Tuesday, 27 December 2011

A repudiation of spelling nazism

Tuesday 27 December 2011

There was a time when I probably would've proudly identified as a spelling nazi. I think I first heard the term some time in high school, when you're eager to define yourself and will seize upon any idiosyncratic characteristic that vaguely applies to you and claim it as your own. But when I got to uni, I started seeing other people who called themselves 'spelling nazis', and it wasn't pretty when viewed from the outside, with matured eyes. It was just so clearly about attention. 'Look at me!' they seemed to be saying. 'Aren't I just so quirky? Aren't I so individual? Aren't I so smart? Aren't I just so ob-sessed with all things literary?'

It didn't help that most of these self-proclaimed spelling nazis weren't actually so great with spelling and grammar. Most of them were studying English Literatures or Creative Writing, not English Language and Linguistics.* (Evidently) they hadn't done any outside reading on language. They didn't have any real understanding of grammatical concepts or language philosophy; they just had that innate, approximate proficiency with spelling and grammar that is pretty much the best result that can be achieved by the implicit system of teaching grammar I mentioned in the last post.

*Obviously not to denigrate the worthy disciplines of English Lit or Creative Writing, in which I myself am undertaking studies. It's just that in those two, it would be quite easy to carry on at the same level of grammatical capability as at high school, without any real understanding (until Editing, perhaps, in Creative Writing). While doing English Lit, Creative Writing and Linguistics constitutes probably the most comprehensive study of the English language available at undergraduate level, it's really Linguistics that I credit with forcing me to think about language enough to move beyond the level of the 'spelling nazi'.

Yeah, this is pretty much how it is.

And then that obligatory, awkward class in first year came around, where your tutor hands back the first assessment of your degree and makes a big speech about how many people in the class didn't reference correctly and how many spelling and grammar issues there were. And there would be the nazi, sucking up to the tutor and declaring how they can't stand when they see spelling mistakes, and they think it's such a shame that no one can spell any more. And they'd always finish with a faux-self-conscious laugh and say, 'But then I'm a total spelling nazi, so maybe that's just me.'

To me, then, spelling and grammar nazis are usually just over-compensating. As perhaps is connoted by the name, they're using their often uninformed proficiency with grammar to try to gain power over others. Very often when any contentious grammatical issue arises in class, often at their own instigation, their formerly self-extolled body of knowledge is shown to be built on false precepts. They frequently have an outdated propensity towards prescriptive, rather than descriptive, grammar. They learn what they think are the 'rules' of grammar, largely propagated by misinformed primary school teachers, and apply them unquestioningly, not knowing that many of these rules are wrong. And so they go on through life, arrogantly insisting, for example, the legitimately anglicised plural octopuses become octopi, decrying the ending of sentences with prepositions, and denouncing the starting of sentences with and. Octopus has Greek roots, not Latin and, as such, if we insist on being pedantic, should technically be realised in its plural form as octopodes. The ridiculously popular notion that sentences should not end in prepositions, as Bill Bryson points out in his thoroughly entertaining and insightful book Mother Tongue (which I highly recommend as a humbling device for any spelling nazi clinging obstinately to prescriptivism*) seems to be founded merely on the fact that the word contains the prefix pre-. And as for not starting sentences with and, what possible justification could there be for the imposition of such a rule other than the self-realising argument that 'it's bad grammar'?

*I have a copy if you know me and want to borrow it.

The long-term popularity of these false (or rather, arbitrary and unnecessary) rules has gone some way to giving them the weight of truth, but even this hiccough in linguistic history has enriched language. We now have the option to adhere to these rules if we want to sound formal in, for example, an academic context, but we can remain unconstrained by them in more casual or expressive discourses like everyday speech or fiction. To insist that sentences not end in prepositions in any other context, as Susan May does, is completely absurd, and I defy any prescriptivist to explain to me why it isn't without saying, 'It's just bad writing.' 

Susan May's post actually defeats its own argument. Not only does she state that '[n]obody says, unless you are English gentry perhaps, 'From where is that noise coming?'', but she also keeps ending sentences in prepositions, sentences that sound perfectly natural, and then having to re-word or rearrange them so as to avoid doing so. But what's wrong with ending a sentence with what I'm talking about? Nothing! May seems to think that any sentence ending in a preposition is automatically invalid and sloppy, and needs to be changed, but that this is okay because the alternative is always less clunky. I have less faith. Take, for example, Churchill's famous debunking of the preposition rule (which I actually think is misattributed to him, but nevertheless): 'This is the kind of English up with which I will not put.' In that case, and in many others, it would be much smoother to end the sentence in a preposition, i.e.: 'This is the type of English I will not put up with.' May might contend that another verb phrase besides 'put up' should have been used, but I believe it's silly to disqualify certain phrasings from writing arbitrarily. Nazi discrimination is what it is.

In the old days, grammar and linguistics weren't about observing how language works, but about making up rules for how it should work, about glorifying Latin as an ancient, 'pure' language, and about ensuring any words inherited or imported from other languages continued to be used in the way their original languages used them so that, for example, they retained their original plural forms instead of gaining English ones. They were about Proper Sentences and prer NUN sea ayshun, to borrow from Arundhati Roy. In other words, they were prescriptive. Luckily for us, we've moved away from all that and accepted that language is a fluid entity, and this fluidity is to be celebrated, not castigated. It's what has led English and, indeed, language on the whole to flourish.

'Of course it is, of course it is, of course it is, of course it is. Language is my mother, my father, my husband, my brother, my sister, my whore, my mistress, my checkout girl. Language is a complimentary moist, lemon-scented cleansing square or handy freshen-up wipette. Language is the breath of God. Language is the dew on a fresh apple. It's the soft rain of dust that falls into a shaft of morning light as you pull from an old bookshelf a half-forgotten book of erotic memoirs. Language is the creak on a stair. It's a spluttering match held to a frosted pane. It's a half-remembered childhood birthday party. It's the warm, wet, trusting touch of a leaking nappy. The hulk of a charred Panzer. The underside of a granite boulder. The first downy growth on the upper lip of a Mediterrenean girl. It's cobwebs long since overrun by an old Wellington boot.'

With their limited understanding of language, though, spelling and grammar nazis tend to default to prescriptivism the result of caring about language, but not knowing much about it. Nazis and prescriptivists alike, then, refuse to accept or are ignorant of the fluidity of language and seek to pin it down. They regard any change or evolution within language with hostility, as an 'attack', or as 'erosion' or 'perversion'. If their attempts to censor new developments and neologisms in language were always successful, we would be deprived of some of our richest and most useful expressions. Fortunately, they rarely succeed, and the people behind them tend to become history's fools when the grammatical concepts they denounce take hold and become fundamental parts of common vernacular.

Sometimes, of course, language is 'under assault'. Sometimes it's used in a way that will not aid its development, a way that is redundant or banal or that obfuscates meaning. Pontification on language should be reserved for these instances, not organic occurrences which may sound different or silly, but which ultimately enrich language and expression. Those who rail against developments and changes in language should be regarded with automatic suspicion, and their arguments need to be examined. Is the change actually occurring and, if so, is it actually a bad thing, or just a different thing?  Sometimes, however, even changes for the worse end up becoming standardised, and we just need to accept this.

Are you picking up on any resemblances here? Outdated doctrines? Unquestioning belief in unfounded rules? Unreasonable opposition to change? Yep, that's right. Prescriptivist spelling nazis are the linguistic equivalent of sociopolitical conservatives, except with much, much less ground to stand on. Is it any wonder I'm scrambling to dissociate myself from them? 

The prescriptivistconservative parallel is perhaps nowhere clearer than in the dynamic between French literary legend Marcel Proust and his contemporary Louis Ganderax, as explored by philosopher Alain de Botton. 'For Ganderax', says de Botton, 

     the priority of good writing was to follow precedent, to follow
     examples of the most distinguished authors in history, while
     bad writing began with the arrogant belief that one could avoid
     paying homage to great minds and write to one's own fancy. It
     was fitting that Ganderax had elsewhere awarded himself the 
     title of "defender of the French Language." The language needed
     to be defended against the assaults of decadents who refused to
     follow the rules of expression dictated by tradition, leading 
     Ganderax to complain publicly if he spotted a past participle in
     the wrong place or a word falsely applied in a published text. (93)

Sound familiar? Ganderax is a grammar nazi! What's scary is that you could easily replace a couple of words there and he would sound just like an American Republican politician.

Conversely, Proust had a much more sensible view of language:

     The only way to defend language is to attack it, yes, yes, Madame
     Straus! ... This man who is so sceptical has grammatical
     certainties. Alas, Madame Straus, there are no certainties, even
     grammatical ones ... [O]nly that which bears the imprint of our
     choice, our taste, our certainty, our desire and our weakness can
     be beautiful. (94)

It's troubling that France's attitude to its beautiful language seems currently to be rather more Ganderaxian (?) than Proustian, with the notorious Académie française constantly making its restrictions on the way the language can be used. Perhaps that's only what's needed to protect against the culturally imperialistic incursions of the anglosphere, but isn't the very idea of 'protecting' a language from influences pointless and counter-productive? An interplay of languages can be beneficial. Something like 30% of English words, in fact, came from French, remnants of a time when England was ruled by francophones. Imagining where English would be now, without that influence, is impossible; it has benefited immeasurably. Now the tables have turned and English is the dominant tongue seeking, if you will, to pay off its loan, but French doesn't want it. It's isolating itself from an exchange that could well promote growth. Who knows what effect this stifling will have on French? If French became as beautiful as it is via a process of change, what will ossification do to it? Won't it only make English a more attractive option, and French increasingly out-of-touch and incapable of keeping up with demand?

When we looked at de Botton's essay in WRIT316: Advanced Editing for Practising Writers, my lecturer Dr Chrissy Howe, knowing how zealous an editor I was, expected me to come down on the side of Ganderax, to take issue with Proust's wishy-washy approach to language. When she said so, I launched off on a massive tirade basically comprised of everything I've said so far. Just because you love language doesn't mean you have to be a grammar nazi.

The fight with prescriptivism takes place on a million battlefields every day. The latest instance I've come across was in the debate between YouTube atheist Cristina Rad, or 'ZOMGitsCriss' (who appeared in the episode of Q&A Til and I went to see) and another atheist named Kate Fahr going by the name of 'BionicDance'.

I think this is really at the heart of what I find so frustrating about spelling nazi prescriptivism. There's nothing more irritating (and cringe-inducing) than watching someone belittle someone else for a reason that you know is totally unjustified. Fahr's video response to Rad, declaratively titled 'You ARE TOO an Agnostic Atheist' was smug and patronising, delivered in an indescribably (but nevertheless infuriatingly) condescending tone. It opened with a melodramatic sigh and the statement, 'Folks, when someone's wrong, they're wrong, and they should be called out on it.' Too right. She then went on to use the phrase you see and kiddo to top and tail every other sentence, and kept on saying, 'I don't know what else to say to you', like an eccentric, longwinded aunt lecturing her niece or something. On top of all of that, she kept making these weird faces at the end of every point, as if to say, 'Oops, you were wrong how awkward for you.'

Can't you just hear your mum saying this to you?: 'If you want to actually discuss these issues rationally and reasonably, like an adult, well, you're going to have to accept the fact that some of the things you don't like apply to you.'

The issue of agnosticism vs atheism is a different one which I hope to treat in the future, but for now, Fahr's criticisms of Rad were totally wrong, founded as they were in prescriptivism. Rad asserted that she is not an agnostic, but an atheist. Fahr responded, 'But you see the truth is, that is what you are. You just don't realise it because your definitions are wrong.' I almost can't even imagine a more typically prescriptivist argument. Fahr makes an appeal to what she calls the 'correct, etymological definitions' of the words to prove her point, interrogating what those words' morphemes (a- gnos -tic and a- the -ist) mean in their root language. Her claim is that the former means 'without knowledge' and the latter means 'without belief'. As Rad rightly retorts, though, these etymological definitions actually have little to do with the words' actual meanings today, as is the case with most words due to the process I call semantic decay. Fahr keeps on talking about words being 'etymologically incorrect' and 'technical, etymologically correct definitions'; she wants to prescribe how words should be used according to their etymology, but Rad knows that 'the value of words is given by how people use them'.

At the end of the day, spelling, grammar and punctuation, as Dr Shady Cosgrove taught me, are all about clarity. It only takes a little extrapolation to get from clarity to expression, expression to communication, communication to connection, and connection to empathy. Prescriptivists and spelling nazis, conversely, are about stasis and homogeneity: expressing yourself in a rigid, unchanging, 'correct' manner which then stymies diversity of communication, and thereby affects connection and empathy just one more reason I feel the need to discredit it. Although it can be difficult, we need to learn not to regard change with automatic revulsion, but to interrogate each new development based on its own merits, not only in language, but in life.

That's all for now, but check the comments below for my model of a spelling nazi's response to this post.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation's television episode, 'A Philosophical Q and A' from its television program Q&A, Season 4, Episode 34.

Alain de Botton's book chapter, 'How to Express Your Emotions' (85103), in his book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, published by Vintage International in 1998.

Bill Bryson's book, Mother Tongue, published by Penguin in 1991.

Kate Fahr (BionicDance)'s video 'You ARE TOO an Agnostic Atheist' from her YouTube Channel 'Rabid Lesbian Atheist of DOOM!'.

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie's sketch, 'Tricky Linguistics', in their television series, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Season 1, Episode 3.

Cristina Rad (ZOMGitsCriss)'s video 'I am not an Agnostic Atheist. Seriously' from her YouTube Channel 'k-rina'.

Cristina Rad (ZOMGitsCriss)'s video 'Belief. Knowledge. Agnosticism' from her YouTube Channel 'k-rina'.

Arundhati Roy's novel, The God of Small Things, published by Harper Perennial in 2004.

Spelling and intelligence

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Lately it's become increasingly evident that my attitude to spelling and grammar evokes an exceptional response from people. Sometimes, I'm sure more often than I'm allowed to glimpse, this response is limited to dismissing me as a bombastic pedant. Certainly, I used to cop a lot of flak in high school for being, as British comedian David Mitchell puts it, one of those who are 'constitutionally unable to write mon 24, but have to write, (capital M) Monday the 24th (th)'. I remember being asked on at least two occasions by different people, 'Yeah, why do you type in full grammar on MSN? Is there something you're trying to prove?' No, there wasn't, but I never really knew how to respond. To me, it seems much easier to just type one way no matter what you're doing on the computer, whether it be writing an essay or talking to your friends, rather than code-switching and having to work out the shortest possible method of typographically realising wot im tryin 2say.

Typing in full grammar or, as our grandparents called it, 'typing', is also just the best way of representing my voice in text.

That's probably not as important to most people as it is to me or, say, Elaine, and that's fine but, you know, I'm a writer. These things concern me. Text-speak homogenises voices into a single tone, and not even a good one. I don't know if it's the same for anyone else, but when I read something with random capitalisations and misspelled or simplified words and no punctuation except the occasional cluster of exclamation marks, apart from just being difficult to understand, it looks like an anthropologist's transcription of some atavistic conglomerate of preverbal grunts and groans, and it really just conjures in my mind the monotonal babbling of a three-year-old, in some hideous textual version of hypocorism. See here andor here for a pretty close (and hilarious) vocalisation of how I hear that kind of typing in my head.

'You put the wrong emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble.'

The responses I see more of, though, are polite shows of impressed bewilderment or exaggerated deference:

In extreme cases, it seems my very identity dissolves in people's minds in a stew of linguistic lasciviousness and editing enthusiasm, and grammar becomes the sole thing they associate me with. My Year Twelve school shirt is embarrassingly emblazoned with my peers' texta-scrawled references to English prowess. 'I hope you enjoyed a gramatically [sic] correct birthday!' read one wall post on Facebook this year. 'My gift to you is the chance to edit my birthday message rambling', read another.

The response that is really disconcerting, though, is that of intimidation, which I'm getting more and more frequently. People say (half-jokingly, I assume, but still), that they're scared to talk to me over the internet or via text message, or to show me something they've written in case I judge them. And, okay, if you're writing LyK diZ den ur PrObZ goin 2 mayke me cRinJ a bit!!!! But, you know, if you're just doing it normally but you use the wrong homophone of 'your' and misspell some words and use too many commas, of course I'm not going to judge you! The only reason I would judge anyone over spelling is if they gave me some other reason to judge them first, à la:

This chick couldn't give me any more reasons to judge her.

People probably get this idea that I'm going to judge them from how vocal I am when I spot spelling mistakes and grammatical errors around the place. But I'd like to point out that this judgement is reserved for the products of companies and businesses, not people. Outside of certain contexts, I can hardly think of anything ruder than correcting someone's spelling or grammar unasked. It just infuriates me when a business doesn't make the effort to have someone go over their copy and make sure there's no glaring errors in it. In the research I'm doing for The X Book I've come across so many web pages for personalities like Kate Waterhouse and Erika Heynatz absolutely infested with errors and, even worse, sentences that just don't make sense. And these aren't obscure pages, either; they're management company profiles and official websites, the first ports-of-call for any journalist seeking information or doing research for an interview. Even if only on a subconscious level, it makes them seem totally unprofessional and B-grade.

This guy must know English isn't his strength; WHY wouldn't he have gotten someone to check the NAME of his business before he PRINTED IT ON THE SIDE OF HIS VAN?!

I guess it just irks me when businesses treat grammar like it's some unnecessary extra. It's not. It's important. The other day I was reading instructions on the Commonwealth Bank website and they'd misplaced a comma that completely changed the meaning of the instruction. And you know those viruses and internet ads that make false little security and messenger notifications appear in the corner of your screen to trick you into clicking on them and downloading whatever nefarious program they're hawking? Well, a spelling mistake in one of those one time is all that stopped me from clicking on it. If I had, who KNOWS where I'd be? Correct spelling is power. It indicates what's legit in the big, bad world of the internet. Rich corporations can afford to pay someone to edit their copy but poor, non-native-English-speaking scammers can't.


But what I think enables people to worry about me judging them is a widespread and unjustified insecurity when it comes to language. Grammar hasn't been taught in any explicit, comprehensive way in Australia since the '70s. The movement away from classical, prescriptive grammar makes teaching it very difficult and the idea was, I think, that instead of having to sit through dry, boring lessons on spelling and grammar, students would naturally pick up these skills in the course of their reading. Evidently this theory failed spectacularly. I mean, it worked for some I picked up the bulk of my understanding this way but then I have a friend who's probably even more voracious a reader than I am, and she struggles with spelling.

Because everyone uses language every day, people have a tendency to think that they should be able to spell words correctly and form sentences properly and use punctuation appropriately and, ideally, of course, they would. But they shouldn't feel insecure if they can't. It's a bit like saying everyone uses computers every day, so we should all know how to write code and format our hard drives and ... I don't know ... reconfigure our ... data ... settings. But why should we? We've never been taught to, and even if we have, it's not like we expect to remember everything we learned in Maths or Science or History. The fact is that the vast majority of us use our computers in the same way we use language: as superficially as we need to in order to get by. All those programs that come installed on your computer that you've never used are like the words tergiversate and properispomenon, and getting Windows to stop telling you that Application X987et has failed is like being able to use hyphens, en rules and em rules appropriately. By all means, if you want to, educate yourself: ask, read, Google away. The world could use it. But if you're not going to do that then stop stressing. Leave it to the academics and writers and editors, or the computer engineers, as the case may be.

Really, your spelling proficiency shouldn't reflect poorly on your intelligence at all. If someone is able to spell flawlessly and craft beautiful, powerful sentences with ease, it's probably a good indicator that they're smart. But I don't think the opposite is true. Some of the smartest people I know can't spell or express themselves very well in the written word. It's a different epistemological system altogether that shouldn't have any bearing on any negative judgement of intelligence, just like not knowing how to fix your computer or your car doesn't make you stupid. 

'[Intelligence] is not really [spelling]. [Spelling] is separate from [intelligence], and I don't see why [spelling] got all tied up and connected with [intelligence].'

It can be fun sometimes, though, for those of us well-versed in this separate epistemological system. Obviously most of my lecturers at uni are on a whole different plane of intelligence to me, but it can be cool having that one (not entirely irrelevant) body of knowledge in which I can match and even surpass some of them. I'm pretty sure, for example, that I held my own in grammatical debates with the legendary Shady Cosgrove* in the Editing classroom. But that just proves my point: intelligence and knowledge of spelling and grammar are separate, or all my lecturers would kick my ass in the latter.

*As she was referred to in the 2010 edition of Tide, which I believe, incidentally, is still the most grammatically correct edition ever (not that I'm biased, or anything).

Thankfully, the new national curriculum is redressing this absence in the syllabus, so people should start having some more sense of spelling and grammar, and stop feeling so insecure about it.

Finally I'd like to say I know that, like everybody, I'm not perfect. I make mistakes and typos and such. In fact, in my work as an editor, I've found that the most important characteristic to possess, rather than an encyclopedic knowledge of spelling and grammar, is the ability to know when something needs to be checked. In that spirit, the first person to find an error in this post wins a thousand points!

... But wait. This is a post by me. Surely it can't be over already! Well, it is. This post is really just a warm-up for the next one, which will be looking at spelling snobbery and the stupidity of grammatical prescriptivism. Stay tuned!

Monday, 28 November 2011

Moleskinoisseurs, markerholics and penophiles

First written Tuesday 29 December 2009
Tweaked and added to Tuesday  29 November 2011

When I go to Miranda Fair on my own, I go into survival mode. My stride lengthens and my pace quickens. If I get in on the quarter-to train, then by god I'm getting out on the quarter-past. But go with a girl, and I can bet at some point I'm going to get forced, by whatever means she finds necessary, into a stationery store. The thing with stationery though, as opposed to clothes or jewellery, is that I might just enjoy myself.

The near-universal appeal of stationery is a curious phenomenon. It's something to which, I suspect, we can all relate in some way an infatuation that transcends age, race and gender. But why? Why is it that a virgin notepad, or an electric pencil sharpener, or an eraser in the shape of a bunny rabbit that smells like chocolate (I daresay the office-supply addicted amongst you are exhaling lustily just reading that list) is so appealing?

Well, I've taken it upon myself to find the answer. How, you ask? Through rigorous sociological research and countless surveys? Um, no. That would be a lot of work. I thought, instead, I'd harness the extraordinary power of the internet to solve this great mystery and from the comfort of my own spinny chair, no less.

I wanted to start at the beginning, and it's a well-known fact that the internet begins with Google.* Once I got past the disturbing fact that 'stationary obsession' returns about thirty thousand more results than 'stationery obsession' (I chose not to waste time on the results of the former search how obsessed with anything can someone really be if they can't even spell it correctly?), I began my descent into the odd and strangely alluring world of the writing-implement enthusiast. 

*As opposed to the way it ends, according to Irish musical comedian David O'Doherty, the only person I know of who alleges to have 'finished' the internet. Apparently, a smiling Bill Gates appears and you get to enter your initials, although this claim is unsubstantiated.

What I discovered was, I have to say, not actually that surprising, considering the types of people that froth over letterheads and liquid paper a veritable buttload of blogs and websites that act as 'support groups' for the stationerily addicted. I trawled through what must have been a good ... three or four of them looking for answers. 

My first port-of-call, Stationery Fetish, was decidedly unhelpful, if amusing. 'My love of office supplies', writes blogger Cinderberry in her 'Stationery Fetishist's Manifesto', 'is irrational, but it is pure. Don't ask me to explain it, just hand over the multi-coloured index cards.'

The writers of Heymiki's blog and ich Kalliope, however, do suggest causes as the roots of stationery obsession. '[I]sn't this compulsion just another guise of my incessant procrastination?' asks Miki in 'My Stationery Obsession':

     Can there be any justification for this oft[-]repeated ritual: 
     deciding what colour Uniball Signo DX 0.38 would be 
     most fitting to capture the thought currently scuttling 
     through my head?' 

Kalliope seems to prefer stationery for its distraction value, saying in 'I heart New Notebooks' that it takes her 'mind off the actual thought of going "back to school".'

In her post 'Stationery Heaven' on Style Treaty, blogger Marion proposes nostalgia as the force behind statio-mania, writing longingly of the days of 'smelly paper' and 'fancy pens', adding that she 

     used to love those pencils where there were all different
     colours within the same pencil and you would remove
     the colour from the bottom and stick it into the top, 
     and if you wanted one of the colours that was at the
     top you'd have to keep pulling them out from the 
     bottom and stuffing them into the top

Okay, Marion, calm down ...

I wasn't too far into my stationery wanderings (Geddit? Hardee har har) when I came across an interview with Kristina Karlsson, wanky stationery name: Kikki K. I was beginning to think all statio-maniacs had to come up with funky alternative names for themselves. I mean really, if Kikki K translates to Kristina Karlsson, then what the hell are Marion, Miki, Kalliope and Cinderberry? But surely the Kikki K would have some answers! Well, yes. Yes she did. 'There is something about a freshly sharpened pencil or a new clean pencil case and notebook that signals a fresh start to the year', she says. And this was a recurring theme in the blogs of my specimens. Cinderberry, if that is her real name, says 

     spiral notebooks whisper to me about the promise of a
     new term at school, new things to learn, new things to 
     write. With a spiral pad, with a pen clipped inside the 
     coil, I'm ready to take on the world

which, correct me if I'm wrong, is just a little creepy. But so-called Kalliope says she loves 'the promise of staying organised' that comes with new stationery, which I have to say, I totally get.

At this point, I was starting to feel a bit weird stalking all these chicks' blogs, so I decided to turn to my own friends in the real world (through the medium of Facebook), ahem. I like the way my friend Sonja put it: 'new stationery makes me feel like things will be different that year. Productivity will increase, and I'll be so epic at everything I do. Just 'cause of all my flash new stationery ... It's all lies, though.'

The only other response I got (out of 391 Facebook friends; is that sad?) was actually from a friend, Melanie, who works at kikki.K and, unsurprisingly, hates it. I say unsurprisingly because any reasonable person opposed to conspicuous consumerism of an insane level would hate it I once got dragged in there by a friend and the only way I could get her to leave was by exclaiming, loudly enough that the cashier could hear, that no A6 notepad was worth $49.95, no matter how Swedish. I shit you not. A6 notepad. $49.95. Anyway, I thought Mel's insights were poignant: 'lots of people now use stationery as a fashion accessory', she said, 'and they like to spend their money on something with the excuse that it is functional.' Agreed.

As for myself, I think I come into contact with more statio-mania than the average person, being an aspiring writer. We are more prone to that sort of thing, and it has been noted by myself and others that an excessive concern with the trappings of being a writer is often the sign of a poor one. It was while I was interning for Hachette Children's Books, I think, that an industry insider told me about a writer whose manuscript wasn't even considered because of the ridiculous letterhead he'd fashioned for his cover letter. 'Anyone who spends that much time on their letterhead isn't spending enough time writing,' they told me. 

So you can imagine my panic in my first Creative Writing class during my exchange semester at the University of East Anglia, eager to meet people and make a good first impression, when I unpacked my bag and realised that sitting in front of me was a Moleskine and a Parker pen. I'd bought the Moleskine ten minutes earlier from the bookshop on campus when I realised on my way to class that I didn't have anything to write in, and the pen, engraved with my writing pseudonym, had been given to me as a twenty-first birthday present by my friends back in Australia just before I left. Luckily I was able to pre-empt any judgement I might've garnered (I think) by declaring when we did the obligatory first-class-of-semester 'go around the room and say one thing about yourself' thing that I was not, despite my try-hard accoutrements, a wanker.

But maybe after that slightly cynical rant, I should end on a nicer, more philosophical note. I do like stationery, after all. I mean, it's not like I'm going to change my name to Lukokobelle and start a new blog about binders whispering to me, but I do like it. I don't think writers, or anyone else for that matter, should be ashamed of their love of leather-bound books and quills and papyrus, they just should be careful not to turn up to their writing classes and announce that they only write using typewriters on brown paper bags (something one of our lecturers told us actually happened once).

A writer's paradise: best friend Gilly and girlfriend Tilly in an Oxford stationery shop.

And don't fool yourself, you like it too. What's not to like? The distraction, the potential for procrastination, the fresh feeling of a new start, the comfort of knowing you're writing on a pad that cost half your week's pay ... In the words of our old friend Miki (Michaela? Maxine? ... Jane?), 

     It has been said that "language is a tool of thought".
     Thus stationery, in enabling us to record and 
     communicate our words, is a conduit of thought! 
     The journey of ideas from the brain to the page is
     no easy task. Thoughts flit and fly. They are 
     ephemeral. Only the best conduit will do. My 
     obsession is not mere indulgence. It is a necessity!

 This article as it originally appeared in Canvas, the 'zine Matilda Grogan, Kaitlyn Carlia (who now has a business crafting greeting cards with Dani Yannoulis) and I put together as an assessment for WRIT216: Introduction to Editing for Practising Writers.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

'Naturalness', semantic decay and veg(etari)anism (part two of three)

Tuesday 22 November 2011

In part one I deconstructed the arguments against vegetarianism and vegetarian Michael Kirby made by Miranda Devine in her article 'Everybody hurts but we've all got to eat'; part two responds to this article with my own ideas about eating meat.

I'm a newcomer to the whole veg(etari)an discourse, and the more I read into it, the clearer it becomes that I have little original to add to the discussion. But I made a decision a while ago that whenever I came to a point of indecision between speaking my mind and remaining silent, I would take the path of expressing myself, out of a belief that it is always better to say something than nothing, to act rather than not. That, and it can't hurt to restate sound arguments often made but rarely heard, to add your voice to a growing chorus. And so I persevere in the face of superfluity ...

The problem of 'naturalness'
The most common argument I hear justifying flesh-eating is that it's natural, an argument that I think can be split in two. The first of these holds that we have evolved to need meat, we are designed to eat it, and therefore we must continue to do so if our bodies are to function properly, the same way a lion cannot choose to give up eating meat because its body simply would not support a diet of any other kind. I believe this argument is factually untrue. Perhaps for the first time in our history, our technological and dietary knowledge is at a level where we can quite healthily live without eating meat (and it's looking better for the future, as well; the concept of laboratory-grown meat incites a kneejerk rejection and a shudder from hippie organic-enthusiasts and hearty meat-eaters alike, but I look forward to the guilt-free meal as long as scientists can convince me there's no harmful side-effects). Of course, meat is a very efficient way of gaining certain things that our bodies need, but it is not the only way. Is efficiency really a good enough reason for taking an animal's life? As for our being designed to eat meat, the physical similarities between humans and herbivores, along with the physical differences between humans and carnivores, have been well-documented. The evidence indicates that we were herbivores who opportunistically became omnivores, not carnivores who became omnivores. And our meat consumption today far exceeds anything we would have eaten in our evolutionary past. Meat would've been a rare addition to our diet, nowhere near the staple it is for many people today (Colleen Patrick-Goudreau).

The second argument under the 'naturalness' umbrella is not practical but moral: we evolved to eat meat, therefore it's okay – an irretriveably mixed-up bit of reasoning, to adapt a phrase from Rohinton Mistry. When does 'naturalness' ever guarantee that something is moral? People can and do justify all sorts of ridiculous positions with the argument that 'it's unnatural' (ahem, opposition to gay marriage), but even if not eating meat is unnatural, this is still a thoroughly flawed argument. So is everything we do in contemporary society. Medicine? Birth control? Abstinence? Monogamy? Technology? Supermarkets? Yep, all totally unnatural. I think vegetarian comedian Wil Anderson said it best in his show at Splendour in the Grass this year, when he posed his response to the argument, 'It's unnatural not to eat meat; even animals eat other animals – look at lions'. I paraphrase:

      Do you get all your ethical opinions from lions? What else do you
      do like lions? Do you sleep twenty hours a day like lions? Do you
      have a spiky, barbed penis like a lion? Do you sell Paddle Pops for
      a living like lions? Do you live in a wardrobe with a witch like

I'll come back to the issue of naturalness in the next section, but first, if there's any proof that I'm not some closed-minded bastard who has set opinions on every issue and will never change, as I was discussing in ''... So openminded that our brains drop out'', it's my attitude on this issue. I used to be a devoted carnivore and in actions, I still am. I love meat. I absolutely love it. I'm obsessed with food, and meat is one of my favourite kinds. So until very recently, whenever the issue of vegetarianism would come up, I'd scoff. I'd look at my vegetarian friends and family in bemusement. How could they possibly forgo the original carnal pleasure? I thought the idea was absurd. Even animals eat animals, me and my other carnivorous friends would say to one another. We're designed to eat meat. Animals are dumb. Anything to justify my love of meat and dismiss the points raised by vegetarianism. This, my friends, is the working of ideology. If you ask why something is okay and the best answer you can come up with is that it's natural or normal, that's probably a good indicator that ideology is at work. 'Ideologies try to hide the contingent nature of thoughts and activities within a culture' say Tony Schirato and Susan Yell. '[T]hey try to convince their audiences that certain values, ideas and activities are more or less natural, and that things have always been this way, or should remain this way.'

It takes a lot of thinking to undo ideological indoctrination, to challenge what people not only enjoy doing, but also what they have always been told is normal and natural, and what they see everyone else doing all the time. Perhaps this explains why, if you ask people why they do or don't eat meat, the don'ts seem generally to have more well-thought-out answers, because the only way they became don'ts in the first place is by observing and formulating reasons not to eat meat. The dos, conversely, tend to eat meat because they always have, and their answer is likely to reflect this reason. '[I]t's okay because we're the top of the food chain' is one answer I got when I asked my friends. In other words, it's okay to eat meat because we can. Or because we do. Contrast this with an answer from another friend, Matt Wheeler:

     I don't eat meat because it is a huge contributor to climate change;
     because it makes grain and other staples more expensive for the
     poor; because it takes huge amounts of water for a single serving
     of meat; because there isn't enough farming land to go around
     and meat takes 16 times as much land as vegetables to grow; 
     because factory farming is disgusting; because pigs are one of 
     the top ten most intelligent animals in the world; because 
     vegetarian food is easy and delicious; because vegetarians live 2 
     years longer on average than those on a typical western diet; 
     because I think 'stewardship' means 'look after' not 'take 
     advantage of'; and because I think it is always better to have 
     more empathy than to close one's eyes to the pain of others.

Desensitisation and semantic decay
What started us eating meat was, I assume, need. We haven't always been able to be selective about what we eat, and we couldn't deprive ourselves of such a rich source of nutrients. Nowadays I think it's less to do with desperation and more to do with desensitisation. Eating meat seems acceptable because we eat meat already, because everyone does it. This is what I call 'semantic decay': repetition eventually saps the meaning out of any practice. It's what causes the meanings of words and phrases to drift away completely from their original meanings without our notice as we get used to them. It's what makes religion such a poor conductor of morality. Once-moral instructions can eventually become mere empty rituals, self-enforced upon pain of eternal damnation, devoid of any personal emotion or conviction. Under religion, it is entirely possible for someone to feel guilty about saying 'Oh my God', but not about being complicit in a system that slaughters billions of animals a year, usually after they've led awful lives.

We can observe a kind of trend in semantic decay. The older the religion, the culture, or cultural institution and, therefore, the more repetition that has occurred, the more divorced meaning is from action. Perhaps this explains Miranda Devine's inability to comprehend Michael Kirby's point of view. I can't think of a culture in which there is more evidence of rampant semantic decay in the area of attitudes towards a kind of animal than Japan's, where Devine grew up. 'Fish died in abundance for the Japanese diet', she says in her article, and they had to. Japan's mountainous terrain being unsuitable for agriculture, it had to turn to the sea. If it hadn't, its people would have starved long ago. But it doesn't make it any easier for the non-desensitised to watch.

Everything I am about to say, I fully acknowledge, is a generalisation, but generalisations can be useful. To the Japanese, anything that lives in the ocean is just food. There's the whaling, of course, but then there's also the annual Taiji dolphin drive hunt, where dolphins are driven into a netted cove and slaughtered en masse, literally turning the sea red with blood.

From the documentary The Cove.

I've seen a Japanese vendor chase an octopus in a netted bag across a cement market floor as it tried to escape. I've seen Japanese chefs in a production line tearing out the eyes of live fugu (pufferfish), chopping off their tails and fins, shucking their elastic skin off over their heads like jumpers and tossing the mutilated fish, blind, bloody and gasping, into an industrial-sized bin of their already-expired companions. I've seen a Japanese diner pick a fish out of a fake, in-restaurant pond, then light up with glee when that same fish is brought out on a plate as sashimi, its uncooked flesh flayed out in a fan of wafer-thin slices, its body wrenched at an unnatural angle, its mouth sucking for air and its body twitching as its flesh is torn with chopsticks from its body.

'Give it to us raw, and wriggling.'

Now fish are not highly intelligent creatures, but that right there on your plate is a living organism with the capacity to feel pain, and it is suffering for no good reason. It's just sick. My personal aversion to seafood is mostly mental, a relic from my childhood that I know I could probably rid myself of if I wanted to. And for a while I did. It's socially debilitating to be picky, and it's looked upon as immature, so I planned to make myself get over it, but now I never will. What we're doing to the oceans is too terrible, and the world doesn't need one more fish-eater. Even caught and prepared in the usual way – by trawlers at sea, dead and cooked – a fish has to suffer too much to get to my plate. There's no quick way to kill fish caught en masse.

'As we become increasingly alienated from the sources of our food,' says Devine in her article, 'childish squeamishness is in the ascendancy'. In other words, those of us who don't want to eat meat are squeamish children. Thanks, your bitchiness (how do you like it?).

But aside from deploying Devine's own stunning rhetorical tactics against her, I really think she's got it the wrong way around. It's not that we're gaining childish squeamishness; it's that we're losing our heartless desensitisation. In the past we've needed to be desensitised to animal suffering in order to survive, and today people who make a living in the meat industry still need this desensitisation, but the rest of us, 'alienated from the sources of our food', are beginning to bring our attitudes towards animal welfare into line with our modern moral outlook. Predictably, being the enemy of the heart and mind that she is, the conservative Devine instinctively rejects this impulse, this change in the status quo. But I believe we should embrace it, as difficult as it is.

Returning to the issue of 'naturalness', those who justify their continued consumption of meat with that argument must consider this impulse. If it is natural for us to eat meat, then it is equally natural for us to feel squeamish about doing so, and the evidence is in our actions. Yes, our mouths water at the smell of sizzling bacon or roasting beef, but even Devine admits 'most people feel sadness at the death of animals'; we flinch when we see it actually happen. Just look at the rituals of penance and reverence codified into early cultures, which insisted on prayer after the killing of an animal, thanking it for giving its life – an attempt to absolve guilt if ever there was one. Kirby points to the packaging of meat, which allows us to think of it as the 'impersonal products of sterile, clean supermarkets' and of eating it as 'hygienic and somehow depersonalised. Or de-animalised.' Even the English language and our codes of etiquette enshrine this guilty discomfort: it's considered impolite to discuss the animal you're eating at any given time, or to talk about any graphic part of its preparation. There's something in the way we are so easily put off eating by talk of blood or guts that belies the supposed naturalness of our eating meat. In 'Consider the Lobster', David Foster Wallace points out that 'most mammals seem to require euphemisms like "beef" and "pork" that help us separate the meat from the living creature the meat once was'; we've craftily stolen words from the French to ease our guilt. Who among us can say when they watch a predator of Africa chasing down its prey, that it is not the hunted that they hope for, rather than the hunter? We know, in our logical minds, that it's unfair to favour the gazelle over the lion; the latter has the right to live as much as the former, but we know that if the lion doesn't get its way it will only go hungry; if the gazelle doesn't, it will die a terrifying death. If you can watch a zebra being brought down by a cackle of hyenas who, unlike lions, do not kill their prey before they begin eating it, without desperately wishing they would just end the zebra's suffering, there's something wrong with you.

The fact is, though, that almost everything we do, we do in spite of nature and the cruel ferocity of the natural order, not because of it. Evolution, when understood properly, is fascinating; both a beautiful and a terrible system, elegantly simplistic in its mindless, ruthless march onwards, propelled by death at every turn. And while evolution will continue to work in different ways on humanity, we have transcended it in many ways. Society operates to a large extent outside of evolution and against it; in so many ways it is cooperative, not competitive. Babies are not left on hillsides to die if they are deemed weak. The mentally ill, the physically disabled, the sick, the poor, the injured, the different, are not dispatched as they might be if nature took its course. We can, and should, seek to resist evolution, which is everything our morality is not. This doesn't mean we stand up and decry the hyena as immoral, and start going out and killing hyenas to protect zebras. It's true that there is a natural order* but it's also true that we are the only species on Earth capable of making a choice not to adhere to it. As Kirby says:

     If the human brain historically expanded because humans
     became carnivores, consuming cooked meat around the
     camp fire that encouraged social life among our forebears,
     why should we turn our backs on these existential
     developments of our species that made us who and what
     we are? The answer to that perfectly reasonable question
     is this. The ingestion of so much protein and the expansion
     of our human brain has produced a creature with a
     heightened capacity for moral reasoning.

*Incidentally, a hole in the arguments of those who try to marry the existence of a creator God with the process of evolution, who do not here have their usual recourse to 'free will'. As Paula Kirby (no relation of Michael Kirby's) asks in 'Evolution threatens Christianity', how could an omnibenevolent God ever set in motion such a monstrous process?

Concluding remarks
All that's left is to say a little about my own diet. I'm still eating meat, and a lot of it. You might see that as hypocritical, but I don't. This post has been more about convincing people to admit or recognise that eating animals is wrong rather than that they should give up doing so (although the two are obviously connected), and I don't judge anyone who continues eating meat. A lifetime of delicious meat-based meals and indoctrination doesn't vanish in a day. But I think it's important to be able to use moral reasoning independent of your actions, to recognise that you're doing something wrong even if you're still doing it, rather than just rationalising and justifying your current behaviours. In some ways, I've been thoroughly desensitised. When I look at a piece of meat, even a skin-covered chicken wing or a slab of beef with bones in it, I simply do not see an animal, I see food, and this is the biggest problem for me. But I'm making progress. The other night I was eating a bowl of Tilly's mum's caesar salad and I had a breakthrough (which should not reflect poorly on the quality of the salad; it's delicious). Getting to the bottom of the bowl after all the lettuce leaves had gone, I was left with a wet, stringy conglomerate of pale white chicken meat and bright pink bacon, and as I was shovelling it into my mouth, I was acutely aware that it was animal flesh that I was eating. The sensation was replaced immediately once it reached my mouth, of course, but nevertheless, that was a big step for me, and those moments are happening increasingly. I'm on my way to re-sensitisation.

For now, my plan has been to stop eating meat automatically. Usually when I'm out for lunch or whatever, I'll just grab a chicken sandwich or something, because that's just what I eat, not because I really want it. Now, unless I actively want a meat dish, I'll get the vegetarian option. As I've said before, I'm not sure I'll ever be able to give up meat entirely. I have almost no self-control, and I'm convinced those vegetarians who say, 'Oh that's what I used to say, but I was surprised by how easy it was' just never enjoyed meat as much as I do, or else we're different blood types or something. But strategies like making meat my special option rather than my general one, and another thing I'm trying called 'Meatless Monday', will and in the former case already have made a big difference to how much meat I eat, which has to have a gradual effect on how many animals I cause to die for my selfish enjoyment of their flesh.

Often in discussion of vegetarianism and related issues, commentators talk about how our treatment of animals might be looked upon by future generations, an interesting idea to entertain. In his reasoned, ever self-questioning way, Wallace says, in reference to the Maine Lobster Festival (MLF):

     if you, the Festival attendee, permit yourself to think that lobsters
     can suffer and would rather not, the MLF can begin to take on
     aspects of something like a Roman circus or medieval torture-
     fest. Does that comparison seem a bit much? If so, exactly why?
     Or what about this one: Is it not possible that future generations
     will regard our own present agribusiness and eating practices in
     much the same way we now view Nero's entertainments or
     Aztec sacrifices? My own immediate reaction is that such a
     comparison is hysterical, extreme—and yet the reason it seems
     extreme to me appears to be that I believe animals are less
     important than human beings; and when it comes to defending
     such a belief, even to myself, I have to acknowledge that (a) I
     have an obvious selfish interest in this belief, since I like to eat
     certain kinds of animals and want to be able to keep doing it,
     and (b) I have not succeeded in working out any sort of
     personal ethical system in which the belief is truly defensible
     instead of just selfishly convenient.

I for one can certainly imagine a more enlightened populace looking back on us as we do our own forebears. It's hard not to see the trend developing over the last hundred years, of extending rights to ever smaller segments of the population, starting with the largest demographic, women, and moving through oppressed races, nations, and ethnic groups; then, in recent years, disabled and gay people. Not to undermine the valiant efforts of today's animal rights activists and campaigners, who are seemingly ahead of their time, but might not we, as a society, turn our full attention to animals when we run out of human minorities? Might not the next mainstream social movement be for animal rights?

Part three looks at anthropocentrism and hierarchising life.

Thank you to everyone who's taken the time to read this gargantuan post (almost 4000 words) and to my friends for their enthusiastic response to part one, which gave me the motivation to power through and finally finish this. Thanks to Wil Anderson and Lisa Dempster for retweeting it and exposing it to the wider veg(etari)an community, and to everyone else who's retweeted it since. Thanks Sam Glass for directing me to the David Foster Wallace article, and to Alissa for telling me about Colleen Patrick-Goudreau's podcasts. Thanks finally to Matt Wheeler, whose account of why he is a vegetarian was too cogent to resist including; you should all go and check out his amazing, custom, whittled artworks!

Wil Anderson's live comedy panel, Wil Does Parky, at Splendour in the Grass, Woodford, Queensland, Australia. Sunday 31 July 2011.

Miranda Devine's opinion piece, 'Everybody hurts, but we've all got to eat', in The Sunday Telegraph, Wednesday 5 October 2011.

Peter Jackson's film, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, by New Line Cinema, 5 December 2002.

Michael Kirby's opinion piece, 'Animals deserve our protection', in The Australian, Saturday 1 October 2011.

Michael Kirby's opinion piece, 'Sense and sensibility about our fellow sentient creatures', in The Sydney Morning Herald, Friday 6 August 2010.

Paula Kirby's blog post, 'Evolution threatens Christianity', on The Washington Post's On Faith forum, 3:26pm 24 August 2011.

Rohinton Mistry's short story, 'Condolence Visit', in his short-story cycle Tales from Firozsha Baag, published by Faber & Faber in 2006.

Colleen Patrick-Godreau's podcast, 'Humans are meant to eat meat. Just look at these incisors in my mouth', from her podcast series Vegetarian Food for Thought: Inspiring a Joyful, Sustainable, Compassionate Diet.

Louis Psihoy's documentary, The Cove.

Charles Rangley-Wilson's documentary, Fish! A Japanese Obsession, by KEO Films, 23 March 2009.

Tony Schirato and Susan Yell's 'Ideology', in Communication and Cultural Literacy: An Introduction, published by Allen & Unwin in 2000.

David Foster Wallace's essay, 'Consider the Lobster', in Gourmet Magazine in August 2004.

Matt Wheeler's private correspondence via Facebook, 10:27pm Tuesday 11 October 2011.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

For a presentation this friday ...

Wednesday 19 October 2011

 Prepare for your socks to be completely and utterly rocked off, ENGL377. Michel-style.

Update: Scored a 90. Socks were rocked. It was probably the Lord of the RingsPanopticon parallel and clip from the movie.