The (English) language barrier

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Indy Lifestyle Online
You have to feel some sympathy for Patricia J Williams: arriving in Britain to deliver the Reith Lectures (Radio 4, Tuesday), supposedly one of the peaks of intellectual life in this country, she must have expected to be treated with respect, or at least simple courtesy. And what happens? First the tabloids, outraged by the notion of a black American woman lecturing us about the politics of race, denounce her as a political extremist. Then she gets roughed up by Melvyn Bragg on Start the Week (admittedly, it was quite a mild beating by his standards - Jean Aitchison, last year's lecturer, really felt the rough side of his tongue, and not in a nice way - but Professor Williams seemed understandably disconcerted). And to add insult to injury, one of the "qualities" dismisses what she said to Bragg as nonsense and offers prizes to any reader who can make sense of one of her sentences - a little unfairly since, as all journalists know, sentences that make perfect sense when spoken conversation, when transcribed can look like gibberish.

So when she finally got to the starting-line, I was ready to root for her. And after three weeks, it's disappointing to have to admit that these lectures are really not very good. Actually, Reith Lectures hardly ever are very good; it's an extraordinarily difficult form to bring off successfully - even the geneticist Steve Jones, a dazzlingly sharp and amusing interviewee in the run-up to his Reith Lectures a few years ago, when it came to the point, was rather dull.

But to the exigencies of form, you have to add some problems peculiar to Professor Williams. Too many of her sentences are either impenetrably dense or ungraspably vague - what precisely is "an assimilative tyranny of neutrality as self-erasure"? (Quick now, there's another sentence coming up. You don't get any time to think about this.) This is partly to do with the fact that her brand of English is subtly alien to English ears. In her first lecture, talking about her young son's apparent inability to identify colours, she said: "I began to suspect some social complication in which he somehow was invested." Invested? You see what she means; but it's an odd word to use, and at other points context doesn't supply you with enough information to make sense of the oddities.

The story about her son's supposed colourblindness (apparently, he'd just taken to heart the repeated insistence of white liberal teachers that "colour doesn't matter") also highlighted another problem: she is not a very good story-teller, stripping her illustrative anecdotes of circumstantial detail so that they feel notional, abstract, implausible. At the same time, she has a weakness for over-extended metaphor and overblown rhetorical flights that can leave the sensitive listener wincing.

That's a shame, because the arguments lurking in the verbal fog are straightforward and important. Her fundamental point is this: black people see racism as a tremendous problem, white people don't. Isn't this gap in perception worrying?

In this country, in particular, racism is frequently dismissed as a problem that happens elsewhere - an example of this tendency was this week's Document, "Chocolate Soldier from the USA" (Radio 4, Thursday), which looked at the disproportionate number of black GIs hanged for raping white women in the Second World War. Throughout the programme, US racism was contrasted with the open-mindedness of the British - which may be reasonable, but also sounded self-congratulatory. Professor Williams makes it clear that race is not a subject we can afford to be comfortable about; and perhaps the fact that the media in this country have tried so hard to make her feel uncomfortable is all the confirmation she needs.