Daily Archives: June 6, 2024

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.