One of the fundamental tenets of Linguistics is to be a descriptivist, not a prescriptivist.
The prescriptivist holds to old edicts such as the rule to never split (ha!) an infinitive. The descriptivist seeks to describe language as it actually is, even if it’s lol or emoji. (Yes, emoji is language.)
The prescriptivist says, “You all shouldn’t do that.” The descriptivist says, “Why do y’all do that?” One leads to an impasse, the other to a conversation. (And, sometimes, to fundamental truths that push forth our understanding of ourselves as a species.)
This applies to more than just language.
Many of the policy debates in the US today come down to this fundamental difference in approaching the world. Prescriptivists focus on the fact that illegal immigrants broke the law. Descriptivists recognize that the disincentive to break the law is so much weaker than the incentives driving certain groups of people to come here (even illegally), and instead seek pragmatic solutions.
Prescriptivists try to force the world to be how they want it, often lying to themselves in the process. Descriptivists strive to see the world how it truly is, and usually develop more empathy in the process.
At the end of the day, descriptivists learn more.
I loved this typically insightful article from Ben Thompson today on how the internet has enabled Donald Trump. A key quote:
Remember, in a Facebook world, information suppliers are modularized and commoditized as most people get their news from their feed. This has two implications:
- All news sources are competing on an equal footing; those controlled or bought by a party are not inherently privileged
- The likelihood any particular message will “break out” is based not on who is propagating said message but on how many users are receptive to hearing it. The power has shifted from the supply side to the demand side
In Thompson’s estimation, Donald Trump has succeeded despite the Republican Party’s opposition because the Party can no longer serve as the gatekeepers determining which candidate gets attention.
His argument is compelling and, if true, it’s not irrational to conclude that the forces that have given rise to Donald Trump (and the insane, sexist, I-don’t-even-know-how-to-describe-him newly-elected Chairman of the Travis County)—forces that are causing clear-thinking liberals and conservatives all over the United States to wonder what the hell has happened to their country—are not actually new at all. They’re just newly-aggregated.
Go read Ben Thompson’s full article here.