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.


4 comments on “Curb-Stomping

  1. Jacob says:

    Knowing what we’re saying is, I think, a virtue. But the issue also seems to have a moral dimension which can only be remedied by a good heart. ‘Curb Stomping’ (in the American History X sense… eugh!) seems to me that in most uses it would carry a connotation of the experience illicited by that scene in the crowd (punk rockers, for the most part, and maybe some street gangs) who originally got into that movie. The problem is, there is a *positive* sense of triumph (eugh!) in the use of that term even if you *do* know the genesis of the word. I heard (as I have many times before) somebody on the bus the other day yell to his friend, “what’s up pimp!” I’m sure he would have been insulted if I said “do you even know what a pimp is?” There is a *positive* connotation that comes along with that use as well. Just as there is a negative connotation to the word “homeless” (defining him by something our society values having but that he doesn’t) that I sometimes use to describe my friend down the street, and I ought to either find another term or just leave out the term. People are diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Disorder in a society which seems to have a latent sense of Aristotelianism regarding what it is to be a human. I don’t agree with that definition for a minute, but the consequences of having a cognitive *deficit* are obvious… give them pills to *fix* their lack of humanness instead of creating classes for kids who were gifted with very active imaginations.

    Maybe it would be frumpy to immediately exchange all of our terms for politically correct ones (though I’m not opposed to some of that). I’ve heard a study saying that black people don’t like to be called “African American.” I’ve always felt that was unnatural anyways, which is why I imagine black people usually don’t like the term. At any rate, I conclude this response with a commitment to thinking of my friend down the street as being an extremely generous and creative guy who on the lot a few houses down.

  2. poseidonian says:

    No argument that knowledge isn’t enough. Then the next question becomes, does a “good heart” include, say, bravery? And what are the primordial contexts in which we get the notion of bravery as a virtue? As my wife points out this a.m., we have tried to improve the lives of cancer patients by shifting the language to martial metaphors (“battling”, “survivor”, etc.) because they are, as we say, “empowering.”

    Everything is connected, and everything is tricky.

  3. Pliny the Elder says:

    I think many of the individuals who spend a lot of time on the internet have done so little that the terms have no real referent (to them). SO hyperbole comes easily becasue, given their lack of actual experience, none of it is viewed as hyperbole. Unfortunately, one can have the opposite problem. Ever since an acquaintance of mine was killed by a rocket in Iraq (in a locatio n I later visited), I cannot liste n to the Star Spangled Banner the same way. Maybe the soluiton is simply for people to really think about what they are writing. But I expect too much.

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