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Disclaimers & Qualifiers: Are We The Most Apologetic Generation?

September 6, 2011

Came across an excellent essay on The New Inquiry called Standard Gawker English by Matt Pearce; a response to this NYT magazine article written by Maud Newton. Maud criticizes deceased author/journalist David Foster Wallace for his perpetual “self-undermining” in an effort to appease all types of readers, and applies this problem as a whole to Generation X and Y, using blogs as an example:

I suppose it made sense, when blogging was new, that there was some confusion about voice. Was a blog more like writing or more like speech? Soon it became a contrived and shambling hybrid of the two. The “sort ofs” and “reallys” and “ums” and “you knows” that we use in conversation were codified as the central connectors in the blogger lexicon.

She argues it is party due to the need to be liked:

… Zadie Smith reduces the motivations of the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to one: he wants to be liked. She writes, “For our self-conscious generation (and in this, I and Zuckerberg, and everyone raised on TV in the Eighties and Nineties, share a single soul), not being liked is as bad as it gets. Intolerable to be thought of badly for a minute, even for a moment.” Even if you reject, as I do, the universality of her diagnosis, Smith has pinpointed the reason so much of what passes for intellectual debate nowadays is obscured behind a veneer of folksiness and sincerity and is characterized by an unwillingness to be pinned down. Where the craving for admiration and approval predominates, intellectual rigor cannot thrive, if it survives at all.

Read the NYT article first, and then the essay – they read as a nice point-counterpoint. The first two paragraphs of the article was too esoteric for me, but it gets more comprehensible from there. In his New Inquiry essay, Pearce makes an excellent rebuttal: are we making disclaimers, qualifying all of our statements and using words that dampen our argument (kind of, sort of, I think, et cetera) because we are a generation of people pleasers? Or, is it because people are just more receptive to that type of language (see: Gawker reference), and wether or not the message is delivered is more important than the way in which its delivered.

Personally, I still lean towards Newton – qualifiers and disclaimers are protectionism, and I use them a lot on this blog as well as in person, usually aware of it but never fully understanding how reflective this behaviour might be of the ethos of our generation. Overly politically correct speech (typically borne of ignorance instead of respect, and does nothing to extinguish said ignorance/foster conversation) has always been my most hated Gen X/Y trait,  but “self undermining” is in the same category – fear of offending others as to our opinions or our personalities, which have become inextricable from one another. Pearce does make an excellent argument about message delivery but does little to address the question of why we are more receptive to this type of language; he suggests its because its simply more persuasive and less exhaustive; I agree but would add that we have come to respect a “sincerity” that is underscored by self depreciation.

Pearce briefly mentioned that perhaps we are self-undermining because of real, personal ambiguity:

 You’d avoid making hard points if you were afraid of upsetting someone; you’d also avoid making hard points if you genuinely weren’t sure what point was correct. Wallace managed to collide these two insecurities.

Or, because there is no monopoly on knowledge (and certainly not with the access to information the internet provides) the disclaimers are because “I am not an expert, but I’d like to have a conversation about x.” An argument made with the force Newton extols requires a comprehensive understanding of whatever the topic might be, and an admission of partial ignorance is not necessarily always a bad thing, and sometimes just honest. While Newton uses the internet as an indicative example, she and Pearce both fail to note the internet’s role in spawning this trend; the web provides such an abundance of information that we consume in the most attention-deficit manner that we all know a little bit about everything and a lot about very little – hence the ever-self-questioning blog-speak Newton refers to; and blogs do indeed provide a good example of not just how but why these qualifiers seep into our conversations; Generation X/Y are jacks of many trades, masters of none.

So: the issue becomes less about the style of language and more about when we are using it, and when this is or is not appropriate.


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