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Last issue I was talking about getting clarity on your values (or analysing whether another person or organisation has meaningful values). I said that values only have meaning when they’re in conflict, when you have to choose whether you would choose truth over loyalty, loyalty over justice, justice over peace, or the other way around.
Here’s another piece of the puzzle: a value word on its own doesn’t mean anything. It’s too broad to apply it to a real-world problem.
One particularly platitude-prone US primary candidate had a set of what he called “Rules for the road” for his campaign. One of these rules was “Boldness”. Boldness sounds like a value, but it’s useless because it’s completely unclear how to act on it.
Here are some rules about Boldness that a person could actually use to guide their behaviour:
- “If you’re not sure, go for it. We support experiments even if they don’t always pay off.”
- “Actively seek out potential supporters and ask what they want to know. Don’t wait for them to come to you with questions.”
- “Dress in weird, out-there clothes so you always stand out when you’re at campaign events.”
- “Don’t hesitate to criticise your bosses when you think they’ve made a misstep. We encourage boldness.”
Note that, throughout, I’ve deliberately chosen a mix of values that I agree with and disagree with, because this isn’t about what I personally value (except that I value self-awareness, clarity and being honest with yourself very highly).
So: if you value ‘family’, whose family? Do you mean the institution of the family and its place in society, or your own family specifically? Extended families or the nuclear family? Does ‘valuing’ them mean spending time with them, ensuring they’re financially comfortable, or always being honest with them?
I’ve written down some family values that actually mean something, with accompanying actions in parenthesis:
- Spending time with my kids is my highest priority
“Once I have a salary above $X, I will always choose spending time with my kids over working more.”
- Keeping in touch with my extended family is important
“I need a house with a spare bedroom because I always want a space for visiting family to stay.”
- It’s wrong to separate children from their parents
“I will work in family mediation to help divorced couples make harmonious custody arrangements.”
“I will give money to a charity that fights to reunite refugee children with their parents.”
- Everyone has a right to know who their father is
“I will try to talk my friends out of becoming anonymous sperm donors.”
“I will vote for candidates that believe contraception should be affordable and accessible.”
- Our parents took care of us; so we have a responsibility to take care of them
“I will campaign for paid carer’s leave so people can take time off to care for their ageing parents.”
- I believe children should have a full-time parent
“I will not have a child unless one of us can afford not to work.”
All of these things are so different! You probably agree with some and disagree with others. So ‘family’ = almost anything. If you only know that you value family, you really have no idea what you value at all.
The same applies to justice, loyalty (loyalty to who? and what actions does loyalty require?), fairness, and everything else.
My suggestion is: if you know the one-word version of what you value, have a think about what the one-sentence version might be, and what actions or ‘rules’ it might entail. (Post them in the comments if it’s not too personal! I’m super curious about how other people think about this stuff.)
Why are on-screen mobsters so obviously Catholic? Because of censorship
In The Godfather, The Irishman, the Sopranos, etc, Catholicism is pretty heavily represented on-screen. You might thing: well, they’re Italian, they’re probably Catholic, seems reasonable. Sure, but most crime films don’t spend much time focusing on the religion of the protagonists. If they need a random scene of dialogue, they’ll put it in a shady bar or a poker backroom or a strip club, not a christening or a bat mitzvah.
The reason is the Hays Code, officially the ‘Motion Picture Production Code’, which affected movies made between 1934 and 1968, although film studios increasingly ignored it towards the end. It tried to make sure films sent the right moral message - no couples together in the same bed, no extramarital sex, no sympathetic villains, no making fun of authority figures, nothing that would “lower the moral standards of those who see it”.
Immoral people such as mobsters could be shown, but they had to be punished by the end of the film. And there had to be a moral character onscreen to show the right way to act, to give moral guidance, in comparison to the evil of the protagonists. In mafia films, they used a Catholic priest as that figure. So, Catholicism had to be a visible part of the mobsters’ lives.
And then that became an expectation of the genre, and even though the Hays Code is long-dead, it’s become part of the aesthetic. If you’re making a mafia film, you’ve gotta use some Catholic symbolism, like how if you’re making a Western, you gotta have a grizzled stranger come to town. [Source]
The Riverbank Carousel in Harlem is based on children’s drawings
You can see the kids’ drawings at the top in the last picture.
Artist Milo Mottola went around to schools in the area, and ran workshops, encouraging kids from 5 to 8 years old to draw the animals they wanted for the carousel. Then he hand-carved them, structurally reinforced them, painted them and everything. Article in the NYT (images from google).
Things I like about this project:
- I mean, look at it, incredible
- I really like to see kids taken seriously, as though what they’re saying right now matters, not just what they’ll think and say when they grow up.
- One reason for doing the carousel this way is he had hardly any budget. Traditional horses on a low budget would have been cheap and bad quality. But kids’ drawings - they’re meant to be simple, assymetrical, and so on. I feel like there’s a lesson here about side projects and scope.
Angel climbing to heaven, Bath Abbey
Couldn’t find original photographer sorry
Legal doublets: cease and desist, aid and abet, breaking and entering
Today in “there’s a word for that!” Legal doublets are pairs of words that go together in the legal system, that mean almost identical things, or things so overlapping that in ordinary English you would normally never say both.
Other examples: assault and battery, null and void, terms and conditions. (Wikipedia has a whole list of them here.)
They mostly came about when a legal term was transitioned from one language to another, in areas of Europe where the law was considered fancy and conducted in a different language to regular speech (such as Latin or French). So as the language of the courts changed, they’d keep both the original term and the new term, so everyone would understand.
Sometimes there used to be subtle differences in the meanings, but these differences are now obsolete. ‘Abet’ means ‘encourage’, which is different from ‘aid’, but since abetting is not listed as a separate crime from aiding, there’s functionally no separate meaning.
Irreversible binomials: cease and desist, fish and chips, macaroni and cheese
A lot of legal doublets form irreversible binomials: pairs of words that cannot be reversed. I mean they can, but you sound like a weirdo if you do it. Wikipedia has a whole list of these too: life or death, fruits and vegetables, pots and pans, bread and butter.
Sometimes, a word disappears from the English language everywhere except its irreversible binomial: vim and vigour, spick and span. These are called fossil words! Also if they’re left over from other phrases like ‘bald-faced lie’. Bald-faced means ‘without shame or embarrasment’ but no one ever says they did a ‘bald-faced karaoke song’.
Unsolicited advice: “Vulnerability hoarding”
Talking about your vulnerability is good and helpful. If you’re upset with your housemate because they’re not cleaning up after themselves, and they say “hey, this issue actually touches on some personal sensitivities, so can we take it a bit slow?” or “can we take a break while I calm down?”
Great, very useful info, prevents the conversation escalating into heated territory.
If you’re upset with your housemate because they’re not cleaning up after themselves, and they say, “hey, this issue actually touches on some personal sensitivities, so can you not bring up stuff like this?”
Responding with “I know, I’m the worst housemate ever, you should just kick me out, I don’t know why you put up with me when I’m so completely useless”, also not okay!
They’re both ways of using vulnerability, frailty, sensitivity, etc. to shut down or derail the conversation, or to make the person who’s upset with them stop being upset and start apologising and taking care of them instead.
I would probably call this ‘weaponised vulnerability’. May Peterson calls it ‘vulnerability hoarding’.
Her term works best for situations when one person is allowed to have all of the vulnerability, frailty, sensitivity, etc. and they position it so the other person is not allowed to have any. Like, maybe this conversation is hard for them because of their anxiety. But there are ways of discussing it that make it so that noone else can have anxiety or mental health struggles, or if they do, they’re not as bad or as importance.
Another way: if someone is always emphasising how sick they feel, how bad their day at work was, their frailty and so on, in such a way that you feel like you can never bring up any problems, because it would be adding one too many burdens. (It’s hard to explain in words the difference between this, and someone just… being sick and having a shit job, but in a way that doesn’t shut down you bringing up any problems - in a way that makes space for your vulnerability as well. But there is a real difference.)
A warning here that some people, mostly men, will claim any show of emotion whatsoever is vulnerability hoarding. That they can’t bring up a problem because you’ll be upset, and they find seeing you upset too uncomfortable. But that’s actually them vulnerability hoarding. You can talk to a woman who’s crying! Or you can give her a minute! Crying isn’t inherently an attempt to shut down a conversation, it’s just a physical thing your ducts do that you can’t really control. Dudes who do this are effectively saying that you are not allowed to be upset, only they are. Which, yeah: vulnerability hoarding.
May’s twitter thread, which I really recommend, also brings up the fact that this happens at the societal level as well as the individual level. Whose vulnerability is seen as ‘real’ and whose isn’t? Who is believed to need protection, and who isn’t? Who is allowed to show emotion at work, and who isn’t?
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