Demographic Prism

Taking rhetoric “lightly”…

There are two basic types of numbers in our universe: smooth and chunky. Smooth numbers form continuums, systems in which there are no increments, a smooth numeric surface we see as a ramp, pavement or a car radio’s dial. Chunky numbers are quite the opposite, a series of equidistant points with a no-numbers-land in between. These are the stairs, sidewalks or the fan’s “low-medium-high” settings in our cars.

Much debate surrounds the question as to whether our universe is ultimately smooth or chunky, or both, with the itchy thought that perhaps matter makes for chunky and energy makes for smooth. As humans, we have a tendency towards arranging things into chunks, which may be due in part to our 4 chunk DNA or our multibillion chunk bodies. Even our brain is in chunks.

This chunkification is seen in the metaphor gamut. Originally used to describe the series of chunks that make up a musical scale, now gamut finds itself refering to any whole range. A chunky origin for what is used in both smooth and chunky descriptions. Language is slippery.

As children, we are taught to draw a rainbow in three colors. As we grow, we see more and more divisions until finally we see that in truth, the rainbow’s cross section is a smooth ramp of color. But the child in us holds on to its youthful cognitive habits of a divisable rainbow.

I was listening to a speech today by Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco. She was introducing the Louisiana Recovery Authority, a body which will coordinate the rebuilding of Louisiana. In the midst of her speech, the Observatory would spot a telling object…
“I have selected some of the best minds from — or with connections to — Louisiana. They represent the spectrum of Louisiana”.

Higher governments have been under intense pressure as a result of their foot-dragging relief efforts. Many have accused the government of racism, since the worst hit areas were also predominantly populated by blacks. Dancing around this has required fancy political footwork. George Bush went from absentee father to guardian angel, with his apparition descending from the heavens to attend the tired, the poor, the huddled – and predominantly black – masses.

Governor Blanco, under similar pressures, appears to have chosen her metaphor carefully. A spectrum is the scientific counterpart to nature’s rainbow. Since she is speaking of the best minds, she is wise to use the scientific choice spectrum.

Now read the sentences again. While Blanco is talking about the best minds, which has nothing to do with race, she is dividing Louisiana into its colors by using the color-injecting metaphor spectrum. This is not new, but it speaks of our times.

We are at a crossroads in history. Through much of recorded history, North America has been torn apart by racism. Its wounds run deep, and no demographic is immune to its infection. In recent times, we made a concerted effort to repair this, but it will take a considerable length of time. If society continues to pick at the wound of racism, it will never heal. Yet if we ignore it, we fear it will become reinfected, and wound us further. If an African American is hurt or ignored by the establishment, the Doctor is immediately called in.

Society’s supersensitive skin makes words hurt like sticks and stones. We have cut the derogatory word “nigger” out of upstanding vocabulary, ironically replacing it with its true English meaning “black“. “Negroes” and “colored people” became the decolorized “African Americans“. The integration and affirmative action movements aimed for a color-blind, equalist society by seeking an end to terms that segregate by color.

But while we have been plucking words out of our language that pertain to any specific color, we have been introducing words that bring to mind separated colors. That is, rather than entirely removing the colorful words out of our social and political rhetoric – which is presumably what true racial equality would bring – we have been consciously including words that continue to recognise, and therefore make significant, the very concept of color. The use of these metaphors may actually prevent us from being able to shed our outdated skin, and begin anew.

The concept of spectrums of any kind, like stairs or ramps, inherently have up‘s and down‘s, more‘s and less‘s or this end and that end. Even a gamut has its higher or lower notes. Not exactly the makings of equality: equal things can only be compared on some other basis.

The use of the words spectrum and rainbow were surely well-meaning, intended to bring about a sense of equal-but-different that prevents us from turning into a load of gray socks. But compare the nature of spectrum or rainbow with that of mosaic or palate. The first pair generates the image of a stratified order of colors, either natural or scientific, while the second brings to mind peer-level elements in an artistic setting. What kind of picture do our metaphors paint? In a society that dreams of smoothing things out, maybe we’d best start with a level canvas.

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