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Blog - Blogue

  • The Art of Making Mistakes

    Friday, April 22, 2016
    Iva Apostolova

    Why are we so afraid of making a mistake? Like any fear, the fear of making a mistake is largely irrational, hence, difficult to control. Without being a Hobbesian, I have to admit, the old man was onto something in adjudicating that we, humans, are largely governed by fear and gain.

    The fear of making a mistake is a sub-species of the general fear of vulnerability, of exposing yourself to the harsh and cold world. And to be sure, the world can be harsh and cold. The irony, though, is that succumbing to the fear of vulnerability exposes us to something far worse and potentially destructive: the tyranny of perfectionism. That perfectionism that has to win an argument at all costs. That perfectionism that does not let us sleep at night over a sneeze in the presence of our boss. That perfectionism that turns us into the same petty-minded, judgmental people we feared in the first place. Perfectionism breeds power structures like nothing else does. The fear of making a mistake is the fear of being left behind in the race of winning and accumulating. In today’s culture of omnipresent certification and competence where one is valued by what they produce, not by who they are, making a mistake equals loss of status, potentially even loss of identity. 

    But if we shift the discourse from power to co-operation, we’ll see that making a mistake has important cognitive and heuristic, other than psychological, dimensions.  In making a mistake one realizes one’s limitations. Realizing one’s limitations, in turn, leads to opening up new horizons and in the end, increases both our cognitive capacity, as well as the sum total of knowledge.  

    Bertrand Russell defended the position that what philosophy holds over and above the sciences is the critical attitude toward one’s presuppositions and first principles, i.e., the engagement in the search for inconsistencies in one’s system of knowledge. Finding systemic errors fine-tunes the faculty of judgment, the one faculty which brings theory and practice together. It is precisely those mathematicians, Russell argued, who dared to imagine the falsehood of the established system, that were rewarded with the ‘discovery’ of non-Euclidean geometry. 

    Is there a better way of making a mistake then? Like everything else in life, being prepared helps. Anticipating mistakes and taking ownership of them creates a relaxed, even playful environment of interaction. Who would you trust with your thoughts and beliefs – an overachieving nit-picker, or a laid-back oddball? And if you’re feeling particularly brave one day, why not trip over yourself, literally I mean? Just for the fun of it. Don’t forget to put your hands out, though. You’ll see that the ground is not so bad from close-up and low-down.

  • Straight Outta Political Correctness

    Friday, April 08, 2016
    Iva Apostolova

    According to a few English dictionaries, a (politically) correct definition of political correctness runs along these lines: it is the avoidance of forms of expression or action perceived as excluding, insulting, or marginalizing groups or individuals who have been systematically socially disadvantaged or discriminated against in the past. So far so good. But how far should we take political correctness?

    I certainly appreciate not being forced to associate with the rather labor intensive work any administrative or academic assistant does, with women in short skirts, high heels, and mostly serving coffee to self-important men. I am also grateful for not having to provide my ‘maiden name’ on official government forms. The name given to me by my parents is the only name I have, regardless of who I choose to live with, under what conditions, and for how long. But does calling me ‘economically challenged’ make me less poor in my eyes or those of the world? I sincerely doubt that.

    As a self-proclaimed Austinian (as in the British philosopher of language, John Austin), I of all people understand the infinitely complex relationship between word definition and word use, on the one hand, and language, in general, and cultural, social, religious, and ethical norms, on the other. Linguistic expressions come and go all the time. The more widely spoken a language is, the more dynamic and nuanced the use of its words over time. So how does political correctness fit in all of this?

    What might help is thinking in terms of ‘rigid’ and ‘soft’ boundaries of word use. The n and the b words, for example, would fall within rigid boundaries and so, when used in the public space, they are to be invariably interpreted as racial and gender insults, and thus, penalized. But even then, one has to be aware of all the undercurrents which deem exceptions to the rule, and which may, one day, turn the rule itself into an exception.  In 2007, the New York City Council tried to ban the usage of the b word citing its “deeply sexist and hateful” connotation. The ban never came to fruition, partially because of the growing influence of the hip-hop/rap culture which has reclaimed the uses of the n and b words as forms of empowerment. Remember Nicki MInaj’s iconic remix of PTAF’s Boss Ass Bitch?

    At the same time, we might observe turning ‘policeman’ into ‘police officer’ or ‘mailman’ into ‘mail person’, presents us with a soft boundary of usage to indicate the present day gender diversity in what were traditionally male dominated professions. Soft boundaries are less contentious compared to rigid boundaries. No matter how soft or rigid the use of words is, however, when speaking, we always perform what Austin called locutionary acts. Like every act, speech acts have intention, execution, and consequence, and should be viewed within their proper context.

    What political correctness, when overused, threatens to do is eliminate the context as well as the intention of speech as important factors in interpreting the meaning of verbal expressions. The awareness of the rich nuances hidden in every word which political correctness brings to the table shouldn’t, however, turn into a mine field often facilitated and fueled by social media where any expression of opinion is being instantaneously trolled and thrashed.

    When a musician performing at a local school was asked to ‘rewrite’ the lyrics of John Lennon’s classic Imagine to omit ‘hell’, ‘heaven’ and ‘religion’, among other words, you know there’s something wrong with this picture…


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