Wednesday, June 3, 2009

May, Can, Should

This past Wednesday was the fourteenth anniversary of my dad's death, so I've been thinking about him quite a lot. The annual funk has mostly past, thanks to my sometimes awesome husband and kiddo, and some amazing music at the Kent Stage. One think that pops up about my dad at odd times is everything he taught me about the importance of semantics and words. They matter. In a world where new words are created frequently and by simple usage (think "incentivize"), and where grammar is falling by the wayside at an alarming rate, the words we use and their definitions continue to mean a great bit.

One of dad's sticking points was the use of may/can/should. If I were to ask "Can I go to Tiffany's?" I would undoubtedly get the answer "I don't know- can you?" Until I finally learned to ask "May I?" It was frustrating beyond belief to my child-like brain that thought the thirty second delay on my sleepover would mark the end of the world. I eventually learned, and I now find myself doing the same to my Ken, although he's less receptive to the nuances of language.

Of late, I've been wanting to lecture some of the adults in my life about may/can/should, although I typically let it go with just a glare and arms crossing. Let's review. "Can" implies the ability to do something. There is only physical/mental/social ability in this definition; it speaks nothing to legality or otherwise. I can hear, see, and speak because I have all of these abilities. Most of the population in the US can also do these things, excepting of course those who are deaf, blind, or mute, respectively. If I so choose, I can strangle the person next to me that won't get of his cell phone and insists on talking at approximately 90 db.

"May" is the permission or the allowance to do something. As a citizen of the US, I may speak, write, think, and gather as I choose because all of these things are protected rights. That same person whom I can strangle I refrain from doing so, because according to the law I may not kill another person. And I'm a just-cause pacifist- I swear- although his level of annoying may soon hit "justifiable" by some measures. By this same token, in places like China many people who can speak out against the government don't because they are not allowed. Regarding human and civil rights, what one person may do should in no way be different from what another person may do, and especially this difference should not be based on minority or majority status.

"Should" implies a moral obligation to do something. Exceptions can be made for "should" due to inability. Should also depends on priorities and necessity. Everyone should help to provide for those not able to provide for themselves, but sometimes people can't due to lack of funds, e.g.

Consider for a moment the environment. What can you do to help? What are you able to do? Can you recycle, pull invasive weeds, lower your resource usage, compost, grow some of your own food, buy organic/local/fair trade/natural, drive less or re-use more?

Of those things that you have thought, what may you do? Does your locality have any restrictions on compost bins, clotheslines, or solar panels? Do you have access to bike lanes, sidewalks, public transit, close shopping places, recycling, thrift stores and rental places (including libraries)?

Now, what should you do for the environment? This is the tricky one. Realistically speaking, our environment is such that you should do as much as you can and may. Our planet needs the help. It's failing. Some will tell that if we don't change our ways, there is an environmental crisis coming. I'm telling you- it's here. Just like those economists said a recession was coming when we were already seeing significant downturns, while others waited for "more proof." You might not notice the crisis- it's easy to ignore when it's not you that has to walk five miles for water, disregarding potability. In fact, if you happen to live in a locality with arcane laws- the first thing you should do is attempt to get laws/infrastructure changed to more environmentally friendly options.

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