Thursday, November 15, 2007

Baby Talk

I loathe baby talk. I didn’t talk to my baby that way, I don’t talk to animals that way, and I certainly never talked to a spouse or a lover that way. Anyone who used baby talk on me was automatically disqualified from having the chance of another date. I don’t use baby talk on any babies, something which can be alarming to parents, but babies don’t seem to mind when I speak to them about global water shortages or whatever else I may be thinking about. Given that we want our kids to speak like adults, one wonders why we start with baby talk.

While working with people who have profound physical disabilities and/or mental retardation, I saw baby talk in action on a regular basis. For some reason, the disabled, the elderly, and the infirm are all on the receiving end of baby talk, often employed at a slightly louder decibel level than regular speech. Not only do we perceive people who have disabilities as lacking the intelligence to decipher common English, apparently we also perceive them as hard of hearing. I once saw a man who has Down ’s syndrome respond to a woman who was loudly baby-talking him by bellowing and drooling. As she scurried off, he wiped his chin and laughed.

In nursing homes, this odious linguistic phenomenon is known as “elderspeak.” You will never hear older adults using it to converse with one another, but young caregivers frequently use it to speak to their patients. Studies show that it can diminish the confidence of a senior in their own abilities. It’s a very non-subtle form of ageism, and it’s incredibly patronizing. If you wouldn’t talk to your best friend that way, you probably shouldn’t use baby talk on anyone.

It is no secret that my husband has cancer. One day after he went through some tests, the nurse came out and told me “he did so good!” as if he were a mildly retarded five year old. “He’s sick, not stupid,” I wanted to shout. I’ve been uncharacteristically meek, because I don’t want to make things harder for him. Thankfully most nurses are smart, funny people, who can size up a patient the way a good server sizes up a customer, and they instinctively know just how to talk to the person in front of them. It’s the small percentage of baby talkers that are likely to cause some form of combustion on my part.

How we speak to one another is important. If we grow up watching Dad yell at Mom, we learn that this is how men speak to women. If Mom always screams at the kids, they learn that screaming is how to communicate. If parents don’t pay enough attention to children, the children act out in public. People who don’t feel safe and secure are often angry in their communications. Communication is a necessary skill for world leaders. We’ve all spent the last seven years watching an extraordinarily inarticulate man represent us to the rest of the world. We’ve all laughed about his many gaffes and garbled phrases, but, his inability to speak his own native tongue has diminished our country in the eyes of the world, and lowered our own expectations of what leadership should look like. This may be an intentional strategy – after all, we expect less from a buffoon.

Talk radio is beginning to sneak on to the airwaves of northern NH. Driving home at night I’ve picked up some rabid right wing talk programs. I learned recently that feminists are responsible for ADHD. Yep, the feminists invented ADHD, then caused a generation of young men to be drugged, in order to prevent these young men from asserting themselves as chest beating, testosterone driven, violent savages, thereby ensuring that more women would go to college than men. This bit of wisdom was imparted by Michael Savage, a talk radio host whose real name is Michael Weiner. His show is called “Savage Nation,” which undoubtedly has more rabid right wing appeal than a show called “Weiner Nation” would possess. I’ve also been catching up on my Sean Hannity listening. Sean Hannity calls himself a great American. Apparently the qualifications for that title are rudeness and intolerance. He shows a marked inability to let anyone ask an uninterrupted question – and an inability to answer any question asked. Like many right wing chickenhawks, he has plenty to say about veterans like John Murtha and John Kerry. There are many things wrong with our national communication skills, and talk radio is one of the symptoms of our disease. Perhaps forcing these evil-spewers to use nothing BUT baby-talk would be one solution.

Across the nation, and certainly around this state, people are tired of the constant drone of divisiveness and insult. They crave a more substantial dialogue, which is understandable. We’ve been fed a lot of empty calories and air for years now, while newspapers print less world news, and celebrity gossip is foisted upon as actually being of some importance.

We deserve better. It’s up to us to speak out when we don’t like the way we are being spoken to.

“By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth.” George Carlin

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Other Half of the Equation

Two weeks ago, officials in Portland, ME decided to allow a middle school health center to provide birth control pills to girls as young as 11. There were seven pregnancies reported in Portland’s middle schools in the last few years. At the King Middle School, five girls told the school nurse that they have been sexually active. This has caused national hysteria, of course, fueled by the right wing media. The pious prognostications about the end of civilization have reverberated from sea to shining sea, mouthed by Rush Limbaugh and others of his kind. We’ve even seen them on the pages of the Conway Daily Sun, where another columnist bizarrely attempted to blame teen pregnancies on Hillary Clinton. I feel confident in saying that whatever Senator Clinton may be guilty of, impregnating teenaged girls isn’t on the list.

There’s plenty of blame being circulated. The right wants to blame Democrats (whom they incorrectly call “the left.”) The Christians want to blame godless heathens. The Republicans want to blame what they call “government” schools; linking public education to the government in the hopes of killing public education. There are those who blame our permissive society, and insist that giving access to birth control is condoning adolescent sex. These are often parents who don’t think their kids are old enough to be taught sex education. My very informal survey of teens and young adults reveals that most kids don’t get sex ed at home. Some blame the parents, some blame the kids – there’s enough blame to go around.

I’ve read many of the news stories published about this decision. Some stories feature fairly objective coverage, others are quite slanted toward a religious right wing view. Some make very subtle and revealing comments about how providing birth control will enable these kids to “avoid the consequences.” Apparently that particular writer feels that a 12 year old pregnant girl deserves to suffer the consequences for the rest of her life. One newspaper story had room for reader comments. One man stated that any girl who gets pregnant at age 11 deserves it. Apparently these little Jezebels should have to endure a lifetime of poverty, because they flaunted themselves and got what they deserved.

There is a piece missing from every single story I’ve read about this and every online discussion I’ve seen. The fathers. There is absolutely no mention of the fathers, no speculation as to whom is impregnating these middle school girls. It’s hard to imagine that half the equation could be completely ignored – but it has been.

The most cursory research reveals some interesting data about girls 15 and under and their sexual experiences. A study done by the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that 29 percent of teens reported feeling pressure to have sex. Another 33% of them reported being in a relationship where they felt things were moving too fast, and 24% reported that they had done something sexual they didn’t want to. Another study showed that 60% of teen mothers claimed that their pregnancy was preceded by unwanted sex. This is RAPE. Coercing or forcing teenaged girls to have sex is RAPE. Yet, somehow, in all of the uproar – no one is talking about rape or coercion.

The Guttmacher Institute found that 60% of girls who had sex before age 15 were coerced by males who on average were at least 6 years older. Adult men, in other words. That is the missing piece. The National Center for Health Statistics finds that two-thirds of teen births are fathered by adult men. No one is talking about this. The pious-finger wavers are ignoring this. The well intentioned folks at the school aren’t talking about this. Adult men are preying on post-pubescent girls. Isn’t it about time we stopped blaming the girls, and started addressing MALE behavior?

I would rather not see young girls taking the Pill. There are a lot of health risks, and without a condom as backup, they’re still at risk for HIV/AIDs and STD’s – in fact, having adult male partners puts them at great risk for disease. At the same time, I know how a teen pregnancy can impact a girl’s life. The fastest route to poverty for a girl or a woman is motherhood. A teenaged girl should not be a parent – nor should she be the victim of an adult lothario.

This story has been accompanied by plenty of hand-wringing about the decay of our society, our morals, etc. Well, society – what are we going to do about it? Are we going to only deal with half of the equation – the girls? Rape is endemic in this country – yet there is still an undercurrent of blaming the victim. Most rapes are committed by acquaintances, and most go unreported. Still, nothing much is done about it. There is no male movement to end violence against women. Men could have an enormous impact in stopping sexual harassment and violence, if they decided to open their mouths when they hear harassing statements, or worse. Instead, most turn a blind eye. They maintain the male version of omerta.

Two-thirds of teen births are fathered by adult men. Clearly adult men feel a certain entitlement to molest barely pubescent girls. What are we going to do about this? Will we, as a society dare to tackle this problem? Or will we continue to blame the girls themselves, Hollywood, blue states, Democrats, and possibly even Hillary Clinton?

“‘Just say no’ prevents teenaged pregnancy the way ‘have a nice day’ cures chronic depression.” Anonymous