Toni Morrison died last Monday. She once described the english language as “at once rich and deeply racist”. She also discussed the way language acts more than just represents in her Nobel Lecture after she won The Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993:
The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek – it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.
We in academia have a responsibility to understand the work and actions of the language we are using, and to wield it in a way that does more than represent ideas.
Update 13 August 2019:
A reader suggested that “you guys should say on your blog that one really has to read/ listen to the whole thing to really get it. It offers so much to think about.”
So, here I am suggesting that you read/listen to the whole thing.