Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Let's Have a Little Language Hook-Up, Baby

When I was teaching college it was a sure bet that 98 percent of any new group of students arrived in the classroom with the following set of interlocking beliefs:  All cultures are equally good and no one has the right or ability to pass judgement on a culture's practices, no matter how repugnant they might seem; everyone is entitled to an opinion; all opinions are equally valid because truth is just whatever you mean when you point to something and call it true; science in earlier times was just as valid and effective as modern science; everyone should think for themselves even if they haven't read anything or don't have anything to think about; if you want to know about something you can just "research" it on Google; and everyone is now a genius because they have a HAL 9000 computer in their palm.   These beliefs, once up and running in a vacuum were like a perpetual motion machine with spinning blades and spikes that chopped up every lecture into steaming gobbets.

It was a bloody uphill battle to get these kids to understand that it takes a long time to develop a set of epistemological filters--grasp of basic logic, realization that knowledge is a process of  accretion, acceptance of positive scientific progress, ability to recognize fallacies and specious arguments--before you get to open your big dumb yap.

One more belief that bedevils kids is the notion that they can use words any old way they want, that "my definition is just as good as yours because it works for me and I like to use it that way."

Well, somebody needs to sic Orwell's ghost on the "Occupy" movement.  Here in Fresno--where the "movement" boasts the longest life-span of any "occupy" manifestation--the word seems to mean "to erect very ugly tents and shanty-like buildings and chalk vague stick-it-to-the-man slogans on the sidewalk."

There's a funny moment in The Big Lebowski (actually, all the moments in that movie are funny) when Jeff Bridges' "Dude" character talks about his college career along these lines: "Actually, I don't remember too much of it.  I smoked a lot of Thai stick and occupied various administration buildings."

Now, I've got some sympathy for people's rage against Wall Street's shady dealings and other financial injustices in America, but it says something significant when The Dude knows how to use a word precisely and the nice folk in the shanty towns don't.

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