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COLUMN: The Language Of Discourse

Heights Columnist

Published: Sunday, January 26, 2014

Updated: Sunday, January 26, 2014 23:01

Discourse is a favorite term of sociologists, literary critics, and linguists, and is, unfortunately, typically deployed abstractly, alongside slews of jargon, and, of course, (needlessly) highfalutin complexity. It’s discussed with a range of other, equally convoluted concepts, many with Latinate or French names like semiotics and un enonce (blame Michel Foucault, et. al). These, too, are about as opaque as a hunk of lead—often, not even Supermannish intellects can penetrate them. Which is all too bad, because discourse is pragmatic and important.

Discourse, and this is my Clark Kentish definition, is the set of and interplay between words and tones in specific contexts. Even that’s damnably abstract, so I’ll give an example. Let’s say I drop something in a grocery store, a glass jar of jelly, and an employee swiftly arrives to help clean. When he/she is finished, I will say, if I’m not totally rude (most people aren’t), “Thank you,” and I might even include a “ma’am”, or a “sir.” If I don’t, my tone, my inflection, will most like say sir or ma’am for me (everyone knows his or her polite, formal “thank you” tone), and I’ll use that tone because I want to convey my genuine thanks to this unfamiliar person.

Now let’s say I drop a jar of jelly in my house, where I live with five of my best friends. After five minutes of being completely bashed for klutziness, one of them will help me clean up the mess. When we’re done cleaning, I’ll say, “thanks,” sort of flatly, as a matter of course and habit, if I even say it at all, and maybe “dude” after that if it’s an exceptionally annoying clean-up. There’s a reason for the difference that has nothing to do with my being less thankful for my roommate’s help. My roommate and I are very familiar, we’re in the privacy of our home, and we live in in such close proximity that, if we were to treat each other like grocers all the time, we’d never stop saying “thank you” in that polite, formal way. That’s exhausting because it’s not indicative of our closeness—the diction is incongruous with our friendship. Conveyance of thanks is somewhat implicit at this point in our relationship. We both know the silence is not a reflection of my antipathy. These are discourses. The former is the formal conversation between an unfamiliar serviced and servicer, the latter is the informal conversation between a familiar serviced and servicer.

Discourses provide texture to fundamental social structures for better or for worse. Discourses between college students that assume mutual appreciation of learning and bodily/emotional respect are infused with patience, bonhomie, and open-mindedness and are transmitted with phrases suggesting empathetic dialogue like, “I appreciate your opinion, but here’s mine,” or, “I get where you’re coming from, but here’s what I think,” are pretty obviously good. Discourses between college students that assume mutual rampant hedonism, hubris, xenophobia, general ignorance, and are transmitted with phrases like, “that’s gay,” or, “you’re weird,” are pretty obviously bad. In these above examples, I’m nodding specifically to peer-to-peer, conversational discourse—the kind of communication that occurs on dorm couches, walks to class, and in the Rat—because this is the most unconscious, corruptible, and for us, ubiquitous type of discourse.

Discourses can be good and appropriate in one context but not deployed in another, making them bad. For a relatively innocuous example, if I’d responded to the grocer helping me clean up the jelly with a “thanks, dude,” I would deservedly be called rude. Discourses are dangerous when we fail to recognize they are being used in the wrong context and especially sinister when there are no obvious repercussions for their use.

I feel obliged to acknowledge that I know I’ve simplified morals and ethics to simple, binary bad/good. There is a whole other discussion on racist, bigoted discourses in which moral and ethical consequences cannot be so simplified, but that’s not mine for now. My discussion for now is a good discourse bleeding out of its context and interfering with another discourse negatively. That discourse bleeding out of its context is digital, Internet communication, and the other discourse is the aforementioned physical, peer-to-peer conversational discourse.

Internet communication is not inherently bad at all—in fact, it’s good within its context. The Internet, by design, engenders speedy and voluminous communication. That’s its modus operandi, and we love it for that. But that speed and volume, the structure as a whole, is lent to abbreviation and coded language (composed of it, too, as computer science majors know). Type in www.bc.edu on your browser, and you’re taking part. Whether it’s because the first users of the Internet were the computer people using this abbreviation, or because typing out full sentences is more tiring than speaking full sentences, or because the speediness of the Internet nudges communicators toward speed, I’m not sure, but abbreviation and coded language dominates Internet discourse. It goes beyond “lol,” “np,” or “ttyl.” Thoughts get abbreviated. Self-editing is the rule. Twitter celebrates abbreviation and coding with hashtags and a character count. To convey meaning properly in this discourse, interlocutors are obligated to use the codes. When this form of discourse is massively popular, as Twitter is now and as AIM was a decade ago, everyone can use the codes and know instantly which meanings are conveyed. Meanings are tailored to translate well to a wide audience.

The issue is that, because we use this discourse so often and use it as primary means to communicate with others, we use it in all conversing discourses, and most dangerously in peer-to-peer physical discourse, where these codes are meaningless. Conveying in this context is all about elucidation and elaboration, but increasingly, we’re content with speaking in an Internettish, coded, abbreviated sense, and it’s as inappropriate as saying “thanks, dude” to a grocer, or “thank you, sir” to your roommate. There is no obvious repercussion for it, yet (no one takes blame in our society, it’s too private), but damage is being inflicted. Conversation, clarity, and intimacy are eroding.

Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights

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