April 24, 2003
|“||Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek—it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language—all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.||”|
|— Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize Lecture, 1993|
Lately, I've been rethinking the contextual use of language. The more I teach writing and reading, the more I understand the need to use language strategically—to make it your own. Words must be caressed and nurtured, like a newborn. They must be used rhetorically: rhetoric here suggests a time and a place for everything, a kairos. Language is not used in isolation; therefore, every situation is rhetorical, textual even. I think that we often forget that words can be violent, and sometimes we need reminders.
A command of language gives one power. As we command that language—itself a metaphor for control—in our ever-increasing public utterances, we need to be even more thoughtful before we lash out with the cudgels of thoughtlessness and fear. In the ethical interpretation of literature, one looks at the value systems represented in the text and makes judgments on whether or not characters act “in good faith.” Good faith is not dictated by one's isolated and absolute perspectives on the way things ought to be. Good faith is not practiced by labeling—using language—acts or people as evil out of context. Good faith requires a knowledge of one's surroundings in order to work. Good faith requires us to look critically and thoughtfully and compassionately at the circumstances before pronouncing sentence.
Perhaps we should indulge in some revisionary mythmaking. We should often ask ourselves, in the words of Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses, “What kind of idea am I?” Verses addresses the theme of language as violence: that the moral majority has the power of description, and those whom they describe have no choice but to succumb to that description—to become evil, amoral, a threat. If you hear often that you are wrong, you’re eventually going to believe it. While we might not do physical harm to the other, the psychological impact of the majority is an oppressive, often violent act that hurts not only the other, but also the oppressors themselves. Have you ever wondered how difficult it is to practice Judiasm in this country? Ever wondered how difficult it is to black? A woman? Gay? Do we need to make others’ lives even more difficult by wielding the weapons of violent rhetoric?
I understand that mythology is a powerful force, and overcoming myths that marginalize might be a Sisyphean effort for all of us. Yet, as Morrison states in her Nobel Prize speech, “it’s in our hands.” We control language, and therefore reality. We will all die, but it's how we live through our stories that's important:
|“||We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.||”|
What language does for us is in our hands. We need to make up stories that are inclusive, not exclusive and damning. We need to find out what stories to pass on.