Freeing our minds from the slavery of the verb ‘to be’

Originally I intended to call this essay ‘Why e-prime is such a great idea’. Then I realised that conflicted with one of my aims for the essay – to write the whole thing in e-prime.

A man named David Bourland invented the notion of e-prime as a means of making language easier to understand. E-prime differs from English in only one respect – that it omits all use of the verb ‘to be’ and its synonyms like ‘to exist’. In e-prime one can mention those verbs by putting them, either stand-alone or as part of a phrase, in quotation marks. A mention, as opposed to a use, quotes something from a foreign language – in this case English. So please don’t write me remonstrative letters about my using the forbidden verbs inside quotes. I didn’t use it. I mentioned it.

I discussed e-prime in my 2014 essay ‘On language and meaning’. In this new essay I aim to further explore the capabilities, benefits and limitations of e-prime, and to take up the challenge of writing a whole essay in that language. I will have to cover some old ground again. But I aim to make most of it new.

Why bother?

First, let’s ask: ‘why bother?’ It sounds like a lot of trouble to take over an apparent triviality. We might also fear that avoiding that verb would make language too difficult to use, given the depth of its embedding and integration into our language. It crops up almost everywhere. One might as well try to ban using the letter ‘e’.

In the next paragraph I will suggest reasons for bothering, but first I want to say that most uses of the verb create no trouble at all. When my beloved partner calls out from the other end of the house ‘Are you there Andrew?’, I know she means ‘Can you hear me, and if so can you please let me know’. If I reply “I’m in the garden”, she knows I mean that I can hear her, that she can find me in the garden if she wants to talk to me, or she can call out again and I could come to see her, if wanted.

Compare the simple clarity of that exchange, expressed in either English or e-Prime, with the verse 3:14 of the book of Exodus “And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM”. Nobody knows what that means. Pragmatists like me say it means nothing. But that has not stopped theologians like St Thomas Aquinas from writing hundreds of thousands of words of dense (and in my opinion, meaningless) prose trying to explain what that sort of thing means. The same thing happens when they try to explain that the consecrated wafer “IS the body of Christ” and that “God IS the Father and God IS the Son but the Father IS NOT the Son”.

This sort of nonsense doesn’t only come from Christians, Jews or Muslims. The Vedanta school of Hinduism, with which I feel great affinity, says that “We ARE all God (Brahman)” and “This world IS Brahman’s dream”. Buddhism, with which I also fellow-travel, says “There IS no persisting self”. One can criticise the opacity of these statements as fairly as those of the previous paragraph. I think I could possibly translate the latter two into e-Prime, and thereby render them more intelligible, but I’d need another essay for that.

The other day, while idling time away on the internet, I could not stop myself reading the entirety of a blazing row between two strangers on a philosophy discussion forum about a statement by the twentieth-century mystic Jiddu Krishnamurti that “The observer IS the observed”. I find some of Krishnamurti’s writing helpful and wise, but I confess I have no idea what he meant by that one. Yet those two internet users thought it worth their while to insult and berate one another, despite never having met, for page after page because they had different interpretations of Krishnamurti’s meaning.

Even Bertrand Russell, who generally took a pragmatic approach, and has the respect of most philosophers and many others, sometimes used the verb in obscure ways. He wrote an essay entitled “It Seems, Madam?? Nay it IS”. Hamlet first uttered that phrase, to his mother. We can translate it as “It may merely SEEM to you, Mum, that I constantly feel miserable, but I can assure you that I really DO constantly feel miserable”.

Russell’s essay sought to attack the Idealist philosophy, which to some extent denied the difference between “appearance” and “reality”. Russell wanted to say that some things that ‘seem to be the case’, really ‘ARE the case’, for instance that “Edinburgh REALLY IS North of London”. But unlike Hamlet’s use of ‘it is’, I don’t think Russell or anyone else can explain his use of ‘REALLY IS’ in that Edinburgh sentence, and I find myself wondering confusedly what he meant. When confronted with such statements, I always ask myself, “How would a world where that ‘REALLY IS’ the case differ from one where it ‘only’ seems that way to anybody that ever attempted to find out, in the past present or future?” We can only answer “It would not differ in any way that we can understand, or that means anything to us”.

By the way, whether there ‘is’ a difference between appearances (or experiences) and ‘reality’ generates numerous ferocious debates amongst philosophers. People have destroyed friendships, lost families and fortunes over this meaningless question. One might view it as the modern-day version of Aquinas debating whether two angels can occupy the same space.

The disease of misused ‘is’ extends beyond philosophy and religion. Even the smallest children suffer from it. Consider the difference between ‘You are behaving like a jerk’ and ‘You ARE a jerk’. The first can serve as a loving remonstrance, and an encouragement to behave more sweetly. The other condemns the person for life. Even a three year-old, unacquainted with big words like ‘behave’, understands the difference between ‘You smell of poo’ and ‘You ARE a poo’.

Or in morals and law: ‘You have done an evil thing’ condemns strongly, but ‘You are evil’ condemns for life, with no hope of rehabilitation. Once they elect me king, I will forbid judges from pronouncing character judgements on convicted felons in their sentencing speeches. They may only pronounce judgement on the actions of the convicted felon.

In short, I claim that eschewing at least some uses of ‘to be’ can bring psychological benefits as well as benefits in clarity and morality. I also suggest that, when you read a sentence you do not understand, it might help to search it for obscure uses of that verb. If you can find one, perhaps you will discover that all the trouble stems from it, and conclude that the problem of understanding lies not with you but with the writer.

I hope that convinces you to least consider the potential benefits of reducing one’s use of the verb. As to the other obstacle I identified above – of the potential difficulty of training oneself away from an habitual use of the verb – listen to some of a three-part interview from 1997 with David Bourland himself, saved here on Youtube. I have not yet listened to all of it. But I listened to several minutes and it delighted me to realise that he did not use the verb at all. Yet he speaks so clearly, in a warm, colloquial way, like an old-style raconteur. That should suffice to show that omitting the verb would not make language more stilted and academic. Indeed, to me the opposite seemed to occur.

The verb ‘to be

The verb ‘to be’ infests English more than its equivalents do other European languages. When I started learning French at the beginning of high school, I found it odd that we had to say ‘I am Andrew’ as ‘Je m’appelle Andrew’, which literally translates as ‘I call myself Andrew’. But now it seems to me to make more sense. As Humpty Dumpty pointed out to Alice, what people call someone merely labels them. We don’t need anything beyond that. We don’t need to get into that quaint, English, overcomplicatedly metaphysical (and indefinable) concept of ‘existence’ just to introduce oneself.

One could also say ‘On m’appelle Andrew’ which means ‘people call me Andrew’ (literally: ‘One calls me Andrew’). Even better. French – one, English – nil.

What do the English mean when they say ‘I am hungry’? That sentence makes no abstract metaphysical statement. It just means they feel hungry. Again with the French, they say ‘j’ai faim’, which literally translates as ‘I have hunger’. Okay, a bit weird, but makes more sense than to declare some sort of equivalence between oneself and an adjective ‘hungry’. My father used to make fun of this English language oddity by replying, whenever one of his children said that (as we often did) ‘Hello Hungry, I’m Dad!’.

Or the weather. Which makes more sense to you: ‘It is sunny’, or ‘Il fait du soleil’, which literally translates as ‘It makes sunshine’?

Let’s not overly eulogise the French though. Any culture that can take a simple sentence like “Explain that to me” (e-prime) or “What is that?” (English) and express it as “What is this that this is?” (“Qu’est-ce que c’est?”) has no grounds for complacency.

Famous quotes with and without the dastardly verb

Let’s look at some well-known examples from literature.

Think of the infamous ‘To be or no to to be, that is the question’.

Just because Shakespeare lived long ago and has plays in all the high school syllabi, he gets a free pass on this atrocity that has confused poor innocent schoolkids for centuries, as they try to find a meaning in the silly statement. Once they receive an explanation, they usually think ‘why didn’t he just say “shall I kill myself or not?”, as he meant exactly that’. But they think it silently, because criticising Shakespeare begets not good marks at school. By the way, that sensible, unpretentious translation qualifies as perfect e-Prime.

Or “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”. Note that the English verb ‘to be’ in archaic form conjugates second person familiar as ‘thou art’, so ‘art’ doesn’t belong to the language of this essay. Again most listeners, right back to Shakespeare’s day, thought he meant ‘I can’t find you Romeo. Tell me your location’. But no, Shakespeare played a silly game of words, using the word ‘wherefore’ to mean ‘why’, so that the sentence means ‘why are you named Romeo?’ Which makes no sense, even with that translation, because Juliet had no problem with his first name but with his last name. She should have said ‘why do you belong to the Montagues?’ [The family that hated Juliet’s family, and vice versa]. David Mitchell exposed this silliness with excruciating wit and precision in an episode of ‘Upstart Crow’, but I thought of it before he did. Or at least before he produced that excellent comedy series. In any case, both ‘Tell me your location’ and ‘Why are you named Romeo [Montague]’ qualify as e-Prime.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’ translates very naturally as ‘Everyone acknowledges that a single man in possession of a good fortune must want a wife’. Easy-peasy.

A trickier one: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ becomes ‘All happy families resemble one another [or, seem similar]; each unhappy family suffers for a different reason’. The e-Prime translation differs from the English one on a literal basis, but has the same meaning. The e-Prime version states explicitly the meaning that the English version veils behind poetic abstraction.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, …..’ translates as ‘On a bright cold day in April, as the clocks struck thirteen, Winston Smith, ….

Gosh, for that one we only needed to change three words and a punctuation mark. Orwell’s brilliance as a writer shows in how sparingly he uses the dreaded verb. Indeed, the second sentence of 1984, the one starting with ‘Winston Smith’, does not use the verb at all! It seems to me that avoiding the verb makes writing more alive, more active. It has a similar effect to choosing active voice over passive – a practice whose benefits people acknowledge almost as universally as Jane Austen’s dictum about rich, unmarried men.

Incidentally, Orwell’s brilliance comes through again in the book’s chilling ending:

He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.’

Not a ‘to be’ or a ‘not to be’ in sight! Take that, Shakespeare!

In fact, I think most great short quotes do not contain the dreaded verb. Consider:

Do you feel lucky, punk

Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn’ {I know, I know, he never actually said that!]

A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do

No man needs just a little salary

You can’t handle the truth!

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine

You played it for her, you can play it for me. Play it, Sam!

I cannot deny the greatness of “I’ll be back”, done, of course, in an Austrian accent. But perhaps General Macarthur said it better (and earlier) with ‘I shall return’.

Gordon Gekko’s famous ‘Greed is good’ threw me a bit. I started to wonder whether we cannot talk of vices and virtues in e-prime. How does one translate ‘Patience is a virtue’? After some reflection I realised that those uses of ‘to be’ belong to the mode ‘Class Membership’, amongst the eight broad modes of how one can use ‘to be’. In English, one says ‘X is a Y’ to indicate that the item X belongs to the class Y. For instance ‘Rover is a dog’. In mathematics we would write this as Rover∈Dogs. In e-prime we could say ‘Rover belongs to the set of dogs’. Similarly, ‘Greed [and patience] belong to the set of virtues’. The first comes from Gekko, not me. I don’t think he’d agree with the second.

Or perhaps he meant ‘Cultivate your greed. Feel proud of it, not ashamed.

Different uses of ‘to be’

Class membership, together with five other modes of using ‘to be’, creates no problems at all. I’ll list the six uses:

  • Class Membership. Example: ‘Ariadne is an architect’. Translation: ‘Ariadne  belongs to the group of people we call “architects” ’.
  • Class Inclusion. Example: ‘all cats are animals’. Translation: ‘All members of the group we call cats belong to the group we call “animals” ’. In mathematics, we use the “subset of” symbol ⊆ for this, writing “cats⊆animals”.
  • Predication. Example: ‘the cat is furry’. Translation: ‘The cat has fur all over
  • Auxiliary Active. Example: ‘the cat was sleeping’. Translation: ‘The cat slept’.
  • Auxiliary Passive. Example: ‘the cat was bitten by the dog’. Translation: ‘The dog bit the cat’.
  • Location. Example: ‘the cat is on the mat’. Translation: ‘The cat sits on the mat’ or ‘The mat has the cat on it’.

The extra words in some of the translations may seem clumsy to some. But in practice, just like when one translates from German to English, one aims to translate a whole paragraph rather than just a sentence. That gives more scope for strategic manoeuvering, which generally allows a more natural, flowing translation. Sentence-by-sentence translations from German to English sound truly awful, as the infamous example of the English libretto of Haydn’s ‘Creation’ oratorio demonstrates.

Disallowing the auxiliary active seems to lose a nuance of English. We think of ‘I was jumping’ as having a different meaning from ‘I jumped’. The former describes something happening (me sleeping) while another thing happens as well, eg ‘I was jumping when I tripped and sprained my ankle’. The latter describes a completed action, eg ‘I jumped over the bar without disturbing it’. In technical grammar language, we call the former the ‘past continuous’ and the latter the ‘simple past‘ or ‘preterite‘.

In latin languages we call the past continuous the ‘past imperfect’. They implement it by changing the ending of the word, so that ‘je saute’ (‘I jump’) becomes ‘je sautais’ (‘I was jumping’). Note that French does not introduce any auxiliary verb such as ‘to be’. Instead it just alters the verb ending. The use of ‘was/were’ as an auxiliary verb in English may delight us as one of its many quirks, but it really has nothing to do with the verb ‘to be’. We could just as well use ‘made’ or ‘did’ as our auxiliary verb, as in ‘I did jumping’. Or we could invent new verb endings to signify the past progressive, eg ‘I jumpeding’. As another alternative we could mimic the way many slang expressions work, omitting common words. We could say ‘Me – jumping, right? I tripped. Yaah! Sprained ankle. Gross!

This demonstrates that in some uses of ‘to be’ it serves merely as a connector, and fell into that role by pure chance. Because we have learned the language with it in that role, we find it difficult to get by without it. We can easily fix that, by inventing new word endings as above, and/or by using slightly longer or slang constructions in some cases. Or we could allow ourselves to use ‘to be’ in those constructions, because those uses do not cause problems with logic, clarity and depression.

To me it seems easier to avoid all use of the verb, for the same reason that some people become vegetarian even though they only really object to meat from animals with unhappy lives. We find it easier to avoid all of something than to constantly have to investigate whether the particular instance facing us belongs to the acceptable class of that sort of thing. I practice vegetarianism for that reason. E-prime takes that pragmatic-vegetarianish approach to intermittently-troublesome verbs.

The troublesome uses

Two classes remain, that generate all the difficulty. Those uses inspired Bourland, and to some extend his mentor Alfred Korzybski before him, to favour constraining the use of the verb. Let’s list the two classes:

  • ‘Existence’. Example: ‘There is a God’ or ‘There is no God’.
  • ‘Identity’. Examples: ‘This is Freya’. ‘That is a kangaroo’.

“Existence”

Existence’ presents the biggest problem. Let’s reflect first on why people care whether ‘God exists’. I think they care because of what they expect God to do. Someone brought up to believe in hell may hope God does not ‘exist’, meaning they hope that they will not suffer eternal torture for eternity after their death. In that sense I think I can fairly say that I hope, and believe, that the God that the teachers and priests taught me to believe in as a child does not ‘exist’. This means I hope no cosmic dictator will sentence me to an eternity of suffering. On the other hand, someone who longs for those that suffer in this life to receive comfort and reward after death, may believe, or want to believe, in a God that will make that happen. I think that, when they say they ‘believe in God’ they mean they believe that people will receive that comfort and reward.

It may not need pointing out, but I’ll do it anyway: one may hold both of those hopes or beliefs. One may hope for a God that does not send people to hell, or even allow them to end up there, and at the same time hope for a God that will comfort and reward sufferers. Neither putative divine characteristic necessitates the other. I would like to think that most members of official religions hold both those hopes. But I feel sad to see that so often contradicted by the many powerful clerics that rail against ‘sexual sin’ (even including contraception practised by a couple who married in a church) and forecast God’s displeasure and punishment as a result. But perhaps most lay members of religions hold the life-affirming beliefs, and mostly only the power-broking clerics in their religions criticise and deny them. I find it encouraging that most Roman Catholics have never even heard of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, let alone know or care about the many rules that that group of old men say God made. People who’ve never heard of the Congregation may know it by the informal name people used for it in past centuries – the Inquisition.

Yet many people do care, or say they do, about whether God ‘exists’, even if it has no consequences for them. More generally, some people passionately assert that they care whether material objects ‘exist’. Some philosophers debate with passion intensity whether a cup inside a wooden cupboard ‘exists’, in a sense that means something more than simply that if we opened the cupboard door, we would see the cup and could get it out to drink some tea with.

I see such opinions, regardless of how passionately people hold them, as deluded. Saying you believe fervently in X does not mean that you do care, if you can’t explain the meaning of X. It may mean instead that you care fervently about something that relates to what you label as X. The ex-RC may care fervently that nobody gets tortured for eternity. The Believer in Cups cares fervently about having something to drink their tea out of. They think they believe in something more than that, but they don’t.

Now I know that sounds arrogant and silly. Who gave me the right to tell other people what they really think? In my defence, I point out that I don’t claim to know what they think. I only claim to know what they don’t think – a much easier exercise. I don’t believe anybody can believe a claim that neither they nor anybody else can explain. If somebody says to me ‘I believe that nhjkn sdhg futf’, I feel entitled to say ‘I don’t think you really believe that’. I suppose my statement relates to their purported belief, not to their mind (which I cannot see). I claim, not that they don’t believe that, but that nobody can believe that, because it does not belong to the category of things that we can believe or not. We cannot believe or disbelieve the colour purple, because it does not belong to that category. Only what we call ‘propositions’, or ‘claims’ can belong to the category. To qualify as a proposition, a string of symbols or sounds must satisfy a long list of formal characteristics, including things like containing a verb. The colour purple does not count as a proposition, neither does the symbol string ‘nhjkn sdhg futf’ and neither, in my opinion, does the statement ‘I believe a God exists that will never again interact with the world’, or ‘there is a cup in that cupboard but there is no way we can ever detect that it is there’.

I hope I have at least partially convinced you that the ‘existence’ sense of ‘to be’ has no meaning. It may have a practical sense, as in ‘Unicorns do not longer exist’. But that just means I believe that, no matter whether we searched from here to kingdom come, we would never find a unicorn. If we want it to mean more than that, as those argumentative metaphysicians feel they do, we face disappointment.

If you still feel you believe otherwise, take this challenge: If you think the sentence ‘The cup is in the cupboard regardless of whether anyone can ever know that’ has meaning, ie qualifies as a ‘claim’, try to explain the difference between a world in which the claim holds and one in which it does not – without talking in circles.

“Identity”

This mode of use covers a multitude of sins. The above “This is Freya” really just communicates a name. No philosophical notion of identity gets carried along by it. We can think of it as an instruction: ‘When referring to this person, use the name “Freya” ’.

It gets more philosophical with statements like “George Orwell is Eric Blair”, or “Batman is Bruce Wayne”. Taking the first one, we know it means “The person known to his friends and family as Eric Blair wrote ‘1984’ and other famous works using the pseudonym ‘George Orwell’ ”. We could argue for ever about whether ‘Eric Blair’ means the same thing as ‘George Orwell’. I say it doesn’t. But such arguments count for nothing but idle amusement. We needn’t care about or wish to know anything other than that the man named Eric wrote under the pen-name George.

What about the mathematical concept of identity or equality? In mathematics we learn about ‘equations’ and ‘identities’, both of which use the equals sign ‘=’, which some people think of as resembling ‘is’. Let me show you an example:

x2 – 2x + 1 = 0

We might express that in words as ‘x is a number that, when we square the number, subtract twice the number from that and then add one, we get zero’. It tells us that the number to which we have given the alias ‘x’ has that property. Only one number has that property: the number 1. So the equation tells us that we gave the alias ‘x’ to the number 1.

Importantly, the equation does not say that the two things on either side of the equals sign “are” the same, ie “are identical”. Such a claim would make no sense. We can easily see the differences: for a start the thing on the left has seven characters excluding spaces, while the thing on the right has only one. A metaphysician might retort “But that’s just the labels. The two things with the different labels are the same.” To which I reply “can you explain what ‘are the same’ means?”. To which they can only answer “No”.

Mathematicians use the equals sign in two slightly different ways. I showed above the first way. We call that an ‘equation’ and we use it to work out what number x stands for.

We call the other use an ‘identity’. For example:

x2 – 2x + 1 = (x – 1)2

This holds true for any value of x, rather than just for a specific value that we want to find. We can easily explain the meaning of this equals sign in e-prime too. The identity says that, no matter what value x has, we will get the same result if we use that value to evaluate the left-hand side of the equation, as if we use it to evaluate the right-hand side.

It all works out simply, clearly and logically, as long as we don’t try to get metaphysical about it. If we do make the mistake of venturing into metaphysics, we find ourselves asking “Am I the same person that I was when I was five years old?”, to which we should reply “Come back when you can explain what your question means, and I’ll tell you the answer”.

Process metaphysics

I want to put in a plug for something called ‘process philosophy’. One might sum it up as something like “Things don’t ‘EXIST. They HAPPEN”. Or alternatively: “Objects? Bah! Stuff and nonsense. Only by thinking of the universe as a PROCESS can you begin to understand it”.

This notion goes back at least three thousand years. Heraclitus famously said “You can never step in the same river twice”. Alan Watts said something like “You ‘are’ just what the universe is doing at this particular place and time”. It delighted, but did not surprise me, to see that the above-linked Wikipedia article on process philosophy includes Alfred Korzybski – David Bourland’s mentor – in the list of paradigm-breaking thinkers that favoured this way of looking at things.

I’ll show another of my favourite quotes on process philosophy, from some famous physicist (I forget who): ‘an object is just a slow process’. I love that saying, even though it contains an ‘is’. I’d translate it into e-prime as the recommendation: “Think of objects as slow processes”.

Bertrand Russell’s chum, Alfred North Whitehead, wrote the most about process philosophy. I like some of what he wrote. But he did tend to get in over his head with word long, deep, abstract word salads of questionable meaning. I think Heraclitus and Watts said it better.

Let me tell you my plan

My dear, long-suffering readers – if any of you still remain – I appreciate your attention to this point. I expect the question gets ever louder in your mind: “Andrew! Do you have a point?

Well, thank you for asking! I do have a point, or at least I’ve managed to find a sort of a one in the course of this long, verbal ramble. The point takes the form of a plan. I made the plan only for me. But you may like to consider adopting some of it too. I will tell you what I plan to do, and why.

I plan to try my very best to eliminate uses of ‘to be’ in the ‘Existence’ and ‘Identity’ modes from my language. They cause nothing but trouble.

For the other six uses, I will aim to use them less, but with varying degrees of intensity. Let me list them in decreasing order of how intensely I will seek to avoid them:

  • I will most strenuously avoide the Auxiliary Passive. I can think of cases where that mode provides useful nuances: ‘He was bitten by a werewolf’ has a different feeling to ‘A werewolf bit him’ – it moves the focus from the biter to the one that suffered the bite. But I think we can achieve those nuances without using ‘to be’. I would say ‘He got bitten by a werewolf’. In primary school they taught me to avoid the words ‘get’ and ‘got’, and that I should regard them as vulgar. But I now feel old enough to disagree. I find them tremendously useful words, and for me, ‘got bitten’ describes the event much better than ‘was bitten’. Remember process philosophy. A bite happens. And no word communicates happeningness (process) better than ‘got’.
  • Location. Like Auxiliary Passive, this sounds too passive. I also find it too vague. The statement ‘The cat is on the mat’ doesn’t even tell us whether the cat still lives. It could refer to the cat’s corpse lying on the mat. So let us instead say ‘The sat sits on the mat’ (or even ‘is sitting’, since I do not propose to ban the Auxiliary Active) or ‘The cat’s corpse lies on the mat’.
  • Predication. I can’t see much excuse for this either. For me, ‘The cat has long fur’ and ‘You look red (or You’ve gotten sunburnt)’ work much better than ‘The cat is furry’ and ‘You are red’ (Hello Red, pleased to meet you!). In particular the ‘look’ forces acknowledgement that looks can deceive, and perhaps only a trick of the light makes me think you’ve gotten sunburnt. Plus, we’ve already covered how, for the sake of psychological balance and world peace, we must say ‘You are treating me nastily’ (please stop) rather than ‘You are nasty’ (condemnation and life sentence).
  • I have no objection to the Auxiliary Active type. I find it difficult to avoid, and trying to avoid it blocks fluency. Since the ‘am/is/are/was/were’ in such cases serves only as a connector and does not purport to have any formal meaning – any more than the “t” in the French “qu’a t’il dit” (“what has he said?”) means anything – we introduce no ambiguity by using it. Nevertheless, I find it more lively and direct to say ‘As she lay sleeping, the poisonous spider crawled over the mattress and up onto her cheek’ than ‘She was sleeping, when the poisonous spider …..’. Or perhaps ‘As she slept…’ works better still.
  • I’ve decided that Class Membership and Class Inclusion cause no harm. They have clear meanings and present no apparent potential for ambiguity. Further, translating sentences using those modes to e-prime can make sentences longer, as we saw with the above examples. I’ll relax about using those modes. But I’ll still keep an eye open for opportunities to replace them with an e-prime phrase when the latter sounds shorter and sweeter.

There you have it. Two modes banned. Three avoided where possible, and three avoided only when convenient. Perhaps I will call that strategy e-half-prime, since it would cut out only about half the uses of ‘to be‘ and its fellow travellers. Once I have mastered the skill of speaking and writing in e-half-prime, misunderstandings will no longer occur, wars will cease, universal joy and harmony will come ever closer.

I’ll let you know how I go. If it fares well, perhaps I can persuade you to join me. If not for the whole kit and kaboodle, perhaps just reducing your uses of ‘to be’, to give your language a fresher, clearer, more direct feel. Remember, if you can’t say it in e-half-prime, perhaps you’d better not say it (or at least you’d serve no purpose by saying it).

Try it. You might just like it.

And if it achieves nothing else, it will prevent us from ever saying that a child “is” naughty, that oneself “is” an inadequate failure, or that somebody, anybody, no matter how rotten their behaviour, “is” evil. Not Scott Morrison. Not Peter Dutton. Not even Donald Trump.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, October 2019

PS I have searched this essay for all uses of the various versions of ‘to be‘ that I could think of. I found plenty, and removed (translated) them. Perhaps I have missed some. If you find any, please let me know so that I may remove them. You will have my sincere gratitude.

PPS You can read some other people’s opinions on e-prime at the following links:


Dogma, in religions and other places

Most people are familiar with the dogmas promoted by powerful religious institutions such as the Roman Catholic church, evangelical protestant churches and some branches of Islam. The institutions claim they have sole possession of the truth, direct from God, and that anybody that does not agree is a heretic, someone to be avoided, and who may be punished.

Dogmatism is annoying, anti-social and causes a great deal of misery, both for people growing up under the power of the institution proclaiming the dogma and for some of those that interact with them.

It’s also pretty well recognised. One need only mention religious dogma and heads start to nod. People know what you’re talking about.

Despite the negative connotations the word has for most people, the leadership of the RC church does not object to the term and still uses it as a core part of its teachings. They invented the term, and use it without shame to describe propositions that the church says RCs are obliged to believe. When I was an RC I never thought to ask what happens if one does not believe a dogma. It seemed too impertinent. But now when I research it, the answer that appears fairly consistently across different RC sources is that it is not a sin to disbelieve the dogma, as long as you don’t say so aloud, because that might encourage somebody else to disbelieve it. That would be heresy, which is a grave sin, punishable by an eternity in hellfire. A few centuries ago, the punishment was lighter – a mere burning at the stake.

Although the RC church invented the word ‘dogma’, it is not the only institution to proclaim dogmas. There are plenty of dogmas in evangelical protestantism, and some variants of Islam are heavily dogmatic. Perhaps non-RCs would reject the application of the word ‘dogma’ to their essential beliefs, given the pejorative sense in which the word is mostly used these days. But it would be hard to argue that concepts such as ‘biblical inerrancy’ or ‘justification by faith alone’ are not dogmas for some protestant sects.
It would be a mistake to equate dogma with religion, because most religions are not dogmatic. It is just our misfortune that the three most dominant religions of our world: Roman Catholicism, Evangelical Protestantism and Islam have many adherents that assert an obligation to believe the relevant dogmas.

I am not aware of any pre-Christian religion that had obligatory beliefs. Judaism had many rules, but they were about practices, not beliefs. Even for worship, the injunction was to not worship other gods, or idols in particular. As long as you didn’t bow down or offer sacrifices to golden calves or statues of Ba’al, it didn’t matter whether, in the privacy of your own thoughts, you really believed Yahweh was the greatest god. In fact the Torah says nothing at all about obligatory beliefs, so far as I recall. Other pre-Christian religions, like Buddhism, the many variants of Hinduism, Mithraism, Zoroastrianism and the ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian religions also appear to set no expectations about their members’ beliefs.

Dogmas appear in places other than religions. Just as some protestants, while abjuring RC dogmas like the Immaculate Conception or Trans-substantiation, insist on their own dogmas, people who are opposed to all religions – the so-called New Atheists – can be as dogmatic as those they criticise. Classic New Atheist dogmas are things like ‘it is wrong to believe anything that cannot be proven to be true’, or ‘for all questions and human challenges, science is the best means to an answer’. For some militant atheists it even seems to be an item of faith that adherence to any religious belief at all must be a sign of stupidity. I know these dogmas because for a while I was a born-again atheist and subscribed to them. I used to listen to podcasts of debates between Christians and atheists about whether God exists, cheering on my side and hoping for the unconditional surrender of the other. Looking back, it seems such an odd thing to do. Neither the debaters nor their supporters in the audience ever changed their views one iota. Each side had their dogmas and stuck steadfastly to them. They may as well have both been shouting into the wind. But really I suppose they were just playing to their supporters. I believe such debates can never get anywhere because it is impossible to prove or disprove the existence of a god, and any attempt to do either relies on presuppositions – usually unstated –  that one side will accept and the other will not.

I have not completely forsaken atheism. I am still atheist on Mondays and alternate Wednesdays. But I have forsaken the dogmatism that accompanies the more aggressive variants of atheism.

Dogmas manifest in wider circles than the theological and anti-theological. Other areas where they crop up are philosophy, politics, economics, psychology and sociology. People debate whether there is such a thing as objective morality, whether equality is more important than liberty, whether wealth really does ‘trickle down’ in a capitalist society, and whether most psychological disorders can be traced back to early childhood experience. Debates between evangelical christians and militant atheists seem mild and friendly compared to the vicious passions unleashed in a debate between a Berkeleyan Idealist and a Materialist acolyte of GE Moore about whether a tree that falls in a forest makes a noise if there is nobody there to hear it.

I’m not suggesting that none of those things matter. It matters very much what political and economic theories are adopted by governments. They affect many people’s lives. Even some sorts of philosophy have huge effects. One can trace the roots of many important social movements to the ideas raised by philosophers, such as the influence of Enlightenment philosophers on the American and French revolutions. It’s hard to see how the ‘actual existence’ or otherwise of impossibly distant galaxies could affect our lives, but other similarly meaningless topics, such as whether the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son, or just from the Father, have led to wars, the rise and fall of empires and many burnings of people that had the misfortune of siding with the wrong opinion.

The common element of dogmatic claims is not their capacity or otherwise to affect our lives, it is their total immunity to proof, disproof, or experimental testing of any kind.

There is no dogma about the law of gravity, no dogma of quantum mechanics or a doctrine of the periodic table. A good biology teacher will not demand that her class believe that cells of mammals have a nucleus containing bundles of DNA and little packets of RNA. A good mathematics teacher will not demand that the class believe that the method being taught for long division works. The teacher is saying: “Here is a method, or an approach to understanding something. Most people find it useful in getting important things done“. The teacher could add – but generally doesn’t bother – “If you don’t like what I’m teaching and want to go and invent your own method of long division (or theory of the elements), be my guest! I’ll still be here to help you learn this method if you change your mind.

It is both ironic and predictable that the claims about which we humans get most dogmatic are those about which it is least possible to be certain. When there is a high level of certainty – as with Newton’s Laws of Motion – there is no need for dogmatism. You can take it or leave it. More fool you if you leave it. But when there is little to no certainty available, as with doctrines of neo-liberal economics (or, to be fair, Marxist economics), doctrines of the nature of the Holy Ghost, or proofs and disproofs of the existence of god(s), people generally ramp up the dogmatism and turn the volume to eleven. They use dogma and noise to make up for their lack of confidence and inability to provide any concrete evidence for the proposition.

This has led to my strongest philosophical position being anti-dogmatism. No matter what proposition somebody makes, be it about religion, ontology, economics or politics, and regardless of whether I sympathise with the belief being promoted or not, I now instinctively react against it and look to debunk it, if it is made dogmatically. That doesn’t mean I don’t hold any opinions on those topics. I have loads. Some of them – mostly the political ones – I hold very strongly and am prepared to march the streets, donate to a cause and publicly argue to try to persuade people over. But I hope I never get to the stage of believing that I am unquestionably right about something and that those who disagree are unquestionably wrong. That seems a poor way to live. I have sometimes been like that in the past, but I think I am not now and hope I won’t be again. For me, unquestioningly accepting a dogma is the coward’s excuse for not thinking for oneself.

That is my opinion, which I acknowledge may be mistaken.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, April 2019


Getting Ready

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.

Andrew Kirk

 

Bondi Junction, February 2019


Thoughts about Death

I am on a coach that has just left Sydney, travelling towards the town where my parents live. I might say where my father lives, because I am travelling there to attend the funeral of my mother.

My mother died of a combination of advanced dementia and dehydration, as she had reached a point where she would not or could not take anything orally any more, be it medicine, food or water. Whether it was would or could, we did not know, because her brain had deteriorated to a state in which she was mostly unable to communicate. Dementia is a cruel illness. We know that, if she could have formed and expressed coherent wishes in her last months, she would have asked for assistance to end her life peacefully, because her advanced care directive states that in very clear terms. But our government, like many, is cruel – with heartless rules that forbid any such mercy, kept in place by theocratic politicians wishing to force their own dogmatic religious rules on others, and medical lobbyists who have been trained to, and train others to, see every patient death as a black mark on their career scoresheet, regardless of how much it might be wished, or how great the harm that is done to the person by prolonging their life, or the fullness of the life they have behind them.

But let us speak no more of policy at this time. My mother is now at rest, beyond the possibility of further harm from patriarchal, preaching politicians or scorekeeping medical lobbyists. For that I am thankful. Her last few days were peaceful, a contrast to her torment and confusion of the last few years. She finally came to a calm, dignified stop in silence, with no struggle. Keats’ wonderful phrase ‘to cease upon a midnight with no pain’ seems so apt, except that it was shortly after lunchtime. I was not there at the end, having had to leave her bedside to return to Sydney two days before her death. But three of Mum’s immediate family were there and were able to tell the rest of us how it went.

What moved me to start writing this note was looking out of the bus window, at the deep blue sky, an overpass soaring majestically over our road (yes, overpasses can soar, it is not compulsory to view them as ugly!), the bright-coloured lorries and cars, and the restful forests ahead. The thought presented itself to me that, though I am going to the funeral of my much-loved mother, life goes on and is full of beauty and sometimes even flashes of joy. She would be glad that I am appreciating the beauty of the day, feeling comfortable and content, at least at this moment, if not always.

Almost instantly I felt transported to the consciousness of somebody, a son or daughter, or a friend, travelling to my funeral, at some time in the future, and experiencing similar feelings. Yes, life will go on after I die and, there will be beauty, purpose and occasional joys for those that survive me.

And so it will continue, to the end of this world. But even then, it will not matter that this world has ended, because there will no doubt be other worlds orbiting other suns, some maybe even in other universes.

These expressions are inept, of course. I am so often too long-winded. I would do better to just say that I felt, in some inexpressible way, that this, this moment, this experience, is fitting, and that there will be similar fitting moments in relation to and after my death and for most other deaths.

Death is nothing to us. Then again it is everything, because without death there can be no life. It is a cliché to say so but nevertheless I will swallow my pride and admit that it is only the finitude of our lives, of our consciousness, that makes life meaningful.

My mother was a very good woman. But stay – I disdain the habit  of classifying people as good and bad, so let us instead say that she was a woman who did much good. In so many ways she enriched the lives of those around her. It is a great blessing that she has lived. So it must also be a blessing that she has died, because without dying she could never have lived. That’s looking at time backwards, but why should we not do that? Time is, after all, just a dimension, and the popular metaphor of the “arrow of time” that compels forward motion is much too militaristic for a peacenik like me

I will always remember her. In fact, since she died I have been flooded with memories, some that I didn’t know I still had. Perhaps in the later stages of her dementia my mind protected itself by blocking earlier memories of her, because the comparison between the person she had been and the state to which she was now reduced was too painful. But now those comparisons are gone and the gates have been opened. Mum is free at last. And now my memory has been freed and most of the memories are warm, strong and ….. just good.

It is fitting.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, August 2018

Post Script: If my memory serves me correctly, this is the first essay I have written about death. I expect it will not be my last. Death is a subject that interests me greatly, and which I often think about (but not usually in a bad way).

Post Post Script: The featured image for this essay is of the character Death from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. The image is copyright but I doubt Mr Pratchett (RIP) would have minded, as he had progressive views about death. I very much like the character Death in Discworld, because he is portrayed as being compassionate, which is how I think about death.


Touch

I love Peanuts.

There’s a double entendre.

It could mean that I love ground nuts. I do, very much indeed. I can’t imagine living a life without nuts, especially without peanuts. They are the food of the gods.

Or it could mean that I love Charles M Schulz’s comic strip featuring Charlie Brown, Snoopy the beagle, Lucy the bossyboots and others. That is true too. I have some old books of Peanuts comic strips that I have had since I bought them at second-hand markets decades ago, and which I still really treasure.

One sequence of strips I was thinking of recently is when one of the characters – Linus, I think – was telling the others about haphephobia, which he explained in his overly earnest, nerdy way, was a fear of being touched. In one of those strips somebody accidentally almost touches Snoopy, who instantly leaps up metres into the air as an instinctive over-reaction.

I recalled this as I have been thinking recently about touch as a means of non-verbal communication, and how some people tend to touch others when they talk to them, while others assiduously avoid it. I’ll call the former ‘touchy’, pausing only to note that this has nothing in common with the occasional use of that word to mean short-tempered.

When I think about the people I know that are touchy, It seems that most of them are women. The most usual touch is on the forearm, or sometimes the elbow. I know one person who rubs the side of your arm around the elbow when you talk to her – a gesture that I find unusual, but heart-warming.

What do these touches mean? They seem to communicate reassurance, goodwill, perhaps an indication that, right at this point in time, you have their full attention. Whether that is the intended meaning I don’t know. Quite possibly there is no intended meaning. Touchy people seem to be more instinctive than others. Their words and actions stem from their un-self-conscious connection to the great cosmic flow – what Daoists call Wu Wei – rather than from premeditation.

In Anglo-Celtic culture, not many men touch, but some do. In my experience those that do tend to be matey about it, and are more likely to pat on the shoulder or the back than touch the forearm or hand. And they generally only pat other men.

I have habitually been a non-toucher. I don’t quite have haphephobia, but I have been known to flinch slightly when somebody unexpectedly touches me, or even comes close. I don’t know where it comes from. Freud would have us look to our childhood and, like almost every child growing up in the sixties and early seventies, I received plenty of corporal punishment when I was judged to have been naughty. My punishment was considerably lighter than that which many of my school friends told me about, and my parents never struck me on the head or anywhere that would cause any damage other than redness that lasted an hour or so. But nevertheless I can remember cringing before the blows that a parent was – with all the best intentions and believing that they were morally obliged to do this no matter how much they disliked doing it – about to deliver. Perhaps I cringed because I had a nervous disposition, or maybe my disposition became more nervous because of the punishment. I can’t tell. I do know that many of my contemporaries seemed to be less physically nervous than I, so I Imagine my genetic predisposition played at least some part in it.

Whatever the reason, I have not been good at being touched and have certainly not been a toucher. But recently this has been changing. Perhaps I have been listening to too many philosophy podcasts about ‘authenticity’ and about how relationships with others are the only real thing in the world. Whether with conscious effort or just because one tends to relax more as one matures, I have become more capable of tolerating unexpected touch without flinching.

But wait, there’s more!

I have, to my immense surprise, started to become, every now and then, a toucher. At first I surprised myself by, on occasion, gently tapping a forearm or a shoulder. Never on skin of course! We Anglo-Celtics need the reassurance of a shirt or jumper beneath our hand in order to feel that one is not being improper. Maybe some of the later taps were deliberate. It’s hard to tell. But even though some taps may have been pre-considered, the overall trend is not. There is no plan.

The forearms and shoulders that I find myself tapping or patting are exclusively those of men. I think that is partly deliberate and partly instinctive. I have had it so soundly drummed into me that any uninvited touch of a woman other than one’s life partner is not acceptable, that I have big unconscious barriers against ever doing that. In any case, in the current climate it seems wise to proscribe such actions to avoid the possibility of misinterpretation. It seems a pity, but that’s just one of many ways that the Harvey Weinsteins of the world have made things so much worse for others. I wonder what other people think about that, and whether it will change with time. At least many women feel no constraint against touching men to whom they are talking, as well as, of course, other women.

I have been surprised too, about how non-frightening and positive it can be to do a simple tap or pat. It is such an efficient way to communicate goodwill and support and, unlike supportive words, it doesn’t seem to run the risk of being interpreted as sarcastic. There’s so much sarcasm in the world. We don’t need people inferring it when it’s not there.

This gradual opening to the possibility of touch seems a good development. But there’s one Anglo-Celtic reservation I have that I don’t think will ever change. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to tolerate a massage. It just creeps me out to much, people poking around in my neck muscles and such like. There are too many fragile parts in there that I feel are on the verge of getting damaged. And it’s too close to being tickled, which I never was keen on. I don’t know whether the childhood cringing from imminent punishment plays a part in it as well. Massages are supposed to make you relax but, for me, they do the opposite. Still, plenty of people like massages, so me not having any just means there are more for the rest of you.

A cynic might say ‘What’s the big deal? People touch skin to skin all the time in the business world, when they shake hands at the start of a meeting!’ That is true and, being in the business world, I do that as well, with nary a thought. But it doesn’t count, and you know it doesn’t count, you cynics! Shaking hands is a meaningless stylised ritual that has long passed its usefulness. They say it was originally invented in order to show somebody you met that you weren’t holding a weapon (an urban myth?). Except when visiting or living in the USA, I think that these days we can take as read the weaponlessness of those we meet. Plus it spreads germs. I sometimes wonder ‘What if I’m about to break out in a cold? I’d hate to give it to somebody else.’. We all know that the most infectious period with a cold is just before you realise you have one – or is that another urban myth? I admire the Japanese, who bow when meeting people for business, and then present business cards in a pleasingly formal way.

The point is that it’s the voluntariness of the unbidden touch that can make it so scary to do, or to receive. There’s nothing scary in what is mandated, as handshakes before business meetings are. Or, for that matter, the compulsory ballroom dancing lessons we had in senior high school, where we boys had to hold girls’ hands as we marched to and fro, then twirled them about, or twirled about them, whichever it was (I wasn’t terribly good at ballroom dancing). We were mostly too terrified even to talk to the girls at school, let alone touch them (we outnumbered them five to one so it seemed presumptuous to assume any of these rare and special humans would wish to hear anything we had to say), but when the dancing mistress fixes you with her beady eye and snaps ‘Take positions! Join hands! Go!’, you just obey.

This essay at one point had the word ‘sashayed’ in it (can you guess where?). But now it doesn’t. I think that’s an improvement.

Andrew Kirk
Bondi Junction, August 2018


On Beauty

The other day, as I was walking down the street on my way to a meeting, I saw a young man walking the other way that I thought was a person that works in my office. He works on another floor so I don’t often see him. I was about to say hello when I was struck with uncertainty as to whether it was him, and held my tongue. I ruminated for the next minute or so, and finally decided that it wasn’t.

Why did I find it so hard to work that out?

Part of the reason was that I’m not so good at remembering the faces of people I don’t see regularly. But that didn’t seem enough to explain my confusion. There are plenty of people that I don’t meet often, but whom I can still recognise fairly easily.

In the end I decided it was because the person in question has very regular features – what you might call ‘clean cut’. You know: symmetrical face, unblemished skin, non-knobbly nose, average size of all main features and dimensions (nose, mouth, eyes, ears, forehead, chin), not fat, but not very thin either. The sort of face that might appear in an ad for razors or toothpaste.

People whose faces have lots of symmetry, conformance to averages, and lack of blemishes and knobbles have fewer distinguishing features. Take it to the extreme and a face becomes a featureless sphere. Adding two eyes, a mouth and a nose reduces the symmetry somewhat but, since nearly all humans have those, it doesn’t narrow down the field much. It’s only when the characteristics or location of those features differ materially from the average that we find something worthy of telling the police artist – thin lips, broad nose, close-set eyes, high forehead. What would the Identikit officer do with information that the burglar had average lips, average nose and average eyes?

It is sometimes said that human beauty has much to do with symmetry. Does that mean the reason I didn’t recognise my colleague is because he’s good-looking? Perhaps. Supermodels seem to score highly in the bodily symmetry stakes. I don’t think I could name one for whom I could identify an asymmetry. Although, to be fair, that may be because I would have trouble naming any supermodels at all. On my scale of rating the hundred things that interest me most, they don’t.

But are supermodels beautiful? Or are they just pretty, and if so, is that because they are too symmetrical, too featureless?

The American actor Ryan Gosling seems to be a popular heart-throb at the moment. His features are mostly pretty regular, but there’s something unusual about his eyes. I’m not sure what. I think they’re either unusually close-set or a little asymmetrical – perhaps a combination of both. But is that slight irregularity part of the reason that he is considered so desirable? Would he be less alluring if his eyes were evened up and spread out a bit – more average?

When I think of women that were considered very desirable amongst my peers over the last few decades, I see images of people who all had something slightly unusual about their features: Nastassja Kinski (big mouth), Emma Stone (large eyes), Sophia Loren (long nose). In my recent attempts to get better at speaking French I have been watching many French movies, and have noticed that many of their female stars in romantic roles have unusual features, a disproportionate this or that, or asymmetric something elses.

Could it be that featurelessness is the key factor in mere ‘prettiness’, so that pretty people (perhaps including my poor, blameless work colleague) all look fairly similar, whereas beauty is a complex melange of (just enough) symmetry with provocative asymmetries, irregularities and other distinguishing features?

People seem to love looking at pictures and videos of cute fluffy cats and dogs on the internet. Generally these animals are symmetric and healthy. One rarely sees people cooing over a scrappy, moth-eaten old dog or cat. Yet if one has had a scrappy, moth-eaten dog or cat as a pet for a long time, it will have a much stronger pull on our heartstrings than a pretty puppy in a tissue commercial. The irregularities (some might say flaws) become markers of recognition and triggers for affection, rather than items of deficiency or regret.

I wonder whether this phenomenon also displays itself in the field of moral beauty. There’s am unfortunate culture trope about the girl who only goes out with boys that treat her badly, and has only contempt for the ‘nice guys’. Perhaps there are some such girls around, but I haven’t observed the phenomenon to be widespread. It seems to me that nearly everybody likes to be treated with at least a modicum of respect and affection.

But there’s another trope out there – especially in movies and literature – about the person who feels repelled from their partner because they (the partner) are too good. The argument often runs along the lines that the partner is impossible to measure up to, and often makes the protagonist feel morally inadequate – bad. The kinder and more tolerant the way in which the ‘good’ partner reacts to this, the worse the divide becomes. I saw another example of this just last night – the character played by Gillian Anderson in the movie ‘The Last King of Scotland’. Her husband, working as an MSF-type doctor in a grossly under-resourced rural Ugandan hospital, was such a kind man that she felt tempted towards infidelity simply because she felt she couldn’t live up to the level of virtue exemplified by her husband. Be not distressed though, dear reader. So far as I know, Ms Anderson managed to resist her impulses, and her relationship survived the danger. But I can’t be sure, because I was unable to watch the second half of the movie for fear of the cruel violence that I knew would engulf most of the characters once the murderous Idi Amin got into his stride.

I have made no more observations of this in real life than of the other trope. There are very few true saints around, and I think I have met hardly any of them. But it somehow feels more plausible than the other trope. It just seems to me that, while nobody wants to live in the constant presence of cruelty and contempt, perhaps many, without even realising it, value the (hopefully fairly minor) character flaws of their partners and friends, and are even quite attached to them.

Or maybe not. I wrote this while on holiday and it is all just idle speculation.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, May 2018

 


The Violence of Movement

Roads in English towns and cities seem so much safer to me than their equivalents in Australia. They also have less deep kerbs, as a result of which cars can easily park with two wheels on the footpath (sidewalk) and two on the road, an opportunity they often make us of on roads that are too narrow to accommodate normal parallel parking.

Yet I feel safe.

Why do not I, as a pedestrian, feel threatened by having a more permeable barrier between the cars and the pedestrians than I am used to? Why doesn’t it make me feel less safe on an english footpath than on an Australian one?

Perhaps it is this: barriers work in both directions – they prevent things coming in but also prevent them going out. Skin protects infectious agents from getting at one’s innards (which is why cuts in the skin often lead to infection), but it also prevents the innards from losing moisture and other precious bodily fluids – from dessicating. And it is as important for prison walls to keep people out – who may be carrying phones, drugs, weapons or escape tools – as it is for them to keep inmates in.

So what does the kerb, as a barrier, prevent from going which way? The obvious answer is that it deters cars from going onto the footpath. A secondary answer is that it makes pedestrians think twice before stepping onto the road. But on an emotional level, it also acts as a barrier between the peace of the footpath and the violence of the cars on the road.

Because cars are violent. Moving a ton and a half of metal at speeds of 60-100 kilometres per hour is a violent activity. One does not notice this so much when one is sitting inside the hunk of metal. They are specially designed to mask the violence, to provide an illusion of serenity. They do this by sound-proofing, vibration-damping and engine-quietening. That’s why ads for luxury cars are often shot from the perspective of inside the cabin, to a soundtrack of blissful classical music: “See, there’s no violence here. It’s all beauty and grace”.

But the illusion is shattered when the car whooshes past a pedestrian or cyclist too closely or worse, when it collides with them, or with something else. The classical music appropriate to that is not so much Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (which, for the non-classical music lovers, was considered so shockingly violent when it premiered that the audience rioted in protest).

Indeed, the fast movement of heavy objects is unavoidably violent.

A brief digression: a visceral demonstration of this violence can be obtained by getting off a train in Europe at a station which high-speed intercity expresses pass through but do not stop. One has to take a non-express train to get there (or a bus, or walk or cycle) but it’s worth the effort. The express trains come past at speeds between 200 and 300 kilometres per hour, and the experience of having those thousands of tons of people and metal rush past only a metre or two away is unforgettable. Although they are not supersonic, one does not get much of an audible warning before they are upon you. Then there is a slam into a scanty few seconds of thunderous rush as the long line of carriages zooms by. The tail zaps by, you then dare to peek out over the track after it and there it is, already far away, dwindling into the distance at an amazing rate. The thought of what such a juggernaut would do if it struck something doesn’t bear thinking about.

Cars are neither as big nor as fast as express trains. But they still make an awful mess of a human body when they collide with one at any speed over about 30 km/h. The road is indeed, relative to the footpath, a place of great violence.

Back then to the barrier between peace and violence. In England, the barrier is less than in Australia, so why do I feel less afraid? I think it is because, rather than the violence of the road invading the pavement, the peace of the pavement starts to permeate the road! This is not an airy-fairy, metaphysical sensation. It can be measured objectively in car speeds and driver behaviour. The cars rarely drive faster than 30 km/h, are generally cautious and alert for, and respectful of, pedestrians and cyclists, and rarely use their horns. One just feels fairly safe, walking down an English street, including when one crosses the road. It is as if having only a flimsy barrier between pedestrians and motorists makes the motorists more aware of the violence of which they are capable, and influences them to be more cautious and respectful than they would be if the barrier were greater. In contrast, Australian drivers tend to accelerate to 60 km/h at every opportunity, regardless of whether that is a safe speed or even of whether it would shorten the expected journey length.

I am not suggesting that the flimsy barrier is the sole reason for the difference. I expect cultural norms built up over many decades, perhaps aided by laws that place greater responsibility for safety on motorists, contribute as well. But what is undeniable is that the urban terrorism of Australian motorists just doesn’t seem exist in the England, and maybe not even in most of Europe.

It makes walking or riding around town just so much more pleasant. I suspect maybe it makes driving more pleasant too. It is sometimes nice to feel one is not in a war zone.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, March 2018

PS The featured image for this essay is a shot from the 1974 Australian horror comedy movie ‘The Cars That Ate Paris‘. Get hold of a copy if you can and watch it. It sounds brilliant!