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What Does a Post-Literate World Look Like?

photograph of billboards and crowds at Times Square

The written word has never been as accessible as it is today; one estimate from 2016 puts the global literacy rate at around 86 percent, a figure that would have been unthinkable just a few centuries ago. But at the same time, The Washington Post found in 2018 that American adults seem to be reading less for leisure, and a recent study conducted by Stanford found that the pandemic had a strong negative impact on childhood literacy rates. Has that post-literate future already arrived, and if so, what will fill the void left by books?

While the omnipresence of social media has lent a new sense of urgency to these questions, the anxieties behind them are hardly new. In the post-war period, television, radio, and cameras invaded the American home, and began to insidiously reshape the way we interact with our world. In the 1970s, literary critic Susan Sontag wrote despairingly of this new visual culture in On Photography; in her view, language and the fine arts were being supplanted by photographs, which claimed to present an objective view of reality in a way that drops of ink and splotches of paint could only dream of.However, Sontag believed that an image-saturated world was a politically insipid one. She wrote that

The limit of photographic knowledge of the world is that, while it can goad conscience, it can, finally, never be ethical or political knowledge . . . The very muteness of what is, hypothetically, comprehensible in photographs is what constitutes their attractiveness and provocativeness. The omnipresence of photographs has an incalculable effect on our ethical sensibility. By furnishing this already crowded world with a duplicate one of images, photography makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is. 

Sontag saw the post-literate world as a visual one, but another philosopher proposed a different view. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan explained in 1962 that before the advent of 20th-century technology, literate people in the Western world thought sequentially. Political treatises, newspapers, and novels that followed a clear structure (beginning, middle, and end), and contributed to a broad sense of progress, whether on a micro or macro scale. But technology, McLuhan argued, had swept all of that away. As scholar Mark Cuenco explains, McLuhan believed that “A society becomes post-literate when electronic media compresses its experience of literacy to such an extreme degree that the simultaneity of the oral replaces the sequentalism of the typographic as the dominant pattern of thought and sense-making.” McLuhan, who predicted the advent of the Internet decades in advance, believed that literate culture had already been supplanted.

Through radio and television, oral culture – not visual culture – became dominant, and Cuenco argues that this is still the case.

Though staring at a screen is technically a visual experience and there is reading involved—be it of a Tweet, a Facebook post, or a cable news scroll—the fundamentally dynamic, ever-fleeting, and disjointed character of the content on the screen delivers indigestible volumes of information all at once, without much sequence or structure.

Visual culture, he argues, “operates on the principle of focus or linear sequence,” much in the same way that the written word does. While we do read a Tweet or the caption on a TikTok, the experience is so radically different from that of reading a book (one locks us into an endless scroll, while the other has a definitive start and end point) that the two experiences are hardly comparable. If McLuhan is right, a post-literate oral culture may lose the ability to create sustained political change through sequential planning. The here-and-now immediacy of oral culture may, ultimately, pose the same dangers that Sontag saw in visual culture.

While Sontag and McLuhan provide compelling critiques of technological advancement, it may be too soon to sound the death knell for literacy. Americans may spend less time reading for pleasure, but online retailers like Amazon prove that there is still a market for books, shrinking though it may be. It might be more accurate to say that we’re in a period of transition, neither entirely literate nor entirely oral/visual, and with drastic educational reform, this trend is still subject to change.

Under Discussion: Dog Whistles, Implicatures, and “Law and Order”

image of someone whispering in an ear

This piece completes our Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: Law and Order.

For the last several days, The Prindle Post has explored the concept of “law and order” from multiple philosophical and historical angles; I now want to think about the phrase itself — that is, I want to think about what is meant when the words ‘law and order’ appear in a speech or conversation.

On its face, ‘law and order’ is a term that simply denotes whether or not a particular set of laws are, in general, being obeyed. In this way, politicians or police officers who reference ‘law and order’ are simply trying to talk about a relatively calm public state of affairs where the official operating procedures of society are functioning smoothly. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that ‘law and order’ is always a good thing: by definition, acts of civil disobedience against unjust laws violate ‘law and order,’ but such acts can indeed be morally justified nonetheless (for more, see Rachel Robison-Greene’s recent discussion here of “substantive” justice). However, on the whole, it can be easy to think that public appeals to ‘law and order’ are simply invoking a desirable state of peace.

But the funny thing about our terminology is how often we say one thing, but mean something else.

Consider the previous sentence: I said the word ‘funny,’ but do I mean that our terminology is designed to provoke laughter (or is humorous in other ways)? Certainly not! In this case, I’m speaking ironically to sarcastically imply not only that our linguistic situation is more complicated than simple appearances, but that the complexity of language is actually no secret.

The says/means distinction is, more or less, the difference between semantics (what is said by a speaker) and pragmatics (what that speaker actually means). Often, straightforward speech acts mean precisely what a speaker says: if I ask you where to find my keys and you say “your keys are the table,” what you have said and what you mean are roughly the same thing (namely, that my keys are on the table). However, if you instead say “your keys are right where you left them,” you are responding with information about my keys (such as that they are on the table), but you also probably mean to communicate something additional like “…and you should already know where they are, dummy!”

When a speaker uses language to implicitly mean something that they don’t explicitly say, this is what the philosopher H.P. Grice called an implicature. Sarcasm and ironic statements are a few paradigmatic examples, but many other kinds of figures of speech (such as hyperbole, understatement, metaphor, and more) function along the same lines. But, regardless, all implicatures function by communicating what they actually mean in a way that requires (at least a little) more analysis than simply reading how they appear on their face.

In recent years, law professors like Ian Haney López and philosophers like Jennifer Saul have identified another kind of implicature that explicitly says something innocuous, but that implicitly means something different to a subset of the general audience. Called “dog whistles” (after the high-pitched tools that can’t be heard by the human ear), these linguistic artifacts operate almost like code words that are heard by everyone, but are only fully understood by people who understand the code. I say “almost” like code words because one important thing about a dog whistle is that, on its face, its meaning is perfectly plain in a way that doesn’t arouse suspicion of anything tricky happening; that is, everyone — whether or not they actually know the “code” — believes that they fully understand what the speaker means. However, to the speaker’s intended clique, the dog whistle also communicates a secondary message surreptitiously, smuggling an implicated meaning underneath the sentence’s basic semantics. This also means that dog whistles are frustratingly difficult to counter: if one speaker uses a dog whistle that communicates something sneaky and another speaker draws attention to the implicated meaning, the first speaker can easily deny the implicature by simply referencing the explicit content of the original utterance as what they really meant.

Use of dog whistles to implicitly communicate racist motivations in government policy (without explicitly uttering any slurs) was, infamously, a political tactic deployed as a part of the Republican “Southern strategy” in the late 20th century (for more on this, see Evan Butts’ recent article). As Republican strategist (and member of the Reagan administration) Lee Atwater explained in a 1981 interview:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘[n-word], [n-word], [n-word].’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘[n-word]’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.…”

Of course, terms like ‘forced busing’ and ‘states’ rights’ are, on their faces, concepts that are not necessarily associated with race, but because they refer to things that just so happen, in reality, to have clearly racist byproducts or outcomes —  and because Atwater’s intended audience (Republican voters) knew this to be so — the terms are dog whistles for the same kind of racism indicated by the n-word. When a politician defended ‘forced busing’ or when a Confederate apologist references ‘states’ rights,’ they might be saying something about education policy or the Civil War, but they mean to communicate something much more nefarious.

Exactly what a dog whistle secretly communicates is still up for debate. In many cases, it seems like dog whistles are used to indicate a speaker’s allegiance to (or at least familiarity with) a particular social group (as when politicians signal to prospective voters and interest groups). But other dog whistles seem to signal a speaker’s commitment (either politically or sincerely) to an ideology or worldview and thereby frame a speaker’s comments as a whole from within the perspective of that ideology. Also, ideological dog whistles can trigger emotional and other affective responses in an audience who shares that ideology: this seems to be the motivation, for example, of Atwater’s racist dog whistles (as well as more contemporary examples like ‘welfare,’ ‘inner city,’ ‘suburban housewife,’ and ‘cosmopolitan elites’). Perhaps most surprisingly, ideological dog whistles might even work to communicate or trigger ideological responses without the audience (and, more controversially, perhaps even without the speaker) being conscious of their operation: a racist might dog whistle to other racists without any of them explicitly noticing that their racist ideology is being communicated.

This is all to say that the phrase ‘law and order’ seems to qualify as a dog whistle for racist ideology. While, on its face, the semantic meaning of ‘law and order’ is fairly straightforward, the phrase also has a demonstrable track record of association with racist policies and byproducts, from stop-and-frisk to the Wars on Drugs and Crime to resistance against the Civil Rights Movement and more. Particularly in a year marked by massive demonstrations of civil disobedience against racist police brutality, politicians invoking ‘law and order’ will inevitably trigger audience responses relative to their opinions about things like the Black Lives Matter protests and other recent examples of civil unrest (particularly when, as Meredith McFadden explains, the phrase is directly used to criticize the protests themselves). And, crucially, all of this can happen unconsciously in a conversation (via what Saul has called “covert unintentional dog whistles”) given the role of our ideological perspectives in shaping how we understand and discuss the world.

So, in short, the ways we do things with words are not only interesting and complex, but can work to maintain demonstrably unethical perspectives in both others and ourselves. Not only should we work to explicitly counteract the implicated claims and perspectives of harmful dog whistles in our public discourse, but we should consider our own words carefully to make sure that we always mean precisely what we think we do.

Who’s to Blame?: Texting and Driving

In 2013, a crash due to a distracted driver, who was checking her iPhone, resulted in the death of two adults and the paralyzation of a child. That same year, 21% of car crashes were related to the use of a cell phone (handheld or hands-free), with 1.2 million crashes relating to talking on the phone and 341,000 or more due to texting. The family of the victims of the aforementioned crash is now suing Apple; a patent owned by Apple shows that they have the technology to prevent drivers from operating their phones, yet have made the decision not to implement the technology. In the case of this particular lawsuit, perhaps Apple cannot be at fault – the patent for the technology was filed in 2008 but only granted in 2014, and the crash in question occurred in 2013.

Continue reading “Who’s to Blame?: Texting and Driving”