Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Miley Cyrus and Sgt. Carter

I find the public reaction to the Miley Cyrus performance on the Video Music Awards Sunday night both, hopeful and fascinating. Hopeful because it seems we might finally be getting to a point where even the target audience for such acts is getting annoyed, and fascinating because Americans still don't seem to understand why this story lights us up.

In the past couple of days I have seen hundreds of negative reactions to Miley's writhing and grinding and a handful of of opposition postings on Facebook asking why we can't pay more attention to wholesome news, like President Obama's awarding of the Medal of Honor to Sgt. Ty Carter for heroism on the battlefield in Afghanistan. (For the record, we at KLIF in Dallas did talk about Sgt. Carter and his amazing story of bravery but it wasn't an easy story to stumble across. On the other hand, Miley's flesh colored bikini and giant rubber finger was absolutely everywhere.)

From where I sit, Americans have a pretty good handle on what matters in their personal lives and know when their families are under assault. Sgt. Carter is protecting us while Miley is violating our collective sense of decency.

Sgt. Carter stands for the best of all things in this country. He's the latest in a 250 year heritage of heroes we've learned to count on to protect our families and the freedoms we cherish. That's not to say he is taken for granted. He will tell you himself he was doing a job that was expected of him. And he knows we love him for it.

Miley is another matter. She, too, is the latest in a long string of Americans standing up for freedom but the freedom she has embraced is one that threatens our instinctive human modesty. Parents and grandparents see this sort of thing as an assault on the values they've accepted from their own ancestors and are trying to pass on to the next generation. Chief among those values are personal dignity and respect for others.

Sunday night Miley Cyrus tried to advance her career at the expense of little American girls everywhere, teaching them that their primary personal value lies below the waist and between their legs.

I know I sound like my own parents' parents when Elvis first shook his hips onstage in the fifties. My mom and dad had the same problem with the Beatles' outlandish shaking of their famous mop-tops. (It was just their heads, for heaven's sake!) The annoyance of parents is a social tradition. The problem is, as performers push that envelope to more blatant sexuality in order to outdo Gaga and Madonna, as we allow the margin between self respect and self abuse to be blurred, we are allowing one person's freedom of expression to set the tone of acceptability for an entire society.

These days we sometimes forget that freedom of speech includes the right to stand up and say, “Enough!” 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The death of a word

I'm one of those word nerds who drives his family crazy by correcting their speech and writing. I do it to be helpful, I really do. I've learned to lay off my friends in public because people are embarrassed if you point out an error in spelling, punctuation, pronunciation or word choice. They protest, "You know what I mean!", but they're really just embarrassed by their ignorance.

Why, then, are dictionaries enabling rather than challenging them?

English is said to be the most difficult language in the world to master. But, for its complexity it is also the most glorious. There are no true English language synonyms. Every word that essentially means the same as another has its own unique feeling and implication. These implied emotions and judgments allow really good writers to write between the lines, to manipulate perspective and emotions by inference rather than directive.

The best writers never tell you what to think or how to feel, they merely lead the way and allow you to discover yourself in their path.

That's the power of the language. 

Words are my business. I talk on the radio for a living and write a bit on the side, so this stuff is a big deal for me. I don't expect most people to understand or care about the subtleties and nuances of the language. I don't point out slightly off target utterances, not even to my wife, just the ugly errors that may lead people to misunderstand or misjudge her. But I do ask English speakers everywhere to join with me in protest of officially redefining perfectly good, very specific words simply because so many people are too lazy to learn to use them correctly.

The Oxford English Dictionary has thrown in the towel and declared that the constant misuse of the word, 'literally' is now acceptable. It can mean literally or it can be used for emphasis as in, "It was literally raining cats and dogs."

These horribly conflicting definitions are 180 degrees out of sync. The word "literally" is effectively dead.

Education is apparently no longer the Dictionary's purpose. The arbiters of our language seem to have decided it is nobler (and perhaps, more politically correct) to reflect rather than guide communication. In doing this they leave it to the reader or listener to determine if cats and dogs are actually raining down from the sky or if it is 'literally', meaning figuratively, raining cats and dogs.

And what difference does it make, you may ask? In this example, probably none but it does empower hyperbole in ways that make purists like me panic for our sudden blindness.

If I can't trust you to say precisely what you mean or to understand what I'm saying, what is the point in either of us saying anything at all?

These days we're all giving up. We shrug and say, "Whatever." Even the Dictionary is doing it.

We all suffer when our ability to communicate with specificity and clarity is eroded.

I understand that language is fluid and always evolving. I embrace that. I ply my trade using colloquial English and I adore slang, it's the spice that enriches the language but is useless by itself.

Definitions can't be allowed to contradict themselves just because people are lazy. 
At this rate, in a couple of generations communication will have devolved to grunting and pointing at things.

(That's neither literally nor figuratively literal, it's just sarcasm.)

© D.L. Williams, August 16, 2013
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