Apparently a journalist celebrity, Jonathan Chait, used the expression “curb-stomped” to describe one opinionator expressing disapproval for another’s opinions. The subject matter is unimportant, but the response was interesting.
I think that how one reacts to this is entirely a function of one’s mode of access to the term. I had never heard the expression used before metaphorically, but I had seen American History X, so until it was made clear to me that the term refers the act portrayed in the film, I had no idea what it meant, and once the connection to the film was made, I could not associate it with anything else. If you haven’t seen the film, all I can tell you is that this is killing someone by crushing their skull, in, if this can be conceived, an unusually nasty manner. When I saw it I found it to be one of the most disturbing portrayals of an episode of violence I have ever seen, period. So I must say that my reaction to the expression was essentially similar to the negative reactions I’ve seen: horror, astonishment. But this is because I can’t get that image out of my mind. The discussion that ensued seemed to assume that Chait had the image in his mind in the first place. It is one implication of my commitment to Davidsonian charity to think that he simply couldn’t have. Using the term in a sentence playfully is only possible for someone whose exposure to the term isn’t by way of American History X. Using the term playfully is perhaps facilitated by the fact that its constituent parts are not necessarily violent, so it does not wear its violence on its sleeve. Maybe it means urban outdoor dancing to the tune of Queen’s We Will Rock You?
So now we have a rather testy and insincere apology from Chait, and a lot of folks talking about what it is about the internet, if it is the internet, that has us wanting to murder each other by crushing each others’ skulls with our boots. Rather, I think that this is about the time it takes for live metaphors to become dead ones. If someone began a discussion with the phrase “Not to beat a dead horse, but…” I would not think at all about animal cadaver abuse unless the context were about, say, animal rights, or horse racing, in which case it would suddenly seem an unfortunate phrase. Similarly when we say, about some symbolic but decisive victory “he really kicked the shit out of him.” I must confess that I had never in my life concretely imagined what that phrase means, until just now (you can thank me for sharing later).
So here’s what I think. I speculate that the expression initially circulated in social milieus closer to gang violence than the milieu Chait moves in. In those milieus, it is probably not always intended to imply the act, but is always intended to evoke the gravity, extremity and overwhelming character of the domination implied by the act. The internet probably is involved here, not because of its propensity to breed conflict, solidarity, demonizing, rage, etc., however real those things may be, but because of the speed with which it allows forms of language to circulate to and among the opinionators. I suspect that Chait had seen the expression in other blogs, not used to describe curb-stompings, but to describe ‘curb-stompings.’ What’s remarkable there is that the term probably traveled from the streets to the journalist’s lexicon in nothing flat. Reading Chait’s apology, which is half-hearted and bemused at best, it seems clear to me that he is still not visualizing boots in brains the way we who are less hip and happening than he are.
So now I’m going to say that we all need to be more sensitive and not choose such words? Or is it that I’m going to say, oh, get over it, it’s a metaphor. Nope. It really is as horrifying as Chait’s critics think. But language is permeated with dead metaphors and can’t live and breathe without them. Now no one is suggesting that language be stripped of all dead metaphors, except perhaps the ghost of some mad member of the Vienna Circle. Perhaps we should avoid using dead metaphors with a violent undercurrent? But then, I would submit, we would lose the capacity to talk about conflict meaningfully at all. We are a violent primate species (I gather) but we are also an intelligent species that has learned to sublimate and regulate these things in peaceful and even constructive ways, one of which is debate. And we are, also, a linguistic species whose even most mundane comments are laden with unintended poetry. Should Lyndon Johnson not have said “War on Poverty”? I mean, didn’t he mean that we were to attack it ruthlessly and destroy it utterly, with courage, intolerance and as if our very lives depended on it? Because this word comes from the ancient practice of mutual slaughter? No, we cannot step outside of the human condition or our own language, and attempts to cleanse it of all offense only make it all the more useful to those who would rule us with euphemisms. What we should do is know what we are saying. I’m pretty sure that Chait didn’t, and I’m not sure he does even now, even after the whole blogosphere kicked the shit out of him.