Thinking about language

Thinking about language

Joanne Palmer

If you want to make yourself laugh bleakly in thsee dark dark times, it might be worth remembering that the political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued, in “The End of History,” that human society had nearly perfected itself, and there wouldn’t be much to chronicle any more.

That was in 1992. A lot of history has happened since then.

These last few months have felt like history written not with a pen but with a firehose. It doesn’t work too well; the best any of us can do is just get out of the way.

With the recent fiasco of the three university presidents’ heartless, soulless, robotic, deeply stupid but partially true explanation of how context matters when it is applied to free speech — they seemed like AI programs in suits — I started thinking about how language is misused.

We seem to have two kinds of language at war with each other just now. (And why wouldn’t they be at war? Just about everything else is.)

On the right, mostly, we have embarrassing agrammatic crudity, an unceasing flow of insults, racism, and name-calling, aimed at political opponents, the judicial system, and decency itself that any competent parent would have stopped decades ago. What sane adult talks like that? What sane adult listens to someone who talks like that?

On the left, mostly, we have mushy-mouthed agrammatic word salads, made-up words shoved together nonsensically in a barrage meant maybe to enrage but maybe just to exhaust the listener.

Last week, New York Times opinion columnist Pamela Paul wrote a piece about Columbia University’s social work school. Incoming students are given a glossary that defines terms in ways that are meant to be stinging ; in “What Is Happening at the Columbia School of Social Work?” Ms. Paul links to that glossary.

My favorite, for obvious reasons, is “Ashkenormativity — A system of oppression that favors white Jewish folx, based on the assumption that all Jewish folx are Ashkenazi, or from Western Europe.”

(I have no idea why this document consistently uses the unappealing term “folx,” as if the faux-folksy “folks” isn’t bad enough.)

It seems that at the House hearing where the college presidents pilloried themselves by turning themselves into the clown version of academics, we saw how bad mealy-mouthed speech is at conveying meaning. I have no idea why the three of them couldn’t clearly say that they were disgusted by antisemitism, even if they were to go on to defend free speech.

But before we can argue free speech, we have to reclaim clear speech. And that can be hard for folx to do.


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