About Words, Language, and the Empire Strikes Back

I am an anthropologist and my business is culture change. As strategy you first study the target culture to be changed, after which you can a plan a strategic entrance. This was how the early anthropologists in service of the Crown and European empires were put to good use. As much as I might despise the purpose of my early colleagues’ methods, I know they were effective, and I use the same methods today. Learn how the culture works, then devise a strategy so you can enter and implement seeds of change.

During my tenure as an anthropology professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville I had the pleasure and opportunity to study and learn more about one branch of anthropology, namely linguistics. I learned about the power and impact of words, about interpretation and misinterpretation, and how through the right manipulation words uttered can become “truths”. If you are really powerful they can become universal “truths”.

In my reading of Socrates and Orunmila by Bosede Oluwole (2017) I learned how due to a British translation mistake of “God of Wisdom” instead of “Wisdom of the Gods”, a mere mortal received mythical God status rather than recognition for his philosophical contributions. That one language mistake had far reaching effects for the religion itself as nobody dared to oppose the colonizer. I also learned how his European counterpart did receive such recognition.

Through mastery of words Socrates was able to influence people, changed minds and rattled the establishment. He was revered, and still is to this day. But he was also killed for it. There comes the lesson: change might be desired and pursued, but don’t underestimate the extent to which the establishment will fight to maintain itself. So it is in the pursuit of inclusive education. The validation of everybody’s story and in particular of those who have standard been overlooked and ignored might seem like a noble and pursuable goal, but to be truly effective would need to shake up the establishment. And the Empire will strike back, hard.

Those who see their positions threatened will quickly and loudly express their discontent. They will make sure they are heard far and wide. They will support their words with theories so that the “truth” of their words is evident. This is their job. If the opposing body is obviously different the attack is made easier. Think of the minstrel shows in early America. White men dressed up in black face with exaggerated features depicted African Americans in derogatory caricature. The initial audience consisted of white Europeans freshly immigrated, who had to learn to be white (Americans) by virtue of not being them.

Taking the cue from those early Americans, the loudmouths employ the same tactics. They also reach back for well used and proven effective measures. The attack then goes beyond content and will involve character assassination, with extra special derogatory treatment reserved for black female bodies, ask Sylvana Simons and Gloria Wekker.

But this is not the strongest weapon of the establishment. In anthropology we have studied a concept called “leveling mechanism”. A leveling mechanism is an action, usually employing language to force people back in line. Jokes or ridicule are rather gentle but effective means of pulling people back in line. Silencing, shunning, or accusations of witchcraft are more severe examples with the same purpose. Violence and threats of death are the most severe.

The leveling mechanism is far more insidious than the loudmouths because it uses regular people. Even smarter, people are not aware that they are being used. The Empire knows that people might be open to change. Learning about the silenced other seems like a good idea and might lead to overall improvement. But the Empire also knows that when it comes to giving up privilege and power these people that are pro-change might be at a quandary. It is in that vulnerable position that the Empire uses them.

The Empire introduces a word like “micro-aggression”, a seemingly good word in the fight for change. However, if you pay attention you will see that the word is misleading. It creates confusion by implying intent where there might not be any. It zooms in on individual agency, rather than seeing them as conditioned responses reflecting the Empire. We get caught up in judging and condemning the micro-aggressors. The “aggressors” draw back or become self-conscious and fail to engage in fear of saying the wrong thing. Rather than focusing on how to overcome our conditioning collectively we fail to connect with each other’s stories. One strike for the Empire.

The Empire works hard and meticulous to maintain itself. Regular folks totally dedicated to the change are suddenly heard saying: “I am with you, but you do want to fit in don’t you?”… or.. “I heard you, but your tone…”. And the all time favorite.. “You know, somebody should do something about that.” It prays on people’s vulnerability. The Empire sits back and smiles, waiting for people to fall back in line.

I am an anthropologist and culture change is my bread and butter. I seek to change an establishment where one dominant story has been deemed more valid than many others. From the moment I opened my mouth the Empire sprang into action, determined to spit me back out. Utilizing a range of strategic tools from loudmouths to death threats, to innocuous seeming remarks by those in close range, the Empire is crafty and active. Those of us who do this work do not take it lightly. We walk discerning with eyes and ears wide open. We protect ourselves best we can, and are skeptical and mindful of every victory be they big or small. We also walk knowing that we might never see our desired change come to fruition, but we will at least plant some seeds. And oh, we never quit fighting, because every seed is worth fighting for.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *