Sunday 25 March 2007

What's going on?

First there were complaints here and there about the education system. Students needed remedial classes once they entered university, teenagers had trouble parsing sentences, and their maths was ruefully inadequate. Gradually politicians started to take notice, and eventually the concerns entered the election arena. In Australia the federal government prepared reforms, so did the states, and the federal opposition countered with their proposals while teachers added their own experiences as anecdotal evidence. In other Western countries the situation is not much different.

Here's an example from personal encounters. How many times have I sent an email to someone only to be misunderstood, requiring another post and maybe even another just to get the point across. We're not talking about the finer points on a theme, but seemingly straightforward sentences. It happens to other people too. Say someone offers to dig up certain articles and immediately is assumed by someone else to be on the verge of sending the whole lot - yet nowhere did he say that. It takes a further email to clarify the matter.

In the meantime certain books appeared, here and overseas. For example, Don Watson, "Death Sentences: How Clich├ęs, Weasel Words and Management-Speak Are Strangling Public Language", Gotham; or Frank Furedi's "Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?", Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd, "Paranoid Parenting: Why Ignoring the Experts May Be Best for Your Child", Chicago Review Press; and, even more poignantly titled, Shelley Gare's "The Triumph of the Airheads - and the Retreat from Commonsense", Park Street Press; Steve Lowe and Alan McArthur, "Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit?", Little Brown; Michael Bywater's "Big Babies: Or Why Can't We Just Grow Up", Granta; and Tony Perry, "On Being Grumpy, The Musings of a Malcontent", Penguin.

Recently Carl Hiaasen wrote in the Miami Herald, ".. But this is the New Journalism, which is steered by a core belief that people would rather be smothered by seedy gossip about ex-Playmate junkies than be bothered with the details of North Korea's nuclear program. Like the Don Henley song says, crap is king".

Just a statistical fluke or is there more to it?

When a phenomenon extends beyond an immediate area and becomes visible in various contexts it is time to think about deeper causes.

The ability to speak does project into the personal environment where communication provides a constant feedback loop going from one's own thoughts to the other and from there back again to the individual's mind. Just as new words or phrases gain credence through such usage so does language in general, and the standard, whatever its quality, echoes around the conceptual landscape of linguistic formats.

The general manner of expression finds its own level amidst the communal reverberations. A lack of variety spreads and the reservoir of expressions becomes attenuated to the emerging paucity.

In functional terms an acceptance of the simple as a substitute gains hold. Whether that manifests in terms of a population's vocabulary or whether mental exercises sink to the lower ground is only a matter of opportunity, but the principle holds regardless.

Naturally the choice of topics runs alongside. Debating a country's foreign policy requires more complex conceptualisations than talking about Paris Hilton, and from a certain point onwards that woman's predilection is just about the only thing left that makes any sense.

A certain tendency to relax may exist all the time, but when it has grown into lethargy any prompt for something sharper is smothered at its source. Since behaviour is fundamentally determined by one's identity we need to look at the influences in society which shape the core of a person.

Descending to the lowest common denominator signals the absence of an opposite. The placing of the child on a pedestal, the virtually groveling attitude of parents, and the simplistic idea of "everyone is special" are the cloying cocoon that wraps itself around a growing personality which is supposed to confront a world that simply is and always has been. Reality however does not give way and has a habit of dictating its own terms. The result is consternation, shock, and anger.

The title of yet another book, "The Princess Bitchface Syndrome" by Michael Carr-Gregg, Penguin, says it all.