Human Language in an In-Human World
“You know why Ifemelu can write that blog, by the way?... because she’s African. She’s writing from the outside. She doesn’t really feel all the stuff she’s writing about. It’s all quaint and curious to her. … If she were African American, she’d just be labeled angry and shunned.” – Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Charlotsville, Donald Trump, Racism, Xenophobia, Terrorism, and our Panicked and Cynical Age have been throwing painful darts at the target of my heart quite often in the last few weeks. Recently, I spoke to a friend of mine on the phone. She lives in the United States. I do not. “I never thought I would see this happening,” she told me sadly, “there are signup sheets for the Nazi party hanging publicly at the local university.” Her grief ripped at the seams of her words, and I was equally alarmed, though not at all surprised. I have seen time and again in my life that all people have the same capacity to do both great good and great evil, and that ultimately all people want safety and security for themselves and their families – anything that threatens that in any way usually causes them to either act out in familiar historical hatreds, or withdraw and do nothing.
Our institutions were built along these lines as well. During my time working in Tanzania I saw my friend, a labor union leader who was fighting for a slight increase in wage for all Tanzanian workers on the Arusha Campus of the International School, unfairly locked up in order to intimidate other staff members into quitting their membership in the union. This happened a few weeks after Nelson Mandela’s death. In honor of Mandela, a school-wide assembly was called. The Irish principal snorted, hiccupped and wiped away tears while speaking of the significance of Mandela’s life. The audience – children of ex-patriates of all stripes – sat and dutifully imbibed that the world Mandela fought – a world of racism, segregation, enforced poverty and Apartheid – no longer applied, not to them. The parents of these children anxiously haggled over when their children could handle learning about the Holocaust. In the meantime, the workers at the school earned next to nothing and were barred from holding other jobs.
This hypocrisy that seemingly could get no clearer, shined even brighter.
My friend wanted Tanzanian workers to have a slight raise – maybe to earn three-hundred and fifty US dollars a month instead of two-hundred and fifty. The tensions between the school and the labor union peaked when the parent of one of the students hit a (black Tanzanian) security guard while driving into the school parking lot to pick up his son; the stressed parent tried to drive away without taking the wounded man to the hospital. The Tanzanian staff were at that moment waiting in their bus to go home, and they witnessed the event; they intervened, locking up the school gate and forcing the angry parent to take care of the security guard. The School Administration – those same people who told their children that Mandela’s victory was won, and our world was now free and fair – fired those workers who were members of the union, and who locked the school gates in order to keep the guilty parent from running away from his crime.
Oh yes, Tanzania made me very cynical, in the way that blatant, shiny and freshly-sharpened hypocrisy will do – as opposed to the cushy and eye-soaping hypocrisy I had been educated into in American schools. Yet what graduate studies in African Studies awakened me to time and again was that what I saw in Africa, was true the world over – and nowhere more true than in the United States: the institutions that declare themselves in charge of the United States have been, from the very beginning, institutions that enforce and enable terrorism and slavery.
What to do, what to do?
Like I said, I’m a cynic. I don’t believe any more assemblies in honor of Mandela will help. I don’t believe in diversity workshops or sensitivity schooling. Sometimes these things work, true. I can’t speak for everyone. But in my experience people are all, in some way, fundamentally people and institution-pleasers. If we are taught what to say, we will probably say it as we are told. We will say ‘woman’, even if in our head we say ‘bitch.’ What burns deep inside of us will never find expression, and ultimately, that is what we will act on en masse.
Chiefly, we must understand that we live in an age of Conscience and Consciousness testing. Our True-Human-Beingness is the Source from which will spring our ability to respond to people, institutions, stories, histories, violence, grief, hatred, and anger, with a freedom and love that will transform the ways by which these interactions are conducted. Yes, conducted. These are grooves, you see – deep grooves in our history of being that conduct us to walk this or that direction, say these or other words, and live in this, particular way. These deep grooves have sliced themselves into the sad face of what is our humanity. We must tell different stories now. We must be more creative and more human than anything we have been taught or told of before.
We must redream ourselves into the very heart of the living Earth.
This kind of humanity and creativity cannot be workshopped. It can’t be taught as a ‘way of making decisions’, or ‘what to do when your friend says something racist’, or ‘how to respond to sexism’. It is not a list or a set of instructions. It can’t be planned for. It can’t be deconstructed for its elements and sold by parts over the internet. It is a song. It flowers as a living feeling in our frail hearts and it will give birth to our ability to truly observe and consciously respond to the violence that we live in; this kind of humanity will be a creative act – and this is what it means to be constantly in a state of becoming human. Or, as some might say, this is what it means to be constantly remembering our humanity.
To be becoming is spontaneous, and beautiful, and creative.
And difficult. Terrifying, in fact.
This vulnerable being-becoming lives in the structured cup that holds the yin-yang paradox of life: a human life is as human as we let it be. All human lives are equally human. All human beings are born, and all human beings die. Contained in our seemingly average replication is a brilliant, free life that looks like nothing that has come before or that will come after. It is not only human beings who live in the embrace of this paradox – all living beings do. This paradox of life is breathtaking. (Even so, the next breath will be taken, and life will go on, as always…)
Language and Communication are equally delightfully paradoxical. Language lives this same kind of existence: we must use words that we all more or less understand the same way, in order to communicate with each other. When I ask a friend to lend me her phone and she hands me a pair of shoes, we have miscommunicated. However, within the fortress of rigorous sameness and equal understanding lives the sweeping flourish of a unique creativity – I communicate like nobody else. You do too. Sincerity is what shines through, winking like delicate eye-of-pearl.
It is partially because of the Truth of this paradox, and the unique way in which it constantly expresses itself, that I am dismayed by what I see as a policing of language – and therefore thought – across the United States. I am talking about political correctness applied indiscriminately across the whole world, like a baby ladling its food onto a spoon and tossing it onto the table in anger and curiosity.
It’s not that I deny that each of us is born into castes of privilege that we as individuals and a society must be aware of and dismantle – it’s that our language around these issues is not precise and creative enough, and our vision and estimation of the problems as a result are vague and shallow. How can we simply cut the problem of discrimination into statistics, lists, categories, and charts? How can we apply methods of classification to a human life when we know that these methods of killing and cutting up nature in order to understand it better have failed us again and again? A human life is a living interchange of elements. It does not rest. History, equally, is not over. As Stephen Harrod Buhner quotes James Hillman saying, “It was only when science convinced us the Earth was dead that it could begin its autopsy in earnest.” How can we shatter our lives into broken pieces and call those pieces whole experiences? I know that privileges of all kind are real; however, I am deeply skeptical of our ability to truly ‘stack’ our privileges – how can we ever really understand the deep synergy of all of the elements of our life put together, the things that we know, the things we can only guess at, and the things we don’t even suspect are there?
Those stories can be and are told ably, I believe. To me, however, the biggest problem with politically correct language is that the project reeks of American hubris – imposing onto all of World History and all people and histories around the globe our particular story, chopped up in this one, particular way. Certainly, human history is a tale of exploitation, slavery, genocide, illness, war, sexism, racism, ableism, violence, torture, grief; equally, it is a legend of fabulous heroes, deep love, and hope always for the delight of the next breath. We all eat and sleep. We all dream. The gamut of institutionalized hatred that we have built, however, has resulted in institutional and historical effects, side-effects, and after-effects – our ghosts are often just as strong as ourselves. People of all places and times have lived the foibles, follies, crimes, and heroism of humanity. Slavery came in the guise of the strange leveling of people and land in Russian serfdom, the murderous sugar cane mills in the Caribbean, the cruel plantation system in the American South. Cultural genocide dressed up as Christian colonization and terror around the world. Ubuntu, the African concept by which humanity lives in a paradigm in which every person, animal, and plant are human – a world where we all need each other to be our (best) selves – was contorted into the strange legal gymnastics of colored people and women having to prove their ‘humanity’ in courts to be granted the right to vote, or the right to live as they choose.
How is it, after all, that South Africa – home of the most liberal constitution in the world – is also the home of so-called conversion rapes? (I prefer conversion-rape-murders. The phrase better states both the intention of the crime, and the outcome.)
* * *
Ah, here the stickler in me pushes her glasses up her nose. One hypocritical suggestion, if I may: Let’s stop saying a human being is worth any amount of money. This, to me, is a corporate devastation of language and thought, and poverty-ism at its finest.
* * *
“A man bars (my) the passage!” Ponca Chief Standing Bear thundered to Judge Elmer S. Dundy in the trial that ultimately granted him his right to be his own ward, “He is a thousand times more powerful than I. Behind him, I see soldiers as numerous as leaves on the trees. They will obey that man’s orders. I too must obey his orders. If he says that I cannot pass, I cannot.” The fact that the law acknowledged that Native Americans are human beings is gloatingly called ‘legal precedent.’ I may be a fool, but I will never, ever understand why we pay so much respect to a law that blows itself up in so much self-aggrandizing fanfare because of this. (The book Standing Bear is a Person tells this whole story in moving detail.)
My friends, Standing Bear spoke truly: a man is always barring our passage. There are always other men who will obey that man’s orders, as if politics is the pinnacle of what it means to be a human being, and we exist only as our political selves, as a hailing smorgasbord of symbols parading down the street like any t-shirt with a slogan. What of the human soul? What of our ability to refuse, to be free, to say what we feel, to cry, and do right by others?
All of this to say that blanket phrases such as the ‘dear white people’ articles I see time and again in the Guardian throw an American history we do not know well enough at a world whose history we don’t know at all – and expect this same world to pay homage. The way we say, ‘having (any) privilege’, assumes a static nature to the privilege itself – when privilege is not static. It cannot be. It has survived for this long, because it is always able to become something else, something new. Being white in Zimbabwe tells a completely different story than being white in the United States. The living, morphing nature of these stories – the relationship of histories and institutions we live out – runs so deep that lists or classifications or categorizations often simply do not apply.
Most Americans don’t understand the price of our political correctness project around the world. The translation problems run and squeal from linguistic trapezes to historical jungle gyms. There is often a clear communication barrier between those who try to educate in language, and those who are on the receiving end. One funny and alarming result of a fairly common misunderstanding happened in Poland, when people decided that the only politically correct way to refer to a black person was ‘African-American’, even though nearly all black people in Poland were Africans. Is it that we are not explaining ourselves well enough?
We are the world’s leader, the world’s policeman, ‘the eyes of the world are watching us’, etc. Somehow, we are always in thrall of our uniqueness – anything can happen the world over, but if it happens in the United States, it becomes unimaginable. (Strange, isn’t it?) Other countries are allowed to elect fools to office – but when it happens to us, we wring our hands and wail: how could this have happened here? And then when we find Nazis in our midst, we again say the same – everywhere, yes – except for here. Again, the hubris. Again, the unfamiliarity with an American history that begins and ends with torture. The unwillingness to learn our own history as it exists inter-tangled with the histories of the whole world: would an American observe the difference between Mozambicans and Zimbabweans, so as to understand that when Zimbabweans go to Mozambique, they are often targeted by the local police – arrested and fined for no reason in particular except to feed the hungry stomachs of the officers with bribes from across the border? Would an American notice the difference between Ukrainians and Poles, so as to understand that Poland is riddled with xenophobic attacks between people who look the same? Would we understand that our histories live in the same house with the histories of others around the world? Ah, but we are talking of Average people, I am told. Well, I don’t believe in average people: this is thinking like politics tells us to think, and we all know that politicians are liars.
People of any place have a knack at sniffing out otherness and reacting to it according to the scarcity they fear and the history that shaped them – the well-worn institutional grooves that do not admit otherness as truly human and worthy of welcome. Social Darwinism is a zombie that eternally lives a horrible deadness. Reaction loves linguistic sameness and patterns. Reaction tells no true stories. Reaction upholds: we are castes of symbols, and nothing more.
Where are our stories that will change the grooves? Where is the beautiful and true language that will do so? Not the language we are fed and told to express ourselves with – but the language that burns our tongues when our hearts are engaged what is going on? Where is each person’s unique ability to be a beautiful and true human being?
* * *
The language of expressing what it is we are living – whether it’s the sameness of the violence or the seismic throttles of change – this language needs more nuance and depth and space for creative expression, if it is to convey a deeper truth. (And the Truth will set us free.) It needs to tell a story of a particular history – why we call it this - and not sound like a recited confession plastered all over the globe as if our Western dramas are the only ones that deserve a world-wide audience.
Like any human life, the histories of all people around the world live on, interdependent with each other, like the roots of an old-growth forest. Let’s do our best to see the truth of that world, so that this forest can sing a more beautiful song – around and with all of Gaia.