Today’s guest blogger is Heather Hughes, a Miami-native who has accidentally resided in Boston for her entire adult life. She mostly writes poetry, practices and teaches yoga, and writes ridiculously long resolution lists. Her blogging happens at Still on the Journey of Calling Myself Home.
I’ve been on a news media black out for the past couple of weeks (with the exception of all the news headlines fit to share on my Facebook feed, which fortunately involves a high cute animal content). My brain blew every wobbly gasket dealing with the events and aftermath of the Boston Marathon. I’m still having a hard time processing news coming out of Guatemala or Oklahoma; my heart hurts. The day after we sheltered-in-place, all I wanted was to walk my city’s streets and drown out the noise of tv reporters with just the regular Saturday Back Bay bustle. The noise was a curative; the silence imposed by the quarantined crime zone a stifling counterpoint. I did not want that silence. I wanted the chaos of the Boylston Trader Joe’s, the grinding of dark clad skateboarders taking advantage of the last days of the empty fountain, the Duck Boat tourists quacking at pedestrians. Silence as erasure. Silence as tidal wave.
Flash forward. Over the first weekend of May, I attended the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem, including a panel discussion with Eduardo Corral, Sharon Olds, Martha Collins, and Jill McDonough (who are all fabulous – go read their books!) on the subject of taboo. The poems and conversations that were touched on in this brief hour centered largely on questions of race, sex, immigration, and the death penalty. During the Q&A, someone asked about words that the writers may have avoided and why.
My concern with this deep question goes beyond notions of social- or self-censorship or the value in giving voice to what is taboo in a particular culture. It’s no reach to say that language taboos restrict discourse, silence victims, and perpetuate a host of other negatives. Ok. (Notice my own totally unnecessary self-censorship above, which I was tempted to edit out, but have retained for honesty’s sake.) Focusing on the downside of taboo seems a bit too easy. What about the positive value of taboo, though? What about taboo as (silent) expression of the sacred? Can avoiding voicing something be a statement, a way to take a stand?
One of the reasons for my media mute button is about language use. In describing horrific and violent acts, the language of violence is necessary. But does a CNN reporter need to stand in Copley Square two weeks after Marathon Monday and tease to commercial with “a bombshell in the world of sports after the break”? Seriously? My problem is not just with the obvious insensitivity.
Is our persistent and pervasive use of the language and metaphors of violence a keystone to the culture of violence in the US? What would happen if we made the language of violence taboo, to be used only as required in specific concrete contexts: Guantanamo, drones, abuse, murder? Isn’t there enough violence in the world already without grafting it onto situations that don’t warrant it? Could we change our world by paying attention to what we say and avoiding violent language? Can deliberate silence be a form of resistance?
Here’s my challenge, should you choose to accept it: attend to the language of violence around you.
Spend one week observing. Notice it in advertising, the news, everyday speech, your own thoughts. Consider how often we rely on its metaphors. Then spend at least one day -maybe longer- deliberately choosing to excise it from your own speech. Create a taboo wherein you will only participate in the language of violence as strict description of actual events. Announce it. See if anyone you know wants to try this experiment. And pay attention to the effects of becoming aware of the language of violence around you.
As I’ve been practicing this taboo, this self-censoring, what I’ve noticed is that I’m forced to be more thoughtful and creative in how I speak and write. I don’t feel limited, but empowered. I feel that I am regaining the power of violent language to describe and understand the actual violence in the world rather than cheapening it as a metaphor for a bad day at work or a basketball score. Avoidance as refusal. Avoidance as activism.
The more I consider this, the more I want to explore this idea. Here in Boston we observed a moment of silence at 2:50pm on Monday, April 22nd, which culminated in the ringing of bells across the city. Could we create a silence even bigger and more peaceful all together?