Archive for the ‘meaning’ Tag

The Tyranny of “should”

It’s amazing to me how much meaning, import, weight, significance and worth can be bound up in a single word. What’s more, it’s at least doubly deep because all that meaning and worth has at least equal proportions of negative import and anti-meaning and measures of antithetical worth. And when all that density and mass of meaning is contrasted with the brevity and ordinariness of a small word, the impact of this recognition can be devastating.

Words like “family” and “love” and “happiness” can have this heaviness and can even be wielded as weapons. But for the most part, at least in my experience, the majority of the unnatural weight of these words comes from within the person who feels that weight as it is applied to them. Internal criticism and insecurity can lend this extraordinary significance to simple words.

But it’s the words with in-built judgement that have the greatest density and gravity and danger. Words like “normal” and “too” and “must” and “enough” and “should”. The culture and society in which any of these words are used have a lot to do with how sharp and powerful their density is. It is true that these words can be just a susceptible to the voice of individual insecurity. But these words, by passing society’s sentence over the object of these words, take on a monstrous degree of weight and power disproportionate to their size and ordinary linguistic importance.

Speaking from my own experience, “should” is the worst offender. Though it is a lowly auxiliary word, a verb form used to modify a main or dominant verb, it has no independent purpose, is always beholden to the main action word to have meaning and value. But cultural and social context synergizes it with secondary meaning and characteristics, magnifying its power. And when that magnified weight is used in anger or other ill intent, it becomes a destructive force that even brutally blunt adjectives can only inadequately describe.

“You should not be…”, “You should just…”, “You should have…”, “You should [do/think/believe/feel]…”, and countless other predicate phrases can be annoying, even rage-inducing when used to impose the speaker’s will on the recipient without regard to the recipient’s agency. Person to person, this can be anything from a mildly negative to a truly horrific experience. But these imperatives become tyrannical when wielded by a system of power to oppress marginalized people under the crushing weight of their unreasonable expectations.

Some examples, all taken from conversations I’ve either witnessed or been a part of in the last few weeks, may help clarify what I’m going on about:

  • “Women should look like women. They should make an effort to look good, feminine.”
  • “People should be required to take better care of themselves, be healthier, lose weight and exercise. Fat people put a greater strain on social systems and should be made to do something about it.”
  • “You should stop worrying about what other people think. You shouldn’t let anyone else tell you how to feel.”
  • “People with money shouldn’t get to whine and play the stress or anxiety card. They should be happy with what they’ve got. What could they have to be depressed about?”
  • “You should be happier, smile more.”
  • “You shouldn’t have any trouble sleeping and shouldn’t be sad. You have a lot to be thankful for, more than most people do.”
  • “You should just shrug it off, let it go. You shouldn’t care so much.”

See what I mean? Even though these dictates were imposed in private conversations, they also appear in the world at large as part of a number of systemic power structures. These same sentiments form the basis of expectations underlying some of the most erosive, caustic social constructs, from misogyny and patriarchy to racism and xenophobia.

When “should” becomes the driver, the metric, and the adjudicator, the power dynamic of that word no longer reflects a reality of free will. Instead, conformity and rebellion alike become matters of safety and survival, not mere choice. And when a person can’t live up to the “should”, the guilt, shame and disappointment are not just overly-dramatic emotional responses, but are catalytic forces with unpredictable potency.

I don’t know where I am going with this post. I have no orderly resolution or inspirational message to impart. It’s just been weighing on my mind and heart and I wanted to put it out in the ether in hopes of feeling some relief from the sharing.

Deep Philosophy in a Fist Fight Among Comic Book Heroes

So I read this article the other day. It’s a fluff piece by an otherwise fairly serious, business-oriented online publication. The premise is that two authors are opining on which of Captain America or Iron Man is right in their conflict over the Sokovia Accords in the Captain America: Civil War movie. Bottom line is that the Accords require the super-powered Avengers to register with the government and become government employees, or face arrest. Naturally, some of them (Cap’s team) object, where some (Iron Man’s group) capitulate. The movie is essentially a huge fight among the factions. (There’s also quite an extensive body of work in the comic books on this topic, but the article focuses only on the movie.) The contributing writers to this article are glib and humor-focused and it’s a quick, fun read. 

But after reading it, I spent a lot more time thinking about the subject and some of the proffered arguments than I expected to from such a topic. The writers assume a lot about their readers, expecting them to know a lot of the details that the article glosses over or leaves out altogether. And they reduce the topic, essentially, to a question of logic vs. emotion, heart vs. ego. 

I think it deserves a bit more than that, though. 

Travis Clark takes up the argument for Iron Man’s point of view. Basically, Iron Man/Tony Stark is pro Accords, saying regulation is inevitable and the Avengers’ activities need government oversight and sanction. Clark’s apologistic premise is that the Accords are essentially gun control: the Avengers’ powers are weapons that require government regulation, especially given that the Avengers are as much a menace to public safety as they are a help to the victims of the super villains they oppose. 

In my opinion, this view oversimplifies the Avengers’ abilities to “weapons” while at the same time overemphasizing non-powered individuals’ safety interests, sacrificing the Avengers’ individual agency to a romanticized vision of public safety. 

Imagine: what would happen if the super-powered heroes didn’t exist or weren’t there when a super villain attacked? All the public safety concerns (deaths, injuries, destruction) feared from super-powered fights would come to pass, only more devastating because of the added tyranny and evil that goes unopposed. 

In other words, it is unfair and illogical to equate the hero with the villain, and specious to claim that damage done in the course of fighting evil is solely the fault of the heroes. Had the evil-doer not attacked, acting out of evil intent, none of that damage would have been wrought. Blaming those who bear a burden to oppose evil for the damage evil causes is repugnant and wrong. 

That’s not to say recklessly endangering lives and property in order to “save” them isn’t equally wrong. But what is reckless or not in the situations the Avengers face can’t be measured on the same scale a parent uses to adjudge the recklessness of a new teenaged driver’s first fender-bender. Blindly submitting the use (or not) of their super human powers to the will of a government body on which they have no effective representation, and which is peopled entirely by non-powered bureaucrats, would be reckless. Engaging in a fight of evil only when a partisan interest is threatened would be reckless disregard of duty. But fighting evil when it threatens in equal measure and with equal prejudice (violence) is not, of itself, reckless. 

Carrie Wittmer, the other author in this article, advances Captain America’s argument. Cap’s take is that human governments have proven to be too vulnerable and unreliable and those who bear the burden of wielding these powers must also bear the burden of deciding how and when to wield them. He thinks the Avengers can’t afford to ignore threats the way partisan governments do. Wittmer agrees, arguing that as people (super-human, alien, Demi-god, what have you) the Avengers are individuals with will and agency. They can’t be fairly compared to guns, access to which needs to be controlled. 

And she argues that Cap’s distrust in government is well placed. Both the situation in Cap’s own origin story movie and in the events in Age of Ultron that lead to the Sokovia Accords being proffered are proof enough of that. Had Cap not acted of his own accord and saved both Buckey and the soldiers being held prisoner, Hydra and the Red Skull would have had free run and destroyed all the world cities identified on the bomb ships carrying the Tesseract Weapons. Had the Avengers not acted to blow up the Sokovia city before it could fall back to Earth, the resultant blast would have wiped out exponentially more of the world than that doomed city (which they evacuated before destroying it). 

My view is aligned with Captain America and Wittmer: personal agency, the right to choose, individual liberty and the right to be free from servitude, and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of innate characteristics, these are much more meaningful, substantive and supportable reasons than the comparatively weak public safety argument made by the Iron Man camp. For me, the argument is that slavery in the guise of employment regulation is no means to the ostensible end of public safety. Rather, it’s creating property out of the in-born, accidentally produced, or purchased (Iron Man) abilities of individual persons. People aren’t property. And imprisonment as the only alternative is no choice at all. 

So what’s the solution? I don’t know, given certain outcomes shown in the Avengers: Infinity War movie that opened last weekend. (It’s awesome, by the way, go see it!) But here’s one, admittedly flimsy and un-detailed, idea:  why can’t Dr. Strange (the Watcher and wielded of the arcane arts) be a broker between the UN and the Avengers? He’s smart and has the power to control time, so he could test the possible outcomes of proposed deals. He could help them find an arrangement that balances public safety with the supers’ freedom and agency, so that they don’t have to choose between becoming property or prisoners, and the world gets a say in how it is defended or protected by those who have these powers. Each camp is represented and no one is enslaved. That’s a win-win. 

And that’s some pretty deep philosophy in all that comic book nonsense. 

That was fun. I hope you have a great week and find something fun and challenging to keep your mind working. 

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