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March 31, 2010 3:14 PM   Subscribe

Spelling in protest signs - is there a liberal / conservative divide?

I recently saw this link to Teabonics, and this brought up a question I've been wondering about for a long time. Is there a difference in the amount of spelling mistakes on protest signs/posters made by generally left wing protesters than right wing protesters/demonstrators? Has there been any research touching on this question, and are there any legitimate non-trivial conclusions one can draw from the relative prevalence of such mistakes?
posted by VikingSword to Society & Culture (30 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
There are a lot of bad spellers out there. It transcends ideology and political affiliation. Likely "teabonics" has proven a popular meme because it reinforces (some) people's opinions of Palin et al being unsophisticated rubes.
posted by dfriedman at 3:17 PM on March 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

What counts as "legitimate" and "non-trivial"?

There are many conclusions that could be drawn about people with poor spelling and grammar:
- that their education was lacking in quality
- that their level of education is low
- that they're careless
- that they're lazy
- that they're less intelligent
- that they have learning disabilities
- that they don't value or recognize the notion of proper spelling and grammar

Would you consider some or any of those conclusions to be legitimate and non-trivial? I'm honestly curious, because this topic is such a point of contention around the interwebs.
posted by keep it under cover at 3:32 PM on March 31, 2010

I'm gonna go with confirmation bias. Politics aside, poor literacy doesn't play favorites.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 3:36 PM on March 31, 2010

I'd say that people who are making signs for protesting may not be in the most calm frame of mind, which could also lead to spelling mistakes they might not otherwise make. I guess this is related to 'careless' in keep-it-under-cover's comment, but I think looking at it from that mindset could explain some of the errors.
posted by johnstein at 3:40 PM on March 31, 2010

keep it under cover - first we'd have to establish that there are indeed differences between right wing protest signs and left wing ones when it comes to the prevalence of spelling errors. I imagine that while difficult, it's not an impossible task for a social researcher to establish - for example, one may examine all photographic evidence from protests over the past, say, 30 years or so, then classify the protests as right/left, and finally do a count. Obviously, you would only get a sample, but I don't see immediately why that sample would be biased in one direction vs another.

Once it's been established that X (left or right) signs tend to have more spelling mistakes, one can try to get at the causes, perhaps linking it to statistics, such as general education levels for X compared to Y. There have been quite a few studies showing some differences between right vs left leaning political partisans, and I wonder if this is something that can shed some light on this question. In other words, to me legitimate and non-trivial are conclusions which can be shown to have a basis in some study or evidence, rather than someone merely ranting "CAUSE THEY'RE DUMB!!!!ONE!!".
posted by VikingSword at 3:42 PM on March 31, 2010

My spelling is horible. My typign is the wurst. (Especially with some homonyms.)

But if I were making a sign, I would be careful. Umm - I have been careful, and always double checked.

Maybe this has something to do with how some people view unintended consequences? Or there level of thoughtfulness in many areas?
posted by Some1 at 3:47 PM on March 31, 2010

I've wondered this, too. Sample bias might be a problem - people take pictures of signs because they like them, or because they're an example of something (bad spelling, etc.), or because they're particularly witty or funny. I have noticed in the teabonics site that a lot of people seem to have trouble spelling socialism - but again, sample bias, because why would one take a picture of a sign where it's spelled correctly, right?
posted by rtha at 3:51 PM on March 31, 2010

Misspellings on signs just point to a lack of centralized leadership or organization more than anything else. Everyone makes mistakes when they are creating big signs, and there's no way to fix it usually. So the mistakes only get caught if there is someone else around who has the desire and power to correct the mistake.
posted by smackfu at 3:51 PM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Spelling ≠ literacy.
Spelling ≠ education.
Spelling ≠ intelligence.

I spent a lot of years editing reports written by PhDs. A lot of highly intelligent, highly educated people can't spell for shit.
posted by headnsouth at 3:54 PM on March 31, 2010 [7 favorites]

Your methodology sounds faulty to me. People have become meaner in recent years, and there has been a strong focus on "look at this idiot" type coverage of misspelled signage. That didn't happen before the Internet. The more polite professional media of the 1970s and earlier would have likely bypassed poor signs rather than made an effort to point them out.
posted by Meatbomb at 3:59 PM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

People have become meaner in recent years, and there has been a strong focus on "look at this idiot" type coverage of misspelled signage.

Yes, but you wouldn't want to use pictures of individual signs- hopefully you'd be looking for pictures of whole crowds, thereby avoiding such bias as much as possible.
posted by dunkadunc at 4:03 PM on March 31, 2010

Proudly waving an unintentionally misspelled sign takes more than a momentary lapse in orthography; it requires also that either no-one tells you that your sign is misspelled (because they don't know or they don't care), or you are told that your sign is misspelled but you don't care. Given that one party openly reviles intellectualism and didacticism, it seems straightforward to assume that misspelling a sign would be considered less embarrassing at that party's rallies, and therefore that the two "don't care" cases would be more common there.
posted by nicwolff at 4:05 PM on March 31, 2010

I'm not sure, Meatbomb. There is a lot of archival footage, both film and photo - it would be impossible to edit out all the misspellings... they took it all in. Even if someone were simply being mean or only focused on misspelled signs (rtha's suggestion) there is no reason why a left/right bias would be specifically introduced... there are just as many conservatives gunning for a left gotcha as the other way around - so the numbers would still show a trend. In other words, being mean and partisan is true for both left/right evidence searchers - so why would greater numbers of left (or right) signs show mistakes?
posted by VikingSword at 4:06 PM on March 31, 2010

I think you're mistaken in assuming that gathering archival footage and looking at it would be inherently un-biased. It isn't a hard leap to assume that different kinds of rallies get different levels of coverage, and different levels of archiving in general. I think trying to find a truly un-biased level of coverage to start such a study would be nearly impossible.

Also, despite you're intentionally "impartial" wording, linking to an example website with obvious political leanings kind of suggests that you are just hoping people will pile on with "yeah conservatives ARE dumb!" Why not try to find an example of both parties, or of a neutral source which shows all spelling errors?
posted by CharlieSue at 4:23 PM on March 31, 2010

[A few comments removed. Let's stick to just answering the question, please.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 4:32 PM on March 31, 2010

[seriously, dial it back, both OP and answerers and don't turn this into an FPP instead of an AskMe question.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:46 PM on March 31, 2010

There might be a bias reflected in the difficulty of the slogans being written. "No war for oil" is composed of short words, for example, and should be harder to misspell than "wealth redistribution = red communism." (That said, there's no excuse for tea partiers screwing up "Commander-in-Thief," considering that that was a mantra used by some on the left for eight years, and they ought to be able to copy-paste.)

There's also that fake "Cambridge study" email about being able to read scrambled words... and the idea that spelling is really just an agreed-upon convention, and if you can get the meaning then that's effective enough; the rest is just dogma. Though it took me about a minute to figure out "scholiast" was supposed to be "socialist," so descriptivism only gets you so far.

I think it would be hard to make a serious study of this and draw any legitimate conclusion.
posted by sldownard at 5:06 PM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Anti-war protesters "to" vs. "too"
posted by smackfu at 5:12 PM on March 31, 2010

Perhaps people who go to protests and make political signs are worse spellers than people who sit home and write ranty blog posts. Sharpies don't come with spellcheck, after all.
posted by desjardins at 5:16 PM on March 31, 2010

I'm gonna go with confirmation bias. Politics aside, poor literacy doesn't play favorites.

I agree. There are many liberals/democrats with poor reading and writing skills. But, I don't think they are protesting in the streets much. If we're talking about anti-war/WTO protests (the typical leftist suspects), then the crowd is going to be very well-educated- baby boomers and current college students. Whereas Tea parties are a more working-class crowd most of time.

Now if we expand "protests" to include say, anti-immigration crackdown rallies, or anti-police brutality protests, you might get a leftist demographic with a lower average level of education.

I apologize if any of this seems to be playing off stereotypes, but I believe analysis would bear it out.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:10 PM on March 31, 2010

I am going to say that it is probably due to rushing these things while not being in a calm state of mind; I had a motorcycle stolen several years ago and as soon as the police were gone I made up a flyer, took it to a print shop and printed it in color (this was before I had a color printer) and rushed it around to all the biker hangouts and repair shops I could think of; it was only when I got to the last place, a bar where some of my friends hang out, that someone asked if I meant to misspell "motorcycle". Sure enough I had put "STOLEN MOTORCYLE" in bright red 72 point block letters at the top of the flyer and in my hurry had not noticed until it was too late and I was too tired of running around to fix it. I figured people would know what I meant. I bet these people are in a similar situation. I can't find it right now, but I seem to remember a conservative website that made fun of similar typos in liberal protest signs.
posted by TedW at 6:37 PM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

A while ago I was riding on the DC Metro a few hours before one of the big anti-somethingorother Tea Party protests. (I'm not sure what it was. Anti-healthcare or something, maybe.) Anyway, the thing that struck me was that people were making their signs on the Metro. There didn't seem to be a whole lot of organization. Some people had apparently bought lots of pieces of white posterboard (barely even posterboard, sort of heavy white construction paper) and markers, and were giving them out to other people, who were then writing whatever the hell they felt like on them.

This struck me because, although I've never gone to a protest nor had much interest in going to one, right or left, if I were to go to one and wanted to hold up a sign, I'd probably at least write or print the thing in advance. But that was pretty clearly not what a lot of people were doing. (And this is different from the friends I knew in college who went to protests regularly, as a sort of recreational activity and way to meet girls; they had a closetful of protest signs for various occasions, some of which were quite witty and involved a fair amount of forethought.)

My impression was that the Tea Party protest was a lot more ad hoc than the lefty protests my college friends used to go to. Maybe that's not representative of all cases, but it was of the one I observed, and it might be a significant confounding factor that would mess up any conclusions of spelling ability based on the end-product of signage.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:37 PM on March 31, 2010

I agree. There are many liberals/democrats with poor reading and writing skills. But, I don't think they are protesting in the streets much.

Also agreed. You might have to wait until the Republicans get another president in the White House before you're actually able to get any solid comparisons. Although...

I think the fact that the signs are written in permanent marker may have something to do with this. Because I couldn't resist, and although this is only tangentially related, in conclusion...
posted by _cave at 7:28 PM on March 31, 2010

..although I did feel like that you get a bit of a pass if you're writing a sign in a foreign language, as some of the linked sign holders probably were.
posted by _cave at 7:32 PM on March 31, 2010

I think there's a LOT more going on here than simply confirmation bias. I've actually been interested in studying protest signs for quite some time. I first thought about this in regards to Pittsburghese shirts and the commodification of an urban dialect. It's an excellent article, if you can get access to it.* The concepts there I think apply to what's going on in protest signs. I do believe that there's an unconscious/subconscious display of the values inherent in this community, expressed in protest signs. Many liberals seem to be impressed by and invested in a coherent argument, articulately presented. Teabaggers and some republicans seem to value other things, such as a lack of pretentiousness, a sense of autonomy and symbols of independence over reliance on a system and intellectual prowess, and on. These things are both subtly and blatantly reflected in their outward expressions. And liberals, because of their values, seem not surprisingly, invested in promoting and highlighting the most extreme of that ideology as well. It seems to create a dichotomy that both sides are fine with. Sort of. I don't know; I really want to look into this some more. There is definitely something there. A lot of something.

Whatever you find in your searches, I'd be wary of any conclusions drawn from examination of signs that don't take identity, ideology and expression of values into account.

*I think Agha's notion of enregisterment is going on here as well, reinforced by both 'sides'. Articles on this concept are available (PDF). :)
posted by iamkimiam at 8:02 PM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Years ago, I was heavily involved with my local NORML chapter. Whenever we would make signs we were hyper-aware of checking them for spelling errors and the like because we didn't want the local media to be all "hur-hur stoners" on us. We would have long evenings of coming up with ideas, and carefully painting/printing/constructing signs.

are there any legitimate non-trivial conclusions one can draw from the relative prevalence of such mistakes?

Based on my own experience, and on Kadin2048's anecdote above, it seems to me that there is a divide between groups that are very aware of how they will be portrayed by the media and groups that aren't or are maybe more naïve about media coverage. You could possibly make the point that groups that are true grassroots organizations, will be less aware of how they may be shown in the media, but even that is tenuous.

The only conclusion I ever draw from seeing a group that has very nice signs is that someone, somewhere has money to funnel into the group to mass produce those signs and hand them out at or just before the protest.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 5:54 AM on April 1, 2010

I am a signmaker by trade. An educated one at that. I make unintentionally hilarious mistakes on signs more frequently than one would think. Say one time in fifty.

This only counts egregiously bad stuff I should've caught (8+ Church vans with graphics on three sides for "First Babtist"). Transposing phone number letters or some such happens even more often. More often than not (seriously) the client doesn't even notice. People (myself included) have some sorta "sign blindness" that comes from wanting or making a sign. The act of making it... staring at it, crafting it, makes it lose meaning because of repetition. Sort of a highway hypnosis deal.

If any of you are telling yourself you wouldn't ever make a sign mistake because you'd "be very careful" and double check your work. Well. You very easily could. And as you made more signs, your chances of this happening would asymptotically approach one.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 11:59 AM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, putting mistakes on signs is a genius tactic. You get a LOT of attention. Including promotion and outrage from the opposition while they make name-calling spectacles of themselves pointing out how dumb and racist the sign-holders are. See: internet.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:16 PM on April 1, 2010

I know it's not the US, but I recently went to Honduras shortly after the coup and all of Tegucigalpa had been defaced by a wave of pro-Zelaya spray-paint taggers (sponsored by Hugo Chavez). Several of their leftist and anti-golpista messages were misspelled.

Two reasons I studied Spanish in the first place was because I was into leftist political movements and because, unlike English that I can't spell for shit, it is roughly phonetic and generally follows fairly straight forward spelling rules. For me that was one indication that Zelaya (and Chavez) were counting on some truly piss-poor activists.
posted by Pollomacho at 4:48 AM on April 2, 2010

spelling is hard.

once you are out of grade school/high school, you aren't being quizzed on vocabulary every week or having your spelling checked by a live person with a red pen. spelling ceases to be a huge value when grades don't matter so much. it's unlikely that your boss is going to fire you for screwing up spelling stuff in the day to day world. (a big report or article, yes - but i've found common typos on all kinds of huge marketing and informational stuff from insurance cos, my employer, cell phone providers.)

spell check has been around long enough that even people who didn't grow up with it are pretty darn used to it. heck, even yahoo mail and gmail have built in spell check. your phone autocorrects or suggests thru predictive text when you are typing text or emails on the phone.

i love language and i got a damn near perfect score on the SAT verbal (don't ask about the math.)

but that was in 1995. i'll be damned if i don't have to think about the day in 5th grade we learned about "affect" vs "effect" pretty much every time i write it. and i've recently starting apostrophizing thing's that shouldn't be. (ha.) i have no idea why because i never did it until about a year ago.

but i read all the freaking time and spend a lot of time writing, both keyboard and pen. i know how things are spelled and what should/shouldn't have 's.

but i can still imagine screwing up a sign that says "Healthcare affects us all." even now, i'm just going with my gut that it's the right one.

i don't think it has to with intelligence or politics or socioeconomic. some people are better spellers, some are better mathers, some are grammar nazis (i used to be but just stopped caring so much.)
posted by sio42 at 7:20 AM on April 2, 2010

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