Our Battle Over Language

Well, it’s a Monday again. We awoke to some cold weather here in England. I couldn’t resist posting it to Instagram:

I like Instagram. In comparison, I have about had it with Twitter; but I won’t delete my account simply because it is a useful point of contact – many readers expect a Twitter account. But I rarely any longer interact in “opinion-sharing” terms with anyone I don’t already “know.”

Why? Because Twitter is now largely little but a cesspool of insults, bigotry and vulgarity even from people who should know better. It’s soul-destroying to scroll through. For example, a tweet like this beaut (which I will not reproduce on my site here) from a journalist with 64,000 followers: she can summon up no more literate way to offer up her opinion than using the “F” word in full (twice).

Yet in fairness there are also those times we may still stumble on mostly reasonable discussion on Twitter from “ordinary” users.

Some of that is displayed by these tweets I have captured below that respond to that Twain and Lee tweet – and especially in reply to one tweeter’s assertion that fiction is not history:

[From Twitter, 11 February 2018.]

The last point is excellent: language is “cultural history.” For some years I taught politics and history at university level, and it was challenging teaching problematic readings even to 18-21 year olds. So teaching “old” novels that also contain vulgarities and slurs – novels which usually had been targeted at adult readers when they were originally written – in high school literature is always going to be contentious.

A related issue is language employed by necessity in new historical fiction. That is not a legacy issue matter. It is one affecting how to re-create history in fiction.

I am not naive. Nor am I some language “prude.” I have occasionally employed vulgarity and obscenity in my “modern day” novels:

[Excerpt from Passports. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

Back in the mid-1990s, American universities saw an “influx” of new students appear from the former USSR, many of them Russians. They were entirely new to us and often exotic and puzzling – we had been raised to see them as enemies and to fear their country. I never forgot a Russian graduate student sharing that above opinion with us, which she emphasized extra-forcefully with that short-hand for the “F” word; it made such an impression on me I made sure I fit it into Passports.

In Conventions, I wrestled endlessly with how to deal with 18th century language, and particularly with archaic words for people(s) and religion(s) – some of which today are, essentially, “slurs”:

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All of that is inescapably part of history. Thus an historical novel is, yes, certainly fiction in terms of storyline. However, in telling that story it must also be reasonably historical or it is just silly, ahistorical fantasy.

Considering the endless stream of vulgarities and slurs most teens almost cannot avoid on “social media,” and in films, and on television, how educators (or anyone) can actually think Mark Twain or Harper Lee is the big problem is laughable. Far better every 16 year old reads Mark Twain’s entire output than he or she waste their time scrolling through so many of our current so-called “highly-educated” people spouting the “F”-word on Twitter.

Have a good day, wherever you are in the world. 🙂