Friday, May 14, 2010

Semantics and Ideology

I live in a place where terms like "empathy", "social justice" and "common good" are seen by some people as nefarious and sinister. I just don't get it, and I never will.


  1. I see them as a bunch of letters put together, you'd have to describe what you specifically mean by each of them for me to agree or not.

    The last one "common good" is a utilitarian phrase. A similar phrase might be "what's good for most is good for all." I'm in a philisophical minority so I'd have issue with this idea of "common good".

    "Social justice" follows a similar line of thought. What part of society defines justice?

    "Empathy" doesn't mean anything unless you apply it to a specific case. You can feel "empathy" for ... Otherwise it's a fairly empty word.

    What I can state is that these are vague words, and because of this, are often used to serve the interests of public figures or sidewalk snakeoil vendors. So these are not good nor bad in themselves, only vague and fairly meaningless without detail.

    My suspicion is that you feel a large part of society feels something specific is nefarious or sinister. My question to you is what specifically is that something?

  2. I may agree with you that common good and social justice may be elusive concepts, but empathy is usually considered a positive word, Greg. To be able to put yourself in other people's shoes and sympathize to their plight is supposed to be a good thing, except when an imbecile like Glenn Beck ties the concept of empathy to Nazi Germany.

    What's on my mind lately is how people use certain words to avoid being frank and confessing to their open racism/elitism.

  3. We're getting somewhere, but not there yet. Can you give a specific example, like maybe what's going on in Arizona? Racism is not a very constructive thing, it sucks, but we also have to be careful about throwing that word around.

    I like people in general and tend to feel bad about people in bad situations, but I also try to consider how they got into those situations to begin with. In many cases people are responsible for their own predicaments, at others it's just bad luck.

    As far as elitism, what is wrong with trying to work hard and do the best at something? Nobody argues against elitism in sports. So why is that word somewhat dirty outside of sports? I want my doctor to be the best at what he does. Shouldn't I expect this same thing when it comes to politicians or teachers or the guy making my hamburger?

    But back on topic, what specific case of racism are you writing about?

  4. "As far as elitism, what is wrong with trying to work hard and do the best at something? Nobody argues against elitism in sports. So why is that word somewhat dirty outside of sports? I want my doctor to be the best at what he does. Shouldn't I expect this same thing when it comes to politicians or teachers or the guy making my hamburger?"

    That is not the elitism I am against, Greg. Unfortunately we live in a country that more and more resembles a caste system, where upward mobility and the American Dream of making it to the top by working hard are elusive to an increasingly larger percentage of people. This country is not a meritocracy: top jobs and political appointments are often given not to the best people, but to the ones with loads of money or the right connections. I despise that kind of elite.

  5. I once heard some talking-head on television state that it isn't true that hard work leads to success. I'm sure a large percentage of viewers agreed with that person. I don't because I still believe hard word leads to success.

    The reason many don't believe this to be true anymore is probably because they forgot what it means to work hard. We are a technologically advanced nation. Because of this, we are prone to get lazy. And we are. Hard work means sacrifice that much of America doesn't feel they need to sacrifice. It's doing everything you possibly can in a day, and then thinking at night what else could you do more.

    It is a misnomer to call the privileged "the elite". While it is true that America has its own caste system, just like every other country on this planet, what makes it special is that it is an open caste system, meaning that with an incredible effort you can rise (or lower) your standing here. The reason the privileged maintain their positions is because they lack competition.

    Every privileged family starts with someone working harder than anyone else was willing to work. Being born into these families or circles gives a huge advantage, but in most cases you still have to perform.

    Sure there are plenty of people who don't earn their keep, but it is unfair to claim this is only the case of the privileged. There is a McDonald's a few miles from me that is horrible. It should be closed down it is so bad. Same food, same technique, carbon copy of every other one in America. They can't make it work. I guarantee you that no millionaire works there. No privileged. No elite.

    The incompetent aren't incompetent because they've been handed a job. The incompetent are incompetent because they are lazy and lack the competition willing to step up and do the job they can't. Our country needs to learn to stop blaming and start stepping up.

    As bloggers, one of our opportunities is to point out opportunities for others to step in (or step in ourselves). Politics is a great example because our current batch of politicians is still fairly underwhelming. This leaves a great opportunity for anyone from any class to step in and do the work that isn't being done. If your thing isn't politics, then look to your own field, and look for that weak competition and replace them.

    But please never make the mistake of calling the incompetent "the elite". They may be privileged, but why corrupt language?

    And I haven't forgotten about the racism topic. I'd still like to know the specific case of racism that you are writing about.

  6. I find it ironic that you come across as such an idealist, Greg. In my experience the real world does not work like that. I am not speaking about my own personal trajectory, as I believe that I have been successful in life so far. But I have been witness to many hardworking professionals being laid off or suffering salary reductions, while the fat cats they support at the top get millions in bonuses. In some cases, you can work your ass off and receive the same treatment or worse that the suck-ups who do nothing but drive intrigue.

    I also disagree with your correction of my use of the term elite. While your definition of the term is correct, so is mine. An elite can be the best or most skilled members of a group, but they can also be a group or class of persons enjoying privileged social or economic status. This has nothing to do with being incompetent or not. If you have two people vying for a job, and one of them has the benefit of social connections, they will most likely prevail. Does that mean they will do a better job than the other person will? Not necessarily. Does that mean they will suck at their job. Not necessarily either.

    People do not make decisions in a vacuum or driven only by logic/scientific arguments. People's biases inform their decisions, and race/wealth/connections come into play in many of these decisions.

  7. I will never "get" that either.

    And I don't think I can add anymore to the conversation between you and Greg. Except to say that empathy IS supposed to be a good thing.

  8. Elite applied to a "privileged class" while technically is one definition, is a corruption of the word. This often corrupts people's understanding of the other definition of elite as excellence and people who don't fit the "norm" or average become outcasts.

    I had a long response but it wouldn't fit, so I'll go short instead: Rising in a single company is different than excellence in general. Every person must decide their path. You can be great at what you do but not advance far. If you want advancement, then you must focus on being great at being part of a company. This is completely different than being great at what you do for that company.

    My opinion is that becoming great at something will lead to more contentment in the long run than to seeking money alone, but there is nothing wrong with trying for the money too. Contentment is better than discontentment, but rich contentment is better than poor contentment.