July 14, 2003


Okay, goddammit. I have had it up to hear with this "bright" crap. Note to Dean: I hereby proclaim that the theme to your continued poking and prodding at this particular monkey cage will be the old Smiths song, "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore." It's just irritating me now; you wanted to know, so now I'm telling you. And unlike Pejman I am not even interested in the non-believers' rudeness to believers aspect to this matter. As for Max Power, I don't know why he has such a bug up his ass about Pejman's argument, and at this point I don't care. (I do find it funny that he would get all bent out of shape about other people getting bent out of shape on something.)

Here is my absolute last word on the subject: I don't care about the fragile souls of uni-coddled academics who are afraid of scary religious people, or whatever their damage is. I don't particularly care about the hurt feelings of believers either: it is my observation that the world is rather hard on peoples' ideas about life, the universe, and everything. It would be nice if it were otherwise, but it isn't; that's just the way it is. Deal.

But I do care about the English language, what is left of it anyway. But don't listen to me (obviously nothing I say penetrates anyway); listen to C.S. Lewis. Here's what he had to say about this sort of thing, in the preface to Mere Christianity:

The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone "a gentleman" you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact[...] But then there came people who said -- so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully -- "Ah, but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? "[...] They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. [...] When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker's attitude to that object.
And so on -- you can read the entire passage here.

See, we don't need to take a perfectly good word -- "bright" -- which already has several different meanings attached to it, and give it yet another meaning. Especially when we already have plenty of perfectly useful words for the thing the "bright" advocates want to describe -- atheist, agnostic, naturalist, secular humanist, humanist, and so on. New terminology won't change the fact that some people are unfavorably disposed towards these words, because it is the ideas behind those words that they object to, not the words themselves. No fulminating Bible-thumper is going to change his mind about atheists being Godless sinners if atheists start calling themselves something else. No fanatical Muslim is going to sing songs of praise for secular humanists if they start calling themselves "cigars" or "Molly" instead. The Brighters are going to be sneered at by a certain segment of the population no matter what they do, and the cutesy smugness of their stance certainly is adding people to that number.

(My previous posts on the subject are here and here.) And before you comment, yes, I know that there are no line breaks; those posts were done in Textile formatting, and I have to reinstall it.)

Update: okay, the last last last last word.

Posted by Andrea Harris at July 14, 2003 04:09 AM

As the message you linked explains, I find "atheist" and "agnostic" unsatisfactory. But why argue? Still love ya, Andrea.

Posted by: Dean Esmay at July 14, 2003 at 04:31 AM

I am getting extremely tired of the "non-believers rudeness to believers aspect." Puh-LEESE! Believers have been persecuting non-believers for centuries for centuries and it is still not generally acceptable to openly admit to being an athiest or agnostic. Imagine an atheist trying to run for President.

I wouldn't have a problem with atheists adopting a friendly word to describe themselves but "bright" is NOT the word. Don't hijack a common word; dig up an archaic word that no one ever uses anymore.

Posted by: Lynn S at July 14, 2003 at 08:23 AM

And they just keep piling up evidence for my contention that atheism is a religion, and it's on a holy crusade to destroy other religions.

And no, I'm not religious.

Posted by: Ken Summers at July 14, 2003 at 08:30 AM

What did C.S. Lewis have to say about the word "blog"? "Gay"? "Web"? The new meaning of "computer"? Of "cell"? "Mouse"? "Beta"?

Language evolves. In a time of rapid political, social, and technological change, one would expect language to evolve faster than it has before. "Gentleman" would've left the language long ago if it had the sclerotic meaning C.S. Lewis misses.

Posted by: Max Power at July 14, 2003 at 08:45 AM

"Dennetites". That's what I've settled on. Named after the founder of their movement.

And I have a feeling we're going to be seeing lots and lots of Dennetite blog posts...it's tailor-made.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin at July 14, 2003 at 09:11 AM

Dumbest. Meme. Ever. No, really. If you want to coin a new term to make atheism seem warm and fuzzy, you'd be wise to turn down the smug a hair or two.

Methinks that's not why they're hijacking "bright," though. From the posts/comments I've read, they're all about the smug.

I'll just roll my eyes and move on.

Posted by: Tracey at July 14, 2003 at 09:22 AM

What the hell was wrong with the old "freethinker" designation? Did they think it too incendiary? Too archaic? It's definitely a positive word. It can't be because of the smugness inherent in the term, because "bright" is worse.

Posted by: meep at July 14, 2003 at 10:18 AM

Ken Summers: Yes, I agree with you. Atheism is, at least for the vocal adherents, a religion not unlike any other. And the smugness of these religionists is hard to stomach.

Here I thought that if I ignored this whole "bright" absurdity, it would go away. So much for my ego.

Posted by: Craig Schamp at July 14, 2003 at 10:30 AM

Max: Lewis had nothing to say about those terms ("blog" and "Web" anyway) because he died in 1963. Don't be cute. In any case, some people have complained about the word "blog," but at least it comes from the word "weblog," which came from "log" -- as in ship's log, captain's log -- and it is a neutral term that describes something. And the words "web," "computer," and so forth also are neutral terms of description, and therefore useful. An analogy with the word "bright" in this context would be if people called computers "happies," or called the internet "heaven." After all, many people associate happiness and heaven with good things, and anyone who wished to promote good feelings about computers and the internet would want to call them something that made people feel good, right?

Neither Lewis nor I are trying to say one should never invent words or use words in a new way so long as that way is useful. "Useful" means: in a way that is contiguous with the meaning a word already has, and one that does not destroy, distort, or obscure the word's original meaning, therefore destoying or obscuring what that word originally referred to. Lewis is saying that when people started calling just anyone a "gentleman" then the original meaning of the word (a member of the landed gentry whose family had a coat of arms) was obscured. Now, of course, the term means what he decried, and I am not saying that we should go back to its original usage. For one thing, that original meaning is irrelevant in this country, and for another it's simply too late now. But where there was one word to describe a member of the landed gentry whose family has a coat of arms, now we must use a phrase (like the one preceding) or other slightly inexact terms like "nobleman."

This is, by the way, the complaint of many about what "gay" has come to mean. It's also too late to go back to giving the paramount meaning of the word ("light-hearted," "happy") center stage. But still we have basically lost one of the definitions of "gay," or are in the process of losing it. It used to mean a rather precise state of happiness (see above). It's usage re homosexual is meant to convey an attitude about them, not just describe them, much like the word "gentleman" when used to describe just any well-mannered fellow is meant to convey an attitude, not describe.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at July 14, 2003 at 10:46 AM

Wow. Language police now. Form.

Posted by: John at July 14, 2003 at 10:54 AM

Wow. An idiot. Bite me. (Look! I used slang!)

Posted by: Andrea Harris at July 14, 2003 at 11:05 AM
As for Max Power, I don't know why he has such a bug up his ass about Pejman's argument, and at this point I don't care. (I do find it funny that he would get all bent out of shape about other people getting bent out of shape on something.)

That is funny, isn't it? Of course, one of the reasons Max has such a bug up his ass (and at this point, it resembles an entire colony of bugs) is that in trying to make larger points (if you can call them that) about my writing, he either shamelessly used the strawman tactic in trying to ascribe to me positions that I don't hold, or just out and out lied about what I had to say. At one point, he even pulled out a quote of mine to try to make the argument that I was upset about Dennett's embrace of an "inquisitive" worldview--but he covered up with ellipses the portion of the quote that revealed that my problem with Dennett was not the embrace of inquisitiveness, but that Dennett was trying to claim that inquisitiveness was peculiar and specific to his side of the debate. An entirely separate argument--one that Max disingenuously tried to cover up in order to score cheap debating points.

It's pathetic, really. Max lies shamelessly and then accuses those he lies about of "bad writing." I know he gets his panties in a bunch whenever I bring up the "pot calling the kettle black" analogy, but it just fits so well for a hypocrite like him.

Posted by: Pejman Yousefzadeh at July 14, 2003 at 01:33 PM

Help me out y'all:

The first time I heard about this "meme" (before the Times editorial). I thought that "bright" was gonna be an adjective. Now, it seems it's a noun. Is it supposed to be both? Christian can be both (e.g. I'm a Christian, or I'm a Christian man). Gay, as far as a know, is only an adjective (as opposed to lesbian which can be both). Nouns can easily make the transition to adjectives, but not the other way around.

When I first read Dean's Blog entry: "I Am Still A Bright", I honestly thought: "a bright what?" until my brain kicked in. Let's face it, adjectives turned into nouns don't roll off the toungue very well. It's a poor coining in my opinion.

Posted by: JFH at July 14, 2003 at 02:11 PM

Andrea, thanks for referencing CS Lewis. I just posted to Dean about how CS Lewis explained the vice of Pride in his book "Mere Christianity" and his response queried whether Christians should not now be "proud" of Christianity.

I have entreated him to actually read the book to understand what I mean, but he is making the same fatal mistake with the word "pride" that he is making with "bright."

And you are right: one cannot be careless with words. As a philologist, Tolkien understood this, Lewis understood this.

Lobbyists with an agenda understand this. It is the rest of us who brush it aside who are under peril.

Posted by: Sharon Ferguson at July 14, 2003 at 02:56 PM

I suspect this is the same impulse that led major corporations to change their "Personnel Departments" into "Human Resources Departments," and their "Human Resources Departments" into "Organizational Effectiveness Departments" -- namely, if we change what it's called, we can avoid all the unpleasantness associated with the previous name. It never works, but hope springs eternal. Still, couldn't they have come up with something better than "Brights"? It sounds like something you'd find on the Teletubbies.

Posted by: Mrs. Raven at July 14, 2003 at 05:52 PM

Craig, you said what I should have said...the vocal adherents. I didn't mean to tar all atheists with the same brush. But there is a very large minority who remind me of fire-and-brimstone bible thumpers and are the reason I don't call myself an atheist.

Posted by: Ken Summers at July 14, 2003 at 07:24 PM

The argument is not about neologisms in themselves. I quite like neologisms. But there are neologisms, and there are (as Mrs. Raven recognizes) canting, obfuscating neologisms. And silly ones, of course. (Anybody else here old enough to remember Steve Dallas's mom and the "people of color"?)

And the real annoyance, Dean, is that you're being a bit of a Humpty-Dumpty not only with "bright" but with "agnostic", too. "Agnostic" has two perfectly unambiguous and useful meanings, one general and popular and one more precise and technical - and neither means "wishy-washy". "Agnostic", judging from what you wrote about your beliefs, should be perfectly serviceable as a discussion starter for you. Instead, bless your amiable little heart, you plump for "bright", giving it your own private definition, rather at odds with the fairly straightforward line put out by the founding Brighties. The fact that you've had to write volumes explaining what you really mean when applying the term to yourself ought to tell you that it ain't workin' for ya, bro.

Posted by: Moira at July 14, 2003 at 07:52 PM

I've long found that a tactic of those who've been embarrassed by having their arguments refuted is to launch a carpet-bomb of ad hominems and insults in an effort to obscure the debate.

Another tactic I regularly see in my legal practice is for adversaries to respond to a motion with several phone-book sized appendices to bury a decision-maker in paper and verbiage in the hopes that the judge will throw his hands up and refuse to make a decision.

Pejman's adopted both tactics: make false accusations, and repeat them in so many places with so many words, that people won't pay attention to the original fisking he suffered, because who has time to read through so much garbage? And not once has he addressed a single argument I made.

The latest comment exhibits once again his unoriginality. I mean, really: "panties in a bunch"? That's not just cliched and misogynistic, it's puerile. Why does anyone read this guy?

Posted by: Max Power at July 14, 2003 at 10:05 PM

Max: I'd appreciate it if you kept your argument with Pejman out of my blog. That goes for you to, Pejman. Now, don't make me take the cyber ruler to your virtual hands!

PS: since when has the "panties in a bunch" saying been misogynistic? I use it all the time. And puerile? Says who?

Posted by: Andrea Harris at July 14, 2003 at 10:59 PM

I still don't like the term. It still stikes me as someone saying that 'we're smarter than everyone else'. If Dean is the Bright then what is everybody else, the Dims? It's flatassed arrogance, if you ask me, which nobody did.
Fortunately I live in the country. People going around talking about how much brighter they are than everybody else will usually shut up after the first couple good ol' boys whup 'em.

Posted by: Peter at July 14, 2003 at 11:41 PM

In my experience, those who thump on the absence of the Bible are more inclined to impose their belief on others, and more threatened by signs of other beliefs, than the Bible-thumpers.

Posted by: triticale at July 15, 2003 at 08:07 AM

Ya know, Stalin was "a Bright".

Posted by: Ian s. at July 15, 2003 at 10:57 AM

So was Hitler. Thread over!

Posted by: Mr. Godwin at July 15, 2003 at 02:52 PM

Godwin: don't you know the corollaries to Godwin's Law, the old usenet rule about invocation of Hitler or the Nazis automatically ending debate? The first holds that the one who so invokes automatically loses the debate. The second holds that to so invoke merely for the purpose of ending debate fails.

Posted by: David Jaroslav at July 15, 2003 at 10:00 PM

I guess the third one after points out that the room for being accused of invoking Godwin's law is down the hall. This is the room for being hit on the face.

No, no, no wait. This is where I just propose, much to Andrea's annoyance I'm sure, a counter-meme: Smart, though with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

If someone should say, in all seriousness "I'm Bright!" just tell 'em you're "Smart." And quote C.S. Lewis on appropriating words. :-)

Posted by: Tim at July 16, 2003 at 11:26 PM

So I've read the entire http://www.the-brights.net site, and the articles by Dawkins and Dennet, and James Randi's announcement. I've also read dozens of blogs and minor opinions on this subject, including the language purists mourning the continuing perversion of our precious Mother Tongue, and the old skool freethinkerz who say that if Atheism was a good enough term for God then it's sure as hell good enough for me (and who wants political influence anyway,) and the religionists who describe themselves with factual, completely non-smug adjectives such as "Chosen," "Washed," or "Saved" but who inexplicably have yet to accept the obvious appelation "Gloomy" to describe their heterosexuality (and who would never stoop so low as to denigrate the other-faithed while insisting athiests [sic] must have a God-shaped hole where their religion ought to be,) and the red-faced who think terms like "meme" and "bright" are just too gosh darned cute and silly to trot out in public, and the ad hominem name-callers who can't think of anything better to say.

And my conclusion is: I'm a bright.

Posted by: Robert McNally at July 17, 2003 at 04:15 AM

You sure are full of yourself enough to qualify, "Ironwolf."

Posted by: Andrea Harris at July 17, 2003 at 08:01 AM

And loads of humility right back to you, Andrea. Thanks for checking out my site.

Posted by: Robert McNally at July 17, 2003 at 08:05 AM

Hey, man, that's what you get when you troll website comment forums. Go be superior on someone else's dime.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at July 17, 2003 at 08:11 AM

Sorry, Andrea, I didn't see on your home page where it said, "Opinions other than my own are not welcome here." I'll leave you here to be superior on your own dime. But please, learn more about trolls before you start laying invective on earnest, non-anonymous posters such as myself who simply happen to disagree with you. The reason why I posted my personal web site link and used my real name was precisely so you could see that I am not a troll out for kicks, but a real person.

Posted by: Robert McNally at July 17, 2003 at 08:57 AM

Okay, look, Wolf, you came to my site, and did not merely "disagree" with me -- Dean Esmay disagrees with me, but he doesn't act like a condescending jerk. I have no doubt that you are being "sincere" when you write things like "and the red-faced who think terms like 'meme' and 'bright' are just too gosh darned cute and silly to trot out in public, and the ad hominem name-callers who can't think of anything better to say"; I also think you are being patronizing and insulting, to me and the other people here who have commented. And then you have the goddamn nerve to tell me I should go "learn what a troll is" -- you can get bent. Who the hell are you, to lecture me? I have never been to your website before, I have never sent you a nasty email -- I don't know you from Adam. But you seem to think that I exist merely to absorb and accept your august wisdom. Give me a break. What is it with people who are so stuffed with self-regard that they have to troll (yes) a days-old post that is ready to scroll off my main page, on a subject that I clearly stated in my first sentence that I was sick of.

Your objections are noted, as is the fact that you are a "real person" -- though I have never stated anywhere that I did not think that you or anyone else who posted here was not real. That includes trolls. Now I am closing comments on this post because I have more important things to do than to get into an argument with someone who can't stand to have his "disagreements" contradicted. Go use someone else's blog to polish your own ego.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at July 17, 2003 at 09:47 AM