April 16, 2012

Talking the walk


Sam Smith

It used to be that when a Hilary Rosen said something stupid, a George Zimmerman was said to have used an anti-black slur, or a black politician like Marion Barry publicly criticized Asian businesses, that such things would be filler items or paragraphs well down in a story, with a lifespan of one or two days. In today’s media, however, they have become the story and go on to fill chunks of talk shows for days to come.

Lagging behind, or even ignored, are the issues that the verbal misfeasance is meant to symbolize. What are Romney’s and Obama’s real positions on women’s issues? What, in the Trayvon Martin case, did the police and prosecutors really do, and what are they doing now,? And why is there enough of a conflict between Asian business owners and black residents in Washington’s Ward 8 that its councilmember feels it’s okay to complain about it?

Too often the tacit message these days is that if people would just say the right things, such problems would go away. And so, polite language trumps necessary  action.

Part of this is due to the overwhelming rise in the role of propaganda and advertising in our society, although, of course, we prefer to call it things like branding, being on message or projecting an image. People like Hilary Rosen often sound like announcers in bad auto or drug commercials trying to sell their candidate in sixty seconds – and no more convincingly than an ad for Charlie’s Motors.  The media, meanwhile, has become a bunch of copywriters sitting around a table arguing about the best way for some public figure to have said something.

Further, the American elite these days places far more emphasis on, and is far more precise about, proper language than it concerns itself about necessary policy.

Yet the homicide victim is dead regardless of what curses the murderer may have uttered. Is there a polite way to kill someone? Does calling it a hate crime rather than a murder better describe what happened? Isn’t being dead worse than being dissed?

And the reports of former DC mayor Marion Barry complaining about Asian businesses in his neighborhood uniformly omitted any suggestion that there might be some actual cross-cultural conflict that needed to be resolved. The only thing that mattered was how Barry had described it.

When I read that story I thought back to the days shortly before the DC riots. I was editing a community newspaper in the area east of the Capitol where two of the city’s four major riot strips would soon explode.

There were ethnic problems in those days between businesses and their customers, the former heavily Jewish, the latter overwhelmingly black.

As I wrote about it later:

“Cities were starting to burn and you could feel the heat even in Capitol East. In September 1967, anti-poverty activist Lola Singletary convinced the white businessmen of H Street to form an organization dedicated to involvement in community problems The group, the Gazette reported, 'intends to deal with such issues as employment, welfare, safety, health, housing, recreation and urban planning.'"

It was too late. A few months later, Martin Luther King was killed and the riots broke out.

Still, one difference between then and now was that nobody got all that concerned about the language people used. Hell, I was called a honkie lots of time. It was part of the territory.

Instead of liberal verbal niceties there were folks like Lola Singletary doing something extraordinary: trying to ease a deep and long cultural conflict that existed no matter what anyone said about it.

It’s like that in many conflicts. Those most concerned with the right verbiage are often those most removed from the underlying issue. Those directly involved in trying to solve the problem may run into cruel and excessive language all the time and have to listen beyond it to find possibility, hope and solutions.

I sometimes think that there is even an inverse relationship between the public discussion of right language and public action on right issues. In periods when the former dominates, you can almost sense that nothing much is going to happen.

And this, sadly, seems like one of these times.

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