Endangered Ideas. Endangered Minds
Most communication now is terse, texted, or tightly packed between work and parenting. It has led to a whole new language, which I’m not sure I understand.
There are words that are rapidly slipping from common usage. Apparently, this happens all the time in language. Expressions, phrasing, and cultural emphases go the way of the Dodo every generation or two. No one says, "Golly" or "gee whiz" or "dagnabbit" anymore. We also don't speak the Queen's English even though many of the original settlers came from the Great Isle. Things change.
This is neither a good nor a bad thing in and of itself. It reflects changes in our culture and in our collective consciousness. It tells history what we hold to be of importance and what we disdain.
Texting, instant messaging, and cyber-signing communication has certainly had an effect on what we are willing to say, how much energy we are likely to expend in order to make sure we are understood and that our thoughts are clearly defined, and how much time we are willing to spend to make sure we understand others. Even though I have no empirical data to support me, I am sure beyond any reasonable doubt that the effect has not been good–that is, if you value understanding, accuracy, and resolution. The underlying truth is this: what we say and how we say it is a reflection of what we value.
Let's start some more modern definitions of the word "dating." I have worked with clients who thought texting was what I meant by "dating." Not only their understanding of the word has changed, but their values and expectations are almost unrecognizable to only one or two generations before them. To them, texting and exchanging some identifying data on facebook (favorite color, vacation spots, scantily clad pictures) was enough to warrant a "hook-up" on a Saturday night. To those who came before, dating meant a period of time in which two people spent enough time together to know if there was enough compatibility for a marriage or not.
I admit that the word has not yet changed…but it will. It's only a matter of time because the value has already been altered.
Here's another thing about this subtle alteration: Most of the people I know under 25 have less to say than Marcel Marceau. Not because they're not bright or not thinking. In their cases, their certainly bright enough. It just takes too much out of them. Too much time, too much energy, and too much commitment.
So what this insta-code linguistic is reflecting is a lack of interest in face-to-face, mind-to-mind intimacy and a social-emotional lethargy that runs deep. After I asked one client who was "seeing" someone online how she expected to get to know him, she said, "What's to get to know?" She was sincere. I was frightened for her.
If what I'm suggesting is true, then the words that become extinct reflect a trend that should concern all of us.
When was the last time you heard the word "fidelity" in ordinary conversation outside of a music store? Or the last time someone spoke of "devotion" outside of a church? Or "honor" outside the military?
An example: A woman I know has spent twenty years or more with a man who is deeply disturbed. He cycles up and down, in and out of psychotic episodes and has been hospitalized more times than she can recall. When he's stabilized by meds, she says he's the most wonderful man she's ever known. When he's lost his way and his mind, he has put them into financial ruin, made her do the work of three people and then some, and live without sleep to keep an eye on him for days at a time.
She said the other day, "Everyone tells me to leave him. Even his mother said to me, 'I don't know why you stay.'" So I asked her, "Why do you?" And she said as clear and constant as a call to worship, "Because I love him. I'm devoted to him. He's my husband."
In this day and age, when leaving is as easy as booking a flight and filing pro se divorce papers, when all the odds are stacked against marriage and devotion is called codependent, she stayed.
The other day, my sister sent me a message on Facebook. At the end she included a face with a "P" at the bottom. At least that was what it looked like to me. After two days I went back to it and finally "got" that she was sticking her tongue out at me! It made me laugh until I realized that I am living in a world where I don't speak the language anymore and I'm not sure whether to keep laughing or start crying.
Culture and Language
The minimizing of communication is no accident. It comes as a consequence of minimal thinking, lethargy, and indifference. To some this is the death knell of American and Western civilization, the end of democracy as we know it (which requires active and informed participation by all citizens), the end of the broadest literacy rate in the history of mankind, and the end of equality of opportunity (for this too, takes an active, watchful, and observant eye). If it is, it is hardly surprising. Before the fall of every civilization came a period of fattening, of loosening, and finally, of decay.
In response to my last blog, a clergyman I know wrote to tell me a story about an experience he had teaching a group of teenagers (ranging from 13 to 16) at summer camp.
They were all gathered at a round table discussion on the general concept of “Important Teen Issues.” Everyone had a chance to write down what was important to him or her. Someone had written the verboten theme: “Sexual Immorality.”
One of the counselors (a young woman in her early 20’s) immediately raised her hand and asked with all innocence: “What’s sexual immorality? I’ve never heard of it before.”
Mind you, this was at a summer camp sponsored by a local church.
The clergyman monitoring the group was at an honest loss for words. Where to start? He wrote to me that the saddest part from his point of view was that she had honestly never been taught anything whatsoever about it. Sex and morality were separated by a deep cultural chasm and, as she explained to him, “Whatever two consenting adults do is fine, right?”
He shared another similar story: A teacher of middle-advanced years began working in a local school. Part of her routine was to ask her students to line up every morning, look her in the eye, greet her with manners and warmth, turn in their homework and finally take a seat.
The principal, who was young and new to the job, was alerted to this breach in standard protocol and confronted the teacher, demanding to know what made her do such an unusual thing.
The teacher simple explained, “To teach them respect, discipline, courtesy, and accountability.”
The principal promptly and in no uncertain terms ordered the teacher to cease and desist. “We only teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. And the time you’re taking on your ritual is taking time away from the school’s directives.”
The teacher stood motionless, disbelieving.
“We don’t teach respect, discipline, courtesy, and accountability,” the principal added as she walked away. “We don’t have an approved curriculum for it and it is not in the government’s standard testing.”
Is it any wonder that our language is shrinking? It’s only a reflection of our thinking.