The English Language: Good & Bad | Writing

What if I told you I had a house-mate who was loud, aggressive, stubborn, doesn’t think twice about making a mess but is completely intolerant whenever I leave an unwashed dish lying around and thinks of nothing but what she wants accomplished at any given moment. Not the greatest characteristics in someone you have to share a house with. But what if she was not my house-mate, what if she, with all the same characteristics, was the head chef in the restaurant I worked in? Suddenly all those words transform from synonyms for “bad, bad, bad” to “good, good, good”. Now instead of picturing ourselves arguing with this person over the volume of their music, their inability to consider other people’s feelings and seeming hypocrisy on issues of hygiene we see someone focused, determined and willing to “break a few eggs” as the expression goes.

Most adjectives now are charged with positive or negative connotations, completely to the detriment of the beauty of words. “Amazing” instead of meaning a thing that causes complex feelings of amazement, now just means “good”. “Wonderful” is not a thing that stops your mind from its random wandering and makes you consider all the complexity and intangibility of it, instead it’s “good”. “Shocking” is not an unexpected arrival of something into your awareness causing you to stop in your tracks and draining all other thoughts from your mind, it’s “bad”. No longer “awful” is your reaction to a meteor-shower or waterfall or a thunderstorm, it’s how you feel when you wake up after a night of heavy drinking.

It can seem like a degeneration of the English language to simply all our adjectives into categories of good and bad. If you tried to describe a person objectively from their physical features by saying a person has a chin that is “chiselled” then you’re complimenting them, but if you say about a different person that they have a chin that is “flabby” it’s an insult, even if both are completely true. If you applied the Socratic method here and asked “why is chiselled good?” you’d come up with the answer “because it means the person is slim” “And why is that good?” “Because it means the person probably exercises, eats well, doesn’t suffer from any serious illnesses and is a healthy person” “And why is healthy good?” “Because it means you’ll live longer” “And why is living longer good?” Apply the same criteria to the flabby-chinned person and you end up at pretty much the same question: “and why is not living as long bad?”

Whatchu call my mama, man?

It’s difficult to write about real people, particularly real people who you either know or could randomly come into contact with at some point. You want to give as an honest account of an event or a gig as you can but you have to wrestle with issues like “well, maybe this singer would be offended if I say she hunches over her piano like the Phantom of the Opera.” A simile like that is honest and not intended with either a “good” or a “bad” connotation at all, but how do you know how a person will react to being described like that? Is their reaction worth considering at all?

A book of interviews with Tom Waits Innocent When You Dream features interviews with the man through a great chunk of his career, but one thing nearly every writer mentions without fail is that he looks like a hobo. For Mister Waits this could almost be a compliment as it adds to his ethos but it’s hard to think of anyone else who could be described with this term hobo being used as anything approaching a positive. It seems like the kind of word someone writing a bitchy gossip column might use to describe an actor at an awards show who looks like he might have spent an hour at a bohemian party somewhere in Hamburg in his youth.

The thing is when we hear certain people described with certain words, depending on our relationship to the person being described and the person doing the describing, we try to accommodate whatever words are being used into our conceptions of good and bad. Good and bad is a great myth propagated by news media but they did not invent it. Our minds are wired to simplify things on a survivalist basis, meaning good things are things we want near us and bad things are what we want away from us.

There is also however a disconnect between things that are immediate and things that distant or abstract. Like when you read On The Road it’s easy to get caught up in Kerouac’s orgasmic descriptions of the mad people he meets on his travels. His writing gives you a desire to get out and see the world yourself but you realise very quickly the difference between reading about some quirky hitch-hikers on the back of a flat-bed truck and some questionable and rambling character who approaches you in a café or on the street. Instead of glorying in the randomness of nature and wonderfulness of people you become defensive, “will this person rob me? stab me? punch me? embarrass me?”

This is partly due to the easiness with which news media can dictate to us which kinds of people are good and which are bad because of our natural predisposition towards simplification. A person who is “unpredictable” is naturally a kind of person we fear because as a species to not know what is around the corner is scary. In literature and film an unpredictable character is good because we find him interesting and we know he can’t hurt us, in the real world even if he is interesting he can definitely do us harm. What the news and popular media can be held responsible for is presenting us with the characteristics of an unpredictable person, creating a lie that some people are not unpredictable, that some people are reliable. The guy with the raggedy jacket and the cigarette, the nail varnish and high-heeled boots who talks about the stars and the universe is clearly nuts and wants to stab and rape you, whereas the guy in the business suit with the tidy hair and the perfect smile, with the manicured out-stretched hand and the expected reaction to everything you say, he’s your friend. Even after he’s bankrupt your country and repossessed your house you can’t help but recoil from the hobo and greet the banker with a dignified salute.

As he was valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him

Playing games with words in this way on such a mass scale has a powerful effect, even when it manifests itself in such small individual and seemingly insignificant ways. There are parts of the United States where it is the greatest insult a person can think of to call another man “Socialist” (the same people believe Socialist and National Socialist are synonymous terms). This is where the simplification of the English language into “good” and “bad” becomes dangerous. In US politics and media the term “terrorist” has come describe any person on earth the government there wishes to imprison without due cause, because the level of fear they have attached to the word in the media has given the level of threat a person so labelled can cause a kind of hyper-reality, far beyond what the crazy guy in the café could ever pose.

The reason this is so prevalent is because we are never taught the art of critical thinking. People now are malleable, destined to be guided and manipulated by powerful people by convincing the masses they need not think, they just have to throw their chips in with us, the good, and curse everything said by them, the bad. The Catholic idea of the infallibility of the pope is this taken to its ultimate extreme. In fact all religion is based around this idea of good and evil, which is simply an abstract idea that holds no objective reality. It’s just as bad for people who should know better. People who consider themselves “liberal” and “educated” are just as prone to knee-jerk reactionism against words like “war” or “military-strikes”. It’s a convenience people afford themselves to not have to face and consider the issue at hand.

In the Capitalist system words help define attitudes towards business. A person who is “ambitious” is good, even if it is the ambitions of large insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies to make huge profits far exceeding what they need to survive at the expense of the people they are supposedly there to try and help. If ambition is good then a person who is not ambitious is bad, a person who is content with their lot must be seen in the eyes of a Capitalist society to be evil. What would happen if people started seeing a man who was perfectly happy to run a little corner shop in a city or town somewhere without either feeling the need to expand his enterprise or to fill in the gap in his life with possessions? The entire Capitalist system would collapse if people really realised happiness isn’t a commodity, and so at the expense of having everybody in a position that does their job well and competently and is satisfied in life, everybody must see themselves as a potential CEO of a major corporation. And if you don’t get that title, no worries, you can still afford the wide-screen televisions and the impractical car and the ridiculously expensive sparkling wine, just like the ambitious and successful. Just take out a loan with your bank, that’s “good”.

“Happiness” is another word that has damaged minds by being associated with “good”. “Are you happy?” a person asks as you stand waiting for the kettle to boil. “No” you reply, quite honestly, in this moment of anticipation as you think two minutes into the future to when you’ll be enjoying that cup of tea, maybe with a couple of bourbon creams on the side. “Aww,” the person says, a look of pure pity on her face, slurping a tasteless boutique coffee while an expensive hand-bag dangles on her arm, “that’s too bad.” If “happy” is “good” then “sad” is “bad”, but happiness and sadness are two complex emotions, and the feeling a person may get from watching a reality TV show, or from drinking a super jumbo sized coke or from buying a trendy piece of clothing is not happiness, it’s nothing, the absence of depression, but in Capitalism “nothing” is “good”. The difference between depression and sadness is that sadness is a feeling you get from true loss, a direct result of living that may make you feel very bad but is part of a swing, the other side of which is happiness, to which it always returns. Depression is the opposite of living. It’s the feeling that not only is that terrible feeling here now, but it is a result of no particular thing and there is no path you can take now or no thing that can happen that will get rid of it. Capitalism is an attempt to cover depression with possessions so that you feel “nothing” and mistake it for happiness. What better visualisation than the Irish propensity to buy alcohol in bulk and then drink to oblivion.

There is a place for the ideas of good and bad, but their complete dominion over the English language and the minds of the people who speak it needs to be diminished and reduced to two simple words: “good” and “bad”.