Tag Archives: language

Framing the horrors

Trigger warnings. Also, I’m going to use a lot of ‘I’ statements in this blog, not all of them are true of me, this is about the language, not personal experience.

How we use language informs how we see our own experiences, how other people use language shapes how we understand them. We may not be consciously analyzing each other’s words, but nuances affect us anyway. It is a method that is used to manipulate people. Cultural habits of speech can entrench values – and not always good or healthy values. How we frame things can prop up power imbalance, abuse of power, disempowering of sets of people and so forth. I think one of my jobs as a bard is to get people thinking about how the words they hear and the words they use change and shape their relationship with reality.

Let’s consider this more specifically.

“I was raped.”

This phrase casts rape as an event that happened to the speaker. It has a similar ring to “a tree branch hit me on the head” or “I had a cold.” The phrasing disappears a number of things. It disappears the rapist as an active player in the events, someone who had a choice, and autonomy, not at all like a falling tree branch. It seems passive, perhaps unavoidable, like the tree branch and the cold. These things just happen.

“A man raped me” is a very different statement, foregrounding the deliberate action of an individual. Something done to the victim, not an accident, not a falling tree.

We use all the same terms of phrase for other acts of violence and sexual assault. I was assaulted, not someone assaulted me. I was mugged, not someone mugged me. I was a victim of child abuse, not pointing at the adult who abused your child self.

One of the other things this language disappears, is the likelihood of the victim knowing the aggressor. Most assaults are not undertaken by strangers, although these are the ones we are taught to guard against. You are most likely to be killed, assaulted or sexually abused by someone you know. “I was raped” has no known person in it as perpetrator. It implies stranger danger. “I was raped by my boyfriend” has a very different impact. “I was abused as a child by my stepbrother” foregrounds a lot of things that need to be visible. Of course for many of us it isn’t safe to name the aggressor, and we have legal systems that mean you have to be careful about your accusations, but we should all be able to get as far as ‘I was assaulted by someone I trusted’.

The word ‘rapist’ suggests something other, that is not a person. A rapist is something we can imagine as separate, not one of us. It allows us to wriggle out of thinking about it. Or we can picture them like some kind of stage villain, self announcing and distinct. Rapists are here. They are us. They are next to us on the train. We work with them, hang out with them, are related to them. We need to re-identify their presence, their personhood. So many women are raped, it is reasonable to assume that men who rape are present and numerous and not self announcing. A man raped me, not ‘a rapist’.

We lose the men when we say ‘I was raped’. We lose the clarity that, often what we’re talking about is something a man has done to a woman. Yes, I know it doesn’t always work that way, but mostly it does. Rape is a crime with a distinct gender bias. This is another reason it would be helpful if we could start foregrounding the rapist when we talk about this stuff. It might help us not get bogged down in ‘not all men’ conversations if we started by being a bit clearer about who had done the things in the first place. Saying ‘I was raped, I was assaulted’ lets people decline to hear who was doing it.

How we talk about things informs how we feel about them and think about them. We need to move away from victim blaming, and one way we can push towards that is to change how we phrase things so that the perpetrator remains firmly in view.


Stealing the language of distress

If kindness is part of who you are, then the last thing you’d want to do is add to someone’s suffering. But, how do we tell between people who really are in trouble, and people who steal the language of distress for other reasons? It’s a really hard call to make.

I have no doubt there are people who permit themselves to be fragile rather than face down their problems. I can’t easily tell by looking who has real issues, and who isn’t prepared to deal with the grit and shit of life and shoulder their share of responsibility. Not at the first glance, although over time it gets more obvious.

People dealing with real issues will have things they can’t deal with because body and/or mind just can’t, but otherwise will tend to do the best they can with what they’ve got. People with genuine issues often hate being seen as victims (but not always). People who have survived massive doses of crap tend to have courage, determination and backbone – at least some of the time.

If someone is obviously financially secure, and obviously more well than not, and educated and resourced then I may be a little less inclined to see fragility as something to respond to with care and support. I am especially wary of people who use the word ‘triggered’ when they mean discomforted, and people who talk about being bullied when I can see what happened didn’t have that shape. Being told no, is not automatically bullying. Being disagreed with is not necessarily bullying. People with a lot of privilege who get entitlement issues when told they can’t have things their way, can be quick to claim victimhood, and to use the language of disempowerment to try and get their own way. It’s important to take a long, hard look at how much power people have.

One of the things I will do is help people get stuff done. The person who can make use of that help and use it to get stuff done, I will keep helping. The person who wants me to do things for them – and we’re talking things they clearly could do for themselves – I am not going to indulge.

It is hard for victims to talk about bullying and abuse. It is hard for people with mental health problems to talk about vulnerabilities and triggers. It can be really difficult for people with bodily health issues and physical limitations to flag up what they need. Privacy, and dignity are big factors here. For the person who just wants to have it all done for them, privacy and dignity aren’t issues in the same way. However, by using the language of triggering and disempowerment, what these people do is make it that bit harder for people with real problems to get taken seriously. That makes me cross.

There are also people who take this language and use it deliberately to further disempower those who are already in trouble. Take the ‘all lives matter’ response to ‘black lives matter’ as a case in point here.  Take the people (I‘ve met some) who can say without irony that they think middle class white boys are the most prejudiced against group there is. Take the Christians who see any kind of equality for other faiths and people as an attack on their rights and freedoms. Take the man who is fighting for the right for a grown man to walk into a comics store and not be forced to buy a copy of Squirrel Girl (he was on twitter).

There are no easy answers here. Precise use of language goes a long way. If we let people who are basically fine take over the words needed for talking about large and serious problems, then we shut down whole areas of conversation. And when we do that, we keep power in the hands of those who had it all along, and keep silencing people who need to be heard.

The language of Madness

I’ve been conscious for a while now that abelist language is a thing, and that how we talk about various forms of disability, and how we use it as metaphor needs keeping an eye on. As a person with mental health issues, how should I talk about madness?

It is important to me to talk about it. I don’t feel at ease with more clinical language, I want to talk experientially and about feelings. I think if I want to describe myself as having been ‘bat shit crazy’ then that’s ok. There’s issues about reclaiming words and undermining them as insults.

It’s difficult at the moment because cognitive dissonance is everywhere, and there seem to be a lot of people who would rather, for example, contrive complex conspiracy theories about how someone has made a hurricane happen rather than deal with the issue of climate change. What do we call that aside from madness? In psychological terms, the line between sane and not sane is all about functionality. I see so many people who are so in denial about environmental issues, that they are not functional. It might even be technically accurate to refer to this as insanity.

We’re collectively quick in the wake of a mass killing to talk about the killer’s mental health problems (when we’re talking about a white guy). The major problem with this is that it can lead to the impression that mentally ill people are dangerous. In practice, most of us pose no risk to anyone but ourselves. The trouble is that not all forms of madness are created equally.

I’m conscious that there are many Pagan practices which, in their ecstatic and dramatic extremes, take a person out of consensus reality and into something the consensus considers insane – hearing and seeing that which others do not, knowing things from this experience… conversations about shamanism especially, and madness have been going on for some time.

I’m also conscious of the madness of creativity. Again, it’s an ecstatic form, wild, deranged, visionary, extreme, profoundly dysfunctional and potentially life wrecking, but also able to think otherwise unthinkable things and bring beauty into the world. The risk of talking about this in terms of madness is that we romanticise and make attractive the kinds of experiences that can also kill people.

Along the way I’ve known a number of people whose relationship with reality has, by anyone’s standard, broken down dramatically at some point. In some cultures, this would have made them holy, important, their experiences re-framed as something significant to their community. Even in Christian history we see space, historically, for the holy fool, the mad mystic. When did we collectively decide that madness was a shameful thing that should be locked away, hidden from sight and never spoken of? And more recently, medicated out of sight? I know that the vast majority of low level mental health issues – depression and anxiety – are caused by our workplaces and other stressors like poverty and insecurity. We are to tidy it up and hide it away and not deal with the sick systems creating it.

Madness takes many forms. Some of its forms are so hideous and destructive that there’s nothing we can currently do except institutionalise the sufferers. Some years ago I knew someone who worked in that kind of environment. We’re still hiding the worst of it under the social rug, and most of us have no idea what goes on. Changing what we call it can just be a new way of hiding it from ourselves.

I can’t find any easy edges around when and how we should be talking about madness, and when we shouldn’t use that kind of language, because so much of what I see around me is itself insane. I think we need to be more willing to talk about the madness inherent in the system. Madness is not just something that happens to you, it can be the direct consequence of a deliberate choice not to deal with reality. Say and for example, by being in denial about what all the violent weather might possibly mean.

The menoporpoise

It isn’t a pause. Nothing has stopped, and the ‘pause’ bit technically refers to stopping bleeding, which may be years away for me.

Peri-menopausal is an awkward mouthful of a term, it’s not something I can live inside. It does nothing for me.

So far, the material I’ve found has just flagged up all the bad bits. There’s nothing I can work with. Nothing I feel empowered or encouraged by. I suspect this is because our culture values youth and sexual fertility in women, and not age or wisdom.

As a practical point, my skin now takes offence at everything, including my own sweat. I seem to spend a lot of time slinking off to the bathroom to wash afflicted regions. Water is fine. This leads me to the logical conclusion that I am trying to transform into an aquatic mammal, and this in turn brings me very naturally to the menoporpoise.

I see the menoporpoise as friendly and benevolent, but not always convenient. It means well, but it is in essence a large aquatic mammal trying to swim about inside my life, and sometimes that’s going to be complicated. We will have to learn to get along, the menoporpoise and I.

Our lives and experiences are informed and shaped by the language we use and the stories we tell. How we name things, how we talk of them is important stuff. For easily a year now, my body has been changing. I don’t want the cultural narratives of menopause. But perhaps I can work with a menoporpoise and change into something new.

Not out of the woods yet

How we use landscape in human metaphor bothers me. Not out of the woods yet is a case in point. As though woods are a bad and dangerous place and safety depends on exiting them. American talk of draining the swamp is another one. Wetlands are fantastic habitats and great sinks for carbon. If someone is in the wilderness, it’s not generally considered a good thing. We use ‘desert’ to stand for barren, empty and insufficient. If we call something a jungle it’s often to convey a sense of violence, and a law of might is right. Mountains are metaphors for problems and challenges.

It’s worth noting that these are all wild landscapes and evoke things not used or exploited by humans. These are the places we don’t build cities, and we tend to overlook the people who live in such areas just as we devalue the land itself. Good land, by our current habits of thinking, is land tamed to the plough or exploited for oil and other resources. Good land is working for ‘us’. Good people are inside the system, not wild things in a wild landscape. Drain the swamp and get rid of the swamp dwellers.

It’s worth being alert to this kind of language use, to avoid doing it, and to challenge those who throw wilderness words around in casually negative ways. If we want to protect our wild landscapes, we have to change how people think about them in the first place.

Poetic truth

What do we use instead of metaphors, to talk about things more fully, but without getting caught in language that can be used against us? I get into the most interesting conversations, and the first fruits of that exchange are there to be read at Celtic Earth Spirit.

We know that police have used anti-terrorist laws to monitor law abiding Green activists and politicians. We know there are lists. We know that standing up for the survival of the planet and the species is considered radical and dangerous. Which when you stop and think about it, is weird. Where this is going and how seriously planet-protectors are threatened by laws designed to stop terrorists, is anyone’s guess. But, however this goes, new approaches to language may help us.

Language is a currency, and like any other currency, it can be devalued. Miss-use and over-use can take the power out of words. When corporations take your words to use in marketing campaigns, they take power as well. ‘Community’ is something politicians like to say when they mean to sound inclusive.

Modern language is increasingly about the pulling together of words. Chillax. Brexit. Remoaner. It’s sloppy, soundbite thinking designed to reduce and diminish. Careless misrepresenting of other people’s words has become a staple of fake news. I don’t think there’s one answer to this – not least because a multiplicity of individual answers is always the better way to go. Treating language with love would be a good part of the mix.

So let’s speak in story and metaphor, in poetry and allusion. Let’s play with the breadth and depth of languages, old and news to find words that have not been tarnished with poor usage. Let’s find and use heart words, soul words, the language of human in the landscape. No more trite little phrases designed to silence dissent. No more petty point scoring where winning trumps truth as a priority. With wit and wordplay, pun and poem, let’s find better ways of communicating with each other.

After all, the trolls only come out to feed when they can hear the trip-trapping across the bridges, and we do not have to trip or trap, we can make quieter bridges that do not alert the things that like to hide underneath and sabotage.

Until God

‘Adieu’ in French doesn’t simply mean goodbye, it means goodbye forever. One of the things I love about French as a language is this need for the dramatic farewell. ‘Until God’ – because we’re not going to see each other again before then.

Of course we often don’t know when we’re saying goodbye for the last time. Every farewell has the potential to be farewell forever.

Say ‘farewell forever’ in English, and most people will hear melodrama. It’s not the sort of thing we have a cultural habit of saying seriously. That’s true of all big, dramatic emotional expression. In this language, we find it hard to take big things seriously – we hear irony, fuss-making, silliness. Say ‘this is goodbye forever’ and most people probably won’t believe you.

There are of course times when ‘goodbye forever’ is necessary. Some people, and some situations are intolerable to the point whereby leaving and never coming back is really the only sensible thing to do. Having ‘goodbye forever’ heard in that context might help others take onboard how serious it is, which could in turn lead to change. If not for me, then for the person who comes into the same situation after me.

Because of course it is personal, and not broadly hypothetical as I write this post today. I didn’t say ‘goodbye forever’ but I doubt what I did say will be heard as it was meant. I’ve made choices that mean there are people I will probably never see again, and to whom I said goodbye in person not knowing then that it was most likely an ‘adieu’.

Would a change of language have changed anything? Would the enormity and finality of ‘adieu’ have shaken people up to take me seriously? Maybe. Maybe not. English lacks the words for some situations, and as speakers of this language, we lack the mental framework for dealing with emotionally serious situations.

Until God, then, for some of this. (Curiously, ‘adios’ in Spanish has the same literal meaning but not the connotation of finality.)

Which as a Maybeist, is a fairly weird thing for me to say anyway, because I have no gods. There will be no afterlife for me that has everyone I care about in it where people can be re-united and past wrongs overcome. If it doesn’t happen in this life, it doesn’t happen, most likely.

Speaking to beauty

Before I even met her, I was told what a grumpy face she had. Photos bore the observations out, although the bad haircut really didn’t help. A haircut that undermined all scope for dignity, combined with a grumpy face – so easy to make a joke or two at her expense. Meeting her confirmed the impression, although she was also clearly shy and wary of people. I didn’t know her name, but I called her ‘grumpy cat’ and said it warmly, and she came to me, and we made friends.

The next time I saw her, I simply said ‘hey, grumpy cat!’ and she ran to me, purring. I think she’d remembered. She’d been climbing about under vehicles, not grooming herself, I asked for a brush, but apparently her brush had been taken, along with her litter tray, dry bed (a waterlogged cat bed remained) and scratching post. She was not in a good way, and with the nights getting colder, I could not bear to leave her living outside. We made a snap decision and asked if we could take her home. The chap she had been left with had said he couldn’t really take her in because he’s hugely allergic to her. A situation desperately unfair on both of them.

I brought her home, and started calling her ‘beautiful cat’ and asserting that in there somewhere, she was almost certainly a princess. I don’t go in for monarchy amongst humans, but it’s a whole other thing with cats. We groomed her – a vast amount in those first days, but only a little bit each day since as she’s become keen on washing herself. As her eyes became less sore, it became obvious that some of her facial expressions had been due to sore eyes all along. As a half Persian, half Rag Doll, she needs her face washing pretty regularly. You can learn a lot with a search engine about how to take care of a cat.

The change in her face was rapid. She can be a really smiley cat now. She beams at us, with big, open eyes, and a cheerful expression on her cute little face. We tell her she is adorable, and charming, and all things of that ilk, and she basks in the praise.

How much language any given creature understands, is difficult to judge. They certainly learn key words at great speed – Vet, food, out, and the like. Tones of voice are very important in animal communications – they hear warmth and ridicule, certainly. Given the speed with which grumpy cat stopped being grumpy cat and started being beautiful princess cat, I have to wonder how much difference our words have been making to her. It probably also helps that we don’t shout at her, we reward good behaviour and generally make life easy. She’s pretty chilled out, and that too has an impact on the grumpy face.

Of course in humans, the effect of language tends to be much more immediate and pronounced even than this. Especially in children. It’s so easy to tell a child who they are, what they look like and what, if anything, they are good for. The child who is a beautiful princess for whom everything must be perfect has a very different life from the child who is an ugly waste of space. Not just because of the power of the words over the child, but because of the power of the words over the person speaking them. We talk ourselves into a certain relationship with reality.

Perhaps in part I see her as a beautiful cat because I have chosen to recognise what is lovely in her. My words have consequences for me. And so I am blessed by having this lovely, gentle, generous, well behaved little creature in my life, and cannot recognise in her the grumpy, messy, angry creature I’d heard about. Changing the language won’t always change reality to this degree, but it makes it a good deal easier to alter relationships and behaviour and that can have enormous consequences.

The importance of language

The exact way in which we use language has a lot of influence on how we experience the world, and how we relate to each other. This is one of the reasons I find the careless use of words annoying. A bit of accuracy goes a long way! I feel very keenly that issues like gender in language are also incredibly important. As a child reader, I was conscious that books were generally addressed to men, the reader was always a ‘he’ and watching that change in my late teens and early twenties was a huge relief.

As an example of this, I’d like to flag up my reading experience of two different versions of the Tao Te Ching. Both are based on the same texts – although several versions of the original poem exist, so translation requires choices about which bits to include or ignore. The first translation I read (yellow cover) spoke of the wise man, the sage, the king and the prince. I found it fairly difficult to extract anything that I could work with, because I felt alienated by the language. It wasn’t really written to me, and therefore not for me, nothing about it invited my participation.

Ursula Le Guinn’s version (blue) involves the choice to use non-gendered and non-hierarchical language for the translation. The wise person, and where relevant, the leader. It’s much more accessible, and it makes for a completely different reading experience.

I know there are people for whom inclusive language seems like politically correct nonsense. It’s a lot easier to feel that language is no big deal, when the language deployed favours you, reflects you and affirms you in ways you probably don’t even notice. The difference between ‘mankind’ and ‘people’, is huge. It would seem a bit weird to refer to all of humanity as ‘womankind’ because so obviously half of the population, give or take, do not identify as women. But disappearing the half of the population who do not identify as men has been normal for a long time, and plenty of people use the words ‘man’ or mankind’ when what they really mean are ‘humans’ and ‘people’.

There’s a great deal of divisive language out there for talking about different kinds of people – the language of us and them, of me and other. I like what happens when we replace that with people, with the language of commonality, shared humanity and shared experience.

Language and landscape

I’ve recently read Jonathan Bate’s The Song of the Earth – it’s a book of literary criticism looking at landscape writing from a more ecological perspective, and it’s decidedly interesting stuff. In places I found it a bit more technical and academic than I could manage, but there were long, more accessible passages that more than made up for this.

One of the key theories underpinning the whole text, is that language is an act of separation from nature. Language is one of the things that makes humans, not natural, and so to speak of nature in language is to heighten separation. Further, that language is not experience, not the real thing, only ever a way of expressing something else. It makes an interesting juxtapose with Robert McFarlane’s ‘Landmarks’ where the message is that specific language helps us recognise and connect, and brings us into better relationship with the natural world, and that human communities living closer to nature have more words for what they encounter. On the whole I am more aligned to Robert McFarlane’s perspective.

I do not see language as unnatural. Nature communicates, with fellow members of its species and with other species when needs be. It does it with sound and movement, smell, chemical emission. If you know a dog you can tell the difference between its wanting to play bark, and its alarm and posturing  bark, while full on aggression sounds different again. A blackbird’s warning call is not the same as its sundown song. We can make sense of the bee’s waggle dance, although they don’t do them for us. Tress give off signals to attract the allies they need if they’re hit by a plague of insects, and on it goes. Communication is intrinsic to life, not some weird human addition. It may be arrogance to assume that other species have fewer ‘words’ as well.

Talking is not the experience itself. Writing and reading are very human activities, but they engage our mammal emotions and our minds. What we learn from any form of exchange goes with us, back out into the world, to help us notice. It is easier to discuss something you have words for, and to extend knowledge by means other than direct interaction.

Verbal communication has been given primacy in human interactions, but we do still use body language if we deal with each other in the same space. We are affected by how other humans smell – not just the binary of gross/acceptable, but subtle messages that come in through the nose. Tone of voice affects us. There’s also the exchanges that happen heartbeat to heartbeat, skin to skin, when we are close enough to be communicating in largely physical ways. The dialogues of holding and being held.  You can tell someone a great deal simply by how you touch them.

Language itself allows us to hold and explore ideas that it would be hard to imagine without the words to frame them. Truth, belief, the difference between experience and the expression of experience… but these are issues for another day.