Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The language of avoidance

    All of the presentations at the recent cultural sustainability symposium at Sterling College interested me, but in this and the next few entries I’ll single out some of those that linked most directly to the kind of thinking that’s engaged me on this blog: those by William Westerman, Mary Hufford, Rosann Kent, Nancy Menning, Michael Lange, and the field session with Farley Brown and Ross Morgan that concluded the symposium.
    Westerman spoke about the need to understand, confront, reveal and undermine those social, political and economic forces whose actions “disrupt local cultures with destructive, sometimes even genocidal, impact.” As he pointed out, people make decisions that set those forces in motion. They often are hard to identify because the disruption is often chronicled in the passive voice—events just seem to occur, and causation is not assigned.
    Much of what Westerman said is congruent with my own argument that culture workers must consider economic and environmental threats to cultural continuity, rather than confine ourselves to helping communities promote and maintain their traditional and characteristic artistic expressions, be they music, ethnic foods, religious folklife, dance, and so forth. Culture workers, who are trained to identify and document tradition-bearers (folk artists), ought also to direct efforts at identifying and documenting those people who give agency to the disruptive and destructive economic and environmental forces, and to exposing them.
    But Westerman’s focus on the language in which these problems are addressed is absolutely critical (a theme, also, of Mary Hufford’s presentation). It isn't just about what we say but how we think and therefore how we know, and how we can know. (The technical term for this is epistemology.) When one says, “The New York and New Jersey Coast was devastated by Superstorm Sandy,” that is the passive voice: the Coast “was devastated.” The fact is stated but the cause is not identified. If, instead, one says “Climate change is causing violent storms like Superstorm Sandy that devastated the New York and New Jersey Coast,” we have the active voice, which identifies the actor (cause), in this case climate change. Examples like this are more useful than contrasting sentences such as "The ball was hit to center field by John" versus "John hit the ball to center field." Of course, it's possible to identify actors in the passive voice ("by John" in the above contrast); but often the actor is absent, and sometimes on purpose.
    Westerman’s concentration on the evasive language of the passive voice reminded me of “Strunk and White” (The Elements of Style) with its prescription to use the active voice, chiefly to make writing vigorous. Contemporary contrarians have delighted in pointing out grammatical errors in their examples of the passive voice. But Strunk and White isn’t about grammar: it’s about style. And using the active voice is about more than style; it’s about naming “whodunit.” The passive voice, as George Orwell pointed out more than sixty years ago in his essay, "Politics and the English Language," is the deadening language of government bureaucracy. It’s a language of avoidance; it’s “official language,” it’s what my own freshman English teacher, William E. Coles, Jr., back in the day, used to call “bulletproof language.”
    Fifty years ago, Norman Mailer understood the paralyzing consequences of Lyndon Johnson’s bulletproof language. In one of the finest analyses of the failures of the passive voice, Mailer critiqued Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign book, My Hope for America. Mailer's book, Cannibals and Christians (1966), contains that essay. In it, Mailer showed just how Johnson’s passive voice avoided naming and blaming, and in failing to say what were the causes of, say, poverty in America, Johnson’s language disabled him (and others) from thinking clearly about it and therefore from effectively addressing its causes.
     I was reminded, also, of a Cambridge Forum broadcast from October of 2011, featuring Bill McKibben and Wendell Berry, in honor of Thoreau’s essay on "Civil Disobedience." In the midst of the discussion, someone asked Berry why he was still willing to talk to those coal barons responsible for mountaintop removal when it was obvious that they weren't listening. The gist of his reply was that good people can still do terrible things, and if they're good people we must talk to them and try to reach the good within them. They need to know that "they're in the house that they're burning down. . . . and maybe we can help them put the fire out.” (View Berry's entire response at
     In other words, it's not enough simply to say that the house is burning down, or we're in ecological crisis, or that local cultures are disappearing. They are "being disappeared," as Tony Seeger reminded us at the symposium; and it's up to us culture workers to identify the people who hide behind the passive voice, and to try to keep a dialogue open with those powerful "good people who do terrible things." The language of avoidance blinds them to causation, keeps them from knowing that they are burning down the house that we all are in. But the spirit of non-violent resistance appeals to the good in them, in hopes that they will listen and we can put the fire out together.


  1. Thank you for these insights on the complex issue of sustainability. I think the key to it is that it is very much a personal issue nested within a larger socio-cultural-political context. People are tempted to approach it using only one stream of connection; i.e. as a cultural champion or as an academic or as scientist or a politician...but I think what true sustainability really means is that we understand ourselves within the whole -- not as someone with a role to play, but as a human being interconnected to the matrix of life. In this way, compassion is our only way through the complex system we have created for ourselves. You do an excellent job here of explaining that. I appreciate the references as well.

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