June 26, 2003

Turn that light off!

So, what do you think about this "bright" bullshit? Well, I guess you can tell what I think... here is the comment I left in Dean's post on the subject. He's all thrilled to pieces. (Read the post.) I'm not:

Why do I hate this "new" usage of the term "bright"? It has nothing to do with the latest agenda of people like Dawkins to stick it to the Xtians, or whatever his damage is this month. It has nothing to do with anyone's views on reality, mine included. (My theory is we are all really dead and this is the afterlife. We are all doomed to this hell of mediocrity for all eternity! This really is as good as it gets, baby! Bwahahaaha!)

Ahem. Anyway, I hate it because all my life "bright" has been used to describe a child that was really average-to-mediocre in everything he or she did, but was a simpering little suck-up -- I mean, was clean, neat, had good social skills, and always turned their homework assignments in on time. And then there is the sound of the word, which I loathe when it is used to describe people thusly. I just envisage all these people saying to each other "I'm a Bright!" "My daughter is a Bright child!" with the big jaw-stretching grimace-y smile that this word makes the lips and teeth do, and I just want to do violence to someone.

(For some reason, phrases such as "bright light" don't bother me.)

You know, I'm not religious -- but these days I content myself with saying "I'm not religious." I don't need to highjack a word to make myself feel all yummy inside about my convictions or lack thereof.

And here's some high-school-level arguments in favor of this latest atrocity against the English language. Yeah, anyone who is religious is just a dumb ole poopyhead. [/PARAPHRASE OKAY?] That's so convincing! Why, I'll bet the pope his own self is packing his robes away and calling in a plane ticket to Cancun as we speak. The heck with all this Big Pretend Man in the Sky stuff! What the world needs more of is people saying "nyah nyah nyah" to other peoples' most deeply-held beliefs. That'll get 'em on our side.

Update: Dipnut speaks.

Posted by Andrea Harris at June 26, 2003 01:23 AM

Heheheh. As a fellow Bright, I'm thoroughly enchanted with your reaction. ;-)

Neologisms are often greeted with derision. But really: I'd bet it describes at least a quarter of the population, maybe a third. Mostly, people who have no religion, will never be religious, aren't necessarily hostile to religion, but...

As for it being an atrocity against the English language: Oh, Andrea, you know I love you, but really, are new usages of an old word really all that offensive?

Heeeh! If I were having more fun I'd have to be twins. :-)

Posted by: Dean Esmay at June 26, 2003 at 01:31 AM

On the other hand, I should mention: Advice Goddess appears to suggest that she hates Orthodox Jews. Not a very bright Bright, is she?

Posted by: Dean Esmay at June 26, 2003 at 01:36 AM

"are new usages of an old word really all that offensive?"


Posted by: Andrea Harris at June 26, 2003 at 01:36 AM

And it occurred to me: this means that if I want to distance myself from these grinning fools, I can't take the opposite stance and call myself a "Dark," which with my goth inclinations I would be more than willing to do, because then I will be automatically labelling myself as some sort of religious thing. Thanks a heap.

(Incidentally, "gay" was an old slang term for "prostitute." You could say the homosexuals took back that term and made it at least slightly more respectable; also, there was no inclination on the part of heteros to therefore adopt the term "dreary" to describe themselves in turn.)

Posted by: Andrea Harris at June 26, 2003 at 01:42 AM

I'd like to know what rabbi peed in her cornflakes, yes.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at June 26, 2003 at 01:43 AM

The whole article was clearly written as a shot across the bow of GWB. It's just a high-falutin' new way of snickering that Bush is stupid, and I'm a bit disappointed that Dean's fallen for it. The preoccupation of a lot of notable idiotarians (especially in EUrope) with the fact that Bush is religious says more about them than it does about him.

Posted by: Ian S. at June 26, 2003 at 04:25 AM

It all strikes me in the same way as "self-righteous" atheism does. There are the atheists who want to tell you all about their atheism, and militantly defend it in person and on message boards against any perceived "encroachment" by those who have a religious bone in their bodies.

I dunno, I'm an atheist because I got to a certain age, 16 or 17, and realized I didn't have faith. It's nothing to be proud of nor to have shame for.

But what Dean wrote in a previous post, the one about Landover Baptist, toward the bottom of that post, captured how I feel about folks who try to decry fundamental Christians (for example).

Posted by: Kevin White at June 26, 2003 at 05:23 AM

"Bright Light!"
"Bright Light!"


Posted by: mogwai Gizmo at June 26, 2003 at 07:18 AM

Andrea? Have you ever met anyone who takes an opposing position to homosexuality by calling himself a "gloomy?" I never have.

I mean, honestly, you've made your own point here. You don't like the word because you don't like the idea of inventing a new usage for an old term. I, on the other hand, like it for the same reason that homosexuals like gay they don't like a clinical term for themselves, they like their beings defined strictly by their sexuality, and they wanted a word with a positive connotation to describe themselves. Come now, really: is that so awful?

Ian: You need to read more on this issue, because Dawkins did not invent this term, he merely likes it. I think Dawkins is a self-righteous ass. A brilliant man, but an ass. But he did not invent this neologism. The people who did, by the way, anticipated most of the criticisms and answered them, rather effectively.

I have a skeptical world view. It goes beyond having doubts about God--my doubts about God are only a part of that equation. When I tell people I'm a "skeptic," they think it means I'm an asshole who automatically takes a contrary position to new ideas, which isn't the case at all.

Does adding a new meaning to a word really pollute all the old meanings? Perhaps "gay" did. Then again, "gender" used to be a technical/linguistic term strictly that went beyond male/female, whereas "sex" was the only term to denote whether you were an innie or an outie. Now if you ask, "what is your sex," people just giggle.

As the FAQ points out, the word "right" has all these definitions:

right (adj.)--direction or location opposite of left
right (adj.)--formed by a perpendicular, as in a right (90˚)angle
right (adj.)--in accord with fact, as in a right (correct, true) answer
right (adj.)--in accord with justice, as in right conduct
right (adj.)--the principal, as in the right side of the cloth
right (adj.)--sound or normal, as in one's right mind
right (adj.)--in good order, as in make things right again
right (n.)--a politically conservative position (often with the)
right (n.)--that to which a person has claim (often plural), as in within your rights to do it
right (n.)--a legal privilege, as in right of free speech
right (n.)--an interest in real or intangible property (often plural)
right (adv.)--straight or directly, as in go right home
right (adv.)--exactly or precisely, as in right over here
right (adv.)--without pause or delay; as in come right down
right (adv.)--extremely, as in knowing something right well
right (vt.)--to restore to upright position (to right the vessel)
right (vt.)--to put in order, (right a room)
right (vt.)--to do justice (right a wrong)

Is that tragic, is that awful? If I say I am right about something, does that imply that anyone who disagrees is left? Come on, this is foolishness. New words get added to the language all the time. Old words take on new meanings. It's normal. What's the big deal?

Posted by: Dean Esmay at June 26, 2003 at 07:27 AM

I'm with Kevin. I have always refused to call myself an atheist because nearly every self-described atheist I ever met was on a holy crusade to crush religion.

Dean, the problem I have with the "brights", is that it's not just a new meaning for a word. It's a deliberate use of a word that has the colloquial meaning of "intelligent", with the corresponding implication that anyone who is religious is not (they wouldn't be the "Gloomies", they would be the "Dulls"). It's only slightly more subtle than calling themselves "The Intelligents".

Posted by: Ken Summers at June 26, 2003 at 09:06 AM

There's a difference between the natural change of meaning over time, and the hijacking of words for political purposes. "Gay" in ordinary use can no longer describe a specific emotional state, light hearted, carefree, and happy all rolled into one; "queer" never suffered as much damage but most still be used carefully. Now we have someone trying to hijack "bright," a perfectly good adjective for specific meanings, for the culture wars. Absurd.

Posted by: Jack at June 26, 2003 at 09:22 AM

I think Jack's hit (inadvertantly, perhaps) on something.

I move that everyone who calls himself/herself "a bright" be henceforth referred to by others as "an absurd."

Posted by: Kevin McGehee at June 26, 2003 at 09:35 AM

I'm supposed to go around calling myself a "bright" when there are people like Eve Tushnet out there? Sh'yeah! And maybe memes will fly out of my butt!

Posted by: Paul Zrimsek at June 26, 2003 at 09:43 AM

Maybe it's my age, where I was raised or, perhaps my worldview but I'm not real excited about a 'bright'. Where I come from bright is used, in describing people as either meaning someone smart or an African American with light skin. The intent seems obvious here. These folks seem to want to dreate a new meme that says to the world, we're smarter than the others. Otherwise, they'd pick a term with no connotations, maybe hubcap.
In my lifetime I've met a lot of believers and unbelievers. An equal portion of both were bright (in the connotation of intelligent) and rather dim. Some were dumber'n a bag of hammers.
I suspect that, for a little while, folks are gonna run around hollerin' about being 'Brights' and a little while later it's gonna flop like a cow turd on a flat rock.
I have more important things to worry about.

Posted by: Peter at June 26, 2003 at 09:50 AM

I'm an atheist (though hardly a militant one) and I find this attempt to co-opt the word "bright" to be at best silly and at worst arrogant. But no matter where it falls in the silly-arrogant continuum, it isn't worth spending any time fighting. I'm with Peter...this "movement" will be forgotten in six months.

Posted by: K. Peter Krog at June 26, 2003 at 10:12 AM

"Bright" sucks.

I still have high hopes for apatheism, although I won't be holding my breath.

Posted by: Dave at June 26, 2003 at 10:31 AM

Oh Andrea, how does a nice Dark gal like you manage to attract so many self-righteous... well, never mind.

I flip-flop back and forth on the religion issue. Mostly I hate organized religion. Sometimes I really do want to go on a "holy crusade to crush religion" but that never works anyway, does it? Trying to crush something more often makes it stronger. Personal religion and spirituality are fine, wonderful in fact. And that doesn't mean I want everyone to keep their religion to themselves. Just keep religion out of politics and keep politics out of religion!

Well, sorry for using your comments as a soapbox, especially when I have one of my own - some people just hit a hot button I guess. Regarding the original topic: I think using "bright" to mean "atheist" sounds stupid. I might be more open to this idea if they dug up some obscure, archaic word to use instead.

Posted by: Lynn S at June 26, 2003 at 10:35 AM

You'd think a group calling themselves The Brights could build a website that didn't use default FrontPage templates.

[just sayin'...]

Posted by: Scott at June 26, 2003 at 10:39 AM

My initial reactions to this phenomenon:

1. Doesn't calling yourself "bright" imply that other people are "dim?"

2. The more pathetic the mopey teen Goth, the more he/she talks about being surrounded by "mundanes" and "sheep." Yes, dear, the crushing weight of banality, it's all too much to bear.

3. Waaahhh! Those Xtians think they're sooo superior! I'll show them...show them ALL!

4. "Hillbillies prefer to be called 'Sons of the Soil,' but that ain't gonna happen either."
--Dr. Julius Hibbert

5. Will jokes about "the bright" be hate crimes?

6. Andrew Sullivan didn't have much luck selling the term "Eagles," you know. And he's Andrew Sullivan.

7. "Atheist" was derogatory?

8. Well, how about "the faithless?"

9. "Metaphysically challenged?" "Non-spiritually orientated?" If you really want to be special you need more syllables, not just one.

10. "Way-smarter-than-you-proles?"

Posted by: Thad at June 26, 2003 at 10:45 AM

This makes for interesting reading. And I tend to agree with Andrea : politics themselves is the use of language to "co-opt" meaning for their own purposes. I think long passed are the days when a group aspires to maintain the original meaning of anything....ie Republicans garner the language of the left to acquire more power, gays utilize a word that had originally meant "happy"...I am guessing with the ultimate purpose of describing their nature. Homosexuals want to be happy in their lives. Fine enough. But the suspicion Andrea and I have about the use of the word bright is indeed, that those who call themselves atheists have an underlying need to distinguish themselves as "more enlightened."

It's really nothing new. If I may, I am religious. In fact, I am an Associate in teh Order of St. Benedict. I too am offended by those of the religious persuasion pushing themselves into people's personal space in an effort to show God they are serious in their faith. Bad bad. However, I will answer whatever I am asked in the faith that I have. That is as far as I will go. I will witness, if that witness is sought out. Otherwise, I find taht a good many people who profess their lack of faith that there is a God to be far more respectful of faithful than people of faith. So I do not fear atheism.

However, WORDS MEAN THINGS...and the use of a word to describe something goes to the heart of communicating to others what you intend. If an atheist calling himself bright is to mean that he is truely objective, he is already failing in his very use of the word "bright." I am left with the sense that despite his protestations of the Great Objectivity, he still has a bit of scorn for the fact that my experience and belief are somehow signs that I am "undeveloped" "un-Enlightened" and "unworthy" of the appellation of Intelligent.

This is the very problem that Anthropologists have with language ie culture vs race vs society. There is no objectivity in language, as of yet, and a word can become misused to the point of gaining the exact opposite meaning it originally had.

Posted by: Sharon Ferguson at June 26, 2003 at 11:13 AM


"Have you ever met anyone who takes an opposing position to homosexuality by calling himself a "gloomy?" I never have."

Uh -- right, that's what I said.

"You don't like the word because you don't like the idea of inventing a new usage for an old term."

No, that's not what I meant at all. I don't like this usage of this word because it sounds stupid. And it makes atheists look stupid. ("Huh? You want me to call you a what?")

And another thing that I forgot to point out: I am really tired of people taking adjectives and turning them into nouns we don't need. My immediate reaction if someone comes up to me and chirps "I'm a Bright!" would be to say "A bright what?" The word is not a noun. At least we say "He is gay," not "He's a gay!" (And by the way, I have no particular beef against that usage of the word gay either. If you think I did you are mistaken.) It just sounds stupid, everyone going around and saying they are a this or that descriptive term.

And one last thing: the term "bright" when used for people is supposed to be a compliment, and you aren't supposed to go around giving yourself compliments. I suppose you could announce "My child is a bright child!" (Ugh, gritting teeth...) but to say of yourself "I am bright!" is just not done, unless you want people to think you're stuck on yourself.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at June 26, 2003 at 11:42 AM

Oh yeah -- and reading that "Bright FAQ" page was like being force-fed an entire bottle of Aunt Jemimia Pancake Syrup With Authentic Maple™ Flavor. "Arrogant? No! Different!" Talk about cloying.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at June 26, 2003 at 11:53 AM

Andrea wrote: I am really tired of people taking adjectives and turning them into nouns we don't need.

Understood. What about when nouns become verbs? Examples:
--"I'm going to go photoshop that!"
--"He's been blogging for a while."

Let's suppose Bright or bright caught momentum and became a recognized (at least online) noun. Would the next logical step be for it to turn into a verb? For example, someone who vigorously defends his "brighthood" could be said to be "brighting" excessively. A bunch of Brights could get together and "bright" a fundamentalist on a message board.

I'm going to have to bust out Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (William Brenner, 1999, SUNY Press).

Posted by: Kevin White at June 26, 2003 at 01:06 PM

By the way, a "Goth" used to have a specifick meaning, before it got co-opted by a bunch of teenagers who wanted to define themselves as gloomy, dark people. Which, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with who and what the original Goths were. Isn't that just horrible? Isn't it awful?

Since the word "bright" has multiple meanings, some of which are complimentary and some of which are neutral, I find most of this reaction against to be nonsense.

I am not an atheist. I'm not. I'm probably never going to be one. Nevertheless I have a distinctly non-mystical worldview. That doesn't make me a genius, but I'm tired of not having a word to describe it.

Well, we shall see. I see a perfectly good word here that already has many meanings, and a lot of people angrily denouncing a very trivial thing. I find that fascinating. :-)

Posted by: Dean Esmay at June 26, 2003 at 01:52 PM

The whole thing about being a "bright" is that it seems essentially dogmatic. What does not believing in the supernatural mean, exactly? Is a Zen Buddhist a bright? He's an atheist, after all. What about me? I'm an agnostic Cartesian dualist--I don't believe in God and I think that consciousness is immaterial--but I arrived at that conclusion using reason and empiricism. So what the hell...?

Posted by: Alex Knapp at June 26, 2003 at 02:03 PM

Dean, do you feel comfortable using the word "furry" in everyday conversation, knowing who decided to co-opt that word? I'm sure they too were tired of not having a word to describe how unique they are.

It all strikes me as barely one step above the gibberish known as "geek code," made worse by the fact that the people advocating it are clearly intelligent and articulate enough to explain their individual cosmology as it is. It seems odd that a collection of individuals who don't care for organized religion are so eager to obtain a group label.

Where did the need for this come from? Are the depths of your metaphysical mission statement coming up so often in day-to-day conversation that they require shorthand? I can't visualize that happening outside of divinity school. Are atheists feeling left out when they see people walking around with crosses or stars of david about their necks? Is there a market for "WW{}D?"
bracelets? If so, I'm off to the patent office like a shot!

Posted by: Thad at June 26, 2003 at 02:28 PM

(There's no graceful way to delurk, is there? Anyway.)

Andrea - I agree entirely, and I have a similar reaction when I see the term "freethinker" used as a synonym for "atheist", as though rejecting the notion of God and screeching "Religious people are MORONS" somehow consitutes independent thought. Like you, I'm not religious, but some of the most original thinkers I know are, and a goodly number of the atheists I've run across (and read) are walking stereotypes. Why be original, I guess, when it's so much easier to just lay claim to originality?

(I blathered about something related to this last winter, if anyone cares.)

Posted by: Brenda at June 26, 2003 at 02:43 PM

Goth had "a" specific meaning, Dean? Well, sure, around 400 AD. Since then it's been applied to letterforms, architecture, and a subculture (at least), not just the original set of people of the Gothic tribes.

But the whole point was not about the changing meanings of words, but the deliberate and conscious co-option of words by some wiseass.

I think the whole "bright" thing is, well, stupid. Really, really stupid. Dull, in fact. Dim. (Mind you, I'm smart, non-religious, and all that. But this "movement" is poo-on-a-stick as far as I'm concerned. It's so... sophomoric. Literally.)

Posted by: Sigivald at June 26, 2003 at 04:03 PM

Thanks, Sigivald -- that is what I mean. I don't object all the time when a word takes on another meaning (hey, I use slang terms don't I?), but there is a process whereby that happens that for want of a better term I will call "natural," and then there is the ponderous, let's-form-a-group-and-release-a-mission-statement method that these "Brightists" are using.

And anyway, what is so wrong with the term "atheist"? Sure, some people spit it out with nasty looks on their faces, but that's their problem. You should see my face when I say "mayonnaise."

Posted by: Andrea Harris at June 26, 2003 at 08:50 PM

Atheism is a religion. http://www.evolvefish.com/fish/jewelry.html

Posted by: Lynn S at June 26, 2003 at 09:21 PM

Oops. link

Christians have the Cross, Jews have the Star of David. If atheism isn't a religion why do they need either a symbol or a special name?

Posted by: Lynn S at June 26, 2003 at 09:24 PM

Aw. I heart Evolve Fishy! I bought one of the fish decals for the car. But I haven't put it on, because it cost five bucks, god forbid it falls off. One day I may tape it up inside the back window.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at June 26, 2003 at 09:25 PM

Linky no worky.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at June 26, 2003 at 09:26 PM

Linky now fixed. (You forgot a quotation mark. Spank!)

Posted by: Andrea Harris at June 26, 2003 at 09:36 PM

Oh... those cattle of little faith need a label... I guess even atheists must succumb to the innate herd instinct of the common man.

Posted by: Mike S at June 26, 2003 at 09:42 PM

"Bright" just sounds like "I'm a nerdy atheist." What's wrong with "freethinker" or "humanist," eh?

Posted by: Matthew at June 26, 2003 at 09:44 PM
"I have a distinctly non-mystical worldview. That doesn't make me a genius, but I'm tired of not having a word to describe it."


Somehow, I've managed to survive 40 years with that one alone.

Seriously, though, this "bright" thing is just stupid. I knew Dawkins brains were going - I hadn't realized that they'd all dribbled out.

Posted by: David Fleck at June 26, 2003 at 09:57 PM

Gee, a group of atheists have found religion by organizing as a clique with a catchy feel-good phrase. Dogma, marketing, and tenets. Sounds like a religion to me.

If they subtracted all the bullshit and "Here's what we stand for aren't we wonderful" they'd have discovered that it is exactly what HUMANISTS are/were. If they'd only done their research.

Not too bright.

Posted by: Mrs. du Toit at June 26, 2003 at 10:10 PM

And when they introduce themselves as 'Brights' I'm going to start conversing with them in mandarin because it's way clear that we have nothing in common. This will go the way of all manufactured attempts to buck orthodox usage - straight down the toilet. Don't expect to be reading about this in six months.

Posted by: Preston Whip at June 26, 2003 at 11:47 PM

It will not even last as long as "phat" did.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at June 26, 2003 at 11:50 PM

What happened to phat?

Posted by: Peter at June 27, 2003 at 04:52 PM

I haven't heard it lately, so I was assuming it was no longer part of the vocabulary.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at June 27, 2003 at 09:20 PM