“In case you hadn’t realized, it has somehow become uncool to sound like you know what you’re talking about? Or believe strongly in what you’re, like, saying? Invisible question marks and parenthetical ‘you know’s and ‘you know what I’m saying’s have been attaching themselves to the ends of our sentences? Even when those sentences aren’t, like, questions? Declarative sentences, so called because they used to, you know, like, declare things to be true, as opposed to other things that are, like, totally... not?” - Taylor Mali
Why do some people end ordinary statements with question marks?
Taylor Mali, who delivered the above quote on the HBO show Def Poetry in 2002, is best known as a comedian and slam poet. He was also a high school teacher (as he describes in another spoken word piece, which has racked up over a million youtube hits) and his website’s gig calendar lists more teaching work than anything else. It’s feasible to think he noticed the relentless rising inflection in his students’ voices - the “like”s and “y’know”s he sprinkles throughout the piece have a flavour of youth. Perpetual uncertainty doesn’t strike me as radically out of place in a group of youngsters facing a tall, muscular, slam poet champ of a teacher.
Mali concludes his anti-rising-inflection monologue with something I can easily imagine him telling his students: “So I implore you, I entreat you, and I challenge you, to speak with conviction, to say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks the determination with which you believe it, because contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker, it is not enough these days to simply ‘question authority’. Ya gotta speak with it, too.”
Graduate from the uncertainty of youth into the conviction of adulthood: sound advice. But is confident delivery alone a good thing? Ann Coulter erroneously asserted (without a note of doubt) that Canada sent troops to the Vietnam War, and was corrected by her CBC interviewer. She stuck to her guns and later, on C-Span, referred to that interviewer as a “bubblehead Ted Baxter”. Bill O’Reilly, reporting the incident on Fox News, castigated the CBC for “convincing millions that the US is the bad guy in the war on terror. That could lead to millions of deaths, sir, just as Nazi propaganda did.” Even though his statement is about a possibility, he says it with full certitude.
On the other hand, plenty of adults relentlessly employ the rising inflection (and sound like adolescents in the process). Don Watson, author of Death Sentences - How Cliches, Weasel Words and Management Speak are Strangling Public Language, blames postmodernism:
“There is a theory that the tendency [to use the rising inflection] developed among baby boomers when they lost God and took to marijuana and sociology. Add to the mix Foucault, Derrida, and others beyond the grasp of most young minds but generally rendering belief into something much more relative, and you have a plausible explanation for the problem.”
Postmodernism rose with the boomer generation. Authority was questioned. Ignored points of view were listened to. Women. Disabled people. Brown people. Everyone was allowed to have a say - amongst those who shared the postmodern worldview, anyway. Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly aren’t known for respecting the right of others to hold their own opinions.
Immunology student and blogger Vio Claramente described why she lost her vocal conviction: “One big reason why I stopped being loud and emphatic and thumping my metaphorical fist on the table is because I realized I hated being at the receiving end of such treatment. I hate being steamrollered, it’s uncomfortable and puts me off the discussion.”
This statement implies a broadening in Claramente’s perspective. She connected her own feelings of being on the receiving end of loud, forceful speech to those of the people listening to her. As she integrated other people’s perspectives into her own, she instinctively spoke more courteously.
She goes on: “I also found that not thumping [the] table meant I could hear other people, a nice change. So politeness and a genuine curiosity to hear other people's thoughts started me off on my path of less declaiming and more questioning. As an added bonus, people warm to gentle conciliation more than they do to vocal steamrollers.”
This sounds like the postmodern ideal: people listening to each other, no one being excluded or stomped on. But anything good can be taken too far. Soon any display of authority, or even certainty, is felt to be a dogmatic punch in the head, and even the most innocuous statement must be delivered with an inflectionary proviso that this is only one person’s opinion, it could be wrong, and I don’t mean to imply that it’s better than anyone else’s. And how much of an improvement is that? Claremente concludes: “While I am certainly not a fan of rudeness or putting someone else down out of a sense of your own superiority, I am so tired and fed up of ending every sentence with an implied question mark.” Notice how she ended that sentence with a definite opinion and a firm period?
So can we rise above postmodern uncertainty and loud mouthed bullying? Can we say what we mean (and say it like we mean it) and still respect someone else’s right to have their own opinion? Can we master the intellectual and emotional yoga of integrating conviction with an openness to other points of view? Imagine the recent debate on socialized healthcare in the US with pundits, politicians and concerned citizens stating their opinions forcefully, and then listening intently and with complete open mindedness when the opposition spoke. Picture Bill O’Reilly thundering his views on air just as he does now, and then passionately defending his guests’ right to do the same, squaring his focus on them, taking in everything they said. Think of classrooms, workplaces and common exchanges, charged with conviction and courtesy.
End note (provided by Philosophy section writer Trevor Malkinson)
This is a quote from philosopher Terry Eagleton:
"Some postmodernists claim not to believe in truth at all- but this is a peculiarly pointless manoeuvre. In less sophisticated postmodern circles, holding a position with conviction is seen as unpleasantly authoritarian, whereas to be fuzzy, skeptical and ambiguous is somehow democratic. It is hard in that case to know what to say about someone who is passionately committed to democracy, as opposed to someone who is fuzzy and ambiguous about it. For this strain of postmodernism, claiming that one position is preferable is objectionably 'hierarchical'. It is not clear on this theory why being anti-hierarchical is preferable to being hierarchical. A certain postmodern fondness for not knowing what you think about anything is perhaps reflected in the North American speech habit of inserting the word 'like' after every three or four words. It would be dogmatic to suggest that something actually is what it is. Instead, you must introduce a ritual tentativeness into your speech, in a kind of perpetual semantic slurring". (After Theory, 104)
It was only after reading and co-editing TJ's above piece that I came across this passage from Terry Eagleton, and I was amazed at the overlapping insight. From a philosphical point of view, what TJ's piece and the Eagleton comment foreground for me is that our patterned behaviour doesn't always (or ever?) come from nowhere. It's a great example and a fine lesson of how cultural codes can be operative within us without our knowing exactly where they came from, or the full meaning they carry. Often we aren't even conscious of them at all. This isn't to reduce all our behavior to the level of a social construction (or Wilber's lower left quadrant); we all, with presence and awareness, can (to use developmental psychologist Robert Kegan's phrase) make our own subject the object of our awareness. That is, with reflection and attention we can recognize and understand our behavior patterns and, if we choose too, then move to new ways of being. TJ's piece here and the Taylor Mali bit are part of that ever unfolding process.
Watch the full Taylor Mali bit about Speaking with Conviction: