Meanings: “Stuff”

November 12, 2014

“Here’s how I define ‘stuff’,” writes personal productivity coach David Allen: “anything you have allowed into your psychological or physical world that doesn’t belong where it is, but for which you haven’t yet determined the desired outcome and the next action step” (Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity, 2001, p 17).  That’s an interesting definition: ‘stuff’ is not everything I own. A book I’ve read and enjoyed is no longer making a diffuse claim on me and so is no longer ‘stuff’. A book I’ve taken out of the library but haven’t yet started to read is ‘stuff’ especially if I think I should read it. A phone call I haven’t returned is ‘stuff.’ My unfinished bathroom is ‘stuff.’ To get properly organized, you have to wade through your stuff in some constructive way, turning stuff into accomplishments.

Allen’s definition isn’t the dictionary’s, which defines “stuff” as “matter, material, articles, or activities of a specified or indeterminate kind that are being referred to, indicated, or implied.” That’s broader, quite broad, actually. Allen’s definition gets at the emotional overlay. When we refer to something as “stuff” we mean to refer to the things that are nagging at us in some way, the things we haven’t dealt with. It gets at what we mean when we say ‘I can’t go have fun with you, I have too much stuff to do.’

Reading Allen (who I’m reading because he was praised by Atul Gawande), I found myself wondering where the word came from. I realized there are both a noun form (whatever we are talking about) and a verb form (putting something inside of something else). But what was the origin? Etymology.com provides this:

stuff (n.)   early 14c., “quilted material worn under chain mail,” from Old French estoffe “quilted material, furniture, provisions” (Modern French étoffe), from estoffer “to equip or stock,” which according to French sources is from Old High German stopfon “to plug, stuff,” or from a related Frankish word (see stop (v.)), but OED has “strong objections” to this.

Sense extended to material for working with in various trades (c.1400), then “matter of an unspecified kind” (1570s). Meaning “narcotic, dope, drug” is attested from 1929. To know (one’s) stuff “have a grasp on a subject” is recorded from 1927.

Quilted material under chain mail: of course! That image links the noun and the verb forms. You put stuff (whatever!) under chain mail, and that act is an act of stuffing. Hence we stuff a turkey or we have too much stuff in our closets.

However we consider “stuff,” there does seem to be more of it these days. The NGram makes the late 1940s and ‘50s look good doesn’t it? Maybe they were a simpler time.

Ngram stuff

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Meanings: “Clique”

October 3, 2014

I skipped over the questions that asked “Favorite PHS Memory” and “Worst PHS Memory.” They were asking about my years at Penfield High School (suburban Rochester, New York), 1960 to 1964. Do the math and you’ll see this is my 50th reunion year. We’re celebrating this weekend.

I didn’t answer the questions because I certainly didn’t want to write anything about my worst memory, and I do have a few. (I also certainly have some very good memories of friends and teachers, and of a few moments of triumph, including my high school’s first perfect score on an Earth Science Regents exam.)

One classmate wrote a single word in response to “Worst PHS Memory:” “cliques.” That word rocketed me back to the early 1960s. I can’t remember using or hearing the word since then, but that surely was the word we used often to describe all the smallish, exclusive sets of people who hung out with each other–and only with each other. There was a strong status hierarchy among these “cliques.” You were nobody if you weren’t in one of those special cliques.

Where did that word come from, I wondered. here’s the etymology:

clique (n.)Look up clique at Dictionary.com1711, “a party of persons; a small set, especially one associating for exclusivity,” from obsolete French clique, originally (14c.) “a sharp noise,” also “latch, bolt of a door,” from Old French cliquer “click, clatter, crackle, clink,” 13c., echoic. Apparently this word was at one time treated in French as the equivalent of claque(q.v.) and partook of that word’s theatrical sense.

So it is French in origin and derived from a sound. And may be derived from “claque.” Here’s the etymology on that:

claque (n.) Look up claque at Dictionary.com1860, from French claque “band of claqueurs,” agent noun from claquer “to clap” (16c.), echoic (compare clap (v.)). Modern sense of “band of political followers” is transferred from that of “organized applause at theater.” Claqueur “audience member who gives pre-arranged responses in a theater performance” is in English from 1837.

This method of aiding the success of public performances is very ancient; but it first became a permanent system, openly organized and controlled by the claquers themselves, in Paris at the beginning of the nineteenth century. [Century Dictionary]

I had wondered whether the sound of a latch indicated a shutting out of some people, but apparently not.

The Google Ngram picture is fascinating, too:

Screen Shot 2014-10-03 at 9.32.55 AM

Over time, “clique” was most common in English right about the time I was in high school and its use declines sharply after that. “Claque” has never been a term as commonly used. And “cabal,” another term for a loosely organized group, shows a steady decline in usage.

Among my classmates I’ve seen that the “cliques” are less in evidence as we’ve gathered for previous reunions. But the memories linger, and that word summons those memories.

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Graham Spanier’s Responsibility

July 24, 2014

This week’s New York Times Magazine has a profile of Graham Spanier, the former president of Penn State who was dismissed or fired (there are opposing claims about which) as a consequence of the revelations that Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator for the PSU football team, was a serial child molester. Spanier is now under indictment for failing to do more to stop Sandusky. Sandusky will be in prison the rest of his life.

(I wrote earlier about the Penn State case here, here, here and here.)

In the print version the profile, by Michael Sokolove, is entitled “The Shadow of the Valley,” a reference to the Penn State campus being widely known as Happy Valley, and Spanier’s virtual house exile within this kingdom he once ruled. Sokolove mostly offers a portrait of Spanier today: once a 16-year, very successful, roundly liked and admired president, now a president laid low. (Online, the article is titled “The Trials of Graham Spanier, Penn State’s Ousted President.”) But Sokolove also raises pointedly the question of whether Spanier should be criminally prosecuted for his failure. Sokolove has quite critical things to say about the follow-up investigation of the Sandusky matter by Louis Freeh, which was commissioned by the Penn State Board of Trustees, and equally critical things to say about the use of that investigation by the Board, the NCAA, and the prosecutors. (Sokolove references positively the subsequent report by Dick Thornburgh that was commissioned by the Paterno family.)

The most surprising revelation is that Spanier himself was physically abused as a child: beaten repeatedly and cruelly by his father. The implication is that Spanier of all people would have done more had he even a glimmer of what Sandusky had done. Sokolove says that these beatings led Spanier to want to be apart from his father as much of every day as possible, and thus led to Spanier’s ferocious appetite for working hard.

The other wing of the case for not pursuing criminal charges against Spanier is that he was at a considerable remove from the Sandusky matter. True, he was copied on some key e-mails and true, he engaged in some conversations about how the case should be handled (all this, well before the fullness of Sandusky’s behavior was known), but (the article suggests), Spanier did as well as he could with what he knew and the time he had to devote to the matter. “The life of a university president is you have things coming at you all day long,” Spanier is quoted as saying. “It’s one crisis after another, one issue after another.”

Certainly someone in a position of responsibility at Penn State should have done much more, and much earlier. Early allegations against Sandusky were never pursued vigorously and they should have been. Every allegation of abuse or rape in a community should be actively pursued.

In the Penn State case, I suspect that Sandusky was protected by the cocoon of normalcy that leads most people most of the time to dismiss out of hand indications of predatory behavior. They simply can’t believe someone they know (someone who seems like such a regular guy) could be guilty of anything so heinous. Their eyes must be deceiving them. The rumors couldn’t be true. No one does anything because they can’t even imagine the possibility of such wrongdoing

One of the arts of leadership is to carry a double image of the people you work with. You need to simultaneously believe that the people around you are capable of much better performance than they are currently showing, AND also could be guilty of much worse behavior than you can bear imagining. Both possibilities are there all the time. It’s a burden to think that way, but you must. When there are glimmerings of evidence of the rare, horrible possibility, you must pursue them. (As someone himself abused, perhaps Spanier was not vulnerable to the cocoon of normalcy: he knew what people could do at their worst.)

Beyond the ‘cocoon of normalcy’ that leads most people to overlook predatory behavior when it is near them, I also believe that the culture of big-time athletics (especially football) at Penn State created a bias against seeing anything wrong. How could anything be wrong with the Joe Paterno-coached football program? It was the very paragon of virtue in Division One NCAA athletics. Football success allowed Penn State to prosper, but it also insulated the program from ever being scrutinized in the ways we should expect.

Spanier certainly bought into Penn State’s athletic culture. Before he became president—before he accepted those responsibilities—he had to know that the football program was beyond his ability to supervise. PSU Football had become a world unto itself even as it garnered money and reputation for the university. When Spanier became president, he accepted responsibility for what that might mean. In this case, it meant Sandusky and the lives he ruined.

Is Graham Spanier one who is responsible? I believe he certainly should have lost his position. Should he be criminally prosecuted? I don’t know enough to say whether I agree with Sokolove.

The question of whether Spanier should be prosecuted for actions he failed to take is an interesting one. Much more interesting for me is whether Penn State University and its peers among American universities can rescue themselves from the culture of big-time athletics, which steadily undermines the essential values of education and sometimes ruins lives. Also interesting is the question of how leaders can learn to see beyond the cocoon of normalcy.

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Meanings: “Baffle”

July 24, 2014

Reading something, I paused recently on the verb “baffle.” In one usage, it means to confuse. In another it means to soften or mute a sound. Assuming they were connected, I wondered which usage came first. Was one a metaphorical extension of the other?

Etymology.com has this surprising entry about “baffle”, which indicates that both derive from yet another usage:

baffle (v.): 1540s, “to disgrace,” perhaps a Scottish respelling of bauchle “to disgrace publicly” (especially a perjured knight), which is probably related to French bafouer “to abuse, hoodwink” (16c.), possibly from baf, a natural sound of disgust, like bah (compare German baff machen “to flabbergast”).

The entry goes on to say that the meaning “to bewilder, confuse” is from 1640s; and that of “to defeat someone’s efforts” is from 1670s.”

“Baffle” as a noun meaning a “shielding device,” is recognized from1881, derived from the verb form, and thus, I suppose, we now use “baffle” also as a verb to mean softening or muting a sound.

But all of this coming from an earliest usage meaning “to disgrace!” What a thought: when we baffle someone, we are disgracing them.

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Protests Over Commencement Speakers

May 14, 2014

Christine Lagarde (IMF Chief) has withdrawn as Smith’s commencement speaker, Condoleeza Rice (W’s Secretary of State) has withdrawn as Rutgers’s speaker, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (women’s rights activist and critic of Islam) had her invitation to speak at Brandeis withdrawn. These are just the headline instances of protests succeeding in dismissing commencement speakers. At Haverford, my own alma mater, Robert Birgeneau (former University of California Chancellor) withdrew rather than meet a series of student demands.

My son writes to ask what I think “about this type of protest, employed at Haverford (and Rutgers, Smith, etc.).”  he adds, “It strikes me that, at its best, a commencement is a university’s last chance to teach its graduating students. That is, it’s the ultimate teaching and learning experience. And maybe some students would learn a great deal from Birgenau, Rice, or Lagarde. But isn’t the expected total learning of all students highest under the prevailing circumstances, in which students voice principled opposition to (or support for!) particular speakers who represent, fairly or unfairly, the state of national and world affairs? And all that’s aside from the fact that these public figures in fact deserve to face the crucible of public opinion.”

I gather he thinks these successful protests are justified, and he may well suspect I don’t since I’ve forcefully spoken out against efforts to silence Bill Kristol and decried efforts to deny a podium to Charles Murray while I was as at Earlham.  (Some of my earlier posts on speakers and academic freedom are here here, and here.)

About these instances, I think, first, that potential speakers, once invited to speak at a college or university, ought to be supported. That is, they should not only be permitted to speak but encouraged and assured that the institution will not tolerate any efforts to chase them away. If a speaker chooses to withdraw nevertheless, the college or university should express its regret.  Institutions of higher education must solidly affirm the giving and taking of arguments. That value (academic freedom) trumps efforts to have them teach any particular point of view.

Second, though, I believe the practice of inviting commencement speakers is a bad idea. Rarely if ever should students or faculty find themselves compelled to hear a speaker to whom they object. They ought frequently to find themselves with opportunities to hear such speakers, even encouraged to attend, but they should not be required to take advantage of them. The practice of inviting speakers who may be controversial is justifiable only if members of the university community can absent themselves. A commencement, on the other hand, is an occasion that all graduating seniors are expected to attend, and one that their parents would scarcely want to miss. At Earlham, the graduating class asks a faculty member, not an outsider, to address them. The seniors hear advice from a friend, not a potentially objectionable stranger.

In regretting Lagarde’s withdrawal, Smith’s President, Kathleen McCartney, said “An invitation to speak at a commencement is not an endorsement of all views or policies of an individual or the institution she or he leads.”  She should have said that, as she should say that about any speaker invited to speak at her college.  An invitation to speak is a warrant from someone that the speaker ‘deserves a hearing’ not that she ‘has truths to be swallowed whole.’ Nevertheless, inviting a speaker to give a commencement address is about as close as a college can come to endorsing a speaker’s views.  It is a captive audience, and a speaker has been chosen to (presumably) impart life lessons. If an honorary degree is to be conferred, that only underscores the endorsement of views.

I much prefer a speaker policy that decentralizes who offers opportunities to speak. Any academic department ought to be able to issue invitations. So ought recognized student organizations. The university should then stand behind the integrity of the opportunity to speak: the institution’s claim not to be endorsing the speaker’s views is then much more credible. When the institution itself issues the invitation for a compulsory (or nearly so) event, it is harder to claim that no endorsement of the speaker’s views is implied.

Why not a commencement speaker to whom no one would object? Hardly. Wouldn’t that be a recipe for dullness or mediocrity?

I fully support students finding forceful ways to voice their opposition to speakers and the opinions and behaviors they represent. Leaflets at the door of the lecture hall, opinion pieces in the student newspaper, teach-ins and other counter events, costumes worn to the event that may embarrass the speaker: all these are fair game.  An Earlham audience once listened to George Wallace in steely silence: no questions, no applause. They just listened and left: that was a powerful message.

Efforts to stop a speech or chase a speaker away I don’t support, still less admire. But let’s move away from the annual ritual of outside commencement speakers and put the focus on celebrating the graduates.

 

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Constraints on Leadership: Missions, Roles and Values

April 3, 2014

“We must not suppose that those in authority are unaware …, but we must recognize that their liberty of action is often circumscribed by the nature of their office: the powerful are not necessarily free.”

That quotation is from Duncan Wood, who some decades ago directed the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva. This statement was lifted up for me at a recent meeting of the oversight committee for the Quaker United Nations Office in New York. A fuller version of the quotation is below, but first I want to relate an incident that gave what Wood said greater resonance for me.

Recently I met up with young Earlham alumnus—someone who was a student while I was President—who expressed surprise at hearing me say positive things about BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign initiated by Palestinians for which they are seeking wide support. How had I come to change my mind, he wondered while we were together at the annual meeting of the AFSC Corporation. I serve on a few AFSC committees as a volunteer; he is now an AFSC staff member.

How do you mean? I asked. Well, he said, at Earlham as President you were opposed to BDS and now here you are supporting it. What changed your mind? I hadn’t really changed my mind, I told him, and then tried to explain to him how institutional roles can limit what you can say or do – especially when you are in a leadership role. I don’t know whether what I said made any sense to him, but here is roughly what I said.

When you take on a leadership role in an organization, I said, you are pledging to serve that organization’s purposes wholeheartedly. Ideally there is a good deal of congruence between your values and the values of the organization you serve. If they diverge a great deal, you shouldn’t accept the leadership position. But there is very little chance, I said, that there will be perfect congruence between your values and the purposes of the organization. You have to be prepared to live with that tension, and it can be awkward. In public, you have a responsibility to make the case for the organization’s view of things and not undercut that case by saying that your own view is different.

If you think you would always have to voice your own personal point of view, that’s another reason you shouldn’t accept a leadership position. (To some, that keeping silent may look like lack of integrity, but I think that’s a shallow view of the matter.)

Why won’t there be perfect congruence between your view and the organizations? Can’t a President steer an organization where s/he pleases? In a word, no. Two sorts of reasons lead to some nearly inevitable divergence between a person’s personal values and the values of an organization s/he serves. For one thing, most organizations have a process for decision-making in which one person doesn’t make all the decisions, not even the President. At Earlham, a great many people are involved in decision-making at early stages, but in the end the Board of Trustees makes final decisions on many important matters. As President I was a member of the Board, but just one of twenty-four. Occasionally the Board made decisions that diverged from my own inclinations. (Aside: How could that happen with Quaker decision-making? Because in none of those kinds of divergences did disagreement turn on deep matters of principle.) When the Board made a decision, it was my job to see to its implementation.

But there is another, more common and more important reason an organization’s values or positions can diverge from your own. Any organization has a mission, and that mission will almost certainly be narrower and more focused than any individual’s set of values or purposes. Earlham’s is an educational mission: “to provide the highest quality education in the liberal arts, including the sciences, shaped by the distinctive perspectives of the Religious Society of Friends.”

An individual’s purposes, on the other hand, are likely to embrace a host of things. A typical Earlhamite might be interested not only in education but also (say) alleviation of poverty, nuclear disarmament, sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, and perhaps (say) contra dancing and juggling. Students would often urge me to have Earlham support one or another of their many personal causes. As someone charged with responsibility for Earlham—and even when these were my causes, too—I would refuse to offer such support. I would say I was prepared to devote resources to education only and to none of the other causes unless it was in a way that directly furthered education. I said I had to use Earlham’s resources (including its good name) only on behalf of its mission.

Education as a mission makes this single-mindedness of institutional purposes broader in some ways (students learn by doing), but also even more limiting in others, or at least as I saw (and see) the matter. To educate well, we want people to think for themselves, to explore alternate ideas in an atmosphere of freedom. A student or a teacher should be able to declare himself on either side of a controversial issue without feeling illegitimate or cast out of the community. A student should be free to support war or peace or liberal or libertarian postures towards alleviating poverty without feeling s/he was out of step with the college. As an organization, that is, Earlham should take care not to take on purposes other than education lest it appear to be promoting some points of view in favor of others. (This posture is a key aspect of academic freedom.)

So how about BDS? While I was at Earlham, the Board of Trustees – through its Socially Responsible Investment Advisory Committee (SRIAC) did not support the BDS campaign. I wasn’t involved in that decision: I was not a member of SRIAC. Had I been, I might well not have favored Earlham supporting BDS, either, even though it had my personal support. With the Israel/Palestine, Earlham would want to be helping students make up their own minds about where justice directs, not making up their minds for them by making institutional political commitments. I would have seen the issue as a hard one because, by mission, Earlham is a Quaker educational institution, and in its organizational posture it has long followed some Quaker testimonies or commitments. In investment policy, for example, Earlham has long tried to avoid investments in alcohol, tobacco, gambling or weapons. IF BDS could be seen to fall under the prohibition against investments in weapons, then perhaps the college would support BDS.

The important point here is that the college not be seen as a place for the forceful expression of anyone’s personal political convictions, but rather to remain a place that adheres wholeheartedly to its mission.

Here, now, is the full quotation from Duncan Wood. In it, Wood recognizes the constraints on leaders. He urges the rest of us to ‘stand beside’ these leaders, lifting up the concerns of ordinary people and helping leaders to see a way beyond what he calls ‘worldly expedients.’

“Since we are not in a position of power, the dilemmas are not ours to solve, the choices not ours to make. From time to time at the United Nations we are brought close to those who have to find the solutions and make the choices. On such occasions it may or may not be given to us to make suggestions which promote the better of two choices or solutions; it is more important that we express our conviction that decisions affecting the lives of multitudes cannot be dictated by worldly expedients but must be taken, as we would express it, “under concern”. We must not suppose that those in authority are unaware of this, but we must recognize that their liberty of action is often circumscribed by the nature of their office: the powerful are not necessarily free. We, who are freer than they are to follow what we believe to be the will of God, may at times be called upon to stand beside them as they seek for light on the road to peace.” —Duncan Wood

To me, the phrase ‘moral expedients’ suggests moral corner-cutting or attention to interests rather than values. Are such ‘worldly expedients’ the only constraints on leaders? With not-for-profit organizations, I don’t think so; that’s what I’ve been trying to explain. There are also constraints that arise from fidelity to mission. How about with democratic governments? Are ‘worldly expedients—in this case the possibility of a backlash from voters or donors—the only constraint?

As I am writing this, I have a chance to read an April 4, 1864 letter from President Abraham Lincoln to Albert G. Hodges, editor of the Frankfort, Kentucky, Commonwealth. (It was featured in a posting from the Civil War Book of Days series from the Vermont Humanities Council.)

I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think and feel, and yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. It was in the oath that I took, that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. I could not take office without taking the oath. . . . I understood, too, that in ordinary civil administration this oath even forbade me to practically indulge my primary abstract judgment on the moral question of slavery. I had publicly declared this many times and in many ways. And I aver that, to this day, I have done no official act in mere deference to my abstract feeling and judgment on slavery. I did understand, however, that my oath to preserve the Constitution to the best of my ability imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government — that nation — of which that Constitution was the organic law. Was it possible to lose the nation and yet preserve the Constitution? . . . I felt that measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the Constitution through the preservation of the nation. Right or wrong, I assumed this ground; and now avow it. I could not feel that, to the best of my ability, I had even tried to preserve the Constitution, if, to save slavery or any minor matter, I should permit the wreck of government, country, and Constitution, all together. – Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln clearly does not think it is just worldly expedients that have restrained him from steering the nation where his own moral values carry him. He believes there are mission constraints, in his case fidelity to the Constitution. In this letter he is expressing how his fidelity to the Constitution and his personal abhorrence of slavery have now led him to the same place. And thus to the Emancipation Proclamation.

cross-posted to River View Friend

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Let’s Get Organized! Or Should We Form a Community?

March 19, 2014

Many people are ambivalent about organizations. We realize that a good deal of what gets done in this world is done in and through organizations, but we also chafe at the ways they hem us in — their policies and formalities. I used the Google NGram to look at variations over time in when we have spoken of organizations:

association, organizationAs you can see, I also threw in other terms for ways human beings coordinate their activities: association, institution, even corporation. You can see that “institution” was once the commonest of these terms, but/and it’s the one whose frequency of usage has changed the least. The other three terms all show a striking rise about the turn from the 19th to the 20th century. They rise in common, but then “corporation” settles into a spiky, up-and-down pattern. “Association” and “organization” rise dramatically until about 1920, then rise more slowly, and then begin to decline in the 1970s. (Historians tell us that many of the sturdy organizations we depend upon today were first formed at the beginning of the 20th century.)  Over the past hundred years, we seem to have embraced more formal ways of organizing ourselves, but perhaps grown a bit tired of this in recent decades.

We are less ambivalent, more comfortable with “communities,” aren’t we? It is striking to add “community” to that same Goggle NGram:

association, organization with communityIt shows the same pattern of rising at the turn of the century and continuing to rise after that. When “association” and “organization” begin to drift down around 1970, so does “community,”but then the use of the term takes another surge up, its use eclipsing all the other terms. It looks very much like “community” grows in parallel with “organization and “association” (not in opposition), though parts company from them more recently.

Also regarding “community,” is this a term we use to often, to embrace too many disparate things? Or is this a sign of something else?

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