Three stupid words

From L. Susan Stebbing’s Thinking to Some Purpose (1939):

We should not allow our habits of thought to close our minds, nor rely upon catch-words to save ourselves from the labour of thinking. Vitamins are essential for the natural growth of our bodies; the critical questioning at times of our potted beliefs is necessary for the development of our capacity to think to some purpose.

I’ve noticed three words becoming more prevalent in political discussions. These are words that tend to promote “potted beliefs”, and I think it’s worth examining them, so that we may avoid them or use them more carefully. These words are “problematic”, “narrative”, and “offensive”.

“Problematic” is often used apparently as a substitute for “untrue”, which as Bertrand Russell puts it has all “the advantages of theft over honest toil”1. Once something is said to be “problematic”, any further discussion is to immediately cease, or else one is liable to be summarily executed as a counter-revoluntary. To explore just why something might be untrue is an unnecessary complication that would only put a damper on breathtaking rhetoric.

It’s a rather strange notion, assuming that pursuing just why something appears untrue aids one in forming compelling arguments about the matter, which is presumably desirable by those who disagree with something. Therefore, I can only assume that those who find something “problematic” do so because they do not know why they believe something is untrue, and have merely inherited their views from others. If they were born in another era, perhaps they might believe that extending labor rights to children would be “problematic”.

“Narrative” is a word that’s used by people who have been so successfully abused by advertising that they believe the world is merely an arena in which competing fictions duel for the prize. Coca-Cola says they’re the best, while Pepsi says they’re the best, and so one must embrace intractable confusion surrounding matters of soda.

On such a view, “truth” is merely a construct formed by the powerful, rather than (say) lies mislabelled by the powerful. It’s unclear on what basis one should choose to propagate their favorite “narrative”, except for perhaps their chance membership of one insular group rather than another.

As for “offensive”, it is a word that can be used sensibly, but it can also be used in a vacuous manner similiar to “problematic”. When in doubt, a person should simply replace the word with the reasons for which they find something offensive. Sometimes they are quite reasonable. Otherwise, to state that something is “offensive” without much elaboration is to merely suggest that something stimulates a particular response in you, as if by reflex, and that others should share your response. Religious fundamentalists surely find all manner of fun offensive. However, the question remains, “Why should we share your response?”

These are only a few words of many that are often used foolishly, and I don’t know the extent to which they actually shape our worldview. On the contrary, I tend to think their peculiar usages simply reflect some pre-existing stupidity. Nevertheless, after ridding yourself of them you may find yourself once again, as Stebbing puts it, “thinking to some purpose”.

  1. From Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, 1919.
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