The Demeaning of Language

April 15, 2014 § 5 Comments

Slavery is, by definition, a condition where one human being is owned by another.  The condition of African Americans in the US South prior to the Civil War was one of slavery.  Slavery is NOT an unpaid internship.  It is NOT working a bad McJob.  It is also not what happened to African Americans after the Civil War in the South.

After the war, many allegedly free African Americans were made to work on the same plantations they had been enslaved upon.  They were not paid.  They were viciously, and cruelly exploited.  Their civil rights were deeply and fundamentally violated.  And this is a stain on American history that is not spoken of.  The standard narrative is that the slaves were freed and that was the end of that.  But this status of allegedly free African Americans after the Civil War in the South was not slavery.

There is a fine distinction to be made here between the ownership of someone else’s person and the exploitation of someone else’s body or economic power.  A slave has next to no rights.  Slave owners in the pre-Civil War South were free to buy and sell their slaves at will.  They had almost free range to do whatever they wished with and to their slaves.  Men violated and raped their female slaves.  Men beat and savaged their male slaves.  Slave owners broke up families because they could (see my post on the Carolina Chocolate Drops for a powerful story of a freed slave woman).

The allegedly free African Americans after the war, forced to work on the same plantations they had been enslaved on, were not slaves.  They were personally free, even if that freedom amounted to less than a hill of beans.

My college is hosting a partial film-screening of Sam Pollard’s 2012 film, Slavery By Another Name, this week, along with a talk by Rebecca Hill, an historian at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.  I fully understand Pollard’s rhetorical point in his documentary.  The term “slavery” is one of the few that still has the power to shock, and Pollard capitalises on that in drawing audiences in for his documentary and exposure of a more or less forgotten period of American History.  This is a documentary that all Americans and anyone with an interest in American Civil Rights should see.

But the problem is that when we use words like this, we demean their meanings, and lessen their impact.  Take, for example, the term “fascism.” That term is thrown around like it means nothing in political circles in both Canada and the USA, by all sides, to describe anyone and anything the speaker might disagree with.  In the end, “fascist” doesn’t really mean much anymore, and has no shock value.  That is not a good thing.

The same thing will happen with the words “slave” and “slavery,” too.  Especially if otherwise well-off white, college-educated young men and women continue to use those terms to describe their unpaid internships, or if we continue to describe the plight of adjuncts in the academy as a form of slavery.

Language is symbolic.  We use words to describe concrete and abstract theories and ideas.  They are meant to be symbolic for the theories, ideas, and things we are describing.  Language is obviously how we communicate, and if we demean and cheapen our words to the point where they lose their meaning, I’m not entirely sure how we communicate at all.

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