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What Are Words For?

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” – Mark Twain

When Editor Lisa Ellison and I first talked about starting the “underground” paper that’s become the Greenville Guardian, we had clear ideas about what we wanted it to be.

Lisa, trained in the Classics and with a master’s in Latin and an editorial assistantship in the scholarly press to her credit, wanted terrific writing on local issues, events and culture. Maybe the occasional piece of fiction. And lots of essays.

I, having spent more time working in journalism than “learning” about it in classrooms during a truncated college career, and having since led newsrooms myself, believed the Guardian had also to be – and that Greenville needed – a watchdog.

Both visions now guide the Guardian. Lisa commissions, seeks out and publishes pithy content from across the topical map, always with an eye on Greenville’s (and more broadly, North Carolina’s) past, present and future. That means illuminating, for better and worse, the lives of those who have led us here and would lead us there.

Last week’s piece by Amanda Ann Klein, looking at the legacy of North Carolina Governor Charles B. Aycock, is a perfect example. In analyzing the ECU Board of Trustees’ decision to remove Aycock’s name from a residence hall after student protests over the late Governor’s anything-but-subtle support of segregation, Klein concluded Aycock was a racist – and something else. You can find out what, in context, here.

Take a look. (I’ll meet you back here, below the graphic.)

IMHO long

Pretty visceral, huh?

So I wasn’t too surprised when a reader contacted me, saying she fully agreed with the trustees’ decision and was enjoying the article – until “that” part.

“You state that you print civil discourse. Foul language is not a part of that,” she wrote, also citing as “obscene” wording from a “Pirate Rant” in the East Carolinian, which Klein included in making her broader point (about political correctness).

Before continuing, a few notes: First, I had zero involvement with – in fact, was completely unaware of – Lisa’s decision to seek republication permission for Klein’s piece. Second, neither in deciding to write this column nor in the course of doing so have I talked to Klein or Ellison; what’s shared is my thinking about what might have motivated their work. In other words, I’m not reporting on this, I’m opining, in the context – as one who was present at its proverbial creation – of what I think the Guardian is trying to be, and why. Finally, I’m not defending, attacking, or condoning anything here. Just “writing aloud.”

Okay. Onward.

As I read Klein’s piece I was not especially surprised by her choice of words, although I probably wouldn’t have used them in the same construction.

But that’s just me.

Here’s some more “just me:” White males in this society have never – ever – experienced being judged, on sight, by people we’ve never met. Okay, maybe the more oppressive or arrogant or egotistical of us can be spotted on sight by any woman (and most men) at fifty yards (and deservedly so). But I’m talking about prejudice.

Our society not only tolerates but encourages the judging of women every day – indeed, every moment – based purely on appearance. And that’s just in social situations. In the workplace, in economic matters, in scholarship, and in a whole host of other areas, it’s simply about gender. She’s a woman. Boom. That must mean this, this and that.

Wow.

Now, let’s think about being black. For starters, we should be ashamed that thinking about (let alone debating the reality of) white privilege and the systemic racism it perpetuates in our society is even necessary – because it’s not debatable. It simply is. All a black man or woman needs do to be instantly at a disadvantage is walk into any setting where white people (particularly white men) make the decisions. It has been that way in this country since its founding, it still is, and (shamefully) it will likely remain so for years.

And years.

And years.

Try staring down the throat of that when you climb out of bed. Every. Single. Day.

Since I haven’t talked to her about it (matter of fact, I have yet to meet her), I can’t know what motivated Klein’s decision to use that four-letter word. But then again, yeah… I can. And whether something like what I just described was behind her choice of that visceral descriptor or it’s only me reading it that way, it’s okay. With me.

Just me.

What about you?

The clearest agreement between Lisa and me during the Guardian’s founding was that whatever was published, each writer’s unique voice had to come through, because we believe a writer’s voice is a product of their experience. We’ve never aspired to be a “newspaper” in the old, inverted pyramid, tell-“both”-sides (but-don’t-sweat-the-third-fourth-and-fifth-sides) idea of reporting, let alone that model’s “you can’t say that” approach to opining. Here, you can say whatever you believe helps make your point.

But there’s a caveat.

As my correspondence with the objecting reader continued, I noted it: Unlike “Pirate Rants,” unlike the Daily Reflector’s “Bless Your Heart” and its online commenting – unlike pretty much everywhere else on the Internet, in fact, the Guardian requires not only contributors but commenters to own what they have to say. There’s no anonymity here – and therefore, no limits on expression.

I encouraged the reader, who noted that she likes reading the Guardian to get differing points of view, to share her own thoughts about Klein’s piece in the comments.

“My issue is not with the author’s opinion, nor her poor choice of words in the article,” she wrote back. “My issue is with your lack of editorial restraint in allowing foul language in a forum for civil discourse.”

Fair enough. But that issue, expressed in the piece’s comments, might lead to broader discussion – and, just maybe, broader understanding. Maybe even acceptance (grudging or otherwise). Maybe not. And almost certainly, no change in editorial policy.

But even if understanding is as far as it goes – among the fledgling community of writers and readers being created here bit by bit, day by day – that’s saying something.

And in the end, that may be the best description of what the Guardian aspires to become: a place on the Internet where civil discourse is not just saying what one means, but owning what one says.

If it works, this will be a unique place indeed.

Anthony Noel is an award-winning editor and journalist. His column appears monthly.

Responses (2)

  1. Don Clement says:

    Maybe it says a lot about me, but I was not bothered by Ms Klein’s use of the good old Anglo-Saxism for excrement. (Note the false fastidiousness implied by my using “excrement.”) By now we know that George Carlin (the younger) was wrong–there are no words you can’t hear on TV. Frankly I find that being bombarded by a steady stream of earthy language becomes tiresome. Any wordsmith knows that making the right word stand out is a key to effective speech and writing (e.g., see Twain’s quote at the top of the column). A slurry of profanity has no focus. You just want to get out of its way. But as I was reading Ms Klein’s rather sedate summary, the conclusive “racist piece of shit” certainly grabbed my attention. Say what you will about Aycock’s accomplishments, in matters of race, no matter how erudite his words, no matter how sincere his rectitude, no matter how racially “advanced” he was compared to others, he was despicable. (Hmm, somehow my phrase doesn’t hit home quite as hard as Klein’s.)

  2. Ed Griffith says:

    Granted that excessive obscenities can diminish writing effectiveness. Beyond that, however, there should be no restraints.

    What our government of both parties has done in relation to civil rights, war, and climate change is a far, far greater obscenity than any word or group of words. Calmly and patiently bringing the painful facts to everyone’s attention over of period of decades has not worked. We tried civil discourse. It did not work and we are not going back there again.

    John F. Kennedy said, “If you make peaceful revolution impossible you make violent revolution inevitable.” We may be headed for much greater concerns than the “foul language” one reader complained about.

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