Cultural Racism

I’ve been thinking about that Loury and McWhorter video again – it’s difficult not to think about racism these past few days. Stars and stripes are in the news.

The term ‘structural racism’ comes up at one point in the video, a term that McWhorter takes issue with because of it’s lack on involvement with people, the human. Perhaps the concept is better stated as ‘cultural racism’. Culture does involve people and humans and their learned behavior. Racism is certainly a part of American culture, as it is in many countries around the world. For various reasons, America’s racism is more extreme, more tragic.

Cultures don’t change quickly, they go through centuries of evolution – extended debate, civil wars, policy and law reform, budgets, and elections. The process of cultural change is a process that a culture or society usually undergoes, rather than actively decides. But does this need to be the case? Are we at a point that masses of people, through the help of certain technology, can start to make conscious decisions about the evolution of their culture?

This next election is turning out to be a critical point America’s long struggle with cultural racism. For one political party, it’s still an advantage to avoid openly condemning racism. Until it becomes a disadvantage for that party, until they lose more at the polls than they gain (the only thing political parties care about), they won’t condemn racism.

Technology has been a magnifying glass on society in the social media age – the good, the bad, the lingering behaviors that have been slow to mature. Perhaps technology can also be used as a reactive instrument in confronting exposed cultural flaws. It may be a lot to hope for, but as someone watching America from the outside, I hope the many, many people in America who detest their cultural racism decide to make this next election about racism and racism only.

Technology can help spread the message that if a political party won’t openly condemn racism, then they will never stand a chance at winning an election, regardless of any of their other beliefs. Democracy is meant to be representational, but it can also be representation full of aspiration.

Aspiring towards a conscious shift in culture is a massive outcome to hope for. America itself is also a massive place, with an amazing, still developing, culture.


Negotiating Word Meanings – What is Racist?

I watched this video last week of a discussion between Glenn Loury and John McWhorter about various topics surrounding Donald trump and racism. The topic of “Is Trump a racist?” is interesting in itself, but what I enjoyed most is how the two speakers discuss the meaning of the word “racist” and “racism”.

How has the concept changed over the years? To what degree can a concept be attributed to both a culture and a personality? Does language need to differentiate between the two? How does language communicate ideas that exist on a spectrum (ie: color)?

Debating definitions of words is time consuming, but worthwhile. This discussion is a great example of two people negotiating the finer line of language representation:

Casual, Informal Written English

The final lecture is a recap, with some long-term predictions for English from McWhorter. The predictions are cool, and I won’t relate them here, but leave them for him to explain on the recording – which I highly recommend. This is the second time I’ve listened to them, and they are well worth the time. Anyway, I’ll combine my thoughts on the second last lecture with the last one here, as I don’t have all that much to say.

Texting, and all other forms of digital communication, is the development of a casual, informal style of written English. It’s not the disintegration of language any more than casual conversations and friendly chat were. I think most people recognize this, apart from the message board complainers and Andy Rooney who seem to think language reflects some sort of unchanging standard.

So, explains McWhorter, there are the four types of language: written and spoken versions of formal and casual. I like this explanation, as it appears more as a set of language style tools that a culture has, rather than any sort of progression from good to bad or something. Not unlike what I’ve written about for communication technology.

Will casual written language affect formal and how we speak? Surely, some…but people tend to keep formal and informal speaking language separate – so likely casual written language likely won’t create any major shift in the other formal or spoken uses of English. Perhaps, just a centring of balance will occur.

The final lecture is a recap, as I mentioned. It talks about the future of English, and as I think I wrote a few posts ago, I wonder about English as a new Lingua franca, a new Indo-European. There are reasons to predict that it won’t be Chinese, but then again predicting the future hundreds of years off is nothing to go to Vegas about.

This is the final post in this series of notes on John McWhorter’s audio lecture series in Myths, Lies and Half-Truths of the English Language – Link to the first post in this series is here.

Poetry is a Celebration

Poetry is a celebration of language – just more so back in the day than it is now. As evidence of this, and poetry’s higher importance a century ago, McWhorter explains a Bugs Bunny cartoon from 1941 (apparently it’s called Rabbit Hunt, if you find it please link in the comments)  where the talking rabbit opens the skit by reciting a few lines of famous poetry, that viewers were surely to recognize. Perry the platypus probably wouldn’t do anything the like, even if he did talk.

Poetry used to be highly structured, even for a highly structured writing style. Over the years the structure of rules and shape lessened, but it also used to be that people could make a living at poetry. Nowadays, not as much. In pact, McWhorter points to a 1991 article that explains how the poetry industry is contrived by produces of poetry. Interesting stuff, but I wonder if it is the highly structure poetry at stake, rather than the a more free flowing style.

Because, despite the seemingly diminishing role of formal, highly prepared poetry, more varieties of this celebration of language seem to have a resurgence of late. Rap music is one example – and even within hip-hop culture, rappers will even measure their prowess on the control over language with a catalog of styles, an unconforming way to break the bounds of structure with a variety of structures.

My best guess is that what could be considered as poetry is heading for a golden age, at least online. That is, if you would consider things like words clouds and infographics as poetry. Maybe a better word is needed, but it’s certainly falls within the phrase a Celebration of Language.

We can only hope Perry’s first words are some dope lyrics.

Link to the first post in this series is here.

How We Write

How we write has changed over the past century, says Mcwhorter. Much of it comes down to expectations, and this makes sense to me since language is a social, negotiated process. There was a time when written language was expected to be thought-out, formal stuff. Examples of this are tired, beaten, rough-edged civil war soldiers and their highly structured letters to home.

Much of the lecture provides examples of written language from journalism and in comparing 6th grade reading between then and now. The difference is in the formality, the preparedness. Writing wasn’t how people spoke, speaking and writing were far different mediums because an informal style of writing hadn’t developed yet. Today, the two are much more comparable.

The old style writing culture, the highly prepared & formal style, comes out of an America that celebrated it’s literacy and use of language, it took pride in writing, it was a country new to being a global leader, and the affords of written communication allowed for high style. Writing is also physically easier nowadays.

Linguistic culture was like food culture – well prepared.

Today, there is much more allowance for style by the electronic word, so much so that writing has broken, developing in its wake a casual side to fill a need for speed in this busy world. Along the way, fast food restaurants and frozen dinners expanded food culture (for better or worse) as happened to linguistic culture. Written culture is still like food culture, I guess, except both have changed.

Today we have more nuance in writing, because we don’t throw away old styles when their importance diminishes – at least not in healthy cultures. Teaching (ESL or all) students style and structure is important, even if the role of high structure in writing has been diminished, as long as we impress on learners that these are starting points, not end points in the use of written language.

Link to the first post in this series is here.

Digital Rhetoric

I’m back to commuting, so I finally have a chance to listen to the final four lectures in the John McWhorter lecture series on Myths, Lies and Half-Truths about the English language. Lecture 20, on speech making, has been one of my favorites so far.

Decades ago, perhaps even a century or so, speeches came in quite different form – they were more like a written form of speaking. People were orators by profession, and spectators used to come to watch and listen to these speech makers as a form of entertainment, for the opportunity to hear someone use language in an elegant way. This was a time when “oration was one of the measures of a man”. Boisterous and heavily prepared, it is no coincidence that this style of speech making changed as audio and video transmission and recording technology became more prevalent in society. You can hear one example of this style in a campaign speech by Grover Cleveland from 1892. (McWhorter actually uses a clip from a US Senator named Charles Eaton, but I couldn’t find anything out there by him. If anyone has a link, please share.)

The type of rhetoric involved in this old style of prepared speechmaking does not translate well into recoding, amplification, and the casual, choppy style of today’s spoken word. Rhetoric shifted from spoken word to written word. However, this isn’t the rhetoric of negative connotation – it’s rhetoric that, in my mind, compares to literacy; to having the tools and device to command a medium. In the same way that the word rhetoric developed a bad name, so did this extravagant style of speechmaking from decades ago that is now considered caricature. This s the rhetoric of the ancient Greeks, and the rhetoric that connotes style and persuasion, without calling into question motives (a separate, albeit important matter).

I believe rhetoric closely compares with the concept of digital literacies in the variety of contexts and scope of its application. As electronic media shifted rhetoric from speech to writing, so now it comes back to the milieu of digital communication in the form of design. We encounter many different styles of mediums these days, for those who choose to be connected, and all of the dents and aromas that each particular form of communication brings with it. Knowing what is attached to our messages based on the form that they take, the shape of the channel, is a skill to be gained.

Link to the first post in this series is here.

Quirks of English

Lecture 4 describes some of the unique features of the English Language as a result of its Celtic background. One of the unique features is how native English speakers attach the useless word “do” at the start of some questions. Apparently, this doesn’t happen for any other European languages, and is rare in languages around the globe. Another unique feature is that in English people will often overstate a present continuous event. For example, when asked “What are you doing?” an English speaking respondent will reply “I am writing” instead of the more common, and simpler present tense “I write”.

Many of these quirks of English came about because of a long-time gap between written language and spoken language. Latin, the long dominant written language, was reserved for structured, prestigious, and ritual purposes. Casual writing didn’t exist until about a millennium ago.

Today, the gap seems to have been closed. From the affordances of electronic text, the variety of printed language far surpasses spoken language. Spoken language may still be the power of humanity, but variety and malleability belong to the visual language.

Link to the first post in this series is here.