A few days ago, my hairdresser posted a comment about Huckleberry Finn and that it has been banned at numerous points in time and in different places. The ensuing commentary flared up with the usual snarky comments about using the N-word, or hearing it on an audio book.
The last comment, after a stream of thoughtfully inane comments was:
I think it’s ridiculous how much power we give that word. Yes the history and hatred behind the word is disgusting but the word is just a word. We decide how much power it has.
I thought long and hard before not posting:
So says the middle-class blonde-haired white woman.
I didn’t think it appropriate to start an argument on my hairdresser’s page about race and class. But i was riled.
I think i spend too much time thinking about the importance and worth of words. School yard retorts, like “sticks and stones…” really do nothing but excuse poor behaviour, ignore the problem. But greater than that, i’ve found that often when i explain to people what i’m interested in and why i do it, that i hear “Well, people are just inherently selfish/greedy.”
I refuse to believe that. Maybe i watched The Diary of Anne Frank too many times as a child, but i refuse to believe that people, at their root, are singularly greedy and selfish. But i do believe that as long as we keep telling each other that, then it, like the school yard retort, simply excuses and ignores bad behaviour.
Words have an extraordinary power to wound and even to kill.
The importance of words has been slamming into me these past few days. I re-read Trinh Minh-Ha‘s “Gradma’s Stories” this morning as part of my postcolonial section. Both of them (Gregory and Trinh) are confronting the same thing, to a certain extent: the construction of the narrative of H(h)istory. Who tells it, how is it told, what purpose does it serve, whom does it serve? They are confronting the imaginative geographies of the colonial encounter – thrusting open the given discourses of what it means to be — .
So it is today that i put the question out there: what if we changed our language? What if we changed the language of dissent and dispute? What if we changed our language of reflection? What if we recognized that all of our depictions of other people and places and things are really simply reflections of our own making? They are not real? What if, today, we all chose to believe that people, at their root, are kind and compassionate – that we all are desperately interested in what is best for all of us? What if we fostered a discourse of kindness?
This week has been especially difficult in coming to terms with the power of words. The shooting of 14 people in Arizona has raised a number of questions about the power of vitriolic verbiage in the American public.That Palin had used cross-hairs to point to one of the victims, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) raises questions about responsibility in public discourse.
So, with that, i’ll leave off with a quote from Tariq Ramadan in response to the now-infamous cartoons in a Danish newspaper depicting Mohammed:
“Nobody is saying that we don’t have the right to offend. The question is: is it wise, and is it the way forward for us in our societies? It is wise when we are in a pluralistic society to say ‘I have the right to do it, but I have the civic sense of responsibility not to do it.’ It’s not censorship that we want. You know, the difference between censorship and respect is that censorship is the removal of a right, while respect is asking you to use that right in a reasonable way.”