November 14, 2007

Thoughtless contempt

Matt Richtel, "Devices Enforce Cellular Silence, Sweet But Illegal", NYT 11/4/07, p. 1 (yes, on the front page):

SAN FRANCISCO, Nov. 2 -- One afternoon in early September, an architect boarded his commuter train and became a cellphone vigilante.  He sat down next to a 20-something woman who he said was "blabbing away" into her phone.

"She was using the word 'like' all the time.  She souded like a Valley Girl," said the architect, Andrew, who declined to give his last name because what he did next was illegal.

The story manages to compress a lot of stereotypes into a very few words: a young speaker, female, talkative (not just talkative, but "blabbing away"), using variants that annoy the hearer (a professional man, presumably older than the speaker): using the word 'like' ALL THE TIME (my emphasis), sounding "like a Valley Girl".  And using a cellphone.

It's hard to imagine the NYT printing a news story (especially one on the front page) in which someone conveys so much thoughtless contempt for, say, black people, or gay people -- unless, of course, the contempt was the point of the story, which it isn't here: THIS story is about contempt for cellphone use; the architect is about to wield a cellphone jammer.  But young women perceived to be chatty and using youth-marked style features are fair game.  (So are working-class men and rural Southerners.)

We've noted many such cases before on Language Log.  I'm inclined to view them as upwellings of small-scale misogyny and anti-youthism.  (In somewhat less contentious terms: disdain for women and young people.  In still less contentious terms: a devaluing of women and young people.)

It's hard to know whether there's any way to confront people who talk like the architect: they know what they hear, so to speak, and anything a linguist or other academic can say about who uses cellphones, or who uses (various kinds of like), or who talks a lot, and so on, is just going to be seen as beside the point.  Who are we to deny their reality?  "I know what I hear", they say, "and I don't like it."

Of course, quite possibly Richtel intended to convey that the architect was not only a cellphone vigilante but a lout as well.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at November 14, 2007 04:05 PM