Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Will Twitter and SMS Messages Kill Serious Communication

I was asked the question posed in the title of this blog and was somewhat puzzled as to why one might think that communications restricted to 140 characters would somehow cause us to cease to be able to write serious communications.  I then encountered the link associated with the title of this blog wherein it is said
Those that say that text-writing is not ruining communication are not living in the real world. I have heard from many freshman writing professors at colleges who complain about their student's writing. Why hasn't this been addressed before they reached that point? Why isn't anyone telling kids that it is not acceptable to write the same way for an academic paper as it is to write to your friend.
Of course, it is inappropriate to employ the same writing style in a term paper or exam as one uses in a sms or twitter message.  But the problem is not that writing sms and twitter messages is harmful per se.  The problem is that teachers are insufficiently stressing the importance of using formal language in writing test answers, essays, job applications, and anything else meant for adults, including especially people one needs to impress.

I think many adults who are being dragged into the world of electronic, non-voice communication find these highly abbreiated messages somehow offensive in and of themselves.  The writer of hte previsiously quoted passage goes on to say
Personally, when my teenage daughter leaves me notes on the table expressing that she will "C U L8R," I cringe. I actually circle the inappropriate language and leave her a note telling her that I expect a better note than that. 
This is some ugly stuff, no doubt but it is easy to figure the meaning out.  But if the mother thought that this was too abbreviated, I wonder what she would make of a famous telegraphic exchange between Oscar Wilde and his publisher.  The former sent the message "?"  and the publisher replied "!".  Each knew what the other was saying -- "How is the book coming along?" and "It is coming along well."

I agree that the very ugly abbreviations one finds in twitter messages and text messages can be quite off-putting to novices (such as myself).  But they are, after all, abbreviations for words, not substitutes for them.  They are no different from the messages doctors write on prescriptions such as "b.i.d." or "a.u." or "cc."  I think we ought to be a great deal less happy with this sort of communication than the abbreviated texts of sms and twitter messages.  The unfortunate thing about this is that if we could understand exactly what doctors are writing on our scripts, then we could catch any errors the pharmacies or, for that matter, the doctors make.

There is a positive side to the writing of sms and twitter messages.  Anyone attempting to obey the 140 character limit (rather than simply sending one sms message right after another) will inevitably learn to craft succinct messages.  This is a good thing.  All writing is improved by developing succinctness in expressing oneself.  And writing is improved simply by writing itself and what we are seeing from our children is vastly more writing being done now than in several generations.

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Friday, May 07, 2010

Wearing a Burka in Public

I just saw a news story coming from the BBC describing a case in which a woman wearing a burka in Novara in north-western Italy was arrested. The wearing of a full face covering in public places that prevents identification was made illegal in Italy as part of an anti-terrorism effort. The lower house in Belgium has just passed, with no dissent, a law against the wearing of burkas in certain public places. The French moved in this direction in 2009 but no law was passed as far as I know.

Now, there is nothing specifically linguistic about this of course except that a law banning a "full-face covering" would be one thing and a law banning a "burka" using these phrases specifically, would be interpreted very differently. A law mentioning the latter would constitute religious discrimination. A law banning the former would not even though it could have the same effect.

There are huge cans of worms lying about here. What about a child wearing a ghost costume that covers the face, as well as the rest of the body? Or, more seriously, the wearing of balaclavas in very cold weather, something that I have done. Compare the image of someone wearing a balaclava (upper photo) with one of someone wearing a burka (lower photo).

It seems pretty clear to me that the person wearing the balaclava is a woman but I could be wrong.  That's less clear in the case of the burka.  However, either garment would be very effective in concealing one's identity in a store robbery.  Persons wearing burka's have committed crimes, as in a case in Bradford, England where two persons pistol-whipped a post office manager in a daylight robbery.  Of course, the balaclava is the standard covering for those wishing to commit crimes without giving away who they are.  There is a nice cartoon at cartoonstock.com in which an alien is depicted wearing a balaclava.

What we have here are items of clothing with significant symbolic meaning.  In my mind, balaclavas signify something a bit disreputable -- when I wear mine when going out to a football game in November, I do not put it on until I am on campus where there is a good chance I will not be perceived as someone about to commit a stick up.  Burkas obviously signify that the wearer is a Muslim.  The problem with them is that to many non-Muslims, it signifies a woman under the control of a man.  In the Italian case, the husband demanded that his wife not take the burka off.  This kind of marital relationship is offensive to many non-Muslims such as me.  Of course, to outlaw the burka would be a brute force way of expressing one's disfavor and wouldn't change the relationship between husband and wife.  Burka's also, thanks to the association of head coverings like this to Muslim terrorists, signfy the possibility of danger.  Two males wearing burkas covering vests packed with explosives in Afghanistan were shot dead before they could detonate the devicies.

Making it illegal to wear a burka/balaclava in the commission of a crime would not deal with the public safety issues raised by the wearing of such items of clothing.  In the case of a robber who is later caught you could stick a few more years on the ends of his sentence.  But, there is no similar punishment available to the successful suicide bomber.  The the only recourse the society has is to make the wearing of either item illegal in public.  In Quebec, when bill restricting the wearing of burkas was announced, it was said 
This bill has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with integration and equality.
This is, of course, bullshit.  Such an argument would make sense if it applied to all wearing of all ethnically identifiable clothing. As I noted, banning burkas doesn't change marital relationships so its not clear what sort of equality is achieved by banning them.

To my mind, there is one and only one sound reason for banning wearing of burkas and, for that matter, balaclavas, in public and that is to promote public safety.  It is not often that a Muslim woman wearing a burka is going to be blowing up anything anywhere, but as in the Afghanistan case, burkas can be worn by men who wish to exploit the fact that women rarely commit crimes of violence.  Adding the balaclava to the burka in one's law makes sense for they too have been used to conceal the identities of persons committing crimes and it rids the law of any association with anti-Muslim bias.  I will find another way to protect myself from the cold in the future if such a law is passed.  And, I can still wear mine at home when snow-plowing.  However, it is not clear to me that the public safety issue is worth the trouble a law like this would create.

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