Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

Ephemera (VI)

Published on 21 March 2015
Updated on 05 April 2024

(Some reflections are not worth a full-throated blog, yet they contain small kernels for reflection – like plum kernels one rolls in one’s mouth while climbing a steep mountain on a hot day. I’ll post ephemera from time to time)

May you live in interesting times

According to Wikipedia, “May you live in interesting times” is an English expression purporting to be a translation of a traditional Chinese curse. Despite being so common in English as to be known as “the Chinese curse“, the saying is apocryphal and no actual Chinese source has ever been produced. The nearest related Chinese expression is “太平” (níng wéi tàipíng quǎn, mò zuò luànshì rén) which conveys the sense that it is “better to live as a dog in an era of peace than a man in times of war.”[1]

On the face of it, the expression is ambiguous. Why has it been interpreted as “curse” in the West? The ambiguity may represent the stigmatization of the wily, inscrutable Chinese – a PC way of saying “yellow peril.”[2] The expression has been traced to the 1930s, however, a period past the China-bashing prime. One better looks for “home-grown” origins of the connection between “interesting” and “curse.”

The expression’s popularity grew after WWII. In fact, it may have been Robert F. Kennedy[3] who put it in every journalist’s mouth. One might venture the conjecture that it reflected the West’s bewilderment at change, which it has treated as threat since before Plato’s times. Unsurprisingly, Hesiod thought the Greeks lived in the Age of Iron – and no way out. The popularity of Zeno’s paradoxes[4] at the time may reflect the hopeful sentiment that all change is illusion.

Change as threat has spawned now reached farcical proportions. Three days ago, he Geneva newspaper Le Matin screamed, on the front page: Pollen strikes. What used to be the best of changes – spring – has now become a threat. Those who are not “tortured” (sic!),[5] they better feel guilty about being spared, or look out for some other threat from dastardly spring.

Unintended (?) Consequences of Political Correctness

Political correctness has identified stigmatization in the choice of pronouns we use. By unthinkingly using the “he” in referring to skilled jobs, like doctor, lawyer, scientist, we reaffirm the stereotype of women’s exclusion/absence from them. The praxis has eventuated in a PC rule. We are to alternate between she/he in this kind of discourse, so as to affirm equal opportunity.

I have come across an interesting example of “unintended consequences.” For ease of reading, I have highlighted the use of “she” in the text:

“In “Culpable Ignorance,” Holly Smith says: “[i]gnorance of the nature of one’s act is the pre-eminent example of an excuse that forestalls blame” (H. Smith 543). So, to adapt an example of Smith’s, a doctor who gives a patient the wrong treatment might avoid blame if she thought she was providing her patient with the best care she could. Whether the doctor avoids blame in this way will depend, in part, on whether she was blameworthy for being mistaken about what treatment was best. If the doctor prescribed the wrong treatment because of an earlier “benighting act” that impaired (or failed to improve) her cognitive position, then, we may also regard her as blameworthy for her ignorance and for the consequences of her ignorance (H. Smith 547).”[6]

The association between the “she” and the bad doctor is stigmatizing to a high degree. Even using the “she/he” rule, the outcome might be inappropriate. The sentence describes a negative situation. Emotionally, we tend to associate the negative with the unexpected.[7] The use of “she” is still unexpected. So unconsciously we would be more likely to internalize an association between bad doctor and woman.

In fairness to the author, I do not imagine that this is more than a “glitch in his agency” – a case of being on “mental autopilot” (though he repeats the glitch several times in the paper, suggesting an Orgelpunkt. The behavior may stem from relying on “best practice” without checking the context or the consequences.

Performance art in the East

Museums and galleries now exhibit “performance art,” which is often as dead as doornail, and where the chasm between performer and spectator is clearly defined, even when it pretends not to be.[8] In particular, it is self-regarding and heavily narcissistic, hence heave on theory[9]


Here the real thing – from Thailand


Have fun – and watch it till the end for a surprise.


[1] https://bit.ly/1MiqJlY

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_Peril

[3] In a speech in Cape Town, South Africa, on June 7, 1966, Robert F. Kennedy said, “There is a Chinese curse which says, “May he live in interesting times.” Like it or not, we live in interesting times…” Journalists picked up the phrase and it has become a commonplace.

[4] R. M. SAINSBURY (2009): Paradoxes. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

[5] https://bit.ly/1a5ewAh (retrirved on 29/03/2015

[6] Matthew TALBERT: unwitting wrongdoers and the role of moral disagreement in blame. forthcoming in Oxford Studies in Agency and Responsibility https://bit.ly/1I9w1dI

[7] See Barry SCHWARTZ (2004): The paradox of choice. Why more is less. Eco Press, New York.

[8] For a sophisticated analysis of the hidden meanings inherent in a performance about “nudity,”, see Giorgio AGAMBEN (2009): Nudità Nottetempo, Roma.

[9] Here the introductory statement from Wikipedia: “In art, performance art is a performance presented to an audience, traditionally interdisciplinary. Performance may be either scripted or unscripted, random or carefully orchestrated; spontaneous or otherwise carefully planned with or without audience participation. The performance can be live or via media; the performer can be present or absent. It can be any situation that involves four basic elements: time, space, the performer’s body, or presence in a medium, and a relationship between performer and audience. Performance art can happen anywhere, in any venue or setting and for any length of time. The actions of an individual or a group at a particular place and in a particular time constitute the work.” https://bit.ly/1xAE2Ib

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