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Good Writing and Why It Matters

By Bill Allman

Warning: Contains some coarse language

Recently, the world was shocked when 13 year old Rebecca Black recorded and released a song called “Friday”. It was pop trash and declared so by all the denizens of the hip media. Largely as a result of the derision, the song garnered in excess of 140 MILLION views on YouTube and has, through iTunes sales, made Ms. Black, the songwriters and producers, a fairly tidy little sum of money. But that’s all beside the point.

Soon after the release and posting of Rebecca Black’s “Friday” video, a YouTuber who goes by the name of HeyMikeBauer recorded and released a version of the song in the style of Bob Dylan. It was funny. Actually, from a musical point of view, it did explain some of the song’s appeal. The composition is pretty sound even if the lyrics (“we, we, we so excited”) lack a certain level of… sophistication.

In any event, YouTube being YouTube, various people began leaving comments on the page dedicated to the alleged Dylan version of “Friday”. Now, most YouTube comments read as though they were composed by a panel of three incontinent monkeys hurling scat at a computer keyboard. The comments on Dylan’s “Friday” were different. The writers were creative and articulate, and worked hard to one-up each other with deep but outlandish “interpretations” of the lyrics. The best of these related the song to the deaths of the Kennedys, to Rosa Parks’ famous bus ride, to the Civil Rights Movement and some even wrote in with well-researched “reminiscences” from their time in Vietnam, listening to Dylan’s masterwork, knowing that the VC would likely strike on a Friday.

In any event, YouTube being YouTube, various people began leaving comments on the page dedicated to the alleged Dylan version of “Friday”. Now, most YouTube comments read as though they were composed by a panel of three incontinent monkeys hurling scat at a computer keyboard. The comments on Dylan’s “Friday” were different. The writers were creative and articulate, and worked hard to one-up each other with deep but outlandish “interpretations” of the lyrics. The best of these related the song to the deaths of the Kennedys, to Rosa Parks’ famous bus ride, to the Civil Rights Movement and some even wrote in with well-researched “reminiscences” from their time in Vietnam, listening to Dylan’s masterwork, knowing that the VC would likely strike on a Friday.

Brilliant stuff! Funny stuff! Every one of us who contributed to the site knew we were kidding each other and were all having a great time doing so. And then…

“U do kno this isn’t Dylan, right?”

A few “doubters” crept into the mix. At first, the comments were merely blunt and seemed to be crafted in order to prove the commentators’ superiority because, hey, THEY knew it wasn’t really Bob Dylan’s work. But then an interesting phenomenon occurred. The comments became more strident. “This not Dylan! U R idiot.” And “You are retarded if you think this Dilan”. And these were coming from multiple posters, not just one ticked-off, inarticulate Dylan fan. I continued to watch the postings with interest over the course of about two weeks. Occasionally, I would add something of my own. Usually it was a fond reminiscence from my time in Ottawa as one of the in- house techs on Dylan’s ’69 tour. Then, from time to time, I would challenge one of the “doubters”, presenting fresh evidence of the song’s authenticity and accusing them of being “Rebeccaphiles”, intent on obscuring musical history. And then…

I simply stopped engaging. The vitriol reached even greater levels of both coarseness and illiteracy and I watched, fascinated, for about a week until one day when the level of discourse was reduced to multiple postings of the word “CUNT!”

I’ll give the posters this much credit; “cunt” is about the only word they spelt correctly with any consistency.

But in the end, it was the barbarians who won out. They effectively silenced the group of us who were having a great time taking the piss out of everything from Rebecca Black to supercilious music criticism. Essentially, paragraphs of creative, funny writing were obliterated by nothing more than a series of verbally violent shrieks, grunts and barks. The peasants had stormed the opera house and, finding themselves onstage, had nothing whatsoever to offer.

It has been said that the advent of the Internet has “democratized” the craft and the art of writing; that it has given voice to everyone who wants to take part in public discourse. Now, do you see where maybe that’s not such a good thing? The advent of online communication, with no barriers to the ill-educated, the ill-lettered or simply the ill has prompted a rapid technical collapse of the English language which, when coupled with the perception of online anonymity, is quickly leading us to a place where hostility and imprecision possess enormous strength.

Comes the cry of the blogger and the citizen journalist: “But any language always evolves and morphs.” For the moment, I’ll ignore the fact that that cry is simply an excuse for not mastering the craft with which these people profess to make their living. The continual evolution and morphing of any language is absolutely a fact, and a welcome fact. New words replace old words, and the rules of grammar shift and economize. But this current trend is not one of linguistic EVOLUTION; this is the DEVOLUTION of language. This process is quickly becoming the subtraction of the two characteristics that make language the most powerful and positive facet of human communication: precision and cooperation.

If we, as humans, are incapable of internal, natural agreement on the very form of ideas, then we are incapable of any agreement on ideas themselves. Without a common and cooperative language, we doom ourselves to a confused and increasingly conflict-driven thought process where the loudest shrieking, grunting and barking will triumph. Logic, reason and the emotional power of viewpoints will simply crumble in the face of inarticulate, Id-driven, verbal force. To lift a point from Alan Marriott (in his book “Genius Now”), we are at an unprecedented time in history where humankind MUST learn to think cooperatively in order to merely survive, let alone thrive. And it is at that point that we face the loss of our most valuable tool in our ongoing quest for solutions to truly global problems; we face the loss of a commonality of communication. Cooperation creates, it finds solutions; inarticulate, aggressive communication fosters only inarticulate, non-cooperative thinking and an increasingly adversarial environment.

Where to begin fixing this? Well, it begins in the home. It begins in the earliest classroom. It begins with those of us engaged in the creation of written work and the education of people from childhood through to university level. And it begins with us all saying in loud, clear terms “This is NOT ‘good enough’”. It begins with us demanding more of ourselves and our written craft. And it continues with the reclamation of recognition and respect for the well-lettered individual. It begins with any one of us choosing not to use “ain’t” in order to try and fit in with Joe Pipefitter and his family; and it begins with each of us correcting our students and our children and, delicately, maybe even our friends when they use a malapropism or misspell a word or dangle a participle in a public place.

There are people out there who regard enhanced literacy as some sort of snobs’ affectation. There are people, even educated people, who “dumb down” their speech in order to seem more a part of their socio-economic class. Well, fie on those people! (a deliciously archaic way of saying “fuck ‘em”). We need those who know better to lead. And we, ourselves, need to lead. We, as writers, need to recognize the eternal power of communication and that, unlike music to which human responses are biological and innate, language must be taught, nay, it must be CULTIVATED in each person. We need to collectively understand the necessity for that cultivation as the best possible means to bind our species together on this planet in pursuit of our betterment and, yes, our very survival.

— Bill Allman