Investigating Socio-Linguistic Digressions

Seven years ago the inimitable Christopher Hitchens wrote a piece for Vanity Fair entitled “The Other L-Word,” where he illustrated what he considered to be the devolution of the word “like” and its range of uses in contemporary times. He even managed to take shots at Cher Horowitz from the 1995 cult classic Clueless, (“What’s a Monet?” “It’s like a painting, see? From far away, it’s okay, but up close, it’s a big old mess.”), which I am willing to, like, live with for the moment as I expound upon my real purpose in this column: understanding the current usage (or overusage) of the word “like.” I purposely glossed over the verbal expression of “like” which invades every hallway of every school in this country—but that’s for another article (except where I, like, poke fun in my diatribe)!

An article by Amelia Tate in the New Statesman entitled “Both Hugely Uplifting and Depressing: How Do Social Media Likes Affect You?” denotes how many of us on social media so desperately crave likes for our opinions, jokes, and pictures from the range of followers in our respective lives. Tate says this is because the “high” of their virtual validation is much more stress-free than getting folks to actually like us in person. Such searches for validation are not harmful in and of themselves, but we should all be wary of the genuineness of such likes and how such a scaffolded system of praise sets us up to be very much the metaphorical equivalent of badly sunburned tweed suit models.

In a marginally unrelated bit of news, Billy Bush began a redemption tour recently, alerting us to how he has grown through some therapy and how he is far removed from the person we heard him to be in the now infamous Access Hollywood tape, which cost Billy his job. The root of the goodwill tour deals secondarily with apologizing to women, with its primary goal being to recoup a job for dear Billy, like, any job in which he could resume the formal role of breathing milquetoast. The lesson here is that Billy doesn’t like not being liked.

Anyway, where does all of this lead, especially in today’s world? I would suggest it leads to the original definitions of the word “like,” before all of its connotations of uptalk and filler and social media validator became all the craze. Back in the day, “like” stood for resemblance to or fondness of something.

Ironically enough, this melding of classic understandings of the word “like” not only gives us Ryan Seacrest, but also describes or validates the pursuits or goals of a great many younger people in America today. I mentioned milquetoast above, and Ryan is the vanilla of milquetoast. He aspires to be liked while being fond of everything without having any real opinions about anything. So in a way he looks like the idealized version of you and me who also manages to love himself and you unconditionally for the facade you and he represent.

What we are left with is a generation of largely dispassionate folks, seeking a requisite amount of likes on Instagram as they give visual
support for causes that they, like, care about, for the day. If they look like they care about the things others care about, then they will be celebrated through the veneer of online peer pressure. Vapidness ensues, and all of a sudden a life rife with decisions of egg shell over macaroon cream becomes your existence.

This, like, flies in the face of one of my primary goals as an educator— convincing students that they have the capacity to be critical thinkers who can challenge the status quo, cherish their personal experiences, and embrace their differences in the process, while valuing making a difference as positive agents of change despite any social pressures to the contrary.

Cher might have been superficial about a great many things, but she had heart enough to care about the emotional well-being of Mr. Hall.

Students today need to worry more about liking who they are and the conscious choices they make about positively impacting those around them and less about, like, social media Q-ratings (the ever-present measurement of popularity). You can rest assured that I will continue to do everything in my power to ensure students are even disliked for some of their convictions, yet roundly respected for the means of expression and critical thought behind such dislikability.

Sean Flannery, Ph.D., is associate professor of Englishand chair of the Arts, Languages, and Letters Department.

Author: lszyjka

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