By Icy Frantz
On December 5th, the then-president of Harvard, Claudine Gay, said these four words in a congressional hearing in response to a question about genocide. And although Gay later apologized for her answer, declaring, “Words matter,” the phrase has continued to rattle around in my brain.
I happen to agree with Gay’s apology. Words do matter and perhaps that is why I have spent an inordinate amount of time considering whether the words- depends on the context matter too.
Certainly, context can help clarify.
When contemplating if the number ten is a large number, it might just depend on the context.
Running ten miles is (at least for me) a very large number, while ten minutes of a massage or ten M&M’s (at least for me) is relatively small.
Also, understanding cultural context can help us live successfully in our increasingly global world.
In Burma, when taxi drivers want to get a customer’s attention, they make a kissing sound. Imagine how that might be perceived in New York City (!!). And in many European countries, strangers greet each other with kisses, while in our country we are more likely to shake the hand of a stranger.
When analyzing data, context allows us to interpret information correctly.
Imagine a study that investigates the relationship between ice cream consumption and shark attacks. At first glance the data shows that when ice cream consumption increases so do the number of shark attacks suggesting that there is a correlation. However, with closer examination and consideration of context, it becomes apparent that in the summer months, more ice cream is consumed and swimming in the ocean increases. Therefore, the two original variables are connected by a season and not to each other.
Context is clearly important in the legal arena. Context takes into account the intentions of the drafters, societal changes, and assures that laws are interpreted in a manner that is consistent with the purpose and objective for which they were created.
Sophomore year of college, my sorority rented a house for the purpose of hosting meetings (and parties). In addition to one large communal room, there were six bedrooms available to members. My excitement about living off-campus was quashed when we found out it was against the law for six biologically unrelated women to live together in a house. Why? Because a law in the state of Connecticut considered such housing a brothel.
In the end, we determined that there was no such law in Connecticut, so we moved in.
However, in states that do have laws regarding homes with multiple biologically unrelated women living together, the following words are included to add context, “…with the intent to engage in prostitution or the exchange of sexual services for money or goods.”
So, context matters. It not only affects meaning, but it also helps us get along and communicate with clarity which is critical.
And yet, still, Gay’s answer to that original question – “Whether calls for the genocide of Jews constituted harassment under university policy” – is wrong.
To that question, there was no need for context – of any sort – ever.
Now my objective is not to find fault with any institution – especially one that most likely would never have accepted my 18-year-old self – nor am I opining on whether Gay should have resigned. What concerns me is that something that goes against my moral code – our moral code – the thought of which breaks my heart and horrifies me…could ever be considered within a context.
After the hearing and after much criticism and backlash, Gay stated, “I failed to convey what is my truth.”
So, why her original answer? Some say it was in defense of freedom of speech. Others believe that the answer is a symptom of a political agenda that is being pushed in our elite academic institutions. Just last night, a friend mentioned that he thinks that Gay was lost in an institutional bubble, unable to see, hear, feel, or believe what is real.
I don’t have the answer.
But I would hope that we live in a country that both honors freedom of speech and prohibits hatred. And that our academic institutions – elite or otherwise – are teaching our children to think critically for themselves. And that even within our own institutional or societal bubbles, we can find – and speak – our own truth.
In 2004, Robert Fulghum published a book that made quite an impression on me, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.
And I think of this book when life gets seemingly complicated – when I get weighted down by figuring out right from wrong, when I watch as political groups fight and lie and treat each other with disrespect, and when the presidents of academic institutions get blinded by what they think is the safe answer rather than what is in their hearts.
The book lists some simple truths – play fair, don’t hit people, share, say you are sorry when you hurt somebody, flush, when you go out in the world hold hands and stick together.
This all might sound elementary and unsophisticated – not Ivy League – but I would argue that it’s a foundation for life worth exploring. Maybe we need to return, to unbecome what we have become and live according to our truth.
No matter the context.
The Icing on the Cake