Use Your Words (And Save a Life)

When I was a little girl – I’d say around four or so – I had this idea about where words came from. It seemed to me at the time that new words were coming my way almost every day. I was sure there was a big, beautiful building somewhere and that the building was filled with people who were busily inventing new words. I imagined them meeting and inventing. They would sit around a table, thinking up new and exciting words. Then, they would send them out into the land until they arrived in my neighborhood in a suburb outside of Chicago. I was sure there was a language company and its products would trickle down and out – for free.

I loved new words. I can still feel that little girl inside me, her eyes going wide with excitement: A new word, a new meaning, a new idea! She had a kind of happy delight in learning which grew, over the years, into an adult devotion to education.

When I went to college, I studied the things words are made of – stories and poetry. I became, first, a literature major. About halfway through my undergraduate years, I added a history major. I learned over the course of those four years that I loved words for the beauties they could create.

But increasingly, I was possessed by the ethics, the challenges inherent in making certain that words accurately described real human beings, real times and real events. It seemed to me that this task – discerning what I could be sure was real – was essential to creating a just society. Only when our words truly told us what was going on around us could we possibly do the work of reconciliation, understanding. Only then could we use our knowledge to make the world – truly – a better place. Studying history implied advocacy.

These days I find my eyes get opened very, very wide every day. That little girl inside me is expressing wonderment every morning when I read the news. She has even located the building where all the words are. The best words, in fact.

It’s nice, there. Gold curtains and busts and paintings and many people who are working very, very hard to create not just words and phrases, but whole histories.

She (and I) have learned new phrases. “Alternative facts” is our favorite. It seems we are not alone. The entire nation loves this phrase. “Post-truth” doesn’t seem as popular, but I like that one, too.

An amazing, daily outpouring of stories based on alternative facts are dizzying my adult mind. Three million people voted fraudulently in the last election! Refugees are dangerous! People got massacred in Kentucky and the press didn’t even notice!

I imagine all those people in that fine house huddling around the table working on these amazing stories, choosing those amazing words.

Of course, when I got to graduate school I learned that my equation of ethical historicizing and creating justice was too simple. After all, as Michael Foucault wrote, history is not an object. Discourse is. Discourse creates a set of rules for a given time period. Statements have a material reality: The rules of discourse are rules of power.

So the rules of our discourse have the capacity to destroy as well as to inspire. The rules we choose can save. They can also kill. That is exactly what will happen as long as that nice building and the people in it keep continue to churn out words, phrases, and stories as they have over the past weeks.

They have the best words for doing exactly that.

But guess what. I’ve learned words. So have you. Ours might be better. Let’s use them, and find out.

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The “Holy Land”? In What Context and in Whose Language?

Holy LandA critique does not consist in saying that things aren’t good the way they are. It consists in seeing on just what type of assumptions, of familiar notions, of established and unexamined ways of thinking the accepted practices are based… To do criticism is to make harder those acts which are now too easy.
Michel Foucault

A friend of mine recently sent me an email asking for my reaction to her distress over an article that recently appeared in The Charlotte Observer. The email included a screen shot of the story.

The headline read: “Greetings from the Holy Land!” A picture of members of the Eastern North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church holding a copy of The Charlotte Observer accompanied the blurb: “These Observer readers from Kannapolis and Charlotte visited Israel in February…”

The Observer thus neatly equated the term “Holy Land” with the current state of Israel. But a goodly number of locations that are critical to the story of the “Holy Land” are currently in locales that are not within that state – like Hebron/Al Khalil, Jericho, and the Old City of Jerusalem.

My friend wrote to the newspaper in protest:

[T]hat one, innocent photo and blurb just erased 3 million Palestinians living under a military occupation for almost half a century; erased a persistent and lethal conflict and the context surrounding reporting on that conflict, made an incredibly inaccurate political statement and just misled your readers to believe that that entire area belongs to the State of Israel and [that] the Palestinians (or those pesky Arabs throwing stones) are hostile interlopers – not human beings who live there and have lived there for centuries.

Most Jews don’t use the term “Holy Land” much – and there is a good reason for that. The only time the expression is arguably used in Tanakh is in Zechariah 2:16: “YHVH will take Judah to Godself as YHVH’s portion in the Holy Land (adama ha’kodesh) and will choose Jerusalem once more.”

The term is, in fact, medieval. It has a Latin origin (terra sancta) which is first attested in the 11th century C.E. The first English reference we know of dates from 1297, and that reference is related to the Crusades. Crusaders thought of the “Holy Land” as the area where Jesus lived and died, and as the location of the Holy Sepulcher.

The expression “Holy Land” is almost entirely sourced in Christian theology and Christian conceptual frameworks. Like the terms “Old Testament,” A.D. (anno domini, “in the year of the/our Lord”), and C.E. (“Christian era”), “Holy Land” was brought into regular use by Christian writers and theologians.

All of these expressions represent a Christian take on the Way the World Works. None  have any place in a secular venue.

We perpetuate the discourses of dominant cultures with incredible – and destructive – ease. But when we name things from the perspective of the powerful, we are capable of erasing the lives of real people, of doing away with cultures and peoples, of committing irreparable, indelible harm.

Michael Foucault writes, “The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.”

It is nearly the end of Passover, the festival that calls us to resist oppressive power of any kind, to free ourselves and humanity, too. To free ourselves, we must give names to oppression we face. May the names we use and the language we employ be accurate, truthful, and enduring.

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