Hitting the Wrong Note

wrontnote_viamarimaThere are things you can say in polite company, and things you can say in private; we all know this, and yet we profess shock upon hearing publically those things we deem for limited specific company only. But it isn’t the sentiment we reject, it’s the form: we have an entire structure of polite register that allows us to express private sentiments publically, but less directly. That is, after all, the structure of formal English—to say with euphemism and evasion those things we could say bluntly with a more limited audience.

So there are really two kinds of shock to pick from when someone breaks these rules. One kind is shock at whatever private thing has been laid bare, no matter how it was said. The other kind is shock at the breaking of convention, and cares very little about the sentiment involved. For politicians, masters of gaming the rules, it is the breaking of those rules that requires response. For the rest of us, as decent human beings, it is the sentiment that requires response.

Thus we have now two kinds of shock that occur in concert, and thus also we have the strange discord inspired by dissonance: these two notes seem to ring together, and yet they ring false. Continue reading

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You Can’t Say That

Words_ViaMichelleTribePolitical correctness is one of those things that conservatives love to hate. Understandably; there are few areas where people can indulge in righteous disdain and still maintain broad support (instead of just looking like jerks). And why not? There aren’t many people, I think, who enjoy being on the receiving end of the language police. It’s understandably infuriating to be told that you said whatever you said the wrong way, even though your meaning was obviously clear.

Liberals tend to dislike the label “political correctness.” But that doesn’t stop them from patrolling the boundaries of acceptable language and bending over backwards to avoid including offensive words in everyday life. And why not? There are histories of oppression baked into our language, just as they are baked into every other part of our society. Language often contains fossilized prejudice, and we do well to root it out.

Where these two views conflict, I think, is in their understanding of what we’re supposed to be fixing. For liberals, changing language isn’t the ostensible goal—it’s a marker for change in attitudes. But for conservatives, the narrative of political correctness is the opposite—that changing language is just about framing your attitude in a different way. Continue reading

“No, Where Are You Really From?”

chairs_viaWildInWoodsThat was the question he asked, to a man near the front, when the first answer wasn’t good enough.

It was a workshop I attended recently with people I did not know. Some of them had traveled a ways to attend, but so had the presenter. And, when he called on the man, the presented asked what is an entirely reasonable question: “where are you from?” It was relevant to the work at hand, and something entirely acceptable to ask in a group.

“Boston,” the man replied.

With nary a missed beat, the (older, white, male) presenter replied, “no, where are you really from?”

I couldn’t miss the unspoken “…because of course you aren’t one of us.”

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Antidisestablishmentarianism

Establishment_viaFabioVenniI’ve been having a problem lately with the word “establishment.” It’s a two-part problem, and one part of that problem is that I cannot seem to read anything about our current election cycle without getting run over by “the establishment.” The other part of the problem is the difference between what it means and how we actually use it.

To take the first part of the problem, I keep hearing about how Trump supporters are against the establishment, and how Bernie supporters are against the establishment, and about how no, actually Hillary is also against the establishment, and Cruz is most definitely against the establishment, and to be safe, lets just say all political candidates are anti-establishment.

We’ll gloss right over the problem of who the establishment actually is for now and accept that it’s fashionable to be against it.

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Confusing Categories: GMOs

FDA_Nutrition_Facts_Label_2006My home state of Vermont voted to label GMOs not so long ago. Unsurprisingly, Bernie Sanders also supports labeling GMOs. Perhaps more surprisingly, some large food manufacturers are starting to move in that direction as well, notably and recently Campbell Soup. For many progressives and liberals, GMO labeling represents a win in food advocacy.

But I try not to have sacred cows, and I try to question everything, and thus I find myself forced into a different, and locally controversial, position. It’s not that I’m against labeling GMOs exactly, because I really am not sure what I think about that aspect of the debate. But I get stuck on one sort of important observation: “GMO” doesn’t mean any one thing. Or at least, I don’t think it means something in the way we keep talking about it.

Let me explain: so far as I can tell, there are three major categories of thing on food labels.

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The Democracy of Language

PronounsAs someone who works with words for a living, I always feel a little bit traitorous when I talk about the fluidity of language. My undergraduate studies in linguistics left me with a dialectic view of how language works. The conventional view of language, though, has the same deep currents of judgment and correctness and power that lie simmering in the rest of any culture.

Should I accept those? Should I treat language as brittle and defend narrow meanings and usages from shattering change? Or should I treat language as malleable clay that can and must be sculpted to best convey any idea? My inclinations lie obviously with the latter, but I retain a fondness for the certain bedrock of the former, and an empathy for those drawn to that view. Thus I am always aware that when I advocate use of the singular “they,” for example, I am casting a vote that goes against the grain for some.

The democracy of language is my bridge. By treating language as a democratic exercise, I acknowledge both the importance of the consensus view and the option of disregarding it. If a majority of English speakers believe prepositions should never be used at the end of a sentence, I can acknowledge and respect their view as a convention. At the same time, I can look at the native grammar of English and realize that prepositions are perfectly fine things to end sentences with.

Likewise I can treat pedantry with some respect, and embrace it in the spirit of inquiry rather than the spirit of restriction it so often carries. To be corrected, to hear that consensus view, is no shame—it is just a broadening of knowledge. But by receiving it as one option among many, I can just as easily and comfortably set it aside.

Still, there are some moments when pedantry slips out of the realm of mere language and becomes a channel for cultural currents. In the hands of the righteous, pedantry can acquire the sort of disdainful viciousness only well-chosen words can really achieve.

I do advocate the use of the singular “they.” I think it is a natural, elegant, and gracious choice to give respect both to those who identify outside a gender binary, and, equally importantly, to acknowledge that gender can be incidental. I should not need to know your gender to hear your ideas, to hire you for a job, to convey a delightful anecdote about you to a friend.

And so, when I read from a colleague in higher education sweeping dismissal of the use or relevance of new pronouns, the singular “they” along with, I am annoyed. I would like to receive this pedantry as a suggestion, but I find that difficult in the face of arguments that “they are entitled to their own identity, but not to their own grammar,” (and why not, exactly?) and that faculty don’t know “how to deal with this violation of basic subject-verb agreement” (no doubt the top of the educational priority list). This is followed by some hand-waving arguments about not kowtowing to “safety” and “comfort” as if those ideas have any relationship to the inclusion of a singular and a plural in the same word.

Happily, this author didn’t provide their gender, nor do I need it to discuss their work. Gender does not matter to my opinion, which is that they are engaging in the worst sort of pedantry—that sort of pedantry that is stolid and unyielding and defensive, the sort of pedantry that is the usual province of grumpy old white men and stereotypical English teachers. So I will address such pedants directly, and this author in particular, and I will do it using what, if they had any historical view of language whatsoever, would be the bane of their existence: the pronoun “you.”

For you, Melvin the pedant, who does not know this: a piece of linguistic history. The pronoun “you,” like “they,” was once solely plural. The singular second-person pronouns were “thee” and “thou.” As levels of formality began to drop out of English, so, too, did the distinction between the singular and plural in the second person. You probably don’t realize that you are using a plural pronoun in the singular every time you address one of your students. And thus does the rest of your argument, which rests on the implicit idea that language is fixed, collapse under its own decaying weight.

Please, if you must be a pedant, be an educated pedant. Make arguments out of elegance, out of convention, out of inquiry and desire for precision. Do not make arguments out of the specious idea that your own set of language is the only set, or that it should be.

Because, for the rest of us, I maintain that language is a democratic exercise. And you are being out-voted.

Sleight of Words

There is an entirely worthwhile debate to be had about how we name people in challenging situations. The more controversial the situation, the important this debate becomes. Finding the right words, the words that describe groups and events accurately, dispassionately, and without bias, is rarely accomplished without such debate.

Yet most every time these debates occur, there are those who leap ahead with labels instead of arguments. These people appropriate words and use them to push their perspectives as fait accompli, sidestepping the reasoned debate that might lead to a more balanced conclusion. When we are wise, we do not allow this manipulation. When we are unwise, we fail to notice.

People are fleeing Syria at the moment, trying to the best of their ability to escape a dangerous and hostile environment that threatens their lives and the lives of their families. They are risking their lives to escape, which should tell us something about their desperation and need. And, as it often does in such times, xenophobia has reached a fevered pitch in response.

migrantCNNThe clumsy have attempted to equate these refugees with ISIS, or with terrorism (a word itself co-opted long ago). The subtle, the propagandists, did not waste time making their arguments—instead, they went forth boldly to discuss a “migrant crisis,” advancing with their label an argument untenable in logic: that all these people seeking refuge are merely vagrants.

That we were slow to critique this word, that some continue to repeat it, and that only belatedly have we arrived at debate, suggests to me that we are not sufficiently cautious about such naming. This is not the only example, and sometimes we have gone much longer ignoring the question.

More than a decade ago, the United States invaded Iraq, toppled its government, and sought, without any clear understanding of the political or religious issues involved, to create a new government out of whole cloth. We drafted some leaders, left an occupying force, and scratched our heads as peace did not descend, as many Iraqis did not feel especially liberated, and as many people continued to die.

We did these things on false pretenses, and so I was not surprised when we explained them under false pretenses as well. We labeled the Iraqis who fought us and our created government as “insurgents.” We talked about quelling an “insurgency” as though these people were attacking an established body, rather than a piece of stage dressing that had yet to win the confidence or engagement of its constituency. The truth was so much more complex, and so much more difficult, than the label. Yet there was little public criticism, and the media embraced the “insurgency” as quickly as they have embraced the “migrant crisis.”

We have used labels, too, to justify ourselves when we have no justification. Just recently the Associated Press updated their style guide to stop calling deniers of climate science “skeptics,” a change those same deniers deeply resent and which has been all too long in coming. Because, of course, the label of “skeptic” implies a person who is justifiably hesitant, who is considering critically, and who is careful about beliefs and evidence.

Climate deniers were none of these things. Perhaps, twenty years ago, the term “climate skeptic” might have been justified. Even then the science was fairly clear, but there was justifiable debate about the extent of the problem. Now, when the only controversy remaining is political, the term “climate skeptic” is a laughable pretense. I continue to refer to these people as “deniers,” because I do not see how any other word is justified. The AP has chosen to call them “doubters,” but there is no doubt about the evidence—thus, their doubt is perverse and irrational, and to oppose the conclusions of climate science appears to me, inevitably, to be denial.

There is no way around the power of these names. Those doing the naming define the baselines, the scope, and the tenor of a conversation. When we say there is a “migrant crisis,” suddenly we have introduced doubt about whether we are obliged to help these people; instead, the debate is about whether the people fleeing and dying are truly in need. Likewise when we say there is an insurgency, there is no debate about whether we, in creating a particular set of rulers, were mistaken; instead, the debate is how to preserve that government. And when we let deniers pretend to be skeptics, we allow a debate long settled to continue as though it were not intellectually dishonest.

I cannot help but wonder how often these words are chosen intentionally, and how often they are simply summoned from the zeitgeist to serve as avatars. The former is duplicitous, and thus likely, and yet I think we are duplicitous with ourselves nearly as often as we are with others. And because we fool ourselves, we must be cautious to remember that a label is not an argument, and that it is incumbent on us to question its provenance and honesty. And I think also, we must question a bit more loudly.