Monday, February 19, 2018

"News Illiteracy," Speaking Logic to Power — and Little League

"The power of news illiteracy. At the heart of the Russian fraud is an essential,
embarrassing insight into American life: large numbers of Americans
are ill-equipped to assess the credibility of the things they read.
The willingness to believe purported news stories, often
riddled with typos or coming from unfamiliar outlets, is a
liability of today’s fragmented media and polarized politics.
Even the trolls themselves were surprised at what Americans would believe."
 Evan Osnos, New Yorker, 16 February 2018

            Since the comments I incorporate here were in an e-mail post on a "thread" that got archived I can tell you exactly when I wrote this version of one of my standard themes; it was "Sent: Tuesday, April 7, 2009 6:03:57 PM GMT." I was responding to a post about Poetry Slams and went on to discuss what I call — and relevant here — "The Little League Syndrome" (a minor obsession of mine). I was pleased to learn about poetry slams since the description had them sound like the youngsters involved are getting good experience using language, and getting back to at least some of the roots of (satiric) poetry: judged competitions. Throw in competitive insults, and you're in the teen culture I grew up in and back to the Old English and Old Irish traditions, and more recent cultures in fiction and the real world.
            The most immediate poster on the thread had used a sports analogy for poetry slams, which I thought a good one. The more hopeful side would be if young people start to take seriously the serious joke among intramural sports organizers that "Something really worth doing is worth doing poorly." The downside is that adults rarely want to let the kids run things. The history is the semi-professionalization of college and then high school sports, with intramurals among high school SAC's (Social/Athletic Clubs) giving way to "the Little League Syndrome," plus varsity sports, and adult organizing of intramurals. There's a good chance well-meaning/control-freak grownups will do the same with poetry slams - and the kids will have to move on to something else.
            This is nothing new. Back in Chicago in 1961, a control-freak senior-class- ... Coordinator(?), well, Semi-Administrator accused me of "never" participating in our high school activities. I told her that I did participate but, indeed, not all that much since, "I can never be elected principal; so I put my effort into groups where I can at least have some clout." When asked by the director of a new Jewish Community Center what they could best do for the local teens, I said, "Mostly, leave them alone. Rent to them - at a fair price - but let them run their own events. Let them learn to organize."
            Alexis de Tocqueville praised Americans for the ability to organize themselves and not wait for some State official to come along and organize things. What with the Little League Syndrome in sports and probably poetry, dance, and music, things may be getting worse for civic life and civil debate. What I learned about politics I partly "absorbed" growing up in the warm, corrupt heart of the Chicago Democratic Organization, but mostly from adult-independent clubs in high school and my fraternity in college. The down sides of such groups have been rightly stressed, but even a street gang teaches important lessons, including the various means of getting your peers to do what you want (them) to do.
            When it came up in discussion — I have no idea what the context was — some of my university undergraduate students were surprised to learn that in the high schools in my area we kids organized our own sports leagues. ("Hey, we didn't build the parks! We just organized a schedule and signed up.") Some kids have never even organized a pickup basketball game.

            Earlier than that 2009 post, I wrote a piece for a newspaper guest column and guest lecturing with a suggested title something like, "Be Happy Johnny Can Talk," riffing on titles like, "Why Johnny Can't Read," "Why Johnny Can't Write." I wrote there about Little-League Syndrome and what has since been called "Helicopter Parenting." Between the two, and other influences, Americans were producing a lot of middle-class kids who make highly proficient (figurative) drones and worker bees in public- and private-sector bureaucratic hives, but not very good citizens.
            Johnny and later Jane weren't and aren't encouraged much to think critically and argue civilly.
            Not in classes in school with rote learning, machine-graded exams, and the student methodology of "cram and regurgitate." Take a moment to think seriously about that last figure of speech. Cram it down; don't "chew on a thought" — and then vomit it out as soon as possible, lest you chew on an idea too long, decide to swallow it, and then digest and assimilate it, making it part of you, maybe changing you.
            But classes are only part of school, and school is only part of kids' lives. Also part of school is "the life of the mind" on the school-yard and with friends — or lack thereof or utter contempt therefor. And home-life counts, especially with actual children.
            A friend suggests any chance you give her that American discourse has gone straight downhill since families no longer eat together and kids don't get supervised practice in arguing with one another. I stress the decline of more or less lawful kid-run activities and the increasing horror of "free-range kids." (Hitchhiking, for example, had its advantages of meeting strangers and talking with them, as well as the danger of the occasional serial-killer psychopath.)

            I suspect a crucial reason John and Jane Q. Public don't think too good is that they're not called upon that often to think much at all, combined with a media and advertising environment where they're encouraged to make decisions based on impulse, emotions, and spurious appeals. "The bigger the burger, the better the burger. The burgers are bigger at Burger King," to quote a classic commercial ca. 1967. Uh-huh. "And," as we wise-ass youngsters and young adults used to ask, "if it's a shit-burger?"
            Certainly American kids aren't asked to do much formal analysis of commercials, propaganda, political, ahem discourse, or the things their superiors lay on them.
            Coach says s/he wants "110% from each of you for the team"? Will Johnny Jock or Jane Sports-Bra get praised for a raised hand and, "Coach, you can't have more than 100%, and even 30% of our time and effort is way too much. We understand that you want a kind of blank check from us — but just how much of our time and effort do you actually want? We have other commitments." I wouldn't count on that going over very well. Worse if instead of Coach it's your boss.
            Indeed, at an older age, approaching 30, I sat next to the President of Miami University as a new, untenured, almost-assistant professor (don't ask), while he looked out the window at a campus traffic jam during New Student Week and intoned, "If we got rid of the 'No Car' Rule, we'd have a jam like that every day." I thought for a half moment — after a full moment I would've known better — and said, "Non sequitur, Mr. President; that doesn't follow." He looked at me. I replied, "Those are parents' cars for the most part; we don't know what it'd be like if the students drove up on their own … or during the year … no parents' cars around." And then some ancient part of my brain that handles survival stuff kicked through to the speech mechanism and shoved a spear into the gears, while screaming without words, "Shut up, already, you idiot! Shut up!!!" A bit after retirement, I asked our now-former President if I recalled that incident correctly — he had a phenomenal memory — and he replied that, Oh, yes, that's how he remembered it; he'd never forgotten it. Which was reassuring about my memory, and ambiguously reassuring on my suspicions on a small part of the reason it took me so long to get tenure, get promoted, get … anything.
            As Kurt Vonnegut points out somewhere, Americans are programmed less to be thinking entities than agreeing machines. Speaking logic to Power is probably not in the program.
            And it's not just our failures to be courageous or exquisitely tactful in talking to others. It's bad enough that we don't listen to other people and take them seriously enough to argue civilly with them; most of us much of the time don't even listen carefully to ourselves.
            Listen to yourselves and others with (for my example for the last few months) "everybody," "nobody," "best," "worst," and other absolutes. With "best" and "worst" and such there's an old tradition here, going back at least as far as Beowulf and other Old English heroic poetry where it's almost always "the best sword," "the best mead hall," "the worst monster" until when you get a simple assertion like "That was a good king," the line stands out. As Mort Sahl pointed out in the 1980s or so, we don't have to give "The Grimmy Award" and something doesn't have to be the worst!! to be bad. Or the best to be good. And if the assertion is about "everybody" or "nobody," it can be refuted with, "Uh, I don't" or "I do." (And if it's on something sexual, check out a porn site: what you think nobody would like probably has its own pages and a standard abbreviation.)
            One of my frosh writing students started an essay with, "Since the beginning of time, Man ___________." I asked, "Are you dating 'The Beginning of Time' from the Big Bang or the rise of consciousness, or God's creating the world or what?" And he said he hadn't thought about that at all. Uh-huh, and
Does 'Man' include boys and girls and women and …?" He was getting uncomfortable, so I said, "Let's put it very formally, what's your data-set here — just who-all are you talking about?" And he said it was "me and my buddies back in high school." And I said, "Then you should start out with "Me and my buddies back in high school" — or "My buddies and I" for a formal essay, and then get on to just what you can talk about." I didn't add, I meant talking about without bullshitting his readers, most immediately me.
            "The worst disaster to hit America in modern times"? You've heard variations on such a line. I don't think they had what we'd think of as America in Medieval Times. Does that just mean "recently"? "That I can remember?" "That me and my buddies back in the newsroom could think of off-hand?" And a worse disaster than the burning of Washington DC during the War of 1812? Worse than the Civil War? Spanish Flu? The Great Depression? The attacks of 11 September 2001? Does some bad thing have to be the worst before your audience will pay attention?
            So we get the sort of language-inflation and hyperbole we have gotten used to — and inured to — in advertising.
            About once a year back when I was in the Ed Biz in English, I'd write across the chalkboard in large letters, WORDS MEAN. And meaningful words should go into sentences and paragraphs in at least a vaguely coherent manner and add up a fair amount of the time as an insightful description or useful set of instructions or even a rational political analysis and sensible recommendations for action.

            Meanwhile, it'd be nice if people could as least read such discourse and differentiate it from what we can compact into a set labeled bullshit.

No comments:

Post a Comment