June 20th, 2006

ozarque figure

Recommended link; more links....

If you're busy this morning and were thinking you'd skip Language Log, I'd recommend that you think about that again and go read Mark Liberman's "The Gray Lady Goes Up Against Fark.com" at http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003266.html#more -- not so much for its content as for the links it provides this morning. Including one to an article by Jan Freeman titled "What do linguists do?" that is a bit contradictory. It suggests that linguists are "fact-seeking, fun-loving, rule-embracing folks" while at the same time describing their activities with the following predicates: "rant, annoy, dismantle, lambast, sleuth," and quotes Geoffrey Pullum wishing English had a word meaning "lazy journalist eagerly repeating hogwash about natural languages."
ozarque figure

Emotional weather; the Hopelessness Front....

I'm worried about the Hopelessness Front that now seems to be controlling the emotional weather; I think it's extraordinarily dangerous, and it's coming at me in increasingly frequent squalls and waves. I keep hearing from people in these United States -- in person, in snailmail, and in e-mail -- whose messages go roughly like these:

"It makes no sense at all for me to try to get anywhere or accomplish anything. I'm working every single minute that I'm awake, seven days a week, and it doesn't make any difference -- I still can't make enough to pay my bills. And it's never going to get better, it's just going to go on this way until I drop dead."

"I'm working three jobs plus spending every free minute selling stuff on eBay and I still can't even make enough money to get by. I can be a street person or I can move in with my parents and make their lives as miserable as mine is, and that's all the choices there are. And there isn't any way out of this. I'm stuck this way, for the rest of my life."

"I did everything I was supposed to do, I got my damn college degree, and now it takes every cent I make just to buy my food and make the payments on my college loans and everybody I know is in the same mess I'm in. And now you can't even take bankruptcy any more because the damn government has canceled that option, and you can't get sick because only rich people are allowed to get sick, and there's no way out of this mess."

And why isn't there any way out? Why isn't it ever going to get better in the U.S.? There's a unanimous answer when I ask that question: "Because lunatics are running the country, and there's no way to get rid of them because all the elections are crooked now. It doesn't make any difference how you vote, it's all fixed ahead of time." Followed by, "Only stupid people are going to play that game -- only stupid people are going to vote any more."

These people aren't complaining about specific Big Issues -- immigration, taxes, global warming, the war in Iraq, the Medicare/Medicaid/Social Security crises, the national debt, vamp till ready. And they aren't people dying of AIDS, suffering from bird flu, labeled "enemy combatants," stripped of everything they own by hurricanes.... they're just ordinary getting-through-the-day-and-the-night-over-and-over-again people.

And -- to my considerable amazement -- they're pointing out to me that Stephen Hawking says it's time we Terrans got off this planet and settled space. They may be unaware of a lot of what's being said on the news -- not surprising, since people who spend every waking moment working don't have a lot of time left for keeping up with the news media -- but the story about Hawking's "Stop the world! We have to get off!" pronouncement has spread far and wide. That one, they're aware of.

I've thought long and hard, and I can't remember it ever being this bad. Not during any of the previous wars -- and I remember World War II very well. Not during the civil rights struggle. Not during the struggle against the Vietnam War. Not during any of the recessions. Not during the times when gasoline was rationed or when we had to sit in long lines to get any gas at all. Not ever. There was a lot of moaning and lamenting and despairing during the previous hard times that I'm old enough (at seventy) to remember, but there was one major difference: Most people ended their lamentations with some variation on "And we've got to buckle down and fix it!"

I'm not hearing that this time. I'm just hearing that there's no way to fix it, and no way out, and no point in even trying, because it's hopeless. Because only stupid people don't know that there's no point in trying, because it's hopeless. In my experience, this is new.

Hopelessness. It's contagious.
ozarque figure

Emotional weather; the Hopelessness Front, part 2...

I've been reading your comments -- and I thank you for them -- but when I started thinking about responding to them I realized that I was going to be saying the same thing over and over most of the time; I think a response here is a better idea.

I do know that complaining isn't new. And I haven't been fretting in recent years over the majority of the complaints that were coming my way, which tended to be like these:

"I don't have a DISHwasher, I have to wash my dishes by HAND!"
"We only have two BATHrooms, and I just don't know what to DO!"
"I can't decide WHERE to go for my vacation, and it's driving me NUTS!"
"I have a six-month-old BABY and I have to write a TERM paper!"
"No matter WHAT I do, I CANNOT get my hair the color I want it!"
"It's not bad enough that I have to write a paper, my prof says it has to have a BIBLIOGraphy!"

And so on. All in Peel Me A Grape Mode, as I myself perceive the world. I respond to these as politely as I can manage [as in "It's not easy figuring out how to handle things; I'm sorry to hear that you're having a hard time."].

But what I'm hearing now isn't like that. And the complaints I'm hearing now aren't just coming from the two sets of complainers I used to hear from most often -- youngsters, and a few older people who'd never faced a real problem in their entire lives. The feeling I get from the complaints I'm hearing now, which are coming from people of all ages, is that the surface complaint -- which may in fact strike me as trivial -- isn't the real message, and that it wouldn't help if the person had a solution for that complaint; the hopelessness wouldn't go away.

You're right -- some of that comes from the "No matter how much you have, it's never enough if somebody else has more" message our culture constantly trumpets at everybody. Some of it comes from the "What you are as a human being depends on how many toys you have and how famous you are" message. Some of it comes from the "You have to WIN, no matter what" message. Some of it, I suspect, comes from people being over-medicated and medicated inappropriately. Sure. And some of it comes from the fact that -- unlike the situation in the Olden Days -- television and the Internet guarantee that we know about every last awful thing that's going on almost immediately. There was a time when it might be months before you knew that hundreds of thousands had died horribly somewhere in a wicked war, or a plague, or an earthquake; now we know while the ground's still shaking. But still .... there seems to me to be something deeper, and something new.

Those of you who mention betrayal are making an important point, I think. The emotional message that I'm hearing behind the surface complaints is one of horror at being betrayed. I'm hearing a total loss of trust. And when I hear it face to face instead of reading it in written words, I'm also stunned by what I see. By the blankness in the eyes. By the body language that seems to me to indicate that the person is just waiting for the next blow to fall, without any idea that perhaps there won't be another one. It seems to me, even when I perceive it as out of all proportion to the situation -- to be absolutely genuine. Not faked, genuine.