During a conflab with my good buddy and sounding board the other night we got onto the notion of trigger warnings and ableist speech came up. What we were discussing was their practicality. Now before I get every hardcore right wing or left wing political activist/commentator leaping all over me, we were not questioning their merit we were discussing their practicality. Every day a new issue is brought up (almost exclusively on the internet) about these two practices that requires a furthering of their reach. My argument is that anything can be a trigger and almost anyone (that isn’t a white male, ‘playing life on easy mode’) can have discriminative language used against them. So whilst correctly identifying someone’s choice of sex/gender/partnership and sensitively considering the impact of your topic on someone’s mental health is noble and ultimately the decent thing, language and active discussion on almost any topic becomes somewhat over burdened. The problem being that when talking about anything there would have to be drawn out parenthesise, asides, footnotes or explanations for any nouns or adjectives. This can kill a discussion stone dead and is actively inhibitive of necessary arguments that need to be made to further the cause of the topics that necessitate trigger warnings and ableist/gender language.
I am well aware of this being an unpopular view. The journalist Helen Lewis was drummed off Twitter for saying much the same thing but to be honest that’s not really what I want to talk about. I wanted to talk about language’s continued evolution and how it is being forced to evolve quicker thanks to modern technology.
First and foremost, I write poetry and prose so words are close to my heart. I am biased but you would be a fool to ignore the fact that human’s ability to speak (in whatever language) along with our awareness of mortality is pretty much what defines us as a species. Without language we would not be where we are. We are almost entirely made of language. Every language the world over be it French, Cantonese, Finnish, Spanish, Russian, English or any of the multitude of other languages we have on earth, have developed and evolved over the centuries. I recently read Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ which is over 2000 years old and am currently reading Anne Carson’s ‘Red Doc>’ published last year and the leap from translation of an ancient text to modern speech and syntax is staggering. Obviously Art of War is a modern translation but the context is that much more different when Sun Tzu wrote it and let us be clear – this is the whole thrust of my argument – Words have definitions, context gives meaning.
Picking someone up on a (perhaps admittedly poor choice of) word I feel is counter productive, in the same way I want to smash grammar nazis heads in with a fucking rock. The sanctity of language is something humans defend with their last breath WITHOUT the need for its policing. We need language and we need to be understood, even the most wilfully illiterate troll needs his words to get his asinine and prejudiced view across. As such I really feel the aggressive nature with which a misspelled or mistyped word or a poorly chosen word is used and the user actively eviscerated, helps no one. If the speech they are trying to make is generally for the good I’d rather take the whole than the pieces. Details can be deceiving and often a case of not seeing the woods for the trees.
Nietzsche once wrote “I’m afraid we cannot give up God as we still have grammar”. I only heard this quote last week and it struck a deep chord. What (it is my understanding) Nietzsche meant by this is the fact we still use phrases like “It is raining” or “They wouldn’t let it happen”. The ‘It’ and the ‘They’ are non-specific references to some form of linguistic deity. So “God”, in some form resides with in our language. NOW; Due to the world becoming more secular in general and with the advent of the internet (originally a platform for discussion without militant censorship) being an ideal place to foster this notion it seems this particular hiding place for The Man Upstairs is finally being over turned. What do I mean? Ladies and gentleman, I give you: Doge
In the world of the internet Doge is not the first trend of his kind to come along, who can haz forgets LOL Cats? But Doge to me is an indicative point of reference for the use of humour (its always humour that makes the most progressive ideas popular) to disassemble our language. I hate the word “Meme” because its origins lie with someone I detest but seeing as that is how they self-identify I shall use the term: Memes have always deliberately used language badly to make the funnies and give all the lols. To the point where I actually said the word “Obvs” out loud in conversation the other day in an entirely un-ironic way. This is not new.
“He’s going to bring up Poetry again isn’t he?” YES I BLOODY WELL AM.
Modernism is a good place to start when considering how forcefully it tried to “Make It New!” as Ezra Pound once said. James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake are exemplars of a case to be made for the deliberate and systematic destruction of syntax and words being used incorrectly or at least strangely. These are traditionally seen as being the ‘outsiders’ though, not mass consumed literature or art like Memes and such. Yet for the last 15 years read any self-confessed ‘Literary Fiction’ *spits* and you’ll see the same attempts to reappraise language, Cormac McCarthy being a prime candidate. ‘No Country for Old Men’ and ‘The Road’ are sparse, practically barren texts with barely any punctuation beyond a full stop and the odd comma. But for me it always comes down to poetry. Poetry has been doing this since it started being composed and language used in such a way. I remembered a poem by Robert Herrick the other day from the 17th century called ‘Dreams’:
“Here we are all, day by day; by night we’re hurled
By dreams, each one, into a several world.”
Firstly, what a fabulous poem. He wipes the floor with a lot of other poems about dreams in two lines of pentameter. Secondly, check out that last phrase: “A several world”. “A many Cat” “Very Dog” “Such Piglet” “So Poem”. Poetry was body slamming linguists and grammarists from day one. It is where language goes when it wants to cut loose or breed and that fundamentally is the problem with the world’s dogged adherence to by turns ye olde grammar or “must-include-everyone-and-everything” language.
Language is its own thing, whatever language that may be. Like water it finds its quickest path and goes that way weather we build a dam or not. It is a living breathing, creature that grows limbs and shoots lazers from its eyes and has an Adamantium skeleton. Which is why getting on your high horse and berating others for the “your/you’re” SIN seems almost tragically quaint. You can beat the irony drum as much as you like too but bad grammar and silly linguistics are everywhere. It is almost the sole mode of communication on some websites. Use “Meme Speech”, as some nitwits pejoratively refer to it, on Twitter or anywhere on the web and expect a flood of very reply, so response. In many ways, language itself is God. It is our creator and we are at its beck and call all the time. Fascinating then, that so many religions have been built around it. I should stress I am no christian and do not have any fealty to any faith yet nor do I, or would ever, pronounce myself as Atheist. There are just as many churches and doctrines with that particular faith as any that adhere to a deity. Equally words being that which I hope to make a career out of, I most certainly do not feel the need to be its staunch defender. Language doesn’t need my, your or anybody’s help to develop and accommodate new ideas of gender, ableism, race or trauma.
The difference comes with our intent and that is the context in which it is said. If you have an hour these guys make the point but funnier and more in depth than I do but to put it succinctly: If you are talking about a topic in its defence and either through ignorance or poor choice of humour use language someone deems insulting, rude, insensitive or triggering then I’m probably not going to call you on it A) Because millions of people are lurking in wait to do it instead but B) Because the chances are I’ll agree with your argument and want other people to hear it, poorly phrased syntax and all.
We do not own language, it owns us. It shapes and defines us as our identities shift and as our “isms” become more abstract and psychological and so language will move to accommodate. The internet, text talk and literature are actively trying to dismantle preconceived notions of the English language and are transmuting it as I write. Trying to rigidly enforce a set of archaic rules on a system that is already being collapsed so that minorities or the well being of others can be better met seems counter productive as whatever happens with language in the generations to come will be designed around our new method of thinking and broader inclusivity. The language of the 20th century will be as unrecognisable then as Chaucerian English is now.
God may be in the grammar but the Devil is certainly in the detail.