A Curmudgeon Rerun: Whatever
"Whatever" originally ran on February 12th, 2018
Throughout the works of Shakespeare (William, that is, not Ralph), we see countless examples of characters verbally sparring back and forth over any number of topics. And in those exchanges, the character who makes the more persuasive argument (by presenting stuff like logic, facts, common sense, precedent, proof, and so on) wins. Period. Mind you, they do go at it for a while before they get there. But that's because there wasn't much else to do. Remember, this was before YouTube.
Still, what’s particularly noteworthy about these exchanges is not only the masterful repartee, but also the shared set of principles for debating—namely: reason is king, statements must be supported, and once something is proven beyond question, it cannot be denied. If it turns out the other guy is clearly right, you can’t just say "no" or "I don’t see it that way" or "agree to disagree." The out-argued debater must concede and adopt the other's point of view. Because in those exchanges, reason wins. That’s why there’s a lot of "canst thou deny?" and "I grant thee" stuff. Back in Shakespeare's time (still talking about William, not Ralph), it seems, folks loved to engage in these verbal wrestling matches. Sometimes, in fact, his characters spar like this just as for sport, to flex their debating muscles. This was the Words with Friends of its day. That's why you find crazy conversations along the lines of:
Good night to thee, most trusted friend and true.
What, night, say'st thou? Why surely tis the day.
How day, when yonder glows the noble moon?
Why tis the sun, or else tis moon most strange.
If moon, then surely tis a kind of day moon,
Behold how bright its beams do make the world.
It cannot be ought but day. Say'st not so?
Hast thou not sense to know what tis the time?
Why, all the world's asleep e'en as we feud.
Though sundial have I none, my senses do
Inform me that 'tis day, for I am wake'd.
And on they'll go like that, until someone proves conclusively whether it's day or night. (In case you couldn't tell instantly, this passage was clearly written by Ralph, not by William.)
This used to be how it was. And these standards remained in place for a good long time. Even as recently as a few decades ago, you could only win that kind of debate through a series of intelligent exchanges. And to have such an exchange, you had to listen as well as speak, so you could know what you were disagreeing with and say why. Doesn't that sound great? How I wish we'd preserved those standards for use in our current disputes.
But then came one of the worst trends of word abuse in the history of the English language: the endowment of the word
"whatever" with the mystical power to triumph in a conversation without presenting any reasoning at all. People started using it in place of sensible observations, saying in essence “I win because I don’t care which conclusion is more accurate.” And it was applied liberally, to all sorts of issues:
"Excuse me, the sign in your window is wrong."
"You were supposed to pick me up an hour ago."
"That thing you said hurt my feelings."
"We're sinking because of the hole you knocked in the boat."
Just like the meaningless "that's your opinion," the stunningly rapid spread of the "whatever" philosophy meant that we were done concerning ourselves with accuracy, logic, facts, traditions, or truth. At the very least, they were no longer absolute requirements.
"Whatever" is a dangerous weapon, because it's all but impossible to defeat. You could protest, "No. Not 'whatever;' a specific thing is required that is correct as opposed to incorrect." You could say that. And the person to whom you're making your case might simply respond "whatever" again . . . and you'd be right back to the insanity of this philosophical black hole.
"Whatever" became a verbal trump card. It trumped accuracy, responsibility, consideration, and even the most well-argued of points. And now it seems we've reaped what we've sown. You could say we've trumped ourselves real good.
You know, people sometimes scoff at my curmudgeonly insistence on protocols, my championing of long-standing behavioral norms—the societal agreements that can keep us at least somewhat aligned with each other. But look what the free-form, cavalier philosophy of the Whatever Generation has wrought. We now have a "whatever" president, one who recklessly redefines words that once had reliable definitions—words like "true" and "fake" and "treason"—as well as obscuring the meanings of terms like "politically correct" through misuse, because . . . you know . . . whatever; close enough. He denies things we've seen with our own eyes and refers to proven, vetted, provable facts as inconclusive theories. Well . . . whatever . . . right?
This Whatever Generation, a generation that has reframed linguistic accuracy as silly and stuffy, that has given itself the freedom to spell and punctuate any way they please and has developed a true contempt for a heretofore shared baseline for average, everyday manners, etiquette, and respect for tradition, set the stage, I believe, for a president who, like them, flouts manners, etiquette, and tradition. His behavior is unprecedented. He uses profanity in his speeches, skips the White House Correspondents' Dinner, skips the Kennedy Center Honors, refuses to release his taxes, calls people childish and demeaning names, declines to shake Chancellor Merkel's hand. None of these are crimes. But as violations of tradition go, they're outrageous.
And what support does he offer for his statements? Usually nothing more than "believe me, folks" or "a lot of people have told me" or simply, "fake news." So much for the fine art of the well-reasoned debate.
A mere few years ago, this person could not have gotten elected to anything. But now . . . whatever.
I believe this would be an excellent time to rekindle our once-hot romance with "stuffy" concepts like having to prove one's point, like cherishing traditions, taking pride in good decorum, relishing accuracy. That would be just the right defense against the dangers of "whatever." It starts with practices like looking up words, making ourselves punctuate correctly, being a bit more mannerly (just a bit, that's all), and reasoning with the person with whom we're disagreeing. It starts with a return to the idea that there are absolute truths and falsehoods, rights and wrongs, and correct and incorrect ways of doing things. Honestly, these practices aren't hardships, they're weapons, against the slippery slope of whateverness that has failed to deliver on its promises of freedom and individuality.