April 14, 2017

Talking the walk

From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith, 2012
Too often the tacit message these days is that if people would just say the right things, the problems behind the words 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. The media 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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