The Cambridge Candle


Vol. 1, No. 1

November/December 1998


Word and Deed

By Elie Yarden

Language is a tricky cover. While it may not be true that we truly reveal ourselves in how we speak, it is probable that the way in which we accustom ourselves to speak of things is who we eventually will become. If I care at all about who I am or wish to be, I need the space to consider what I hear, to look at what I'm saying -- we all need that space!

A broadcast House of Representatives "debate" on conducting an impeachment inquiry. Members of the House speak about the importance of protecting our institutions. One of these important institutions is "representative government." But what do I mean when I speak of "representative government" if my elected representative is allowed only a 20-second or two-minute sound bite in which to address serious issues? How is this different from a contest in which the outcome is decided by having more people lined up along one end of the rope than along the other? Is the US Congress a genuinely deliberative body? How will words be used under two-minute constraints, to what ends? If issues are to be decided by nose-counting, I'd rather be polled directly.

Everyday words and phrases such as cheat, testimony, enjoy the show, capital punishment, career, diversity, education, on which our discourses rely, sustain understandings, unexamined assumptions, and hidden assertions, have extraordinary power to determine our social position.Our words embody concealed agreements. If I cannot take the time to find out what is meant in the words I use and hear, what agreements they support, I'm no better than a pet parrot.

A deliberation of the Planning Board about University Park, Phase 4. Not having an adequate visual model of the matter under discussion, I try to follow the words as best I can. The presentation is rapid. The phrases: "… animate the quadrangle," "… signage to direct people," "create a vocabulary that would be distinctive," "… a type B facade," "link Landsdowne and Pilgrim" where much of the pedestrian traffic is "… a window pattern that is sympathetic …" (at the street level), "kind of an interesting image that …kinda recalls," "indented and projected medallions … give some impetus and punch," "… we try to keep honest to the brick" (of a facade),  "I think there is some vibrancy in bringing together the massing of the two buildings."  Am I hearing the language of architecture or of advertising? Is the discourse about planning or just another sell-job? What is the relation between the discourse and deliberation of a planning board and its recommendations, its actions?

I doubt that members of the planning board were deceived into believing that there are no serious deficiencies, no problems, in the submitted plans for Phase 4. One, Hugh Russell, stated his concern succinctly, to wit: "My hope is that in twenty years this will not be seen as University Park but as Cambridge." Was he referring to our streets, our people?  The plans presented for University Park, Phase 4, reflected the hopes, and the bets, of real estate speculators, not the aspirations of citizens of a city.

When we are seeking a way out of the ruts into which our habitual usages have sunk us, if our desire and intention is to go beyond where we've gotten stuck, good will -- the sort needed if conversation is to take place -- cannot suffice.

How can we, living in a racist society, people who, lacking joy in their daily existence are so easily embarrassed in conversation about innocent pleasures, or innocuous releases, be expected to maintain a discussion of something so vicious as racism. Perhaps, recognizing that a preoccupation with "propriety" can subvert the possibility of discovery, we will have to forego a few decorums.

Attempts to assure perspicuity of discourse by rules about how experts, deliberators, and decision-makers are to use words, seem a fruitless enterprise. Rather than founder in a carefully regimented use of language, we might concentrate on raising awareness of linguistic context -- and even encourage such anti-social, rude behavior as insisting on knowing what a speaker means by the words he uses. And there are also moments when unfamiliar metaphor can be used to clarify the purport of a given analysis. Non-habitual, and even poetic, uses of language may cast light on problems which seem intractable when addressed in the standard ways.

Let's take an instance outside of our immediate 'political' context, an 'ethical' context. Notice for a moment that the term "capital punishment" provides the ground for an in-a-rut debate continuing with no progress, an irresolvable tug of war. ("Are you for it or against it?") There are reasons for both sides. There are always reasons. But what is being talked about, actually? Getting rid of someone by 'due process?' If this is what is intended, we find ourselves in discussion of the concept as used in Roman Law. Let's call it --maybe(?) -- 'social waste disposal.' But, in our laws the concept of punishment, retributive injury -- for criminal injury -- seems firmly embedded. So the forensic question begging an answer is, "How is someone punished by being dead, or by non-existence?" It is only the living who will be injured, or pleased, by the killing of the malefactor. How is being put to death for a crime to be differentiated from other more accidental instances of deprivation of 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?'  The luck of the draw?

If we were to examine more carefully the paradigms that underlie the notion of 'punishment' we might get a lot closer to learning how to deal with criminal acts. But this would be terribly difficult in a racist society such as ours. The prospect of the needed self-examination is too frightening to many people in superior positions, liberal and conservative alike.

Both will sooner tolerate the expenditure of 40 million dollars on a special investigator to study the sexual behavior and honesty about personal affairs of a single "hero," the President of the United States (acting on the accepted Military Code of "Don't ask! Don't tell!") than vote out of Committee and onto the floor of the House, Representative Conyers' HR-40, a Bill to spend 8 million dollars (one fifth the amount allotted to Starr) to study the effects of the enslavement of millions of black Africans and their descendants on our social structures, our institutions, and our lives. Are we 'punishing' ourselves for our crimes and misdemeanors when we conceal our past in guilt and shame rather than face that past and try to conceive of reparation? What is meant by 'punishment?'  What is the refusal to look at a crime? Is not this refusal tantamount to complicity? Shudder, and keep going.

Meetings of the Cambridge City Council provide frequently remarkable opportunities to observe instances and limitations of various uses of language -- ordinary conventional discourse, both referential and phatic, the jargon of technical and quasi-judicial expertise, the emotive expressive speech-from-the-heart, to be found in all sorts of juxtapositions. Very occasionally a new way of speaking will peep out long enough to be observed and promptly flattened before it has a chance to grow new ways of thinking about issues. "What you really meant to say was…."  The speaker of the words that required adjustment will then accede, restore the normal discourse. This is the goodwill needed for communication. To express outrage at the interference would be bad form. But once in a while…!!

A recent Council meeting beautifully demonstrated how outrage can help to focus thinking and sharpen language -- for the moment. Observing his fellow Councillors in a morass of hesitation, and showing their fear in exchanges of opinion that did not confront the issues, Councillor Reeves, in an exceptional display of ill-will, threatened five of his colleagues by saying that, in the coming council election, he would name everyone of those who, given the opportunity to examine and vote on the Interim Planning Overlay Petition (IPOP), failed to assume the responsibility for the future of the City that was being offered. He closed his heated threat with "Shit! or get off the pot!!" and stormed out of the chamber (to return when his passion had cooled). Some Councillors seemed surprised, others embarrassed. His Honor, the Mayor indicated that he would not be stampeded by such threats (since he could stand on his record) into precipitate and unconsidered approval of the petition. But he, and other Councillors who had given some attention to the issues, were able to sharpen their thinking to the point where, despite some miscommunications, they did manage -- with the assistance of John Pitkin, a citizen who helped to draft the IPOP (Hinds) Petition, the counsel of Mr. Drisdell, and the leadership of Councillor Davis in framing amendments that would be legally allowable in a Zoning Petition -- to conduct the remaining discussion to an actual decision.

For those of you who only saw the show on cable television, let me assure you that the recess, which was taken to frame and get the wording of the amended Zoning Petition just right, was the real show of a deliberative body at work. Lawyers, lawbooks on the table, clerks, consultants from CDD, some members of the City Council, feverishly at work, dished up an amended Zoning Petition that could be voted, amendments and all, and when the vote on this amended ordinance was taken, it was 8 in favor and 1 opposed.

The key metaphor that led to this result, shit or get off the pot!, was very well understood by the participants in the Council conversation. If one wishes to occupy the space appropriate to, or requiring, a given action, one should act and not deprive others of a place to do so. But my paraphrase, had it been uttered by any member of the Council, would have been heard as a personal opinion rather than as a principled political injunction. This was clearly a case where a contextually unfamiliar use of words provided meaning and helped resolve a dilemma about whether action was possible.

This action taken by the Council so heartened its members, that they set about congratulating each other on their unwonted ability to act and actually thanked Mr. Pitkin for his work.

But, here again, the tendency to resorb was at work. Councillor Reeves apologized for his outburst -- members of deliberative bodies do have to get along with one another. The City Council heard the objections to its performing the function of a Planning Board -- the Council has other work to do and would have to meet too frequently. No Councillor questioned those Councillors who wished to turn over the special permitting process for large projects to an 'apolitical' body like the Planning Board which, in its turn, objects to making 'political' decisions. Nobody was so impolite as to hoot at the suggestion that decisions about what might be built in a city (polis) are anything other than a political actions. No one so lacked civility that they asked, "If decisions on what may or may not be built in a city must be made by a 'nonpolitical' body (appointed by the City Manager), then what do you mean by political? ward-healing? collecting favors? influence peddling? protecting family interests?"

We wait with bated breath to see whether the Planning Board can move from esthetic discussions of "sympathetic ground-level retail-like window patterns" to questions of why design a project that cannot attract enough needed retail stores to serve the needs of the neighborhood so that the area of the project will be alive after the wage-earners walk, drive, or are chauffeured back to their barracks. How do we get a project to offer more to the life of the city, if less to its purse? Let us wait and see if the Planning Board decides that it can deny, rather than grant, some Special Permit because it has no way of knowing what is, for our City of Cambridge, the desirable private automobile traffic load (the number allowed by the number of individual parking spaces, or the permissible number of intersections rated "F" for gridlock?), or because deciding this would be a decision for a city, for its future -- a political decision.

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