Disinterested Pragmatism

Lots of our troubles result from getting involved in other people’s business and/or trying to involve other people in ours. You can have a good long term relationship with someone and not know a thing about his/her personal life and this is often best. Why look under rocks if you don’t care what is there? This occurred to me as I listened to an NPR story with a transgendered person talking about his tribulations.

I just don’t care. To the extent that I have to categorize a person, I would do so based on obvious characteristics. If you are a man or woman inside doesn’t really concern me as long as we can agree which bathroom you want to use. The same goes for being gay/straight, religious/atheist, rich/poor, democrat/republican etc. Our relationship may never progress to the point where I care, so just let it alone until/if that time comes.

I don’t care if most people like me or not or what they think of me. If I go to McDonalds and the clerk gives me what I want w/o doing something nasty, it doesn’t matter if he loves me or hate me. Most likely he doesn’t care and that is the way it should be. I don’t want to get to know this guy and don't want him to know me.

Well, saying that I don’t care is not exactly accurate. The word I really would like to use is “disinterested”. Unfortunately, that word can no longer be used with 90% of the population, who will misunderstand the meaning. It doesn’t mean that I am uninterested; it merely means that I don’t have an interest in this particular thing. I don’t have a dog in that fight.

For example, I am very interested in politics, but I have no interest whatsoever in knowing the politics of the clerk at Seven-Eleven or the guys whose used car I might want to buy.

Besides being disinterested, I want to be pragmatic. Pragmatic is another word that is misused. Many people use it to mean expedient. I mean judging something by its sensible effects, sort of the William James version. I don’t care what people say about something, I just want to know what it does. Even narrower, I only want to know what it does in relation to my limited relationship with it. In the example of our transgendered guy above, I don’t care if the person born a boy wants to be called a woman, but I would rate her chances of producing a baby as very low. I would say zero, but you never know what machinations modern science can give us.

Disinterested pragmatism is becoming more difficult. For one thing, people insist on being affirmed. I would prefer to ignore most things, especially those things I don’t like. It saves us all a lot of trouble. I can tolerate a lot more things than I want to affirm. Don’t make me make a choice. Do I support transgendered “rights”? For the individual, probably yes. I will treat the individual with respect and I hope kindness. For the group, probably not, because I am not sure exactly what that entails and I don’t have the inclination or time to find out.

It gets worse as the net of rights and proactive government expands. I might tolerate what I consider the bad habits of my neighbors, but if they ask me to take part or pay for it, that changes the equation. In the transgender example, I don’t care if the person wants to alter his/her physical appearance (although the cutting off makes me shutter and the adding on seems a nuisance) to be more in line with his preference, but I don’t want to pay for it through my taxes or insurance rates.

The good thing about limited government is that it promotes tolerance by promoting disinterest. I saw this in relation to immigration if you compare the U.S. and Europe. There are many cultural reasons why Europe has been less welcoming of immigrants, but one practical one is the welfare state. An immigrant to America was supposed to make it on his own. He provided a benefit to the county or he didn’t come. That was the theory at least. In Europe, an immigrant represents another consumer of state services and probably one that will not pull his own weight for a while. When I lived in Europe, I remember the difference in tone. The American question is something like, “what can the immigrants contribute?” The European one is more like “how can our services accommodate immigrants?”

Since I am being pragmatic, I have to admit that the practical consequence of xenophobia is often similar, but the American idea of the immigrant as useful does tend to soften the PRACTICAL hostility and help us integrate immigrants much faster.

In our increasingly pluralist societies, nobody can expect us to affirm or even like most of the habits, lifestyles & cultures around us. With time, most of us come to appreciate many aspects of the “other” as we all modify our expectations. It is how cultures grow and change. But the ability to do so requires the ability NOT to be submerged all at once and you don’t have to like or affirm everything.

My wife’s family is Norwegian. They had some horrible food called lutefisk, which is essentially rotten cod. I don’t eat lutefisk now. I didn’t eat it back then. I will never eat it unless I am starving to death in the dead of winter which, IMO, is how they invented lutefisk in the first place. If I had been forced to affirm every aspect of the family culture, we certainly would not have stayed married for more than 25 years and had three kids.

Even in your closest relationships, you sometimes have to be pragmatic and disinterested and these things are the basis of a good, just and successful society. So let’s all of us keep our weird idiosyncrasies to ourselves. Not many people really care what we think, what turns us on and what we dislike. They don’t need to know. To use the sort of official term, don’t ask and don’t tell.

Posted by Jack at April 27, 2008 5:26 PM
Comment #251562


I belive pragmatism is the unemotional reality between optimism, and pessimism.
It is not positive nor is it negative.
It just is.

Every definition I have seen uses the word practical as a synonym.

Posted by: Rocky at April 27, 2008 7:39 PM
Comment #251571


There is pragmatism the simple word and pragmatism the philosophy. That my problem with using the word. I understand that both disinterested and pragmatism are not going to be readily understood in the context I mean them to be.

Let me share a pragmatism example. Remember the old controversy over transubstantiation, i.e. does the wafer really turn into the body of Christ? Pragmatically it tastes like bread and has all the characteristics of bread, so it just doesn’t matter. The same goes with the great evolutionary/intelligent design debate. You can accept that evolution happens and still argue that it is merely the mechanism God uses to order the universe. Did God set the universe in motion? It is a matter of faith, not science, so if you do not have faith, you cannot tell by reason or science, so choose whichever answer is more useful or just let the whole thing go.

That is why I like the pragmatic approach. You can just let lots of things go. I find that I apply the principle even at work. People try to explain all the arcane crap. I just try to find out what I have to DO. If nothing, I don’t need the analysis. If something, I might need only to know the next step. BTW – it also tends to keep people a little more honest. There is a lot more fruitless speculation if the explanation has to end with somebody actually doing something.

Pragmatism is just very useful and we used to be more pragmatic. Lately, however, we have begun to set up all sorts of rules and procedures that limit flexibility.

I would really like to see on the news a briefing by the president or the State Department where a reporter asks, “what is your opinion about the situation in … you name it?” And the answer is, “we don’t have one. Right now we just don’t care.”

Posted by: Jack at April 27, 2008 10:05 PM
Comment #251572

Jack, your NPR link doens’t go anywhere.

From dictionary dot com
1. unbiased by personal interest or advantage; not influenced by selfish motives
1. character or conduct that emphasizes practicality.
2. a philosophical movement or system having various forms, but generally stressing practical consequences as constituting the essential criterion in determining meaning, truth, or value.
1. Appearing as, wishing to be considered as, or having undergone surgery to become a member of the opposite sex.

I watched the L word, which was mostly enjoyable until they introduced a transgendered character, which has the uncomfortability of unfamiliarity, not unlike immigration, and lutefisk, which I think was usually consumed with shots of the good stuff, that doesn’t freeze in the winter.

Posted by: ohrealy at April 27, 2008 10:07 PM
Comment #251574


In the scheme of life my opinion of a transgendered person, be it male or female, doesn’t really matter. It’s their life, and their life doesn’t affect me one way or another.
It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that I don’t have the time to care, and as I don’t socialize in those circles it’s just not really a part of my life.

That said it does matter to me how that person is treated as a human being.

Posted by: Rocky at April 27, 2008 10:39 PM
Comment #251579


I agree completely. You and I are both pragmatic.


Definitions are fine, but it is not what you think you say that counts. It is what people hear. I can almost guarentee that if you use the word disinterested correctly, people will misunderstand you.

Imagine the confusion and possible pain to you if you wife asked your opinion about a dispute among her friends and you told her you were disinterested.

BTW – add to that list of practically unusable words – inflammable, homunculus, protean and sanguine, since you are very likely to make the person think the opposite of what you are trying to say. I am also careful with infer and imply. It drives me crazy, but most people will get that wrong half of the time (about the random chance level). Same goes for effect and affect. Best to recognize “progress” and give up gracefully, but not today with disinterested and pragmatism.

Posted by: Jack at April 27, 2008 11:01 PM
Comment #251581

Jack, the meaning of words doesn’s stay the same over time. New words are invented, and mistaken usages, if they become common enough, become accepted usage. The internet is a major source of the misuse of words. Disinterested may eventually be defined as uninterested, just as consensual and consentual now have some of the same meanings, although they were originally very different. Words that look similar are most likely to have their meanings changed.

Posted by: ohrealy at April 27, 2008 11:14 PM
Comment #251583


It is not a battle I can win, not even one I really want to win in general. But we have to be aware of the confusion when we do not have common expectations. Sometimes I choose a word carefully, but I know that many readers will not get the nuance. I always try to choose the simplest word that will fit, BTW, but some less common words are just very useful.

I cannot think of a good substitute for disinterested, so I have to talk around it. “Got no dog in that fight” is more colorful, but less elegant. Even that work - elegant - is very good but no longer something you can use with confidence.

O Tempora! O Mores!! I suppose we cannot even quote Cicero anymore and expect a response.

Posted by: Jack at April 27, 2008 11:47 PM
Comment #251585


When you come across a word you don’t know do you look it up?
Do you then use it as part of your vocabulary?

The major problem with the Internet is that the nuance of the spoken word is stripped away.

The problem with people is that when challenged by a word they don’t understand, they tend to take the easy way out.
No offence meant to anybody, but I think Ebonics is a prime example of this.
I have met folks in foreign countries that spoke better English than quite a few Americans, because they had to learn it the hard way.
I think that Jack will back me up on this.

Because of the colloquialisms we use in this country, American English is one of the worlds hardest languages to learn to speak even poorly.

Posted by: Rocky at April 28, 2008 12:01 AM
Comment #251587

Ebonics is a separate problem, but many colloquial usages become popular. I heard a news anchor say conversate instead of converse, and have found myself using wrong words that look similar to the correct word in writing. In speaking, most of us use the correct words. Writing has become very inexact. Everything is typed, and spellcheckers don’t correct wrong usage of correctly spelled words.

It’s not a new process, all words beginning with wh, originally began with hw instead. w and th have always been problematic, and still are for immigrants from countries where those sounds don’t exist. Col. McCormick, a long time publisher of the Chicago Tribune, tried to eliminated the silent gh’s for years.

Two people who had the most personal influence over the English language were Tyndale and “Shake-speare”. I’ve been interested in the Shakespeare authorship question for many years. It’s very difficult to get people to abandon the conventional viewpoint. In England, there is a somewhat of a socialist element involved in this, wanting to believe that a small town guy from nowhere could have written so much from a vantage that he never had. Besides, as with Tyndale, they would have killed him for it.

I often look words up, just to make sure the usage is correct. I try to write in a conversational manner, but I often look back on my writing and wonder how many people ever understand it. Here at watchblog, I now almost always preview what I write, which I never used to do, except to check if posted links were working. More errors creep in all the time, even when I preview, but that’s probably because I’m writing in dark blue on light blue.

Posted by: ohrealy at April 28, 2008 1:50 AM
Comment #251589


The Sisters of St. Francis pounded the proper usage of English grammar into my head many years ago.

The problem most foreigners have with conversational English is that many languages, especially the Latin based ones, don’t translate directly into English. Also the many words that sound the same (rain, rein, reign), but mean something entirely different, are problematic as well.

I have a habit that many people apparently don’t have the time for. I read books. Books with covers on them. My parents instilled in me a love of reading, and the woman I married is a book collector with a huge library that takes up an entire room in our house. Back in the ’90s one of the guys I worked with rekindled my love of classic authors, and ever since then I have taken at least one book with me everywhere I go.

The newscaster you spoke of was probably reading something that was written by someone else (on the teleprompter), and that someone didn’t take the time to proof read their work, or was writing on the fly.

Posted by: Rocky at April 28, 2008 6:02 AM
Comment #251592

Disinterested pragmatism is great until it is discovered to be intentional ignorance.

Posted by: googlumpugus at April 28, 2008 10:54 AM
Comment #251597
You can have a good long term relationship with someone and not know a thing about his/her personal life and this is often best.

This isn’t a “relationship”, this is an acquaintance…friends care about each other and support each other…you can’t do that at arm’s length.

Also pure pragmatism completely wipes out any element of faith…faith is anything but practical!! It’s a leap into the abyss…if you’re being completely practical, you’d never jump into the unknown or unknowable…

Holding people at arm’s length and having no faith seem like a rather dry life…no involvement in humankind at all!! Just me, me, me, and me…yup, that’s what you get when you don’t really relate to anyone.

Posted by: Rachel at April 28, 2008 11:40 AM
Comment #251599

Jack, Rocky, Oreahly

I have found that ones position in life generally determines to what degree they view the importance of words. Business people, policy makers, and many other professional people have a much greater need for careful selection of words than most working class people. I am of the latter but have been in situations where it was necessary to understand the importance of proper terminology. As Rocky says many or our words have variable meanings depending on the context they are used in.

As a union steward for many years I quickly learned the value of determining the intent of certain words or phrases within a document. Making sure that one understands intent is often crucial in dealing with violations or misunderstandings of a document. I raised the ire of our department head on more than one occasion during negotiations simply because I requested more specific language to determine intent, knowing that it would be helpful at a later date when dealing with grievances. I knew I would not get the language I wanted but at least my department head and I had that discussion of intent to provide a talking point at a later date if necessary. Trying to make people understand that very specific language would also demand very strict enforcement of the rules was a real headache. Much like Jack’s word, disinterested, I was never able to come up with one great word that says to people you simply can not have it your way all the time.

Now I now you all are most likely disinterested in all of the preceding paragraph. Because you don’t really care, you don’t have the time and it affects you personally in no way. But practically speaking I was merely attempting to point out the importance of careful use of words.

As a pragmatic philosophy I think that this fast paced age of massive information, readily available to a massive populace, is simply overwhelming for most and limits our capacity for close association with casual acquaintances. However that does not excuse feigning concern or showing kindness to those casual acquaintances who occasionally actually tell you how they are doing when politely asked as a simple greeting. I didn’t really want to know. But some people simply need a place to vent and I was in the right place at the wrong time. If that is all it takes to improve their daily outlook a little then I can live with that inconvenience.

Posted by: RickIL at April 28, 2008 12:09 PM
Comment #251601

Jack, isn’t your commentary just a thinly concealed attack on the concept of “it takes a village” and that liberal notion that were all in this together? Republicans have long promoted the notion of a Darwinian style every-man-for-himself society. The trouble with that is that life’s events often intrude upon the individual to the extent where one may need, or need to connect to society.
It’s easy to be “disinterested” in other people’s health problems when you, yourself, are insured and healthy.
If you’re straight, it’s easy to be “pragmatic” about other people’s orientation, until, of course, you discover that your female child is gay and wants to have a child with another woman (who do we know in that circumstance?)
Who really cares about the issue of gun control? what does it matter that society is armed to the teeth? Of course, if you’re the one who takes a bullet in the head (Jim Brady), then it is somehow becomes necessary to form a national pro-gun control organization.
“Pragmatic” is a wonderful word, but I think in this instance it’s just being used to pretty-up what is, essentially, a sociopathic philosophy.

Posted by: Charles Ross at April 28, 2008 12:47 PM
Comment #251607

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Posted by ohrealy at April 28, 2008 08:59 AM

Resent since the first time went nowhere.

Posted by: ohrealy at April 28, 2008 4:22 PM
Comment #251613

I agree with virtually every point you make; but I’m stuck trying to figure out the connection between “cutting off” and “stutter”. Do you imagine the operations you can’t endure the thought of involve surgery on the tongue? I believe you can set your mind at ease in that regard. That’s not what they cut off; and, although one’s tongue is very sensitive, they don’t use it for the reconstruction either.

Posted by: Elmer Suorez at April 28, 2008 5:39 PM
Comment #251615


Pragmatism doesn’t require an opinion about faith. That is between you and God. I have a personal faith. I think it is good if people do. People of faith are more reliable, healthier and more honest, as a general rule. But there are many exceptions and I have to judge behavior, not what people say they will do.

Re relationships – I mean that word exactly as it sounds. We have a relationship. A business relationship needs be only that. I have other relationships with people I know, like or love. I don’t want to spread that relationship thing too thin.

You know some people love all people in general, but are not fond of many individuals. If you invest too much in relationships with strangers, that will be your fate. You can be very nice, just and accommodating to people you don’t know, but you don’t need to get involved in their lives.

I think people need two modes on this. You have the faith, friends and family mode and the pragmatic business mode. It is a good idea not to mix them too much. You really cannot maintain personal relationships with too many people.

Nothing wrong with intentional ignorance. Many things are not our business. We don’t need to go out and look for trouble.


You make good points and I did read it.

I think you also make a case of polite manners. I treat people with respect and courtesy until they give me reason not to do so. As I have gotten older, I have come to understand more and more the importance of this sort of thing. Our emphasis on being “real” or “ourselves” is misguided. There are many situations where nobody wants me to be real or myself. I might be fulfilling a situational or formal role and my personal opinion about something is irrelevant. In some of my recent experience, I have had to play a leadership role where I have felt uncomfortable. I found that the people looking to me did not appreciate my sincere doubts or diffidence. They just needed to know what they should do and they needed me to do my duty and fulfill my role. In those cases, rather than be “yourself” you have to strive to be better.


It takes a village to raise a child. That is true. But you don’t want to extent that all over the place. My wife grew up in a small town. Everybody knew everybody else’s business and some people felt the need to interfere frequently. There is an up and a downside to this sort of thing. In most modern situations, we do not have the knowledge to interfere and so we should not presume the right.
Re your specific example about being gay, let me address that. I think a person’s sexual orientation is not my business. I don’t inquire about strangers and I don’t want them to bother me. Personally, I would very much prefer my children not to be gay. If they were, I would accept it and still love them as much. I think that is a perfectly rational, honest and good response. I won’t pretend I don’t have a preference, but I also won’t let that preference interfere with my responsibilities.

Posted by: Jack at April 28, 2008 5:53 PM
Comment #251623


Shudder. Sorry. My typo. I ams still not good at this proof reading and typing skill.

Posted by: Jack at April 28, 2008 8:27 PM
Comment #251643


Thanks, Sgt Shultzie. “I know nothing!!!” “I was only following orders!” “We do not torture” But how can you say that when there is photgraphic and video evidence? We do not torture. What about rendition? We do not torture.

It’s nun ur bizness. Ahhh, Ignorance is bliss. Disinterested pragmatism. or maybe facism.

Posted by: googlumpugus at April 29, 2008 2:11 AM
Comment #251650

Insurance is a wonderful thing. It gives us the peace of mind knowing that someone has our back, and it provides us with the security we need in the event of an accident that can alter the course of our lives. Long-term care insurance is no different, but many feel they cannot get it because they do not know how they will afford long-term care insurance.

Posted by: Long Term Care at April 29, 2008 5:08 AM
Comment #251701
You really cannot maintain personal relationships with too many people.

That sounds just so sad…

Posted by: Rachel at April 29, 2008 4:20 PM
Comment #251709

Jack, I bet you mean “shudder”. Sorry to be so persistent but getting the words right in an argument lends authority to the declarer; and I believe you are essentially correct in your argument.

The good news is that I probably will not come this way again except by chance.

Posted by: Elmer at April 29, 2008 5:25 PM
Comment #251723


Sorry again. My bad. Sometimes I am stupid. Fixed it.

Posted by: Jack at April 29, 2008 7:23 PM
Comment #251759

Are you worried that you may lose all your life’s earnings and nest egg due to the rising costs of in-home long term care? As you get older do you have the necessary finances to protect yourself from going broke while slightly incapacitated? Many seniors are worried about are worried about the costs of long-term health care.

Posted by: Long Term Care at April 30, 2008 3:02 AM
Comment #251771

Detachment from one and all makes a person feel like they’re in control…but we all know that is never the case. Might as well be involved with people…you never know when you’ll need their help and companionship.

Posted by: Rachel at April 30, 2008 10:40 AM
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