Live Well, Do Good

More Than Ever, Words and Ideas Matter

Brandon Sun, March 19, 2018 – David McConkey

Since the dawn of the Trump era, I have been thinking more about words and ideas. Like: what would be the description of a man who is not a misogynistic bully, who is not ignorant, who is not a boor? I found I have been circling back in my mind to a classic word: a “gentleman.”
The word seems quaint and old-fashioned, but it could have some fresh resonance today. Men are getting a bad rap, not only by the example of Donald Trump, but also by the revelations of the #MeToo movement. The ideal of the gentleman could be a counterpoint to much bad publicity.

But let’s step back and take a broader perspective. Despite what we read in the news, humanity as a whole is actually behaving pretty well. Or at least: not too badly! In many ways, we are living better today than ever before – within our families, our communities, our countries, and our global village.

Scholars figure that a larger proportion of people are living more peacefully, more prosperously and more co-operatively than at any time in the past. Inhumane practices – like torture and corporal and capital punishment – are increasingly rejected. There is more choosing of science over superstition.

Yet, as the election of Trump shows, we cannot take progress for granted. And today’s environment – especially on social media – favours the spreading of bad ideas and the glorifying of bad behaviour.

There are multiple online sources of bad ideas. There are the thought leaders like Trump. Then there are many of us ordinary folks who are thoughtless as we click on and share internet crap. And there is much malicious content generated by anonymous trolls, extremist groups, conspiracy theorists, or “bots” from Putin’s Russia.

As well, there is a problem with the algorithms of the major internet companies. While they succeed in grabbing our attention, they are seducing us away from becoming more thoughtful, caring people. The structure of the internet is designed to inflame our emotions, feed our outrage, and nudge our views into being more extreme.

There is still another concern: that conversations about good ideas and good behaviours are in retreat. People who have good ideas and who behave well are shying away from the public square.

What are some examples of this retreating, this shying away? Well, folks refrain from praising values like responsibility, humility, respect, marriage and engaged citizenship – for fear of being thought of as old-fashioned.

Or: politicians pull back from endorsing criminal justice reform – for fear of being branded as soft on crime.

Or: school teachers downplay science, like not studying evolution – for fear of offending religion-believing students.

Or: people who support the #MeToo movement in the workplace hesitate to criticize sexist and abusive behaviour in other settings – for fear of being labelled as culturally insensitive.

OK, so what about my original musing about the word “gentleman”? According to the dictionary, a gentleman is “chivalrous, courteous, or honorable.” According to Google, the use of the word hit a high point in the early 1800s, then declined. It has enjoyed a small uptick in recent years.

Unfortunately, the word “gentleman” suffers from being gender-specific. The word will likely wither away, much as “gentlewoman” already has. The phrase, “ladies and gentlemen,” is already on life support. It is being phased out from public announcements, like on trains, buses and subways.

Words are abandoned or embraced to fit the times. Take the word “Ms.” First used in the early 17th century, “Ms” fell into disuse, then was revived in the 20th century.

Is there a good, non-gender-specific word for us to employ instead of “gentleman”? There is “gentleperson,” which is relatively new, used first in the mid 20th century. Perhaps we could bring back an older word, used first in the 16th century: “gentlefolk”?

We – and the language – will just have to work it out!

For now, though, in my mind I am going to occasionally savour the word – and the ideal of – a gentleman. In the midst of today’s disruptions, sometimes I seek comfort in reflecting on traditional virtues. You know, what was once lauded as “chivalrous, courteous, or honorable.”

I look forward to words evolving. I look forward to ideas and behaviours evolving, too. For the most part, I think this evolution can be in good directions. In the meantime, let’s remember that words – and ideas – matter.

Everyone: please join in the conversation.

* * * 

See also:

How Do You be a Good Person?

Moral Truth, Moral Progress and Moral Relativity

Exploring What's Lost in a Connected World

So Many Reasons to Appreciate Podcasts

One Last Look at a Wild and Wacky Year for Words

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