On Láadan and Replacing Viral FKnews with Sourced and Valued News
Elliott F. batTzedek
Background: Native Tongues, Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
Láadan is an explicitly feminist constructed language created by linguist Suzette Haden Elgin in 1982. She was exploring the ways that English and other heteropatriarchal languages suppressed women’s abilities to speak our reality. She was testing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which suggests that the natural language we speak strongly influences, or even determines, what thoughts we are able to think and then speak. She was not creating a language based on women as biologically-determined females, but women as an oppressed class, and the language was intended for everyone, not just women, to speak. In that way Láadan was not a “women’s language” but a language designed to encode world views of an oppressed class.
She explored both her theories and Láadan itself in the science fiction series Native Tongue. Láadan has both vocabulary AND syntactical structures that address how women’s realities are excluded from English. Vital among these is a system of particles that are necessary to a grammatical sentence and convey cultural values within the grammar:
- The speech-act particle – this occurs at the beginning of the sentence and marks it as either a statement, question, command, request, promise, or warning
- The grammatical tense particle – this occurs second in the sentence and marks it as either present, past, future, or hypothetical
- The evidence particle – this occurs at the end of statements and indicates the trustworthiness of the statement.
Since this final particle is the one I feel the need for every time I read news, email, or Facebook posts, I want to lay out the particles Elgin created:
wa – Information known to speaker because it was directly perceived by speaker, externally or internally
wi – Information known to speaker it is because self-evident
we – Information perceived by speaker in a dream
wáa – Information that is assumed true by speaker because speaker trusts the source
waá – Information assumed false by speaker because speaker distrusts source; if evil intent by the source is also assumed, the form is “waálh”
wo – Information imagined or invented by speaker, connected to the hypothetical-tense particle
wóo – Used to indicate that the speaker states a total lack of knowledge as to the validity of the matter
In Láadan, one of these particles must be attached to every assertion of information. Every time – the weather, the time of day, a report about how a friend feels, sharing news or information or opinion.
Every. Single. Time.
Considering the Depth of This Fetid Mess
I’ve been thinking about these particles every time I try to wade my way through the “news” right now, because, like all of us, I’m finding it very hard to know what to trust, and at what level to trust it.
There is of course the FKnews (Fake News, or maybe Fake-Knew for people who are lying intentionally, or maybe Fucked-News, for how it effects justice and reality. Haven’t decided yet exactly what to call this phenomenon nor how to linguistically mark it). I am getting better at recognizing FKNews, in part through taking even a couple seconds to check the website name at the bottom of stories, and through the hard work of others to identify and rank news sources. (I particularly find this useful: http://www.allgeneralizationsarefalse.com/?p=53. Although, to be fair, this link barely passes the Vetting Time Measure outlined below)
Where I struggle is in the rush of posts from my friends. These posts are, I trust, well- intentioned. People want to spread valuable information and opinions. People want to spur thought and action. People (my people, anyway) want to participate in a meaningful world where science and data and trust are actual things that matter.
And yet we are all struggling so hard right now. Posts appear and go viral in seconds with no actual information about the source or the goal. Information asserts authenticity (members of Senator Warren’s staff say we should) and so none of us ever check either the authenticity nor the date, so advice about phone calls to make that had validity in late November keep getting shared as if they are current. Information that asserts authority-based-on-relationship, such as “a minister I know and have worked with” gets shared widely without being changed, so it appears that each person posting the information knows the minister.
And then there is the inherent bias of political views and goals. I’ve operated in enough left/far-left/Radial/Separatist communities over the decades to have seen an astounding range of distortion, ranging from bias to delusion and paranoia. I’ve fallen for all of these, usually when I’m only surrounded by members of one small group. Within that group, crazy shit can feel real. One step outside, and you suddenly can’t make sense of what you believed with such fervor. These moments of borderline-paranoia remain easy for me to bump up against, though, because I know a lot about the world, and I don’t trust the government or business to not be developing horrible weapons or toxic crap while claiming they aren’t, and I do know that the level of surveillance we all live within is night-mare inducing, and I do believe that whatever amount of shit we see, there is vastly more and worse that we don’t yet see. Knowing how to both be willing to work for radical change with people we don’t know AND knowing the history of, say, COINTELPRO means a fine balancing act between naiveté and paranoia – a subject, I think, for another essay on another day.
Lack of taking any time to edit or source, combined with ourinherent communal biases, explain much of the well-intentioned distortion. There are also the dreadful “spoof” sites that spread stories just connected enough to reality to get passed from person to person like dreadful cold germs. There are sites and trolls who plant false information from false sources in order to provoke, betray, or lead astray. And there are marketers that spread FKnews in order to spread news about their product or service. All of these have motive and money behind them, and we are all in such a rush all the time, overwhelmed by information, that we have never built resistance to their methods.
In my own small ways, I’ve been working on building exactly that resistance. I’ve been building a practice of dating posts that call for some kind of action to be taken, and encouraging others to do the same, so we can easily weed out those posts that keep washing ashore like medical waste on north Jersey beaches. I’ve been trying to pause and check the listed source of news or opinion pieces before I post them myself. I’ve been doing a lot of SNOPES checking, and sharing those results with friends who post information. And yet I go on being guilty of sharing information that is out of date, sometime by years, and poorly-sourced, or utterly un-sourced.
Each of those mistakes, though small, radiate out at light-speed. Even if I go back and delete a post a few minutes after it goes up, it has already been forwarded and shared. And I know I share opinion pieces ALL THE TIME that say “such and such says we should all now do this” or “this one Muslim/Lesbian/Trans/Black/Immigrant/ person says this thing we’ve all been doing is actually hateful.” Except for a few names that are people I know, or know of and have a history I trust, I’ve never checked who these people are before I post. And even if I know the person, lies about what people say get spread all the time.
Such chaos, distortion, mistrust ARE the weapon of mass destruction we face right now. If our ability to know what we know, and to trust each other, keeps getting attacked and weakened, we will, none of us, be able to form communities of resistance, and without communities individual resistance may be heroic but will not be able to save us.
Against this new weapon, we need new tools. Below is my first attempt to shape one of these tools, a way to convey to each other how much we know about the information we are passing along. I’m utterly inventing both the categories and the names and measures of them, and I know this work can’t be done by only person. Please ponder on these issues yourself, post your ideas. If you want to try these out, report back on how they work. Make up your own and put them in a comment and I’ll include them in a rewrite.
Because in a world where information moves so quickly, and is so easy to distort, we have to find ways to share not only the information but our intentions, our understanding, our trust, our knowledge. Knowing these, and conveying them, are just as important in this world as the information itself.
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
William E. Stafford, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other”
Just Another Middle-Aged White Feminist Jewish Peace Camp Dyke’s Rules of Engagement for Building Trust in What We Know
The 5 Second Guideline – Spend at least 5 seconds evaluating any piece of information before you pass it along. Check the name on the bottom. See if a date is posted. See who else has posted it. You don’t have to do massive research. Just take 5 seconds. If a piece isn’t worth spending 5 seconds to evaluate, it isn’t good enough to share with your Beloved Community.
The Vetting Time Measure, of which the 5 Second Rule is a timeline – a quick number to acknowledge how much you spent researching the source of the article before sharing it: 60, 30, 10, 5, 0. As in 60 seconds, 30 seconds, 10 seconds, 5 seconds, didn’t do any research at all.
The Cards on the Table Rule – When you post information, be willing to identify how close you are to the information. Doing this, I think, creates more opportunity for honesty and more opportunities for readers to be able to evaluate what comes before them. I’m thinking of this as four categories: I (as in I myself wrote this, or I myself took this picture, or I myself was at this demo, or I myself heard a senator say this, or this is a field in which I myself have training and expertise); We (as in this is from a member of my community whom I know and trust, this is from someone whom I know to have training and expertise, this is from my self-defined “we”); They (as in, this is from a wider world in which I generally have trust, such as the New York Times or a radio host whose opinions I have found to be trustworthy or a blogging community in which I interact and have found to be reliable); and No Idea (as in, when I use the 5 second rule to consider this I realize I have no reliable context for this whatsoever). For this final category, spend another 5 seconds deciding whether or not to pass it along.
The Let’s Be Honest Rule – when you pass along an article, news piece, or opinion piece, include a statement about how much of it you yourself have actually read. Categories for this could include: Pondered, (as in I read this and spent time thinking about it and I think it is important and useful); Skimmed (as in I read parts of this and it seemed pretty cool so I’m passing it along); Kiss-and-Ride (as in I looked at the first paragraph and a couple of sentences and it seemed pretty nifty gotta go); Brown-nose (as in, This was posted by people I admire and I’m sharing it without looking at it first cause I want to be one of the cool radical kids).
The GIGO Opinion Measure – as in “Garbage In, Garbage Out.” This measures how much work you’ve put into an opinion you’re posting. A few suggested measures include: PhD (as in you’ve spent YEARS of your life reading and writing to get to this point); Consensus (as in you’ve worked with a whole group of people to come to this understanding after god knows how many hours of debating); Pro (as in training and some credentialed work here); Am (as in training and hard work without credentials or degrees); Freshman Comp (as in a kernel of some truth buried in a lot of blither); Limbaugh (as in you’re taking one little piece of information, which may also be false, and using it to blow opioid smoke out your ass)
The Road To Hell Measure – a measure of intentionality. Categories could include Persuade, Be Helpful, Amplify, Be Snide, Insult, Demean, Encourage, Show Off, Show Up, Connect, Distance, Affirm, Jump on the Bandwagon.
Using a few of my own recent Facebook posts as a sample, I’m trying these out.
First this, a link I just posted to an article, with a bunch of friends tagged to get them to read it too. https://www.facebook.com/battzedek/posts/10154949932411730
5 Second Rule – I created the newsletter in which it appeared, so know where it came from.
The Vetting Time Measure – 60+. I looked up who the author was, and what else she’s written.
The Cards on the Table Rule – This is a “they” post. It came from Literary Hub, a website I use all the time, and one where I’ve had direct individual interaction with at least one staff person.
The Let’s Be Honest Rule – I read this piece several times and judged it important enough to share through all the clutter
GIGO Measure – ProAm
Road to Hell Measure – Amplify, Encourage, Affirm
And then there’s this. Sigh. https://www.facebook.com/battzedek/posts/10154942907031730
5 Second Rule – I did not spend more than 5 seconds researching what the heck was going on with Uber. Just saw all over friends’ timelines that the head of Uber was working with the Wuggly Ump. FAILED
Vetting Time Measure – 0. FAILED
Cards on the Table Rule – No Clue Category. FAILED
Let’s Be Honest Rule – Honestly, kind of brown-nosing. FAILED
GIGO Measure – Limbaugh. FAILED
Road to Hell Measure – Bandwagon Jumper. FAILED
Ready to Go?
I’d really love it if y’all tried these out and reported back on what you find. Are these considerations useful to you? Can you use them? How does using the effect you?