Biden Fumbling His Words Is Representative Of A Larger Societal Problem: A Lack Of Virtue
My wife recently said I should write about it since I keep remarking on it.
The “it” was my pet peeve at television commentators who consistently use the word “utilize” instead of “use.”
In my own experience, it started with Dick Vitale and his commentary on NCAA basketball games. Whenever it was appropriate for him to use the word “use” he would use “utilize” instead.
Now, were he to say that last sentence it would come out as: Whenever it was appropriate for him to utilize the word “use” he would utilize “utilize” instead.
And now, it has spread everywhere. All sports commentators seem to be using “utilize” instead of “use.”
I don’t know why this has happened. Hard to say if those who keep using “utilize” think they sound smarter with more syllables or what.
Personally, I am from the old school of journalism that says: why use a three-syllable word when a one-syllable word will work just as well if not better?
The same goes for phrases. Why say, “In my considered opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption to say that Biden is a dolt” when one could simply say “I think Biden is a dolt.”
A longtime guide for me in my considerations about language is George Orwell. He writes in Politics and the English Language: “it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer.”
If that, indeed, is the case, then one needs to look beyond Dick Vitale and his cohort of sports commentators. I cannot help but think of a 1950s day-time television show as a contributor to the diminishing abilities of men and women to think clearly.
That show is Queen for a Day, hosted by Jack Bailey. One of the original influences toward reality TV, the show would gather four or five women who would share their tales of woe in a competition to see who had the most pathetically pitiful and
After telling their sad stories they had to suffer the further indignity of their being voted on by a studio audience as to who was the most miserable of the lot. If they win, they get some prizes, including one that would address their main family concern. For an example, see this video.
In my philosophy classes I would sometimes show an episode of Queen for a Day to illustrate the informal logical fallacy of an appeal to emotion rather than facts.
Students would generally react to the clear inanity of the show, but they got the point.
There is a reason Plato in his Republic is suspicious of narrative grief, believing it seduces an audience to act irrationally. He would bar from his Republic those poets who use narrative stories of tragic grief to stir up people’s emotions, which then leads them to act impulsively, no longer anchored in reason.
One could almost write a history of television on the appeal to emotions in order to gather high ratings, which translates into higher charges for advertising dollars.
I recall the old Phil Donahue Show, which started as a program that gathered pundits to comment on the issues of the day. Then it took a turn.
One day I happened to come across it. What I saw on Donahue were three men, one wearing a diaper, one with a baby bottle in his mouth, and a third with a baby rattle. It was titled, “Men who like to wear baby clothes.”
So much for the issues of the day.
But then, Donahue was merely reacting to his competition. Daytime television had become inundated with tell-all shows from Rikki Lake, Sallie Jessie Raphael, Maury Povich and Jerry Springer, each trying to outdo the others in debasement, in what is otherwise disgusting and embarrassing behavior.
Over and over, I would see women who would confess their partners were insulting, sexually unfaithful, selfish, and physically abusive towards them. Why do you stay with them, they are asked? Because I love him, is the inevitable reply, as little sense as that makes in a rational world.
It’s what led me in earlier years to advocate that the word “love” should be restricted to those 25 years old or older who have a license.
And American culture, in its political and its economic incentives, is debased as well.
Why should our political leaders work at legislating productive laws when one can just as easily gain popularity and votes by calling one’s opponents “racist,” or “fascist,” or “communist.”
It not just the low arts of television in which this takes place either.
In the high-falutin’ land of poetry there is a group known as the confessional poets, including Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. Their poetry, told in a first-person narrative of intimate and personal detail, becomes a sort of competition in its own right to see who can be most revealing .
Like contestants on Queen for a Day, the confessional poets compete in front of an audience of Ivy League graduates to reveal in their poetry the most shameful and embarrassing details of their desolate lives.
Is it any wonder that Lowell was a bipolar manic-depressive, as reflected in his poetry? Is it any wonder Sylvia Plath ended her life in suicide? So, too, did Anne Sexton kill herself.
Literature is an act of telling ourselves stories about ourselves. If our stories are one of woe and pain and the injustice of the universe, is it any wonder one finds life not worth living?
It is truly sad to read their poetry, their frustrated desire to make some meaningful human contact, to experience true love. Instead, their lives, as expressed in their poetry, are lives of being entrapped.
Sexton, in particular, always struck a nerve with me. In one of her poems, “The Poet of Ignorance,” she writes:
There is an animal inside me,
clutching fast to my heart,
a huge crab.
The doctors of Boston
have thrown up their hands.
They have tried scalpels,
needles, poison gasses and the like.
The crab remains.
It is a great weight.
I try to forget it, go about my business,
cook the broccoli, open the shut books,
brush my teeth and tie my shoes.
I have tried prayer
but as I pray the crab grips harder
and the pain enlarges.
I had a dream once,
perhaps it was a dream,
that the crab was my ignorance of God.
But who am I to believe in dreams?
Perhaps if she could have been more open to her dreams, rather than wallow in her agnosticism, she might have found what she had been seeking all her life.
But she certainly wasn’t helped by falling into a poetic movement that emphasized the emptiness and loneliness of life.
Sexton and the other confessionals are an echo of an earlier nihilist who finds life, despite seeming professional success, an empty shell of meaninglessness. It is Macbeth, having lost his wife and before his climactic battle with Macduff in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who concludes about life that “it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
You know what Sexton, Lowell and Plath have in common, along with Springer, Povich, Raphael, Lake and Donahue, and along with many of today’s celebrities, pundits, and politicians? They all lack virtue.
This is generally thought of as moral virtue. It comes from the Greek word “arete,” which refers to either intellectual or moral excellence.
One can learn a lot about arete in, of all places, a book about motorcycles: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. There, the author emphasizes the intellectual excellence (i.e., arete) of doing a professional job, like motorcycle maintenance, well.
Full disclosure, Pirsig has some unkind comments about the governor of Montana when he was living there. Well, that governor happens to be my uncle, Donald Grant Nutter. Pirsig was neither accurate nor fair in speaking of my uncle, so take with several grains of salt his comments on the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought.
As for moral virtue, in the Greek model each person is capable of moral virtue. But in order to attain such arete one must behave in such a way as to train oneself to becomes a virtuous person. When, however, one surrounds oneself with moral debasement and meaninglessness, the moral virtues are unattainable.
And because of the cultural environment in which we live, it is very tough these days to behave virtuously. What virtuous models do we have to emulate? Hollywood celebs? Media pundits? Our educators? Our politicians? FBI agents once were seen as virtuous, but today? So who?
So, over the last few minutes we seem to have come a long way from a mere spat about “use” vs “utilize.” But I would like to make a case for the intellectual virtue of the proper use of language.
Orwell again: “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” The good news, Orwell suggests, “is that the process is reversible.”
If one is able to eliminate the bad language habits built up over the years, one will be able to think more clearly. And that, according to Orwell, is a necessary step toward political regeneration.
Orwell gives several suggestions in bringing clarity to one’s thought through disciplined use of language. I’ll add one more: stop using the word “thing.” Each time you see it written or hear it spoken ask, what is a thing?
“Thing” is a word a lazy writer or speaker uses to fill in a sentence without regard to communicating a clear and concise thought. There is always a better word than “thing,” a more concrete and more vivid word, if one will but take the time to find it.
Think of how silly Joe Biden sounds when, quoting the Declaration of Independence, he says that “We hold these truths to be self-evident: all men and women created, by the – you know the, you know, the thing.”
Now there is a mind seeking desperately for clarity. How can such a mind ever manage to attain intellectual virtue, intellectual excellence, arete?
So my humble request to Dick Vitale and others, including celebs, pundits, and politicians: please clean up your act. The simplest acts of clarity can be of benefit to us all. For the sake of others, be disciplined in your choice of words. Seek to be clear and concise rather than pompous
Okay, my wife will appreciate my having gotten that off my chest.
Featured photo by Geralt at Pixabay
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