Friday, August 31, 2012

Multiculturalism. Really? Part 1: Grammar

Question:  We say we are interested in the expression of other, non-majority thoughts, but when it comes to thoughts that challenge our ideology, are we ready to listen, or, worse than not listening, do we invalidate them on the basis of a social construct of rightness, such as the preference of the active voice?

I landed my first tutoring gig (for money) my junior year of high school, and I immediately learned that there was a reason people needed tutors: the normal way of teaching is just not clicking for them.  Now, that first student was a white, middle-class student kid growing up in a house of a then stay-at-home or sometimes working very part-time, college-degreed mother and graduate-degreed, professionally-employed father.  While not overly spoiled, he certainly wanted for nothing.  His problem then was that he thought in movement--a way of looking at things that later guaranteed him an actual paying job as a stage manager (do you know how good you have to be to get paid to do that?).  And even though, at the young age of sixteen and hitherto not yet versed in educational theory, I was only able to feel vaguely that he thought in a different way, that the swing of the sentences seemed to make more sense to him than the words, and that the teaching in the way that I had been taught didn't "connect."  Still, there was power in the words and things he needed to say, and though I am looking back through more than half my lifetime, I still remember clearly his frustration as he tried to express his frustration and sense of betrayal at learning that Magic Johnson had AIDS.  It was then that I realized deep thoughts were buried in this person and that mining them would require more than that standard drill.  I needed specialized equipment.

And perhaps it was this first interaction with someone within the same culture for whom the standard cultural conventions didn't work that I actively considered whether standard conventions would work in all my English-related future endeavors.  Not surprisingly, as I seemed to become editor/proofreader of choice for the thesis and dissertation review of non-native students, I found that the standard approach to teaching/correcting language was problematic.  There were thoughts, shades of meaning that these students wanted to express that were "grammatically wrong" (perhaps "non-preferred" is the better word).  But what we consider a question of grammatical correctness is not an issue of correctness at all.  It is, in fact, an ideological construct thrusting itself on us through grammar.

For example:  The people were robbed of their nourishment during the ensuing famine.
Western Belief of Grammatical Error:  Passive voice
Best Correction (though not direct, as corrections so often cannot be completely direct):  The ensuing famine robbed the people of their nourishment.

Well, here's the ideological problem: the Western correction, by virtue of its love of the transitive, must thrust the blame somewhere, and, as Western convention is increasingly growing to love the simplified, this blame is often thrust somewhere simplified, without the shades of possibility or complexity that may actually have existed.

Don't believe it?

Let's make the example more specific and see what you think:

Initial sentence:  The poor farmers of the American Midwest were robbed of their nourishment during the ensuing food shortage following the Dust Bowl.
Problem?  Still in the passive voice.
Correction:  The food shortage following the Dust Bowl robbed the poor farmers in the American Midwest of their nourishment.

Perhaps those of you familiar with American history around this time (or readers of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath) might now say, "Oh, really?" with an adequate level of scorn.  What is clear to anyone familiar with that time is that the Dust Bowl was not a naturally occurring phenomenon but was brought about by a number of factors:  corporate greed, disregard for farming practices which were considered primitive but preserved the topsoil, and a drought (perhaps to be expected).

The first sentence places no blame but neither does it excuse anyone.  The second sentence may be preceded by sentences explaining the causes of the Dust Bowl, but perhaps not.  Either way, it puts the blame on the "food shortage" alone.  Furthermore, the sentences in the active voice shade the meaning of "nourishment" with a leaning toward "food."  "Nourishment," however, can mean far more than links it to sustenance and the ability to trade as well as explicit food.  The Dust Bowl absolutely took those other non-food aspects away from many Midwestern farmers as well as it did their food.  But this aspect is nearly lost in the "corrected" sentence.

Furthermore, many cultures believe that some things merely happen, merely are.  Our reliance on the active voice undermines the expression of this sentiment.  We do not allow that there may not be able to avoid what is coming or that aspects of our future are beyond our determination.  We are captains of our fates!

Without arguing about the sentiment, I am merely pointing out that our grammar is hindering the free expression of these kinds of thoughts within our society and that, in addition to hindering those ideas, is penalizing those who would try to express them.

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