Sad Irony

In the midst of the pandemic, which our feckless president dismisses as a “hoax,” there is a movement of major importance that is getting inadequate attention. I speak about the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Following the murder of George Floyd by a  Minneapolis policeman a few weeks ago, there has been a surge in attention to the undeniable fact that police target the blacks and that they live in fear of those sworn to protect and serve them while the rest of us rest content and simply complain about the protests.

But during this period when the movement needs all the momentum it can possibly gain, the reporters are constantly sticking microphones in the faces of black athletes asking them their opinion about the movement and what it means to them. This is a good thing, in my view, because all the attention the movement can get is beneficial and will, hopefully make the world safer for blacks in the future. The problem is that many of those athletes are tongue-tied when asked about problems outside their area of major interest, which is the sport they have devoted their lives to.

The irony here is that many of these men have either attended or even graduated from America’s colleges and universities and some have college degrees but still have no way to express themselves at a time when expression is of major importance to them and others like them. It is another indictment of the state of education in this country. This is my point.

Don’t get me wrong, I speak about many of the professional athletes’ interviews, not all. There are a number who are bright and articulate and who make a strong case for their movement. But a great many simply cannot find the words they want to express the strong views they hold about social injustice in this country. And this at a time when strong views are of vital importance to the movement.

We need to pay attention to a problem that has been with us for a great many years and which makes the lives of black people fearful and miserable in a country that should make them feel safe and secure. And we need eloquent spokespersons to spell out the legitimate complaints these people have so we can seek solutions. It is not enough to simply identify the problem, it is essential that steps be taken to overcome the problem and make it go away. But we must begin with a clear idea of what the problem is. So white people in a position to make a difference need to listen to black voices.

As an educator all my adult life I cringe when I hear professional athletes, black and white, fumble and struggle to find the words they want to express their point of view. In this instance, we need to hear them speak and we need to hear what they have to say and take it seriously. These are presumably college-educated men and women but they sound like they are trying to speak in a foreign language.  I don’t blame them: their alma-maters have failed them miserably.

Let me say again that this is true of a great many professional athletes. Not all. And it applies to supposedly educated white athletes as well. Their education has not served them well and it is particularly noticeable at a time when they need to speak out and we need to listen to what they have to say.

Language

Once upon a time, long ago, after humans had freed themselves from the primeval ooze and struggled to stand upright, they gradually invented language in order to communicate with one another. Initially, it was through pictures and gestures, but eventually they developed an alphabet and put words together. All of this was in order to communicate their ideas and feelings to one another, to make clear what they had in mind.

It was thought for many years that language was the one thing that separated humans from other animal species. But then it was discovered by people like Wolfgang Köhler that chimpanzees could communicate with one another and it was later learned that they could even teach one another the language. Then we learned that other animal species also have communication skills and even something similar to language. This was about the time when humans were losing their own use of language. Coincidence? Perhaps. But in the event, humans discovered their vocabularies shrinking and their ability to grasp such things as compound sentences slipping away. It was about the time when they started playing with electronic gadgets designed to increase their ability to contact other people and, presumably, to communicate with them. Coincidence? Perhaps.

But, it turns out, the idea is no longer to use language to communicate with one another. Language is now for self-expression. We use it to tell others how we feel or, at best, to order pizza. We discovered that we don’t need a rich vocabulary or complicated sentences. We can use images and gestures. Just like our ancestors. 🙂

The problem is, of course, that language is necessary for thought and as language becomes impoverished so also does our ability to think. This is demonstrated, if we require a demonstration, by the alarming number of people who support Donald Trump. Obviously, these people have lost the ability to think. I haven’t been listening at doorways, but I would wager they can’t speak, either. The problem is that language was initiated in order to make it possible for us to communicate with one another. And this means that a fairly sophisticated vocabulary along with the rules of grammar and usage are also necessary if we are to tell each other what’s on our mind. The point was wonderfully made by John Barth in his novel The End of The Road in which the hero, Jake Horner, is dealing with a reluctant student in his basic College English class. The student insists that because language came before grammar we don’t need grammar. After a lengthy Socratic exchange between Jake and the student, Horner concludes as follows:

“. . .if we want our sentences to be intelligible to very many people, we have to go along with the convention [the rules of grammar]. . . You’re free to break the rules, but not if you are after intelligibility. If you do want intelligibility, then [you must master the rules].”

But, it would appear that a great many of us are like the student in this exchange: we don’t want to obey the rules of grammar because ultimately we are not really interested in communicating, in intelligibility. Language is simply a device we employ to express ourselves. Period.

In a word, we as a species regress. And as we regress we are surrounded by a growing number problems that require careful thought and imagination. This at a time when thought and imagination have become impoverished by “advances” in technology and the growing influence of the entertainment industry whose motto is: take it down to the lowest level in order to attract the largest audience. Educators have followed suit, lowering expectations and providing their students with electronic toys. Coincidence? Perhaps. But a bit unnerving none the less.

Thus we discover around us folks whose attention is directed at the toys in their hands — even when they are next to one another — and who find it difficult, if not impossible, to say what they mean or understand what others say to them,. But since language is no longer about communication, since it is now about self-expression, it really doesn’t matter. As long as others know that I am angry, hungry, or sad, that’s really all that matters. If they don’t understand what I am feeling so much the worse for them. It’s all about me. I don’t need language. 🙂