Reflections on Charlottesville: Consonants and Vowels
My granddaughter Daniella is 8 months old. And, she has begun to experiment with her voice. That’s how babies learn to talk. So, sometimes Daniella is very loud, and sometimes she whispers. Sometimes, she is all vowels—like when she cries. And, at other times, she uses consonants, especially the sounds of b, d and g, which she pronounces over and over again.
Eventually, Daniella is going to learn to talk which means she is going to trade in her vowel-dominated communication for consonant communication. And, when she does, she’s going to trade power for accuracy. The advantage of a cry is that it commands attention. Speech is not as compelling, but with speech you can communicate more precisely what you want.
Speech is also one of our first acts of self-censorship. The consonant stops the sound in its tracks. It defines and shapes what we want to say. So, it’s never going to be as emotionally satisfying as a full throated cry. But, we can’t be truly social beings without it.
I’ve been thinking about this lately because this week on the first day of Elul and every day of Elul we blow the shofar at services in the morning. The blowing of the shofar is a reenactment of how we learn to speak as babies. That makes sense, since Rosh Hashanah is about our rebirth. So, we go back to infancy and we learn to speak again.
First comes the tekiah (make the sound). That is the cry, all vowel. The next sound is shevarim (make the sound). This sound is broken up, defined. Now we have our first consonant. Finally, we have teruah (make the sound)—9 short blasts—this is full speech—lots of consonants. That’s the direction of human development—from crying to articulate speech. Human maturity requires that we move from expressing ourselves simply to a more nuanced communication that is not as immediately satisfying, but is ultimately more meaningful.
However, there is a catch. The very last sound we make with the shofar is the tekiah gedolah. It’s all vowel. It’s a mighty cry. And, that tells us that even when we master speech, we don’t want to lose the ability to cry out. Out of 100 blasts of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, we only sound the tekiah gedolah twice. So, that suggests that this great, expressive cry is to be used sparingly. Save it for when you really need it. But, the fact that it comes last also tells us how very important it is.
I’ve been thinking about all this in connection with Charlottesville. It seems to me that what’s going on in our country right now is a national struggle with language. We’re all mixed up. We don’t know when to use vowels and when to use consonants. We don’t know when to sound the tekiah and when to sound the teruah.
When people complain about p.c., they are asking for more vowels. They are saying there are too many consonants, too much of a demand for self-censorship in speech. So, their theory is, maybe if I am less inhibited, people will pay more attention to me. After all, a cry gets more attention than speech.
On the other hand, the more expressive speech is, the more speech has a bull in a china shop quality. Precisely because more vowel-dominated speech is less precisely targeted, there is a much higher danger of collateral damage.
I think the president made two mistakes in Charlottesville. And, in saying this, I don’t mean this as a personal attack on the president or any political party or philosophy. But, I think it’s important for us to understand what happened, so we can fix it.
The first mistake was reversing the use of tekiah and the teruah. Immigration legal and illegal, is an issue that calls for a truah—lots of consonants, lots of nuance. It’s a complicated moral issue with many sides. When a leader suggests that anyone who comes over the border illegally is a rapist, that’s sounding the tekiah—the expressive voice of outrage, when what’s really called for is the nuanced sound of moral complexity.
And, the danger of the expressive voice of outrage is collateral damage, so use it very sparingly. It hasn’t been used sparingly, so we’ve had a lot of collateral damage—hate groups emboldened, polarization increased in our country.
The second mistake the president made is in not realizing that we need both the tekiah and the teruah. Both expressive outrage and measured speech are essential tools in a democracy. We don’t speak in a moral monotone. Just as we hold multiple perspectives in a democratic society, each of us has to be able to hold multiple perspectives within ourselves. We have to master the ability to sound both the tekiah and the teruah and not to see one as the enemy of the other.
In Charlottesville, the president conflated two issues—the issue of Neo-Nazi hate and the issue of the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue. These are two very different issues and they deserved to be treated very differently preferably at different times, but if at the same time, in a careful speech, not in a tweet. Perhaps there were some demonstrators for whom Robert E. Lee was the main issue. But, once you put on a Nazi uniform, or walk next to someone who is chanting Nazi slogans, white supremacy becomes the sole focus.
And, there is only one appropriate response to white supremacy and that is the tekiah gedolah, the unfettered voice of moral outrage. Instead what we heard was the staccato of the teruah, hesitancy, measured tones, nuance where it doesn’t belong. And, the confusion of the president is that he did not seem to be able to grasp that the issue of white supremacy and the issue of Robert E. Lee are really separate issues.
That is, it is possible, if you’re not rallying with white supremacists, to have complicated feelings about the Lee statue, and if you do, that doesn’t make you a racist. Leon Wieseltier, as liberal as they come, said this week that he isn’t sure about Lee. He worries that when you start by erasing part of the past that you don’t like, someone else may start erasing the part of the past that you do like.
So, this piece is an issue where there are two sides—and that deserves nuanced debate. But, Neo-Nazism and the murder of innocents is not two sided. And, the president put them both together and so the result was a failure to condemn white supremacy unequivocally.
We should not make the same mistake. And, we easily could. In response to our suggestion that we need more civil discourse in our country, I have heard it said that when hate is in the air, we just need to fight. Civil discourse will only weaken our resolve. I heard this sentiment again in the wake of Charlottesville.
It’s not surprising. Terrorism has the same impact on us. We want to hit back hard. And, we should. But, it’s just at this point the crown of democracy is most endangered. The crown of democracy is civil discourse, the ability to be in relationship and disagreement at the same time. Our ability to be in nuanced debate with each other did not prevent us from responding unambiguously to Nazism in World War 2. It’s precisely our value of the measured truah that powered our tekiah gedolah against the Nazi threat.
Yet, we should also remember that it was precisely the power of that tekiah that also endangered civil liberties in this country. Our internment of Japanese-Americans should remind us of why it’s so important that our tekiah/vowels must always be balanced with our teruah/consonants.
It’s just at those moments of unfettered outrage, that we need to be extra careful to remember that outrage, our tekiah gedolah, is a tool to be used sparingly. Teruah, measured discourse, is what forms the bedrock of our free country most of the time.
So, of course, use the tekiah gedolah to protest white supremacy. But, let’s not overuse it. Let’s make sure we make plenty of room for the t’ruah—the stop and go, the back and forth discussion on most of the moral issues we face, from whether the ACLU was right about allowing the Neo-Nazis to march to immigration and a host of other issues.
I love this period of vocal exploration that my granddaughter Daniella is going through right now. I think I’m going to miss it when she learns to talk. But, I hope Daniella will learn that the experimentation never ends. Knowing when to use our consonants and when to use our vowels is a lifelong quest.
I know it will be easier on Daniella’s parents when she uses more teruah than tekiah gedolah. But, I would not want her to lose that voice entirely. There will be times when its liberating power will be what the world needs the most.
P.S. After I delivered this sermon Shabbat, a person I respect greatly questioned my distinction between white supremacy and the taking down of Robert E. Lee’s statue. She didn’t think there were two sides to the Lee story. She pointed out that unlike Washington, Lee did not only own slaves, he actively tried to spread slavery to the West. He also did some rather despicable things to his own slaves. So, what is there to discuss?
I found this argument compelling, but not yet convincing. I still believe there are things we need to be willing to discuss and things we simply need to denounce. I would not like to see Congress or the press debate the merits of Neo-Nazi anti-semitism or their belief that we should return to the days of segregation. There is nothing to discuss here. But, the issue of which statutes should remain standing and which should be replaced has already generated a fruitful discussion, including the one between my friend and I which resulted in my knowing more about Lee than I knew before. Among the points I have seen in the press:
- The statue of Lee was erected as a racist statement in the early twentieth century by those who wanted to prevent the advancement of African Americans. Other such statues were erected during the Civil Rights Movement as an expression of pro-segregation sentiment. That’s a compelling argument for taking that one down.
- Gail Collins wondered aloud whether all statues should stand for a limited period of time and then be reevaluated as to their relevance. After all, times change, values change. We change who is featured on our currency (this is my thought, not Collins’). Why not rotate statues every several decades?
- Now there is pressure to remove Lenin’s statue from Fremont? Is that necessary? Is the presence of the statue a glorification of Lenin or a parody?
- A Chicago bishop wants to remove the name of Washington from his neighborhood park, presumably because Washington owned slaves. It’s an understandable desire, but are we on a slippery slope here?
I stand by my belief that we have to use the refusal to discuss very carefully. The fact that a view may be in our opinion reprehensible has not until now excluded it from American discourse. Opponents of abortion argue that pro-choicer’s legitimize the murder of children. And, proponents of choice argue that pro-lifer’s would cause the death of desparate women seeking dangerous abortions if their agenda were enacted. Yet, we do not shut down debate on abortion in America.
Yes, it’s true, there are issues we refuse and should refuse to discuss. We’re not about to re-open a debate on the merits of slavery or segregation. We don’t view the views of white supremacy as discussable. But, I’m concerned that we’ve increasingly narrowed the range of topics we are willing to discuss, as oppose to denounce. Pretty soon there won’t be anything to talk about. Perhaps we will consider people who buy a different toothpaste than we do to be friendly rivals, but if they disagree on a matter of any greater consequence we will denounce them as evil. That would be a serious blow to democracy as we know it. I believe we can do better.
As always, I welcome your thoughts.