Category Archives: rhetoric

Language As Weapon

On the morning of November 29, 1864, Colonel John Chivington and nearly 700 United States soldiers attacked a village of 750 Cheyenne and Arapaho Plains Native American tribes comprised primarily of elderly, women and children. They had been placed in the big bend of Sand Creek by the military as they waited to negotiate peace. Black Kettle, one of the leaders, was known to desire peace. He was shot down as he waved an American and a white flag. If you are not familiar with the massacre, the National Park’s website has a detailed history that includes links to recently discovered and horrifying first-person accounts from soldiers who refused to participate.

Colonel Chivington is infamous for his dehumanizing language towards the Native Americans and urging his men to scalp and kill them all even as some soldiers resisted. In her essay “Deprived of Humanity: From the Sand Creek Massacre to Today“, Nellis Kennedy-Howard of The Sierra Club and a member of the Navajo Nation reflects on her 2018 visit to the massacre site and the continued use of dehumanization towards the oppressed, calling it “one of the steps on the road to genocide.” She is correct, according to the United Nations.

Kennedy-Howard warns of not ignoring this use of language:

No human being is an animal, or an insect, or an infestation to be eliminated. When people with power use it to dehumanize others — watch out. Learn from the experiences of Native peoples and other persecuted groups. This isn’t just idle talk. It’s a warning sign that we have a duty to heed.

Dehumanizing language may be used by both sides in a conflict, but as Kennedy-Howard suggests, the more powerful opponent will often control the narrative and thus the definitions.

Boston University’s Dr. Elizabeth Coppock, a linguistics expert, discusses the use of language as a weapon in war. It is a quick read and I encourage you to take a look. Her responses to two of the interviewer’s questions stood out for me:

How do we talk to one another when one side’s “terrorist” is another’s “freedom fighter?”

I think we should focus on listening to each other.

The one substantive comment to the interview makes it clear that while this sounds simple, it is a lofty potentially unattainable ideal and certainly not part of our current climate. Oh we listen but often only to those with whom we agree, taking hard lines and claiming the moral high ground. The commenter is defending his group’s definitions of terrorist that arise out of their world view, exactly as Coppock describes in her other answers.

But it is Coppock’s response to the last question that broke my heart:

Is this time unusual, in that every single word seems to carry so much weight and to be subject to scrutiny that makes some people fall silent?

There is unspeakable sorrow and trauma all around right now.

Sigh.

I was thinking about ending with a poem, maybe Wendell Berry or Mary Oliver. But, instead, I found this…Walt Whitman’s list of synonyms for sorrow that he probably used as he wrote his elegy to Lincoln. Language used to express human emotion at its rawest and deepest, not a as a weapon but as a solace.

Whitman, Walt. “sorrow.” The Walt Whitman Archive. Gen. ed. Matt Cohen, Ed Folsom, & Kenneth M. Price. Accessed 06 June 2024. <http://www.whitmanarchive.org>.

Here is the first section of Whitman’s poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d“:

When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

Speaking With Clarity and Purpose

As I browsed Feedly today, I came across two blog posts about the words we use. Brad Currie pushes back on those who would discourage educators from using buzzwords. Peter DeWitt, meanwhile, names 10 educational words that should be banished. Ironically, I can’t tell you what those words are except that one is technology, because DeWitt’s list is now hidden from me behind the EdWeek paywall.

I come down on the side of letting people speak, and Currie makes an interesting argument around using buzzwords:

Last I checked people have the freedom to say what they want, when they want, and how they want. If educators are committed to taking risks and evolving over time, then they should be allowed to use whatever words, phrases, paragraphs, etc they want.

The important point here is that using buzzwords is acceptable as long as we are using them to move forward. So, if you’re a principal or superintendent who calls yourself a “lead learner” then you should walk the walk of a lead learner.

From what I remember, DeWitt suggests banishing the word “technology” because it continues to make it seem as though technology is an add-on. I don’t disagree, but I think  instead of banishing the word, how about asking educators to be more clear about why and how they are using technology. Are they fostering collaboration through the use of Google docs? Or encouraging creativity by integrating a tool like Animoto? We can use the word to foster clarity about the use of technology as it supports pedagogy.

Also, I think DeWitt is overlooking the fact that, for many of our schools, technology is not so ubiquitous that it can become invisible. Sadly, technology use is often still a novelty, something of comment, as teachers sign out carts to bring into their classrooms or line up their classes to head to computer labs.

So, rather than banishing words, let’s take Currie’s approach and allow their use as long as we are more clear about their meanings for us and how they inform our work as educators.

 

 

Just An Old Curmudgeon

Lately, as I’ve followed the conversations about teaching and learning in the 21st century, I find myself increasingly taking a negative stance. It may just be my natural need to be the devil’s advocate, but I think it’s also a frustration with black and white rhetoric in which old is bad, new is good, ALL teachers are luddites who are stuck in their ways, EVERYONE should have an online professional learning network, and the ONLY way to teach is through project-based, student-centered learning. I could go on but I think you get the picture.

The irony, of course, is that I am a denizen of the digital world with an extensive online PLN, and I have adopted project-base learning methods in the courses I teach believing it is the best way for my students to engage with the content in my course.

So, what’s the problem? Why won’t I jump on the 21st century bandwagon? I think the main reason is that, as I complete my 5th decade on this planet, the biggest lesson I have learned is that the words “always,” “never,” “all,” and “none” are simply not useful. Our propensity towards polls and statistics and nice, neat charts tends to blind us to the infinite variety of experiences that exist in the world. We want to be able to make our case for the best way to live, work, teach and learn, and gray is not the appropriate color to use when we paint that picture.

It’s summed up simply in that old saying, “There’s an exception to every rule.” So, while I don’t lecture, I have known some wonderful lecturers in my day whose words have stuck with me over decades. And while I find it comfortable to engage with community online, I understand that others prefer to be in the same room. In my own realm, I was an early adopter of electronic books but I am also, even as I write this post, surrounded by thousands of books and have no intention of abandoning that habit. I guess my preference is to focus on the exception rather than the rule.

Or maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon.

Looking At: The Art of Calligraphy

My parents run the second-hand shops at their retirement community and are often passing along interesting items. For Easter, they gave us a tackle box (for my husband) and I got all the calligraphy pens that they found in the box. A big pile. And tonight I decided to try out some of the pens. I have beautiful bottles of a dozen different colors of ink. So, while I listen to all the tracks in iTunes that are named “Track 1” etc, I am going to fool around with calligraphy.

This would normally not really be the stuff of blogging for me except that I had the big revelation when I googled “calligraphy.” I found a terrific article by Julian Waters at the Calligrapher’s Guild: Calligraphy, Lettering and Typefaces. He quotes Chinese calligrapher Wang Hsi-chih: “Writing needs meaning, whereas calligraphy expresses itself above all through forms and gestures. It elevates the soul and illuminates the feelings.” Calligraphy is really a forerunner of electronic text that invites us to look at it rather than through it to the meaning. It enhances the meaning but also appeals to the viewer in its own right. It’s funny to stumble upon rhetoric in this way. There’s the toggle that boggles the mind, being able to look at and through. A little theoretical twist to my artist’s date!

Rhetoric

As I conduct my content analysis of media literacy definitions, I think I’ll start with Richard Lanham. In The Electronic Word, he points to rhetoric as the appropriate field of study in this era of the network: “This revival of our traditional paideia includes those parts of contemporary literary criticism and cultural studies which have rediscovered that all arguments are constructed with a purpose, to serve an interest–a rediscovery symbolized by Terry Eagleton’s reflection, at the end of his literary-theory survey, that we might as well call the whole subject ‘Rhetoric.'”

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