Collins vs Darcy on consent


It occurred to me earlier this evening, as I supped with my son and daughter, that a most suitable example of the difference between respecting feminine choice and dismissing it can be found in the pages of one of the English language’s most admired works: the excellent
Pride and Prejudice, by one of her justly celebrated wordsmiths, the inestimable Jane Austen.

PridePrejudice423x630In much the same way that any fresh river that flows into the sea becomes salty, and any iceberg that drifts into tropical waters must melt, so, in writing this, I find my style and language bending towards that used by Miss Austen. Though I cannot hope to reach her sharpness of wit nor her depth of insight, I perforce borrow something of her style here. For those accustomed to the brevity of the modern age – where written missives are often no longer measured in volumes or even in pages, but in lines, words, or even individual characters – this post may seem excessive in length. It approaches an order of magnitude longer than my customary contributions. I cannot be certain that you will enjoy it, but I can promise that, though my own count of words will exceed normal, it will be balanced by an even more generous count from Miss Austen herself – to whose insightful text my entire missive here is indebted in the highest degree.

Before I continue, I would like to acknowledge the faint but real possibility that some one or two among my readers might, against all reason and hope, not yet have read this tale in its entirety at least once – or, at the least, witnessed one of the several dramatic enactments which have been made of it (of which I recommend above all others that featuring Mister Colin Firth and Ms Jennifer Ehle). If you are in such a fortunate position (for who among us would not love to be able to read again for the first time a beloved tale?), I implore you to watch or (better) to read the story before continuing. My discussion below contains such revelations as may spoil your enjoyment most cruelly if you read my words before you read Miss Austen’s tale itself. I assure you, her volume is suitably thin compared to many of its genre (both old and new), and though the language may not be what you are accustomed to, nevertheless you will find the tale behind the words most worthwhile. Go, read it. This missive of mine can wait the few hours or days it may take you to initiate yourself in this fine pillar of English literature.

Very well, from here I will assume that my readers are familiar with the tale. If any are not, then it can be on their conscience and not mine should their future ventures into Miss Austen’s masterpiece be rendered less suspenseful by what they are about to read.

My observation is a simple one at its core. There are two men who offer proposals of marriage to the book’s protagonist, Miss Elizabeth Bennett, in the course of the book. The first is the odious Mister William Collins – a distant cousin who visits Miss Bennnett’s home of Longbourne with the aim of obtaining a wife. The second is Mister Fitzwilliam Darcy, a prideful man who is drawn to love Miss Elizabeth Bennett by the strength of her character, and much against the practical advice of his conscience as regards her family’s situation and (rather to her embarrassment) as regards the character and actions of her sisters, her mother, and even occasionally her father.

So much is clear to anyone who knows the story in even its barest details. But what particularly occurred to me today is the different attitude the suitors in question have toward Elizabeth’s failure to accede to their proposals (for, though the tale turns out otherwise in the end, her first response to both of them is an unequivocal negative).

I could go on at greater length in my own words – as you may already have perceived – but I feel the case will most securely be made by giving the text itself. Here is the scene at Longbourne from Chapter 19 in which Mister Collins proposes to Miss Elizabeth. I entreat you to note at what point she clearly expresses her refusal, and how that clear decision affects his own intentions and expectations.

“My reasons for marrying are, first, that I think it a right thing for every clergyman in easy circumstances (like myself) to set the example of matrimony in his parish; secondly, that I am convinced that it will add very greatly to my happiness; and thirdly—which perhaps I ought to have mentioned earlier, that it is the particular advice and recommendation of the very noble lady whom I have the honour of calling patroness. Twice has she condescended to give me her opinion (unasked too!) on this subject; and it was but the very Saturday night before I left Hunsford—between our pools at quadrille, while Mrs. Jenkinson was arranging Miss de Bourgh’s footstool, that she said, ‘Mr. Collins, you must marry. A clergyman like you must marry. Choose properly, choose a gentlewoman formy sake; and for your own, let her be an active, useful sort of person, not brought up high, but able to make a small income go a good way. This is my advice. Find such a woman as soon as you can, bring her to Hunsford, and I will visit her.’ Allow me, by the way, to observe, my fair cousin, that I do not reckon the notice and kindness of Lady Catherine de Bourgh as among the least of the advantages in my power to offer. You will find her manners beyond anything I can describe; and your wit and vivacity, I think, must be acceptable to her, especially when tempered with the silence and respect which her rank will inevitably excite. Thus much for my general intention in favour of matrimony; it remains to be told why my views were directed towards Longbourn instead of my own neighbourhood, where I can assure you there are many amiable young women. But the fact is, that being, as I am, to inherit this estate after the death of your honoured father (who, however, may live many years longer), I could not satisfy myself without resolving to choose a wife from among his daughters, that the loss to them might be as little as possible, when the melancholy event takes place—which, however, as I have already said, may not be for several years. This has been my motive, my fair cousin, and I flatter myself it will not sink me in your esteem. And now nothing remains for me but to assure you in the most animated language of the violence of my affection. To fortune I am perfectly indifferent, and shall make no demand of that nature on your father, since I am well aware that it could not be complied with; and that one thousand pounds in the four per cents, which will not be yours till after your mother’s decease, is all that you may ever be entitled to. On that head, therefore, I shall be uniformly silent; and you may assure yourself that no ungenerous reproach shall ever pass my lips when we are married.”

It was absolutely necessary to interrupt him now.

“You are too hasty, sir,” she cried. “You forget that I have made no answer. Let me do it without further loss of time. Accept my thanks for the compliment you are paying me. I am very sensible of the honour of your proposals, but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than to decline them.”

“I am not now to learn,” replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the hand, “that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second, or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long.”

“Upon my word, sir,” cried Elizabeth, “your hope is a rather extraordinary one after my declaration. I do assure you that I am not one of those young ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time. I am perfectly serious in my refusal. You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who could make you so. Nay, were your friend Lady Catherine to know me, I am persuaded she would find me in every respect ill qualified for the situation.”

“Were it certain that Lady Catherine would think so,” said Mr. Collins very gravely—”but I cannot imagine that her ladyship would at all disapprove of you. And you may be certain when I have the honour of seeing her again, I shall speak in the very highest terms of your modesty, economy, and other amiable qualification.”

“Indeed, Mr. Collins, all praise of me will be unnecessary. You must give me leave to judge for myself, and pay me the compliment of believing what I say. I wish you very happy and very rich, and by refusing your hand, do all in my power to prevent your being otherwise. In making me the offer, you must have satisfied the delicacy of your feelings with regard to my family, and may take possession of Longbourn estate whenever it falls, without any self-reproach. This matter may be considered, therefore, as finally settled.” And rising as she thus spoke, she would have quitted the room, had Mr. Collins not thus addressed her:

“When I do myself the honour of speaking to you next on the subject, I shall hope to receive a more favourable answer than you have now given me; though I am far from accusing you of cruelty at present, because I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application, and perhaps you have even now said as much to encourage my suit as would be consistent with the true delicacy of the female character.”

“Really, Mr. Collins,” cried Elizabeth with some warmth, “you puzzle me exceedingly. If what I have hitherto said can appear to you in the form of encouragement, I know not how to express my refusal in such a way as to convince you of its being one.”

“You must give me leave to flatter myself, my dear cousin, that your refusal of my addresses is merely words of course. My reasons for believing it are briefly these: It does not appear to me that my hand is unworthy of your acceptance, or that the establishment I can offer would be any other than highly desirable. My situation in life, my connections with the family of de Bourgh, and my relationship to your own, are circumstances highly in my favour; and you should take it into further consideration, that in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. Your portion is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications. As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall choose to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.”

“I do assure you, sir, that I have no pretensions whatever to that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable man. I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed sincere. I thank you again and again for the honour you have done me in your proposals, but to accept them is absolutely impossible. My feelings in every respect forbid it. Can I speak plainer? Do not consider me now as an elegant female, intending to plague you, but as a rational creature, speaking the truth from her heart.”

“You are uniformly charming!” cried he, with an air of awkward gallantry; “and I am persuaded that when sanctioned by the express authority of both your excellent parents, my proposals will not fail of being acceptable.”

To such perseverance in wilful self-deception Elizabeth would make no reply, and immediately and in silence withdrew; determined, if he persisted in considering her repeated refusals as flattering encouragement, to apply to her father, whose negative might be uttered in such a manner as to be decisive, and whose behaviour at least could not be mistaken for the affectation and coquetry of an elegant female.

One can at least be thankful, I suppose, that Mister Collins’s indifference to her wishes did not induce him into a more forceful physical expression of his desires – though many a man in similar circumstances has not scrupled to stop there. Nevertheless, his contempt for her individuality and her capacity to know her own mind is quite evident.

And now compare this to Mister Darcy’s proposal in chapter 34, offered during a private conversation in Rosings Park, the estate in which Mister Collins resides with his new bride, Charlotte, and which belongs to Mister Collins’s patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh:

“In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

Elizabeth’s astonishment was beyond expression. She stared, coloured, doubted, and was silent. This he considered sufficient encouragement; and the avowal of all that he felt, and had long felt for her, immediately followed. He spoke well; but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed; and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit.

In spite of her deeply-rooted dislike, she could not be insensible to the compliment of such a man’s affection, and though her intentions did not vary for an instant, she was at first sorry for the pain he was to receive; till, roused to resentment by his subsequent language, she lost all compassion in anger. She tried, however, to compose herself to answer him with patience, when he should have done. He concluded with representing to her the strength of that attachment which, in spite of all his endeavours, he had found impossible to conquer; and with expressing his hope that it would now be rewarded by her acceptance of his hand. As he said this, she could easily see that he had no doubt of a favourable answer. He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance expressed real security. Such a circumstance could only exasperate farther, and, when he ceased, the colour rose into her cheeks, and she said:

“In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot—I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly. I am sorry to have occasioned pain to anyone. It has been most unconsciously done, however, and I hope will be of short duration. The feelings which, you tell me, have long prevented the acknowledgment of your regard, can have little difficulty in overcoming it after this explanation.”

Mr. Darcy, who was leaning against the mantelpiece with his eyes fixed on her face, seemed to catch her words with no less resentment than surprise. His complexion became pale with anger, and the disturbance of his mind was visible in every feature. He was struggling for the appearance of composure, and would not open his lips till he believed himself to have attained it. The pause was to Elizabeth’s feelings dreadful. At length, with a voice of forced calmness, he said:

“And this is all the reply which I am to have the honour of expecting! I might, perhaps, wish to be informed why, with so little endeavour at civility, I am thus rejected. But it is of small importance.”

“I might as well inquire,” replied she, “why with so evident a desire of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character? Was not this some excuse for incivility, if I wasuncivil? But I have other provocations. You know I have. Had not my feelings decided against you—had they been indifferent, or had they even been favourable, do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?”

As she pronounced these words, Mr. Darcy changed colour; but the emotion was short, and he listened without attempting to interrupt her while she continued:

“I have every reason in the world to think ill of you. No motive can excuse the unjust and ungenerous part you acted there. You dare not, you cannot deny, that you have been the principal, if not the only means of dividing them from each other—of exposing one to the censure of the world for caprice and instability, and the other to its derision for disappointed hopes, and involving them both in misery of the acutest kind.”

She paused, and saw with no slight indignation that he was listening with an air which proved him wholly unmoved by any feeling of remorse. He even looked at her with a smile of affected incredulity.

“Can you deny that you have done it?” she repeated.

With assumed tranquillity he then replied: “I have no wish of denying that I did everything in my power to separate my friend from your sister, or that I rejoice in my success. Towards him I have been kinder than towards myself.”

Elizabeth disdained the appearance of noticing this civil reflection, but its meaning did not escape, nor was it likely to conciliate her.

“But it is not merely this affair,” she continued, “on which my dislike is founded. Long before it had taken place my opinion of you was decided. Your character was unfolded in the recital which I received many months ago from Mr. Wickham. On this subject, what can you have to say? In what imaginary act of friendship can you here defend yourself? or under what misrepresentation can you here impose upon others?”

“You take an eager interest in that gentleman’s concerns,” said Darcy, in a less tranquil tone, and with a heightened colour.

“Who that knows what his misfortunes have been, can help feeling an interest in him?”

“His misfortunes!” repeated Darcy contemptuously; “yes, his misfortunes have been great indeed.”

“And of your infliction,” cried Elizabeth with energy. “You have reduced him to his present state of poverty—comparative poverty. You have withheld the advantages which you must know to have been designed for him. You have deprived the best years of his life of that independence which was no less his due than his desert. You have done all this! and yet you can treat the mention of his misfortune with contempt and ridicule.”

“And this,” cried Darcy, as he walked with quick steps across the room, “is your opinion of me! This is the estimation in which you hold me! I thank you for explaining it so fully. My faults, according to this calculation, are heavy indeed! But perhaps,” added he, stopping in his walk, and turning towards her, “these offenses might have been overlooked, had not your pride been hurt by my honest confession of the scruples that had long prevented my forming any serious design. These bitter accusations might have been suppressed, had I, with greater policy, concealed my struggles, and flattered you into the belief of my being impelled by unqualified, unalloyed inclination; by reason, by reflection, by everything. But disguise of every sort is my abhorrence. Nor am I ashamed of the feelings I related. They were natural and just. Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections?—to congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?”

Elizabeth felt herself growing more angry every moment; yet she tried to the utmost to speak with composure when she said:

“You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner.”

She saw him start at this, but he said nothing, and she continued:

“You could not have made the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it.”

Again his astonishment was obvious; and he looked at her with an expression of mingled incredulity and mortification. She went on:

“From the very beginning—from the first moment, I may almost say—of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”

“You have said quite enough, madam. I perfectly comprehend your feelings, and have now only to be ashamed of what my own have been. Forgive me for having taken up so much of your time, and accept my best wishes for your health and happiness.”

And with these words he hastily left the room, and Elizabeth heard him the next moment open the front door and quit the house.

I trust by now, dear reader, that you comprehend the contrast that sprang into my mind so recently. The above passages establish it quite clearly. Mister Collins, on the one hand, is clearly indifferent to Miss Elizabeth’s wishes on the matter. Though he flatters himself that he is paying her a great compliment in making the offer of marriage, he fails to pay her the compliment which, both in that time and in the present day, is of the greater value: that he is willing to respect her decisions. Mister Darcy, on the other hand, although he is (at this stage of the story) quite reprehensible in his attitude toward her situation and clearly upset at being refused so unequivocally, nevertheless accepts her refusal as a refusal, and does not once attempt to ignore it or reinterpret it as aught else.

Of course, anyone who holds the tale dear in their memory – a host that I feel must include all who have read the full tale – knows that it does not end there. After mishaps and misunderstandings, Miss Elizabeth once again faces Mister Darcy – this time with far different feelings towards him.

This current contribution to my public, ethereal log of thoughts and contemplations is already quite long enough. So I will close my own contribution here and leave you with that final proposal of Darcy’s. Attend in particular, if you will, to how he expresses himself regarding the possible outcomes. How does he commit himself to respond if she should renew her rejection of him? In what way does he comport himself relative to her wishes and intentions, even when he is completely in suspense as to their nature?

Here is that encounter from chapter 58, as they walk together near Longbourne:

“Mr. Darcy, I am a very selfish creature; and, for the sake of giving relief to my own feelings, care not how much I may be wounding yours. I can no longer help thanking you for your unexampled kindness to my poor sister. Ever since I have known it, I have been most anxious to acknowledge to you how gratefully I feel it. Were it known to the rest of my family, I should not have merely my own gratitude to express.”

“I am sorry, exceedingly sorry,” replied Darcy, in a tone of surprise and emotion, “that you have ever been informed of what may, in a mistaken light, have given you uneasiness. I did not think Mrs. Gardiner was so little to be trusted.”

“You must not blame my aunt. Lydia’s thoughtlessness first betrayed to me that you had been concerned in the matter; and, of course, I could not rest till I knew the particulars. Let me thank you again and again, in the name of all my family, for that generous compassion which induced you to take so much trouble, and bear so many mortifications, for the sake of discovering them.”

“If you will thank me,” he replied, “let it be for yourself alone. That the wish of giving happiness to you might add force to the other inducements which led me on, I shall not attempt to deny. But your family owe me nothing. Much as I respect them, I believe I thought only of you.”

Elizabeth was too much embarrassed to say a word. After a short pause, her companion added, “You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever.”

Elizabeth, feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances. The happiness which this reply produced, was such as he had probably never felt before; and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do. Had Elizabeth been able to encounter his eye, she might have seen how well the expression of heartfelt delight, diffused over his face, became him; but, though she could not look, she could listen, and he told her of feelings, which, in proving of what importance she was to him, made his affection every moment more valuable.

Catholic bishops fail on basic morality


I need to open by saying that all of the people I know who identify as Catholic are compassionate, thoughtful people. Nothing I say below is meant to be an attack on Catholics as a group. Clearly, some of the bad dogmas driving this insanity are “Catholic” dogmas. But just as there are plenty of Catholics who have forged ahead of their would-be “leaders” on issues like contraception and abortion rights, there are plenty who can think compassionately about end-of-life issues.

Okay. Now that we have that out of the way …

Here is something the Catholic bishops of Alberta said in a joint statement:

The decision of the Supreme Court of Canada makes legally permissible in some circumstances what is morally wrong in every circumstance: the taking of innocent human life.

They are referring, of course, to the historic ruling last February by the Supreme Court that it is not criminal to provide physician-assisted death to “a competent adult person who clearly consents to the termination of life and has a grievous and irremediable medical condition, including an illness, disease or disability, that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition.” The ruling was to come into effect on the sixth of February this year, but the Supreme Court has given the government four more months to come up with legislation related to the ruling.

The bishops are ignoring every very good, very moral reason why this ruling was reached.

There are people who suffer because of the existing law.

There are people who suffer intolerably because of the law.

Read some of the testimonies at the Dying With Dignity website. The lives of many terminally-ill people are made worse because of how things stand. The lives of their families are made worse because of how things stand. They are made worse because of an inability on the part of the law (and people like the bishops) to accept that sometimes death is a more humane option than suffering.

We do not live in a Catholic country. We live in a secular country – a country where everyone has the right to their own beliefs and values, as long as they don’t act in a way that hurts others or impinges unduly on their freedom.

Nobody – nobody – is saying that anyone should have suicide forced on them. Nobody is saying that anyone has to participate in it. All that is being asked is that a certain very vulnerable set of people is not forced to suffer needlessly if they don’t want to.

There are people who live out the last weeks or years of their lives in excruciating pain. The bishops are saying that these people’s suffering is acceptable, and that giving them release from that pain when they ask for it is unacceptable.

Anyone who can say that with a straight face has lost any claim to moral authority. This is a big fail on the part of the Catholic church. My great solace is that, as I said at the outset, most Catholics are pretty good at ignoring the moronic positions of their “leaders” and doing the right thing anyway.

[Edited 2016 Feb 13, changing “physician-assisted suicide” to “physician-assisted death”, to bring language in line with what seems to be emerging as the standard language around this issue – see for example this article.]



I’ve been listening to a new podcast lately – “Talk Nerdy”, by Cara Santa Maria.

CaraSantaMariaIt’s awesome – a delightfully personal approach to various science-based topics – news,issues, whatever. I will have more to say about this podcast and particular episodes in the future, but for now I just wanted to share the latest thing from it.

In this week’s episode, Cara talks to Kevin Roose about a project they have both worked on – a new series of mini-documentaries called “Real Future“. (Follow that link – you can watch the episodes free online!) As I write this, three episodes are available, each between ten and thirteen minutes long. The general idea of the show is to present technology in society, and how the current state of things points us to a future few of us may expect to live in. What do these new technologies mean for how we will need to structure our relationships, our society, and our laws? What can they mean for real people?

In the first episode, Kevin Roose visits the operator of a website that hosts (among other things) revenge porn. And even though I had listened to the podcast and heard the surprise ending to that documentary, I found myself drawn into the story and … well, I really don’t want to give away the ending. I think it’ll be worth thirteen minutes of your time to check it out! The personal story is intriguing, and the perspective on our current technological culture is thought-provoking.

In the second episode, another host (Alexis Madrigal) follows a drone pilot as she tries to make her mark on this new sport at the first ever National Drone Championships in the US. I half-expected the sort of breathless, unengaging reporting you get from motorsports commentators. Instead, Madrigal manages to connect with the pilot and uncover a personal side to this sport that I would never have expected. It was alarmingly moving.

The third episode is hosted by Cara Santa Maria, and takes a look at Vocaloids, popular singers big on the Japanese music scene right now which are entirely digital creations – in some cases created by corporate music operations, and in some cases by anime enthusiasts. We see the phenomenon – which some people are aiming to import to America – from the fans’ perspective, from the perspective of a Vocaloid creator, and from the perspective of an outsider (Cara herself). A curious intersection of different attitudes to a new technology.

All three episodes are remarkable in their professional and unexpectedly cinematic visuals. In a very short time, they each weave a narrative that engages you and provokes you to think. As someone already short on time, but always keen to have more to think about, it is the perfect format for me. And they’ve hit the sweet spot for subject matter and tone too – technology, with the social perspective.

I can’t wait for the next episode to come out. I don’t care what it’s about – I already know it’s going to be awesome.

Truth is stranger than fiction


Of course it’s stranger. What else would you expect?

I mean, truth comes from out there – the world outside our heads. Fiction comes from human minds. Naturally fiction will seem more comfortable and familiar to those minds, and truth will sometimes seem alien and strange.

That is all.

Love and machines


I recently listened to the Tapestry episode about the human tendency to get attached to robots. It was very interesting.

The episode covers various things – including repeated references to hitchBOT. No, not a robotic reincarnation of the Hitch. It was a hitch-hiking Canadian robot that was destroyed (some say “murdered”) by someone in August 2015.

One point made in the episode is that humans’ emotional reactions to robots makes them valid objects of ethical consideration. I’ll mention a couple of things that came up. Let me know what you think.

First, consider Paro, a robot seal designed for therapeutic use with elderly people. It is used in the way that pet animals are sometimes used. It is not alive in the same sense, but it also avoids problems of hygiene and allergies that may make live animals inappropriate for use in some situations.


Now, is it problematic to use robots in a way that is designed to get people to form emotional attachments to them? Is there something wrong with using them as a replacement for live animals? On that note, is there something wrong with using non-human animals as a replacement for human companions?

I don’t think so. These all seem okay to me. But I can see how these applications may make some people uncomfortable. And of course, there is the potential to abuse that emotional connection. You could program the robots to gather personal information or to encourage excessive attachment. A really unscrupulous company might even use the robots to manipulate elderly customers to pay more money to keep the robot alive and happy, or to upgrade it, etc.

So, while the basic idea is fine, I think this is something we should keep an eye on (as with any technology, new or old).

Now, what about Spot, a robot that walks like a dog? Here is a video of Spot being put through its paces:

At a couple of points, people test the robot’s stability by pushing it with their feet. Kicking it. It is remarkably good at staying upright, but its dog-like scrabbling with its feet reminds us of a live dog that is being kicked. Check out the comments on the to see how some people react emotionally to seeing this.

Without going down the (fascinating but fraught) rabbit hole of “can machines feel pain/pleasure”, there are still some interesting moral questions here.

For example, if someone kicks a robot (or vandalizes one, as happened to hitchBOT) with malicious intent, is this just abuse of property, or is it a more serious problem? One researcher interviewed on the Tapestry episode pointed out that willingness to destroy a robot is correlated with low empathy scores overall.

I don’t think someone should be jailed for attacking a robot in the same way they should be jailed for attacking a person. But willingness to attack a human-like robot is evidence of the same antisocial character traits that make someone willing to attack an actual human. Surely we shouldn’t just ignore the risk such people pose.

What do you think? Is this still just the fevered dreams of science fiction fans? Or do we need to consider these issues now, before the corporations and other unaccountable entities decide for us how these things will work in our lives and our laws?

What deserves to be called “god”?


You know what I hate? I hate when I start preparing an argument, and my research tells me that my own favoured position is the unsupportable one.

I recently listened to an interview on Tapestry with Nancy Ellen Abrams, an atheist who has written a book called A God that Could be Real.


Essentially, Abrams was an atheist in a twelve-step program. Many of the steps refer to a higher power. She wanted to work through the steps honestly, without compromising her integrity by pretending to have a belief she didn’t have.

In encourage you to listen to the interview – it’s just short of a half-hour long, and contains much more than what I’ll summarize here in my response to it. Go ahead – this post isn’t going anywhere.

Okay, now that you’re back, what do you think?

In a nutshell, Abrams sat down and tried to think of what could actually exist that might deserve to be called “God”, and she came out with something that, to me, does not sound supernatural or theistic in any conventional sense. An emergent “aggregate of human aspirations” thing.

Now, I would be inclined to say that this is not a god. It checks none of the boxes I have for what makes something a god. All-powerful? Nope. All-knowing? Nope. Perfectly good? A person? Nope and nope. So why would Abrams call it “God”?

Well, remember that this non-theistic god she envisioned allowed her to pursue the recovery she sought. It filled the role that a more conventional god fills for many others following a twelve-step program. So, at least for herself, Abrams has a good reason to treat this concept she arrived at as “god”, for the purposes of her recovery. Fine.

But should anyone else take on her definition?

This is an instance of a theme we come across perennially in atheist circles. Someone proposes “why don’t we call X ‘God’ – then could you get on board?” And X may be humanity, or a Platonic good, or love, or the “idea” of a god, or any number of things. Most people I know who identify as atheist reject the move because we already have a meaning for the word “god” – one that enables us to communicate all sorts of important ideas. If we accept the revisions people offer, we begin to lose the convenience of this label for our discussions. We are supported in this by conservative religious types, who don’t want their idea of the “true God” to be diluted by liberal religious ideas.

Abrams’ presentation highlights a side of the argument that I think gets less traction than it should in atheist circles: the idea of what “deserves” to be called “god”. As a linguist, I would say this points to the connotation of the word “god”, as opposed to the denotation. (See here for a primer on the connotation/denotation distinction, if you aren’t familiar with it.) The atheists (myself included) lean on what we see as the denotation of the word “god”, while the liberal religous types (I think Abrams now identifies in this group) focus on its connotation.

There is a temptation to say that denotation is the “true” meaning of the word, and connotation is just those emotional and cultural accretions that gather around it. But, as I teach in my Linguistics 101 class, that doesn’t capture how language really works.

Consider the words “dad” and “father”. They share a denotation – they both point to a male parent. But the connotations are worlds apart: the aphorism “Any man can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a dad” is not contradictory, but hinges on the distinction many people have between the connotations of the two words. That difference is personally important. In fact, you could imagine a person becoming attached to a male parental figure who is not, in fact, technically their father, and coming to call him “Dad”. Would that be wrong? Of course not.

So, not only is connotation important, but it can sometimes be more important than denotation in deciding whether a word is appropriate to use in a particular situation.

Coming back to the word “God” and Abrams’ redefinition, where does that leave us? Well, when I listen to how she came to the definition, it seems that connotation was important – she needed a meaning that served the emotional and spiritual needs of the twelve steps – while denotation was negotiable – anything in the meaning that wasn’t believable was expendable. She was in an analagous situation to the person who calls “Dad” someone who is not their father.

Should Abrams have less freedom to redefine “God” than other people have to redefine “dad”? Of course not. There is nothing special about the word “god” that puts it above other words, outside the rules for how we use and modify words.

Of course, that’s not the whole story.

What about those of us who want to use “God” in the more conventional sense – the sense we share with conservative religious people?

I’d say we’re still entitled to use it as we will. But, if our goal is communication and understanding, we should remember how other people use it. (This is true of any word we use – particularly those on which a discussion hinges.) Words mean what people use them to mean.

When I had listened to the interview with Abrams, my first thought was that it’s fine for her, but she shouldn’t expect anyone else to pick up the new meaning.

But what does that position mean? It means that I’ll grant more rhetorical points to conservative religious people – who are generally very far from me in terms of values and beliefs – than to liberal religious people such as Abrams – who are often right next door, sometimes in the same house as me (just speaking a slightly different language).

Yes, it still bugs me that they use language differently from me. Just like it bugs me that people use “affect” and “effect” differently from me, or they (to my mind) confuse “climatic” and “climactic”. So I have a choice. I can take my stand on the aesthetics of language use, or I can focus on the content and the meaning behind our different uses of words.

When I look at it that way, getting upset because not everyone speaks the way I want them to seems rather petty and self-defeating. The fact is, liberal religious people are natural and obvious allies of mine – and of yours, I suspect.

Sure, I’ll keep getting upset when people use language “wrong”. But I know that my irritation is entirely about me. They are doing the same thing people have done since the dawn of language. They are adapting and recruiting existing words and concepts to describe new ideas and new ways of dealing with old ideas. Nobody – not all the English teachers in the world, not the Académie Française – has ever managed or will ever manage to halt the fertile evolution of language. Trying to do so is a fool’s errand.

On the other hand, we live in an age where secularism is widespread, and growing. We live in a more rationally-governed, hopeful time than ever before. And if we can identify our many allies – people who share our secular values but not, perhaps, all of our beliefs or language – then we have a chance to spread secularism even more widely and deeply.

That is a mission worth working for. That is a mission worth swallowing a bit of linguistic irritation for.

Okay, that got a little more grandiose and ranty than I intended. But I think you get the idea. I would really like to know what you think. Do you agree with me? Am I missing some important fact about language or reasoning? Please let me know in the comments.


A new anti-abortion meme


I am apalled and saddened that yet another person has taken the hate-tinted rhetoric of the anti-abortion movement as inspiration to actually kill, injure, and terrorize people. I am not surprised, but it is still awful. (And no, contrary to some people’s hype, this does not mean that I think all anti-abortion activists are terrorists. Only the ones who incite terror. Many of the others make a climate where those toxic attitudes can fester and grow – this doesn’t quite make them terrorists, but nor does it leave them entirely blameless.)

Anyway, this article is not about that.

This article is about a rhetorical trick that I first witnessed a few months ago on my own campus, here at the University of Alberta. An anti-abortion display was up in the Student Union building, by the “UAlberta Pro-Life” group. and I was curious how my in-person discussion skills would measure up. So I approached the stall, politely asked about their stance (do they advocate banning abortion – not okay – or do they simply try to persuade people not to choose abortions – perfectly fine, if done sensetively). I saw a leaflet with this message on it:

‘It’s a girl!’ shouldn’t be a death sentence.

Canadian law allows for babies to be aborted if the parents want a child of the other sex. Most often, it is girls who are aborted.

Well, that is rather dismaying. I tried probing for more details, but apparently the display was meant to get people to come to a film screening the group was holding a few days later. The person at the stall gently deflected my questions, suggesting I come to the showing. I excused myself and moved off.

Not long after, I noticed this at an LRT station:

sex selection ad.jpg

So it’s not a one-off. This seems to be a new angle in the rhetoric employed by the anti-abortionists. And it’s (at least in the ad) very subtle: unless you catch the rhetorical dog whistle “Every life begins at conception”, you might not even know that this poster is about abortion at all, and that the group sponsoring it opposes all abortions.

I can see the appeal of this tactic. There is no “we want to take away your rights” message up front. There is just a vague and (please note) number-free warning about a cultural practice that many of us find rather barbaric.

What could be wrong with trying to combat that?

Well, nothing.

Until you try to work out how you could prevent this. Do you deny access to the tests that reveal the baby’s sex? What if these tests, like the now-ubiquitous ultrasound scan, also have other medical functions? That’s not on.

Do you perform the tests, but refuse to tell parents the sex of the child? This is the path taken in some places – such as some NHS hospitals in the UK (ref, ref), including the one where Deena had ultrasound scans during her pregnancies. This can work, but it is easy to circumvent and has a very paternalistic air to it.

Or do you restrict abortion access? For example, only allow abortions before such tests are carried out. Or (also rather chillingly Orwellian) impose a cultural test: if the parents are from a culture with a reputation for sex-selection, then they are denied access to abortions, or denied information about their baby’s sex.

I want to be really clear here: the idea that one should abort a female fetus just because it is female is abhorrent, and has no place in a modern liberal democracy such as Canada.

What I’m worried about is letting in a solution that is worse than the problem. I am worried about just what these anti-abortion groups are probably hoping for: that disgust at sex-selective abortion will drive us to take away important, hard-won rights of women to bodily autonomy and reproductive choice.

But then, I’m a liberal – in the classical sense, of wanting to retain as much liberty as I reasonably can for me and everyone else in society. When someone says “We need a law“, the first response should be, “Have you tried everything else first?”

But that’s the tough part. Because in this case, “everything else” includes all sorts of hard work that involves actually getting to know people, engaging with them. It involves public awareness campaigns. It involves educating and empowering women across the country, from all cultural backgrounds, about their rights and options. It involves making the full spectrum of reproductive options known (comprehensive sex education!) and available to people who are old enough to reproduce.

Some of these things are icky and uncomfortable. Some of them go against other values that many in the anti-abortion camp hold. Reproductive choice? Sex education? Empowering women? No, it’s much easier to just get a law passed. Then we don’t have to think about it – it’s the doctors, lawyers, and courts who can deal with it, in a nice, sanitary, invisible way.

In this article, I have not discussed the arguments for or against keeping abortion legal and easily available to women. There is a time and place for that discussion. In my opinion, that time and place was during Henry Morgantaler’s long campaign. Since January 1988, Canada has had no legal impediment to abortion access. I encourage you to read this fascinating summary of the history of abortion law in Canada.

At some point in the future, I may spend some pixels on the dead-obvious reasons why even fetal personhood rights should not bar a woman from exercising control over her own body. But for now, I am happy to say that our current prime minister, Justin Trudeau is upholding the values of most Canadians on this issue: that abortion is a woman’s choice, end of story. (Justin Trudeau is the son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who as justice minister in 1967 introduced the bill that started to make abortion legal in Canada.)


Correction: Linguistic war on terror


A week ago, I posted my thoughts on an attempt to rebrand the currently ascendent terrorist group in the Middle East with a name – Daesh – which avoids any implied legitimacy to their claims to (1) represent Islam and (2) be a state.

The article I linked to sounded quite authoritative in saying that the organization in question – ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State, Daesh, whatever – hates being called Daesh.

On Facebook, a linguist friend of mine pointed out this article, in which the author combs through actual publications by the group and finds evidence to suggest they are indifferent to, not incensed by, the name “Daesh”. The article is from Cracked, whose reputation for careful and serious journalism neither I nor my friend can vouch for.

This is an appropriate place to remind everyone that I am not a journalist, by training or ambition. I can do Google searches like anyone, and I find conflicting reports. I do not have the time or expertise needed to vet these and try to sift out a more coherent answer for you, my loyal reader (or readers).

What I can say is that, based on my first-hand experience with Islam and Muslims (some, but not lots), the terrorists do not represent that religion. And they most certainly do not deserve to be called a state. So, regardless of how they feel about it, I think it’s appropriate to call them Daesh. All three of the other common names in the media – ISIL, ISIS, and Islamic State – implicitly reference the group’s conceit that they are a state and that they are Islamic.

Let’s not grant them that, eh?

The linguistic war on terror


Okay, that title may be a little grandiose.

But I’ve just read this amazing article about Daesh – a name being used in various places to refer to the organization that would like you to call them the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”, or “ISIS” for short.

For those who are wondering, the correct Arabic pronunciation of “daesh” is something like [daʕʃ]*. It is difficult for me to be more precise or certain, because (a) I do not know Arabic and (b) Arabic acronyms are exceedingly rare, so there may not be clear conventions on how to pronounce them. Language Log comes through with corpus-based observations of [dæʃ] (“dash”) from Barack Obama, or [dɐ.ɛʃ] (“duh-esh”) or / [dɐ.ɛʃ] (“dush”) from the French press. So it’s not hard to pronounce, though it may be a little while before we settle on a standard English-world pronunciation.

What is wrong with just calling them “ISIS”? Several things.

First up, that’s what they want you to call them. Calling them “ISIS” affirms three lies they would like us all to swallow: that they are legitimately Islamic, that they are a state and deserve to be treated as such, and that they have some claim on Iraq and Syria. (The “ISIL” alternative just uses a different English translation – “Levant” – for the Arabic word otherwise translated as “Syria”).

Now, I am no religious scholar, but when you have legitimate Islamic spokespeople from around the world declaring that you are violating the dictates of Islam, it’s pretty safe to say you don’t represent Islam. [References here, here, here, and all over if you look for them.]

As for being a legitimate “state”, Daesh are really just a bunch of thugs terrorizing people, displacing millions of people from their homes. This is not what a state does.

Anyway, back to the linguistic side of things. This new name for them, Daesh, seems to have been produced by Arabic-speaking opponents to strip them of any dignity that using their self-selected title would give.

Not only does it deny the legitimacy of the several claims embodied in the other name; it also, apparently, carries various pejorative connotations. Daesh is, in fact, just an Arabic acronym for the same words that we translate to “ISIS” or “ISIL”. But it sounds like it comes from the pre-Islamic period of Arabic history – a time that is associated with demons and ignorance in the minds of Arabic speakers. Also, as I said, acronyms are very rare in Arabic, so apparently the use of an acronym itself makes the group seem less legitimate.

Alice Guthrie, author of the article, tells us,

As al-Haj Salih [the Syrian activist who coined the term] very gently and firmly expresses to me by phone when I interview him for this piece, ‘If an organisation wants to call itself ‘the light’, but in fact they are ‘the darkness’, would you comply and call them ‘the light’?’ The second, and equally important, point that al-Haj Salih stresses to me is another take on why a neologism is insulting: it’s an obviously fictitious name, for an obviously fictional concept.

I doubt Guthrie or anyone else believes that calling them something else will solve all the problems with Daesh. They are still killing, still displacing, still terrorizing. But the points made in that passage are important. Let’s use language consciously – not just to label, but to describe and express reality.

It reminds me of how Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan and shared their secret rituals through the Superman radio show during the 1940s – dramatically undercutting their recruitment. [Source here and here.] Some people might want to join an organization people hate and fear. Nobody wants to join an organization that others are busy laughing at.

So let’s keep fighting Daesh. Let’s support the military fight against them; let’s help their victims; and let’s poke fun at them by using a name that undermines their claims to legitimacy. The following graphic, which I reproduce from Guthrie’s article, references a play on words from Daesh – making the terrorists into donkeys:


‘Da’ish’ becomes ‘Ja’hish’ – “The state of donkeys in Iraq and Syria”.

Thanks to a Facebook friend for pointing me to Guthrie’s article.


* I suppose I should apologize to the non-linguists out there for the use of the International Phonetic Alphabet. As a phonetician, it is the obvious place to go for representing unknown pronunciations, especially those that include sounds not found in English. If you need help working out this pronunciation, check out this chart. This is one of the things I teach in my day job.


Where is this blog headed?


Well, I’ve now polished off the latest series of posts. What next?

In posting those reviews from the conference, I discovered that even after long periods of neglect, this blog retains some readers who come back for more as soon as there is more to be had. This is unexpected and tremendously encouraging, and I thank all of you for sticking with me.

Looking back, this blog has tracked through some interesting developments and transformations in my life. I started it in the early blush of learning about Humanism as a philosophical and practical outlook on life, when I was still working out how it fit me as a personal identity.

Since finishing my PhD, I have become more involved in research and teaching, leaving less time for writing.

Although the research and teaching continue today (and, I hope, will do so for many years to come), I find myself entering a new phase, where I write not because life is unsettled and I need to process it, but because life is becoming settled and I need to make the effort to keep my mind active in those areas that are important to me.

And so Deena and I went to the Alberta Secular Conference. We listened, asked questions, talked. I wrote a series of posts on it (indexed here). A couple of other developments came out of the conference that I may share with you before long.

In wider news, this year has seen a left-leaning party (the New Democratic Party, or NDP) given a majority mandate in the Alberta provincial government, and a centrist party (the Liberal Party of Canada) in the Canadian federal government – both replacing conservative governments that had become complacent and abusive in their exercise of power. I grew up in this province, in a rural community with conservative leanings. This May was the first time in my life that the Progressive Conservative Party was not in power. It is an invigorating time, here at Friendly Humanist headquarters.

I still find that I really enjoy writing – to crystallize my thoughts, to trigger discussion, dissent, and possibly even reasons to change my mind.

I am also, for the first time since high school, working on a long work of fiction. I am currently in the middle of my first ever crack at NaNoWriMo.

So, back to the opening question. What next?

Well, I am currently in a glut of creative outpouring – blog ideas, novel writing, the odd poem. So I suspect that you’ll get at least a weekly post for the foreseeable future. (Currently, my foresight has about a 2-week horizon, in case you’re wondering.) I am contemplating some more book reviews, as well as some local activism-related things (growing, at least in part, out of the conversations at the above-mentioned conference).

If any of my other creative bears fruit – published fruit, that is – I promise you’ll hear about it. I’ll be shouting it from the rooftops, including the rooftop of FH HQ here. (Oh dear. I think I’ll need another acronym for my headquarters. I just sounded that out in my head, and it wasn’t what I expected. Not Friendly at all. Oh dear.)

If there is anything that you, my loyal readers (or you others, my random wandering-in-off-the-Internet readers), would like me to tackle here, please let me know. Nothing motivates me like knowing someone is already waiting to read what I’m about to write. (That’s what got me started on NaNoWriMo this year: my wife asked for a novel for Christmas.)

Until next time!