Fear proves itself.

William Whyte

Recently I had an encounter with a visitor to Philadelphia (a prospective Penn father, college touring with his son) who said, “I didn’t realize the University of Pennsylvania was located in a rough neighborhood.”  When pressed, he elaborated.  “I mean, West Philly–there are some nice houses, but mostly row houses. And some are really run-down.”   Screenshot 2019-07-09 11.38.44

Since I have a house in that neighborhood (I call it a “twin,” not a “row house”), his comments forced me to reflect (okay, I was pissed-off). I would never describe West Philly (especially the part within walking distance of Penn) as a “rough” neighborhood.  Yes, some people do not have money to repair their homes. And the homes are old. I don’t equate low-income with “rough.”

But this visitor also found it difficult to interact in this area. As he put it, “We were not threatened in any way, but neighbors were often out and just stared at us as we parked and walked to and from the car.” Despite his denial (“we were not threatened in any way, but…”), his description of the neighbors as “just staring”, suggests he felt uncomfortable and, well, threatened.  But I would never equate neighbors being “often out” with his “rough neighborhood” description.

One of my favorite things about West Philly is that people are “often out.” They do not have huge private back yards or indoor leisure spaces. But they do have front porches with tables and chairs for family and friends. Isn’t it okay for them to be out?  If a visitor is parking in their neighborhood, why should they not watch him?  In addition to economic diversity there is a huge amount of ethnic and racial diversity here. And many residents of West Philadelphia speak different languages. This makes the neighborhood feel good—to me.  I am happy when people are out after work, and if they “stare” at me, I stop and say hello.  But for visitors like this one, from an exclusive gated community in Florida, interacting with a diversity of neighbors might feel slightly uncomfortable.

How is any of this relevant to Citizen Sociolinguistics?

Citizen Sociolinguistics thrives in spaces where people talk about language and communication, and where people feel free to share stories and personal experiences that illuminate how certain ways of speaking contribute to who they are. These kinds of discussions often happen on-line—they include voices across socioeconomic statuses, language backgrounds, and gender, racial, and generational differences.  These conversations may be unique, even weird, sometimes misguided, or challenging, but like my neighborhood, they are not “rough”.  And like the richness I see in my neighborhood, citizen sociolinguistic richness depends on being open to encounters with others.  Citizen sociolinguistic forums—discussions about “Spanglish” or “Common Welsh Phrases” or “Gender Neutral Pronouns,” for example—are like West Philly front porches.  But Citizen Sociolinguistic dialogue and community formation, like my neighborhood, can be damaged by visitors who don’t engage in the discussion because they see that front-porch presence as a threat.

Even on-line, there are visitors who shut down points of view being voiced within the “rough neighborhoods” of citizen sociolinguists.   Rather than engaging with the conversation they react impulsively to an impression made by a certain word or phrase.  Forums and videos on “gender neutral pronouns” for example, have drawn many citizen sociolinguists to post about their own experiences with language, and are potentially a center for understanding the way pronouns are changing in the way they function in our society. But this very phrase—”gender-neutral-pronouns”—can also draw in outsiders who don’t engage in the community but react to what they view as a threat to their own identity. These are commonly called “internet trolls.” They shut down dialogue.  As I’ve written in a previous post, trolling can lead to entire comment forums being disabled or expunged.  The trolling comments turn previously amicable and open spaces for engaging with language into platforms for an alternative xenophobic or otherwise bilious message.  All dialogue ends.  Trolls in the neighborhood of citizen sociolinguistics send everyone inside off their porch.  Citizen Sociolinguistic conversations are not gated communities.  They are more like the front-porch society of West Philly. But trolls treat certain citizen sociolinguistic conversations as if they are rough neighborhoods, where the simple act of discussing certain ways of speaking are aimed at them—treating discussions of “gender neutral pronouns” for example, like threatening “stares” of neighbors.  The troll does not stop to say hello—but scares everyone inside, silencing them.

The out-of-town visitor to a diverse neighborhood, like the outsider troll visiting a language discussion, creates a threat by imagining one.  In doing so, walls go up around neighborhoods, barriers divide communities of speakers.

In a brilliant book about the City of Los Angeles, City of Quartz, Mike Davis identifies precisely this dynamic. He laments the “fortress” neighborhoods people build up around themselves in the LA area. Invoking a phrase from William Whyte, eternal sage of city life, he writes, “’Fear proves itself.’ The social perception of threat becomes a function of security mobilization itself, not crime rates” (p. 224). And, gradually, this leads to the destruction of public space.  City planners’ strategies designed to keep homeless people away—unsittable benches, randomly-timed outdoor sprinklers, elaborately caged trash areas, non-existent public restrooms—end up driving not just the homeless but everyone away. Or almost everyone. Outside public spaces become the realm of drug addicts and dealers—precisely those targeted by the tactics of the city planners.  Fear proves itself.

Conversations about language can also become places where “fear proves itself” in this way—where trolling drives away discussion of the language issues that most need diverse input and forms of expertise. Some see trolling as the playful practice of free speech on-line, some see moving to gated communities as exercising the freedom to safely raise our children.  But both may also be viewed as self-fulfilling practices of disengagement and isolation that come from fear.

What can we learn from this?  And how do we circumvent self-fulfilling fear that drives people into gated communities and shuts down language discussion?  For urban planning, Mike Davis suggests we can drive away fear of crime and homelessness by creating a “dense, compact, multifunctional core” (p. 231) for the city.   When people are nudged to gather in public spaces, the inevitable sociability builds community and motivates humane solutions for social issues. I’d like to think there are analogous solutions for conversations about language. It would be a mistake to isolate language discussions to their own gated community, with ‘comments disabled,’ away from the trolls. Instead, somehow, discussions will have to be more densely and diversely occupied, to ensure that trolling can’t derail them, and that engaged citizen sociolinguists continue to illuminate our understanding of language and each other.

So get out on that metaphorical (or real) front porch and join the conversation!  Conversations about language inevitably are conversations about life and how we can live together.

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