Saturday, February 10, 2007

Word to your brother

More weight than it can bear

The conversation had taken a turn and I had obviously missed it. The words seemed familiar, but they were heavy laden, carrying more meaning than I was accustomed to. It was an odd experience, since vocabulary is one of my strong suits. Matters cleared up when my interlocutor flashed his trump card. Apparently racism is a term that can be applied only to members of the majority—specifically, to white people. By definition, minorities could not be racist.

Whose definition? As an ethnic minority myself, I was perfectly well aware that there were members of my tribe who exhibited strong racial prejudices. Perhaps we, however, were white enough to qualify as racists (given that we met the other requirements).

I was talking to a white guy. When he finished his earnest explanation of the specific nature of racism, I asked for a clarification: Was it not possible for a black person to be racially prejudiced against white people? His reply was prompt: Of course, but they couldn't be racists because racism required power.

Couldn't you be a member of a powerless minority and still harbor racial prejudice? He agreed that you might have those prejudices, but he insisted that power was an absolute concomitant of racism. No power, no racism.

It would have been helpful to have known that at the start of our conversation on the state of our national culture.

Humpty Dumpty

Despite my political liberalism, I am quite conservative when it comes to language. No one has to tell me that language belongs to the people and that they have a right to tweak, twist, and transform it however they like. Language constantly evolves. I decline, however, to push its evolution along. Billions of people are heedlessly involved in that endeavor and they don't need my help.

I prefer that language evolve slowly, lest we lose our ability to communicate clearly with each other. It's a waste of time to complain about the atrocities that young people visit on the spoken word. That, after all, is one of their jobs—to craft language that transmits information to their peers while locking the old people out. Some of their youthful excesses will become domesticated and enter the vocabulary of the mainstream while other flights of fancy will pass out of fashion. It has ever been thus and I'm not troubled by it.

No, what bothers me is the artless distortion of language by adults who should know better—or at least appreciate the need to be more careful about it. When you insist that a word carries a cartload of connotations that reflect a highly specialized point of view, you lose the ability to use that word meaningfully with anyone outside your clique. The guy I was talking to was not using the same language as I was. If I had said “impotent racism,” he would have heard it as an oxymoron, since power was at the center of his definition. No doubt the word worked wonderfully well in his in-group, but the invisible connotations created confusion whenever he conversed with others.

I could appreciate the sentiments behind it (often stridently decried as “political correctness” by those who wish to continue to use racist, sexist, or homophobic language like in the good old days), but I also see the creation of genuine language barriers.

A term of art

My mind flashed back to that conversation, which occurred about fifteen years ago, when I perused the February 10, 2007, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. A letter in the Datebook section gently chided a journalist for using a standard vocabulary word without realizing that it had fallen into disfavor among academics:

As a daughter of the South and an academic who has published books and articles on slavery, I wanted to thank you for the well-composed essay in today's Chronicle....

One small detail I might point out in Winn's article, however, is his use of “master.” These days, academics who work in the field do not use this term except in very specific circumstances, when directly quoting or when describing a relationship where that power valence is operative.

To describe someone who legally owned or held another person in slavery, we say “slaveholder” or “slave owner.” To use the term master, many believe, affirms the nature of the relationship from the slaveholder's point of view, not the enslaved person's point of view.

To be someone's master, the objectified person must have consented to the terms of the relationship and self-identified as a slave. It may be a small, and to some a silly and insignificant, shift in vocabulary, but words do things and actions say things.

By choosing to view a historical relationship from the perspective of the vulnerable, not the entitled, is an act saying what we value; and by shifting our discourse to engage new language, our actions say we believe we can do better than re-inscribe the former paradigms of authority and privilege.

Again, many thanks for Winn's essay.

Kim Connor
Assistant professor
American studies
University of San Francisco
I think Professor Connor is off the mark if she thinks it's useful to promote general use of an academically nuanced definition of “master.” In fact, I'm not even sure how useful such an approach is within an academic setting. While precise definitions are critical in serious discourse, co-opting commonly understood terms by giving them painstakingly refined definitions is a good way to make one's work inaccessible outside one's field of endeavor. In such cases, we either accept that our research papers are for limited circulation and consumption, or we include a glossary in each paper that explains the common words we've turned into terms of art.

I'm not big on neologism, but it may be better to craft a new term for specific uses than to transform old ones. Furthermore, if you're brilliantly successful at transforming old terms, it will then become necessary to read old texts in full awareness of old definitions if we wish to comprehend their meaning. This will always be true, of course, and can't be avoided. My point is that we shouldn't exacerbate the problem needlessly. The less stability language has, the greater the confusion.

One more thing

As someone who tends toward prescriptivism, I cannot end this post without noting one additional thing about Dr. Connor's letter: the dangling participial phrase.
To be someone's master, the objectified person must have consented...
The phrase is clearly intended to refer to the slave owner, not to the objectified person. I go back to my original point: Communication suffers when clarity is lacking.

And now that I've carped about the tiny mote in Professor Connor's eye, I must try to be careful about the occasional beams in mine.


eProf2 said...

I'm sure Dr. Conner would never deign to use the best known and best written book on Brazilian slavery entitled, The Masters and the The Slaves, by Gilberto Freyre. While written originally in 1946 and revised as recently as 1966, Latin American historians still refer to Freyre's masterpiece (pun intended) as the seminal work on slavery in Brazil.

As to the charge that racism must have a power quotient and only majorities can be racist, must it take into account a nationalist perspective? That is, was Idi Amin a racist or is Robert Mugabe a racist today with their "ethnic cleansing" policies or just some aberrant contradistinction to American racism? And, what are to make of the conditions in California now that there isn't a majority (50% or more) of any race? Is racism dead in California?

I agree with your premise that clear communication with a solid common understanding of language is essential to the creation and sustainability of a civil, civic life.

Blake Stacey said...

"If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me, then what a singularly deep young man this deep young man must be."

Tom Lehrer, on academic jargon

Anonymous said...

Conscise? You're just a word niggard.