June 23, 2011

the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug

I attended a portion of the Black Economic Council's conference in Oakland today. Specifically, the keynote luncheon and awards presentation. My boss won the "mensch" award (because he's a really great guy), and a coworker was given the "transformation" award (because he's a cousin of Optimus Prime). Anyway, one of the other award winners gave an awesome acceptance speech that, in the great tradition of awesome acceptance speeches, went on WAY too long.

But something he said hit home with me as a writer, especially given the recent flap over the idiot who's releasing a version of Huck Finn with a certain word changed.

The background: this award winner met a man whose mother was the granddaughter of a slave. It's striking to think how little removed we are from that culture, though it seems like ancient history. This man held the hand of a woman who held the hand of a slave.  That's how he put it. Just one touch away. Not so distant after all.

As part of this story, the man was corrected by a wiser man nearby. "Don't say she was a slave," this wise man said. "Say instead that she was enslaved."

The difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between the lighting and the lightning bug.

To say someone "is a slave" is to blame them for their condition. It's what they are, that phrase says. No big deal. She's a slave. She's five feet tall. She's brown-eyed. That's who she is. That's who she'll always be. You can't change her eye color. You can't change her being a slave.

To say someone "is enslaved" is to illuminate that they are a victim of someone else's inhumanity. This is a big deal. She's enslaved (by someone else). She's repressed (by someone else). She's beaten (by someone else). Being enslaved is a condition that can be changed... by changing that someone else.

Think on that a while. And pay attention to the way simple phrases and images appear in the media, and in casual conversation. Notice those places where a bias has crept in without looking like any bias at all. Understand how words affect us on deeper levels. I'm no fan of political correctness--that overt, childish mockery of language that creates whole new doublespeak and which inhibits the free exchange of ideas. But we all need to be aware of how the words we use affect others. And ourselves.


Whirlochre said...

You make a valid point indeed, and it's one that has taken us generations of de-bugging to begin to see.

What we can't do is to impose our newfound wisdom upon the past, and this is where I think political correctness goes most astray.

I'm glad there are fewer 'slaves' and 'niggers' than there were, and I hope there will be none in the future.

But, in the past, in this bug of a way, people existed in those terms and while we might wish they never had we can't wish it away.

If we're not to delude ourselves about how we got to where we are it's necessary for us to pick up and use these words exactly as they were once intended from time to time on the understanding that they no longer constitute tools to bring to bear on the present. Rather, they are relics history forces us to examine — blunt instruments from blunter days.

PJD said...

Well said.

In the US, Glenn Beck and his ilk have openly pined for the America they once knew. That romanticized, cleansed version never really existed. The America they once knew was run by wealthy whites (OK, still is) without all these minorities mucking up their fun.

As a white male who grew up in a relatively privileged area, I think a lot about prejudice, racism, and diversity. As a man with gay friends and coworkers, I think a lot about equality and discrimination.

We will never have true equality and eliminate discrimination if we hide brutal truths under muddy language. Similarly, we will never have it if we contrive meaningless phrases to represent those things with which we're uncomfortable. We all need to look each other in the eye with respect and acceptance. We need to look inward and recognize our own prejudice (for we all have it) and work to overcome it.

Can't do that by using the wrong words, or by replacing history's words with today's.

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Sylvia said...

I don't think most people want to see words eradicated and it seems to me that most of the terms cited as "political correctness" are made up examples meant to mock.

The use of a slave vs enslaved is a brilliant example because it shows us the difference and how we analyse the terms. Lovely.