Vive Le Canada

Merely mentioning mendacious murmerings madden Mother Mary, methinks
Date: Tuesday, February 06 2007

Mere, merely/simple, simply and other mechanisms we use to show ourselves big, when in fact we play small
(more to follow my swan song)

Interrogations: Mere

Ophelia Benson

An eclectic, literary challenge to everyday thinking.

A single word, even a mere monosyllable, can often convey more than seems possible. Yes or no, for example.

'Mere' is one. If we call something mere, that can be a mechanism for making ourselves feel puffed up: more important, special, significant, valuable; for providing ourselves with an opportunity to feel superior. What I do is not mere, what I do is interesting, complex, profound, subtle, sophisticated. What those other people over there do is mere.

This is a highly unattractive maneuver. We've all seen people do it (and sneered or flinched or frowned, and probably felt superior), we've all done it ourselves. Sometimes we catch ourselves, and laugh and (if there are witnesses) acknowledge and mock the fault; sometimes we don't. Jane Austen's novels are packed with characters whose entire lives are centered on saying mere, and often for the worst possible reasons. Thorstein Veblen wrote a well-known book about people using money and the spending of it to say mere. The idea of saying mere is well entrenched in economics and sociology, in thoughts about positional goods, status, keeping up with someone or other. Much advertising and consumption and hence much of the economy is based on saying mere. People who drive BMWs get to think mere of all the poor drones driving Hondas and Fords. People who drive SUVs the size of a small house get to think mere of everyone driving one merely the size of a shed.

But however invidious and repellent it can be, and however people misattribute mereness, the idea behind it can be a useful motivator too. If we think some things are mere and we want the things that are not mere, we're always at liberty to decide for ourselves which things are mere. The self-congratulation and self-puffing-up may be only a minor, manageable side effect.

We can decide for instance that money and position themselves are the very things that are mere. We don't care about that dross, that mess of pottage, we're after bigger game. We look higher. Making the world a better place, making discoveries, conveying discoveries to others, creating beauty. Mere is a flexible word, and it is always possible for the people driving small old battered cars, not to mention the people walking or biking or taking the bus, to call the people in SUVs mere, too. Mere money-mad philistines, for example, mere polluters, wasters of resources, menaces to pedestrian safety, blots on the landscape, mere deluded materialists who can't think of any better way to spend their money or any more genuinely impressive way to show off. They are the mere ones, and we seekers of higher things look down on them.

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