Thursday, January 21, 2010

Repurposed words: Context and Content

[In the hopes of continued agility of thought, and to spite mental atrophy, a present hope is to dedicate myself to writing of a substantial character. Once a week, generally on Thursdays, I will be sitting down to hash out some brief comments of varying rigor. Your mileage may vary.]

Words are undoubtedly powerful. Biblically speaking, the Word - Hebrew Dabar (), or Greek Logos (λόγος) - is centrally located. One could reasonably say, in fact, that the very essence of Christianity (and the Judaism from which it springs) lies in a theology of words: divine words given to humans from God (Inspiration/Revelation), words used by men to represent to themselves those divine words (Scripture), and words used to systematize, explore, share, and find application for those divine words (philosophical theology, mystical texts, etc.).

Socially speaking, as well, words bear power. Creating terms for systems of oppression and dismissal can serve to reinforce and legitimize them through lexical acceptance, as labels guide identity both overtly (i.e., "Illegal" vs. "Undocumented" immigrants) and subtly (i.e., the normative-neutral "White" versus the marginal and umbrella term "Colored").

This latter point may be unfamiliar to some of my readers, and - though initially I was hoping to cover this in a footnote - it is interesting to explore. You see, beyond the obvious connotations in Western societies - snow, purity, cleanness, and light - White is a generic default, aesthetically a "blank canvas". By creating Whiteness and identifying it with people of Anglo-Saxon European descent as White (rather than, say, Pink, Tan, etc.), the connotative implication is that non-Anglo/non-European persons are less of a blank slate.

I would like stress here that this is not a uniquely White, American, European, or even Western pattern, either. The same is present in modern Chinese: Anglo people are White (白人, bai + ren = white + person) [1], people of African descent are Black (黑人, hei + ren = black + person), but Chinese are 中国人, people of the middle kingdom. And humility is far from a trait of dominant cultures (Consider also the other common term for the Chinese diaspora, 华人, hua + ren = magnificent/splendid + person).

Whether identifying ourselves at the center of all things, or as White (and hence pure/unsullied/adaptable), so long as we have the power to do so, we nearly always ascribe normativity to ourselves. This is a fair move to make internally; after all, processing external input would be highly confusing were it not for the normative presumption of our own internal processes. However, to ascribe normativity to our own points of view in a broader sense overwrites and overrides the experience and authentic reflections of others, creating dissonant systems for those who are not-Us but subscribe (willingly or through coercion) to that prescription. For a majority member [2], most such suppositions pass unquestioned; but, for a minority member, it raises significant existential - even ontological - questions that express themselves as internal anguish and confusion.

Of course, words can also be recontextualized, forcefully and defiantly if need be. The homosexual community (and, increasingly, other communities as well), in accepting, embracing, and finally repurposing the label "Queer", has demonstrated, it seems, a praiseworthy amount of perseverance and deliberate, systematic, activism. It is also one of the rare examples of a community embracing marginalization, for the very etymology of the identifier names its referent as on the fringe.

The N word (as if you're going to get me to spell it out for you... get outta here) is an example of a slur with a far more controversial present usage. While some advocates of the word claim that the same process of acceptance-embrace-repurposing has been undertaken successfully, it is hard to successfully argue that the word has been rehabilitated in the same fashion as the Q word (if you would). To nudge this intuition, let me point to two pieces of evidence: first, that I am myself hesitant to type out in full "the N word", while having no such qualms about "queer" [3]. Second, the ongoing dialect debate over "the N word with a -a" and "the N word with a -er" suggests that the process of linguistic evolution and drift away from offensiveness towards repurposing is far from complete [4].

What separates the two? Without entering into a rigorous discussion, the apparent answer seems to be that "Queer" is a word that preceded its use as a slur, while the N word - though possessing a historied and not entirely negative etymology - springs up in its proximal form as a slur. When those who self-identify as Queer (or queer-allied) do so, they are actually not re-defining the word, but instead actually maintain the definition of the word while re-defining the moral landscape within which it is situated, shifting from normativity to a non-normative field. Not being queer is therefore descriptive, rather than normative, and so queerness becomes as normal as non-queerness.

My (self-)allotted time is drawing to a close and is, indeed, even now nigh. Interestingly, all the above was initially only to be a brief footnote to a larger discussion; at this point, I will turn to a summary of my intended discussion, and pick up on it when next we speak.

So, why all the thought about Words? A natural response would be: the author's hubris leads to an egotistical confluence of form and content, wherein his verbosity is buoyed by the ostensible topic of exploring the power of words.

But no.

Actually, the choice of topic upon which to spend my meagre reserves is prompted by some reflections on the recent Malaysian religious scandal. In short, Malaysian courts recently ruled that it was within the civil rights of non-Muslim organizations (read: Christian churches) and individuals to freely use the Arabic term "Allah" to refer to God - God the concept and God the being. As far as I understand, certain elements within society - pre-radicalized, and definitely not all of Muslim Malaysia [5] - seized upon this ruling as a foothold from which to launch an extremist agenda, including vigilante attacks on various Christian churches and schools.

Malaysia is, of course, a country with a complex history of diversity along ethnic, economic, and religious lines. I am ill prepared to speak on it in such fields, and thus reticent.

While the proximally inciting incident of word usage seems to be more a case of finding excuses than of actual outrage, I am still interested in the idea that word usage can be made into an excuse for action; an excuse that is, at the very least, not horrendously implausible. And even if, in this case, the implausibility of gross offense through word usage is very high, there are definitely cases - slander, defamation, and libel - in which words alone are legally acknowledged to have the power to harm and damage.

To be continued.

[1] It is undeniable that other societies also associate people of Anglo descent with the color white. An interesting study would be a linguistic excavation of Whiteness in other cultures: for example, modern Chinese refer to Anglos as White People. Was this phrase introduced by cultural transmission along with the concept of Whiteness during the opening of Sino-American relations, or does it stem from a natural response to skin tone? Consider also the association of white with death in Chinese cultures (hence, red wedding dresses and white in funeral rituals): in this case, arguments for the nonpreferential nature of white-connotative language seem to obtain more readily.

[2] Majority here, of course, does not necessarily connotate numerical majority, but instead a majority of power. As examples, the racial politics of South Africa and the religious politics of Hussein-era Iraq come to mind.

[3] This does beg the question: ought I be so free with my diction? So far as I understand, queer-sensitive allies are allowed to use this word in such contexts. I may be wrong.

[4] Naturally, as a straight Asian-American male, I am an outsider to both these debates, and I may be reading social cues entirely wrong. This raises another question: do Asian-Americans have a repurposed label? I suspect not. Why not? Interesting.

[5] I hope not to evoke a sense of the Muslim Panic all too familiar in Western rhetoric.

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