When Words Won’t Do

In his “Insider” e-newsletter address of Sept. 9, Gemological Institute of America president Bill Boyajian said, “The past week’s disastrous events in New Orleans and throughout the Gulf Coast are grim reminders of how quickly we can turn our attention from the glitz and glitter of this wonderful industry to matters of survival and concern for family and friends. … The jewelry industry has a rich history of philanthropy—of immediate and decisive response in times of crisis—and I encourage all, as you are able, to provide some measure of support for the victims of this terrible disaster.”

Boyajian is right. As we watch the tragedy unfold, certainly jewelry is not foremost in mind, least of all for those who lost everything but the clothes on their backs.

The same day, on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air From WHYY talk show, linguist Geoff Nunberg discussed the words being used to describe Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Listening to the preshow lineup of guests, my editor’s instincts were intrigued, while my practical side wondered if this wasn’t an exercise in navel-gazing. After all, Katrina is a tragedy of epic proportions, not a semantics class. Nevertheless, curiosity won out.

While some of Nunberg’s points were esoteric, man has an innate need to put his experiences into words—and the words that are used have a great effect on how that experience is perceived and responded to by others.

Is the word “disaster” enough to convey the destruction wrought by Katrina, or is “catastrophe” more appropriate? Do we call the affected residents “refugees,” or “displaced”? And the big question, “What’s the difference between ‘looting’ and ‘survival’?” Unfortunately, this last question, which should be solely about the ethics that determine what is criminal behavior and what isn’t, has become a symbol of a how divided are our society’s haves and have-nots. It’s something Americans are loathe to acknowledge exists here to such a degree.

Anyone with an ounce of compassion agrees there’s a big difference between taking food and water and helping oneself to a flat-screen TV. But without nitpicking the finer points, it does drive home how difficult it is for any of us to get our minds around an event of this magnitude. Even one of the New York City policemen dispatched to New Orleans, La., told the New York Times how different this is from 9/11. Then, the fear of more attacks was foremost in our minds, and since we’d never imagined a passenger airliner used for a kamikaze mission, we couldn’t fathom what might be next. That’s a far different fear than that of a natural disaster. But in terms of dealing with the actual scene of destruction, in New York it was possible to get away from it by traveling a few blocks north. In New Orleans and Gulfport, and Biloxi, Miss., there’s nowhere left to go.

When psychologist Abraham Maslow presented his famous hierarchy of needs in the 1940s, he placed physiological needs (such as food and water) as the foundation of the pyramid. Next comes safety (shelter and security), then love and belonging, esteem, and actualization. Some years ago, this column analyzed how jewelry might fit into every level of Maslow’s pyramid. Of the top three, it remains true—but now we know that even the finest jewels cannot be traded for food or water if there’s none to be had.

When man’s most basic needs go unfulfilled for days on end, it’s not surprising that society breaks down into chaos and man himself breaks down to the most elemental levels of survival-driven behavior. There’s no need to watch ersatz reality on television ever again—watching the real thing is so much more gut-wrenching and frightening.

This industry, as Boyajian states, has a rich history of philanthropy and fast response in a crisis. In the past two weeks alone, we’ve seen a tremendous outpouring of caring and compassion, from the earliest responders like Stuller to the nationwide recovery network set up by Jewelers of America to the American Gem Society e-bulletins searching for members to countless individuals and organizations who have given of their time, money, houses, and expertise to help their fellow jewelers try to recover.

Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities opens with, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Politics aside—many have already described the aftermath in New Orleans as a tale of two cities—this catastrophe that has brought out the worst in man has also brought out the best in many.

Even if people don’t need jewelry right now, they need help from the jewelry industry. I, too, encourage everyone to stop their daily grind for just a moment and help, to whatever degree they can. If we can support Katrina’s victims in rebuilding their lives, and in the process help those who had not before have a little bit more after, that, at the end of the day, is more valuable than any gemstone we could ever sell.