Tag Archives: language

It’s Not Just the Girls. DKE’s Chants and the Real Message for All of Us.

4 Nov

Four forums and an avalanche of opinion pieces later, our campus is in danger of moving beyond the DKE incident without realizing what is truly at stake.

It is our public sphere, and the language that we use to shape it. In its most nuanced form, what we speak amongst ourselves goes beyond English; it is “Yale-English,” with phrases and definitions that we have, as a community, decided over time to institute and accept. These phrases vary from the mundane and convenient – L-Dub, Master’s Tea, shopping period – to the context-and-campus-history-charged – Chief Perroti emails, the Flower Lady, tap night – but we expect them all to be interpreted in a certain way upon utterance.

It is this belief in the meanings of our sentences that glues our social relationships together into some hodgepodge of connections that form Yale’s public sphere, and this belief that allows us to trust in dialogue, instead of violence, when we wish to be heard. We write, speak, and tweet to one another because we believe that being listened to means something, that if you hear my carefully-selected pattern of vowels and consonants over someone else’s, you might change your mind. The rise of personal computers has only served to reinforce this trend, and even Yale’s top administrators regularly craft emails as their way of communicating with students. Rather than God, Yale’s currency today might be printed as, “In language we trust.”

Now consider again this line of students, all male, as they march through Old Campus. “No means yes,” they scream into the darkness around them. “Yes means anal.”

It bears repeating. No means yes. Yes means anal. This is not a statement of fact, or even a mere fudging of them. This is a full redefinition of our Yale-English writ large into the night sky. And it takes away, not just from the women among us, but from all of us who might, at some point in our lives, choose to utter, “No,” that most sacred aspect of our public sphere: the right to be understood. What we say, the DKE brothers tell us from the safety of their group, is not what we mean. And what we mean (clearly!) is that we would like to be raped.

A public sphere exists because a group of people agrees to use language, not violence, to make decisions to achieve a common good. This, then, is DKE’s crime: endangering the very existence of our public sphere. Their destruction of the purpose of language leaves people with no option but to resort to brutality and deceit. For where our words carry no weight, we will use our fists. And where our verbal meaning will be twisted, we will lie and lie again to twist interpretations farther. If we listen to Gibbon in his “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” it is precisely the mockery made of language that caused that great empire to fall; no community can thrive if its titles are petty shams. And on the heels of crumbled public spheres come solitude, distrust, and – yes – violence.

It is worth noting that DKE brothers have turned to this same public sphere to offer their apologies in bits and pieces through various forums. Now that they – instead of the theoretical women of whom they were speaking during their chants – have something important to express, they turn right back to the very words that they hollowed of definitions. “No, we didn’t mean to imply that rape is okay. No, we weren’t out to offend anyone. No, no, no, we weren’t thinking.” But no means yes, remember? It is a tangled web that they weave when they attempt to take our voices from us; in the end, they also muzzle themselves.

I recognize as I write this that I know some wonderful people in DKE, as do many of us on campus; that they are not the only ones to take our words for granted and to use titles for corrosive purposes (“Yale Sluts” being just one ghost of history ready to be conjured up); and that they are not the first, nor will they be the last, who need to consider this message.

Language is powerful. Words matter. And changing the meaning of what any member of our community says without her or his permission is dangerous to our entire public sphere. So when we sit here and talk about “never again,” let’s all take a moment, think about what we are saying – and this time, let’s mean it.


Learning about Biz-ness

26 Oct

Biz Stone came to a Yale Master’s Tea today. For those who either don’t go to Yale or stick their fingers in their ears and sing loudly to avoid hearing about each new tech start-up, a quick refesher:

Biz Stone: co-founder of Twitter (and Xanga and lots of other cool things). Total baller.

Twitter: Twitter.com (I use it! My Twitter stream is to the right of this blog). A service that lets you send out thoughts, links, etc in 140-character chunks and “follow” the streams of other users. Biz calls it “an information network, not a social network,” and I would agree – I use it as my RSS feed and a way to find the pulse of what’s going on. And, yes, occasionally to thank my mother for doing my laundry. But only occasionally!

Master’s Tea: events where certain residential colleges at Yale invite luminaries from specific fields (or luminaries in general – think Hillary Clinton & Denzel Washington for starters) to sit down in a fairly low-key environment and “chat” with a group of Yale students.

So, today Biz came. I learned a lot and tweeted even more. But here are some of the real quotational gems; many of them made me think as I work with my own start-up this year, and I thought you might enjoy them, too:

  • If Twitter succeeds, “it’s not a triumph of technology, it’s a triumph of humanity.”
  • A great question he got about Twitter – “What do you want people to say about Twitter in five years? Ten years?”
  • “Opportunity can be manufactured”
  • “Creativity is a renewable resource.”
  • Mistakes cause you to show your integrity and character. You use them to explain what you did wrong, why, what happened, and why it won’t happen again. “Then you tuck it under your belt and move on.”
  • The movie “Wings of Desire” is, apparently, awesome.
  • “To succeed spectacularly, be ready to fail spectacularly.”

Twitter internal company culture quotes:

  • “We can change the world, build a business, and have fun.”
  • “We don’t always know what’s going to happen.” –> leave the door open to innovation in response to unexpected events/usages of your technology
  • “There is a creative answer to every problem.” and you should do something creative before you try the obvious solution
  • “There are more smart people outside of our company than inside of it.” 300 people at Twitter. 6+ billion in the world.
  • “We will win if we always do the right thing for our users.”
  • “The only deal worth doing is a win-win deal.” Treat business relationships like real relationships.
  • “Your coworkers are all smart and full of good intentions.” Give everyone the benefit of the doubt. If you think someone’s doing a bad job, introduce yourself and find out how you can help.

Another remark that hit home, especially after my course at the School of Management last year on corporate social responsibility and social ventures:

  • Start-ups have the unique ability to build into their business and culture the idea of doing good so that their altruism can have a kind of compound interest as they grow into bigger businesses. (fyi, Twitter has a non-profit wine brand called “Fledgling” that donates all profits to “Room to Read”)
  • The right business model should be either invisible to users or so useful that it is appreciated by them

Who knew that a little business named after chirping birds could end up saying (and enabling others to say) so much?

Now that’s one Rockin’ Robin.

Notebook Excerpt: I knew it was not a real poem

25 Jun

I knew it was not a real poem

the moment my mother finished the crisp “t” on

“I must not have been smart enough to understand it-t”


Not a poem of a red wheelbarrow,

the way two roads diverging can be,

nor a people poem, not a pocket full of lines that

can be emptied onto the table when company

comes over, not a

real poem.


My father would disagree, would say

“We just don’t know this stuff

like the rest of the world does,” would

sit for hours in a too-small chair in the back of a school

auditorium just to hear me carve unfamiliar words from air,

but here, he is wrong.


A real

poem (I remind myself) lingers

in the eardrums of more than “the rest of the world,”

requiring no taste for expensive wines nor Latin diplomas (no

afternoons in church, or on an open lake) to make a mother fall in love.


Just a reading and a place in your memory and a repetition

the day you realize the world goes on forever and you have

no other words.

Notebook Excerpt: Beach at Ostia

22 Jun

Who tries to write a poem

on the beach at Ostia?

As if the waves are not proof enough that forward movement transitions (always)

to floating back

As if the sand here hasn’t been made from rocks collapsing

into finer and finer versions of themselves over ten thousand years –

as if my half hour stanzas won’t get buried here, too.

(As if the language of heartbreak – the poetry of it, the tight collapsing phrases, the staccato moment of letting go – exists even through the disappearance of the shade.)

Caesar’s Notes: Wednesday, June 2 – Parades, pizza, poetry, pub

6 Jun

Belated and abbreviated post for this past Wednesday

Our syllabus for Wednesday reads as follows:

“June 2 – ITALIAN NATIONAL HOLIDAY: FESTA DELLA REPUBBLICA. Enjoy the parade! Think about Roman triumphs! Nationalism! The role of the military in the identity of the state! This is an assignment; you will be expected to share your astute observations as they relate to the themes of the course. Please note that stores, markets, banks, etc. will be closed.”

Okay. So. That’s our day, then. I put the assignment sheet down, roll out of bed, look at my wardrobe, and immediately wonder what I should wear to a national parade. Do I go all “Jessica-on-the-fourth-of-July” on them and smother myself in the colors of the Italian flag? Do I dress up and put on impeccable make-up to compete with the bella Italian girls who will be surrounding me? Or do I not care about any potential traditions and put on my shorter dress so I can save the longer ones for our church visits all next week?

I go with the latter option and a pair of crossed fingers and end up doing just fine. The piazza is packed by the time the ceremonies and the parade start, and the band tries to warm the crowd up with a rendition of the national anthem, but only a few of the people there know it well enough to sing along.

This is where the ceremony takes place. It is one of the biggest and newest monuments in Rome; visitors adore it, while locals call it "the birthday cake" with a complete look of disgust. As in, "tomorrow we will be meeting at - ugh - the birthday cake." Does this make anyone else's stomach growl?

Important people arrive for this parade, including Silvio Berlusconi, who walks up the gigantic steps of Italy’s memorial commemorating the republic and places a wreath in front of the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He descends to watch the parade, which starts at that moment with tank after tank of military officials. Then the soldiers. And more soldiers. And a marching band. And more soldiers. I am beginning to see why we are supposed to think about the relationship of the military to this whole celebration. Best of all, the soldiers sing as they march, which makes a nice counterpart to the stiffness of some similar American processions. Here’s a video I took of the singing soldiers during an excerpt of the parade. And here’s a random but necessary picture of soldiers wearing pompoms:

"Timmy, what did I tell you about jousting with feather dusters? Not inside the house!"

Also part of the parade (probably one of the most famous parts) is the flyover of military planes streaming the colors of the Italian flag behind them. If that sounds crazy to you, check it out:

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a -- no, wait. That really is a plane.

While the rest of the group leaves to grab an early lunch, Frances and I stick around for a concert of national songs sung by a children’s choir and a military band. And at that moment, I really start to ponder the assignment.

This parade began to commemorate the founding of the Italian Republic. In 1946, a referendum was held for the people of Italy to decide between a monarchy and a republic for their government, and after a (quite close) vote, they decided on a republic. This was exciting, but also meant that Italy had a ton of catching up to do; it is, in this sense, a very young nation, and one that still doesn’t have a strong sense of Italian national identity in the ways that we think are customary for patriots. For example, the flag, songs, parade, holidays, etc. all kicked in within the past 50 years, so many Italian teenagers don’t know the words to their own national anthem and instead just mouth along to the tune. From the point of view of an American, this seems strange. After all, don’t we see Italian flags all over the place? And what about “Jersey Shore”? But here, there is a much stronger sense of regional or metropolitan identity than a national one. Even the language varies so much from region to region that my professor, who is completely fluent and has been translating Italian for years, has trouble understanding some of the people she meets from the south of Italy. According to her, it is only through television that any sense of common language and traditions is shared.

So this explains the lack of little flags and some of the mumbled singing. But what about the military? Italy on the whole teeter totters on its past; it wants to diverge from the brute force of Mussolini while still maintaining its ancient tradition of battlefield valor, and so it constantly runs up against the question of how to build national pride without stepping into bad memories. When it came to the parade, this meant that the military was the focus, but no epic, battle-ready speeches were made, and it ended with a children’s choir. It meant that tanks with exposed guns rolled through the streets, but so, too, did nurses and firefighters. It meant that despite the fact that they had assigned the parade as our daily class, our professors did not go themselves; they said that no one they knew would be caught dead going to such an elaborate but empty display of state power. For me, the whole shebang felt very distant from the town parades of my youth. There were no local performers, no young children dancing, no wives or floats. Just orderly marching, and the soldiers’ songs.

A tank rolling through the parade.

After the parade and the mini-concert, Frances and I walk back to Trastevere. I haven’t gone out yet for a sit-down lunch, and she is in the mood to enjoy the afternoon, so we look around for a place to eat. Thankfully, Frances speaks Italian, so we go with my favorite method of finding food here: avoiding any place that speaks English (this includes bakeries and supermarkets, a tactic that has turned every one of my solitary shopping expeditions into an adventure and/or debacle). After darting down a few side streets, we find it, and boy, do our stomachs (and our wallets – the prices drop the farther you get from piazzas) thank us. We have bruschetta (correctly pronounced brus-KET-a in Italian) and fried artichokes for appetizers and split a pasta and a pizza dish between us. Here’s the damage done:




After. And yes, we do give autographs.

Just as we are about to head out (rolling ourselves all the way home), a musician walks up and starts performing at the front of the restaurant. Watch my video to check it out. And no, Dorothy, you are not in Kansas anymore.

That night, I head out with some people from the group to my second poetry-related experience in two days. This time, Mark Strand is giving a reading of his work instead of a workshop, so I grab my notebook and go. He is phenomenal – down to earth with his phrasing and incisive with his words, and I am soaking up the language as quickly as he can release it with his tongue. After each poem he reads, his translator steps forward and delivers the translation, and that’s when I really start to get goosebumps. Since I can’t understand the Italian, I am reduced to measuring his success in sounds, in tumbles, in crispness and reverberations. I let myself be carried by the dips and curves between consonants; I am imbibing, and tucking it within me. In short, I am remembering and reawakening myself as a poet, and oh — oh, the pen feels nice between my fingers.

At the end of the reading, I buy the book. I buy it in Italian, on purpose, where the original English is on the less dominant page, and I read it aloud to myself at the reception. I roll my “r’s” into the air like a fool, and I am so resonant with that sound that I am buzzing. Mark Strand signs my book before I leave. I already know I will keep it on my permanent bookshelf.

Post-poetry-reading, we are all full, some of us with words, some with the hors d’oeuvres from the reading, so we whip up some light bruschetta, grab a quick pint at a local pub, and call it a night. And that’s what I call an inspired evening.