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Das, Veena — Violence and Translation

Das, Veena. “Violence and Translation.” Anthropological Quarterly 75.1 (2002): 105-12.

Das focuses on the events of September 11th and the continuous suffering caused by wars and genocides in other parts of the world in order to discuss problems of translation such as the dichotomy of  the “politics of mourning in the public sphere” (105). She first discusses the two opposing perspectives of cultural interpretation of violence and vulnerability: one considers the “antagonism of human cultures” as a “clash of civilizations” while the other emphasizes the “production of identities through circulation […] and the blurring of boundaries” (105). Das argues that these two perspectives are founded on the idea that human cultures can be translatable.

With this in mind, she first begins to discuss how much more significant one grand act of terrorism seems to be compared to multiple, scattered acts of terrorism. According to Das, “While terrorist forms of warfare in other spaces in Africa, Asia, or the Middle East were leveled against forms of particularism, the attack on America [September 11th] is seen as an attack on humanity itself” (108). She argues that the translated view of the violence occurring in countries portray terrorist acts as rooted in extreme devotion to a party and nation rather than a human right. On the other hand, the one grand act of terrorism towards the United States comes off more as an attack on the ethical human rights and values of America itself. This would mean that any attack on the United States is an attack on the unalienable rights which we support others to reach as well. These rights are translated as a unified, global front, making attacks on them more significant.

Das then goes into the almost non-existent public mourning that never truly happened after September 11th and the connection of such public mourning to vulnerability: “while in many other countries the wounds inflicted through such violence are acknowledged as attesting to the vulnerability of human life, American society seems unable to acknowledge this vulnerability [. . . ] for it would be a sign of weakness” (108). Given this dynamic, the word casualties turns into sacrifices, and the injured are considered “survivors.”  This view of events never happens in the countries that deal with this sort of violence on a daily basis, for the public display of grief is not seen as weak or as a means to act or do more harm.

Das states that “a language of war” in the United States “transforms it into a hunt,” not simply a reaction to the horrific killings of American citizens. These events allow violent language to persist, including the “the rhetorical strategy of animalizing the other.” Das asks whether mourning the lives lost in September 11th is even possible without using the grief of the survivors for ulterior motives. In like manner, she asks if such mourning can even be a possibility when the “languages of division are so virulent in the public sphere.” She ends the article by noting that there would be more possibilities for peace if it was possible to “acknowledge the fallibility and the vulnerability” we all feel. She also concludes that the United States’ conflict with terrorism is very similar to conflicts in those countries that are continuously under war and violence: both point to interests that need to be renegotiated (211).

Das’s article brings up a dimension of violence within a certain type of translation: the interpretation of events to differing publics. The language in which these translations occur is extremely important in establishing the differing interpretations offered to the global public, especially as it represents violent acts toward an entity of great power (the United States) versus violent acts toward a lesser entity (the countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East). I am struck by Das’s argument that the world took September 11th far more seriously as an attack on peace or righteousness than it takes the genocides and wars happening in the less developed countries, whose casualties could be far more than those lost in 2001. She states that the reasons behind the 9/11 attack were based on moral, ideological differences, while the reasons behind the wars in Africa or Asia are usually translated as being about property, economics, or social conflicts.

Moreover, I find Das’s observation of public mourning in the United States extremely interesting: it is almost as if the power controlled by America could be up for grabs if any ounce of vulnerability is shown. In that regard, I think the lack of translation of vulnerability is another result of structural violence, for being vulnerable is an undesirable trait. The use of language creating violence in order to hide vulnerability is the rhetoric that animalizes the other. By animalizing the other, vulnerability is forgotten, since the country that uses the device is once again put in a superior position to the inferior group. The distribution of power is an important aspect of violent language and should be considered in nonviolent language. How can nonviolent language take away the violence between differing powers? I hope to make the connection of translation in this realm and maybe even provide ways in which translation can reverse this idea without violent means.

—Madiera Dennison


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Stockdell-Giesler, Anne Meade — Agency in the Margins: Stories of Outsider Rhetoric

Stockdell-Giesler, Anne Meade, Ed.  Agency in the Margins: Stories of Outsider Rhetoric.  Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2010.  Print.

This collection of essays concerns itself with the storytelling rhetoric of powerless groups — “the rhetoric of Otherness.” With this focus, the essays in this work hope to illuminate “how outsiders to mainstream sites for rhetorical participation find ways to make themselves heard while retaining marginal identities” (9). Thus, it is not the goal for these people to find their voices within the limiting spectrum of mainstream rhetoric but rather within their pre-existing framework of oppression and silence. Stockdell-Giesler goes on to assert that these “are examples of outsiders creating agency through constitutive rhetorics which attempt to create a narrative in which the outsider has a legitimate right to speak” (10). She also notes that the gates to a larger audience, “the academies, legislature, and religious leaderships have been peopled nearly exclusively by privileged (usually white) men” (13). By acknowledging the gatekeepers, Stockdell-Giesler alerts the audience that she is concerned not with individuals who themselves feel disenfranchised or silenced (for instance, someone whose friends are taking the side of an ex-fiance) but those who actually are (people of color, women, LGBTQ individuals, etc.).

Donnelly, Michael D.  “Freedom of Speech and the Politics of Silence: The Case of Ward Churchill.” 

Donnelly’s essay delves into the layers of free speech and what constitutes truly free speech in America. Notably —

As it functions culturally, the notion of Free Speech has, in fact, served more often to protect and insulate the insider-center (i.e., those in positions of power and privilege) than the outsider, and, in fact, is frequently used to silence the “outsider.” Because of this, some “outsider rhetorics”— a certain subset, let’s say — must push at the extremes. By so doing, such rhetorics force open spaces for discussion — in other words, they dismantle silences — and for less “radical” but no less “outsider” rhetorics to be more effective” (24).

With this hypothesis, those most rebellious, most demanding, most outside the norm, are able to help those less “radical” speakers gain entry into the mainstream simply by being visible. However, he is careful to note that outsider groups are not a silent, helpless mass: “My argument is simply that, first, Freedom of Speech functions differently for different groups according to their positions in the social matrix (insider/outsider, top/bottom), and that therefore Outsider rhetorics must constantly test, challenge, and stretch the ‘acceptable speech’ boundaries defined by those in power” (27). His example, specifically, is an academic whose writing, always charged, was picked up by the popular media, causing an invented firestorm. In this way, one person’s charged rhetoric on the “fringe” is followed by much more hate-filled rhetoric from the “inner circle” of the established power group (29). One may think of the reaction to women claiming misogyny in everyday situations while online — they are often met with rhetorical violence, with threats made including rape and murder, for claiming that women face rape and murder in their lives simply because they are women.

Trodd, Zoe.  “A Hole Story: The Space of HIstorical Memory in the Abolitionist Imagination.”

In this gripping essay, Trodd describes the rhetorics of empty space, missing space, and confined space in slavery and abolition texts in the United States. This rhetoric serves as a handy metaphor that many individuals writing about the movement, or who had lived through the movement, employ or employed. According to Trodd, “As they focused on history’s erasures but also its potentialities as a living past, literary abolitionists like Douglass and Jacobs developed a politics of form — rooting the abolitionist culture of dissent in aesthetics as well as ideologies [. . . in] a hole story.” This “hole story” “imagined historical space as physical space, challenging the country’s ‘whole’ story of historical progress,” as well as “the gulf between what is and what might have been.” With their homeland stolen from them (as well as any free or calm future that might have been in front of them), these slaves were living a “hole” story. These authors were focusing both on what was missing and “on what ought to be” (69). This metaphor is especially apparent in the image of “Henry ‘Box’ Brown climbing out of a box […] [fashion] the infamous box as slavery’s psychological and spiritual suffocation” (71). Douglass repeatedly referred to slavery as a confining space: “Slavery is a ‘house of bondage,’ ‘a horrible pit, ‘a life of living death,’ a ‘dark corner’ of a ‘dark domain’” (76). By contextualizing lost time as both a lack (or a not-space) and a confined area (or very-much-a-space, a space asserting its lack a space), slavery is explained by those who lived through it in an oxymoronic metaphor that still works. Slavery can be seen as an empty expanse of time, the time stolen, the time not able to be retrieved, or as an event which an individual must fit herself into in order to survive.

Serra, Ilaria.  “Outsider Rhetoric in Italian American Immigrant Autobiographies.”

Serra’s interests lie in the stories Italian immigrants tell about themselves. She notes that “Autobiography has traditionally been a genre of great men and women” (144), and thus these autobiographies are on the margins because of the writers’ poverty and bilingual, immigrant status.

I am compelled to note several matters I find troubling in Serra’s essay. First, she says that immigrant autobiographies are concerned with the “self in history,” with the writer’s small space in the big world, with “the quiet individual who survived History,” with “quiet individualism, not shouted but softly whispered” (146). This author believes that the act of putting pen to paper and acknowledging one’s place near the bottom of the American landscape, while boldly telling one’s journey and experience in a new, completely foreign country, is a “soft whisper,” humble, meek, even.  Secondly, she repeatedly refers to Italian immigrants as “simple” and “decent” people (154-55). By fetishizing the poor, by thinking that their poor background and simplified, second-language style English makes them “simple” instead of complex individuals, Serra effectively takes away their rhetorical power by defining these individuals who are attempting to define themselves. Finally, she seems to misunderstanding what an autobiography is when she states that these autobiographers “[have] their first-hand experience as the main justification for their ethos as writers, [and] they make large use of anecdotes which they swear to be true” (157). And what, normally, is in an autobiography? Do most autobiographies claim that their anecdotes may or may not be true? What is the narrative of a life but a string of so-called “anecdotes?” What makes her so suspicious of the validity of these anecdotes?

I plan to use Serra’s essay as an example of “what not to do when talking about the rhetorics of the Other.”

Because this book was a collection of essays instead of one cohesive work, I cannot generalize on the work as a whole.

I believe that chapter is most applicable to my life, including my future career in teaching. Inflammatory rhetoric should not be shut down by even more inflammatory rhetoric about how inflammatory rhetoric is horrible and wrong, and it shouldn’t be allowed in order to protect some group, such as the troops, the children, the women, the white man, the government. I feel that often in classrooms, anyone with an unusual or dissenting opinion from that of the general consensus of the class (which, it must be acknowledged, is often gleaned from what students think the teacher “wants” to hear) is immediately told by a large number of other students that they are wrong, with plenty of evidence or opinion or both to back up that statement. It can often feel that no one is speaking originally or against the norm, as many individuals wish to gain participation credit simply by agreeing with what the person before them said and adding to the pre-existing argument. If a student is speaking violently in a classroom (racist/sexist/misogynistic/xenophobic/homophobic comments), the instructor or other students should step in to inform that student that his/her language is unwelcome, but simply disagreeing with a popular opinion or stating an alternative reality should not result in a violent reaction by those who are trying to spark “discussion” or “debate.” No true discussion can occur when one side is unwilling to listen to the other, overwhelming them with silencing rhetoric as soon as they present a dissenting opinion.

I find myself thinking that violence is not always bad and nonviolence is not always good. It is just as violent to shutdown someone’s discussion as it is for them to violently espouse dissenting views. Still, violence is sometimes needed to break things down that should have been broken down long ago, and nonviolence that sacrifices stories and voices should not be encouraged. Also, one must also ask who is calling whom violent? Is an uprising called “violent?” Is it a “mob” or a “crowd” or “protesters” or “rioters?” Who is in control of the naming process, and what is their relation to those deemed “violent?”

— Emily Blair

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Moran, Gabriel — Living Nonviolently: Language for Resisting Violence

Moran, Gabriel. Living Nonviolently: Language for Resisting Violence. Laham: Lexington Books. 2011. Print.

Moran is interested in the language of violence and peace, and he spends the majority of this book discussing how we might identify these violent tendencies in speech. He defines “violent action” as “a destructive activity performed by one or more human beings […] directed at the body or bodies of other human beings. Spreading from this core meaning, violent actions can include those directed at nonhuman animals that suffer pain and also at life processes that sustain sentient beings” (7). He also notes that “structured violence […] is administered by an organization or society in a way that shields the individual from the emotional impact of face-to-face violence. A society that is radically split between the rich and the poor might wreak violence on the lives of the poor while the rich can remain oblivious of their part in causing such violence” (7-8). In this way, a violent society does not have to look like murder and burglary; a violent society can look like a white, Protestant, heteronormative college classroom, in which no one thinks that any violence has gotten them to their position. Violence can also look like strip mining, meat eating, and minimum wage.

Moran seems especially concerned with interpersonal violence—that is, violence between two people because of a power imbalance. He notes that “Rape is not a sudden explosion of sexual energy […] it is mainly an act of violence, an invasion of another person’s body that causes external and internal injuries” (9); the internal injuries here, we may assume, are both physical and psychological.

This piece is aware of its own limitations and how it will be received, with Moran noting, “A life of nonviolent activity is taken to be a nice idea which does not have a chance in the ‘real world’” (22). However, this nod to the cynical masses does nothing to strengthen his book; indeed, at times Moran seems to be pandering to the warmongering American public, and to what ends? He often seems concerned with not coming off as ridiculous, as when he asserts, “Forcing a human being to do something against his or her will requires justification. Direct physical force against people should occur only under extreme circumstances. For example, a young child, like a nonhuman animal, needs training in accordance with its nature” (32). I don’t think that anyone would argue that not letting a child touch a hot stove that it is reaching for or forcing it to learn how to properly use a toilet are violent acts; striking a child who makes a mistake, however, would be.

Moran is interested in defining words, but does so in several twists and turns, recognizing that one cannot simply say, “This is the true definition of power,” without overlooking several different scenarios. However, on authority, he seems to succinctly narrow it down to, “authority lies not in the power to issue orders but in the power of consent” (55). In this way, a democratically elected and acting president has authority over her people, but a dictator who has seized unwilling people under his rule does not.

Perhaps most important was Moran’s explanation of what he believed to constitute nonviolent living:

A nonviolent life at individual or national levels ought not to be imagined as a series of heroic decisions that go counter to natural inclinations. What is natural for a human being is to discover the shape of a self in response to others. Within a more complex system of interactions, the same holds true for nations. The response to the other includes aggressive action. Education has to provide rituals and cooperative activities lest aggressiveness become violence directed outward or inward. A nonviolent life would require understanding of competing elements within the self and awareness of angers external to the self. Nonviolent living means gentle governance from the center to align the self’s interests in encountering an often violent world. The person whose habitual outlook is “be gentle with oneself” will not be interested in meeting violence with violence. The person may not know how he or she will respond to being struck or spit upon, but the self with all of its interests will react nonsymmetrically to violence. (64)

With this admittedly long definition, we may begin seeing ourselves, instead of public policy or great world-leaders, as the bringers of peace and change. If this idea of nonviolence was taught as stringently and thoroughly in the American public school system as, say, pre-calculus, or the history of the Greeks and Romans, or the cell structure of plants, wouldn’t America be a less violent place, both within its borders and in international policy? One would certainly think so.

Let me first say that the majority of Moran’s book was not covered in my discussion of it. For instance, he speaks at length about religion and how individuals have misunderstood Christ, and World War II, both the war itself and its aftermath. And he hops from subject to subject without spending much time exploring the language in any of them. I feel that he set out to write an epic on language, ran out of time or money or publishing space, and cut a great deal, while trying to give us an overview. The result is a sometimes-shallow work on language and violence with great beginnings of ideas. He has no plans for reform, but seems bent on convincing people to (forgive me) give peace a chance, even when he qualifies nearly every pacifistic statement with a “but of course, there are exceptions.”

He finds “inclusive language” impossible, stating that it “could only exist by eliminating all differences which would create a language of abstractions and generalities” (164). While the clunkiness and grammatical conundrums of inclusive language are, indeed, difficult — for instance, the “incorrect” use of “they” as a singular gender neutral pronoun; the fact that LGBTQA+ organizations have started simply adding the plus symbol instead of trying to catch up to current rhetorics on sexuality; the fact that reading “he or she” more than three times in a paragraph feels like it is over-reaching for inclusivity — is that any reason to stop trying to make them work? How long until English agrees on a singular gender-neutral pronoun? Or how long until “partner” or “spouse” completely eradicates “husband” and “wife,” so same-sex couples do not feel the need to assure people that their “partner” is more than their “boyfriend” or “girlfriend?” The world will never be a homogenized gray blob, as Moran seems to scoff that inclusive language seekers wish. Inclusive language celebrates diversity instead of trying to get rid of it. Representation matters, and so does normalization of differences.

Moran’s message for living nonviolenty seems to be, Hippocratically, “do no harm,” but he does not tell us how to do that besides to treat those with less power and authority wel l — that is, do not rape, do not harm children, and do not harm nonhuman animals. How, then, does he feel about veganism as a means to peaceful living? And how does he feel about the violence of women and children? He seems focused on white men, which, if that is his target audience, is good, but he does not include the violence that women perform on each other via body policing, or how children often gang up on the weakest child. In all, I found this book interesting and thought provoking, but it ultimately fell short of my expectations.

–Emily Blair

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Fitz-Gibbon, Andrew — Positive Peace: Reflections on Peace Education, Nonviolence, and Social Change.

Fitz-Gibbon, Andrew, ed. Positive Peace: Reflections on Peace Education, Nonviolence, and Social Change. Rodopi: Amsterdam. 2010. Print.

This collection of essays displays varied views on what peace means and how one may achieve it, with several different practical tactics and anecdotes throughout. In the Editorial Forward, William C. Gay sets up basic vocabulary for the text, noting, “negative peace is defined as the mere absence of war, while positive peace is defined as also entailing the presence of justice […] The ultimate goal is to achieve social justice” (xv). In this framework, a peaceful society, in addition to not being at war, is one in which society is balanced and without violence, including complex structural systems of violence.

I reference here specific essays instead of referring to the work as a whole.

Gandhi, Arun. “Guest Forward: Why is Peace Elusive?”

In his forward, Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mohandas K. Gandhi, discusses his own views on nonviolence, which was introduced to him and heavily influenced by the teachings of his grandfather. Part of this teaching is realizing that how an individual reacts to a situation determines how she feels about those surroundings. He asserts: “Reaction to an incident in anger, when not in control of our mind, leads to violence, either physical or non-physical. Taking time to regain control of the mind helps in finding a nonviolent solution” (xix). Endless advice notes that we should count backwards from five, or up to ten, or take a few deep breaths before reacting in anger, but some angers are much more prolonged, and taking longer to regain control of oneself should be seen as a strength instead of a weakness of character. Gandhi continues with an introduction to the concept of nonviolence by discussing “the Culture of Nonviolence,” noting that nonviolence is based on the belief “that all human beings and, by extension, all nations are interlinked, interconnected, and interrelated […] Thus, in the practice of nonviolence it is imperative that we broaden our vision of society and nation, and learn to build mutually respecting societies with a greater degree of compassionate sharing” (xx). By acting out of compassion instead of pity, problems can be solved with the disenfranchised instead of for them, or in Gandhi’s words, with programs “designed to help the poor stand on their own feet and do things for themselves” (xxi). The violence of destroying a group’s voice and agency should be taken seriously, as many groups are either unable or discouraged to speak for themselves (the poor, disabled, elderly, children, and women) and thus, are often spoken for by people with good intentions but little inside knowledge. The example given was the Peace Corp, which Gandhi notes often took the “we know your problem and if you listen to us we will solve it for you” (xxi) approach to international aid work. In truly nonviolent spaces, the poor are not “kept in their place,” so to speak, with soup kitchens as the only means to provide for their needs; they are educated, given job training, and shown how to go about bettering their lives in ways that they have expressed would be helpful.

Robert L. Muhlnickel. “The Vulnerability Thesis and The Peacemaking Virtues”

While Muhlnickel’s explanation of when people do violence to each other is fascinating: “People resort to violence when they believe they have no alternatives to it, when they bear ill will or hatred toward another, and when they believe they will not be prevented from doing violence to the other. The preventative factors might be located in the object of violence, as when the other is not powerful enough to prevent the agent from doing violence. The preventative factor may be located in a third party, who lacks the power to deter the agent from doing violence” (19). In this scenario, individuals commit violence because the victim of their violence is unable to act back (either through physical means, which would be the case in harming the environment or a member of a silenced group, such as a discriminated against minority or child) or the third party that is supposed to keep the violence at bay does not have enough power (if your neighbor throws a rock through your window but the police force is grossly mismanaged or small, it may be unlikely that he will face legal repercussions for this action). That people may be violent to each other just because they can might be a shock, but consider the child mildly squashing ants with his finger. He does not believe that the ants feel pain, or thinks they are so small that they do not matter; as adults, we realize that hurting other people is morally wrong, but we still may hold prejudices that some people are worth more than others, leading to the destruction of environments who look different than us.

Sanjay Lal. “Gandhian Nonviolence as Not Presupposing Human Goodness”

Lal discusses Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence and human goodness in this essay, beginning with the statement: “A ubiquitous justification of violence, ingrained as a conventional common sense understanding across the globe, is that our opponents are so evil that only violence is effective in dealing with them” (23). This tactic has been used via propaganda and stereotypes for what looks like the entirety of human existence. In refining Gandhi’s premise, Lal distills his philosophies into understandable bits, such as, “Ultimately, [Gandhi] sees nonviolence as an attribute of ultimate reality (atman), which is everyone’s True Self, which is manifested in the attraction, cooperation, and order (aspects of the True Self) that underlie the everyday world” (25). While the author notes that it is hard to believe in the good of every human, he notes that it is a “capability for good, which the general population at large has exhibited throughout history, and not the inherent goodness of human nature” (27) that shows that Gandhi’s nonviolent methods would be able to work. He also notes that nonviolent ends can only come from nonviolent means, and “Gandhi had a strong commitment to use only moral means” (29). The argument that violence is a natural should be dismissed, as it does nothing to further humanity. “Considering the multitudes of the violent that have died for their cause and the penchant for violent responses to escalate violence,” Lal says, “history provides no reason for assuming that resorting to violence will assure survival, individually or collectively” (30). If individuals act selflessly and collectively, which at first seems counterintuitive to survival, the entirety of humanity can benefit.

Viewing this work as a whole proves nearly impossible, but pulling quotes and ideas from various essays in the book could illuminate areas of nonviolence that I had not previously considered. For instance, that violence could be done merely because one could do it, as suggested by Muhlnickel, brought up an interesting set of scenarios for me. For instance, in creative writing workshops, the group will often go either positive or negative depending on the strength of individuals in the group—once a negative trail begins, it is very hard to stop it. However, in creative writing workshops, the person whose work is being discussed is in the room but often uninvited to speak, as per the teacher’s instructions. Therefore, they are essentially powerless, having lost their ability to speak for themselves. This can lead to a frustrating experience, as you can hear how people are discussing pieces of your work but are utterly unable to defend yourself. What satisfaction comes not from constructive criticisms but from tearing down an individual’s story and art while they can hear you? I must assume that violence to others is, somehow, appealing to most of us, and microaggressions can take the place of what is considered “actual” “violence,” such as causing someone bodily harm. 

I appreciate the idea that humans are not necessarily inherently good, but that they have the capability for good, and that is enough. I believe that nonviolence and nonviolent teaching are seen as overwhelming or unrealistic because we all know that we will ultimately slip up. We will misgender a student or make an ignorant assumption about them; we will slip up and curse in a manner that is sexist or use a sexist/racist/ablist slur; we will err on the side of criticism instead of construction on a student’s paper, leading them to dislike or even resent us. We are only human, and whatever that means, it is at least an excuse to mess up often and significantly. However, by thinking of nonviolence and nonviolent action as a muscle to be worked instead of an insurmountable life-task, I believe that I (and maybe, others) would be able to approach each day nonviolently instead of thinking it is a lifelong struggle with ourselves.

—Emily Blair



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Estey, George, and Doris Hunter — Nonviolence: A Reader in the Ethics of Action

Estey, George, and Doris Hunter. Nonviolence: A Reader in the Ethics of Action. Waltham: Xerox College Publishing, 1971. Print.

Published in 1971, this book argues that nonviolence is an active and complex set of actions rather than a form of passivity. In an introduction to the nonviolence of religion, the authors demonstrate that nonviolence is “not a passive concept to these religious traditions [Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and Taoism]” (xvii). The authors go on to place nonviolence in three categories.  The first category is “view[ing] nonviolence as nonresistance” (xix), or passivity of place, time, and circumstance. The phrase, “The meek share inherit the earth” comes to mind with this particular strand of understanding nonviolence. The second category of interpretation is “passive resistance” (xix), which can include such things as “the use of the walkout or the boycott” (xx).  The third category, then, is “nonviolent direct action” (xx), which can be used to challenge oppression and violence.  The authors explain nonviolent direct action as follows:

The proponent of this approach takes the initiative and moves into the problem area rather than withdrawing from it. Ideally, he challenges the opponent in order to make him change his mind or to make him take an active stand against the direct nonviolent action and resist it […] This type of action is called civil disobedience and as such, it entails all the difficulties associated with legal and moral issues. The dramatic confrontation of civil rights marches and war protest marches—with or without marching permits—illustrates this type of nonviolent direct action. (xx)

After the introduction, the work delves into essays written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, and other thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth century. While these essays are valuable, they concern themselves mainly with the nuts and bolts of nonviolent resistance—or what is being said about those actions as they are being done—instead of the theory behind these actions. However, understanding nonviolence as an active and complex set of actions instead instead of passivity should be fully noted.  If not, nonviolence can be discounted as a form of laziness or lack of will power.

Some quotations from the collection that I find useful include the following: 

From Timothy Leary’s “Violent Governments, Nonviolent Hippies”

“Man, and only man is violent […] Man is the only species who violates by distance weaponry.” (247)

“Each individuals must disarm himself. Any author or reader of this book who possesses a machine-weapon designed to rend flesh is violent.” (253)

These quotations, some of the more tame of this essay, display a very certain stance: weaponry is the result of man’s violence, and man must disarm himself (and his entire world) in order to become nonviolent. This is an interesting stance in view of today’s “drone warfare.”

From Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Moral Man and Immoral Society”

“Both the temper and the method of non-violence yield another very important advantage in social conflict. They rob the opponent of the moral conceit by which he identifies his interests with the peace and order of society. This is the most important of all the imponderables in a social struggle, is the one which gives an entrenched and dominant group the clearest and the least justified advantage over those who are attacking the ‘status quo.’”

“Non-violent coercion and resistance, in short, is a type of coercion which offers the largest opportunities for a harmonious relationship with the moral and rational factors in social life. It does not destroy the process of a moral and rational adjustment of interest to interest completely during the course of resistance.” (228)

Here, we see that Niebuhr asserts that nonviolence places the power of the exchange into the hands of the nonviolent resisters because it exposes the immorality of the oppressors. Without this social contract, the oppressors must come to terms with their own power; even in instances in which the oppressors did not necessarily see the oppression in their day to day lives, this can come as quite a shock to the system, and they may resort to even more violence as a result. I am thinking of outspoken feminists and women’s rights activists being attacked online, often by being threatened with rape and murder by anonymous male users. In the face of losing one’s kingdom, and at the risk of one’s life being changed when stripped of power and perceived dignity, most people seem to grow more vocal and violent.

I see works such as this as a stepping stone to my own personal understanding of nonviolence and peace studies. Studying the words of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has been done long before me, and to a much higher degree, but studying the great influences of the twentieth century’s nonviolent resistance movements can help me view other individuals’ works with more clarity. Additionally, I have never read something on nonviolence and violence prevention that has not sparked some sort of inner discussion, even if I completely disagree with the premise or argument presented.

—Emily Blair


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Chomsky, Noam, and Anthony Arnove — Language and Freedom

Chomsky, Noam, and Anthony Arnove. “Language and Freedom.” The Essential Chomsky. London: Bodley Head, 2008. Print.

Chomsky’s goal in this essay was to establish a relationship between the study of language — and man’s use of language — and the pursuit of a social condition in which each person’s physical and intellectual freedom is maximized. According to Chomsky, “Man’s freedom and his consciousness of this freedom distinguish him from the beast-machine. The principles of mechanical explanation are incapable of accounting for these human properties” [80].  In touching on the Romanticist philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Chomsky constructs a framework in which to appreciate the phenomenon of human consciousness. Rousseau says, “It is not so much understanding which constitutes the distinction of man among the animals as it is his being a free agent […] and it is above all in the consciousness of this freedom that the spirituality of his soul is shown” [qtd. in Chomsky pg. 78]. “To the Cartesians,” Chomsky writes, “it is obvious by introspection that each man possesses a mind, a substance whose essence is thought; his creative use of language reflects this freedom of thought and conception.” Chomsky continues to reiterate the point that “the essence of human nature is man’s freedom and his consciousness of his freedom” [81]. He proceeds to connect the phenomenon of consciousness and intellectual freedom with the study of language: “I like to believe that the intensive study of one aspect of human psychology – human language – may contribute to a humanistic social science that will serve, as well, as an instrument for social action” [90]. He asserts that the study of language can help to better understand the system of rule-governed behavior in society and the ways in which individuals maximize “free and creative action within the framework of a system of rules that […] reflect intrinsic properties of human mental organization” [89]. “A good case can be made,” Chomsky contends, “in support of the empirical claim that such a system can be acquired […] only by a mind that is endowed with certain specific properties that we can now tentatively describe in some detail…Education, then, must provide the opportunities for self-fulfillment; it can at best provide a rich and challenging environment for the individual to explore, in his own way” [84]. According to Chomsky, then, the crucial variable in helping men acquire freedom is endowing them with consciousness of their freedom, which is what the essence of education should be. He concludes that “There is no inconsistency in the notion that […] by providing the consciousness of freedom, these essential attributes of human nature give man this opportunity to create social conditions and social forms to maximize the possibilities for freedom, diversity, and individual self-realization” [81].

Though he does not elaborate on the subject in this essay quite so much, one of Noam Chomsky’s most touched-upon subjects is education. He often comments on the transition from Enlightenment-era education, which emphasized fostering an educational atmosphere conducive to creative expression, to the system we have today, which largely restricts creative thought and the ability to seek individual self-realization. I think that over a long period of time, through government initiatives in education (i.e. “No Child Left Behind”), curricula have been determined more and more by non-teachers (I think of the Virginia State SOL’s, the questions of which are determined by committees of “specialists” who represent the companies that profit from administering the tests). The nature of education has thus become more and more restrictive. The ways in which students are able to express themselves through language are diminished by these restrictive parameters, compared to a system in which they are encouraged to pursue their own intellectual interests. A system in which students are in any way restricted from reaching their full capacity for conscious expression inhibits the quality of discourse they will be able to engage in, and is directly analogous to the effects of limiting the vocabulary with which one expresses thought. I think these ideas are central to the study of language and conflict, and I think this essay lays a useful framework with which to approach the subject of language, human interaction, and conflict resolution.

–Zach VeShancey

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Brown, Tyler — Fear as a Political Tool: Re-examining Terrorism in Political Speech

Brown, Tyler.  “Fear as a Political Tool: Re-examining Terrorism in Political Speech”

The incorporation of violence into the rhetoric of the political sphere is a topic that has been under-appreciated for some time. I seek to argue that the language used by many policy makers and legislatures, specifically focusing on rhetorical strategies of certain politicians in the United States, incorporates various notions of fear in order to worry the common public, in the hopes that they will side with their ideals in response to this fear. The evaluations of certain speeches and widely recognized statements made by political leaders, it is evident that the employment of fear exists in an effort to promote some political agenda. The use of fear, to promote a political agenda, is also an incredibly influential tactic utilized by many of the powerful people in today’s society who tend to be defined with another political term, “terrorism.” The purpose of these claims is not to state that the individuals who represent us as our political leaders are “terrorists.” The resolution that I attempt to promote is the theory that the strategies utilized by both terrorist organization and many political leaders, aside from the regular and absurd use of physical and lethal violence by contemporary terrorists, is disconcertingly similar, which should promote the advancement of knowledge within the common people and public to these tactics used by political leaders.

The influence of policy makers and legislatures is contingent upon a system of gaining the support from the citizens that they represent. The main tool that is utilized within the arsenal of these political agents is one that is commonly represented by the ideas of moral building and unity; but this, I argue, serves the purpose to merely disguise the actual tool that politicians tend to exploit — fear. To the extent to which politicians can coerce the citizens that they represent with fear can be seen as being comparable to that of violence and terror. The exploration of the use of fear to manipulate the constituents that these policy makers represent allows for the opportunity to delve into the methods by which politicians convince the public that a particular course of actions is the appropriate action for the state, even if the true motives rest in completely selfish political agendas. To state that this use of “political fear” seems to correlate in an eerily similar manner to the actions committed by modern day terrorists; not by the actions of physical violence, but by their methods of utilizing fear to accomplish certain political agendas.

In an effort to explain the claims that I make, the definitions of terms such as “violence” and “terrorism” must clearly be established from the perspective that I attempt to use them. The various versions that exist regarding the use of these words could easily lead to ambiguity, which I attempt to reduce or hopefully eliminate by explaining the specific characteristics that exist to cause these terms to be applicable to my claims. The method by which I utilize the term “violence” is not merely from an interpersonal or physical perspective, simply because these do not particularly explain the harms that violence from political leaders contribute to. Violence, as I describe it, attempts to employ any scenario that causes a change in people’s actions or mindset due to harmful methods or outcomes. This, one could say, is a modified version of Johan Galtung’s theory of violence, which is related to the reduction of one’s potential to make something more of themselves or their circumstances, but also highlights the ideas of manipulation and psychological damage that violence tends to cause. Since these tactics seem to be readily evident in the political sphere, this definition of violence serves an effective purpose for the claims I make.

With regard to the term “terrorism,” I genuinely seek to divert away from the contemporary view of what this word is associated with and focus solely on what the term actually describes. In the modern world, the term “terrorism” is usually used as a term regarding the physical use of violence, threats, and death of innocent civilians in order to evoke political change, promote awareness about a particular political issue or problem, or attempt to accomplish some political agenda or interest for the group. For the intents and purposes of my claims, this is not the association of the word terrorism that I utilize. With regard to the term “terrorism,” the definition that shall be used will be one that emphasizes the purposes more than the outcomes “terrorism.” The definition that I express is one along the lines of what Robert Goodin would exemplify; that being, that “terrorism” can be described with the statement that “the distinctive wrong that is terrorism itself, [which is] acting with the intention of frightening people for a political advantage” in order to describe that terrorism seeks to gain or accomplish a political goal through the use of fear and manipulation.[1] This seeks to explain that terrorism rests not only in the groups that seek to commit physical violence in an effort to allow a certain political agenda to occur; but, explains that terrorism is evident when the use of fear and manipulation is used in an effort to accomplish political ends.

In order to better understand the relationship that exists between this modified version of terrorism and the use of violence through a system of rhetoric in the political sphere, it is important to comprehend the method by which people are influenced by political leaders (especially regarding the actions being committed that may be considered to be violent). The scholar Michael Walzer, who generally deals in issues regarding warfare and the actions that are committed during wartime, critiques the ideas of aggression and violence in an effort to divulge the culpability of political leaders regarding these situations. In an effort to understand what causes the language of politicians to be able to even be described as violent, one must attempt to grasp that the language that politicians use has the ability to influence the mindsets of the people that follow their use of language as being appropriate and adequate for the safety and benefit of the their own well-being. As Walzer puts it, “[I]f there is such a thing as aggression, then there must be aggressors…But the theory of justice should point us to the men and women from whom we can rightly demand an accounting.” In other words, when acts of physical violence are committed in order to fulfill the state’s political agenda, it is normally the case that the individuals who are responsible for the occurrence of these violent actions are the political leaders holding the pens, instead of having most of the blame being placed in the hands of the many military personnel holding their guns.[2] Walzer exemplifies the idea that it is the political leaders that instigate violent activity through their use of language that creates an “us” versus “them” mentality. This, then, causes the physical violence that is committed to be seen as justified due to the fact that the members of the common body politic and military are highly influenced by the political leaders and the language that they employ.

According to Christopher Menke, the ability to make laws as a political leader creates a cycle of violence that is incredibly difficult to escape. Menke contends that “Lawmaking is power making, and, to that extent, an immediate manifestation of violence.” Those who have the capability to make the law consistently cause violence to continue to reoccur.[3] This shows that the ability of political leaders to influence the everyday lives of their constituents simply through the use of their language enables them to have a significant influence in determining, for the people that encompass the common public, the manner by which they should or should live their lives and the actions that they should (according to the law) accept as right or wrong. This then expands to the fact that whenever a political leader attempts to gain support for a certain political endeavor, the most effective method to gain this support is by causing their constituents to fear an alternative idea or group of people who support this idea. Though this method is disguised as being simply a morale building method of gaining political imfluence. But when we examine how this political rhetoric is used, we can see that the portrayal of alternate ideas and the fear of the outcomes should these “evil” ideas prevail is truly a form of violence through the use of language and rhetoric.

This expresses further the idea that the language that is used by political leaders attempts to gain support for their own political agendas, even if this risks the safety and security of the public or military personnel. This is not to say that all decisions that are made regarding the military are decisions that are centered on simply being means to a selfish end, but this claim merely attempts to point out the influence that political leaders’ language has to persuade, and even coerce, the constituents that they represent. Political leaders have the ability to use their language in an effort to place the idea of committing physical violence in a good light by utilizing words such as “unity” or “against,” which causes those who listen to this language to be forced to establish themselves with one of two groups: either with and supporting the state and its decision, or being not on the “side” of the state and, henceforth, being against the state and opposing its endeavors. These political leaders understand that the common public and military have a natural inclination to exercise self-preservation, especially when safety can be provided for the state. This means that if the political leaders of the state can cause the public to understand that an enemy exists, and that there is some force that should be united against, then the political leaders of the state have the opportunity to utilize fear of this enemy, and accomplish whatever political agenda this process seeks to procure.

When it comes to actually applying the term terrorism to this use of violence through political language, there exist some of the most influential scholars that have addressed the issue and were able to express that there may be strong reason to believe that a direct connection exist with regard to the methods and motives of both “contemporary terrorism” and political violence through rhetoric and language. According to Robert Goodin, certain actions include “the intention of instilling fear of terrorism to advance [one’s] own political agenda. And on the definition…that would count as an act of terrorism in itself.”[4] The “intent to instill fear” that Goodin addresses explains the idea that politicians, especially in the United States, understand that people respond to fear. The members of common public are conditioned to trust political leaders, at least to the extent that they will employ the necessary tactics to provide protection for the state should the need for it arise. This means that if these political leaders can produce an enemy, then they can convince the public that a need for protection is evident and that the members of the public should unite with the state against a common enemy. Another important scholar, Benjamin Barber, has expressed views specifically related to the United States and its “war or terrorism.” As Barber puts it, “the President’s rhetoric [insists] that the world choose sides — that it join the U.S. or be numbered among the supporters of terrorism.” That is, the President of the United States utilized language in order to attempt to coerce the public and leaders of the rest of the world that it had a legitimate concern, and that if these people were not with them, then they were against them.[5] What clearly makes this use of language also a use of violence is the fact that the political leaders in the United States attempted to coerce of members of the human population to make an inescapable choice for a decision that did not necessarily need to be made: it was an ultimatum that was not exactly a necessary measure that needed to be taken.

The distinction as to how one could transition from this use of language as simply violence to that of terrorism arises when the existence of more than just the tools of persuasion are utilized: when there exists an intent to cause fear within the people receiving the information in order to manipulate their decision or change their mindset toward a particular circumstance. The fact of the matter is that terrorist organizations attempt to utilize this device of fear in the minds of the public in order to gain support for certain views or political agendas that they wish to see accomplished. The genuine misconception that exists regarding many terrorist organizations is that their main objective is simply to commit acts of physical violence in an effort to eliminate the people who may stand in the way for them to accomplish their goals. But this does not seem to be the case. The main tool utilized by terrorist groups is not destruction, but it is the incorporation of fear in society that allows terrorists organizations to thrive and gain support for their political goals. Terrorist organizations benefit from being able to exemplify the idea of an “enemy” and a force that should be feared and opposed. As I have shown in previous statements, political leaders utilize this same tactic of fear and opposition towards another entity in order to accomplish a particular political end. Though these tactics are not as obvious as when they are used by contemporary terrorist organizations, as they are disguised as tactics such as “rally building” and “gaining support for a cause,” the awareness of the existence of this use of sphere by political leaders is the most significant aspect to realize.

One particular instance that corresponds incredibly accurately to the use of fear in order to evoke a political advantage, and can be classified as using this form of “political terror,” is the 2002 State of the Union Address made by President George W. Bush. Throughout the entirety of this incredibly popular speech, President Bush expresses statements that seem to promote unity and strength within the union that is the United States. Whether or not these feelings may have been experienced within the minds of those who the speech was relayed to, the intent of the speech was not to provide these feelings or emotions, but mainly to evoke fear within the minds of the American public against a force that the President seemed to express as a threat to the safety and sovereignty of the state. Certain statements from President Bush during this speech are direct statements that engage the incorporation of fear into the minds of those who hear it, such as, “The men and women of our armed forces have delivered a message now clear to every enemy of these United States,” “We have seen the depth of the enemies hatred is equaled by the madness of the destruction they design,” and “So long as training camps operate, so long as nations harbor terrorists, freedom is at risk and America and our allies must not, and will not, allow it.”[6] By establishing this system of fear in the American public, President Bush sought to gain support against a common enemy in an effort to purport the political agendas that he and his administration wanted to accomplish through the situation that occurred on September 11, 2001.

The fact of the matter was that President Bush did have his own agenda for wanted to gain support from the American people, in order to allow the public to support a decision to go into Iraq for a certain period of time. Whether the purpose of this military operation in Iraq was evaluate the oil supplies, or search for nuclear weapons, or attempt to establish a democratic system is irrelevant. There did exist some sort of political agenda that existed that caused President Bush to feel the need to intent to instill this fear within the minds of the American public. President Bush also recognized at the time that the most effective manner in order to gain this support was to allow for the presently recognizable and hated enemy of the state to become to target for this aggression that needed to be directed in order for the fear to be attached to a certain entity. The fear that President Bush attempted to instill within the minds of the American public and the rest of the world was used for manipulative purposes in coerce people into supporting the political agenda of the President and attempt to accomplish his political goals.

This wrongful use of power by political leaders can no longer be so overlooked by members of the American public and many people throughout the rest of the world. Truthfully, the examination of this State of the Union Address by President Bush created an awkward instance of realization within my mind due to my high acclamation and support that I have for the Bush Administration and the manner by which I viewed the United States as being safe and secure during his presidency. This exemplifies even further the ease that exists with regard to following blindly the ideas and actions that are being promoted by political leaders, especially when certain language and rhetoric is used by these individuals. It is possible that President Bush did have noble and truly beneficial reasons (at least where the state is concerned) for advocating the ideas that he did; but, the fact that he utilized fear in an effort to accomplish a political agenda provides a ridiculously similar model for the method by which the enemies that he was advocating for the elimination of. The process of gaining support for the “war on terror” seems to involve an extensive use of political terror itself.

It still remains, however, that it is not my purpose to categorize many political speeches, legislation, and other uses of political language within the confines of what today’s society would deem as a contemporary form of terrorism. The term terrorism is so deeply engrained into the perceptions of today’s citizens that a re-defining of the word itself seems to be virtually impossible at this time. It is the case, though, that the similarities that exist between the use of fear by which terrorist organizations and political leaders gain support for their own political agendas is too similar to ignore. Whereas contemporary terrorist organizations seek to integrate fear into the minds of the people through acts of direct physical and interpersonal violence, the use of violence that political leaders instill into people’s minds through language is merely through the use of psychological forms of violence. The use of manipulation and coercion of the public through their use of language cause these political leaders to exploit an advantage that they have solely through their position as a political leader and their ability to use language to greatly influence the people that their message is relayed to.

The awareness of this use of fear and an installment of terror must continue to expand and be much more readily comprehended by citizens of the state when they encounter certain rhetoric from political leaders. This awareness of this use of language by political leaders is not simply for the purpose of criticizing our political leaders, but will hopefully enable the citizens of the state to make more informed decisions regarding the policies and procedures from certain political leaders that they tend to support. It may be the case then that these people will become more accustomed to further evaluating the language expressed by their political leaders and will be able to better express their opinions as responsible and efficient constituents within a society.


Works Cited

[1] Goodin, Robert E. “Terrorizing Democracy” and “Conclusion.” What’s Wrong with Terrorism? Chapters 7-8 (2006): p. 156-186

[2] Walzer, Michael. “Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations.” Basic Books. (1977): Part V p. 287-328.

[3] Menke, Christopher. “Law and Violence.” Law and Literature, Vol. 22, No. 1. (2010):  1-17.

[4] Goodin, Robert E. “Terrorizing Democracy” and “Conclusion.” What’s Wrong with Terrorism? Chapters 7-8 (2006): p. 165-170

[5] Barber, Benjamin R. “The War of All Against All: Terror and the Politics of Fear.” (2003) p. 84

[6] Bush, George W. 2002 Presidential State of the Union Address. (2002)

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VeShancey, Zach — Appropriations of Power and Discourse in Western Society

VeShancey, Zach.  “Appropriations of Power and Discourse in Western Society”

Broadly speaking, my goal in writing this paper was to establish concrete relationships between unequal appropriations of power and unequal appropriations of language and discourse in Western society. Language is, after all, the social phenomenon which connects us with each other and with various social constructs, such as schools, power systems, industry, and so on. It is also the mechanism by which we come to know ourselves, understand our world, and express consciousness and internal processes of thought. Through the course of Western industrial history, various dialects have come to reflect the socioeconomic statuses of the communities in which they are spoken. In the words of Norman Fairclough, “The establishment of the dominance of Standard English and the subordination of other social dialects [in Britain] was part and parcel of the establishment of the dominance of the capitalist class and the subordination of the working class.”[i] These varying dialects, along with the appropriations of prestige that come with them, help form and fortify the political and social lines along which society differentiates.

In the establishment of these lines there exists a conflict between two realities. Economically, the standardization of language is necessary for maximum communicative and productive efficiency – I’ve heard it to be that among the Virginia Tech faculty, the department with the highest number of “grammar Nazis” is located in Pamplin; practically, the notion of total standardization of a language or dialect is unreasonable – as is the notion of universal affluence in a free-market society. Thus, the institution that serves as the funnel through which the masses trudge toward the workforce – the educational system – must necessarily differentiate according to some standard. Ostensibly, that standard is meritocratic. A student enters school and graduates (or doesn’t) with a GPA and a future reflective of the effort they chose to apply. This is of course a fantasy. A high school graduate from an upper-class background is 30 percent more likely to attend college than a student from a lower-class background.[ii] Thus, it seems that the system differentiates along different lines. These lines differentiate, among other things, differentiate between variations in lexical and linguistic proficiency and reflect, in the words of Fairclough, “the existing social division of labor and the existing system of class relations”.[iii]

To demonstrate this phenomenon, I point to the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test), a test that has become concomitant with the college application process in America and whose two linguistic-oriented portions – Critical Reading and Writing – essentially assess, respectively, the size of a student’s lexicon and their ability to comprehend prose and articles, and the eloquence with which they can express knowledge and consciousness. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, White students perform significantly higher – 31 points – than the countrywide average on both the Critical Reading and Writing portions of the SAT. Black students, on the other hand, score 70 points lower than the average on the same portions. Aside from Asian/Pacific Islander, every other non-White demographic scored significantly lower than average.[iv] A similar trend exists between groups of varying income: according to statistics from the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, on average, students in every income bracket scored higher than students in respective lower brackets on every section.[v] Students in the highest income bracket ($200,000+) scored on average over 130 points higher on the Critical Reading and Writing sections than students in the lowest income bracket ($0-20,000). These statistics are unsurprising: it makes sense that a student from a family of the business class is more likely to be proficient with the language and dialect of that echelon than a student born of poverty. These facts are distressing, and reflect an obvious truth of the current system of American class relations: rich people speak differently than poor people. But what is suspicious and troubling about this disparity in linguistic proficiency is the implication it has on the various classes’ relative abilities to understand and interpret the world around them, to express their consciousness, and to participate in the decision-making forums of society in ways that help to influence and improve the conditions in which they live.

The ramifications for illiterate and dialectically marginalized groups extend beyond being excluded from forums of social influence. Immediately and materially, illiteracy is a prison sentence. According to a study by the One World Literacy Foundation, two out of every three students who cannot read above a fourth grade level will end up in jail or on welfare. Indeed, 70% of American inmates cannot read above a fourth grade level.[vi] These studies range from comprehension of basic prose and non-fiction to the subject’s ability to fill out basic information, like on business forms or job applications. Similarly, communities that are illiterate overwhelmingly constitute the poorest sectors of society. According to a similar study conducted by the American Council on Education, “70% of Americans who receive food stamps perform at the lowest 2 levels of literacy, and 90% of high school dropouts are on welfare”.[vii] These statistics are upsetting, but predictable. What is more upsetting, though, is the concerted effort among those in power – the business class – to limit (and often reduce) welfare and social benefits for those who are failed by the educational system – a system which is broadly influenced by those same people and which bears the primary responsibility of providing students with basic skills, like literacy. The majority of the people who depend on welfare would almost certainly struggle to read (let alone comprehend) the content of the legislation that directs it. This is, as I see it, analogous to cheating a blind man in a game of cards. That the blind man – poor, illiterate, and disenfranchised communities, in this case – is systematically ignored, marginalized and underserved by the current system is regrettably predictable. Another phenomenon exists, however, which serves to explain the strength of Western power relations. It is, as articulated by J. Elspeth Stuckey, “…the willingness, if not the felt need, of disenfranchised citizens to rationalize their inequality”.[viii] Such has been the success of the ruling class in what is commonly referred to as the “manufacture of consent”. In the first world, where the coercion of the masses by means of physical manipulation is not an option, power must be derived from somewhere: in our case, it is the manipulation of ideology by means of language.

It is useful now to analyze the relationship between language and the development of ideology and consciousness, and how it pertains to an individual’s ability to understand and influence the world around them. Noam Chomsky, in a speech given at Loyola University in 1970, had this to say of the nature of language and consciousness:

To the Cartesians, it is obvious by introspection that each man possesses a mind, a substance whose essence is thought; his creative use of language reflects this freedom of thought and conception…Language, in its essential properties and the manner of its use, provides the basic criterion for determining that another organism is a being with a human mind and the human capacity for free thought and self-expression, and with the essential human need for freedom from the external constraints of repressive authority.[ix]

By this framework we can better appreciate and understand the implications of linguistic proficiency on the extent to which individuals are free to pursue conditions that maximize their welfare. If a person’s use of language is indeed a reflection of “freedom of thought and conception”, then restrictions on access to various mechanisms, like vocabulary or grammatical proficiency, are also restrictions on their ability to identify with and express their internal processes of thought. If, for example, a person is unfamiliar with a word like “subjugated”, they cannot readily articulate that they feel they are being subjugated. They could assert that their circumstances are “unfair”, but this comes without the implication that someone above them is causing the unfairness. This also implies a restriction of their ability to participate in forums of society in which they are able to engage in communication and negotiation regarding their circumstances. With this understanding of the relationship between language and consciousness, we may better understand the correlation between social groupings with varying dialects and linguistic tendencies and the distributions of power between them.

The manipulation and control of ideology is another phenomenon that has, necessarily, developed tacitly and surreptitiously, and has been made possible largely by the narratives of Western media outlets. It is not limited to mainstream organizations such as CNN or Fox; most outlets, from multinationals to municipal newspapers, are culpable. Media outlets are the primary scenes of social discourse, and it is a concerning thought that the percent of the population it gives a voice to is almost zero; the balance of representation between social groups – rich and poor, blue- and white-collar representatives – is similarly skewed. The nature of class relations in the media is well articulated by Norman Fairclough:

Government ministers figure far more than unemployed people, and industrial managers or trade union officials figure far more than shopfloor workers. While the unequal influence of social groupings may be relatively clear in terms of who gets to be interviewed, for example, it is less clear but nevertheless highly significant in terms of whose perspective is adopted in reports. If, for instance, industrial disputes are systematically referred to as trouble or disruption, that is systematically building the employer’s perspective into industrial news coverage.[x]

This attitude, albeit more blatantly deliberate among perceptibly partisan news outlet, is evident regardless of the topic being covered, be it police shootings or union strikes. Even the use of terms such as “rioting” and “looting” is an immediate and implicit implication of those committing the acts. These acts, as well as unionized efforts in industrial disputes as mentioned by Fairclough, are portrayed as “disruptive” because they disrupt the narrative of those who own and work for the media – and thus the narrative of the status quo. Because the direction of media discourse is one-way (the audience is generally unable to participate), outlets must create the feeling that their viewers are with them in their established community, members of the same echelon of the social hierarchy. It is through the use of language and ideology that this is accomplished. These communities are generally defined by common citizenship and range in scale from school to city to nation, with patriotism and nationalistic devotion being generally emphasized. The importance of this deception to those in positions of power is perfectly evident in the nature and format of “news” programs, which, generally, rely on sensationalism and vivacity to retain viewers and deter them from the pursuit of alternative sources of information. Chomsky explains the necessity of control over the use of language and distribution of information by the elite in an article titled Force and Opinion, in which he states:

Control of thought is more important for governments that are free and popular than for despotic and military states. The logic is straightforward: a despotic state can control its domestic enemies by force, but as the state loses this weapon, other devices are required to prevent the ignorant masses from interfering with public affairs, which are none of their business […] the public are to be observers, not participants, consumers of ideology as well as products.[xi]

It is through the control and use of language that power holders are capable of perpetuating a system that simultaneously marginalizes huge sects of the population and manages to fool them into “rationalizing their own inequality”. The relationship between the media and the marginalized is entirely one-sided and, in its portrayal of social tensions and antagonisms, serves to instill a feeling of isolation and discord among those who would benefit most from solidarity – in this case, those incapable of participating in media discourse and those power forums limited to the politically literate and culturally affluent.

An interesting way of viewing the relationship between language and class antagonisms is proposed by Fairclough. He suggests three mechanisms by which the appropriation of power and discourse may be understood. The first mechanism supposes a state in which discourse types are, “…universally followed and necessarily accepted because no alternative seems conceivable…” The second Fairclough terms “inculcation”, which he defines as discoursal coordination by means of exercising power, which is, in Western society, largely tacit and hidden. The third he characterizes as appropriations of discourse which are arrived at diplomatically through “communication”.[xii] This concerns productive and diplomatic discourse among those who are similarly literate in a particular field. Inculcation, he explains, can be understood as an effort to create a system in which the first mechanism – a system of seemingly unalterable appropriations of discourse and power – exists under conditions in which “class domination and division” endure. In other words, he explains, “…inculcation is the mechanism of power-holders who wish to preserve their power, while communication is the mechanism of emancipation and the struggle against domination.” Given this framework, antagonisms between groups with unequal appropriations of discourse – i.e. shopfloor workers and industrial executives – can be understood in the context of the motivations of the respective groups. Indeed, in a non-military state, “communication” is the penultimate option among the disenfranchised in the struggle for justice, before violence. A society in which productive communication is made impossible will inevitably lead to social unrest among those whose voices are ignored. Those in power are apt to respond in one of two ways: they may acknowledge the voices of the disenfranchised and work to establish a system in which they are better able to participate, or they may bolster and fortify their means of suppressing them. The $4.2 billion in surplus American military equipment transferred to local police departments since 1997 may indicate which direction our power holders are tending towards.[xiii] The struggle between these groups is well articulated by J. Elspeth Stuckey, who notes that, “…in American society the struggle is between those who can read and write and those who cannot or have no opportunity to, and the struggle is over who is entitled to negotiate. It is perfectly evident which minds do not possess that right.”[xiv] Her example is, I believe, microcosmic of a broader struggle between those who have benefitted from American appropriations of discourse and those who have been marginalized by them – the latter is not limited merely to those who cannot read or write, though they generally belong to the community of the disenfranchised. Nonetheless, her characterization of the struggle itself is accurate: the right to negotiate (or “communicate”) for more equal distributions of power presupposes negotiation itself. Included in that demographic that is denied the right to negotiation are illiterates, but also union workers who are overpowered by the influence of large organizations, children who will fail to obtain above a fourth grade reading level, and the segment of the population that is politically and economically illiterate and unable to understand, let alone participate in, those processes which directly affect their lives.

The rampant inequality we see in contemporary Western society has developed tacitly, and is the result of two hundred years of industrial development and class relations; with the development of the dominant class has come the development of a dominant dialect. Those in power have a vested interest in maintaining and fortifying the exclusivity of their echelon: the fewer people they have joining their ranks, the fewer people with whom they will be forced to share their wealth. In the age of technology and global media, the manufacturing of consent is the goal, and language is the means. It is through the use of language and the manipulation of ideology that the social symptom of linguistic inequality is perpetuated, which is frustrating. But cracks are forming. They are small, but I believe literacy – both linguistic and political – and equal appropriations of linguistic proficiency serve as the chisels with which they will be spread. At the heart of these cracks are countless cases of antagonistic and contradictory goals pursued by the ruling classes: we must be smart enough to help produce but not so smart as to question whether we’re worth something more; literate enough to participate in the economic system but not economically or politically literate, lest we truly understand the nature of the world around us. These conflicts are fragile, and depend upon the ownership of the English language and the appropriations of knowledge and power that come with it. In the wake of recent events in Ferguson and the likelihood of future instances of social unrest, it serves us well to remember the words of Martin Luther King: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Though the matter of appropriations of power is hugely nuanced and difficult to associate with any single phenomenon, I hope this paper and its analysis of appropriations of discourse has provided some sort of useful framework with which to approach the issue of unequal distributions of power, wealth and influence in society.

Sources Cited

[i] Fairclough, Norman. “Discourse and Power.” Language and Power. London: Longman, 1989. 57. Print.

[ii] National Center for Education Statistics, 2012 Digest of Educational Statistics

[iii] Fairclough, Norman. “Discourse and Power.” Language and Power. London: Longman, 1989. 64. Print.

[iv] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2013). Digest of Education Statistics, 2012 (NCES 2014-015),Chapter 2.

[v] “2014 SAT Score Trend Remains Flat; Test-Fixated School Policies Have Not Improved College Readiness.” The National Center for Fair & Open Testing. Web. 26 Nov. 2014. <>.

[vi] One World Literacy Foundation.. “Illiteracy Statistics.” One World Literacy. Accessed April 16, 2014. .

[vii] American Council on Education. “Literacy Facts > Literacy in America.” Gaston Literacy Council, Inc. Accessed April 16, 2014.

[viii] Stuckey, J. Elspeth. The Violence of Literacy. Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook, 1991. Print.

[ix] Chomsky, Noam, and Anthony Arnove. “Language and Freedom.” The Essential Chomsky. New York: New, 2008. 80. Print.

[x] Fairclough, Norman. “Discourse and Power.” Language and Power. London: Longman, 1989. 50. Print.

[xi] “Force and Opinion, by Noam Chomsky.” Force and Opinion, by Noam Chomsky. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

[xii] Fairclough, Norman. “Discourse and Power.” Language and Power. London: Longman, 1989. 75. Print.

[xiii] “AP IMPACT: Little Restraint In Military Giveaways.” NPR. NPR. Web. 1 Dec. 2014. <>.

[xiv] Stuckey, J. Elspeth. The Violence of Literacy. Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook, 1991. Print.



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Dennison, Madiera — Reading Between the Lines: An Investigation of the Violence in Translation

Dennison, Madiera.  “Reading Between the Lines: An Investigation of the Violence in Translation”


Johan Galtung defines violence in his article “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research” as “present when human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations” (168). Galtung’s definition provides a basis in which any action or concept, regardless of the use of physical or blunt force, can be considered violent as long as it directly minimizes an individual or group’s ability to reach their true potential. An individual’s potential is dependent on the makings of identity: language, thoughts, ideas, and expression. When the identity is tampered with, the potential can be altered, lost, or never reached. Therefore, violence is not only an attack on potential, but also an attack on the very identity that establishes its possibility.

Regardless, the real difficulty of violence prevention is identifying violence’s presence in situations or constructs where it is not obvious. How can one uncover violence in concepts with socially conscious intentions or violence that is interwoven within the very processes of an inherently non-violent movement? Even the most harmonious of acts can become vehicles of violence, especially when the intentions behind those acts have underlying ill agendas. In particular, translation, a concept heavily used in global education, conflict resolution and violence prevention, can easily become a vehicle of violence through its deterioration of an individual or larger group’s self, due to its possible disregard of cultural context and support of oppression and dominance.

The Common Role of Translation

As globalization and interconnectedness become more common concepts within the paradigms of developed societies, the importance of cross-cultural communication and understanding are more significant to globally conscious citizens. War, poverty, and hunger are no longer simply a problem for those involved; these issues are transmitted all over the world through news networks, television shows, social media, the economy, or the job market. The growing dependency of countries to one another increased the need for skills that “universalize” understanding (Papuvac 104). In particular, translation is usually used to provide a means in which cultural and linguistic differences between individuals or groups of people are no longer barriers. According to Jose Ortega y Gasset’s “The Misery and Splendor of Translation,” early theories depict translation as a utopian act in which it “arises from humanity’s separation from nature, and man from man” (Papuvac 100). Further, other earlier theorists claimed translation’s ultimate purpose was to advance the human spirit by transforming the “consciousness of the translator… the receiving languages and society” (104).

Outside the global realm, translation is also an enlightening occurrence in which “when people want to be understood, regardless of whether they only have a few words of the other language, they will be able to communicate” (101). Yevtushenko states “the translations of various literatures from language to languages is a mysteriously powerful mutual transfusion of blood between the sliced up pieces of the single body of mankind” (107). Theories suggest meaning can easily be found between languages, yet it is far more difficult for an individual to translate a thought into a word, something humans do on a regular basis, for “words spoken by individuals are only the tip of the verbalized and unverbalized thoughts swimming in our heads” (102). Yet, if this did not happen on a normal basis, communication of an individual’s deepest thoughts and theories would never be shared with the world. It is true; early theories behind defining translation as positive and liberating towards the linguistic identity, where it can “broaden one’s horizons” and “[increase] flexibility of thinking” develops this concept to a degree where a global peaceful context is possible (106). In terms of intercultural exchange, translations are seen “across national, political, or cultural divisions as acts of solidarity between people against power interests,” allowing the recognition of a common humanity regardless of international political borders” (106). Although these early theories suggesting translation’s place in creating frameworks of equality and peace are still considered as valid, current theorists in translation studies argue the opposite; destructive aspects of translation are hidden under its universal exterior, where the irreconcilability of difference is becoming more of the norm than commonalities found within difference (107-108).

Depravity of Culture

A way in which translation provides evidence of violently portraying the irreconcilability of differences is in its disregard of cultural context. According to Vanessa Papuvac in her chapter titled “Righting Babel? Translation as Cultural Transfusion or Cultural Violence,” the meaning of a work is not permanently found in the words and phrases used by its origin: Language barriers should not equal communication barriers (103). Instead, the most important part of a translation is portraying the culture that surrounds the entity being translated: experiences, histories, an individual’s accessory ideas, biases, and opinions behind the words recorded. However, the inclusion of culture in translation is not the norm. According to Lawrence Venuti, the violence of translation within cross-cultural communication can be defined as “the forcible replacement of the linguistic and cultural differences of the foreign text with a text that will be intelligible to the target–language culture, assimilate to its positions of intelligibility, its canons and taboos, its codes and ideologies” (Venuti196). Venuti notes a trend that the universalistic, romantic theories of translation seem to leave out; when a piece of writing, a situation, an opinion, or even a response is translated into one language from the other, the translation becomes separate from the culture it is founded within. Therefore, when the cultural context is no longer considered necessary to understanding the translation, the identity of the original language or piece is skewed in order to fit the ideals and notions of the target language’s population.

It should be noted that in these instances, the translation becomes more important than the original in influencing the target language’s ideologies and ideals about the identities tied to the translated work. According Venuti, the original aim of translation was to make the culture that is considered an “other” recognizable or familiar within the target culture (196). Unfortunately, whatever difference the translation makes within the original text will be consumed by the target language’s culture, assimilating into their positions and ideals concerning the foreign text. When translators disregard preserving the cultural and linguistic difference within the work being translated, this choice can cause cultural and linguistic harm for those involved. As a result, the language translated, as well as the culture and people it represents, are pigeon-holed by the translation’s appropriation (196).

Ortega y Gasset also presents another problem conveyed when cultural context is not included within the translation: the pitfalls of linguistic literalism. Words are not taken very seriously; although “our thoughts are articulated in language, our understanding is not contained by language” (Papuvac 109). This idea once again supports why the culture behind any sort of work being translated is so important to be considered; if words do not have meaning unless the entities communicating have the same shared experience with what was said, then how can a translation minus its cultural context be considered acceptable? Further, why would translators choose to disregard the cultural context?

Dominance and Oppression

The problem with translators asserts another aspect of translation that can be destructive towards identities; the use of translations to promote the superiority of one group over another. Venuti argues that because the violence of translation is “inherent in the translation process”, the translator is aware of this violence, and “exercises a choice concerning the degree and direction of the violence at work in his practice” (197). With this in mind, there are two methods in which translators can choose to look at a text; the domesticating method, where the text is translated to appeal to the target language’s paradigm of understanding, or the foreignizing method, which “sends the reader abroad and points out the linguistic cultural difference of the foreign texts” (197). While the domestication method already involves an ethnocentric nature towards the target languagc, the foriegnization method is not any better; it can cause the native target language to have an alien reading experience (197).

The dangerous nature of domestication and foreignization are not because of their blatant bias, but the actual oblivious intentions of translators behind them. In particular, English language translations of foreign texts have always gravitated towards domestication, yet the vast majority of time, they are not trying to be violent towards the foreign text. Instead, translators actually believe that domestication is the best method to impact the target language (200). Regardless, although the thoughts and ideals behind the use of these methods might be oblivious to their violent tendencies, they still promote a dynamic in which the ‘foreign language’ is inferior to the target language in some capacity, whether it be because the foreign culture is too alien to understand, or that the language simply does not do a good job explicating ideas like the target language can.

It is true; internationally, translation has a lot of power in shaping the national identities of foreign countries, which can play a role in alleviating conflicts concerning race or geopolitical confrontations (196). However, at the same time, translation allows a superior power to maintain “literary canons” of their language and the foreign language to sustain their cultural dominance (196). If a foreign language’s identity is unable to properly depict their ideals due to the image retained by the more dominant language’s culture, how can their potential be achieved? How can their lexicons, their political and social movements be taken seriously? Overall, their potential is no longer obtainable.

Violence of Translation in a Real-Life Context

Even though the violence depicted in translation is mostly explained by theories concerning language and culture, it should be understood that translation has many different forms in society. For example, media framing of a global conflict, a group of people, or an event can be considered a form of translation, especially when a television network chooses to display facts in a way to convey a particular idea to their audience who are physically distant from where the news is occurring. A report processes an event in order to provide its viewers with an understandable summary of what is occurring, much like translation can communicate a text in a way that the target language can understand.

In a study conducted by Mahmoud Galander, a scholar at Qatar University, the media framing of the Darfur crisis in 2004 was compared between three different publications, two Muslim newspapers and The New York Times, to convey the power of western media over promoting the negative characterizations of the Muslim community (Galander 1). According to the findings of the study, the Muslim newspapers were heavily influenced by The New York Times’ depiction of the conflict, which focused on explicating the issue as “ethnic cleansing, rape, and genocide” of Africans by the Muslim militia in the area (Galander 6). Translating the incidents in Darfur as only acts of genocide and violence directly continues to promote the Muslim community in a negative light, and the severity of these actions is hard to shake off. Even though a decade has passed since the crisis’s peak, the Islamic community is still shaped by these negative depictions (8).

Further, the heavy influence of a western source that is farther away from the actual conflict compared to the eastern sources reiterates the power in which framing, a complex use of translation, can represent the superiority of one culture over another. In this case, even though the conflict did not directly involve any western populations, The New York Times’ reports were considered more legitimate than those whose audience is directly involved.

Further Discussion of Translation’s Inherent Violence

Although theories argue the opposite, translation does not seem inherently violent; the violence that occurs as a result of translation is the direct result of those who wield it. In this case, the role of translator(s) is arguably important to how ‘violent’ the text is. Lawrence Venuti makes that point in stating translators must not necessarily worry about preserving the foreignness of a text, but instead make sure that the translation does not promote constructs of imperial power, such as “ethnocentrism, racism, cultural narcissism, and imperialism” that domesticating (making it fit within the cultural context of the target language) and even foreignizing seems to support in most cases (211).

How can translators promote empathy and understanding, rather than superiority, especially when the only people who are able to translate are those who are in power and have the means to be educated in the matter? Would it simply be a means of bringing awareness, or having multiple agents from different angles to translate in order to create better meaning? Famous playwright and writer Arthur Miller and Yevtushenko believe in the latter, allowing their works to be translated in multiple languages in order to recognize “a common humanity” regardless of cultural difference (Papuvac 107-108). Further, it can “give the original new life and potential immortality” (106). Meanwhile, most theories argue that translators “should comprehend the translated text to such an extent that they can understand how the original receptors must have understood the original text” (Venuti 204). However, not all translation occurs in a context between linguistically and culturally opposite cultures, or between experts that heavily study the field of interpretation. In fact, all individuals must use translation at some point in order to communicate, interact, and develop relationships between one another. Therefore, promoting awareness of the violent tendencies of translation seems to be at the forefront of combatting this elusive problem.

The Academic Scarcity of Translation Studies

Even though translation seems to be increasing in importance within the social realm of society, the academic field is lacking in stability due to this tension (Papuvac 113). Violence has become translation’s central defining feature, and the early humanist ideals of the concept “overcoming barriers between people and spreading shared understanding” are now mostly believed by “novelists and practicing translators” who are constantly in contact with its usefulness (117). While foreign language departments are choosing to disregard its study as legitimate, there are “interpreters working in conflict zones [continuing] to risk their lives as mediators between international and local forces with little substantial protection or recognition” (119). Academia is a sure way of spreading the importance of awareness, and if the scholarly realm feels translation is a failed attempt due to its possibly dangerous nature in the wrong hands, awareness is hard to spread.


There is a constant tension concerning the importance of translation in cross-cultural communication; while it can bridge the gap of understanding with others who come from different backgrounds and can preserve the work (in some respects) for others to enjoy (which in turn, creates empathy, a trait needed in nonviolent communication), it can also be a “locus of difference”, which is not necessarily bad either, but can cause conflict (Venuti 211). Translating a text, an event, a discussion into another language or cultural context can make it somewhat understandable in the target language. On the other hand, it can also be seen as a form of establishing power over another by violently terrorizing the culture and language of the native. The subliminal nature of violence in translation makes it more damaging, which is why awareness is so important to promote. However, the obstacles of others, including the public and scholars, in understanding this secret nature is difficult, for the concept has a long history of peace-keeping and conflict resolving roots, both on global and social scales. Further, the absence of academic work on translation studies and ethics speaks volumes to how the violence of translation is usually so unrecognizable. Veena Das makes a point about this concept in her article titled “Violence and Translation,” where she explains that uncovering the presence of violence in translation can be achieved “if it was possible to acknowledge the fallibility and the vulnerability to which we are all subject, and to acknowledge that the [violence] is over interests, and further that these interests need to be negotiated” (211). One of the most difficult parts of uncovering a rather negative context of a usually harmonious act is the pride of those who choose to only investigate its goodness instead of holistically examining any sort of possibility, regardless of good and bad. The violence in translation will only be eradicated when every individual chooses to read between the lines, rather than simply regard its face value.


Works Cited

Das, Veena. “Violence and Translation.” Anthropological Quarterly 75.1 (2002): 105-12.

Galander, Mahmoud. “News Values, Cultural Proximity and Cross-cultural Media Framing: How Western and Muslim Media Covered Darfur.” Journal of Arab & Muslim Media Research, 5(2): 113-128.

Galtung, Johan.  “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research.”  Journal of Peace Research 6.3 (1969): 167-191.

Ortega y Gasset, José, Carl R. Shirley, and Ciriaco Morrón-Arroyo. “The Misery and Splendor of Translation.” Translation Review, 13 (1983): 18-30.

Papuvac, Vanessa. “Righting Babel Translation as Cultural Transfusion or Cultural Violence.” Language Rights: From Free Speech to Linguistic Governance. Nottingham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print.

Venuti, Lawrence. “Translation as a Social Practice: Or, the Violence of Translation.” Translation Perspectives 9 (1996): 195-213.





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Priestley, Alexis — Occupy Domesticity: The Man Cave’s Quest to Replace Whale Music with Stripper Poles

Priestley, Alexis.  “Occupy Domesticity: The Man Cave’s Quest to Replace Whale Music with Stripper Poles”

“Man cave” officially entered the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2012 as “a room or space designed according to the taste of the man of the house to be used as his personal area for hobbies and leisure activities.” Note here the use of the term design, a fairly gender-neutral to masculine verb, as opposed to something like decorate, which imports a more feminine designation. This subtle distinction is integral to parsing out the struggle between different discourses in domestic spaces, specifically in terms of how masculinity and femininity get expressed in certain discursive and physical spaces. It is imperative to spend time analyzing this rhetoric when it leads to messages like “[Who’s allowed in a man cave?] Not women–they have authority” (xii), because the man cave space, and the rhetoric within it, is exclusionary, violent, and harmful. Objects deemed too feminine are supposed to be torched; men labeled as acting other than heterosexual are to be ignored at best, and assaulted at worst. In order to frame my analysis, I will be pulling from Dick Hebdige’s elucidation of hegemony, vis-à-vis Antonio Gramsci.

I am qualifying this particular brand of masculinity that exists within and around the man cave as a subculture, which Hebdige defines as “the expressive forms and rituals of those subordinate [groups in a society][…] who are alternately dismissed, denounced, and canonized” (2). The men inhabiting these caves are—as evidenced by the brand of manliness exhibited, and the elaborate nature of their cave spaces—heteronormative and upper-middle class. They clearly benefit from a higher level of privilege than most, but they present themselves as subordinate because doing so preserves hegemonic power.

Before I dig into what I mean by hegemonic power, let me first give a few examples of what it looks like for this dominant group to represent, or re-present, themselves as a subordinate group. In The Man Cave Book by Mike Yost and Jeff Wilser, they write that: “the man cave is […] our best and last opportunity for freedom. […] Something happens when we settle into domesticity. […] We sacrifice. We stamp out our past. […] But something’s not right. We feel a rumbling deep in our bellies, a primordial urge, a sense that we’ve lost a shred of our identity. Lesser men will feed this hunger with mistresses, alcoholism, a midlife crisis. […] What if there’s a way to have it all? What if there’s a way to resurrect the glory of our past, to cherish our hobbies, and to create a sanctuary[?]” (vi-vii). So a lot is happening here. There are men sacrificing freedom for the chains of married life and domesticity. There is a denial of previous identity and a denial of instinct, which signal there is something inherently unnatural about a man living in a domestic space. There’s the notion of the “lesser man” which signals an exclusionary brand of masculinity, because if a man doesn’t buy into that label, he’s outside accepted iterations of masculinity. There’s also a sense of nostalgia, or, if you’d like, the more untranslatable saudade, which is Portuguese for a “yearning: yearning for something so indefinite as to be undefinable […] a vague and constant desire for […] something other than the present” (Oxford English Dictionary). Perhaps this untranslatable word is more apropos of this situation in which these men find themselves: that “primordial urge” to restore lost pieces of an identity is indicative of a Foucauldian power structure; one which defines masculinity in a specific way in certain spaces; one which presents an ideological image of the ideal man to which these men are constantly striving; one which cannot be pinned down because rather than having some natural, locatable origin, it exists without origin; it exists everywhere and “comes from everywhere” (History of Sexuality 93).

However, these shreds of lost identity are governed by ideology, which as Louis Althusser points out, is a “system of representation,” that is “profoundly unconscious,” and acts as “structures that [are imposed] on the vast majority of men” (as cited in Hebdige 12). Hebdige points out that “ideology saturates everyday discourse in the form of common sense,” which becomes more lucid when we return to that quote about the exigence of the man cave (12). These men need that cave space because they are constrained in their everyday life.

I want to make it clear that I believe the exigence for this group of men to be a truth for them. The rhetoric of common sense is deeply embedded throughout The Man Cave Book, as illustrated in my examples later on, via what Barthes refers to as mythologizing—objects and rituals are posited as natural parts of being a man, so of course it would seem like common sense to bring those objects and rituals to a designated space where they can be in their “natural” environment. These men are not seeking to create these cave spaces in order to perpetuate dominant heteronormative masculine ideology, even though that is the actual product of their endeavors. The rituals involved in creating and maintaining these cave spaces are contributing to the performance of dominant gender roles inside this domestic space, and within the broader scope of accepted relations in society.

Let’s return to Gramsci’s hegemonic power. Dick Hebdige highlights three components of hegemonic power. The first is that hegemony is maintained by the dominant groups not just by force, but also through things like rhetorical appeals, symbols, and imagery, so that the ideology of the dominant groups appears to be natural. Here is where Barthes enters the picture with his Mythologies, where he points to various objects and rituals that have become embedded in the fabric of French culture via this process of naturalization. Because hegemony requires the manipulation of cultural meaning, an analysis of these rhetorical appeals, symbols, and imagery (like those conducted by Barthes, and my own analysis here) can prove fruitful in elucidating where and how dominant groups exercise and attempt to maintain dominance.

Within the space of the man cave, men are presented as a subordinate group who must, as Yost and Wilser write in their book, “Claim land. Go big. Grab as much as space as you can [sic]. Think like Lex Luthor, who covets land, because ‘It’s the one thing they’re not making more of’” (37). There’s a sense of urgency here, because, according to Yost and Wilser, every man needs “a place to let [his] inner manliness come out,” as if manliness is hidden or somehow altered and impure outside of this space of refuge (56). The space of the man cave is rhetorically constructed to limit the expression of natural manliness to the cave.

However, what natural manliness constitutes is, in fact, comprised of specific criteria. For instance, Yost and Wilser list forbidden activities in a man cave, which include: consuming tea, because, along with cat food (which apparently is an apt comparison) “a man should consume neither in his cave,”; watching movies with a specific list of actresses, “unless they’re naked,”; gloating, because, while the man cave is clearly an awesome space, a real man is “not a douchecanoe about it,”; emoting, “unless those emotions are directed at the most important people in your life: your favorite sports team,”; and gossiping, “not because you’re in a man cave. Because you’re a man” (65). Elsewhere in the book, we see that “a man of action,” has a quality poker table set up in his cave to “play and win” games, rather than just watch them (69). The “wise man” will outfit his man cave with a full bar, including stools, coasters, varnish, and cashews, because he is “a man of society” (105). If you are a man, and one with social credibility, you will subscribe to a certain set of conventions within your man cave. It is not about being you, it’s about being the you who is acceptable according to dominant ideology.

So far, the exigence for the man cave has been established: men are constrained in all areas of their life outside of this cave space, and thus need to claim a spot to be true men. Yost and Wilser index several accepted ways of being a man in the cave space vis-à-vis objects that can be housed and rituals that can be performed there. This is a clear elucidation of how the dominant ideology of manliness is reinforced by making it appear imperative that men claim a space, furnish it in a certain way, and perform certain activities in it.

The second element of hegemony that Hebdige highlights is that “commodities can be symbolically ‘repossessed’ in everyday life, and endowed with implicitly oppositional meanings, by the very groups who originally produced them” (16). There are two ways we can look at this in relation to the man cave: the first is how men in those spaces position certain objects in relation to the purportedly “dominant group” (that is, women); the second is how some of the objects in man caves, which were originally created by and/or for men, mean significantly different things when imported into the man cave.

Take, as an example of how certain objects are positioned in relation to the feminine domestic space, this chart from the titled “Mom Cave vs. Man Cave,” which inspired the book. At the top there is the sleek chaise lounge chair and reading lamp pitted against the slightly-beaten-up throne where it’s always five o’clock. Following this is romantic comedies versus video games, e-readers versus high-tech video and sound technology, wine versus beer and liquor, “feminine” exercises versus “masculine” (even though I’ve tried all exercises on both sides. Has my status as a female been called into question?), knitting and sewing versus power tools, and pastel paints versus darkly painted metal sheeting. Not to mention the title itself and general aesthetic of the infographic. However, let’s focus on just the objects themselves. On the left-hand side, we have the objects in their original state: feminine and domestic–in their natural habitat, if you will. On the right side, we have similar or categorically the same objects as they exist in the man cave space. Because these objects have been physically positioned in this way, it appears that they cannot coexist in the same domestic space, but are essential to each. And by picking these particular objects to represent the mom cave and man cave, a particular kind of masculinity and femininity are presented.

Let’s move on to that second aspect of symbolic repossession: how some of the already man-centric objects get imbued with a different meaning in the man cave. For this, I turn to The Man Cave Book. Featured in this book are several man caves, alongside interviews with the progenitors of them. The overarching theme across all of these interviews is that the man cave is a place to collect objects that aim to “resurrect the glory of our past, to cherish our hobbies, and to create a sanctuary” (vii). An example of a man cave that serves to ‘resurrect the glory of our past’ is Stephen Rose’s 70s themed cave. As someone who was a child in the 70s, Rose “wanted it to look like something a teenager from the 70s would have actually put together,” (18). In his interview, Rose emphasizes that all of the objects in his man cave are authentic, rather than reproductions. This emphasis on the authenticity of man cave furnishings (including a useable and used stripper pole in another featured cave), along with the sense of nostalgia for childhood, are common in Yost and Wilser’s book, where there is a chart comparing the boyhood fort to the man cave. This link serves to perpetuate the naturalization of this dominant ideology of masculinity.

Along with the references to childhood nostalgia, space is an important motif in Yost and Wilser’s book that serves to reinforce hegemonic power; it’s also deeply connected to this vision of the cave as a sanctuary. They write that “you shouldn’t feel smothered. Get plenty of space. It is a cave, but it should feel like a castle” (14). This is just one example of the pattern of directives that are couched in the idea that a man cave can be whatever a man wants it to be—within reason, as long as it fits within the mold of masculinity, and as long as it has booze, because “a man cave without booze is like cereal without milk” (14).

The third component of hegemony that Hebdige outlines is that “the struggle between different discourses [is always] a struggle within signification: a struggle for possession of the sign which extends to even the most mundane areas of everyday life” (17-18). This struggle can be clearly seen when certain objects are indexed in distinct ways within the man cave with reference to how they might be seen outside the cave space. For example, Yost and Wilser write that “for a man to be comfortable in his own skin, he needs to be comfortable in his own cave. HE NEEDS A COUCH. A big one. A comfy one. If it can be described as a ‘love seat,’ it should be doused with kerosene and lit with a match” (11). This hostile rhetoric can be seen elsewhere, with a discussion of the utility of tables: “THIS ‘TABLE’ WILL HELP LEGITIMIZE YOUR CAVE. It will allow guests […] to eat meals without spilling burritos in their laps. Think strategy. Short term: less independence. Long term: greater acceptance of your cave. You must lose some battles to win the war” (Yost and Wilser 17). Throughout The Man Cave Book, the man cave is presented as a contentious space that must be fought for, and a space that lies in direct opposition to a man’s wife. Yost and Wilser write of the cave and wife that “one is your companion for life, your loyal ally, your fountain of comfort, your joy, your bedrock of strength. The other is your wife” (167).

This is one example of how the rhetoric surrounding the man cave is distinctly heteronormative. Earlier I briefly mentioned the man cave with the stripper pole, which was the wife’s idea to include in the already strip club themed cave. The owner, Dave Stanoszek, mentioned in his interview that when some of his friends get drunk, they get up and start dancing on the stripper pole. He says that “you never want to see that [so he] just turns [his] back and pours another drink” (Yost and Wilser 74). Another man cave interviewee says that it annoys him when people view man caves as “being owned by redneck male chauvinists. Rooms like this are a way to express one’s passion and interests—sometimes on a grand scale—and shouldn’t be gender-biased. BUT MAKE NO MISTAKE, IF YOU SHOW UP TO MY CAVE WEARING A PASTEL SWEATER TIED AROUND YOUR NECK, WHITE PANTS, AND SPORTING THE CLASSIC HARVARD ACCENT AND CORPORATE LAUGH, ASKING HOW MY STOCK PORTFOLIO IS DOING, I WILL SWIFTLY KNOCK YOU ON YOUR ASS and toss you out to the curb” (Yost and Wilser 45). These examples illustrate that while the man cave, of course, excludes women, it also excludes what the dominant ideology deems unacceptable performances of masculinity.

So here we have the man cave. A place of refuge for the man’s man, the guy who just wants some space from the “gravy boats, potpourri, and vacuum cleaners” (vii), along with the “scented candles, bath gels and oils, and whale music” that occupy the domestic space so thoroughly inhabited by his wife (56). It is a space that a man can control, and in this space, it is “the one time in [his] life [he] can be an interior designer without feeling like a wimp” (48). To reiterate what I stated in my introduction: this space, and the rhetoric within it, is exclusionary, violent, and harmful. Objects deemed too feminine are supposed to be torched; men deemed other than heterosexual are to be ignored at best, and assaulted at worst. As Hebdige writes, “our task becomes […] to discern the hidden messages inscribed in code on the glossy surfaces of style, to trace them out as ‘maps of meaning’ which obscurely re-present the very contradictions they are designed to conceal” (18). We as feminists need to spend time with this rhetoric to uncover the ideology driving the acceptance of the man cave. It is pervasive and powerful, as evidenced by the Missouri House of Representative’s official proclamation congratulating Jim Meehan on the “illustrious occasion of the opening of Meehan Park,” his man cave, which serves as a tribute to baseball (Yost and Wilser 52). Part of what makes this rhetoric so insidious is that it’s placed in the domestic sphere, which has a history of being overlooked or dismissed as unimportant—but this rhetoric is part of a broader debate about gender presentation and deserves to be investigated.


Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Random House LLC, 2012.  Book.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Routledge, 1979. Book.

“man cave, n” 2014. Web. 30 November 2014

O’Neill, Brendan. “Mom Cave vs. Man Cave.” The Official Man Cave Site, n.d. Web.  30 November 2014.

“saudade, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 30  November 2014

Yost, Mike and Jeff Wilser. The Man Cave Book. New York: Harper, 2011. Book.


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