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Of The Making Of Many Shibboleths

Over the last several weeks, I have seen a great number of accusations fly that “the other side” is using shibboleths to rally the troops. It does not really matter which “other side” I am referring to, or what the sides even are, for modern men love to think themselves reasonable, analytical, and they tend to present detractors and antagonists as suckers for propaganda. All of which means that, in a pseudo-intellectual age, there really is no greater shibboleth than the word “shibboleth” itself, for no one likes to admit they use shibboleths. The word “shibboleth,” when pronounced with outrage or a raised eyebrow, is simply a kind of password that allows those who sympathize with the speaker to shake their heads at the illogic and foolishness of everyone not in their club.

Human beings naturally create shibboleths, though. A human is a shibboleth manufacturing creature. We have far too many bills to pay, fields to till, and irregular verbs to conjugate to really commit ourselves to understanding that many issues; and while we privately know that we haven’t read nearly enough books to be as firm in our opinions as we are, a great many of us have convinced ourselves that we simply have far more common sense than the others, which means we do not need to read as much. But common sense is far cheaper and more abundant than the shibboleth-naysayer wants to admit, and if we didn’t create shibboleths, we would not have time to do the dishes.

I am no exception. I will happily confess myself to be someone who hasn’t seen through the BS. In 2016, as a sign of solidarity with the ghost of Edmund Burke, I asked my father who he was voting for and then voted for that person. I had never heard of him before. My favorite shibboleth is the pejorative and snide use of the word “zeitgeist.” If you and I are ever at a party and you would like to chat for a while, just use the word “zeitgeist” and make a rotten egg face, and I will talk with you all night.

From time to time, it behooves a people to take back a certain shibboleth and replace it with another. Every shibboleth, of course, comes to be meaningless, and, on occasion, the oldest and most sage of the tribe might determine they need that word back. The substituting of shibboleths is such a delicate, testy operation, though, that I am not entirely content anyone can do it. The process is probably glacial, batholithic. We’re probably stuck with worldview and privilege for the foreseeable future.

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