(M)orality in Text Age: Wring Hands or Shrug?

Michael Gerson’s WashPost column today,”Don’t Let Texting Get U : -(,” explores anxiety for the phenomenon of text messaging. I first thought he would bring out the typical complaint, “Kids these days…”

[this inspired tangential thoughts excised here that I’ll included in a subsequent post]

I was ready to respond that Boomers, of all people, should realize that a few changes in style isn’t the end of the world. Then I wondered if there are criteria for evaluating such changes so that we can even speak of better or worse. Am I such a relativist that I can dismiss all criticism to youth culture by saying simply “Civilization survived Elvis, so _____ is no big deal.” Perhaps the world will end not with a bang but that sound we make with a dismissive shrug, “Eh.”

I calmed down enough to reread the piece and found, as the title suggests, Gerson offers more balance than judgment. Here’s Gerson’s stodgy introduction:

Texting, for those stubborn few who still use their cellphones for talking, is a form of immediate, shorthand communication that has broken out among the young with the speed and resilience of acne. More than 1 billion text messages are exchanged in America each day.

The language of texting involves short, direct sentences; abbreviations such as “laff” for “laugh”; language puzzles such as “2l8” for “too late”; and something called emoticons such as “:-(#)” for “wearing braces.” It’s a social language, designed for brief, private communication. “POS,” I’m told, means “parent over shoulder”; “gnblfy” is “got nothing but love for you.” More disturbing, “TDTM” translates as “talk dirty to me.”

After detailing more examples (where did he do his research?), Gerson wrings his hands a bit.

But the main controversy has come when texting collides with English instruction. Teachers I know are generally intolerant of the use of textisms, especially in exams and papers. They believe it undermines proper spelling and syntax. And as an opponent of most linguistic innovations since the King James Bible was first printed, I was initially inclined to agree.

Gerson doesn’t allow his High English Bias to shade his entire stance about the texting generation (generation text?).

But the (admittedly thin) research on this topic leads to different conclusions. A 2006 study by two professors at Coventry University in Britain found that 11-year-olds who used the most textisms were actually better at spelling and writing. A command of texting seems to indicate a broader facility for language. And these students seem to switch easily between text messaging and standard English.

Unfortunately for teachers, the research also suggests that many students who use texting in their schoolwork are disdainful of the alternative. They are intentionally showing disrespect — as in, “I don’t give a darn about your outdated rules of grammar and spelling, and you won’t even understand my protest.” Or incomprehensible abbreviations to that effect.

A teenager of my generation — growing up in the 1970s and ’80s — might have wasted hours each night on the telephone. Now teens waste hours throughout the day tapping out thousands of words on tiny keyboards (much as a columnist does). The Internet, and texting in particular, has led to the return of writing. Not the elegant letter writing of Sullivan Ballou during the Civil War — but writing nonetheless.

This form of communication has its drawbacks. The Internet, in all its forms, encourages the hasty expression of anger or amorousness –– the kind of words that are quickly regretted but can never be withdrawn. And texting does not expose children to the graceful subtleties of literary prose — though it is hard to imagine that teenagers would be reading John Donne if they weren’t writing to their friends.

But the rules of language — a flexible, changing instrument of communication — should not be confused with the changeless rules of morality. Challenging the dogmas of grammar and spelling — if done consistently and broadly enough — creates new dogmas, which are challenged in turn. [emphasis mine]

I’ve seen it argued by communication scholars that the Internet Age destroys “the book” and revives “the image” as the main source of instruction. I’ve carried on extensive and literate email correspondence but I’m not ready to call this a new age of writing. Gerson’s own shrug worries me. He’s a Christian and a Republican, but not a typical Evangelical. In fact, as a founder of the Compassionate Conservative idea, his agenda seems to switch Christian activist efforts from sexuality to inequality and freedom. What’s your response?

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