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Destabilized

by on January 30, 2018

                                           Destabilized

                                      by Marco M. Pardi

Remember, behind every silver lining, there’s a dark cloud.” George Carlin.

All comments are welcome and will receive a response.

This piece arises from an exchange of comments on the previous piece, particularly those of Austin and Julie. Specifically, the comments suggested an ongoing evolution of technology leading to a significant break with forms of human communication employed to this point. This theme has been growing in strength for some time; we nod knowingly when someone tells us even young children are so absorbed in their devices – Iphones, Ipads, and other technology enabling social media communication that they have either forgotten or never gained actual social skills. And, a great deal of space has been given to discussions of what appears to be the growing incivility of these electronically based communications.

Let’s assume for the moment the exchanges, especially on social media, have become cruder and more virulent. (While I’m sure many readers would say, “But of course they have” we might consider those readers may not have known the kids I knew so long ago. The same vulgarity, indeed the same vocabulary has been around for a long time.) Some blame this purported increase in vulgarity directed personally on the anonymity offered by screen names, and some say it is a general change in the culture. In some ways this controversy raises the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: Different languages produce different ways of thinking. For Sapir-Whorf to be relevant we would need to stipulate that the language employed by people using electronic means is somehow a different language or, at least, a form which forces or facilitates a different way of thinking. As mentioned above, I see no measurable difference in thinking. If there is a difference to be found it is in the willingness to express one’s thoughts.

But this raises another parallel. We have elsewhere considered the ageless question, Did crazy Johnny go off to war, or did war make Johnny crazy? Has there been a large reservoir of nasty people just waiting for an anonymous medium through which they could express their nastiness? Or, did the appearance of such a medium make some people nasty?

Although born in the early 1940’s, my command of American English flowered in the 1950’s. I well remember the proscriptions, especially in mass media, against saying certain words: pregnant was “in a family way” or, racier, “expecting”; menstruation was “time of the month”; and, at least one newscaster pronounced helicopter as heelicopter. Apparently it was too close to a forbidden word. Even common words could be problematic. An example comes from the exquisite 1932 Packard Twelve automobile with driver adjustable suspension via a plunger in the dashboard. An engraved plaque above the plunger read: IN-HARD : OUT-SOFT. That plaque lasted only slightly longer than the act it suggested.

Times seemed to be changing, however, when I entered the Air Force in January of ’61. While marching my Flight (85 men) across the training base I heard my WAF (Women in the Air Force) counterparts loudly berating their marching Flights with, “There’s ten thousand swingin’ dicks on this base and you ain’t gonna’ get a one less’en you get in step!!” Or, “When those left feet hit the ground I wanna’ hear them pussies suck air!!” Do young women even know these words? Colorful. Intimidating. But for some reason I just couldn’t match those inspiring words. Nor could I work up the nerve to even say Hello to my female counterparts. Since we often halted our Flights right next to each other outside the mess hall I had the opportunity to speak to the WAF Flight Commanders. But, I felt I would probably need my teeth for the meal. Still, I never took their attitude personally. Probably a good thing since on one of my assignments I had a colleague/part-time girl friend who was a British WRAC (Women’s Royal Army Corps). Born and raised in London’s notorious East End, she was lovely in a lithe but deadly sort of way. And, when even slightly irked, she would emit an unbroken, non-repeating string of words that would dull a porcupine’s quills at 50 meters.

But really, with the general loosening up just starting with Hugh Hefner’s ongoing manifestos in Playboy magazine (begun in the ’50’s), Lenny Bruce (convicted in 1964 of obscenity in speech), George Carlin (Seven Dirty Words), and Richard Pryor media began reflecting what was daily speech for many. Not only is the term pregnant acceptable now, the afternoon soap operas will show you how to get there. So, are the media catching up with culture change, or are the media driving culture change?

I’m not convinced that merely knowing the words leads to using the words. My vocabulary is fairly extensive and I sometimes arrange terms in unusual ways. In the military I occasionally heard two airmen square off in a contest known as the “Dirty Dozens”. Essentially, one throws an insult at the other. The other responds with a deeper level of insult. As a crowd gathers, which it invariably did, the insults fly back and forth until one speaker could not match or exceed the last insult of the other speaker. The outdone speaker then yielded, although the reaction of the crowd ratified the winner. Even though the two participants were nearly nose to nose no fists got thrown, and generally the insults drew huge laughs, even from the participants. And that was basically the point. The participants were playing to the audience to see who could score the best laugh line at the expense of the other. There were no vicious attacks in those laugh lines. Situation defused.

One interesting feature of these contests was that unusually foul language and actual name calling rarely occurred. In fact, the person who was truly in the wrong may emerge as the winner simply by the finesse of language implying authority and correctness. But winner was a relative term as most observers knew who was at fault.

I try hard to avoid the flame thrower exchanges I see on social media sites. I feel I do not gain anything from spending my time with them; on the contrary, they demean me as an audience member. And I have zero tolerance for the Argumentum ad Hominem tactic so often used: even relatively poorly educated Dirty Dozens combatants rarely reduced themselves to that level.

Undeniably we are exposed to and therefore aware of changes in the communication patterns we see around us. But the willingness to use foul and aggressive language has long been there. Yes, finger flick media devices, especially when registered to absurd “screen names” enable the proliferation of foul, aggressive, and even a sort of primitive communication. But providing the means is different from providing the motivation.

On other sites I have encountered people who embody the worst of the hiding sniper. I once informed a site manager that a particular comment, being clearly libelous, could bring a law suit against a site even if the person who posted the comment could not be identified. The comment was quickly withdrawn. But again, I just do not find this new. More frequent, certainly, but not new.

Is our communication pattern changing toward a more abrupt, even primitive level? I can see it narrowing. I assigned written papers in my classes. Most were submitted from a word processing program. Few were handed in written. Not thinking much about it I wrote, in longhand, comments on the papers before handing them back. One student startled me by coming up and asking me to read my comments to him. He explained that he had not been taught how to read cursive. Do they not teach that in primary school anymore. Did he get through high school like this? Is a printed name a legal signature? Does anyone care?

Some have expressed concern that our electronic communications are narrowing our speech patterns, therefore possibly our thinking patterns. Many media limit characters; Twitter is a good example. I’m not much into electronic social media, despite this blog. I barely know how to use MyFace and Your Tube and will never use Twitter or Instagram. But writing is not language. Writing is the recording of language. And, this too is nothing new. In various intelligence operations one strictly observes the communications protocol, especially when transmitting over un-encrypted media: brief and precise. That’s been around since smoke signals. But that does not mean the intelligence operative conducts everyday conversations in such ways. Granted, I’ve known some ex-military who try to do this, but they just haven’t grown up.

In my schooling I was taught Latin was the most efficient Western language. It had the most stand-alone morphemes capable of conveying a complete idea. A modern language study was carried out by University of Lyon researchers François Pellegrino, Christophe Coupé, and Egidio Marsico using English, French, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Mandarin, and German. They listened to speakers reading aloud at their normal cadence and devised formulas for determining “information rate” per syllable. Surprisingly, English came out on top, with Japanese a distant last place.

Looking back at screen names reminds of the inside names given to Presidents. Most people are aware of Secret Service designations for each President. But within the “7th floor” crowd at the Central Intelligence Agency one hears far more amusing designations: John F. Kennedy was “Mattress Jack”. Guess who is “Tweety Bird”.

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12 Comments
  1. Ray Rivers permalink

    Marco – There is a cultural revolution going on. We see it in the ‘# me too’ movement but it didn’t start there. Men were the traditional gender to use expletive language but that is no longer the case. Gender company don’t matter any more but context and subject do.

    I once managed an office with only male staff. The language deteriorated to the point that I became convinced I was in a locker room. So I hired female staff. The atmosphere improved dramatically in my view, and the women, not to be outdone, showed they could curse as well as the men. In the end the use of so-called expletives generally declined – but when they were used it was with much greater effect.

    We are overwhelmed by literature of one kind or another today competing for our attention. The 140 characters is an attempt at a solution – if we have something to say and want to be heard we need to be concise and pointed. A friend gave me a book ‘Fantasy Land’, a tome, on American history. Though I appreciated the gift, this was not a volume I would have picked out for pleasure reading. It sat waiting until one day I picked it up and read it over the course of the evening.

    I was already familiar with most of what was in the book and iI felt it was overly lengthy for the points it was making. A smaller hundred page text would have been more inviting and far more memorable and effective. I don’t think we should damn Twitter because of the inferior way in which your national leader uses the medium.

    • Thank you, Ray. You make excellent points and, if I understand them, you are saying culture change drives media change. To a social scientist, either way would be an exciting idea. But the way you have framed it seems more so to me. As the old saying goes, “This calls for further research”.

  2. Marco, as you know over the years I’ve tried to engage others on social media whether LinkedIn, Google +, and on rare occasion, Facebook. Ad hominem attacks were the norm, so I withdrew from utilizing these platforms.

    More than ever, paid trolls and bots have rendered any hope of thoughtful debate or conversation mostly futile. I’m not sure why people continue to argue with those who are obvious trolls. What’s worse – I’m pretty certain comments with the most responses appear at the top of the article’s comment feed. This is supposedly true for FB.

  3. Thanks, Dana. You raise a point I didn’t know; I did not know about the selection of comments based on responses. This most certainly skews the impression conveyed by the comment: reaction is more valuable than accuracy or insight.

    Yes, you and I are familiar with the cowards who hide behind screen names. I remember seeing you quite openly fry someone’s gonads more than once. Your analytical skills are beyond most people’s ability to respond.

  4. FROM ELLIE, by EMAIL: I appreciate your article and think you made good points. It’s possible that technology degraded my written communication- I think I was among the last to be taught cursive in school. But, it also taught my brother to read – he wanted to play his Pok-e-mon gameboy game (a text based game) so badly that he learned to read within a few weeks of getting it.

    I also think that medicine has been much worse for my grammar and writing skills than technology. It takes way to long to write in complete sentences. Verbs, nouns, and misplaced punctuation only in the medical chart: WDWN AAF in NAD c rhinitis, N/V, fevers x3 days (Well developed well nourished african american female in no acute distress with rhinitis, nausea/vomiting and fevers for 3 days).

    Maybe social interactions are just evolving – to tech dependent people it probably seems weird that you would take the time to talk to someone when you can get so much more done by just sending an instant message and getting on with whatever it was you were doing. – and you can tell when they’re ignoring you (most messages have a read report feature). Less mucking about with small-talk maybe?

    I totally agree that kids probably haven’t changed that much – it’s just more public now. I cussed too much at that age – it’s a coming-of-age facade for a 13 year old because your told its bad- like drinking; and my female friends were also surprisingly vulgar.

    I wonder if there is less physical bullying now than in the past.

    -Ellie

  5. Thanks, Ellie. Your comments have me wondering at the origins of “jargon”, how far back the concept goes, what social disruption and or isolation may have resulted, how much further this fracturing will go, what – if any -social consequences ensue, etc. Fascinating concept. Thanks.

  6. Like many, I try to temper my speech with an awareness of my audience. In most cases, this results in a greater sensitivity regarding the use of otherwise “foul language”. In others however, it means the use of such language will actually more effectively emphasize my message. I think for the audiences that approve of, or even appreciate the use of foul language, it’s as a means of perceived honesty. I mean that in the sense that more people than not seem to use these words at one point or another, so using the words in front of the right crowd seems like your hiding less in your message. That in being more direct, you’re actually less offensive because you aren’t speaking over or down to the audience.

    In this regard, I always appreciated the comedians you referenced, particularly George Carlin. Muddled in his mess of “dirty words” was often genuine wisdom and valuable social insight. I feel that watching his comedy specials as an adolescent had a significant impact on my view of the world. More precisely, it guided my preferred modes of communication, and what I thought could be accomplished by the way a message was delivered.

    In reference to the conundrum you point out about whether the mediums for communication have directly changed anything, or perhaps just more clearly illuminated what was already there, I think the answer is both. I don’t doubt for a moment that whatever words have been considered off-limits in any language were still used frequently in certain crowds. I do however doubt that what we’re currently experiencing is simply a magnification of that phenomenon.

    Instead I’d pose that there is indeed a different language being used, but the words are largely the same. The difference lies in the connection, or rather disconnection, with the audience. Traditionally, communication was most commonly done with the ability for both parties to see and hear one another. Now, two sets of our social cues, very important sets at that, are often missing. What a lot of people are left with are words without inflection, and without a physical representation of the emotion of the speaker or listener.

    I remember you cautioning students not to place too much value on body language, and I’ve always heeded that advice, but I don’t think I’d find disagreement in that there is some inherent value in seeing the other party with whom you’re communicating.

    I feel that without the physical representations of our speech, too much meaning gets left to the imagination of the reader, increasing the likelihood of a misinterpretation based on any number of biases or predispositions. As this pattern increases in frequency of occurrence, so too follow themes of misappropriated feelings of offense or disparity.

    With the rise of said phenomenon, I feel we’ve seen the level of expected “political correctness” dramatically increase, and be rapidly expanded to new territory. As of late, I’ve paid a lot of attention to the cases of individuals such as Jordan Peterson at University of Toronto, Bret Weinstein at Evergreen State College, or even James Damore’s situation at google.

    It appears to me that more and more what is considered offensive or reprehensible, has increasingly become a means of seizing power for groups that lack the ability to otherwise rationally convey and defend their point of view. It is a trend that frightens me as an individual, and leaves me very concerned with the state of our university systems. In this vain, I’ve had a coworker conflate my desire to be a social worker with being what she referred to as a “social justice warrior”, an identity many people have assumed both in person and online. In this conflation, she scolded me for my misunderstanding of the term racism, insisting that racism was “prejudice plus power”. An idea apparently not so uncommon in sociology circles, but nevertheless, a frightening redefining of a concept that has a clear and precise definition in the dictionary.

    Unfortunately, I think the fuel for such ideologues is largely provided by those that do indeed hide behind the anonymity of the internet, casting their aspersions at a whim, often times without any clear attachment to the vulgarity of their ideas. “Trolls” as they’ve come to be known.

    Shifting back to your proposition of did crazy Johnny go off to war, or did war make Johnny crazy, I’d pose another question. Might we all have a little crazy in us, and if so, under what conditions does it transition from dormant to active? Until recently, offering the level of reprehensible behavior that can be commonly found on social media would’ve resulted in physical manifestations of emotional value if offered face to face. There were consequences to such behavior – either seeing the pain caused to another, or experiencing the pain they cause you for daring to act in in such a way. Currently however, one can operate in largely undesirable and even harmful ways, with absolutely no fear of repercussion.

    Whether or not the desire to act in such a way was brought about by the opportunity, it seems clear to me that as the opportunity increases, so to does the extent of expressed disregard for others.

    • Thank you, Austin. I feel at least one part of your analysis goes to the heart of communication, where you nod to the importance of face to face communication but probe deeper to the conveyance of information not simply – or deceivingly displayed in body language. I, too, am dissatisfied with two dimensional communication – the so-called “in black and white”. And, as you know, I go more deeply still, approving of students tape recording my classes and telling them I would much rather they have WHAT I said than what they THINK I said.

      I take your “have a little crazy in us” to heart. I’ve been considering a piece I tentatively title Split, examining what I recognize as apparent contradictions in my behavior. But, honestly, I don’t know if I’m ready for that level of disclosure.

  7. This offering, more than most, has left me with a shortage of words. I find myself nodding in agreement with many of the ideas expressed in the comments above, including your own. I have watched my granddaughter work to find herself socially, and I fear for the day when haters will have access to her on social media. I smile as I watch her dip her toes ever so gently into the deep pool of foul language. I was her age when I first experimented with those words, and I give her the same advice I gave my own children when they reached this stage of their development: just don’t use it around authority figures. A very wise teacher early on said that cursing is the last resort for those without the intelligence to express themselves in more creative ways. I think spanking falls into the same category; there are far more creative ways to discipline a child, and those properly disciplined will seldom, if ever, require punishment.

    It’s a “nature versus nurture” sort of conundrum, and there is no absolute answer. I have often said that alcohol doesn’t make us do stupid things, it just lowers our inhibitions enough to allow us to do what sense and sobriety would prevent. In a similar way, the relative anonymity and freedom from repercussion that social media provides seems to bring out the worst in some people. It would be a dull world if we all agreed on every subject, and certainly my friends are allowed to hold opinions with which I disagree, but there is a point beyond which one must not go if those friendships are to be maintained. I have a once-dear friend who steps beyond that point to call any who don’t agree with him “stupid”. I am a lot of things, but stupid isn’t one of them.

    • Thank you, Rose. First, I could never imagine anyone even inferring you are stupid. But then, there are some pretty vacuous people around. Your reference to your granddaughter reminded me of the incident I think I told you of at the time; the one where a truck cut in front of me and I, forgetting my daughter in her car seat behind me, waved a fist and said, “F’n truck!”. Incredibly, it happened again some days later and before I could act I heard this squeaky voice behind me yell, “F’n truck!”. To this day I don’t think I’ve gotten her to drop that.

      I think a related question here is: If we trim and abbreviate our conversation with others, do we eventually do likewise with ourselves? Do we lose the ability to converse internally and begin to rely more on externals such as the ubiquitous headphones we see on people. Can a person no longer go for a walk with their own thoughts/

      • I remember you telling me about that incident; children are such little parrots, and they love to repeat what they know will cause you to react. Abbreviated reactions, like abbreviated messages, have a tendency to bring unwanted situations to an end. I prefer texting if I am only passing along a bit of information, but much prefer long conversations with friends. Most of the time, I am most happy with my own thoughts. When it is only myself and my dog, I find my mind actively working out any problems which might engage it; silence, after all, is golden.

        Since receiving a phone for Christmas, my granddaughter is rarely seem without her ear buds engaged, listening to pod casts, or playing games. I’m afraid, like me, she is destined to be a lonely soul. Unlike me, she seeks out the company of others whenever possible, so perhaps there is hope.

      • I do really miss face to face conversations. I hope you are mindful of the volume levels on those earbuds. Hearing loss is an epidemic among young people.

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