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Thursday, August 6, 2020

Mostly benign and well-intentioned thuggery

Muldoon isn't my favorite poet. But this quote is divine, in an unintentional way. I have to admire the phrase "a mostly benign and well-intentioned thuggery" and also the idea that "some ideas must be overstated to be stated at all." Alors! When was a thuggery ever benign? Maybe in the sense of a benign tumor:  
Outside observers should be sophisticated enough to understand that universities are socially and politically complex communities where faculty members don’t always say what they mean, especially when asked to sign on to a group letter with hundreds of their colleagues in a moment of national crisis. “Much as I’m averse to aspects of any letters signed by more than one person—chiefly that they represent a form of mostly benign and well-intentioned thuggery—I’m convinced we live in a moment where we have to be seen as being part of a solution to what is clearly a problem,” Muldoon told me elsewhere in his thoughtful email. “That means that, as in the case of the Princeton letter, some ideas may need to be overstated to be stated at all.”


Phaedrus said...

One of my favourite anecdotes, from physicist Edward Teller about Neils Bohr:

Some of us, including Bohr, were having a discussion about the spectrum and states of molecular oxygen. Bohr had some opinions, the details of which I have now forgotten, but which were in obvious conflict with the facts that were known. In this special detailed case, I knew the situation and tried to explain it. Unfortunately I could not do so to Bohr’s satisfaction.

He began his objection: “Teller, of course, knows a hundred times more about this than I.” With a lack of politeness occasionally seen among twenty-year-olds, I interrupted (with some difficulty): “That is an exaggeration.”

Bohr instantly stopped and stared at me. After a pause, he declared, “Teller says I am exaggerating. Teller does not want me to exaggerate. If I cannot exaggerate, I cannot talk. All right. You are right, Teller. You know only ninety-nine times more than I do.” He then proceeded with his original argument having dispensed with any possibility of further interruption.

I have never forgotten, nor have I often neglected to mention, Bohr’s wisdom: *If you cannot exaggerate, you cannot talk.*


from Niels Bohr: A Centenary Volume, edited by A. P. French and P. J. Kennedy, Harvard U. Press, 1985.

Jonathan said...

Right. But with the hyperbolic speaker we automatically discount, translating their speech into more understated proportions. The hyperbole is meant for rhetorical, emotional effect. Hyperbole, after all, is a trope. Could there be things that had to be understated to be stated at all?

Leslie B. said...

In fact, in much university communication it is saying anything, no matter how understated, that matters, since most will say nothing. Understatement can also be effective in its own ways.

But for this issue it is the overstatement that is more effective.