Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

This morning, I stumbled across this story, relating some completely absurd events happening at an elementary school not too far from me:

GREENWOOD VILLAGE – When Carole Altman opened her daughter’s yearbook from Belleview Elementary, she expected to see her message congratulating her daughter on completing the 5th grade. What she did not see is what angered her.
“What has been done here, in my opinion, is un-American,” Altman said.
The Parent-Teacher Community Organization at Belleview Elementary established a yearbook committee. The committee sent a letter to parents asking them to pay $5 to publish a message to congratulate their students. The letter stated the message will include “all of your wonderful words.”
Altman and her husband submitted this message: “So proud of you Remy for achieving fantastic grades, participating in so many wonderful after school activities and surviving so many of the Belleview teachers’ liberal teachings. You are what you believe you can be. Aim high, always. Love, Mom & Dad.”
“What was taken out was surviving the liberal teachings,” Altman said.
She wanted her daughter, years from now, to appreciate how well she did in school even though Altman felt teachers were biased.
“Despite all the liberal teachings and so forth, she’s come out with a good education,” said Altman.

Obligatory rant

First, I’d like to point out that this was in an elementary school yearbook. For those of you unfamiliar with the American education system, that means that the kids involved were probably in the 8-10 years old range.

The main subjects taught here are English, math, music, gym, and the basics, and I sincerely doubt that there’s much room for heavy bias. So, unless there were some seriously strange questions on math quizzes (“Bush leaves a Big Oil lobbyist’s office going 35mph…”), I’d be willing to bet that the parents are a bit hyper-sensitive here.

No matter what the teachers were doing, this seems like an incredibly asinine thing to put in an elementary school yearbook, and I’m more than a little shocked that there are people so politically hostile that they have to take cheap shots at teachers in an elementary school yearbook.

Alright. I feel better now. Sorry about that, now back to the Linguistics…

“No no, I clearly meant something else that nobody understood…”

Now, the Altmans’ cute little jab was removed because, surprise, the yearbook editors felt that the elementary school yearbook was “just not an appropriate forum for political statements.” That seems reasonable to me, but the Altmans just had to keep fighting it, and in doing so, they resorted to one of the most common-yet-reprehensible tricks in the publicist’s book: Redefining the definition.

Altman says it was not political.

“The word liberal means loose. We have to take what the definition of liberal means. I didn’t say Democrats,” she said.

Webster’s Dictionary defines liberal in part as “not orthodox.”

Altman says that is what she meant that teachers were not using established and structured teaching practices in her opinion.

“That’s not political unless the reason why they took it out was they put a political spin on it,” said Altman. “Since when is the word liberal or conservative always to mean political?”

District leaders still believe Altman’s motives were about politics.

So, basically, Altman is arguing that she didn’t mean “politically liberal”, but instead, “loose”, and thus, her statement was politically neutral.

Many meanings, one understanding

There are many words that have more than one meaning, and when talking or reading, we have to pick the right one from context.

Sometimes that’s pretty straightforward. If somebody says “The cock chased the hen around the shed”, nobody’s going to argue that “cock” is an obscenity, because the context makes it fairly explicit that we’re discussing a male chicken. Similarly, if somebody calls a gay man a “faggot”, that person would be hard pressed to argue that he meant that the man was a small bundle of twigs (the original meaning of “faggot”).

There are cases, though, where an argument could conceivably be made for both the controversial meaning and the innocent one. Giving the Altmans the benefit of the doubt, we’ll pretend that “liberal teachings” was actually meant to mean “unorthodox”.

The problem, though, is that when something’s ambiguous, people will tend to assume the worst. Even if a farmer is standing next to a donkey when he says it, “kiss my ass” will likely be seen as insulting. Most importantly, even if the teachings at Belleview were unorthodox and the Altmans were just innocently pointing that out, people will see it as a political statement. There’s still the possibility that somebody could be using the “unorthodox”, politically neutral meaning, but in general, “liberal” is now a political term, and when people specifically mean “unorthodox”, they’ll say that instead.

When a statement is made, the speaker will have an idea about what they meant to say. That’s not really the most important part, though. In order for the communication to work, the listener has to understand as well, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll read the same meanings from the same words. If you’re going to use a common word in an uncommon way, it’s your responsibility to communicate that somehow. If you choose not to, you’ve waived your right to complain when somebody “misunderstands” you. Sorry, Mrs. Altman.

A common deception

Mrs. Altman is not alone in using this pretty transparent defense. Many people will go back to antiquated, obscure or alternate definitions of words when their remarks come back to bite them, claiming their words were innocent and without controversy. One particularly shameless example of this came from Elizabeth Hoffman, the former President of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

During a well-publicized case of sexual discrimination filed by a female ex-member of the school’s football team, Hoffman argued that when a football player told the girl to “get off the field, you f***ing cunt”, “cunt” was being used as a term of endearment. (link) Hoffman attempted to play it off using her background in Medieval studies, claiming that in Chaucer’s days, it wasn’t a negative term. Of course, this enraged a number of faculty members both because of the implications, her defense of the indefensible, and her psuedo-scholarly explanation. She was replaced not long afterwards, and although the football team and coaches never really faced appropriate justice, there’s at least a great deal more sensitivity in campus athletics because of it.

No matter your feelings on her specific case, this is another situation where somebody has tried to disguise their intent by playing off of unusual or old definitions.

It can be innocent, but usually they’re just covering their backs

Sometimes, especially with non-native speakers, mistakes like this can happen innocently. Somebody uses a word without the knowledge of its other connotations, and gets burned by a hyper-sensitive reader, listener, or even worse, the media. In that situation, it’s not only understandable, it’s completely forgivable.

However, when somebody uses a word, knowing full well how it’s usually used, then later hides behind strange, antiquated or unusual definitions to defend themselves, it’s generally just a sleazy and ineffective publicity trick.

So, Mrs. Altman, I might recommend that you look into getting a publicist. If you’re firing off gems like this and your child is still that young, it sounds like you’ll have a lot of controversial comments to distance yourself from in the future. It’s your right to say them, but if you’re going to try and hide from them afterwards, you’re going to need to do better than this.

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