Patricia Roberts-Miller writes, “For democracy to work, people have to talk. For it to work well, we need to talk well.” That is because, as Tony Crowley observes, “Language debates are very rarely simply debates about language; they are, more often than not, intertwined with questions of value.” Roberts-Miller’s and Crowley’s points come together in the phenomenon of misspelled protest signs, particularly those found at Tea Party protests, and in the way that those signs have themselves become part of the political conversation. Misspelled signs draw such attention because they reveal uncomfortable truths about attitudes toward education, political self-representation, credentialing, oppression, cognitive dissonance, and ultimately, the failure of American political discourse.
“Teabonics” vs. the Internet
Unlike many political movements, the Tea Party has an easily-pinpointed beginning. One month after Barack Obama was inaugurated, the first of several anti-tax rallies was organized by former Rep. Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks PAC, drawing attendees from among supporters of the recently-defeated McCain-Palin campaign. Armey’s group and five other groups with anti-tax, anti-immigrant, and anti-Obama platforms loosely coalesced and began using the Tea Party name. Despite being initially organized and underwritten by a lobbying firm, the new movement cultivated a distinctively grassroots look, with protestors in homemade costumes and, almost always, hand-lettered signs. Perhaps inevitably, some of those signs were misspelled, and reaction on the internet was swift and severe: the movement held its first rally in February 2009, and by April 2009, the word “Teabonics” had entered the language. The name references an earlier instance of grammar becoming a political flashpoint. In 1996, the Oakland, California school district had recognized African American Vernacular English (AAVE) as a valid language. Conservatives seized on an earlier name, “ebonics,” and attacked AAVE as “lazy,” broken, dysfunctional, and above all ungrammatical English. Liberals interpreted a great deal of this criticism as having racist overtones, and took pleasure in turning conservatives’ earlier insistence on proper grammar back on them. What is it that spelling signifies to us in a political context?
According to linguist Mark Sebba, spelling is a “cultural preoccupation.” Spelling and language use signal our education level. That in turn signals how much we value or devalue the idea of education itself. Finally, valuing—or being seen to value—education is allowed to stand in as a proxy for ability to govern. Obviously, then, the inverse is also true—that failure to use educated style signals that one is potentially not only uneducated, but also that one does not place any particular value on either being educated or putting forth an appearance of being educated. What misspelled Tea Party signs reveal is a trend fifty years in the making.
The Right-Left Split in American Education
Since the 1960s, education has been the focal point of a right-left split in the United States. Student protests over Vietnam coincided with the widespread sexual and racial integration of public schools and universities, all of which marked education—and higher education in particular—as friendly to left-leaning interests and potentially hostile to a conservative outlook. The right returned this perceived hostility. Many conservative Christian colleges were founded in the wake of the 1960s. Some of them, such as Bob Jones University, were founded expressly in order to avoid sexual and/or racial integration; others, such as Liberty University, expressly in order to build an evangelical, conservative alternative educational structure.
In defense of Tea Party anti-intellectualism and its reification of “ordinary,” conservative author Lee Harris writes,
Tea Partiers enthusiastically embrace what polite company regards as intolerance, boorishness, and shrillness….That is why any attempt to discredit the Tea Party movement by attacking its lack of intellectual respectability is certain to backfire. Such a strategy will simply confirm what the Tea Parties already know: that America is governed by an out of touch elite that is openly and relentlessly hostile to the values of ordinary men and women like themselves.
Credentialing—Establishing the Right to Be Heard
The left represents groups who have historically felt themselves to be powerless, such as women and minorities. These groups must establish their right to be heard, and they do this by proving that they have the level of education or wealth or “class” considered acceptable to a perhaps always-past, perhaps always-mythical middle class undecided about the political position they advocate. If they can establish that they fit in with this group, then their concerns will be taken seriously. In the case of the civil rights movement in particular, credentialing was done through clothing and grammar. Civil rights historian Tanisha C. Ford terms this “the performance of respectability,” just as Lee Harris, above, asserts the Tea Party’s defiant rejection of “intellectual respectability”—both are well aware that the groups they study seek to position themselves on a spectrum of respect relative to a hypothetical neutral middle.
Recall for a moment the iconic pictures of the civil rights movement: under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., marchers wore their Sunday best—women wore dresses, heels, and gloves, and men wore suits.
This was a conscious act of credentialing themselves with the white middle class, which is exactly what the Tea Party is not doing. But it is not simply a failure to display the proper level of learning. Misspelled signs are a form of anti-credentialing: they insist on the inherent value of the speaker—white men have not traditionally needed to display their credentials in order to be taken seriously. They have been valued for their identity, for their skin color and gender. Refusal to credential themselves by adopting the educated style, and insistence on their right to be taken seriously without it, is reflected in their misspelled signs. It is anti-credentialing in that it rejects the perceived left-leaning bias of the university, but it is also internal credentialing with one another, reaffirming their values of “common sense” (which seems to include more or less phonetic spelling) and “ordinariness.”
Misspelled Signs, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Failure of Discourse
I wanted to take a closer look at misspelled signs because I believe they are symptomatic of a far larger problem: the catastrophic failure of American political discourse over the past several years. Political positions on both the left and the right have, according to most observers, grown further apart and more uncompromising. Liberals and conservatives have their own media outlets, their own social networks, and, increasingly, their own sets of competing facts. We live nearly in two different realities. That is neither an accident of history nor a nefarious scheme by unscrupulous power brokers. It is, in part, a completely foreseeable response to the way we debate.
When we mock misspelled signs, we send a very clear signal that the sign-bearer (and by extension in this case an entire movement) has failed to credential itself well enough to be heard. Because they do not adhere to educated style, we do not engage their arguments. Those who have historically been exempt from having to show their credentials in a political setting are suddenly no longer exempt, and they are enormously frustrated not only by the demand, but by the apparent consensus among the left that they have failed to do so adequately. But is this a healthy direction for our discourse?
Our reactions to misspelled signs expose important questions about who has the right to speak, who can be denied that right—and on what grounds—and how we feel when the people who we dismiss as not worth hearing are exactly the people who have historically done the same to others. The Tea Party is made up disproportionately of white cis men. Does that make it okay? Are they right to assert that no one should have to credential themselves in order to have a voice? That is the American dream, right? But is that what they are asserting at all? Or is it their position that only they do not have to credential themselves? Even if the latter is their position, does that make the internet’s mocking response to their protest signs the correct response? Is derision ever really an effective way to change a mind?
In his defense of the Tea Party, conservative author Lee Harris has picked up on some of these points (one of the only authors I have seen who has), although he interprets them—well, differently. Harris writes of the Tea Party’s
“mounting dissatisfaction at living in a society in which a small group has increasingly solidified its monopoly over the manufacture and distribution of opinion…Even more, the Tea Party rebels bitterly resent the rigid censorship exercised by this elite over the limits of acceptable public discourse. Those who have the power to rule an opinion ‘out of order’ do not need to take the trouble to refute it, or even examine it. They can simply make it go away.”
The irony, of course, is that “a small group [with a] monopoly over…opinion” is a phrase that has traditionally described white men (39% of the US population), so these valiant “rebels” are experiencing for the first time life under exactly the type of regime they put into place. But the point remains that where the older white men who make up the bulk of the movement once had the power of silencing, now they are in a position to be silenced—and that is not necessarily a good thing.
As cognitive scientists have observed, it is extremely threatening to have one’s core beliefs challenged, and the response is often to “double down” on the belief, even when presented with evidence that it is false. Elliott Aronson writes that “people have a strong natural drive to manage their perceptions so as to have a sense of self that is: a) stable, predictable; b) competent; and c) morally good.” He goes on to say that, “The theory of cognitive dissonance says that if a person holds a cognition that conflicts with this sense of self, then he or she experiences the negative (and unpleasant) drive state of dissonance and is highly motivated to alter the cognition in order to reduce the conflict” and “Dissonance theory is more than simply a theory about consistency. It is essentially a theory about sense-making: how people try to make sense out of their beliefs, their environment, and their behavior—and thus try to lead lives that are (at least in their own minds) reasonable, sensible, and meaningful.” Studies also show that when presented with data that contradicts a deeply-held belief, the common response is to discredit the messenger who provided that information. Somehow the left seems to believe that by pointing out grammatical errors and misspelling, it can bring the right to a new respect for education. On the contrary, cognitive dissonance suggests that exactly the opposite will—and has—happened: the right values education even less for itself and attacks it even more. So using the signs as a form of humor at the right’s expense is a truly catastrophic failure of political discourse. It needlessly hardens opinions, drives wedges deeper, and drives citizens further and more bitterly apart. The same goes for pointing out factual errors—the response hasn’t been to make the right more accurate, but rather less accurate. Our current discourse is not working. Science tells us it likely never will work—on the contrary, it makes everything worse. Moreover, although cognitive scientists understand dissonance theory and confirmation bias, they do not yet understand exactly why some people are less prone to it than others, why some people change their minds in response to new information while others do not. Nor are they able to suggest methods or practices to short-circuit the tendency in public life, such as in the political arena. So where do we go from here?
There are some glimmers of hope. The swing in opinion on gay marriage was, in political terms, astonishingly swift. Marriage equality activists minimized pointing out where their opponents were wrong. Rather, they focused on human-interest stories—they put a face to the issue and made it personal. That made the debate a matter not of saying, “That group oughtn’t be able to marry,” but rather the far less comfortable, “That co-worker/relative/neighbor of mine oughtn’t be able to marry.” A solid and heartening majority of people, faced with the prospect of having to be up-close and personally callous, preferred instead to change their opinions—precisely because dissonance theory says that we need to have an opinion of ourselves that is morally good. To address the tendency of both sides to have their own set of facts, Google recently introduced a “truth filter” that places educational and official sites with vetted information first in search results. People are definitely beginning to think about how to heal our fractured political discourse.
Some language bloggers on the web have pronounced themselves “recovering grammar snobs” and have vowed to refrain from aggressively correcting the grammar of others, one of them writing, “This critique—‘LOL, Tea Partiers are fat and uneducated’—enacts the same forms of prejudice found within the Tea Party itself by making overt arguments about what types of people and voices count in the political arena.”
Ultimately, Tea Party signs are doing some interesting rhetorical work for both sides. My aim has been to trace the deep roots of that work and to offer the suggestion that we need to move beyond mocking to find a better, healthier discourse. I cannot promise that remaining silent at the sight of mangled English will heal our political discourse, but I believe that we are beginning to feel our way intuitively toward forms of political persuasion that respect the cognitive needs of participants.
Arlynda Boyer is a PhD student at the University of Toronto, studying Shakespeare and early modern drama. She is the author of Buddha on the Backstretch, about the intersection of Buddhist practice and NASCAR fandom. She has appeared on Jeopardy! and NPR and has hiked the Grand Canyon. When not in grad school, she lives in her native Virginia with her husband James Rogauskas, author of Office Haiku.