Saturday, September 12, 2015

What it means to be sacred and what it means to be sold on something

Over at Slacktivist Fred used a meaning of sacred that, I feel, is in line with common usage.  It's also (again: I feel) in line with the use of "sacred" in the term "sacred values" which is a thing in the science of decision making (studying how and why people make decisions, not the science of making decisions well.)  It got a lot of pushback.

First, the term "sacred values" since it is a technical terms that you're probably not familiar with.

Looking at decision making through the lens of values has everything become about trading value.  You sell something at a yard sale and you're trading material value (you don't have it once it's gone) for economic value (you get money) but there's more than just that.  It might have sentimental value, and getting rid of it might have value too (more space.)

The choice to sell, then, becomes a set of values on one side and a set of values on the other side and whether or not you're up for trading what the item means for one set for the sale can get for the other.

Decisions don't always, or even usually, involve money.  Do I enjoy my free time today or help a friend move?  There's a lot that can go into that one.  You might be putting the value of self care up against the value of friendship.  It could involve whether or not your body is in good working order.

But in the end, through the values theory, it's still a trade, still a transaction.  You sacrifice/compromise this to get that.

But some values are resistant to trade.  People will often say that they'd never compromise them, but the truth is that there are few absolutes in the world.  What is true is that in most situations these values trump every other class of values, and also that if you try to get someone to compromise them for economic value or some materialistic value you'll get a strong backlash.

A lot of economic theory doesn't take these values into account, and thus assumes that raising the price high enough will get someone to agree to anything, missing that in some cases the mere act of putting a price on something can shut down negotiation entirely.

But back to decision making and the values model.

Using an article that's for lay-people (from Scientific American) when asked to trade or compromise these values people "exhibit moral outrage, express anger and disgust, become increasingly inflexible in negotiations, and display an insensitivity to a strict cost-benefit analysis of the exchange."

This is good if it stops people from taking a bribe, not so good if you're trying to negotiate and you tripped over one without realizing it.  Moral outrage, anger, disgust, inflexibility, and [however you say that last one in a word or two] do not go away the moment the value in question is taken off the table.

Think about it like someone trying to sell you an internal combustion engine.  If they suggest one that operates by burning kittens, you're probably not going to open to dealing with them if they say, "Ok, obviously you're not going to go for that, have you considered the benefits of vegetable oil?" because no matter how open you might normally be to bio-fuel, this person just tried to convince you to burn kittens for fuck's sake.

So what are these particular values that resist trading and, in fact, produce moral outrage when asked to be traded called?  "Sacred values"

I think this fits common usage.  When something is "sacred" you're not willing to compromise it and it's not up for sale.  You're more of, "I don't care that the effects are more pretty; Han Shot First."

When we talk about the sacred Oxford English Dictionary, we're talking about the fact that certain people are highly resistant to contradicting their value that the OED is authoritative no matter what you offer in return (I've got six years of research on common usage here that says the OED is wrong on that point.)

When we say, "Is nothing sacred?" we basically mean, "Is nothing off limits?" which in turn goes back to the transaction idea in sacred values.  For something to be off limits means that a person can't be convinced (even by themselves) to do it.  The value will not be traded.

You don't violate a sacred space because it's off limits, that means you're resistant to doing it even when great value is placed on the "do it" side of the equation.  You can't be easily bought of with money or reasoning.

Fred Clark sums this all up as, "Sacred means not for sale."

And this gets us to what it means to be sold on something.  Because "sold" means a lot of related things.

If I say, "I'm still not sold on going to see another movie about an angsty white guy, no matter how good the supporting cast is," I'm not asking you to give me money to sell me on it.  I'm asking for reasons.  Those reasons can be monetary.  If your response is, "I'll give you a million dollars if you do," (and you're good for it, and I believe you'll go through with it) then it's off to the angsty white guy movie movie for me because I value that million dollars more than I value spending two hours not watching angsty white guy movie.  But they probably won't be monetary.

Some things have low prices ("Why did you spray paint that?" "Because it was there.")  Some things have high prices ("Why did you risk your life?" "Because there was a kid about to be hit by a bus.")

Some things resist having prices put on them entirely.  And I'm totally down with saying that those things are the sacred things because it fits with the usage I've seen in my life including the incredibly racist/ethnocentric (and inaccurate) phrase "sacred cow."

Religious and secular, sacred things are resistant to being compromised no matter the price.  They aren't immune from it, but they're highly resistant and that whole moral outrage et. al. thing very much fits.

In my opinion.  Which is not shared by a lot of people.


Random other thing I want to get out there because someone had to leave a conversation for outside reasons and respecting their right to leave meant I never got a chance to respond to something and it's sort of simmering inside of me wanting to get out.

It's about "sold on" vs "sold".

I used the "sold on" construction.  That's very closely related in meaning to "sold" in terms of transaction (give me X to get my Y) but it's very different in terms of what actually happens.

After I used it person who had to bow out said:
Well, context matters, obviously.  
In that particular usage, yes, it's clear that you're not saying "Give me money."  
But if you were in a grocery store and you said, "Sell me milk" to one of the employees, it's unlikely that the employee would assume that you were asking to be convinced that milk is worthwhile.
I see that as equivocation.  Unintentional and thus non-malicious equivocation.  I see it that way because it's basically saying, "If you say, 'Sell me milk,' people won't respond as if you said, 'sell me on milk,'" while eliding the fact that 'Sell me milk' and 'sell me on milk' are not the same thing, and thus hiding the fact that the difference there isn't context.

If you're trying to get someone to sell you X, that means you've already been sold on X.

Context does, obviously, matter.

If you say to a grocery store employee, "Sell me on milk," they're probably going to look at you funny and not actually do what you told them to do because that's not their job.  If you go to a drinks expo and say to the person in the milk booth, "Sell me on milk," they're probably going to try to convince you milk is worthwhile because that is their job.

Context matters, obviously, but the reason that you don't get sold on milk when you say "sell me milk" is that these are different things regardless of the context.

To sell me on milk you give me reasons to get my opinion on your side.
To sell me milk you give me milk to get my money in your hands/cash register/bank account/thingy.

It's "sell" in both cases because there's a transaction (or, if the selling failed, an attempted transaction) of you give me X and I give you Y, but the X and the Y are very different.

"Sold on" vs. "Sold": different regardless of context.


And that concludes today's installment of "chris the cynic uses Stealing Commas to get things out of her head that she couldn't properly say in the context where it actually mattered."


  1. ...mmph, I've been skipping the threads because I've been tired this week and they've all been two-hundred-comment monsters (screw Disqus), but I feel like I understand you, I agree with you, and I have objections to his original post that are orthogonal to the disagreement over the definition of sacred. And I ought to say so on Slacktivist, where Fred has a better chance to see it.

    1. I don't blame you for not wanting to wade into the comments there right now.

      If you really feel like Fred is missing an important point and ought to hear your criticism, he does have his email listed on his about page:

    2. ...geez. I don't know if I can go there. I feel like I would just be spamming him if I did that. And I don't even know how to communicate what I mean in a way which makes sense - I went ahead and posted another comment, but it just kind of illustrated to me how big a gap there seems to be between my perception of the world and his. -_-