Words We Mean By

A year ago I led an undergraduate viewing of the 2015 film, The Central Park Five. The movie chronicles how the New York City law and order establishment wrongfully imprisoned a quintet of black youth for the sexual assault of a white woman in 1989.

In a way, it’s a misnomer to call the movie a documentary. Director Sarah Burns could have stopped at reporting the arrest, legal proceedings, and exoneration. That alone would have been worth a look. Instead she excavates late 20th century New York City as a volatile ecosystem stressed by shifting economic, gender, and racial dynamics. We learn that the city never sleeps because it’s a political Pangaea; the Central Park jogger incident, but one noteworthy eruption. Yes, we should be disturbed by the botched case, but the film prohibits the viewer from future surprise at un-due processes.

As the room filled with unstill silence, I was taken aback by the discussion that ensued. We had watched the movie against the backdrop of the provocatively titled “Black Lives Matter” movement. A month prior our campus held a controversial, multi-disciplinary teach-in on the complexities of race. Even still, we were all working through the grief of shed assumptions.

Who would let this happen?” and “Why didn’t anyone do something?” gave way to deeper reflection. Students shared about the frequency with which they’ve remained silent while watching their peers’ offenses. The questions didn’t change, but the audience allowed the implications to resonate. Why would I let this happen? Why would I not do something? The teach-in and the film exposed how systems work. We weren’t simply talking about micro-aggressions. Before us was a measured racism wherein justice was not an absolute virtue but a calculation of concern.

However, students admitted that they were no more likely to intervene in local prejudicial events than before the film viewing. Words can’t really change people’s mind. Despite Burns’ comprehensive discussion of PR spin and legal pronouncements, they had cast their lot with customs and institutions.

Their fatalist candor stunned me. Clearly the students weren’t looking to me for justification. Yet I knew they had something to say. They wanted it heard. I’ve wrestled with their conceit for a year. Only now am I coming to terms with what irked me.

In them I was seeing my own anxieties regarding what matters. My introductory religious studies students refer to discourse as expression with effect. And while faith, skepticism, and force can help shed light on who is effective and affected, I’m getting curious about what sort of expressions get deemed compelling.

Simply put, what makes for a trump card anymore? I’ve got no profound answers at the moment. But I do have three observations from my teaching post that I had once missed. I wonder if you’ve seen these in your own settings.

  1. Facts and Opinions = Proof and Argument.

When I think rationally, I presuppose that the most worthwhile assertions are the ones proven by evidence. To gain my allegiance, an interlocutors’ comment need to show me how they’ve substantiated their point. Critical thinking approaches logic as cognitive motion.

More and more, students seem less inclined to share this perspective. Instead of a process where one proves an argument, they distinguish between a canon of fixed ideas grandfathered from dispute (aka “facts”) and statements of belief (aka “opinions”).

You may be wondering, “what’s the difference?” Philosopher Justin B. McBrayer argues that the idea of facts is all too broad.

Sometimes facts can be proofs. Here you might think of the term’s Latin root, facere, in its reference to making. Facts are what help you make the argument.

But fact also signifies understandings that are a foregone conclusion (sometimes referred to as truth). Here we might think of that other translation of facere in regard to doing. Facts are a done deal.

McBrayer asks what do you do when your done-deal fact gets disproven? Do you operate thinking the world is flat or do you round out your thinking? Increasingly, our educational system encourages students to punt because of well-meaning, haphazard sentiments like…

  1. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. = Everyone’s opinion is valid.

Thanks to Descartes and other modern philosopher, it’s fashionable to elide one’s thoughts with the thinker to the point that they are indistinguishable. So if “I think, therefore, I am” and you say that what I think is wrong, does that make me stupid, less than, unworthy, etc.?

Rather than embracing the realities of social, psychological, and intellectual reinvention, we’ve doubled down on the stable self. To critique another’s thoughts is to risk disrupting that illusion. Instead, we strike a truce in which critique is justified in proportion to communal distance. It’s open season on those we don’t like, but we love some people too much to call them out. This can lead to curated social networks where…

  1. The facts and opinions heard most = The most valid facts and opinions.

Even our wildest imaginations are built upon what we’ve seen. “All the news fit to print” might forebode endless possibilities for a hypertextual community. But the task (and authority) of editing becomes a popular act. Folk users star, like, heart, thumbs up, retweet, share, smiley face, and signal boost what should be read. Algorithms and human limitation collude to bury disinterest and dissent.

Media critics call this the “echo chamber” effect, but its visual implications are equally potent.

Status Update
Listen to the four-minute prologue on how beauty’s registered on Instagram.

I’m still thinking about what to make of these observations. I can say that expression is still in full effect. Words can matter. Our fancy mediums need not distract us from their politics and facades. Nor should silence register passivity. Coming up at Sowing the Seed, our contributors look at the words we mean by –because there’s got to be more to this “stuff.”


Richard-Newton PictureRichard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @seedpods.

2 thoughts on “Words We Mean By

  1. I’m so curious about our relationship to “truth” in this new age as well. As a qualitative researcher who encourages students to respect truth within individual perspective and narrative, I sometimes wonder if I am contributing to problems of “truthiness.” I find I have an ethical and moral responsibility to teach students how to live within the tension between objective and subjective truth. We can’t solve problems and collaborate if we can’t agree on any standard of truth. But we also dehumanize each other if we only ascribe to distanced truth and never take the time to listen to other human experiences. We have to solve this problem of truth, because it is impeding progress on solving so many of our most pressing problems. I’m curious how others wrestle with these issues?

  2. I think the postmodern notion of relative truth gets a bad rap. Much of this is just bad PR. But there’s also the cutting implications of the tensions you’ve named. From a history of ideas standpoint, objective truth lays claim to the very means of assessment. It’s that move to have the last word on a matter. We know this to be rife with a number of issues, not least of which include historical instances of objective truths changing, objective truths betraying the observers’ attention and intentions, and objective truths getting reclassified as subjective truths. But when people give up the notion of knowing objectively and needing to universally agree (i.e. enforce their own worldviews at the fullest level, then there’s opportunity to honestly probe the world’s problems. For me, the starting place is the possibility that even with our best intentions, we are likely contributing to someone else’s perceived problems. From there I can genuinely ask questions like, “Am I alright with that?”, “Do I care to do anything about it?”, “how?” and “why?”.
    …In full disclosure, there are times when I’m completely comfortable advancing my truth at the expense of someone else’s. I think it’s always worthwhile understanding the landscape of truth-claims.But those things need not be mutually exclusive.

Join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s