COMMENTARY: Platitude season

by May 15, 2023OPINIONS0 comments


One Feather Editor


“It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, as long as you’re having fun. Love will always get you through. Crime doesn’t pay. He/she who laughs last laughs best. Everybody needs somebody.”

You should be able to recognize a platitude when you see it. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a platitude is “a remark or statement, especially one with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful”.

To the examples above, we could add, “Everybody deserves a reward just for showing up” and “Regardless of what you are, have pride in yourself.” Generalizations are made because there is a good chance that some part of a statement will be true, and that fact allows anyone who would like to hang their slant on it will be harder to challenge. Usually, people will select something that has an emotional attachment to their audience, like children, the elderly, or pets. For example, it might sound high and noble to say that “all animals deserve to live” until one of those animals maims a person. Those who say “Crime doesn’t pay” probably didn’t read the news about criminals having stolen close to $100 billion in pandemic relief funds (this was in 2021). The money was stolen from the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program, and other programs. At the time the article was written, the federal government had recovered only $400 million of that pilfered amount. So, for some, maybe many, crime did indeed pay and paid handsomely.

During a political season, you hear some of the most interesting platitudes. More than one candidate or incumbent over the decade that I have covered elections has stated that they have no interest in being a politician or make the great error of saying “I am running for office, but don’t you call me no dang politician”. Now, I don’t know how you define a politician, but I do have some additional help from the Oxford Dictionary that will clarify what one is. A politician is “a person who is professionally involved in politics, especially as a holder of or a candidate for an elected office”. It would be a very difficult defense to make for a sitting Tribal Council or Executive Office holder, seats at both branches of government make north of $80,000 per year in salary, to deny that they are politicians based on that definition. Indeed, even members of the School Board would have trouble making a case for not being a politician, since each one of those seats gets $25,000 per year.

When we ran graduation pictures in the Cherokee One Feather back in the day, we would basically publish the photos sent over by the schools from their class pictures. Every year, it became more and more challenging to get the schools to provide photo releases from the professional photographers involved. Just because the school may have paid to have a photo to use in its yearbook, doesn’t mean that they have the right to authorize another organization to use the photos, because the copyrights remain with the photographer. And there was an additional challenge. While we were sent all the kids who attended Cherokee Central Schools regardless of their racial identification, other schools were tasked with sending only those students who are Eastern Band Cherokee members. And that is no small task because we live in a society that insists on respect for personal identity and privacy. In other words, school administrators from other school districts don’t go around to their students and ask them what their race may be. Asking those types of questions of a grade, high, or even higher ed student can bring bad press and lawsuits. Rather than misidentify a student, school systems will simply say that they do not know.

Now there is quite a big difference when speaking about a student’s peer group. Misidentification not only happens within multiracial organizations, but it sometimes is also purposeful, like racially-charged horseplay. It is inappropriate, hurtful, childish, and it happens routinely. Name-calling seems to be the order of the day. Even among our own people, who will chide their fellow tribal members with slurs for their skin not being the right shade of “red”.

Racial insensitivity allows some to mistreat and malign people across races and tribes. Racial oversensitivity makes us remain in a constant state of defensiveness. Some believe that any misstep or uninformed comment is just another example of injustice, and we meet it with indignant intolerance. Rather than educate, we condemn. We trash our ancestors’ admonition to show compassion, courtesy, and compromise in the name of pride. And we treat accountability like a hot potato. If we are afraid our peer group or constituency will abandon us if we say the right thing, we are fast to say the wrong thing to keep their favor.

Campaign slogans are a staple in the world of electioneering. And political slogans are often the home of platitudes. Watch the campaign signs. Listen to the speeches and rhetoric. We are at an important crossroads for our tribe. We can’t select our leadership based on kinship, friendship, or promises of personal gain. We need to think about who will guide us into a sustainable future, whether we are talking about culture and language, infrastructure, economic and ecologic needs, housing, health care, and long-term care of our people. If we continue to focus on the persons who will generate the biggest per capita payout so that we can get whatever momentary gratification we want, we are going to continue to miss out on opportunities for a better, more secure future.

We, the constituency, know for the most part the “what” of what needs to be done. And the candidates will repeat the “what” ad nauseum. Promises of better days ahead are easier to make than detailing the process and sacrifices needed to get there. Look for and listen to the candidates who will talk specifically about the “how” and the “when” of it will get done.

For example, it is easy for a candidate to say, “I will work to bring family vacationers back to the Boundary for the betterment of the tribal economy. (platitude).” It is a much more challenging and telling statement for a candidate to provide a step-by-step plan and timeline to increase tourism visitation. It is one thing for a candidate to say, “I will make language preservation a top priority because it is an intrinsic part of our culture” (platitude). But it is the candidate who demonstrates that they have a specific plan and budget to mainstream and preserve the language that we need in office. A candidate will easily say “I support and believe in the people having the power of governance through a constitution (platitude).” It takes courage and leadership to stand for, craft specific language, and assist the people in supporting and implementing a governing document that codifies the civil rights of the people.

“Vagueness is at the heart of insincere language; it clouds thinking and it muddles meaning. As (George) Orwell writes about vague terms, ‘The person who uses them has his own private definition but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.’ Vague language is often used to dissociate someone (perhaps we ourselves?) from a contemptible act or bad memory. In a classic moral thought experiment, a runaway trolley will strike and kill five people-unless you flip a switch to divert it, in which case it will kill only one person. All things being equal, the math is simple, but it feels more comfortable to cause harm indirectly than to take action (by flipping the switch) and become complicit. We see that same instinct work with vague language.” (Ali Almossawi)

Fault finding is a fruitless process and a waste of time, but accountability is essential to life and to government. Our government works in two parts to function-a legislative branch (Tribal Council) and executive branch (Principal Chief and Vice-Chief). Both are usually involved in most significant government processes. But when it comes time to be accountable for an action that obviously requires the participation of both branches, depending on the publicly perceived outcome, blame or fault will be placed on one branch or the other, whether by the officials or by members of the community. Resolutions to our issues would come more quickly and freely if we could get beyond the desire to lay blame. We need to partner, as branches of government and as a community, for the common good of our people.

Now is the perfect time for you to think about and form ways to screen the language you will be hearing over the next four months. As enrolled members of our Tribe, we must take responsibility. We must be accountable for the leadership that we allow through our votes or lack thereof. And that is something we should all remember. You don’t get out of being accountable for the leadership that will be put in place for the future by not voting. If you have been given that opportunity and you choose not to vote, you have spoken with your inaction and are just as responsible for the outcomes as someone who did vote. So, let’s not be vague when it comes to our vision for the future and let’s not let our candidates feed us platitudes but real solutions for the challenges ahead.