The climate change of bad news

This post flows a bit like the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket. As one friend put it, “It starts somewhere and then goes in a different direction.”

This year hasn’t been beset by the same old steady drizzle of bad news we have every year – but has borne the brunt of cyclonic storms, each one distinctively episodic and devastating. The latest of these storms is l’affair Rukmini Callimachi. To the uninitiated: Callimachi is a reporter with the NYT who shot to fame from 2015 or so onwards for her inside reports of the Islamic Caliphate; she later dramatised her efforts to produce these stories in a podcast called Caliphate. And in this time, she raked up four Pulitzer Prize nominations (although I don’t set much store by prizes in general).

I haven’t read or listened to her work, so when a friend shared a link to the NYT’s own report, by its media columnist Ben Smith, discussing the charges against Callimachi and their newfound, but evidently delayed, efforts to reevaluate her work, I wasn’t guilty of not having criticised her myself. (If you think this is a tall order: the headline of Jacob Silverman’s review of this storm for The New Republic describes, in a few words, how quickly her house of cards seems to fall down.)

However, these days, a successful journalist is two things: she is the producer of stories that have changed the world, and which continue to live lives of their own, and she is a role-model of sorts. Her output and her resolve represent what is possible if only one tried. An even greater example of such work is that of the journalists at the Miami Herald – especially Julie Brown – who exposed Jeffrey Epstein and brought on, among other changes, a reckoning at various universities around the US that had knowingly accepted his money and overtures.

But now, with Callimachi’s articles seemingly teetering on the brink of legitimacy, both the things she stood for are on the edge as well. First, the good thing: her stories, which – if Smith’s account is to be believed – Callimachi seems to have composed in her head before moving in to report them, often, if not always, with the spiritual and material support of many of NYT’s senior editors. Second, the bad: her legacy, such as it is – erected as a façade at which we could all marvel, at least those of us who unquestioningly placed our faith and hope in the greatness of another. This is the guilt I feel, a fractured reflection of what Callimachi’s coverage of the Islamic Caliphate at the NYT is itself going through right now.

However, I will also be quick to shed this guilt because I insist that as much as I’m tasked – by my employer, but the zeitgeist, so to speak – to be wary, cautious, skeptical, to fact-check, fact-check, fact-check, to maintain cupfuls of salt at hand so I’m never taken for a ride, just as much as I’m behooved to stand on guard, I’m also fortifying an increasingly small, and increasingly precious, garden in a corner of my mind, a place away from the bad news that I can visit in my daydreams, where I can recoup some hope and optimism. Today, the winds of l’affair Callimachi blew away her articles and podcasts from this place.

Make no mistake, I will still call out everything that deserves to be called out: from the multiple red-flags Silverman spotlighted to the anti-oriental undertones of Callimachi’s methods, of her claims and even of the self-recrimination bubbling up around her, to a lot of which Rafia Zakaria has (repeatedly) called attention. I’m only saddened, for now, by the unstoppable eradication of all that is good, such as it is, and by the guilt for my part in it. As a political being, in this moment I deem this march upon ignorance to be necessary, but as a human one, it is deeply, and to my mind unforeseeably, exacting. A cognitive dissonance for the times, I suppose, although I’m sure I will cope soon enough.

Fortunately, perhaps in a counterintuitive sense, the Callimachi episode is personally not very hard to recover from. While it is true that what Callimachi and her collaborators have (still largely allegedly) done is quite different from, say, what Jonah Lehrer did, they were both motivated by a common sin: to print what could be instead of what is (and even these words might be too strong). More specifically, reporting on war brings with it its own seductions, many of them quite powerful, to the extent that some – as Zakaria implied in her piece for The Baffler – may choose to believe Callimachi et al’s failings are still the failings of an institution vis-à-vis conflict journalism. But no, the problem is pervasive.

However, looking on this shitshow from not-so-distant India, two bells have been quick to go off. First, this is very old wine in a new bottle, in which, to borrow Zakaria’s words, “the greed for catching terrorists” is pressed into the service of making “white journalists’ careers”; you could replace ‘terrorists’ with anything else that has been touched, at any point in its history, by a colonist or invader. Also read Priyanka Borpujari’s 2019 essay in the Columbia Journalism Review, in which she writes:

The title ‘foreign correspondent’ has long been synonymous with whiteness, maleness, and imperialism—journalists fly in from North America, Europe, and Australia to cover the poverty and wars of the non-Western world. In recent years, a push for diversity has meant that more women are pursuing stories in what was once the domain of men—conflict zones and fractured democracies—or in traditionally private female spaces. But the opportunities for journalists in non-Western nations to tell their own stories in international outlets have not been as great. Overwhelmingly, foreign reportage still relies on a model of Western, and largely white, reporters hiring local journalists in subservient roles.”

And thanks to biases in the way technology is constructed, used as well as located around the world, the problem extends to the consumption of journalism as well. To quote from an older post:

Where an app [that amplifies content] was made matters because nobody is going to build an app in location A and hope that it becomes popular in faraway location B. Pocket itself is San Franciscan and the bias shows: most recommendations I’ve received, or even the non-personalised trending topics I’ve spotted, are American. In fact, among all the tools I use and curation services I follow, I’ve come across only two exceptions: the heartwarming human-curated 3QuarksDaily and Quora. I’m not familiar with Quora’s story but I’m sure it’s interesting – about how a Q&A platform out of Mountain View came to be dominated by Indian users.

I notice a not insignificant number of articles and essays, in English, to this day emerging from blogs and publications in Central, South and Southeast Asia, South America and of course Africa that will never go viral on Twitter, make it to the list of ‘most read’ articles on Pocket or be cited by even the most quirky columnist – even as the same ideas and arguments will virtually ‘break the internet’ the moment they emerge from The Atlantic or New Yorker a few months later.

None of the writers of The Atlantic or New Yorker can be blamed, at least not most of the time, for something quite hard to discover in the first place, but that doesn’t mean Big Tech isn’t distorting our view of who is doing good work and who isn’t. And many Indian journalists and writers are often at the wrong end of this discovery problem.

In this light, what Callimachi and the NYT did is not new at all but in fact further widens, or accentuates, the divide between being non-white, non-Western and being white and Western. This is a divide that I and many others, perhaps especially the others, have been habituated to ignore – especially when the crime at hand appears to be victimless but in fact quietly sidelines those who have already been historically, and today structurally, displaced from the ‘mainstream’.

On the other hand, what the NYT has perpetrated here is akin to what many in India (myself included) have done and, to different degrees, continue to have a part in. Specifically, the second bell that goes off has to do with my privileges, one product of which is that I will always be a parachute-journalist in my own country – a member of the top 1% who claims to understand the problems of the 99%.

Journalism professor Justin Martin gently defended parachute journalism in a 2011 essay, deeming fluency in “one of the main local languages” to be a prerequisite of parachuting well. I am not likely to speak any other languages than the four I already know, and less literally, I can never know, in any meaningful sense, what it means to be poor, transgender, tribal, of a lower caste; that lived experience will stay out of reach, and my assessment of what is right will always be inferior to those of, say, a desperate job-seeker, a transgender activist, a member of a tribe, a Dalit scholar when, for example, the topic at hand is poverty, gender, Indigenous people’s rights and caste.

As Martin also admits, “Hiring correspondents who live in the countries and regions they cover … is ideal”, and my higher social status in India does place me in a country other than the one I’m writing about. Although I may not be guilty of allowing information sources I haven’t vetted enough to feed exaggerated stories that I can’t prove in any other way to be true – that is, although we may not all be Rukmini Callimachis ourselves – the composition of our newsrooms means we are only one illegitimate source away, only one moment of weakness for what could be in place of what is away, from creating the next storm.

Google Docs: A New Hope

I suspect the Google Docs grammar bot is the least useful bot there is. After hundreds of suggestions, I can think of only one instance in which it was right. Is its failure rate so high because it learns from how other people use English, instead of drawing from a basic ruleset?

I’m not saying my grammar is better than everyone else’s but if the bot is learning from how non-native users of the English language construct their sentences, I can see how it would make the suggestions it does, especially about the use of commas and singular/plural referents.

Then again, what I see as failure might be entirely invisible to someone not familiar with, or even interested in, punctuation pedantry. This is where Google Docs’s bot presents an interesting opportunity.

The rules of grammar and punctuation exist to assist the construction and inference of meaning, not to railroad them. However, this definition doesn’t say whether good grammar is simply what most people use and are familiar with or what is derived from a foundational set of rules and guidelines.

Thanks to colonialism, imperialism and industrialism, English has become the world’s official language, but thanks to their inherent political structures, English is also the language of the elite in postcolonial societies that exhibit significant economic inequality.

So those who wield English ‘properly’ – by deploying the rules of grammar and punctuation the way they’re ‘supposed’ to – are also those who have been able to afford a good education. Ergo, deferring to the fundamental ruleset is to flaunt one’s class privilege, and to expect others to do so could play out as a form of linguistic subjugation (think The New Yorker).

On the other hand, the problem with the populist ontology is that it encourages everyone to develop their own styles and patterns based on what they’ve read – after all, there is no one corpus of popular literature – that are very weakly guided by the same logic, if they’re guided by any logic at all. This could render individual pieces difficult to read (or edit).

Now, a question automatically arises: So what? What does each piece employing a different grammar and punctuation style matter as long as you understand what the author is saying? The answer, to me at least, depends on how the piece is going to find itself in the public domain and who is going to read it.

For example, I don’t think anyone would notice if I published such erratic pieces on my blog (although I don’t) – but people will if such pieces show up in a newspaper or a magazine, because newsrooms enforce certain grammatical styles for consistency. Such consistency ensures that:

  1. Insofar as grammar must assist inference, consistent patterns ensure a regular reader is familiar with the purpose the publication’s styleguide serves in the construction of sentences and paragraphs, which in turn renders the symbols more useful and invisible at the same time;
  2. The writers, while bringing to bear their own writing styles and voices, still use a ‘minimum common’ style unique to and associated with the publication (and which could ease decision-making for some writers); and
  3. The publication can reduce the amount of resources expended to train each new member of its copy-editing team

Indeed, I imagine grammatical consistency matters to any professional publication because of the implicit superiority of perfect evenness. But where it gets over the top and unbearable is when its purpose is forgotten, or when it is effected as a display of awareness of, or affiliation to, some elite colonial practice.

Now, while we can agree that the populist definition is less problematic on average, we must also be able to recognise that the use of a ‘minimum common’ remains a good idea if only to protect against the complete dilution of grammatical rules with time. For example, despite the frequency with which it is abused, the comma still serves at least one specific purpose: to demarcate clauses.

In this regard, the Google Docs bot could help streamline the chaos. According to the service’s support documentation, the bot learns its spelling instead of banking exclusively on a dictionary; it’s not hard to extrapolate this behaviour to grammar and syntactic rules as well.

Further, every time you reject the bot’s suggested change, the doc displays the following message: “Thanks for submitting feedback! The suggestion has been automatically ignored.” This isn’t sufficient evidence to conclude that the bot doesn’t learn. For one, the doc doesn’t display a similar message when a suggestion is accepted. For another, Google tracks the following parameters when you’re editing a doc:

customer-type, customer-id, customer-name, storageProvider, isOwner, editable, commentable, isAnonymousUser, offlineOptedIn, serviceWorkerControlled, zoomFactor, wasZoomed, docLocale, locale, docsErrorFatal, isIntegrated, companion-guest-Keep-status, companion-guest-Keep-buildLabel, companion-guest-Tasks-status, companion-guest-Tasks-buildLabel, companion-guest-Calendar-status, companion-guest-Calendar-buildLabel, companion-expanded, companion-overlaying-host-content, spellGrammar, spellGrammarDetails, spellGrammarGroup, spellGrammarFingerprint

Of them, spellGrammar is set to true and I assume spellGrammarFingerprint corresponds to a unique ID.

So assuming further that it learns through individual feedback, the bot must be assimilating a dataset in the background within whose rows and columns an ‘average modal pattern’ could be taking shape. As more and more users accept or reject its suggestions, the mode could become correspondingly more significant and form more of the basis for the bot’s future suggestions.

There are three problems, however.

First, if individual preferences have diverged to such an extent as to disfavour the formation of a single most significant modal style, the bot is unlikely to become useful in a reasonable amount of time or unless it combines user feedback with the preexisting rules of grammar and composition.

Second, Google could have designed each bot to personalise its suggestions according to each account-holder’s writing behaviour. This is quite possible because the more the bot is perceived to be helpful, the likelier its suggestions are to be accepted, and the likelier the user is to continue using Google Docs to compose their pieces.

However, I doubt the bot I encounter on my account is learning from my feedback alone, and it gives me… hope?

Third: if the bot learns only spelling but not grammar and punctuation use, it would be – as I first suspected – the least useful bot there is.

The usefulness of good grammar

Why is good grammar important?

In the Indian mainstream media at least, it appears that readers won’t penalise reporters and editors for imperfect use of grammar and punctuation. To be clear, they will notice – and many will avoid – bad writing; at the same time, readers are unlikely to credit articles that got their grammar and punctuation pitch-perfect. In short, good grammar doesn’t seem to improve return-on-investment but bad grammar reduces it.

This isn’t surprising: English has always been much of India’s second language, especially among its middle class. The premium placed on perfect grammar is much lower than that placed on simply being fluent with the language at the intermediary level. In most instances, in fact, the value of better grammar is and remains an unknown-unknown.

However, what I like most about perfecting the use of grammar and punctuation is that doing so provides a sort of polish to the text that greatly improves its readability. This is somewhat like the attention Apple pays to the UX of its iPhones: it isn’t just that the hardware-software synergy is excellent or that the designs make the UI look exquisite; it is that, like good grammar, Apple ensures the tiniest details are in line with the overarching experiential philosophy, so that the user moves with equal ease through different parts of the phone. In the same way, without good grammar, the text becomes a bit of a bumpy ride.

It’s the cost of this bumpiness that seems to determine whether or not better grammar is linked to the publisher’s stature.

Within the iPhone metaphor, design perfection is closely associated with the iPhone’s reputation as a premium item, the same way the appropriate use of language is associated with publications like The Baffler and The New York Review of Books (but not The New Yorker, for reasons described here), which bank on literary as well as narrative correctness to appear, and read, classy.

However, this aesthetic is seemingly confined to mainstream publications in the West and, in India, to magazines that are okay with presenting the sort of English that is as classy to the discerning reader as it seems elitist to the one who hasn’t spent a lifetime among books. To the latter, text laden with the uneven use of grammar isn’t bumpy reading at all as much as something that reads just fine. So the publisher that publishes such writing isn’t penalised for it.

Then again, is it fair to judge grammar’s value according to its financial implications? It makes sense with iPhone and design: a flawed UX is quite likely to precipitate a decline in sales, and sales is what Apple – like any corporation – lives for. It also makes sense if you have a publisher like Times of India in mind. But how do things work at The Wire?

As with any nonprofit news publication that runs on donations from readers, good grammar and punctuation offer The Wire a way to render our articles more gratifying as long as the exercise remains cost-effective. But when it comes in the way of a more valuable target, such as higher volume, it becomes secondary if only because our resources are painfully finite. To prevent this from happening in the longer run, we must couple the quality of writing with the notion of public interest itself. So we come to the more important question: could good grammar be in the public interest?

At first, good grammar seems almost unnecessary, indulgent even, until you consider the connections between good writing and thinking. Being able to compose complex sentences anticipates room to compose complex thoughts and allows us to assimilate complex ideas. We may not need language itself to think, but insofar as we wish to instrumentalise the communication of complex ideas as a weapon against anti-intellectualism, we must become and remain fluent with how grammar and punctuation allow us to nearly exactly communicate semantic formations constructed by the mind.

In fact, it would be safe to dispense with the “nearly” as well: we cannot communicate ideas more complicated than what our language affords us. Therefore, the more versatile our language is and the better we are able to use it, the more opportunities we give ourselves to accommodate new ideas and fight against bad ones.

There are limitations, of course, such as with a lot of academic writing these days that is dense for density’s sake. But short of that, not making efforts to improve the way we use the rules of grammar and the opportunities of punctuation could mire us deeper and deeper, in a world becoming more vast by the day, in knowledge that is only becoming more stale and – as many scholars have recognised – in attitudes more anti-intellectual. Of course, not everything there is to learn has to be so complicated and most of us will almost certainly expend our lives still exploring the simpler realms, but in the overarching scheme, exposing ourselves to the more challenging aspects of language will equip us to go wherever we may as a society.

This is also an admittedly circuitous justification for the continued use of good grammar – given humankind’s now-famously short attention span – and one that we may not always remember on the level of the day-to-day. But just as with good grammar, the usefulness of good grammar only shows itself with prolonged use, and this should be easier to remember.

The unclosed clause and other things about commas

The Baffler carried a fantastic critique of The New Yorker‘s use of commas by Kyle Paoletta on August 23. Excerpt:

The magazine’s paper subscription slips have long carried a tagline: “The best writing, anywhere.” It follows that the source of the best writing, anywhere, must also be the finest available authority on grammar, usage, and punctuation. But regular readers know that The New Yorker’s signature is not standard usage, but its opposite. Nowhere else will you find an accent aigu on “élite” or a diaeresis on “reëmerge.” And the commas—goodness, the commas! These peculiarities are as intrinsic to the magazine’s brand as the foppish Eustace Tilley, and, in the digital age, brand determines content. But the rise of the magazine’s copy desk has done more for The New Yorker than simply generate clicks. It has bolstered the reputation of the magazine as a peerless institution, a class above the Vanity Fairs and Economists of the world, even if the reporting and prose in those publications is on par with (if not often better than) what fills the pages of The New Yorker.

Paoletta’s piece was all the more enjoyable because it touched on all the little notes about commas that most people usually miss. In one example, he discusses the purpose of commas, split as they are between subordination and rhythm. The former is called so because it “subordinates” content to the grammatical superstructure applied to it. Case in point: a pair of commas is used to demarcate a dependent clause – whether or not it affects the rhythm of the sentence. On the other hand, the rhythmic purpose denotes the use of commas and periods for “varying amounts of breath”. Of course, Paoletta doesn’t take kindly to the subordination position.

Not only does this attitude treat the reader as somewhat dim, it allows the copy editor to establish a position of privilege over the writer. Later in the same excerpt, [Mary] Norris frets over whether or not some of James Salter’s signature descriptive formulations (a “stunning, wide smile,” a “thin, burgundy dress”) rely on misused commas. When she solicits an explanation, he answers, “I sometimes ignore the rules about commas… Punctuation is for clarity and also emphasis, but I also feel that, if the writing warrants it, punctuation can contribute to the music and rhythm of the sentences.” Norris begrudgingly accepts this defense, but apparently only because a writer of no lesser stature than Salter is making it.

I’m firmly on the subordination side of things: more than indicating pause, commas are scaffolding for grammar, and thus essential to conveying various gradations of meaning. Using a comma to enforce a pause, or invoke an emphasis, is also meaningless because pauses must originate not out of the writer’s sense of anticipation and surprise but out of the clever arrangement of words and sentences, out of the use of commas to suppress some senses and enhance others. It is not the explicit purpose of written communication to also dictate how it should be performed.

Along the same vein, I’m aware that using the diaeresis in words like ‘reemerge’ is also a form of control expressed over the performance of language, and one capable of assuming political overtones in some contexts. For example, English is India’s official language, the one used for all official documentation and almost all purposes of identification. However, English is also the tongue of colonialists. As a result, its speakers in India are those who (a) have been able to afford education in a good school, (b) have enjoyed a social standing that, in the pre-Independence period, brought them favours from the British, (c) by virtue of pronouncing some words this way or that, have had access to British or American societies, or combinations of some or all of them. So beating upon the reader that this precisely is how a word ought to be pronounced could easily be The New Yorker using a colonial cudgel over the heads of “no speak English” ‘natives’.

That said, debating the purpose of commas from the PoV of The New Yorker is one thing. Holding the same debate from the PoV of most English-language newspapers and magazines in the Indian mainstream media is quite another. The comma, in this sphere, is given to establishing rhythm for an overwhelming majority of writers and copy-editors, even though what we’re taught in school is only the use of commas for – as Paoletta put it – subordination. A common mistake that arises out of this position is that, more often than you’d like, clauses are not closed. Here’s an example from The Wire:

Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, described by Hitler as the “perfect Nazi woman” was held in check by male colleagues when she proposed that female members be awarded similar titles to the males.

There ought to be a comma after woman” and before was but there isn’t. This comma would be the terminal counterpart to the one that flagged off the start of the dependent clause (described by Hitler as…). Without it, what we have are two dependent clauses demarcated by one comma and no independent clauses – which there ought to be considering we’re looking at what happens to be a full and complete sentence.

The second most common type of comma-related mistake goes something like the following sentence (picked up from the terms of service of

You are responsible for the content, that you make available via Authory.

What the fuck is that comma even doing there? Does the author really think we ought to pause between “content” and “that”? While Salter it would seem used the comma to construct a healthy sense of rhythm, Authory – and hundreds of writers around the world – mortgage punctuation to build the syntactic versions of dubstep. This issue also highlights the danger in letting commas denote rhythm alone: rhythm is subjective, and ordering the words in sentences using subjective rules cannot ever make for a consistent reading experience. On the other hand, using commas as a matter of an objective ruleset would help achieve what Paoletta writes is overarching purpose of style:

[Style], unlike usage, has no widely agreed upon correct answers. It is useful only insofar as it enforces consistency. Style makes unimportant decisions so that writers don’t have to—about whether to spell the element “sulfur” or “sulphur,” or if it’s best to italicize the names of films or put them in quotes. It is not meant to be noticed: it is meant to remove the possibility of an inconsistency distracting the reader from experiencing the text as the writer intends.

Here again, of course, I’m not about to let many Indian copy-editors and writers off the hook. Paoletta cites Norris’s defence of the following paragraph as an example of style enforcement gone overboard:

Strait prefers to give his audience as few distractions as possible: he likes to play on a stage in the center of the arena floor, with four microphones arranged like compass points; every two songs, he moves, counterclockwise, to the next microphone, so that people in each quadrant of the crowd can feel as if he were singing just to them.

Compare this aberration to nothing short of the outright misshapenness that was an oped penned by Gopalkrishna Gandhi for The Hindu in May 2014. Excerpt:

In invoking unity and stability, you have regularly turned to the name and stature of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. The Sardar, as you would know, chaired the Constituent Assembly’s Committee on Minorities. If the Constitution of India gives crucial guarantees — educational, cultural and religious — to India’s minorities, Sardar Patel has to be thanked, as do other members of that committee, in particular Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, the Christian daughter of Sikh Kapurthala. Adopt, in toto, Mr. Modi, not adapt or modify, dilute or tinker with, the vision of the Constitution on the minorities. You may like to read what the indomitable Sardar said in that committee. Why is there, in so many, so much fear, that they dare not voice their fears?

A criticism of the oped along these lines that appeared on the pages of this blog elicited a cocky, but well-meaning, repartee from Gandhi:

Absolutely delighted and want to tell him that I find his comment as refreshing as a shower in lavender for it cures me almost if not fully of my old old habit of taking myself too seriously and writing as if I am meant to change the world and also that I will be very watchful about not enforcing any pauses through commas and under no circumstances on pain of ostracism for that worst of all effects namely dramatic effect and will assiduously follow the near zero comma if not a zero comma rule and that I would greatly value a meet up and a chat discussing pernicious punctuation and other evils.

It is for very similar reasons that I can’t wait for my copy of Solar Bones to be delivered.

Featured image: An extratropical cyclone over the US midwest, shaped like a comma. Credit: gsfc/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.