Two Pet Peeves
On precise speech and obsession with comfort
What to do about one’s pet peeves? As a peevish person, it’s a question I often face. Maybe I’m too peeved to pursue my current culprits. I have two of them.
Consider the now ubiquitous “inappropriate.” Does coach swear a blue streak? That’s inappropriate, says the principal. Do Mike and Missy engage in passionate public displays of affection (PDA)? Inappropriate, rules the dance chaperone. What about the neighbor who puts doggy clean up bags in my trash? Inappropriate, the block club rep reminds him. Or suppose we up the ante. The outreach psychiatrist leaves her job without a final meeting with her patients. Looking pained, a fellow psychiatrist says that doing so is inappropriate.
Now, some acts are inappropriate, chiefly indeliberate breaches of etiquette. For the most part, we don’t bristle when our gaffes are noted. But “inappropriate” ought not cover a multitude of sins. We need to call things, and acts, by their names. Profanity can be disrespectful. PDAs can be cheap. Poop deposits can be insulting. And medical malpractice is dangerous negligence.
Our language is rich in concepts of ethical evaluation. John Henry Newman tells us there’s no point in questioning the wrongfulness of cruelty. Elizabeth Anscombe contends that anyone who argues in advance that deliberately killing the innocent can be praiseworthy already shows a corrupt mind.
To shy away from using “thick” moral concepts, the concepts that identify the virtues and vices that only persons are capable of, is to lose sight of both the greatness and folly of the human enterprise.
Now comes my second peeve du jour, though it might have unwarranted staying power. (Few things are as persistent as a bad idea.) Of late, people have taken “comfort” or its lack to be a nearly universal measure of how things stand with them.
Just today I read this in my diocesan online paper: “It is wonderful how we learn from each other, but it was humbling for me to remember that we have to ask people what’s best for their comfort level to express their faith journeys.” Oh, my.
Lots of people aren’t comfortable talking about God, so they give way to self-censorship in public. And lots of people aren’t comfortable talking about politics. In both cases there’s a “use it or lose it” problem. If we don’t talk about God or politics, it can easily happen that we never learn to talk intelligently about either. And if we have learned to talk about them, in time we can lose the capacity to do so. We had better come out of our comfort zones.
To take comfort as our chief standard has a bourgeois plausibility. But Christianity has a prior commitment to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable! And there’s more. When we dwell overmuch on whether we feel comfortable, we pave the way for emotivism, the view that moral judgments are simply expressions of our feelings.
Feelings, of course, matter. But our feelings, if they are fully human, need to follow our reason, and reason finds its measure in truth. Only then, and only in time, do we come to see that our human truths participate in the Truth that is their source.
Now, gentle reader, if I manage to get a bit closer to that Truth, then the pursuit of my current peeves will be worth the effort.
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