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1st August, 2020

Dirk van Delen / Public domain

When people lament the current state of our culture as it undergoes a full-on assault by the sub-Marxist left and its idiotic diktats I am often struck by how easily they overlook the importance of their own reaction. They seem to overstate the extremity of the predicament we are in because they don’t price in the value of their own reaction. They don’t make the calculation that if a generally sane and sensible person like them is reacting this way then a large number of other generally sane and sensible people will be reacting the same way. In other words things may not be as bad as they seem. We are horrified by seeing the BBC and the Premier League wholeheartedly espouse the cause of Black Lives Matter only to see them back-pedal furiously a week later having realised what the movement is really about. The process has seemed to self-adjust in the direction of our sanity salutorily making the BBC and the Premier League, gratifyingly, look both stupid and craven. Even more about these organisations has been given away to the increasingly knowing silent majority. We are not alone and may, indeed, be that majority as recent electoral events have proved. Even as we lament the priced in element is correcting the overreach.

There are other ways in which people neglect to notice what is priced in to the human condition or its impressive complexity. In a recent article in The Spectator Philip Hensher reviewed a book called Let’s Talk : How English Conversation Works by the Professor of Linguistics, David Crystal. In the review Hensher castigates Crystal saying this:

(His) study of ‘how English conversation works’ immediately demonstrates that false ideas about English conversation aren’t limited to inept or debut novelists; they can belong to professors of linguistics too. He begins with the belief that when people meet they say ‘Good morning’, or, later in the day, ‘Good afternoon’ or ‘Good evening’. But they don’t. No one now says ‘Good morning’ outside a very rigidly professional context. At most you might say ‘Morning’, but otherwise use a rich variety of greetings — ‘Hey!’ ‘Darling!’ ‘Hi!’ ‘Dude!’ ‘Wotcher’ (ironic)! ‘Look at you! ‘Y’all right babe?’ (my lovely neighbour, just now) and so on. You might say ‘Good evening’ to the maître d’ showing you to your table, but to the friends already sitting there, never.

In these comments Hensher reveals that he possibly thinks we are deterministic robots entirely programmed by our zeitgeist without an ability to step out of it or to distance ourselves ironically from it or that these abilities are somehow not priced in to the wholeness of the human condition. This means that I will be able to survey from a detached position people in my ambit using ‘Hey!’ ‘Darling!’ ‘Hi!’ ‘Dude!’ ‘Wotcher’ (ironic)! ‘Look at you! ‘Y’all right babe?’ and I will also be able to make choices as to whether or how I use them or reject their use on the grounds that they are largely trite or slavish imitations of American culture. I might deliberately use ‘Good Morning!’ (is it really completely outmoded and unused?) as a reaction against slavishness, as a refreshing desire to insist on or enjoy formality, to set a serious tone, or to convey an amusing over-formality with an acquaintance that I know has a sense of humour. I might even reach back into my education and earlier history and use the archaic ‘Good Morrow Sirrah!’ to get a laugh. For priced into the human being is a region where irony, humour and the distance that permits it reside. It is the region where irony dwells, indeed, that defines and distinguishes sapiens from other animals. This is something that no other species is endowed with. The present usage is merely a resource I can play with to entertain myself or intelligent others. The whole human is the wit and intelligence that plays with often moronic current givens of conversation.

Real human conversation might begin in trite presentisms but it never stops there. It is always spiced and peppered with a liberal sprinkling of ironic reflections on them. They are simply the raw material or starting-off point.  The final product is an infinitely more complex, interesting and entertaining phenomenon. When intelligent people meet conversation may be a series of virtuoso baroque variations on the theme of the present raw material. This is the actual stuff of intelligence and in forgetting this we forget and risk blinking at or discarding intelligence itself. How can we fail to have noticed this? Perhaps the answer is that it is too close to us and too familiar and natural to us. We overlook ourselves, the most important ingredient in the mix.

Any intelligent and educated person certainly isn’t a robot stranded in the present. By their very nature they will carry inside them up to 90 years of personal experience of changing modes and times and will, through their education have had access to the reading of many centuries. All of this mental furniture will cast presentisms in relief and a wider context that will often reveal how impoverished and inadequate they are to express human feelings and thoughts.

It may seem that I am making a hyper-subtle point in insisting thus on a cognitive region that is the thinnest of veneers overlaid on our animal nature.

However, since it is precisely this meta-region alone that makes us what we are when we forget the huge resources that are already priced into its almost invisible region what we are doing is actually forgetting our very impressive selves. Humans alone are endowed with the meta. We are the distance.

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