Friday, December 26, 2003

Where does love come from? And where does it go?

On one level, this little art site, called "the lost love project," provides an anonymous way for site visitors to reminisce, confess, expound, etc, about old relationships and people lost in the past. On one level, a nice idea.

Viewed another way (a g.s. way?) it provides a rich set of examples of how some people fall in love, not with other people, but with their IDEA of other people. By that I mean, many of these stories clearly describe the process of falling in love with an imaginary person while never learning much about the real person. Not surprisingly, these relationships generally end with pain and separation, whence the site name, "lost love."

How does one avoid such relationships, such pain? I suggest that first and foremost, it takes a continual effort to see through the fog of romance. When you find yourself describing a person as "the only person who ever..." or thinking "I will never stop loving this person even though he left and never came back", stop and ask yourself a few questions, like:

  • Did he really say those wonderful things that made me love him, or did I just assume that that's what he meant?

  • How much of the "time we spent loving each other" really happened, and how much actually just took place in my head, in between real visits?

  • When she said something I found repulsive or hurtful, did I ignore it, chalk it up to a misunderstanding, or did I recognize it as a possible source of discord between us?

I contend that "real" love, the kind that will result in a long-lasting and life-confirming relationship, requires a balance and rationality that some might find cold or unromantic. I suggest that successfully loving another person depends on knowing (and loving) all their bad qualities as well as their good. You need to understand that the way you feel about someone comes from your head, not your heart, and that you create that feeling by what you say to yourself about that person.

If you repeatedly tell yourself (and others) that this person "is perfect" for you, or "completely understands" you, or "would never say anything to hurt me" etc etc, you create an image in your head that the living, imperfect human can never match. Later, when you become unable to ignore or overlook the imperfections, you may feel compelled to say "you've changed!" when in fact, you have simply detected a difference between your mental construction and the real world person. Millions of marriages have disintegrated in a cloud of such accusations--"you're not the man/woman I married!"

In Zen-like terms, you must learn to embrace the imperfect to find the perfect. Opening your eyes to the flaws in your beloved, so you can accommodate and accept them, will ultimately bring you to a "perfect" relationship, one that lasts and gives you comfort and satisfaction without illusion.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

A Clash of Abstractions

A teacher in Florida led her first-grade class in an exercise in critical thinking and caused a ruckus that led to a reprimand.

While reading a story about the tooth fairy, her class started to consider "what was real and what was not". When the subject of Santa came, she asked her students to evaluate the plausibility of his story--flying reindeer, coming down chimneys, etc.--and suggested that such things might be impossible.

Parents of some of the children lodged strenuous complaints, saying her actions have spoiled Christmas. One used the term "destroy" in referring to the effect on the kids.

What does this kind of reaction teach a child? Who set up the circumstances for this "destruction"? You no doubt know my opinion here.....

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Update on "To-Me" Factor

I find I do not stand alone as a woman who objects to the "blue for boys, pink for girls" movie review of "The Lord of the Rings" by Caryn James (see blog item below, December 20, 2003). In an editorial for (available only by subscription,) Stephanie Zacharek characterizes James' review as "the tired old Hollywood-marketing game" of gender-typing movies to influence who goes to see them. She also zeroes in the problem with such a review, namely the lack of thoughtful analysis:

"Why think critically, when you can just consult the imaginary focus group in your mind? "

Further into the editorial, Zacharek challenges the idea that a whole group united simply by their gender must necessarily respond to something all the same way. She asks the simple question: "Do you need to be a man to respond to "typically masculine" notions of nobility and heroism?" She notes that anyone "male or female, has the right" to like or dislike any given movie.

This editorial exhibits much more of the kind of awareness of abstracting that general semantics promotes. Zacharek states pretty unequivocally that each person has a personal response to a movie, dictated in large part by personal experience. She also points out that gender only plays a part in personal experience and doesn't determine it completely.

This falls into the g.s. category of "to-me-ness" that I found so lacking in the James review. Thanks to Stephanie for using her access to the wider Internet audience to call James on her lopsided and unnecessarily inflammatory review!

Monday, December 22, 2003

Media Abstractions

Recently the British Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health published results of a study that compared male and female mental health condition in light of marital status. In this age of almost-faster-than-light communication, the story appeared almost instantly in several media outlets around the world. However, if you only read the headlines, you might have had a hard time determining the "real" results of the study.

Many had a headline similar to these:

"Women, stay single to stay sane" --The Age, Australia
"Women 'should stay single to stay sane'"--Ananova, UK
"Single women stay sane"--The Australian, Australia

Others looked more like these:

"Men's mental health better if they stop short of marriage"--The Scotsman, UK
"Cohabiting Better For Men's Mental Health; Marriage Better For Women"--Newswise
"Getting Married May be Bad for Men's Health"
"Serial relationships bad for women's mental health"--ABC Online, Australia

Only one headline that I found, on the website headed by a former Surgeon General of the US, offered an appropriate equivocal evaluation of the study results:

"Love and Marriage: An Emotional Mixed Bag"

Someone reading just these headlines might want to ask "so which is it? good or bad to be married or single?" The actual results, as one so often finds with scientific analysis, sound much more equivocal than either of the first two sets of headlines above.

Indeed, I find that the following abstract, from the Journal's website, somewhat contradictory itself, which suggests to me that the researchers did not find clear or dramatic differences or similarities.

"Enduring first partnerships were associated with good mental health. Partnership splits were associated with poorer mental health, although the reformation of partnerships partially reversed this. Cohabiting was more beneficial to men's mental health, whereas marriage was more beneficial to women's mental health. The more recently a partnership split had occurred the greater the negative outcome for mental health. Women seemed more adversely affected by multiple partnership transitions and to take longer to recover from partnership splits than men. Single women had good mental health relative to other women but the same was not true for single men relative to other male partnership groups. "

I bring this to your attention not to criticize the headline-making skills of these media outlets but rather to illustrate the pitfalls inherent in the abstracting process. Just as these writers had to boil down a large study into a single phrase, we regularly zero in a single detail of an event to the exclusion of many other aspects, and then categorize the event based on that one detail. We often end up with just as little meaningful information as readers did from these headlines.

We cannot avoid abstraction. We could not function without it. But a healthy and habitual recognition of the bias that the abstracting process necessarily introduces can help us to avoid the repercussions of acting without thinking.

Saturday, December 20, 2003

Missing the "To-Me" Factor

Caryn James of the New York Times could benefit from some study of general semantics formulations. Or perhaps I should say her readers would benefit. In her heavily editorialized movie review of the recent "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, titled "Are Women Just Bored of the 'Rings'?" (no longer available online), James makes a series of assumptions, generalizations and personal evaluations with barely a hint that she might have projected her opinions onto the larger audience.

For example, several times she calls the movie "soulless" and contends that the only appeal of the movie comes from the special effects. As a woman who found the series deeply moving and personally signficant, and with a male life partner who has absolutely no interest in such movies, I have trouble with her bald and unsupported generalizations. (Update: guess I'm not the only one...)

The very fact that she and I, as two women, have completely opposite reactions to this movie demonstrates several principles James could learn from general semantics. To whit:

1. "To-me-ness"--the idea that when forming or stating an opinion, one should acknowledge the relativity of one's own perspective by adding a modifying phrase like "to me" or "from my point of view", mentally or verbally. This also relieves the reader or listener from having to object to an incorrect generalization that doesn't reflect their own "to-them" views.

2. "Non-allness"--the idea that you cannot know or say "all " about anything. James' scant references to statistics in support of her contention leave a lot unsaid and unreferenced. Again, the very fact of my personal evaluation of the movies as meaningful and soulful stands as a contradiction of her generalization. If one woman evaluates the movie differently, how many others might as well?

3. "Non-elementalism"--the idea that, despite having language that separates a class of things into two sides, the real things themselves fall over a wide range of attributes and don't necessarily qualify as one or the other of the two verbal sides. In this case, I submit that there exist many more personality types than "male" and "female" when it comes to evaluating movies. And that statements forcing real people into two verbal camps contributes nothing to a thoughtful discussion.

4. "Non-Identification"--the idea that no two things, however similar, qualify as "identical". James has equated one woman (herself) with the class of all women, disregarding the multitude of differences that distinguish each of us from everyone else, male or female. I object to someone trying to force me into a definition just because of a few outward gender characteristics.

All this could have come across quite differently if James had simply employed a few of the formulations of general semantics. If she had said, "I'm bored of the Rings", or "I found no soul in these movies," I could not argue with her assertion, and I also would not feel the need to argue with it, since she had not made an attempt to include me in her assertion.

Fortunately, I know that I enjoyed the movie even though my driver's license has an "F" in the gender field. "To me", that's all that matters.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003


Upon the cunning loom of thought We weave our fancies, so and so.
--Thomas Bailey Aldrich 1836-1907, American novelist

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.... Original thoughts can be understood only in virtue of the unoriginal elements which they contain.
--Vittorio Alfieri 1749-1803, Italian poet

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.
--Buddha ~563-483 BCE, Indian mystic and spiritual leader

All thought is a feat of association; having whats in front of you bring up something in your mind that you almost didnt know you knew.
--Robert Frost 1874-1963, American Poet Laureate

Words are tools which automatically carve concepts out of experience.
--Julian Huxley 1887-1975, British biologist and author

The safest words are always those which bring us most directly to facts.
--Charles Henry Parkhurst 1842-1933, American clergyman and reformer

A Word by Any Other Name

No doubt only days or weeks after people first started speaking organized languages, some purists began to complain about the degradation of the new grammar and vocabularies. Linguists know that languages only grow through change, but general semanticists consider change a multi-ordinal term, one with many forms and levels of meaning.

The Japanese language uses a special alphabet, called katakana, to write out non-Japanese words, similar to how we sometimes use italics in English to denote a foreign word. In English, however, we tend to eventually assimilate such words and they become indistinguishable from "real" English words (i.e. words derived from Old English rather than Latin, Spanish or some other non-English language.) In Japanese, the foreign word remains distinct forever due to the use of katakana.

Japanese linguists worry about the degradation of Japanese by these foreign bodies, but even more so, older Japanese citizens find it difficult to read the papers or understand to their grandchildren. In a move reminiscent of the French Academie, Japan has established a "Foreign Words Committee" to identify and promote Japanese native alternatives to the growing list of popular foreign terms, most of which come from English. They face a stiff challenge from younger citizens who detect a distinct difference between the foreign and native terms. Foreign terms tend to imply luxury, excitement and modernity apparently. Hard to compete with that.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

What's in a Name?

Within this humorous article on business names by Dave Barry, I found some interesting thoughts about today's culture. I especially like his theories on the logic of business advertising ("Never reveal what you are advertising" for example.) Despite the basic joke of the article, Barry offers some real insights into How Things Work, I think.

For many years now, I have used the mute button on my TV remote control to avoid the blaring sound of TV commercials. I do this partly because I object to the sudden change in volume and pacing that usually accompanies the ad. It also saves me from getting some obnoxious jingle stuck in my head. I have the impression that many others of you do the same thing.

But somebody in the advertising world must have noticed this, because in the past few years, I found that if I watched the ads without sound, I often could not determine the product or the company presumably featured in the ad. In some case, they don't even display the company logo at all during the entire ad. Instead, all of the content of the ad comes from the voice-over, while the visual component appears to tell a short and often mysterious story. They call these "zapless" ads, in the sense that people like me become so curious about the meaning of the ad that we feel compelled to leave the sound on just to solve the mystery.

Of course, most ads also make a concerted effort at metonymy, pairing their product with some greatly desired state like wealth or beauty.

Monday, December 01, 2003

The Weight of Word Choice

I clicked on the link to the article above on the basis of the title: "The Israeli Thought Police". Perhaps my own prejudice shows in the fact that I expected to find an article about the Israeli government suppressing the speech of Arab dissidents. However, what I did find presented an interesting study in "to-me"-ness on a cultural level.

General semantics contends that different people interpret the "same" experience based on their different personal histories. What might seem "harmless fun" to one person, for example, feels like "bullying" to another. In many cases, the deeper the history, the more dramatic the interpretation. The more dramatic the interpretation, the greater the distance between the object level and the verbal. Deep wounds lead to extreme evaluations that leave less partial observers with very little on which to base their own evaluations.

After reading the article, can you determine the "real" story behind it? Does Zahava Gal-On want to reduce tensions in Israel or does she want to suppress free speech? Does the author of article, Ariel Pasko, simply want to protect the rights of all Israelis or does she have a different standard for the Arab members of her culture?

The Scientific Method in Education?

As a child in elementary school, I learned reading through the magic (to me) of phonics. This secret code to written language gave me the tools I needed to master any piece of text I came across. I taught my son to read the same way, and at the age the five he could tackle at the least the sound of the words in any writing he encountered, if not always the sense of those words.

Today's children don't often have that same pleasure. Sometime in the past twenty-five years, the principle of "whole-word" reading gained ascendancy and reading success scores have steadily eroded ever since. This teaching method requires the learned to grasp the meaning of words strictly from context and to memorize their spelling and meaning for future use. How does such a reader ever decipher or look up an unfamiliar word? Furthermore, how do such readers make sense of a statement like "f u cn rd ths, u cn gt a jb in crt rprtng"?

In this article on The Empire Page, author Onkar Ghate identifies the logical flaw in the thinking of the proponents of whole-word reading and argues that reading scores will never improve until educators abandon the approach completely.

I agree.