Saturday, August 4, 2012


For years and years, I have left it for others to identify and interpret the primary cause of the decayed condition of public discourse. But, since the best minds of my generation have failed and my time is running out, I think that I must come forward at last to reveal explain it all: my Theory of Everything (TOE).

As it is usually understood, the TOE is the sought-for scientific theory to explain all physical phenomena and enable predictions of all outcomes of all experiments. The problem in developing this theory is the difficulty of reconciling general relativity and quantum mechanics. Of course, this TOE is unrelated to the dynamics of discourse; my TOE applies in this domain and enjoys the elegant simplicity of the best theories.

We know that the decayed condition of pubic discourse results from an unrestrained and irresponsible rhetoric ignorant of, or indifferent to, traditional standards of verbal meaning, factual thinking, and logical reasoning. The practice of this rhetoric displays disrespect for those who disagree with the speaker’s or writer’s political opinions and, in the usual flim-flamming of campaign oratory, perhaps even some who do or might agree.

The cause of this dysfunctional rhetoric, my TOE, can be stated in three words: teachers of English (also TOE). They are not the only teachers whose students fail to master the subject and who do nothing to develop in their students the skill which constitutes every school’s mission-statement mantra: critical thinking. But they are the only teachers whom graduating students have for all thirteen K-12 grades.

I endure sports announcers and commentators whose jock talk daily descends to ever lower levels of linguistic competence. They merit the gold medal in scrambled pronouns, especially when they play take-a-guess with them. I abide the talking heads on CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC, who manifest the same slovenliness of grammar and diction. Gross deficiencies appear not only in hometown papers, which make no attempt to edit locally written items, but also such exalted sources as the Associated Press and the New York Times. However, I enjoy the irony that those who want English to become the national language are among those lacking proficiency of their mother tongue. But, then, they care nothing about precision in communication and everything about prescriptions of cultural norms.

I suffer the pedagogical misfits who speak nonsense or tolerate nonsense spoken by their students. Not long ago, I observed a professor teaching an upperclass course on Shakespeare; the subject for the day was his sonnets. She attempted to scan Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” but, lacking the skill to do so, made a hash of it. So she faked success by declaring it the one and only perfectly regular of his 154 sonnets—dee-dum, dee-dum, dee-dum, for seventy metrical feet—utter balderdash. Worse was her allowing a totally inane interpretation of the sonnet without asking the student how he derived his reading from the words in front of him—an inanity tacitly admitted in the pained expression of disbelief which flitted across this professor’s face.

This pedagogical example points to the central principle of my TOE: the tolerance—indeed, the acceptance and approbation—, especially by teachers of English, of any noise emitted from a mouth, any ink scrawled on paper, or any pixels displayed on a monitor. Such TOEs show no respect for the meanings of words, the significance of facts, and the importance of testing assertions against a reality other than a speaker’s feelings or first impressions. Is it any wonder that many in recent generations of students taught by TOEs in this fashion have learned no respect for words, facts, or reality?

The lesson taught by teachers of English is that every statement, however unfounded, is privileged because someone has stated it. A second statement contradicting the first is equally privileged because someone else has stated it. TOEs neither challenge nonsense nor encourage students to consider contradictory statements, explore their strengths and weaknesses, and assess whether one is better—more worthy of belief—than the other. So students never learn to accept responsibility for their utterances, to engage one another, to consider criticism in detachment. Such teaching enables inflated egos and thin skins.

By teaching that anything which students say or write (and may even believe) is exempt from scrutiny, teachers of English shift the standards of truth or reasonable belief from evidence or argument, to the speaker’s or writer’s authenticity or sincerity. This shift in standards makes it difficult for anyone to doubt, or disagree with, another without being understood to impugn his or her character or motives. Ironically, one who doubts or disagrees is then commonly abused by being accused of hypocrisy or dishonesty in making a personal attack.

My TOE thus explains why politicians of all persuasions communicate so badly (even if they have something to communicate). It also explains why citizens communicate on political issues no better. I am not sure that anything can remediate this dysfunction. Likelier, as shabby rhetoric debases discourse, it will increase the difficulties of debating political issues by democratic means. With free speech reduced to senseless babble or sinister bluster, anti-democratic alternatives will arise to supplant democracy. My TOE predicts such an outcome to the great American experiment.

1 comment:

  1. You grasp very well the two-sided nature of tolerance. On the one hand, a pluralistic society seems to require it, but on the other, tolerance seems to imply equal acceptance of all ideas. I like the phrase, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion." I like the word "entitled." My working response is that people are also "entitled" to have their opinions ridiculed. It probably makes no difference anyway. As Jonathan Haidt said, "One of the most robust findings in social psychology is that people find ways to believe whatever they want to believe." In the end, belief trumps all. That--and not the ability to question--is the nature of things.