Fell’s Point is sunny and warm this morning. Water taxis are running, people are jogging, shop and pub and restaurant doors stand open, and the ducks….Oh dear: so much flapping and quacking and fighting: these goings-on are hardly fit for print. So many drakes, so few susies. But the species goes on.
And this city? How does it go on? A dozen blocks away, that same sun glints off an assault weapon, a helmet, and protective gear.
Yes, here on the harbor we can pay attention to the beautiful day and to the ducks, but I cannot be committed to posting observations about our year in Baltimore and fail to address the turmoil that characterizes this city at present. In our relatively safe neighborhood, the flapping and quacking of human tongues, including mine, as we absorb the constant news, turns my attention to the loaded weight of words. “Don’t take anything for granted,” my grandmother told me. That is especially true, and especially in tumultuous situations, of the way we use language.
Language, the way a word twists around between speaker and receiver, is the mover and the beginning of solutions in the Baltimore troubles. The inciting incident was the evident abuse by policemen that caused Freddy Gray’s death. But one incident unveils multiple issues of the city’s attention to recruitment and training of policemen, of attention to depressed, overlooked neighborhoods; to jobs; to education; to kindness. And language is the tool of commitment, the tool of union, the inciting force for change. Yet it can, when different groups understand words differently, form a blockade to progress.
Language can soothe or hurt, and often, because of our various histories and experiences, we ascribe different meanings and connotations to words. “Thugs” is a word I am ashamed of having used to describe looters and car burners and window smashers. I think of a “thug” as a rough person, likely to misbehave, especially with rough treatment of others and by committing petty crimes; as one looking to cause trouble or break the law. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines the word as “a violent person.” Its history, from the Sanskrit is “swindler, thief” from “he who covers or conceals.”
I think these definitions, and my own understanding, speak to personal characteristics and are different from “acting” or “reacting” like a thug. No matter what history the people who destroy stores and steal merchandise and burn automobiles come from, they are reacting to a bad situation in a criminal way. I’ve been reminded that destruction of property has always been a part of reform as a last resort. It certainly forces attention and achieves the desired result of gaining a much wider audience for much wider issues. Are the perpetrators “thugs”? Maybe not, but the looters acted like thugs and I have my doubts about their political motives when they stole millions of dollars of inventory from a shopping mall and a drug store which had been serving their needs. So, shall I stand by my characterization? A discussion on NPR has made me understand that the answer is “No.” In the culture of Freddy Gray’s neighbors, the word is highly offensive.
Even if I view such behavior as exploitation of an event rather than a political statement, I know that in order for diverse people with diverse agendas to come together for the betterment of conditions, I must, and all must, measure the effects of words. Above all, I must say again and again words like “human being,” “mother,” “father,” “child,” “compassion,” and “love.” Language is the symphony that plays the complex motifs and themes of our lives, and I vow to listen first and listen better and then seek to speak a note that can be heard.