Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Hanging from a Hollow Tree

This week is record-breaking in its intensity of racism. It's time to talk about the Jena Six. The assumption for this article is that if you are a regular reader of General, Your Tank is a Powerful Vehicle, you are probably already familiar with the Jena Six, and possibly organizing to support them. If this assumption is not apt, brush up on Jim Crow-era court behavior here.

What concerns me in this article is the recent homogeneity that has appeared in the reaction to activism surrounding the Jena Six. The counterargument to the idea that the Jena Six should be acquitted in self-defense runs as follows: the children who hung the nooses from the "White Tree" to scare off black students (remember, their only crime at this point was to attempt to sit under this tree) "were just playing." It is understandable to doubt that people would actually make this argument, so I provide evidence here and here.

A lot of things could be said at this point. The activist would claim that racism and threats of lynching are not "joking." And she'd be correct. The polemicist would claim that the movement for the freedom of the Jena Six should be blasting the bigots brazen enough to say these things, and he'd be correct, as well.

But this author is a linguist, and so will take those arguments as given, and present a bit of a diversion to point out that there is, theoretically, no such thing as "joking" here. Christopher Potts, a linguist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, has done a lot of work in recent years on "expressives" the class of linguistic items that contains racial epithets. He argues in his work that "expressives do not so much offer content, as inflict it [emphasis mine --MT]." This means that epithets are not simply words that can be used willy-nilly, but instead have more in common with speech acts.

One defining characteristic about a speech act (and particularly the class of items known as expressives) is that it is immediate, which is to say that, once uttered/completed, its impact is immediate, and there is no going back. Potts illustrates this in his paper "The Expressive Dimension" (available here, though it will be hard-going for the non-linguist once Potts deploys his theoretical machinery) with an ingenious anecdote: a newly-instated superintendent at a mixed-race school district nearly loses his job after saying, in the opening of a speech: "To me, niggers come in all colors. To me, a nigger is someone who doesn't respect himself or others."

Potts notes that the superintendent's intentions were pure, and the then asks the question: why was he unable to redefine the meaning of the epithet, as he was trying to do? Here we begin to mix issues for Potts, but the answer is that once he had said the word, the damage was already done. Potts goes on to show, formally, how this notion can and should be captured in theories of natural language semantics/pragmatics.

The point of all this? It's impossible to joke about lynching, as the rebuttals claim. The very act of hanging nooses from the White Tree inflicts its content in the same way that giving the middle finger makes an American driver instantaneously angry, even if meant lovingly. A joke, by nature, needs to have ironic or humorous content associated with it, but it is that very association which is blocked in the immediacy of displaying a noose in a part of the south where memories of KKK lynchings run thick.

And while that was a long digression, let me say this in conclusion to apologists for white-noose-hangers: your argument is a nonstarter, and I just proved it with science.