Originally uploaded by Haneybabe
There is a great thing that can be done with language in our culture, that is, the rules of politeness are suspended during presidential elections. We are allowed to call presidential candidates names, tell lies, and alter the pragmatics of the language. This is an old practice and we take great pride in it. Our parents should teach us never to use vulgar language except during presidential elections. Cindy McCain, for example, said, “Barack Obama is conducting the dirtiest campaign in history.” Historian Kathleen Hall Jamison tells us that our founding fathers intended our elections to be dignified. Elections were to be a dignified, deliberative activity, carried out by a few wealthy men. In 1796 Benjamin Franklin’s grandson wrote of Washington: “If ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by Washington.” Things didn’t begin well.
Thomas Jefferson was attacked as an “infidel.” The President of Yale at the time was not a supporter of Jefferson and said of his election, “we may see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution.” My favorite quote about Jefferson came from a Connecticut newspaper: “His election would mean murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will openly be taught and practiced.” John Adams was accused of sending his secretary of state to France to come back with four women, two for himself and two for the Secretary.
Andrew Jackson called his opponent, John Quincy Adams, a “pimp,” though Jackson’s meaning was that Adams worked for the Russian Czar. Jackson later called the bachelor James Buchanan, who lived with a senator, “Aunt Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy.”
In fact we have often criticized TV debates and wished they had hearkened back to Lincoln and Douglas. Surprise! They called each other names while arguing over Dred Scott and the Missouri Compromise. Calling Lincoln a “little abolition orator” was something like calling him a liberal, I guess. Douglas said that “Lincoln could ruin more liquor than all the boys of the town together.” On second thought, perhaps that one was a compliment.
At WAL we try and keep topical about language issues. We feel a historical obligation to say that during presidential elections, name-calling and other forms of language that are not appropriate in normal discourse, have our cultural approval. Let it not be said that we do not take communicative language teaching seriously at WAL. Lincoln – always the gentleman – said in his debates, “Judge Douglas is an obstinate animal but I mean no disrespect!” When I discuss the varieties of language, I mean no disrespect.
– Dr. Paul Schneider, Director of Teacher Education Programs, WAL