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Are you finding muffins really annoying? Why then, you will want to complain about the tyranny of muffins. After all, nearly everything enjoys a “tyranny” nowadays. ((Thanks to Ricardo Gladwell.)) Lawrence Lessig decries the “tyranny of transparency” (I for one welcome our new glass overlords), and John Freeman has apparently written a book on The Tyranny of E-mail. It’s a wonder we can get anything done, labouring under so many made-up tyrannies.

This is not a new phenomenon. Shakespeare refers to “time’s tyranny” in Sonnet 115; there is the tyranny of Helena’s sorrows in All’s Well and “churlish winter’s tyranny” in Henry IV Part II; while Kent in Lear speaks of “the tyranny of the open night”. In the preface to his Dictionary, meanwhile, Johnson writes:

I have, notwithstanding this discouragement, attempted a dictionary of the English language, which, while it was employed in the cultivation of every species of literature, has itself been hitherto neglected; suffered to spread, under the direction of chance, into wild exuberance; resigned to the tyranny of time and fashion; and exposed to the corruptions of ignorance, and caprices of innovation.

Presumably the tyranny of a lexicographer is better for the language than the tyranny of time and fashion?

Modern times, people have been apparently keener to complain of pragmaticall than poeticall tyrannies, as in “the intolerable tyranny of customs officials” (1891), the “tyranny of trades unions” (1903), or the “tyranny of the tip” (1918). More recently, it seems, nothing is so trivial as to be debarred from aspiring to tyranny: we are urged to protest the tyranny of Nice, Too Much, Citations; and, of course, the Tyranny of Souls.

One might hazard a vague guess that the undiscriminatingly figurative use of tyranny increases as actual tyranny becomes a less pressing problem in certain polities (on the other hand, the widespread figurative use of “genocide” in Serbia in the early 1990s ((Discussed in Unspeak, pp95-6.)) provides a baleful example of the dangers of such semantic deflation).

In any case, to complain about the tyranny of such things as email in our day bespeaks, does it not, a kind of morbid, feckless and self-dramatizing abnegation of responsibility? Perhaps the greatest threat to our liberty comes from the tyranny of “the tyranny of”. I myself cannot be held responsible for such a suggestion, however, because I am in thrall to the tyranny of ATOMS.

What kind of tyranny rules your life, readers?

  1. 1  Stan Carey  October 13, 2009, 9:32 am 

    Not long ago I read Stuart Chase’s The Tyranny of Words, which he wrote using words. To be fair to him, it’s a pretty good exploration of semantics, albeit an idiosyncratic one. In a chapter on politicians, Chase writes that he is “willing to call Hitler mad”. (The book was published in 1938.)

  2. 2  Bruce  October 13, 2009, 12:41 pm 

    I too found Chase’s book worth the read. There’s a chapter of it online here:

    (He was a follower of Korzybski and General Semantics, both of which gained a “bad reputation” due to folks such as Martin Gardner – and more recently Stephen Pinker – portraying him/it as some kind of crank/cult. Mind you, Pinker wrote off Whorf as some kind of fraud or imposter at the same time as he wrote off Korzybski [and Orwell too], and IMO without really understanding either, in The Language Instinct.)

    “The law of supply and demand rests on a manipulation of words rather than on verified observation.” (Chase, 1938)

  3. 3  Stan Carey  October 13, 2009, 1:13 pm 

    Bruce: Agreed. The Language Instinct had its moments, but much of it seems more speculative than substantial. Gardner’s dismissal of General Semantics was very sloppy. (There is an interesting rebuttal to his criticisms here (PDF).)

    Science and Sanity may be dense and repetitive, but it is also full of good sense, and there is nothing cultish about it as far as I can make out, nor anything crankish about its author. More recently than Chase, Neil Postman and Robert Anton Wilson have written very positively about Korzybski’s ideas. Wilson in particular presents them in a distilled form throughout his own works.

  4. 4  Laurent  October 13, 2009, 3:52 pm 

    the tyranny of my boss being an ‘idiot’ by my own tyrannical standards
    the tyranny of short attention span due to too much video game usage/always-on media consumption

    now where was I?

  5. 5  Alex Higgins  October 13, 2009, 6:40 pm 

    I’ve just started reading David Boyle’s The Tyranny of Numbers

    Actually, I think I’m sort-of in fvour of this melodramatic analogy. I mean, that title, The Tyranny of Email, has by itself suceeded in making me think about whether e-mail really does represent an illegitimate usurpation of personal sovereignty from which I should free myself. I suspect it doesn’t, but I’m intrigued. If it’s an argument like the White Dot campaign against television, the use of ‘tyranny’ might be excusable.

    If it’s just a whinge about how these times are not like other times in which the author grew up, then it might be merely irritating.

    Likewise ‘the tyranny of the tip’ as a challenge to social convention could be worth hearing and debating, as Mr Pink tells us at the beginning of Reservoir Dogs.

    The ‘tyranny of trades union’ is, on the other hand, rank unspeak.

  6. 6  Jason Thompson  October 13, 2009, 6:47 pm 

    A pet peeve of mine: the tyranny of lazy journalistic metaphors casually invoking the Third Reich in order to dismiss a trivial object of disapproval. See, for example, Alex Witchel, writing on Sunday in the New York Times about celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, of whom he approves for promoting healthy eating, but also because he is willing in moderation to eat meat and butter, thus rendering his approach to cooking quite distinct from the strictures of “self-anointed Health Nazis.”

    Since it isn’t exactly _accurate_ to compare vegans (the presumed referent of Witchel’s “Health Nazis”) to the Gestapo, Witchel’s aim here is presumably to score an easy rhetorical point by undermining a phenomenon of which the author disapproves for unstated, personal reasons by analogy with a phenomenon of which everybody (minus actual neo-fascists) disapproves for universal moral reasons. Sadly the reality of Nazis or vegans gets lost in the cliche.

    Dressing up the cliche with the bizarre “self-anointed” doesn’t help. Does the use of this adjective imply the existence of Health Nazis who are not “self-anointed? Are these non self-anointed Health Nazis anointed by neo-Nazis or elderly German war criminals? I demand to know who does this strange nutritional anointing, and how they justify their anointing authority.

  7. 7  Bruce  October 13, 2009, 7:21 pm 

    ‘In my day we had real tyrannies. Vote Conservative.’

    There are no doubt two different metaphorical conceptions of tyranny to go with (as Lakoff might say) the two fundamentally different conceptions of freedom. We seem to be getting the “rightwing” version beamed into our brains a lot at the moment. That’s to say, the “tyranny” of, say, dependence (eg welfare dependence) rather than the “tyranny” of market fundamentalism (for example).

    I think Steven nails it here: “to complain about the tyranny of such things as email in our day bespeaks, does it not, a kind of morbid, feckless and self-dramatizing abnegation of responsibility?”

    It does, but only if we put it that way, repeatedly.

  8. 8  Ian Clenshaw  October 14, 2009, 10:42 am 

    As a father of three, I can assure you the tyranny of small children very definitely holds sway over my life.

  9. 9  Stan Carey  October 14, 2009, 10:47 am 

    Small Cretaceous creatures probably suffered the tyranny of Tyrannosaurus.

  10. 10  John Fallhammer  October 14, 2009, 3:51 pm 

    It just seems like a phrase you’d see in those Polly Filler-type columns about the columnist’s everyday life. “Oh no! I live in a democratic country, actually work about ten hours a week and am wealthy enough to do pretty much anything I want, but still I find that I am not happy and in control of my life! I must find somebody or something to blame!” Yeah, wotevah.

    I googled “tyranny of political correctness” (in quotes) and got 182,000 hits from ranting wankers, but “tyranny of health and safety” returned a mere 4 (+1 with the ampersand) and several of them may well be humourous. I think my googles must be broken.

  11. 11  Steven  October 14, 2009, 9:59 pm 

    I am glad to know of The Tyranny of Words as well as auto-anointing Nazis. Thanks!

  12. 12  roger migently  October 15, 2009, 8:00 am 

    I certainly suffer the tyranny of “tyrannies”; the tyranny of life and the tyranny of death; the tyranny of distance and the tyranny of proximity; of the fitness industry (and health nazis) and of creeping obesity; of the shallowness of popular culture and of the stifling boredom of the classics; of the mass media and of silence; the tyranny of science and the tyranny of faith; of J. S. Mill’s “vast net-work of administrative tyranny … that system of bureaucracy” and the tyranny of chaos.

    I suffer, in fact, the tyranny of the Universal Law-of-Tyranny (U LoT) that for every tyranny there is an equal and opposite tyranny.

    Unless, I suppose, tyranny really means what it used to mean, “cruel or unjust use (abuse?) of power” and not merely “a vaguely-felt, mildly discomforting aggravation” such as a child feels when it is denied a sweet before dinner.

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