Words can be like X-rays

by William Schuth in ,


 A word is dead when it is said
Some say –
I say it just begins to live
That day.

- Emily Dickinson

Two weeks ago Dave Cieslewicz, the former mayor of Madison, devoted his Isthmus | The Daily Page column to a call for intervention in Syria. I criticized Cieslewicz's column on Twitter for its simplistic approach to a very complex issue. My reaction was informed in part by the questions raised by David Fitzpatrick in his excellent Asphyxiation post on The Edge of the American West, a blog hosted by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Thinking along the same line as Fitzpatrick, I found Cieslewicz's anger unconvincing when placed with our collective national silence regarding the ongoing genocide in Darfur. When it comes to ignoring Darfur, all of us are to blame – everyone from President Obama, through both houses of and parties in Congress, and on down to us regular Americans. If you're a politician arguing from Cieslewicz's perspective, I don't think it is possible to remain credible without addressing why the President should send our military to intervene in Syria (or Libya) while the conflict in Darfur – 300,000 humans dead since 2003 – is allowed to continue and re-intensify. Making an argument for intervention based on moral outrage sidesteps an important national conversation which we ought to have, no matter what one thinks of that sort of twenty-first century Wilsonian interventionism.

Cieslewicz responded to my criticism a few days later with this tweet, which I took to be good-natured. The next day, however, Cieslewicz posted a more pointed rejoinder, "I am not jejune!," to his Isthmus | The Daily Page column. If the reader disregards Cieslewicz's recycling of Woody Allen Love and Death clip from his Twitter reply to me, here's the pertinent part of his column:

Given my recent public job and current blogging here, I've become used to criticism. But the other day I was called "jejune" on Twitter. It was in regard to my argument in support of air strikes on Syria, but the context is less interesting than the word.
...
Before you rush to look it up, the word means naive. Now, you could ask yourself why my critic didn’t just say that I was naive. After all, why use an obscure word when a common word will do just as well? The answer, I think, is that he wanted me and everyone on Twitter to know that he knew the word jejune.

And, you know what, I thank him for it.

The way I see it, there are three ways one can respond to criticism from below:

  • ignore it
  • graciously acknowledge it and invite further dialogue with a thoughtful defense
  • dodge the issue and use one's asymmetrical media resources to cast aspersions on the motives or character of the source of the criticism while expressing one's backhanded gratitude

Cieslewicz interpreted my criticism of the quality of his argument as an elitist, pejorative attack on himself. I know that American politics has degenerated to a level where personal attacks are regular tactics, and that our discourse has been corrupted to equate criticism of ideas with belittlement of individuals. I'm disappointed that Cieslewicz assumed that was my intent. I certainly don't think, as Cieslewicz suggests, that he is naive. Neither of my tweets (the first is linked to above, the second is here) attacked Cieslewicz as a person, though they were clearly contemptuous of his easy argument.

Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly — they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.
— Aldous Huxley

I am a graduate student. One of the things you do in graduate school is learn to dissect arguments, assess their overall quality, and comment on their weaknesses. This can be done rather mercilessly in some seminars, particularly with books no one in the room seems to like. It can also be done with great care, particularly when a soft-spoken colleague is articulating a position you might find imprecise. Part of the process of graduate school is learning how to modulate one's criticism while remaining true to one's own position.

If I were debating Cieslewicz on Syria in person, would I have used "jejune" to describe his argument? Yes, and I hope with a tone that would convey I thought this of his ideas, and not of him as a person.

Isn't "jejune" a strong – perhaps even scathing – word to use to describe an opponent's position? I suppose it is.

Then again, I've been to war, and any remotely influential politician who makes an unsubstantial or simplistic argument for using military force strikes me as a bit dangerous and meriting an unambiguous challenge. Every word conveys its own particular meaning, and sometimes "jejune" is the right word for the job.