Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Misery That Is Language

Language, or so we've been led to believe, is the means we use to communicate. True and it can be that communication that we abuse. In our superiority, we assume that it is what places us above every other living creature on this earth. We are wrong.  It may be the very thing that places us lower than other forms of life in how we relate to each other.  Time for some specifics, sure.

We can look at just one specific instance where we have utilized language to create an aura of danger, mystery or whatever you wish to call it.  I am referring, as just one instance, to the sorry case of one animal species used to turn a profit for a corporation. You know the case of Tilicum, the orca, that (I'm tempted to say "who" here) is being characterized as a "killer whale" (he's not a whale at all) and who has been viewed as being vicious, vindictive and a menace to his trainers. Obviously an animal to be reckoned with and that must be restricted and, I guess, "retrained" to bring him back to perform in the water show, he has been painted in every unflattering color there is in our language.

Want to truly understand what this animal has gone through and the reason he may have acted as he did? Try watching "Blackfish," the documentaryy that details the life of orcas and how this unfortunate young mammal was captured.  But, this is a "reactionary" view of animal life in entertainment, isn't it? Sure it is and disfigured people just love being paraded around as they did with Joseph Merrick, the man who was "The Elephant Man" and who has a physical disorder bearing that name. The medical term, neurofibromatosis, was too much to handle and, besides, that side show moniker garnered much more interest.

Have you ever been to a side show at a fair or amusement park? I went once when I was a young girl. It was at New York's Coney Island and the "attractions" (lovely word, isn't it?) were numerous. There was the Bearded Lady, the Half Man, Half Woman, the Gorilla Man and, as a child, I never saw anything other than this being a curiosity. I didn't think of the people who were living through this existence every day. Coney Island was mild compared to some of the things that went on throughout the world in terms of attractions featuring the disabled. Didn't the royals in Europe have their "fools" around to amuse them?

But language is also used in ways that distort perception of people and situations. We can say that people have a right to peacefully assemble and protest or we can say they are an "angry mob" waiting for a spark to ignite their fury. Anyone irritated by media intrusion into their lives is seen as ill-tempered or difficult, to put it mildly. Seems only Lauren Bacall had a right to her private life.

So, language is powerful and not to be used in an intemperate manner. Words like "boy" and "girl" are not always used to indicate age, but rather disparagement. Any word should be carefully parsed or it brings on the very behavior which it inaccurately describes. As Benjamin Franklin indicated in Poor Richard's Almanack, “Mankind are very odd Creatures: One Half censure what they practice, the other half practice what they censure; the rest always say and do as they ought.”