JANUARY 2, 2012 4:18PM

"Never Say 'Never'" — And Most Other Absolutes

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Back to Basics #20 

            Toward the end of 2011, on NPR's The Diane Rehm Show, a caller complained that some topic was never covered in the media, to which Ms. Rehm responded by quoting one of her husband's favorite adages, "Never say 'never'" and noting that she'd done a show on the topic and would be covering it again.

            As I'm frequently reminded by Diane and her guests, however (and complain about occasionally), there are problems related to, but in addition to "never."

            The Diane Rehm Show originates in Washington, DC, and many of her guests have their figurative heads if not their literal bodies very much inside the DC Beltway. Their ideas of everybody and nobody and what they might be thinking and talking about differ significantly from my ideas coming from the Midwest and living nowadays in south-central-coastal California (California is a big, complicated state).

            A lot of what's going on with such talk is the usual simple carelessness (and we all slip up); other aspects are more interesting.

            Part of the problem stems from what I've called "language inflation." In a time of fierce partisanship and information deluge, nuance gets swamped. In the competition among fashionable ways to put things, absolutes will win out over swamped and drowned moderation: "Nobody in the lame-stream media ever talks about …" beats out, "You know, I haven't heard much in-depth discussion of …"; "Everybody is panicked about" trumps "Maybe we should be concerned that —

            Which gets us to another aspect of interest.

            Most parents can handle an argument from their kids that "All the kids are getting tattooed (pierced, branded, scarified or, if you're lucky, just gifts from their parents of Xboxes, iPads, or "slut-look" wardrobes)." Most parents know to demand, "Name two."

            There are more subtle forms of this problem, though.

            E.g., college-writing teachers will get frosh essays beginning "Since the beginning of time, Man …."

            The teacher could start here with asking the student, "Are you dating the beginning of time from the Big Bang or creation in Genesis? The rise of human consciousness?" With one student, it took only a couple more questions to get to the evidence the student had to go on and what he could legitimately talk about: "Uh, me and some buddies back in high school." I told him that if that was what he had to go on and wanted to deal with, that's what he should write about: "We tell you to start fairly general and then focus in on your topic," I said, "but you don't have to start with the cosmic for 'Back when I was in high school' or with Man to get to 'me and my buddies'" (or, depending on the topic, audience, and Speaker, for "my buddies and I").

            For all of recent America's problems as an individualistic, ego-centric, downright narcissistic culture — for all the purported humane concern of the "human interest" openings to way too many news stories — for all this, many Americans clearly don't much value modest claims based on personal experience: even if that personal experience is about all we can talk about without bullshitting.

            If you put "Everybody is talking about ______" through a crap-detection and BS-removal program and tweak it toward modesty and honesty, the clause usually comes out something like, "A big topic of conversation among people I take seriously is ______." We all have our significant others and "reference groups," and none of us except saints really gives a rat's ass about everybody; we are all limited to itty-bitty sets of knowledge even about what's going on in America two weeks back, let alone the experiences of "Man" (or even who in a vast universe "everybody" might be).

            One great advantage of the web is its potential as a constant nudge toward humility, a reminder of how big and varied and complex even the merely human world is.

            Even if you — well, not you but some limited, nasty person not at all like you — even if one just visits blogs and porn sites, one will quickly learn not to say "Everyone likes" or "No one would want." What you think no one would like probably has a couple web sites devoted to it, a standard abbreviation, and is listed for keyword searches on YouPorn or Xtube.

            Similarly for what people think and believe, talk about and (somewhere among the media) cover in detail. If you think "No one is talking about" something or "No one would believe" — try another Google search. 

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