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Something of Value
by Linda G. White

William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal square off. 

William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal square off. 

There was a time when most people were courteous, polite, and respectful of others, especially those in authority. They knew what manners were and comported themselves accordingly. In those days, the world was a quieter place – no shouting each other down so one’s own voice could rise above the fray. Individuals took turns talking, listened with interest, and exchanged ideas, considering others' opinions carefully even if they weren’t in agreement with them.

If you haven’t noticed, those days are gone.

There are several contributory factors at the root of this change. As the guru of childcare in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Dr. Spock was the first, and the major, purveyor of this transformation. While he provided valuable medical information and advice about how to care for and raise healthy babies and children, he also espoused a more permissive child-rearing philosophy, encouraging a narcissism that proliferated like an invasive species of flowering weed not easily restrained.

This spawned successive generations of egocentric individuals with burgeoning feelings of entitlement. Generations of young people bent on breaking rules rather than working within them. Over time they developed an unhealthy disrespect for not only their elders but all forms of authority. One mark of their protests against establishment was the language they used, and over time, we have become inured to their disregard for correctness, consideration of one’s audience, and for the manner in which thoughts and ideas are constructed and presented. Largely, at least at first, not following form was a way to distinguish the self from everyone else.

And Dr. Spock encouraged this. Finding one’s self. Exploring the possibilities. Parents were imposing too many guidelines, too many restrictions, that impeded their children’s ability to explore and experience. In essence, Dr. Spock advanced the notion of difference by ignoring all the rules.

Hasn’t that turned out well.

* * * 

Two men who notably followed form but still managed to distinguish themselves were Gore Vidal, a liberal commentator, and William F. Buckley, his conservative counterpart. Both were renowned connoisseurs of words, their lexicons extensive and their command of and facility with the language, skillful, though at times they behaved like petulant schoolboys posturing for fisticuffs. Vidal and Buckley were intellectuals, writers, and brilliant polemicists – the forerunners of today’s argumentative and sometimes caustic politicians.

Their verbal sparring was artwork by masters rather than the kind made by gorillas spitting on a blank canvas.

In contrast to a Vidal or a Buckley, I grew up with spit, not art: my dad from a backwoods “holler” deep in Appalachia and my mom the product of a tiny farming village in Eastern Europe. Fed on pedestrian babble composed of words of low birth, I was accustomed to that which sounded base and crude being dished out and flung in all directions by the grownups in my life. Like all children of the l950s, I was a victim of the mantra in vogue then: “Children should be seen and not heard.” On the rare occasion I was permitted to say something, I was cautioned to wait my turn to talk.

Unfortunately, yesterday’s courtesies are a thing of the past in today’s climate of pervasive egocentrism that discourages both linguistic etiquette and deferential attention. We don’t respect others or their opinions as we once did.

For one thing, no one is paying attention. We gloss over words on the page or in the air between us, snatching a couple of words in a textual stream running along the bottom of a movie marquee, or we hitch our thoughts to a few words that anger or hurt us. But remnants of sentences picked over in this fashion fail to complete the picture or offer a broadened perspective.

Remaining rooted in our own moment, we relegate others’ words to our periphery, feigning rapt attention as we multi-task. We are not present with the person on the phone, the dog at our feet, the child who wants to play catch, the friend needing help, or the ill parent who wants only a few minutes of our time. But our attempts at meaningful conversation with halfhearted participation exact a price.

 We’ve forgotten how to take turns, too. The evidence of this is readily apparent in every newsy talk show on television. Take your pick. They are a cacophony from beginning to end in which participants are unwilling to give way. And because juggling all one’s linguistic balls in the air at the same time in a verbal free-for-all is a proven ratings booster, no attempt is made to curtail those propensities.

Reasoned discourse, defined as a conversation involving give and take in an interchange of thoughts and information, is an alien concept in today’s self-centered climate. Take turns? You jest. Only those who are the loudest and the rudest get heard. Everyone wants the first and the last word – and every word between.

A bunch of self-important magpies.

Because we’ve become so adept at skimming verbalizations in the same way we do text, an impoverished linguistic picture evolves. We hone in on a few words flowing between two or more people to the exclusion of others, failing to fully comprehend what’s being said. And probably the biggest problem today is how much people love to expound on their own well-nourished and cherished ideas. The ME Generation wasn’t engendered by feelings of equity or respect for others but has spawned, instead, a generation of narcissists. People are talking more than ever but saying less. Fewer still are listening, and really, who can blame them?

Reflections of Narcissus in the water.

Then there are the careless habits of speech too many people, even well-educated professionals from whom we expect and deserve better, have incorporated. Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, uses “there’s” and “where’s” incorrectly when the verb should be plural, but he’s far from the only person suffering from linguistic sloth. Anderson Cooper used “there’s” so many times in a David Letterman interview that I lost count, and before Brian Williams, former anchor of NBC World News Tonight, fell from grace, he started using “there’s” incorrectly, too. From Williams in particular, it was unexpected – and jarring. Williams has become lazy. They all have.

Promoting this denigration of the language is the proliferation of cutesy misspellings, a cleverness meant to catch the coveted consumer eye and designed to enhance (not grow) one’s bottom line. Aberrations like these are finding mainstream acceptance, their accuracy unquestioned, especially by the generation taught to spell phonetically. 

Correctly spelled words are becoming less important every day (note “every day” is two words here: an adjective modifying a noun), not “everyday” which changes the meaning entirely. “Each other” and “high school” are also two words each, and stringing either pair together as one word does not a true marriage make.

But wait. It gets worse. Prepositions are in trouble, too. Most people don’t even know what those little words mean, so they use the first one that comes to mind. No one will notice. No one will care. They’re so small, what difference could it make?

Verbs have their own problems as well, their meanings sometimes twisting back on themselves – like the great “reveal” that was once a “revelation.” Also maligned on a regular basis are “a” and “an”, and when did “so” become a filler word to mask a momentary silence or bridge some perceived and uncomfortable gap in conversation? Beginning a sentence with “so,” particularly in response to every question or comment, sounds ludicrous, yet more people use it that way because that’s what they hear others do – and heaven forbid, there be a second’s worth of silence in which someone processes their next thought.

I’d say Nathanial Benchley was right. We are a nation of sheep.

To be fair, careless speech is okay with the right audience in the appropriate context, but it’s a mistake to assume the venue chosen for its exhibition doesn’t matter. Word choice and presentation take into consideration an awareness of audience whose perception of one’s message is dependent on both. But far too many people, especially students, fail to consider this. They won’t even look up the meanings of words they don’t know. “Just tell me what it means,” they say. No one wants to spend time looking up every other word in a dictionary, which I admit, was at times the case with both Vidal and Buckley. Even so, there’s nothing snobbish about wanting to be correct, either.

Still, attention to detail, even in venues where it once mattered, is becoming a thing of the past. If the careless presentation of the message placed on your canvas says you don’t deem it important, why should those who read it?

The thing is, words are important. They tell readers, and listeners, who we are, what we value, and what we think is important enough to consider and discuss.

I watched two documentaries about the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 in which a single word held crucial significance. In drafting the crucial communiqué to Nikita Khrushchev, one of President Kennedy’s advisers referred to their planned course of action as a “blockade.” Kennedy said not to use that word, suggesting “quarantine” be substituted instead.

“What difference does it make which word we use?”

“Quarantine doesn’t sound as bad,” Kennedy replied.

It was one word on which the fate of millions of people might hinge.

Words do matter.

* * * 

Genuine communication values taking turns, utilizes both active listening and rhetorical skills, and encourages everyone’s participation – just not all at the same time. It promotes progress that stalls if we are always focused on ourselves. Just look at the members of Congress. Magpies all.

Another deterrent to genuine communication is time. Harnessing and practicing disciplined thought that demands critical thinking and attentive listening skills takes time we don’t have. We don’t want to share and connect, anyway; we want to orate, to set ourselves apart from, as well as above, the babel.

The problem is honest conversation flourishes only when the words we use have weight and mean something. It requires reflection and well-crafted responses. Taking turns. We want our words to say, “Listen up. This is important.” We want those words to take flight and soar, not splat as they hit the ground.

Meaningful conversation should not be reduced to a brag-fest or a one-upmanship contest. Rather, it fares best as a haven where ideas are shared, evaluated, and encouraged to flow seamlessly. A welcoming environment allows ideas and conversations to spin off in varied directions, letting the brain explore the diverse layers of information. Yet this is largely what we are missing.

Conversations at too many get-togethers begin and end with gossipy tale-telling, empty rhetoric, and buzz words tossed back and forth, useful only to make one feel less alone in a crowd. This kind of give and take doesn’t give and take. It doesn’t delve, doesn’t reveal; it doesn’t illuminate. It doesn’t strengthen important and valued bonds or encourage us to know each other better in new or surprising ways.

Linguistic mindfulness is the cornerstone of interesting and tenable conversation. It is watching words on the marquee cohere, refusing to be separated from those they cling to for meaning. It is akin to witnessing the exposition of each participant’s interior punctuation.

Like watching a work of art take shape.

Nevertheless, I recognize the use of language is changing along with our need for it. Progress, if that’s what one calls it, is morphing at a quickened pace, one incomprehensible a few decades ago except in futuristic comic books and on cartoon shows like “The Jetsons.”

We live in a world where the art of intelligent conversation and the ability to read a book containing words that require the occasional use of a dictionary are no longer valued. We’ve become too lazy to look them up. We can’t spell anymore, so we eliminate vowels and extraneous consonants, using “text-speak” in all kinds of written forms. We know what is meant, anyway. Right? Acronyms and shortened versions of everything are trendy and rapidly becoming a language of their own. And if the people at Webster’s toss any of these aberrations into their dictionary, the newly-minted deviants gain instant validation. Problem solved. SRSLY.

In our current linguistic climate, those who value correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation are denigrated as snobs with their noses in the air. They are referred to as elitists – like that’s a bad thing. But ours is not a one-size-fits-all linguistic system. Its scaffold supports different dialects, varied meanings, colloquialisms, and idiomatic expressions. It hosts a myriad of interesting ways in which the language can be used and valued. Each has a place and an audience. Shouldn’t equal weight be given to the manifold ways we communicate?

Although my parents’ speech offered that which I could not fully appreciate at the time, it, too, had value. An awareness and understanding of the multitude of diverse linguistic paths in their contextually appropriate venues can only lead to an appreciation of what each has to offer.

* * * 

I believe Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley would find today’s bastardization of the language repugnant. Perhaps they were linguistic snobs with their noses in the air, but they were also men whose words were well-chosen, their meanings precise, their nuances sure and steady. They were men comfortable using vocabulary meticulously set in grammatically correct sentences with impeccable and often complex syntax. Even when they were slinging mud, they did so with flawlessly executed artifice and finesse.

Like good makeup on the right face, clothes perfectly tailored to the body, or a superb meal expertly plated, a strong vocabulary coupled with a comfortable presentation of nuanced words is immeasurably satisfying in every aspect of its disparate splendor, though linguistic connoisseurs might disagree.

While a thoughtfully-considered, well-reasoned argument can be a powerful engine for social change, the only chance it has of engineering progress that encompasses transformation is if people are willing to listen. To that end, full attention to the diversity of all our voices is required to facilitate honest conversation that lingers long after the discussion is over and offers a richness of diverse ways of arriving at a point of convergence, giving us something of value that lasts. 

Linda G. White is the recipient of the 2015 Calyx Journal’s Margarita Donnelly Prize for Prose, and her work has appeared in Recovering the Self: A Journal of Hope and Healing and Colored Chalk. She has received two Honorable Mentions from New Millennium Writings, pens an occasional focus column for a dance newsletter, and authors a blog called Blah, Blah, Blah at which she hopes you will visit.