As the blame game continues over Jared Loughner’s rampage, New Republic Contributing Editor John McWhorter says fault lies with the Internet.
McWhorter, a Columbia lecturer specializing in language change and language contact, explains that we’ve moved from the introspection of analog writing to the narcissism of digital speech.
The actual cause of this new national temper is technology and its intersection with how language is used. Language exists in two forms in modern times: speech and writing. Writing is a latterly invention only some thousands of years old, produced and received more slowly than talk. It encourages reflection, extended argument (something almost impossible to convey amidst the overlapping chaos of conversation), and objectivity. Writing is, in the McLuhanesque sense, cool…
…It is no accident that the shrillness of political conversation has increased just as broadband and YouTube have become staples of American life. The internet brings us back to the linguistic culture our species arose in—all about speech: live, emotional, unreflective, and punchy. The slogan trumps the argument. Anger, often of hazy provenance but ever cathartic (“I want my country back”) takes fire. All of this is reinforced by the synergy of on line “communities” stoking up passions on a scale that snail mail never could.