"Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk"

One should, each day, try to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it is possible, speak a few reasonable words. 

-- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The media scholar and social critic Neil Postman once penned a work titled Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk. The book sounds more like a mass-market product than a serious scholarly work, but the catchy phrase does actually serve a useful purpose. According to Postman, "stupid talk" is language that is recognized as foolish because of its vocabulary, tone, or suppositions. "Crazy talk" is syntactically and semantically acceptable, even persuasive, but it promotes ideas that are irrational, inconsequential, and even malevolent.

The passages below have been excerpted from pages 74-75, 85-90 of the Dell edition (New York, 1976).

"So far, wherever I have used the term crazy talk, I have been referring to talk that reflects 'bad' purposes. Where I have used the term stupid talk, I have been referring to talk that defeats legitimate purposes. Now, I will not say that this taxonomy is especially rigorous...In this case, my distinction between crazy talk and stupid talk is no less precise or more troublesome than a psychiatrist's distinction between a 'manic-depressive' and a 'schizophrenic.' And I bother to make the distinction for the same reason: It helps in pointing the way to a solution to the 'problem.' If we can see, even dimly, the way in which some person or situation is not working, then we are better equipped to suggest remedies...

"The problem of crazy talk...is not in what it does for you but in what it does to you. Crazy talk, even in its milder forms, requires that we be mystified, suspend critical judgment, accept premises without question, and (frequently) abandon entirely the idea that language ought to be connected with reality...

"The 'problem' of crazy talk is...very close to uncorrectable. It does not involve a momentary loss of judgment, subject to review in a more rational moment. Crazy talk usually puts forward a point of view that is considered virtuous and progressive. Its assumptions, metaphors, and conclusions are therefore taken for granted, and that, in the end, is what makes it crazy. For it is language that cannot get outside of itself. It buries itself in its own foundations.

"Here, for example, is a specimen taken from Red Stocking's Manifesto:

'Women are an oppressed class. Our oppression is total, affecting every facet of our lives. We are exploited as sex objects, breeders, domestic servants, and cheap labor...We identify the agents of our oppression as men. Male supremacy is the oldest, most basic form of domination. All other forms of exploitation (racism, capitalism, imperialism, etc.) are extensions of male supremacy...'

"Before saying anything about this language, I think I ought to make it plain that I believe in the equality of the sexes, that no female should be denied whatever opportunities are available to males. I mention this because it is in the nature of most 'isms' (and 'ologies') that criticism of any part of the 'ism' reflects a rejection of the whole. Therefore, one is required to show one's colors, so to speak, before one may offer criticism of any sort...

"[I]f you talk about men as 'total oppressors' and women as 'totally exploited,' you have constructed a context that bears almost no relation to the actual experience of men and women. Crazy talk is, in fact, almost always characterized by simple-minded conceptions of complex relationships.

"One way it achieves this is through the construction of a massive metaphor which permeates every sentence and does not allow for any perceptions that go beyond the bounds of the metaphor. In the foregoing instance, we are presented with a vicious and uncompromising paradigm: Man-woman relationships are a war between master and slave. It follows from this that a woman who gives birth to a child is a 'breeder.' And a woman who stays home with children while her husband works is a 'domestic servant' and 'cheap labor.' It follows, as well, that there can be no such thing as 'mutual dependency' or 'love' or even a 'family,' since such transactions do not arise in a class war. It also follows that it is only an illusion that some men have sacrificed their own well-being for their families, since masters do not do such things for slaves.

"In short, to talk this way is to distort, beyond recognition, a complex situation as it is actually experienced by most men and women...

"In any case, the relationships between men and women are characterized not only by antagonisms and inequalities but by acts of great sacrifice, tenderness, and devotion. And I would say that any language pattern which excludes the sacrifice, tenderness, and devotion in the framework of marriage is a form of crazy talk, a lowering, not a raising, of consciousness. It is one thing to say that there are still imbalances and inequities in this relationship. It is quite another to say that in marriage, men own their women, to do with as they will, for the general purpose of keeping them oppressed. The first can lead to inquiry and action. The second is a propagandistic distortion of great destructive power.

"Stupid talk is an individual mistake whose unfortunate consequences are usually immediate and observable by others within the semantic environment. This does not mean that there can be no argument about it. Stupid talk is still an opinion given by one fallible human being about the remarks of another fallible human being. But because the semantic environment itself is not in question, stupid talk is limited in its scope, and its presence may be detected in the fact that something that ought to have happened hasn't, or something that ought not to have happened has. Rarely does it involve fundamental questions of value, and for that reason, stupid talk is often easy to correct, or, at least, to avoid next time.

"Crazy talk, on the other hand, grows from a challenge to the semantic environment itself. It establishes different purposes and assumptions from those we normally accept. It has, therefore, wide-ranging consequences and is a form of collectivized nonsense."

 

Further Reading

Neil Postman's Writings On The Web.

Huxley, Orwell & Television. This is the foreword of Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse In The Age Of Show Business.

 

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