Saw this on the menu of an Indian restaurant in Ottawa:
It was, in fact , a Punjabi restaurant, so maybe it was supposed to be “Ballsdip”?
I Started Early
It’s always a joy when one of my graduate students defends her thesis. This week, Morgann Reid defended hers in style (and was even nominated for a prize for her excellent work). Here’s a pic of Morgann with me, co-supervisor Craig K, and unofficial co-co-supervisor Michelle L.:
Michelle, a veterinarian, was telling me about she had been invited to be a part of a launch of line of Barbie dolls meant to inspire girls to become various professions –in her case, veterinarian. The theme of the launch, if I’m correct, is that “girls can be anything.”
It’s an admirable endeavour, to be sure. But it reminded me of my nascent days as a budding troll, before my full glorious assholery had flowered into the mature odoriferous form you know so well today. It was grade 2 or 3, if I remember correctly, and our forward-thinking teacher had asked the class, “Is there anything a girl cannot be?”
This was the early 1970s, so the question was, unsurprisingly, inciting. One boy said, “Doctor!” to which the chorus of girls rebuked, “Of course girls can be doctors!”
Another boy offered, “Scientist!” And, of course, the girls and teacher properly corrected him that women could indeed be scientists.
Now, at this point in my very young life, I was exceptionally shy. I was a child, after all, from a poor family, was a visible racial minority and new immigrant, trying to get by in a rough, working class neighbourhood. My rule was simple: don’t attract attention to myself. Attention meant getting bullied or worse. So for me to put up my hand and offer an insight, especially one that was not directly the answer to a calculable scholastic question, was a hardship indeed.
But some impulses cannot be denied. My lifelong love of rhetoric was about to burst forth from a mere blastocyst of interest to a true embryo of potential.
Before I tell you about my contribution to the class discussion, I’d like to put this all into an intellectual context. Seven years ago, I made the not-so-bold claim that the greatest human being –that we know about– who had ever lived was Socrates. I stand by that assertion, mostly having to do, of course, with the version of Socrates put forth by Plato.
Socrates gave us formalized questioning, the idea that the seeking of knowledge was a sufficient state of personal completeness, divorced from discipline or experiment. And he gave us a morality of conviction that flowed from rational deduction and that rendered a preternatural courage. He argued that wisdom is the result of knowledge; therefore absent knowledge, there is only ignorance. Thus, by his reckoning, the fear of death itself was a pretense of wisdom, not true wisdom, since we are all ignorant of the subjective experience of death.
It was, to my mind, transformative thinking that birthed the modern intellectual world that I so value.
It might be that all the virtues I imagine Socrates to have had are in fact those of Plato, whose admiration for his teacher compelled him to give Socrates credit for thoughts and actions that properly belong to the student. But that doesn’t matter to the point at hand, which is that I have always been particularly enamored with the Platonic version of Socrates who discussed (I say, quarreled) with Gorgias, in my absolute favourite of the Platonic works…. Gorgias.
Gorgias, the historical figure, was one of the leaders of the mostly hated Sophists, masters of rhetoric who specialized in the weaponization of language to win arguments, rather than to expose truths. I liken the Sophists to the worst kinds of Fox News pundits or trial lawyers, who seek to win their arguments or cases on technicalities, rather than on the qualities of the arguments or on the actual guilt or innocence of their clients.
The Sophists defended their approach by insisting on a kind of relativism, that there is no objective truth. This allowed them to argue that the objective empirical evidence put forth in a trial, for example, is irrelevant if it is not sympatico with the subjective lived truths of the witness, judge, or jury. In short, my truth need not be your truth. If truth itself is in flux, then facts are irrelevant and victory goes to the silkiest tongue.
In Gorgias, Socrates (successfully) argues that the art of persuasion so perfected by the Sophists is without moral heart, and is therefore solely a tool for personal gain. In essence, the relativism of a rhetoric that dispenses with evidence is innately immoral.
As a scientist in 2018, one of the annoying intellectual infections that I must deal with is the resurgence of postmodernism, which I thought had died a couple of decades ago. But no. Rather than having been excised from the body politic of the Humanities, PoMo instead found new footing in the social sciences. And now, like an intractable sticky fungus, it has reached its tendrils into the natural sciences.
I am not a fan of postmodernism. At its honest best, it encourages us to examine our personal biases which prevent us from stripping away layers of unacknowledged power and and privilege to reveal the raw truth hidden beneath. But at its prickly worst, postmodernism insists that that fundament of reality is narrative, not substance, and that therefore all truths are constructed, subjective and malleable. The latter is incompatible with most natural science and, it can be argued, morality.
What was it that Noam Chomsky said of Michel Foucault, the godfather of postmodernism? That he’d “never met anyone who was so totally amoral.”
Having cut my philosophical teeth on Gorgias from a young age, I was predisposed to see Foucault and postmodernism as amoral charlatanism. Whether or not you agree with this assessment, I hope you can at least see the similarities between postmodernism and sophistry, between Foucault and Gorgias. I find it particularly thrilling that both men and both movements were deemed morally suspect by the leading intellectual giant of their day.
So that brings us back to that Toronto classroom filled with 7 year olds back in the early 1970s. “Girls can be anything,” the teacher had said. “Tell me something that girls cannot be.”
She had spoken a truth, a genuine expressive moral truism, perhaps even an identity. Her call to challenge was Socratic, to test the solidity of her near-syllogism. And yet I, quite against type, had responded with pure, ugly Sophistry.
“Girls can’t be King,” I said.
The room erupted. The boys had found their champion and rallied loudly. The girls demurred, called foul: “But girls can be Queen!”
“That was not the question,” I countered, channeling Gorgias years before I would know who he was.
If one could roll one’s eyes without actually physically roll one’s eyes, that is precisely what the teacher did to me then. So I shut up and let it go. It wasn’t important to me whether or not girls do some things and not others. What was important was the precision of language. See, in my heart I was the worst kind of Sophist.
It would not be until the full expression of social postmodernism that girls could indeed be king. Everything, after all, is just a social construct.
And we’re off…
Dogulus Prime is sick of your shit.