Words Matter

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton, J. A. 2010. “Words we choose to express our views.” Iowa City Press-Citizen (February 10): 11A.

A lot is at stake in our how we choose to express our views.

We might want to believe that our words have a single literal meaning that any intelligent person can grasp. Nothing could be further from the truth. The meaning of our words resides not just in our intentions or the written texts themselves but also in the readers’ diverse life experiences, interests, and contexts of reading.

Moreover, the words we use to describe events and characterize other people can have an enormous emotional effect on readers, whether intended or not. And this emotional impact can shape our willingness to engage with one another as fellow citizens, both now and in the future.

What does this imply for public controversies such as ones relating to the “southeast side”? Assoc. Prof. Vershawn Young and I have, with the assistance of Jeff Charis Carlson, sought to explore the implications by organizing a three-part public seminar series titled “Media, Space and Race.” We created a blog on the Press-Citizen’s web site, announced the series through press releases and on a University web site, and held a very well-attended opening event in the Old Capitol Mall this past Wednesday.

In response to our initial blog posts, commentators posted many reasonable questions on line, including: (1) Why not hold this series in the southeast side rather than downtown? (2) Are the organizers working with neighborhood associations? (3) Will the organizers be studying the real thing or just a representation of the southeast side?

We chose Old Capitol Mall primarily because the events in the southeast side, and public commentary about them, are affecting people throughout the Iowa City area and because the Mall is so accessible from any part of the city. That said, after talking with some neighborhood leaders, we have shifted the April 7 event to Grant Wood Elementary.

Rather than ask questions for clarification, however, some commentators have assumed a meaning, become angry in response to the assumed meaning, and then attacked those of us who organized the series. For example, we used the term “neighborhood imaginaries” for the second seminar. One reader immediately interpreted this to mean we were claiming that southeast side residents had imagined the events of the past summer. Subsequent readers immediately became enraged that we would treat their experiences so dismissively.

By “neighborhood imaginaries” we do not mean that there is not a real area out there, or that people have not experienced real events which have scared, angered, or harmed them. Rather we mean that the diverse readers of the Press-Citizen carry diverse images in their minds about where the “southeast side” is and how things are going there. As has been amply demonstrated in recent news stories and guest opinions about the school redistricting process, these “neighborhood imaginaries” are in turn influencing action throughout the Iowa City area. This topic will be a key part of the second seminar on March 3.

Other commentators simply condemned us, claiming that one of us “sees racism in nearly everything he encounters,” that another of us is a “holier-than-thou leftist,” that we are saying people are “lying about, overreacting to, or exaggerating the problems,” that we were ignoring the facts of crime and trying “ to reconstruct our reality for us,” and so on.

Many of these comments reveal as much about the respondents as they do about the seminar series. That’s okay, for contentious debate about public issues is not just about facts but also about values and interpretation.

We had already planned to address some of these topics. On March 3, for example, one of our panelists will analyze a map showing where certain felonies have occurred in the Iowa City area over the past few years. And on April 7 two residents will tell their stories about coming into and living in the southeast side.

Our words reveal what we value and what kind of community we want to inhabit. In this kind of situation, problems cannot be well defined or solved unless authors and readers try to understand one another and are willing to negotiate a meaning that makes sense to both.

Words matter.

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