One of my favorite authors, Philip Roth, died recently, leaving a magnificent body of work. Unlike other personal faves, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, who composed mostly in the key of J (for “Jewish”; Malamud’s The Natural is an exception), Roth’s versatility was truly impressive.
In Indignation (2008), a young man bucks the system of compulsory college “convocations” (which I underwent). He stands on principle, and it all ends badly for him.
In The Plot Against America (2004), a charismatic, demagogic, rightwing ignoramus with 100% name recognition – Charles Lindbergh – is elected President. Sound familiar?
A single word
Also eerily prescient is The Human Stain (2000). As we see daily, a single word can impair or destroy a career — that’s what happens in the novel, and it seemed to me an improbable literary stretch (well, maybe not so improbable) to make a point. But it is actually happening today.
Goodbye, Roseanne. You used an inflammatory word, a word which people have trained themselves and others to react violently to.
Brief linguistics lesson, which kids should have mastered by high school:
The meaning of an utterance, from a word, to a phrase, to a sentence, to a speech, is the sum of the information encoded by the speaker in the words selected and their grammatical relationships; included in all this are signals as to the intended function of the utterance – question, command, representation, interruption, etc.
Intended and perceived meaning
Then there is perceived meaning. A lot has gone into each utterance. Did the listener get it all?” Did he/she decode exactly what was encoded?
Successful communication occurs when intended meaning = perceived meaning. You can do psycholinguistic experiments that measure how well the two match up. But in everyday speech, it’s a free-for-all. Words mean what the speaker says they mean, and too bad if you didn’t get my intention.
People are too sensitive
It’s bad enough that too many of us are over-sensitive to taboo words.
As I have explained in other posts, they are just words. Yes, it’s OK to give them some power. For instance, how about the moment just after a minor fender-bender, as you sit, helpless and furious…what do you say?
Gosh darn it just won’t do (for most of us). I would probably say, “Jesus FUCKING Christ!” though I don’t believe in Jesus, and I’m not even sure what fucking adds to the expostulation.
(BTW, its uses could take up a whole post; very often it expresses disparagement or disdain, like the British bloody or the meaning ‘accursed,’ e.g., I don’t want your fucking money.)
So taboo words can be used in some contexts without giving offense.
But what words? And what contexts? Since “fighting words” words are poorly-defined by the Supreme Court decision on free-speech exceptions – there’s no list! – anybody can be offended by anything.
Perceived meaning overrides intended meaning
This creates an opportunity for the basic p.c. language maxim: perceived meaning cancels out intended meaning. If the perceived meaning is offensive, then the guilt-victimhood cycle kicks in.
That is not fair or humane. It is a violation of the rules of communication, which, as indicated above, requires a two-sided effort. It is a recipe for social conflict. It is one of the very few pages in the p.c. playbook, and they use it over and over.
Back to The Human Stain, set in the era of Clinton and Monica. Hence the pun in the title.
Coleman Silk, the main character, is about as prestigious and accomplished an academic as one can be: professor emeritus and Dean at a small, tony, rural college. He still teaches, and in one class, noting the continuing absence of two black students, asks, in all innocence, “Are they spooks?”
Insanity ensues. In one scene, Silk, in exasperated and stentorian tones, reads a dictionary definition of spook. It’s ‘ghost.’ He reads the whole definition out loud at a faculty board meeting. This was his intended meaning.
I would add that spook is not in general use and hasn’t been for many years; it’s just lodged in the Permanent Racial Insult file in people’s brains.
It’s no use. The college caves in to the indignation. Silk resigns, and his wife has a heart attack and dies from the stress.
One word destroys a career and a life.
You needn’t imagine the outpouring of hatred and immediate consequences of such a thing in the Internet Age. It’s happening. The network caves, and Roseanne is gone in hours.
This has gone far enough. We have got to dial it back.
We all concede that taboo words are acceptable and useful in certain contexts. If one chooses, they can be responded to with more speech, even more fighting words. But physical consequences, real-world punishments, online threats – these are over the line.
Other forms of speech not protected by the First Amendment – threats, incitement, libel/slander – have real-world consequences. Two of the nine, obscenity and “fighting words,” do not – unless they are made to.
P.c. advocates must stop substituting their own perceived meanings for the intended one. They must stops seeking and finding offense when none is intended. And if they choose to be offended, they must refrain from real-world reprisals.
Roseanne’s “cross X with Y” joke was strained, supposedly insulting (I got that part of the intended meaning), and not funny (to me). It doesn’t even make sense, because the joke format requires you to cross ONE thing/person with another – what does it even mean to cross two groups? Enough said. Life is too short. Let’s move on.
One more time: They are just words. I call upon everyone, no matter what your politics, to exercise reason and restraint in your use of language. Stop inventing perceived meanings; stop all real-world reprisals for exclusively verbal behavior. People, lighten up and grow up.
I intend to pound away at this topic for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, there will be an abundance of subject matter.