Saturday, February 14, 2015

Repost: Language in America, Part 1

Every other week my blog will feature a reposted work. I had been a contributor on two different sites that have since closed or no longer include blogs. I will be reposting pieces that had originally been featured on one of these two sites.  

This was originally posted June 4, 2011

I just finished reading Language in America: a report on our deteriorating semantic environment.  It is a collection of essays on, well, language in America.  It was published in 1969 and it’s out of print (used copies are available on amazon).  One of the editors is Neil Postman who is most famous for Amusing Ourselves to Death, a book that will change your life in magical ways.  I’d like to share a few thoughts from the book if you’ll bear with me.

I’d like to challenge you as my reader in the ways that I was challenged through reading the book.  That challenge is: 
Pay attention to the words you use.  Take care to mean the words that you say in the way that you say them.  Be aware of the implications of the slang you use and what it might indicate. 

Our Polluted Language Environment 

Neil Postman
In the introduction, Postman points out that the President and other famous public figures had recently (remember, published in 1969) said that they didn’t believe in violence.  However, each of the people had recently acted in ways that prove that they did, in fact, believe in violence.  Postman’s point is simply that our language environment is polluted.  I certainly don’t think this has improved any since 1969.  When people, including ourselves, say one thing but do the complete opposite and it is accepted, this is an indication that something has gone wrong with our use of language. 


The essay on censorship was written by James Lincoln Collier.  His comments apply to all forms of censorship, but he writes mostly about censorship of sexual materials.  He introduces this by pointing out a discrepancy what we as a society censor.  Individuals have “…been convicted of distributing sexual materials, whereas nobody has been even locked up for advocating the overthrow of the government.”  He states that despite public speeches and publications advocating violence against the government, it is sexual material that is suppressed, “Clearly, the concern of American censorship is sex.”

His point is that censorship, in general, is class based.  He states that the average American of a low income does not have access to sexual publications, but that he can go to the university library where he works and find books depicting erotic photography and art.  He presents further evidence for his claim and some reasons for why he thinks censorship is class based, but let’s just stop with one example. 

First, I assume that his essay would be different if he wrote it today in light of the internet and other changes in society since 1969.  However, his premise is still intriguing.  What is censored, and why?  I think this is especially important for us to think about in our Christian sub-cultures.  What do we allow in our churches and universities and para-church organizations?  Is our censorship class-based? Is the average member restricted from some things because the leadership do not think he is as able/worthy/mature/entitled as they are? 
Is there a privilege of access that results in a default of censorship of and to the other?

What language to do we use when we are limiting the freedom of another?  Is it really for his or her own good? Or is merely to maintain the status quo?

I want to comment on more chapters, but I was told that a good blog post keeps things short…

I suppose I’ll just have to make this in to a “series”.


[I wrote three posts reflecting on Language in America. I'll repost the next one in two weeks.]

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