“The accuracy of accurate letters is an accuracy with respect to the structure of reality.” ~ Wallace Stevens
I mince my words, chopping them up until they are fine and small, until they are digestible, able to be used as an ingredient in a larger recipe. When I apologize to a friend, write an email to a professor, edit a paper, I find myself cutting into the words I use turning them over and looking inside of them, picking their meaning and their implications apart until they are dissected on a little cutting board in my mind. Perhaps this plays into some of the anxiety I have over writing, the constant questioning: What if a word is wrong or misplaced? What if I have not been careful enough? What if a word (or phrase, or paragraph, or essay, or blog) is not the right word (or etc.) for what I’m attempting to say? And while some of this anxiety over the implications of the words I choose may be misplaced, I feel that it is endlessly important to pay attention to the implications of the words and phrasing we use in both our writing and in everyday life.
The relevance of word choice was made especially clear to me last semester, though in a seemingly small way. In writing a blog post for Professor McCoy’s N.K. Jemisin course, I used the word “crazy” to describe something as strange, outlandish, out of place or odd. Noting the rather casual use of the word, Professor McCoy commented on the post, pointing out that the word “crazy” comes with a myriad of connotations to do with mental illness. Thus, while I may have been using this word in a seemingly innocent enough manner, by using it I was still participating in the marginalization of those with mental illness that the word ‘crazy’ perpetuates. In his article “Don’t Call Me Crazy,” Robert Spencer makes the point, “‘Crazy’ has been a word to portray those who suffer with mental illness as dangerous, weak, unpredictable, unproductive and incapable of rational behavior or relationships.” Yet, the word has wandered into our day-to-day lexicon; we label things we find as strange or intense or unexpected to be “crazy,” we describe someone as “crazy” when they act oddly or too intensely. With each use of “crazy” very few of us stop to think about the etymology of the term and the fact that this word functions within a wider historical context and a wider societal structure that utilizes “crazy” for purposes of oppression. Crazy thus exemplifies a by no means rare instance wherein a commonly used word inflicts harm due to a lack of attention paid to the structures of privilege, marginalization, and oppression created around certain terms (I’m thinking of words such as “idiot,” “gay,” etc.). It is in situations such as this that we must confront Spencer’s point that, “Then [as in the instance of the word crazy], a word is more than a word.” Rather, a word embodies both its speaker’s intent and the hegemonic structures surrounding and informing its use.
W.E.B. Du Bois shows an awareness of this embodiment in his revisions to The Souls of Black Folk, as is discussed by George Bornstein in his article “W.E.B. Du Bois and the Jews: Ethics, Editing, and the Souls of Black Folk.” Du Bois, despite being aware of the many intersections between the effects of anti-Semitic rhetoric and anti-Black rhetoric, still fell into a trap of incidental anti-Semitism in the original edition of Souls published in 1903, wherein he uses the term “Jew” to refer to some people who participated in the oppression of African Americans. This use of the word “Jew” perpetuated — and, in editions of Souls which reprint the original version of Du Bois’ work, still perpetuates — an extremely harmful stereotype of the Jewish people as greedy and domineering, thus furthering the oppression of Jewish people in the process of attempting to empower African Americans; given the interconnected aspects of the movements to overcome both anti-Semitism and empower African Americans Du Bois’ word choice was not only marginalizing but counterproductive. And while Du Bois’ use of “Jew” was not purposefully anti-Semitic, the very fact that is was not purposeful reflected and enforced the pervasive anti-Semitism of the society surrounding Souls. Du Bois wrote to his editor, Herbert Aptheker (a Jewish man himself), upon realizing the import of his flawed word choice, fretting, “I did not, when writing, realize that by stressing the name of the group instead of what some members of the [group] may have done, I was unjustly maligning a people in exactly the same way my folk were then and are now falsely accused” (Bornstein 66).
Upon realizing the implications of his word choice, Du Bois made revisions to his text (though these revisions, in their replacing of the word “Jew” with terms such as “immigrant” and “refugee,” continue to be problematic) and attempted to ensure that the later editions of Souls would not possess language that would subconsciously perpetuate harmful stereotypes. However, many editions of Souls continue to contain the original phrasing (as in editing the first edition of a text is often hailed as the most reliable and is often reprinted) and many publishers and scholars remain unaware of Du Bois’ revisions to the text, thus continuing the effects and implications of the phrasing into the present day. The present reader must then be constantly conscious of the fact that hegemonic oppression of certain groups is pervasive, down to the very language we use and words we read. It is thus important to not only maintain an awareness of the possibility of participating in oppression through word choice but also make a conscious and conscientious effort to avoid this participation and subvert this oppression when possible.
If oppression is perpetuated in our very vocabulary, how, then, can we expect to not only avoid it but to begin to remedy it?
It is here that I have especially felt I’ve learned not only from Steve Prince’s work, but his process. When discussing a piece, Prince makes it clear that each aspect of the composition has been consciously considered, parsed apart and inspected for its implications and the impact of not only an individual aspect, but its expected and unexpected connotations. That Prince has a justification for almost every aspect of his art initially frustrated me as it felt as though there was little room for interpretation beyond Prince’s stated purpose. However, it is now striking me that just as I attempt to write with awareness and attention, so to does Prince attempt to create art with an awareness and attention to societal structure and connotation. Thus, we must reconcile a thorough attention to detail and an awareness of the societal structures and oppressive dynamics that inform these details in order to begin to subvert the oppression subconsciously enforced through our language and forms of expression.