The Quotidian, August 31, 2010 ~ Oppressive Language

“Oppressive language does more than represent violence: it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge, it limits knowledge.” ~ Toni Morrison (born February 18, 1931) [my italics]

Morrison is an award-winning American author and editor. She is perhaps most well known for her Pulitzer Prize winning novel Beloved (1987). In 1993 she won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

According to Wikipedia, “In 1996 the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Morrison to give the Jefferson Lecture…. Her lecture, entitled ‘The Future of Time: Literature and Diminished Expectations,’ began with the aphorism ‘Time, it seems, has no future,’ and cautioned against misuse of history to diminish expectations of the future.”

Indeed.

[Source for quotation: Morrison is quoted in “Face the Fear: A Rallying Cry for Writers”, a fine article by Rachel Kadish, in Poets and Writers Magazine, Sept / Oct 2010 issue, page 32. Kadish is the author of the novels Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story (2006) and From a Sealed Room (1998). Poets and Writers Magazine is an essential magazine for poets and writers; highly recommended.]

[Source for biographical information: Wikipedia, accessed August 30, 2010].

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About Andrew Shattuck McBride

I am a writer, editor, writing coach, and consultant. I work in a variety of genres, including poetry, short stories, and creative non-fiction. I also have a couple of novels simmering on back burners. THANK YOU to Nan Macy of Village Books for taking this photo (June 2011).
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10 Responses to The Quotidian, August 31, 2010 ~ Oppressive Language

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Quotidian, August 31, 2010 ~ Oppressive Language | Andrew Shattuck McBride, Blogging -- Topsy.com

  2. A powerful post, Andy. And one that I agree with totally. Oppressive language is violence against the most powerful weapon for good we possess — our minds.

    Blessings!
    Carolyn

  3. Thank you so much, Carolyn!

    In my opinion, Toni Morrison speaks with great moral authority. Oppressive language is unacceptable. Her comment on time rings true for me, too.

    Oh, and I have Beloved on my reading list! I’ve moved it higher on that long list!!

    As a friend of mine says, “Write on Carolyn!” (Well, actually she says “Write on Andy!”)

    Blessings to you and yours, Andy

  4. C. R. Lanei says:

    “‘Time, it seems, has no future,’ and cautioned against misuse of history to diminish expectations of the future.”

    History is a biased data point but the bias does not diminish the importance of its consideration in thinking about the future. Past is the only place we learn and the future is our resulting experiment. But if we wish to know how to run an elegant experiment we really need the information of the past with all its biases and potential for misuse. Because all truths aside, the creators of biased history give us insight into who we must argue against as we approach the future. And one should expect nothing of the future, one should expect of themselves in the experiment of the future. The future is not a person, any expectations are of people and if we expect something of people we really have to attempt to understand them in an effort to know how we can hope to positively effect them.

    The folly of history is not the misuse of history diminishing expectations of the future–but rather having expectations of the future that are greater than the capacity shown through history. Misuse could perhaps be the proper term–only it is always those on the outside who see misuse so it becomes too vague to truly comprehend how we cannot misuse. Ignorance of history seems to be that which allows for the greatest flawed optimism. Our current environmental woes are based upon the greatest of optimism–the notion that man can conquer nature’s flaws and that nature will always bounce back. Both are sadly optimism because they are rooted in the expectation that the human is greater than the sum of his parts. This is why we must know the sum of our parts and use them to shape our expectations.

    I’m still on the fence about the other quote–much of language is considered oppressive by someone. In fact, to some extent we as writers thrive under the looming threat of this because it gives us much fodder for thought. When others use slang to speak distastefully about a marginalized group we (as writers) dig deep to try to conjure up the words which will dispel the bad effects of people’s blind hate. I can’t say that this is a reason to desire oppressive language but I’m not certain I agree with her conclusions.

  5. C.R. Lanei, thank you so much for your thoughtful, vigorous reply to my post.

    I believe the past is always with us; that’s why on the following day I posted William Faulkner’s comment that “The past isn’t dead. The past isn’t even past.”

    Another point I want to make is that history is always being revised from generation to generation, AND due to the location of “new” primary sources. For example, in his book The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and The Battle of the Little Bighorn (2010), Nathaniel Philbrick draws upon the “unpublished writings of Private Peter Thompson, begun just months after the battle” for new insights on the battle. [ Source for quotation: book jacket ]

    The future is like an undiscovered country. I don’t believe that it is subject to scientific experimentation. However, I do believe that we can – and should – influence the future, both on a personal and societal level. If anything, I believe we should expect more of the future, and be more optimistic. Everything changes as our global culture and global society matures.

    “Misuse of history” is perhaps easy in our country because so many people profess complete disinterest in history.

    You have many good points in your reply, and it is rich in content. Certainly, language oppresses someone. Language – and history – are used as tools of oppression.

    That’s why a book like A People’s History of the United States: 1492 – Present (Revised and Updated Edition), by Howard Zinn (1995) is so essential. Specifically, it reframes historical narrative from alternative points of view.

    Earlier this year we marked the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). NPR reported on something called “universal design.” Universal design clearly seems like it is the next step forward for people and animals.

    Can’t we do the same thing for language and make it work on behalf of all people? Can’t we push our language(s) forward, and eliminate the oppressive aspects of our language? The uproar over Dr. Laura’s use of the “N-word” recently shows me that there is still much to do to eliminate the oppressive aspects of English.

    This is sort of a scattershot reply. Blessings to you, Andy

    • C. R. Lanei says:

      In regards to the Dr. Laura incident–I won’t say too much for fear of turning this into a rant. Her words were purposeful aggression. But–I do not believe it is good or right to attempt to eliminate all language which is oppressive because language is the living product of people. And people are a mixture of good and bad, rarely only one or the other. Being able to be uncensored is an aspect of our freedom. Freedom is a belief that you (I suspect) and I believe in but with it comes a certain problem: it is a blessing and a curse. Recently I read Harriet Jacobs “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” and one of the arguments that slave owners frequently used was that their slaves were like children and could not use their freedom wisely. Freedom is a condition which permits one to choose but with it one must accept the resulting consequences. This is what is wonderful about it and what it horrible about it. Sometimes language is like Dr. Laura’s–purposefully chosen to be intentionally hurtful. Other times it is the result of not thinking before saying something and the result is an opportunity to turn ignorance into understanding. Censorship of language for good or bad does erode at a person’s right to the contents of their heart and mind–be they good or bad. It is a slippery slope.

      I have less to say on the time issue but it will be somewhat abstract. Time is always in flux thus the future becomes the present becomes the past. This is why I suggest that it is like an experiment, we believe some quality about the future and base our actions upon that which in turn become our past. And, our future is biased by our humanity which is why it is so important to consider our pasts to better understand the sort of future we can create with the people who we have in the present. The future is more like an old house than an undiscovered country (which conjures up thoughts of the Americas and their sorted history)–we must assess its condition before building upon it. This does not limit the possibilities so much as help ensure their success.

      But this is perhaps where you and I diverge (this tension is wonderful for both our growth as writers and people). I am a realist who wavers back and forth between optimism and pessimism but am still quite willing to believe that the future can be better than the sum of its parts. You take an idealist position. I hope dearly that we will not always agree because I feel it will give greater strength to what we can agree upon. And there in lie my hopes for the future–that we as humans can be willing to accept the disagreements gracefully thus retaining our diversity but allowing for cooperation.

      • C. R. Lanei says:

        I realized I should clarify that if we are able as humans to disagree gracefully we would have fewer Dr. Lauras even though we would still have disagreements. Wanting to hurt people with your words is a statement that you do not wish to cooperate but to conquer.

  6. Hi C.R. Lanei, thank you for your comments.

    I agree that the Dr. Laura incident was aggressive. I found it exceptionally ugly. I winced each time I heard her use the “N-word” (it was a lot of winces). After the incident and her announcement of her resignation, it was odd for her to claim that she wanted her 1st Amendment rights back.

    Anyway, words can be weapons and can be used to dominate and conquer. If they are used in this manner they are oppressive and work as tools of oppression.

    It would be an interesting to examine use of language in the era of colonialism.

    Sincerely, Andy

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