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Archive for November 20th, 2014

Plead what I will be, not what I have been;
Not my deserts, but what I will deserve.  –  Shakespeare, Richard III (IV,iv)

If you’ve been reading me for a while you’ve noticed that I’m a bit persnickety about words.  OK, that’s an understatement; I can actually be downright maniacal about them.  But as I pointed out in “Nasty Words”,

As a writer, words are my tools, and I cherish them and baby them the way a good mechanic cares for the tools of his trade.  And just as a good mechanic always uses the right tool for the job rather than trying to make do with whatever happens to be nearby, so I insist on using the right word…and just as some mechanics are annoyed by seeing others misuse or abuse their tools, so am I annoyed by the misuse or abuse of words…

This doesn’t mean I’m a grammar Nazi, though (as you’ve also probably noticed).  It’s not misspellings, malapropisms or mistakes like “irregardless” that set my teeth on edge, and you’ll probably never see me rail about them unless I’m deliberately trying to be difficult.  No, what annoys me are A) words which are improperly constructed (such as “homophobia”) or improperly used (such as “vagina”) by people who should know better, trying to sound “proper” or “intellectual” or “serious” and failing miserably; and B) proper words used properly which nonetheless grate on my nerves due to their referring to morally or philosophically objectionable concepts.  I’ve already written about (A) in the aforementioned “Nasty Words”, and about one important example of (B) in “The Privilege Paradigm”.  But today I’d like to target the word “deserve”, the visible part of an iceberg of moral odiousness floating unseen below the social waterline.

Weighing of the HeartIf you’re scratching your head about now, consider what the word “deserve” implies:  that there is some absolute and unambiguous moral standard in the universe against which actions and people can be weighed like a heart against a feather in the Egyptian afterlife, with “deserving” things exalted with hosannahs and “undeserving” thrown to that crocodile-headed thing.  Yes, that’s an exaggeration, but not by much; “deserve” implies a clear, objective standard on which all right-thinking people can agree, and sets up an external authority as the judge.  And those implications lead to two important misrepresentations of subjective things as objective; the first is merely annoying, while the second is one of the chief rationalizations for tyranny.

The first of those misrepresentations is the one used with irksome regularity in advertisements for luxury goods or what we might call “common luxuries”, things such as ice cream or fast food which aren’t luxurious, but aren’t strictly necessary either. It’s nearly impossible to go a day without seeing some huckster hawking his goods with phrases like McDonald’s classic “You deserve a break today,” implying that the consumer is a long-suffering paragon of virtue whose unremitting efforts go unrecognized by Them, despite the fact that the whole business would fall apart if not for her. So even if she isn’t paid as much as she “deserves” or given the praise she “deserves”, she can reward herself by spending money at whatever business the ad is trying to promote. Vacation travel is one of the most notorious abusers of the word, but in a bad economy it has a strong challenger in loan companies who promise to give the consumer “the credit you deserve”, implying that hey, it isn’t actually your fault that you defaulted on all those bills. Am I implying that people with bad credit are deadbeats? Not at all; life is hard and shit happens (and I’m only just building back my own credit from a near-total wipeout in the autumn of 2008). But let’s not pretend that good credit is some kind of award for the virtuous, either; actuarial tables are not based in scruples, but in statistics. Either there’s a good chance a lender will get his money back from a borrower or there isn’t, and “deserve” has nothing to do with it.  That also happens to be the title of an excellent essay by Ken “Popehat” White which I linked in “Return of the Agitator“:

…the central narrative of our criminal justice system…offers the ultimate excuse for cutting corners, giving police the benefit of the doubt, looking the other way at constitutional violations, putting our thumbs on the state’s end of the scales of justice.  He got what he deserved — that’s what one side says, cutting through facts and law and reasoned analysis to pure us vs. them.  He didn’t deserve that,  says the other side, unwittingly lending support to the implicit argument that there are some who do.  But deserve’s got nothing to do with it.  Heroism and villainy have nothing to do with it.  We have to demand that everyone be treated justly, whether our viscera tell us that they do not deserve the rule of law at all…because it’s…foolish and perilous to let the state (or the mob) decide who deserves rights and who doesn’t…

I'm No Saint, I'm No Angel, I'm Just Human by Rebivaleska (2012)The word “deserve” is thus allowed to excuse the inexcusable; it’s OK that we gunned down that black kid, because he stole a pack of cigarettes two years ago.  It’s OK we raped that woman, because she’s a streetwalker.  It’s OK we’re fining charities for feeding those people, because they’re drug addicts.  It’s OK we entirely shut these men out of human society, because they’re “sex offenders”.  They don’t deserve to be treated like human beings, because they’re “no angels”…the implication being, of course, that only angels deserve humane treatment, no matter what the easy-credit guys tell you.  And if you see nothing wrong with that implication, you deserve everything you get.

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