There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

Now that I’m retired, I’ve decided I need a cause -something about which I am passionate. But I’m having trouble with that part, I’m afraid. At my age, religion should spring immediately to mind, I suppose, but it doesn’t.

No, if I’m going to have a cause, it might as well be for something I believe in. You need conviction to really get into a cause. But then I read an essay by Michael Patrick Lynch, a professor of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut, and now I am not so sure I’ll ever qualify. ‘A conviction isn’t just a strongly held belief,’ he writes, ‘I strongly believe that two and two make four, but that doesn’t rise to the level of a conviction. Convictions are about what matters to us. Most importantly, they signify to others what kind of person – parent, friend, citizen – we take ourselves to be. They reflect our self-identity. It is this fact that makes a conviction feel so certain, so right.’

In fact, convictions even lead to other things: ‘many of us come to see criticism [of our convictions] as intolerable and disagreement with our opinions as a mark of moral inferiority… it’s a problem because it can lead to dogmatism, and when it comes to matters like climate change or immigration, even violent fanaticism.’ Frankly, this isn’t what I had in mind.

I just want something that occupies my mornings and leaves the afternoons free for personal stuff -like going for walks, or sitting around in food courts hoping I see somebody I know. I certainly don’t want to have to defend convictions that I’m not really passionate about -that I don’t actually understand anyway. And because people’s convictions reflect the kind of persons they aspire to be ‘they are ready to make all sorts of sacrifices for them – including sacrificing the facts and logic if need be… it is connected to a person’s identity, [so] giving up a conviction – even admitting it might need some improvement – feels like an act of self-betrayal and a betrayal of their tribe.’

To my knowledge, I have never belonged to a tribe, so I think I’m safe on that one. Still, as Lynch points out, ‘People’s identities, particularly political identities, are not formed in isolation. We construct them by adopting opinions that are woven into larger cultural stories of the tribes we want to remain part of.’ All the same, I guess some of us never really figure out who owns us and therefore where our loyalties should lie -and that being the case, whether or not we still get to carry their business cards.

Apparently, ‘it is the nature of cultural narratives to expand… The stories become about who “we” are, who “they” are, why we are right and they are wrong.’ So much for my forays into Food Courts to make new friends, I guess. Furthermore, Lynch believes ‘As a result, opinions about questions that should be settled by empirical data – like the safety of vaccines or the effectiveness of a wall for stemming illegal immigration or the reality of climate change– end up being absorbed into a larger identity-shaping story. They become convictions and immune to evidence.’

He thinks that social media and its concomitant confirmation bubbles seem to have put paid to any thoughtful, independently reasoned causes. ‘Platforms like Facebook not only let people communicate their emotions; they let people reward and punish each other for doing so… As a result, commitments that we think are principled, a result of the evidence and our individual story of our best self, are actually just fragments of a larger cultural story.’

In fact, Lynch has tried to make me doubt the very idea that there can ever be a truly causeful retirement: ‘When people are unaware that convictions can seem principled while actually being blind, they are helpless in the face of the conviction machine. And that helplessness makes their stories – their very identities – vulnerable to being hijacked by those who feed off tribalism and focus conviction-inspired rage into an ideology of contempt and hate.’

Hey, wait a minute… Suppose I decide I’m not really convicted (sorry, a bad choice of words); suppose, I just sort of believe in a cause -but, you know, not really? Something like, say, punctuation -I’m already pretty good at that, I think. And I’m not actually nailed to what I learned from Miss Toujours in Grade 4 English. I am open to wavering.

Just the other day, for example, I was sitting in my favourite Tim Hortons and wondering why they don’t seem to feel the need of a possessive apostrophe between the ‘n’ and the ‘s’. It seemed like such a poor example to be setting for those who are just learning the language, so I decided it might be useful to canvass opinion on the matter.

There was a large elderly, man with a heavily greying beard, a faded red bandana around his head nursing a coffee and a doughnut at the next table. He was dressed in a rather broken-in leather jacket over a tee shirt with a message I couldn’t read, and from what I could see, rather well-used jeans that almost covered his boots. Not much to go on, I suppose, but you take what you find, eh?

He seemed a perfect representative of aging propriety -someone well able to offer a zeitgeistal commentary on the vicissitudes of current syntactical wanderings.

“Excuse me,” I said, leaning over towards his table, with an expectant smile on my lips. “I was wondering if you think Timmie’s should use a possessive apostrophe on their trademark sign.” I felt it was an innocent question, devoid of any hint of challenge.

He took it as a vacuous invasion of his private space, though, and stopped me with a glare. Then he issued an ominous blink that I took as a warning -you learn to read faces when you go to enough coffee shops. “What…?” he hissed, and took a predatory bite from his doughnut. “You some sort of University Professor…?”

I could feel the contempt as he capitalized the honorific. “No, I was just…”

“Just showing off your education…?” he interrupted before I could formulate even a feeble exculpatory response.

At any rate I could feel that I was becoming irritated at his constant use of the ellipsis -embarrassed, even, at his grammatical poverty. And in that instant, suspended as I was in the checkpoint space between two tables -I realized I  was inhabiting an existential moment: a Lynchian ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation with nary a real conviction to fall back onto. I decided to exercise the discretion part of valour and gathered up my things to leave.

“And no,” he said in a rather loud voice to my back as I attempted to bin the detritus from my table, “… the possessive apostrophe is an English construction, and after the Parti Quebecois passed Bill 101 in 1977 mandating that all signs had to be in French, the company, which had many outlets in Quebec at the time, figured it wasn’t worth having two different trademark signs and decided to go without…”

When I turned around to acknowledge his little homily, I could see that he was smiling at me. Sometimes I think we take ourselves too seriously, so I ordered another coffee and joined him at his table.

I’m still uncertain whether I joined a new tribe, or just another table, however.


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