semantically speaking

June 6, 2008

First, let me run up the flag here and say that at best, there is a thin thread to string this post together, but I still want to talk about it. Hope you’ll bear with me.

The whole thing in my last post about willingness v. will is part of an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with myself for a while now about the power of language. What we call something, how we refer it – that often says something more than the literal intentions. What’s most salient for me right now is the aggressive language used around disease and disorder. Things like, her battle with cancer, he conquered his fears, fighting the good fight, the will to live, etc. My efforts around healing or even managing my own maladies have been better served by a less combative lexicon.

But this experience of language goes way beyond my personal experience. For instance, if I told you a relative of mine died in the Holocaust, the term “died”, a fairly neutral term, does not suggest the horror that person endured, maybe being starved, then tortured, and finally lined up naked in front of big pit and shot in the head. But if I tell you my relative was murdered in the Holocaust, the term “murdered” suggests that something much more violent happened in his or her dying. And I think is more accurate way to talk about those deaths. And mass murder is accurate way to talk about genocide.

The power of language also extends to how we talk about folks who perpetrate acts of horror. Let’s take someone who commits rape, at the very least a pretty fucking foul thing to do. The perpetrator becomes a rapist, defined forever by the worst of himself. And I’m going with “him” because most perps are male. And in defining that guy by what’s darkest in him we push him outside humanity. And who does that serve? How does that serve justice? In taking away the humanity of the guy who commits rape, we’re not restoring humanity to his victim.

Bell Hooks said: For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?


3 responses to “semantically speaking”

  1. ned says:

    good food for thought. in your holocaust example i can understand the desire to “call a spade a spade” and refer to their deaths as murder – to soften it with “died” feels as though murderers are being let off the hook. in the same way, calling someone a rapist (or a pederast, or an alcoholic) reduces them to that singular quality in ways that calling someone a farmer or a doctor might not – but we’re more comfortable with the label if we don’t feel it’s negative. it’s short hand. i’m not sure it has to take away from their humanity, at least not any more than the actions which invoked the label to begin with; the man who rapes has reduced his humanity through his actions more than my calling him a rapist will ever do. and some labels become more socially acceptable with discussion – one could more easily refuse a drink at a party by explaining his alcoholism than one could refuse to babysit someone’s kids because of his pedophilia. i continue to learn about the difference between the phrases “a disabled person” and “a person with a disability”. framing something as a struggle also defines and reduces: consider “struggling to defeat her cancer” and “struggling to defeat her homosexuality.” or “afflicted with deafness.” language is indeed powerful, and my handle on it feels less secure the more i think about it. obvious examples abound: do i want to beat some sense into a child or guide her towards appropriate decisions? but things are often more ambiguous, at least for me.

  2. silvia says:

    interesting thoughts. i have owned the identity of alcoholic, addict, bulimic. all very strong words, which of their own accord in society have a ring of shame around them. i have enjoyed many years of freedom from that pain, thirteen to be specific. those words were so important for me to own in that they helped me to get square with myself. but in all cases of healing, it seems to be preceded by a softening inside. the willingness to uncoil and release the shame. the act of opening, of hope, of a willingess to believe in the possibility. it saved my life in quite literal terms. i have been amazed by the smallness of this action and the gravity of the impact in my life.

    i think of Barack’s Yes We Can! The we part and the exclamation point are both not my first thought. Such power in that affirmation. This is a shift for me that feels healthy and fun. I feel a lot of power in those positive words.

  3. proteanme says:

    i’m thinking about what i said and what bell hooks said about humanity, and wondering if what i’m struggling with is trying expand its use to include the darkness in the human condition. so that when we talk about one’s humanity we are talking about the complex mess that makes us all human – our almost endless capacity to do wonderful and terrible things.

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