Dirty Boots: “Descriptive or Prescriptive?”

Last month, I was reading David Foster Wallace‘s 2006 collection Consider the Lobster and Other Essays and got sucked into his sixty-page review of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage titled “Authority and American Usage.” In it, Wallace winds his way through a number of linguistic and semantic topics, among them the pros and cons of the dueling types of lexicographers and scholars who write dictionaries and usage guides: descriptive and prescriptive. The former type, of course, focuses on accurately describing the language as it being used, while the latter attempts instead to prescribe what correct usage should look like.

I think about the same pros and cons, but not about lexicography: in writing about this region, is it better to simply describe what we see, or should we be prescribing what we’d like to see? The fact is that descriptive writing about the Deep South is typically ineffective in producing meaningful societal change. Simply describing the situation on the ground, casting light on the ugly realities, seldom changes much down here. (One exception would be Howard Odum’s Southern Regions of the United States, published in 1936, which used sociological research to combat the effects of the Great Depression.) This kind of writing is also done by what Wallace calls “hardcore academics,” people whose understanding of a specific, narrow topic is strong and deep but whose audience is small and definite. Descriptive writing, like a study or a report, seldom reaches the ordinary people who could benefit most from a greater understanding of the issues.

However, prescriptive writing about our region’s politics and culture has an equal if not larger challenge: it suggests that we change. And that’s a hard sell in the Deep South. Because it implies that we might have been wrong at some point, that we might have been doing things in inferior ways at some point, that we might not have been perfect all along. Prescriptive writing, which provides a rational, solution-oriented approach to a problem, also implies that structures in our society should be re-aligned, and that re-alignment would mean changes in the distribution of power and in access to resources. What that would mean, ultimately, is: some people who now have plenty might have less in order to ensure that everyone has enough. In a region where a belief in individual rights is paramount, that approach goes over like a lead balloon.

Sometimes, I hear that no one cares about the problems we have down here. That’s not true. Both descriptive writing about the facts and prescriptive writing about new ideas address the problems in the Deep South daily, but the question remains: what is being done with these facts and ideas? The current answer is: very little. Why? Because, as scholar Mark Larrimore put it in his book on The Book of Job, which is perhaps ultimate narrative for asking humanity’s questions about seemingly senseless suffering: “Can language do justice to unjust suffering of any kind?” No. Writers can describe the problems – al.com’s Reckon does a good job of this – and writers can proffer possible solutions, but only action will bring progress into fruition. Unlike Job’s three “friends” in that story, a true response will not come from pointing fingers and saying to the downtrodden, ‘You must’ve done something to deserve your suffering.’ A true response, one that will change the course of our culture for the better, will embrace the most accurate descriptions and the most viable prescriptions and turn those into action that compassionate, appropriate, and responsible.


“Dirty Boots: A Column of Critical Thinking, Border Crossing, and Noblesse Oblige,” a weekly column published every Tuesday afternoon, offers a Deep Southern, Generation X perspective on life in the 21st century. To read find and read previous posts, click here for a full list.

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