A Class of Words

Obviously you know what I’m talking about. Obviously you understand; obviously you share the same views as I do. It’s obvious. I don’t need to explain myself, nor do I need to engage you or co-opt your viewpoint, because it’s obvious. I don’t even need to question my assumptions, because it is so fundamentally obvious what I am saying. It is a universally held opinion; a self-evident truth.

Do you like it when people start a sentence with the word “Obviously”? I don’t – it tends to mean one of two things, in my view: Option A is that they want to get some idea written straight in to the common consensus, whether it belongs there or not; Option B is that they’ve made an assumption. I see Option A as manipulative and Option B as a failure of imagination. Feel free to disagree with me.

There is no such thing as obvious. It is not even particularly obvious that day follows night, otherwise children would spot it far earlier than they do. As human beings we sometimes lack ego to such an extent that we subconsciously seem to think “I’m stupid, so the fact that I know something must make it really obvious”. It’s not true; you’re not that stupid; have more faith in your own abilities.

Clearly I am alone in this view. Clearly everyone else disagrees with me. Clearly it is perfectly clear what “obviously” means, and that is that it is a piece of punctuation. Clearly it is just a filler word we put in our speech to get a sentence going. It’s clear that that’s what is going on. It is in front of you, as clear as day, so it must be apparent to you. Is that clear? Clarity is very important to me you see.

Is “clearly” just another word for “obviously”? Possibly. I would contend, rather that it is more of a member of the same class of words: Assumptive Words. Words which attempt to convey a world-order and a sense of universal knowledge which is just not real. If we agree that which is clear, we agree a common set of assumptions, and a basis for our discourse. It is not always quite so easy.

If I say “clearly…” to you at the start of a sentence, it dares you to disagree with me. I have said that it is clear; therefore it is obvious; therefore it is beyond contention. Yet everything is a product of our own perception: from the way our eyes perceive colour to the personal experiences we have each had, we all see the world differently to each other. Nothing is clear when you see differently.

Normal rules do not apply. Normal is safe. Normal is what we aspire to. Normal is the truth of all things. I couldn’t tell you what normal looks like, but I certainly could tell you what it is not. Normal doesn’t stick out like a splinter in an otherwise smooth bannister. Normal is the flow. Being the same as everybody else is not just normal, it is natural, it is essential for the development of our species.

“Normal” assumes so much, but means so little. In reality the only thing which is normal is your own set of experiences. Everyone lives such different lives from each other that it should come as no surprise that normal is different for everyone. Yet, there are such commonality in the range of life’s experience that some people will always assume that there is only one mode of existence: Normal.

A takeaway on a Friday night; watching Ant and Dec on a Saturday; giving young children sweets and chocolate; assigning gender roles; boys don’t cry; women shouldn’t be as capable as men: These are all considered normal to a great swath of the population of the UK. They are as far from normal as living in a house where a horse shits on the floor. They’re only normal if you grow up with them.

Everyone washes every day. Everyone likes Frank Sinatra. Everyone thinks that the monarchy should be abolished after the Queen dies. I’m just the same as everyone else; I mind my own business. You can’t say that: everyone knows it’s not true. Everyone buys this brand, so it must be the best. I wish everyone would stop saying such horrible things all of the time: it’s just not fair. Everyone agrees.

The problem is that “Everyone” is a pretty large group of people, and once you get past one or two people we become very hard to generalise. “Everyone” assumes one of two things. Thing one is that the group of everyone is actually rather small. Our family or friendship group for instance. Thing two is that human beings – or a subset thereof – are utterly homogeneous in their defining mores. No.

We need to celebrate the individuality of thought; we need to realise that words mean different things to different people; we need to stop assuming that everyone in the world thinks like we do. Just because you assert that “Everyone knows” something does not mean that it is even remotely true. What it does mean, however, is that I have stopped listening to anything you have to say.

I feel happy. I feel sad. I feel a pain in my chest, so I must be dying. I feel lonely, I feel bored and I feel angry. I feel a very strong sense that something is not right, and I will not be shaken from that feeling by anything. I feel very strongly that I am going to succeed: that feeling is all that I need to get me through any challenges I face. I feel the warmth of God’s grace all around me, and I know I am saved.

No one has ever said that feelings are the same as knowledge, but a lot of people who write down their thoughts, or speak them out loud on our screens, seem to be committed to the notion that to feel something is more important than to know it. It trumps the notion quite hard in their opinions. It is why we have political movements which attack expertise, and why talent shows are horseshit.

If the cold hard facts are the black and white of this world, feelings are the colour. One without the other just looks odd: undefined or sterile. Just because I feel scared does not mean that I have any reason to do so. Yet, without the fear of being caught in lava, or a volcanic eruption, the imagination of my daughter would still be locked inside her head. I feel that would be a bad place for her to live.