We live in a pretend world with pretend ideals, pretend money and pretend language. A world of quick fix and quick bucks, where the road to success no longer requires hard work, just papering over whatever defects emerge. If something doesn’t seem as perfect as the movies or your neighbor’s life, we medicate, we whitewash, we dress up in fancy garbs and decorated facades until we convince ourselves and everyone else that the inside isn’t corrupt and failing, but respectable and thriving.
Throw your deflating money against the cryptocurrency wall and maybe you’ll strike gold. Take your investment advice from a Tik-Tok video, buy GameStop options on a whim and pray for a miracle. When it fails, complain about the injustices of capitalism instead of locating the underlying issue: high time preference and the inability to take responsibility for life choices.
We rely on fake energy, with solar panels on the roof and wind turbines in the desert, the plains and the ocean banks, and then we’re surprised when blackouts hit and electricity bills go through the roof. The government and the environmental talking heads said they were clean and threw subsidies your way, so naturally they must be good.
If there’s a freak virus precipitously spreading across the world, we come down heavy with all the mighty force of Big Government, assisted, naturally, by the central planners of the world. We don’t let people take responsibility for their health — encouraging them to eat better, workout more, be outside more — but lock them in their homes where the disease spreads easier, and they don’t renew their vitamin D supplies. We pretend the solution is a medical invasion, a quick fix, rather than a healthy body and strong immune system.
We pretend we can fix problems if only we put the right central planner in charge to enforce a minor pain relief after the fact.
With A Mere Adjective We Can Change The World
In my professional life, I sometimes have the ungrateful task of dealing with writers who have thoroughly incorporated this view of the world. A few years ago The Guardian, Britain’s foremost left-wing newspaper, drew praise across the world when their editors updated the newspaper’s language use. Climate change would henceforth be referred to as the “climate emergency” or the “climate crisis;” climate sceptics as “climate science deniers” or the more terrifying “climate denier.”
Earlier this year I noticed that the Financial Times — of their own accord or through peer-pressure — has followed suit. In an article denouncing Bitcoin’s energy use (which, in reality, is quite minor), the editorial board felt the need to write, “There should not have to be a trade-off between the so-called democratisation of finance and the climate emergency,” as if the use of stronger words had any bearing on the subject matter of the piece. And it wasn’t the first time either, as the editorial board on at least two prior occasions last year (here and here) used that exact phrasing in opinion pieces. Just a few years ago, the FT routinely used more conventional language to discuss climate change.
For the life of me I couldn’t fathom what was the reason for this obsession with word games. Could it really be that what was preventing the world from embarking on the aggressive climate policies that the higher echelons of our intellectual class so desperately desire were the words used by these same reality-detached elitist journalists?
A similar thing happened with ethnicity last year. Simmering in the underworld of the race wars, plenty of activists had urged their news providers to capitalize “Black” so as to indicate that it was an ethnic group of unified heritage (like Latino or Native American), rather than merely a physical description, a mere adjective. It took until the George Floyd protests last summer for the New York Times to internalize this important battle of our times: respecting and honoring the historic sacrifice of African-Americans — by symbolically upgrading a letter. The Associated Press, setting standards for many other publications, issued similar guidelines and plunged straight into the culture wars by refusing to similarly capitalize “white.” “White people,” its announcement read, “have much less shared history and culture” and thus didn’t merit the upgrade.
I don’t mind varying writing styles. I make a living editing newsletters, quarterly reports and submissions to academic journals. Most outlets use a different style and format; some capitalize titles while others don’t. Some write out full names while others rely on initials. Some require a certain convention of letters and numbers (say, the numbers one through nine spelled out, but 10 and higher using digits). This is the way of decentralized and emerging orders like language. To each her own. During Black History Month last year, I even recommended a client follow this new activist spelling practice because her piece dealt precisely with the suppression of Black writers in media and education, and the spelling convention was a relevant touch.
Spelling conventions, gender-neutral pronouns or other shallow etiquettes aren’t really what bothers me — they are merely icing on the cake, the wrapping of a present. What irks me to no end is the sanctimonious elites who substitute real and meaningful change for phony charades. If you truly believe in the importance of your cause, you ought to do something about it instead of playing word games or dressing up your news in righteous facades. If people care about your writing, it’s because of the content of your work, not the spelling convention you opt for in packaging that message. That’s why British conventions in spelling (e.g. “labour,” “defence”) or punctuation, while unusual for an American audience, hardly distracts them from appreciating Churchill or Orwell.
Speaking of Orwell, our journalist corps seem to have embraced the opposite sin that Orwell attacked in his “Politics and the English Language”: instead of obscuring truths by using euphemisms, writers exaggerate truths to the point of mentally numbing their readers. If crisis is now our daily state of affairs, how are we to refer to actual crises once they emerge — doubleplus-crises? If rectifying inequalities can be done by a literal stroke of an editor’s pen, why don’t we already live in a paradise of fairness and plenty?
Do we really think that we cure deep-seated hatred toward another’s race, sex or sexuality by updating the spelling in articles that the objects of our derisive gospels are unlikely to read? Most likely, you simply annoy and polarize people before distancing yourself from the very people whose minds you most wish to persuade.
In “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature,” Harvard’s Steven Pinker wrote about “euphemism treadmills,” the linguistic idea “that concepts, not words, are primary in people’s minds.” If you update the name of something, the neologism inherits the connotation of that thing. “Give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept.”
In recent decades, a “cleaner” became a “janitor,” then a “custodian” or “caretaker” and then “facility manager” (and soon, I suppose, “material removal executive”). Yet, whatever status-lowering disdain that may or may not exist for people who clean the desks of our journalists-turned-semantic crusaders remains fairly intact (not that it should, as their value to society probably outstrips those whom the facility managers serve).
St. Thomas More, a 16th century statesman, author and lawyer, is often credited with saying:
“Some men say the earth is flat. Some men say the earth is round. But if it is flat, could Parliament make it round? And if it is round, could the King’s command flatten it?”
Replace “rulers” with “journalists” and “earth” with “the issues of our time,” and Sir Thomas could speak to our society five centuries later.
Instead of actually striving for greatness, self-actualization or a secure and comfortable living, we patch over our fake ideals with quick fixes. We portray a glorious life on Instagram and we drool jealously over our friends’ latest filtered picture from Aruba, Bali or some Greek island beach. We relax, dreamily, with a telenovela or some astonishingly addictive Netflix show — not with the treasure trove of human literature, human connection or a sunset.
Once the initial jolt of joy passes, we reach for the opioids that the doctor so willingly prescribed or the anti-depressants we think keep us from the abyss. If we suffer from hypertension or type 2 diabetes, we think we’re in helpless need of expensive medication — not a workout or the balanced blood sugar provided by cutting out grains and carbs or following the carnivore diet.
In our hassle for fake everything, we skip the hard work that might actually improve our lives — the proof of work for our money, the proof of workout for our health, the proof of relationships that is the reward from our continual attention to them.
There are plenty of things that bitcoin and its Cyber Hornets don’t fix — but at least it provides some semblance of honesty and refusal to accept bullshit. It pushes its users toward taking responsibility for their own lives and finances, toward lifting their gaze from the immediate pains to the future gains and toward meaningful changes rather than cosmetic updates.
Fight the semantic and stylistic and political and medical battles all you want, but don’t pretend that it moves your lofty ideals an inch closer to reality. Quick fixes don’t fix a world drowning in pretension.
This is a guest post by Joakim Book. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.
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