There are times when things really throw you a curve as to what you thought human nature was. For me, one of them was when carrying mobile phones became the default. It would never have occurred to me before then that so many people would want to talk and text in their spare moments as much as they do.
It should have. We are fundamentally social creatures who for centuries existed within smallish bands of people well known to one another. “Personal space” and the idea of being left alone with one’s thoughts can almost be seen as modern add-ons to what humanity is like, and perhaps more typical of WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) societies than others — WEIRD-ness being the coinage of Joseph Henrich, an anthropologist at Harvard and the author of “The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous.” Reviewing the book for The Times, the Tufts University philosophy professor Daniel Dennett described Henrich’s concept thusly:
That realization makes less shocking to me, albeit utterly dismaying, the many dogmatic behaviors exhibited today that seem outwardly irrational or close to it. The kinds of things that make it seem as if so many of us are, so to speak, losing it are actually signs of how difficult it can be to get past what we seem to be hard-wired for. Fanatic beliefs, furious ideologies and even, potentially, a sense of duty to harm people in the name of certain beliefs reflect the eternal temptation of a sense of belonging to a group, of being part of a larger story, of having a guiding sense of purpose. To us WEIRD-os, by contrast, the ever-stronger purchase of individualism in our intellectual, moral and civic development seems natural. But it’s challenging, perhaps unnatural, to be an individual.
There will always be those who prefer the warm embrace of feeling as if they are part of a heroic mass movement, united in a communal grievance and spared the challenge of individuality, which entails facing the possibility of being wrong, of grappling with nuance, of living one’s own story without certainty as to how it will end.
Among those shirking that challenge are the people who cannot be budged from the fantasy that the former president Donald Trump won the 2020 election, the people fashioning themselves as eternal victims of undifferentiated masses of white people ever badgering Black people with microaggressions and the people who appear motivated to attempt to kill someone in the name of a religious leader’s declaration. The results of these impulses vary greatly in impact and import, but to differing degrees they’re all symptoms of the same preference of being part of a herd even at the expense of coherence.
But our times are bifurcated. There are signs that at the same time, so many other people are seeking to countenance diversity of thought, disavowing the comforts of the idea that their view is the only legitimate one and fostering an ideal under which our society frames difference of opinion as a norm rather than a threat. We can see it in aspects of linguistic behavior as well as in broader cultural matters.
Casual American English, in ways we’re not always conscious of, is more overt in allowing room for disagreement than it used to be. For example, the use of “like” that so bothers purists is in reality a useful discursive hedge, along with phrases such as “sort of,” “kind of” and “you know.” In conversation, these expressions can be read as subtle indications that someone knows that there are other ways to view things, and to be too categorical is to imply a certainty that all may not share.
I’ve mentioned this before in this newsletter, but I’d like to illustrate how ingrained this has become with a recent NPR interview, wherein the journalist Michael Grunwald expresses himself in what is now an ordinary fashion on all levels of media, with hedges discreetly tucked in. Talking at first about the American Rescue Plan, he places these rhetorical hedges alongside potentially disputable or controversial points as a way of being not inarticulate or hesitant but considerate (emphasis added):
And a bit later, of President Biden:
It’s true that public speech is simply less formal than it once was, but it’s also the case that informal speech in the past involved less of this kind of polite hedge. If I pick up a nearly half-century-old source such as “Informal Speech: Alphabetic and Phonemic Text With Statistical Analyses and Tables,” a book full of examples of people, including young people, just talking, I’m likely to find few, if any, examples of the informal, hedging “like.” Indeed, there was a time in our lifetimes (or at least in mine) when “like” was, like, not a thing. It’s often thought of as a feature of ditzy “Valley”-speak. (Listen here to the British actress Emilia Clarke, of “Game of Thrones” fame, doing a delightful, if just a bit stereotypical, Valley accent for the late night host Jimmy Kimmel.) But “like” deserves recognition as a nuanced conversational device that enables something we find in short supply today: consideration for the listener.
Grunwald is a respected writer and analyst. If you listen to his interview, you’ll hear someone speaking confidently and intelligently. And with his informality, peppering in the occasional hedge, he skillfully moves an informative conversation along by gently signaling to the listener that he is unpacking (sorry, Frank Bruni) what he knows about Biden’s record while leaving room for alternative points of view. He’s offering discussion, not dictating his perspective.
I’m also heartened by increasingly widespread interest in how we can have productive conversations despite differing beliefs. It has become, especially since 2020, one of the things people like me are most often asked to speak about, and I can personally attest that it has become a hot topic even in informal settings, like chatting with other parents at kids’ birthday parties and such.
For example, diversity, equity and inclusion programs often seem to be devoted to ridding workers of bias against, shall we say, diverse people. But there are scholars who’ve found that these programs “backfire.” A more constructive goal, in any case, would be to broaden the project beyond confronting bias and, rather, to help people deal with the challenge of differences among people and groups in this highly multiethnic society.
I think this week about Moral Courage College, an alternative to the D.E.I. ritual, a program offering training in how to productively grapple with the wide range of views and experiences found in most workplaces, as well as colleges, universities and even K-12 schools. Its founder, Irshad Manji, whom I know and admire, has created a method called Diversity Without Division. “This program doesn’t tell anybody what to think or believe,” she has said, “it teaches everybody to lower their emotional defenses so that contentious issues can be turned into constructive conversations and healthy teamwork.”
I’m also learning more about the Theory of Enchantment program created by Chloé Valdary (who, like me, is sometimes labeled a “heterodox” or “contrarian” Black voice). Among other things, she stresses how important it is in our conversations to “treat people like human beings, not political abstractions.”
The “courage” part of the name Moral Courage College is vital. The collegiality of groups united around manufactured certainties and Manichaean worldviews is tempting, but also a kind of cop-out — and quite unmodern. Courage is allowing that your own view may be but one legitimate one among many, that there are no easy answers, and that being your own self is a more gracious existence than joining a herd.
Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected].
John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”