What is grace? I think of it as a sort of beauty associated with movement. A dance can be graceful, but a symphony or a painting cannot. They have a different sort of beauty.
It can also refer to human interactions. When done tactfully and considerately, leaving nobody feeling awkward, or worse than they need to feel, they are graceful. Somebody that deals with others in a way that is unnecessarily rough and hurtful ‘lacks grace’.
I think there may be a connection between these two. I’ll think about that later. But for now let’s think about the grace of movement.
I am a huge fan of graceful movement. It doesn’t just have to be dance, which is often designed to be graceful. It can be found in the most unexpected places.
Since my third year of high school I have enjoyed physical activity and being fit. In my youth that included going in cycling and running races. In later high school I trained hard on my bicycle, and the fitness gained from this equipped me to win our annual school cross country race. That then put me into the team for the inter-school races for our region – the Southern Districts of New South Wales. I was at a Catholic school and I think we competed against the other catholic and non-government schools in that region.
I nearly always came third in these inter-school competitions. There was a boy from another Canberra school that came second. I think his name was David Rowe, but I am not sure. What I am completely sure of is that the winner was always Andrew Reardon, from Saint Patrick’s boarding school in Goulburn.
I didn’t see much of Andrew in those cross country races. Just a pair of heels disappearing into the distance as soon as the starting gun went off. If we were running on trails in the pine forest, as we often were, my only goal was to keep him in sight so I could follow his route and thereby avoid taking a wrong turn.
In summer we would have inter-school athletics. I was chosen to represent my school at the middle distance events, of which I usually chose the 1500m and 3000m races. Again I usually came third, but this time I got to see Andrew Reardon in action from closer quarters, and not just from behind. We often raced on lovely, smooth grass 300m tracks that belonged to the richer private schools. A 3000m race was ten laps, which was enough time for Andrew to get to being on the exact opposite side of the track from me – 150m ahead – so I could see him running from the side. And what a gorgeous sight it was! He seemed to just float over the ground in an effortless manner with a grace that words cannot describe. It felt like watching a gazelle or a cheetah in a David Attenborough film, except that cheetahs are sprinters and would probably keel over if asked to run further than 400m.
Any feelings of envy or competitive resentment just leached out of me, as I just felt so privileged to watch this graceful performance. One would say it was poetry in motion if it hadn’t been said a million times before. But the loss of my competitive urge didn’t make me slow down. Rather I increased my pace so that the distance between us didn’t get to more than half a lap and thereby degrade my view of this majestic performance. I imagine Andrew was just cruising at what was a comfortable pace for him, while I was gasping and spluttering. I expect he could easily have accelerated and lapped me quite soon had he a mind to do so. If so, it was a demonstration of the other sort of grace to not subject me to that humiliation. Noblesse oblige.
What was it about his running style that touched me so? I want to say rhythm and symmetry, but that has a connotation of mechanistic, and it was anything but mechanistic. Relaxation was another key aspect, and machines are not relaxed. Andrew looked like he was playing, or floating. It was like a Brandenburg Concerto in vision. You had to be there.
Thereafter I worked on making my own running style as relaxed, symmetric and rhythmic as I could. This wasn’t just vanity. I also believed that running that way would use less energy and allow me to run faster. Perhaps it worked a bit. I did get much faster over the next few years, and some people were even kind enough to say that I had a ‘nice running style’.
The last I saw of Andrew Reardon was in late 1980, when I saw him on telly, which was showing a NSW schools championship athletic meet at Hensley Field in Sydney, which was then a lovely, smooth grass track (now it’s synthetic). It was a 1500m event, which he won reasonably easily, I think in about 3:52. Watching it on telly, without being distracted by my own attempts to run, I could revel in the joy of this exhibition of perfect movement. It was great.
I sometimes wonder what became of Andrew Reardon. Did he become a farmer, as many of the boys at that rural college might have done, or did he move to the city and become a businessman? Did he grow a middle-age paunch as most men do (Oh no!), or did he keep himself trim? Does he still run?
Shortly thereafter I was struck by the running of another Andrew – this time the Australian representative Andrew Lloyd. I saw him on telly, I think running some national championship meet, at perhaps 5k or 10k. He too had a beautiful, relaxed style, seeming to glide along as if his feet weren’t even touching the ground. I remember he was wearing a cap, which runners would generally avoid as an encumbrance, and making it hard to dissipate heat. But it didn’t seem to trouble him. He looked so cool!
In my university days I trained sometimes with athletes at the Australian Institute of Sport, since that was in Canberra and so was I. So I got to see Andrew Lloyd up close while training, and to admire his easy style.
He was involved in a horrible road accident in the early 1980s in which his wife was killed and his elbow was smashed. When he recovered, his elbow was, if not fused, swollen and difficult to move, so his style became lopsided and a bit awkward. But he was still very fast. I think he won the City to Surf a few years after that.
Grace is not a pre-requisite for being a fast runner. Contemporary with Lloyd was Laurie Whitty, a runner with a famously ungainly style, but who won national championships and represented Australia. One of the most famous ever distance runners was the Czech Emil Zatopek, who apparently had a very ungainly style. There is not much film of him running because his heyday was in the fifties. Australia’s most prestigious 10k race is named after him because he won in the 1956 Melbourne olympics and apparently really liked Australia.
Have you noticed that the lululemon logo looks very similar to a capital Omega: Ω? It also looks a bit like the emblem on the Torres Strait islander flag.
In the early eighties I was heavily influenced by a book by Percy Cerutty, who coached a number of brilliant Australian distance runners, including Herb Elliott, who held the world 1500m and mile records and won the 1500m at the 1960 olympics in Rome. He advocated a very nature-based training regime, involving only natural foods – mostly raw – and running on sand hills, beaches and in forests rather than on athletic tracks. But the most memorable – to me – aspect of his philosophy was his claim that through too much soft living, adult humans had forgotten how to move naturally. So to learn how to run properly, and fast, we should watch how other animals do it.
Cerutty disdained symmetry. I don’t know what he would have thought of Andrew Reardon. Percy thought human running should have different modes like a horse – trot, canter and gallop, in order of increasing speed. While trotting is symmetric and may be suitable for marathons, cantering and galloping are not, and he thought they should be used for distances of 10k and shorter. I remember running on the beach when on summer holidays trying to imagine myself as a two-legged horse and transition from trot to canter and then to gallop as I sped up. It seemed to work but maybe it was all psychological. If you imagine yourself galloping then you feel fast and, to some extent, that makes you go faster.
I remember seeing some visiting African athletes jogging about in tracksuits on the training track in Canberra, while preparing for a race on the main track that was next door. They just looked so flexible and bouncy, as if every movement was joyful play. That was another manifestation of grace.
Enough about athletics. That is just one example of where grace can crop up unexpectedly. It is there in hurdling and high jump and pole vault as well as in running. Maybe we could even see it in shot put, but we might have to look a little harder.
Grace seems important in Zen, although it doesn’t seem to be identified or named as such. In the Japanese tea ceremony, great importance is placed on the way one moves in preparing the tea, in serving it, and in how one drinks it. I love the way the cup is offered with both hands and a bow, and is received in the same way. This translates to the way that business cards are presented, and even how purchases are handed across in a shop. I try my best to remember to participate in such small but special rituals. When in doubt, use two hands and make a slight bow!
I have never mindfully raked pebbles as Zen monks sometimes do, but I imagine grace plays a role in that as well – watching the intricate patterns made by the pebbles as they are disturbed by the rake tines and then resettle in their wake.
I think if we look hard enough we can find grace in many things that move around us – humans, other animals, trees and bushes in the wind, even inanimate objects. I try to find this when I feel disheartened. It helps a bit.
I think again about the role of grace in human interaction. The grace is in the speech acts, in the words said, the tone in which they are said, and in accompanying gestures and facial expressions. I suppose all of these are movements. On a simple level, they are movements because speech comes from movement of body parts – lips, tongue, larynx, lungs – and of the intervening air that carries the sound waves. On a more abstract level, they are movements because they are expressed over time, and movement is defined in terms of time. They cannot be captured by a still picture – although a skilful snapshot can hint at it. Even more abstractly, they are movements of emotion – a communication of feeling from one being to another.
I would like to cite an example of a well-known graceful interaction, but my memory fails me (I imagine there are lots from Barack Obama. He is a very graceful person). Nevertheless, we all know what they are and have witnessed and valued them. They catch our attention particularly in difficult circumstances – when somebody turns aside aggression or insult, or rejects a crude suggestion, without aggression and without making anybody feel bad. When somebody finds a way to include somebody that is excluded by their difference, without making a big deal of it. When somebody finds a way to show solidarity and support for somebody that is grieving, without patronising them or putting them in a position where they are obliged to respond.
Then there is grace shown by somebody under extreme pressure – be it their own tragedy, anger, fear or anxiety. When they surprise us by expressing and taking care for things beyond themselves and their worries, despite all.
I don’t know whether it’s the same sort of grace. Classifications rarely matter anyway. But it seemed worth mentioning.
I resolve to try to be more graceful in my relations to other living beings, rather than just in how I run.
Bondi Junction, August 2019
PS I just remembered cricket. I couldn’t send this off without mentioning the joy of watching a truly graceful batter. How they can deal with a heavy red projectile fired at them at up to 160 kph by a small, subtle flick of the wrists that sends the ball to the boundary for four runs. Watching really good batting is like watching a brilliant dance. It’s not for nothing that cricket enthusiasts, more than in any other sport I know, keep photos of their heros in action – in the execution or the aftermath of one of the wide variety of elegant shots available to them.
Recently I have come across numerous instances of muslim-baiting. I use that term to describe the practice where somebody that hates Islam talks or writes publicly about obnoxious passages of Muslim scripture – in the Quran or the Hadiths – and imply that Muslims must either agree with them, in which case they are horrible extremists, or reject them, in which case they are ‘not proper Muslims’.
Aggressive anti-muslim advocates like Andrew Bolt and Pauline Hanson sometimes focus on passages in the Quran or the Hadiths that advocate beliefs or describe actions that are considered abhorrent in modern, liberal Western society – things such as demonising gay people, advocating the slaughter of infidels, endorsing wife-beating, and Muhammed allegedly marrying a six-year old girl.
The anti-muslims seek to confront moderate muslims with this and force them to choose between their religion and their acceptance in society. The argument goes that, if the person endorses those passages of scripture they are a menace to society, but if they do not then they are not a proper muslim, and are being dishonest.
I will come shortly to why that tactic is unfair and dishonest. But first let’s look at what it could possibly be aiming to achieve. Presumably, since the provocateur abhors Islam, they do not want to force the person to move towards the radical extreme of Islam. The only plausible aim I can see in the tactic is the hope that the muslim will suddenly realise what a terrible religion Islam is, reject it on the spot and become adopt a secular or Christian worldview.
How many people do you know that have done that?
I know none, and have not heard of any either. In my experience, human nature is such that, if somebody aggressively attacks something that is a key part of your world, be it your religion, your family, your political persuasion or your football club, you will dig your heels in, forget any doubts you may have had about the thing being attacked, and associate even more strongly with it.
If that observation is accurate, then these attacks, by people claiming to be champions of Western or Judeo-Christian Values (both of which I consider to be misnomers, but that’s a different essay), will just entrench the importance of Islam to immigrant populations. Not only that, but by deriding moderate versions of Islam as cognitively dissonant at best and dishonest at worst – ‘not true Islam’ – they put pressure on moderate muslims to become extremists.
In other words, the results of such mean and ham-fisted efforts by the ‘defenders of Western values’ are the exact opposite of what they would say they are aiming for. Dumb tactics indeed! Tactics that would be cheered on enthusiastically by the fundamentalists of Daesh and Al Qaeda, as they drive moderate peace-loving muslims towards the clutching arms of the terrorists.
Now let’s turn to the fairness of such attacks. Are they consistent with how we treat other belief systems? Do we, in particular, aggressively demand that moderate Christians publicly state whether they endorse the Bible’s advocacy of stoning adulterers (Leviticus 20:10) and disobedient children (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) and executing gay men (Leviticus 20:13)? Or, if we want to be charitable enough to accept the common view that the Old Testament no longer applies, having been superseded by the New, do we ask them whether they support Paul’s invocation ‘slaves, obey your masters’ (Colossians 3:22) and ‘wives, submit to your husbands’ (Ephesians 5:22), and rejoice in the statements attributed to Jesus: ‘I came not to bring peace, but a sword’ (Matthew 10:34) and ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14:26) and ‘Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them’ (the “moral” of the repulsive Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30).
Turning from Christianity generally, to its largest denomination – Roman Catholicism – are RCs asked to choose between agreeing with the church’s campaign against condom use in countries afflicted with AIDS epidemics on the one hand, and complete abandonment of their religion on the other?
The answer, of course, is No. Neither Roman Catholics nor Christians are treated as dangerous subversives in Western cultures. Sure, there are a few over-excited atheist demagogues that might wish they were, but even when their criticisms are perfectly good ones – such as that it is child abuse to teach children they will burn forever in hell if they don’t believe in Jesus – the people making the criticisms are regarded as extremists, rather than those they are criticising.
I know plenty of progressive Christians – you know, the ones that believe the central message of their religion is to love one another, and that anything in the bible or their church’s teaching that can’t be interpreted to be consistent with that should be ignored. They are generally good people. On average they seem to be no worse than those that don’t subscribe to a belief system with dodgy bits in its older scriptures. As long as they don’t claim that the Bible was dictated by God word-for-word to its writers, and transcribed and translated without error, there is no inherent contradiction in that stance. Their religious belief does not entail a need to live in perpetual cognitive dissonance.
It is good that most non-Christians in Western society display this tolerance towards moderate Christians. It is odd and unfortunate then, that the same tolerance is less often extended to moderate muslims. Forcing people whose religion is a crucial part of their life to choose between becoming a violent extremist and abandoning their faith is bad tactics, uncharitable and just stupid, whether the religion is Christianity, Islam or something else. Perhaps if there were a religion whose central tenet was seriously harmful, such an approach might make sense. We might for instance class Nazism in the Third Reich as a state religion, in which the central tenet is the sacredness of the German fatherland and people, whose triumph over all the inferior races must be secured. In such a case it would be reasonable to try by all reasonable means to persuade people to abandon it. But religions like that are very rare. So rare, in fact, that I had to break my own rule of never using Nazis as an example, because in this case it was the only example I could think of (Sorry, Mr Godwin).
The reason I am writing this is that I have recently seen criticism from ‘the right’ of what it alleges to be double standards on ‘the left’ in defending Muslims on the one hand while criticising Christians on the other. They say the left is hypocritical for criticising hard-line Christians that attempt to impose their views about issues like abortion, same sex marriage and assisted dying on society, while sticking up for immigrants that belong to a religion that the critics say has even harder-line views on those issues.
That criticism is based on a mistake, which is understandable, but which would not be made if the critics would only apply the good old Principle of Charity to their opponents’ arguments – ie to consider the range of possible interpretations of the arguments and choosing the most sensible one, rather than the one that is silliest and easiest to knock down (a straw man).
Certainly I criticise hard-line Christians that try to impose their views on society, for doing that. But I do not argue they should be forced into silence, sent back to where they came from (originally Europe, in most cases), or treated as second-class citizens, denied the right to build places of worship. And I don’t criticise moderate Christians at all for their religion. Yet these same critics want to exclude Muslims from our country and control those that are here, without stopping to ask what their beliefs are or to see whether they keep those beliefs to themselves or impose them on wider society. All that I and others ask for is that Muslims be given the same courtesy that Christians are given – of being judged by what they do and say as an individual, rather than simply by their membership of a group out of which a tiny minority has behaved in a nasty manner.
Bondi Junction, July 2019
Australia had a chance at the election last Saturday (18 May 2019) to turn towards a more compassionate, inclusive society, to shoulder its responsibilities to reduce its contribution to deadly climate change, to share more, to think about what we as individuals can do for our country, and especially for those less fortunate than ourselves, rather than just for me and my family.
Despite the polls and the bookmakers portraying Labor as an unbackable favourite to win (or perhaps partly because of that), Australia did not take that chance. That was a mistake, and it reflects shamefully on the Australian electorate. They chose to vote for what they had been misled into believing were their own financial interests, without casting the slightest thought to what the interests of others might be, especially the less fortunate.
The invariable custom after surprising election losses is for political pundits to line up to give their smug views about what the loser did wrong. The fact that these same pundits did not identify as mistakes before the election the tactics of the loser that they are now saying were mistakes is not mentioned. Carefully avoiding that embarrassing admission, the pundits continue to pose as all-knowing, all-wise, basking in the glow of their own all-seeing hindsight.
If it is a mistake to do something that can only be identified afterwards to have disastrous consequences then it was a mistake for me not to take the entire savings of my family, re-mortgaged our house for as much as I could, and bet the lot on the Coalition winning the election, for which I would have quintupled our wealth. Was that a mistake? Would it have been a responsible act to do that? Would it have been ethical? Of course not. It would have been reprehensible.
We can go further. With the benefit of hindsight, we can say it was a mistake for the midwife that assisted at the birth of Pol Pot not to have strangled him at birth.
If the only insight you have to offer on an event comes from hindsight, better remain silent!
To take a small philosophical digression, the comments from hindsight are not even correct! To say that Labor would have won if it had used a different tactic – made itself a ‘small target’ by announcing as little policy as possible before the election – is to assume that the damage incurred by being a big target would not have happened but everything else would have remained the same. In real life of course, everything else never remains the same! To imagine how history would have evolved if we were to change one or two things (killing Pol Pot at birth, making Labor a small target at the 2019 election) is indulging in what’s called a counterfactual, something that, as I discuss in this essay, is rife with logical problems. At the practical end is the problem that everything else never is the same, once we change one or two significant factors. As both Dirk Gently and the Buddha pointed out – everything is connected to everything else. At the theoretical end, we have the even more difficult problem from Bell’s Theorem of quantum mechanics that, unless we allow the possibility of faster than light communication, it is not even valid to ask what would have happened if we’d done something differently. The question is meaningless!
So take that, pundits burbling on about Labor’s mistake! Get back to me once you’ve read up on the Madhyamika notion of Dependent Origination and understood Bell’s Theorem, and are able to try to fill the holes they blast in your smug platitudes.
Unfortunately, ignoring the pundits is not enough to save us from discussions of ‘what Labor did wrong’, because the Labor party itself will be doing some soul-searching over the result. That is unavoidable, and understandable. After a loss, one has to use the experience to gain insights about what might work better next time. I don’t mind that, as long as there is no pretence that the Australian public (which democratic dogma insists we must treat as being infinitely wise!) has sent a message to the party about what is necessary to be a good government. So often after elections we see the defeated party, or sometimes a party that wins but much less handsomely than it had expected, make public statements of contrition, asking the voting public for forgiveness for not being what they wanted, and promising to listen more. To do that in this case would be like a parent grovelling before a toddler after the toddler has had a tantrum because it was prevented from hitting its baby sister, promising to be more accommodating to the toddler in future, if only the toddler will please, please forgive its silly, misguided parent.
I am not, of course, suggesting that the relationship of politicians or governments to the voting public is like that of a parent to a child. That idea went out with Plato, thank goodness. I am just pointing out that the failure of the voting public to accept an offer of changes to society from a political party does not mean that it was not a good offer. How otherwise can we explain the continual re-election of war-making Binyamin Netanyahu over his peace-seeking opponents, of the South African National Party for so many years in the apartheid regime there, or the repeated electoral rejection of MPs in 18-19th century Britain that sought to end the slave trade? There is no wisdom to be found in democratic decisions. Their only virtue is that they are less often as vicious as some of the non-democratic decisions that get made.
This election was billed as the ‘climate election’. One of the main differences between the parties was that Labor had a program to rein in Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, while the Coalition not only did not have any plan and had presided over rising emissions in recent years, but were toying with the idea of using taxpayer money to subsidise the construction of new coal-fired power stations. So much for the Coalition being the party of free enterprise and small government!
The Australian voting public chose to vote for the party that wanted to do less than nothing to control climate change. Does that mean that controlling climate change is a bad idea? No, it just means that the Australian voting public is, on average, too selfish to be prepared to do anything about it, if there is the slightest risk that it might cause them a little inconvenience. For most Australians, caring about the climate apparently means tossing an item in the recycling bin occasionally, buying a few cloth shopping bags that will end up at the bottom of some cupboard because it’s too hard to remember to take them to the shops, and and nodding in a concerned-looking way, saying ‘oh yes how awful’ in a compassionate-sounding voice when there is talk of the devastation climate change is wreaking.
Undoubtedly Labor underestimated how selfish and gullible the average Australian voter is (gullible, because they were able to be convinced that increased taxes, and removal of government handouts, that only affect the wealthy, will somehow affect middle and working class Australians as well). The party took a risk, publishing detailed policies on a number of important issues, rather than just running on the platform that the current government has been distracted by internal warfare for six years and has done nothing for the country, so should be sacked. They made themselves a big target because, if you go to an election with policies, you have a mandate to implement them. If you go to an election without policies, all you have a mandate for is not being the previous mob. As soon as you try to make any significant policy initiatives, people can complain that’s not what they voted for – with some justification (although not very much if, like me, you support Edmund Burke’s formulation of the duty of a representative government).
To go to an election with few policies is great if all you aim to do is get elected. We have had governments in the past, on both sides, at both state and federal level, that have focused solely on getting into and staying in power, never made any policy decisions that might frighten anybody, and hence achieved nothing and left the country or state a worse place than it was when they came to government (Bob Carr, former NSW Labor Premier, take an especially deep bow!). To go to an election with a bag full of policies is politically courageous but also politically generous, because it offers the country the opportunity of real, meaningful government, rather than just self-obsessed clinging to power. What this election result seems to suggest, as did the surprise defeat of the Coalition in 1993 with its big target ‘fightback’ policy reform package, is that it is not politically possible for challengers to offer meaningful policies, because against any meaningful policy that involves significant government income or expenditure, a scare campaign can be mounted. Why? – because to be meaningful it must involve some change in income or expenditure – either the amount or from where it is obtained or to what it is applied – and that means there must be some people that will be less well off under the proposal. All that’s needed for a good scare campaign is to persuade enough people that they will be one of those worse off, regardless of whether there’s a skerrick of truth in it.
I don’t blame the Coalition for its scare campaign on taxes and reduction of government subsidies to well-off retirees. Any political operator on either side will make the best use of the tools available to them, within some pretty broad limits, and the Coalition did just that. Any political party would do the same. What is disappointing is that the Australian voters were (1) gullible enough to be convinced they would be disadvantaged by something that wouldn’t disadvantage them and might even benefit them and (2) selfish enough to use that as a reason to not do anything about climate change, more compassionate treatment of refugees or many of the other elements of the Labor policy package that sought to help the less well-off.
In 2022 we can expect the Labor campaign to be almost policy-free, as the Australian public has made it crystal clear to the political parties that that’s what’s necessary to get elected these days. Next election, the pundits will all line up to criticise that, conveniently forgetting that they criticised Labor after this election for not being policy-free.
It’s a bit sad these days, walking down the street, seeing people’s faces, and recognising that the majority of them voted for themselves, rather than for climate action or reduction of inequality. I can’t know which ones voted which way, so I try to give each person I see or with whom I interact the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they were not one of the selfish ones, even though I know the odds against that being the case for all of them are astronomical. It’s just part of trying to remain cheerful and being friendly to people.
It’s very sad, but it’s bearable. As long as I don’t have to listen to anybody in Labor begging the forgiveness of the Australian people and promising to listen more. It should be the other way around.
Bondi Junction, May 2019
When it comes my turn to be king of the world I will ban the word ‘obviously’, together with its fellow travellers ‘clearly’ and ‘evidently’. My challenge to you, the other inhabitants of the kingdom of Earth, is this: find me a single example of a sentence that is improved by the use of the word ‘obviously’!
I assert that, not only is ‘obviously’ never an improvement to a sentence, but it usually degrades a sentence into which it is inserted and renders it foolish, pompous, or just plain false.
The first memory I have of encountering this rebarbative word is in mathematics lectures at university. It was the early 1980s. In those days lectures performed their proofs live on the black board with chalk – a difficult endeavour indeed. As soon as you saw that word on a board, you felt that if you couldn’t instantly see why that line followed logically from the line before, you must be very dim. If you hadn’t seen the connection by the time they finished writing the next line, you started to panic. The only solution was to accept the claim without challenge and try to keep up with what came next. There would be time that evening to go over your notes and try to work out why the claim was ‘obviously’ true.
Sometimes in the evening you could figure it out without difficulty. Sometimes you figured it out but it needed a page or so of closely written reasoning to justify it. Sometimes you couldn’t make it out at all. That’s when you had to summon your courage and challenge the lecturer about it before the next lecture. You’d sidle up to him and say ‘Sorry to bother you but I can’t see how you get line five. Can you please explain it?’
In short, it was rarely obvious. Even when it was moderately obvious, there were other lines that were more obvious, for which the tag was not used.
I started to detect a pattern. The word was being used to cover for the fact that the lecturer couldn’t remember, off the top of their head, the justification for the line. By writing ‘obviously’ they made potential hecklers too worried about seeming dumb to challenge the claim on the spot. It was the Emperor’s New Clothes all over again. What was needed was the little boy to blurt out ‘But it’s not obvious at all. In fact I can’t even see it.’
I forgive those lecturers, because what they were doing was very difficult. I would feel under a lot of pressure having to perform mathematical derivations on a blackboard in front of a specialist audience.
It is less forgivable when it occurs in text books. In many a mathematics or physics text book I have come across the prefix ‘obviously’ before a line that was the exact opposite. The authors of textbooks do not have the excuse that they have to come up with explanations on the spot, but they are nevertheless under time pressure because, unless a text is chosen as a key text for courses at many major schools or universities, it will not bring in much revenue, so extra time spent writing it makes it even harder to be profitable. Why spend hours deriving a proof of something you are fairly sure is true, but don’t remember why, when you can just write ‘obviously’ in half a second, and move on to the next line?
I don’t begrudge them saving that time, but there are more honest and helpful ways to do it. Other phrases that can be used are “It turns out that…” and “It can be shown that…”. These make it clear that what the author has written is not a full proof, and that the step over which they are glossing is not trivial. When I encounter those I don’t mind very much because they don’t contain the implicit challenge “If you can’t see why this line follows from the last one you must be stupid!”. The most generous excuse of all is “It is beyond the scope of this paper / text / chapter to prove X, so we will take it as read”. That way the reader knows that proof is long and difficult.
It is annoying when academics use the word ‘obviously’ in that way, but at least they use it in relation to a claim that is true. In political argument, that is not the case. People use ‘obviously’ to justify any claim, no matter how dubious, or sometimes just plain wrong. Examples abound, from politicians, shock jocks and reactionary newspaper columnists.
“Obviously, decriminalising marijuana use would make the problem worse”
“Obviously, it makes no difference whether Australia reduces its greenhouse gas emissions, since ours only make up a small part of the world’s total”
“Obviously, what’s needed to solve our city’s traffic problems is to build bigger roads”
“Obviously, we have to be cruel to refugees, otherwise many more would come to our country”.
It’s used as an excuse to not even consider any evidence that may be available, to not even entertain rational discussion on a topic. It implies that anybody that does not accept the claim must be stupid or have dishonest intentions. It’s an attempt to shut down inquiry and discussion, lest that lead to an outcome against which the speaker has an entrenched prejudice.
Is anything ever obvious?
Perhaps, but we need to very careful in suggesting that. What is obvious to one may not be at all obvious to another. A high-visibility yellow vest is obvious to normal-sighted people but not to the colour-blind. A person walking across a basketball court in a gorilla suit is not obvious to observers that have been tasked with counting the number of times each player passes the ball.
Further, beliefs in what is obvious are often founded on stereotypes that may be damaging. Is it obvious that boys are better at maths than girls, or that men cannot be trusted to care for other people’s children?
This leads me to wondering whether there is any sentence in which the word ‘obviously’ can play a useful role. I don’t apply the same challenge to ‘obvious’ because it can have observer-dependent roles, as in “It eventually became obvious to Shona that the doorman was not going to let her into the club”. Or we can use it to express relative obviousness, as in “Not wanting to mislay them, he left his keys in the most obvious position he could think of – in the middle of the empty kitchen bench”.
But “obviously”? That adverbial suffix ‘ly’ seems to strip from the adjective any ability to convey subtleties of degree. There seems to be no way of using it that does not imply that anybody who does not agree with the following proposition, and understand why it must be correct, is simply stupid.
No wonder it is used either as a tool of bullying or as a lazy attempt to escape the need to justify one’s claims.
Sometimes it occurs without intent, as a verbal tic. Like most verbal tics, it is rooted in the insecurity of the speaker. Although it sounds like it has an opposite meaning to other tics like ‘if that makes sense’ or ‘if you like’, it serves the same purpose in deflecting attention from the speaker’s insecurity – but in an offensive rather than a defensive way. In both cases the speaker hopes not to be challenged. With ‘if that makes sense’ the hope is that the humility it projects will discourage a listener from saying ‘that doesn’t sound right’, if only out of charity to the speaker. The ‘obviously’ is like the puffed-out frill of a lizard – a pretence at invulnerability intended to discourage attack: ‘Challenge me on this and you’ll end up looking foolish!’. Except that the intent is usually subconscious and, once one has used the phrase many times, it becomes reflexive, devoid of any meaning, or even of subconscious intent.
I vowed quite some time ago never to use the word, or any of its synonyms. I think I have managed to keep the vow. I hope I have. But I cannot be sure. One uses so many words in the course of a week, that it’s hard to keep track of them all.
If something is truly obvious to almost everybody, there should be no need to state that. It will be obvious that it is obvious. If, as is more often the case, it is far from obvious, it is foolish at best, and dishonest at worst, to imply that it is.
Bondi Junction, April 2019
I was watching the BBC dramatisation of Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’. It was the execution of Ann Boleyn – a grim scene. She was determined to see it through bravely, despite clearly being terrified. Her chin and cheeks were shivering uncontrollably, the poor lass. She had been a thoroughly dislikeable character throughout the series, but nevertheless one felt overpowering empathy for her in this cruel moment.
Apart from the fear, what struck me was how prolonged the process was. She had to climb steps up to the scaffold, receive a blessing from the vicar, say goodbye to her ladies-in-waiting, kneel at the block, have the blindfold fitted – and on it went. Did the prolonged process make it more, or less bearable? I don’t know. But serious, frightening processes more often than not take a long time.
Many years ago I went through a short period of being afraid of flying. I don’t know where it came from. For the rest of my life, before and after that time, I have enjoyed flying tremendously, except for the excruciatingly long, boring flights between Australia and Europe. But at that time, I was afraid of dying in a crash, and I dreaded the takeoff.
It took so long to get ready for takeoff, it seemed as though it would never happen – in which case there was theoretically nothing to fear. First you had to get to the airport. That took a while. Then you had to wait in a queue to check-in (no internet check-ins or touch-screen check-in kiosks in those days). Then you had to line up for the security checks. They weren’t quite as bad then as in these paranoid times. The main thing airline operators were worried about was planes dropping out of the sky because their computers broke with the Y2K bug – not something you can prevent by checking people’s baggage.
Then you had to go to the gate and wait for the flight to be called. Once it was called you had to wait in a queue to board. Once you were on board it was still slow going to get to your seat and get settled in. Then you had to wait for everybody else to be seated, all the pre-flight checks to be completed, the safety drills and announcements. Next, the pushback, the reversing. Then you had to wait what seemed forever while the plane pusher detached and the aeroplane prepared to move forward under its own power. Then the taxiing, which seemed to take forever. Finally the wait to move onto the runway, with sometimes as many as three or four planes in front.
Once we were on the runway, the process accelerated rapidly. We adopted the take-off position, facing down the runway from dead in the middle. I presume the pilots just did a few last-minute checks: flaps out, auto-brakes on, runway lights on. After no more than ten seconds for this they suddenly went VRRRROOOOOOOMMM and we were all slung back in our seats as the behemoth charged down the runway and hurled itself into the air.
It may have been only ten to fifteen minutes from boarding to take-off, but it seemed like an eternity. Even sitting in my seat and watching the safety drill, the take-off seemed so far-off and unreal that it was silly to worry about it.
Yet, somehow, it finally happened.
It wasn’t the take-off I was afraid of though. It was cruising so high up in the air. I just felt that at any moment we would start to drop like a stone. Little did I know that take-off is the most dangerous time in a flight, because power is at a maximum and speeds are higher than at landing. Or that jets can glide an awfully long way without engine power, and landing with no engines is a drill regularly performed by pilots in simulators. At any point in a flight the pilots will always know where is the nearest airport at which they can land.
There are so many things that are a bit, or a lot, frightening. Some of them take a long time to get ready for.
In my early thirties, I was unwell and had to have a bone marrow biopsy. I had been told they were painful. I went to the hospital on my own, had the biopsy and came home again. I remember it vaguely as being painful and frightening, but there are no details. I do remember that it took a long time to get ready. I don’t know whether the awfulness of it that I remember was the pain of the extraction itself or the anxiety of waiting during the preparation – curled up on my side while people in gowns did things to my back to prepare (I think they take it from one side or other of the pelvic bone – near the sacro-iliac joint, with a huge syringe).
More mundane events, that are not frightening at all, sometimes seem to take a long time to get ready for. Going to work and coming home from work are two of these. I am habitually late in leaving for work and late in leaving for home – at least since my children grew up. When they were little and we had a nanny that had to be relieved at a quarter to six I was out the door like a shot at the same time every day. But these days, with the kids all grown up, I dither about doing other things at both ends of the day, and am regularly late in commencing my journey. When I finally make a move to do so, I am constantly surprised at how long it takes me to get out of the door. Both leaving and arriving at work I change clothes in the change room, and I wonder at the large number of steps there are in that process. I feel a bit impatient in either direction – to get to my desk and start writing, or to get on my bike and start pedalling home. It is an opportunity to practice trying to be zen – something I am so pathetically bad at. I try to absorb myself in the intricate details of each movement – tying my shoelaces, putting on my reflective ankle bands, putting my work shoes back in my locker, etc, etc , etc. It works a bit to dissipate my impatience, but I’ve a long way to go before I have a black belt and can levitate or put myself in hibernation.
Some things are almost immediate, like scratching one’s nose or whistling a tune that is stuck in one’s head. But for many things, it takes a long time to get ready. Sometimes that seems a good thing, and sometimes it’s an annoyance.
Bondi Junction, February 2019
So I was riding to work, right? And I went around the corner on a shared path and came a little bit closer to a family of pedestrians than is ideal. I didn’t come very close, and wasn’t going fast. There was absolutely no danger, or even capacity to frighten, but you know, it’s best to give pedestrians a wide berth on a shared path, because it can be a bit scary when a bike comes near. At least I find it scary when a bike comes near me if I’m not ready for it.
Anyway, I sort of mumble something like ‘Sorry – a bit close’ as I go by and I just see this guy’s face – the father I reckon – looking at me calmly and waiting for me to pass.
My, what a patient guy, I think.
Then, because I can’t help imagining and catastrophising at the same time, I imagine what if he were like one of those alpha males that aggressively yells at anybody given the slightest opportunity, and he abused me? What would I say?
I thought, well I’d probably sheepishly mumble something like ‘Didn’t mean no harm mate’, which I didn’t, you know, and anyway I wasn’t that close, and it was a shared path.
But then it occurs to me that, in Australia ‘Mate’ is as often a challenge as it is an expression of fellow-feeling. Expressed with the right tone of voice at the beginning or end of a sentence, it often means ‘You stupid, quivering, pathetic excuse for a human being (that isn’t as manly as I am)’.
That would been almost the exact opposite of what I meant to convey to the man (who, let us remember, was patient and calm in real life). But that’s the trouble with the word ‘Mate’ here downunder.
Reactionary politicians love to talk about ‘mateship’ being a cornerstone of our culture, as if it’s a good thing. That’s weird. If it just means friendship then how is that specifically Australian? Don’t people in other countries have friends, and aren’t they kind and loyal to them as well? It makes as much sense to claim that as an Australian characteristic as it does for American nationalists to pretend they invented the concept of freedom.
No it means more, and yet less, than that. For a start it’s a specifically masculine term, even though they like to pretend it isn’t. Mateship is about drinking together in the pub until you can barely stand, and then not dobbing in your mate if, when he’s had a few too many, he drives a car, or belts his wife. There’s no room for women in mateship, and very little for non-Caucasians.
So I don’t like mateship, OK. I regard it as toxic, to use the word du jour. Nationalist zealots might say I go too far in my criticisms, but I say Yah, Boo, Sucks to them. Let’s stick with friendship, tolerance and compassion if we want to characterise how we aspire to relate to others.
I don’t like ‘Mate’, but I quite like ‘Comrade’. Partly because it seems so quaint and old fashioned. To me it conjures up Australian icons like Phillip Adams and Gough Whitlam. Round here it is redolent of a bygone age when brave, committed, idealistic (some might say deluded but I don’t think we’re in a position to judge) Australians believed in and worked for the Communist or Socialist dream that they saw as the only way to help the downtrodden, before Stalin, Mao, Ceaușescu and Pol Pot ruined it for us all.
Well they didn’t actually ruin it completely. They sullied it, and nobody wanted to touch it for a few decades. But now that we’re seeing the impact of über-capitalism around the world destroying cultures, livelihoods, employment and the environment, and face the prospect, with AI starting to take away all the jobs, of the world dividing into ten percent or less super-rich who own all the technology and the patents, and the rest are the unemployable, expendable poor…. Maybe now, it’s time to have another look at Comrade.
Now I understand that for people who lived in the Soviet bloc, the word Comrade may have the same horrible associations of aggression as Mate sometimes does in Australia. So maybe that’s not the right word. It would be OK here in Oz, but probably not in Russia (Tovarich) or Rostock (Kameradin / Kamerad).
I have another proposal though – Citizen.
I’ve been reading ‘The Gods Are Thirsty’ by Anatole France. It was written in early 19th century and is set in 1793, four years after the French Revolution and only months before the beginning of ‘the Terror’, the orgy of show trials and guillotinings led by Robespierre, in which 17,000 people were executed and another 10,000 died in prison.
That’s what people called each other after the French Revolution – Citizen (in French they said Citoyenne for women and Citoyen for men). Just as they called each other Comrade after the Russian Revolution.
Like Comrade, Citizen seems to have a connotation of working together, of shared civic responsibilities, that Mate doesn’t have. I like that. It’s nice to work together, rather than alone.
Shall we call one another Citizen, then?
But wait, what about those 27,000 dead in the French Terror? Did Citizen become just another term of passive aggressive bravado and bullying in the 1790s, just as Mate can be in Australia and maybe Comrade was in the 1930s Soviet Union?
Oh bother! Maybe we can’t call each other Citizen either.
What about ‘Friend’, then? That’s the sort of thing that wise old women and men call you in fantasy epics when you meet them on the deserted, long and winding roads through the wildlands. Surely that’s good isn’t it? Could we call each other that?
It can sound a bit creepy, I know. Like a stranger trying to insinuate themselves into your confidence. But is that just the product of the modern cynical mind? If we said Friend and meant it, and when it was said to us we accepted it as being meant as a genuine, friendly salutation, would it work? I think it might.
Sadly, it does remind me of another revolution though. Or perhaps this was more of a coup than a revolution – the seizure of power by Julius Caesar and his proclaiming himself emperor.
You know: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”.
Caesar was a fairly violent ruler – he invaded and slaughtered my ancestors for goodness sake! Everybody can find a story of colonisation and persecution of their ancestors if they go back far enough. But it only continues to mean anything if it’s recent enough to affect the memories or the life opportunities and prosperity of people whose ancestors were colonised and persecuted. And that’s not the case for me. Not even as regards the Norman invaders – bastards! And the even more recent English invaders of my Irish ancestors – double bastards! I know that some of my ancestors will have been colonisers of the other ancestors – the Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Vikings, Normans and English invaded and/or colonised the Britons, Anglo-Saxons and the Irish. But none of my current family were alive at the time of the persecutions, and my life opportunities have not been constrained by them, so I can’t complain.
What about Friend then? Does its association with Caesar and the aftermath of a coup make Friend yet another term that is tainted by association with brutishness?
Well now, I remember of a sudden that it was Shakespeare that wrote that bit about friends and ears, not Caesar. And in any case, Wikipedia tells me that it was Marc Antony, not Caesar, that uttered those words in the play.
So maybe Friend is OK.
Trouble is though, I don’t think I can quite carry it off. I am neither old enough nor wise enough to address people as Friend without appearing like a creep or a dangerous loon.
I think it will have to be Comrade after all. I’ll just be careful not to use it to address anybody that lived under Soviet oppression. And maybe I’ll make the odd switch to Citizen now and then when I want to sound sophisticated and cosmopolitan, provided I am sure there are no survivors of the Terror nearby to be offended by it.
Anything is better than Mate.
Perhaps Mate is okay as a non-sex-specific description of a life partner though, as in ‘puffins mate for life’, which is just so heart-warming, and how could anybody not love puffins? I’ve heard they are disgusting to eat, all oily, fishy and livery, like gelatinised cod liver oil. But that doesn’t worry me since I don’t eat any birds.
Goodbye for now, Comrades.
Bondi Junction, December 2018