Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Twisting Language Sheared of Meaning

I came across a troubling sentence today, and it's one that needs unpacking for the casual reader. The sentence I read says: "Later, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods may have played a role in the growth of deity-centered Polytheism."

Let's take a good look at it. With this one line, a line most casual readers would blow past without giving much further thought to it, seeks to erode and demolish polytheism by stating that a fictional book contributed to the growth of the movement, and by qualifying the word “polytheism” so that he can force it to mean things other than what it means.

The first part of his statement which suggests that a fictional book may have given partial rise to the growth of modern polytheism is like suggesting that the popularity of the movie Twister influenced the growth of modern meteorology. Fiction is not reality, although fiction can inspire someone to make a real difference—but if we can’t tell the difference between fiction, reality, and fiction partially inspiring reality, then we are well and truly messed-up. The blogger already sees the movement he’s talking about as based on fiction, inspired by nothing more than a creation of the human mind, and this is very basis upon which he operates. Everything else he says is built upon this erroneous premise, and there is an expectation that the reader simply accepts this premise without question.

Stating a possible connection here between a fictional tale and the growth of a movement (or field-of-study) is a way of planting a suggestion that the movement might be partially based on fiction and therefore might be itself partially fictitious, based on fiction made up by humans. This is the equation that people may not realize that these words are making, and this is the assumption that this blogger functions on and tries, subtly and not-so-subtly, to persuade others to function upon. It’s a way to denigrate and trivialize that very movement itself while appearing fair and unbiased. When this false premise is coated in palatable and palliative layers of amiable tone and intellectualism, with a coating of widespread cultural misunderstanding and rejection of that same movement, it makes it much easier for casual readers to swallow without even realizing that they did so.

To focus on one fictional tale as a key factor in the growth of a movement (or field-of-study) is so overly-simplistic that it is absurd. There have been countless tales and poems for eons praising the awesomeness of the weather well beyond the movie Twister. More importantly, all a person has to do to be inspired and have a real-life encounter with the atmosphere and weather patterns is to walk outside and experience reality. To simplify the growth of a movement like polytheism, or a field-of-study like meteorology, and to attribute it to a fictional tale causes a reader to focus on the fictional tale and debate the merits, the possible causal relationships, the associations, and so on, of that fictional tale. In that intellectual exercise, people end up ignoring the fact that a natural, real, observable thing plays a far more important role in inspiring a person to study it or connect with it in some way. Although a movie like Twister may have inspired a person to study meteorology, it is far more likely that the lion’s share of that inspiration comes from standing in awe, inspired by the very meteorological phenomena themselves.

The second part of the statement is like calling a meteorologist “a weather-and-atmosphere-centered meteorologist.” Weather and atmosphere are what a meteorologist studies; it's what meteorology is. It's redundant calling them "weather-and-atmosphere-centered meteorologists," and if a person were to do this it would force the word open so that you can insert things in there that are not part of the field of meteorology. For instance, some well-meaning but thoughtless person has heard that there’s such a thing as “pet-centered meteorology” which studies dog flatus and pet dander that people might inhale. Just because dog flatus and pet dander can be on or in the air, and just because meteorological studies involve observing air in the atmosphere, it doesn’t mean that studying dog flatus and pet dander is the same as meteorology.

If you really want to study dog flatus or pet dander, or both, great! By all means please do so. If you want to study dog flatus and pet dander, and meteorology, please feel free to do so. But don’t mistake meteorology for the study of weather phenomena and pet dander and dog flatus all together, even if there’s occasional overlap. Although dog flatus can be pretty strong, it would behoove us all to remember that dog flatus is not the same as a tornado.  Is the coming season tornado season or dog flatus season…or both…and does the domesticated canine eating of cheese have an effect on tornadoes? Tornadoes…tomatoes…well, they have some letters in common. What were we talking about? I guess it doesn’t matter because words can mean what you want them to mean and dog flatus can self-identify as pinking shears if it wants to even if dog flatus doesn’t understand what pinking shears are or what they’re used for, or even what language is. Who uses pinking shears, anyway?

I want it noted that I have intentionally left names out of it. It is less about who wrote it and more about the quote itself, and that things like this are being said and are able to flourish, usually unnoticed, in our cultural climate which is hostile to polytheism. I made a choice to leave names out of in order to shift the focus away from personalities and drama, and move the focus onto where it should be: on the critical thinking required to notice, to observe, and to unpack a statement like this and see it more clearly.

Image Notes: Pinking Shears, by Pavel Krok, used through Creative Commons License.


  1. where is the original article with the Neil Gaimen Quote? I'm glad you called this out---Neil Gaimen played no part in the development of any polytheism I know of. W.T.F.

    1. I have sent you a note. It is less about who wrote it and *more about the quote itself*, and that things like this are being said and are able to flourish, usually unnoticed, in our cultural climate which is hostile to polytheism. I leave names out of it in order to focus less on personalities and drama, and more on the critical thinking required to unpack a statement like this and see it more clearly.

    2. The article itself wherein I found that quote has far more to do about intersections between [philosophy, social movements, and creativity] and [politics] and in using philosophy, social movements, and creativity as a springboard for change in the current political climate (Note: the article is more United States-based.)