Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Do I Have To?

So, yesterday I suggested you consider the difference between "want to" and "have to," and question the motivation beneath "have to." I ran this experiment myself, and here's what I found:
  • "Have to" is a rhetorical way of removing choice from a situation. Although the truth of the matter is that we always freely choose our actions (and are therefore fully responsible for them), sometimes we take choice off the table.
  • Sometimes we are deliberately taking choice off the table. Sometimes there are good reasons to do so; we want to deny ourselves choice in certain circumstances, because we know we might make the wrong choice in if given the chance to do so. "I have to do my homework tonight" is another way of saying, "I have chosen to do my homework tonight, and the decision is not open for reconsideration." Sometimes our reasons for removing choice are not so good: "I have to have a drink now" takes a conscious moral decision and turns it into an inevitable consequence of powerful forces beyond one's control. Or, more sinisterly, "I have to; I have orders."
  • If "I have to" is freighted with all sorts of hidden meanings, then it is doubley so for "you have to." Someone can impose all kinds of restrictions on you with only the slightest of justification, by cloaking the command in the rhetoric of necessity: "You simply have to come to my party this weekend," or "You have to fill out this paperwork first." These rhetorical gambits are the equivalents of: "Do this, but I'm not telling you why." Listen to politicians and salesmen: they lace their speech with have to all the time, building urgency without having to make long explanations or justifications.
  • There is nothing necessarily wrong with any of this. I am not suggesting that you banish all have to language from your speech. I am suggesting, though, that you need to be conscious of how the language is being used, and what is being left unsaid. So much psychotherapy and marriage counselling is a long drawn-out process of the patient claiming, "I have to," and the the therapist asking, "Really? Why?" All kinds of flaws in reasoning are exposed, all kinds of misunderstandings eliminated, once the language of necessity is translated back into explicit motivations and purposes.

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