Monday, September 22, 2008

Restoring Value, Meaning, and Accessibility to Language

I have been extremely mindful in this blog about the power of language, and a lot of my posts are focused on how language has the power to inform and shape opinion and understanding, and likewise has the ability to keep people out and aggravate situations. I recall, very vividly, one of the first times the power of language was shown to me. In college I was an intern and volunteer with NARAL – the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. During that time rumblings began about the possibility that President Bush would sign the “partial birth abortion act”, which was publicly described as being an act banning at-birth abortions. However, those of us who were immersed in the issue knew that the title of the bill and the public description of it were akin to Orwellian New Speak – labeling something the exact opposite of what it is. At-birth abortions were already illegal, and the bill had multiple add-ons that would severely limit access to reproductive rights medical care, and abortion access specifically. When I realized the amazing lack of actual truth in the language and descriptions given the public concerning this bill I was shocked – how many other bills did I know so little about, and how many other policies or legal issues were I taking at name value without thoroughly investigating them?

After overcoming that initial shock I became incredibly invested in being precise and purposeful in language use. As numerous incredible women of color feminists have written, people who experience precise oppressions can often not explain their experience until certain terms are discovered. Most recently for me, I read Cherrie Moraga’s Loving in the War Years where she describes the relief she feels when she is able to name the specifics of her experiences: “All along I had felt the difference, but not until I had put the words “class” and “race” to the experience did my feelings make any sense.” I imagine this is akin to me learning the term “genderqueer”. Hearing the term for the first time was like feeling a warm heat fill my body – I knew I had tapped into something distinctive that would illuminate my on feelings of difference.

Around the same time, I also became annoyed at the lack of accessibility most writings are to the public. When I came home and had to debate my feminisms or my anti-white supremacy feelings with friend who were not reading the same texts I found the words and terms I was quoting clumsy and uninformative. I wanted to be able to break down my thoughts while still keeping the new ideas I was having – and few of the books I was reading were preparing me to disseminate information in that way. While my blog is certainly not an easy read, I think writers go down the wrong path when they confuse ease of reading with accessibility. The idea of “dumbing down” writing goes about the act of translating language accessibly in the wrong way. Language can be made more accessible without diluting the thoughts or ideas that are being expressed, or treating the reader in a patronizing way. In such a way complex thoughts are still kept in their entirety. When I use a term that might be confusing, I explain it and I flush out my conclusions so that my train of thought can be easily traced. It’s very difficult, and I certainly haven’t mastered it but I have wonderful teachers before me, most specifically bell hooks who first came up with the idea of “translating” language.
“I was conscious of the desire not to ‘talk down’ to the audience in any way. I wanted to keep the same intellectual level I would have in the college-classroom lecture. With this in mind, I began to think in terms of translating – giving the same message, using a different style, simpler sentence structures, etc…A feminist essay with revolutionary ideas written in a complicated, abstract manner using the jargon of a specific discipline will not have the impact it should have on the consciousness of women and men because it will probably be read by only a small group of people.” **
If we follow hooks completely, some theorists who have had a tremendous impact on the way Western Culture views race or gender would be considered un-feminist in their approach. The race theorists Michael Omi and Howard Winant and the gender theorist Judith Butler use incredibly convoluted language and write in a very abstract manner, yet their writings are considered cornerstones for 20th century understandings of race and gender. Yet their work is incredibly important. The answer of how to fit the specific abstract ideas they discuss into a feminist framework was explained to me by Scott Morgensen, my outstanding Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies professor. He explained that even in Butler’s difficult prose explanations and examples were given to all of her writing. The difficulty was that professors assigned too much text so that students couldn’t bask in the writing, reading slowly and purposefully is often considered being lazy, and then, like me explaining my new consciousness to my friends back home, students find they don’t have the explanatory language – ust the catchphrases.

I’m writing this as a prelude to some thoughts I’m having concerning phrases or euphemisms that I find incredibly offensive: terms like “small town” that are used euphemistically to refer to certain classist white supremacist values systems without specifically naming them, despite the fact that small towns are often paragons of diversity and democratic values. Other terms I am concerned about include “Holocaust” and “rape” that are used to describe almost anything. This dilutes the power of actually discussing the Holocaust or an actual rape (trigger alert). Which, when you consider that one on every four women (and that statistic doesn’t include transgender people or men) will experience rape in her lifetime is incredibly terrifying. How does a survivor describe her, his, or hir experience when the word “rape” has no meaning? When, in many instances, it is used as the punchline to a joke? Finally, the term "retard' has been on my line. I don't think I could write anything more in-depth than this, so I am linking here to an excellent essay that addresses how we use the term.

*Moraga, Cherrie. “La G├╝era”. Loving in the War Years. South End Press: Massachusetts, 2000. p.46

** hooks, bell. “Educating Women: a feminist agenda”. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. South End Press: Massachusetts, 2000. p.112-113


Linda said...

mik, i love you and your writing. thank you so much for having this space and making it accessibility on the internet for me to enjoy.

Mik Danger said...

Thank you so much! I'm glad you love me and my writing, it takes me hours to write each blog, so it really is appreciated when you say things like this.

I miss you. I hope you're doing well, and I love you!

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