Thursday, June 19, 2008

"A Failure To Understand The Complex Purposes For Which Language Is Used"

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Yirmeyahu commenting on Two Pet Peeves:

I have to disagree, albeit mildly, on either account. This complaint reminds me of those lodged against the use of "Baruch Hashem" in response to an inquiry on one's well being. To me the error in this kind of thinking is somewhat encapsulated in the following passage:

"A not uncommon complaint of those who take too narrow a view of legitimate uses of language concerns the way in which words are "wasted" at social functions. 'So much talk, and so little said!' sums up this kind of criticism. And more than one person has been heard to remark, 'So and so always asks me how I am. What a hypocrite! He doesn't care in the least how I am!" Such remarks reveal a failure to understand the complex purposes for which language is used." (Introduction to Logic, Irving M. Copi, 5th Edition, page 55)

In the first case, I think it is important to recognize that a community has a legitimate need to ensure more than minimal participation of it's members. Your chaverim need you there. You are an essential part. Perhaps you do have legitimate reasons, even just down time. The phrase does, or at least can, connotate that there was a degree of expectation/obligation for you to come, but at the same time the fact that it was phrased in this manner rather than even a mild rebuke or challenge of your absence indicates that the commenter is probably trying to be dan l'kaf zchus over your absence. I do not agree with your characterization that the phrase is generally reflective of a "misery loves company" attitude or resentment that you failed to participate. What right does one have to take it to mean anything other than the event would have been more enjoyable with your presence, barring any sarcastic tone or other obvious indicator of insincerity?

Likewise, I don't see what basis one has to try to read other people's mind when they qualify an indication to act with an "im yirtzeh Hashem". Even when we can detect that it is said in a way that the speaker believes that the "ratzon" might be that it won't work out, who are we to suspect that it is because they don't plan to give it a serious effort or otherwise think in cannot happen? Shouldn't we rather take it as a sincere commitment that someone recognizes that they will have a great challenge achieving? Why is it better to qualify one's agreement by saying they "intend" to rather than an explicit recognition that Hakadosh Baruch Hu might not allow that intent to come to fruition?

Perhaps I'm reading this all wrong and am just feeling argumentative today. Even so it seems to me that one case is being critical of a perceived use of language perceived as imposing an unsolicited obligation on oneself (and criticizing a failure to met that obligation) while the second is being critical of the perceived use of language to passively evade an unsolicited expectation one has placed on others.

I hope you don't take this as a criticism. We all have things that grate on us and I'm no one who should give mussar about finding other people's behavior annoying. When these things pertain to social norms about how to express oneself, I think the key is to work at being less bothered by them rather than to justify them. It is probably more fair and will lead to less aggravation in the long run.

All that being said, I suspect that your annoyance is more out of the fact that these phrases remind you of instances, or a number of instances, where they were used in a way that indicated the attitudes which you attribute to them more than you really assume that this is what is meant by anyone you happen to hear utter those words.


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