The Finnish word for pedant is pilkunnussija, literally ‘comma f*cker.’ But an Attack of the Pilkunnussija can be anything but funny.
I was reminded this week of some very sage advice given by someone – I forget his name, of course – who turned up on my television screen once upon a time.
The context, as I recall, was the trend for employers to check out the Facebook pages of job applicants and make hiring decisions based on how many blurred photographs of inappropriate behavour were contained therein.
It was suggested that it might be necessary for some people to take on completely new identities because of the damage they were doing online to their own reputations.
Cut to the Mystery Man – probably some prominent visitor to these Australian shores – who was asked what advice he would give to young people to help them avoid being forever defined by their teenage indiscretions.
His reply: Be better people.
As our prime minister Julia Gillard once said, following some similar three-word advice she gave to the media – How hard can it be?
But there’s another bear trap that has nothing to do with whether you have the maturity of judgment to know when not to post pictures of your pink bits and this week I saw it claim a couple of victims.
I’m talking about the Attack of the Pedant.
I’m passionate about words and their meanings. I try to choose mine carefully and appreciate it when I see others taking the same care.
But each word, no matter how carefully chosen, is a potential pitfall for the simple reason that communication is not a one-way process.
Back in the Olden Times, when dinosaurs ruled the earth and music collections were on vinyl, someone said:
“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realise that what you heard is not what I meant.”
As an example of just how unreliable the Internet is, Google it and see how many people to whom you find it attributed (and then Google the song Cat’s in the Cradle. It was never Cat Stevens, people, it was Harry Chapin. Now THAT matters).
I’m already aware that my vagueness of attribution will be infuriating to some people and it’s off-putting to think that if anyone ever reads my blog or notices my tweets I could be subject to attack at any moment because of it.
But I hope never to experience the wrath that comes when an ill-chosen or misspelt word is lifted out of a sentence like the bloody, still-beating heart of a sacrificial chicken.
And that’s how it looked to me when exception was taken to the use of the word ‘hysteria’ in two rather excellent articles which I would have missed entirely were it not for the Twit-Storm which subsequently erupted.
As a self-confessed Hairy Feminist (Hey, I’m a woman. I have opinions. I express them. You don’t get hairier or femmier than that in some circles), I have often complained to my male friends about their silence on issues like pornography and sexual violence.
That silence, I argue, contributes to the dangerous notion that rape is only committed by perverted strangers who lurk in dark alleyways where sensible girls do not wander. It’s only through an open and honest discussion about human sexuality and its expression that we can address its darker aspects.
I’m sorry to raise it again lads, because I think you’ve both come under a pretty sustained and unfair attack in the past week and I hope I’m not setting it off again for you.
In a nutshell, for those who missed it, exception was taken to the description by Shaw of anti-pornography campaigner Gail Dines’ comments during her visit here last year as ‘hysterical screeches.’ Pobjie, in his article, also referred to ‘nervous hysteria’ as a possible reason for not liking pornography.
It was an unfortunate, even careless, choice of word. But in the resulting shit storm over it, a rare male perspective on pornography from a couple of ordinary sounding blokes was shouted down and ultimately ignored.
So great and personal was the attack that Pobjie, for one, considered giving up his online presence.
Words are cheap and words are dangerous and no matter how carefully we choose each one we can’t account for how it will be read.
But in the interest of ‘being better people,’ it would be nice if we repaid with more courtesy the generosity of a shared perspective, particularly on contentious issues.
The pedant, who ignores the entirety of an article to focus on grammar, attribution or the dictionary definition of a particular noun, is the enemy of reasoned discussion.
And if there’s one thing we could use more of in this and other fractious debates, it’s reasoned discussion.
You might believe that you understand what you think I said, but before you criticise me for it, consider that perhaps what you heard is not at all what I meant.
Some links to some other articles I came across this week on dealing with online snarkiness –