December 11, 2007

Authoritarian rationalism is not conservatism

A couple of days ago, someone emailed to complain about a post that I wrote a year and a half ago:

If you choose to speak to the 'vulgar mob,' you'll do fine, but don't include yourself among the 'better-informed' pedestrians.

What had I done to appeal to the vulgar mob? Did I defend the over-use of like totally by middle-aged men? Did I assert that final rises on declarative clauses are often strong and aggressive rather than weak and self-doubting? No, my culpable populism consisted in quoting William Shakespeare, Herman Melville, Anthony Trollope and T.S. Eliot.

There's a strange tangle of ideas out there, according to which an appeal to the historical authority of usage by elite writers is seen as a step in the direction of mob rule. As my correspondent explained,

You can cite a million examples of poor construction, but that doesn't make it right!

And what does "make it right"? Apparently, it's the authority of a "rule" invented by a self-appointed expert, who has concluded that the world would be a better place if it were to be run according his prescriptions. By a curious series of historical associations, some people have come to view this perspective as a "conservative" one, although in fact it's much more reminiscent of the Jacobin Club and the Khmer Rouge.

Here's the background of this particular example.

James J. Kilpatrick, presiding last year in what he calls "the Court of Peeves, Crotchets and Irks", condemned the headline "Mass Transit Not an Option for All Drivers". According to Kilpatrick, the headline's obvious and sensible meaning is grammatically illicit, because "if mass transit is not an option for 'all' drivers, it cannot be an option for even one driver" ("Even a little ambiguity", 7/9/2006).

Neal Whitman at Literal Minded tried and failed to make logical sense of Kilpatrick's dictum ("If It's Not for Everyone, It's Not for Anyone", 7/21/2006). I supported Neal by providing a list of historical examples that violate the dictum, from authors such as William Shakespeare, Herman Melville and Newt Gingrich ("James J. Kilpatrick, grammarian" 7/29/2006).

My reward, back in the summer of 2006, was a brief but emphatic spurt of negative email questioning my analysis ("All drivers equates to everyone who drives a car with none excluded. That's what the qualifier all means. Unless, of course, you're Bill Clinton."), my motives ("You are a college professor of English, and this man Kilpatrick has debunked one of your arguments. If Kilpatrick is right, you are wrong. And if there is one thing I learned in college, it's that college professors can never ever be seen as wrong in their field to their piers."), and my qualifications ("When you have written books on English usage, ... when you are a nationally recognized expert on the English language and it's usage, and not just another College professor, then perhaps you will have the credentials to debate the issue.") .

I had observed that my views on semantic scope are in fact conservative ones, but my correspondents were having none of that: "A Conservative college professor, now there's a real oxymoron."

In fairness, I did cast aspersions, at least by implication, on Kilpatrick's motives and qualifications:

What led Kilpatrick to open his column so confidently with such a spectacularly wrong assertion about how the English language works? I won't speculate about his psychology, and I don't know about possible precursors in the prescriptivist literature for this particular piece of weird semantics. But my impression is that artificial rules about usage often start when a half-educated commentator with more self-confidence than insight, and with no respect for either demotic or elite traditions, decides that some common practice is inefficient or illogical. Why such pronouncements occasionally gain widespread acceptance is a question that could be the subject of several dissertations in intellectual history or social psychology. My own guess, FWIW, is that more insight will come from the natural history of religion than from rational choice theory.

And Kilpatrick is known as a conservative columnist, so anyone who disagrees with him on a point of usage must, by the logic of conceptual polarization, be motivated by political liberalism, and perhaps even some sort of grammatical socialism.

A few weeks ago, Jan Freeman responded to a reader who complained about the advertising caveat "not available in all areas" ("Entirely wrong", Boston Globe, 10/28/2007). The complainant argued that this must mean "not available in any area". Jan disagreed, and in her explanation, she cited Kilpatrick, Whitman and me.

This is apparently what led to the letter that I opened by quoting. Let me try -- probably in vain -- to strengthen my conservative credentials by closing with another violation of Kilpatrick's Rule, Samuel Rowlands' 1620 dedication to his "Reader":

1 This Crystall sight is not for all mens Eyes,
2 But onely serues for the iudicious wise,
3 Fooles, they may gaze as long as ere they will,
4 And be as blind as any Beetle still:
5 A purblinde Momus fleeringly will looke,
6 And spie no knaue but's selfe in all the Booke.
7 A Sicophant, that slaues himselfe to all,
8 Will his owne Knaue-Companions honest call,
9 And wilfull winke, because he will not see,
10 With diuers sorts of Buzzards else that be:
11 But these we leaue to their defectiue sight,
12 With Bats and Owles that blinded are by light.

[Update -- Stephen Jones writes:

Kilpatrick is syndicated in the Arab News so I have read his columns for many years (we get a double feast as his column is opposite Dave Barry's). In language matters Kilpatrick is genuinely a liberal; his normal rule is if it sounds right it is right. He has however no linguistic training whatsoever (he's an ex-political journalist) and on occasion it shows.

One thing I have noticed about American grammar mavens is that there is not the link between political conservatism and false linguistic conservatism that you would expect.

I guess the question is, "sounds right" to whom? And what should we do when different ears give different answers?

There are several dimensions involved in attitudes towards linguistic norms, and these have become oddly (and sometimes irrationally) tangled with political labels and allegiances. In the particular column that I quoted, Kilpatrick seems to support a particular type of authoritarian rationalism that is often associated with those on the left who believe that society can and should be reorganized along logical lines whose justice and benefits are obvious to them. Such people believe that everyone should be compelled to obey certain "rules", because -- they assert -- these rules are logically correct, even -- or perhaps especially -- if most people have always behaved differently.

In linguistic matters, however, contemporary "liberals" tend to be more like libertarian conservatives, who believe that it's generally best to let social groups evolve their own norms, without central planning. For such people, the first thing to ask about a contested usage are "what are the historical precedents and the current patterns of behavior?"

In my opinion, there's space for both attitudes in the social ecology of meta-linguistic discussion. But it's ironic that people who believe in laissez-faire political economy seem so often to be linguistic dirigistes; and that people who generally support government regulation and social engineering tend to be linguistic libertarians.]

[Joshua Jensen writes:

I don't have any data for what I'm about to say -- just introspection and personal reflection -- but I suspect that at least one motivation for conservatives' reactions is based on a disdain for postmodernist deconstructionism. When I was growing up, this academic heresy was a big deal, and the primary danger was its denial of determinate meaning. The first time I heard my older cousin (an English major at UNC Chapel Hill) tell me that language meaning is determined by usage, I was appalled that anyone could think something so obviously false.

Secondarily, the concept of Truth is very important to conservatives (and they often think that it matters to them only). Because truth is communicated primarily through language, then language's properties much be such that -- when used according to its innate rules -- it states categorical truths unambiguously.


Posted by Mark Liberman at December 11, 2007 09:16 AM