Children need an elaborated language in order for brain development to occur. One way to achieve an elaborated language is through hours and hours of conversation with adults. Conversation means not only “How was the game?” or “Have you cleaned your room?” but also slow, quiet talk in which the child gets a glimpse into the strange countryside of the grown-up’s brain, in which the grown-up says, “I always give money to a beggar, even though I don’t want to,” or “The test of a culture is a decent provision for the poor,” or “The problem with the pirate is that he is lacking in empathy.” A poll a few years ago revealed that the average American father talked to his child for about ten minutes a day. We know by contrast that in certain parts of Russia, earlier in the century, the Russian father spent more like two hours engaging in such talk. Russians have a word for “soul-talk,” and it wasn’t unusual for a grandfather to say to a granddaughter, “Let’s go out by the tree and have some soul-talk.” We don’t even have a word for it.
Mothers in the United States have always taken on the joy and the duty of talking by the hour to children, but that has changed. The average mother talks for a few minutes, and then, understandably tired from her job, sits down in front of the television with the child and lets herself be entertained. Grade-school teachers all over the country report that children in their classes know no Mother Goose rhymes and haven’t heard even the major fairy tales, let alone participated in discussions as to why the Dwarves take Snow White in, or why the bear comes each winter to play with the children, or why the parents didn’t want to keep Hansel and Gretel, or why Mommy and Daddy are divorcing.
Good conversation with grown-ups provides what some researchers call a “verbal bath”; the children soak in it, and the elaborated language “arranges their synapses and their intellects.” The brain is ravenous, as all parents know, for language stimulation and language fun in early childhood. The brain is fluid and open to change -- new branches can appear on the dendrites -- early, but the brain becomes less able to enlarge its connections as puberty arrives. Language deprivation can affect the brain as vitamin deprivation affects the body. The language vitamins are taken in from parents or mentors, who talk about everything: their failures, their longing, politics, God, bodies, angers, opinions. Joseph Chilton Pearce remarks, “Nature’s imperative is, again, that no intelligence unfolds without a stimulus from a developed form of that intelligence.” He called his last book Evolution’s End, meaning that the evolution of human intelligence has stopped. He offers as an alternative image a naked three-year-old with its thumb in its mouth looking at a television set.
The matter of new words clearly excites the brain; but the range of vocabulary being used on television steadily shrinks. Corporations that pay for commercials don’t want anyone watching their programs to feel ignorant, so news anchors find their scripts stocked with very ordinary words and the vocabulary is contracting. Sadly, the range of language at home similarly contracts. “What’s for dinner?” “Who’s got the remote?” “What do you want from the mall?” Language centers itself around objects. Children from such homes have little help in distinguishing their emotions and find the right word for the different between despair and depression, or between irritation and anger, or between sympathy and empathy.
When a wide vocabulary interconnects with an intricate syntax, language people call the result an “elaborated code,” which is actually good brain food. Until recently, children had to code-switch when they visited grandparents. “I’m sure you’re an avid reader. Do you have a favorite writer in your studies at school?” “Have you been able to make any connections between your reading and your church life?” The child thirty years ago might reply: “I’m afraid that I’m becoming an atheist, because I find it hard to accept -- even on my best days -- that a god could be so indifferent to suffering”…and so on. Now most children don’t have to switch codes. It’s just “How ya doing, Grandma?” all the way.
-- Robert Bly, The Sibling Society
One thing that I've noticed, watching language in this country over the past three years (the years of Bush's tenure, and the rise of Schwarzenegger, two right wing coups smack dab in the middle of a functioning democracy) is how much this country craves the language of simplicity. Subject, object, verb. Americans love that. We love it. Coast to coast. It makes us feel like we live in a simple time. And I think the left has made fun of this rhetorical principle rather than taking it seriously.
Hearing Schwarzenegger's speeches, which lack all substance, but glimmer with the charismatic leadership derived from simple sentence structure: "I want to govern for the people of California!" I wonder: What is the role of theater, which examines rhetoric closely, during a time when Americans crave a masked simplicity? We want simplicity from our politicians, our journalists, our movies, and our advertisements. We want the illusion that it's Morning in America. We don't want to think about the complexities of destroying another country. It makes us feel weird. Cognitive dissonance. And the palliative for cognitive dissonance in the U.S.? Simple sentence structure and good PR.
The democrats in this country, I feel, have capitulated on the field of language as well as on other fields...the criticism of the right is muted, and when we do hear it, from people like Tom Daschle, it is in the language of bureaucrats. "What we have here is...", says Daschle on the subject of the lies told to Americans, and he pauses. And I'm hoping he'll say: A BIG FAT LIE! or even: MENDACITY! MENDACITY! But what he says is: What we have here is...a credibility gap! His sentence goes: Motor, motor, motor...and a great big collapse. A mincing bureaucratic sigh. Dismissed.
Who in this country but professional politicians and pundits gives a crap about a credibility gap! The left needs a better language for criticism. And I don't know why it should be so difficult, because the fact is that when you're speaking the truth, it often comes out with great concision and clarity. I think of the truth telling of Martin Luther King. A man whose life, morals, convictions, and speech were all united in a kind of clarion language of truth telling. Well, it's impossible to conjure up another Martin Luther King. But we need someone to say--in plain speech--with conviction--that our government has been lying to us about Iraq. About a lot of things. All of the PR scams in the world--Condoleezza Rice's job has been transformed into a colossal PR job--shouldn't hide the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Why no one seems to point that out with sufficient outrage or
plain speech is strange to me.
So, what is the place of theater in times of perverse language? The lies of seductive plain-speech on the right and the craven-talk of complex professional bureaucrats who are hedging their bets on the left? We need whole alternative WORLDS of language. We can have them in the theater. And people will listen, without the mediation of the media. We need plain-speech exposed as a lie (see Kelly Stuart's latest play
Homewrecker, that takes apart George Bush's speechifying), we need complicated intelligent talk that communicates the complexity of the world (I recently saw the opening monologue of Kushner's
Homebody/Kabul and was overjoyed about how much JOY there was in the theater derived from simply experiencing complex political engagement), and we also need simple speech--the simple clarion emotional political speech of an
I believe that the truth telling in the theater does not even have to have political content in order to work on a political plane. The truth telling might be about the smell of cigars (see Nilo Cruz' beautiful lyric
Anna in the Tropics) but our bodies might remember the sensation of hearing something true. And we might start to demand that sensation from our politicians.
We need writers. We need live untelevised space. We need to remember, in our bodies, what it feels like to hurl truths at one another, one human being to another.
-- playwright Sarah Ruhl