Sunday, September 30, 2012

Big Brains and Southern Accents

I've lived in the south most of my life, and I've met people with pronounced southern accents who also happen to be Rhodes Scholars, Ivy League grads, doctors, scientists, and Pulitzer Prize-winning writers. Yet when you enter the phrase "southern accent" in a web search, you'll immediately see words like "stupid" and "uneducated".  I discovered this yesterday, because I was searching for "smart people with southern accents". Why? Because I needed to find some examples to pass around.  I had just seen a particularly painful example of a dumb southerner, and it was hurting my soul.

It was on the Daily Show.  They were poking fun at the hard right's mistrust of science, and they choose to interview a socialite and occasional Republican spokesperson from Little Rock, Arkansas named Noelle Nikpour.  Ms. Nikpour claimed, in her thick southern drawl, that scientists were "scamming the American people right and left", and that ordinary Americans are just as qualified to judge scientific theories as scientists themselves.  The interviewer pretended to agree with her, and the stupidity of her statements just escalated from there.  She never even realized he was messing with her.  I thought she was probably an actress who was in on the joke, but no, she's a real person who occasionally appears on Fox News.  The clip was surely edited to make her look as dumb as possible, but if she's not an absolute bubbleheaded idiot, she did an amazing impression of one.  It would have been painful to watch if it wasn't so hilarious.

OK, so it was still a little painful. I'm from Arkansas too, and I don't want people thinking she represents everybody from my state.  And lord have mercy, I hope I'm not that dumb. But when I leave the south, people quite often assume I am, because I talk like she does.  I've had people talk to me for a while, get a puzzled expression on their face, and then tell me, "You're a lot smarter than you sound!"

They actually intend it as a compliment, which is truly bewildering.  I've also had people assume I'm very religious or conservative, or that I'm a racist.  I've even met a couple of people who seemed to be afraid of me because I'm from the south (and I'm not a scary person).  But here's the ironic thing:  I may have a southern accent, but when people hear it and assume I'm stupid, they're the ones being foolish, not me.  They're the victims of a fallacy:  the idea that you can take a stereotype about a group of people, and conclude that an individual from that group will match the stereotype.  It doesn't work that way.  For one thing, many stereotypes are unfounded.  But even if there's some basis for the stereotype, it still doesn't work that way, because a group average, and an individual from that group, are two very different things.

I'm not trying to deny some of the uncomfortable truths about the south.  I grew up here, but I've lived other places, so I know what's good and bad about it.  The fact is, there's some truth to a few of the stereotypes about the south.  On average, it does lag behind the rest of the country in things like education and literacy.  That's not because southerners are born dumber; it's because a complex mix of history and economics has left education tragically neglected in some parts of the south (though not in places like Austin, Athens, and Chapel Hill); and because ignorance, like education, is self-reinforcing.  Of course, everybody knows that racism has played a big role in southern history, and it's true that serious racism still exists here.  However, the south has no monopoly on that particular poison.  Here's an example:  It's hard to gauge racism in surveys, but if you look at how often people Google racist terms and jokes in different states, it's not just southern states. Yes, 6 of the top 10 are in the south (although number 1, West Virginia, is a border state that stretches far north).  But the other four are indisputably northern.  They are:  3. Pennsylvania, 6. Michigan, 7. Ohio, and 10. New Jersey.  This actually matches my experience.  I've heard plenty of racist talk in the south, but some of the most viciously racist things I've ever heard were said in a northern accent.

While it offends me when people assume I'm dumb or racist, it merely irritates me when they assume I'm conservative, simply because...I'm not.  It's true that I'm appalled by the excesses of the extreme right, but to say that all conservatives are dumb, racist, or poorly-educated would be making the very mistake I'm railing against here. I bring conservatism up only because it is one of the assumptions people make about southerners.  Southernness, conservatism (particularly social conservatism), lack of education, and racism are all somewhat correlated, but that doesn't mean they're inseparable, much less identical.  If you're a smart, educated, non-racist conservative, you've probably had people make the same assumptions about you, based on your politics, that they make about me, based on my accent.

In any case, if you randomly picked out a southerner, the person you picked would be somewhat more likely to be poorly-educated and conservative than someone randomly picked from the rest of the country.  Furthermore, if you randomly picked a southerner with a strong accent, you would be somewhat more likely to get someone who is religiously conservative or poorly educated.  That's because: 1. People who come from rural areas tend to have stronger accents, and people who stay in those areas are more likely to be conservative.  2.  Highly-educated southerners usually tone down their accents.  That's partly because of the prejudices I'm talking about here--they don't want their non-southern peers to assume they're dumb racists; an assumption that's as common as it is ridiculous.

But the fact remains that if you had ten-thousand randomly selected people with a strong southern accents, and ten thousand people from outside the south with boring newscaster accents (yes, that's an accent too) then it's probably true that more people in the southern accent group will be poorly-educated and conservative.  And yes, a few more might be more racists too, though that probably has as much to do with education as region (uneducated non-southerners are more likely to be racist than educated ones, after all).  So what does this prove about the person you just met, with that thick southern accent?  Not a damn thing.  The fact that lack of education, conservatism, and--possibly--racism are a little more prevalent among people with strong southern accents doesn't mean a particular person with a southern accent has any of those traits, or that a person without a southern accent lacks them.

Still, if you stop in a diner in some rural part of Mississippi where people have thick accents, you would be right to think you shouldn't make loud jokes about the religious right, or declare to a bunch of rough-looking white guys that Martin Luther King, Jr. was the greatest American ever. You would probably be right to think those guys don't have Ph.D's, too. Heck, you might even be right if you thought they were dumb racists.  But you might be wrong, too, and that's my point:  you can't take a statistical tendency of a group and arrive at any certainties about the particular representative of that group standing in front of you.  Likelihoods, yes; certainties, no.  If you meet me, hear my accent, and think, "Maybe I should watch what I say, he might be really religious or conservative", I have no problem with that, because it's a reasonable assumption...if you remember the "might be" part.  People who talk like me are more likely to be religiously conservative--but I'm not.  We all think in percentages.  Intuitive statistics are a vital part of the human mind.  We just have to remember the limits of that kind of thinking. I say "we" because I've been guilty myself.  Once I was at a music festival in Arkansas, and a hairy guy in overalls--with an accent stronger than mine--started talking to me.  I was thinking, "Who is this yokel", when he told me he was a dermatologist.  That "yokel" was an MD in a very competitive specialty--dumb people don't become dermatologists.  When he saw the look on my face, he shot me a knowing grin.  I knew that grin, because it's the same grin I give people when I say big words in an Arkansas accent, and see the confusion in their face. It's a grin that says, "You're the one being dumb, not me. Gotcha!" I grinned back. Touché, Doc.

Judging people by their dialect is dumb for other reasons, too, not just because it's an unwarranted and unfair generalization.  It's not just that people with accents might not match your stereotype about them.  It's also that the distinction we make between high-status and low-status accents is completely arbitrary.  There is no Platonic form of perfect English pronunciation, or even perfect English grammar, hanging up there in the sky.  There's nothing about saying, "You guys went to the store already?" that makes it intrinsically better than saying, "Y'all done went to the store?"  The first is the standardized way of saying it, but that's because of historical accidents that have more to do with social prestige and arbitrary pronouncements than rationality.  It could have gone the other way.  Of course, I realize that if someone doesn't seem to know how to speak in standard English, that probably does mean they're less educated, since people learn standard English in school (and grammar is easier to control consciously than accent--it's easy for me to speak in standard grammar, and nearly impossible for me to speak without an accent).  But poorly educated is not the same as dumb, and a non-standard form of English is not the same as a degraded form.  Languages evolve, change, and diversify, but no language has ever devolved into meaningless gibberish.  If you're a grammar warrior, you may be pretty skeptical about these claims. Well, this ain't the place to get into that, but I done wrote more about that here.

The point of all this is that it's time for southerners, and anyone else with an unusual accent, to show the rest of the country that we don't all match the stereotypes.  It's the people with the prejudices about accents, not the people with the accents, who are being stupid.  Smart southerners should point that out to them, and fight the "dumb southerner" stereotypes the media loves so much.  If I were a filmmaker, I'd be tempted to put together a video showing a bunch of brilliant people with southern accents talking about their accomplishments: "Ah'm a world renowned brain surgeon, and Ah have a southern accent." They wouldn't be hard to find.  At the very least, I'd like the next person who Googles "smart people with southern accents" to actually find something good, or at least find this post.  When I had the idea for this post, I was just going to make a list of smart, famous people who still sound like they're from the south. But I realized it's tough to come up with a list like that--not because it's hard to find smart southerners, but because a lot of southerners who've become famous have had to suppress their accents. Because of people's dumb assumptions.

But not everyone had to learn to talk like Tom Brokaw to get famous.  A southern accent is a good thing if you want to be a country singer, for example.  While "smart" may not be the first word that comes to mind when you think of country singers, some of them, like Lyle Lovett and Dolly Parton, are quite brainy (Kris Kristofferson was a Rhodes Scholar, though he didn't grow up only in the south).  A southern accent can also be useful for politicians, which may explain why half the presidents from the last few decades have had them (some of those presidents have even been pretty smart.  Bill Clinton may be morally flawed, but nobody can say he's dumb).  But most other famous southerners--people like newscasters and actors--have to be able to dial back their accent, at least some of the time.  Either it doesn't fit the part, or...well...people think it makes them sound stupid.  Of course, most brilliant people, wherever they're from, never become famous (maybe they're too smart).  You can be at the top of your field in medicine or law, and be a complete unknown to most people. I went to college with a guy with a thick north Louisiana accent.  Now he's a neurosurgeon.  He's not famous, but he's scary smart.

My point in all this is that, even though there are thousands of absolutely brilliant people out there with strong southern accents, it's hard to name many famous ones that aren't country singers or politicians.  But it only takes one counter-example to wreck a bad generalization, and there are plenty of those, even among famous people.  William Faulkner, Bill Clinton, Harper Lee, Martin Luther King, Jr, Bill Moyers, EO Wilson, Rick Bragg, Flannery O'Conner, and thousands of other bright, successful people are proof that having a southern accent doesn't make you dumb.  Most people know this, at some level, but it's a hard association to kick.  As I said, even I have been guilty of stereotyping people with thick accents, and I have one!  That's how pervasive the stereotype is.  That's a shame, but I can fight it.  The next time I hear someone speaking with an accent--any accent--I'm going stop and listen to what they're actually saying, not the accent they're saying it in.  Having an accent doesn't make people stupid.  But unfounded stereotypes and assumptions do.