When words have agendas of their own
Among the Hurricane
Katrina photos that continue to haunt me were those two--you remember
the ones--of people slogging through chest-deep water, carrying
food. You remember the captions, too: the white people, “finding
(food),” the black man “looting.” Just for a minute
forget the ethics of ownership versus need or what someone might
have to do to stay alive in such an extreme situation. Forget the
societal divisions festering just below the surface. Simply think
about this: words aren’t neutral; they take sides.
a word and you change the atmosphere,” says Askold Melnyczuk,
reminding me of William Blake’s words, “Damn braces:
Bless relaxes.” Melnyczuk is the founding editor of the literary
magazine Agni, director of the UMass Boston Creative Writing Program,
and a recipient of a Lila Wallace-Readers’ Digest Award in
Fiction. His first novel, What Is Told, was listed as a New York
Times Notable Book and his second, Ambassador of the Dead was named
a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year in 2002. When we meet,
we talk about how often words are used to narrow, rather than broaden,
seems to be no weight to words anymore,” Melnyczuk says. “There
has been a reinvention of language. Deeds used to precede words.”
Now he and
I talk about how words have taken the lead, springing ahead of deeds
to become slogans that hurry us to pre-ordained conclusions or frame
what is in front of our eyes. Think of how our news, for example,
is filled with talk of “insurgents” and “terrorists.”
If CNN had been around in 18th century England, the insurgents and
terrorists surely would have been Samuel Adams, Thomas Paine, and
all those others better known to us as patriots. And have you noticed
when we read now of military casualties, it isn’t “soldiers”
or “Marines,” or any other individual person, but rather
the vague, sanitized “troops” who are killed or injured?
I’ll admit it took me a while to catch on that “a troop”
was actually one human being, not some military unit like a battalion
or division. Just one human being.
Of course we
see mundane examples every day of how words are played with fast
and loose, their meanings casually suborned. An inconvenience or
service cutback becomes a way “to serve you better (Have a
wonderful day).” And “new and improved” is not
likely to mean something good.
And, as, Melnyczuk
and I note, when words are devalued, writers are left with less
to say that means anything; our first line of defense against doublespeak
countries.” he says, “the joke used to be that the evidence
that poetry was important was that poets would get locked up. Poets
in the West regularly envied Neruda that he could get exiled for
what he wrote.”
No one gets
locked up or exiled for poetry here, and that’s good news.
But it also shows how our words have been defanged, housebroken
for the benefit of anyone with a product or point of view to sell.
Of course words aren’t only for use in public . They keep
us close to one another privately, too, as Melnyczuk shows us in
the loved lost causes,
the revival of the classics,
the classless society,
work on a dirge
for the language your
grandmother loved you in:
lyubov . . .
We can only
start with our own words and use them carefully to say what is real.
If we don’t protect them, how will we talk to each other.?
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can see past City Type columns at www.ellensteinbaum.com.