Think First, Talk Second
by Stephen Cox | Posted May 09, 2012
On April 10, I published in this journal an anguished protest against indiscriminate use of the word “legendary.” The occasion was the lavish application of this term to the dead television personality Mike Wallace. If I had been more assiduous in research, I would have brought up the other 235,000,000 uses of that word, as currently indexed by Google. Few of them, I think, are related to Beowulf or The Golden Legend.
The reward for my strictures on “legendary” was a mailbox full of plaudits — all the libertarian equivalents of “right on, brutha man!” — and execrations. From the latter I learned that I was petty, hypercritical, and without respect for the dead.
My response to both parties is this: “Well, somebody’s got to do it.” But I want to salute everyone who’s willing to debate questions of language. If there were more people like my boosters and detractors, the English language might be saved. Salvation comes not from indifference but from vigorous and candid reflection.
One kind of comment puzzled me. It came from a friend I ran into on the street. This person said, “I liked your comments, but I kept wondering, what words would you use instead of ‘legendary’? I mean, there must be some reason why people keep choosing that word.”
My answer is that people keep choosing that word because they hear other people using it; in other words, because they’re too lazy to think for themselves.
But if you want a list of alternative terms (“what would you use instead?”), no problem: you can generate a list of your own in about 30 seconds — which is about how long it took me to come up with the list below. The terms proceed in rough order from the nicest ones to the ones you never expect to see in an obit, for Mike Wallace or any other media darling:
- Nationally recognized
- Well known
- Once famous
- Now forgotten
(Note the difference between “famous” and “infamous.”)
So, here’s a case in which a minimum of reflection can yield significant results. Most language problems are like that. But let’s proceed to another case — quite different — that exemplifies the same idea, by highlighting the lack of reflection.
Whenever you force yourself to read what politicians or public officeholders say, you naturally ask yourself, “What the hell was he thinking?” The answer is usually: “Nothing.” In support of that assertion, I could cite such astonishing recent instances as that of Al Armendariz, who was, until his resignation on April 30, a regional head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Why did this little warlord leave his perch? Well, a video from 2010 had surfaced, in which a grinning Armendariz lectured a friendly audience about the strategy he used to persecute business people. He indicated that he believed in acting as the Romans allegedly did in “Turkey,” as he called it: when they moved in, they grabbed a bunch of people and crucified them, after which the place was easier to govern.
So when Almendariz laughed about being brutally unjust and cruel, he was also lying — right?
It’s hard to think of a more revolting thing to say. And it’s interesting to note that Big Al was a college professor, so he can’t claim total ignorance of words and meanings. But as if his speech weren’t bad enough, when his sickening remarks — and the even more sickening attitude that accompanied them — were finally revealed, and when he finally resigned, he said, “I regret comments I made several years ago that do not in any way reflect my work as regional administrator." So when he laughed about being brutally unjust and cruel, he was also lying — right?
So much for the self-crucified Al Armendariz. But my main target isn’t the circus of stupidity he was running. It’s the steady, unobtrusive seepage of bland amorality from public officeholders into American public discourse. All without a moment of reflection — as the following case will illustrate.
On the morning of April 2, a fat 43-year-old man with the wonderfully Joycean name of One Goh walked into the offices of tiny (100 students) Oikos University, located in an industrial park near the Oakland, California airport. Goh’s original name appears to have been Su Nam Ko, but sometime after coming to the United States from his native Korea, he changed it, thinking it too girlish. This was one sign that there might be something wrong with One Goh. There were others. He was paranoid and obnoxious; he had welshed on a variety of debts; and at the moment he was intending to kill a school official against whom he had been nursing a grievance. (All right, he was allegedly intending. Please remember that everything I say about Goh is a mere allegation; it has never been proven in court.)
Arriving at Oikos University, and discovering that the official was not in her office, Goh decided to kill other people instead. He went into a classroom, told the students to line up, and shot 10 of them. Seven of them died. Then he went out to the parking lot, stole the car of one of his victims, and fled to a shopping mall, where he surrendered to police.
That is the sad, repulsive story of One Goh. Now let’s see what the head of local law enforcement, Chief of Police Howard Jordan, had to say about it, in interviews on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and other venues.
Jordan said that the police had “learned” a lot: "We've learned that this was a very chaotic, calculated and determined gentleman that came there with a very specific intent to kill people, and that's what his motive was and that's what he carried out."
Well. How interesting. Goh, a man who burst into a classroom and proceeded to shoot 10 people at random, was a gentleman. I wish that Jordan were the only “law enforcement official” who used this term. Prison guards routinely use it for the convicts they’re processing into their domains. “All right, gentlemen, you will now remove your clothing . . .” And no, that isn’t just sarcasm. The next time you hear a cop giving the news-conference version of an arrest, see if he or she doesn’t refer to the alleged suspect as the gentleman that allegedly fired the fatal shot. In the amoral vision of the well-trained public official, even being a mass murderer doesn’t make you a bad person. You’re still a gentleman like everybody else. To put this in another way: like everybody else, you’re just a vat full of chemicals that sometimes erupts. It’s not really your fault.
That’s bad enough. But I’m sure you’ve noticed some peculiarities about Mr. Jordan’s expert psychological analysis. Did you mark that weird movement from chaotic to calculated to determined? Of course, this makes no sense. A calculated action may be wicked, but it can hardly be chaotic. So the Chief’s account of events is no different from other expert analyses; it’s a piece of junk. Observe, however, where the sequence ends. It ends in determined. The gentleman was determined.
Like everybody else, you’re just a vat full of chemicals that sometimes erupts. It’s not really your fault.
Determined used to be a good word, a word reserved for people who had a purpose and courageously pursued it. No more. Now everybody gets an even break. Entering the ring on one side — Howard Roark! On the other side — One Goh! It’s a fair fight: these contenders are both determined.
One Goh surrendered to the cops without putting up a fight — an action that could be described in a number of ways. One would be to note that he was determined when he slaughtered a bunch of defenseless people, but not so determined when he confronted armed policemen. That would be the moral way of representing it. But another way would be simply to note that he surrendered without putting up a fight. And naturally, that’s the way Jordan put it: “We don't believe he intended on having a confrontation with police.”
Thank God for good intentions.
But why am I picking on a public official who doesn’t happen to have a gift for words? There are a number of ways of replying to that, too. One is to say that if you don’t have a gift for words, you shouldn’t volunteer to go on television. Another is to say that the chief has a gift for words — the wrong words.
He was eloquent in suggesting sympathy-provoking causes for One Goh’s crimes. Referring to Goh’s fellow students, Jordan said the following: "They disrespected him, laughed at him. They made fun of his lack of English speaking skills. It made him feel isolated compared to the other students." This explanation was presumably supplied by Goh who was said by the chief to be not especially remorseful about his crimes (oops, actions).
So this is what you do, if you’re a police chief. Curious about the motives for a mass murder, you accept the mass murderer’s account, never noticing that it blames the victims. Meanwhile, you assume that someone who is crazy enough to shoot up a classroom should not be isolated or disrespected. Odd, isn’t it? By giving such significance to the currently atrocious crime of dissing someone, you end up dissing whoever does the dissing. Gosh, isn’t that a puzzler? What should we say about that? Or about the fact that these people who supposedly made Goh feel isolated were students at a college attended almost entirely by men and women whose first language is not English, a college founded by an Asian pastor to help Asian students feel comfortable in their new environment. But so what? One Goh didn’t feel comfortable. Someone must have made him feel uncomfortable.
That’s where amorality creep always goes. It doesn’t pause before such weighty matters as the good and bad; it slithers around them. At the end, it’s hard to tell the culprits from the victims.
Now consider what Dawinder Kaur, a 19-year-old Army reservist who was shot by One Goh, had to say about the student who was absent from her nursing class for months, then suddenly turned up and started shooting. Her brother reported her remarks: "She told me that a guy went crazy and she got shot. She was running. She was crying; she was bleeding, it was wrong."
Do you have anything to add to that? I don’t. It accounts for everything — including the fact that it was wrong.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include "The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison" and "The New Testament and Literature."
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