Monday, December 24, 2007

Looking back on Advent

Advent, in the Christian calendar, starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and runs until Christmas Day. During that time, we prepare for the coming of Christ, both in the sense of preparing for the festival of light by which we mark the birthday of the Christ Child, and we prepare to welcome the divine presence into our own lives. We look forward, in hope and expectation, for the dawn of justice, the completion, the hope embodied in the words: "Your kingdom come, your will be done".

This advent season, two things happened that gave me hope. Two isolated news stories that lit up a season of hope, like the first faint blue glow in the sky at the end of the night, by which we who have stood the night watch can keep our faith that the day will come.

  • The governor of South Dakota, Mike Rounds, has proposed measures to shield the sacred mountain called Bear Butte from inappropriate development, and in particular from the bars and party-oriented campgrounds associated with the Sturgis motorcycle rally.

    The most objectionable of these campgrounds will have much less rowdy partying this year, after its owner lost his liquor license.

  • The legislature of New Jersey abolished that state's capital punishment statute. While various states have stopped executing people under orders from the courts, as New York did, or because the number of innocent people condemned to die had grown unbearable, as in Illinois, New Jersey marks the first American state in a long time to have the people's representatives look at the proposition of capital punishment and reject it; to give up the option to take life in the name of the public. That marks a first, and I believe, or hope, that it marks the beginning of a real moral change. Perhaps when the Governor of New Jersey spoke of "evolving standards of decency, he did not speak of merely one judicial punishment in one state, but for an evolving consensus that we will not solve our problems by killing people.

I will have more to say on these and other matters as 2007 winds down and a new year arrives. I wish you a well of whatever festive season your tradition celebrates; I wish my fellow Christmas a blessed Christmas, and for all of us, a new dawn of hope.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

A word to beware of...

Human, as an adjective, applies to all people and to everything we do, from writing poetry, composing music, and curing disease to cutting up the neighbour's children with a machete. However, plenty of writers use "human" in a poorly defined but strongly positive sense, referring to some act or attitude as "more human" to show approval, and "less human" to show the opposite. The very breadth of the word "human" makes it vague, which means an author can use it to express an attitude without explaining it.

Piling on vague adjectives only serves to multiply the vagueness, making a statement that only looks strong, because it deals with something that the writer never actually defines. You do not have to look too far, for example, to find someone using the phrase "authentically human". It usually seems to apply to something the author favours, although in fact, for example, Auschwitz authentically happened, and sad to say, human beings authentically did it, which makes Auschwitz as authentic an example of human behaviour as any of the other things we know human beings do.

I do not believe writers often use vague phrases like "authentically human" to express our own feelings; we usually describe our own feelings more clearly. I think we use vague phrases because we want other people to adopt our attitudes and beliefs, and not knowing the people who will read what we write, we cannot clearly tell them why they should. In other words, when we write vaguely, we do so because we want to have power over our readers, rather than share with them.