Nouns, names, and the continual need for linguistic innovation

in Opinion by

Nouns matter.

Are you talking about a rioter or protestor? That question implicitly informed any number of rhetorical and legal fights in the American 1960s, when the civil rights movement and demonstrations against the Vietnam war were in fall cry. A feminist or a discontented housewife? During the 1980s, the word ‘feminist’ was rhetorically twisted into ‘feminazi,’ and both terms became convenient rhetorical shorthand for a straw man created by conservatives: a bra-burning, abortion-hungry, man-hating extremist impossible to find on this plane of reality. In Canada we have discarded the word Eskimo in favor of  works like Innu and Inuit and Inuk and Yupik ; the first is a catch-all used by European colonial adventurers and exploiters who couldn’t be bothered to recognize cultural and linguistic diversity; the plethora of terms to replace it goes somewhat toward undoing that colonial generalization.

Yet no easy and fast guide exists. Those confident of their linguistic righteousness may well find themselves undermined by shifting attitudes; new generations hear new nuances amid shifting contexts. Consider: queerwas a homophobic slur when I was a child, used to bully, to wound, to insult, and to diminish; in my late adolescence and young adulthood I witnessed queer reclaimed, repurposed into a subversive, self-applied label; even now the queer is evolving into a dull, inoffensive descriptor for a spectrum of gender identities that do not fit the heteronormative.

Personal names matter. Consider the cases of Muhammad Ali, or Malcolm X. Both men decided to reject the names originally given to them: Cassius Clay and Malcolm Little. Embedded in their rejection was an attempt to acknowledge the deep cultural damage inflicted by the Atlantic slave trade; the name shift recognized that entire cultures, languages, and millions of personal identities had been erased to ease white supremacists’ theft of life-times of labor from peoples forcibly ripped from their homes. Recently I taught The Autobiography of Malcom X to a group of undergraduates; my preparation for the course brought me into contact with Memorial University of Newfoundland’s copy of the book. Some benighted librarian of the past, I pointed out, had overruled Malcolm X’s rejection of white supremacy, and had instead insisted on putting Little in the author positionon the MUN library generated cover. My own grandfather—an ex-boxer and lifetime boxing fan—never ceased referring to Ali as Cassius Clay. The white narrative of African-American subjugation, in both cases, was preserved.

As Ali and X and any number of other colonized peoples have recognized, names bring with them the power of history. Reclaiming their names for themselves, naming themselves, allowed African-Americans of the civil rights movement to recognize the damage of history, and attempt to remember a very different, very real history. That once forgotten history—once reclaimed—promised a new political viability for an oppressed people. Much can be said of nouns like Innu, Inuit, and First Nations. As statues to confederate soldiers have been removed in New Orleans and other cities across the American South, the cry—from no lessthan the American President himself—is that history is being rewritten, removed, erased. This curious complaint—ironic in its blithe ignorance of the history, languages, and cultures that have already been erased—betrays an insistence on a preferred historical narrative, a preferred narrative that continues to erase large swathes of history in favor a triumphant narrative of white colonial settlement. The mayor of New Orleans gave an eloquent speech that embraced the full and chaotic rich and beautiful and ugly history of that city’s colonial history, and the difference between remembering and reverence.

And thus we come to the language issue that marks the case of The Independent’s own former editor, Justin Brake. Brake’s coverage of the events at Muskrat Falls in the fall of 2016 helped to introduce a new term into the lexicon of journalists: land protector. Brake used the term, rather than protestor, as the group gathered to oppose the crown corporation Nalcor’s actions at that time. The Telegram’s Pam Frampton judged the term loaded in a column submitted shortly after those October events. In a recent interview conducted by Canadaland’s Jesse Brown, the term again became an issue. In that interview Brake defended his use of the term, suggesting that as a white reporter coming from a colonial background, rejecting the group’s self-selected description would be to repeat the linguistic violence that European settlers have repeatedly visited on this continent.

Shortly after the events that are at question in Brake’s trial, Frampton framed her complaint with the term land protector this way:

“I’m willing to bet that many reporters who used the term “land protectors” did so in order to be respectful of how the people were identifying themselves. And that’s very nice. But it doesn’t always come across as objective; in fact, it can sound like the reporter is embedded with the group whose actions it is covering. Would we refer to Nalcor as “land destroyers”?”

Let’s set aside the naïve acceptance of the troubling, complicated history of the term objectivity. (Aside from science’s long and complicated relationship with the ever shifting standards of that vexed concept, will a journalist ever be objective, or should accuracy instead provide us with a better way of assessing the value of a given piece of journalism? And what are the practices that will yield accuracy?) Let’s also set aside the fact that Nalcor’s actions throughout this entire project might very accurately be described as land destroying. (Isn’t that very action of destruction of an environment, a food source, a way of life, perhaps even a culture—very much the issue at the heart of the way the Muskrat Falls project is covered? And doesn’t calling those gathered at Muskrat Falls to oppose its development protestors implicitly justify Nalcor and the Liberal government’s position towards Labrador as justified, their colonial actions as legal, and the land itself as de facto belonging to white settlers?)

Even setting those issues aside: the issue of using the term land protectors is not an issue of being ‘nice.’ Using African American rather than Negro, using the term Inuit rather than Eskimo is not simply a matter of refusing to offend polite company or bring civilized discourse into vulgarity. Using such terms are actually a matter of accuracy in journalism: this is the name—and thus the politics and the history—that the group in question has brought to the current conversation.

Using such terms also allows us to recognize that in the complex, constantly evolving river that is language, colonized peoples should be recognized as being capable of linguistic self-determination. If a Newfoundlander prefers that name over the American military originated slur Newfie, that’s her right, a linguistic preference that should be respected. Using the term land protectorrecognizes that the land currently being developed (or exploited) was appropriated (stolen) from the people under a contested concept of land ownership (a historically evolved, culturally contingent concept that only appeared on the stage of world historical cultures relatively recently).

Using such names is also, I hasten to add, not an issue of being politically correct. That phrase has a long and vexed history itself, one that I am not confident that I have ever found solid ground on which to base a position or an opinion. Should Sherman Alexieor Thomas King be censured for repurposing the culturally problematic term Indian? I refuse using the word myself, but that ‘correct’ refusal hardly puts me in a position to ‘correct’ their use of the word. I certainly wasn’t going to lecture my African-American students in South Georgia when I overheard their playful, casual conversational use of the word nigger; my white skin and the privilege that has accompanied it meant that I had very little to offer those energetic conversations; I felt it my duty to listen, not lecture. In as much as political correctness renders one term taboo and sanctions another term as eternally sacred and inviolable, it is politically and intellectually deadening; such rigid approaches to language are deaf to the ways in which language can be continually repurposed, reinvented, re-contextualized, to oppress, to liberate, or to reinvigorate stale conversations. Consider, again, the curious histories of Negro or Queer.

Brake’s decision to respect those gathered at Muskrat Falls in October of 2016 by using the term land protector signaled a welcome linguistic evolution in this continent’s attempt to come to terms with its violent, dark colonial history. We have all been shaped by that history. The land we now use, the energy that powers our homes and vehicles, the very food that we eat is all generated by the historically contingent attitudes toward the land and the people who occupied that land prior to European settlement. Justin Brake didn’t invent the term land protector, but Brake’s public use of the term pushed conversations forward, demanded fresh eyes and reopened ears on old problems. Muskrat Falls is an ongoing trauma for the people of this province, and we need every bit of innovation we can get to renew conversations about economic and environmental stability, and to provide some path toward reconciliation and healing between settlers and colonized nations.

Recognizing the nuances of that linguistic problem is a crucial step toward recognizing the deep cultural damage that colonial practices have inflicted on this planet, this country, and—more specifically—the peoples of Labrador. They gave us this particular verbal gift, and we should not only respect it, but recognize ‘land protector’ for the welcome opportunity it is.