Making Distinctions

William F. Buckley Jr would famously slouch into his chair, pushing it as far back as it could lean, so that he could stare with glassy-eyed calculation at his interlocutor as a frog might stare at a fat fly, and he would bite the end of his pen, intoning, “Er, very well, Mr. Ambassador, but shall we, um, make, ah, some distinctions?

The electricity evoked by this laconic request was a sight to behold, week after week, for decades, and in many and various contexts, because he was asking the interlocutor to analyze his own argument, which, in front of people, is a terribly uncomfortable thing to do. The forensic quality of Buckley’s forensics is instructive for use in the forum, or as we like to say here at Sweet Talk, in the agora, where debate is open and, more importantly, lively. The problem, of course, is that in a pluralistic environment, an argument–nay, even a mere observation will be made that will create a visceral response, and the initial reactions will be formed by viscera. Generally, petards and hoisting are subsequent, and probably consequent. This is what makes it fun, at least until the psychopaths arrive.


An article was forwarded to me, entitled “What is Ritual?” and I clicked over to read it. At once I was delighted; moments later, I had a visceral reaction–I didn’t like the article, but I should have–and it has taken me days to, um, make, ah, some distinctions. I was flummoxed how the piece was lucid, well-researched, well-written, and relatively jargon-free–indeed, I learned a great deal from it in a short time–but, for some reason, seemed convoluted and confusing, as I put it in my initial visceral reaction: hopelessly so. Of that I do hereby repent.

Remember: “Shall we make distinctions?” is an invitation for the interlocutor to examine his own argument, so, disciplining myself, I turned my reaction around upon myself. Therefore, “Why am I confused?” replaces “Why is this confusing?” The onus is now upon myself.

As a general rule, I am seeking application of ideas, not description; in other words, I want to shoot the arrows I have more effectively, not add more arrows to my quiver. “What is Ritual?” actually says “application” in two different ways. First, the notion of ritual is an active and participatory reality. Ritual, like crime, is everywhere, in little ways and in big ways, and ritual is a common human experience presently. Second, the present tense of the copulative “to be” (is) seems to say that the post is going to define this participatory reality so that I can better understand and do application. Because of my desire to read for application, I read the title as drawing an equals sign: “X = ritual.”

My expectations stretched the second point; “is” is simply a copulative, and can function in many different ways, regardless of tense. As the piece unfolded, my own expectations, not the piece itself, disappointed me, but if I may offer the gentlest critique, perhaps the piece should have been entitled, “How Ritual Came To Be.” That’s not a big change, but change enough to reveal a distinction that should be made, a distinction that can apply quite broadly.

Take any social-economic phenomenon: for example, the practice of tipping rarys, something all the kids were doing back in the 1940s, but let’s pretend we all tip rarys this very day, and our lives are wound up in the pleasure of tipping rarys. “My God, Chet,” someone exclaims. “Why do we so love tipping rarys?” If we are all in the act of tipping the rary, or preparing to tip the rary, it is inappropriate and useless, utterly useless, for Chet to describe the historical process which brought forth tipping rarys.

On the other hand, when the academy finds it worthwhile to study the social-economic phenomenon of tipping rarys, the history of the practice is absolutely necessary and essential so that we can make some distinctions, namely whether the practice of tipping rarys is the flower of its own root, or whether it has been plucked and is being kept alive in a new context with its own historical-social-economic significance. The determining factor is, of course, not the practice itself, but the community which practices it. From there a study of the history of the community flows, which study has a goal of identifying the present circumstances of the community, its practices, and its tenets over against its historical identity, not to somehow confine and limit it.

When Father Carves the Duck is an easily recognizable Thanksgiving ritual, lampooned. “How Ritual Came To Be” informs us readily with descriptors of primal provenance, e.g., the sacrificial duck, but it hardly addresses what is going on presently in this ritual, and why the poem resonates among cultural participants. If the description of what is going on travels too far from “familial interaction,” it fails to be an effective describing process for the purpose of application. In other words, there is no sacrificial duck here. What, then, is this? More distinctions are needed to be made. More work.

It’s a long way to tip a rary.

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