Exploring the concepts of words and their meanings
We'll meet on Wednesday, March 21, to discuss "fairness".
At our last meeting the word "taxation" was discussed. Taxes were established in major cities and countries over the years, some dating back to BC, but the regulation of taxing developed in Europe from about 500 AD. Taxes describe money our government compels us to spend. USA systems developed mostly from our European background, including the income tax, but now most countries have different targets for the taxes they collect, with many European countries using taxation to pay for citizens’ education through college. Obviously, some countries demand more of our income than we do in the United States. As president, Thomas Jefferson abolished direct taxes in 1802, with only excise taxes remaining after 1802. By 1817, the government collected only excise taxes. As we all know, that changed. Over the years, taxes vary from one era to another, a situation that is bound to continue.
Our topic for discussion in December was "zeitgeist," a word that appeared in a German dictionary in 1848. Oxford dictionaries define the word as "spirit of the age," from Zeit for "time" and Geist for "spirit." Zeitgeist doesn't describe one particular moment in time. Instead it illustrates "the taste, outlook, and spirit characteristic of a period or generation," a definition of a time that makes it different from other years. Different times provide different urges for guidance, which can change quickly. Two zeitgeists could promote conflict between groups of different beliefs. Nonetheless, the word is still in usage and useful for anyone who believes that individual time periods may provide different urges for guidance, which can change quickly.
Our topic in November was "conformity".
Our topic for discussion was "identity." It can appear to be simple, but delving into definitions brings up many questions about the way we see each other. We discussed how people identify themselves as where they were born, the kind of upbringing they had, what they did for a living, their political views and, for some, their religious views. What we all found a little tricky was to come up with an American identity, since we all come from such varied backgrounds.
What we didn't have time to go into very deeply was how a family's income can alter their identity of themselves. It's an intriguing topic, including the fact that "identity" is an aspect of arithmetic. However, ethnic identities can be troublesome because of the fears and assumptions formed by people about whom they know very little.
Our word for September was "bias." In our discussion, we realized that bias had a lot of different meanings: a way to cut cloth for patterns, an inclination of outlook or temperament, prejudice, opinions we form and carry throughout our lives, based mostly on what we learned as we matured. Understandably, we mostly discussed the outlook or temperament aspect. Bias is or can be both positive or negative, depending on one's outlook or beliefs. While positive bias is good, negative bias is not and often stems from prejudice taught or learned as one matures. Unfortunately, we all are capable of having unconscious bias.
For August, we chose to discuss "values." We all get our values from our family, as well as from friends, institutions like school, church, the environment. There are numerous types of values we all encounter, which usually relate to one or more of the following: possessions or material values, dearly held standards such as loyalty, patriotism, or family -- plus political beliefs and practices. It's extremely difficult to attach monetary value to anything like a person or a division of a company. Critical thoughts aren't illegal, so people are allowed to have their thoughts but not necessarily to act on them. We could have discussed this topic for another hour or two, but we had to stop.
We discussed "conscience" in April and decided that everyone has her or his own ideas of what is right or wrong. Even within a single family, there could be controversies over what's right and what's wrong. For example, an honor killing could be considered a conscience thing to do. Conscience isn't frozen in time. It can be altered to "fit in with your society," even if you may need to alter your ideas of right and wrong. Conscience is malleable. People who appear to be without a conscience like Ted Bundy or Charles Manson must have alternate types of conscience, perhaps believing they are doing the right thing.
In March we discussed "guilt." There are numerous ways for humans to feel guilt: self-blame, transgression of established rules, ignored by others while thinking, "What did I do wrong?" plus violating our own standards, or a sense of responsibility for others who need help or pity. Perhaps the worst is feeling guilt for nothing you've done wrong, but feeling it nonetheless. Another difficult kind of guilt is "assumed guilt." Perhaps a friend believes you did something wrong and refuses to tell you what it was. Most of us, unfortunately, are capable of feeling guilt for things we haven't done. While the ancient Greeks punished people by public guilt, many of us punish ourselves for things we've done that we assumed to be blameworthy. Possibly the worst effect of guilt is our personal reaction to an assumed transgression we've done; it can hang on us for years.
For February, we chose to discuss "God" and "gods." As humans developed consciousness, it eventually enabled them to believe there were powers or entities that control parts of our life. Although humans, as a whole, have millions of difficulties, such as horrors, insanity, illness, many still believe in gods.
Over the centuries, humans of different religions have killed each other to get rid of the pagans or the unbelievers. For many, a belief in God provides ways of coping with the realities of life and finding answers to impossible questions or circumstances. Belief in religion goes back to early times, even before the word "god" existed in English.
Our January discussion was about the meaning of "we." Oddly enough, "we" can be an inclusive term or a word used to discourage others from feeling they're part of a group or association. "We" can be almost anything: family, males, athletes, politicians, students, parents, voters; the categories are almost endless. Nonetheless, "we" is an emotionally unifying word. Even animals can display the concept of "we" when they decide to either accept or turn away strangers approaching their nest or habitat. Despite the word's ability to describe a group, not everyone feels part of a national or religious "we." However, there are times anyone can feel they belong to "we" but not "them."
On November 16, we discussed "narrative," which briefly means "a spoken or written account of connected events, or a story." It could be fiction or one's tale about a personal event or one's family. We talked about how we see ourselves, or our lives, and how they could be utterly different from how someone else would see us.
All countries have national narratives which incude honored tales about the country's background or descriptions of "primitive" people, such as America's views of the groups who occupied our country when the Europeans began to arrive.
On 10/19/16, we met to discuss self-deception, which means convincing ourselves that something is true, even if we know it isn't or can't be. We realized that self-deception was a protective device we used unknowingly, so we could continue to believe that everything was working out fine and we had no reason to worry, or that something that went wrong wasn't our fault. We don't just decide one day that something we never believed is suddenly true; it's a slow process where we basically convince ourselves of an untruth. Self-deception is nothing like deception by the media or politicians or our family members, but can be equally harmful.
On 9/21/16, we discussed sociopathy, which lead quickly to psychopathy, which is similar. We had a difficult time devising a single, simple definition. First, we realized that a specific definition of a sociopath would be very difficult and that, often, sociopathy is in the eyes of the beholder. Sociopathy isn't simply not caring about others or following rules. It's a lack of empathy which can lead to antisocial, often criminal, behavior because the person lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience. Sociopathy and psychopathy are often seen as the same condition. We learned nothing about treatment for sociopaths.
We met on May 18 at 1:30 to discuss "conformity."
We met on 4/20/16 to discuss "occupation." We began with "working for a living" and "career," before branching out to other meanings. Occupation of a country shocked some of us because we hadn't thought of it, despite its significance. Beyond those immediate definitions, we defined it as a mental distraction, something that occupies your mind. Also, what one is doing, physically or mentally, plus the occupation of space or time. We occupy seats on a bus or train, but that's a verb, not a noun and doesn't fit under "occupation." Ultimately, having a job is the definition that most would come up with first.
In March we discussed "tradition," beginning by defining it as something that's not written but passed down, like stories, events, sayings. However, the story aspect of a tradition is one that is expected to be followed by future generations, becoming an activity or observation. At times, tradition becomes law, e.g., a country decides Thanksgiving Day and Christmas are to be national holidays. Tradition, like glue, helps hold things together, whether it's within a family, a tribe, or a government. However, not all traditions are beneficial to those who inherit them, such as subjugation of women. Nonetheless, many traditions bring pleasure and togetherness to groups, which we demonstrated by describing our family traditions.
Our February topic was "political correctness" or PC. While PC started in the early 20th century, it changed over the years. In the past 40 years or so, it's been supported by both liberals and conservatives. Basically, PC now can be described as an idea that prevents well-intentioned people from saying something that would insult or mortify another person, e.g., racial descriptions or slang terms such as Hunky or Wop. One aspect of PC is the substitution of a new, more acceptable word, for words that today are considered unkind to use, i.e., a "bum" is a "homeless person," someone who's crazy now has a "mental illness," a criminal is "behaviorly challenged, and a "factory" is now called a "plant." On the other hand, some argue that too much PC is harmful in that it makes people reluctant to speak freely. As with many discussions, we ended without a conclusion.
Our January 20 topic was "mood." Mood is a highly variable word: it's neither positive nor negative; it can mean a pleasant mood or a wrathful one. Moods can be basic psychological states, often easily influenced by activity in the world around us. For example, many politicians know how to create a mood in an audience, as did Hitler, and as do many comedians. But the world, itself, is a major influence on our moods: weather, success at work, cheering a child, solving a calculus problem. Moods can change instantaneously with a surly response from a spouse, or a smile from an infant. We are not in control of our moods, much as we might wish we could be.
The topic of the December 16 meeting was "discuss, argue, rant." In Colloquy Café, we discuss but we don't argue and we never rant. Discussion is a way of promoting an idea or proposal and listening to comments and opinions from others. Arguing involves an attempt to convince your listener(s) to agree with you, whether it be about municipal development, who should be president, or the value of taking daily naps. A rant is to speak bombastically, pretentiously inflating one's comments. The presidential election came up several times during today's discussion, understandable given the current political environment.
In October, we discussed "truth," a word we've gone over previously, but is still ripe for discussion. After examining the significance of truth in several religions, we concluded that religious truth is a powerfully held belief, not easily challenged or altered by outsiders. A quotation from Absolom, Absolom, "truth changes," defines how, as we grow and learn, we begin to disbelieve "truths" we were taught in our youth. In science, truth is used very carefully, since so many new discoveries or believed "facts" are found to be incomplete or wrong, based on conclusions assumed to be accurate and valid. An immutable truth is one that can't be altered. Alterations of truth such as "truthiness" or "truthish" apply to things or beliefs that appear to be true, but aren't.
September's subject was "happiness," a word we realized was difficult to define. Like the word "time," it has variable definitions. For example, compare the happiness quota in "content" with that in "ecstatic." Joy, bliss, delight, and comfort are all definitions of happiness, but they have a wide variety of meanings. Happiness is ephemeral, it can be interrupted or end momentarily, or become fear, rage, sorrow, or other forms of unhappiness. Also, it's very difficult for us to control. Nonetheless, we're always grateful for whatever happiness we find in our lives.
Our topic for August was "gender," a word with a wealth of definitions and little agreement on its meaning. First, we discussed definitions for sex, i.e., humans' sex according to their chromosomes. Since that got us nowhere in today's society of gender dysphoria and transgender social clubs, we focused on how people in history and other societies define gender. To many, it defines one's sex, but in reality, it's a cultural construct, the meaning of which is very difficult to describe, since it changes from one culture to another and even among people within the same culture, like Americans. As sex is more about whether we're XX or XY, gender is more about what one's culture expects from males and females. Gender is seen as an identity and an expectation, along with the widely varied definitions of male/female one could find within a small group of people. As someone said, "gender" is a political word rather than a medical term. As such, we were not able to come up with any rigid definitions but decided we would return to the discussion sometime in the future.
Our June topic was "arrogance".
Our May topic was "beauty." After the conventional meaning in describing a woman as attractive, sexy or pretty, and a mathematical description of elegant, short, and clever, we agreed that, while everyone has a concept of what beauty means, defining it is very difficult. Beauty is relative, as expressed in "beauty is in the mind of the beholder," but some beauty is universal, attractive to most people. Sunsets, for example, like other aspects of nature, e.g., the Milky Way, waterfalls, a snow-topped mountain. However, different cultures develop different definitions of beauty, whether it describes a woman, music, a work of art, or a story. For us, it seems fruitless to try to pin a definition onto the word.
Definitions for "corruption," our April topic, include "abuse of bestowed power for one's own benefit" and "to break." Nepotism is a form of corruption but isn't illegal. In almost any circumstance, corruption will occur if the expected gain is greater than the penalty. Predictability is an aspect of successful corruption, but, conversely, a predictable system of laws helps dampen corruption. Like so many words, corruption is relative and what's considered corrupt is highly objective, varying from culture to culture. Corruption can be petty, grand, systemic, political, and obvious in most cultures and environments, including unions and education. While humans are corruptible, they don't see themselves as corrupt. In summary, what's corruption to some people is merely a way of life to others.
The Colloquy Café met on March 18th to discuss motive, from the Latin for moving or causing to move. Synonyms include influence, urge, and stimulus. Intention sparks motive. The wish to become famous can motivate one to choose careers as politicians or actors or outstanding athletes. Motives can be highly diverse: Peace Corps volunteers may join to help others, to learn about other parts of the world or, simply, to travel to new countries. A motivational speaker talks people into doing things, whether it's improving their job skills or changing their religion. Motive, overall, is on an emotional level.
We had a stimulating discussion of our January topic, revenge, including two famous quotations: "Revenge is mine sayeth the Lord," and "Revenge is a dish best served cold." Defining revenge appeared easy at first, with "response to an injury whether real or imagined" as acceptable to most of us, but slight differences in meaning frequently appeared. Some straightforward synonyms include payback and retaliation, but revenge and punishment are not the same. The attack on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in France was revenge for cartoons about Mohammad and the Muslim religion, but the "Je Suis Charlie" demonstrations were a reaction, not revenge. Other types of revenge include vendettas where groups fight each other for years, like the Hatfield/McCoy feud. Instead of revenge, an injured party could use an opposite reaction, "retributive justice," where people with a conflict work together to resolve it. Another alternative to revenge is to simply walk away.
Our December topic was "contrition," a difficult word to define since there are so many meanings attached to it. Feeling sorry isn't quite the same thing as being "contrite." In the Catholic church, one says the prayer of contrition in the confession booth, but most people don't associate religion or God with contrition but see it, instead, as a remorseful feeling for having offended someone. Nonetheless, the seven deadly sins do not describe behavior most people see as something one should atone for. Aside from its religious meanings, contrition, if honest, is something we feel when we genuinely feel sorry for having hurt another person.
"Self-deception," our November topic, is difficult to summarize, since it involves believing something about ourselves that we know is not true, i.e., holding two opposing ideas at the same time. One member brought up the German people's "universal self-deception" during WWII in 1943 when many people couldn't believe the unspeakable acts committed by the army, so chose to think Germany was winning the war. We discussed some classic cases of self-deception: the spouse who refuses to believe his/her partner is a philanderer, the compulsive eater who promises to begin dieting the next day, the alcoholic who believes he/she can stop any time. Nevertheless, self-deception can be either positive or negative. Since contemporary philosophers can't agree on a specific definition, we concurred that self-deception is purposeful and left it at that.
Our discussion in September covered “anxiety." There was no update this month for the Study Group.
We chose to discuss "obligation" at our August meeting. It's a slippery word in that it can mean something one must do like caring for one's children but it also often means owing something to another to whom you've become obliged. Beyond the personal are the multiple types of obligation we all encounter: legal, moral, political, civil and even cultural. Different cultures have developed varieties of obligations, many of which are taken very seriously and can lead to variations of shame if not carried out. An extreme example of a cultural obligation is the "honor killing" a family feels obligated to carry out in some cultures. At the same time, duty and responsibility often overlap with obligation, making it difficult to come up with a concise definition. Nonetheless, to have an obligation is an imposed requirement that we usually accept without question.
At our June meeting, we discussed success. Despite the fact that William James decried our "worship of the bitch-goddess success" as "our national disease," most people consider success as positive, something to strive for. However, often one person's success equals another's failure, e.g., Bernie Madoff or Hitler or the person who got the job you really wanted. Definitions of success are highly individualistic and "as numerous as the stars" as one writer put it. Nevertheless, success equals happiness, unless it's posthumous success like Van Gogh's. But if Andre Agassi really didn't enjoy playing tennis, we can suppose each victory brought him the happiness of winning, an example of an individual idea of success.
Our topic for May, values, elicited a variety of comments. Values reflect people's sense of right and wrong and are reflected in our behavior. Of course, values can differ enormously from one group to another, with a criminal leader finding "mercy" a punishable flaw while others include it in political recommendations. We portray our values in documents such as policies created by communities, e.g., homeowners' associations or our Declaration of Independence. While identifying our own values, one member of our discussion group proclaimed that she valued "the ability to value" most of all, i.e., the freedom to personally decide what's right or wrong, good or bad.
Fortunately, we can eliminate a prejudice by learning more about the person or group one has prejudged. One attendee related a variety of prejudicial attitudes directed at her and her family, including negative judgment of Italians, Jews, and gays. Several others told of prejudices we had learned as children and how astonishing it was to realize they weren't true. Most of us accept that we haven't totally shed our own prejudices, let alone identified them.
Our February meeting covered more aspects of "habit." Charles Duhigg's book, The Power of Habit, says "we spend more than 40% of our waking hours engaged in habitual actions." Much of our 2/19/14 discussion dealt with the difference between good and bad habits, with the bad habits getting the most attention in our meeting as in real life; e.g., to say someone "has a habit" isn't usually a compliment. Also, we discussed varying synonyms for the word, e.g., wont, inclination, addiction. One description of a habit was "self-medication," psychologically or physically, e.g., a "runner's high." Unfortunately, a bad habit indicates dependency: psychological, physical, or both.
Our 1/15/14 meeting we covered "Myth" which can be used to mean a variety of things from fairy tales, religious stories, or legends. Even today, some people still believe the ancient myths that depict the beginning of the world or their particular country's origin or religion. The USA, like other countries, has a variety of myths including the stalwart American cowboy or the indigenous "noble savages." A country's history is often studded with myths, e.g., Rosa Parks whose training for civil disobedience is rarely included in the history of the bus boycott's beginnings or the myths Hitler used to justify the Holocaust. Also, myths are a major ingredient in any nation's politics. Although we often use "myth" to mean fiction or a lie, people who believe in myths take them as truth.
The last meeting of the Colloquy Café was on December 18th. Our discussion topic was "awareness.” Our discussion ranged from self-awareness to "cognizance" as a synonym, to "unconditional awareness" or "pure receptivity", to our awareness of pain and situational changes that can alter that, to the misleading mental images that can arise from hallucinations. Ultimately, we agreed that it's impossible for us to be aware of everything in our environment and how the conditions around us can require us to immediately switch from one level of awareness to another. To no one's surprise, we did not conclude with a single solid definition.
On November 20, we discussed "time." On October 16, the Colloquy Café discussed the concept "normal" and in the process realized how extremely difficult it is to define. Everyone knows what normal means, but normal doesn't always mean the same to everyone. Synonyms include average, ordinary, run-of-the-mill, or nothing extraordinary, while antonyms cover both above normal and below normal, descriptions such as: exceptional, outstanding, and unique but also bizarre, outré, weird, odd and strange. Identifying a thing or person or custom as "normal" unfortunately often conveys the concept that NOT normal is bad. Obviously, culture is a huge influence on one's perception of normal. One thing normal usually means is acceptable or conforming to expected behavior but like abnormal or unacceptable depends almost entirely on the cultural context. Of course, the word "normal" when used in a scientific or mathematical or medical context has widely varying definitions. For a word we use frequently and routinely, "normal" can mean so many different things.
"Risk" was the concept analyzed at the September 18th meeting of Colloquy Cafe. The session began with a discussion of risk-taking, principally physical and/or financial risk, and reasons for doing so. Desire for profit, rising to a challenge, attention-seeking, ego, and even boredom were cited. The discussion then turned to defining risk, which was perceived as gambling (figuratively) on a favorable outcome. One way of dealing with the uncertainty factor is hedging, on which the insurance industry is based. All of us are risk-takers to a lesser or greater extent, it was pointed out, differing in our degrees of, and various abilities to overcome, fear and anxiety. Our attitudes and perceptions govern the degree to which we indulge in common risky behaviors (smoking, failing to get a flu shot, speeding, betting, etc.) and how we address serious threats such as medical crises and even larger events such as the holocaust. The subject of our October 16 meeting, as usual in the home of Jean Mayer at 1:30, was "normal".
The Colloquy Café met in August to discuss "personality." Since perception of personality is entirely subjective, it can be difficult to come up with an overall definition. In general, one's personality exists as the observable, outward behavior of an individual, which, of course, may not match their inner nature. Further, most of us assume different personalities for practical reasons; e.g., a shy person applying for a job may try to be outgoing, engaged, or energetic; or someone meeting future in-laws may rein in some of their more boisterous attributes.
Further, none of us knows the true personalities of the so-called "personalities" of TV, sports, or pop-culture. We agreed that "personality" alone was a colorless word that needed a modifier such as sparkling, boring, dull, incandescent, lousy, etc. to convey any real meaning. Although "personality" is similar to "character" or "persona", it's not the same. Describing another's personality can be a value judgment, but we should remember that a personality can vary in response to surroundings or alcohol. Also, we agreed that one's personality can change altogether. Some see one's own perception of their personality as a part of their sense of self.
The July meeting was on "seduction." The first comment rather surprisingly introduced the phrase, "seduction of the spirit," which questioned our ability to "seduce" ourselves into a higher spiritual level. Most formal definitions of seduction include "temptation" or "corruption," with comments on how a seducer lures, entices or tempts the victim into doing something that goes against the victim's morals. Most definitions also describe the seducer as male, seeming to have overlooked such famous seductresses as Delilah and Eve. Since there was general agreement that we live in a world swirling with seduction from advertisers and politicians, we decided that seduction wasn't the totally negative thing most dictionaries describe. Our discussion of the difference between "seduction" and "persuasion" was that one's urging another to do something that was ultimately desirable or good for them was persuasion. Another difference was how seduction appeals to the emotional whereas persuasion reaches out to the rational mind. We touched on the subject of self-seduction, agreeing that we can talk ourselves into almost anything.
At our June meeting we explored the concept of "belief." Although one of the definitions of "belief," the topic for our discussion, is "a collection of ideas that guides one's life," i.e., a moral guide, harmful beliefs such as prejudice also exist. One dictionary definition exploring the word's background points out that what we love, what pleases or comforts us is what we believe. Another aspect of the word is its power "to move mountains." History gives us multiple examples of such power and an anecdote from a New Mexico hospital is one such example: with a mostly Navajo population, the one Navajo doctor there routinely got a better cure rate with his Navajo patients than the other M.D.s. Of course the word is frequently used in common conversation to voice an opinion such as "Tchaikovsky is greater than Mozart" or a political preference. Belief, assumptions and attitudes are all related, yet many assume that most belief is religious.
The May meeting of the Colloquy Café discussed the concept of "now." Although it can be difficult to discuss a topic as ephemeral as now," we came up with some interesting ideas. The quotation "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift," duplicates some of comments about how "now" is "living in the moment," or "now is all we have," a valuable consideration when we realize how easy it is to waste our "nows." Wikipedia calls it "specious present." Buddhism sees being in the now all the time as a goal. One person defined "now" as the intermediate between "then" and "then," which is peculiar when one considers that "now and then" means "occasionally." He went on to report how Benjamin Whorf, an engineer/philosopher, described Hopi language as having no verbal tense for "now," only past and present. We don't know if that's true, but it's worth investigating. Overall, we had to conclude that we constantly move through our nows into our futures or, actually, our next "now."