Michael Fish – Countering Claims of Linguistic Political Correctness

By the end of this post you will see fairly apparently that I really, really, really enjoyed the Fish article. Firstly, Fish makes a number of apt criticisms on the assumptions people make with regards to the way people are taught to write. My favorite was his subtle mockery of the notion that somehow reading the “classics” over and over again would somehow teach people how to write sufficiently well as if by means of osmosis or absorption. I find this to be especially true because I have always considered writing my personal strong suit, but somehow simultaneously always managed to fall asleep in 7th grade Lit classes.

However, I found the strongest point made to be the one regarding whether or not it is “correct” to teach grammar in a universal fashion. Fish acknowledges that while the notion of a fundamentally more correct way of speaking/writing is inherently discriminatory, it does not follow that we should abandon any hope of a universal standard of teaching grammar. He argues that this truth actually makes a strong case for adopting such standards, not a weaker one.

Fish writes: “You’re not going to be able to change the world if you are not equipped with the tools that speak to its present condition. You don’t strike a blow against a power structure by making yourself vulnerable to its prejudices.” Basically, if you want to defeat your enemy, you have to be able to at least communicate in their terms, and principled abstention from the already existing processes won’t do any good for anyone who hopes to reform it.

What do you think? Is the idea of a universal standard of teaching so inherently discriminatory that we should abstain from even propagating it, or do “the ends justify the means” in this sense?

4 thoughts on “Michael Fish – Countering Claims of Linguistic Political Correctness”

  1. Interesting way to look at it. As far as learning the language goes, it seems like they’re stuck between two issues. If they chose to learn the language, it’s almost an admission of defeat. By letting whatever powers that be dictate where and how discourse occurs, they’re just subjugating themselves in a different way.

    Additionally, even if they meet these ‘requirements,’ it seems likely the standards will only become more extreme. Any proponents of only one English seem to have the ability to dictate higher standards, thereby gaining the ability to indefinitely postpone the conversation.

    However, by not adapting, they’re open to criticism and discrimination because they can’t conform to the guidelines set. Because this is a system in which they don’t have power, they don’t have the ability to change the terms. In this case, abstaining makes it difficult to even gain access to to these discussions.

    There isn’t really a single way to approach this, other than consistent attempts from a variety of backgrounds, especially academic ones, the argue the importance of these discussions and efforts, no matter the language used to do so.

    As for teaching, I’m not entirely sure if a fully accepting approach would work. With two or three different dialects, it wouldn’t be completely impossible to teach to all of them. However, how do we judge these for correctness? If code switching or meshing occurs, how do we merge our evaluations? It’s possible to grade in a dialect, but using more than one in a single piece of writing is inconsistent, and hard to evaluate. I don’t see a problem is recognizing dialects as academically sound, but expecting teachers to understand and teach to all of them seems to be an incredibly difficult task. I don’t exactly have an answer, but these are all definitely issues to trying to implement a system.

  2. I definitely feel as if being able to talk and communicate in ways similar to their ways of communication do better one’s own ability to make a difference. In fact, this honestly does somewhat happen in politics today. I saw something today that spoke about how presidential candidates have never had speeches that go past an 11th grade reading level, and the one that was at this level was Abraham Lincoln’s. This doesn’t speak as much about the dialect of the language, but does point out an interesting point about how vocabulary and syntax usage can change, still being widely in standard english, to meet the needs of those one is trying to communicate with.

    I definitely do agree that we should be able to have the skills needed in order to make a difference in today’s world, and a lot of that does require standard english. However, I also think that instead of strictly teaching standard english, it is also helpful to point out the importance of being competent in the dialect that dominates, because that can and likely will change over time as generations change. I think emphasizing only one dialect is discriminatory. However, I do not think teaching one in full and also pointing out the importance others could have in the future and spending time teaching them is necessarily discriminatory and can be a good idea of something to look into in the future.

  3. This reminds me of reformist vs. radical debates in general. I think that it both sides of the argument are valuable, but I think Fish’s argument is steeped in inequality and prejudice, as Young argues in his piece. The way that language is created is through pushback and changes over time, and I think if we argue for “standard English” as a universal we also have to think about where that comes from–people in power. If we want to fight inequality and give more power to people who currently are disempowered by our system, I think that we should value that language just as much as standard English. It is logistically more difficult than a universal standard, but I think that’s ok.

    Like Young, I find a lot of conflict with Fish’s phrase, “You don’t strike a blow against a power structure by making yourself vulnerable to its prejudices.” This is putting the onus back onto people who are already experiencing the prejudice, when the “power structure” should be the one taking responsibility for not being prejudiced.

  4. Based off what we have learned in this class and from the article, I definitely agree that if one (whether that person is a politician, teacher, religious figure, etc.) can communicate and relate to their peers/those who they are trying to reach on their level, their message will be more clearly stated; therefore, that speaker will gain more support for the goal they are trying to reach.

    On a personal level, my aunt is a principal at a high school in Beaver Falls, PA and when she has to address parents/faculty/students in letters, she has to make sure that they are clear to understand. Many of her letters do not go above a 9th or 10th grade level so that a miscommunication is prevented and her point is easily stated and understood by everyone.
    With that said, I agree that we need to have the skills to succeed in making a difference in this world, and as stated by @dnewman, many of these skills are found and obtained by using standard English. However, I also think that it is important to incorporate other aspects of language, other than standard English, so that we might be able to limit the aspects of inequality/racism. Relating this back to my aunt, she has needed to learn when to and when not to use standard English to get her point across. She has needed to learn to understand the different aspects of Ebonics so that her students take her seriously, but also so that she can relate to them and more personally understand their efforts/problems. These are the types of aspects that are need to be to succeed in her school, and she has obtained them.

    To succeed in today’s world, I think being able to use both standard-English and other, more relaxed forms of a language, will not only make us more unique compared to those who don’t, I think it will give us the ability to connect more with those around us – possibly eliminating that gap between race and social class and promoting a more equal world/working environment.

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