A reckoning without redemption doesn’t do much good. Why bother preaching if you don’t take converts?
“Reflection is the beginning of reform.” — Mark Twain
There are a few notable ways in which the intricacies and vagaries of the English language have not stood modern society in good stead.
Translations can sometimes be very tricky; translations across vast swaths of space and time, even more so. One language isn’t an exact, perfect code for another, with easy one-to-one word substitutions.
In all language, as in the English language, context is paramount. A bit of missed context here, a small misunderstanding there, and all meaning can easily become lost in translation.
History is filled with examples.
For instance, when Spanish Conquistadores asked inhabitants of what today we call the Yucatan Peninsula, “What do you call this place?”, they received an answer: “Yucatan”.
One problem: “Yucatan” wasn’t the geographical name of the region- at all. The answer, “Yucatan,” meant something like, “We don’t understand what you’re saying,” or probably closer to, “Hear how they talk.”
In some cases, we moderns suffer from what can only be considered major mistranslations. For instance, from the Sanskrit word “Bhavana” we have derived the modern English word “Meditation”.
Only in Sanskrit, Bhavana didn’t mean anything close to “meditation”, or, “thinking”, or “cogitation” or any other English word referring to thought processes or mental clarity.
Bhavana meant “cultivation”; specifically, “cultivation of the land.”
Imagine how differently English-speaking students of meditation would approach the concept if it were understood to mean “cultivation of the mind”. Instead, ask the average English-speaker to describe “meditation” and be prepared to receive answers about thinking and clearing the mind of thought.
Logos was another unfortunate victim of modern English. In ancient Greece, “logos” meant “love of God”. Today, our English word “logos” refers to something closer to, “love of cool stuff.”
Another example: The ancient Greek word for “sin” (Hamartia) and the ancient Hebrew word for “sin” (Hata) meant simply “to miss the mark”.
The word “sin” is fraught; ask 100 people what “sin” means to them, be prepared for 100 different answers.
On the other hand, everyone understands what it means to “miss the mark”.
We’ve all missed the mark. Each one of us is but a product of the time and place in which we grew up, the family who raised or failed us, the education we received, the life situations and circumstances we’ve endured.
Most of us are on our best day nothing more than amalgamations of the sub-variants of our own unique personalities. We should really think of ourselves as a collection of disparate characters poorly running a committee.
How are we today? That depends.
When a stranger is rude to us in public, how we react depends on a near infinite number of variables. Did we get enough sleep last night? Are we reeling from bad news from the office? Or from the doctor’s office?
Did we eat fast food last night?
“To know all is to forgive all,” opined Aristotle once upon a time. Though he wasn’t referring to the vast and terrible power of social media, Aristotle should really have been onto something.
To really understand our fellows, to truly grasp the hard battles being fought daily by our neighbors, coworkers, friends and family members should have softened us to their plight.
“I thought once everyone could freely exchange ideas, the world would automatically become a better place,” one Twitter founder famously mused. “I was wrong about that.”
Instead of softening us, having more information about our fellow human beings has often produced the opposite effect. We haven’t discovered more people to love and more reasons to love and forgive them; we have perverted social media to find more people to hate, more reasons to hate them and more excuses to write them off as irredeemable.
At the heart of these modern day trials and travails are disagreements, differences of opinion, misunderstandings, judgements and generalizations. We call this old phenomenon by its new name: Cancel culture.
Thus far, giving in to the excesses of cancel culture has not produced a more fair or equitable society, it hasn’t brought humanity closer together, or closer to any ideal of philosophical or moral perfection.
Instead, it has served to isolate and alienate many who would benefit most from acceptance into the fold of polite society. Worse, it has conferred on its fiercest adherents an undeserved sense of superiority. Cancel culture has made figures who would have otherwise faded into obscurity into cult heroes.
The siren song of cancel culture- the idea that the world will become a better place if certain people can be made to shut up forever- has seduced too many otherwise sensible people into thinking themselves the highest moral authorities and cultural arbiters of society.
“I think we have gotten very comfortable discarding human beings, immediately tossing them away and making them irredeemable characters,” popular liberal television host Trevor Noah said during a recent interview. “When in fact, I think all of us should be afforded the opportunity to redeem ourselves. All of us should have an opportunity at redemption.”
Though he didn’t refer to cancel culture by name, Noah seems to have joined a growing rank of celebrated and elected Democrats who are sounding the alarm about the dangerous excesses of cancel culture.
“I think sometimes instead of listening, we delivered scorn, we became too good at only talking to people who already agree with us,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney told the New York Times last week. “I want us to be more generous and less judgmental. And I think we’ll do better and have more capacity to bring about the kind of change that we all believe in.”
Maloney might have a good point.
The study of ancient religions, like the study of ancient languages and their most glaring mistranslations, is an exercise in discovering lost treasure.
For instance, the Ten Commandments- with which most of us are at least passing familiar from the three major Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam- were probably originally part of a much longer edict called the Code of Hammurabi.
The Code of Hammurabi contained a whopping 282 rules, complete with fines and punishments. Hammurabi’s extremely complex code probably played a role in shaping the laws and customs of Ancient Egypt.
The Ancient Egyptians, adherents of such a strict and complex moral code, would have no trouble recognizing the purpose of cancel culture 2022.
An ancient Egyptian facing the afterlife expected their heart to be weighed against a feather, and not just any feather- the feather of truth, of Ma’at, of all righteousness, justice and fairness.
If the heart was found to be heavier than the feather of Ma’at, it would be thrown to devouring crocodiles.
Who among us today would dare allow their heart to be weighed thusly? Would anyone be so utterly free of guilt as to survive the process?
Perhaps someone who has never, ever missed the mark would dare cast the first stone. For the rest of us, perhaps we should be thinking twice before jumping on the bandwagon of cancel culture.
“Human beings are a paradox,” as Trevor Noah said. “We can love people who we hate, we can hate people who we love. Human beings as a whole are complicated paradox. And so, I don’t like to live in a world where we constantly discard human beings like pieces of trash.”
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)