News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Hacks, hoopleheads and outright doofs

"Hacks, hoopleheads and outright doofs"

The late semanticist, university president, and U. S. Senator S. I. Hayakawa talked of the burgeoning media which produced a blizzard of words in which people get disoriented and lost. South Dakota's Nicholas Black Elk envisioned a society experiencing an explosive disintegration when words lost the objects they were moored to and were dissolved by the miasma from the linguistic decay of people imposing their subjective notions onto words. Hayakawa proposed that the U.S. declare English as its official language. He said bi-lingualism is fine for individuals, but not for countries, which need to conduct their business in precise, unambiguous terms. Hayakawa understood the problem of people exchanging words in the same ostensible language but having different meanings for the words flying back and forth. It is the lesson of the Tower of Babel but all in the same language. The fad of deconstruction in English departments was a belief that language inevitably disintegrates, and there isn't a hell of a lot that can be done about it.

Other semanticists acknowledge the problem with the deterioration of language to the point where no objective meaning is possible, but do not think that declaring an official language can reestablish a language as the effective currency of thought and expression. They point out that people who are familiar with more than one language generally have a more precise understanding of denotation, connotation, and nuance, and that English has become the dominant language of the world because of its inherent grammatical capability of absorbing new information while maintaining the original referents of its words. This constructionist camp thinks the antidote to total disintegration of language is an intensification of education in literacy. The study of language and language arts, with rhetoric as a major component, will allow the language itself to re-establish its semantic reliabiity.

The effectiveness of words, as is true of democracy, is a matter of human will. People decide to either consult arbiters of meaning, such as dictionaries, or not. In a democracy, people decide either to respect and to honestly evaluate differing opinions or not. In either case, when they decide not, communication ends and interminable noise begins. People who respect language try to maintain its precision and reliability. People who wish to impose themselves on the rest of the world deconstruct and destroy language.

Hayakawa posited that people speak in two forms of language: the language of reports and the language of judgments. In the language of reports, they try to picture the objective realities we experience in common. As in the song from the Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, the language of reports begins with "do you see what I see?" In the language of judgments, people give us only the maps of their mentalities. And when the judgments are not formed from a rigoroous and thorough examination of reports what we find is ignorant presumption and decadent stupidity. In the field of rhetoric, forming judgments is a methodical process of surveying the reports about human experience. Both Hayakawa and Black Elk saw an end to communication when judgments displace information as the primary business of language.

People do have opinions and attitudes. They express them relentlessly. In this country, the right to express opinions is a basic freedom. Often, however, when exercising their right of free speech, people forget that other people have the concomitant right to choose whether they wish to listen, to dismiss other people's opinions as irrelevant nonsense--or to exercise some other critical judgment about what they hear. And when their opinions are rejected in some way, some souls howl and whine about their right to free speech being abridged.

That gets to the matter of blogs. I am often called an anti-blogger. Some assume an element of hypocrisy is involved because I criticize blogs but I blog myself. And as I have said repeatedly, I am not anti-blogging. I think that the Internet has the potential to be a huge boon to human commmunication. But it also has the potential to be used largely to exchange ignorance and misinformation and false witness. A large portion of blogs is devoted to the ignorant presumptions of their authors. Blogging is largely an ego-driven activity in which people labor under the delusion that their precious little attitudes and opinions are valuables that the world is waiting to receive. They are exercises in verbal masturbation, not productive intercourse. Some are devoted to maligning others. They are mean, petty, and display mentalities possessed of ill will.

Most news media go through an editoral lprocess in which the great editorial nurse smacks down the erectile ego with a wet towel, or a grizzled old editor asks a reporter to show him the verifications and attributions of facts, or tells a columnist basking in preciousness to demonstrate his thinking, not his opinion of himself. Such concern about the integrity of reporting and reasoning is not much practiced in the media anymore and never was much of a consideration among bloggers.

Of the blogs that try to carry a heavy news component, The Huffington Post is an example. But even some of its contributors flail away at their overheated egos on occasion. One example is a young man who presumes to debunk Al Gore and his campaign on global warming.

He enumerates points where he thinks Al Gore is wrong and begins by claiming that the term "climate change" is a redundancy. He claims that change and climate are synonymous. Climate is always in a state of flux, he states. Therefore, the term "climate change" is nonsensical.

First of all, the term is one in which climate is a nominal adjective used to modify the noun change. Secondly, one of America's best descriptive dictionaries, The American Heritage, gives these definitions for climate:

1. The meteorological conditions, including temperature, precipitation, and wind that characteristically prevail in a particular region.

2. A region of the earth having particular meteorological conditions: lives in a cold climate.

So, certain regions have characteristic climatic features.

Then that same dictionary defines change when used as a noun:

1. The act, process, or result of altering or modifying: a change
in facial expression.

2. The replacing of one thing for another, substitution: a change of atmosphere, a change of ownership.

3. A transformation or transition from one state, condition, or phase to another: the change of seasons.

In other words, "climate" is the prevailing meteorological characteristics of a region--or the globe itself--and they may change to other prevailing characteristics. "Climate change" is a perfectly grammatical, semantically valid term. The young man's claims of redundancy are specious and grossly, grammatically ignorant. He gives not an accurate report of concepts he tries to discuss, but instead the malformed designs of his mentality.

The young man does, however, what is very common among blogs. He does not use words defined by informed consensus. He makes up his own definitions and then discredits other people who do not subscribe to his definitions. This deconstruction of the language for the purposes of maligning and impugning other people is the reason people find blogs of no intellectual merit, a matter of intellectual decadence in many cases. But the dissemination of malignity is the very purpose for which some blogs came into being.

Some of the decadent blogs are the products of malformed egos, of otherwise inconsequential people who have found in blogs a medium for self-adulation and self-promotion. It is the kind of puerilism that contributes nothing constructive to the language or the culture. Other of the decadent blogs were created precisely to spread ill will and wreak destruction upon the language.

The blizzard of words is often detritus blown about by the winds of egotism. While the print media is in a state of decline because the Internet has changed the intellectual climate, it is also more essential than ever before to have a criticism of literature and language that discerns between the self-serving language of judgments and the communicative language of reports. Our educational institutions, as the language constructionists insist, are being charged with teaching the elements of valid grammar and the qualities of true literacy as they never have before. The evaluation of the effectiveness of our schools will not be determined by average scores on standardized tests but by the level of literacy on which our culture operates. A new way but also very old way of assessing education is being promoted, and it will emphasize integrity and competence in the use of language.

As Proverbs says:

10:14: The wise lay up knowledge, but the babbling of a fool brings ruin near.


11:12: Whoever belittles another lacks sense, but an intelligent person remains silent. 13. A gossip goes about telling secrets, but one who is trustworthy keeps a confidence. 14. Where there is no guidance, a nation fails, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.

We'll see which way the blogs go on.

1 comment:

Brian Barker said...

I agree with your tower of Babel comment.

In today's World the language problem is still relevant!

If you have time, please check
as well as

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States