Saturday, September 28, 2013

In (partial) defense of nonliteral literally

Gene Weingarten has written a piece decrying the Oxford English Dictionary's recent decision to include in its definitions the use of literally for nonliteral expressions (as in "I literally died of laughter"). While I share some of Weingarten's distaste for this usage and find it to be a fun topic, I cannot agree with his complaint. It has to do with what you consider a dictionary's purpose. Weingarten apparently believes it is to serve as an authority on how people ought to speak and write. This school of thought, known as prescriptivism, once dominated lexicography. But over the past century most dictionaries moved toward descriptivism, the idea that their purpose is simply to describe the language as it is currently used by its speakers. According to this view, if enough people use a word in a certain way, it deserves inclusion in a dictionary. Weingarten thinks this is simply "rewarding vapidity."

Weingarten's harangue is typical of prescriptivists, who in my experience tend to be scarcely aware they're even advocating a philosophy, let alone one widely rejected by lexicographers and linguists. They present their criticisms of the way people speak and write as nothing more than commonsense conclusions that they remember better than others because they stayed awake during third-grade English. Rarely do prescriptivists question any of the traditional rules they were taught in school, many of which do not hold up to scrutiny. They are discussed at length by the linguist John McWhorter in his 2001 book Word on the Street, which presents a wealth of evidence that many of the so-called "rules," from avoidance of split infinitives to the prohibition on using they with a singular antecedent (as in "everyone returned to their seat"), are rooted in the basically arbitrary decisions of a group of 18th- and 19th-century writers who often had a poor understanding of how English worked. But because these rules have been taught to generations of schoolchildren as ironclad truths, educated people have come to think of them as being on par with the laws of thermodynamics.

That's why no evidence from history or literature or any other field can possibly sway the fervent prescriptivist. Consider how Weingarten addresses the fact that many classic writers such as Jane Austen adopted the nonliteral literally on occasion: "That no more makes it right or acceptable than it makes it right for you to annihilate 100,000 people with a bomb just because Harry Truman once did it."

With this statement, Weingarten joins the honorable company of the critic John Simon, who wrote in 1980 that "The English language is being treated nowadays exactly as slave traders once handled the merchandise in their slave ships, or as the inmates of concentration camps were dealt with by their Nazi jailers." Most language scolds I've encountered aren't quite this colorful in their choice of analogies. A professor of mine made the point more simply when confronted by evidence that a usage he disapproved of appeared in the works of great writers: "It's still wrong."

The real problem with this argument is that it assumes a word's proper definition is some immutable law of nature, like gravity, that can never be shaped by the people who use the language, not even by the people who use it best. This view is positively blinkered. There's no reason why the English of Shakespeare is different from that of Chaucer, or from that of Weingarten, other than that human beings of every generation have spoken and written differently than their predecessors. And if there is one thing linguistic history absolutely makes clear, it is that today's error is tomorrow's rule. For example, nice once meant "foolish." It evolved to its present state because people kept using a "wrong" definition, but it's hard to see how English suffered as a result.

Of course, literally isn't just any evolving word. Its traditional definition is a useful concept to have a word for, and it would be a shame to see it go obsolete, which may happen if more and more people say things like "He literally puts his money where his mouth is." In that sense I'm with Weingarten that the looser definition should be avoided (though not excluded from dictionaries). What's striking is that he never makes this argument. His point is simply that it's the law, and we must obey. His indifference to judging word usages based on their utility is revealed in his offhand comment, "although I may cringe at 'blogosphere' and 'webinar' and, sigh, 'whatevs,' I do not protest their appearance in dictionaries." Now, why would anyone cringe at a coinage like blogosphere? (Least of all a blogger?!) Only someone who believes that language should remain literally frozen in time, and that all change is bad, would find anything wrong with that type of innovation.

Weingarten doesn't even accurately explain the loose definition of literally. He claims it is being used to denote its opposite, the word figuratively. It is not. As the OED notes, it is being used as an intensifier. It's basically a synonym for really or actually, except that those words have been blunted from overuse, so when you want to express that you really, truly mean something, literally sometimes gets the point across with more force.

Hence, "the coach literally hates my guts" is meant to convey that you aren't exaggerating the coach's hatred. In a way this is a form of traditional literally; it's just being applied selectively, to the level of the coach's hatred rather than to the metaphor used to describe it. What this example shows is that a statement can have multiple layers of presumptive nonliteralism, and literally may be intended to unpack one layer while leaving the next alone.

My point here is not that I approve of the loose definition of literally, but that it isn't necessarily based on ignorance of the traditional definition. Rather, it's a reflection of the fact that our language is littered with dead metaphors that are all but invisible to us. (The mixed metaphor I just used is further evidence of that fact.) This helps explain why the traditional definition hasn't disappeared from the language, despite centuries of being disregarded. Annoying as it is, the loose sense has come to coexist alongside the traditional one instead of replacing it outright. Weingarten misses this point when he quotes Ambrose Bierce's supposedly accurate prediction that "within a few years the word 'literally' will mean 'figuratively.'" In fact most people today use literally in exactly the way it was originally intended. We just pay closer attention to the loose sense because of the way it literally sticks in our craw--suggesting the danger it poses to our ability to communicate may be overstated.

That's actually true of most gripes about language usage. Some are completely groundless (the most famous being the split-infinitive "rule"), while others, such as this one, at best point to bothersome trends that detract from our language's vitality. In neither case is any large-scale damage on the horizon. As McWhorter explains in his book:

What we must that during these changes, because renewal always complements erosion, all languages are eternally self-sustaining, just as while our present mountains are slowly eroding, new ones are gradually being thrown up by the movement of geological plates. Thus at any given time, a language is coherent and complex, suitable for the expression of all human needs, thoughts, and emotions. Just as linguists have encountered no languages that do not change, they have also not encountered any languages whose changes compromised their basic coherency and complexity. We have encountered no society hampered by a dialect that was slowly simply wearing out like an old car. Anthropologists report no society in which communication is impossible in the dark because the local dialect has become so mush-mouthed and senseless that it can only be spoken with help from hand gestures. In other words, there is no such thing as a language 'going to the dogs'--never in the history of the world has there existed a language that has reached, or even gotten anywhere near, said dogs.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Keep your Obamacare off my exchanges

After reading the recent news story about a man at a Kentucky State Fair who expressed interest in Kentucky's new health-care exchange program, Kynect, by saying he hoped it beat Obamacare, apparently not realizing it was Obamacare, I decided to take a look at Kynect's website. What I found was that it seems to encourage exactly this sort of ignorance. Nowhere on the website is there a single mention of the words Obama, Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act. The FAQ makes just one fleeting reference to federal law (regarding the requirement to purchase insurance) and then makes it sound like it was the governor, Steve Beshear (a Democrat, for what it's worth), who unilaterally chose to set up the exchanges:
Why was [Kynect] created?

Governor Steve Beshear issued an executive order to create a state-based health benefit exchange to best meet the needs of Kentuckians. kynect, like other health benefit exchanges, will provide simple, one-stop shopping for individuals and small businesses to purchase health insurance and receive payment assistance or tax credits.

In contrast, the website for the exchange program in New York (where I live) says right upfront that it's a result of the ACA:
Under the federal Affordable Care Act, an Exchange will be operating in every state starting in 2014. States have the option to either set up an Exchange themselves or to allow the federal government to set up an Exchange in their state. New York has chosen to set up its own Exchange, called the New York Health Benefit Exchange. On April 12, 2012, Governor Cuomo issued Executive Order #42 to establish it within the NYS Department of Health.
This made me curious about whether there's some relationship between a state's political composition and how candid its exchange website is about its connection with the ACA. I did a little online research about the different state exchanges that have been set up (this webpage was particularly helpful), and my discovery was a bit anti-climactic: it turns out that almost all of the states that have set up exchanges were ones that voted for Obama in 2012. Kentucky, which Obama lost by 23 percentage points, is the one exception. Maybe not so surprisingly, it also has the only exchange website where the words "Affordable Care Act" are nowhere to be found (though in a few other states such as Minnesota and New Mexico, mention of the law is buried deep within the website, and not, say, in a FAQ or "About Us" section). It will be interesting to watch how the law will be sold in other red states, where ironically the exchanges will be mostly federal-run due to the GOP's dogged unwillingness to cooperate with the law's implementation. Will the feds also adopt the principle that it's better to avoid disclosing the source of this cool new policy in the name of getting more people into the system?

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Why liberals became progressives--and why they'll stay that way

One of the most striking changes in political terminology to happen in my lifetime was the adoption of progressive as a substitute for liberal. What's weird about it is that most of the time people talk as though they've always used the word progressive this way, yet I can't remember hearing it until the 2000s. (Checking the archives for Google News and Google Books seems to confirm my suspicions.) When the topic is brought up, the commonest explanation (which even I have made) is that it was an attempt to escape the negative connotations of the word liberal, which had suffered from decades of abuse by conservative commentators. But that raises some questions. Since the negative use of liberal goes back at least to the 1970s, what took progressives so long to come up with their new name? Furthermore, why didn't they stick with liberal in a spirit of defiance against those who treat it as a dirty word? Doesn't abandoning it suggest that there really is something wrong with being a liberal, and that so-called progressives are simply doing a linguistic makeover to hide their flaws?

The answer to these questions lies partly in recent political history, partly in the difficulty in consciously making changes to the language. For several decades liberals did in fact try to wear the word liberal proudly, in spite of those who used it disparagingly. Progressive already existed in political parlance, but it had a broader, vaguer meaning than it does today and didn't necessarily imply an affinity for the left. In the 1980s, for example, the centrist Democratic Leadership Council called its think tank the Progressive Policy Institute. My guess is that the DLC aimed to evoke something along the lines of Teddy Roosevelt's bipartisan, reform-oriented "progressivism."

The degradation of the word liberal was gradual and, contrary to the oft-heard claim, not entirely due to the right's efforts. I think the process began in the late 1960s in reaction to the disillusionment and shattered dreams of the left. Around that time the term was undergoing a shift in meaning similar to what happened to a word like pious, where a formerly positive adjective comes to be used as a sneering description of those who fall short of the ideals they preach. Look, for instance, how Roger Ebert used it in his 1972 review of Sounder, a movie he defended against charges of liberalism:

It is, I suppose, a "liberal" film, and that has come to be a bad word in these times when liberalism is supposed to stand for compromise--for good intentions but no action. This movie stands for a lot more than that, and we live in such illiberal times that Sounder comes as a reminder of former dreams.
By the 1970s, liberal was starting to be treated less like a political orientation than like a character type, describing an overzealous do-gooder who may even be a hypocrite and patronizing snob--someone much like the character of Meathead from All in the Family. When the right began using the word pejoratively, they were in part seizing on that stereotype. Of course there is a difference between the trait of "good intentions but no action" and the right's more malevolent view of liberals. But the image of the excessive do-gooder--and above all the connotation of weakness--prevailed.

For a long time, Democratic politicians were unsure whether to embrace the liberal label or run away from it. In 1988 Dukakis resisted it before finally admitting, late in his campaign, that "I'm a liberal in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and John Kennedy." This comment was practically an apology, seeming to imply that liberalism had fallen from its lofty position in the ensuing decades. It was as if he was assuring the public, "I'm a liberal, but one of the good ones."

Indeed, when it came to presidential elections in the post-Vietnam era, it often seemed that the Democrats' victories rested on how successfully their candidates escaped the liberal label. This perception was probably delusional (Mondale and Dukakis were running against a popular administration, whereas Carter and Clinton were running against unpopular ones, and so their ideological character was probably not the determining factor in the outcome of those races), but it was a lesson the Democratic establishment took to heart.

The moderate, Third Way politics of the Clinton years disappointed many liberals at the time, but this was overshadowed somewhat by their disgust at the GOP's scandal-mongering against the president. By the end of the decade, when Clinton enjoyed sky-high approval ratings while the GOP ended up defeated and humiliated in its attempts to bring him down, there was a triumphant feeling among Democrats which, I believe, made many of them willing to forget (if not forgive) his policy betrayals.

This truce ended with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, an event that drove a wedge between the Democratic establishment and the left unlike anything seen in over a generation. As the left's antiwar position, dismissed at first as radical, eventually became the consensus not just within the Democratic Party but in the country as a whole, it damaged the establishment's credibility and made the left's early criticisms of the invasion seem prescient. I personally believe (but have rarely seen it expressed) that this factor was a large part of the reason for the DLC's demise. And of course it led to the rise of Obama, whose early opposition to the war may have been singlehandedly responsible for his narrow defeat of Hillary Clinton in the primaries. Despite GOP talking points about how he was the "most liberal Senator," the L-word commanded surprisingly little attention in the 2008 election, when compared with past races. Obama did, however, eagerly identify as "progressive," the first modern Democratic nominee to do so.

This new use of progressive arose during the boom in Internet political culture that came to be called the "netroots," dominated by activists who now had the tools to make their voice heard in a way that wasn't possible in earlier times. That was the main setting from which today's progressive movement emerged. Though they rarely explained why they preferred the term progressive, I believe there were two primary reasons: they associated liberal with compromise and moderation in the hated establishment, and they wanted to free themselves from the influence of conservative frames they felt had governed mainstream political discourse for too long. Creating a new word for themselves (or, rather, refashioning an old, nearly forgotten one) was a way of achieving that goal.

Naturally, the new progressives tended to be fairly young--people in their twenties when the millennium rolled around (basically my generation). Older figures who have come to be associated with the movement have had to adapt their language to the times. When I searched Paul Krugman's columns and books for the word progressive, all I found were some references to progressive taxation--until his 2007 book The Conscience of a Liberal, where he explains the difference between liberals and progressives:

The real distinction between the terms, at least as I and many others use them, is between philosophy and action. Liberals are those who believe in institutions that limit inequality and injustice. Progressives are those who participate, explicitly or implicitly, in a political coalition that defends and tries to enlarge those institutions. You're a liberal, whether you know it or not, if you believe that the United States should have universal health care. You're a progressive if you participate in the effort to bring universal health care into being. (p. 268)
Although Krugman isn't defining the two terms as mutually exclusive, there is an echo of Ebert's association of liberalism with "good intentions but no action." Progressives, Krugman maintains, are liberals who put their beliefs into action. While that's an inspiring thought, I'm not sure it fits the way most people use these words. I assume Krugman bases his definition on the activist roots of the progressive movement, but by now (at least in my experience) there are plenty of self-identifying progressives not actively involved in the fight for liberal causes.

The linguist Geoffrey Nunberg rounds up various pundit theories on the progressive/liberal distinction before observing, "none of them has much to do with with how the labels are actually used." One problem I have with most of these theories is that they treat the categories as fixed and static. In reality, these words have had greatly varied meanings over time, and even within the same time have meant different things to different people. The fact that TR referred to himself as a Progressive while FDR considered himself a liberal doesn't shed much light on the differences between Clinton and Obama. With these caveats in mind, Nunberg offers his thoughts on what the progressive label is intended to signal today:

Far more than liberals, progressives see themselves in the line of the historical left. Not that America has much of a left to speak of anymore, at least by the standards of the leftists of the Vietnam era, who were a lot less eager than most modern-day progressives to identify themselves with the Democratic Party. But if modern progressives haven't inherited the radicalism or ferocity of the movement left of the 60's, they're doing what they can to keep its tone and attitude alive.
I tend to agree. I just wonder how long this situation will last. As the new progressives grow older and the word progressive becomes more ingrained, its anti-establishment overtones may well fade. Eventually it may come to be a simple descriptor of the average left-leaning Democrat, occupying more or less the same place that liberal used to--before it was turned into an epithet.

Perhaps sensing this possibility, some conservatives in recent years have been trying to do to progressive what they once did to liberal. Glenn Beck attempted something of the sort in his 2010 speech to CPAC, where he linked today's progressives with the alleged evils of the early-20th century Progressive Movement. I doubt this strategy will work. These conservatives have grown too insulated from the mainstream to reach beyond their narrow audience (somehow I don't think most Americans would share Beck's outrage at TR's support for universal health care or Woodrow Wilson's creation of the Federal Reserve), and in any case the word progressive just doesn't carry the negative connotations that helped the right tarnish liberal. Whether conservatives or older liberals like it or not, progressive as a self-respecting term is here to stay.