Language is Not NeutralPosted: 2014/01/03
Text: Solveig Hansen
“We are all steeped so much in a culture of war that peace really does seem naïve to many people.” (Mary Lee Morrison)
Sometimes, when we talk about or describe others, negative language comes so easily, as if it was inherent in us. How can we change our mindset and the way we perceive each other, to create understanding and unity rather than enemies? How can we improve communication between collectivist and individualist cultures?
These are some of the questions Dr. Rebecca L. Oxford addresses in her book The Language of Peace – Communicating to Create Harmony. Her answer is education to become competent intercultural communicators. She expands the term language to encompass words, body language, and the language of visual images and explains how language can be used for peaceful as well as destructive purposes. “In the absence of a meaningful language of peace,” she says, “a dominant culture or subculture is unlikely to overcome its prejudices in interacting with less politically powerful cultures or subcultures.”
The book explores key areas of education for peace and is intended for educators, students, researchers, peace activists, and others interested in communication for peace. In addition to give the fundamentals of communication for peace, it discusses the use of peace language through words and images and across cultures. It also touches on war journalism vs. peace journalism and how the new media “in the hands of the world’s citizenry” can complement journalism for peace.
As an example of how language can serve as a transformative vehicle for social justice and peace, Oxford analyzes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s persuasive I Have a Dream speech, which through its metaphors, images, musicality, and “a sense of rightness and urgency” helped to define the American Civil Rights Movement.
Poetry, “the soul’s work,” can have similar transformative qualities, even a cathartic effect. Oxford explains the key elements of a poem and offers a framework for peace poetry. Among the peace poems analyzed is Duties as Designed by Mattie J.T. Stepanek, the extraordinary young poet who wrote his first poems at the age of three and died at the age of thirteen. In this poem, whose title echoes the businesslike term “duties as assigned,” Mattie outlines the job of the poet:
The job of the poet
Is to give birth to the words
That give breath to expressions
Of the essence of life…