'Phatics' Are for Social Positioning

The Editor's Blog: entertaining AND informative! (Photo by Flickr user greeblie)
July 15, 2014

A while back, when a number of people were discussing what Twitter is "for"—that is, what purpose it serves, why people use it—I noted that Twitter is "for" moral positioning. It's a venue on which you can demonstrate to your in-group that you are a moral person and believe the right thing. The more vociferously you stake out your position—the greater venom you deploy against your enemies, the nastier you get during a Two Minutes Hate—the more moral you are.

While reading this important essay by John McWhorter on race and "moving on," I discovered there's a fancy linguistic term for such utterances: researchers refer to them as "phatics." Here's McWhorter:

However, the idea that America needs a grand conversation about race remains gestural rather than pragmatic. Linguists have a term, phatic, for utterances that only serve a social function, rather than conveying information. "How are you?" is the classic example: one is less interested in knowing the answer than in simply acknowledging the presence of the other person. The idea of a national conversation on race—which quick reflection confirms could never happen and would solve no problem, anyway—only makes sense as phatic. The content of the utterance is less the point than its intent.

You see this all the time, especially with regard to that thorniest of issues, race. For instance, Mollie Hemingway did a good job of rounding up some of the insanely overheated praise for Ta-Nehisi Coates' essay "The Case for Reparations." Is Coates really "the best writer of his generation. Full stop" whose work singlehandedly "justifies the existence of magazines"? When one utters the sort of gibberish Freddie de Boer highlights here, is that person even trying to make a coherent point? Or are they simply engaging in a form of signaling, a way of demonstrating to their peers that they think they right things! and that people should please love me!

I think it's obvious: They're deploying phatics.

Anyway, you should read McWhorter's whole essay. His point is a simple, if depressing one: The demand that everyone "think about" all of the sins of the past forever ... and ever ... and ever gets us nowhere. It serves no purpose and has no achievable end. But announcing one's concern with the past demonstrates to your cohort that you are a serious thinker thinking serious things.

And, in the age of social media, that sort of moral positioning is all that really matters.