Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Words Come Back to Haunt

Many people fondly remember our late Senator S.I. Hayakawa, memories that do not concern any significant legislation. Some remember him as the courageous president who took on the rioting students at San Francisco State College in the tumultuous 60’s. I still remember that photo of him standing on the hood of a Chevy, or whatever, tam-o-shanter firmly in place on his head, bullhorn in hand, shouting down a throng, or a mob, of revolutionary spirits, or spoiled brats, depending on your point of view. Others remember him for his recreational tap dancing, his association with Duke Ellington, or his penchant for snoozing during Senate debates. I warmly remember Hayakawa for two things, his quotes: “If students are dirty and ragged it indicates they are not interested in tidying up their intellects either,” and my favorite, “I’m going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose,” and his book, “Language in Thought and Action, ” or as I called it, “Semantics for Dummies.” Hayakawa was a lot easier to read than Korzbyski or Wittgenstein. As I recall, a pervading theme in Hayakawa’s book is that the word is not the thing. I agree with that notion which has become suspect in this day and age. Indeed, as I have urged on this page before, a word is only a sound or a squiggle on a page. Yet words are the products of pens, or word processors, and we all know how mighty they can be. Wittgenstein, you may recall, had a lot to say about a box of matches. This following anecdote may be apocryphal but it makes the point. He is reputed to have held up a box of matches in front of his class and asked the students what he was holding. They said “a box of matches.” He flung the matches at them and yelled, “No! A box of matches is a sound.”
But sounds or mere squiggles on a page can cause much havoc. Just ask Salmon Rushdie. Or for that matter ask any judge. We say and write things that have been known to create riots, anguish, elation, anger, and boredom. The simple word “reversed” has sent people over the edge.
We had better be careful not just in choosing our words, but in making sure the words we choose are our words. Take for example, the case of two distinguished Harvard law professors, Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., and Laurence Tribe. As reported in the New York Times a few weeks ago, six paragraphs in Ogletree’s recent book “All Deliberate Speed” were not written by Ogletree, but by a law professor from Yale. The six paragraphs lacked quotes and nary a footnote showing that they belonged to the Yale law professor. And portions of Tribe’s book “God Save This Honorable Court” published in 1985 borrowed from another professor’s work as revealed by identical and similar wording without attribution. Hurried and sloppy research, not malicious intent, contributed to these transgressions.
That these were accidents occurring through the carelessness of research assistants does not excuse the professors. Whether you agree or not with the philosophy of these two legal titans, they are first-rate scholars who face eviction from their airy quarters on Mount Olympus. I appeared once on a panel moderated by Professor Ogletree and was impressed by his brilliance and compelling personality. If this could happen to him, it could happen to me, and I don’t even live anywhere near Mount Olympus. I was once accused of trying to live there, but the agent refused to even show me a condo on the outskirts. I think the neighborhood petition opposing my setting foot anywhere in the district scared her off. I threatened to sue the agent for discrimination. She convinced me her demurrer would be sustained without leave to amend. But that is another story for another time.
I immediately called in my research attorneys to make sure we had not accidentally written something written by others for which we did not give proper attribution. After exhaustive investigation, we did come across something. In one of my early, very early opinions, I had written this concluding sentence: “Judgment is reversed and the matter remanded with directions to adopt procedures consistent with the views expressed herein in this opinion.” That was out and out plagiarism. I will never use it again. The author has not sued me. He didn’t want to be known.
Another factor crucial to any writer, whether he or she plagiarizes or not, is style. It has to be important because Strunk and White titled their book “The Elements of Style.” The final Chapter V is devoted to this most important element. Tone, an element if you will of style, is essential to any writer. For example, an officious or patronizing tone in an appellate opinion detracts rather than enhances.
In my October column I wrote about my cat’s misbehavior in the living room. At the end of the first paragraph I referred to a word in a familiar colloquial phrase with dashes. My editors at the Daily Journal saw it differently and decided not to bleep out the word. We didn’t have time to confer, and there it was. I thought the use of the word was jarring and not in keeping with the tone of the article. Some readers of the column voiced similar sentiments while others support the use of what I call the “offending” word. I will admit to a heightened aversion to scatology, but I am anything but a prude, much less a censor. It is simply not always appropriate to be blunt in the name of freedom of expression. This has nothing to do with censorship or a reticence to offend people when they need to be shaken from their apathy. Daily Journal columnist Garry Abrams decried the pusillanimity of network television afraid to air the movie “Saving Private Ryan” because of concern about a four letter word uttered by soldiers landing at Normandy. As usual he was right on. The tone there was appropriate. What would soldiers in such a circumstance say, “Goodness Gracious”?
I thought the whole affair over my word had blown over when I was compelled to write the offending word in my November column. Well, it is not exactly the same word although it sounds the same. It all came about when this stranger sat down next to me at Starbucks. He tripped and spilled some of his coffee latte on his hands and what looked like a deposition or an appellate brief. Upon spilling the coffee, he used the quaint expression “Shoot!”
I couldn’t help myself. I had to say something. It must have come from subconscious anxiety over the October column. “Shoot?” I asked as he sat down beside me with his head slightly cocked. After an awkward pause I said, “Do you want to shoot the shit?”
“Sure, ” he said.
“You said ‘shoot’ not shit,” I said.
He nodded.
“Shoot is so quaint,” I said, “like a line from the Ozzie and Harriett show. Let me guess why you said 'shoot' instead of 'shit.'"
“Shoot,” he said.
“I bet you are a deeply religious person and offended as I am from the indiscriminate use today of scatological expressions.”
“No,” he replied, “I am an agnostic.”
“Well, I suppose agnostics can be prigs,” I said meekly.
“They can, but I am not a prig,” he said.
“But ‘shoot?’” I protested.
The conversation was over. He got up to leave. It suddenly hit me that he looked familiar.
“Don’t I know you?" I asked.
He was standing. “No," he said patiently, “you don’t know me.”
“What is your name?” I asked.
“Jack,” he said. “Jack Shitt.”