I have VERY FEELS about language and ethics

2012-01-24 21:00

I admit it, I’m pretty much a language snob. Some of this is quasi-intentional; I’ve learned that people who say stuff like “i dont read alot of books lol” are often frustrating for me to deal with. Whatever it is, I just plain filter people who write “poorly”.

Enter my friend Luka. If I have ever caught Luka in an unintentional error in grammar or spelling, it is unknown to me. I think I have once disagreed with her about word usage. Once. My mom used to do the New York Times crossword in ink, and I have disagreed with her about word usage more than that, I think.

And then Luka writes:

I was asked to weigh in on this since I have VERY FEELS about young people and suicide.

This doesn’t bug me. It’s obviously not a violation of English grammar. I mean, obviously it is, but it’s not; it’s a carefully-crafted structure for communicating things. I don’t mind it because of reasons.

This ties into a thing that clicked for me a while back. Ever hear of Billie Holiday? She was a sort of a singer. And the thing is… If you were to have a first-year voice student sing those melodies, even if the student pulled it off, that’d be the sort of thing you flunk out of music classes for. Billie Holiday did not sing the melody as written. She didn’t always use notes that were strictly in key, or heck, even notes that were easily expressed in standard staff notation. And yet, she’s a stunning singer.

This is where “you have to know the rules before you can break them” comes in. Skilled writers can do things which are Obviously Incorrect, but somehow they work out to be correct. Luka has VERY FEELS, and this tells you more than anything that would pass muster in 7th grade English would tell you.

Same thing happens with social skills. It’s obviously rude to make fun of the disabled, right? And yet, when I was introduced to a friend-of-a-friend who has a heart condition such that she can have what sound like mild heart attacks when startled, sometimes fainting, I cheerfully observed that her super power is that she’s sort of a defective pillbug. Unkind? Not at all! (I can’t explain why, but people who have disabled friends who don’t resent them probably know the principle.)

This is true of ethics, too. There is a thing I’ve noticed, which is that the people you can trust to do The Right Thing are frequently stunningly casual about breaking apparent ethical rules. This is because they have gotten past the simple attempts to articulate the rules and gotten to something deeper. Just as we mostly eventually learn that telling jokes is not a kind of lying, even when it involves saying untrue things, people get to a state where they are able to get past the simple rules to a deeper set of rules. They can improvise; they understand the melody in a way that staff music can’t annotate. So if it seems like they’re off-key, don’t think “evil”, think “jazz”.

Peter Seebach

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Comment

  1. Honestly, this applies to a lot of things in life. Design elements, architecture, and art in general.

    For instance, a lot of stylized art styles where none of the details match ‘real’ people only work when the artist understands human anatomy enough to deviate from it without violating it.

    As you say, there’s an Underlying Something, and knowing how to call on it without worrying about the obvious details is a kind of mastery.

    — Amy · 2012-01-24 22:15 · #

  2. snap snap snap snap

    — Ariel · 2012-01-28 09:57 · #

 
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