#141—-On Responding to Ferguson—-Sunday, November 30th, 2014
“For myself, I am never satisfied that I have handled a subject properly till I have contradicted myself at least three times.”
—-John Ruskin’s “Inaugural Address”, delivered at the Cambridge School of Art, 1858
This morning, I take a break from emulating Samuel Johnson’s The Rambler, and I turn my attention to perhaps his most enduring work, A Dictionary of the English Language. Just as Johnson had constructed each Rambler essay with the intent to inculcate morality in the masses, he began work on the Dictionary in an attempt to rid England of its poor linguistic habits and immortalize the English tongue once and for all. He grew tired of listening to people debate slang and proper terminology; he wanted the British to take a great deal more pride in their language and in their famous writers who had made much of so many words. The majority of his definitions are accompanied by famous literary passages, showing the word in context, in homage to the likes of Shakespeare, Donne, Bacon, and Swift. He felt an obligation to quote the masters of the language to add validity and authority to his definitions and the project’s credibility in general.
In the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death, I feel a similar obligation to call our nation’s attention to one word: dialogue. Now, again, I do not put myself on par with Johnson, and I know that the distribution of these pieces is certainly nowhere comparable to the distribution of Johnson’s essays; I cannot reach such an audience. But I know that a few of you do read, and I know that a few of you are incredibly thoughtful and critical readers; you are the ones who might consider taking a part of this piece, at least in its essence, and perhaps sharing it with a member or two of your respective communities. Think about what that might look like.
I’d like us to consider how we engage one another as me move forward in our “discussions” on Ferguson—-a definition for all of your consideration:
Dialogue: an exchange of ideas or opinions on a particular issue, especially a political or religious issue, with a view to reaching an amicable agreement or settlement.
Call me naïve, and I know a few of you will, but I place a great deal of emphasis on the latter part of this definition. If we considered dialogue to be one-sided, hateful, negative, solipsistic, biased, stubborn, or exclusive, then we might as well redefine the term as “See: Useless.”
In the days to come, when we choose to write or speak in response to Ferguson (and please, please, please continue to do so because a great many voices are finally already being heard), let us consider the definition above. Let us ask ourselves what we are hoping to accomplish by playing one card or the other (and unfortunately, right now I do only see two cards on the table). Because personally, I would really like to accomplish something here. I trust that most people do. I have faith that the majority of people who are writing and taking to their respective social media outlets aggressively and assertively are on some sort of mission, so why not define what that mission is and leave room for others to either challenge or bolster that mission? My guess is that the majority of people posting their opinions share something integral in common: they do not want to see an event like this happen again. So how do we get there? Where do we go from here? Let’s start by considering what it means to converse with one another, and let’s leave room for the timid and meek voice inside of many of us that wants to simply say, “Actually, I am not so sure I know exactly what happened or why it happened.”
Unfortunately, this is not the last time something like this will happen in our nation, and it’s certainly not the last time we will be tempted to interact in a mostly polarized and ineffective manner online. But consider this: if we want to use the term progress eventually, let us start by using the term dialogue correctly.