bunny.jpg

If this doesn’t tickle your fancy, then send someone you know a letter filled with sneezing powder – make sure it’s post-dated April 1st. You may try soaking your mother’s underpants and then freezing them overnight. Or remove the Sani-flush from the toilet and put green food colouring in the toilet bowl. When the shocked victim flushes the apparent “algae,” it is replaced by red-stained water from the toilet tank, which you have surreptitiously prepared the night before, in the name of all that is hallowed and holy amongst the flamboyant heroes of comedy whose Day you’re helping to celebrate.

Obviously, April 1st – All Fools’ Day – is one of the most important events of an otherwise blasé year, breaking the cat-gut tension with its relaxed, devil-may-care attitude. It is a time for everyone to get, get gotten, and be a good sport about it, either way.

Enjoy your April 1st this year, and if you’re one of the fortunate few to succeed in your sally – CONGRATULATIONS! You can appreciate the hearty effort undertaken by all those looking for an April Fools’ Fest.

And if you’re one of the unlucky targets of this annually occurring “puerile idiocy,” just grin and bear it, because half the joke is watching the victim’s reaction. Stay calm, laugh along with them… and then start plotting for next year.

Thu Pham.jpg

I May Be Wrong About This, But…

Before introducing the moral pairing of right and wrong to my students, I actually began with selfish and selfless because I believe morality has a subjective element, even in the context of religion, where we tend to decide for ourselves whether or not we believe or ascribe to a faith.

As I propose them, selfish and selfless are literal, more tangible, even quantifiable: there’s me, and there’s not me. For this reason, I conversely used right and wrong to discuss thinking and bias. For instance, we often discussed Hamlet’s invocation of thinking: “… there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (II, ii, 249-250). Good and bad, good and evil, right and wrong… while not exactly synonymous, these different pairings do play in the same ballpark. Still, as I often said to my students about synonyms, “If they meant the same thing, we’d use the same word.” So leaving good and bad to the pet dog, and good and evil to fairy tales, I presently consider the pairing of right and wrong, by which I mean morality, as a means to reconcile Hamlet’s declaration about thinking as some kind of moral authority.

My own thinking is that we have an innate sense of right and wrong, deriving in part from empathy, our capacity to stand in someone else’s shoes and identify with that perspective – look no further than storytelling itself. Being intrinsic and relative to others, empathy suggests an emotional response and opens the door to compassion, what we sometimes call the Golden Rule. Compassion, for Martha Nussbaum, is that means of “[hooking] our imaginations to the good of others… an invaluable way of extending our ethical awareness” (pp. 13-14). Of course, the better the storytelling, the sharper the hook, and the more we can relate; with more to go on, our capacity for empathy, i.e. our compassion, rises. Does that mean we actually will care more? Who knows! But I think the more we care about others, the more we tend to agree with them about life and living. If all this is so, broadly speaking, if our measure for right derives from empathy, then perhaps one measure for what is right is compassion.

And if we don’t care, or care less? After all, empathy’s no guarantee. We might just as reasonably expect to face from other people continued self-interest, deriving from “the more intense and ambivalent emotions of… personal life” (p. 14). Emotions have “history,” Nussbaum decides (p. 175), which we remember in our day-to-day encounters. They are, in general, multifaceted, neither a “special saintly distillation” of positive nor some “dark and selfish” litany of negative, to use the words of Robert Solomon (p. 4). In fact, Solomon claims that we’re not naturally selfish to begin with, and although I disagree with that, on its face, I might accept it with qualification: our relationships can supersede our selfishness when we decide to prioritise them. So if we accept that right and wrong are sensed not just individually but collectively, we might even anticipate where one could compel another to agree. Alongside compassion, then, to help measure right, perhaps coercion can help us to measure wrong: yes, we may care about other people, but if we care for some reason, maybe that’s why we agree with them, or assist them, or whatever. Yet maybe we’re just out to gain for ourselves. Whatever our motive, we treat other people accordingly, and it all gets variously deemed “right” or “wrong.”

I’m not suggesting morality is limited solely to the workings of compassion and coercion, but since I limited this discussion to right and wrong, I hope it’s helping illuminate why I had students begin first with what is selfish and selfless. That matters get “variously deemed,” as I’ve just put it, suggests that people seldom see any-and-all things so morally black and white as to conclude, “That is definitely wrong, and this is obviously right.” Sometimes, of course, but not all people always for all things. Everybody having an opinion – mine being mine, yours being yours, as the case may be – that’s still neither here nor there to the fact that every body has an opinion, mine being mine and yours being yours. On some things, we’ll agree while, on some things, we won’t.

At issue is the degree that I’m (un)able to make personal decisions about right and wrong, the degree that I might feel conspicuous, perhaps uneasy, even cornered or fearful – and wrong – as compared to feeling assured, supported, or proud, even sanctimonious – and right. Standing alone from the crowd can be, well… lonely. What’s more, having some innate sense of right and wrong doesn’t necessarily help me act, not if I feel alone, particularly not if I feel exposed. At that point, whether from peer pressure or social custom peering over my shoulder, the moral question about right and wrong can lapse into an ethical dilemma, the moral spectacle of my right confronted by some other right: would I steal a loaf of bread to feed my starving family? For me, morality is mediated (although not necessarily defined, as Hamlet suggests) by where one stands at that moment, by perspective, in which I include experience, education, relationships, and whatever values and beliefs one brings to the decisive moment. I’m implying what amounts to conscience as a personal measure for morality, but there’s that one more consideration that keeps intervening: community. Other people. Besides selfish me, everybody else. Selfless not me.

Since we stand so often as members of communities, we inevitably derive some values and beliefs from those pre-eminent opinions and long-standing traditions that comprise them. Yet I hardly mean to suggest that a shared culture of community is uniform – again, few matters are so black or white. Despite all that might be commonly held, individual beliefs comprising shared culture, if anything, are likely heterogeneous: it’s the proverbial family dinner table on election night. Even “shared” doesn’t rule out some differentiation. Conceivably, there could be as many opinions as people possessing them. What we understand as conscience, then, isn’t limited to what “I believe” because it still may not be so easy to disregard how-many-other opinions and traditions. Hence the need for discussion – to listen, and think – for mutual understanding, in order to determine right from wrong. Morality, in that sense, is concerted self-awareness plus empathy, the realised outcome of combined inner and outer influences, as we actively and intuitively adopt measures that compare how much we care about the things we face everyday.

Say we encounter someone enduring loss or pain. We still might conceivably halt our sympathies before falling too deeply into them: Don’t get too involved, you might tell yourself, you’ve got plenty of your own to deal with. Maybe cold reason deserves a reputation for callusing our decision-making, but evidently, empathy does not preclude our capacity to reason with self. On the other hand, as inconsistent as it might seem, one could not function or decide much of anything, individually, without empathy because, without it, we would have no measure. As we seem able to reason past our own feelings, we also wrestle echoing pangs of conscience that tug from the other side, which sometimes we call compassion or, other times, a guilt trip. Whatever to call it, clearly we hardly live like hermits, devoid of human contact and its resultant emotions. Right and wrong, in that respect, are socially individually determined.

One more example… there’s this argument that we’re desensitized by movies, video games, the TV news cycle, and so forth. For how-many-people, news coverage of a war-torn city warrants hardly more than the glance at the weather report that follows. In fact, for how-many-people, the weather matters more. Does this detachment arise from watching things once-removed, two-dimensionally, on a viewscreen? Surely, attitudes would be different if, instead of rain, it were shells and bombs falling on our heads from above. Is it no surprise, then, as easily as we’re shocked or distressed by the immediacy of witnessing a car accident on the way to our favourite restaurant, that fifteen minutes later we might conceivably feel more annoyed that there’s no parking? Or that, fifteen minutes later again, engrossed by a menu of appetizers and entrees and desserts, we’re exasperated because they’re out of fresh calamari. Are right and wrong more individually than socially determined? Have we just become adept at prioritising them, even diverting them, by whatever is immediately critical to individual well-being? That victim of the car accident isn’t nearly as worried about missing their dinner reservation.

Somewhat aside from all this, but not really… I partially accept the idea that we can’t control what happens, we can only control our response. By “partially” I mean that, given time, yes, we learn to reflect, plan, act, and keep calm carrying on like the greatest of t-shirts. After a while, we grow more accustomed to challenges and learn to cope. But sometimes what we encounter is so sudden, or unexpected, or shocking that we can’t contain a visceral response, no matter how accustomed or disciplined we may be. However, there is a way to take Hamlet’s remark about “thinking” that upends this entire meditation, as if to say our reaction was predisposed, even premeditated, like having a crystal ball that foresees the upcoming shock. Then we could prepare ourselves, rationalise, and control not what happens but our response to it while simply awaiting the playing-out of events.

Is Solomon wise to claim that we aren’t essentially or naturally selfish? Maybe he just travelled in kinder, gentler circles – certainly, he was greatly admired. Alas, though, poor Hamlet… troubled by jealousy, troubled by conscience, troubled by ignorance or by knowledge, troubled by anger and death. Troubled by love and honesty, troubled by trust. Troubled by religion, philosophy, troubled by existence itself. Is there a more selfish character in literature? He’s definitely more selfish than me! Or maybe… maybe Hamlet’s right, after all, and it really is all just how you look at things: good or bad, it’s really just a state of mind. For my part, I just can’t shake the sense that Solomon’s wrong about our innate selfishness, and for that, I guess I’m my own best example. So, for being unable to accept his claim, well, I guess that one’s on me.