Words describe our worlds and realities. Words describe and define, and in defining they assume the power to imprison people and ideas within their limits. Words assume a knowledge over the cosmos. They imagine they have control. ‘I am hungry’ defines me, yet the same in another language, ‘Tha an t-acras orm’ threatens me. Our words shape our imaginations. Our words place limits on people and things. Humanist conceptualisation of the human being has served to circumscribe what it means to be a man. Not a woman. Not a non-Westerner. Not an African. The universal man, the Superman, is a white European male human being. Our words and ideas have created a reality in which all other versions of human must be measured and judged against our ideal.

The fallacy of the universal person falsely assumes that people are intellectually and psychologically the same in all times and places and circumstances… People, in various times and places, have not merely thought different things. They have thought them differently. It is probable that their most fundamental cerebral processes have changed through time. Their deepest emotional drives and desires may themselves have been transformed. Significant elements of continuity cannot be understood without a sense of the discontinuities too…
– David Hackett Fischer

Language, following the reasoning of George Saunders, is so very often a form of lying. It presents the world in a certain accepted way; not as it is, but how we have decided it is. As we share the language we share the consensus reality; our common agreement. So sadly our words and word-shaped ideas have reduced others to less than human. This great idea of Progress, for example, has come at the price of the extermination of all things determined backward – whole peoples and whole cultures; whole worlds of possibility annihilated to make way for Progress.


This language; this knowledge, is power. More specifically it is the arrogant assumption of power over others. Knowing this is yet another knowledge, and as such fails to liberate us – as the speaker – from our role as the oppressor. I’ve wrestled with this idea since it was presented to me yesterday. Can the Wordsmith/bully be freed from this violence? It’s a conundrum, but we have to be optimistic – even if just for the sake of good mental hygiene. There is the possibility of uttering sounds to communicate, internally and externally, which do not dominate. At the moment I like to think of this as Awareness.

Jason Michael
Blog Author

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