Friday, May 19, 2017

Miss USA's answer on healthcare prompts the question: How was that even a question?

By Christina Czarcadoolis and Bridget Scallen 

photo courtesy of Daily Wired
That “all the world’s a stage” chimed true on Sunday evening at the Miss U.S.A. pageant. Our now-crowned bell, er, belle representing the nation’s capital, gave a response to a judge’s question about access to affordable healthcare. Her response set social media into a frenzy.  What did she mean?

Here at the Lab we too were intrigued by K├íra McCullough’s use of the word “privilege” in her in-the-moment response and her later attempt to clarify. But we’d like to re-focus commentary on the judge’s question.

To set the stage: The pageant judge asks each contestant a different question.  The question to Miss McCullough: “Do you think affordable health care for all U.S. citizens is a right or a privilege, and why?”

Gone from beauty pageantry are saccarine questions like “What are your hopes for the world we live in?” – the proverbial “world peace” question.  Here the contestant must show their prowess with contemporary political and social issues. Is affordable health care a right or a privilege? 

Miss McCullough, who works as an emergency preparedness specialist in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response, answers:
“I’m definitely going to say it’s a privilege. As a government employee, I am granted health care. And I see firsthand that for one to have health care, you need to have jobs. So therefore, we need to continue to cultivate this environment that we’re given the opportunities to have health care as well as jobs to all the American citizens worldwide.”

The second part of Miss McCullough’s reply complicates her response, to the point that she almost contradicts her first statement. We're left wondering what she actually thinks about affordable healthcare, people and human rights.

She states: “We need to continue to cultivate this environment that we’re given the opportunities to have health care as well as jobs to all the American citizens worldwide.” Here she places the opportunity to access affordable health care and employment on the same plane, and seems to suggest that we as Americans need to create the conditions in which all U.S. citizens worldwide can thrive. Had she placed “jobs” before “health care”, we might have taken the liberty to infer she’s reiterating she is ok with affordable access to healthcare being contingent on a federal government employer.

And this sort of circular answer is what riled social media.  Is she for universal access to affordable health care, or not?
Tuesday she spoke to clarify herself on Good Morning America:  “But I would like to just take this moment to truly clarify. Because I am a woman, I’m going to own what I said. I am privileged to have health care and I do believe that it should be a right, and I hope and pray moving forward that health care is a right for all worldwide.”

BUT, as we said earlier, we’re less interested Miss McCullough’s in-the-moment, gee my nerves are getting the best of me, response.
Isn’t the heart of this issue the judge’s question, setting up access to health care as either a “right” or “privilege”? Miss McCullough’s selection of the word “privilege” rather than “right” characterizes the U.S. healthcare system as it is, a system in which, despite the Affordable Care Act and in an environment that threatens its continuation there remains great class divide between those who have affordable healthcare (good health insurance) and those who don’t.

Who is the judge to ask a person on a podium her opinion on something that’s essential, a basic right, for all Americans, for all human beings, to live a decent life of dignity? Are those two words “privilege” and “right” the best words to characterize how fundamental it is for people in the U.S. and everywhere to have access to affordable healthcare, for themselves, their families and friends, their communities, our country?

Imagine the judge asking one of the following:
 Do you think safe food for all U.S. citizens is a right or a privilege??”
Do you think access to safe drinking is a right or a privilege??”
Do you think access to decent school for all U.S. citizens is a right or a privilege??”
 Do you think fresh air for all U.S. citizens is a right or a privilege??”

Not to close on a downer, we leave you with a salute to our favorite answer, given by runner-up Miss New Jersey, Chhavi Verg, to the fifth and final question about whether social media is a positive or negative influence in our culture. She responds in no uncertain terms: “With great power comes great responsibility.”`

Friday, May 12, 2017

Alert the MLA: Trump drops accuracy from English language requirement

I've been teaching language and communication for over 40 years. 
I started as a teacher of deaf children and went on to teach at community colleges, an Ivy League school, a prestigious Medical School and now at one of the world's best city universities. 

And although I do look back from my "seasoned" professor vantage point wondering what little legacy will I be leaving, I have never questioned that, if nothing else, I have contaminated my students with the love of the power of language.  

Using its form and structures for accuracy, truth and, yes sometime for poetic beauty. That's what I have taught.  That's what I was taught.  A reverence and respect for words.  Used well they will not fail you. 

But today the leader of the free world, in a tweet - one of the least contemplative forms of communication we use these days - has declared that accuracy of the spoken word is no longer a requirement for his staff. 

We can't assume Mr. Trump really understands the profound import of his words - what he tweeted - about speech and accuracy.  In fact there's really no evidence that he respects the english language much at all.  To him, it certainly isn't very useful for communicating facts - in his world there are facts and there are fact - there's news and there's fake news.   So when he says that fluent speakers of the language - his staff - can't be counted upon to be accurate, does he realize he give license for them to stand there and simply make things up.  

A basic maxim of linguistics and speech act theory is that for communication to work there must be the tacit agreement between speakers to be truthful and accurate (Grice, Logic and Conversation, 1975).

So if we could imagine a language where accuracy were up for grabs, just how would that language work. 
If it were raining out I could say "It's sunny."   If the train wasn't running on time at Penn Station,  the station master could announce  "All trains are on time"?  If ships were being deployed to the Korean Peninsula, the Defense Director could announce that they were being deployed to Hawaii"? 

Now, imagine a society with a language that had no way to mark things that were accurate...or inaccurate.  
What would that society look like? 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

April Showers, Tiny Tim and Learning New Words

April showers bring May flowers.
Allergy relief medication Ads spring up everywhere.
Relief is in our grasp – it’s as easy as a song.

In fact this particular Ad harkens back to a lovely little ditty straight out of the American songbook.

But this is the Health Literacy Lab after all.  So instead  of focusing on the efficacy of the medicine,  let's use this Ad to demonstrate a very common way people deal with unfamiliar words and acquire new ones.

Let’s pretend we’re behind the reader’s eye and let’s follow along as they read the Ad.
The copywriters, as they so often do, are playing with two meanings of “stem” - the noun- the main body or stalk of the tulip.
And, “stem” – the verb – to block, to reduce.
In fact, these plays on words engage our mind more, thus making the Ad more memorable. (Copy writing 101)

Tiptoe through the tulips

If you're of a certain age and remember Tiny Tim – well you can hum the rest of the line. 

Stem the sniffling.    
Now here’s the hiccup.
I know sniffle, but “stem”?

Here's a teased apart description of the stages that many readers/listeners go through naturally when they encounter a new word.  These stages can all occur at once, or over time. 

#1 Exposure 

"I don't know the word.  I just skip over it for now." 
If this skipping really leaves me lost I can try and guess. 
Engaged readers may not have the nuance of “stem” (verb)  but the guess that the medicine won't make their sniffles worse.  And that is good enough for now.
Skip and Guess:  This is a universal strategy that serves us just fine – thank you.  When we come across a word we don’t recognize or know, we skip and we guess. 
That is, unless we’re in school or doing a reading comprehension task for somebody.

#2 Recognition

The next time we see the new word (stem), we recognize that we’ve seen it before.  This step can happen repeatedly.
We see the Ad again, we hear the Ad on TV, or we hear “stem” being used for something else entirely:
The President wants to stem the flow of illegal immigrants into the US.
Health officials say they have not been able to stem the tide of Zika-carrying mosquito into Texas and Florida.

#3   Comprehension

At some point we refine our guess about what the word means.  Sometimes we do this by simple deduction.
We use context:
"Well, the medicine is for my allergies. So “stem”= something like “stop” or “make my allergies better”. 
Now that we’ve seen or heard different messages that use the new word, we have a better sense of what the word might mean.
 "I'm pretty sure 'Stem' means 'to block' or 'to stop' something. 

#4 Production 
At some point in the future, we use the new word.
Sometimes we’re right on the mark:
“This medicine did stem my allergies.  You should try it.”
And sometimes, not so much.
“This summer I want you kids to stem the amount of sand you track into this house.”

But that’s OK.  Our language is always changing.


Another cool thing brought to you by our human capacity for language.