Thursday, September 19, 2013

Language is not harmless ... but can be health giving

Language is not harmless. It is through language that unspeakable horrors against blacks, women, Jews, and others were justified. [...] As historian Marjorie Spiegel notes, throughout history, when oppressors wanted to target a particular group, they used language to prepare the population for the coming destruction. Slavery was accepted because the terminology used to describe black people — mad dogs, coons, apes — did such a powerful job of turning humans beings into something 'other' that it was not considered a crime to sell them into bondage. [...] These are our teachable moments. It is through our reaction to these incidents that we can finally turn the fantasy of how we Australians perceive ourselves into the reality of a tolerant and equal nation.  
McGuire ape gaffe exposes Australian tolerance as myth Ruby Hamad  in Eureka Street 30 May 2013 

Here's an example from two very different countries using language in devious and dangerous ways:

Second, the issue is being misrepresented in Indonesia. Reporting on the Abbott visit, the Indonesian media have repeatedly described asylum seekers as illegal immigrants using the Indonesian term imigran gelapGelap means dark and suggests activity that is shadowy and suspicious. The Abbott Government uses similar language and is happy to see the issue defined this way. It allows a humanitarian and human rights issue to be reduced to one of criminality, justifies tough action and absolves one of a duty of care for those legitimately seeking sanctuary. Pat Walsh Abbott's mixed messages for Indonesia in Eureka Street 2 October 2013

Costa Georgiadis, the Greek-Aussie gardening & waste recycling prophet, reckons if you want to change culture, you have to change thinking and to change thinking you have to change the vocabulary people use. Costa looks at the positive health giving uses of language that leads us to do good things for ourselves. Stop saying trash, rubbish or garbage, to be dumped. Say "waste" and we think : "We are making this waste, we are responsible for our waste and we can recycle our waste." Orwell wrote about the sinister, harmful side of thought control through language. Wittgenstein said "Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language." We all know this. Buddhists say we should be mindful of every moment and every word and every thought. Hard work!

I find it interesting to compare our attitudes and vocabulary with that of the USA. Have a look at this page about the origins and meaning of Jim Crow at the Ferris University's Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. That same university's brief pages promoting languages learning (only two: Spanish and French) and their page on their Festival of Nations stand in stark contrast to America's colonial, segregated and racist past. I wonder whether their take up rates for these language programs and intercultural activities are any better than ours. 

1 comment:

1300 Numbers said...

Foreign languages are indeed quite important to be learned nowadays.