Any competent teacher knows in what direction our kids’ communication skills are headed. Perhaps we who still speak should pay more attention to the political consequences of the decline.
Words matter… but when they’re reduced to mush, they cease to matter. Take those words I just typed. A certain college freshman persisted in writing “seize” for “cease” this past week, despite my protestations. At the moment, I have no way of knowing if he truly considers them to be the same word (since my protest was penned—I didn’t have a chance to pull him aside) or if his favorite i-Gadget, rather, is selecting “seize” as the most likely correction of some bizarre misspelling. In a way, it doesn’t make any difference. Young people have so little respect—most of them—for anything written, by themselves or anyone else, that they generously give a free pass to crude approximations when they proofread their own work or read another’s. The apostrophe that I placed before that sentence-ending “s” is of course optional these days. One finds it making plurals as often as showing possession now. Sounds the same in either case… what the hell! As long as people know what you’re trying to say, what’s it matter how you say it?
So we have before us a muddy stew wherein are stirred more or less equal measures of pitiful ignorance, sheer laziness, mechanized intrusion, and a dumbed-down kind of proletarian resistance that rejoices in trampling precision and propriety. Of this last, the new Oxford Modern English Grammar, authored by one Bas Aarts (a moniker that could be anything from Dutch to Polynesian, for all I know), is a scintillant example. I ordered this text for an upper-division class, blindly, naively trusting in the Oxford brand. Big mistake (maybe that’s what “bas aarts” means in Pashtu). The indicative isn’t even a mood any more, while “can” is a fully acceptable substitute for “may” in subjunctive situations—and “may”, indeed, is only used by snooty people in a bid to be socially one-up. Contemporary grammarians, apparently, create very fluid rules designed to keep pace with usage on the streets. Anything else is dead and phony. If Generation Omega wants to have “cease” and “seize” be interchangeable, for instance… why, let it be so (or should I say, “let it is so”—or how about “let’s so”?).
There’s the bothersome little detail that thought requires words, and hence that abused words and clumsy structures produce weak thinking. But is this not perhaps the overall political objective of “higher education”, after all: to grind out easily manipulated imbeciles? I was told, also this past week, that an outspoken young man—a genuine free spirit—had dropped my composition class because he realized that I was sometimes arguing positions just to generate a response, and not because I truly held them. This has never happened to me before. I have been charged by the occasional ideologue with being too opinionated because I would not fully yield to his peeves and raves; but I’ve never been rebuked, before now, for being too fair-minded. Tomorrow’s young voter, I’m guessing, will not want any discussion, will not want an exchange of views: I write that on the confident assumption that I will receive this new rebuke again, and in increasing volume. Why wouldn’t I? Once “downfall” and “pitfall” mean the same thing and “culture” is a synonym for “race”, what have we left but gut feelings decked out in emoticons? The rest of Free Spirit’s class is already wholly uninterested in such distinctions as it collectively texts away, thumbs pecking feverishly, under the desks. He, the lately departed one, is actually much more apt to repent and start thinking: at least he has a pulse.
In political (or politicized) discourse, we all know that the word “racist” has become nothing more than verbalized kick-and-spittle; and the word “isolationist”, as I wrote a few weeks ago, isn’t lagging far behind. “Tea Party” has successfully been concentrated into a little sticky-with-Swastika for many post-literate undergraduates, just as “gay marriage” has acquired the warm ring-tone (or is it now “ringtone”?) bestowed upon calls from Mother.
I have written lately, likewise, about the stark insanity of progressive idolatry; but the insane, of course, profit from drawing crowds of speechless oafs. Where would Don Quixote be without Sancho Panza (and no, class, the guy’s first name is not “Donald”)? I honestly don’t know if the newly minted word “hater”—as a stand-alone noun, unconnected to any objects—reflects more lunacy or more obtundity. Every sentient being of modest brain function hates something. Horses hate a whip, I should imagine; rabbits hate hounds. Higher beings capable of love must always hate what stands in adversarial relation to their affection’s focus. People who love children hate child abuse. People who love freedom hate slavery. People who love noble deeds hate vile acts. In a crowning irony, the contemporary devolved primate who crinkles his low brow, shows his canines, and hisses “Hater!” at the person he would lustily tear to ribbons had he the means captures every nuance of visceral, fuming hatred. His snapshot could become the word’s emoticon.
Southerners used to resent deeply the appellation “rebel”, inasmuch as their homeland was invaded and put to the torch by “fellow countrymen” who seemed intent, first on legally reducing them to rags, and then on punishing them capitally for mounting resistance. A true rebel should be made of more recalcitrant stuff. Yet for generations, these very people have willingly tagged their local athletic clubs with the same word. An Atlanta baseball franchise dubbed itself the Crackers during the high-water mark of segregation, a noun which stands in about the same relation to Caucasians as the “n” slur does to Americans of African descent. Other sports teams to this day style themselves after rapists, plunderers, and murderers of historical proportions: pirates, raiders, Vikings, Jayhawkers, and the like. Their insignias may feature skulls, crossbones, and instruments of mayhem.
Obviously, such semantic gestures are all veering in a single direction: “We’re your worst nightmare! We’re bad, really bad! Go ahead—call us rebels! Call us buccaneers! When you yell that at us, you’re trembling. Stay scared! Call us redskins!”
Juvenile? Of course it is. Sport is play. Our comedians take liberties with acceptable adult usage all the time (to the point that I personally have found nothing comic about them for years). Yet the same people who will permit themselves any word—strained to any degree of abuse in spelling or meaning—will also demand the right to preen our common vocabulary of words they may choose to construe in narrow, unflattering terms. No more “redskins”, say the prissy prophets of PC. The point of the exercise appears to be to remind us of their moral superiority. We may use a word entirely without the meaning or intent that they foist upon it; they then step in and unfurl our pedigree to a heritage of loathsome squalor (and, by implication, their own regal title to be Oracle of the Collective Conscience). If we protest, our faces are pelted with a rain of stinging emoticons.
So it comes to pass at last that, no, words don’t really matter much at all. Only the gut matters: only barks and howls matter. Saliva and volume win the argument. This is true even of our “best and brightest”—perhaps especially of them, the ones who are spreading the disease to our children. Tenured and laurelled professors are appearing now on TV in tweed and bow-tie and insisting that Obamacare is a ripping success—that citizens are being served, that discontent is a Republican myth, that policy cancellations merely indict the profit motive driving private insurers (the wealthiest of whom may make almost as much as an Economics prof at MIT)… that, in short, the distance between their fantasy and harsh reality is to be measured in your and my depravity. And rebuttal will be met with a shrilly shouted, “I have the floor!” or, “That’s a lie!” I saw two such specimens lighting up FOX News last Thursday night.
This is where we are: this is what we must now deal with daily. Something like a new Neanderthal, with advanced technology and hive-politics as midwife, is slouching toward Washington to be born… and I don’t mean something in football pads. It’s a new kind of spook—a dead man walking who won’t walk away from us any time soon.