The Telegraph
Thursday , December 27 , 2012
Since 1st March, 1999
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We accept the contradictions of life. And oxymorons — oxymora, if you are particular — are fun. Here, the pairing of opposite words does not confuse but presents a definite meaning or point of view. Thus we have afine mess’, a ‘bittersweet’ experience, and ‘soft-loud’ music ‘live on tape’. Sometimes ‘less is more’ and we are often asked to make ‘accurate estimates’. An oxymoron, says The Oxford Companion to the English Language, is often used as social comment both humorously and cynically, such as ‘honest politicians’ and ‘business ethics’.

While we understand oxymorons and accept life’s inconsistencies, we get thoroughly confused by mixed messages and signals given by people around us. The other day a couple of my ex-students visited me and, in course of our conversation, one of them remarked how shameful it was that schoolchildren these days — “even in the best of English-medium schools” — speak in Hindi or Bengali among themselves. Before I could comment, the other ex-student, whose daughter was studying in an established international school in the city, chipped in with “And so? They are comfortable conversing with each other in their mother tongue and they are equally comfortable speaking English in the classroom — and wherever else it is required. As long as they speak each language well, why should there be any restrictions on the medium they wish to communicate in?”

This exchange made me wonder whether the web of complexities that surrounds the use of English in our country is to be found anywhere else in the world. It is high time we accepted that English is a foreign language which is globally useful and that some are able to use it to advantage. It is also high time that we stopped creating an artificial world around our children to the extent that in some English-medium schools children are fined if they speak in any language other than English. Yes, it is certainly important that they hear and speak English as much as possible in the early years so that mastery of the language is facilitated. But fining or penalizing in any other way sends out signals that it is undesirable to speak in one’s mother tongue. The same child is most perplexed when in later years she is admonished for speaking in English most of the time and she is accused of forgetting her “own culture and heritage”.

Another example of inconsistency in communication that mainly adolescents are victims of is the directive, “Be your age”. Sometimes it means “you are not old enough” or “you are still a child”. At other times it means “you are too old” or “you are no longer a child”. Someone somewhere did explain this inconsistency quite unambiguously and unabashedly — “You get mixed messages because I have mixed feelings.”

When a teacher raised the issue of watching A-rated movies, a little girl told her that “it was all right” as her mother accompanied her whenever she wanted to watch them. “And,” she added for good measure, “they never bother to check.” Underage children sign up for Facebook by lying about their age, with their parents’ approval. The same parents disapprove when their children lie about other things. Parents buy their 10-year old children BlackBerry phones and then get upset when their children start texting friends belonging to the BlackBerry community.

At school, we teachers want our children to think independently but are offended when they question our opinion or explanation. As schoolteachers, we are expected to inculcate values in our students, yet in the over-lenient attitude towards children today, parents find it heartbreaking if their offspring are scolded by their teachers and are ever ready to protect and defend them. Teachers too are guilty on this count. They often demonstrate an outpouring of kindness at the wrong times and condone or turn a blind eye to serious misdeeds such as cheating during tests and examinations. “Poor child, she must be afraid of facing the music at home if she gets low grades — that is why she resorts to unfair means,” exclaims one teacher. On the other hand, the same compassionate teacher will take a child severely to task for something relatively innocuous — if for instance, she is found daydreaming or drawing cartoons in class.

In the middle of the last century, the anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, and his colleagues introduced the term ‘double bind’ in discussing confusing communication as one of the factors responsible for contributing to schizophrenia. A double bind is communication in which the recipient of the communication is caught between two conflicting messages contained therein. The recipient feels trapped, as it is impossible to resolve the dilemma or even escape from it altogether. Children are often victims of the double bind both at home and at school. An example of this is, “Speak when you are spoken to. Don’t talk back.” Then there is the conflict between the verbal and non-verbal cues. A teacher or parent tells a child that she is free to go ahead and join a particular activity but the teacher or parent’s facial expression indicates strong disapproval. The child feels helpless as she does not know which instruction or cue to follow.

I thought that this business of confusing messages was a serious issue. But I found the following on the internet. “I love you. I hate you.” “Come here. Go away.” Sending mixed messages and watching the resultant confusion in the recipient can brighten an otherwise boring day. Hone your skills and try it on someone you like — but not that much. So, I concluded, there are people who deliberately give out mixed signals just for the sheer excitement of tormenting someone.

There are examples too of deliberate misunderstanding of communication. The following is the exchange in court between a witness and the lawyer for the prosecution.

Q. “Are you a heavy drinker?”

A. “That’s my business!”

Q. “Do you have any other business?”

Confusing and complex communication was to be found everywhere, pointed out Bateson, “in play, poetry, ritual and fiction”. However, there was a definite risk that a victim, who grows up in the midst of perpetual double binds, would display learned patterns of confused thought and communication in later years.

In the context of double binds where there is always a tormentor (the communicator) and a victim (the recipient), we should in all fairness also explore the fate of the one who victimizes. We get a hint in the following lines which are inscribed on the tombstone of a member of parliament who specialized in doublespeak:

“Here rests the body of an MP/ Who promised lots for you and me/ His words, his deeds did not fulfil/ And though he’s dead he’s lying still.”

Recently, we were all shocked when we heard about the case of a student from a school in the city, slapping his teacher. But I was equally disturbed — and perhaps even outraged — at the said teacher’s reaction. He said that he wished to protect his student who was like his own child because he did not want to “ruin his future”. This statement gives out a dangerously mixed message to all students. A teacher’s stand must be simple and very plain — there can be no future for you if you do not learn to behave properly. In my opinion, if the said teacher wanted to protect his student’s future, he should have allowed him to face the consequences of his act, taken him to task and straightened him out. Let us be clear on this, if a student’s behavioural problems are not attended to at once, she is likely to be a menace to any civilized society. We seem to have forgotten Vidyasagar’s famous tale of the boy who bit off his over-indulgent aunt’s ear after he was arrested for some misdeed, because she had not been strict with him when he was growing up.

Children must be taught to respect boundaries. But adults must first define them clearly. We cannot afford to keep giving cloudy, confusing, conflicting messages to our children and expect them not to be mixed up.