Words is only words????

Douglass Drozdow-St.Christian (stchri@MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA)
Tue, 3 Jan 1995 08:24:09 +0001

the fire and spleen of the last few days over the question of cautioning
the way wee inarticulately use language as a some sort of neutral
practice reminds me of a comment one of my Samoan friends made apropos of
Margaret Mead. Albert was telling me how, when he read Coming of Age in
Samoa, he was angered by what seemed to him to be truly thoughtless lies
embedded in that text.

"She never thought about the lies she was telling the world, Douglass.
She should have thought about them. It's not lieing, you see, its not
knowing you are lieing which makes me mad.'

In teaching a course on aspects of violence and aggression, i include
issues of violence and exclusion in language. in this section, i take an
outrageous position on cleaning up language of its exclusions and
offences [ all those manXXXX things, along with denigrate and other
allusions to the DARK side of humanity etc], not as a censor but as a
means of encouraging students to think about what they do, about the way
the relate to the world around them....as an anthropologist and an
educator [ one of which is a career, the other an honour] i encourage
students to be thoughtful, not censorious...to see that speach is an
action, and at times a violent and exlcuding action...

the upshot is not a bunch of PC robots chanting person-hole-cover but an
understanding that something as inoocuous as manhole or fireman or
whatever is, as bakhtin reminded us, over populated with implications and
intentions and entailments.....as someone trying to teach the uses and
understandings anthoprology has to offer, drawing students to consider that
how they talk about the world has eefects on that world, to sensitise
them to even the most mundane and quotidian and thoughtless aspects of
enculturing the world, seems to me a valuable objective...

if in the process i also draw them to consider the political implications
of everyday acts, good....there is nothing neutral about teaching and i
wear my always present political agenda in very careful and explicit
display...in the process i hope i am also encouraging students to
consider and understand the various agenda they bring to bear as well...

and then the battle begins anew, somewhere else...someone says, ahhh, but
words is just words.....and i am reminded of the kuranko adage that 'the
word fire cannot burn down a house' to which i would add ' but the word
fire can kill...just ask gary gilmore'

in the process i learn something....that, for many of my students,
manhole cover is exclusionary but, that 'manhandle' should perhaps be
reserved for men alone, which is perhaps a comment on students
experience of the world which we would do well to bear in mind when we
once again engage in this debate, which has always struck me as being
simply about making the way we talk thoughtful and honest

tell all the lies we want, albert would remind us...but tell them
knowlingly and honestly...


douglass st.christian
anthropology - mcmaster u.
hamilton - canada
905 529 4992