Language – The Power to Unify or Divide.

By Jason MacLeod on January 13, 2012 — 4 mins read

When I began reading the Young Lords a Reader, I immediately questioned whom these writers were.  Not because I agreed or disagreed with their message, but because of the language they used.  Words such as – revolution, oppressed, traitors, yangqui, Amerikkkan, socialist, and many others popped out of the pages.  Their use in the articles alienated me.  Not because I didn’t understand – on the contrary, I agree.  Yet, the language and the intellectual arguments seemed extreme.  I noticed the same reaction when reading Elbaum’s article, 1968- US Radicalism Explodes and Transforms.  He actively used buzzwords such as – Marxism, Internationalism, communism, new left, and socialism, as if they fill in the gaps of his analysis and narrative (not to mention the many interpretations of those monolithic words).  I saw similar usage of language in Balagoon’s opening statement at trial, which he didn’t get to finish because he was thrown out of the room, and Gilbert’s statement, which he didn’t get to start because he walked out in solidarity. Assata Shakur’s statement transcribed in Evelyn William’s book, Inadmissible evidence: the story of the African-American trial lawyer who defended the Black Liberation Army, was aired on every black radio station in NY and NJ, but left me thinking, could her message received more coverage if the language changed.  Could any of these articles have widespread coverage?  My reactions on language and the use of words that can alienate or unite made me reflect on my own positionality, but also those of the oppressed.  With this, I began to think how important words are in getting your message out.

I decided to look into language and Postcolonial theory.  Here are a few key concepts I found. Trinh Minh-Ha stated, “[l]anguage is one of the most complex forms of subjugation, being at the same time the locus of power and unconscious servility.”  Rao says that the colonial subject who adopts the language of the conqueror ‘has to convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own. One has to convey the various shades and omissions of a certain thought-movement that looks maltreated in an alien language.”  Bhaktin stated –

Languages are philosophies – not abstract but concrete, social philosophies, penetrated by a system of values inseparable from living practice and class struggle. This is why every object, every concept, every point of view, as well as every intonation [finds its] place at this intersection of linguistic philosophies and [is] drawn into an intense ideological struggle.

These authors note the positionality of the oppressed in relation to language.  Developing their own vocabulary, intonation, and semantics, was a pathway that the Young Lords, Assata, and Balagoon could counter the hegemony of English and its social norms.  The different language use further legitimized their movement through contra-linguistic practices.  However, positionality does not, in itself, explain my alienated feeling while reading the articles.

Richard Delgado, in his article, Storytelling for Oppositionists and Others: A Plea for Narrative, talks about the use of counter-stories by outgroups – those marginalized, suppressed, and devalued people.  Delgado notes, “An outgroup creates its own stories, which circulate within the group as a kind of counterreality.”  The stories create, through community building and social cohesion, or destroy, through highlighting injustices and oppression and need for reform, depending on the author’s intentions.  Most importantly, and the reason I bring up this article, is that Delgado argues –

Stories and counterstories, to be effective, must be or must appear to be noncoercive. They invite the reader to suspend judgment, listen for their point or message, and then decide what measure of truth they contain. They are insinuative, not frontal; they offer a respite from the linear, coercive discourse that characterizes much legal writing.

Delgado displays the difference between an outgroup using the language I noted above, which partially alienated me (I could only imagine how it would alienate others), and the use of language that removed confrontation and suspended judgment.  A story told in such a way would have broader reach with more readers or listeners since they are not being called a racist, oppressor, or pig, or an abettor in the land of Amerikkka.    Stories similar to the Young Lords, Assata, and Balagoon will inspire and incite their compatriots, but will ultimately limit itself to their own outgroup and not to those individuals who need to hear the story.  Delgado goes on –

Because this is a white-dominated society in which the majority race controls the reins of power, racial reform must include them. Their complacency-born of comforting stories-is a major stumbling block to racial progress. Counterstories can attack that complacency…. Listening to stories makes the adjustment to further stories easier; one acquires the ability to see the world through others’ eyes. It can lead the way to new environments. A willing listener is generally “welcomed with open arms.” Listening to the stories of outgroups can avoid intellectual apartheid. Shared words can banish sameness, stiffness, and monochromaticity and reduce the felt terror of otherness when hearing new voices for the first time. If we would deepen and humanize ourselves, we must seek out storytellers different from ourselves and afford them the audience they deserve. The benefit will be reciprocal.

This is one lesson we can learn from both the past and present.  We can create counterstories that includes individuals and groups we are confronting.  As lawyers and academics, we have the power to write well with great weight and influence.  We can sustain and support opposition movements through counterstories that include instead of exclude.  That inspire solidarity with values and ethics we all care for instead of dissension born of (in)difference and anger.