Post 227

Ancient Aramaic, Anyone?
Reflections on the Art of Criticism

This is interesting. I just came across a link to an article where the researchers were wondering about the use of swear or taboo words. They were wondering: is it true that people rely on swear words because they have a limited vocabulary? And to extend it further, is it true that people who swear are less intelligent than those who don’t?

The study was done by Kristin L. Jay and Timothy B. Jay, and it was published in the November 2015 issue of Language Sciences. The study runs 160 pages and I didn’t read it, because you have to pay $35 to download it from Elsevier Ltd. And that might even be American currency.

They asked participants to say and write as many taboo words as they could think of within a set span. I think it was sixty seconds.

I think that’s funny, and I think the researchers would have had a blast. Here’s the summary of what they found.


A folk assumption about colloquial speech is that taboo words are used because speakers cannot find better words with which to express themselves: because speakers lack vocabulary. A competing possibility is that fluency is fluency regardless of subject matter—that there is no reason to propose a difference in lexicon size and ease of access for taboo as opposed to emotionally-neutral words. In order to test these hypotheses, we compared general verbal fluency via the Controlled Oral Word Association Test (COWAT) with taboo word fluency and animal word fluency in spoken and written formats. Both formats produced positive correlations between COWAT fluency, animal fluency, and taboo word fluency, supporting the fluency-is-fluency hypothesis. In each study, a set of 10 taboo words accounted for 55–60% of all taboo word data . . . Overall the findings suggest that, with the exception of female-sex-related slurs, taboo expressives and general pejoratives comprise the core of the category of taboo words while slurs tend to occupy the periphery, and the ability to generate taboo language is not an index of overall language poverty.

In other words, if you’re good with your words, you’re good with your words, whether they are ordinary ones (they test these using a test they call Controlled Oral Word Association Test), animal words or taboo words.

It looks like there were 10 words which showed up again and again.

Don’t you think it would have been hilarious? Here comes little granny, and at first she’s all reluctant (someone told her something about something called “the creep devil,”) but then with fifteen seconds remaining on the clock, she just lets it rip? And then you’ve got some super hip youngster who starts with a blast and then just falls flat. “Uh . . . shit? Did I say that one already?” Maybe he’d get frustrated and start using pseudo swears: “How about ‘dang it’? Uh, did I say ‘ass’ yet? And what about ‘heck’? Does ‘heck’ count?”

Oh man. I’m getting myself curiouser and curiouser. Maybe I should just go and download the study.

And according to the abstract, men and women were pretty much equal when it came to their swear word fluency. Gender wasn’t a factor.

A different summary of the same report said that when they ran IQ tests, they found that those who scored higher on the word index had higher IQs. I don’t see a mention of an IQ test in the abstract, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Can you really deny the creativeness of some ‘colourful’ expressions of English?

Here I happen to think of rap songs, because I’m in the thick of them in my 90s music research project. If you study their lyrics, you’ll see that many of them are filled with every kind of crass and distasteful word, but you cannot deny their cleverness. The rappers rhyme and play with the words the way a child plays with alphabet soup. I get it.

But unfortunately, rap music suffers from two problems as a whole. First, the melody is often sacrificed for the sake of providing a blank slate for the lyrics. Fitting words to an interesting melody is more difficult than fitting words to a flattened one. Second, the subject-matter is usually unimpressive and beyond shallow. Often the rapper inserts his own name into the song, and the song is intended to glorify the rapper.

The rap song that I have liked the best so far was by Skee-Lo, called “I Wish.” That was amusing.

And turning to Shakespeare, he was entirely creative and prolific when it came to insults. I once toyed with the idea of buying a calendar. Each day had a Shakespearean insult. In the end I didn’t buy it, but you never know — the time may come.

There are two types of criticism.

1. Criticism of actions. This is tied to a particular date and time. For instance, if you say, “you lied,” that is a reference to a specific event. It can take a long time to put together such a criticism, because the context needs to be set out and the exact problematic behaviour needs to be identified and described. Sometimes the problem is like a lump under a blanket. You can see it, but you have to figure out exactly what is going on before you can get much traction.

2. Criticism of character. This can be done with one or two words. You could call someone ‘a liar,’ for example. This is an insult, but it makes no reference to a certain date and time. If you are a liar, you are likely to lie as the ‘need’ arises. If you are a loser (interestingly, the Ukrainian word for loser – невдаха – seems to be made up of two parts, being a negation of the word ‘character.’ How apt!) then you are presumably a loser on both Wednesdays and Saturdays.

I am not denying that criticisms of character can be true. Jesus referred to some people as hypocrites. That would be a criticism of character, and it would have been true, 24/7, of those to whom he spoke thus.

And of course, when you apply general labels to people, you have a choice of several words which have similar meanings, but with different moods, depending on your intent. The word “slim,” is always safe, but the word “skinny” can be a criticism. The word “eccentric” is safe, but the word “bonkers” is not. The word “zany” is safe, but the word “weird” is not.

You catch my drift.

Criticisms of character are far more likely to be false than criticisms of actions. They should be used with care, which is exactly what they are not used with, most of the time. These one-word insults are usually hurled in the heat of the moment. That’s not so good, unless they are true, in which case, the truth has been spoken. Jesus knew that what he said was true, and he spoke this way to alert the innocent that vipers were among them. He spoke this way to alert them that those who enjoyed a public reputation for goodness and sanctity were in fact evil. He spoke that way to shake the evil-doers out of their self-satisfied views. St. John the Baptist spoke in the same way.

So I am not saying that you cannot call someone a liar, or a bully, or a drunkard. You can. But make sure that you are right.

I don’t know about calling someone an idiot, however. I note that Barbara Duteau wrote, “What an idiot!” about someone on her public Facebook post of November 26th.

I find that problematic, because the word “idiot,” is an insult referring to a lack of intelligence.

In former days, the word “idiot” was used to describe people with Down Syndrome or similar genetic conditions, and it was seen as a statement of fact, and not as an insult. Nowadays, of course, using the term for anyone with a mental disability would be simply outrageous, because the word has taken on a very negative flavour.

But stop and think about any insult related to a lack of intelligence. How much control do you have over your level of intelligence? Some would call such a word uncharitable, when used nowadays.

It would be far better to write that such-and-such was idiotic behaviour, or that such-and-such was an idiotic speech.

The context for her insult was the speech that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave upon the death of Fidel Castro. Mr. Trudeau’s father, who was Prime Minister, had a good relationship with the dictator and met his sons. This affected the content and the delivery of the PM’s speech. And in a later justification of his words, Justin Trudeau alluded to knowing how it felt to hear how a well-known politician was described after death. He would have heard many things said about his father after his father’s eventful political career.

I get it.

I understand how, upon learning of the death of someone, people tend to gravitate towards words of praise. That’s a very typical reaction, from both friend and foe. If you were to confine yourself to reading about people in the two weeks following their death, you’d think the person was a saint.

And it is for very good reason that the Catholic Church says that eulogies are not properly part of the funeral Mass. Why would you want to mar the Mass with lies? Sometimes in their eagerness to be appropriately respectful, holy-sounding or fortunate to have known the person, people exaggerate the good qualities and the accomplishments and they minimize and even ignore the harm that they caused and the evil choices that they made.

People go a little wild when they talk about people who have died, especially if the person was young, murdered or killed in an accident.

Take, for instance, the case of Jim Prentice. He was, for a short time, the Premier of Alberta. Initially, it was thought that he would continue to lead the popular and entrenched Progressive Conservative party. His party seemed stable and a long future seemed his for the taking. Perhaps he became over-confident, because by a series of ill-chosen words and actions, he made himself increasingly unpopular, and his party was swept out of power. He paved the way for the New Democrats to take over the house, and his loss was huge and historic. His name became associated with the disgraceful imploding of the party.

Fast forward a few years, however, and a sudden death by plane crash had several people speaking of all of his good qualities and his various accomplishments. The current leader of the New Democratic party, his political rival, said nice things about Mr. Prentice, pointing out that her father had likewise died in a plane crash.

I understand that, and I don’t see a huge difference. In both cases, people yearned to find what was praiseworthy and chose to overlook everything that didn’t fit with that picture. I am not saying that Fidel Castro was Jim Prentice, or that Jim Prentice was Fidel Castro.

God knows who died with a purer soul, but you probably do not.

My point is that the approach taken is the same. People don’t want to be ‘mean’ because the dead person is, well, dead. The dead person is having a worse day than you are, is the general thought. He won’t cause you any more trouble. Our Judeo-Christian roots kick in and people know ‘not to speak ill of the dead.’

It’s a common tendency, and I understand why Justin Trudeau may have wanted to find things to praise about someone that his now-deceased father befriended.

So I won’t call Justin Trudeau an idiot. I won’t. It’s not true. He may not be as intelligent as some rappers, but he’s far more intelligent than many people give him credit for. I read his defence of his speech, and it has merit. The Man With Good Hair often makes bad decisions, but I give him no excuse stemming from a lack of intelligence.

And as for our leader’s background as a school teacher, this may not be as tactically useful as a background in business or in law, but when it comes to governing a nation, the best preparation is a willingness to do a good job. Someone with good intentions will be given the grace to choose observant and wise advisors.

And while I am on the topic of politicians, it strikes me as interesting that many Christians consider them ‘fair game,’ when it comes to insults. The moment these so-called Christians are unimpressed, they lash out with all manner of name-calling with little basis in fact.

Consider the recent issues with respect to Trinity Christian School Board. How many people have gone online to express their contempt for the current government officials! They begin with the presumption that the officials have tainted motives, yet are quick to talk about the Wisdom officials being presumed innocent. One person calls the Minister of Education “a tool,” and another person refers to the government people as “biased bullies.”

Slow down, folks. Reign in your words. Think before you speak. Can you support your accusations?

What is your evidence that the government is biased? Don’t claim that lightly. The government has a lengthy report based on the findings of financial auditors. Are the auditors then biased as well? My understanding is that the first accounting firm was hired by the school board itself, even before the current government came into power.

The government report is critical of Trinity’s financial interaction with the homeschooling families that Trinity undertook to serve. The government says that the funds were mismanaged, and that the families suffered as a result. The taxpayers’ funds were given to Trinity on the understanding that Trinity would manage them properly for educational ends. The government portrays itself as looking out for the families with Trinity and the tax-paying Albertans, and I think it might very well be doing just that.

The unavoidable question is: were the funds mismanaged? It looks to me that they were, and I have heard nothing challenging the financial figures found in the report. I have seen that Toby-Lauren Burgess insists that the liquor consumed was wine, but that is not a contradiction of what was written in the report, and one might hope, for her sake, that nobody had a beer.

Let’s not obscure the issue.

What does it matter if the officer who gives you a speeding tickets also happens to dislike Christian rock? The issue is whether or not you were speeding, and not the musical preferences of the officer.

It’s not that complicated.

The best defence is not an offence, accusing the government of being nasty. That’s an approach which is immature and it distracts from the issue at hand. Mind you, that may be entirely the point.

The best defence is a defence, showing that the numbers in the auditor’s report are faulty, and in showing that there was compliance with the laws and regulations governing the board. It is not enough to say that a New Democratic party dislikes Christians or the homeschooling community.

And if that is really going to be the theme of your protests — if Trinity and Wisdom are so entirely convinced of the unsympathetic nature of this or previous governments — then would that not be all the more reason to be fiscally unimpeachable? Why, in such a climate, would you not run everything in a ship-shape manner, as do other homeschooling boards?

Why buy wine?

I can believe that the government officials have mixed feelings towards homeschooling or towards Christians, but my point is that this is not the issue. The issue is whether the government’s allegations are true. For this reason, I agree with the prayers that the truth would be exposed.

And consider, if the truth came out, it would come out piece by piece. We would learn whether it is true that so-and-so received a 100% pay increase from the first year to the next, and we would learn whether so-and-so, who every month collected a car allowance, received money for using his car. (Mind you, I think that case of double-dipping was confirmed as having occurred, and excused as an accounting error by the folks at Wisdom.) Hey, maybe we would even find out where those gift cards went. Or maybe not.

Oh well.

Knowing the nitty gritty, and knowing the who-what-when-where-and-how, is what it’s about. Spare me the unthinking solidarity.

I like having the facts, and I hope that increased knowledge of the facts will quiet these rash accusations leveled at the government and these unfounded insults.

Returning to the two types of criticism, the very best criticism can be a plain statement of what was done and when it was done. If you can accurately describe what so-and-so did, then you often needn’t say more. You don’t even have to spin your words to have a negative flavour. Just say what happened. Make it as dispassionate and clinical as an autopsy report. Make it as bland as an auditor’s report or as plodding as a Ph.D. thesis about a cactus. It doesn’t matter. Just tell it like it is.

You don’t need to apply a one-word insult or an emoticon or an exclamation mark. Your readers will add them on their own.

Take the following article as an example. It was written by Duncan Kinney and was published yesterday by the Globe and Mail. I wasn’t looking for it, but coincidence is always an interesting thing. I went online to see how old Cate Blanchette is. I just watched the Cinderella movie where she was the wicked stepmother. The last time I watched a movie with her in it, she was young enough to be the heroine. Time flies I guess. So in doing that, I came upon and watched an interview where she was joking around with the interviewer. He said he had a serious question, so when he asked her how she managed to deal with a cat on a leash, she was flabbergasted. “That’s your fucking question?” she asked, incredulous. I thought it was funny. Mind you, I didn’t like the part where she said “Jesus!” (She wasn’t praying.) The media always gets excited over the wrong things.

But anyway, somewhere along the way, this headline caught my eye: “Alberta Tories ignored years of red flags at private home-schooling association.” As I said, the article was published yesterday, on December 9th.

Here is the link.

Alberta Tories Ignored Years of Red Flags at Private Homeschooling Association

It is always much easier not to do the responsible, adult thing. No one gets pleasure from taking care of that sink full of dishes that collected over the weekend. If only we had the good luck to be Alberta Tories, we could just ignore our responsibilities for years and then have someone else clean up.

The Alberta government has stripped accreditation and funding from the Trinity Christian School Association, which operates a private school based in Cold Lake and contracts a company that provides home schooling to thousands of Alberta students. The government’s allegations of financial wrongdoing are outlined in recently released court documents.

For years, Progressive Conservative governments in Alberta either turned a blind eye to multiple red flags at Trinity Christian or were incompetent.

Two families involved in running the association and affiliated organizations are alleged to have taken home $2.86-million in salaries from 2012 to 2015. A private school called the Wisdom Center was built by the association with public dollars – a clear violation of Alberta Education rules – and sold to one of the affiliates. The documents also show questionable lease agreements, $988,000 that should have gone to parents for education expenses and that public money was spent on gift cards, babysitting and booze.

The new New Democratic Party government in Alberta was forced to do the adult thing and clean up the mess.

The signs that something was wrong go back more than 19 years, the court documents show.

A September, 1997 letter from Alberta Education to the most senior employee of Trinity Christian reads, somewhat prophetically: “It appears your school is reluctant to comply with all of Alberta Education’s regulations.” The Tory education minister at the time was Gary Mar.

In January, 2004, Alberta Education wrote to Trinity Christian to let it know again it was breaking the rules.

“It is evident that Alberta Learning funding has been used for purposes not permitted by the funding manual and AISI [Alberta Initiative for School Improvement] guidelines. More specifically, the purchase of the Wisdom Center building and some of the listed AISI equipment should not have been purchased with Alberta Learning funding.”

More than $500,000 in taxpayers’ money was used to pay for the Wisdom Centre, in contravention of all law and precedent when it comes to private schools in Alberta, the documents say. Taxpayers do not build private schools in Alberta. Taxpayers finance private school students’ education for up to 70 per cent of the amount that would be spent for a public school student. But private schools do not get money for capital projects.

Trinity Christian and the Tory government ignored this rule, and it is unclear if this money was ever returned or deducted from future funds sent to Trinity Christian. The court documents allege the Wisdom Centre was then sold at a substantial loss to Living Water College, an organization run by Kenneth and Marlane Noster, members of one of the families at the heart of this case. That building was then leased to the Wisdom Home Schooling Society of Alberta, an organization affiliated with Trinity Christian, at a very reasonable rate.

The Tory education minister, at the time a private school was built with public dollars, was Lyle Oberg.

In 2009, Alberta Education started to question Trinity Christian’s financial reporting. Why were funds being carried forward? What exactly was Wisdom Home Schooling doing, given that it was not a registered or accredited private school? Those concerns continued until 2015.

In February, 2014, Alberta Education warned Trinity Christian it was not complying with the rules for homeschooling.

In March, 2015, a couple of months before premier Jim Prentice and the Tories lost to the Alberta New Democrats, Alberta Education repeated that warning.

The Tory education ministers between 2009 and 2015 were Dave Hancock, Thomas Lukaszuk, Jeff Johnson and Gordon Dirks. All failed to act on red flags that something was wrong at Trinity Christian School Association and Wisdom Home Schooling.

Last fall, after an investigation by auditors, Trinity Christian was stripped of its accreditation. That decision was made by New Democrat Education Minister David Eggen. (The money and accreditation were restored through a court injunction.)
It is no fun to do the responsible thing and deal with a long-festering problem. Six Tory education ministers had the chance. They all declined. It is worth asking why.

I think that’s an interesting article, and I think it’s interesting that I found it tonight, when this post was nearly complete. The following was going to be my version of how writing about when-where-what can be more powerful and effective than name-calling. This is what I had:

1. Ken Noster of Derwent collected approximately $243,963 in 2015 as head of Wisdom.
2. Ken Noster’s company collected more than $7,000 per month in rental fees in Derwent.
3. Ken Noster and his wife will not be going out to the orchestra, and therefore will not use their tickets, but if you are interested you can repurchase these tickets (value: $90) for $75.

The take-home message is that no matter how much you take home, you might still not want to give things away for free.

I’m just kidding. The take-home message is that there are two ways to embark upon a criticism of someone. The first method describes behaviour, and the other method labels the person as a whole. Both can be valid, provided that they are true.

I prefer the first approach for many reasons. In the first place, other people can see the components of your criticism, and if you have missed something or misunderstood something, they can point out your error. In the second, it leaves the person criticized with a clear indication of where the issue is, so that they can improve, or do better next time. I notice, for instance, that the most recent musical adventures at the Basilica are presented differently now, and they don’t involve purchasing tickets online. I’m glad for that, and in the same way, I would be happy if everyone whose behaviour I have criticized would do their best to rectify their behaviour. That would be good. (As for the phrase ‘constructive criticism,’ I dislike it, since the phrase is often used as an excuse to be vindictive.)

At minimum, a clear description of problematic behaviour can point out to others what potholes to avoid. When you read a transcript of a really weak birthday greeting, you can see how it flops miserably. The lesson is lost on the giver of the message, but the hope is that others can learn. (If you can’t leave a pleasant and spontaneous birthday message, either write it down ahead of time, or keep your message super simple – “Happy birthday, Jane. I hope you have a lovely day.”)

There is often an instructive quality to point-by-point criticism of behaviour that you cannot get with a one-word slam.

But speaking of the one word slam, I’m no different from you on this count, and the exclamation marks go off in my head once in a while too.

And on occasion, I will summarize out loud with a single word. You bet.

I haven’t gone biblical with it though.

Perhaps I could give that a whirl sometime.

“You brood of vipers!”

“You white-washed sepulchers!”

That would be funny. I should brush up on some ancient languages so that I could do it with pizzazz.

After all, you know I’d want to impress those researchers, when it’s my sixty seconds to shine. (Wouldn’t want them to think I’m an idiot :)