Mary Wollstonecraft, Champion of Reason, Passionate in Love

The life and work of Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of modern feminism, can seem to reveal a mass of contradictions.

Her seminal feminist work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, champions reason as the ultimate guide for a moral and productive life. She used reason to great effect to show why women should, and how they could, grow out of their socially constructed roles as under-educated coquettes and household drudges. She believed that reason should rule both individuals and societies because it’s the best tool we have to achieve justice and to perfect the self. Without reason, she thought, human beings are ruled by narrow self-interest, by the prejudice born of ignorance, and by crude lust.

Yet the life Wollstonecraft chose to live was widely criticized both during her lifetime and over the two hundred plus years since her death. It’s not just because she didn’t conform to the mores of her time; her life choices are still considered unreasonable and even self-destructive by many. At times, they made her an object of scandal, impoverished, or deeply depressed, even in such desperate straits that she twice attempted suicide. That’s because she was also deeply passionate, devoted to retaining her personal and mental freedom while abandoning herself to loves which never failed to break her heart, be they revolution, family, friend, or lover. For Wollstonecraft, reason and passion are not opposites: they are two sides of the same coin. A truly reasonable person, she thought, is kind, affectionate, and generous as well, and a passionate lover of justice, truth, and beauty.

Wollstonecraft’s chosen role for herself was, first and foremost, a teacher, an advocate of knowledge and instiller of reason. While teaching was one of the few professions open to her as an eighteenth-century woman from a respectable but impoverished background, she brought her formidable powers of reason to bear on the problems with many of the educational and child-rearing practices of her day. After her first job as a companion, she became a teacher, first in the classroom at a school she founded with two of her sisters and her best friend, and then as a governess. When she became a mother twice over in her mid- and late thirties, she was a tender and hands-on mother, an advocate of breastfeeding and attentive parenting in an era of wet-nurses and governesses, when wealthy and middle-class parents participated relatively little in the care and instruction of their children, even from infancy.

Her first book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, opens with her parenting advice and argues that girls should be taught how to run a household while also learning self-sufficiency. In Wollstonecraft’s time, women were not expected to support themselves; they were trained to raise a family, learning how to catch and keep a man first, to be household managers second, and to be educators of young children third. Single women, widows, and married women whose husbands, fathers, brothers, and other male relations could or would not support them had few employment options available to them, mostly directly related to one of the three roles they were trained for. Those jobs that women could respectably take paid very little, so those working women nearly always lived a life of subservience and privation. Modern feminist thought, until very recently, equated domestic life with that housebound, choiceless, oppressed life most women were required to live. However, now that we’ve mostly established women’s basic moral right to self-determination, we’ve come to consider the domestic life just as valid a choice for free women as a professional or a public life. So in this sense, Wollstonecraft’s view of women was more progressive even than that of many modern feminists, even if by accident rather than foresight: she did not speak of a time when women would need to reject domesticity in order to free themselves from it, only to reclaim it by choice after their liberation.

Her ideas were inspired by her own experience: Wollstonecraft discovered firsthand how important it is never to assume that one’s self or one’s children will always have someone they can depend on for education, sustenance, or affection. Life’s too uncertain for that: parents, spouses, relatives, colleagues, and friends can become neglectful, estranged, impoverished, or disabled, and of course, sometimes they die. Wollstonecraft’s father squandered his inheritance and never bothered to learn how to earn an adequate living, leaving all of his children (except for his oldest son, who inherited what was left) to fend for themselves in adulthood, and his daughters without the dowry necessary for a respectable marriage. Knowing firsthand what it’s like to wrest a living from a world where women were ill equipped for and mostly barred from nearly all employments that men were free to pursue, Wollstonecraft believed all girls should have a thorough education centered on self-sufficiency, from learning how to take care of a household, to learning how to think, to learning how to make a living. This not only gives women the freedom to choose a partner for better reasons than mere survival (Wollstonecraft equated this with prostitution), but leaves women free to live their lives as independently as they like.

Until Wollstonecraft’s response to Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution, her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), her published work continued on an educational vein, from original compositions to editorial work to translation. Beginning with The Rights of Men, through A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and up to her last work, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796), she transitioned from a teacher of ideas into an innovator, drawing on the wealth of knowledge she had obtained through her lifetime thus far of work and study. She was a semi-autodidact, her rather patchy childhood education supplemented in her teens by her own voracious reading and by friends who recognized her hunger for learning, and continued independently during her working years in the hours she could dedicate to her self-improvement. When she established herself as a professional author, she was finally able to immerse herself fully in the life of an intellectual, attending famous salons and becoming the friend and colleague of many of the brightest minds of her day.

One of the central themes in The Rights of Woman is the education of women. In this work, Wollstonecraft explained that it’s the nature of women, rather than their practical needs, that’s the ultimate justification for their rights, though she doesn’t minimize the importance of the latter. Since women possess reason just as men do, they likewise need education to be happy, fulfilled, and above all, moral creatures. Infantilizing women by denying them a full education, she writes, renders them not only financially helpless, entirely dependent on men whether or not they’re capricious, selfish, lazy, cruel, or just unlucky, but undermines them as moral beings. It’s reason, more than anything else, that determines the difference between right and wrong, and a complete education is required for using reason to its fullest capacity.

But outside of her moral reasoning, in her life as she lived it, Wollstonecraft displayed the often stark contrast between what one might expect a person ruled by reason would do, and what a person would do when driven by passion.

One of her earliest romantic interests, the Irish gentleman and songwriter George Ogle, ended up causing her no harm and probably doing her even more good than many might realize; not only did her cheer her with intellectual and witty conversation in her time as governess for the wealthy Kingsborough family in Ireland, a biographer credits him as the secret benefactor whose cash gift allowed her to return home to England and pursue writing in earnest. And her pursuit of the intellectual life she loved probably brought her more joy and fulfillment than anything else, with the possible exception of her daughter Fanny.

But most of her other loves did seem to bring her at least as much pain as joy. Her first deep attachment in her early teens was to her friend Jane Arden, who didn’t share her idealistic concept of the near-exclusive, passionate friendship of the soulmate. The more the young Mary sought to dominate her affections, the more Jane drew away. Fanny Blood, her dearest friend in adulthood, nearly lived up to her ideal, but her father’s shiftlessness kept her family impoverished, leaving Fanny with the responsibilities of main breadwinner as well as head housekeeper for her large family. Wollstonecraft saw her dreams for Fanny and herself mostly come true when they joined forces with Wollstonecraft’s sisters to found a school, but this didn’t last as long as she hoped. The distant and dithering suitor that Fanny had longed to marry for years finally carried her off to Portugal, leading to her painful death less than a year later as she succumbed simultaneously to her tuberculosis and the rigors of childbirth. The painter Henry Fuseli may have been a romantic interest: he later liked to claim this, and others echoed this claim, but much of the evidence also indicates that her interest in him was as an aesthetic and intellectual soulmate more than anything else. (At this time, she was still firmly opposed to marriage, and determined to keep herself free from the sort of entanglements that would hamper her mental and physical freedom.)

After a bit of scandal around her unconventional, and rejected, proposal to Fuseli and his wife (who also her good friend) that she live with the two of them, she set off for Paris to witness the French Revolution firsthand. Wollstonecraft was an ardent supporter of the Revolution, as she saw it continuing the work of dismantling the tyranny of a parasitical monarchy, a corrupt and greedy church, and the oppressive social practices and mores that the American Revolution had started. By the time she arrived, the French Revolution had already taken a violent turn, but she held out hopes that this was a natural but temporary outcome of a people throwing off a tyranny that had ruthlessly oppressed them so badly and for so for so long. While she maintained throughout that a certain amount of violence is the natural byproduct of any truly transformative revolution, she became more and more disillusioned with its leadership and tactics over time, and finally, with her own hopes of its success. (She had, by the way, identified herself with the more moderate Girondins throughout.) Wollstonecraft did not live long enough to see that the Revolution would end up succeeding, ultimately, in ushering in a new era of human rights-centered government in Europe, once some social balance was restored. But she did escape the Terror, probably narrowly, having fallen in love once again. She found herself pregnant and fleeing for her life, returning to England after giving birth her first child at age 35.

And it was Gilbert Imlay, the father of this child and the first deep romantic passion of her life, that caused her the most pain, more than the sisters with whom she was often at odds, more than her most cherished female friends who left her in one way or another, more than her ne’er-do-well brother and the Blood family, more than her self-important painter Fuselli, more than the school she founded that fell apart when she left to nurse Fanny in her final illness, leaving her deep in debt. Imlay presented himself as a man of adventure, an American frontiersman of rugged, self-sufficient, and honest character. These proved to be an illusion: he was actually a man primarily of business, sometimes (often?) of shady dealings, and one who did not always keep his word, to say the least. In Imlay, Wollstonecraft finally found an exciting sexual partner, a stimulating companion, and a fellow believer in truly living according to one’s personality. They never married because they didn’t believe in it, though they found it expedient to pass themselves off as husband and wife in a pinch. In fact, this pretense may very well have saved Wollstonecraft’s life, since the perpetrators of the Terror were executing many expatriate Britons in its most insular stage; but Americans were still in good standing with the Revolution, and as Imlay’s ‘wife’ she was an American too. But it became clear over time that Imlay was not eager to embark on the happy domestic life her pregnancy caused her to long for, and he abandoned her in stages. It took her a long time to get over Imlay while facing the difficulties of being a single mother in 18th-century Europe; it was in this time she twice attempted suicide.

Her husband and first biographer William Godwin called Wollstonecraft a ‘firmest champion’ of her sex. He, finally, turned out to be the lasting sort of love she was looking for, initially an intellectual connection which only later developed into romantic passion. Sadly, they only enjoyed a brief romance, less than two years, since she died of complications from giving birth to her second child. I think Godwin was right, and I would add, she was a champion of reason and of passion too, and a champion of seeking: of truth, of wisdom, of self-discovery, of new ideas and sources of knowledge, of experiences that expand the mind and the heart, of becoming the best human being one can be. To fully follow her example is very risky: she often flung prudent reasoning to the wind in favor of following her heart, in a time most dangerous for women to do so. Yet, though reasoned prudence is a virtue, it can be taken too far, holding you back, preventing you from taking chances and experiencing all the richness life can offer. She did not hold back.

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Sources and inspiration:

Godwin, William. ‘Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman‘. London, 1798.

Gordon, Lyndall. Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.

Jacobs, Diane. Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. http://books.simonandschuster.com/Her-Own-Woman/Diane-Jacobs/9780743214704

Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1974.

Investing in People

I’ve been hearing this refrain for what seems like forever now: ‘We need to invest in our [insert demographic group here]!’ Pick some class of people (but not just any, as we shall see), plug that into that opening phrase, and do an internet search. We need to invest in our children, in our women, in our entrepreneurs, in our African-Americans, in our veterans, and in our students, political leaders and the media proclaim. This phrase has been enthusiastically adopted by liberals and progressives, despite its strong capitalist, and thus ostensibly conservative, overtones. Because the phrase is so often coupled with the name of some group we’d all like to help succeed, it sounds so nice, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t we put more of our resources into helping others do well in life?

Of course we should. But remember what investment means: it’s putting resources into some venture in the hopes that it will pay off, and especially, that it will pay off for you. That, in itself, is not a bad thing. Investment, like capitalism generally, can lead to to all kinds of wonderful things: goods, technology, infrastructure, the arts, and other stuff which make other people’s lives better as well as your own, and more money with which fund more worthy projects. But think of the implication when it comes to investing in people. First, a good investment is one which has good results; so far, so good. But here’s what it also implies: putting our resources into bettering people’s lives is only worth doing if there’s something in it for someone else, and especially, for you. And that’s why I find the expression ‘investing in people’ irksome.

Of course, I realize that such expressions as ‘We need to invest in people’ are often shorthand for entirely benign sentiments such as ‘We need to invest in the projects and infrastructure that will provide opportunities and improve the lives of people because we care about their well-being’. Investment has become a buzzword that’s taken on more shades of meaning than it originally had, and political speeches and rallying cries are most effective when they’re short, punchy, catchy, and heavy on the use of buzzwords; I get it.  But I would be a more convinced of the humanitarian sense of purpose that investment rhetoric inspires if market interests were routinely subjugated to considerations of human rights and dignity and the health of our planet than the other way around. If it was used at least as often in the context of publicly supporting our elderly, our disabled, our homeless, our mentally ill, our artists, musicians, poets, volunteers, and others who don’t produce much of market value, it might not bother me much, and this essay wouldn’t exist.

As philosopher Michael Sandel worries, rightly to my mind, we seem to be transitioning from a market
economy to a market society, to the detriment of many. The rhetoric of investing in people is an emblem of a transition too far from from a humanistic, rights-based value system, and towards an acquisitive, incentive-based value system.

While personal gain has always figured heavily in market decisions, it seems to me that our behavior reveals less concern than ever about how our values should influence these choices. Despite what we find out about the low pay and awful working conditions of employees here and abroad compared to the wages of the company’s higher-ups, we keep gobbling their products up as fast as they’re churned out, and CEO’s continue to accept ever more lavish salaries without qualm. We know that children as well as adults are forced into labor mining rare earths, and that massive dumps of discarded electronics are rendering massive swaths of land and water in developing countries toxic, but we continue to invent, create, and gobble up new electronics without a murmur, and so on and so on. These are only two of the myriad ways in which we’re exhibiting a general loss of commitment to higher values in our market choices, and the noble working-class protests, strikes, and boycotts of the last century have disappeared and given way to complacent consumerism. We occasionally complain on the internet that higher-ups shouldn’t make quite so much when their workers are underpaid, and we sign petitions calling for a hike in the minimum wage, but we don’t do anything about it if our daily lives are made slightly less comfortable by doing so. As we can see from rising economic inequality, the plight of millions of unprotected workers who suffer and even die to produce cheap and plentiful goods, and the rate at which we’re causing mass extinctions, pollution (especially in poor countries), and climate change, they promise to undermine social cohesion and destroy our ability to sustain ourselves if we don’t start to seriously re-examine our behavior, re-commit to our values, and change our hyper-consumerist habits.

None of this is to say that we do wrong when we take into account how sharing our resources will impact our own lives. It’s actually quite an important consideration, especially given the fact that our own wellbeing is connected to the wellbeing of others, often closely. To clarify: I’m not a believer in so-called pure altruism. For example, I don’t believe, as did the great Immanuel Kant (at least according to some interpretations of his ethics) and as do some other philosophical and theological traditions, that an action is only fully morally praiseworthy if you don’t benefit from it in any way, even if only by feeling good about it. Kant thought that all actions that benefit the doer even a little are less morally good than they could be, because it means such actions are at least partly selfish. Only actions done purely out of duty, that are difficult or come at a cost to the doer, in this view, can be considered truly good.

But this extreme view of selfishness, which holds that doing anything that benefit’s one’s self is less than fully good, has a fatal flaw. It implies that there’s at least one human being in that’s less deserving of care than others, namely yourself.  So if you believe that all human beings have equal moral worth, or at least should be treated as if they do, then acting without concern for one’s own wellbeing offends justice just as much as acting without concern for others. The extreme view of selfishness also implies that human beings are atomistic, that the wellbeing of one is disconnected from the wellbeing of others, which we can easily recognize is untrue. It’s a demonstrable fact that the lives and fates of human beings are intimately intertwined in a way that’s unique among living creatures, due to our human nature as hypersocial creatures with highly developed, complex skills of communication. From the moment we’re born, we need human connection and human assistance to sustain life and enjoy happiness. As we saw earlier, the most pressing problems we face today, just as it’s been throughout history, concern the wider impact of individual human behavior and thought. I challenge the reader to think of any action or idea that doesn’t have consequences of any sort outside the life of an individual. Our own private thoughts habituate and instigate us to act in one way and not another, thereby manifesting themselves in the wider world. Even withdrawing ourselves from the human community, which gave us our being in the first place, is depriving it of our help and our participation, and therefore affecting it.

This all means that there’s no such thing as pure altruism or pure selflessness for human beings since, as we’ve seen, what we do affects others as well as ourselves as a matter of course. Concern for ourselves is bound up in everything we do and think. We’re all aware of this: human beings generally behave in a cooperative and even generous way because we know, by instinct, reason, and observation, that if we behave badly, it’s likely to come back and hurt us. When we behave badly, we seek ways to minimize the harm to ourselves, knowing it’s an expected result. When we consume too much, pollute too much, are greedy with our money when so many others are in want, and so on, we undermine the human community that sustains us (yet, this even includes those far away). We don’t trust bad actors, we are prone to respond in kind, and we aren’t as willing to cooperate and share with them. But when humans routinely do good, everyone benefits, ourselves included.

Even actions that are generally classified as selfless, such as self-immolation or martyrdom, are not really selfless. When we choose to sacrifice at least some portion of our well-being for other people or for an idea, we are satisfying some need of our own, such as the satisfaction of being fully committed to a cause, or of believing we’re saving our own souls, often at a cost to the wellbeing of others, such as that of the friends and family we leave behind. (I have some serious problems with the idea of martyrdom too, which I’ll explore more fully in another piece.)

In sum, pure altruism and the extreme view of selfishness and pure altruism are useless concepts, the first because it’s impossible in a hypersocial species such as ourselves, and the second since it would apply to every thought we have and everything we do, and thereby rendered meaningless.

If I seem to digress, I do this for a good reason: this discussion of altruism and selfishness directly relates to an objection that may seem to undermine the project of this essay, which is to demonstrate why it’s important we don’t restrict sharing our resources only to those situations where we can recognize and identify the potential payoff. Returning from the consideration of altruism and selfishness back to the idea of investing in people, it seems that my critique of the first two undermines my critique of the latter. Since the wellbeing of everyone is linked, and everything that goes around comes around, doesn’t that indicate that we should only want to spend our resources in ways that might benefit ourselves as well as others?

Well, for one thing, the term investment doesn’t generally apply where the returns might be to indirect or too spread out to be readily identifiable as benefiting the investor. It also doesn’t generally apply where non-monetary or at least non-material returns are irrelevant, if we wish the term investment to include expectations of more noble returns, such as decreasing suffering or protecting the rights of others. But even if we extend the meaning of the term to include these, I still think that using the rhetoric of investment is not only unhelpful, it can instill a bad habit of thinking. In a democratic society that ostensibly protects the rights of all of its members equally, a rhetoric that originates with the monetary concerns of the the most wealthy, or at least only those with material wealth to invest, is a very poor fit with the more broadly humanitarian aims of the public endeavor it refers to. At best, it implies that we should apply a market mentality of only spending money in hopes of personal reward to situations where human rights and dignity should be of primary concern. At worst, it ends up crowding out the habit of thinking we would do better to instill in one another, that human beings are worth sharing our resources with for their own sake, and that anything we can do to make it more likely that human rights are protected is a worthy goal in and of itself.

Returning to Kant, investing in people sounds like a violation of his great categorical imperative, that every person should be treated as if they’re an end in themselves, never as if they’re just a means to an end. Human beings, in his view and in the context of a humanitarian, rights-based value system, are worthy of respect and of support for their own sake.

You may object, who cares what it sounds like? We should only care about what we really mean by ‘investing in people’. Well, in case this whole discussion leaves you wondering if this is really all just a case of nitpicking about verbiage, that I would do better just making a case for why we should do more for those who need our help, well, I think that words really can matter. While the theory that language itself influences our thoughts is controversial, what’s not controversial is the knowledge that the words we choose both directly convey and imply our ideas and our values. When we choose the language of investment rather than the language of virtue or of human rights and dignity to talk to each other about why we should share our resources, I think we imply that we place a higher value on the return than on the persons being helped. And when our political leaders and the media flood the internet and the airwaves with this rhetoric, I think they do a disservice by making people too comfortable with that implied idea through repetition. After all, the American people (though not alone, by any means) are bombarded right and left with the message that to be a happy person and a good citizen we should work tirelessly to get ahead, and that the measure of our success is to be as well-dressed, well-housed, well-fed, and possessed of as much money in the bank and as much stuff as possible, whatever the wider ramifications.

I think that it would be an excellent thing if our political rhetoric more regularly emphasized the idea that the human community, and the world that makes its possible, is worth our respect and our support for their own sake. ‘Investment in people’, to my mind, does nothing to emphasize that point. While it’s true that a public commitment to sharing our resources where needed does benefit ourselves as well as others, that’s the gravy. The meat is the commitment to protecting human rights and to making lives comfortable and happy as befits their human dignity, and to preserving the wonderful world we are so fortunate to find ourselves in and which makes our lives possible, just because we know it’s the right and the beautiful thing to do.

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Sources and inspiration:

Rohlf, Michael, “Immanuel Kant”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2014/entries/kant/>

Sandel, Michael. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. https://books.google.com/books?id=06-54FCTQ9AC&printsec=frontcover&dq=

Colorful Language

I love slang, and I love cussin’.

But why, you might ask? Why love that which is rude, crude, and lewd?

I hear people complain a lot these days that ‘four-letter’ words and slang are taking over our language. Since the social revolutions of the 20th century, language has become much more casual, more free and easy, less mannered. By the latter, I’m not talking about manners as they relate to courtesy. I’m talking about rules of conversational etiquette that are often arbitrary. Most of these conventions are useful, as they help organize language and assign definitions so that people can readily make themselves understood to one another. But many other conventions seem contrived, imposed by a social elite to lend a patrician air of refinement to the speaker. Sometimes, it works to their advantage: after all, who isn’t impressed when hearing public intellectual Bertrand Russell wax eloquent on current events, the value of philosophy, and the horror of war in his rather delightful, oh-so-aristocratic style? But while this kind of etiquette can lend a certain pleasing elegance to language, it can give it a stiff, stilted, artificial, and to our modern ears, oddly quaint quality. And too much insistence on ‘correctness’ in speech can render a language dead, in the sense that it’s frozen in time, unable to evolve to express new ideas and ever more shades of meaning.

Those who are especially offended by the increasing use of slang and cuss words consider it a sign that we’re becoming lazier, ruder, more selfish, more aggressive, less respectful of one another. These ‘bad’ words, they complain, are proliferating ever more on the internet, in popular music, on TV, and in movies, infiltrating our kids’ vocabulary at an ever younger age, and worst of all, dumbing down our language.

I agree with these objections to a certain extent. People can be rude, selfish, aggressive, disrespectful, and hateful, and express these attitudes through the use of slang and cuss words. But they can and do express all of these with formal, more ‘acceptable’ language as well. Euphemisms, double-speak, and coded language are all classic examples of ways in which we insult, denigrate, and undermine one another while avoiding the use of lowbrow or taboo terms.

Yet I would argue that many types of ‘polite’ speech, such as euphemisms, double-speak, and coded language, can be much more offensive and harmful because they’re less direct and therefore, less honest. The speaker who chooses these indirect methods of expressing offensive ideas are often attempting to evade responsibility for them, giving themselves an ‘out’ they don’t deserve. These sorts of ‘weasel words’, easy to recognize with the uncanny ability most people have at recognizing and understanding innuendo, are so conveniently slippery that they’re a common tool of the self-righteous jerk, the racist, the sexist, and the elitist. The speaker who uses what are generally considered overtly offensive terms, on the other hand, render themselves accountable for what they say by expressing what they think in a way that’s readily understood and open to critique.

So it’s not slang or cussing that should give true offense in these cases, it’s the intent of the speaker and the content of the speech.

I also grant that people can be lazy and dumb down their language with slang and cuss words because they haven’t bothered to educate themselves, because they want to avoid saying anything challenging or of substance, and because they want to pander to the listener. But like the aforementioned forms of ‘polite’ offensive speech, this is true of other forms of speech as well. ‘Folksy’-speak (Sarah Palin is a famous example, and sadly, she has influenced too many of our politicians to pander ever more to the ‘folks’ in that way); psychobabble; obscurantist academic language; politically-correct speech; scrupulously ‘polite’ speech, and so on, can all be to obscure the fact that the speaker has little of substance they’re willing or able to say.

But those who pick on slang and cuss words generally are just plain wrong: they don’t always dumb down language. In fact, they often have rich and nuanced shades of meaning that polite language lacks, and can lend force, humor, and nuance to language. George Carlin’s immortal ‘Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television’ comedy routine is not only incredibly funny, it highlights the arbitrariness of so many of our language prohibitions, and how taboo words so often convey meaning that polite language can’t.

That’s why we have positive terms to refer to such language: strong, explicit, and colorful. And these terms point to the reasons why I love them.

As a fan of slang and cuss words when used right (no, you pedant, not ‘rightly’), I give the metaphorical finger right along with Carlin when I hear people complain about ‘bad’ language without bothering to understand and address the content behind the words. I suspect that most people who single out strong, explicit, and colorful language for criticism are mostly unfamiliar with the terms used, only enough to identify them as taboo. They assume that because these terms are sometimes used out of simple ignorance, crudeness, anger, or cheap desire to offend, they’re always used these ways. It seems, then, that the complaints often result form a simple lack of understanding. As restless and rebellious youth so often say of their parents, whose ability to understand is subject to the often self-imposed limits of their own experience, they just don’t get it.

Advocates for the exclusive use of polite language in public discourse usually claim that everything can be expressed in those terms, so long as a person possesses an excellent vocabulary. I’m here to tell you that just ain’t so. (My tiny little homage to Mark Twain, among the great innovators who introduced slang, colloquialisms, and other colorful language to great literature, as he illustrated better than anyone how the strictures of polite language so often hold us back.) Since slang and cuss words spring forth and evolve outside of the regulatory realm of polite language, the’re quick to fill in the gaps where there were no expressions for those exact ideas. For that reason, I submit, slang and cuss words are often much more nuanced and expressive than their much fewer yet more polite approximations.

This was brought home to me especially as I was reading (and commenting on) the the delightful Assholes: a Theory, and the many times I watched one of my favorite simultaneously very funny and informative documentariesF*ck. While you might immediately think ‘what a crude person that Amy is’, well, you’re partly right. Humor that is heavy on the use of strong, explicit, and colorful language tickles my funnybone like nothing else, but only if it’s simultaneously very witty. That’s because, for one thing, these terms reveal the wonderful nimbleness of language, when freed from its social constraints, to express just about anything our creative minds can come up with. It’s also because such terms generally concern themselves with the down-and-dirty (pun intended) realities of everyday human experience, for which laughter is the best cure, and humor the most accurate commentary. Strong, explicit, and colorful language chosen for nothing but its shock value, on the other hand, leaves me not only cold, but deeply annoyed, as it does nothing but justify the narrow stereotypes of the self-styled language police.
When it comes to strong colorful language, there’s a time and a place for everything. Formal language is great for the workplace, where strife needs to be avoided and the tasks readily made clear to everyone. Academic language can be great for academia, where highly technical, narrowly defined terms are needed to more efficiently discuss complex ideas. (Steven Pinker, however, very astutely points out that academic language has just as much of a tendency to become ever more obscure and confusing, even to other academics.) Likewise, jargon can be most suitable for professional conferences and talks, polite language most suitable for family and other gatherings of mixed age (since standards of politeness change over time), and so on.

But strong, explicit, and colorful language are also the best ways to express ourselves sometimes, and to avoid using them when they can best express what you’re trying to say is as foolish and self-defeating as refusing to use any tool that’s best for the job. Biting social commentary, humorous examinations of the human experience, expressions of just anger, getting to the bottom of how and why ‘douchebags’ and ‘assholes’ exemplify different ways of people failing to be decent… there are countless ways in which colorful language is the most excellent mode of expression. After all, ‘jerk’ or ‘louse’, while polite, are lame and far less nuanced terms to describe a person who behaves in such loathsome, or more accurately, ‘shitty’ ways as the douchebag and the asshole. From Chaucer to Shakespeare to Carlin, the discerning and true lover of language will recognize that polite terms often just don’t cut it when we need terms that will really help us get to the heart of the matter. Prissy fastidiousness or squeamishness about language can cause the listener to miss out on something interesting or important in what’s being said, and hamper the speaker in their efforts to express themselves as fully as they otherwise could.

So use language vigorously, creatively, and wittily, whatever form it takes, and it’s only proper to take offense at its use when the intent of the speaker, or the content of what they have to say, sucks.

– To Thomas Pyne, professor of philosophy at Sacramento State University, and his always fascinating and erudite lectures in Philosophy of Language, delightfully spiced with a little colorful language here and there

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Sources and inspiration:
Anderson, Steve. F**k, A Documentary, 2005 http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0486585/

Fry, Stephen. “Don’t Mind Your Language” Stephenfry.com
http://www.stephenfry.com/2008/11/04/dont-mind-your-language%E2%80%A6/

James, Aaron. Assholes, a Theory. First published Doubleday, NY 2012.
First Anchor Books Edition, Apr 2014. http://www.onassholes.com/Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. 2014, New York, NY: Penguin. http://stevenpinker.com/publications/sense-style-thinking-persons-guide

Thomas Paine on Basic Income, and Why Welfare is Compatible with an Individualist Theory of Human Rights

Thomas Paine, advocate of liberty par excellence, is an intellectual hero of all believers in democratic and accountable government. He’s also, especially, a hero of modern American conservatives and those of the libertarian persuasion.

But here’s a lesser known fact: he also argues in favor of what today we commonly call welfare.

Paine is, most famously, the author of Common Sense, The American Crisis, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason. These pamphlets are, in turn, an argument in favor of the American colonies’ cause for independence, a series of pamphlets of encouragement and calls for support for the struggling revolution, a rebuttal to Edmund Burke’s harsh critique of the French Revolution (and founding work of modern conservatism), and deist critique of Christianity and organized religion in general.

In Common Sense, Paine calls government a ‘necessary evil’, which we need only because of our flawed human nature, and he considers it legitimate only if it functions to benefit the people as a whole. But to do so, it must remain fully accountable and therefore not too large, or else it would do as governments had always done throughout the history of Europe: it would oppress, enslave, overly tax, and otherwise use its people for its own ends, making them suffer for the inevitable territorial, political, and ideological wars that all monarchs, power-hungry aristocrats, and high-ranking clergy embroiled themselves and their nations in. He also writes that commerce was one of the great pacifiers of the world by rendering people ‘useful to each other’, and as such, should not be interfered with. Thus far, his thinking is closely aligned with the political principles of libertarianism and modern American conservatism.

Yet libertarians and conservatives misunderstand Paine when they stop there: Paine very definitively argues that government should play some very important roles in public life beyond defense of life and private property and the enforcement of contracts. After all, it’s not only governments that oppress and neglect its citizens in all kinds of ways: it’s also other people.

One of these roles that government should take on is economic support of all citizens when they are the most vulnerable, especially the young, the elderly, and the infirm. As Paine observes, neither governments nor individuals sufficiently protect the rights of working people nor of the people to support themselves when they can’t yet work or can no longer work. He himself suffers at the hands of the government when in their employ as a tax officer: they routinely underpay and overwork him and his fellow tax officers, fire him for insufficient cause, and punish him for petitioning the government to improve their treatment of public employees.

Paine thinks government can do better, and go beyond just paying fair wages to its own representatives. He argues in favor of publicly funded welfare for all citizens, especially at the beginning and at end of life, and he outlines a concrete plan for its implementation. As he sees it, taxation and redistribution of wealth, within certain bounds, are just as essential for liberty as are the franchise, education, free trade, a constitution, and a bill of rights. For every person to have the chance at sustaining their life in a way compatible with their rights, the young should, at the very least, receive a free and full education and a sum of money with which to start out on their chosen profession, and a stipend to sustain them in health, comfort, and dignity when they can no longer work.

How is this possible? How can Paine be in favor of accountable government and individual rights while supporting a welfare system, often portrayed today as an enemy of both? His argument is an innovative one, and shows how a system of welfare is, in fact, not only consistent with an individualist theory of liberty and human rights, but is a necessary consequence of it.

Like the writers of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the United States Constitution, Paine is influenced by John Locke, author of Two Treatises on Government and therefore, indirectly, of American political theory. Paine bases his argument on a Lockean theory of rights: all human beings are born into the world with identical natural rights, including that to life and liberty. Everyone is also born with equal rights of access to the land and to its resources, since the latter two are necessary to the former, not only for sustaining life but for making it a free and happy one. The right of individuals to own property, therefore, is not a pure natural right like the others, since it allows particular people access to particular land and resources while denying it to others. Purely natural rights, by contrast, are equal in kind and in degree from individual to individual. Yet giving people the right to claim property as their own is valuable to everyone, since it provides incentives for individuals to create wealth through labor, improving what nature left on its own cannot provide: agriculture, technology, housing, art, and so on, and this wealth is shared by all through trade. Unlike the right to life and liberty, Locke’s labor theory of property rights is contingent, valid only if its original acquisition is ‘mixed’ with the owner’s labor. and only if enough is left so that others have not only enough, but just as good. (When the United States government drove the Native Americans of their ancestral land, they routinely and conveniently forgot the second part of Locke’s property rights theory as they grabbed the most resource-rich and most conveniently located land for themselves, driving the tribes into ever smaller and ever poorer places.) Even if it sometimes interferes with the ability of some to enjoy their purely natural rights, such as when certain people grab all the wealth for themselves while leaving others to suffer in poverty and even starve, Locke thinks that the right to own property benefits society on the whole to such a degree that it’s justified.

Paine, however, is not satisfied. He observes that property rights routinely benefit the few to a great degree and most relatively little. He looks not only at the world around him but at the whole of European history, seeing a world of immense wealth mostly enjoyed by a small number of people while most others earn just enough to sustain themselves, and the problem tends to grow worse over time. Paine tends to blame this state of affairs largely on a spoiled, despotic monarchy, aristocracy, and clergy, who use the law, assertions of ‘duty’, and enticements of salvation to wrangle most of the wealth out of the hands of people who actually create it. This leaves many of the young without the resources with which they could start creating wealth of their own for themselves and their families, and the impoverishment of the old who, after a lifetime of contribution through work, are left without resources when they can work no longer, having earned too little in their lives to save for their old age. So how can this be squared with Locke’s view that property rights should generally lead to the benefit of all, and that they are contingent on there generally being enough for everyone else to have what’s ‘just as good’?

He addresses this problem most thoroughly in his lesser known pamphlet Agrarian Justice, written in 1795 and ’96 after he’s observed the success of the American revolution (except for enslaved Americans, of course) and the turmoil of the French one. The French Revolution, after all, was mostly driven by popular anger and despair over the widespread privation and suffering of the French people, condemned to a life of hard work, few prospects for social mobility, and a strict hierarchical class system in which most of the nation’s wealth was gobbled up by a very few.

Paine doesn’t just base his argument on sympathy for the poor, the hapless young, and the elderly, though his work is clearly driven by that emotion, occasioned partly by his hard-working parents’ and his own struggles to get by. Instead, his argument centers on justice; specifically, the principle of just recompense. Since every person is born into society denied of their birthright, which is the right of equal access to all land on earth and its resources, everyone is responsible for paying damages for that loss. What we now call welfare is really reparations, due to everyone, by all members of a society that enforces landed property rights.

But wait a minute, one might object: isn’t the very fact that society as a whole benefits from property rights recompense enough? Even if Paine is right, wouldn’t justice only demand we make sure that everyone has the same liberties, the same protection under the law, and the same access to basic public goods such as infrastructure and education? That way, outcomes in wealth will generally apportion themselves fairly according to the hard work and ingenuity of individuals. This idea, commonly called equality of opportunity, is especially popular with those who fall into the modern conservative and libertarian portions of the political spectrum. Anything else looks like an injustice in this view. After all, is it really just to take away wealth from some, especially those who earned it through their own labor, and give it to those who have not earned it?

Remember that Paine offers the facts of history to show that fair wealth distribution just never seems to happen in societies that privatize land rights: the average person who works the hardest and does the most to benefit society very often does not accumulate even a fraction of the wealth as the relatively idle monarch, aristocrat, or member of the clergy. Well, then, how about today’s democratic market societies, where there is no monarch, aristocracy, or clergy empowered by the law to plunder most of the wealth from the working people for their personal use? We have only to pay attention to the news a short while to be aware that extreme inequality and unfairness of wealth distribution is as bad or nearly as bad as it’s ever been. The people doing the hardest and arguably most important jobs, such as teaching our children, manufacturing goods, cleaning up our cities, or harvesting the crops that sustain our lives earn anywhere from a pittance to a decent, but not stellar wage. Yet the CEO, the career politician, the idle children and grandchildren of millionaires, the trader and inventor of exotic financial products, and the tech whiz who invents the newest fad internet game often pile up money almost faster than they can stuff it into tax shelters.

Many like to say that unskilled, low-paid jobs are a stepping-stone to something else, but this is belied by the facts in the United States and around the world. While some do work their way up to more highly skilled and highly paid jobs, there are many, many more who never do. The fact that our economy depends on there being a certain number of those low-wage jobs in existence guarantees they will keep existing, at least until technology renders them obsolete. And when and if that happens, what will all those unemployed people do then? Even if every single one received an education and job training sufficient for employment as a skilled worker, there will only be a certain proportion of jobs that will be decently paid, leaving the rest in the same predicament. And there very well may be a lot less jobs in existence than there are people in this technological age. What then?

The reason why the whole equality of opportunity idea never works out may be that it’s a mythical concept, incompatible with the laws of nature, or if it were at least theoretically possible, indemonstrable.

In the real world, competition among workers for jobs necessarily leaves a huge number of people out when it comes to the ability to earn decent or even any money whether or not they do work hard, whether or not they’re willing but don’t have the opportunity, or whether or not they can at all. There are countless reasons for this due to the variety inherent in human nature and in the human experience. Some never had access to a good education, or they lack the network of patrons and mentors that the offspring of successful people rely on to get their own start in life. Others are simply not as intelligent, or tall, or graceful, or otherwise good-looking enough according to the whimsical and capricious standards of society, or of the ‘right’ race, ethnicity, religion, or don’t have the ‘right’ accent, and so on. There are jobs that disappear from the market due to advances in technology, with suddenly unemployed middle-aged or older people with now useless job skills in a society that heavily favors youth. There are people who are born with medical problems that make it difficult or nearly impossible to get well-paying jobs in a competitive market: skin disorders, genetically-imposed obesity, missing limbs, compromised immune systems, cancers, heart conditions…. the list is very long. And there are countless numbers of people for whom the ‘rat race’ is painful or self-destructive, as they have personalities that are shy, contemplative, independent, gentle, non-competitive, ‘weird’, and otherwise totally unsuited to that whole competition thing, and therefore terrible at it. The list goes on and on.

And the reason why equality of opportunity is indemonstrable, at least as something that can be implemented through public policy, can be recognized when we compare it to the gold standard of demonstrating the truth or usefulness of a theory: the scientific experiment. Consider a group of scientists who say, we are sure this theory is true because of this, that, and the other thing. They have an assortment of facts, they have arguments to show why, given the facts, certain things should result, so they make a prediction. Then they run the experiment and… what do you know, the results of the experiment fail to support the hypothesis. They say, oh yes, we see the flaws with the experiment and/or with the participants, they compose new arguments, they formulate a new hypothesis, they run a new experiment and… oops, it failed again! And again, and again. Now, consider every democratic market economy ever in existence and see if any of them actually achieved actual equality of outcome. These actual economies are analogous to the scientific experiments, and the equality of opportunity-based sets of policies are analogous to the hypotheses being tested. Even if, hypothetically, some system based on the ideal of equality of opportunity would actually achieve equality of outcome in a world of identical beings who are not born with or given extra advantages by others, we’ll never know. Asking us to ascribe to indemonstrable political strategies based on equality of opportunity is like asking us to believe the truth of hypotheses that are never proven by scientific experiment. That’s why I, for one, don’t buy it, and am more interested in focusing on equality of outcome, which Paine’s basic income idea seeks to resolve in a practical and just way.

Returning to the original point regarding the fairness of redistributing income from the wealthy to the un- or under-employed: Paine foresees this objection by calling for a universal basic income. In other words, he thinks that it should not be granted on the basis of need. That’s because, for one thing, he bases his whole argument on the equality of natural rights. All human beings alike are deprived of their natural right of free and full access to all of the land and its resource in societies that enforce landed property rights. Even those who own land are still deprived of the right of access to other land, so they are still owed the same damages. If they are wealthy enough to throw the money back into the public fund since they don’t need it, that’s up to them, and very much to their credit, but it’s still owed to them, same as anyone else.

For another thing, and perhaps most importantly for its being popularly acceptable enough for implementation, Paine recognizes that basic human psychology instinctively abhors unfairness. The whole idea of giving welfare to some and not others, even based on need, might seem charitable but still feels unfair, especially when the funds are taken away from people who earned it through their own labor and given to the un- or under-employed. Human beings simply do not need any more sources of strife and division than they already contend with: politics, ideology, and religion do enough mischief on that account already. Therefore, Paine says, basic income should be equally distributed regardless of need so that no-one is given, by society at least, an excuse to resent or look down on anyone else.

*This essay has also been published at the Thomas Paine National Historical Association website (under a different title)

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Sources and Inspiration:

“Labor Theory of Property.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 22 Sep. 2015. Web. 30 Sep. 2015.
https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Labor_theory_of_property&oldid=682304595

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government, 1689
http://socserv2.socsci.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/locke/government.pdf

Paine, Thomas. Agrarian Justice, 1796.
http://piketty.pse.ens.fr/files/Paine1795.pdf

Paine, Thomas. The Rights of Man, 1791.
http://www.ucc.ie/archive/hdsp/Paine_Rights_of_Man.pdf