A “gateway” is an opening in a gate that lets you walk from one side of the gate to the other. You probably knew that already, but hold the image in your mind.
A “gateway drug” is a drug you take (for fun — not because you need it) that supposedly leads you to take other, more dangerous drugs.
The idea is that if you use a “gateway drug,” you are walking through a gate into a place you couldn’t get to before — a place where people use drugs for fun. Once you step through the gate, you’re just as likely to try a super dangerous drug as to keep using the relatively harmless one that opened the gate for you.
You can see the problem: Who says you can’t simply turn around and walk back through the gate? Or hang out just inside the gate without ever feeling tempted to wander over to the “drugs that might kill you and will definitely at least ruin your life” area?
In this sense, a gateway drug is just a slippery slope in disguise.
And you’ve probably noticed that fun (and sometimes dangerous) drugs like alcohol and caffeine are used by huge numbers of people on the “we would never consider using drugs for fun” side of the gate.
So: Why do some of us tell this story about the gate? What is appealing about the idea that people who use certain drugs for certain reasons are different and separate from everyone else?
The National Security Agency is a part of the U.S. government that spies on people. Some of those people live in other countries and some of them live in the United States.
Usually when governments spy, they do so for one or more of the following reasons: 1. To protect citizens from hostile foreigners; 2. To make sure its own citizens aren’t planning to overthrow the government; 3. To find people who are criticizing the government and encourage them to stop criticizing the government (through intimidation or violence).
We don’t work for the National Security Agency, so we can’t say for sure which of those objectives are on the agency’s mind while it’s spying on everybody. But we did notice that NSA doesn’t stand for National Spying Agency — whoever named it slipped the word “security” in there and didn’t mention spying at all.
Even though everybody knows the NSA is a spying organization, the NSA would rather not have “spying” be the first word out of our mouths when we talk about it. The word NSA people would prefer we use is “security,” as if spying and safety are practically the same thing.
We’ve noticed that when people don’t want you to mention what they do, it’s usually because they don’t want you to think about it.
Sometimes the meaning of a word changes right before the eyes of the people who use it most. It changes in a way the most devoted users don’t like, but if they insist on using the word the way they always have, they’ll look ridiculous (or worse) to everybody else.
To these people we say: We are sorry. It’s not fair that this happened to you. But It’s time for a new word.
Today’s victims of the evolution of language: Apologetics.
To the ancient Greeks, an “apologia” was a formal defense of a person or an idea. Eventually, people who tried to convince others that their religion was true or that some piece of writing was good started referring to themselves as “apologetics.” Probably it was an honorable title in the first few centuries AD, but if you’re alive now and reading this and you consider yourself an “apologetic,” I’m afraid I have some bad news.
Today, to the vast majority of English-speaking people, an “apology” is not a defense. It’s the opposite of a defense. If we apologize for an idea, it means we’re sorry about it because it’s stupid or horrible.
So by all means, keep defending the ideas dearest to you. But don’t call yourself an apologetic unless you are comfortable with a lot of people thinking things like “If you have to apologize for your ideas, maybe just get some new ideas?” every time you open your mouth.
Like I said, it isn’t fair. Think it over.
You know how we’re always telling you words can give people away? Like if you hear “reverse racism” (a term that makes no sense because the opposite of racism isn’t more racism — it’s something really nice like a basket full of puppies) you know without looking that a white person said it? Or if a politician says he misspoke, he probably said exactly what he meant but wasn’t expecting you to get so upset about it?
Well, lest you think this whole exercise was a silly waste of energy, once in a while we like to shove some science in your face.
Look at this! These researchers found different patterns of words not only between liars and people who told the truth, but also in people who told different kinds of lies. Really ambitious liars — the people who said demonstrably false things — used more words than truth-tellers, plus they swore a lot. People who lied by omission used fewer words than anyone, as if they were afraid an incriminating piece of information would fly out of their mouths unbidden at any moment if they moved their lips too much.
This study is a lot of fun. But we hasten to add there’s no surefire way to tell if someone is lying to you. Some people are really chatty even when they’re telling the truth, and other people (this monster included) don’t much care for the sound of their own voices. And as I’m sure you know, polygraph machines are bullshit. But if you listen closely, maybe you’ll guess correctly a little more often.
The names of things are important. Sometimes people come up with two different terms to describe the same thing and the terms rattle around in your head, biting and scratching at each other’s eyes, until one of them defeats the other and takes full control of your brain.
There is this thing happening to the planet. People are burning a lot of fuel, which is changing the atmosphere, which is driving the temperature up, which could eventually make Earth an unfriendly place for humans. Crops may fail, societies may collapse, etc. If we don’t stop burning so much fuel, this thing — which we call either “global warming” or “climate change” — is going to get worse, probably a lot worse, probably very fast.
Neither of these terms really conveys the urgency of the situation. “Global warming” sounds cozy, like a nice cup of hot cocoa in the dead of winter. “Climate change” has the opposite problem: It sounds cold and clinical. “Change from what into what? Maybe the new climate will be better!” The new climate will not be better.
But what would we suggest instead? Global clusterfuck? Climate disaster? No, those aren’t right either.
Coming up with a short name for a complicated thing is not easy to do, even when your goal is to be accurate. That’s one reason to pay attention to names. Another is that the people who name things aren’t always trying to be accurate.
An extremist is a person — usually a violent one, but not necessarily — who takes an idea really really far (from where you take the same idea).
Nobody ever mentions the second part — that extremists are extreme only relative to what you think and do — but it’s a necessary consequence of the definition of the word. “Extreme” is meaningless unless you have something to compare it to, and in the case of “extremists,” what you’re comparing them to is yourself.
Would I do this thing? Would anyone I like do this thing? What about people I don’t like, but might dislike less than I dislike people who do this thing? No? None of us? Good. Then let’s do something about those extremists.
A toxin is something that can kill you or make you very sick or stop your cells from working the way they’re supposed to. It’s toxic. That’s why they call it a toxin. Some examples of toxins are: botulinum, diphtheria, tetanospasmin, and anthrax.
Here’s something people say about toxins: “They are building up in your body and the only way to get rid of them is to drink lemonade with cayenne pepper in it! Or visit a sauna! Or stop eating wheat!” This is a scary thing to say.
When people say scary things about your body, it can be tempting to do whatever they tell you to do, just in case. But next time someone offers to help you flush toxins out of your system, I want you to imagine a doctor rushing into an emergency room to help a patient who has just inhaled six or seven pounds of anthrax powder. “Quick!” yells the imaginary doctor. “Get this man some red-pepper lemonade!”
Or: Ask your friend which toxins are building up in your body. Just ask him or her to name a few. See what happens.
Premium means really good. Great. The best.
A premium is a reward (usually cash) for a job well done.
It is also what insurance companies call the money you pay them every month. That’s how much they like getting your money (and how good they feel about what they’re doing with it).
We’ve said it before: Names are important. Today we’re going to talk about a thing called “Inspire,” but first, we’d like you to guess what you think it is. Go ahead. Take your time.
Hmm: “Inspire.” Could it be a chocolate-flavored calcium supplement? A wall calendar with pictures of mountains on it? Maybe a new brand of adult diapers? Good guesses, all, but wrong! It’s actually the name of al Qaeda’s not-so-secret secret newsletter.
That’s right: the people who brought you the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — not to mention countless bombings and kidnappings and general violent mayhem throughout the Middle East — produce a newsletter called Inspire. Not Holy Warriors, The Suicide Vest, or Death to the Infidels Monthly — Inspire.
They don’t use the newsletter to recruit new members. They’re just talking to each other about themselves.
This is important: People never think of themselves as the bad guys or the “extremists” (yikes, we’ll address that word some other time) — even if they are murdering people or encouraging others to do so. Even then they talk about “inspiration” as if it’s a specialty of theirs. We should all think about that every chance we get.
You may have heard that there’s a single Chinese character that means both “crisis” and “opportunity.” You probably heard this from a motivational speaker, your office manager, or your middle-school guidance counselor. It’s a nice story, but it isn’t true.
I mean, none of it is true. The part about the Chinese word for “crisis” isn’t true, and the other part — the part where there’s an opportunity hiding inside every crisis — is also really super not true.
There’s nothing wrong with looking for ways to make a bad situation less bad, but sometimes what you’re dealing with is very clearly a crisis that has no redeeming qualities.
And even if the thing about the Chinese word were true (it isn’t), it wouldn’t mean the two ideas are related in any way. In English, we have a word that means both “shoreline” and “place to put money” and nobody thinks there’s a profound connection between those things.