Whose Stutter Is This Anyway?

August 11, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

A few years ago the American Sociological Association gave its Award for Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues to This American Life. The name of the award in this case is a bit off the mark. We gave them the award because they provide so much great material for our classes.  Sean Cole’s piece “Time Bandit” in their most recent episode, for example, is pure Goffman.

“Not then, men and their moments. Rather, moments and their men,” says Goffman in the introduction to Interaction Ritual. In eleven words, he summarizes his “dramaturgical” approach to interaction. But I don’t think that we realize how radical this view is. Much of it is not radically different from our everyday thinking about interaction. Concepts like impression management, audience segregation, backstage areas and the rest merely shine a light on what we are already dimly aware of. In a course I taught long ago, an undergrad assigned Presentation of Self commented, “Goffman has a keen sense of the obvious.”

What’s radical about Goffman is that he sees even everyday interactions as bounded by the scenario for that interaction. Most of us, by contrast, think about what we’re doing as unscripted,, Nor do we think we are creating structures and rules that constrain ourselves and others. In a few formal settings — highly predictable scenes like a church service or a school classroom — we might realize that we are following the outlines of a script. Or in a long and deep relationship, we might feel limited by its history, a history that we and the others involved have created. But from Goffman’s perspective, even in fleeting encounters, we are all in it together. In moments of embarrassment, for example, the gaffe becomes part of our situation regardless of who committed it.

The central figure in “Time Bandit” was Jerome Ellis. He has a “glottal block” stutter, and he says of the stutter what Goffman says about embarrassment: it becomes a property not of the stutterer but of the situation.

Here is a transcript.

JEROME ELLIS: Sometimes I refer to it as “my stutter,” but sometimes I refer to it as “the stutter.”

SEAN COLE: The stutter.

JEROME ELLIS: Because to me, stuttering is not bound to my body, that it is a phenomenon that occurs between me and whoever I'm speaking to. I like to think of it like it's something that we share.

SEAN COLE: And when Jerome's in a conversation with someone, he stutters partly because the burden to talk smoothly is only on him.

JEROME ELLIS: Exactly, exactly. One way of saying that's like, oh, he's stuttering. But there's another way that's like, there is a stutter happening, you know.

SEAN COLE: And we are both contending with it.


SEAN COLE: And his talk at The Poetry Project was that on a grand scale. That's what he wanted-- for each of us to shoulder a little of the weight of the stutter that was happening.

The Poetry Project is a marathon of performances — poetry, dance, music, stand-up — over 150 performers, so there’s a time limit of 2-3 minutes. Ellis’s performance, which is excerpted in the clip (you can hear the difference in sound quality)  was a plea that stutterers be allowed more time.

Stuttering also illustrates many of Goffman points in Stigma. This next clip shows the dilemma about disclosing a stigma or using different strategies to hide it. Listen to it, don’t just read the transcript.

SEAN COLE: : And it wasn't fear, he says. He does have a lot of fears in his daily life — taking too much of someone’s time, not being able to order at Shake Shack when there’s a line behind him. But this wasn’t that. If he was afraid of anything, it was falling back on the tactics he usually uses to get around a stutter — synonyms, for example, swapping out a word he’s blocked on for one that’s easier to say. He didn’t want to do that on stage.

JEROME ELLIS: : And I didn’t realize that until now, that I think that was the primary fear. And I did do that like two or three times, and I regretted it afterwards.

SEAN COLE: : Do you remember which words you did it on, by any chance?

JEROME ELLIS: : Yes. To their customers with — So there’s the Portuguese word — With.
distúrbios na temporização

which I had literally translated to — in my text, I translated it — translated it — translated it — translated it — translated it — translated it to just — to “disturbance.” And as you just saw, that word still is like very hard for me to say. So what I did in the performance was —
Customers with
I said, “breaks.” —
Breaks in the timing and fluency of speech.
--in the timing and fluency of speech.

And that was one that I didn’t like that I did that. What I wanted to do was what I — I just did with — with you, is just wait.

SEAN COLE: : Wait for the word.

JEROME ELLIS: : Wait for it. But it was especially-- especially D’s, they can be really painful.


EROME ELLIS: : So that’s why I avoided that one. And I was frustrated with myself. As soon as it happened — like “breaks” to me, it doesn’t capture what I wanted to capture.

*This is an imperfect transcription. There is another sound before distúrbio, but my Portuguese is very limited, and I could not figure out what it might be.

It was this moment, his speech blocked at the same word over and over again, that brought home what he had said before — that the stutter becomes part of the situation. It becomes our stutter. For while I was listening, I kept suggesting alternative words. I thought that the “t” of “to” was the problem. “Translated as. . .” I said out loud.

Social facts, says Durkheim, include thoughts, feelings, and actions that have the strange quality of being properties of the situation, not just of the individual. Here I was, at home by myself, listening to an event that I had not attended and that had taken place at least a year ago. Yet that situation was co-opting what seemed like my very personal reactions. And the stutter — not Jerome Ellis’s stutter, but the stutter — was an crucial part of that situation.

These Truths, These Untruths, These Really Big Numbers

July 21, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

If a number just doesn’t sound right — it’s way too big or way too small — you’d better double-check. That’s the warning sociologist Joel Best has been giving us since 1990, if not before, when he looked at claims that the number of children abducted by strangers annually was 50,000. Way too many.

And now we have distinguished historian Jill Lepore, author of the recent best-selling history of the US These Truths. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, in her article “The Invention of the Police” (here) she says this:

I’m using a screenshot of The New Yorker’s online version only to show that as of this writing, more than a week after its initial publication, this passage remains unchanged. The text reads:

One study suggests that two-thirds of Americans between the ages of fifteen and thirty-four who were treated in emergency rooms suffered from injuries inflicted by police and security guards, about as many people as the number of pedestrians injured by motor vehicles.

This number, two-thirds, does not sound right. I have been in NYC emergency rooms — in the city’s high-crime years and in its low-crime years. Never did it look like two-thirds of the people there had been roughed up by the cops. The study Lepore cites (by Justin Feldman, here ) used data from 2001-2014. In that 14-year period,  683,000 young people (15-34) turned up in emergency rooms after being hit by the police or security guards, roughly 50,000 a year. That’s the numerator.

The denominator is the total number of emergency room visits by this age group. My estimate is about 30 million a year.* Obviously, 50,000 out of 30,000,000 is not two-thirds. It’s less than two-tenths of a percent.

What happened? Isn’t The New Yorker the publication that made “fact check” part of our everyday language?

Louise Perry (here) has an explanation of how Lepore and the fact checkers at The New Yorker misread the numbers and prose in Feldman’s article.

But it’s not clear where Lepore got the ‘two-thirds’ figure from. Possibly she misunderstood a line from from the paper itself, which includes the finding that 61.1% of people injured by police fell into the 15-34 age bracket. Or from the Harvard press release, which reports that: Sixty-four percent of the estimated 683,033 injuries logged between 2001-2014 among persons age 15-34 resulted from an officer hitting a civilian.

That’s the “how.” Perry also thinks she knows the “why”: “political bias.” Liberal, anti-police bias. Of course, it’s impossible to get evidence for this idea. The magazine and the writer have politically liberal views. Maybe the fact-checkers do as well. But it’s impossible to get evidence that their politics caused their misreading of the data.

So as long as we’re speculating without evidence, here’s my explanation (I’m not necessarily rejecting the politics explanation, just maybe adding to it): writing and reading about big numbers. It’s not easy to write up statistics in a way that is unmistakably clear. A reader not familiar with the territory can easily take a wrong turn, especially when that territory takes the shape of large numbers. If I told you that before the current pandemic, emergency rooms in the US saw about 3 million people a year, that might sound reasonable. I mean, three million seems like a really big number. But it’s only one- tenth of the actual number.

I know very little about dinosaurs. If you told me they went extinct 10 million years ago, I would think, Yeah, that’s a long time ago; it sounds about right. If you told me that they went extinct 200 million years ago, I’d have the same reaction. Sounds plausible. But a paleontologist would wonder how I could be taken in by such obvious untruths.

Yes, it’s possible that The New Yorker’s fact-checkers were so eager to stick it to the police that they let an “obvious” mistake slip by.  But it’s also possible that they just didn’t know how to parse these claims about the data, and because some of the numbers were large and others (ED visits) still larger and unknown, they just seemed reasonable.


* This a rough and quick estimate. The average 15-34 population over those years was in the range of 30-35 million. This site  shows rates of ED use by age group. Unfortunately, the age groups are Under 18 and 18-44. So I estimated on the low side.

Statues and Heroes — Looking Back From the Future

July 13, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Woodrow Wilson was a straight-up racist. No doubt about it. Yet in 1948, Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs, which started up in 1930, added his name, making it the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. It has taken Princeton until now, seventy-two years later, to dump him. WTF? What changed, and why did it take so long?

What changed, of course, is that racism, especially the racism of institutions, has finally become a central issue in the national conversation. The civil rights movement in the 1960s brought big changes in the law, but it never had mass demonstrations as widespread and sustained as those of the last several weeks. Until now, racism, even though it was generally recognized as wrong, was not as salient an issue. Critics may have pointed out Wilson’s racism, but for Princeton, it just wasn’t that big a deal, certainly not big enough to warrant removing his name.

It’s hard to understand how Princeton could have let something so wrong slip by for so long. But Nicholas Kirstof’s column in yesterday’s New York Times (here) points the way towards understanding that failure even if we do not condone it.

As we pull down controversial statues and reassess historical figures, I’ve been wondering what our great-grandchildren will find bewilderingly immoral about our own times — and about us.

Which of today’s heroes will be discredited? Which statues toppled? What will later generations see as our own ethical blind spots?

I believe that one will be our cruelty to animals. Modern society relies on factory farming to produce protein that is inexpensive and abundant. But it causes suffering to animals on an incalculable scale.

It’s hard to imagine the moral climate of the year 2090. As Yogi said, prediction is very hard, especially about the future.* But suppose that Kristof is right. Suppose that seventy years from now the progressives (or whatever they are calling themselves) are tearing down the statues of Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg or demanding that the John Lewis School of Civil Rights change its name — all because these one-time heroes ate meat, often two or three times a day!

If we could speak to the protestors, would we tell them, “Wait. These were good people, the best. Back in 2020, we didn’t realize how cruel and how disastrous for the planet meat production was. We didn’t apply 2090 moral codes to animals.”

Their reply: “Yes, that’s precisely the point. Your morality was wrong, and we are not going honor those who lived by it. What’s painful to admit is that we waited till now to take these long overdue actions. After all, we’ve known all along that these people were straight-up meat eaters.”

* Comparison with the future, like prediction, is very hard. But it can be useful, especially when people use the much easier comparison with the past in a misleading way, for example to argue that poor people today are not really poor. See this post from 2015.

Ahmad and Miles

July 7, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

(I’m a few days late with this one. Ahmad turned 90 on July 2.)

“When people say Jamal influenced me a lot, they're right.” Miles Davis, Miles, the Biography

But mostly, people don’t say that, and they don’t realize how great the influence was. There’s the musical style of course. In the 1950s, when beboppers were playing as many notes as possible in a measure, Ahmad was allowing for much more space, an approach that also suited Miles.

There was also the choice of tunes. When I was in junior high school, I got a copy of the Miles’s album “Milestones.” One of the tracks is “Billy Boy” — no horns, just Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe. The liner notes said, ‘Miles has an ear for a pop tune ("Billy Boy").’ I agreed. What a neat idea to import this folk tune (not a “pop tune”) into jazz.

I was an ignorant kid. I didn’t know then (and most people still don’t) that the musician who brought it into the jazz world was not Miles. It was Ahmad Jamal. The 1958 Red Garland arrangement on “Milestones” is nearly identical to Ahmad’s 1952 recording — the intro and outro, the added bridge, the block chords with octaves in the right hand.

For the Red Garland version, listen here.

Miles also often gets credit for making “On Green Dolphin Street” part of the standard jazz repertoire thanks to his 1958 sextet recording. It’s a great recording, but Ahmad was the one who clued the jazz world in to the potential of this movie-soundtrack tune. The same sequence is true of “Surrey With the Fringe On Top”: first Ahmad, then Miles, then everyone.

Ahmad did have one huge hit, an album that became a best seller even outside of the jazz world: “Live at the Pershing” (1958). The track that got played over and over again on the radio back then (and often now) is  “Poinciana,”  another tune that Ahmad hauled out of the “unlikely for jazz” bin. 

Here he is at age eleven – Fritz Jones in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.