Confusing Cause and Effect

So now teachers are being told to use purple ink instead of red when correcting students’ papers, according to the Boston Globe.

Purple is less hostile and threatening than red, apparently:

A mix of red and blue, the color purple embodies red’s sense of authority but also blue’s association with serenity, making it a less negative and more constructive color for correcting student papers, color psychologists said. Purple calls attention to itself without being too aggressive. And because the color is linked to creativity and royalty, it is also more encouraging to students.

“The concept of purple as a replacement for red is a pretty good idea,” said Leatrice Eiseman, director of the Pantone Color Institute in Carlstadt, N.J., and author of five books on color. “You soften the blow of red. Red is a bit over-the-top in its aggression.” [...]

“I do not use red,” said Robin Slipakoff, who teaches second and third grades at Mirror Lake Elementary School in Plantation, Fla. “Red has a negative connotation, and we want to promote self-confidence. I like purple. I use purple a lot.” [...]

Sheila Hanley, who teaches reading and writing to first- and second-graders at John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Randolph, said: “Red is definitely a no-no. But I don’t know if purple is in.”

Hanley said a growing contingent of her colleagues is using purple. They prefer it to green and yellow because it provides more contrast to the black or blue ink students are asked to write in. And they prefer it to orange, which they think is too similar to red.

Hm. So we’ll try a little experiment:

hithere

getbent

Quick: which of those statements is more hostile?

See, in reality ‘Get bent, jackass’ is more hostile, because it’s a rude imperative and it calls you a jackass. But you were fooled because the benign and even friendly ‘Hi there, darling’ is in red, and thus hostile.

What? You say that you noticed that the statement that called you a jackass was more hostile, regardless of its color? Amazing.

Color psychologists have all kinds of theories about how the feelings that different colors appear to inherently bring about in people. Green is supposed to be relaxing, and blue is supposed to make you either feel cold or not hungry or both. There may be something to this, I don’t know.

But the reason that red markings on their papers cause students stress is not that they’re red: it’s that more often than not they indicate that the student has done something wrong. Mark errors in purple, and students are going to stress out over seeing their papers covered with purple marks. And all of this is without even examining whether it’s necessarily a bad thing for students to be jarred by seeing that they’ve made a lot of mistakes. If you really wanted to eliminate stress, you could just not mark the paper at all and give everyone an A+. But is the point self-esteem, or education?

Every ten years or so, the officially acceptable way to refer to what I would call a retarded person changes. The Binet-Simon scale used to include moron to describe people with IQs from 50 to 69, imbecile for 20-49, and idiot for anyone under 49.

These words are all insults today, but they were just clinical terms to begin with, meant, in fact, to refer to these states of intellectual development without being insulting. Moron is from Greek, meaning, well, moron. Imbecile is from an obsolete French word meaning ‘weak’, and idiot is ultimately from idios meaning ‘own’ or ‘private’; an idiot, the lowest on the scale of feeble-mindeds, lives in his own world.

But moron, imbecile, and idiot are all insults today. So is retarded, which was used after moron etc. came to be seen as offensive, and special, which replaced retarded after people caught on.

Today I think the official term is developmentally disabled or mentally handicapped. These probably have too many syllables to really make the jump into common usage, but I still think I can already see these terms’ obsolescence on the horizon. Mental retardation is not something that people will ever look on neutrally, like hair or eye color. No matter what you call the mentally deficient, that term will come to be an insult when applied to people of ordinary intellectual capacity, and not long after it will be seen as an insult to the true idiots, imbeciles, and so forth.

You cannot hope to ever turn mental retardation into just another one of a person’s many characteristics, no matter what euphemisms you cook up. And you cannot hope to ‘lessen the blow’ of a school paper that’s full of mistakes simply by changing the color of the ink you use to point out these mistakes. It’s the condition, not the term retarded, that’s ultimately undesirable in a person, and it’s the error, not the circle around it, that is undesirable in a school paper.

Comments

2 Comments so far. Comments are closed.
  1. RRP,

    Which is more hostile:

    Hi there, jackass.

    Get bent, darling.

    and why?

  2. Tino,

    This would depend entirely on the color of the ink.