Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Essential Latin Phrases for Our Broken World

First, a short personal story.

I took two years of high school German (mostly because I didn't want to take Spanish) and barely passed. Our high school German teacher was not particularly adept at (a) teaching, and/or (b) dealing with high school students.

Fast forward to college, where I took another semester of German... and even with those two years in high school, barely eked out a "C". Knowing that it wasn't going to get better the farther I went, I made a semi-momentous decision.

I took Latin.

And I was pretty good at it - not A+ material, but I liked that (a) we got to read interesting passages, and (b) that there's no such thing as conversational Latin. It's also pretty cool that you sound so dang intelligent when you drop Latin phrases into conversation.

Now, on to the point of this blog post.

In the wild & crazy times in which we live, there are some important bits of Latin that can assist you in making wise decisions about who and what to believe. I provide these for you to (a) sound like a Harvard professor on sabbatical, and (b) help you think carefully about what you re-post, forward, or promote.

Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate.

The direct translation is "plurality should not be posited without necessity." You may know it better as Occam's Razor.

No, not that razor.

It's more commonly phrased as "the simplest explanation is most likely the right one". It's an excellent tool for evaluating claims people and organizations make, particularly about controversial subjects.

For example, if a theory about something relies on the cooperation of multiple news organizations, social media platforms, portions of the federal government, health care professionals and researchers from around the world to suppress information of possible public benefit, that theory runs up against Occam's Razor.

A related & helpful aphorism (not in Latin) is Hanlon's Razor: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity". Or, if you want to get literary and slightly less acerbic, "Misunderstandings and lethargy perhaps produce more wrong in the world than deceit and malice do. At least the latter two are certainly rarer." (Goethe)

Cui bono?
No, not that Bono.

Better known in English as "Who benefits?"... or, more accurately, "to whom is it a benefit?"
Along with the parallel questions, cui prodest? ("whom does it profit?") and ad cuius bonum? ("for whose good?"), it suggests that understanding the motive for a particular post/meme/news article is an important part of sussing out its veracity.

Note: there's a reason I led with Occam's Razor... because taken in isolation, "follow the money" (colloquial English rendering of cui bono?) is often used by conspiracy theorists to justify full-on craziness.

Fere libenter homines id quod volunt credunt.

Attributed to Julius Caesar in his De Bello Gallico (The Gallic Wars)...

...no, not that Caesar.

Anyway, it's translated variously as "Men generally believe what they want to" or "Men willingly believe what they wish." I particularly like the paraphrase "People's beliefs are shaped largely by their desires."

You probably have heard of this referred to as "confirmation bias" - Wikipedia defines that as "the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information that confirms or supports one's prior beliefs or values." The fact that Julius mentioned it in a history book back in the day means it's not a new problem.

An important safety check when reading news articles and social media posts is to ask yourself, "How badly do I want this to be true?" Particularly in difficult times, we long for stories that assuage our fears or topple those with whom we already disagree. That can lead us to believe something or someone we might otherwise dismiss. 

Related thought from author Anne Lamott: "You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do." 

So What?

Which, translates into Latin as "ita quod". But that misses the point.

I want to encourage you to think carefully and thoughtfully about your engagement on social media. Ask yourself the tough questions:
  • is the theory being espoused overly complicated and/or reliant on extensive conspiracies?
  • who actually benefits from me believing and/or sharing this particular narrative?
  • does this theory/narrative fit so neatly into my preconceived notions of how the world works and/or who I distrust that I am predisposed to believe it? 
Allow me a final bit of Latin for my evangelical friends:
...audi consilium et suscipe disciplinam ut sis sapiens in novissimis tuis... 
"Take good counsel and accept correction— that’s the way to live wisely and well." (Proverbs 19:20 MSG)

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