• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Oblecs, or, Statements That Don't Mean What they Mean

My brother -- known to regular readers as Brother of Dean Dad -- sent me a nifty thought piece that I’d love to get my readers’ help explaining.

October 4, 2010

My brother -- known to regular readers as Brother of Dean Dad -- sent me a nifty thought piece that I’d love to get my readers’ help explaining.

Recent polls have shown a terrifying amount of militant know-nothingism. The example that leaps to my mind is how the percentage of people who claim to believe that Barack Obama is a "secret Muslim" or some such crap is shockingly high. Despite this, it's hard to escape the hunch that most people who claim this don't really believe it; they're simply registering a complaint through stupid means. They want to express their discontent through every means at their disposal, and labeling him a Muslim serves as a fatuous shorthand.

Yet, it's also not hard to escape the hunch that the more such a claim is questioned or mocked, the more it will become believed, eventually ossifying into an article of faith. In short, when they first said it, they don't really mean it, but as soon as it's challenged, they believe it fully and without reservation. Only much later, when any and all pressure is removed, might it someday soften and be allowed to be doubted.

High school physics teaches fluid dynamics in part through the medium of "non-Newtonian fluids." Create a slurry of two parts cornmeal to one part water, and you have a classic dilatant. If you lower a spoon into the liquid, it sinks in. If you smack the spoon against the surface of the liquid, it instantly hardens, and the spoon bounces off. The viscosity of the fluid is dependent upon the shearing forces it faces.

There is a subset of canard that behaves similarly. When a person first creates such a canard ("Obama is not an American citizen!"), the speaker knows it is factually false. How that canard is met is key. If approached gently with questions ("Did all of the investigating bodies in the campaign miss it? Are the 1962 Honolulu newspapers with the birth announcement time-traveler-manufactured frauds?"), it can dissolve into a slurry. If attacked ("What? Are you high?"), it ossifies into an article of true faith. This certainly does not apply to all canards or all people, but I've seen it happen.

Thus, I propose a new word for the English language. The non-Newtonian fluid used in high school physics demonstrations is commonly called "oobleck." Ideas that are deliberate falsifications that harden into articles of faith only under pressure are now "oblecs." For example, Rush Limbaugh spouts many oblecs in the course of his day. In low-pressure situations, he'll admit that a particular heap of lies is the product of him "being funny" or stretching the truth to make a point. Under any sort of pressure at all, he'll declare that every word he speaks is the pure truth. It's a sub-variety of doublethink.

To take it out of politics, kids spout out oblecs quite a bit. Wee Johnny says an obvious lie, gets called on it, and suddenly believes it to be a truth upon which he'd stake his very life. That's an everyday oblec.

First, I think his observation is spot-on; I’ve seen people hold to absurdities as a sort of badge of group identity, and then later admit the absurdity when it felt safe.
I’ve seen statements like these referred to as “dog whistles,” in that they hold meaning only to those primed to hear them. They’re a kind of secret verbal handshake, certifying members of the club. To those of us outside the club, they just sound like blowing air.

I’m not sure about the neologism itself, but the phenomenon is real and hard to capture.

Is there a more elegant phrase to describe oblecs? And has anyone out there found a reasonably effective way of dealing with them?


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