Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Two Year-Olds Droppin' F-Bombs in the Grocery Store

WARNING: Contains profanity. If you're sensitive to that kind of stuff, this post was written with you in mind. Hopefully you'll stomach it.

I was watching a livestream of someone playing Deus Ex on and he was just talking to himself, saying that he was "gonna kill some n****s." None of the characters in the context were black. This brings up a wonderful question - from a rational point of view, should this comment be offensive? And more generally, are there 'bad' words, and if so, why should they not be said?

But first a disclaimer - you can probably see where I'm going with this. Pragmatically, in the current social climate, if you don't want to be perceived as a racist, you should refrain from using racial slurs even in contexts where race isn't a factor. I don't think you should try to go around convincing people that it's okay for you to use racial slurs where it'll offend people. It most likely wouldn't work and you'd probably end up offending people by trying. This is purely a thought experiment in a strictly hypothetical bubble.

Now that that's out of the way, I don't see any reason at all for it to be the case that certain words should absolutely not be said (in the moral sense of 'should'). Before getting into why, I think a distinction should be made between a word - the vocalization and the graphical text - and its meaning - what goes on in the minds of the speakers, hearers, writers, and readers when a word is said, heard, written, or read.

The meaning depends entirely on context; that is what the minds involved believe about the word, what the words nearby it in writing or in speech, and the setting in which the word is written or said. Because the meaning depends on context, I don't believe that a one-to-one mapping of meanings to words is possible.

Therefore, while I can understand how some can believe that certain meanings morally shouldn't be communicated, I don't see how there can be a moral obligation not to say certain words. The usual complaint I hear from the politically correct crowd is that using certain words in a negative light is morally wrong since it attaches a negative connotation to the word's denotation, i.e. it attaches bad feelings to the word's dictionary definition (and by extension, the people that the dictionary definition represents). But if there is no one-to-one mapping of meanings to words, then there is no "right" definition of words. Denotation just doesn't exist.

I can understand the biblical injunction to not use Yahweh's name in vain. What I can't understand is when people interpret that to mean that you may not say the word "God" (hint: that's not his name, nor is that what the command is talking about) or that you may not say the words 'fuck' or 'shit' or 'damn'. Those words probably have completely different meanings when an adult uses them versus when a two-year old drops an f-bomb in the grocery store. Which is why it makes no sense to me to see someone chide a two year-old for dropping an f-bomb in the grocery store.

Repeated disclaimer: I'm not advocating going around talking about 'n****s' all the time. Oftentimes, when the word is used, it has a negative connotation about a certain group of people. And if you use it, there's a good chance that it'll be interpreted that way. Pragmatically, it doesn't make sense to use that word lightly. What I am saying is that there is no denotation of that word, and nobody needs to get uppity when the context makes it clear that it's not used in an insulting way.

You could even argue that when someone uses a word that usually has a negative connotation in a way that has no negative connotation, they're gradually breaking down the perception that the word has a negative denotation. They're rendering it innocuous. Some people might consider that a good thing.

So what do you think about this shit?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Language Rules

Grammar enthusiasts provide a great example for how to apply the understanding of the different kinds of 'should's. You probably have seen blog posts along the lines of "X common grammar mistakes" or "X writing mistakes to avoid," or ran into people that correct your grammar, spelling, punctuation, or word choice. In general, the majority of their advice can be abstracted into the principle: "You should follow such-and-such rules when communicating."

Awesome. That's a 'should' statement you should (if you share my goals, at least) love to pick apart. Most of the time, when I hear or read this kind of advice, reasons aren't given other than that the given rules are 'correct.' I think this makes it safe to assume that they believe that their reasons for compliance and encouraging others to comply with the given rules include some reference to an authority of sorts, some nebulous set of the rules of English.

Here would be the opportune time to point out that linguists can generally be divided into two camps, 'descriptivists' and 'prescriptivists.' For prescriptivists, the rules of English prescribe the way it should be used. A speaker should say, "Fred and I" when Fred and she are the subject of the sentence because there's a rule somewhere that demands it. For descriptivists, the rules of English describe the way it is used. For prescriptivists, the rule precedes usage. For descriptivists, usage precedes the rule.

Given my love for constructs and the decontruction thereof, you can probably guess which camp I fall into. (Or "guess into which camp I fall", since we're on the topic :] ) It makes so much more sense to me personally that the rules of English are defined by the usage of the speakers, since it's hard for me to understand what kind of authority could be 'out there' to create the moral obligation to speak English in the 'right' way. A sort of God of English, I suppose, to which anyone that has an accent is a pagan.

So if there's nothing about English that demands the speaker to use it in a certain way, perhaps there is a pragmatic reason that one 'should' follow such-and-such rules?

This seems much more likely, and my personal thought is that the acid test of the practicality of any instance of language usage is whether or not the speaker was understood. I think the common goal behind the 'should' statements of any language rules is "If you want to be understood, ". Once you don't care to be understood, all the rules of English go out the window. Unless you're worried about the God of English smiting you with an Oxford English Dictionary.

Another reason that I commonly hear brought up as for why one should speak in accordance with such-and-such rules is that of professionalism; English speakers that don't speak/write in a certain way, especially in an Internet setting, are deemed unprofessional (and usually, therefore, untrustworthy, which is more important in terms of being understood). I don't like this. I think the perception that a certain way of speaking a language is 'professional' in contrast to other ways of speaking a language is one of the main ways of propagating racism. The way that someone speaks or follows/fails to follow certain language rules has no bearing on her intelligence or ability to perform professionally. Just my two cents.

So, who wants to be a linguistic prescriptivist?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

You 'Should' Read this Post

Speaking of constructs... the word 'should' is an interesting one, man. Compare the following two sentences:

"You should eat fruits and vegetables."

"You should give fruits and vegetables to those who don't have food."

You can probably quibble over what I'm about to say, but most people would agree that the word 'should' takes on different meanings in the different sentences. In the first, it designates a recommendation of practicality; it states that if your goal is to be healthy, then eating fruits and vegetables is a good way to achieve it. In the second, it designates a recommendation of morality; it states that for whatever reasons some things are right and others are wrong, giving fruits and veggies to the less fortunate is one of the right ones.

I won't try to delve into the second kind of 'should' or answer why some things are right and some things wrong, since I couldn't give you an answer, but the first kind of 'should' is interesting enough anyway. There's room to argue about the first kind of 'should' statements when everyone involved understands the goals in mind, but there's less room to argue about the second kind unless everyone involved already agrees upon criteria for why things are right or wrong.

Kant calls the first kind of 'should' statements "hypothetical imperatives." Notice how the first sentence presumes a hypothetical condition - "IF you want to be healthy, then you should eat fruits and vegetables." If you don't care about being healthy, or if you'd rather have no vitamins or fiber, then the 'should' in the first sentence carries no weight. There's no reason to listen to it. This kind of 'should' statements are inextricably tied to goals; you can't say that someone 'should' do something in the first sense without presuming a goal.

Best practices are 'should' statements that are generally agreed upon as being the most pragmatic way of achieving specific goals. If you want to cold-call people and sell something, it is generally agreed upon that you should not begin the conversation with a question that can be answered with a 'no,' since that ends the conversation. That's an example of a best practice. But if your goal is not to make sales with your cold-calls, then the advice becomes irrelevant.

You can ignore best practices when the people recommending them don't understand your goals. Be a rebel all you want. But to ignore them when your goals are obvious and people have been there before is not only foolish, but probably arrogant as well. Hacking life is all about articulating your goals and finding the most pragmatic way to achieving them.

So, 'should' you have read this post?