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

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Spreading illiteracy

Writing on certain topics and expressing certain opinions on certain blogs is like kicking a hornets' nest or poking  a bear.  You know that there will be reactions.  And you know what those reactions will be.  You know this for the same reason that you know that Pavlov's dog will salivate at the sound of a bell.  The reactions are conditioned responses.  They are  not responses that involve cognition,  Rather, they trigger ingrained behavior that wells up from deep in the  reptilian cortex, behavior that can be triggered by verbal commands.  

If you are fleet of foot, it can be amusing to kick a hornets' nest.  You can zip off to a safe observation point and watch the creatures swarm and buzz in rage and frustration.  When humans are the critters teased into mindless  rage, it can be just as amusing, and potentially just as dangerous.  But watching humans in the throes of an uncontrollable  furor raises questions of morality of the "there but for the grace of god" variety,  Our mothers and fathers warned us harshly about tormenting dumb creatures.  But on occasion, we sort of  do it, and suppress our amusement.  But then, should we ever regard other humans as dumb creatures? 

I did it recently.  In the post previous to this one, I made fun of people for whom guns are at once a religious relic, a badge of virility, and perhaps the only source of personal power and influence that they can claim.  There are people who cannot be trusted to behave responsibly with firearms.  Madville Times chronicled a recent example. And the Watertown newspaper another. The advocates for a wide open Second Amendment never acknowledge the "well-regulated" modifier.  In the military, soldiers do not have discretionary use of their  weapons.  They have them in their possession only under direct order, such as a battle order, a guard mount, a parade, etc.  The rest of the time the firearms are locked in the armory.  To have a weapon without a direct order authorizing its possession is a court martial offense.  Generally, the only people on a military post who carry their weapons at all times are military police.  There are good, documented reasons for restrictions on when people should possess weapons.    There are people in both military and civilian life who should not be entrusted with lethal weapons without supervision.  The military understands this and, therefore, has stringent rules which stipulate the conditions under which armor is deployed.  

As an owner and user of firearms, I appreciate the Second Amendment.  Firearms were essential tools in my farm-oriented family, but were regarded with the same attitude as pitchforks and scoop shovels or tractors.   They were tools.  No more, no less.  And when people brandished firearms with an adolescent macho bluster, those people  called into question their fitness for handling firearms.  They called up the old "never give a baby a gun" adage.  My frivolous and frankly silly post on those who regard guns as symbols of their personhood was done knowing what I would be poking.  

The responses to that post on Keloland met expectations. None of them meet the basic requirements that I and many other bloggers use as the standards which permit publication.  Generally, comments are routinely deleted if:

1.  They do not address the point or points made in the post.
2.  They contain libelous statements.
3.  They are abusive.
4.  They are personally insulting.
5.  They are not literate, show a lack of comprehension, or are otherwise incoherent.
6.   They misrepresent statements in the post, comments, or other sources.

Of late, we have relaxed those rules to provide evidence of what has come to pass for political discourse on the Internet, and presumably among a significant portion of the populace.  Other than regarding the KELO comments with a dour bemusement, I have not given them serious attention.  Until, that is, that a colleague read them and remarked that South Dakota seems to have a serious illiteracy problem.  That brought me up short.  He was not using the term illiteracy as a dismissive reference to the ranting from the fringe: he was using it with its technical definition.  

The technical definition of an illiterate is someone who operates with a fourth grade level of speaking, reading, and writing, or less.  They are capable of sounding out words and the rudiments of spelling, punctuation, and grammar.  There are often many of those SPUG errors which may be a result of the haste and the graphic deficiencies of monitor screens, but they can also be indicative of more serious deficiencies of mind.   More defining is the level of reading comprehension and retention and whether the comments address the content of what they are in response to.

My colleague pointed out that none of the comments addressed the point of the satire, but went off into the maligning of the author.  That is the symptom of the fourth grade mentality. Disagreements at that level inevitably turn into ad hominem attacks,  the rituals of name-calling, insult, and abuse.  Illiteracy is also the inability to grasp a point, sometimes the inability to discern one.

Even those who possess the facades of a higher education show lapses into those dimensions of illiteracy.  Often when people wish to comment on something one says that rankles them, they extract a phrase to typify what offends them.  They ignore the sentence in which the phrases occurred, and therefore all the grammatical qualifiers that control the meaning.

It is not just the comments that contain examples of this kind of subreption.  Many bloggers never aspire to anything more than the most abject forms of fourth-grade malice.  I won't name them but they tend to stress their South Dakota identities in their blog titles.  

My colleague who stressed the matter of illiteracy as a defining component in the blog comments raised a more disturbing question for those of us who have been involved in education and in editing  discussion forums.  He stresses that the biggest threat to the First Amendment is from those who exercise it with ignorance, stupidity, and malice.  He suggests that the quality of the comments showing up on the Internet may indicate the failures of those of us to teach, write, and edit. 

The Internet may well be the instrument that makes stupidity a fashion of the age.  Those who think there is some value to education and accomplished expression have to devise a way to bring some standards of intelligence and thoughtful expression to the Internet to save it from illiteracy.  

1 comment:

Douglas said...

Well, keep up the fight. Your posts almost always indicate thoughtful care about what you write.

I believe that the discouraging quality of many comments is unfortunately worse than just a fashion of illiteracy.. it seems to be more like willful lazy ignorance that makes relying on cant and mythology the easy way.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States