Sunday, January 6, 2013

You Made Your Bed, Now Lay In It

The other day, another of my right-wing acquaintances posted this meme on Facebook:

I think it's fair to doubt that Betty White actually said this; the photo came originally from an AARP ad campaign.  As I've said before, that's one trouble with memes: people seem to take for granted that the person pictured said the words attributed to them.  If I were White, I'd be displeased.  (There's a meme someone should make: White looking severely over her shades and saying, "Don't put words in my mouth, bitch."  Maybe I'll make that one myself.)

The friend who shared the image commented, "This has always bugged me too."  Well, she's a retired elementary school teacher, but her own posts on Facebook aren't always immaculate in their grammar, spelling, or punctuation; physician, heal thyself.

Most obnoxious here is the class snobbery, by a bigot who doesn't even have the guts to express it in her or his own voice, but hides behind a celebrity.  And I don't get where Wal-mart comes into this.  Pronouncing "ask" as "axe" is usually associated with African-American speech nowadays; Walmart is usually stereotypically associated with white trash, though I bet my friend shops there regularly herself.  Ironically, however, "axe" appears to be the original word, dating back to Old English. It survives in several regional variations of modern English. "Ask," historically speaking, is the corruption of the correct word by the illiterate rabble.  This is a pitfall of a lot of linguistic proscriptivism: the forms that proscriptivists believe are correct often weren't always correct, and may not be correct even today.

Then today another Facebook friend shared this meme:

Ironically, again, the person who posted this (a writer) isn't always immaculate in her grammar, spelling, or punctuation.  I've called her out on this sort of thing before, so I was harsher in my comments this time: "Being a grammar bigot is like being any other kind of bigot. You can do it if you want, but don't be surprised when people draw their conclusions."

My friend replied, "I agree - if you get overbearing about correcting grammar, people will not appreciate it. But I also think it's true that you ignore appropriate use of language - whether it's proper English or slang, depending on the situaton - at your own peril."

To which I replied:
The thing is, this meme is "overbearing" (that is, bigoted), and you re-posted it. And who are the "people [who] will not appreciate it"? And "peril"?

There's also the small detail that much grammar bigotry is erroneous, based on misinformation about what is and what isn't "correct", and on the assumption that one's own subset of the population has the True Correct English. Which is not true.
My friend then took a revealing detour: "I see you may have had some overbearing grammar nazis in your life. Sorry about that."  I've often encountered this move, as in Christians who tell me that I must be an atheist because I'm gay and Christianity doesn't approve of my lifestyle, or maybe I've met some really overbearing Christians who made Christianity look bad.  Both speculations are wrong, but that's another subject.

As I told her, this is not about me.  As a male I've encountered very little sexism in my life, but I still give sexists a hard time; as a white person I've encountered very little racism in my life, but I still pick on racists whenever they're incautious enough to state their opinions in my presence.  I learned standard English early and easily, mostly by reading -- I learned little about it in school, and much of what I was taught was wrong anyhow.  I don't have to have suffered personally from bigotry to object to it; I spoke out against racism years before I was ready to speak out against antigay bigotry.

I have no doubt that the opinions my friend endorsed here are bigotry.  True, if I owned a business and were hiring someone to write letters for me, I'd rule out people who hadn't mastered standard English, just as I wouldn't hire someone as a pianist who couldn't play the instrument.  But it's a long way from such requirements to looking down on the applicants who didn't qualify, let alone claiming that they apply "at their own peril." This meme has nothing to do with necessary skills. It's about a kind of racism that ties humanity to certain language abilitiies.

Nor does communication have anything to do with it, as is often claimed.  It looks to me like most of the errors that drive grammar bigots into conniptions are trivial, like confusing "too" and "to" or "they're" and "their."  (Indeed, the tinier the error, the bigger the conniption.)  They may momentarily bother a reader who isn't very fluent in English, but a native speaker should breeze past them easily.  The human brain does a lot of error correction without any noticeable effort, as anyone who's done proofreading will know: it's hard to catch all the typos, because you don't notice them.  So someone who throws public tantrums (like posting on Facebook) over other people's poor English is telling me much more about herself or himself than about the state of the English language today.

My friend's rationale is familiar from other contexts, and I feel sure she'd recognize its bad faith if she encountered it anywhere else.  The first step is to distance oneself a step from the bigotry, to pretend that one is open-minded oneself, but there are all these other people who aren't as evolved.  For example, I've encountered people who disapprove of "interracial" marriage, not because they're racists themselves -- heavens, no! -- but because other people are narrow-minded and will pick on the kids.  So why not pick on the racists?  Because it's the parents' fault: they ignored these basic social realities, and now the children must suffer.  The fake compassion is almost palpable: Oh, I would never look down on someone for saying "ain't" myself, but not everyone is as liberal as I am.

The same rationale also turns up in the abortion-rights debate: If a woman has unsanctified sex ("at her own peril!"), she was just asking to get pregnant, so she should take responsibility for her actions instead of trying to get an abortion.  This is also familiar from the treatment of rape in rape cultures like our own: What did she think she was doing, going out dressed like that?  Or more respectably (because scientists said it), young women need to learn to prevent rape by not dressing provocatively.  So what can non-standard English speakers expect if they go around talking like that?  They do so at their own peril.

(I should probably try to clarify something.  I'm not implying that my friend is racist, sexist, homophobic, or a forced-birther.  As far as I know -- we've never met -- she's a perfectly nice person in most respects.  Most bigots are perfectly nice people in most respects.  But she's shown herself to be a bigot in this one area.)

Then there's this, which is probably close enough to the topic.  The sign below apparently was posted in a Delaware playground.

For those who have not adjusted to the Reconquista and learned the language of our new benevolent overlords, the sign in Spanish says "You must have permission to play in this field.  Violators susceptible to police action."  (To my amazement, one bilingual commenter argued that it might just be a bad translation.  My Spanish is not perfectly fluent, but I see no way that "police action" could have gotten in there by accident, incompetence, or computer translation.)  According to the Daily Kos article referenced by the Facebook poster, similar signs were erected at three different playgrounds in the vicinity.  Some include warnings that the site is under video surveillance.  An update reports that the school superintendent asked her husband to take down the signs personally.  But how did they get put up in the first place?

One commenter wrote this about the controversy:
Another reason to take the time to learn English. Bilingual is a good advantage in life, but refusing to learn the common language in a country impacts your ability to participate in many seen and unseen ways. The earlier generations of immigrants did things correctly by learning English to succeed in business. It's only in the past generation that school notes have had to come home in two languages.
Besides being irrelevant, this is false in just about every point.  Many immigrant communities survived for generations without really assimilating to the English majority.  Most first-generation adult immigrants did not learn to speak English -- their children did.  And even many of their kids didn't.  As Gerald Bracey wrote, "Most of them sank.  Like stones.  They simply weren't noticed because so many native-born children also were not attending school, and the immigrants just melted into this larger crowd." *

But more important, it's irrelevant.  An assimilated Latino child who knew English wouldn't be able to read the Spanish sign, and would be "susceptible to police action" for playing in that playground.  So, for that matter, would an Anglo child who knew no Spanish, if the warning was the intended meaning of the sign.  But since the signs say different things, it's most likely that racism was the motive for the Spanish signs' different message.  I don't believe that whoever posted them wanted to trap Anglo kids by not warning them away in a language they could understand.

Back to the main topic.  None of what I've written here means that I think that standard English is not a class marker, or that students shouldn't be helped to master standard English.  The trouble is that traditional methods of teaching English are so ineffective in giving students such mastery that I'm tempted to believe that their continued use is at least partly deliberate, to prevent some students from learning standard English.  It is well-established that skill-oriented instruction in English doesn't work: at best it produces no improvement in writing ability.  Harvey Daniels, whose Famous Last Words contains too many useful ideas for me to quote them all here, recommended:
In spite of all we know about language, dialects, and education, most people still believe that if you can just get them young and teach them standard English, they will get better jobs and be forever grateful.  The history and the assumptions of bidialectical programs do not offer much hope that this is true.
Instead we should accept the kids as they are, welcome them to school, and encourage them to talk, read write, and think in the language they already have.  Once they are off to a good start, and once their sociolinguistic awareness has developed sufficiently (when they are eleven or twelve at the earliest), we can tell them the story about standard English being the key to a better life.  If they believe it, we can help them to learn the contrasts.  But we should make no grand promises.  As long as the general public retains those prejudices against black people which have infected the study of Black English, no semistandard we can teach them will offer our students much protection against the bigotry they may encounter later in life.  Nor will such teaching diminish the differences between black and white dialects of English.  For as long as the black and white communities in this country are largely separate -- geographically, socially, politically, and economically -- their languages will continue to be different.  Black English will not disappear, no matter what the schools or other social institutions may do to eradicate it, to modify it, or to punish its use.  **
Daniels was writing here about African-American students, but I think it obviously applies to all English-speakers.  And while there is room for debate about the best way to teach people standard English, there is no excuse for the kind of bigotry I've cited against those people who fail to learn it.

* Setting the Record Straight: Responses to Misonceptions About Public Education (Alexandria VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1997), p. 72.
** Famous Last Words: The American Language Crisis Reconsidered (Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), pp. 182-3.

P.S.  Of course the use of "lay" in the title of this post was deliberate.