MEDANSKY: Freeing up our speech

With all this talk about free speech at Yale, it’s worth considering what free speech actually sounds like.

The study of rhetoric used to be a big deal in the days of Old Yale. In 1807, Timothy Dwight, then Yale’s president, taught a senior-level study of rhetoric. Dwight required every student in his class to keep a notebook, and, from his students’ notes, historians have learned exactly just how gung-ho Old Timmy was about the study of oratory. “Clearness and precision, unity, thought and harmony are the principal essential parts of a good sentence,” Dwight told his charges. “The best definition of eloquence is, I think, the art of speaking well.”

Sure, it’s not Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” or Stephen King’s “On Writing.” Yet Dwight’s lecture notes do provide a glimpse into a Yale that, on an institutional level, embraced oratory as the hallmark of a liberal arts education — or, at the very least, as a sign of good breeding.

Yet while Dwight concerned himself with the eloquence of the courtroom and the pulpit, the eloquence of the contemporary American, especially the modern college student, would no doubt disappoint him. Fortunately for Dwight, no longer alive to bemoan the coarsening of everyday speech, modern scholars have happily assumed the critical position he likely would have held.

In a blog post for the Chronicle of Higher Education last week, journalist and University of Delaware professor Ben Yagoda examines the popularity of “I know, right?” as a sort of rhetorical tag: a combination of canned response, nervous filler and slang. Yagoda thinks “right?” is “commonly abused substance,” and though he issues no clear verdict on the appropriateness of the phrase, he’s clearly a little bit miffed that kids these days are so into it.

To that end, he cites Micah Siegel, a professor of engineering at Stanford, who labels the rise of the “rights” a “classic speech virus.” People continue to use the phrase, Siegel believes, as “it increases the rhetorical effectiveness of the statement it follows.” Sounds pretty technical, right?

Yagoda also attributes this recent rhetorical trend to the popularity of films like “Mean Girls.” This explanation, though slightly less psychological, seems more realistic. We pick up slang from media all the time: everything from “the tribe has spoken” (so 2001!) to the more modern Jersey Shore mantra of “GTL.” It seems logical that if we’re learning what to say from Tina Fey and The Situation, then we’re also learning how to say it, right?

But language evolves. And where Yagoda, Siegel and TD see an irreversible decline toward the crass, I see a welcome avenue for fluidity. It is good that language changes, because society changes, too. “Like” and “right” will eventually fall into the mainstream; then, generations later, they’ll go the way of “doth” and “thee” and “I do declare.” As long as our speech does not devolve into the stuff of self-parody — with Cher from “Clueless” and the LOLcats perhaps being arbiters of the extreme — we can remain articulate individuals, even as we do slip into slang.

Timothy Dwight had some good lessons to share about rhetoric; we would be remiss not to learn them. “No orator should set out arrogantly.” True. “A man never speaks well when he has lost self-command.” Also true. So long as we remember that good oratory is equal parts content and delivery — and that the occasional “OMG” does not preclude rhetorical excellence — then at least we will be upholding a culture in which free speech sounds good, even if we don’t always agree with what it says.

Marissa Medansky is a freshman in Morse College. Contact her at marissa.medansky@yale.edu.

Comments

  • ldffly

    Recently, a German businessman was interviewing some students at a local university in eastern Missouri. A tv news interviewer asked for his opinion about these students. “Their English was atrocious.” I agree with the German businessman. Not a sentence comes out of their mouths without ‘like.’ In spite of their atrocious English, graduates of this university do get hired into businesses located in eastern Missouri.

  • Labanite

    Interesing piece. What provoked it?

  • River_Tam

    Yeah, Alan Dershowitz’s tie color really does matter.