Pondering the South African Memesphere – Looking for the Good in Everything header image 2

The Worst Kind of Poetic Language

August 28th, 2008 · Posted by Hugo · 4 Comments

[Wrote first draft in Heathrow. One editing pass and the addition of the explanation of how one could perform a double-blind study, was done from my "fully furnished" temporary flat -- furnishings include Wi-Fi, yay!]

In a post two months ago, I decided to poetically end the post on a little climax, to leave a lingering thought:

But if you add one ounce of stress and expectations on my mother’s already loaded shoulders, I curse you.

I spent some time thinking what words to use, that being my first idea. I could not come up with another idea that I felt drove the point home that well, but as with most language, especially strong language, the choice is dangerously culturally sensitive.

The first thing I should point out is that I don’t believe in the existence of curses (as in, that someone can place a curse on you). Or rather, in the words of my silly little philosophy: I believe curses do exist, but they exist in Meh, not in Lah, and they’re not a part of my Meh. For this reason, from my perspective, I might as well have said “I say Ni! to you!” — but that, of course, will firstly only be appreciated in Mehs that have assimilated Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and secondly would incorrectly make the climax/sting humorous instead serious. In a later edit, when I was in a calmer or more light-hearted mood, I struck through the original sting and replaced it with I bite my thumb at thee. Also humorous to us, but at least meant more seriously in the context of the work it came from: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Maybe the most accurate would be something more secular and contemporary, like “I think you’re a right bastard” (not in the literal sense of the word).

The second thing I should point out is: implicitly, that last clause applies to no-one, because I first verified/ensured that my mother is not experiencing any extra weight on her shoulders. That is, after all, my first priority. Retributive justice is actually not my thing. The post was to serve as general advice, general thought provocation, in order to fight (or at least make people aware of) the dangers of any variation of the prosperity gospel. (Summary: by believing and praying correctly, you will get well. The danger: the potential side effect of believing that if you don’t get well, your belief or your prayer was wrong.)

Just Naive, or Slightly Evil?

I’m not exactly naive either: I admit I was a little too daring that day. Maybe the fact that I wrote all through the night without sleep played a role. (That’s an explanation, not an excuse.) I know all too well that Stellenbosch has some churches that still believe in demonic possession, and if you believe in demonic possession, you probably also believe in curses. This means I fully and consciously wrote some “supposedly innocent words” that I knew could be misinterpreted, meaning they really weren’t completely innocent. And I published anyway. Maybe it was to prove a point, maybe it was to demonstrate the dangers of theological differences, or maybe to illustrate the dangers of belief in demons and curses.

What made the sting so poetically powerful was this (at least I thought so): if anyone were to take that sting as literally placing a curse on someone, they surely should also take the conditional clause that introduced it literally. That means any belief in a literally placed curse should, technically, first be preceded by a conscious and actual recognition of the danger of a prosperity gospel (though that recognition could be subsequently forgotten as people start obsessing about a supposed “curse”). What an incredibly nasty trick, eh? Nastier than nasty hobbitses…

From a Christian perspective, I think it’s fair to classify the decision to include that nasty sting as “unchristian”. (Translated to secular: it’s fair to call the decision to include it “mean-spirited”.) I should have known better. Maybe I should have been clearer on the fact that my mother did not experience extra stress, and that the sting was just a future warning. Maybe I should have used a different ending right from the start. But… I didn’t… so now I’m writing this post in an attempt to clarify what I meant and to apologise, and I’m also taking this opportunity to discuss curses in general.

The Power of a Curse

Curses do exist in some people’s Meh (their subjective reality). With regards to Meh, The Secret actually does have some truth: you have some power over how you experience things, you effectively create the world-view within which you interpret experiences. For example, having a positive or negative attitude influences the details you notice and the experiences you emphasise, and is often the deciding factor when it comes to interpreting ambiguous things.

By believing in curses, or a particular curse in particular, you interpret things in ways that emphasize and bring out the worst. You expect the worst as well, and that may actually influence behaviour to the point of bringing about negative consequences. People that believe someone else has been cursed might treat that person differently, or may in some way convey their belief in such a curse to the person in question. People believing themselves to be cursed, grants a supposed curse its maximum potency: it brings about a most potent negative attitude, and causes the believer in the curse to look for evidence to confirm their beliefs (known as confirmation bias). Does anyone have some potent examples of the impact of beliefs in curses in African tribes, maybe out of a psychology journal?

Memetic Warfare

So, suppose a particular Meh includes a belief in curses, what to do?

Numerous solutions, depending on the Meh. In a Christian Meh with curse beliefs, the belief that evil and the Holy Spirit cannot inhabit the same body is actually a rather useful one. If you’ve been filled by the Holy Spirit, it should be impossible to place a curse on you, not so? Any curse should just bounce off your back. A friend of mine recently pondered whether Christianity could not be a potent antidote for some of the African superstitions. Well, it depends, it can be a two-edged sword: a different friend informed me that some Christian churches reinforce superstitions by providing counter-spells to some curses, thereby affirming the existence of the original curse.

I would much rather people simply stopped believing in curses and demons, thereby removing their power completely. This can be accomplished by incorporating more science in your Meh: study more science, and apply skeptical thinking and investigation of claims. I would recommend reading Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World (Amazon, Kalahari).

Unless, of course, you believe I’m the deluded one for denying the reality of “the warfare that takes place in the spiritual realm between angels and demons” (the kind of dualistic beliefs that studies show is correlated with violence in believing cultures). If that is a reality in our shared Lah (empirical reality), we should be able to test it with a double-blind study, if it hasn’t been done already.

Performing Double-Blind Studies of Curses

Find a large group of volunteers, and a group of people that supposedly have access to the most potent curses. (Something like witches, we still have them in South Africa.) Randomly split the volunteers into two groups, one group will remain uncursed, the other will have every possible curse placed on the individuals. Who would want to volunteer? Well, anyone that firmly believes there is no such thing as a curse.

In order to objectively test the impact of the curse, neither the subjects cursed nor the people making observations about the impact of the curses should know who is cursed and who is not, so that their subjective beliefs do not impact the results. In fact, we could also test the placebo effect of belief: tell one third of the uncursed group that they are in fact in the group that was cursed, tell one third that they are in the group that was not cursed, and don’t tell the last third anything about their status. Do the same with the cursed group.

With a large enough group of volunteers and a double-blind test, the “measurements” of the impact of being cursed can be done by whatever method, even subjective methods, though a more objectively measurable curse would be the best choice. Statistical analysis of the results would determine whether the curses had any measurable general effect, as well as whether the belief in being cursed had any measurable effect.

A further sub-analysis of volunteers can be made if some of the volunteers actually believe in curses, to see whether believers-in-curses are impacted differently. Believers-in-curses might not volunteer for the study though, for obvious reasons. In either case, should the experimental results on the effect of the curses come out negative, the conclusion would be that it is a perfectly healthy decision to not believe in curses. Should the study clearly show that the cursed people suffer some consequences, I’m clearly wrong and would have to repent of my unbelief-in-curses.

Has a study like this been done? I wonder, I wouldn’t be too surprised. A challenge to my readers: find one! (Hehe, the lazy way of doing research.) If it doesn’t exist, the biggest problem is finding someone who would actually fund a study like this: unbelievers-in-curses would likely think it a waste of money, unless they feel the result will actually be useful in changing someone’s beliefs. Would believers-in-curses maybe fund something like this?

Bonus points for pointing out potential flaws in such a study… Let’s discuss!

Concluding Remarks

All that said, I still sincerely apologise if the words “I curse you” offended anyone. Like I said, I should know better than to provide anyone with an opportunity to put on a shoe like that. I hope the overall effect of my posts at least do more good than harm.

Further Reading/Watching: Real Live Preacher’s video clip on demons, requesting some sensitivity from readers of the New Testament. (He requests an awareness of ancient worldviews.)

Categories: Religion and Science · Worldviews
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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Hugo // Aug 28, 2008 at 8:38 pm

    Before anyone asks: no, I don’t carry any knowledge of someone I personally know that interpreted the “curse” in the literal way.

  • 2 Ben-Jammin' // Aug 28, 2008 at 10:08 pm

    Not a study, but:

  • 3 Linda // Aug 29, 2008 at 4:16 am

    First of all, the remark came from a son’s protective heart for his ailing mother. It came from a place of love. Who can fault you for that?

    If anyone cannot see that and chooses to misinterpret it, I don’t think it’s your responsibility to set them straight.

    You have nothing to second-guess yourself about. I see absolutely nothing mean-spirited whatsoever.

  • 4 Hugo // Aug 29, 2008 at 9:39 am

    Nice link, Ben!

    Seems my transfer from one web hosting provider to another went off without a hitch. Yay! And Linda’s nice comment (thanks!) already ended up at the new one instead of the old. I thought I’d have some headaches with at least one more comment that I’d have to transfer today.

    But anyway…

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