Listen to What You’re Saying


Every time I visit New Hampshire, as I did just recently, I notice those license plates. And the motto emblazoned thereon : Live Free Or Die. And even though it stems from noble impulses, I still have to regard it as just about the worst motto ever. It’s a sentiment that dates back to ancient times (perhaps most memorably worded by Patrick Henry) to declare that death is preferable to bondage, but who literally believes it to be true? Even if you’re living in bondage, there’s always the possibility that you can attain your freedom later. If you’re living in death, such prospects are rather compromised.

This sentiment probably (let’s hope) arose from a broader and less literal attitude that an individual would be willing to risk his or her life to ensure the liberty of posterity.  But taken literally as quoted, it’s nonsensical to value liberty over life itself, because liberty is a component of life. It’s just another in the endless parade of instances in which people aren’t really listening to what they’re saying.

We often hear that we should watch what we’re saying, lest we utter something offensive or damaging. But it’s also important to listen to what we’re saying. lest we utter something self-contradictory or downright foolish.

Many years ago I was having a discussion with one of my RRR’s (rabidly right-wing relatives) — and when I say “having a discussion”, I mean listening to him rant — about the government’s ban of the pesticide DDT, a ban he was convinced was part of some kind of liberal commie conspiracy to impinge, somehow or other, upon the liberty of ordinary American citizens. He insisted that DDT is necessary to control pests.

“You don’t remember what it was like before we had DDT”, he said. “The flies were so thick you could hardly breathe.”

In other words, he was saying that because there were not nearly as many flies since DDT was banned, that proves that DDT is necessary to eliminate flies. Even if he meant that the flies were numerous before DDT was used at all, his statement makes sense only if those suckers have an extremely long gestation period, and are about to swarm us like Hitchcock’s birds any minute now. He would have done well to pay attention to his own words.

Another relative commented recently that it’s important to keep out “illegal” immigrants because they commit a lot of crime. To which I responded that actually, they commit considerably less crime than U.S. citizens. To which he replied, “that’s your opinion”. To which I replied that in fact it would be pointless to have an opinion about such a matter, because we have a way of knowing for certain. It’s called counting. That’s the reason numbers were invented — so we can keep track of how many crimes immigrants commit. To which he repeated, “that’s your opinion”. He wasn’t really listening either to me or to himself.

Still another relative is adamantly opposed to cremation, citing her fundamentalist convictions. She literally believes that on Judgment Day, God will resurrect the remains of the deceased faithful; and cremating those remains will make it impossible for Him to do so. In other words,  a Supreme Being who supposedly can do absolutely anything, nevertheless cannot revivify cremated individuals, which presumably means things are hopeless for anyone who dies in a fire, no matter how strong their faith. Has she ever tried listening to her own words?

Religious beliefs often come from people who seemingly tune out their own words. Creationists sometimes argue that there must be a Creator just because the universe is too complex to have “just happened”. But aside from the fact that “just happened” is an overly simplistic characterization of the alternative(s) to creationism, the complexity argument is just about the most inept imaginable. Because no matter how complex the universe, its Creator would have to be even more complex. And if complexity itself negates the possibility of “just happened”, then that Creator must have been created by a Creator who was created by a Creator. And so on, ad infinitum.

Politics, of course, also offers a wealth of opportunities for ignoring the import of one’s own words. (And, alas, just about every freaking thing under the sun is connected to politics these days.) Who can forget former Senator Jesse Helms saying that “democracy used to be a good thing, but now it has gotten into the wrong hands”. And not long ago I heard a politician say something to the effect that the death penalty is a way of expressing our commitment to the sanctity of human life. (And many other people defend the death penalty by claiming that killing people teaches people not to kill people.)

You hear a lot of people these days declare that black athletes should be forced to stand for the National Anthem because soldiers have died defending their freedom. And many people just know there is an overwhelming liberal bias to American mainstream media because they keep it hearing it from the American mainstream media. And that the way to stop gun violence is with more guns. And spanking kids teaches them respect.

George W. Bush, who built a long and lucrative political career upon utterly refusing to listen to absolutely anything he was saying, came up with quite a few gems like this:

I think we agree, the past is over.

More and more of our imports come from overseas.

You work three jobs? … Uniquely American, isn’t it? I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that.

And many, many others, from suggesting that the reason for starting a war is to stop war to proposing easing dependence on foreign oil by getting it from Mexico. Nor was this staggeringly stupid lack of self-awareness limited to Bush himself; the entire administration was infected with it. As just one example: after the 9-11 attack, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers hailed from Saudi Arabia, the Bush Gang decided instead to bomb Iraq. Because, as Secretary Of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explained perfectly deadpan, Iraq had better targets. Sort of like losing your keys in the garage but looking for them in the bathroom because the light is better there.

Speaking of Bush, another relative (and I don’t mean to be picking on my relatives here, God love them every one) insisted that it’s wrong to blame Bush for allowing 9-11 to happen. It was really Clinton’s fault, she insisted, because he dallied with Monica so much that he was distracted from doing his duty. That kind of analysis seems to make sense to a lot of people — I’ve heard it repeated more than once. And granted, it isn’t as obviously nonsensical and self-contradictory as the other statements quoted above. But when you give it a bit of thought, you see that it is indeed absurd.

When you say that the president blew it by getting blown, you are saying one of two things. The first possibility is that Clinton in general spent so much time Monica-ing that he was unable to do his duty. But that’s absurd, because there were surely other activities that he devoted far more time to — eating and sleeping, for example — and nobody has ever suggested that those things were an inordinate distraction from his job.

The second possibility is that on some specific occasion, his preoccupation with philandering caused him to miss an important briefing or decision point. But not even the most devoted of Clinton haters suggest that there was such an occasion; and even if there had been, that still leaves wide open the possibility that he could have received a briefing, or could have done whatever he needed to do, at some other time — if nothing else, by having his sleep or meal interrupted. In contrast, when people talk about Bush allowing 9-11 to happen,  they mean that he and his administration ignored or downplayed several warnings, some rather specific, in the months leading up to the attack — including one on Aug. 6.  We’ll never know for certain whether they would have prevented 9-11 had they been more diligent. But we do know that they were not diligent. They in fact had their pants down in a much more serious way than Clinton did.

I suspect that all of these relatives did what so many people do these days: they heard something in the media that they wanted to believe, so they decided to believe it and repeat it without stopping to think about whether it actually made sense. They didn’t listen to what they were saying.

It’s been said that the unexamined life is not worth living. That may be rather hyperbolic (though surely not to the same extent as “live free or die”.) What’s much truer, however, is that the unexamined belief is not worth believing — much less expressing. It’s fine to quote someone else’s words, provided they’ve been properly vetted. But if you simply parrot what you’ve heard without considering its basis in fact or logic, your opinions are not really your own.  It’s a very good idea to listen to what you’re saying, preferably before you even say it. You may still get some things wrong — we all make mistakes. But at least you will be speaking your own convictions rather than serving as a mouthpiece for a ventriloquist. And that’s definitely a step in the right direction.


  1. I’ll never understand why people don’t cut off, or at least greatly distance themselves, from their RRR’s. I mean, a right-wing scumbag doesn’t get a pass just because we share DNA. At least that’s how I feel about it.

    • Sometimes it’s hard to avoid them. And I’m not a fan of cutting people off if it can be avoided at all. Of course, I might feel very differently if I were related to, say, that guy in the White House. I do have my limits.

  2. I agree that we sometimes accept self-contradictory thinking when deciding where we stand on any given issue, and that doing this on a global scale may lead to a macabre situation like that portrayed in Orwell’s 1984, which involves Big brother controlling his subjects via the use of rational contradictions to persuade them that they must accept the society that has risen from his “benevolent,” authority, and is supposedly represented by contradictory mottos–such as “peace is war, freedom is bondage, and Love is hate,” If I remember those examples correctly. And certainly recent history during my own life has also presented some doozies too, such as “We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” and, “Get your government hands off of my Social security” But do our arguments always always need to follow the established rules of logical and/or reason in order to be of worth, or to establish some truly noble sentiments?

    Surely under the rules of logic, each creator must have been created by some other creator, and then something else, and on, and on, and on. But is it really absurd or worthless to believe in an uncaused cause?

    When we exchange views with true believers and attempt to show them the logic behind our own beliefs, we are often not arguing from the same philosophical baseline and will be frustrated, because by definition, the words, “spiritual, soul,” or “the kingdom of Heaven,” do not pretend to claim they are based on reason and/ or logic, yet may be used to describe different views the universe that offer us different ideas of definite value. After all, aren’t many arguments which support one side or the other, both determined by the philosophical angle (so to speak), from which they are viewed? Thus, even though the existence of a “soul,” may not be logical, why should that conclusion necessarily represent the be all, and end all, of all established facts, and differing beliefs?

    For example, NDE (or Near Death Experiences) have been studied by psychologists and scientists for quite some time now, but they still cannot explain why those from different cultures, religious backgrounds, and differing prior beliefs, all report such similar and profoundly peaceful experiences? And why is the beautiful light, or place, that those who experience NDEs are commonly interpreted in much the same way–even by atheist who have nearly died, and then shared that experience, even though they might consider the light to be a peaceful and incredibly calm place of pure love that is deep within them. And when scientists attempt to explain all of this similarity and profundity by referring to effects on the optic nerve, or the drama which may be manufactured by the mind right before death, the explanations they come up with, seem more incredible than the answers that are defined in terms of spiritual experiences shared by virtually all of them? –as if they are looking for evidence that is supported only by scientific models, instead of by common, but profound, subjective experiences?

    Likewise, astrophysicists who try to explain why the universe needs no creator, often come up with vague and hard to understand theories based on things like an energy field that “arose” spontaneously by itself. So, enquiring philosophical mind. must also ask the question, “Arose from what?” And therefore cannot discard the argument that every cause has an effect which can only progress on and on forever, from a singular starting point.

    What I am trying to say is that, while we should be aware of what we are saying, and thus be able to point to the reasons behind our own irrational conclusions, we should also understand that rationality, is not the only yardstick by which to measure the facts or the truth!

    I believe that, while Einstein rejected the notion of a personal God, like that which is offered as an article of faith by various churches and religious organizations. But he did say that the order in the Universe suggest the existence of a universal spirit behind it all. He also stated that he did not arrive at the theory of relativity by using his logical mind alone. Thus it seems particularly odious to me whenever the idea that ony less intelligent and irrational minds say that there is a God.–absolutely not true!

    There may be no way to rationally prove that heaven, God, or the words of Christ, are at the foundations of the universe, but who cares? Love and faith cannot be understood in the same way that a mathematical equation can be understood in the first place!

    To those who claim that matters of faith are merely cop-outs which cannot provide us with any real peace or wisdom, I just say “that could be true!” But at my age of 67, which is now the same age as my own father was when he died of heart disease, I have thought a great deal about how I will accept death once it becomes inevitable? And I have concluded that I do believe there is something higher in this universe that will be waiting on the other side–all questions of being and nothingness aside! I would love to walk into a beautiful light, after saying hello to all my relatives and to all the loved I have known, while being able ot see my own mother beaming with the happiness that always seemed to elude her throughout her own neurotic existence, And which never allowed her to feel peace and fulfillment.

    Yes, I may be chaining my mind to yet another rationally disputable assumption but I truly don’t care! Because I know there is also such a thing as subjective experience, which can also be just as valuable as truckloads of logic and objective experiences. If anyone disagrees, then it’s not my place or my prerogative to make them feel otherwise.

  3. POP, Here’s hoping again that eventually you will get a word program with a review mode so that I can leave comments which are more grammatically correct. usually I leave comments on your blog, in the wee hours of the morning, and it surprises me how many simple mistakes I always make.

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