Moral Panic, Language Subdivision

We’ve been talking a lot about the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case around the house. I am in no hurry to visit a state with a Stand Your Ground law, simply because I don’t know what would happen if an armed inhabitant decided I posed a threat to his well-being or existence. I’m fairly pale and usually go around in button-down shirts, which would tend to put me in the statistical category of individuals at low risk of being shot by vigilantes, but what if Floridians and Texans woke up one day to the real and present danger posed to their well-being by bankers and arbitrageurs? Whatever I try to do about it, I still look a lot like a banker. So I’m staying in the relatively enlightened state of Illinois, where legislators have been trying to reduce the number of firearms on the street (no thanks to the Supreme Court).

However, other than wave our hands and scream about racism, vigilante anarchy and unequally applied laws, and withhold some tourism dollars, can Printculture contribute to nudging our insane body politic toward sweetness and light? Of course we can– through critique of language. I knew you’d breathe a sigh of relief. Let’s go below the fold.

There’s been a discussion on Language Log about the testimony given in the trial by Trayvon’s friend Rachel Jeantel, the last person to speak with him alive. I didn’t watch the trial, so my position has to be that of an epistemological appeals court– not judging the matter of first instance, but judging how that matter was judged, if you will. It appears that Ms. Jeantel’s testimony did not help the case against Zimmerman. Or, more precisely, since Zimmerman’s defense adroitly shifted the subject of the trial over to the question of whether Trayvon Martin (who was dead and couldn’t defend himself) was a sinister and threatening Big Black Mobster, the Hood in the Hoodie, Jeantel’s answers in court fed the fantasies of the jurors (apparently) and (demonstrably) the wider public who were using this trial as a referendum on those ever-fascinating questions, Whether Black People Are Inherently Criminal and Whether It Wouldn’t Be Better Just To Exterminate Them Or Ship Them Back To Africa. In other words, and it pains me to say it, it sounds as if Ms. Jeantel’s testimony made Trayvon Martin sound just as threatening as the defense wanted to make him, by calling up images of black illiteracy, violence, anger and resentment (all these items making one handy package for hysterical white folks). I’m not blaming her for this. She used the language that she was comfortable with. But to the degree that her hearers judged her as sounding “ghetto”– a matter on which infinite exaggeration can be piled up (as it was; see the Language Log entry)– she helped those hearers build up a self-righteous account of themselves as guardians of “civilization.”

That this is a cultural war rooted in sedimented attitudes from many decades past becomes clear in the comments following from the Language Log post, where some troll pops up to accuse linguists of falling prey to Marxism and cultural relativism, insofar as they “lied” and said that African American Vernacular English is just as suitable for purposes of civilized communication as Standard American English. The discussion is, typically for Internet conversations, unimproving, so if you want to read it, I advise scrolling fast. But it shows how the specific intellectual armature of white self-righteousness seizes on language to exclude certain speakers from the category of “rational beings,” and so to deny them participation in the rituals of our allegedly democratic state (such as giving truthful testimony, seeking justice, expressing opinions).

The Zimmerman defense involved two claims: that a black teenager is inherently threatening, and that black people are racist and hate white people, whereas white people (even armed) are benevolent and non-racist unless there is absolutely crushing, crime-lab-proven evidence to the contrary. These claims were easy to support in the intellectual climate of Florida, though outside observers might find them delusional. And of course the claims could never be expressed ipsissimis verbis; they have to be implied, made a part of the framing of the issue, so that the actual words and deeds involved in the case became connotatively drawn into the gulf of the assumed binarism (either you’re with civilization or you’re against it).

Given this artful setup (artful? well, maybe instinctive; I have enough relatives in that part of the world, and enough old family papers in my possession, to see how the attitudes become natural over time), when Rachel Jeantel conceded that Trayvon Martin had described his assailant as a “creepy-ass cracker” while being stalked by him, this was unfortunate. Those words could almost function, in defensive whitefolks’ fantasy, as the first punch in a fight, the punch that Trayvon, I am pretty sure, did not throw (or if he did throw it, I surmise that it was in the knowledge that his antagonist had a gun pointed at him and was all wound up for mayhem). It made more of a difference in the courtroom, it appears, than it did on the sidewalk; after all, Trayvon was talking privately on the phone, not calling Zimmerman out. But it stuck in the jurors’ memory.

Thereupon, the linguists of Language Log get busy explaining how “nigga” and “cracker” and similar words function differently in AAVE and in SAE. Some words have an impact within an in-group that they don’t have when proffered by a stranger. We all know this. The very act of making a joke often relies on this “pretend dare,” when I say something that might be offensive or crazy and you laugh because you’ve recognized me as simply sketching out a possible world in which (wouldn’t it be funny) I take seriously the words that I’m not taking seriously. And the self-designated Culture Warriors bang their old drum, accusing the linguists of making special allowances for black urbanites because, hey, Marxism, academia, you know.

By such artifice Trayvon Martin is accused of linguistic violence, a deed that is apparently grievous enough to merit death. And through him all black people, or all black people who speak a non-nice dialect of English, are put on notice that they had better shut up and put up.

What can the scholar of language and culture do about this? Well, first, dispel some of the normative illusions. Black vernacular English has developed in its own way over hundreds of years from the stock of words and grammatical patterns it shares with the old dialects of the South. Read some of the good analytic work that has described it to see: you have features of regional English that became non-standard in the version of SAE promulgated by Noah Webster and his inheritors, plus other original constructions, ellipses, and cues. Dialects diverge, like species, when populations are separated from each other for a long period of time; they diverge relatively when the populations are relatively often kept apart. Suburban white guys like me can understand most of AAVE, but not speak it convincingly, and will probably miss a lot of nuance when translating it into our dialect. It’s probably pretty similar from the other side. That’s what it means to be speaking a dialect.*

Two dialects do not diverge to the point of being different languages (roughly, this means that they are mutually non-comprehensible, but this will always be a rough criterion), only of having significant areas of non-overlap. That means that things will go reliably wrong when we interpret an utterance in the other dialect as if it were an utterance in our own dialect; when we act as if we don’t need a translator, that is. I think to some degree that’s what happened with Rachel Jeantel’s testimony. People wanted to classify it as “bad English,” not as “dialect English.” Imagine that she had been offering testimony in a French court, and speaking Haitian Kreyòl. (Some of her family comes from Haiti, hence my thought-experiment.) In such a case, there would be an established presumption that Kreyòl is a different language from French and that similar sequences of sounds in the two languages do not necessarily have the same meanings; she would have benefited from a translator, I imagine, or at least had the opportunity to request one. No such thing happened here because the normative framework commanded everyone’s assent, or those who might have protested against it weren’t aware of a possibility of contesting it.

When you look at things as a linguist, or more generally as somebody who wants to figure out how things work, you have to be patient. You ask, what does this mean in its context and how does that context connect up with other contexts with which I am more familiar? If you insist on imposing your context on events, you will get a tautology. Such as: Jeantel and Martin spoke bad or ghetto English because they were ghetto people, and the testimony functioned to reveal them as such. And to be truthful, I can imagine no higher scientific calling for the people who deal in such tautologies than repeating themselves infinitely: I am right because I am me and I am always right. But someone who wants to pay attention and figure out what is meant by an utterance will always want to ask, Do I know what language this belongs to? Am I dealing with a misleading translation? Have I given myself an undeserved free pass to understanding?

The Language Log entry and comments mention other aspects of the testimony, such as body language and “attitude.” If you’ve ever taught school, you know how such criteria can be used to police people. It wouldn’t be hard to rub a teenager the wrong way and create a sinister attitudinal impression for the jury. I didn’t watch the interaction so I’m going to leave this discussion to others.

But here is where we language people see a huge gap in our practice. Once we admit that AAVE is a dialect with its own vocabulary and rules, somewhat divergent from and somewhat parallel to standard English, what do we do then? We should, I think, use this fact to make children aware of the multiplicity of language forms from an early age. Where does each of us fit on the big map of English variance? Then, we make sure that children are adept in the standard form, not because it is better, more logical, more civilized, more elegant, etc. (these justifications having been shown as fallacious for centuries now), but because it’s the conventional means whereby we signal our membership, perhaps occasional and even ironic, in a community of people who know it, rather than let others claim we don’t speak correctly because we’re too ignorant and evil to do so. In a language splitting into dialects, the translation is always needed, and we should all join to provide it. Even those of us who look like bankers on vacation.

* The sense of “dialect” I assume does not set up a hierarchy between a master-language and its subordinate dialects. Rather, the standard variant of the language is one of the dialects. The abandonment by linguists of the normative stance goes back at least a hundred years; it’s not news.

2 thoughts on “Moral Panic, Language Subdivision

  1. Further thoughts about the suggested reform of language teaching: It is going to be a delicate business treating the teaching of standard English as bilingual education; a lot of people are going to be furious at the implicit claim that what they speak “isn’t English.” That umbrage is a shadow of the old tradition of normativity and won’t just go away. On the other hand, saying that what people are asked to learn is just another convention might defuse some components of the latent bomb of identity politics. Teachers could say, “We aren’t asking you to become white people. We notice that different linguistic behaviors trigger different kinds of response, and it seems like everyone would benefit from having a wider range of possibilities.”

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