Monday, June 06, 2005

"Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style."

The above quote is from a brilliant essay by George Orwell called Politics and the English Language. He's not referring to Orthodox Judaism specifically, but I think the quote is nevertheless apt. He continues:

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases -- bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder -- one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.


I frequently see Orthodox people mindlessly re-using phrases which are nearly bereft of meaning. Here is one example which has lately been driving me nuts:

Wolfish Musings has a quote in the "About" section of his blog which I've heard from many Orthodox folks or people on the political Right:
They should be open-minded; but not so open-minded that their brains fall out.


Now, I think Wolfish Musings runs a good blog. I read it and recommend it. However, I wish he were more careful with such a prominently displayed but unthoughtful sentence.

Does it mean anything? What is being referred to by the image of "brains falling out?" What, precisely, is the dangerous result of being "too" open-minded which is being alluded to? Having no values? No logic? No reason? Aren't those lackings completely unrelated failings?

I ask because I've never met someone whom I believed "too" open-minded, and I have trouble imagining one. To me, being open-minded means being open to experience and truth, being ready to constantly re-evaluate your cherished beliefs under the light of new evidence. I'm calling Wolfish Musings out on this phrase, because
a) what I think he really means by "brains falling out" is: "being so courageous in chasing the Truth that it leads you astray from what you previously believed (i.e. Orthodoxy)" and
b) if he realized the meaning inherent in the phrase he was mindlessly repeating, he'd re-think his position on the subject.

If he wants to be more clear without changing his position, his advice to his children should read: "Be open-minded, but not so much that you let Truth lead you away from Tradition." I don't agree with that advice, but I suspect that is what he means, even if he doesn't yet know it. I challenge him to come up with more precise, original wording to express himself. I suspect that in the process of crafting more precise language, his thinking itself might become more precise. As Orwell writes, "[bad] language can also corrupt thought." Presumably, good, or precise, language purifies thought.

These are the rules which Orwell lays out to avoid bad language:
1) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2) Never us a long word where a short one will do.
3) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

bully for you, that phrase bothered me
as well, and I like your phrasing much better
(still stuck on what exactly i think of the advice offered
in the phrase).

Anonymous said...

What is being referred to by the image of "brains falling out?" What, precisely, is the dangerous result of being "too" open-minded which is being alluded to?

What is being referred to is given credence to a position simply because someone espouses it.

BrooklynWolf said...

There are people who believe all sorts of silly things today. People believe in alien abductions, that the government is hiding alien bodies in Area 51, telepathy, psychic powers, the Bermuda Triangle, Loch Ness Monster and so forth and so on. One's mind should be open to new ideas, but they have to be able to hold water, so to say.

That being said, I'm fully aware that anyone, if so inclined, can add Judaism (or any other religion, I suppose) to the list I mentioned above.

The Wolf

Jewish Atheist said...

One's mind should be open to new ideas, but they have to be able to hold water, so to say.

BrooklynWolf, I agree with your sentiment. I'm arguing with the phrasing of "[being] so open-minded that their brains fall out." If the original phrase were, "They should be open-minded, but skeptical," I'd agree.

"They should be open-minded, but skeptical," has different implications than "They should be open-minded; but not so open-minded that their brains fall out." The latter implies a danger in being open-minded when really the danger lies in being unreasonable. To heed the imprecise warning, one might try to be somewhat open-minded, while refusing to reconsider his most cherished beliefs. To heed the more precise warning, one realizes he must maintain a skepticism while remaining open to questioning every belief. The distinction is semantic, but it's an important one.

Mis-nagid said...

BklynWolf,
How do you teach your kids why not to believe in the Loch Ness Monster? What criteria can you give them to sort out false beliefs that will not also expurgate Orthodox Judaism? What skeptical heuristics can debunk the Bermuda Triangle, but leave krias yam suf intact? Or will you resort to watered-down versions of the bogus proofs you so despise? What happens when they turn the skepticism inward?

Chana said...

You say you've never met anyone too open-minded.

I was thinking about that statement for a while, especially with regard to myself. I've met many people, some of them who believe in "relative morality." In other words, while it would be wrong for them to kill someone, it would not be wrong for someone else to kill someone else, because they have a different set of morals. Therefore they are extremely "open-minded" to a degree where they believe that people can commit crime. They have different limits for the extent of that crime. Some say it should only extend up till taking another person's life, but that stealing, etc, are all permissable. And so it goes. When it comes to "open-mindedness" there can be all kinds of definitions- from simply treating those who are GLBT as equal to stating that all men should be able to do whatever they wish, no matter how detrimental that would be to another person. So I believe there can be extremes of open-mindedness. Granted, I don't think they happen too often- well, there are some acceptable types, which include the fact that if one person is having an affair with another, that isn't a problem, and is not considered betrayal of trust by the majority of the modern world. That's not considered actively hurting the person, because it isn't physical violence. But I'm certain there are certain bounds to open-mindedness, for even people who are open-minded with regard to abortion and euthanasia oftentimes would not say it's above-board for someone to kill another person. Etc. What I personally find irritating about your above-mentioned expression is that it seems coarse. Open-mindedness implies something abstract that cannot be quantified; brains falling out imply something physical and "gross" for the squeamish thinker. I think the idea is a true one, though. People who are so incredibly open-minded that they believe we should all be able to control others, people who believe we should control other sects/ cultures/ dominate other planets, and have the ability to kill one another, etc, can be conceived of as "lacking brains" to understand the courtesy and sense of safety/ protection due us all.

One instance of this was in the new law instituted in China, where women complained they were being groped on trains. So China decided to make women-only trains. Come the men, who decide to say this is segregation and unfair and women-only trains are unconstitutional. That's a case, I think, where open-mindedness is being pushed to the limit. The women don't desire to be packed in so tightly that men can turn/ grope them without being held accountable. It's their choice to go on women-only trains; nobody is forcing them to do so. I would say that those who claim "segregation" under the banner of open-mindedness are quite possibly those lacking brains/ common sense.

Also, open-mindedness is defined in so many different ways. Many believe that a liberal, Zionist, feminist, ally (to homosexuals, etc), and anti-racist, pro-tolerance person is open-minded. That's the perfect definition. Yet there are others who stick to their convictions/ ideas, not to the point of not hearing what others have to say, but simply because they have made a commitment and will keep to it. Many would define that as stubborness, but in some ways it could be seen as an admirable trait- the ability to stick with something and see it through equates to being a great planner, a "mover and shaker." Since there is no one definition for open-mindedness, but rather so many, I believe there certainly are people, who in some ways, are "too" open-minded. And can the perfect definition= liberal, Zionist, ally, anti-racist, pro-tolerance, person be open-minded toward one who is conservative? Not necessarily racist, but simply conservative? Or will the person immediately feel he needs to draw him into his camp and persuade him that that is the true open-mindedness, when in fact it may not be?

It's a very difficult thing to be truly open-minded, and there are certainly those who are open-minded only to certain issues but not to others, and those who are open-minded to the point that they lack "common sense." In that sense, I do understand and appreciate Wolf's quote. But I also see your side.

BrooklynWolf said...

Mis-nagid,

The difference, I suppose, between the Loch Ness monster and Krias Yam Suf, or between Creation and the Bermuda Triangle, is that at least WRT Judaism, I'm starting from a certain point - belief in God, which I accept without proof. As such, Creation and Krias Yam Suf "benefit" from that belief. Nessie and the Triangle don't enjoy such benefits.

I know it's not the answer you were looking for, but it's the one I have.

The Wolf