Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
I don’t know how many of my blog posts are spawned from Twitter discussions (arguments? petty slap fights?) but let’s hope it’s less than I think.
This particular one stems from a recent Emma Watson interview where, when talking about turning thirty and being single, she described herself as being “self-partnered”.
Much like the creation of the universe had made people very angry, so it goes whenever a strong female voice expresses any independent thought or opinion and *gasp* dares suggest that she’s doing just fine being single. All manner of vermin are suddenly roused from their damp and murky dens to crawl onto social media in an attempt to remind the world of the superiority of their limp and pale appendages.
One such fellow caught my attention as I was scrolling through my feed. He chose to tweet at both Emma Watson, and at writer and current Chair of the NYC Mayor’s Fund, Chirlane McCray, who expressed support for Watson’s choice of words. And the important message he wanted to communicate to two people who accomplish more before breakfast than he does in a year, is that they don’t know the meaning of the word “partner”. Everyone, stop the presses, this man knows what a word means.
A commitment to misogyny, and a commitment is the only way to describe this person’s Twitter feed, reminiscent of the commitment shown by the rats to sinking Titanic, is difficult to break. But this person wasn’t just committed to a single line of outmoded narrow-minded thinking. This guy was also a prescriptivist. Or more accurately, he used prescriptivism as a platform for his misogyny, because let’s face it, this isn’t going to be someone who complains too much that “covfefe” is not a word.
When called out on his mansplaining, he double, triple, and quadrupled down leaving me with an image of a skinny guy at a hot dog eating competition. I was presented with a Googled dictionary definition of “partner” with the snarky comment about how that’s just English 101. Not sure which English class he’d taken where students are merely beaten with a dictionary for the entirety of the lesson, so maybe some sympathy on my part was in order.
Whatever childhood trauma causes the affliction, prescriptivists see language as a set of rigid rules that must be adhered to. Anything that does not fit into a prescriptivist’s neat definition of what language should be is chocked up to ignorance, or worse yet – innovation. You see, a prescriptivist’s mind is incapable of comprehending speech that isn’t robotically like their own.
They’re the ones who will happily, and incorrectly, remind you that “literally” has never meant “figuratively” and never will – the lowest hanging fruit of grammatical nitpickiness. In fact, it’s not even low hanging – it’s fruit that’s been on the ground so long that it has fermented and anyone who partakes of it because so inebriated that everyone around them is rendered uncomfortable and in want of more pleasant company.
Prescriptivists are the ones who are horrified at the prospect of “alot" becoming a word, even though “alright” and “already” exist. “Ain’t” is an affront to good manners and slang that isn’t so old that even grandpa has starting using it unironically at the Thanksgiving table is evidence of the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of youth these dates. Two hundred years ago, they fainted at Canadian colonists using “fix” instead of “mend” and “store” instead of “shop” and probably strongly considered dismantling the Empire just to preserve the Queen’s English. These days, they get flustered by the mere suggestion that they ought to use pronouns based on the preference of the people they’re referring to, and not their own sense of linguistic intractability.
So how did my prescriptivist dictionary-quoting English-101-invoking friend respond to a gentle reminder that English 101 fan-favourite William Shakespeare left his mark making up words or using them in novel ways? Here is where he trudged out the vague specter of philosophy – an internet argument’s equivalent of a Swiss Army knife comprised entirely of corkscrews. Philosophy, in this case, required recognizing a difference between “organic” and “contrived”. When pressed again whether not to “coin” a term is a contrivance and its general acceptance is subsequently organic, the point was deftly side-stepped, Bill Shakespeare resoundingly ignored.
If you’re having trouble following the logic here, it’s because there is none. I believe the message was loud and clear – men are innovators, women are wrong. And yes, he did actually include the word “wrong” as an emphatic one-word sentence in our communications. If there was any remaining doubt who the global champion of these abhorrent opinions is, here’s the evidence you need. Who else feels like they need a shower at this point?
And here lies the more insidious aspect of prescriptivism – its shameful use as a tool to denigrate linguistic minorities. If one single WASPish version of English is the correct one, then everyone else is wrong, and by extension, inferior. The destruction of language has been a favourite tool of colonists for hundreds of years and this is little different – cultural vernacular or even gender differences in word usage could be relegated to deviations from an arbitrary norm. Unprincipled application of prescriptivism allows for Shakespeare to be celebrated as a visionary and for Emma Watson, despite her successes and education, to be ridiculed for not knowing what simple words mean.
Prescriptivism has little place in society, except perhaps as a foil to the increasing speed with which language changes in the digital age. There is even less space for it in creative writing. The facetious retort to that could be that I’m advocating an abandonment of all norms to the point where meaning itself would become meaningless, but that is a cowardly attitude. What I’m advocating for is to move quickly through the first stage of “learn the rules first, then break them”. As someone who grew up with a different language, I believe I have a good window into seeing the flexibilities in English – its potential rather than its current state. This leads me to experimenting, which I love to do, and sometimes this results in misses, but other times I can offer an interesting twist on an existing word or phrase. Why limit yourself? Why not strive to be innovators?
Break down the rigid barriers of “proper writing” with your own craft, and help open doors that are being so stubbornly closed by others.
My country is currently abuzz with the news of the firing of a Canadian icon, a long-time hockey commentator by the name of Don Cherry. For my Canadian readers, this man needs no introduction, but for everyone else, I figured I’d start with a summary.
Shortly after spending two decades as a hockey player in the minor leagues, in 1974 Cherry was promoted to the head coach of the Boston Bruins, one of the oldest franchises in the National Hockey League and a very successful team in the 70s. Cherry coached the Bruins for five seasons before entering broadcasting where he soon landed a gig for his own segment during Hockey Night in Canada, the premier hockey broadcast in the country.
Cherry had kept this job for nearly four decades, despite over the years accumulating soundbites that ranged from somewhat questionable to straight-up sexist and xenophobic. His ire was an out-of-control firehouse that sprayed every demographic that didn’t fit into his anglo-white old stock conception of what Canada should be. French Canadian and European hockey players were a favourite target, but all sorts of diatribes accumulated over the years including about women reporters and Canada’s Indigenous people. These might seem tame by the standards of media personalities in other countries, but in Canada, despite his lovable bright suits and tell-it-like-it-is attitude, he stood out as a sore thumb in a country where it’s generally frowned upon to be openly hostile to one another (off the ice, that is).
Don Cherry’s inexplicable longevity came to a grinding halt this weekend. Monday was Remembrance Day in Canada, a solemn occasion to commemorate all those who sacrificed their lives to make sure we can continue to enjoy living ours. One of the associated traditions here is donating to the Royal Canadian Legion and wearing a commemorative red poppy. Cherry had taken issue with the fact that he’s observed fewer and fewer people wearing poppies over the years. But instead of directing his rant at Canadians in general, he chose to single out “you people” – specifically immigrants who come to enjoy the Canadian way of life but allegedly can’t be bothered to honour those who’ve laid down their lives for it. Interestingly, it wasn’t the worst thing Cherry has said, and his overall point was a decent one: trying to drum-up some support for veterans and to help rekindle a waning tradition. But instead, he chose to make it an “us” versus “them” problem, where “us” is an extremely specific definition evidenced by Cherry’s comments over the years.
The proverbial straw had crippled the poor exhausted camel that has been forcibly dragging Cherry’s career towards the third decade of the twenty-first century. Two days after the “you people” monologue aired, Cherry was canned.
I think before I say anything further I should mention that a small part of me is saddened by this. It is an ignoble end to a national icon, a household name, a staple of Saturday night television, and the seventh highest-voted Canadian in the 2004 “The Greatest Canadian” TV show. He’s survived so many self-inflicted verbal wounds that one simply assumed only health issues could keep him away from the broadcaster booth.
But beyond the begrudging respect for somebody who obviously loves our country very much, my sympathy for Don Cherry is in short supply. He should have been fired a long time ago. Instead of being propped up and forgiven in the name of ratings, his employers should have pulled his national platform for sharing his bilious opinions. He had made Canada a less welcoming place.
To understand where my own feelings about Don Cherry stem from, you have to remember that I moved from Russia to Canada when I was thirteen years old, and spent most of my teenage years struggling into my new identity. Many tears had been shed over the question of whether I could ever be able to consider myself “Canadian”. And a recurring casual reminder of my otherness was the man in the silly suits yelling at me from the TV every Saturday.
Cherry had always worn his attitude towards Russians on his sleeve. This clip from the 1996 Hockey World Cup is a particularly fiery example. . Coincidentally, I was present at that game, in my Pavel Bure Vancouver Canucks jersey, unequivocally a fan of Team Russia. It was a couple of months before my parents formed the intention to immigrate and three years before Don Cherry assumed a supporting role in my ensuing identity crisis.
You can see from the clip that it wasn’t enough for Cherry to comment on the quality of Canadian hockey versus Russian hockey. Russian hockey accomplishments were completely demolished and the Russians were accused of having no heart. The problem with Cherry’s brand of patriotism is that it’s not only based on building Canada up, but tearing everyone else down.
And that is how it felt – as I built up my confidence in my “Canadianness” Cherry’s routine commentary would tear pieces of it down. Russians are cowards. Russians are sneaks. Russians have no heart. Never sticking to a specific incident, always these sweeping strokes as if Cherry was pointing his accusatory finger right into my soul.
The low point in this journey came for me in Grade 10, during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Probably in part because I stubbornly held onto to some pride for my mother country, I was anointed the class scapegoat for the entirety of the Russian Olympic team. Russian ice hockey team losing? French figure skating judge helping Russians win? Russian skiers caught doping? I was called to answer for every one of these sins.
So while I literally had my back against the wall as several of my classmates jeered about Russian cheating, what did Don have to say about all this?
"I’ve been trying to tell you for so long about the Russians. What kind of people they are and you just love them in Canada with your multiculturalism."
You see, his comments didn’t just stop at hinting at systemic Russian doping, a stance that would be vindicated years later; he had to take it a step further. This was all about what kind of people these Russians really are, and that tolerance of these people is a negative consequence of multiculturalism. Here was a beloved Canadian basically telling me that I was unwelcome here. While I struggled to feel like I belonged, Don shamelessly reminded me that I didn’t and fanned the flames of ridicule that I was subjected to.
Over the years, I’ve grown more comfortable in my skin, and I look back at that period of my life as an unfortunate but essential part of a young immigrant’s struggle. I know what I am and it would take more than the careless words of a TV personality to shake my identity as a Canadian. But the hurt had never fully healed, especially while Cherry was still given the time of day to make others feel the way I did, or worse.
At the end of the day, Don Cherry is not necessarily a bad man, but he is an ignorant man, and the narrowness of his mind does not leave a lot of room for people who are not like him. This to me has always been antithetical to my vision of Canada – a nation that strives to the best of its ability to be inclusive and welcoming.
So thank you, Don, for your service, but it’s time for everyone to move on.
So help me, I’m making my first “political” post. Forgive me, for I know not what I do, but after reading the most recent musings from Maxime Bernier, I can’t restrain myself.
For my non-Canadian readers, Maxime Bernier is a fairly high-profile federal politician. He ran for the leadership of the Conservative party recently, after the previous leader and former Prime Minister Stephen Harper resigned after the election that saw them pushed out of power after almost ten years. Bernier wouldn’t take his defeat lying down and after make some statements that were at odds with the party he was so close to leading, he left and founded his own party – the People’s Party of Canada. His departure from the Conservatives was ostensibly for reasons that they had lost sight of their core conservative values and his intent to continue to fight for its small-government libertarian values.
Since that time, he’s been building up a profile for himself by putting forth allegedly no-nonsense and hard logic justifications for what are essentially right-wing (and I mean that on in the literal political scale, and not in a pejorative sense) ideas.
For instance, he argues that Canada should pull out of the Paris Accord, but not because he’s a climate change denier, but because Canada won’t be able to make its commitments so why act like a huge hypocrite? Makes sense, right? Except it was only a couple of weeks ago that he tried to use his hard logic to say that a carbon tax is not a pollution tax, because carbon dioxide is not a pollutant … because it’s a by-product of our breathing. You catch all that? About the same logic as “we need water to live, so an overabundance of water can’t be a natural disaster”. Max splitting hairs so fine here he’s about to go nuclear.
So now that his environmental agenda is all wrapped up in a digestible package catered for “moderates” that are chomping at the bit to justify their right wing beliefs, he can move onto something else: feminism.
Recently, Bernier declared that he “doesn’t need to be a feminist” because he believes in people. SO there goes another attractive feature for those who wish to see themselves as moderates, who don’t identify with the rabid dog politics of the alt-right and therefore see themselves as the enlightened middle-ground between torch-bearing racists and the identity politic warriors of the left.
Bernier instead believes “in people”. Bernier has rejected both “positive” and “negative” discrimination. Humanity is all about people and why should we treat each other any differently based on gender, race or sexual orientation? This is a fantastic attitude to have, which is what makes it so attractive. And the world would be a utopia if we all espoused this belief at the very core of our being. But we don’t. And this is where this approach becomes dangerous.
It assumes that we are already where everything should be. But even if Bernier is somehow the single human on the planet who has managed to rise above all pre-conceived notions and manages to treat each individual human as the perfect unique snowflake that they are, that’s not how the rest of the world works. You treating someone identically to someone else does not take into account the journey they have taken to reach you. Take an example from immigration. “Everyone has to immigrate to this country according to our laws and through the proper channels, regardless of sex, race, creed or other circumstances.” On the surface, this looks like an attractive moderate approach, but practice it to a tee, and your descendants will end up apologizing for your destructive obstinacy.
But even without having to resort to such drastic examples, one can see how this attitude simply serves to numb any call to action. What Bernier is advocating is a splendid individual-level isolationism. You no longer care about obstacles, advantages or circumstances that may be created for an individual due to their race and gender based on how society treats them, because you supposedly treat them all equally.
What this essentially does is tries to move us to the end result while bypassing all of the difficulty of getting there. It assumes that identity politics is created voluntarily and individually, and not as a reaction to a society that repeatedly forces an individual to confront and question their identity. Bernier is trying to pacify the discomfort experienced by those societal demographics that have rarely had to confront what their race and gender identity really mean. To them (to me) this feels knew, but for others, this is what they’ve been living their whole lives, and so have countless generations before them.
Bernier is very good at putting a digestible spin on old ideas. He’s not a “breath of fresh air” he’s a spritz of cologne on the same miasma that is refusing to let us move forward from centuries of stagnation. Which is why I believe that his message should be challenged at every turn.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.