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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Saturday, July 21, 2012

CFI press release on the Aurora shootings

A statement from Ronald Lindsay, President and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, on the shooting that took place early today in Aurora, Colorado.

“A tragedy like this reminds us of how fragile and precious this one life of ours really is. What we do every day is significant; we must make use of every opportunity we have to extend love, sympathy, and support to others, and we should never fail to live up to our highest ethical ideals. We extend our deepest condolences to those who have lost loved ones, and our sincere wishes for full recoveries for those who were injured.”


Charles Sullivan said...

'Well, you can't say fairer than that,' said the gaffer.

Greg Camp said...

The sentiments are correct, but there is one word that I take issue with: tragedy. A tragedy is a bad end that comes to a character because of a flaw in that person. What happened in that theater was an outrage.

Jason Streitfeld said...

In a non-literary context, the word "tragedy" has nothing at all to do with "tragic flaws." (And in literature, even, you don't need a tragic flaw to have a tragedy.) In the real world, what happened in Aurora was most certainly a tragedy.

Greg Camp said...

Jason Streitfeld, you say "non-literary," I say sloppy use of language. Tragedy points to something that was inevitable, that couldn't be stopped--fate, in other words. Now if the shooter is insane, that could qualify. Still, I prefer to characterize these events as an outrage because that takes in the totality of what happened.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Greg, you say sloppy use of language, I say check a dictionary. Also, I'm not sure "tragedy" takes in the totality of what happened, nor do I think any single word should be charged with that task; but it is the stronger and more approprate term, IMO.

Greg Camp said...

Jason, check a dictionary? Dictionaries these days are failing to do their jobs. A linguist needs a list of words as they are used, but a dictionary for everyone has the duty to explain how words ought to be used.

Yes, languages change over time, so don't remind me of that. They change for a variety of reasons, and not all of them are good. The laziness of speakers and writers is one of the main causes.

ColinGavaghan said...

I really hope this doesn't come across as in any way callous to the deaths in Aurora, which were utterly senseless and tragic. But isn't it interesting to compare our intuitive responses to some deaths rather than others? There are about 30 firearm homicides every day in the USA. Mostly these occur in ones nd twos, rather than in spreee killing. But they are, presumably, no less tragic (in the ordinary, non-classical sense of the term), no less of an outrage.

And yet, there are few vigils for these people, few minute's silences or outpourings of international solidarity. So I find myself wondering: is it the case that we are hardwired - or programmed - to respond differently when deaths - even very similar deaths - happen in a cluster rather than disparately? Is it even possible that our moral and emotional intuitions are being shaped in accordance with tv news, and its obsession with dramatic over mundane 'tragedies'?

I think this is potentially important; if our emotional responses are either already skewed, or being manipulated, such that we react more strongly to a few rare events, rather than the sorts of things that kill most people or cause most misery, that could have all sorts of policy implications.

Jason Streitfeld said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason Streitfeld said...

Greg, apparently you've decided what the word "tragedy" means, and the fact that no authoritative source in the world agrees with you is of no interest to you.

Here's one fact, from one online etymological dictionary. The word "tragedy" has meant "any unhappy event, disaster" since c.1500. (source)

If a 500-year-old ago usage is not good enough for your sense of puritan pride, then I think you are the one who lacks adequate respect for the language.

Jason Streitfeld said...

And by the way, Greg, since we're on this inane tangent, I've never seen any dictionary, etymological, prescriptive, descriptive or otherwise, which says that "tragedy" refers to a particular part of a narrative, or that it entails anything about fate or tragic flaws. The word "tragedy" has apparently never meant what you say it means. It can refer to a literary genre or it can refer to a devastating occurrence in the real world. It does not and has never specifically denoted "a bad end that comes to a character because of a flaw in that person." Please find a authoritative source or compelling argument that shows me I'm wrong. (Of course, the genre itself is often associated with ideas about tragic flaws and fate, but there's no reason to think that the term "tragedy" has always and only had those associations, nor is there any reason to think that is always should have those associations.)

Jason Streitfeld said...

Not to belabor the point, but since I suspect Greg might refrain from recognizing any authority in that online etymological dictionary, and because I presume any relatively new dictionary will similarly meet with his disapproval, I encourage anyone interested to turn to pages 230 and 231 of volume 10, Part 2, of the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, which eventually became known as the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives three basic meanings for "tragedy":

1. A play or other literary work of a serious or sorrowful character, with a fatal or disastrous conclusion (dated to the 14th century);

2. That branch of dramatic art which treats of sorrowful or terrible events, in a serious and dignified style (dated to the 15th century);

3. (figurative) An unhappy or fatal event or series of events in real life; a dreadful calamity or disaster (dated to the early 16th century).

Anybody who cares to complain about a usage with a five-century pedigree really should have better things to do, IMO.

Jason Streitfeld said...

But in the interests of fairness, I agree that what happened was an outrage. A tragedy and an outrage. My problem with the word "outrage" is that it can be used to describe insults or offenses which are much, much less severe. The word "outrage" does add a dimension which the word "tragedy" lacks, but the word "tragedy" more clearly and cogently conveys the sense of loss and utter despair. "Outrage" just sounds like you're pissed off.

MH said...

I'm with Greg. When people use the word "tragedy" in a non-literary context, the word gets its meaning from a comparison of real world events with the dramatic form. Obviously in any such comparison the two things being compared share some properties and not others. A decent comparison is supposed to allow the intended meanings but not unintended ones. For instance, if I say that my argument was shot down, the sense of having bullets hit a physical body is automatically excluded, since arguments do not have such bodies. In the case of "tragedies", the problem is that literary tragedies have properties which the two things being compared both can and do share, such as that the event was unhappy, and properties that the two can but do not share, such as that the victims were guilty of hubris or that the main significance of the event was that it was dramatic and it purified our feelings of fear and pity. That makes the expression ambiguous, and it allows a very inappropriate reading. Since Ron Lindsay is not a major prick, we can guess that the latter connotations were not intended, but it would be entirely possible to read the statement in that way, if we didn't know better.

I also think there are other reasons for avoiding the term. For one, it is terribly worn out. Hermann Hesse wrote a short story complaining about the over- and misuse of the word, and that was decades ago (can't remember exactly when). When the word is used to express condolences, it rather sounds like a fill-in form was used.

A last reason I'm queasy about the word is that in my mind, it expresses what the event is supposed to mean for the people involved. It seems distasteful to me that outsiders would inform the victims how they are expected to feel about what happened to them. This last point is probably very dependent of cultural context, the relationship between speaker and hearer and so forth, but personally I'd prefer neutral expressions.

Jason Streitfeld said...

MH, I think when the word is used in the non-literary sense, the speaker very, very rarely considers any connection to the literary sense. The connection between the literary and non-literary uses of the word is historically interesting but, from the point of view of speaker meaning, virtually dead. So I'm very reluctant to even call the non-literary usage "figurative" anymore. It was once figurative. Now it's literal. When people call a real-world event "tragic," they most certainly are not intending any comparisons to the literary genre, unless the circumstances are very peculiar. So I think your analysis of the way people speak is a bit off. Actually, you seem close to realizing this when you say that the term is often used as a way of expressing condolences. Certainly you don't think a comparison to the literary form is intended in such situations.

Furthermore, as I've already argued, the literary usage itself is only incidentally connected to such concepts as hubris, hamartia, and so on. The dramatic form of tragedy is not so limited.

Finally, as for whether or not the term is over-used in non-literary contexts, perhaps it is. So is "love," but I'm rather attached to that word, too. A lot of words conveniently express strong emotions and are for that reason very often used. We should be careful of how we use them, but they are often still very appropriate. I see no reason at all to criticize people for describing this tragedy as a tragedy. It's belittling. When people are in shock and despair over something like this, and they express it with a word that is well-known for expressing just that very sort of thing, what kind of schmuck do you have to be to tell them they're being sloppy? It's disrespectful, it's petty, and, even more, it's not even technically correct.

Greg Camp said...

I'm beginning to see what's going on here. Jason Streitfeld, in your extensive replies, you pointed out that tragedy conveys a sense of loss, while outrage a feeling of anger. Is this from a difference in personality? When an event like this occurs, we do feel powerless to respond. In some sense, it is the way that an inherently dangerous world works. If by "tragic" you mean our basic vulnerability to death, then there's something to be said for using the word. As MH pointed out, though, it gets tossed around so often as to have lost its depth of meaning. (I won't say its "impact," since that's another often misused word.)

Jason Streitfeld said...

Differences in personality might be relevant, but my comments are at least supported by lexicographical authority and, as far as I can tell, reflect the way people actually talk. Of course not everybody uses the words in just the same way, but I don't think we should abandon all hope of identifying general semantic tendencies, if not rules. Anyway, I'm glad to see we're sort of converging on agreement.

Greg Camp said...

I teach writing and I write myself, so I favor a prescriptive approach to language, not a descriptive one. Unfortunately, entropy is a law in languages over time as much as it is in physics.

You've shown me how people misuse language, but I'm aware of that. My concern is to improve usage, not tolerate or encourage its decline.

Jason Streitfeld said...

The problem, Greg, is that you haven't revealed any problems with the usage. Unless your point is that figurative uses should not be commonplace. That we shouldn't let figurative uses lose their figurative meaning and become literal. But where's your argument for that? Applied across the board, you will have to end up rejecting the word "leg" to refer to a part of a table, or "body" to refer to part of an essay. It's a bit unreasonable, don't you think? Living language change over time. That's not necessarily a bad thing.

Greg Camp said...

Whenever I get a feeling of laziness in someone's language, I object. As I tell my students, if you write like Shakespeare, you may do as you wish. Everyone else has to follow the rules.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Sorry, Greg, but it looks like you're just throwing out platitudes to avoid acknowledging the fact that your criticism in this case was simply incorrect.

Ron Murphy said...

"I teach writing and I write myself, so I favor a prescriptive approach to language..."

Perhaps that's your problem. On second thoughts that is your problem, no perhaps about it. I for one don't recognise your authority to prescribe language rules, and I don't suppose many other people do. I follow the rules as best I can because I want to communicate. They are convenient, useful. But I might use different rules depending on the group I'm in communication with. But I don't need to be perfect at it.

If we were all as pedantically constrained as you appear to be we wouldn't have the rich language we have, which depends a great deal on vagueness, multiple meanings, new meanings, context, for much of its humour. I suppose urbandictionary.com gives you the heebie-jeebies:

Tragedy: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=tragedy

There's a severe lack of humour in responses like yours; and a lack of humility. The main post was one expressing sympathy, so it was hardly a place for the language police to storm in. Lighten up Greg. Take off the jack boots and put your feet up. Or at least empathise with the sentiment of the post and let it ride.

"Whenever I get a feeling of laziness in someone's language, I object."

Well, I gess you spend a lot of your life objecting. Presumably quite pointlessly, since lazy people don't usually give a fuck about people pointing out their laziness.

"Everyone else has to follow the rules."

Greg, your lectures must be joy.

Russell Blackford said...

A word to the wise. I allowed through one last comment about the issue of usage. Frankly, I think that debate is a bit stale by now. I don't normally allow comments 14 days after a post first appears, and I won't be allowing more on this thread.