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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

An hysterically stupid Christmas

First, a H/T to Ophelia Benson.

Now, this piece by Mark Vernon rants about the "hysteria" surrounding Christmas this time round. What I find most obtuse here is that Vernon appears to have no idea of the meaning of the word "hysterical". He calls Dawkins an "hysterical" writer, when the exact opposite is true: Dawkins writes in a wry, measured way. He is usually quietly funny, and even the most (supposedly) extreme views that he puts forward are, in most cases, carefully qualified. Yes, he can sometimes be snarky or passionate, but "hysterical" is about the last word that can be applied to him by anyone who displays sufficient patience and fairness to read his work at length and with some objectivity. If Vernon thinks Dawkins is hysterical in tone, then he's tone deaf.

The trouble is that the other examples given by Vernon don't seem like examples of hysteria, either. There's no hysteria involved in businesse sending out cards to clients. It may be crass, hypocritical, or any number of other things. In some cases, where a business is small and has a base of committed customers who are largely known to the proprietor it may be a genuine expression of good will. But whatever it is, it's not hysterical.

Nor is it an example of hysteria if a church sends out Advent calendars. I'm as critical of the churches as anyone, but they are entitled to do what they do without being accused of "hysteria" on each occasion. Let's save the accusations of religious hysteria for genuine examples of the phenomenon (it's not as if examples are lacking, but printing Advent calendars doesn't count).

Perhaps Vernon means something like "frenetic" or "frenzied", or even just "busy" or "active". Certainly, there's a lot of activity around Christmas time, but activity is hardly the same as hysteria. Activity can be calm and controlled. Even when it becomes intense, focused, or urgent, that is not the same as hysteria. Even frenzy is not the same as hysteria, but the examples don't even seem like activity that's especially frenzied. Note: words actually do have meanings.

In fairness to Vernon, he offers a definition of "hysterical" as meaning something like "falsely active". But I don't see anything of the kind in Dawkins' writing. Nor do I see it in churches producing Advent calendars. He has his slightly unusual definition, but he seems to forget about it throughout.

My complaint about this piece is partly its unfairness in adding yet again to the meme that there's something over the top about Dawkins' ongoing critique of religion - a meme like that becomes "true" in the public imagination if it's repeated often enough, as it most certainly is. Once again - surprise ! surprise! - Dawkins is being treated unfairly. But it's partly, also, the sheer journalistic laziness and sloppiness involved in taking several disparate phenomena, slapping the sensationalist (dare I say "hysterical"?) word "hysterical" on each of them, and then pretending to have presented some sort of unified argument.

I'm sure Vernon can do better than this. Well, I sure hope he can.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

It should be "a hysterical" anyway.

critter said...

Isn't the term "hysterical" some sort of accusation of femininity?

Supertec said...

He can't. I'm used by now to his turgid wafflings in the Guardian.

What annoyed me more about his piece was the way he bemoans the fact that Christmas means nothing to the wider world - why should it? Pagan rituals observing the winter solstice presumably went on long before Christianity ever took a foothold in the Western world. Even if the ideal of Christmas never existed, there would be a need for some kind of communal celebration around this time of year, or at least it would be desirable for something along those lines to occur. It just so happens that the early Christians managed to jump on the winter festival bandwagon, and get their meme established.

Do they know it's Christmas time at all? Probably not, and it's not particularly important anyway.

Russell Blackford said...

Nah, anon, it's "an hysterical". The accent falls on the second syllable in "hysterical", so it takes "an".

It's "a history of Germany" but "an historical novel".

Eamon Knight said...

Nah, anon, it's "an hysterical". The accent falls on the second syllable in "hysterical", so it takes "an".

Oh gods, Russell: the useful things I learn reading your blog ;-)!

Jambe said...

Vernon's post seemed more cynical and depressing than anything else. I couldn't tell if it was just rhetoric or not, but there was also this current of "any Christmas is a bad Christmas" running through it, which is just silly. I'm an atheist, and much like Tim Minchin, I really like Christmas...

Mike Haubrich, FCD said...

@ critter - "Hysterical" has its roots in female irrationality related to the uterus, or the term does at any rate.

The critique of Dawkins being spittle-flecked and hysterical about any subject is a hyberbolic meme (ironic, eh?) regarding Dawkins. People don't like his clarity when it comes to religious criticism, and so they imbue him with outrageous traits. People have called him rude, trenchant and simply nasty when I have found him to be either very polite and engaging when I have met him, or distracted (to be fair I was asking for his autograph while he was on a cell phone call.)

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, I've met him twice ... and he was very kind and courteous on both occasions. The second time, he was indeed a bit distracted as he was in earnest conversation with Taslima Nasrin at the drinks table when I walked over to fill my glass. But immediately afterwards he went out of his way to approach me with a kind word.

Dawkins comes across as a true gentleman in real life, and it shows in his writing as well.

Anonymous said...

'Nah, anon, it's "an hysterical". The accent falls on the second syllable in "hysterical", so it takes "an".'

Alternatively, use 'a' before an 'h' if it's pronounced. So, use what you feel comfortable with.

Kiwi Dave

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, fair enough. But I hereby give everyone permission not to try to voice the "h" in "hysterical" or "historical".

Anonymous said...

'An' is used before a vowel sound, and last time I checked 'h' wasn't a vowel. Or do you pronounce it "issterical"? :)

Anonymous said...

Well I hate to continue a fairly pointless argument, but I can't say I've ever noticed someone _not_ voicing the 'h' in such words. What strange little pocket of Australia do you live in with such an accent? :)

Russell Blackford said...

Most people don't voice the "h" if the accent falls on the second syllable. They do, indeed, say "isterical display", "istorical novel", etc. It's actually quite difficult to voice the "h" in a phrase like "a historical novel" or "a hysterical display".

I assume that's the reason for the rule.

Russell Blackford said...

And Vernon is British - it's hardly an exclusively Australian thing.

Anonymous said...

So you all 'ave cockney accents do you? That's about the only explanation I can come up with...

Russell Blackford said...

This has drifted way off topic - besides as I understand a Cockney accent, they are more likely to say "a" than "an" because Cockneys favour the glottal stop. It's more standard kinds of English that don't use this and would prefer to say "an" wherever it's easier.

Richard Wein said...

I would say that "an hysterical" (or equivalent) is unusual these days here in Britain. I consider myself to be a speaker of RP British English--born and bred in London, in a middle-class, educated family and attended a public school--and I for one would never say (or write) "an hysterical". It's still heard occasionally, but I would say mostly from people who have retained (or cultivated) a somewhat old-fashioned way of speaking.

Russell Blackford said...

Okay, okay, that may be right.

Personally, I'd say "an historical novel" or "an historic event" because it's much easier to say quickly. I wonder whether trying to say "a historical novel" or "a historic event" (voicing the "h" on an unstressed syllable immediately after a vowel) isn't one of those misguided attempts to be "proper", like people who say "between you and I", rather than the more natural (and grammatically correct) "between you and me".

Still, can we get back to the real topic? :)

Eamon Knight said...

Still, can we get back to the real topic? :)

But we all agree already that Vernon is a twit. That being settled, it's much more fun to argue about arcane usage rules ;-).

Russell Blackford said...

Okay, Eamon - you're probably right. lol