Hoof-in-Mouth Disease

August 13, 1994|By DANIEL BERGER

It would help if people could say what they mean and mean what they say. We get into problems in this country from imprecision of language.

Clarity does not come naturally to us. It is a skill that must be learned, that can be taught, that improves with practice and that withers from disuse.

A certain linguistic permissiveness has crept into the pedagogy in the past generation, and not helped precision of expression.

The most spectacular damage comes when other issues get tied up in people's minds with race.

People, accurately or not, will associate some behavior more with one ethnic group than another. There follows a temptation to talk about the ethnicity, not the behavior. The intended subject of discussion is often forgotten in the ensuing discord.

A man called Hulond Humphries, principal of Randolph County High School in Wedowee, Alabama, is now famous for having forbidden a prom to take place lest interracial couples show up.

What might have been a local contretemps of no interest outside Wedowee has mushroomed into a national tragedy, with the high school destroyed by arson, the county's youth left without a school, Mr. Humphries transferred, civil-rights advocates and racists pouring in to Wedowee, state and federal police agencies investigating, the identity of the arsonist still a mystery, and everyone in Randolph County so incensed as to take offense at anything anyone else says on any subject.

Mr. Humphries has explained that he meant to deter violence that had marred recent proms, and which he believed that interracial dating had provoked.

Had Mr. Humphries canceled the prom on the ground of violence at previous proms, there might have been a mild stink among the youth of Randolph County, but we would never have heard of Mr. Humphries or Wedowee.

That is not what he said. What he said was that he disapproved of race-mixing and was using the power of the state to prevent it, and he called the child of an interracial union a mistake. Those who took offense at what he said were right to take offense.

George Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees, would like to abandon Yankee Stadium, a much-renovated old stadium of illustrious heritage but difficult location in the Bronx, for a new arena that could be built west of Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan.

Instead of driving or taking a dingy subway to a litter-filled slum of dubious safety, suburban fans could then walk in protected paths directly to trains whisking them back to New Jersey and Long Island -- and more would do so.

Night after night, half again as many people watch the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards as attend the New York Yankees in Yankee Stadium, though the Yankees have a larger stadium, a much bigger market and a better team so far this year.

For Mr. Steinbrenner to want in Manhattan what the late Edward Bennett Williams obtained at Camden Yards may be selfish but is not racist. What he craves is reasonable to crave.

But what the Yankees vice president for community relationsRichard Kraft, was quoted as having said was that youths who play basketball near the stadium are like monkeys.

In the upshot, that gentleman was fired by his old classmate, Mr. Steinbrenner. The borough president of the Bronx, mayor of New York and governor of New York will have a harder time obliging Mr. Steinbrenner at public expense.

That may play into Mr. Steinbrenner's hand, as he does not want Yankee Stadium made safe but supplanted. He would still depend, however, on the kindness of strangers to build him a stadium anywhere.

Had the vice president for community relations said what he could reasonably have meant, everyone in New York could discuss the merits of the issue without getting unspeakably angry.

Some years ago, the Philadelphia Inquirer encountered uproar for editorializing that the birth control device, Norplant, would be useful to cut down on pregnancies of black women. What the writer meant, he later said, was poor women. That was not what the editorial said. The opprobrium was earned.

Saying what you mean and meaning what you say are not easy. Supposedly we are taught how in school, and the lessons last a lifetime. At least, that's the way it is supposed to work.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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