First off, a disclaimer: I’m a language snob. I may use a wide variety of frowned-upon slang, obscure localisms and creatively-worded profanity, but I also know the difference between a complete sentence and a formless vomiting-up of consonants.
If only that were the norm.
Over the past decade, society’s general appreciation of language has taken a turn for the apocalyptic. I’m not just talking about bad grammar or mystifying syntax, because everybody makes common errors despite their best intentions. And I’m not the kind of typo nazi who seizes on a single misspelling as a convenient excuse to invalidate a person’s entire argument (see: any comment thread on Newsvine).
What I’m talking about is an increasing public resentment toward intellectuals, literature, complexity and complicated communications in general. I’m talking about the dumbing-down of modern discourse due to complaints that big words make subliterate people feel small. And I’m talking about the general refusal of broader society to hold itself to a higher standard than an elementary school reading level for fear that the great unwashed masses won’t be able to play along.
But mostly, I’m talking about the following three examples of things that confuse, exasperate and infuriate me.
How You Use Language Defines You In the Eyes of Others
It’s one of the uncomfortable truths of Twitter: if you pay attention to the Trending Topics, you can often tell which ones were started by a “metropolitan” audience and which ones were started by an “urban” audience. That’s because the metro hashtags usually involve mainstream news items or technology headlines, while the urban hashtags tend to be grammatical affronts like #uknowuhood and #uknowurathug.
When I noticed a recent topic called #teachaniggatuesday, I made a few sarcastic remarks on Twitter that prompted some exchanges with African-American Twitter users. My argument is that anytime a culture chooses to refer to itself by a slur, no matter how empowering they feel that action is, it’s another excuse for outsiders to write them off. One of the counter-arguments I received was, essentially, “I refuse to be categorized.” And yet, by proving yourself to be someone who’s comfortable referring to yourself in the pejorative, you’ve drawn a line between us, because I’m not. (And, I suspect, if I did use your word to describe you, you would interpret it in an entirely different way.)
Does it matter? Only if you believe that we can brand ourselves with language but still work together across party lines. Given how drastically that linguistic divide leads to ruptures in the culture, I doubt it. And considering the vast number of personal experiences I’ve witnessed over the years, in which a lack of cultural or linguistic commonality led to passive-aggressive or downright hostile interactions between individuals or groups of people, I’d say yes, it matters one hell of a lot.
You Cannot Value Communication Without Valuing Clarity
An anecdote I often retell, from my days in art school:
One day, I noticed spelling errors in a storyboard that was included among the best-in-class, which had been showcased in the hallway display case for all to see. I mentioned it to the instructor who’d deemed it worthy of inclusion, and she explained to me that she graded ideas, not grammar. In her mind, the concept of the storyboard was worth highlighting, and the misspellings could be overlooked because, “in the real world,” someone else would probably catch it and correct it before it went live.
Which, as we all know, doesn’t always happen.
What she failed to see is the implication of her praise: that by rewarding a project with obvious grammatical errors, she was actually rewarding inattention to detail, and informing the full viewing public — including prospective students and their families — that doing an entire job right isn’t as important as doing part of a job well. It’s this kind of isolationist perspective that convinces people our systems aren’t interconnected, and that we can allow aspects of it to break down because the elements we choose to focus on will somehow elevate the whole. Romantic as that is, what you’ll actually end up with is a beautifully painted bag of shit.
People Resent Complexity Because It Makes Them Feel Stupid
The Harvard Magazine recently reprinted excerpts from a book by Professor Louis Menand, in which he discusses the dangers of academia’s self-perpetuating cycle. Among his concerns are the rarity of dissenting opinions to get absorbed into the academic mainstream and the disconnect between the annual glut of PhDs and their inability to find meaningful work.
Predictably, the vast majority of comments on this article take a side, either in favor of Menand’s arguments for a more liberal PhD structure or against. But two comments in particular stand out because they take a stand against academia itself. They read, in part:
As a layman, I have I hard time reading and understanding this 5 internet-pages article. And after navigating through that jargons and high-falutin’(i know it’s a slang) words, it all sums to this —Ph.Ds’ problem is they have a hard time getting a job. Frankly, how many Ph.Ds does this nation, or the world need?
ALL THESE ACADEMICS WRITE TOO FANCY. EVERYTHING GETS OBSCURED BY SUCH FANCY LANGUAGE. COME DOWN TO EARTH PLEASE.
At first, I was inclined to label the first comment as a self-answering question, but in reality, no amount of PhDs would ever help that person understand the crux of the article. What he (and millions of others) need is better education at the elementary level, so the mere concept of higher education isn’t seen as a service we can live without.
As for the second comment… well, I know I said I wasn’t a typo nazi, but I draw the line at Caps Lock.
Nonetheless, I’m torn between my gut instinct to give these people a book and the sad reality that they wouldn’t know what to do with it. And that’s not necessarily their fault.
Since we can’t blame failing public education entirely for our growing lizard-brained crisis, we’re instead forced to turn the mirror of causation back on ourselves. At some point over the past few decades, we — seeming innocents like you and I — allowed concepts like complexity and intellectualism to become labels of oppression. When did it happen? It’s hard to say, and although I have my guesses, that’s still beside the point. The point is that it happened, and we could have stopped it, but we didn’t.
We’re afraid to correct others because we’re afraid we’ll be corrected ourselves. We accept the downward slope of ethnic slang because insisting on audible, legible, coherent expression seems somehow racist, classist, or culturally insensitive. By allowing everyone around us to backslide into unintelligibility, we’ve effectively admitted that this erosion is all right; that we’re the ones who are wrong for speaking properly, for thinking in complex patterns, for utilizing terms and expressions that would send laymen scrambling for a thesaurus. We shouldn’t impose our views on everyone else because, honestly, that would be expecting too much. We’ll forgive your incomprehension because you’re right: clarity is oppressive.
But if we’re the ones who let this mess spiral out of control, then we’re also the ones who can fix it. The general public won’t wake up tomorrow clamoring for box sets of Masterpiece Theatre, so it’s up to us to remind them, word by word, sentence by sentence, conversation by conversation, that there is a standard level of discourse that’s worth adhering to. It isn’t always spelled right — but it should be. It isn’t always culturally homogeneous — but it bridges the gaps. It doesn’t have to involve a veritable cornucopia of polysyllabic words — but it most appreciably can.
Because if we can’t reframe the argument against the intellect, and prove that coherent expression is imperative to our cultural growth and survival, we’ll never be able to convince anyone that clarity — much less complexity — is worth fighting for.