In the last two, or so, years I have written just over 74,000 words. At a standard rate of conversion that runs to about 296 pages. While I have included the subject of language policing in other work on more than one occasion (Intolerant Me, The End Of Days), I’ve never specifically dedicated a post to the ruination of our ability to speak to each other as functioning adults, as a regrettable but foreseeable result of a cultural epidemic of self aggrandizement dressed up as a noble quest for social justice. All that time at the keyboard and not one complete overwrought, fulminating diatribe on the slow rot of language that we seem to be sinking deeper and deeper into on a daily basis. I realize I’m not likely to tread a whole lot of new ground here, but a recent event brought the subject to the front of my mind and got me thinking about it in a more personal, reflective way.
A couple of weeks ago I had been running a few errands and had the radio on as I drove. I was listening to a station dedicated to The Beatles, which was in the midst of an interview with Dick Cavett. If you don’t know who he is, Mr. Cavett is a talk show host and raconteur with a career as such that has spanned more than half a century. He is still active, to some extent, but in the late 60’s and 70’s he was perhaps the pre-eminent interviewer of the day. He had an inexhaustible run of celebrities and political figures on his show and so it was in no way surprising that he’d had John Lennon and Yoko Ono as guests, which is how he came to make an appearance on the program I was listening to. Chatting easily with the interviewer, Cavett began to speak about the couple’s second appearance on his own show, in 1972. He’d had a bit of give and take with the network censors about the possibility that Lennon and Ono would want to perform a song with the controversial title, “Woman is the Nigger of the World “. With that specific moment of recall the radio host was struck speechless for long enough to generate an uncomfortable, if brief, silence. He then told Mr. Cavett that when the interview was replayed the station would bleep over the ethnic slur. I didn’t listen all that much longer, but I did manage to hang on enough to hear what sounded like a genuine instance of disconnect for the former talk show host. Without having as accurate a recall as I would like, Cavett seemed to be attempting to explain the ironic usage of the word, while simultaneously being confused about needing to do just that to someone who had presented as a functioning adult. To provide a bit of context, when the incident in question occurred Mr. Cavett had been forced to provide a disclaimer of sorts before he announced the title of the song. In the passing years he’d referred to it in less than glowing terms, reporting that the only negative feedback he’d received about the day had been in reference to the warning, and not the performance itself. Having arrived at my destination I turned off the vehicle and moved on with my day. It wasn’t until later that afternoon that I began to think a bit more about what I’d heard on the radio. I tried to imagine what Cavett’s state of mind might have been, regarding the incident. Without any way of knowing I could only offer a speculative opinion, something I don’t want to engage in. What I can be sure of, is the feelings that were aroused in me.
There isn’t any way I could possibly remember the first time I thought about the creeping insanity our culture was experiencing, in the form of hypersensitive expression, but I’m certain about the day I realized that what I’d hoped was a temporary tic was in fact a real transformation of our use of language. I was floating in my pool, trying to escape a brutally hot afternoon. Considering how miserable our recent summers have been I’m guessing that it must have been seven or eight years ago. My step daughter, G___ was cooling off as well and we were wrapped up in a discussion concerning the sort of conversational horseshit I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. Before recounting the episode and then addressing it in a mildly reproving way, I should take the opportunity to offer some positive words on G___’s behalf. Now 27, she is in short, a terrific young woman. Intelligent, caring and warmhearted, she is a source of genuine pride to myself and her mother. In some ways, the fact that I think of her in almost universally positive terms serves to highlight the point I’m taking so long to get to. The start of our powwow, and a fair amount of it’s specifics, are lost to me now, but the part of it that left such a lasting impact on me is still fairly clear in my mind. At some point during a completely unheated exchange, G___ and I ended up going back and forth about various slurs and whether or not there was any way there use could be acceptable. My position (which I maintain) was that if the parties in question knew each other and had, one way or another come to an understanding, anything that passed between them was the business of no one else. She could not be convinced. The idea that the private speech of the two hypothetical people was none of her concern fell on ears that, while not exactly deaf, were remarkably resistant to a thought she was reflexively opposed to. I gave up after a token attempt to reshape my statement and tried not to waste too much time thinking about it. I didn’t really forget about it either. Aside from the fundamental, conceptual disagreement I just briefly described, the particular language she used nagged at me. G___ thought that there weren’t any circumstances under which it would be okay to call someone with Down syndrome a retard (no argument here), a gay man a fag or a black person the N-word. As much as the indicated underlying philosophical rigidity was problematic, what caught my attention most strongly was the fact that her language could be interpreted in a way that indicated that she saw the homosexual and mentally challenged populations as capable, if only in absentia, of a more nuanced appreciation of her verbiage than black people could be. Not that I think those sentiments were or are a part of her conscious world view. It’s just that even that many years ago, political correctness had already had a toxic effect on the way people approached any number of things.
When I heard the brief interaction involving Mr. Cavett, that I cited earlier on, it got me thinking about the cost of all this agonizingly over-examined communication. It reminded me of another societal ailment I’ve commented on; secular religion (Secular Religion: Jesus For the Faithless). The focus of my writing on that subject was the application of an unbending belief, regardless of evidence to the contrary, in the intellectual arena. Respecting the previous thousand or so words it strikes me that the field of play is ethics as opposed to academics, but the deleterious impact of inflexible conviction is no less of a danger to us. That sort of blind faith is historically, a not infrequent well spring of dictatorial impulse. I suppose it’d be easy enough to misinterpret my perspective here, and so I thought I’d finish by making things as clear as I can. I am in no way advocating a return to an uglier time in our history when the public was expected to look the other way at casual racism. I’m not asserting that the increased sensitivity displayed in recent years is a valueless part of public life. I’m proposing that we give some room to the idea that obsession with language has had a suffocating effect on critical thinking. It’s difficult for me to see how any movement towards the simplistic can be of benefit to any of us in the long run.