Sunday, 24 March 2013

The Pen Is Mightier...

Words have power. It's a fact that we're all aware of, whether consciously or not, and its hold on us becomes an intrinsic part of our everyday lives.

As a sociolinguistics specialist at university (language students were able to study generally, or focus on literature, history and politics or linguistics), I was introduced to the idea of linguistic anthropology early on in my career.

I remember my first lecture with the rather intimidating, yet endearingly scatty, Professor Ulrike Meinhof (a fascinating researcher with a special interest in the link between discourse, identity and song), who began to talk to us about drawers. 

At first (and I have no idea if she was aware of this), the whole room was looking at each other in confusion and dismay; what on earth was this woman talking about? But as she continued, the analogy took shape and embedded itself, forever associated with Dali's anthropomorphic sculptures. 

The principle is that, contrary to popular societal belief, we do not possess just one identity (or if we do, then "identity" is also a collective noun), but a plethora of different identities that are each conditioned or adapted responses to different situations. Just like having drawers and picking different clothes out of each; they all belong to us, but they are each suitable for different occasions.

Each of us has multiple identities, not to be confused with multiple personalities. I, for example, am a daughter, a sister, a teacher, a Guide leader, a Senior Section leader, a sci-fi fan, a bookworm, a crafter, a friend, an ex-girlfriend and many more things besides. 

The nearest I have seen recently is Bucholtz and Hall's assertion that identity is fluid, though this doesn't wholly explain the theory of multiples.

"...Identity inheres in actions, not in people. As the product of situated social action, identities may shift and recombine to meet new circumstances. This dynamic perspective contrasts with the traditional view of identities as unitary and enduring psychological states or social categories." (M. Bucholtz, K. Hall, 2004, p376)

Whether consciously or not, we select from these identities in our everyday lives, our language being the most obvious marker of this role shift. For those that doubt, consider how you speak to young people (if a Guide or Scout leader) compared to how you speak to your parents or your friends. We not only have different words that we use, but different turns of phrase, even different methods of delivery and intonation.

This knowledge has been a great comfort to me over the years, and one that often plays at the back of my mind. Inside, there is a curious researcher who monitors my own language use as well as that of others. And recent events have highlighted how strong a role language plays in the formation of my identity.

There are some words that I just don't like. I struggle to say them, or write them, or even listen to someone else using them. Some of these words I can cope with in different languages (which shows the way multilingualism affects my self-perception) and others retain their discomfort. Some words are fine for me to use when I'm in one position (a teacher, or a leader), but I won't have used to describe me at all. 

The most obvious of these examples, for me, are a collection of words, which all fit together contextually:
  • Feminist
  • Courageous
  • Empowerment
  • Inspirational
If any one of these is used to describe me or my actions, I feel deeply uncomfortable. I am still unsure as to why, especially with feminism and empowerment, but there is something to do with the wider meaning and societal context of the word that doesn't sit right. And yet they are words that I use on an almost daily basis to describe those around me, to explain the change I want and what I am doing.

It may seem odd, and somewhat contradictory, but far from it. It demonstrates perfectly the different identities that I use and the way that each role selects its language. The powerful, determined, activist  chooses to use those strong and evocative words, whereas the "small" me, the hidden and vulnerable me, cannot identify with them at all and rejects them outright. These "people" are both there, they are both real. And yet the language they choose is so different.

I spoke on Twitter a few weeks ago of reclamation and self-worth. That our ability to use and accept language has much to do with our perception of ourselves and whether we believe that we are deserving of these terms.

This, understandably, elicited quite a response. Mainly, as you can imagine, one of "well, we need to keep using these words until people can accept them".

But I wonder if that really is the right way?

Because words have power. And these powerful words are being used against people who can't identify with them, who feel they really don't deserve them, that they can't live up to these terrible pressures and aspirations that people are putting upon them. And instead of building them up, these people are being slowly eroded away, each word feeling like another failure, another falsehood.

It's not enough to use powerful words. It's not enough to know that one of that person's identities will accept them, when you know that the most vulnerable (often the one that has the most impact) will not. We need to find another way.

We need to empower them to accept these words (yes, I used it. Yes, I'm cringing. Yes, I used it to describe "them", not "us"!) by showing the true impact.

It's not enough to say "you are inspirational" or "that post was inspirational", we need to show that inspiration. "You have inspired me", "Can I share that post? I know it will inspire....". It's not enough to say "You are brave", but rather, "I know it took a lot of courage to do that". 

Show the person that they are worthy of those words. Show them the facts, the irrefutable evidence. It's only then that they will start to accept them, that they will become part of their identity and their accepted language. It's only then that they will have true impact and power.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting! Reminds me a little bit of the importance of being specific with praise. Generalised comments such as 'you are brave/inspirational don't mean much unless you know why.