Tuesday, July 26, 2011


"They used to call it mud-slinging. I don't think that's mud they're throwing any more."

One of the only certain things about human language is that it changes over time. Attempts to enforce "purity" or "proper" versions of a language are always doomed to failure because each successive generation changes their language based on new situations, slang, cultural shifts, and influences. What is generally considered proper English was developed in the late 1800s, but over time it has changed and dropped some rules while adapting new ones.

As a result, it is difficult to convince kids that using text messaging in writing when they do not have any actual limitations on keyboard size or length of message can be difficult. They carry over that abbreviated, jargon-packed language because it seems fun and makes them part of a group that they feel elevated by in social status. Teaching them that using proper English helps them in life and assists communication which is already so challenging, they lack the wisdom to understand what you're saying and simply point to how language changes - or satirically start speaking Elizabethan English.

And in a certain sense, they are right: if they are able to communicate between each other, why should they adapt your method? By the time they reach their thirties, language will have shifted significantly in any case, and it may not matter as much any longer. Granted, its ideal to have a set method to communicate that all ages may easily access and understand, if for no other reason than maintaining a steady and reliable society to function in. Besides, if you find reading proper English challenging and dreary, you'll find yourself missing the immense riches of people who have written and spoken before your generation, and suffer the failures, mistakes, and even horrors they would have taught you to avoid.

I would argue that it is a great error to not learn more proper English and spice it up with your own additions and subtractions, but again, it is difficult to get a young person to have the wisdom to understand something not immediately beneficial to them - particularly in a culture which rejects authority and wisdom to begin with.

That said, the way and the reason language changes does have significance beyond mere communication. In the past, people used to have five layers of communication that they would engage in. Each layer had its place and use, but did not readily cross over to another layer, if ever. The layers were these:
  1. Children
  2. Friends
  3. Passion
  4. Strangers
  5. Speeches
The first layer was to children, the kind of speech you used to adapt ideas and communication to someone who was not as learned and developed as you are. Not so much baby talk as simplified, direct speech lacking certain references and concepts that would be confusing or alien to a child. You wouldn't tend to quote Shakespeare and drop Latin terms into a discussion of why little Billy should eat his breakfast.

The second layer was the kind of language you used with friends and peers. This would tend to have more vernacular, terms not used in formal writing or to strangers that your friends were used to and understood. This communication was informal, often joking, and would contain many shared cultural and experiential references which were short cuts to make a point. Quotes from plays, movies, television, and past experiences were comfortably inserted, with the knowledge that shared understanding would not require explanation. Other languages, such as Latin or French, or simply the language that you were born using or was from your heritage would spice conversation.

The third layer was the kind of language you used when very angry, hurt, upset, or passionate. This is the language lovers use when intimate, or you use when you stub your toe. It is the language you scream at someone in an argument or use to describe something you truly hate or are frustrated by. This was used sparingly, often apologetically, and always privately. It was not a part of you that was unveiled in public except by accident. This language often included terms and language that was considered shocking or appalling in the general society.

The fourth layer was language used in public among strangers. This was more formal, with careful statements to indicate respect and dignity. Jargon, popular or literary references tended to be left out, and speech would seem stilted and contrived, but was so deliberately to ensure careful communication and avoiding discomfort, anger, or humiliation in the other person. Dropping a reference someone else didn't get embarrassed them for not knowing and you for saying something that made them feel uncomfortable.

And the last was formal speech. This sort of language has almost entirely disappeared from the English language. This is the sort of communication done in speeches, dissertations, formal writing, and situations of great importance. It was rich with vocabulary, and in speeches often was delivered in a different tone of voice than other conversation. Often speech writers would roll their R's, use language often considered archaic in any other setting, and awkward were it not for the specific, formal setting. No one used "four score and seven years ago" or words like "forefathers" in ordinary speech in Abraham Lincoln's time; that was reserved for speeches.

As time has gone on, we've lost many of these layers, or blurred them into each other. The last two, particularly, have been abandoned as contrived or pointless. Being especially polite and honorable to strangers is considered hypocritical, a waste of time, or insufficiently amusing. Making special speeches is considered contrived and artificial; we want someone who "sounds like us" and who makes down home speeches that seem like they're one of our kind.

That's not to say people don't speak differently in speeches; President Obama is a classic example of someone who has a speech voice and a normal voice. Many ministers have a "sermon voice" which is different and uses different language. But the shift is more calculated for effect than crafted for formal speaking.

The distinction between the private and the public is the most significant change, however. What was once considered to be personal and private has become public and casual. People dress in public with clothing that would have been considered at best disrespectful and at worst shameful. Wearing sloppy, stained clothes at home was not entirely appreciated but was understood; wearing them in public would be shocking, or at least a sign of personal decline.

Speech has undergone a similar change. Language and patterns once shared only between close friends and family now is considered proper use to total strangers. The fierce and colorful language of passion is now considered reasonable to use in public. This is defended as "more honest" and "less artificial" but in reality is just disrespectful, rude, inconsiderate, and lazy.

Even twenty years ago, using foul language in public was surprising and considered ill-mannered in much of America. Today it is just part of language, regardless of who might hear you. Even in formal settings, the language has corrupted to a shocking degree. Consider this exchange Bill Maher's Real Time program with comedian Marc Maron and sex advice column Dan Savage:
MARON: I don’t want to be crass but I just hope that Marcus Bachmann takes all that, you know, rage that comes from repression and denial and brings it into the bedroom with her. I hope he f–ks her angrily because, because that’s how I would. And I’ve thought about it. I just…

[Laughter and applause]

MARON: …It’s a political statement I’m trying to make.

SAVAGE: Just so we get, just so you don’t get charges of sexism, because only Michele Bachmann was involved, I sometimes think about f–king the s–t out of Rick Santorum.

[Laughter and applause]

SAVAGE: Because I think…

MARON: I’m with you.

SAVAGE: …he needs it. So, it’s not, it’s not just women we’re talking about f–king. Like, let’s bone that Santorum boy.

MARON: Alright. Let’s video it.

SAVAGE: I’m up for whipping up some santorum in Santorum.
I'm not exactly sure what that last statement even means, but the entire flow of this conversation was in a public forum, in front of an audience, intended for public consumption by hundreds of thousands, even millions of people. They were speaking in this way not just publicly, not just to strangers, but in a formal setting. They used language, patterns, and themes that are private and passionate in a calm and public forum in a manner meant to be humorous.

The lines and limitations of communication have gotten so blurred or destroyed that there are no limits to public discourse any longer. Dignity, propriety, appropriateness, and class are all thrown aside on the basis of "reality" and "humor." Anything you say or do in public now is acceptable, or insisted is acceptable, as long as it is "real" and especially "funny."

Notice this line by the alleged comedian: "I don’t want to be crass..." really? How do you sound when you are meaning to be crass, sir? The topics and language used in this exchange were met with delight and joy by the audience; they ate it up, they wanted more. This is hardly the only such example on this show alone, it comes up all over television, on cable and not.

There is a series of ads for Frank's Red Hot sauce, with the clever advertising tagline "I put that (bleep) on everything!" That's what they want associated with their product. This is their "where's the beef," their "oh what a relief it is" ad. Think I'm joking? Here's the ad:

If you're laughing, you've bought into a culture so strongly that an old woman swearing her head off in a public setting is not just tolerable, but amusing. This kind of ad would have literally shocked people as little as ten years ago. Today its an advertising gimmick. The next step will be to remove the bleep entirely. Because its raw, and honest, and real!

The movie Idiocracy mocked this with the degradation of the name of the Fuddrucker's hamburger chain and the language of the people. The president of the United States made a WWE wrasslin speech in front of congress who swore and threw things at him like a crowd. The movie claimed this was hundreds of years in the future, but we have congressmen regularly swearing now on television.

Remember when Vice President Cheney's crude wish for opportunistic slime Patrick Leahey to leave was so shocking to people, it made people stare in amazement. How much attention would it really gather now if Vice President Biden said that to, say, Senator McConnell? Half the people watching TV would cheer.

This corrosion of manners and public discourse is far more troubling to me than people getting upset and saying mean things about their political enemies. Saying your political opponent wants to starve children is not nearly as damaging to culture as saying he's a "@$(*@$ing @(#& faced (@*$ who sucks and stuff." That drags the discourse down, then uses it for toilet paper by a particularly dull child. Its not just undignified, but crude and imbecilic.

The faux upset at Representative West noting that Democratic Party chair Wasserman-Schultz is no lady is incredibly difficult to believe based on the current level of rhetoric. Consider all the things that Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin have been called, not in a private email, but in public by pundits and television figures, congressmen and others.

The level of rhetoric has gotten so gutter and crude that nobody can believe anyone would be upset at what he said to her, and the response of various Democratic organizations looks self-righteous and hypocritical to even a casual observer.

Today you can say pretty much anything you want about anyone you want... unless they're a protected minority and someone can make even the wildest, most improbable charge of racism. Say president Obama is athletic? Racist, shut up, go to counseling, kiss your career goodbye. Say Sarah Palin is a @(*$? That's a resume enhancer.

Say you want to hate-(@*^ Bachmann and the audience cheers and claps. Call President Obama a "dick" and get fired. Like I said at the time, honesty doesn't excuse the inappropriate behavior, and he shouldn't have said it.

And its not just one political side or the other, not one generation or the other, not one group or the other, nearly everyone is engaging in this feces-flinging contest, scooping up the worst sort of filth, and not caring what happens to you in the process.

Dignity, honor, manners, and respect have all been abandoned in a false quest for "reality" which is neither real nor honest, but instead crude and immature. Pretending that using this language is more real and true than using polite and dignified language is like pretending kicking someone in the teeth is more real than disagreeing with them. And the entire culture suffers as a result of this crass, self-destructive tilt.

The thing is, this is a symptom of a greater ill: the loss of absolute, overarching ethical standards, and the incremental, often deliberate effort to destroy any such traces so that people can enjoy their most base, corrupt nature without fear of sanction or disagreement. You can't satisfy your every crudest urge if people are going to tell you to grow up and treat others with respect. Honor and respect get in the way of personal pleasure and satisfaction.

Needing to sacrifice your base urges out of respect for others means you can't do whatever you want, whenever you want, and order others to not "make you feel guilty." Language doesn't shape our culture, its the most obvious expression of what's deep down within the culture to begin with. The tongue steers you like a tiny rudder can steer a huge ship, but it only does so because of something deep down in the ship steering it, and your soul.

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