Saturday, December 21, 2013

Invincible ignorance

I have to say I didn’t know what Duck Dynasty was, since I don’t have cable TV (or even a TV set now, after the flood.)  But  the self-righteous homophobia and clueless racial mythologizing is certainly familiar enough to me.  I grew up in Victoria, Texas in the 1950s, when it was all around, every day.  And I’m not unfamiliar with Mr. Robertson’s fashion sensibility, having found myself in  Haight Ashbury in 1967, where bearded guys dressed like that were thick on the ground.  Of course they were younger.

The combination of the opinions and the costuming, not to mention the age, is  nevertheless unfortunate.

That being said, I don’t think someone should be fired from a reality show where he and his family were in fact hired to depict the outlandish people they are, just because he expressed opinions anyone with a lick of sense could have predicted from day one would be there.

It’s like finding a real Archie Bunker, hiring him to do a reality show,  and then firing him for being Archie Bunker.

Removing a guy like that from his employment won’t cure him of his views, or deter others from having them, or change anyone who shares them.  Maybe finding him some gay friends would help.  Or maybe not.  He apparently believes he had black friends, happy contented sing-along field hands he worked beside as they all picked cotton together working for the Man when he was a boy.  Or so he said in an interview.

The Catholic Church once had a theological category called “invincible ignorance” which, contrary to what you might think, could save pagans from everlasting condemnation, on the grounds that they had never had an opportunity to know anything but what they grew up with.  The term was later given a different meaning in logic as a category of fallacy, denoting willful, pigheaded refusal to accept evidence.

Maybe there is some  of both kinds of invincible ignorance going on here.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Some language peeves, but not the usual ones

For the past two and a half centuries, from Robert Lowth to Henry Fowler to Strunk and White,  self appointed language scolds have been trying to tell us how to speak our mother tongue.  Fortunately, they have not much influenced the actual evolution of English. Unfortunately, they have made a lot of perfectly capable native speakers feel, incorrectly, that they weren't competent in English, and more importantly, made those native speakers feel unhappy about that imagined non-competence. 

They have done so by confusing matters clearly in the realm of class and status  with issues of linguistic capability, eloquence, style, and beauty.  

The occasional (and usually unfortunate) practical need to speak or write in a formal register of conventional standard English is one thing, and is part of our larger ability to navigate the complicated shoals of the social structures we live in, but our ability to communicate fluently both in speaking and writing day to day with the people we are at ease with is quite another. We learn our language in an informal register as children, but even at that level we learn some class and status language modifications.  I grew up addressing most (but not all) of my elders as "ma'am" and "sir."  Happily, this custom has since mostly disappeared.  (Personally, I am delighted when I am not addressed as "sir" now that I am in my dotage.)  

The custom of my Texas childhood was in the realm of what was then living English, a regional variety, of course, and the current standard of sirlessness and ma'amlessness, are part of today's living language.

The kind of language prescriptions that I am talking about are the heroic but hopeless efforts to revive the dead. Or worse, to revive mythological language standards that never were alive.  If I were to say Strunk and White stood for Zombie Standard English I would enrage all those people who imagine that the passive voice is a bad thing (often  without knowing very well what the passive is) and that a split infinitive is a moral transgression; but if they can feel rage, hey, it's a sign of life, at least.  Alas, that rage only drives them to write a letter to the editor full of peeves about the sad state of our language.

The "prescriptive ideologues" (as Geoffrey Pullum calls them)  defy the barbarians from behind the ramparts of correct English, or what you can more accurately call a prestige dialect of modern English, but as imagined by the ideologues, not necessarily as spoken or written even by them.

Prescriptivist zealots will insist that it's not just a matter of class and status and hierarchy, and the occasional practical requirement that we submit to the tyranny of  class-and-status speech demands, but a matter of actual standards, the notion that there is an underlying…something…somewhere, justifying the dictatorship of long-dead grammarians. What might that  be?  

Well, Pullum classifies such standards-claims under headings of authority, esthetics,  logic, efficient communication, self-discipline, and a posited golden age of English for which a self-selected few now yearn.  (I think I may have forgotten one.)  The problem obviously is that none of these constitute a bedrock that anyone could call  objectively real.  Several of them, like esthetics and alleged requirements of communication, are not only bogus but blown out of the water by the tortured writing and fractured logic of most of the standard-worshippers themselves.  (WRT alleged "logic", anyone who has ever learned a European language knows that a double negative does not somehow imply a positive except to a computer, and an unimaginatively programmed one at that.) 

Turtles all the way down.  

You'll notice this is written mostly in a formal register of standard English. I apologize.