Crafting Gentleness

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

words mattering & silence

One of Anthony's sayings that comes back to me often is 'The more the words matter, the less the words matter.' My paraphrase: the more either side in an interaction insists on the precise definitions of the language used ("the letter of the law"), without regard to what's actually happening, the less likely it is that any kind of encounter or engagement will continue to take place.

I've just started reading through Ivan Illich's work in roughly the order he wrote it, and a couple of days ago I reached an essay called 'The Eloquence of Silence'. He is writing about the experience of working with Puerto Rican immigrants in New York in the 1950s and trying to provide Spanish language training to priests, teachers and social workers working with them:

They needed to learn the language, but even more they needed to attune their ears and open their hearts to the anguish of a people who were lonely, frightened, and powerless.

Quite evidently the mere study of Spanish was not enough. The man who can construct sentences with words and grammar may be much further from reality than he who knows that he does not speak a language...

I believe that properly conducted language learning is one of the few occasions in which an adult can go through a deep experience of poverty, of weakness, and of dependence on the good will of another...

It is... not so much the other man's words as his silences which we have to learn in order to understand him...

The man who tries to buy the language like a suit, the man who tries to conquer the language through grammar so as to speak it "better than the natives around here" a man who tries basically to rape the culture into which he is sent, and he must expect the corresponding reactions... He continuest to "do things for people" and considers them ungrateful because they understand that he does these things to bolster his ego...

It requires much courage at this point to return to the patient silence of interest or to the delicacy of the silence within which words grow. Out of numbness, muteness has grown. Often out of the fear of facing the difficulty late in life of trying again to learn a language, a habit of despair is born.

At the pole opposed to despair there is the silence of love, the holding of hands of the lovers...

Reading this brought back to me the uneasiness I've had for a long time about never having learned another language (or not to any substantial level). I am not used to allowing myself that 'deep experience of poverty, of weakness, and of dependence on the good will of another'.

The words mattering reminds me also of a police report I read the other day that has been troubling me. It was in the evidence for a licensing hearing for an African-Caribbean nightclub in Sheffield that was originally an unlicensed "blues club". The report was of an incident when the club was being searched for the second time in an evening. One of the owners was very angry with the police, shouting that "this wouldn't happen if it was a white man's club". At the end, as the police were leaving, having failed to find what they were looking for, he shouted "You only do this cos we're nig-nogs!" The (white) police sergeant records that she "warned Mr X about using racist language". This disturbs me, because I can't conceive of "racist language" as existing independently from "racism" - and however wrong the guy may have been about the reasons for the search, when he used the word "nig-nogs" he wasn't being racist to or about anyone. It concerns me that the policing (in both senses) of language - without regard to context - obscures the reality of racism. But when I've tried to explain this to people, they suggest that it's me who's making the words matter too much. I don't think I'm just being a pedant...


  • Thinking about both Dougald's and Soooz' latest posts, I find that words can often get me into a whole lot of trouble.

    I sometimes feel that people hear what I say, then jump on what I say, without hearing that I was really just trying to say something that I thought was helpful. I think part of that could be that I have plenty of room for becoming a more helpful communicator. Part of it might be that I have long had a (more minor now than previously) tendency to do something similar with others.

    It breaks my heart, sometimes, though, that good intentions can sometimes end up with emotional mess, confusion, and hurt. Sometimes I feel that words are majorly overrated, but then I think that unless a person is standing beside you (always the preferred option) it's very hard to let the silences have privilege over the wordy-gurdy, and that distance feeds discourse. If that's the case, then maybe a surplus of discourse, of talk, of text, might be a pretty solid indicator of distance, of physical distance if there is physical distance, or of emotional distance if the physical distance is not really an issue. Hmmm.

    By Blogger Anthony, at Wednesday, 30 August, 2006  

  • What is macro is micro and what is physical is spiritual..... How does that help with the words?

    Well the words reflect what is really going on... what is really going on for me right now is that I'm in a bossy know-it-all mood *g* but can still laugh at myself (LOL).

    Ah life.....

    ps. I loved both these posts by the way...

    By Blogger Soooz, at Thursday, 31 August, 2006  

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