I’ll Twit You in the Morning

curmudgeon logo2I am being pressed to become a member of the Twitter.  Apparently you can get twitted with all sorts of timely, awesome stuff, and you can twit yourself to your millions of fellow Twitterers about anything at all – so long as it doesn’t last more than 140 characters.  I think that’s like ten seconds or something and I’m not sure I’ve ever twitted myself for that long.   I’m sure you know all about this, but I have resisted becoming entwittered since this whole thing started for one very good reason.

Now, I’m not against technology or advances in same, and I can see following the war in Somalia on a minute by minute basis if you can take the time away from your porn regimen.   But why in god’s name did someone have to name it Twitter?  And yes, I Googled it (which is nearly as bad as Twittering it), and I know do know why they named it that (and it wasn’t a very enlightened reason).  But really, the first thing that comes to mind every time I hear that word is John Cleese with a handkerchief knotted at each corner on his head, running around awkwardly on a soccer field, and I have a hard time taking the whole idea seriously.

And, apparently, you have to refer to the pound sign as a “hash mark,” and that’s what you get when an expensive ember falls out of your pipe and lands on your hand, making you shake it like a revivalist who just discovered that snakes actually bite.

So, I’ve been somewhat hesitant to take up this particular new addition to social technology.

But, as I say, I am being pressed, so I am looking into it with great trepidation.  See, that’s part of my problem.  “Trepidation” is too long a word to use on Twitter.  I’d have to say something like “with great fear” or some such.  And that’s not what I meant.   Language used to be important.  You could create an entire persona through the use of language.  You could make delicate distinctions through word usage.  I’m not sure I want to be reduced to “Great lunch. Bean sprouts and gravy with tofu garnish.”

Apparently, though, actual journalists are using the Twitter now.   Some of them aren’t even in Doonesbury.   It takes the journalism school concept of “be precise” to a whole different level, I suppose.

When texting first became popular there were those that decried the end of the English language as we know it (or as some of us know it, anyway.)  Critics were sure that after texting for any length of time students would begin term papers with IMHO and end them with LOL.  To be sure, I am a terrible example of the art of texting.  I still want to get the commas in the right place, but on my phone that means pushing three different buttons and I’m easily distracted.  I’m constantly erasing and retyping because I misspelled something six words back and didn’t catch it.

My children tell me that no one is going to throw me in spelling jail, but old habits and all that.

And who cares, I guess.  I mean aside from me.

But did you ever read the comments on popular blogs?  Not just the first two, but lots and lots of them?  Sooner or later (most probably sooner) you’ll get to, “Your such a fuking moron!  The bibel sez youl burn in hell fire for being a libral and rejecting the wurd of GOD.  its you intellectal alitists assholes that is runing our country for everyone.” (sic – for you intellectal alitists assholes out there.)

Seriously?  I’m sure this mountain of intellectual prowess has a great many other persuasive and fascinating things to say.  Maybe I could follow him on the Twitter if I only knew how to use it.

When exactly was it that we got to the point where being able to use the English language to communicate effectively branded you an intellectual elitist?

When I worked for a public university (Whoops…intellectual elitist tell) I sometimes had the misfortune to serve on search committees.  This is the sort of experience that can confirm the definition of a committee as an entity with five heads and no brain, but they are a necessary evil in the academic world and, now and then, you just have to grit your teeth and forge ahead.

The usual procedure was to place a large metal waste basket in the room and to fling applications at it after the second misspelled word or grammatical error was discovered on first reading.

Now, I realize that for some of you I just defined intellectual elitism.

But this was a university, after all.  I’m sure that it would be appropriate to lower the bar for some other professions.  We might allow plumbers five, pro football players ten, and waive the requirement entirely for political candidates.  But now we get into the argument of the beard.  That’s when we try to define how many whiskers it takes to call that thing on your face a “beard.”  If you have gazillions of whiskers, we all know you have a beard.  But if you have three, do you have a beard?  No?  You just shaved badly?  How about five?  At what point then?

At what point do we decide not to pay much attention to what you have to say because you can’t seem to manage the language well enough to say it?  And we all do that.  We make value judgments about other people and about their intelligence based on how they express themselves.  Not so much verbally, but definitely when it’s on paper.  This isn’t logical, but we do it anyway.  Of course, we all see the occasional misspelled word or grammatical error and snicker a bit and move on.  Everyone makes mistakes.   We are magnanimous while we snicker, of course, because we might make a mistake one day.

Then we hit something like the above example and the show comes to a metal-on-asphalt grinding halt.  Would you read four pages of that stuff just to see what his (or her for you gender equality types) final point was?  Or if there was a final point?

Now before you go all grammar maven on me, I do know that I start sentences with conjunctions and now and then I end them with prepositions.  I use sentence fragments.  I love the ellipse.  I break the rules.  I choose to break the rules.  I’m not ignorant of the rules (at least for the most part).  Like I said, you can create an entire persona with language.

But familiarity with language isn’t just important for those who write and speak.  It is equally important for those who read and listen.

Words trigger emotions.  Ask anyone in advertising… or politics… that’s why you are always seeing words like “America” or “patriot” or “constitution” being bandied about by some folks.  How about “conspiracy,” “terrorism,”  “Nazi,” “fascist,” “communist”?  Or “intellectual” and “elitist.”  Few people can read those words without having a visceral reaction.  I know at least one of you cringed at my “gender equality typescomment.

And that’s the key.  When you react in a visceral way, you ignore the intellectual content, assuming there is any.   Both advertising and political propaganda rely on the idea that if you evoke a strong enough emotional response, you can get people to overlook the content of what you are saying.

So even when the language being used follows all the rules of grammar and spelling, it may be just as worthless as that of our bible “quoting” commenter.  All of these notions fall under the general heading of rhetoric, a subject that used to be taught in our schools until those involved in advertising and politics realized that if people really understood what they were hearing and reading, they’d be a good deal harder to manipulate, so rhetoric in the public schools went the way of the TV Western.

Those who understand it best today are ad men, speech writers, and the guys who come up with the daily talking points for political parties.

Rhetoric is one third of the ancient Trivium, which was the basis for the liberal arts education.  The Trivium was composed of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.  Grammar is the mechanics of language; logic is the mechanics of thought, and rhetoric is the use of both to persuade.  To be an educated person, you had to understand all three and how they work together.  Today a liberal arts education is anything that ensures you will have a hard time finding a job after four years of hard work getting one.  To be fair, though, you will find courses that involve rhetoric at the college level which is where the ad men, speech writers and talking points gurus get their start.

The study of logic inevitably leads to knowledge of the fallacies in logic that are used so often in the rhetoric of our time, so you won’t find much time devoted to that in our public schools either.

Remember hearing all that stuff during the first term election about how President Obama knew Bill Ayers and served on a board with him and therefore was a terrorist sympathizer?  This is the logical fallacy of guilt by association.  It renders any further argument along these lines null and void.

How about: if they force us to register our guns today, they will be breaking down our doors to take them away tomorrow!  This is another fallacious argument known as argument of the slippery slope.

If we stress the president’s middle name or question the validity of his birth in the US, we engage in Argumentum ad Hominem – argument against the man, not against anything he says or does.

Such arguments have tremendous emotional appeal, but they are logically as empty as Mother Hubbard’s cupboard.

The point here isn’t that I can quote Latin names for now-obscure concepts.  The point is that these concepts were developed centuries ago and have been honed, refined, and perverted to persuade you into believing what someone else wants you to believe every waking minute of the day.

They have been in use since before Aristotle laid the groundwork for modern rhetoric, but with the availability of mountains of data on today’s population, they can be used to a much greater effect.  Political ads (as well as all others) can be tailored for the specific audiences for which they are intended.  Just look at your Facebook page.    What yanks my chain may not be the same as what cranks your Model T.  We all have different trigger words.  We are susceptible to different arguments.   What has changed over time is that others have a much better idea what these are.  We also have entire “think tanks” devoted to researching them and advising our corporations and politicians.

What used to be an art has now been coupled with the science of data gathering to become one of the most powerful hidden forces in our lives.

Couple that with the decline in emphasis on rhetoric and critical thinking in our public schools, and you have a population at risk. The 2012 Republican platform in Texas specifically opposes teaching critical thinking!

Beginning to think about “intellectal alitists,” again are you?  Let’s come back to that in a moment, shall we.

In an age when both advertising agencies and political parties spend literally billions of dollars crafting their words to get you to think the way they want you to think, understanding how rhetoric is being used to manipulate you is more important than ever.  The less you know about your language and the ways it can be used to undermine logical thought, the more likely you are to be just another pawn on someone else’s chess board.

There are an increasing number of studies being done that attempt to scientifically determine the differences between conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans.  There is at least one study that shows that Republican brains have larger “right amygdalas, which are associated with sensitivity to fear.”  What could be more logical then for appealing to potential and existing Republicans than the approach of Fox News and its ever-present tickertape shouting “Danger, Will Robinson!”?

Another study points out that, at least among white voters, those with higher educational levels tend to vote more Democratic.  This might explain the constant vilification of those elitist- liberal-commie professors-types that you hear on conservative talk radio.

Together they might also help to explain some of the divide so evident in our population.  Those with more familiarity with the way in which language is being used to persuade them might be more likely to question and examine that language.  Those with a more visceral predisposition may tend to ignore the logical fallacies and go with their gut.  How many times have you heard a liberal claim that “You can’t have a logical conversation with an illogical person”?

To which the rejoinder is often, “You’re just an intellectual elitist.”

And that translates loosely to, “You’re a lying idiot.”

“No, you’re an intellectual snob.”

Is it any wonder that we’re a divided nation?  We can react to trigger words and ignore fallacious logic, but we can’t even talk to each other any longer.

Now, if I can get this down to 140 characters or less, I’ll twit you in the morning.

Your Humble Servant,

The Willowbrook Curmudgeon

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