Michael Maiello's picture

    Taking Care With Language

    We use language casually.  I suspect we always have, but if it appeals to you for me to say we use it more casually now in an era of constant news and Twittering, I'll at least say that a crush of imprecise language can probably warp our collective understanding of events.

    In Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday, 32-year-old Heather Heyer was murdered by a 20-year-old named James Field Jr., who used his car as a weapon. He injured 18 other people in the attack.

    Heyer's death was not "a tragedy."  Tragedy is one of the most misused terms in situations like this.  Tragedy does not mean "something bad that happened."  Tragedy refers to the often ironic undoing of a person, generally caused by their own inability to overcome their flaws. A reading of Hamlet might be that the ultimate tragedy was the death of Hamlet, his friends, his lover, and his family, as his country falls to an invader, all because he could not grow up and claim the mantle of adulthood by avenging his father's murder.

    There was no flaw in Heyer that led to her death. She was murdered because of where she was standing. She was in the right place, doing the right thing. Now, when a tragedy occurs, we feel a deep revulsion from knowing that absent massive, almost unthinkable changes to the character of our tragic hero, the terrible events could never have been stopped. This is why the idea is so twined up in fate.  In retrospect, tragedies look inevitable.

    If some of you are saying that I am adhering way too much to definitions from undergrad lit courses, I hear you. Maybe I am. But this seems important to me because I look at this murder and I do not see inevitability. Citizens were not properly protected by police, roads were not closed off to cars, Fields, who I have now read may be schizophrenic, maybe should have been medicated. I also read, even as I type this, that he has a violent history with his own wheelchair bound mother, so maybe something could have been done before the kid embarked on his odyssey of American racism.

    There's no inevitability here and Heyer did not have agency in her own demise. She was murdered by one of the many people (mostly men) with evil in their hearts, who descended on a town with slurs on their lips and rifles on their hips and all those people (mostly men) are among us right now and will be tomorrow.

    It was murder, if you want to be careful with language.

    "Murder most foul," to borrow from a man quite careful with his language. Murder most foul is not the tragedy.  It's what sets us on the tragic path.



    Oxford English Dictionary:

    I. noun

    1. an event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress, such as a serious accident, crime, or natural catastrophe • a tragedy that killed 95 people • [ mass noun] his life had been plagued by tragedy.

    2. a play dealing with tragic events and having an unhappy ending, especially one concerning the downfall of the main character. • Shakespeare's tragedies.

    3. [ mass noun] — the dramatic genre represented by tragedies • Greek tragedy.

    Heher's death, a tragedy, see above (1).

    Not loving 1!  Tragedy has to be a very specific kind of bad thing.  The OED is getting a little lax, I think!

    I have nothing to add about the young woman's murder which I agree is properly called a murder. I like that you addressed the language used about it. One characteristic I always thought to usually, or often at least, be what made some event a tragedy is that before the tragedy there was a way that it could have turned out that something especially good happened instead. What made Romeo and Juliet a tragedy.

    Yes, good point.  There's a struggle for something good that comes crashing down.

    You have a superlative theatrically possessed conceptually inspired intuitive sense of the vain pomp and glory of this world. (last part, Henry VI).

    My language beef is when that is used instead of who, when referring to a person.

    Like "It was Eisenhower that warned us of the military industrial complex."

    Yeah, I hate that, too.  Also, I hate when companies are personified as "who."

    Corporations are people, my friend ~ Mitt Romney

    I love my Aristotle too, but I think we can accept the idea of the English language having moved on since whenever we thought an old Greek dude could tell us how to speak it. 

    In partial defense of the OED, an airplane crash is tragic. Because to characterize it that way is to look at it as something terrible that just happened. It's a horrific accident. It's an event that just happens TO someone. 

    A murder, an act of terror, a driver deliberately plowing his car through a crowd of innocent people to kill and maim as many people as possible, isn't just a tragedy. Because it wasn't just something that happened. It wasn't "a car hitting a woman" as many of the first reports described it. A man drove that car, and did so with the intent to take lives, in the name of an ideology of terror and genocide and ethnic cleansing. To call it tragic is to elide those details. 

    So it isn't strictly false to call it tragic. But for someone to see it in that light says more about the observer than the event itself. It's like someone who views Donald Trump mainly as a loving father. It may not be strictly wrong, but there is something strikingly odd about the way you are missing some pretty central features of the man. 

    As I mentioned in a recent comment regarding the definitions of the terms "men" and "women", language evolves - except possibly in France where l'Academie stands athwart lexicography and shouts stop.  Tragedy doesn't just mean Agamemnon and Hamlet any more.  It now can describe a pointless death or deaths that involve mayhem or that occur in an unexpected manner.  Tragic events also tend to resonate beyond the immediate time and specific place in which they occur.  I think it's fair to characterize as tragic a murder by a 20-year old unmedicated schizophrenic activated by hate groups.

    This is probably the wrong thread for me to say, "your mileage may vary," isn't it?

    I shouldn't have piled on here.  My comment was redundant.  No need to reply.

    I thought it was a fine comment.


    Latest Comments