Monthly Archives: December 2013

Merit and the Appropriateness of Speech

By Neil Seeman

“What did ya get?” “What did ya get?” I remember a holiday party as a child where two teenage boys hopped onto the telephone in the basement after a pious meal to ask their friends what new electronic gadgets they had each received as holiday gifts. The Commodore 64 was, then, the high watermark of gift status.

We all know, rationally, that people are less fortunate than us. And the world is a set of concentric circles, with people outside of Canada often more unfortunate still than many living in poverty in Canada. And yet, even as educated adults, not as young children ripping the packaging off presents, we engage in inappropriate discourse that can leave other people feeling like third-class citizens.

“All people have a yardstick against which to measure themselves against others,” a global CEO recently told me. This may or may not be true – but there are moral laws of virtue inherent in remaining silent when others boast about any manner of things: gifts, titles, vacations, their children’s grand scholarships, and so on and so forth. These are all variations on the braggadocio about telling one’s friend (whose parents may be lacking in income or job security) about receiving a Commodore 64.

Here are three adult examples I have heard on multiple occasions in Toronto belted out in the mix of people from a wide swath of socio-economic groups:

“We just got back from a family vacation to Hawaii. It was stunning. The kids look forward to next year. It’s an annual thing for us.” Accompanied by toothy grin.

“I just went to a work-out at the Granite Club. Thank goodness I can at least mix a bit of personal time in while my son plays soccer.” Accompanied by mild scowl.

“My Mercedes is in the shop. Hence the rental car. It’s old but it’ll do.” Accompanied by big hairy chip rolling off shoulder.

There is no co-linear positive relationship between people who throw about absurdities such as the above and their actual wealth. Who even cares? Why?

Every religion has a code of ethics in terms of how one is to act in this regard. I am most familiar with the Jewish rules against Lashon hara, the term for derogatory speech about another person. This can come in the form of wicked gossip (a serious sin in the Jewish tradition). But it can also be more subtle; saying something self-important about oneself can intone lesser status in another. For we are all equal.

The Stoics, notably the great Epictetus, the Ancient Greek philosopher sage, said in the Enchiridion that we have a duty to be Socratic, or to openly confront or mock, people who disobey the laws of proper speech. To boast about battle or accomplishments or to reference self-aggrandizing self-importance, is to be met with shunning, or, sometimes, breezily indifferent confrontation. So the proper response to: “I just went to the Granite Club” is… “What is the Granite Club?”; or…“Why do you say that?”), or, simply, to turn your head, exit the conversation, and to avoid such people after showing a clear sign of disapproval of their speech. There is no time to deal with self-important people. Life is too short.

The Stoics knew that we are all inconsequential in the Universe. We are part of a global brotherhood, or the Whole. That is the Platonic project: virtue, or merit, is a route to happiness. It is, in fact, the only route to happiness.

We will all be obsolete. Just like the Commodore 64. I learned about the power of speech – and silence – from my parents, and from my years at Upper Canada College in the 1980s. Thank you to the teachers who modeled that. You know who you are.

Neil Seeman is UCC Class of 1988 and his son Davey is in Form 3 in the Prep.