Ambigamy

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Nounism: Taking THINGS too seriously

Nounism: Taking THINGS too seriously
Last week New Yorker columnist George Packer noted that while Sarah Palin's syntax is mangled, more significantly it lacks verbs. It's mostly nouns. Maverick, hockey mom, Joe sixpack, elitist, terrorist, small-town people--lots of heavily loaded nouns.

Loaded nouns and the adjectives that modify them are part of everyone's vocabulary, but in recent decades--under the influence of Karl Rove and a general Republican emphasis on sounding practical--conservatives have leaned heavily upon them. This year's election is turning out to be something of a referendum on radical nounism, which looks to be going down if not out. In the current economic crisis people want to know what the candidates will do. For the first time in decades, noun-intensive rhetoric isn't winning votes.

We intuit that nouns are what practical people focus on. They're what make the world feel solid. Nothing is more solid than a thing. Feel that table in front of you. It's a hard thing, a hard truth.

Using nouns, especially loaded ones, to describe people is the simplest way to telegraph your view of which ones to trust and which not to trust A person is a thing, either a good thing or a bad thing depending on what nouns we assign. "Mavericks" are good things so you can trust anyone who is a maverick. That's being plainspoken, calling a spade a spade. "Elitists" and "talkers" are bad things, so you can't trust them. That's a solid hard truth too.

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Noun-heavy communication tends to rely on passive verbs, "is, am, to be" chief among them. I'm reminded of the two versions of "is" in Spanish: "ser" and "estar." Both mean "is, are, am, to be" but the difference is for how long. I am Jeremy in the permanent sense, so to say that in Spanish I would use the verb "ser." I am at home in the less permanent sense. To say that I would use the verb "estar." How permanent is the "is" Palin uses to anoint the ones she likes and tar the ones she doesn't? She's talking permanent. A maverick is a maverick for life.

Think of how "is" plays out in love. Consider saying, "I love you," translated for the sake of this exercise as "This is love." Well, which "is" do you mean? The long-term version makes love as permanent a characteristic of your bond as Jeremy is a characteristic of me. The other "is" is more like my being at home. It's a declaration of the current state--in this moment I am feeling love for you. Much to the confusion of lovers, both meanings can be implied by "I love you." Love as a noun, a permanent good thing; love as a temporary state.

Lucky people (like me) tend to accumulate assumptions that we're a Special Protected Subspecies (n. somehow permanently immune to bad luck). During the recent economic shocks a lot of formerly fortunate Americans are experiencing a cosmic wedgie on those assumptions.

Conservatism, like progressivism, is at root an inescapably important half-truth. Conservatism, true to its nouny tendencies, is at core the argument for permanence--that "what is should be." Progressivism is the argument that "what isn't should be." Of course each is true, but not to the exclusion of the other. If conservatism were absolutely true nothing would ever change. If progressivism were absolutely true everything would change always. Enthusiasts for either half-truth sometimes argue in absolute terms, but in practice neither lives by those terms. Conservatives face the daunting task of selecting which of the many standards held at some place and time to argue must be conserved. Usually, it's whatever strategy is conducive to their preferred perma-good. Progressives likewise have to decide which change to advocate. They tend to emphasize the changes that would bring them closer to their preferred perma-good too.

Conservatism and nounism resonate with our quest for the permanently good. Post-9/11 studies by Dr. Sheldon Solomon and Dr. Tom Pyszczynski found that people became more supportive of Bush's conservative agenda when reminded that they will eventually die. They also found that people's confidence levels (their estimate of their likelihood of being right about some factual guess) go up in front of funeral homes. It's like that line from Dylan Thomas--"Do not go gently into that dark night. Rage rage against the dying of the light." How? By declaring things solid; by leaning into nounism.

I think what's happened in the past few decades is that the natural human tendency to try to lock in the currently good as "perma-good" has found a new formula in a bastardization of conservatism. Conservatism has come to mean not that this or that tradition is good but rather that "I'm permanently good; I'm never wrong; I am a good thing." Nounism has become the conservative's easy formula for deflecting all criticism and amping up all self-affirmation. It's selective name-calling without regard to internal consistency. Call anyone opposes you a pejorative noun; call yourself and anyone who supports you a complimentary noun. Do it with enough certainty and conviction and it will stick. Permanently--after all, it's a noun.

The Christian Right (like any heaven-headed fundamentalist group) is of course deeply committed to its members' perma-good, the permanently good life hereafter that they'll get and others won't. The vast majority of people who believe in heaven and hell believe they're among the chosen few who are going to heaven.

And who among us wouldn't try to lock in all the good they could? I hate feeling I'm wrong. I hate thinking about losing things I love. I would love to find a way to lock in every good thing I've got and can imagine for myself. It would feel like real progress. I'd love to find a force-field that would keep me from ever feeling wrong.

I don't believe I can, however, and I think the most enthusiastic conservatives really thought they could. They came to believe that they wouldn't have to feel wrong because they would never be wrong. But it's not working. A lot of the ideology that drove enthusiasm for conservatism just isn't paying off in the real world. Their self-declared practical-mindedness isn't turning out to be so practical. The conservatives are still exercising their self-allocated force-field to deflect criticism, but for those contending with the consequences of their self-certainty the force-field is softening. Palin's mangled syntax exaggerates her nouniness at a bad time, when people are already growing skeptical about Republican strategies.

As a relevant aside, from a scientific perspective, this ain't a great time for nouns anyway. Over the past few centuries scientific discovery has been on a robust trend away from things and toward processes. In the practical, hard, and solid world of science, verbs are proving more fundamental than nouns. Nouns are real only in a temporary sense, and we're discovering that they're made of verbs.

In the early 1800s we thought heat was a substance called "phlogiston," but couldn't figure out how it passed through solid objects. Then we realized it's not a thing; it's a process generated by a relationship. We thought that energy was a substance too, called "caloric" (and we still talk as though it were; consider the "caloric content" of that Snickers bar). There was even a theory that cold was also a substance, called "frigoric." Thermodynamics put caloric and frigoric theory to rest demonstrating again that energy was a process, not a substance (article forthcoming explaining all this). Magnetism, electricity, radio waves, atoms (yes even atoms)--thinking about their nature has always started with treating them as things and moved to seeing them in dynamic terms. Science still uses nouns to identify them, but doesn't think of them as things anymore. They're things, but only in the sense that a sufficiently slow or cycling process produces a persistent and reliable habit that lasts long enough for us to treat it as a thing.

Like love. Like you and me--we too are temporary patterns or processes emergent from sub-processes that are emergent from sub-sub-processes. I'm fortunate to get to study and even do research in this science, and I'm fortunate to get to be a process here on earth (also a process) for a while.

Mind you, I use nouns all the time. I bite my tongue when tempted to only use positive ones about me and negative ones about people who bug me. (Admittedly those "nounists" really get my gourd.) The most solid-seeming noun I use is "I." I mean I really really am. And the "am" I mean is the most permanent one possible.

Yes, I realize that I'm going to die. Since at fifty-two my hair hasn't grayed (my beard has and I dye it) and my body still works perfectly unobtrusively, I confess I'm laboring under the delusion that I'm somehow an Immune and Immortal Thing--a permanent youth and a good nouny one at that. Give me a year or two and I'll reluctantly catch up. My mom died of cancer an un-dyed brunette at fifty-nine, startled that she wasn't exempt.

If it continues, science's trend toward showing things to be processes will go a long way toward explaining death, though not in a way that will seem delightful at first. When they end, processes are gone in a way that nouns as we've imagined them are not.

But the hardnosed practical ones among us will get used to it, and it's not so bad being a process reliably masquerading as a thing for a while. Besides, our processes include the delusional ones whereby even the hardnosed can content themselves with delusions of permanence. Within reason. Permanent while it lasts.

Maybe even the democratic process. For a while it was looking like the nounists had cast a permanent spell that would end it. Maybe not.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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