By Robert R. Thomas
Language is very intentional and entails active listening, according to Dr. Traci Currie, a UM-Flint lecturer in communications, who also labels herself “an artist/activist.” And those elements are relevant to understanding and replacing “the language of hate,” she said in a recent round-table at the Flint Public Library.
Currie said her work comes out of the spoken word tradition. In introducing the subject of “hate language” to a group of 25 participants representing diverse racial, religious and community interests, she said, “All voices should be at the table sharing their stories.”
In that spirit she facilitated a conversation around a long, oval, multiple-table setup in the basement of the library as part of the Tendaji Talks series devoted to stemming systemic racism and sponsored by Neighborhoods Without Borders.
To jumpstart the conversation, Currie began with her working definition of language as “a structure and system of words and symbols.” From there, discussion emerged around the table, with participants engaging just as Currie suggested in several hours of sharing and listening.
Delma Thomas Jackson described the bulk of his work as social justice. For him, he said, language is symbolic, “in part to just get away from thinking of language as strictly verbal. Communication in general takes a variety of forms.” For him, language is more than just words because the words are contextual.
Donna Ullrich, a teaching colleague of Currie’s at UM-Flint, and whose background is journalism and speech communications, said her passion is journalism and nonfiction writing. But she clarified she also loves teaching it.
Considering those intersecting realms, she said, “I think teaching students to use the language is more my medium than writing it myself. And I think my place and my foundation here is to think about the media and its use of language and whether it is doing us justice or not in its responsibility to report what is going on around us.”
Joyce Piert, a mathematician on the UM-Flint faculty, offered her take on language. “When I think of language, I think of energy, vibration, frequency.” She described going to other countries where the energy, vibration and frequency of language is foreign to Americans. Language is in everything you do, she said. “Language is in the silence. Language is the spaces between the letters. I don’t know what is not language.”
Language can give power and take it away
Linda Samarah, an Arab American whose parents are Jordanian immigrants, said she believes that language constructs your reality. “I have always lived in two different realities with English and Arabic,” she observed. That duality of language and culture, she suggested, has shaped her identity as a person. “I think that language is a tool that can give you power or take away power from you,” she said.
Rushika Patel, director of the Women’s Educational Center and interrim director of the Intercultural Center at UM-Flint, addressed the questions of how she identifies herself and what does language mean to her.
Born in India, she has lived in several countries, but was raised in Detroit. She said she came to thinking about language critically as an English-as-a-second language teacher.
“I started to think about how much power this English language has to really control whether people can access a job, or even feel good about themselves as a moral being in the world.”
Language can divide haves and have-nots
For Patel, “language is something used to divide haves and have-nots. There’s a struggle over meaning. I think about language as not only a structural phenomenon in terms of its parts, but also a way of thinking about power and meaning and access.”
Currie spoke about rhetoric, the language of persuasion, and “how we use words to persuade and to shift the dynamic so that we can have a language that causes people to fear.”
She then asked, “What is the language of hate?”
“When it’s an affront to my humanity, when it’s a blow against the fact that I am a human being, that’s hate,” Piert replied. “When you no longer see me as a human being and you treat me below that standard, that’s hate.”
Piert then mentioned the book Doublespeak by William Lutz, “which is about how we take words over the years and we change the words so that it makes some of us feel very comfortable.” Her example was how we now call urban “ghettos,” “urban communities.”
Coded language for white supremacy
Such coded language, said David, a UM-Flint student, is exemplified in “states rights” and “small government.” He asked, “What good has the state done, because every progressive action has pretty much been taken by the federal government. So to me, ‘states rights’ is just coded language for white supremacy.” For him, the intentions behind the words that deliver the message are a key to understanding the true meaning of the message.
Currie then asked, “How does one address these coded messages?”
Jackson replied that to excavate coded language he tries to find its trajectory. For example, he pointed to the many similarities in Trump’s campaign where the phrasing Trump used had shown up in Reagan’s campaign and in Nixon’s campaign and in both Bushes’ campaigns. The point, Jackson said, “is that people tend to speak more candidly once something feels safe enough in the past.”
Ullrich pointed out that the people who voted for Trump say they are not racists, “but by voting for him they are saying that racism is not a deal breaker.”
Language tapping into people’s fears
Patel said she felt Trump “was able to use this language of hate to tap into people’s fears of being poor, of being alone, of being homeless, of not having benefits, of not having anything.”
In reply, Bob Brown, associate director of the Center for Community and Economic Development at Michigan State, referenced an earlier Tendaji Talk featuring Rueben Martinez.
“He talked about neoliberalism,” said Brown, “and how this 50-year journey of the language of hate without using any hateful words has convinced the white working class that the enemy is everybody you [Patel] just said. And how that divide ever happened where working class white people suddenly thought, ‘Oh, the enemy is not those who are really oppressing me, but they are my fellow oppressed people.’ ”
Patel pointed out the bourgeois interest in pushing neoliberalism. “The alt-right is pushing this ideology because it is the only way they can exploit the labor of the working class,”she said.
“What we need to do,” said a man who identified himself simply as Charles, “is figure out what is our own language and what is the language we wish to speak, number one for ourselves, and number two, what is the language we wish to exude when we walk out of our combined individual spaces?”
Currie quoted something she said she once heard Joyce Piert say: “Language is very much so living that we breathe life and death with the things that we say, or the things that represent who we are symbolically.”
Currie said, “It feels like there should be a Part Two of this conversation where we talk about the language of whatever that opposition to hate is.”
In closing, she asked anybody to share one word representing this language we wish to speak.
Compassion, love, peace, hope, respect, generosity, equity, unity, inclusion and humanity were spontaneous responses from around the table.
EVM staff writer and reviewer Robert R. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.