2013-04-09

Tact

Shrinking Vocabularies And Disappearing Concepts
Ever since George Orwell introduced the concept of a steadily shrinking vocabulary in his masterpiece, 1984, people have been pointing it out. It is probably difficult to find hard evidence that society's vocabulary is actually shrinking, though, since new words are added to the major English dictionaries all the time. Of course, this doesn't even cover the hundreds of informal and slang words that have crept into the contemporary lexicon as mainstays. To those of us who like to read classic literature, there is no positive comparison to be made between words like "levity" versus words like "lol," but from the standpoint of linguistic evolution, we can't really say much. Language evolves according to majority use, not according to the subjective preferences of bookworms. Sad but true.

Be that as it may, there can be no denying the fact that, as certain words and phrases fall out of favor, sometimes the concepts behind them also disappear. One such concept about which I have previously written is the concept of a person's creed. Prior to the last half of the 20th Century, virtually everyone knew what it meant to live by a creed; if one uses the term nowadays, though, the result isn't much more than some funny looks. Still, one can still live by a creed, even if one doesn't really understand that particular word anymore. The concept has not completely disappeared, although it is certainly waning.

The Disappearance of Tact
Apparently, the opposite is true for the word tact. That is, everyone knows what the definition of the word is, but nobody understands the concept anymore.

When we practice tact, we refrain from blurting out any old thought that pops into our heads. We abstain from displaying our emotions in an uncouth way and instead present a calm, yet honest, temperament. We choose our words carefully so that we may be perfectly understood without being overly offensive.

Another way we might put this would be thus: Tact is temperance applied to interpersonal communication. Temperance, of course, is yet another one of those ideas in the midst of a disappearing act. So we are striking a theme here.

Why do I say tact is disappearing? Well, consider the latest two examples, culled from the headlines.

First we have Steven Landsburg's well-meaning but ill-fated "psychic harm" thought experiment. Landsburg's core point is a rather good one. Knowing exactly what constitutes "harm," as well as which particular kinds of "harm" ought to influence public policy, is important knowledge in the realm of political science. As a society, we ought to take the time to analyze important problems like those, and Landsburg was right to do so.

The problem is that Landsburg's example of an unconscious rape victim was emotionally charged to the point of being, well, tactless. My own comments on the topic (which you can find on Landsburg's blog) reiterated what I think the most important take-away is here: Don't use rape as a means to explore "the big questions." Rape is a horrible example, not because it isn't illustrative of something, but because discussing it is entirely tactless. Frustratingly, Landsburg provided a wealth of additional examples to make his point on his blog, all of which were for the most part ignored precisely because he chose to include a discussion of rape.

A little tact invoked during the writing of that blog post could have gone a long way.

The next example is the recent kerfuffle over the odd-couple musical duet between Brad Paisley and LL Cool J that has managed to ignite a media firestorm over the question of racism and political correctness. (Full disclosure: I have not listened to the song, and I have no intention of doing so - not because I find the ideas expressed by the song objectionable, but simply because I long since lost interest in the artistic output of either of those artists.) Sure, the song comes from an admirable place, exploring the different perspectives of modern-day white US southerners and northeastern urban blacks. On that level, we can probably count this song among the many existing conversations about race relations we have been having again and again for the entirety of US history.

But, on the other hand, invoking the Confederate Flag as a symbol of southern pride is a rather stupid thing to do; not because it is a poor symbol for the south, but because it has baggage. To fly the confederate flag is to choose one's symbolism in complete absence of tact. Tact, for heaven's sake!

It's not as if that is the only flag available to denote southern pride. Every state in the south has its own state flag, for example, and those flags encapsulate a local pride that can be felt by anyone who feels an attachment to the region. Those flags don't come with the same kind of race-relations baggage that the confederate flag does. So why not use them?

Conclusion
No, I am not dense. I do understand that by invoking hypothetical rape or the confederate flag, people are choosing deliberately provocative imagery to explore the boundaries of our sensibilities. I understand that being offended is part of the goal; it's a shock to the system so that we may probe the issue more thoughtfully.

But, I cannot say this enough, doing so lacks tact. Tact is also an important part of any provocative dialogue. Those who undertake to provoke others with their antics should hardly be surprised at the resulting firestorm. In some cases - Sinead O'Conner's infamous papal protest on Saturday Night Live comes to mind here - such provocation may be called for. O'Conner understood full well, by the way, that what she was doing was an incredibly controversial act that would probably never be fully understood in her lifetime. That is to say, she shrugged off tact for the completeness of her statement. It was an informed choice, and such a choice is certainly a valid one to make.

The unfortunate thing about Landsburg's blog post and Paisley's duet, though, is that neither party seems to understand what all the hubbub is about. What it's about is tact. If their intention is to simply court controversy, they did a great job.

If they wanted to persuade others, however, they needed to employ a little more tact. Tact, though, is one of those concepts that is disappearing from modern society. Hopefully, this is a trend that can be reversed.