It is often galling to hear social constructionists of various kinds address people who believe in things that transcend social and historical conditions. I don't mean thinkers who mount reasoned arguments against the soul, beauty, the good, value-free facts, and other entities beyond particular human circumstance. I mean constructionists who slide into ad hominem dismissals and downright cheap slurs.
Historicist figures from Hegel to Foucault have argued that one and another meta-historical belief was a time-bound and interest-based notion, but they didn't think to toss contempt on the believers. Some present-day constructionists, though, seem to assume that deploring the character of those who espouse anything supernatural or natural or more-than-human serves to dispel the beliefs.
Among intellectuals and scholars, the maneuver may have begun with Marx, who in The German Ideology (written 1845-1846) drew a direct line between fellow intellectuals and class interests. In any society, he said, a ruling class needs not only to control goods, manufacturing, and other material elements, but also ideas, values, and other ideal elements. Hence, the rulers hire thinkers and wordsmiths to do the ideological labor they haven’t time or talent to complete themselves: "inside this class one part appears as the thinkers of the class (its active, conceptive ideologists, who make the perfecting of the illusion of the class about itself their chief source of livelihood)." Intellectuals please their sponsors by detaching those illusions from the ruling class itself so that they appear to possess a transcendent or natural character, thus falsifying their actual status as rationalizations for one group's privilege.
Since then, belief in natural or transcendent entities has the status of a tactic, suspect from the start. Thinkers who pretend otherwise delude themselves or delude others, for the entire tradition of impartial rational cogitation is a myth. From Marx’s perspective, the cogito of Descartes, who reached sound knowledge through the posture of absolute doubt; Kant’s man of taste, characterized above all by disinterestedness; and Hegel the Philosopher standing at the end of History—all were vulnerable to this bilious, but tempting judgment. If you could discredit a thinker’s motives, you didn’t have to explode his or her ideas. A theory of natural law might be compelling and rigorous, but the theorist might have gotten a grant from a conservative foundation or worked on a legal case that readily licenses disrespect.
Consider an example from the field of linguistics. It comes from the “Usage” essay in the fifth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2011), by Harvard psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker. Most people regard a dictionary as a reference work whose expert editors pronounce correct meanings and usage, but according to Pinker—who begins his essay with mocking citations of George W. Bush—the highest authority for proper usage is “a distillation of the way that other speakers use the word.”
Indeed, “[w]hen enough people misuse a word, it becomes perverse to insist that they’re misusing it at all.” The job of lexicographers is to describe how people speak, along with the rules they follow, not to judge how people speak and enforce rules of their own. Here you have the standard descriptivist position that treats correct language as the expression of people who speak it. Just as generations come and go, so do canons of verbal propriety, divisions of vulgar and polite, good and bad. Yesterday’s solecism is today’s eloquence.
Pinker goes further than merely asserting descriptivist principles. He also devotes several paragraphs in his brief to the counterpart of descriptivism, namely, the prescriptivists. Prescriptivists believe that certain usages are incorrect even if a good portion of the population favors them. They set rules of speech even if 100 years earlier great writers broke them. Some features of language, they say, are right or wrong regardless of their time and place, and prescriptivists prescribe their observance without hesitation.
Obviously, descriptivists fall in the social constructionist camp, prescriptivists among those who believe that something independent of social factors is involved. Descriptivists do recognize rules of usage, but they attribute them to social custom, whereas prescriptivists attribute some of them, at least, to nonsocial elements such as rationality and elegance.
Tensions between the two surfaced off and on in the twentieth century as the field of scientific linguistics developed, but they spilled spectacularly into the public sphere with the publication in 1961 of the third edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, the first major dictionary openly to endorse descriptivist principles.
The preceding edition, “Web 2” (published in 1934), stood firmly for decorum and evaluation, marking some words as “erroneous,” “slang,” and “illiterate,” and omitting obscenities altogether. It assumed its own authority, whereby ordinary users relied upon it for correct meanings and usage, the act of looking-it-up-in-the-dictionary marking a final appeal to a referee or magistrate.
Web 3 turned the relationship around, with the editors led by Philip Gove renouncing the role of judge. When the volume came out, their decision erupted into a national forum on the state of American culture. The tale is told marvelously in The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published, a narrative history by David Skinner, which displays well the sociopolitical under- and over-tones of what at first seems just a squabble among scholars.
Notices in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and so on mocked the dictionary for its liberalizing thrust. Dwight Macdonald in The New Yorker regretted the “trend toward permissiveness, in the name of democracy, that is debasing our language by rendering it less precise and thus less effective as literature and less efficient as communication” (March 10, 1962), while Jacques Barzun in The American Scholar termed it “a subtle attack on The Word” (Spring 1963). Gove and others responded with a basic reiteration of descriptivist premises such as “Correctness rests upon usage” and “All usage is relative.”
The debate has continued, but while some measure of prescriptivism has survived in public discussion, among academics the prescriptivists have nearly disappeared. At this point, anyone claiming that this or that common usage is an inherently inferior expression is roundly scorned in the field.
Skinner finds seeds of contempt among linguists from long ago, for instance, in a 1935 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) study that put “ironic quotation marks” around words such as “correct,” while revered linguist Leonard Bloomfield called prescriptivists “the authoritarians.”
This brings us back to Pinker’s essay. At one point, raising the rule against split infinitives, Pinker pauses to explain how such a “ludicrous fetish” ever could have arisen.
It begins when a self-anointed expert elevates one of his peeves or cockamamie theories into an authoritative pronouncement that some usage is incorrect, or better still, ignorant, barbaric, and vulgar. Insecure writers are intimidated into avoiding the usage. They add momentum to the false consensus by derogating those who don’t keep the faith, much like the crowds who denounced witches, class enemies, and communists out of fear that they would be denounced first.
Reading the first sentence and its outlandish reductions, one might think Pinker speaks tongue-in-cheek, as if he meant not only to deride the grammar pedant but to laugh at his own exasperation, too. But the next sentence contains no hint of self-aimed wit, only a turn from the arrogant expert to the anxious writer, while the next sentence expands one person’s timidity into some of the most notorious episodes in modern times. We move from the teacher in freshman composition who circles split infinitives in red pencil to judges at the Salem witch trials, witnesses against heroes of the Revolution accused of treason in the 1930s show trials, and Joseph McCarthy’s fans during the Red Scare. The comparison is ridiculous, but nothing in Pinker’s prose softens his harangue.
Such gestures do not refute the prescriptors; they deride them. Pinker attributes to them self-aggrandizing motives, but he never allows any professional motive for why a scholar might proscribe split infinitives. Couldn’t we argue, however, that in dividing the verb form with adverbs writers weaken it?
In general, prose style improves when it concentrates action in the verb instead of distributing action across non-verbs—an inherent property, not a convention. I may be wrong about that, but at least the reason deserves a hearing from those who dispute it (for instance, by demonstrating that verbal phrases generally do improve when action is spread out instead of concentrated). That Pinker’s tirade appears not in an opinion piece but in a distinguished reference work shows how far the discipline has adopted the sneering forensic.
New Yorker writer Joan Acocella felt its force a few months ago when, in the course of reviewing The Language Wars: A History of Proper English by descriptivist Henry Hitchings, she judged the descriptivists themselves as tyrannical and self-righteous and cited Pinker’s lines above as illustration. Pinker wrote to the magazine that Acocella “got distracted by the example” and added condescendingly that her “pointless dudgeon could have been avoided had she looked up the difference between ‘simile’ and ‘analogy’”—as if it mattered whether Pinker’s inflammatory allusion to witch-hunters is one or the other. On Slate, Pinker flung more vitriol: “Not since Saturday Night Live’s Emily Litella thundered against conserving natural racehorses and protecting endangered feces has a polemicist been so incensed by her own misunderstandings.”
Jan Freeman, longtime columnist at Boston Globe, wrote, “Yes, it is possible to teach standard written English and also to question the peeves and shibboleths of the grammar Nazis; I would have expected The New Yorker to grasp that fact, but apparently I would have been wrong.” Language blogger Stephen Dodson composed a post entitled “Ignorant blathering at The New Yorker” that termed Acocella an “utter ignoramus.”
In the Slate piece, Pinker does offer an argument, and it reveals the argumentative trick behind the constructionists’ ad hominem. It begins by redefining prescriptivism as he thinks it should exist, not as “Web 2,” Macdonald, and other prescriptivists have it. Today, Pinker says, all thoughtful language people mix prescriptive and descriptive attitudes, and they do so precisely because they recognize that prescriptive rules have no more ground than their role as helpful conventions that ease communication:
The thoughtful, dichotomous position on language depends on a simple insight: Rules of proper usage are tacit conventions. Conventions are unstated agreements within a community to abide by a single way of doing things—not because there is any inherent advantage to the choice, but because there is an advantage to everyone making the same choice.
In other words, experts prefer one expression to another because of social circumstances—that’s all. Even a double-negative such as don’t get no, Pinker states, involves no logical problem, for we choose don’t get any merely for accidental reasons of English history. If everybody uses and understands don’t get no, then it is altogether warranted for lexicographers to prefer it to, say, does get no (which nobody uses).
How are prescriptivists to respond? First of all, by spotlighting this turn as a forensic set-up and detailing how it works. Constructionists remove the natural or logical basis of human things, substituting convention and social practices for them, the new definitions becoming axiomatic for the field. If you don’t subscribe to them, you don’t deserve a place in the conversation. When someone comes along and affirms a basis that transcends social conditions, social constructionists can treat them as the ones making something up, fabricating an existence, even if humankind at large believed in that existence for hundreds of years previous (such as the belief that some human expressions are inherently superior to others). Denunciation and removal, then, come easily.
Lexicography is but one field in which sneering at persons who are not social constructionists has become commonplace. In my field of literary studies it happens all the time, and I see no sign that constructionists plan on changing. The tactic is too easy and efficient. But until defenders of inherent virtues, natural laws, divine beings, and other things that transcend social reality learn to overcome this initial set-up, they will be forever on the defensive.
Mark Bauerlein is Professor of English at Emory University. His most recent book is The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.