Everyone is, deep at their core, what they express. Actions speak louder than words. These ideas are very old, and very real, in the way we size up the value of others. Institutions and people are evaluated, positioned, and judged based on expression. What we say, what we communicate, is seen as a direct line to identity. Imagine speech as the hole one looks through to see a diorama within what appeared to be just a simple box.
This idea is very old but who knows how old it is. Aristotle suggested in writing that the testimony of a tortured slave was admissible with the same credibility as a public oath in his Rhetoric. The suggestion being that a body under duress cannot edit and halt the truth of the soul that comes pouring out. There are some in the American CIA who still hold this view. Rene Descartes subverted speech with thought as the location of being, but did not provide a verification mechanism other than speech. To think is to be, but what if our speech indicates that we do not think, or we think incorrectly, or worse yet – that we are wrong about something? What then?
Daily we are all humbly reminded that when we speak, we are making mistakes. When we open our mouths, out come noises that sometimes resemble our ideas, sometimes they don’t. And often we find ourselves wishing we were at a loss for words. The only solution we have for this in our “thought above speech,” “ontology is determined by expression” world is to rearticulate or provide another articulation. Since we have subverted speech’s role in our lives, as the constitution of ourselves and others, we do not have adequate tools to repair situations when speech comes out with all its living force.
The Aaron Schlossberg controversy is a recent demonstration of the poverty of our ability to render accounting for the power of speech. Schlossberg’s rage at the number of Spanish speaking employees of a Manhattan deli was captured on video where he accuses them of living off of his tax dollars, that they are undocumented workers, and that he will call Immigration to have them removed from his country.
His expression was read by everyone as his identity. This is who he is. There can be no mistake; his speech is preserved forever on video.
As news spread and people began to respond – they hosted mariachi bands outside of his office, taco trucks, and someone has now even mailed white powder to his office – we can see that the Cartesian mode of identity is alive and well, thought not withstanding. Schlossberg doesn’t think, ergo he should not exist.
Schlossberg, after his lease was cancelled at his office building (since he does not exist) posted an apology on Twitter.
The apology – not to be confused with the rhetorical category of apologia – is simply that, not a defense of what he did. Or is it? The only discourse available to him in the world of unconvertable ideological souls is to deny, deny, deny. He does it three times: He denies being the person in the video in a very direct and literal sense: “is not the person I am.” Secondly he directly communicates his nature: “I am not racist.” Finally he does it a third time, praising the diversity immigrants bring as one of the reasons he moved to New York. Maybe it is apologia? He does take a careful, if hidden position behind civility: “While people should be able to express themselves freely, they should do so calmly and respectfully.” So maybe he believes he pays for those sandwich shop workers to be here? He believes that they should not speak Spanish at work? It’s unclear. All we know is that he has said that he is not racist. We must compare performances to determine the real soul. And under duress, the real soul is always revealed.
We lack the tools to speak about speech as going beyond ourselves. Since speech is merely a tool of expression of truth, we can follow the footprints to the truth of the soul and determine if the soul is good or corrupt. If we see someone emotionally out of control, we believe, for some reason that this is when the real person comes out.
We do not consider the fact that we are all subjects of the power of speech. We have no language for the role speech plays in interpretation and knowledge. All Schlossberg can say is that he is not racist. Yet his speech was clearly xenophobic and racist. If Schlossberg is right, who was speaking? Was it anger? Frustration? Something else? Was speech speaking Aaron Schlossberg? Did he become a conduit for a tectonic, ancient discourse about race, identity, status, nation-state violence, etc.? These are not excuses for him, but inroads for us to try to understand how our beliefs and how ideology is spoken through us by powers well beyond us that, with every utterance, constitute us.
Kenneth Burke discusses the difference between the comic and tragic frames as the difference between death and understanding. The comic frame allows us to separate soul from speech so we can identify with the subject speaking as mistaken. This assumption of universal humility is missing from our national discourse. Imagine if Schlossberg said, “I was simply mistaken” – This defense is impossible. Instead he says the video captured a stranger, someone who is not him. It’s tragic. He is the opposite of this doppleganger who hurt people. He is not the person who hurt, but he apologizes for it. It’s tragic frame all over, and he has to die. If not professionally or attitudinally, perhaps biologically, as the white powder sent to his office attests. The comic frame offers a chance for self-inventory of our own relationship to ideology, which is much more difficult than simply scapegoating the evildoer. Another more difficult comic framing is to take responsibility for a city and a world that allows for someone to speak this way, or to be spoken by such an ideology. The power of speech to rend people’s reality is always an utterance away.
The other path is the Buddhist sense of language – necessary yet fundamentally lacking. We have to speak, and speech fails. Sometimes though speech is necessary although terrible. Where does Schlossberg’s anger come from? We cannot accept, from the Buddhist perspective, that the sandwich makers made him angry. Anger comes from within, not from the outside. We blame the outside, but we are the ones who cook up anger. From this attitude we can generate a feeling of sympathy for such a sad and angry man. What sort of empty, horrible life does Schlossberg have that would allow him to speak, or for speech to use him, in this way? What lonliness and sadness makes him feel people making sandwiches are worthy of such derision? It is incomprehensible in its dark implications.
What Schlossberg did was horrible, no question. But the poverty we have in being able to talk about the role speech has in creating and constituting pain, suffering, horrors, hate, and a whole lot more we normally term “reality” is even more horrifying. If we see speech as only a way to glimpse the quality of a soul, we have no way to account for the operation of speech on our identities and beliefs in severe ways. Democracy cannot function if speech is merely a thumbprint of a being that cannot be altered, cannot be changed, cannot be reasoned with – all that’s left for us to do is elimination, symbolic or otherwise. We must believe that speech is not an indicator of one’s ontic state, but of one’s particular constitution in that moment – and address that person before us in a way that they can, and will, change. This is the root of persuasion, and Schlossberg’s horrible beliefs are not a part of his DNA. He was convinced of them somehow, and it is up to us to interrogate and figure out how belief can be altered. This expression hurt more than immigrants; the whole situation and response should give us pause in our assumption that we live in a democracy where people believe that others, and themselves, can or even need to be persuaded.