Writing Right with Dmitri: The Categorical Imperative

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Writing Right with Dmitri: The Categorical Imperative

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Immanuel Kant was an interesting thinker. He made up a principle called the Categorical Imperative. I'm sure you're familiar with it, but just in case, we'll let him state it here:

Handle nur nach derjenigen Maxime, durch die du zugleich wollen kannst, dass sie ein allgemeines Gesetz werde.

Simple, huh? Okay, okay, I've had my little joke. What Kant said was, 'Act only according to principles that you would want to see made into universal law.'

In other words, don't do things you don't want other people doing. Don't act like you're a special case. It's a pretty good idea, and we really wish certain politicians would pay heed to it. No, your country doesn't get to do that just because it's rich and powerful. Something isn't all right just because you and your friends do it. Kant's 'imperative' was his way of working out the Golden Rule, which is:

Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you:
do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.

Matthew 7:12

Some people have pointed out that the Jewish sage Hillel said much the same thing.

What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.

What does that have to do with writing? Or the Christmas season? Or contemporary life, for that matter, other than saying, yeah, it's a good idea? I've been looking around during the shank end of the year, and I've noticed something about people. They're often frustrated, and it's usually at each other. Most of the time, they wish other people would act differently. Very seldom do I hear them saying that they wished that they, themselves, would act differently. No, mostly it's other people who are to blame. And a lot of the time, it seems they think that other people are unfairly trying to change the world around them. They don't like that at all.

What am I talking about? On Twitter, some people were complaining about 'political correctness' because a group of people insisted on being called something other than 'those people who're doing something weird we don't like'. Surprise: people would like to be called by a name descriptive of who they are to themselves, not to some other group.

Do you know why 'suddenly', the 'politically correct' word for Eskimos is 'Inuit' or 'Yupik'? Because that's what they call themselves, these people who live near the Arctic Circle. They don't call themselves 'Eskimos'. That was a word used by the Algonquin people to describe their neighbours. It wasn't an insult. But it's not their name, so they don't use it themselves. It's just polite to use the right word. Just as it's polite to call a German a German and a French person French rather than referring to fermented cabbage or frogs. It's certainly advisable if you'd like to be friends.

Why do people get worried about things like this? It's no skin off their noses, right? I work from the theory that there are two reasons for this:

  1. Laziness.
  2. The desire for other people to stay in the mental categories where we've put them.

Both of these reasons are bad for our mental health. The laziness will make your brain slow down. You're more likely to develop neurological problems from underdeveloped synapses. The category business is worse, though: that's filling your head with active nonsense. If you don't watch out, it will go fractal on you. You'll experience impaired reasoning ability, difficulty coping with the changing reality around you, and increased susceptibility to internet scams. You might even find yourself wanting to join a science cult like the Flat Earth Society.

In those days spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real men, women were real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Yeah, like that. Everybody imagines (falsely) that there was once a time when everything was settled. People knew their places. Men were men, women were women, and etcetera. Bosh. This never happened. Never in the history of the world, at least where humans were concerned.

Leofan men, gecnāwað   þæt   soð is: ðeos worold is on ofste, and hit nealæcð   þam ende, and þy hit is on worolde aa swa leng, swa wyrse…

Translation: Dearly Beloved, know the truth: this world is hastening toward its end, and the longer things go on, the worse it gets…

Wulfstan, Archbishop of York and Worcester, (wait for it), A.D. 1014.

In other words, people thought exactly the same thing a thousand years ago. This does not give us a terribly rosy picture of human mental progress. Nevertheless…

Let's keep trying, writers. Let's keep bashing away at the laziness in our own and everybody else's brainboxes. Let's try to break out of the category thinking that pigeonholes our neighbours, be they Inuit or transgender women or guys who wear bib overalls or fans of opera and/or Heavy Metal. Let's cut each other some slack and try to see the world from the other corner of the room. And then let's try to tell each other about it. Can we do that?

Wouldn't it be nice if everybody did?

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