You know… kind of… like…
Caroline Kennedy didn’t mean to say “you know” 142 times in one interview. But she did – and with it, her candidacy collapsed. Nowadays, people don’t mean to punctuate every point they make with you know… kind of… like – but more of us do. And with it, we’re revealing a collapse more serious than Caroline Kennedy’s Senatorial candidacy.
In case you missed the story, Kennedy was briefly considered for Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat in late 2008. Asked about her qualifications, Kennedy said, “I think in many ways, you know, we want to have all kinds of different voices, you know, representing us, and I think what I bring to it is, you know, my experience as a mother, as a woman, as a lawyer, you know, I’ve been an education activist for the last six years here, and, you know, I’ve written seven books – two on the Constitution, two on American politics.”
Man, that’s hard to read. The problem is not with Kennedy, however. It’s with our culture. The way people punctuate sentences is very much the product of society, according to Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow and linguist John H. McWhorter. “We are simply creatures of what has become a general context.”1 Today’s society, in this case, rarely recognizes what you know, kind of, like tells us about reality.
In the Judeo-Christian definition of reality, God created with words: “Let there be light.” Words mattered because they described reality, especially how things ought to be here and now. When Adam named the animals, for example, he wasn’t pulling names from his surroundings but from a sacred canopy providing “insight into the natures of the various creatures,” Dallas Willard writes.2 That’s why sticks and stones may break your bones but words will hurt you. They matter. Call a child an idiot, and they’ll likely become one. “A divine element is present in language,” the late Richard Weaver wrote.3 Words define and drive how sacred oughts become social realities here and now.
But when the “oughts” are abandoned, language reflects the change in the halting uncertainty of modern speech. Confidence in a moral code is collapsing because a sacred canopy has collapsed.
The canopy began to crack in 1882 according to Philip Rieff, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania until his recent death. That’s the year Friedrich Nietzsche published The Gay Science, heralding the death of God. Nietzsche understood the relationship of God and words. He wrote, “We are not done with God until we are done with grammar.” This loss of an assumed transcendent reference point formed a crack that Rieff described as “unprecedented.” “No social order has ever before existed except as readings of sacred order,” he wrote. Rieff said the fault lines are formidable in education. “The higher you go on the social and educational ladder, the greater the resistance to and negation of religious points of view.”4 A “radically skeptical knowledge industry has been built upon the ruins of sacred truth.”5 It’s why Rieff called higher education the “higher illiteracy.”6
The canopy essentially collapsed in the 1960s. This was the era of Doing Your Own Thing, McWhorter writes. In the aftermath, hazarding an opinion on right and wrong feels like… a hazard. Out from under the sacred canopy leaves people feeling exposed – who am I to say what’s right or wrong? We repeatedly hit the Pause button because… you know… kind of… like… you know… we don’t want to sound judgmental. Everything is qualified with linguistic air quotes.
The prevalence of people hitting the Pause button can be an opportunity for people of faith. Sociologist Peter L. Berger believes human reality provides “certain intimations of [God’s] speech, signals (unclear though they are) of His hidden presence.” Berger writes: “I have long argued that one could construct an “inductive theology” that would begin with an analysis of these “signals of transcendence” (which could also be called glimpses of the presence of God in human reality).”7 How likely is it that you know… kind of… like are “signals of transcendence” – human experiences that are universal and instinctive; yet require answers that lie beyond themselves?8 It might be a way to reframe the faith.
In a world where Christianity is increasingly imagined as been-there-done-that, few people are moved by scientific, philosophical, or even historical “proofs” for God – but they might be by sociological “pointers” to a sacred canopy. This is lived experience, not abstract categories. The issue for most people today is the plausibility of Christianity, not the veracity of Christ. This is why starting with discussions of worldview is the wrong place to begin a conversation. But if we can explain why – especially in the last 30 years – people have taken to punctuating the points with you know… kind of… like, they might take the Judeo-Christian definition of reality more seriously and act on it. That would be, you know, like, you know, kinda cool.
1 James McWhorter, Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care (New York, NY: Gotham Books, 2003), p. 49.
2 Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins Publishers, 1988), p. 49.
3 Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1948), p. 148.
4 Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority, Kenneth S. Piver, General Editor, Volume I, Sacred Order/Social Order (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), p. 10.
5 Rieff, p. 56.
6 Rieff, p. xxiii.
7 Peter L. Berger, Questions of Faith, A Skeptical Affirmation of Christianity (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), p. 12-13.
8 Peter L. Berger, A Rumor of Angels (New York, NY: Doubleday/Anchor Books, 1990), pp. 59-65.
I’m no big fan of Caroline Kennedy, but could her “you know”‘s merely have been due to nervousness rather than some “collapse” in the way our society thinks?
You know, you might like be kind of reading too much into her speach, you know.
Berger’s idea of an ‘inductive theology’ from an analysis of what he calls the ‘signals of transcendence’ around is fascinating. That theology would come more from an awareness of all that is around us than what is contained in books.
Another wonderful essay, Mike. I think that a factor today is something we might call information inflation. When a government prints out large amounts of unfounded currency, the value of each note decreases. Perhaps, in an information age that has generated billions of blogs and websites, not to mention the thousands of traditional media outlets, the value of each word decreases. If we sense that the value of our words and ideas has been drastically reduced, we will feel increasingly uncertain about speaking and writing. This could increase the nervousness that Ken mentioned in his comment(the emotional expression). And it could also be directly related to the point of your essay.
Big thoughts, Metz! Provocatively presented!
Food for thought, whether or not it holds true in the case of Caroline Kennedy. It would be an interesting exercise to at least think “potential transcendental placeholder here” when someone uses “you know” or speaks haltingly; uncertainly.
Often our words and speech habits are thoughtless, but our mutual friend Polly used to always remind me that “out of the heart, the mouth speaks.” So often, we really DO mean [and believe] exactly what we say. . . . Freud is rather interesting on this, as well, of course!
You talk about this phenomenon as a possible opportunity to “reframe faith”.
You say ‘don’t start with worldview’, and insert instead ‘explain why people say “you know” ‘ and postulate that then “they might take the Judeo-Christian definition of reality more seriously and act on it.”
Ya think so? Isn’t that just another way of starting with worldview, and explaining ‘why’ theirs is effectively wrong – which they will likely perceive as, like, judgmental. . . . you know. All is not lost, though. Surely it is a good start to get us all thinking about the foundation for our very lives – and our words – whether we fall prey to using unthinking transcendental-placeholders or whether we close our eyes to what foundation we build upon: the sand of human [so-called] power, the ruins of “sacred truth” [now there’s an oxymoron] , or the bedrock of _______ [the unspeakable; the transcendent; the glibly-named “God” – in many ways little more than the equivalent to “you know” in the way so many toss it about].
Now that’s a conversation I’d like to listen in on. . . .
Interesting piece, Mike! Thanks.
Thanks for always providing food for thought. This is one I am going to print and use as a conversation starter with my children! When I hear examples of public figures speaking like this I can not help but see the painful video of Miss South Carolina from the Miss Teen USA competition in 2007 in my head. Haven’t seen it? Just google it. Speech matters. Words matter. The intentional choice of words matters. A few days ago we watched National Treasure and there is a scene where Ben is quoting from the men who wrote the Declaration of Independance and then pauses. “People don’t talk like that any more”.
Hi Ken: Of course, in Kennedy’s particular case, it might be nerves. But the overwhelming pattern is an undeniable rise of “ya know” since the 1970s. As I said, my concern is not Kennedy but culture. What best accounts for this recent rise of “kinda, you know, uh…”? As for Marble’s astute comments, I’m suggesting we start more with shared experience than exposition or a “worldview.” Naturally, they are intertwined. But Hegelian idealism suggests that “worldviews” and ideas move people – so we tend to begin at this point. Worldviews are necessary but insufficient… and a poor place, in my opinion, to launch a conversation. As for my assumptions (i.e., “worldview”), my point is not to judge right or wrong as much as suggest a more thorough explanation of reality than current holds (I like your “placeholder” metaphor). After that, I’m more inclined to let the gravity of reality take its course (as did the father how waited for his prodigal son to come to his senses).
What would happen if we apply Mike’s thesis to Palin’s speach patterns? Likewise, does anyone know of any journalists who picked on Kennedy for the way she spoke?
Here’s a great example where basketball star Richard Hamilton says “you know” 53 times in 5 minutes
9 times after the first question
14 times after the second question
8 times after the third question
5 times after the fourth question
9 times after the fifth question
8 times after the sixth question
And then kinda-like came Paris Hilton, whose cerebral contributions have made this world a better place!
Really interesting take on what I had previously considered a mundane and trivial problem, Mike. Perhaps our verbal stutter-steps are neither mundane nor trivial! I especially like the idea of things in everyday life (like language) that are signs of transcendence. I like that a lot. Keep up the good work!
“We repeatedly hit the Pause button because… you know… kind of… like… you know… we don’t want to sound judgmental. Everything is qualified with linguistic air quotes.”
There is a good chance you might be reading a little too much into the speach patterns of people who simply do not speak well. How’s that for qualified?
If you listen to some Bill Clinton speeches, or interview Q&A’s, you will notice that he almost never says “uhh.” He is generally regarded as a good speaker, and has obviously trained himself to simply sit quietly while he pauses to think between sentences. It is quite pleasant to the listener’s ears.
Two particular speech patterns that may be part of the cracking canopy are the prevalence of people saying “but, uh” after every thought as a sort of qualifier/please wait while I decide if I really meant that; and the excessive use of the words “Lord” and “Just” in group prayers.
You have an interesting take on this, but uh, while you are right about the, uh, worldview issues, I don’t think that poor, you know, speech is necessarily a symptom. It could be that they are kind of like both related to some problem that is, just, really bigger than both of them. maybe.
A person’s use of language — their grammatical choices, eloquence, fluency and the like — are not necessarily indications of their spiritual state or even their confidence in their spiritual state. Everyone uses language differently. Should the world bow to your idea of proper speech? If so, doesn’t that hint at your own spiritual condition?
To a point, you’re right – but if everyone uses language differently, then how could you convey your thoughts in this blog? You are assuming some shared assumptions – and those are often, but not necessarily, shaped by culture. We don’t float above culture like a beach ball on the ocean. As of “bowing to my idea,” that can be taken a number of ways – I’ll assume the best and reply, “Of course not.”
If there is spiritual implication revealed in the use of syntax then I should be able to find Christian and non-Christian syntax. Of course, there are some syntactical signs. Capitalization is an example: a non-Christian may not capitalize the words God, LORD or Bible. The differences in capitalization could result from overt disrespect, laziness or naivete The syntactical signs to which you refer are much more general than that, though. I sense that you are a prescriptivist and a firm believer in Christians following all the rules.
If you are correct, then wouldn’t I find poorer grammar used by Mormans when compared to Christians? Wouldn’t I find this so-called collapse in proper language occurring at different times and rates in Europe versus the US? Wouldn’t a British Christian assume Americans are Satanists?
Anyway, a perusal of some of your posts indicates that you are not Christian (at least not a good one) because you honor yourself above God in your language: you capitalize pronouns when referring to yourself, but not when referring to God!
Of course, I don’t believe that — I have no idea of your spiritual status based on your writing style…