I’ve never been one of those pedagogues who bothered much about students’ spelling and grammar. Some people just can’t spell. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re stupid. I always used to correct their spelling, but never deducted marks for it, and told them that so long as what they wrote was intelligible, it didn’t matter much. Sometimes, of course, their poor spelling and grammar made nonsense of what they wanted to say, in which cases I marked them down for poor communication – not for spelling and grammar per se. Older and crustier academics were often less charitable in this regard than I was. You found them writing to the Daily Telegraph about it: ‘young people these days, not taught properly, country going to the dogs…’ For me, however, it was the ideas that were important, so long as they were expressed moderately clearly.

Recently, however, I’ve been reading some of the ‘BTL’ comments appended to blog posts, and noticed how poor the spelling is there; especially (though not of course exclusively) on the ‘Brexit’ side of the argument. Usually it’s accompanied by pretty stupid content also; and I mean objectively stupid, not simply ideas I disagree with: insults, non-sequiturs, garbled nonsense. I drew attention to one blatant example of this (‘boarders’ instead of ‘borders’ – quite confusing), and was immediately rounded upon by the Brexiteers – for being ‘elitist’, of course. That’s the problem we educated? rational? snobbish? people face. We feed into the current hostility to ‘elites’ in present-day Britain, and also of course in the USA. Trump, Farage and Gove (‘we’ve had enough of experts’) wax fat on this. It’s almost as if any idea put out by an intelligent or ‘elite’ person must be disregarded – and the motives behind it questioned and traduced — for that reason alone. It creates an impermeable barrier, irrespective of the quality of any argument.

What can be done about this? Obviously keep quiet about mere spelling: that may give a rough guide to the worth of the content of a piece, but it does sound elitist, and it’s not important in itself. Beyond that, what? Disguise one’s ‘eliteness’ in some way? Adopt the same language and spelling as the trolls (is that the right word)? Simply ignore them? Give up on ‘democracy’, if it’s as hostile to reason as this?

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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