I propose an academic party game: come up with the perfect title for the book you’ll never write but damn well should. Mine is inspired by the revulsion I feel before those insipid people who say that everything they need to know they learned in Kindergarten; it’s Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kafka. But Stanley Fish has written a book with an almost equally perfect title: Save the World on Your Own Time. I’m looking forward to reading it.
Meanwhile, I am fascinated by Fish’s recent scrap with AT&T. It all begins, as he tells us here, with the operator’s opening sally — “With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with?” Fish points out with some pride that he does not at this point lose his cool but rather explains politely with whom she is speaking with, and with what she can help him with; indeed he deals patiently with a fair amount of bureaucratic nonsense before he takes a gentle stab at correcting her grammar, begins to lay on a moderate amount of heat only when she claims that she has been instructed to greet callers that way and intends to continue to do so, and spazzes out completely only when he receives her final response: “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
Fish is then passed on to one of her superiors because of a snafu having nothing to do with grammar: she says the SSN he’s given her is different from the one on record. Having sorted this out after a great deal of effort — the SSN he is giving is indeed the one on record — he raises the grammar issue again, describing “the unseemliness of a major corporation managing to sound pompous and ignorant at the same time.” This time he is told that the kind of language he is using cannot be relayed to the proper authorities.
Who is the aggressor here? If indeed the woman has been instructed by AT&T to answer the phone with this odious phrase, Fish has a right to claim he was assaulted first. But when the woman makes the mistake about the SSN that forces Fish into the arms of her superiors, it suddenly appears that she is just an incompetent — and perhaps a vengeful one — in the style those of us who deal with corporations have come to know and love. She has, in all likelihood, not been instructed by AT&T to say this at all, but rather something like this, something grammatical. So she doesn’t know from grammar; so it’s her fault — which means, I should say, that it’s the fault of her education — but the point is that it’s probably not the fault of AT&T and not the downfall of American culture either. Fish needs to learn a little common decency; he needs to have some respect for people not as well educated as he is and leave them the hell alone. And she has told him as much, if he had ears to hear it. The phrase “I’m sorry you feel that way” has a precise meaning. It does not mean that anyone is sorry about anything, nor does it have anything to do with feelings. It means: this conversation is over; get out of my face.
On the other hand, there is the response from the superior, the one who claims that Fish’s language is at fault, that the words pompous and ignorant are intolerable words. What emerges here is the idea that while bad grammar may or may not be a fault, criticizing someone certainly is. In short: it is worse to criticize than to speak badly. This attitude is also there in the operator’s conversation stopping “I’m sorry you feel that way.” She takes offense because she has been corrected. To correct another person is something close to a sin.
I have been marking papers in the last few days. I have been correcting people. That is why this business has hit a nerve.