18 February 2008

Not Speaking of Torture ~ A Warning from Toni Morrison on the Importance of "Unmolested Language"

Portrait of Toni Morrison © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek - it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language - all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.
I have taken this passage from "The Bird is in Your Hands," the parable Toni Morrison offered when she received the Nobel Prize for Literature a decade and a half ago. This passage , indeed her lecture as a whole, come to mind whenever I encounter on npr, or in The New York Times or The Guardian, or in even less reliable outlets, euphemisms such as "enhanced interrogation techniques" or "harsh interrogation." The proper phrase, the truthful one, the one that accurately conveys what purveyors of euphemisms work so diligently to keep obscure - thereby abetting the outrageous criminal policies of our government - is torture.

If ever you wonder about the value of writers and artists, imagine the consequences of not having them around. Imagine where we might be without those who, like Morrison, warn us of the dangers of allowing our language to drink blood. Toni Morrison was born this day in 1931. That makes her 77 years old. Happy Birthday! And thanks for the warning.

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Blogger Tom White said...


18 February, 2008 18:43  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the passage, Jim. I love Toni Morrison and I hate euphemisms that obscure reality and allow us to lie to ourselves under the pretence that we are trying not to offend anybody. But truth cannot be offencive because it's the truth.

19 February, 2008 08:04  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for pointing me to that lecture - I adore Toni Morrison but had never read it (or listened to it.) It is so easy to manipulate language. The lecture reminds me of George Orwell's themes of language and ignorance, although Toni Morrison emphasizes dark purposes and the perpetuation of them. The phrase "language that drinks blood" really struck me, so much violence is coded into language, and so much violence has been incited with radio broadcasts, speeches.

27 February, 2008 16:28  

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