What Can Words Do?

CNS photo/Erik Lesser, EPA
CNS photo/Erik Lesser, EPA

Editor’s note: This post was first published at America (TJP’s publisher). Paddy Gilger, S.J., a founding editor at TJP and currently America’s contributing editor for culture and Matt Spotts, S.J., a contributor here at TJP, found themselves asking what good writing and thinking—on the web, on social media, or anywhere else—does in the wake of the kind of violence experienced in Dallas, in Baton Rouge and in Minnesota over the last few days. They adapted their conversation into this post.

What good are thinkers in an age of terror? What good is thought?

I woke up to a thunderstorm last night. It was somewhere near two in the morning and, after wandering the house closing windows against the rain but before getting back into bed, I glanced at my phone. Between the text messages and a missed phone call was a notification that read: “Ambush in Dallas, Police Officers Dead.” And I thought about Alton Sterling. I thought about the police officers I know and admire. I thought about Philando Castile. The air felt heavy. The terrible, terrible videos of their deaths played again, unbidden, in my brain. I tried to go back to sleep. The rain fell.

It was quiet in the early morning when I got up for good, cool as I drove into town to get the morning paper. Most of the clouds were gone from the pale, copper-blue sky. I thought about the police officers as I drove. How did they die? Why did it happen? Who did it? Good Lord, please don’t let this be an act of retribution. Please don’t… please don’t let it be real.

I thought about gunshots as I turned into the parking lot of the Pick N’ Save, as I picked out doughnuts for the other Jesuits at our house, as I pulled the Times and the Wall Street Journal from their racks, as I didn’t talk about Black Lives Matter or the killing of police officers with the cashier, as I slumped back into our old, blue Toyota Corolla and drove home.

—Paddy

***

Post or not post? And if I post, what do I say?

As an incredibly privileged white man trying to figure out what to say about the gut-wrenchingly videoed killing of two more black men by police officers I was caught between two good–and mutually incompatible–impulses. White people (including myself, quick as I am to use social media to make meaning out of chaos) have too often spoken when it’s our turn to listen.

When I do this, when I implicitly or explicitly say “it’s not my experience, but….” I can clutter discussions rather than making room for the voices of those most affected. And yet, falling silent reminds me of some of the moments I’m least proud of in my life, when I should have spoken up, times when a friend needed to know where I stood and I was nowhere to be found. So, do I quiet my own voice in order to amplify the voices of my friends, my colleagues, my students? Or do I speak up, to let them know that no matter how little my voice matters, I’m with them? But more importantly, how do I avoid making this tension all about me? How do I put both my listening and my speaking up at the service of people I care about whose voices too often get ignored?

Yet even framing the question that way unveils the privilege of experiencing this differently—optionally—as a white man than the way many people in my life do. To put it bluntly, my heartbreak, outrage, and concern are all second-hand. When my heart gets ripped apart watching those excruciating videos of violent deaths at the hands of police officers, my worries aren’t for my dad, my brother, my future nephews. I’m not watching that thinking, “That could be me.” I’m still afraid, angry, heartbroken, but it’s because I’m worried about my friends, my students, my athletes, my colleagues. And there’s a world of difference between “that could be me” and what I, as a white man, actually experience.

On Tuesday, I’ll travel to Dallas to spend time with my college roommate for the first time in years. The timing is significant. I’m sure we’ll spend most of our time doing what old friends do, telling old stories and catching up on life. I’ll meet his wife for the first time. And yet, there’s an unexpected shadow. My friend, my old roommate, is a black man living in a city where a peaceful protest was interrupted by the murder of police by a sniper, and he lives much closer to these realities, in all dimensions. Two old friends catching up, two very different experiences of the week previous.

And so I circle back to the problem: what do my words do? Do they help? Do they matter? Or do they just pile on, or worse, pull attention away from where it belongs?

—Matt

***

I feel like I’m supposed to know what to do, what to say, in times like this. Don’t people turn to priests for that kind of thing? Or didn’t they, at least? So I did what I do to live up to that hope-expectation-nostalgia: I started reading.

I read the article from Michael Brown’s mom, and I read Dallas’s Bishop Farrell’s words calling for an end to gun violence. I read President Obama’s words from Poland, and I read what my friends were saying on Facebook. I read the Gospel of the day, and I read the words of the second Eucharistic prayer for reconciliation. I read a friend of a friend’s story about what it’s like to be shot at, and I reread a friend’s story about the experience gap between white and black America. I read and read and read.

Usually this helps. Usually it helps makes sense of things, helps me get a grip on what has happened and why. Usually this helps me piece a shattered world together again, to recalibrate my heart. But this time I’m not so sure.

How does my recalibration of the world help anything, anybody other than my own anxiety? How many bullets do these words stop?

Have we reached a point so dark that the light of reason can brighten it no longer?

—Paddy

***

I’m a teacher. I’m a writer. I’m a thinker. And usually that feels good. Usually that helps. I don’t always see the world changing in front of me, but it’s usually not very hard to trust that what I do matters. When I see a student get it, I trust that that will change the world. When I tease out an idea, I trust that it matters.

This feels different. I found myself remembering what I told my students (seniors, so smart, so hopeful and talented) at the beginning of our class last fall: all the logic in the world doesn’t matter if people aren’t willing to be persuaded. Even before the most recent shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, I wondered if America’s questions about the use of police force had passed the point where thinking and writing even mattered. The statistics are clear: people of color generally and black men particularly are vastly more likely to be killed by police. In the last few years, these statistics have been supplemented by a chillingly regular stream of videoed killings. Eloquent voices have told their stories, and incisive thinkers have named systemic problems time and again.

There’s a difference between not knowing and not wanting to know. The former can be corrected, but I just don’t think that’s what we’re experiencing here. How many excruciating videos of dying people do we need to see? How many more statistics about police violence against black Americans do we need? How many more impassioned editorials?

Smart people, passionate people, have said what there is to say. And that frightens me. It frightens me to wonder if we’re past the point where teaching, thinking, or writing are making the difference. It scares me to wonder if too many just aren’t interested in the hard work reconciliation would require. Is finding words for this really helping, or is it just putting a Band-aid on my pain and my guilt?

—Matt

***

This paragraph is not a panacea. Like this piece, it only exists because we’ve written most of these words before. There’s a hopelessness in the fact that that’s the case. There’s a listless thrum that comes in writing “no amount of writing seems to have done much good.”

So do we fall into silence? Should we just have not written these words—never offered them up to be read? Only if we delude ourselves into thinking that writing, thinking, naming brings things to a close. But it doesn’t—it opens them up.

Naming feelings, reactions, realities is not the end point. And when we mistake them for such we have chained ourselves to impotence, to frustration and to feelings of futility. But naming realities is less the finish line than the starting block.

We want things to make sense. Somehow it feels like if we can just find the right words to name what’s broken, the lithest phrase to say it, then the problems will fly away. The words will take away the heartache, the pain, the fear—the sense that it’s all falling apart.

It takes more trust than we have to believe there’s a way forward. It takes more inner freedom than we can summon up to not fall into a defensive stance in the midst of a cycle of violence and pain that keeps repeating itself. For us that’s the only point of doing what we do as thinkers and writers—because this thinking, this giving words to realities helps us name the pain we feel, and the anxiety. And in the naming it makes a space where hopelessness isn’t the last word, a space to do something other than throw up our hands in frustration or lash out in anger.

Thinking doesn’t stop bullets. Writing will not save the world. But they open a space for the world to be otherwise. Words give us space to do something other than react out of our pain. Words, ironically, can make space for us to listen. When we stop thinking, stop writing, it can only be for one of two reasons: either the world is no longer violent or we have given up hope that it can be.

While the world remains violent, and while that violence is disproportionately borne by black bodies, we need to keep writing, if only to remind ourselves to fall silent when we finish: to take up the larger task of listening, of reading, of lifting up the voices that the world’s violence would silence.

We write—if only to work against our silence shading into the privilege of ignoring this suffering—to cling to the hope that another world is possible, and that there is a way from here to there.

—Matt and Paddy

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