Phyllis Beveridge Nissila
A NOVEL FOR THEN, NOW, AND ALWAYS
A literary gem that stays on my top shelf of go-to’s for both inspiration and insight–as well as grins–is a delightful little novel by Mark Dunn called Ella Minnow Pea, A Novel in Letters (Anchor-Random House, 2001). If, like me, you love words, you may have already “heard” in the title, alone, four letters of the alphabet, L, M, N, O, and P. (Remember the old “Alphabet Song”?) With such a clever hook, how could I resist?
Artfully packed inside this carefully crafted, 208-page “love letter to alphabetarians and logomaniacs everywhere” (as reviewer Myla Goldberg puts it) is “A curiously compelling…satire of human foibles, and a light-stepping commentary on censorship and totalitarianism” (The Philadelphia Inquirer).
In the long tradition of fiction that addresses such foibles I would shelve this novel next to Jonathan Swift’s straight-faced, satirical essay, “A Modest Proposal” and his novel, Gulliver’s Travels (note: NOT the Disneyfied version of “Gulliver” but the thought-provoking and hilarious “travelogue” of a certain eighteen-century gullible Gulliver that, though highly entertaining, was, as Swift, himself, noted, written “to vex the world, rather than divert it.”).
Why do I put the lesser-known Ella Minnow Pea in this category?
As both a lit teacher and current events observer, I believe at some future point when the world has overcome the current and fast-morphing, language-co-opting power of Political Correctness, where every day there is a new word or words developed more around polemics rather than linguistics, although words convey all aspects of culture, this text, too, will enlighten readers as to the power of thought-shaping and action-triggering words.
So, again, why?
The power of the pen is why.
The power of semantics is why.
From my teacher’s lens I would add the power of connotation and inference that trigger actions meant to be triggered by wordcraft, whether the actions are sublime, ridiculous, or dangerous.
And the last power, danger, is the crux of this post.
For in this era of ever-increasing–and thought-encroaching–PC language, I believe “danger” is perhaps the most important focus.
Beneath all of the egalitarian and inclusive-sounding PC-words there is, as many now have a sense, a growing malevolence seeping into modern political-speak. For, as both the novel and history reveal, at a certain point, political speech aimed at encroaching on the freedoms of others does not stop with mere words.
“Fightin’ words” can be for both good and bad reasons, of course.
Good, if ills need to be addressed (and there are always ills in need of addressing in all political paradigms, policies, and parties in every era and every corner of the globe. This is one of those universal themes not only in literature but also in real life).
Bad, if ills are not addressed–but unleashed.
How to know?
A wise man once said, “You will know them by their fruit.”
But of course in the dust of politics cobbled together by flawed humans, there is usually a mix of good and bad requiring the best we have to discern and to remedy as needed with as many checks and balances as are required.
But back to what (linguistic) wickedness this way may have come.
Consider the following.
For one example of dangerous words, from today’s PC lexicon, does “inclusive” really infer, in this era, “all encompassing,” or, is there a now a (political) connotation of “all-inclusive except for (here, insert racial, religious, and/or socio-economic group in the hate speech cross-hairs today)?
For another example, does “multicultural” still mean, “of, relating to, reflecting, or adapted to diverse cultures” or are there now one or more ethnic, religious, and/or racial cultures purposefully, some argue, missing in the politicized, PC definition, while a selected number remain?
(I am reminded here of another satirical poke at human foibles, this one penned by George Orwell in Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”)
The human race has certainly seen this before in the evil-spawned genocide of various indigenous/racial/ethnic/religious groups, for, as the saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun.
For a final example, and perhaps most concerning as the PC movement grows and this question begs asking: is the United States still a “melting pot of diverse cultures,” or, has it, now, by the power of politics-infused meanings, morphed in many people’s minds to a boiling pot of balkanized tribes back to battling each other for supremacy based on primacy, recency, or “soft”–and growing “louder”–coups where the tyranny of the urgent–whether real or manufactured–no longer seems to demand reasonable solutions, but often quickly degrades to violence of thought, word, and now deed, while policing agents stand down?
Let the reader decide.
Meanwhile, back to Miss* Ella.
As Dunn’s satire goes, the young protagonist finds herself the unwitting (and very witty) heroine of a little town in an isolated island off of South Carolina that experiences another kind of modern crisis of words–worse, the very letters that comprise words.
The powerful ruling Council has deemed that the meaning of letters falling off an impressive monument erected for a famous local citizen (one, Nevin Nollop, the author of the famous pangram, the letters atop the monument spelling it out: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”) must mean their long-departed hero, after whom the town (formerly known as Utopianna) was named, was “telling them” from the grave that citizens must stop using those letters in word or print.
They even developed a convincing ideology to support this belief, although convincing mainly themselves.
The scientific fact that the glue that bonded the letters to the monument was now degrading–which was the true cause of the tumbling ABCs–meant little to the Council.
In their nearly worshipful reverence for Nollop (and their arguably worshipful reverence for themselves while growing heady with increasing power, as humans are also wont to do), they would have none of that fact nor any other.
And the consequences for those who dared use the now, verboten letters, dropping off the monument one or two at a time for many days, while at first laughable to the locals, eventually became lethal.
There emerged, letter by letter, day by day, increasing infringements on freedom of speech, and soon, “letter police” showed up behind shrubs and at the doorsteps of those disobeying the new “word rules,” and rebels, whether by accident or design, were given but few chances to repent or physical punishment, exile, or death would follow.
Of course, some residents self-exiled rather than submit to the mind-altering, action suppressing, and literally death-defying new rules about what letters=words one could or could not say, use, or by logical extensive, dare even think.
Not to mention self-exiling for fear.
Which, of course, makes the satire less light-hearted as the irony of such political machinations casts a bit of a pall over the fun, despite the noble–and clever–counter actions of the remaining citizens.
For, as aware citizens are wont to do in any era when the powerful attempt to control speech which, if unchecked, leads increasingly to other kinds of control,** in this story, too, there were those real and accidental heroes who saved the day, that is to say, the language and a restoration of freedom of speech in Nollop.
Thus emerge the two major themes of the tale: 1) the importance of free speech because of 2) what inevitably happens when totalitarians grab power.
The reader notices this progression as the invisible but powerful shackles of word-control tighten around the Nollopians:
-At first, it all seems quite amusing, I mean, not being to write or pronounce the first letter to smash on the ground, the letter “Z”? Really?! No big deal, lol.
-Well, we don’t use Z so much…anyway… right?
The bee keeper is the first to be punished.
-As more letters break off and the Council intensifies its increasingly violent “policing” of the rebellious–both those who are rebellious on purpose and those who are so by accident or ignorance of the latest acceptable language–fear intensifies to paranoia. People stop communicating so much.
The teacher quits her job.
The local press closes down.
The librarians get rid of thousands of books.
At length, the chapters, comprised of letters to and from remaining citizens, become increasingly shorter even when the forbidden letters are spelled–carefully and time-consumingly–phonetically as the remaining citizens try to communicate with each other of their fear, paranoia–and their plan.
“If” becomes “iph,” for example, when the letter F falls off. “Heartfelt sympathy” becomes “hartphelt simpathee” when the letter Y crumbles. “Diaspora” becomes “tiaspora” when the letter D falls, becoming a small, dusty pile of shards beneath the altar of Nollop.
There is only one Councilor, named “Lyttle” (renamed “Little”) who is on the side of the brave citizens. Without spoiling the outcome, Little, though of perhaps the least importance on the esteemed Council, ends up aiding the “word rebels,” the defiant users of the “illicitabeticals,” and, just in time, too, when (through more clever word play) they all save “te tae,” that is, “the day”.
So what’s next in our own, real “word police jurisdiction,” you might say? Fines for using, accidentally or on purpose, newly determined components of “hate speech”?** Imprisonment? Exile? Death?
For real world, “word rebels” what comes next in the story of our own fading freedom of speech as, one by one, the acceptable words, in this case replace the old words (now deemed offensive) in order to reflect the ideologies displayed on the altar to some–all too real–(Politically Correct) Council?
For, as implied in the fictional tale, there seems now, too, a kind of religious zealotry to this current war on words.
And it intensifies, particularly when concepts such as “absolute truth” and “established law” and “standards” are systematically chipped away of meaning and relevance in a worldview based more and more on situational ethics and evolving thought, replacing even what most people believe is still “the rule of law” that has been morphing, behind the scenes, into new-think called “reflexive law“.
For if the new-think goes this far and eventually infects and replaces the rule of law–which encases the very foundation of our form of governance–this will definitely be the death knell of many freedoms, not just speech. One by one, day by day.
So what’s a thinking citizen to do?
Part of what makes literature rise above ordinary prose is its creative treatment of universal themes such as “good versus evil,” “overcoming adversity,” “mankind struggles against societal pressure,” and variations thereof, to name a scant few.
But when it rises to the level of a satire, we sit up straighter in our chairs and read more closely. We see parallels to real life, we see foibles, we see trouble. We make personal application, if we read closely enough, and, hopefully, better ourselves individually and collectively.
Even if the literary work is crafted as a tragedy, those who read it can still learn and grow from it.
They–we–can still choose to step away from the elements of tragedy in our own lives, if not society at large, change course, salvage what’s still good, and rebuild–while remaining ever vigilant.
And from a lens focused on a bigger picture, there’s time to do so on this mortal coil–if we have the eyes to read and the ears to hear.
From my encourager’s lens, I would emphasize this.
*Wonder if anyone, directly or indirectly influenced by new ideas about gender terms was a little bit distracted by my use (the author’s use, actually) of the title, “Miss” or of the descriptor, “heroine” which in the current political climate infers a “female,” aka a member of the “oppressed” groups, thus, the permissible word is now simply “hero”, and no “Miss” appellation need apply?
This next example of the ramifications of new political speech/think is related and might sound silly–so far–to many, but read the article linked a few words hence for another new twist of gender terminology. It concerns Princeton’s new, 2016 policy that axes the word “man” from HR documents to make them “more gender inclusive.” (As long as they still teach irony at the college, there are at least some who are bound to catch on…)
**Consider the ramifications of Canada’s new “hate speech” law that, according to proponents “aims to combat hate speech and speech inciting violence“ (see context of quote below) while opponents (same reference) are concerned with the following:
Bill 59 poses a significant threat to free expression in Québec. Although this piece of legislation aims to combat hate speech and speech inciting violence specifically, its broad language coupled with restrictive prohibitions and significant penalties will place a chill on the expression of legitimate ideas and debate.
As stated in the above section, the bill aims to combat speech that targets individuals or groups on the grounds of discrimination identified in the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. These grounds include what is contained in most other provincial human rights codes including age, sex, colour and pregnancy but also “political convictions.” A restriction on speech that targets individuals or groups on the basis of political conviction is a serious restriction on civil and political dialogue. While the bill expressly states that its purpose is not to prohibit the dissemination of speech intended to “legitimately inform the public,” it would nonetheless pose a very real risk to those speaking and writing on contentious political matters, creating a potential chill where civil discourse matters most.
[…] Bill 59 also allows individuals to report anticipated hate speech before any expression has been made, and the Act permits the Commission to apply to court for an injunction to stop the speech from happening. This would permit the policing of future speech. (bolding mine)
A list of fines and other punishments is included.
A search engine query reveals more and more of these kind of consequences over an increasing number of, now demonized, if not outright disallowed, words and ideas.
As a free speech proponent, I think everyone, everywhere, should be very concerned.