Any Word Marksmen in the House?
THE UNCERTAIN MIRROR
A BAND OF HIPPIES
Toronto Daily Star headline, November 2, 1970
MAY HAVE KILLED
LAPORTE, POLICE SAY
In everyday conversation, labels such as “communists,” “bosses” and “democracy” are used more or less thoughtlessly without, usually, anyone questioning these terms of reference. Sometimes labels are more carefully employed:
Throughout this book I use he word “gooks” in referring to the North Koreans. Some people object to this word. By “gook” I mean I see no reason for anyone who doesn’t fit this definition to object to the way I use it. (Rear Admiral D. V. Gallery [Retired] in a foreword to this book, The Pueblo Incident.)
An alarmingly large number of people similarly feel little compunction about using the word “hippie,” if everyday conversation and letters–to–the–editor are indicators. I know one perfectly law–abiding youth who was refused service in a Sudbury restaurant because his long hair was sufficient evidence to the proprietor that he was a “hippie”.
A neat, affluent, attractive girl I know was told, on signing a lease for a new apartment, that she would be kicked out if she entertained any “hippie friends.” The superintendent grew apoplectic when challenged to define what the meant by the word.
There are places where such labelling should be taken very seriously; for instance, in editorial rooms.
Most newspapermen pride themselves on being guardians of the language. Watch Your Language is the title of a brilliant book by a New York Times editor, Theodore Bernstein. Globe and Mail writers and editors have some years been issued Style Notes with entries such as “Enormity refers to evil, not to size,” “Trek should be limited to its primary meaning of an organized migration” and “We must not throw in the towel on ‘may’ and ‘can’.” There is an almost fierce belief among editors that they are engaged in a linguistically patriotic battle to preserve “plain English” from nitely raids by advertising copywriters, from modern educators who downgrade spelling and from know–nothings who believe that grammar is snobbish nonsense.
Newspapermen are especially alert against “jargon,” which I’ve found during nineteen years in the field is any word they cannot, or do not want to, understand. “TRANSLATE SPECIAL JARGON,” a Toronto Daily Star memorandum titled Plain Writing admonishes.
Basically, I support the cause. That’s why I view so seriously the speed with which some highly–emotive words have been accepted as language tools by some newspapers in recent years.
“Hippie” and similar words have been resisted to some extent by those in a position to give them wide currency. The Globe and Mail’s Style Notes No. 20 on Feb. 3, 1967 told staffers: “Peacenik should be avoided as a flip description of a bearded demonstrator, except in direct attribution.”
For sometime, a naked display of “hippie” was considered shocking and the word was stubbornly clothed with quotation marks by generations of city editors (a generation in City Editorland being as short as one year). This was laudable. Now ”hippie” is out of quotation marks, legitimizing the epithet. Examples are Tom Hazilitt’s articles in the Toronto Daily Star on Oct. 31, and Nov.2 last year (the latter run under the headline at the top of this article).And in the Globe last Oct. 21, we find Charles Manson described as a hippie–style cult leader, free of quotation marks or other warning devices.
Surely, “hippie” conceals as much a sit reveals. Each person has his notion of what is revealed. my view is that “hippie” commonly suggests long hair, dirt, unkemptness, the taking of (illicit) drugs, unemployment, irresponsibility, rebelliousness against (hard–working, decent, respectable, law–abiding, tax–paying) parents, a hate of “cops,” laziness, sexual immortality, willingness to steal, cowardice. Even part of that is quite a load of emotional baggage to lay on most anyone with long hair.
I conducted an informal poll of about twenty clergymen and church–related people recently, asking what popped into their minds when they heard the word “hippie.” Most mentioned characteristics along the lines in the previous paragraph. Almost half also said they thought of “freedom,” “honesty,” “lack of hypocrisy” or something of the sort. None, curiously, mentioned drugs.
Concealed about a person labelled “hippie” (in other words, the degree of lie involved) are any of the above characteristics that do not, in fact, apply to that individual. Concealed is that person’s individuality. It’s not that no communication is taking place when the word “hippie” is used. For instance, there is no doubt wide agreement that a person we dub “straight” (How often have you seen that word used in the papers?) would differ markedly form a person we label “hippie”. Philip Slater, in his book The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point, assumes such differences reflect two cultures in conflict:
There is an almost infinite number of polarities by means of which one can differentiate between the two cultures. The old culture, when forced to choose, tends to give preference to property rights over personal right, technological requirements over human needs, competition over co–operation, violence over sexuality, concentration over distribution, the producer over the consumer, means over ends, secrecy over openness and so on. The new counterculture tends to reverse all these priorities.
This is stuff of vigorous debate, but not necessarily some sort of violent revolution as a number of people I know are beginning to predict, fear and, in some cases, relish. Use of the word “hippie” (like “communist,” “capitalist,” “cop” and “draft dodger”) is so stereotypical that it snips off the thinking process, We’ve seen what stereotypes have helped accomplish in the past of “Japs,” “queers,” “half–breeds,” “niggers,” “egg–heads” – the stale and dangerous list is far too long.
Stereotypical words and phrases alone do nor cause blind prejudice. But they reflect it. They contribute to it. Perhaps worst, they are a vehicle for it.
As Stuart Chase said in the Tyranny of Words, written in 1938:
If one is attacked and cornered, one fights: the reaction is shared with other animals and is a sound survival mechanism. In modern times, however, this natural action comes after the conflict has been set in motion by propaganda. Bad language now is the mightiest weapon in the arsenal of despots and demagogues.
Walter Lippmann, in his 1921 classic, Public Opinion, writes:
...experience seems to show that [the eye–witness brings something to the scene which later he takes away from it, that oftener than not what he imagines to be the account of an event is really a transfiguration of it. A report is the joint product of the knower and the known, in which the role of the observer is always selective...
After citing experiments to prove that point, Lippmann sounds a thorough warning against the stereotypes we carry with us like so many bunches of grapes in our minds. “[These stereotypes] mark out certain objects as familiar of strange, emphasizing the differences, so that the slightly familiar is seen as very familiar, and the somewhat strange as sharply alien.”
Is all this theoretical? “Those whom we love and admire most,” says Lippmann, “are the men and women whose consciousness is peopled thickly with persons rather than with types, who know us, rather than the classification into which we might fit.”
But can we do without stereotypes, without generalizations? Perhaps not. They are an economy, shortcuts we substitute for endless inquiry. What matters is the character of the stereotypes, who is using them and why, and what attitudes they enforce. In our writing, we must recognize them for the coarse and heavy–handed language tools they are, the broadaxes of the language.
We also need to see that each person employs a pattern of stereotypes which is not neutral. This stable of stereotypes defends our position in the world. Our fixed impressions include ideal enemies, ideal friends. If someone we have pegged as an enemy refuses to act like one, we are thrown off base (as were captured U.S. soldiers in Korea, indoctrinated to see the “gooks” as butcherous sub–humans, when their captors gave them food and cigarettes.)
Unless personal experiences which shatter our stereotypes are forced upon us (by U.S. military accounts, the cigarettes were a form of ‘brainwashing”), our stereotypes have frightening powers as self–fulfilling prophesies, for we act as if they are totally true.
Lippmann puts it this way:
...we do not study a man and judge him to be bad. We see a bad man. We see a dewy morn, a blushing maiden, a sainted priest, a humorless Englishman, a dangerous Red, a carefree Bohemian, a lazy Hindu, a wily oriental, a volatile Irishman, a greedy Jew, a 100% American. In the workaday world, that is often the real judgment, long in advance of the evidence, and it contains within itself the conclusion which the evidence is pretty certain to confirm. Neither justice, not mercy, nor truth, enter into such a judgment, for the judgment has preceded the evidence.
Our bags of stereotypes protect our moral codes and we are fiercely protective of those codes. The special Senate committee report on the mass media underscores how fearful the Canadian reading public is today of losing its standard codes. On page six of Volume III, under the heading “Violence, Sex, Love and Drugs,” the report summarizes the conclusions reached from the extensive surveys by Martin Goldfarb Consultants: “People seem to want not be confronted with issues disturbing their way of life.”
Ultimately, then, our use of stereotypes is political, as brought out in George Orwell’s 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. Orwell attacks the “half–conscious belief” that language is a “natural growth” and not “an instrument which we shape for our own purpose.”
He notes that language can become “ugly and inaccurate” because of foolish thoughts, “but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
Getting rid of bad language tools will help us think more clearly, “and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous...
Orwell’s comments bite sharply at the use of words such as “hippie” although the word had not been invented in 1946. Referring to several writing faults, including the use of stereotypes, Orwell writes:
Two qualities are common.... The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.
Orwell punctures many of the “snarl” and “purr” words (classifications of semanticist S. I. Hayakawa) of postwar England – such as, “petty bourgeois,” “mad dog,” “democracy,” “Fascism,” “socialism,” “realistic” and “pacification.” A writer, says Orwell, can shirk his duty and “let the ready–made phrases, come crowding in,” These words and phrases ‘will construct your sentences for you – even think thoughts for you, to a certain extent – and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.”
Semantic is no ivory tower field, Perhaps people (including reporters) who are so ready to dismiss serious discussion of words (“Oh, you’re just talking semantics.”) instinctively know that their sloppy assumptive world is threatened by scrutiny of their language tools. Again, Chase is relevant:
One must practice [the semantic discipline], as in other disciplines. Training in semantics gets into the reflex arcs of the nervous system and after a while we respond, as an airplane pilot responds to a shift of wind... Semantics provides a method of reaching agreement. On how much can we get together – before the controversy begins? One shifts from the belligerent “You’re wrong!” to “Exactly what do you mean by your statement?”
What are reports and editors to do? The Davey Report is absolutely no help in this regard: it simply doesn’t go into such tools–of–the–trade questions. It does remind us of the degree to which the public believes newspapers carry specific and detailed information, rather than stereotypes and concealed moral codes.
The Goldfarb surveys show, for instance, that 56 percent of Canadians believe newspapers “get below the surface of the news” (as compared with 31 per cent who believe that TV does and 11 per cent, radio). Fifty–five per cent believe newspapers “tell the whole story.” Only 9 percent, radio). Fifty–five percent believe newspapers “tell the whole story.” Only per cent of Canadians believe that newspapers “let you forget” the true state of the world (while 62 percent believe that TV lets you forget).
Orwell suggests that a scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have [the intended] effect?
The writer then will choose – not simply accept – the words precisely needed “and decide what impression one’s words are likely to make on another person.”
Orwell notes that the rules sound elementary but that they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to throwing around currently–acceptable words and phrases. He says “silly words and expressions” often have disappeared owing to the conscious action of a minority. “Two recent examples were ‘explore every avenue’ and ‘leave no stone unturned,’ which were killed by the jeers of a few journalists.
Language can be compared to a high–powered rifle and stereotypes to bullets. The important thing is to know how to handle the gun and what each bullet can do. Very few of us can confidently assume we are marksmen. I feel uncomfortable when I see the word “hippie” tossed around newspaper pages just as I would be anxious in the presence of an amateur messing around with a .303.
We’ve all heard ugly talk about what should be done with “those hippies and draft dodgers.” Such fusillades of loose and violent references have, in the past, preceded awful physical violence. Don’t think it can’t happen here.
We’re moving rapidly into intensely difficult times, perhaps the final time. We need everything possible going for us. In Canada, at least, let’s not pass out verbal ammunition made to order only for the extremists among us – and within us.
Barrie Zwicker, a free–lance writer in Toronto, was a Globe and Mail reporter for eight years and education editor of the Toronto Daily Star.
This article first appeared in the
January 1971 issue of Content magazine (Issue #3).
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