Review: John McWhorter’s Words on the Move

I’ve gone through two of John McWhorter’s Great Courses on language; I’ve read several of his books, and I’m a faithful listener to his podcast. When I picked up this book I suddenly realized, “I know just what he’s going to say. I get John McWhorter.” I put the book down after two chapters. But a testimony to his consummate skill as a popularizer and communicator is that I couldn’t help myself and I finished the book anyway. And then, particularly with regard to back-shifting, McWhorter managed to say something new to me that my own reading in linguistics hasn’t brought me to. I also collect many quotable quotes and fun illustrations from him that I can use in my own popularizing work.

McWhorter’s head is screwed on straight. He spends an entire book bemusedly observing the sometimes random changes in language (in both word meaning and pronunciation) and offering none of the moral judgments people expect about them But he knows readers want that judgment, and he gives it to them in a wise form. Listen to this:

For a linguist to hope that the public will give up the idea that some ways of speaking are more appropriate for formal settings than others would be futile—especially since all linguists agree with the public on this. Often we are asked, “If all these things considered bad grammar are really okay, then why don’t you use them in your writing and speeches?” However, none of us is pretending that a society of human beings could function in which all spoke or wrote however they wanted to and yet had equal chances at success in life. The linguist’s point is that there are no scientific grounds for considering any way of speaking erroneous in some structural or logical sense. To understand this is not to give up on learning to communicate appropriately to context. To understand this is, rather, to shed the contempt: the acrid disgust so many seem to harbor for people who use the forms we have been taught are “bad.” (220–221)

This is very practical wisdom. It would have saved me from asking a Singaporean friend what his first language was and (I’m so embarrassed by this) asking a Kenyan friend why he speaks English wrong. It would have saved me from mocking a teacher who had a Southern accent when I was eighteen. And even now, the implicit connection to class McWhorter makes (“equal chances at success in life”) is a good reason to be humble about whatever facility I’ve attained in the use of standard American English. The truth is that I’ve been schooled in it from infancy. I never, never had to labor to acquire it. (Thanks, English Major Dad.)

McWhorter also raises the question: “If the way so many people talk is okay, then what counts as a mistake?”

And he provides an answer:

When people are doing things on their own. I once knew someone who, for some reason, despite otherwise perfectly ordinary American English, used “nerfry” for nursery and “grofery” for grocery. That was, quite simply, off because no one else says the words that way; nor is there anything about their sounds that makes it likely that anyone ever will. (195)

Get it set in your mind that McWhorter isn’t giving the inmates permission to rule the asylum, only noting that they in fact do whether think they do or not, and you can quell your moral alarm at his sometimes nonjudgmental descriptions of language change.

And then there’s this, an idea I consider a significant advance in my own understanding:

The fury some harbor over language usage issues is incommensurate with the gravity of the issue. Does anyone genuinely fear that we are on our way to babbling incomprehensibly to one another when no such thing has ever happened among a single human group in the history of our species? One suspects more afoot than logic: rage over language usage may be the last permissible open classism, channeling a tribalist impulse roiling ever underneath.

The tribalist impulse has ever fewer officialized outlets in our society, in which open discrimination is increasingly barred from the public forum. The very pointedness of the rage behind so many comments about language usage suggests something exploding after a considerable buildup of pressure, denied regular venting. In this grand and tragic world of ours, it is rather unexpected, in itself, that anyone would experience anger in response to the construction of a sentence. A student can hand in their paper anytime after Thursday—this use of their is grounds for fulmination amid global warming, terrorism, grisly epidemics, and the prospect of a world without bees? (223–224)

I doubt this explanation will persuade anyone of (ahem) their guilt, but this is by far the best explanation I’ve seen for the furor people raise over language change—and the moral disapprobation I see on people’s faces when they find out I’m fine with particular language changes that have occurred. I have literally been told that I am a moral relativist, even after I have tried to explain with great care what I do and don’t mean. (It was during a Q&A in front of a large group of people; it was awkward.)

(And I’m not a moral relativist.)

Especially helpful for me was the fact that one theme in McWhorter’s book was identical to the major theme of my upcoming book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (in fact, I’m hoping to get my hero McWhorter to blurb the book for me!). The argument I apply to the King James he applies to Shakespeare. And the argument is this simple:

English has changed a lot more since Shakespeare than we think. (205)

The key there is “than we think.” People who don’t obsess over language change like McWhorter does just aren’t likely to notice all the subtle differences that make Shakespeare and the KJV bumpy sidewalks for modern readers. There are many words in each that McWhorter calls “false friends,” words that we still use today but that meant something different in Elizabethan times. McWhorter and I share the same value: we want people to understand what they read and hear. So he made precisely the call I’ve made: update the false friends. His words on this issue are exceptionally wise and deft—and I promptly added them to the manuscript of my own book.

Thank you again, John McWhorter. I owe you a great debt, I really do.

Stanley Fish on the Foundations Baptist Fellowship and American Protestant Fundamentalism More Generally

Readers of my blog know that I have a strong (and perhaps strange) affinity for Stanley Fish, the pragmatic, antifoundationalist literary theorist and classic public intellectual gadfly. I find him always stimulating and incisive, even when I disagree. But because his strength is analysis and not so much evaluation (indeed, in what I’m about to quote he makes a rare statement of something he “certainly” believes in—and it just happens to be original sin!), I don’t really have to disagree very often.

Recently, Fish has been called up to the lecture circuit because of rising interest in some of his long-term themes: academic freedom and the proper justification for the liberal arts. And in his recent comments defending the idea of a university against the hordes of student protesters (who, Fish says, should be listened to but ultimately told to shut up, because academic freedom is not for students, and giving into them will destroy what the university was created to do), he offers genuine wisdom for someone like me who is currently engaged in defending the existence of certain institutions of American Protestant Christian fundamentalism. A narrower ideology is not supposed to be available than this one, so why do I defend it? Because, in part, as Fish says, every ideology is narrow. Every culture proclaims and defends its values and not others. I hope my proclamation and defense hew to a standard external to my subculture, namely the standard of Scripture. But I can’t pretend that I have no culture through which I view that standard, or that I think other cultures are equally valid. If I want to give to my children what I was given, I have to work to maintain the relevant traditions.

Bear with me here, because my extended quotation of Fish is going to be off-putting at points for much of my readership. But I genuinely believe there is wisdom here. I give different supporting reasons for the conclusions that Fish reaches, but those conclusions most certainly resonated with me.

I have transcribed the following from the Hugo Black lecture Fish gave (audio) a little over a year ago. I won’t be breaking this up with commentary, so have patience until I can explain a few more things. Fish again, is talking about higher education:

The perfectionists are, by definition, progressivists. They do not believe in original sin, but hold rather to an optimistic view of human potential, and they are in search of the political methods that will liberate rather than shackle that potential. Perfectionism or progressivism could possibly flourish on either side of the political aisle; it has a liberal as well as a conservative face. But as many have pointed out, it’s natural home these days seems to be on the left. Political theorist Jacob Talmon puts it this way: “The left proclaims the essential goodness and perfectibility of human nature.” That was a statement made in the 1950s, but here is a statement made last week, by William Voegli, editor of the conservative journal, The Claremont Review:

Liberals believe in progress because they believe in a virtuous circle. As a society becomes more free it progresses, and as it progresses it becomes more free.” (citation)

The natural movement of history, unless stymied by reactionary forces, is from less freedom to more, and never from more freedom to less. Conservatives, on other hand, do believe in original sin, as I certainly do, and I quote Voegli again:

Conservatives see little basis to embrace the conviction that progress will reveal humans to possess unfulfilled or unrealized capacities for reason, freedom, and love. They believe, rather, that it is wise to take our bearings from the abundant historical evidence that human nature reveals astounding capacities for savagery, hatred, and idiocy. (Thomas Hobbes, thou art living at this hour.) Therefore, while liberals want to make the world a better place, conservatives want to keep it from becoming even worse. [could not find citation after repeated searches; it is possible that the quotations ends before the parenthesis]

Voegli concludes that “the urgent work of maintaining civilization is constant.” By that he means, and I agree with him from a postmodernist perspective he would probably reject, that the absence of a view of history assuming an internal logic in the direction of the good means that we had better take care to maintain those institutional arrangements that we cherish, institutional arrangements that in the course of a history that has no teleology but only events we have been lucky enough to hit on. That is, there are certain arrangements, associations, structures, and institutions that turn up in the course of human history that are extremely beneficial and healthy and inspiring—but it’s just a contingent accident that this has happened, which means that we must work contingently, empirically, pragmatically, to ensure that they stay around.

Now, I believe that the liberal arts college…is one of those arrangements that should be maintained and preserved rather than perfected. “Perfection” is a bad idea, in part for reasons that Isaiah Berlin gave in his famous essay on two kinds of liberty. I believe that because the schemes of perfection given to us in the statement of the student protestors all have the fatal defect of turning the college or university into a vehicle for the realization of a political ideal, the equal freedom of all people in a world untainted by injustice and discrimination. I do not quarrel with the ideal. I quarrel with the assumption that it is the university’s job to implement it. Not only do colleges and universities have their own job, … to enquire into the truth of things and to do so in a way that leads to understanding rather than to political action, but if universities allow their energies and resources to put in the service of other jobs, no matter how worthy, they will lose their distinctiveness, and any rationale for their existence. After all, if the academic life is just an extension of politics, why not just dispense with all that scholarly apparatus and get right down to it—get right down to the business of canvassing for votes and securing political power? Perfectionist progressivism is the enemy of what we have, and given that what we have here at Wesleyan and elsewhere is a precarious achievement, it behooves us to hang on to it, even if in the eyes of many, the liberal arts model is outdated, reactionary, and something in the nature of a museum. Another way to put this: we should wear the label “ivory tower” proudly, and should wear no other.

It is sometimes said that the postmodernist or deconstructive view of human actions as untethered to any foundational truth is a recipe for relativism and nihilism, on the reasoning if there’s nothing holding everything up or holding everything together, we can do whatever we like without fearing any ultimate consequences. But in fact, the reverse is true: if there is nothing holding everything up or holding it together, we cannot rely on time and history to protect those things we love, and, to borrow a phrase of the poet John Milton, to protect those things we would not willingly let die. If you like something, a way of life, a mode of practice, a mode of being, a mode of practice that captures you to the extent of becoming indistinguishable from you, I am what I do, then you had better work hard to ensure that it will still be around for you and for those who come after you and want to live that life and not another.

In a non-foundational world, no abiding fundamental truth is going to save us, and no abiding fundamental truth is going to preserve what we cherish. We have to do it ourselves. Which means doing consistent battle with those, including our students, who would take it away from us, who would appropriate and “occupy”—not a verb casually chosen—the structures that house and enable the distinctive activity that goes by the name “liberal arts education.”

You might think that my talk of “battle” is hyperbolic. But listen to a Yale student in the course of harassing a hapless, low-level administrator. At one point, she relaxed the stream of expletives she was hurling at him to say, and I quote, “What you’ve got to understand is that it’s not about creating an intellectual space, it’s about creating a home.”….

What should be done, and who is to do it? Well, given what I have said here, the resolution of the present set of controversies will not be found in some theory or master algorithm or failsafe, all-purpose method. It will be found, if it is found at all, in the actions of skilled administrators who, after all, are the ones responsible for keeping the enterprise going.

Now, quite clearly I am not an anti-foundationalist. But I’m anti-everybody-else’s-foundation; I mean, I’m anti-all-non-Christian-foundations. So Fish and I actually share a great deal. I’m also not a straight-up postmodern, so I am not “absen[t] of a view of history assuming an internal logic in the direction of the good.” History has a teleology to which we have access; something Someone is holding it all together.

But someone’s also trying to break it apart, and in the age that that adversary rules internal logics go awry, and not everything has yet been brought under Christ’s feet to fully serve their created teleology.

So once again Fish and I can share a lot of agreement. The fact that God is holding everything together, including my own life and sanctification, doesn’t absolve me of the responsibility to “make every effort” to add virtue to my faith (2 Peter 1). Likewise, the fact that man proposes and God disposes doesn’t mean I should stop proposing. I propose to do what I can, what little I can, to maintain the institutions that stabilize and promote my values. It is the leaders of these institutions—the “administrators” of Fish’s example—who are charged with keeping the enterprises going. And I’m trying to help them, and to be a bit of a junior administrator myself.

The portions of fundamentalism that shaped me were 92% “beneficial and healthy and inspiring”—although that means they were 8% fallen, and that means some weeding within my tradition. What can I do when I see the good except to try to preserve it, even in the face of persistent original sin? There aren’t any unstained mantles available out there; I checked. And though weaving a new one is always an option, I don’t think it’s very humble or grateful to try that first. I have to pick up the holes and stains in the fundamentalist mantle if I’m going to pick it up at all. I’ll add my own holes and stains as time passes, through my own “savagery and hatred and idiocy,” but I seek by God’s grace to restore more of the mantle than I rip. What else can I do?

 

My Room off the Hallway of Christianity

C.S. Lewis writes in his intro to his world-famous book, Mere Christianity,

I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions—as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable. It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. When you do get into your room you will find that the long wait has done you some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and panelling. In plain language, the question should never be: ‘Do I like that kind of service?’ but ‘Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular door-keeper?’ (xv–xvi)

I waited years to start this blog, before I felt like I could write without wasting people’s time. I’ve waited almost another decade to write an article defending in a systematic way why I’ve stayed in the room I was born in. Yes, I have a room, a denomination, even though the others in my room don’t like to call it that, and even though our label is commonly associated with other rooms—even other religions. Here is my testimony and defense. I invite your critical engagement.

David Brooks on Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, Or, The Ironist Us Vs. the Purist Them

middlebury

David Brooks has responded in the New York Times to Rod Dreher’s just-out, “already-the-most-discussed-and-most-important-religious-book-of-the-decade” The Benedict Option. His response is not negative so much as graciously dismissive. He does this by labeling Dreher a “purist.”

Brooks’ critique sets “purists” like Dreher against “ironists” like Niebuhr (and, apparently, Brooks); and at first he had me assuming I’d land clearly in Dreher’s category, conservative Protestant that I am.

But the way he describes ironism had some theological appeal, too:

Ironists believe that this harmony may be available in the next world but not, unfortunately, in this one. In this world, the pieces don’t quite fit together and virtues often conflict: liberty versus equality, justice versus mercy, tolerance versus order. For the ironist, ultimate truth exists, but day-to-day life is often about balance and trade-offs.

This all seemed to fit me, too, given my belief not just in creation but in fall—at least until he said,

[For ironists] there is no unified, all-encompassing system for correct living.

Whereas I think there is such a system, found in the Bible—though this system is more for the individual than for the society. I distinguish the two not because the Bible has nothing to say to society as a whole (it does; if Moab and Ammon can be judged guilty of oppression in Isaiah, there must be standards available by which nations can be judged innocent of oppression), but because the Bible never holds out hope that there will be societies in which all people are citizens of Christ’s kingdom, in which all people have the new heart of the New Covenant. How can a society full of rebels against God possibly be successful? And, sadly, human rebellion isn’t limited to unbelievers. Even now, New Covenant members still have our horrid flesh. I know I’ve got mine. We can’t be relied upon to create heaven on earth either.

I can’t follow Brooks’ ironism as far as he takes it:

The real enemy is not the sexual revolution. It is a form of purism that can’t tolerate difference because it can’t humbly accept the mystery of truth.

The sexual revolution most certainly is an enemy, and an incredibly destructive one. And though I hope I’m a humble enough ironist to see plenty of mystery out there, my difficulty is not with accepting that we see through a glass darkly, it’s accepting the particular list of things Brooks thinks we won’t see clearly until the eschaton. He repeatedly mentions “LGBT issues” as a matter over which he disagrees with Dreher. And though even there I don’t pretend to have perfectly solid answers to all questions (how do nature and nurture relate in the formation of homosexual desire, do the “eunuchs from birth” Jesus spoke of include celibate homosexuals), I do have a few solid enough answers—divinely revealed answers—to guide public policy. One is that heterosexual, monogamous marriage is a reality, a given, not an ad hoc social construct. I can’t compromise this point for the common good when the common good relies on it.

If I’m a purist, I’m one that is resigned to empirical pluralism and more than prepared to work in good ironistic fashion with other groups for the common good—and to await pure perfection only in the New Earth. But it’s meaningless for me to work for that common good now unless I get to retain my biblically informed vision of what that good entails.

Brooks thinks,

Rod is pre-emptively surrendering when in fact some practical accommodation is entirely possible. Most Americans are not hellbent on destroying religious institutions. If anything they are spiritually hungry and open to religious conversation. It should be possible to find a workable accommodation between L.G.B.T. rights and religious liberty, especially since Orthodox Jews and Christians aren’t trying to impose their views on others, merely preserve a space for their witness to a transcendent reality.

And I hope he’s right. I think he may be. But one reason I think Dreher may win me over—I began reading The Benedict Option moments after it became available in the Kindle store—is the ironically sad blindness of the NY Times commenters.

“cljuniper” from Denver said,

[I] agree with Brooks that purism is the real enemy. In my view, any religion that creates an “us and them” mentality is likely more cost than benefit to humanity.

Thank you, Stanley Fish and John Frame and St. Paul, for giving me tools to see what’s going on in a sentence like that. Do you see it? cljuniper critiques an “us and them” mentality by naming an enemy—by establishing a new us-and-them.

cljuniper lands squarely in the trap her liberal secularism has made for her by calling what her enemy does a “harm,” by assuming that her definition of “harm” is uncontestable and obvious and neutral and beneficent and “progressive”:

What people like Dreher don’t get is that the progressive community that accepts and embraces human diversity are all about religious and personal freedom and we aren’t about to come hunting for Christians—we are about not judging people by their flavor of religion or lifestyle preferences unless they are hurting others. We are not “authoritarian liberals” whereas the Christian Right and the Right generally is full of “authoritarian conservatives”…who want government to tell us how to live.

Come on in, Fish. We need you. Ah, thank you for stopping by.

Fish says,

A religion deprived of the opportunity to transform the culture in its every detail is hardly a religion at all.

The fact is that every religion—even secularism and progressivism, which are faiths, make no mistake about it—feels the natural impulse to order all of life, including society, by its principles.

Despite cljuniper’s apparent belief in the benignity and live-and-let-livety of her progressivism, Rod Dreher and many others have detected a distinct uptick in progressive authoritarianism, from the well-publicized attacks on Christian wedding cake bakers and florists, to the HHS Mandate that the Little Sisters of the Poor provide abortifacient contraceptive coverage, to the Middlebury students shouting down Charles Murray by calling him anti-gay when he isn’t. What can Rod, an expert culture-watcher say, except that he has his ear to the cultural ground and believes that the times they are a-changin’? Brooks—admittedly an expert culture watcher himself—disagrees. But I’m leaning heavily Dreher’s direction. I just don’t see how the commenters at the New York Times can repeatedly call me and Rod Dreher, and all orthodox Christians “bigots” without threatening social cohesion. What used to be called “disagreement” is now called “hate”—and how is compromise possible with an irrational being such as a hater, someone who clearly doesn’t “respect existence”? Secularist progressives are playing the morality card, they are claiming the cultural high ground. They are appropriating the mantle of the civil rights movement. Even some of their own have complained about their illiberality.

Them are not completely evil (being made in God’s image and all), and cultural accommodation may be possible in the short term, but us have good reasons to contemplate the Benedict Option. I read with avid interest.