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.