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hidden people

“Wait, what?” I asked myself, rereading three words I’d just read. I confirmed they were exactly as I read them: “The West agrees.”

I was flabbergasted. Was this phrase really printed in a newspaper? Even for an editorial, this reflected an astonishing lack of nuance.

Who exactly is “the West”?

The western region of a country? If so, then which country? Which regions? Which neighborhoods? Which associations from those neighborhoods? Which portions of “the West” disagree with this position? Why aren’t they permitted to be enveloped in the blanket term “the West”?

If a collection of countries, which countries, exactly? Which portions of those countries’ populations? Day laborers or politicians, caretakers or corporate executives? If there’s no way of determining democratic consensus, why do some opinion-holders get to be “the West” while others get to be, what? Those not well enough informed? If someone’s determined there’s “the West” and “those not well enough informed to be ‘the West,'” who is that? Why do they get to make that decision? Who agrees with them? Who disagrees?

English nouns like “[the] West” aggregate things in ways that narrow listeners’ field of focus. The aggregation conceals important information: Specific people and the specific actions they take.

Who is making decisions? Who is taking actions? Who is being represented in the noun? What are their names, for the deciders and actors were certainly given names by their mothers and fathers? Who is being excluded, and why? When power is concerned, who benefits by the decision to use a particular noun to represent an ambiguous or fractional quantity of what that noun might fully encompass?

“The West” is just one example of how words can conceal specific actors and specific actions, creating the illusion of broad consensus in the absence of actual consensus.

There are lots of such examples in English. I might never have noticed this, had my husband not introduced me to the works of Neil Postman.

postman semantics.png

Thanks to Postman (and my husband!), I started paying much closer attention to words. This attention showed up in, among others, posts like “Knowledge is a quest” (quoted above) and “On heroing.”

postman heroing.png

It’s not just “the West” that conceals actors and actions. Native English speakers use–or should I say, “consume,” where it counts most?–many such nouns reflecting questionable aggregations.

I thought of a couple yesterday before texting three of my siblings:

Can y’all think of good examples of where using a noun conceals that human actors are actually responsible? So far, I have

* government
* corporation
* “the market”
* Finance

yesterday I thought of bunches more I can’t remember!

One sister quickly replied, “Private sector?” One brother-in-law replied:

Efficiency as ways of saying “we fired workers for profit”, not sure if that counts. Market value, supply and demand are all ways of depersonalizing market exploitation.

Not only did his answer count, it got to the core of the issue: the way these words are used make power relations opaque. With varying degrees of intention, they create uncomfortable, inaccurate aggregations of various “we” groups.

Nowhere was this more evident to me than in a quote I read in Late Victorian Holocausts: “We will export, even if we starve!” In the book’s margin, I wrote “different wes here.” In this case, “we” the starvers and “we” the exporters are made to sound as if they’re one cohesive group.

But, of course, not everyone starved. The survival rate for we-exporters was much, much higher than the rate for we-starvers. We-starvers were often killed trying to reach lifesaving grain heavily guarded by we-exporters. Sometimes, we-starvers died in much more horrifying ways, all because some well armed we-exporters had decided we-starvers were expendable in pursuit of profit.

In one June post, I reflected on the power of “s.” Fellow blogger The Ten Thousand Hour Mama left a comment that expanded my heart, writing, “Thinking about all the plurals also invites us to consider the we—where the individual intersects with others—and indeed the multiple weS.”

I loved the sentiment then, and I’ve grown to love it more each time I reflect upon it.

I replied, in part, “I think there’s a lot of hope in finding our different we’s, and working together to see where/how they fit–finding solidarity, instead of having ‘we’ made, awkwardly, into a single, overbroad union.”

Words like “the West” and “the market” create just such overbroad unions. They conceal very different we-groups, fractions of which are we-exporters and the vast majority of which are not.

Thanks to Neil Postman (and my husband!), I see the decision-makers hidden behind these nouns of overbroad union … and, of course, the ways those decision-makers benefit by remaining hidden.

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  1. August 26, 2017 at 7:20 am

    I was originally going to write “Oh. My. Word.” as an expression of my amazement at not ever having really considered most of the ideas you mention. Then I thought about adding an S to “Word” to show that I’d at least understood a miniature fraction. Then I decided that I’m not even sure how many of my words really are MY words and how many are just borrowed from other people, or slipped into my vocabulary without explicit permission..

    Instead, I will say this: thank you [again] for a post that made me think, and hopefully will start to make me read more thoroughly and thoughtfully in future.

    • August 26, 2017 at 7:30 am

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment! What you describe is exactly how I felt as I started exploring language through the lens Postman offered.

      For a little while, I was annoyed and frustrated that I couldn’t turn off the meaning-examination switch Postman had apparently helped flip in me. “Is it going to be like this forever?!” I wondered. The answer appears to be, “yes.”

      Now, though, I’ve become accustomed to this examination. I’ve developed a better sense where I really have to dig in and where it’s okay to step back and accept the words as they’re being offered. My reality will never be the same, but now I’m glad for that. 🙂

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