Sometimes We Communicate A Great Deal When We Don’t Say What We Mean
Indirection is an essential tool of the stage magician. The right hand flourishes a wand to draw your attention as the left hand lifts a card from a hidden pocket inside the magician’s coat. Outside the magic hall, indirection can serve as memorable shorthand for important aspects of daily life. Yet, as Colin Powell made clear on “Meet the Press” this past Sunday, it can also conceal more abhorrent sentiments in a manner that shields them from open debate.
One of the rules of fire safety I learned when I was a Boy Scout was: After lighting a fire with a wooden match, snap the matchstick in two before discarding it. I recall being puzzled why halving the matchstick made it safer, but I obediently followed the dictum. Later I realized it had nothing to do with the length of the stick but, rather, that breaking the matchstick required you to hold both ends between your fingers. If the head of the matchstick is cool enough to be tightly held in your fingers, it is safe to discard.
Similarly, a doctor checking for male hernia utters the instruction: “Turn your head and cough.” I had long assumed that turning one’s head must stretch the diaphragm muscles in a way that aids the diagnosis. Later, as an adult, I realized the reason for the command is more mundane. If the doctor merely says, “cough,” he’s likely to have a patient cough into his face.
Linguistic indirection also provides the ability to veil messages; to make assertions that are hidden as subtext. And, like the instances above, it’s often only upon reflection that the sleight of hand is apparent.
When I was a preteen traveling on vacation with my parents in the southern U.S. in the mid-1960s, I recall having lunch at a small-town diner. This was before fast food chains had taken over the travel landscape, so vacationers often ate at colorful local institutions.
Above the lunch counter at this diner was displayed a sign: “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.”
In the car afterward my dad expressed some agitation — even annoyance — over the sign. It seemed perfectly logical to me. As I explained to my father at time, it’s the owner’s restaurant; isn’t he entitled to serve any type of food he chooses to anyone he pleases? My father remained unconvinced, but didn’t press the point.
Yet the memory of his discomfort stuck with me, and the deeper meaning of that sign didn’t dawn on me until years later. The message isn’t directly stated, but it would have been clear to any customers in that small town: This is a place for white people; African Americans, people of color, outsiders, aren’t welcome.
I often think of that sign when I hear the debate about displaying the Confederate flag. Some argue that it simply reflects nostalgia for a lost southern heritage and a lifestyle of pastoral gentility that is, as they say, “gone with the wind.” But, like the sign in the restaurant, while its surface meaning seems harmless, it communicates a deeper, darker message of exclusion and intolerance.
I also thought of that sign when Colin Powell discussed what he saw as “a dark vein of intolerance” in some parts of the Republican Party on “Meet the Press”:
When I see a former governor say that the President is “shuckin’ and jivin’,” that’s a racial-era slave term. When I see another former governor, after the President’s first debate where he didn’t do very well, say that the President was “lazy.” He didn’t say he was slow, he was tired, he didn’t do well, he said he was lazy. Now it may not mean anything to most Americans, but to those of us who are African Americans, the second word is “shiftless” and there’s another word that goes along with it.
While the spoken words may seem innocuous on the surface, their latent meaning is troubling — all the more so because their ordinariness makes it difficult to challenge the execrable notions hidden beneath.