Breaking Rules

One of my favorite novels is John Barth’s The End of The Road. In that novel Jake Horner — who suffers from “cosmopsis,” the inability to choose among alternatives — finds himself teaching English grammar at a Community College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. At one point a recalcitrant student in one of his classes objects to grammar rules and insists that it’s all hokum. A person can say anything he or she wants and it really doesn’t matter how you say it. This leads to a fascinating confrontation between the student and his teacher.

Jake engages the student in a dialogue in which he notes that what separates us from “savages” are the rules we follow, including grammar rules. “. . .once a set of rules for etiquette or grammar is established and generally accepted as the norm — meaning the ideal, not the average — then one is free to break them only if he is willing to be generally regarded as a savage or an illiterate.. . .You are free to break the rules, but not if you’re after intelligibility. If you do want intelligibility, then the only way to get ‘free’ of the rules is to master them so thoroughly that they’re second nature to you.. . .Who’s more free in America?. . . The man who rebels against all the laws or the man who follows them so automatically that he never even has to think about them?”

(Bill Watterson put the point somewhat differently in his “Calvin and Hobbes” Comic:)

Now despite the fact that we are now politically correct and eschew such terms as “savages,” there is a modicum of truth in Jake’s comments to his student. Our ability to use language has deteriorated to an astonishing degree in the past 50 years. In tests during the late 1950’s there was concern over the reduced vocabulary of supposedly “educated” students from some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities. Since that time, estimates reveal that vocabulary has fallen off by 72% among the students at those same schools. Much of this is due to the fact that foreign languages (especially Latin) are no longer taught to all college bound students. But there are also the related facts of excessive TV watching, increased use of electronic devices, and the decreasing number of books being read.

I blogged in March about the increasing tendency of students to tweet one another rather
than correspond with one another in complete sentences. English teachers around the country have complained in increasing numbers about the growing inability of their students to write a complete sentence. As I said in March, referring to an incident involving Rush Limbaugh and his chastisement of a young woman who testified before Congress about the use of contraceptives:

“The recent debacle surrounding Rush Limbaugh’s trashing of a young woman for having the gall to approach Democratic members of a Congressional committee and suggest that health insurance plans should fund contraceptives to help reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies is well documented. Less well documented is actress Patricia Heaton’s leaping to Limbaugh’s side in lashing out at the young law student. Both have apologized. While Heaton’s twitter-trashing was fairly intelligible, her apology was more typical, buried as it is in the usual twitterese:

‘re @SandraFluke Mea culpa Sandra! Wasn’t being respectful 2 u re my tweets as I hope people wd b w/me. Don’t like you being dissed -so sorry.'”

In a word, what we have here is a new language that may or may not express complete thoughts. We must bear in mind that our thinking depends on our ability to use words, whether we like it or not. And as our inability to use words increases along with our tendency to replace words with grunts, gestures, sentence fragments, and spacers such as “like,” and “you know” we must grudgingly admit that we are perhaps at the dawn of a new age of barbarism, if not savagery.

The solution, of course, is for parents to grab their kids from in front of the TV and spend more time with them telling them stories, reading to them and having them make up stories themselves. They should also resist the movement toward more electronic devices in the schools — especially in the early grades. The more the kids use language and hear others around them using it correctly the more likely that they will be better able to express themselves and order their thoughts as they grow older. That, it seems to me, is rather important.

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Uncivil Discourse

One of the distressing things about our present cultural morass is the low level of civil discourse. Even more troubling is the growing inability of people in this society to express themselves at all. What we have, then, is the felt-need of many to lower the level of discourse to the visceral coupled with their inability to say what they mean! Rather than deal with issues and agree to disagree with one another in a civil manner, we have become a nation of interrupters, shouters, mud-slingers — and tongue-tied tweeters.

The recent debacle surrounding Rush Limbaugh’s trashing of a young woman for having the gall to approach Democratic members of a Congressional committee and suggest that health insurance plans should fund contraceptives to help reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies is well documented. Less well documented is actress Patricia Heaton’s leaping to Limbaugh’s side in lashing out at the young law student. Both have apologized. While Heaton’s twitter-trashing was fairly intelligible, her apology was more typical, buried as it is in the usual twitterese:

“re @SandraFluke Mea culpa Sandra! Wasn’t being respectful 2 u re my tweets as I hope people wd b w/me. Don’t like you being dissed -so sorry.”

One of the more interesting things here is the gibberish that is beginning to take over as language in a language-impoverished society. Vocabulary has dropped off precipitously and teachers are already complaining that their students cannot write complete sentences. Technology is simply making matters worse. (It is sobering to consider that Shakespeare wrote with a quill pen!) We not only don’t have much to say in the first place, we can’t even say it in an intelligible way. This is especially problematic since our inability to express ourselves directly impairs our ability to think. In any event, the lower level of discourse that substitutes an ad hominem attack for a well-reasoned argument is now coming in the form of dissing on twitter.

People have always disagreed, and the disagreement has often taken a nasty turn. The ad hominem fallacy in logic that rests on the fact that a person himself or herself is being attacked rather than that person’s argument has been around for a long time. It is tempting to commit it on purpose — and even fun. The English are very good at it, as we can see by tuning in to a debate in Parliament. It makes for good entertainment and those in the public eye have long relished the humorous effect their personal attacks can have. Rush Limbaugh is simply one of the more recent champions of this sort of discourse, though he takes it to a lower level with intent to cripple. And Patricia Heaton is free to join him if she chooses to do so. We do have freedom of speech in this country. But one despairs over the fact that typically these attacks show little imagination and seem to lower the level of discourse even further into the mire of personal vilification.

When a young woman is pilloried in public for having the audacity to testify before a political group on behalf of a legitimate concern — a concern that should be shared by those who claim to be “pro-life,” since abortions would be less common if pregnancies were prevented in the first place — we have clearly sunk to a new low. One can only hope we have learned something from all this. But even if we have, the chances are we haven’t learned how to express ourselves more clearly or how to raise the level of discourse above the mire. And in an election year we can expect more of the same.