Thursday, August 07, 2008

I feel much better, thanks. But I still disagree.

My citations of Halpern's recent article are taken from a draft he was kind enough to share with me through personal correspondence. They will not reflect any further changes that occurred before publication.

Several months ago I wrote of my reaction to Mark Halpern's admission that he regards "the patois of the Black ghetto as inferior...because it demonstrably lacks the means of expressing many ideas and shades of meaning that standard English possesses." I chose to let my readers know that I was struck by this view. I included mention of my physical reaction. I'm not the first to do so when expressing an opinion. And Mr Halpern finds this troubling. In the most recent Vocabula Review (July 2008) he proclaims this as a foreshadowing of the demise of rationality. He writes in his column "You Make Me Sick: Symptoms as Arguments":

If this becomes at all widely accepted, we will have entered a post-logical period in which much of the thought characteristic of Western civilization, from the pre-Socratics to Gödel, is discarded, and rationality openly abandoned.

Mr Halpern's response to my reaction offers insight and humor. And it's evasive: he only promises a response to the issue that first caught my attention. The issue that first impelled me to write. Of course I'll have to wait for the second edition of his book. And while I might say that my anticipation has me tapping my fingers eagerly, I should probably reconsider how relevant that is.

Halpern says that my post consists "largely or even solely of a recital of . . . physical symptoms" and he includes me in the "numbers of people [who] seem to have accepted the idea that one’s physical reactions on hearing an argument are weighty and relevant considerations in deciding whether that argument is valid."

But nowhere in my piece do I say that this reaction is part of the rationale for my views. I never argue that the reader should agree with me because of my physical reaction. And I would never say that the reason I disagree with Mr Halpern's views is because I gasped on reading them. That's evidence of disagreement. It's evidence of my surprise that he considers his view rational. It's not evidence that his view is invalid.

Some of us have seen fit to mention heartbeats and viscera because a relationship exists between writer and audience. And trusting that my perspective is relevant, before I present the progression towards my conclusion through logic, I occasionally introduce the reader to my relationship with the ideas. But I know that relevance is not validity. And if I let the reader know my reaction, it is an appeal to the pathos of the issue. Certainly not the logos. Discussions have parts. Not all parts are evidence.

Mine was a short post. A post written with a small and mostly sympathetic audience in mind. And the post promises a beginning. A discussion follows including a comment by a good friend asking me to provide more evidence of the type I promise. That friend challenges me and even expresses frustration with some of my devices. And when he writes "Something in my brain goes 'pop'" I understand that this metaphorical physical reaction is offered because he knows I care about his relationship to his ideas. I was happy to respond in writing and later in face-to-face interaction. This is typical of the forum.

But I believe Mr Halpern already knows of this quality of argument. He has written before that his response to being labelled a "prescriptivist" is to "groan inwardly."1 This may not be nausea. Then again it might be. Either way he is not using it as evidence or support for his eventual argument. Unless we isolate 'I disagree' as his argument.

In my post I identify one of Mr Halpern's claims and I provide the form of evidence and rationale for disagreement. His view that one dialect is inferior to another because they don't share all abilities to express ideas is an arbitrary determination. It seems to function on the premise that different language systems must be stacked vertically. Altho I reveal that my physical reaction to this is an audible gasp, I add -- and this is in an attempt to validate my disagreement -- that his view ignores the ability that non-standard English dialects have to express some things in a way that standard English cannot. Because his claim doesn't offer a specific example of these differing abilities there is no further data or analysis to disagree with. Nor did I feel driven to provide examples of my point. But I make a lofty proclamation: that I will dedicate my career to providing an alternate voice.

This is no revolutionary agenda. It's the foundation of linguistics to treat all natural languages and dialects as having equal worth. Most linguistics textbooks provide an explanation of the linguist's task of describing rather than prescribing. And it's not even based on a view that prescription is wrong or evil or ignorant. It's simply not of interest.

Linguists might however jump on claims that are not supported by facts or reasonable analysis. And occasionally when doing so I step away from my task of impartial inquiry and I offer an expression based on political, social and wholly personal values. My reaction to Mr Halpern's comments betrays some of these. But I withhold all judgement of him and his values outside the field of language. There are obvious correlations between views on language and views on culture. And there are correlations between views on culture and other values. But no correlations that I'm willing to argue give me any insight into an individual. Especially when Mr Halpern says, provocatively, that he is preparing a more "penetrating" presentation of his claim regarding dialects. This has me most curious. And I can make no comment about it because I'm not sure exactly what he plans to pierce: the heart of his claim or the corps of its opponents.

1 A Few Catty Remarks on 'Dangerous Creatures


  1. Not to dismiss your (welcome) reasoned response to Halpern's original piece and his reaction to your reaction, but ... is there any point in even having a discussion with Halpern? It's not that he has made an extensive analysis of, say, the expressive capabilities of all dialects of English and must report, regretfully, that some have expressive capabilities that are not available in others. Halpern has a deep belief in the moral superiority of SWE (which, by an amazing coincidence, is also the dialect he chooses to be expressive in) -- thus his motto "A society is as lax as its language." (Pardon my French, but what crap.) If your starting point is that language and dialects have moral weight, you're not going to be reasoned out of a belief that some dialects are, well, just better. Less "lax." More ... moral. Or, since that's not an argument that's going to sit well with everyone, we'll just refer to this quality as "more expressive."

  2. I think it's really most interesting that you're willing to accept so easily his argumentative premise: that physical reactions are not rational, and that that makes them irrelevant.

    By now, haven't we all learned the follies of "rationalism," and the ways in which the claim to rationalism often occurs on both sides of a dialectical argument or strictly in self-interest or whatever?

    I know what he means, and I know why you concede the point of rationality to him (after all, you're a linguist, and linguists are scientists, who are always objective!).

    One extreme example, to make a point*: is my emotional reaction concerning the facts of the holocaust insufficient? Need I support my recoiling with some kind of rationalization for being "against that?"

    *Not to compare Halpern to Hitler, just yet.

  3. I eagerly await Halpern's evidence and penetrating arguments showing how AAVE lacks the means of expressing many ideas and shades of meaning that standard English possesses. I hope he starts with "a society is generally as strict as its language."

  4. I, for one, applaud Halpern's efforts. I mean, it's just too hard to judge people based on skin color anymore. I need arbitrary, self-legitimating, semi-scientific criteria to tell me why dark people are bad.

  5. Mxrk, don't you mean "rational" criteria?


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