Speaking of Casual
Not long ago, I had occasion to look at my high-school yearbook (no, Facebook was not involved). It was remarkable how many people who signed it with great affection and commitment are now mysterious strangers (demonstrating that faux-intimacy is not just a Facebook thing).
The most remarkable discovery in reading the comments of those signatories was how many of them—apparently lacking any real shared memories to commemorate—took the opportunity to celebrate one of the great achievements of our class (1970). It was on our watch—and due to our tireless efforts, I was reminded—that the school dress code had been eliminated. And just in time for the fashion explosion of the 1970s. Were we lucky or what?
“If someone were beamed forward in a time capsule from 1950 to today, the most notable thing would be that everyone dresses as if they just rolled out of bed.” So Mark Oppenheimer once commented to me in an interview about the cultural consequences of the 1960s. Oppenheimer, the author of the 2003 book Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture, insisted that the most decisive cultural change of that tempestuous decade—coming to a close as I was getting ready to graduate—was the advent of a regime of informality.
What the counterculture finally countered was formality and propriety. “Our politics are not that different,” Oppenheimer reflected, “but how we act and how we look is tremendously different.”
Was this just a stylistic shift, like a move from pastels to earth tones? Or was something more at stake? Linguist John McWhorter argues that the advent of informality throughout cultural life is an expression of a radically new suspicion toward authority that emerged in the mid-1960s. In his book Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care, he writes that “formality in all realms, be it sartorial, terpsichorean, culinary, artistic, or linguistic, entails the dutiful acknowledgment of ‘higher’ public standards considered beyond question.” Thus, formality, in the patois of the late 1960s, meant caving in to The Man.
McWhorter explores the symptoms and the consequences of the loss of the possibility of eloquence in speech . He argues that the intense distrust of the government that fueled the countercultural expressions of the mid to late 1960s had the effect of creating suspicion toward verbal precision and elegance. “Because the Establishment had traditionally been the steward of formal conventions in its language, to hold the Establishment in contempt all but entails rejecting those conventions,” he writes. One had to abandon the standards of formal speech because of Vietnam, Jim Crow, and (eventually) Watergate.
For those who were intellectually and politically attentive during the 1950s and 1960s, this might have made a certain kind of sense. But, as McWhorter points out,
More Melancholy Than Irritated
McWhorter’s discussion of the cultural and political effects of the loss of standards of formality focuses on language (since he is, after all, a linguist), and he analyzes these effects without scolding or enjoining. He is more melancholy than irritated. He clearly laments the fact that “a particular kind of artful use of English, formerly taken for granted as crucial to legitimate expression on the civic stage, has virtually disappeared.”
McWhorter doesn’t believe that all speech should be formal, but he does suggest that the almost universal suspicion toward a formal register of speech in any context—the assumption that “linguistically, every day would become Casual Day”—deprives both public and private life of great pleasures and valuable modes of expression. Contrasting the American insistence on informality with the wider range of expression in other cultures, he regrets that “we have become unusual in the global sense in our deafness to the sheer spiritual, Dionysian pleasure of our language wielded in an artistic way.”
The principal analytic tool McWhorter uses is to contrast written speech with spoken speech, and he argues that the conventions of written speech provide “a better vehicle for objective argument than speech.” Both eloquence and articulacy are typically honored more in written speech, while the spoken word conveys “authenticity” and individuality.
One of the most compelling chapters in Doing Our Own Thing concerns the way this suspicion toward formal speech has affected American attitudes toward poetry, and how recent, parochial, and tragic the typical American disdain for poetry is.
A New Counterculture
It would take another book to explore the theological, pastoral, and ecclesial effects of the phenomenon McWhorter has so carefully documented, and there are such books: Craig Gay’s Dialogue, Catalogue, & Monologue: Personal, Impersonal & Depersonalizing Ways to Use Words and Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies are two recent examples.
I continue to live in the hope that communities of Christians can learn to be truly linguistically countercultural, repudiating in practice the new cultural status quo spawned by the old counterculture. We could thus recognize the communal nature of language (according to which self-expression is not the highest good); we could recover the beauty of good words well used; and we could sustain an articulacy in naming the world and telling the story of the world to come.
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“Speaking of Casual” first appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Click here for a printer-friendly version.
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