Saturday, March 22, 2014

Being and Doing

A whole lot’s been going on in the month since I last wrote a post, but I haven't enough to say about any of it to constitute a full essay. Putin’s going to keep Crimea, which a lot of its citizens seem to want and those who don’t will relocate or disappear or die. The international community won’t do anything because it doesn’t want a war, so we're just taking some of Putin’s privileges away, as if this half-naked- horse-riding, power-hungry egomaniac with lots and lots of bombs were just a naughty child, which might actually be the smart way to go. And in any case, whatever the President says or does, the Republicans will say he’s weak and wrong.

It’s unlikely we’ll ever find enough of that Malaysian plane or the 280+ persons who were on it to tell us definitively more than we already know, but that won’t stop the news channels from giving it close to 24/7 coverage until we wish we were missing. Red states across the nation will continue to take advantage of the elimination of that portion of the Voting Rights Act the Supreme Court didn’t think we needed anymore to keep advancing the suppression of voting by the young, old, and people of color.

And Republicans will keep saying outrageous things about women, then wonder why they’re not winning our hearts and minds. My current favorite is Conservative radio host Dennis Prager’s comment at a fundraiser for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: “A wife should have sex with her husband – regardless of her ‘mood’ – because it is one of the ‘mutual obligations’ of being married.” In other words, the New Normal will keep stupidly lumbering along. (And Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.)

So my concern at the moment is more philosophical – a way of thinking that has become irrelevant and downright disrespected in a society that has made the rich, even the just comfortable, extraordinarily greedy, self-centered and cruel, while the poor, even the just making it, are preoccupied with economic survival. Ideas, language and creative culture are apparently luxuries we either don’t need or can’t afford – like a liberal arts education that isn’t a straight line to a job, or well-scripted TV programs that employ good writers and actors, because trash reality TV is not only cheaper to produce, it gives us social permission to be crass, ignorant, inarticulate, and shallow.

This is why I’m particularly disturbed by what’s happening to the English language in the 21st century, a time in which language has become smaller, more banal, and used poorly and less creatively. This seems especially true among young adults, who just don’t care about language. But language and how it’s used is important, because it reflects the nature, values, and personality of a culture.

I believe this dangerous change began when we started to turn nouns into verbs, beginning  in the 80s with impact. Things used to have an impact on other things, but then things suddenly became impacted, as in “the sluggish economy has impacted government’s willingness to support vital social programs for the poor.” This matters because a noun is a person, place or thing - essentially being - while a verb describes action, which is doing.

I’m a natural intuitive, but I took psychic development classes for five years with a very wise and gifted woman who used to remind us regularly that we were human beings, not human doings. But because people now guide their lives with an abundance of digital devices, communicate in 140-character fragments with a whole new vocabulary of acronyms, and take pride in multi-tasking, we are increasingly becoming human doings rather than human beings. Expedience has become more important than style and the appreciation of good language is quickly disappearing, because people rarely hear or read it.

So we no longer keep a scrap book, we’re scrapbooking; we don’t give someone a gift, we’re gifting; we didn’t buy something at a thrift shop, we thrifted; during the recent Olympics, athletes didn’t win a medal, they medaled. And of course, we no longer laugh, we LOL and we don’t offer an opinion we IMHO. This has become so commonplace among younger people that I was recently told by two Human Resources managers they get résumés filled with such acronyms – along with ugly new words like incentivize (not to mention disincentivizes).

We don't have conversations, we dialogue, and we don't have relationships, we're in relationship. In business, a cohort isn't a chum it's a team, and silos aren't big towers that hold stuff they're departments or divisions. Writers no longer provide copy they write verbiage - as little as possible, of course. Artists don’t paint, draw or take photographs, they create images. Usually on a computer. I have a dear friend who's an artist and used to work in a variety of media (media used to be the plural of medium in art; today it just refers to technology and electronic journalism). Now he works exclusively by computer and brags that he makes art pieces in ten minutes. I’m supposed to hear this as a positive thing. I do not.

You may also have noticed that people have become things: “Tom is the guy I told you about that I went to college with,” as opposed to “who I went to college with.” Strictly speaking, it should be “Tom is the guy I told you about with whom I went to college,” but I guess one has to pick one’s battles (remember when one was something other than a number?).

The meanings of words are also changing - and not for the better. In fashion, there are no longer colors and fabrics but colorations and fabrications, instead; and couture, which is merely the French word for clothing, has lost its "haute" (the phrase haute couture used to mean high fashion, the expensive designer stuff). Now couture all by itself is used to mean haute couture, which must make us sound even more stupid to the French than we already do. In both fashion and food, decadent has become a synonym for sophisticated, and while they might be considered first or second cousins, they're not the same.

In real estate, house and home have become synonymous, which at the very least is insulting to those of us who make our homes in apartments. But whatever the structure may be, even when there are walls and doors (rather than "open concept"), there are no more rooms, there are areas. In general usage, I once heard someone compliment someone else by saying "You're totally superfluous," but I don't know if that's caught on. The one that has and makes me grit my teeth every time I hear it is downfall when what is meant is downside. I get similarly upset when I hear people say infamous, which of course mean famous for something terrible, as in "Charles Manson is infamous," but is now being used to mean very famous. I understand that new words must enter the language as new things enter the world, but I have no patience with the misuse and unnecessary changes of words. 

Given that language is my thing – along with many other things that were a routine part of my youth and even my middle age – this degradation of language hurts my heart and befuddles my brain. So does all this technology that was intended to increase communication but has only decreased it. One used to have a handful of close friends with whom one spent time and shared activities. Now people have hundreds, even thousands of “friends” through social media, people who give you a thumbs up when you put something they like on your wall.

I’ll tell you straight out: I’m 62 years old as of this month and I truly hate the 21st century. I feel I have no place in it, that I’ve outlived my time, and it’s a combination of feeling deeply lonely and being totally infuriated. I saw an online ad today; it was intended to sell a new way to send photos to people. But to me, it said it all, about language and everything else that's sick and bad and lost in the 21st century: “Lots of sharing. No attachments.”

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