Accommodating to Connotation

Since the discussion about the word “shallow” and such with my last post, I have had a couple of discussions with people about the pragmatism of bowing to popular connotations of words.  Essentially, I’m being too literal and not understanding that some words simply have connotations that color them, I’m being told.  Therefore, if I choose to ignore those popular connotations I will invite mis-communication.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

While I can point back to what a word really means, according to a dictionary or a philosophical tradition (for example), having a reasonable explanation for ignoring commonly used connotations of a word is not going to help when I inadvertently offend or confuse someone such that they ignore any more that I have to say out of annoyance.  After all, as Wittgenstein said, it is the use of a term that really provides the context for meaning.

This problem of  word connotation, use, and definition is actually a problem that atheists have in general, as the term “atheist” is (mis)understood by many to mean something other than how I and the vast majority of the atheist community uses it.

And because of the misunderstanding of this term in our culture (and the world), atheists have had to re-educate people to a different usage.  That is, the common usage by many people was simply wrong.  It didn’t matter that it came to mean Satan-worshiper, immoral heathen, or person who says there absolutely is no god.  What mattered was that when actual atheists came out of the closet, they didn’t fit into these definitions.  When the term is analyzed in context to the relevant philosophical questions, the use that makes sense is “lacks belief in any gods.”  Connotations be damned!

Shaming and depth-evaluation

So, when Greta Christina started defending fashion (I know, I’m writing about it again!) as not being shallow (also not vain or trivial), she was defending it against the negative connotations of the word.  She was shallow-shaming.  She was not only saying that fashion is not shallow, but if it were, then it would probably be a bad thing.  So when someone called her out on this, saying that fashion does seem to fit the criteria as being shallow, she reacted as if they had claimed that a thing she cared about was stupid, not deserving of attention, etc.  But what was really happening was a re-evaluation of the term shallow, and our orientation towards how we think about having shallow interests.

Much of our culture and the daily lives we live are shallow.  Further, much of it is primarily and overwhelmingly shallow.  Many of us like our home sports team to win, the physical appearance of our lovers, and that our political candidates appear to be saying something important.  The surface-level part of the majority of our existence is, well, superficial and quite distracting from what lies (clever pun intended) underneath .

But there is depth under those things, and many people appreciate that too.  The relative level of how much we care about one or the other is the criteria, I believe, by which we should judge a person, and not whether they actually like anything that does not dig very deep at any point.  Like fashion.  I will not hold anyone to the standard of never being irrational, never liking anything primarily shallow, or generally not living up to whatever standards we impose upon them.  So, appreciate fashion and baseball if you like, but stop pretending that these things are not shallow and trivial.

Standing up to Connotations

Connotations certainly shift word-usage over time.  The question is to what extent it is legitimate to stop, once in a while, and say “wait, I think that the connotation which has built up around this word is philosophically problematic and has implications which you may not be aware of.”  Or you might say something less complicated, if you are not me.

But at bottom it is sometimes useful to recognize that we may be demonizing a term (like “shallow” or “slut”), artificially heightening it (like “faith”), or even unnecessarily moderating it (like “accommodationist”).  Sometimes the connotations of words are not valid, if considered carefully.  Sometimes we need to step up and declare that the way our culture, or a segment of it, uses a word is simply problematic or wrong.

There is nothing inherently wrong with liking shallow pursuits, being a slut, or being an atheist.  There is nothing inherently good about having faith, and we should not give that term the free pass it usually gets in our culture.  And we should not consider accommodationists (those nice atheists who defend religion and apologize for us mean atheists) as being the wise, moderate, and fair critics they think of themselves as; sometimes a thing is just wrong, and there is nothing wrong with pointing that out.

So, yes, fashion is shallow and I’m pointing that out.  Like fashion, do you? I don’t care, nor will I judge you as a bad person based solely on that fact.  Only like things like fashion, weight lifting, pop music, sports, and interior design?  Well….


Fashion is shallow…not that there is anything wrong with that

I have avoided jumping in on the fray (parts one, two, and three) over at Greta Christina’s blog.  The reason is that I generally do not care about fashion, and so I didn’t feel motivated enough to add my thoughts.  The other reason is that another person I know, with whom I tend to agree on many things, already had jumped in.

I am one of those people who thinks that judging a person by what they wear, even if it is inevitable, is problematic and  shallow.  I think that there are things you can tell about a person by what they generally wear, and there is a very loose sort of language (I agree that body language is a better analogy than language per se) that comes along with clothing.  I would like to see the role of fashion in our culture mitigated somewhat, but I don’t think it’s a problem that is damaging enough to spend significant time thinking about.  As far as I remember, this is the first time I’ve ever written about this topic.  It very well may be the last time as well.

So, when I first saw Greta Christina writing about it, I read the piece because she generally has good insight about things.  I figured I would have something to learn.  It was not one of her better pieces, in my opinion, but it didn’t bother me too much and simply put it out of mind.  And then the second one came around, and I realized I had missed some interesting conversation in the comments, which I initially ignored out of lack of interest.  After having gone back and read the comments and the subsequent posts with their comments, I found myself a little disappointed, honestly, that Greta became so offended and affected by what some people said.  Considering her directness and highly critical comments on religion (which I tend to agree with and like), I would have expected her to have a thicker skin.  I think that her taking offense at someone demonstrating why fashion is shallow, vain, and trivial is, frankly, irrational and misses the point he was trying to make.

(full disclosure, “Wes” is someone I know personally, and is, in fact, my fiance’s boyfriend).

So, using these posts and subsequent comments as a springboard, I wanted to make a point or two about words like “shallow,” a point that I believe resonates with what Wes was trying to say over at Greta’s and which was misunderstood by Greta Christina and generally missed by people in our culture.  And it is simply this; being shallow is not a bad thing in itself.  We all have shallow interests, and “owning” this is a part of being adults.  The truth is important, even if that truth points to shallow aspects of ourselves.

We are shallow about all sorts of things.  My like of hockey is shallow.  My care about if my hair looks nice today is shallow.  When I do actually make an effort to wear nicer clothes, I am being shallow in doing so.  And there is nothing wrong with any of that, so long as I am aware that it is less important than other aspects of my personality and that I don’t pretend that it isn’t true.  Now, if I were to spend inordinate amounts of time worrying about these things, especially to the detriment of more profound things (such as improving my emotional maturity, being a virtuous person, etc), then there would be a problem.  I cannot spend all of my time in self-improvement and dealing with weighty philosophical, political, and cultural issues.  Sometimes I have to play a video game, get a hair cut, or buy a new pair of shoes.  These are things that should not matter as much as dealing with poverty, maintaining relationships, or trying to educate people about the inherent dangers of faith and anti-intellectualism (which may be somewhat trivial, in relation to some other things), but they do matter a little.  The fact that they matter less, that they have less depth of meaning in our lives, does not strip them of meaning completely.

They are just relatively shallow.

Now, many may respond saying that the word “shallow” has a different connotation than this use.  That referring to something as “shallow” is not merely saying the trivial thing that it is not particularly important or deep in comparison to other things.  It is really a dig, an insult, and should not be tolerated in a civil conversation.  But I think that this is too simplistic.  I, for example, do not think that Greta Christina is a shallow person.  Her thoughts and efforts in the skeptical and atheist community have demonstrated that she is a person of great breadth and depth, and I have held her in very high esteem for her writing and observations on culture, religion, etc.  She was, in fact, the very first blogger I remember recommending to my fiance, and I have read her blog consistently for about 2 years now.

Her interest in fashion, however, is an exception to this rule.  It is a shallow and human thing that fills her out as a rounded person, and if she claimed to have no such interests I’d assume she was lying. Because she’s human.  I don’t fault her for having this interest, nor do I think I should.  It is obviously something she cares about, and it is one of many interests that she has which fills her out as a person, most of which is deep, considered, and important.  Hell, even her discussion of fashion is deeper than other conversations of fashion I have heard before.

I think that Greta, as well as many other people in our culture, need to take a second look at the word “shallow” and see if it really is an insult.  The same goes for “trivial” and “vain.”  These terms are not all bad, and in fact may not be bad at all.

Take, for example, the word “slut.”  In most of our culture, the word “slut” has a negative connotation.  It is an insult for most people, especially women.  But I, as well as many women I know, use the word as a positive one.  I proudly identify as a slut, and prefer to date sluts.  Why?  Because the insult of the term is predicated upon being sexually promiscuous and not ashamed of it as a bad thing.  If what the word “slut” refers to are not actually bad, then the term is not bad.  Similarly, “shallow” is considered an insult because it is assumed that to be interested in things without intellectual or cultural depth is a flaw.  But what is overlooked here is that what is bad (if anything is bad here) is a person who is predominantly or solely interested in shallow pursuits, not merely having any shallow pursuits.  Pointing out that an interest, like fashion, that someone has as being shallow is not an insult per se.  It is not an indictment of the whole person.

Now, whether a person is interested in predominantly shallow things is bad or not is a question that I will not tackle here.  I think it is a character flaw, but whether it’s bad…that’s a conversation I’m willing to have.

But for now, I am satisfied having addressed these points..