The power of labels

How would you label yourself? You get one word. OK, give yourself a two or three-word phrase. Is that fair? Accurate? Would it tell someone who you are? Red Sox fan? Farmer? Retired? Liberal?

And what would the person seeing that label conclude? Might it be filtered through their biases?

I’m working on a writing project where I’m thinking a lot about stigmas. How we categorize people. How we label people. I’m writing about addicts. Alcoholics. Evangelical Christians. What do those labels make you think of?

This particular blog post is inspired by a video I just watched and a book I’m reading.

The video is a political ad. I’m still mulling what I think about the politics of it, but it’s an extraordinary social statement for these days.

It’s an introductory ad for a newly-declared candidate running against Kentucky’s senior senator and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The ad is about labels. I won’t spoil it any more, watch it for yourself (make sure you pay attention to very the beginning.) It’s well-conceived and well-executed commentary. Whatever you think of the politics, the candidate, Mike Broihier, is as right as a person can be when he observes, “Labels are powerful things.”

The book is Don’t Label Me. An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times, by Irshad Manji. I’ve only just started reading it. It looks like the incredible conversation in store is between the author and her dog. I don’t know what I think about how that discussion is going to turn out, but one promising early sign is on the importance of us respecting each other, in all our differences. What made me pause was her exploration of the derivation of the word “respect,” coming from the Latin to see someone in a new light. Think about it. “Re,” as in “again.” And “spect,” meaning, see, as in “spectacles,” “spectator.”

Let’s give people the respect of taking a second look at them, whoever they are. Whoever we think they might be. Here’s an assignment for the day to make the world a better place: make an effort to avoid labeling someone.

There should be a their there

I just read an essay I liked by a columnist asking to be referred to as “they” and not “he.”

That’s a request that would horrify a traditional grammarian. I think it makes sense but they’d say it doesn’t follow the rules.

If you were bothered by my use of “they” to refer to a person in the previous sentence, let me explain.

If you didn’t, you can stop reading, because I’ve made my point with you—obviously “they” can work just fine as a substitute for “he,” “she,” or “he or she.”

Here’s a link to the essay I’m referring to, Farhad Manjoo’s “Call Me They”in The New York Times this morning. It discusses reasonable reasons for using “they,” including some scientific research. But I’ve got my own thinking as well.

Most writers in 2019 recognize that the old-timey technique of referring to a generic person as “he” is at least frowned upon, and they’re struggling for a replacement.

I’m reading two books right now where the writer has solved the dilemma by interchangeably using “she” and “he” as a generic singular pronoun. There are a few reasons I think that is a terrible solution.

First I find it distracting. I’m trying to follow this text about the meaning of life when all of a sudden all I can think about is that the person finding enlightenment is “she.” After a lifetime of being conditioned to read “he” as referring to each individual on the planet, it’s possible I’d be less distracted by the masculine pronoun. Well, actually, no. After a decade of pondering this issue as a writer, I now find I’m distracted by a generic “he” as well.

In general, you want people to pay attention to what you write, not how you write it.

The second and least important reason is I think it’s just goofy to be apparently randomly switching back and forth between “he” and “she.”

The most important reason is it’s just plain not accurate. I switched to using “their” generically a few years ago after contemplating the political correctness arguments, and figuring out that it wasn’t about language fashions, but about correct and incorrect. All grammarians, farmers, writers, and people in the street are not male. There is no justification for using “he” as a generic, factually or morally.

Interchanging “he” and “she” is just as inaccurate. Not all grammarians, farmers, writers, and people in the street are female. Not even occasionally or interchangeably.

I went through a period of substituting “he or she” as a generic. I finally decided that sounded goofy too, and no amount of use over time would normalize the sound of that phrase to the ear or brain. It’s just a clunky construction.

And “he or she” is getting inaccurate as well. The increasing recognition of trans, non-binary, and just plain reasonable requests from people not wanting to be categorized according to a gender role, is legitimate. I’ve been paying more attention in my writing to the negative power that stigma holds on our society, consciousness, and freedom. Avoiding the categorizing we do when we label a fellow human being is a way we can restore a measure of dignity to our relationships with each other.

The most potent use rap against “their” is it too, is inaccurate. Well, OK, it’s true that an individual is not a “they.” I have two counters to that. One, what else you got? “He or she?” Yech (see above.) Second, “they” and “their” seem more likely to eventually become natural sounding and integrated into the language, compared to the alternatives. Language changes—get over it. Been to a 400-year-old Shakespeare play lately? Heard a hip-hop song lately? Get woke.

Finally, writers, let’s use our imaginations. Isn’t creativity what we do? Truth is, while I do occasionally use “they” as a singular pronoun, I recognize its problems and make the effort to write around it. Take my second paragraph as an example. I normally wouldn’t write it that way. These days I’d more likely write a better sentence: “That request would horrify traditional grammarians. I think it makes sense but they’d say it doesn’t follow the rules.”

Was that so hard?

It’s a free country. What does that mean exactly?

I supplemented my college education this week with a lesson about part of what makes this a uniquely free country.

The phrase “Free country” gets used in ways that mean a lot of different things. What I realized this week is how it’s more than a slogan. A free country is real, specific, and rare in the world.

Here’s the page about the Times-Sullivan libel decision, from my college media law textbook (yes after 45 years I still keep it handy on my bookshelf.)

The insight came to me at The Kentucky Author Forum in downtown Louisville. The guest was Deputy General Counsel of The New York Times David McCraw. He reminded me of a lawsuit decided by a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court in 1964. Every journalism student knows the case from their media law class—New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan. The case is so meaningful that I regularly think about it 45 years after first reading about it in my Law of Mass Communications textbook. Honest, I really do think about this stuff.

The case in a nutshell: civil rights advocates bought a full-page fundraising ad in The Times critical of police in several southern states. L.B. Sullivan, Commissioner of Public Affairs for the city of Montgomery, Alabama, sued, saying the ad defamed the police, and that parts of it weren’t even true. He said, for example, that during a college protest police didn’t “ring” the campus, but were just stationed nearby. Sullivan lost at the Supreme Court, even though no one disputed the factual errors. Instead, the court said that winning a libel case required proof not that the information was incorrect, but that it was published with “actual malice…knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

The court wrote that in America, public officials have to live in a system with “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.”

“That set the bar very high,” McCraw said in Louisville this week. No kidding. Think about it—the highest court in the land said that in proving libel in commenting on public issues, truth is not as big a deal as whether the publisher knew for sure the information was wrong and published it anyway in order to cause harm.

OK fine. I already knew all that from college—that we have a lot of leeway when it comes to public comment in this country. It was McCraw’s next comment about the Sullivan decision that perked up my ears and brain.

“It’s something you won’t find anywhere else in the world.”

And there you have our unique freedom. I’ll concede those broad limits might be controversial. I’ll concede the Sullivan decision creates a radical notion of allowing the speaking of truth to power. But it’s the law. A uniquely United States of America law.

During the Q&A I got to ask McCraw to elaborate on his view that his job was to get stories INTO the paper, when in my experience corporate lawyers can always make life easier on themselves by saying, don’t publish that.

“I don’t want to be the person who stopped the truth,” I was happy to hear him say. “Lawyers who instill fear do a disservice to to the First Amendment.”

On the other hand, for small local local newspapers, McCraw warned, even the threat of a lawsuit can be devastating enough to put it out of business. He likes working for a newspaper that can afford to risk being sued, to help “stop bullying.”

McCraw came to town as part of touring for his new book, Truth in Our Times—Inside the Fight for Press Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts. I bought my autographed copy but haven’t read it yet—when I do, I’ll be sure to file a book report here.

Inspirations from the author of the best book I ever read

Sometimes you sit down to write and it’s wrong. It’s not the overdiscussed writer’s block. It’s not a negative thought from your head, a discouraging message from the heart or even a sense from your gut. It’s something from deep in your bones telling you that you’re not yet ready to type; that you need to do more work first.

Robert Caro wrote the best book I’ve ever read, and in his brand new book, Working—Researching, Interviewing, Writing, he describes that almost mystical knowledge letting you know you’re not ready to write. Comparing myself to a writer of Caro’s accomplishments is dicey, but I know that feeling he describes. I felt it just this week researching a story about how the nation’s electric grid copes with changes like electricity flowing in reverse from rooftop solar panels. Technology is making that possible, said the guy I was interviewing. I asked, what technology would that be? Electronic sensors, he answered, leading to more questions. What’s a sensor? What does it do? What does it look like? He answered my questions so I sat down to write.

But I couldn’t. I knew I needed the reader to be able to see what this modernized smart grid looked like and I couldn’t because I didn’t know. I had a description from my interviewee but I still couldn’t see it. So I surfed the Internet, wading through pictures of schematic diagrams of sensors, until I found a photo showing little blocks clamped to the power lines, the dimensions listed as 152mm x 305mm x 127mm. How do I describe what size that is so readers can relate, I thought as I tied my shoes to walk the dog. And there came the answer: they’re about the size of a running shoe. Now I could go ahead and write about what the green grid is, describing the role of all these electronic sensors, and even what they look like, hopefully in a way readers could imagine.

In the introduction to Working, here’s how Robert Caro describes that feeling of trying to write his first book before he had done all the research: “…it was as if something in me would rebel, and I would sit there for hours, fiddling with the outline, knowing it was no good, knowing that if I went forward, the book behind me wouldn’t be the book it should be, and my heart just wouldn’t be in the writing anymore.”

I first read Caro in The New Yorker’s advance excerpts of his Pulitzer-winning 1974 book The Power BrokerRobert Moses and the Fall of New York. Its 1,200 pages tells the extraordinary story of a man who had a vision for a beach and a park on New York’s Long Island. To get there, people would need parkways, which he managed to get in charge of, leading to his overseeing the building of virtually every bridge into Manhattan so people could get to those parkways. He extended his power by building parkways westward into the rest of the state. Ruling New York’s parkways and waterways even led to him being in charge of building hydroelectric dams. For 40 years he was so powerful politicians promised to get rid of him, until they got elected and realized Robert Moses was more powerful than they were.

In Working, which Caro describes as an advance memoir because he admits he’s getting old enough that the full memoir might never happen, he writes about his realization while working on The Power Broker that to truly convey the power of Robert Moses, he needed to paint a picture of those affected by power. So he interviewed people who lived in the apartment complexes who were kicked out for a road that could have been relocated. He talked to farmers and got vivid images of their land and livelihood that Moses ruined for political expedience.

Caro’s next project was a biography of President Lyndon Johnson. That project continues even after four decades, as he finishes up the fifth and final volume.

After reading The Power Broker, my next encounter with Caro’s writing came from his first LBJ volume in 1982, The Path To Power—The Years of Lyndon Johnson. At the time I worked for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and would travel around the country speaking on the meaning and history of electric co-ops. A section of The Path To Power details how a major part of LBJ’s early success was getting an electric co-op started in Texas in the 1930s. In order to be able to describe what the coming of electricity meant, and what life was like in the Texas Hill Country, Caro and his wife actually moved and lived there for three years. (In Working he gives great credit to his wife, Ina, for researching his books, and quotes her as responding to plans to move to remote Texas by asking, “Why can’t you do a biography of Napoleon?”)

The chapter that came from that rural Texas research, “The Sad Irons,” tells of the torture women faced doing regular chores before electricity. In my speeches about co-ops I would read from that chapter. A brief excerpt won’t do justice to those several pages, but I’ll give it a shot: “Washday was Monday. Tuesday was for ironing… The irons used in the Hill Country had to be heated on the wood stove, and they would retain their heat for only a few minutes—a man’s shirt generally required two irons; a farm wife would own three or four of them, so that several could be heating while one was working…the irons would burn a woman’s hand. The wooden handle or the potholder would slip, and she would have searing metal against her flesh; by noon, she might have blister atop blister…the temperature outside the kitchen might be ninety or ninety-five or one hundred, and inside the kitchen could be considerably higher… The women of the Hill Country never called the instruments they used every Tuesday ‘irons,’ they called them ‘sad irons’.”

In Working, Caro writes that one of the most satisfying results of publishing The Path To Power was getting invited to speak to rural electric co-op groups, and talking to audience members who would come up to him after his speech, to tell him about how they actually lived the stories he wrote about.

Caro concludes Working with a 2016 interview he gave, ending with these words of idealism about what a writer might contribute to making the world a better place: “The more we understand about the realities of the political process, the better informed our votes will be. And then, presumably, in some very diffuse, very inchoate way, the better our country will be.”

The Green Old Deal … and how the search for civility led to this new blog

In 1988 I decided to spend a few days researching this global warming thing. It had been simmering as a controversy for a few years, with some people warning the oceans would rise and threaten seaport cities, and others asking what was wrong with strawberries the size of basketballs and quoting the Bible that God instructed man to subdue the Earth.

It made sense to take a few days and satisfy the questions in my mind. After all, I worked for an electric utility trade group, writing a news service about energy. A few years earlier I had written a story about a government report that concluded it was already too late to stop global warming—we needed to put our energies into building dikes and taking other steps to deal with a hotter planet. I got an angry letter accusing me of needlessly scaring people. I was young—my reply letter dripped with snark.

My research into the science of greenhouse gases taught me that humans were changing the atmosphere enough to significantly affect climate by the middle of the next century. There were other contributors besides U.S. industry—China and India, of course, but also termites feasting on rotting wood in the world’s forests.

My personal conclusion was that the United States had an obligation to use its leadership position in the world to influence the human race to at least slow the coming disruption in the Earth’s weather patterns. Yeah that’s pretty grandiose for a lone trade association writer, but it started a couple of career touchstones for me. One was that as a writer I decided I need to believe in something. Call it a philosophy. Call it an editorial position. A point of view needed to inform my writing, for my own sense of purpose and fulfillment, as well as a way to interest readers by giving them something they’re not going to get anywhere else—my personality. That’s not exactly arrogance, but advice from William Strunk and E.B. White in the masterpiece The Elements of Style: “Every writer, by the way he uses the language, reveals something of his spirit, his habits, his capacities, his bias. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable.”

The other touchstone that started forming for me back in those late ‘80s days is a belief in a civilized common ground. Global warming was not a choice between a doomed planet and a doomed economy. So many paths are available if we’ll learn, listen, and talk to each other. A favorite quotation from media philosopher Marshall McLuhan goes, “There is no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to think.”

I took those hifalutin ideas from Washington, D.C., to try them out as editor of Kentucky Living magazine. It made for a pretty good laboratory: an environmentalist Yankee from Minnesota who marched in the first Earth Day, running a publication published by electric cooperatives in a state that got 90 percent of its electricity from coal.

I learned there are all sorts of answers out there, and you don’t always have to pick just one. Take this Green New Deal that’s getting a lot of deserved attention these days. I’ve read it and you can too. It’s only seven double-spaced pages long. It’s been criticized as super expensive. It will be—saving the planet, especially at this stage, will take at least the combination of a moon shot and an Interstate highway system. But it will create millions of jobs and technologies not even thought of. I’ve criticized it for including minimum wage and health care guarantees, but I’ve since learned why it makes sense to include those provisions—with such a huge shift in the economy, people’s lives and livelihoods need to be protected.

A less-sweeping Republican alternative to the Green New Deal would encourage solar energy, electric cars, nuclear power, and capturing greenhouse gases before they leave the coal plant. All good ideas, but not instead of the Green New Deal, in addition to.

Getting past the sloganeering to the solutions will be a long road. We’ll need to accept science and argue from the basis of what we know. We’ll need to talk instead of shout. To listen and learn. To stretch our imaginations. To practice kindness. We need to look past the stigmas of red and blue, coast and heartland, refugee, addict, Buddhist, Evangelical, prisoner, trans—labels that reduce who we are to a few syllables. Labels that limit what we can achieve. 

Crazy lofty goals, yes, but I’ll be sharing in this blog ways I see them coming true, and on the ways I’m writing about solutions, like this piece on a group that’s giving out $20 million in prizes to come up with productive uses for greenhouse gases.

That’s my version of Strunk and White’s writer’s bias. I hope you’ll follow my postings and find them “inevitable as well as enjoyable.”