Sunday, August 11, 2019

Sunday Reading

David Remnick in The New Yorker on what Toni Morrison understood about hate.

In December, 1993, Toni Morrison flew to Stockholm to deliver the lecture required of those awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her subject was the power of language. Words, she said, have the capacity to liberate, empower, imagine, and heal, but, cruelly employed, they can “render the suffering of millions mute.” Morrison was unsparing in her depiction of people who would use language to evil ends. Pointing to “infantile heads of state” who speak only “to those who obey, or in order to force obedience,” she warned of the virulence of the demagogue. “Oppressive language does more than represent violence,” she said. “It is violence.”

Morrison died on August 5th, at the age of eighty-eight. Her novels and essays, exploring black communities with intimacy and imagination, took in the legacy of slavery, the rejection of Reconstruction, the brutalities of Jim Crow––the whole of American history. Even in her final years, her political sense remained unerring. Just days after the 2016 election, writing in this magazine, she sensed the arrival of a troubling era, one centered on a callous and cunning confidence man:

So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.

On Election Day, how eagerly so many white voters—both the poorly educated and the well educated—embraced the shame and fear sowed by Donald Trump. The candidate whose company has been sued by the Justice Department for not renting apartments to black people. The candidate who questioned whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, and who seemed to condone the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester at a campaign rally. The candidate who kept black workers off the floors of his casinos. The candidate who is beloved by David Duke and endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

Donald Trump is far from the first President to express rank prejudice. Thomas Jefferson, in “Notes on the State of Virginia,” maintained that black men and women had a “very strong and disagreeable odor.” Woodrow Wilson screened the Klan-glorifying film “The Birth of a Nation” at the White House. As we learned recently, Ronald Reagan, in a telephone conversation with Richard Nixon, referred to Africans as “monkeys.” And so on.

But what is unique about Trump, at least in modern times, is the extent to which bigotry is his principal means of rousing support. Trump backers who aren’t drawn to his bigotry choose to tolerate it. Ours is a country that could elect a black President preaching unity; it is also a country where tens of millions of Americans continue to say that they will vote for a man whose platform is nativism and division.

There is calculation behind the bigotry. Trump recognized that Obama’s ascent to the White House, in 2008, was met by a powerful racist reaction. Hate crimes and white-supremacist groups proliferated, as did threats against the President’s person. And so Trump began his political career deploying the language of conspiracy theory. First as a candidate and then as President, he spoke of Mexican “rapists,” of “caravans” filled with encroaching “aliens”; he directed invective at African-Americans, Muslims, women, and immigrants, and at legislators of color. Drawing on a long and toxic tradition, he has put forward a form of white identity politics in which violent language gives license to violent acts.

Such language is hardly a matter of thoughtless improvisation. Recently, the Times reported that the Trump campaign has seized on the imagery of “invasion”––one of the President’s favorite descriptions of immigration––as a theme for its Facebook ads. Such language is in synch with that of the mass shooter in El Paso, who, before killing twenty-two people and wounding many more in a Walmart, appears to have issued a manifesto warning that “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” And, as the civil-rights leader Bryan Stevenson says, the insistence on unfettered gun ownership is a core tenet of white identity politics.

Although the solidity of the President’s base should not be underestimated, a sense of alarm is growing. The clerical leaders of the Washington National Cathedral, where the funerals of Presidents Eisenhower, Ford, Reagan, and Bush took place, gave voice to that alarm last week. “When such violent dehumanizing words come from the President of the United States, they are a clarion call, and give cover, to white supremacists who consider people of color a sub-human ‘infestation’ in America,” they wrote, in an official statement. “Violent words lead to violent actions.” And they asked, “When does silence become complicity? What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough? The question is less about the president’s sense of decency, but of ours.”

After the recent massacres in El Paso and in Dayton, White House aides evidently decided that Trump needed to dial back his rhetoric. In a brief speech, he denounced white supremacy, but with the vacant affect of a hostage reading for the camera. Liberated from this chore, he soon regained his usual temper; visiting the bereaved in Texas and Ohio, he found the time to lambaste local officials, along with “Sleepy” Joe Biden, “the LameStream media,” and other customary targets.

In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt characterized the Presidency as “preëminently a place of moral leadership.” Trump, by contrast, once told his circle of advisers that they should “think of each Presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals.” In the Trump show, which will soon be up for renewal, immigrants, Muslims, and people of color are regularly cast as the villains.

Toni Morrison approached the enduring phenomenon of American bigotry and nativism from many angles. But she had a clear sense that the critical function of racism was distraction. Racism “keeps you from doing your work,” she said. “It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms, and you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

WTF? — Jake Cline in The Atlantic on how internet slang makes people better writers.

These are tough times for grammar snobs, those would-be avatars of flawless spelling and proper syntax who need look no further than a high-school friend’s Facebook posts or a family member’s text messages to find their treasured language being misused and neglected. Of course, split infinitives, dangling modifiers, and subject-verb disagreements have always appeared wherever words are uttered or keys are stroked. But on the internet, and particularly on social media, defenders of formal writing and the rules of language may feel as if they’ve become stuck in some linguistic hellscape littered with discarded stylebooks, the ashes of dictionaries, and a new species of abbreviations that’s tougher to crack than Linear B.

To these “grumbling” grammarians, the Montreal-based linguist Gretchen McCulloch says: Lighten up lol. In her new book, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, McCulloch challenges the idea that the rise of informal writing signals a trend toward global idiocy. Instead, she marks it as an inevitable and necessary “disruption” in the way human beings communicate. “We no longer accept that writing must be lifeless, that it can only convey our tone of voice roughly and imprecisely, or that nuanced writing is the exclusive domain of professionals,” McCulloch argues. “We’re creating new rules for typographical tone of voice. Not the kind of rules that are imposed from on high, but the kind of rules that emerge from the collective practice of a couple billion social monkeys — rules that enliven our social interactions.”

Of course, the old rules of language were broken long before people went online, and McCulloch offers that the internet concludes a process “that had begun with medieval scribes and modernist poets.” She also notes how “well-documented features” of regional and cultural dialects—such as southern American English and African American English—have influenced the language of the internet, most obviously on Twitter. But in contrast to the pre-internet age, she argues, now we are all “writers as well as readers” of informal English.

Drawing from her research and that of other linguists,McCulloch shows how creative respellings, expressive punctuation, emoji, memes, and other hallmarks of informal communication online demonstrate asophisticationthat can rival even the most elegant writing. Understanding the difference between ending a sentence with one exclamation point or two, recognizing what a person is conveying when they write “dumbbb” or “sameee,” and knowing when or when not to be upset after receiving an all-caps text, McCulloch writes, “requires subtly tuned awareness of the full spectrum of the language.”

The prevalence of emoji, meanwhile, does not indicate verbal indolence or a pandemic of cuteness (though adorability is certainly part of it). Instead, McCulloch writes, emoji represent a “demand that our writing … be capable of fully expressing what we want to say and, most crucially, how we’re saying it.” She even implies that William Shakespeare, whose work in part depends on the gesticulating of actors, would have been fine with the “digital embodiment” of mental states and intentions in emoji.

All this informality may also be making people smarter, McCulloch suggests. In any case, it doesn’t appear to be making anyone dumber. “Several studies show that people who use a lot of internet abbreviations perform, at worst, just as well on spelling tests, formal essays, and other measures of literacy as people who never use abbreviations — and sometimes even better,” the author writes.

Twitter has been especially good at sharpening its users’ communication skills, McCulloch finds. Because Twitter users are more likely to interact with people they don’t know outside the internet (versus Facebook, where exchanges take place largely among friends and family), linguistic innovations—hashtags, @mentions, new words, and abbreviations — are more abundant on the site. McCulloch credits improvements in her own writing style to Twitter’s 280-character limit and the way it forces users “to structure their thoughts into concise, pithy statements.”

McCulloch doesn’t spend much time on how these innovations have been used to sow division and to spread hate speech, though she does acknowledge how memes were employed to make “abhorrent beliefs look appealingly ironic” during the 2016 election campaign. Given her profession, McCulloch is much more interested in the positives that have come from the popularization of informal writing. “As a linguist,” she writes, “what compels me are the parts of language that we don’t even know we’re so good at, the patterns that emerge spontaneously, when we aren’t really thinking about them.”

As for those dug-in, intransigent standard-bearers of formal writing who still flinch every time they encounter a face-palm emoji or the sarcasm tilde (~), McCulloch extends sympathy and an olive branch. She also suggests that those fluent in internet English should go easy on themselves and try to exorcise “the ghosts of misguided grammarians” who left “us with a vague sense of unease at the whole prospect of the written word.”

With Because Internet, McCulloch is offering “a snapshot of a particular moment in time and how we got that way, not a claim to correctness or immortality.” And she calls for humility from those who are fluent in internet language and culture. “We don’t create truly successful communication by ‘winning’ at conversational norms,” she writes, “whether that’s by convincing someone to omit all periods in text messages for fear of being taken as angry, or to answer all landline telephones after precisely two rings. We create successful communication when all parties help each other win.”

After all, as McCulloch points out, “the only languages that stay unchanging are the dead ones.”

Doonesbury — Hey, he noticed.

Speak!