What Our Words say about Cleveland

Discourse can explain a lot. It hints at the state of things. It hints at our needs. What’s more, discourse can prove self-fulfilling as the social conditions influence what’s being written or said whereas what’s being heard or read can influence the conditions.

What follows is a quick and dirty exercise examining the discourse in Cleveland via the Cleveland Plain Dealer.  Specifically, a word cloud was developed on all local stories appearing in the February 9th, 11th, and 13th editions.  Examining the reaction to this “official” discourse, a word cloud was also developed for reader comments for each of the aforementioned stories.

First, the word cloud based on stories and editorials.  Naturally, the word “Cleveland” is huge, and this is no surprise since Cleveland is the entity under discussion. And what’s coming out of the mouthpiece of Cleveland’s mouth? Well, there’s “schools” in bullying letters, and this— combined with the prominence of “students”, “education”, and “college”—tells us what we already know: the Cleveland Public School System is sick and needs mass attention.  And though it’s in the air—at least for this week—it periodically has been for decades, only to be blown off the front pages by whatever message is more fun than literacy proficiency…

Enter “New”: it’s big, hopeful, and promising. And it shows there’s either a belief in a Cleveland future emerging through the past—or a belief in a Cleveland future through the simple act of repeating it.  For example, “Casino”, “building”, “downtown”, and “traffic”: is this the lexicon of the regurgitated silver bullet to city-remaking?  Time will tell, but the Big Thing theory is certainly getting its play.  But so is some verbiage that can be equated to the pillars of city-making. There is the built capital that is “park”. There’s the variation of that physical embodiment of our need to feel secure: “home” and “house”.  There’s “people”.  And though less pronounced but still entering the conversation are the terms “bridge”, “rail”, “skatepark”, “recreation”, and (um) “think”.

And as for sheer density of negative or positive connotation, below is a list of each, as is the elephant in the room award winner.

Moving on to the reader comments’ word cloud. Wow, check out the size “people”.  It is actually larger than “Cleveland” which can either suggest a broader identification with humanity than place, or rather a de-identification with place due to a preponderance of trolls ripping Cleveland apart (e.g., [actual comment], “Why don’t they just build a wall around this county and let the honest people leave”).  Note:  After further review I’m happy to report out that the verbiage is used more humanistically than you’d imagine (e.g., [actual comment], “I think we need to be grateful that there are people choosing to do it right which costs time and money”).

Squeezing the human angle further, check out the play of these action words that imply an almost visceral degree of urgency, especially when compared to the newspaper speak: “get”, “go”, “make”, and “want”.  I think it’s fair to say the folks in Cleveland are burning for change, and that they get excited for it—urgent about it—but that the carry-through is lacking, as there is no doubt a mistrust toward the “city”, “county”, and “system” that any “problem” related to “money”, “schools”, “education”, and “business” will be made “right” in due “time”.

And so the pot marks of failure are being poked into the canvas of our civic discussion. The negative connotations including: “problem”, “bad”, “wrong”, “poor”, “crime”, “guilty”, and “without”.  And of course that elephant in the room award winner: “death”, which sits stubbornly in the distance between “look” and “think”.

But of course there’s got to be hope, and you can see it in the tiny terms bubbling up like deep stars. The tiny terms like “love” and “just”—“live” and “life”—“choice” and “able”—“give” and “innocent”.  These of course are the pillars of people.  And as is evidenced by the cloud, it is “people” that cast the greatest shadow in the words that a city will speak.

–By Richey Piiparinen