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Correcting Your Behavior Since 2017

A Curmudgeon Rerun: Cave Paintings

This week, I've decided to bring back a golden oldie for the reading enjoyment of those who missed it the first time around. I'll be back next week with a new gripe. TWC


Communication must have been challenging in the old days. And when I speak of the old days in this case, I'm not talking about the Jazz Age. I'm talking about the old old days, a time not only before cellphones but even before wheels, when we all wore animal skins and hit things with rocks. Back then, long before the evolution of language, there was simply no easy way to enquire whether someone took milk with their tea. In fact, I don't believe there was tea . . . or even milk. There certainly weren't scones. And without scones, what would have been the point of tea? And so, we're told, they grunted and pointed a lot. Eventually, one imagines, they started to agree on which grunts and points indicated which ideas. And then, someone started drawing pictures, and a sort of visual language was born. Our cave-dwelling ancestors were now able to convey more complicated concepts: "Ah, I get it, Bertram. You're saying there's a huge leopard headed toward our cave as we speak and he looks hungry, and you think it might be advisable to move with haste to another location, but not near the swamp as it's currently occupied by bathing orangutans, and you know how they can get."

Time, as it tends to do, marched on. Language of ever-growing complexity allowed us to communicate with greater and greater specificity. Civilizations rose and fell, books were written, newspapers helped us understand local and world events, dictionaries helped unify our grasp of even the more nuanced of meanings of words. Now we could describe the difference between old and ancient, between teal and aquamarine, and between irksome and mind-bendingly annoying. Punctuation helped organize those words into complete thoughts, placing signposts along the written roadways. We had developed a beautifully sophisticated system of communication.

Until The Great Reversal, when de-evolution began.

Historians have not pinpointed the precise date. But some time in the latter part of the 20th Century, we began to develop a strange animosity toward the very linguistic tools that had been our hard-won friends. We grew disdainful of accuracy and felt hemmed-in by the very traditions that had been solidified by generations of consensus. While we once took great pride in knowing and following the agreed-upon rules of spelling, grammar, and punctuation, we now took pride in achieving a very different goal: bold, rule-flouting individuality. We began spelling words any way we damn well liked, punctuating in whatever manner appealed to us, and using words to mean what we wanted them to, regardless of previous definitions. And we became righteously defensive of those practices. Corrections became affronts. Accuracy became stuffy and outdated. No longer able to fully describe our thoughts with words, we discovered that we could create little sideways facial expressions using our computer keyboards. We gave them a name: "emoticons." And somehow, none of this occurred to us as silly. It was seen as a handy way to do what we had decided words could no longer do—say stuff. And as the commonality of our language continued to devolve, inevitably, we found ourselves returning to a modern equivalent of cave paintings—small, expressive pictures we've named "emojis." Now, let's step back and look at this for a moment. We now have a society of grown individuals—many of whom have jobs or are raising children—expressing anger with the use of a small orange ball with an angry expression and joy by inserting a cartoon of hands clapping. People who ought to know how to put their thoughts into words have abandoned that endeavor and are instead sharing diagrams of their feelings. And what if we want to say several things? Well then, we offer a string of symbols, not unlike hieroglyphics.

Ironically, the meanings of these symbols seem to have been agreed upon by consensus, proving that language isn't effective without commonly held definitions. If one person says a symbol means "way to go" and another says it means "go to hell," we have a problem. Idiocracy is one of the Curmudgeon's favorite films. It's a futuristic comedy based on the premise that stupid people have more children than smart people, inevitably leading to an ever-stupider society. It's a very amusing film . . . until one realizes how prescient it was. In one scene, a character goes to the hospital. The dead-eyed intake person stands before a console on which are little pictures of various ailments and tries to locate the button that looks most like what the patient seems to have. You can view the scene here. That's where we're headed, dear readers: symbols, acronyms, and dumb little pictures, all taking the place of a colorful, well-developed, nuanced language that we've become too lazy to maintain. And as a society, we're falling for it, completely enchanted by the kind of art that could once only be seen in picture books for infants, or on a first grader's vocabulary flashcards.

The Curmudgeon suspects it will not be long before we're back to grunting and pointing at things.

And to that I say, mean face, shaking fist, steam coming out of ears, eye roll, and scratching head.

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