Results tagged “language”

There's No Such Thing as "Cyberbullying"

October 1, 2010

For more than a decade, an intellectually bankrupt habit of maligning new media has reared its head in traditional media outlets, perpetuating a false impression of technology being bad for society. Worse, this tendency masks the actual social ills that are to blame for these awful actions, by creating the facade that technology is to blame when it is more likely the fault of racism, homophobia, classism, or intolerance.

Some recent examples:

  • The Associated Press wrote about the suicide of Tyler Clementi after a dormroom hookup of his was broadcast by some of his acquaintances. Geoff Mulvihill and Samantha Henry wrote:
    The Associated Press found at least 12 cases in the U.S. since 2003 in which children and young adults between 11 and 18 killed themselves after falling victim to some form of "cyberbullying" — teasing, harassing or intimidating with pictures or words distributed online or via text message.
  • The New York Times extends the demonization even further, with a six-person debate on cyberbullying that never once questions the rhetorical premise of the word "cyberbullying" itself. Searching the New York Times archive generates no results for "bibliobullying" or even "telebullying", despite their own definition of "cyberbullying" including text messages sent from phones.

This isn't new territory; danah boyd covered the dishonesty of this term thoroughly on her own blog years ago. But the persistence of this descriptor demonstrates a consistent agenda focused on blaming these horrible displays of intolerance or inhuman unkindess on technology.

When I had my own nose broken by a bully who assaulted me when I was in the seventh grade, it took me some time to figure out the source of his enmity, since the attacker was a guy I barely knew. As it turned out, he had misheard a phone conversation that several kids had conference called in to. I've either forgotten or never knew most of the details of what the conversation was about, but at no time did the school administrators refer to the incident as telebullying, or blame the phone for causing it. They also didn't blame the locker that my nose was smashed in to, presumably because school lockers are a technology of sufficient vintage as to be immune from idiotic epithets.

Why They Made Up This Word

It's important to note that blaming technology for horrendous, violent displays of homophobia or racism or simple meanness lets adults like parents and teachers absolve themselves of the responsibility to raise kids free from these evils. By creating language like "cyberbullying", they abdicate their own role in the hateful actions, and blame the (presumably mysterious and unknowable) new technologies that their kids use for these awful situations. Somehow, when I was frequently cross-dressing or wearing makeup or identifying as queer as a high schooler, I was still able to be threatened with violence, even though my tormentors had no mobile phones or laptop computers. (I will point out, for nerd cred, that I was the first person in my school to bring a mobile phone or laptop to class.)

I was thinking of this obliquely when Jose Antonio Vargas asked me a bit about my perspective on Hollywood's take on social media as exemplified by the new Facebook film. Despite my own misgivings about many of Facebook's social impacts, I still think old media as exemplified by the Associated Press and the film industry has a concerted agenda to demonize new media and social media, and Facebook and its creators bear the brunt of that in The Social Network. There's also the ugly reality that coining bullshit words like "cyberbullying" will sell papers or page views. I put it more broadly in the Huffington Post piece:

The movie is written in the abstract, based on what they feel Facebook, and the social Web, represent. It's exoticism. It's the 1940s, when you had a white actor in yellow-face play a Chinese character, you know? Those foreigners talk like this, and it's why they're inscrutable and evil.

The truth of it is, calling the cruelty that kids show to one another, based on race or gender identity or class or any other imaginary difference, by a name like "cyberbullying" is a cop-out. It's a group of parents, school administrators and lazy reporters working together to shirk their own responsibility for the meanspirited, hateful, incomprehensible things their own kids do.

And it's a myth. There's no such thing as cyberbullying. There's only the cruelty in all of us, and the cowardice of making words to hide from it.

On Fail

August 9, 2009

I've had the privilege of being quoted or mentioned in a lot of newspapers and magazines over the years, but as an minor-league word nerd, this one ranks as among the most gratifying: This week's "On Language" column in the Sunday New York Times magazine quotes from my post "The End of Fail":

The fail phenomenon has its naysayers, most prominently Anil Dash, an influential tech-culture blogger, who wrote a strongly worded post titled “The End of Fail.” For Dash, politicized fail has not moved far from its snarky roots. “ ‘FAIL’ isn’t advocacy; it’s the tool of those who don’t know how to be advocates, who don’t know how to persuade,” Dash argues. “It puts the ego of the complainers ahead of the cause they’re trying to advocate.”

In reviewing the etymology of "fail", Ben Zimmer makes a few really interesting observations, most notably that the term has forked a bit, reflecting both the mindless non-critiques I railed against, as well as the harmless, even charming, use of "fail" on sites like Fail Dogs. Zimmer also elides any mention of ubiquitous meme-starter 4chan playing a role in the development of "fail", which is probably just as well.

I'm actually so pleased with this one I'll probably run out and grab a print copy of the magazine shortly after I post this.

What Sarah Palin Is Saying

October 28, 2008

Sarah Palin has been unsurprising in her criticisms of Barack Obama's credentials and policies, fulfilling the traditional role of the vice presidential candidate being the most aggressive and pointed rhetorical attacker in a campaign. But a closer look at her deliberate use of vernacular and language reveals that she has gone far beyond any other candidate in vice presidential history in the dangerous and irresponsible implications of her attacks. She has phrased her attacks on Obama in a way that avoids accountability to the press while specifically addressing the subset of her audience who are most likely to advocate extreme actions against Obama.

I don't usually write about politics here; I leave the ugliness to those who seem to revel in it. But I think a lot about language, usually in a more lighthearted context like talking about yo mama jokes or lolcats. What's striking to me this election season, though, is that Sarah Palin has chosen to abuse her command of language so obviously without suffering any serious criticism for it thus far.

The crux of the issue is simple:

  1. Sarah Palin has unequivocally associated Barack Obama with the idea of terrorism and specifically with "terrorists".
  2. Republican President George Bush has defined in our National Security Strategy, and the Republican Party's platform affirms, that we may identify and strike at terrorists before they have committed any defined acts of aggression against American citizens.
  3. George Bush has made clear, by stating before a joint session of Congress that "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."
  4. Palin has used deliberate choice of language to avoid these connections being highlighted by the media, while increasing the likelihood that the target audience for her message will be incited by her statements.

Through these arguments, it becomes clear that Sarah Palin's assertions are designed not to prove that Obama is unqualified for the office of the Presidency of the United States. Rather, she appears to be attempting to convince a substantial portion of her supporters that Obama supports terrorism against the United States and thus should be, at the very least, incarcerated as an enemy combatant (which we are doing to American citizens already) or at worst, assassinated for supporting terror. She has done this knowing full well that she can retain plausible deniability thanks to the ambiguity of her statements as they'll be interpreted by the media, by her detractors, and by her more reasonable supporters.

Code Switching, Oprah, and Straight Talk

Palin has been hammering home this alleged link between Obama and terrorism for weeks. And there's a deliberate intellectual dishonesty of using the plural form of "terrorist" for describing what was meant to be an allusion to William Ayers alone.

But just as telling as her assertions is the way in which she phrases them. Obama is not consorting with terrorists, in her formulation, he's palling around with them. I'm not one of those overbearing language nerds who's chiding her for using informal speech; instead, I want to point out a deliberate and telling choice of grammar that she's employed.

Linguists use the phrase "code switching" to refer to the act of using more than one language when speaking. As someone who grew up in a multilingual household, I'm intimately familiar with code-switching, and one of the most interesting traits about the practice is not merely how easy it is for people to switch language on the fly, but rather how the choice of language actually informs the meaning and the nuance of the words being said.

This gets even more pronounced if we use an expansive definition of the idea of "code switching" and include switching between dialects of the same language. Then, we can look at some familiar examples to learn from them.

For example, Oprah Winfrey is an extremely successful businesswoman, obviously well-versed in the General American or Standard American English that's the language of business in this country. But Oprah regularly and effortlessly code switches to AAVE (also known as "Black English" or, to its detractors, ebonics) on her show or in various media appearances. Though her use of the dialect is clearly sincere and authentic, it's also obviously a savvy way to stay connected to audiences with whom she wants to maintain a particular resonance or credibility. In short, code switching is an efficient way to target a particular message to a particular group without explicitly telling the world that's who you're speaking to. The context makes it obvious.

We see George W. Bush do the same thing regularly, as well. No man who has an MBA from Harvard and grew up among the most privileged families in the United States can be unaware that "smoke 'em out" isn't Standard American English. That's not to say his use of folksy sayings is merely a put-on, but rather that it's a linguistic choice he makes in some settings, and with the same goal as Oprah: He's speaking directly to a particular audience in a way that resonates with them as credible, and signifies to others that they're not the target audience for his words.

In the case of Sarah Palin, this strategy has been taken to its logical extreme. Where John McCain used the phrase "straight talk" in his 2000 campaign to represent the idea of telling the unvarnished truth, without regard to the actual grammar of the statements themselves, Palin has changed the meaning of the phrase slightly. In her formulation, "straight talk" is not so much about the clarity of the points being made, but rather a signifier of the dialect in which she is offering up her talking points.

I'm not speaking solely of the North Central American dialect, though Palin's use of what's often referred to as "the Fargo accent" is of course one of her most distinctive verbal traits. In fact, you can see her attenuate how pronounced that accent is based on where and when she's speaking; In front of large crowds in rural areas it tends to be pretty strong, and when she's on TV with an interviewer (or on Saturday Night Live), she dials it back. Those attenuations are normal, and any of us who've ever done any public speaking in different circumstances know that we adapt our language to the audience we're addressing.

Others have criticized Palin for her language. I have no interest in taking her to task over the fact that many of her statements lack a clear structure or that she often reverts to rambling, run-on sentences. The truth is, coherent, cogent public speaking, especially trying to tailor one's speech to sound bites, is a difficult skill that must be practiced. I don't fault Palin for not being expert at it yet, and in fact even when her syntax is tortured, the general point she's trying to make is often still very clear.

Rather, the most dramatic technique in Sarah Palin's speeches is the use of vernacular to mask the seriousness of an assertion. Sarah Palin cloaks her ideas in "straight talk" to avoid them being subject to fact-checking that would happen if she were to use standard english to make the same points.

Saying It Plainly

Put simply, if Palin says "Barack Obama consorts with terrorists", she is making the assertion that he supports acts of violence against American citizens and the media will refute this obviously false assertion. If, instead, Palin says he "pals around with terrorists", she's used code-switching to mask the seriousness of the charge, obfuscating her meaning enough to get away with making an assertion that inevitably calls for the imprisonment or even assassination of a political opponent.

This clever use of language only hides Palin's meaning from members of the press. Because writers for traditional media are usually highly educated and pride themselves on their mastery of Standard American English, they can often look down on dialects like AAVE and North Central English. Instead these forms of language being seen as legitimate and interpreted in the social context where they've formed, they're dismissed as being the words of "people who don't even speak proper English!" In the cases where the ideas aren't outright dismissed, there is still rampant misinterpretation of meaning: Reporters wrongly see a term like "palling" as imprecise, when compared to a word like "consorting".

But these words are not imprecise to their intended audience. They are, in fact, clearer than using legalistic terms like "consorting". They amplify the urgency of the statements, and increase the sense for Palin's audience that they're on the same page with her, speaking a language too "plain", too full of "straight talk", for the press to understand. And they're right. Palin has consistently pitted herself against the media, depicting them as hostile and foreign to her campaign, and thus making it even less likely they'd take her less formal-sounding charges seriously.

On top of this, by deliberately omitting the word "domestic" as a descriptor of "terrorist" after its initial mention in her speeches, Palin has amplified the recurring theme of "otherness" that the McCain campaign and its surrogates have pinned on Obama. There is an unequivocal attempt to assign a commonality of purpose and intent between Obama, his supporters and campaigners, and terrorists who would attack Americans.

This is especially telling because "domestic terrorism" hasn't been raised, by Sarah Palin or anyone else, as an issue that the McCain campaign is genuinely concerned about. There has been no mention of Joel Henry Hinrichs, or Jim David Adkisson, or even Timothy McVeigh. There is not a single mention of domestic terror on the McCain campaign website except in reference to William Ayers. So it's impossible to assert that Palin is introducing this term to raise the issue of security for Americans; It exists only in the context of attacking Obama and inciting a specifically targeted subset of her audience to see him as deserving of imprisonment or violence.

I firmly believe that Sarah Palin is a smart, talented public speaker who makes deliberate choices about her use of language to elicit particular responses from different segments of her audience. She's college-educated and has been a professional broadcaster, understanding the nuances of addressing a large audience. She is certainly experienced enough to understand that signifiers like "hockey mom" and "Joe Six Pack" are explicitly communicating to an audience that is white, overwhelmingly not college educated, and lives in rural or suburban areas.

I know because I've been part of that audience. I grew up in an overwhelmingly white part of rural and suburban Pennsylvania, the very same place that many of these attacks are being leveled. I was coincidentally in Greensboro, North Carolina on the same day that Palin first talked about "Real America". I don't have a college education, and I've spent a lot of time around highly-educated professional writers working for the biggest media organizations in the world, and seen their attitudes about language, dialect and vernacular within our country. I've done enough public speaking myself to understand how important word choice, and use of slang, and choice of accent is when speaking to different groups. And it's obvious to anyone who knows American culture why Palin wouldn't identify as a "basketball mom" or talk about "Joe Forty Ounce". These things are not accidents.

So we see a simple pattern emerge:

  • George W. Bush uses informal language like "smoke 'em out" when referring to targeting terrorists, setting the precedent of such terms being not only appropriate for the conversation, but in fact binding as policy.
  • Bush, Palin and the Republican Party keep most media outlets on the defensive by consistently distancing the media with both fair assertions of bias and unfair attacks on the journalistic imperative to act as a check to political power.
  • Palin sets a tone from her very first national speech where her deliberate use of vernacular explicitly connects her to rural white Americans.
  • Palin defines Obama as linked to terrorism, ignoring the actual issue of domestic terrorism in favor of a context which is most likely to inspire radical elements of her audience to pursue the Bush policy of striking at friends of terrorists before they have attacked.
  • Palin presses the argument using language that the mainstream press cannot grasp firmly enough to refute or highlight as incendiary.

I believe the vast majority of supporters of the campaign of John McCain are honorable, honest, well-intentioned and sincere Americans who want what's best for this country. And I believe that all of us, regardless of party affiliation or political support, deserve better than someone who cynically twists language to inflame and incite the very worst elements of our culture. That's why it's important to point out the danger of these actions.

Sarah Palin's conduct has gone far past the bounds of decency, and far past even the most dangerous efforts of any previous candidate for such high office. This is an inexcusable, unforgivable, and unacceptable transgression and my belief is that she should be removed from consideration for the office of Vice President for her dangerous, unethical and unamerican display of irresponsibility.

A First-Generation American

March 14, 2008

I love it when technologists write about the human side of the geekery, and Giles Bowkett's post about Rubyfrom a few months ago, which I just got sent a link to this week, captures some beautiful truths that exist in both code and in culture.

Harmony and balance make you feel good. American Rubyists frequently take up all the points of Ruby's power, expressiveness, and efficiency, but they don't seem to register the point that Ruby was designed to make you feel good. Even Rubyists who want to explain why Ruby makes them feel good often fail to mention that it was expressly designed for that exact purpose. ...

JRuby is a first-generation American - a child born here of one foreign parent, Ruby itself. I'm a first-generation American too, and even though I have two human, English parents, rather than one Japanese parent made of code, I think I feel JRuby's pain here. So I'm just going to tell you - every first-generation American sees this happen all the time. Some idea from another country or culture disappears like mist scattered by winds unless Americans already have a synonym for it. If they don't have a word for it, they don't have a box to put it in, and the idea just falls through the cracks.

Religious wars over programming languages are just silly. The messianic zeal of Christianity's shameful Crusades a thousand years ago still lingers on in Western culture, and one glaring example is the ludicrous idea that there should be one true language or one true editor, or one ring to rule them all. It's much better when programmers can work in multiple languages, multiple editors, and multiple environments. Diversity is healthy for ecologies. This is a point Neal makes in his podcast - he calls it polyglot programming, which is to say multilingual programming. He calls it a positive trend, and I agree.

Whether you call it diversity, competition, or a lack of monoculture, I believe in it. And I do think it's a fundamental requirement for a healthy culture, whether in society or in technology.

The Retcon World

January 28, 2008

One of the most useful words that I've been fixated on for a while is "retcon". A portmanteau blend of "retroactive continuity", retcon comes from the world of comics and represents the idea of "correcting" past facts to represent a new desired reality. The word has long been in usage, as is predictably well-documented on Double-Tongued Dictionary and Wikipedia

In comics, of course, this is fairly harmless. In TV, as when it turned out that it was all a dream, it's downright entertaining. But we see retcons in the world of business and politics more and more frequently.

Usually, the criticisms of retconning in the real world are that it's, well, Orwellian. Politicians in particular seem partial to especially heinous misuses of this technique. But the idea's captured my imagination because it seems like there may be some positive reasons to bring retconning out of the comics closet and into the real world.

Basically, a lot of us spend time lamenting mistakes or regretting bad decisions or bemoaning missed opportunities. But there are many, many times when it turns out that something that seemed like bad news at the time turns out, in retrospect, to be for the best.

And in particular, I find that many of the most successful people I know are those who are able to look back at events in their lives and rethink them in a new context, to turn defeats into victories on the strength of the lessons learned. It's the same creative impulse that motivates people to create new worlds through their creativity, ambition, or artistic ability. In the pages of a comic book, or in turning the inevitable setbacks in life into learning experiences, retcon is the way we (re-)invent the universe.

The Family of Languages

September 7, 2007

Language Map

From the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has a delightful family tree of Indo-European languages, though I was kinda miffed at the omission of my parents' native tongue.

Google Gets Its Third Verb

June 1, 2007

I'm happy for my friends at FeedBurner, who've finally announced their acquisition by the Big G. I do have to confess that this marks the point where I'm officially uncomfortable with the centralized gravitational attraction for brains going on at Google, but today's not the day for belaboring that.

More importantly, Google has done something with this acquisition that hasn't happened since its very first acquisition: They got a new verb.

The generic term for enhancing a feed through the use of a service is to "burn" it, thanks to the efforts of FeedBurner. They've always been straightforward about the term they use to describe the process, and its paid off by becoming the name of the concept. I even think it may have helped keep any other services from being able to entrench themselves in the space.

Google, for its part, has always been a little more circumspect about its status as a verb. There was even an a gentle admonishment from Google's legal team a while ago, asking people to please help the poor Googlers avoid the fate of other brands and products that "that fell victim to those products' very success and, as they became more and more popular, slipped from trademarked status into common usage." Oh no! Not common usage! For what it's worth, I know there was some consternation on the part of a number of Googlers about the silliness of the post, especially since Google itself repeatedly refers to its employees as, yes, Googlers.

But that's neither here nor there. Today, the milestone is that Google acquired a signature so distinctive it takes its place in elite company as part of the language. Congrats to Dick, Eric, Steve, Matt, Brent, and everyone else on the team.

p.s. Can someone else do whatever it is Dick does now, and just let him write for the Official Google Blog full-time? Thanks.

MeowChat and PetSpeak

April 25, 2007

Wow, you kids really like overanalysis of imaginary pet languages, huh? The best thing about writing Cats Can Has Grammar has been the responses.

  • Mat sent me a link to this SF Chronicle story on MeowChat, the online language adopted by cat fanciers when they impersonate their cats in online chat. Note to whomever writes the headlines over at the Chron, if you have to say, "It's not just for crazy cat ladies", it's already not true.
  • Danny also brought up MeowChat in my comments here, offering up this overview which gives us a "gives a reasonably good breakdown of that story, though unfortunately in heavily accented meow".
  • I made it to Language Log! "After a bit of investigation, though, I've decided that I don't feel badly enough about this to undergo the lolcat immersion required to change it." NO LOLCATS FOR U LOL.
  • And finally, I found the tags and descriptions that people used while bookmarking the post on to be delightful.

Pidgins and Creoles

April 22, 2007

Though I've been familiar with the terms for years, I wasn't sure of the exact differences between a pidgin and a creole. So:

  • A creole is the combination of one or more languages into a new, stable language. A mashup of languages, if you will.
  • A pidgin is a simplified language used to help two groups with distinct languages communicate with each other.

"Creole", of course, is also a term used to refer to various ethnic and social groups. Now I feel better that I know the difference between these terms.


November 9, 2006

Erin McKean, frock star and lexicographer, offers some wisdom:

You don't owe prettiness to anyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don't owe it to your mother, you don't owe it to your children, you don't owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked "female".

Synaesthesia makes for the best web conversations, even on Ask MetaFilter:

My calendar is a bit like a teardrop-shaped clock going counterclockwise. If you took a clock with a rubbery outer rim, grabbed it with a hook at one o'clock and pulled it a little bit up and to the right, you'd have my calendar. The rounded point of the teardrop is January 1, with the months running counter clockwise from there, although somehow 12 o'clock is only mid-January. June starts around 8 o'clock, and the summer takes up the whole bottom, with 4 o'clock being about mid-September. My birthday, in late July, is at six o'clock. Christmas is around 2 o'clock. I experience January and February as cold, dull months which drag on far too long, but this doesn't seem to be reflected spacially in my calendar.

What happens when a gaming site pauses from fawning over the latest lame sequel and does some actual journalism? Game Revolution:

First off, I have absolute proof that video games are not the cause of this epidemic of youth violence in America. No, really, I do. Ready?

There is no epidemic of youth violence in America.

Lonnae O'Neal Parker, genuine b-girl:

When those of us who grew up with rap saw signs that it was turning ugly, we turned away. We premised our denial on a sort of good-black-girl exceptionalism: They came for the skeezers but I didn't speak up because I'm no skeezer, they came for the freaks, but I said nothing because I'm not a freak. They came for the bitches and the hos and the tricks. And by the time we realized they were talking about bitches from 8 to 80, our daughters and our mommas and their own damn mommas, rap music had earned the imprimatur of MTV and Martha Stewart and even the Pillsbury Doughboy.

Kingsley Jegan Joseph:

In an effort to help further the stereotyped humor popular in these modern times, I have compiled a web 2.0 compliant, clustered stereotype tag soup for India:

  1. Call center, outsourcing, BPO, fake accents, difficult accents, cheat, incompetent, insincere, fake names
  2. Hindu, animal worship, vegetarian, unpronounceable name, orthodox, culturally backwards, caste, social oppression, bride burning, mama’s boys
  3. Muslim, terrorist, violent
  4. Sissy, Apu, 7-11, K-mart