How to Escape the Trap of Ideological Language

1 Dec
Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine, edited by Ru Freeman, follows a vision of art stated, here, by Edwidge Danticat: "It is both the artist’s burden and duty to witness what is going on in the world."

Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine, edited by Ru Freeman, follows a vision of art stated by Edwidge Danticat: “It is both the artist’s burden and duty to witness what is going on in the world.”

In the novel 1984, George Orwell famously coined the term newspeak: language that is manipulated to reinforce the beliefs and ideology of the ruling party. The most famous example of newspeak is blackwhite, which has multiple meanings, the most important being “the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary.” This ability is an example of doublethink, which begins as the capacity for holding in one’s mind two incompatible ideas (black and white) but becomes a kind of mental self-erasure: “consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed.” In other words, a person knows one thing to be true (black is black) but consciously tells a lie stating otherwise (black is white)—and then willingly forgets both the act of lying and the original, actual truth. Black becomes white.

Many people before me have pointed out the relevance of newspeak and doublethink in today’s public discourse. Our political beliefs are often revealed by the terms we use: illegal or undocumented, unborn child or fetusmigrant or refugee, terrorist or gunman. These words color our perception and are consciously chosen: black lives matter or all lives matter. The real danger comes when we forget that these terms were created for a purpose and that we’ve chosen to use them. When they become as essential to how we view the world as floor or sky, then we’ve become victims of doublethink.

Writers are as susceptible to doublethink as anyone else, and so it’s crucial to be thoughtful about what terms we use—in fiction as well as in nonfiction. The choices matter. After all, we craft narratives that shape how our readers see the world. Using words thoughtlessly can lead to narratives that unintentionally reflect a particular rhetoric more than any reality.

A timely reminder of the dangers of doublethink and the importance of choosing the right word can be found in the new book, Extraordinary Rendition, an anthology of Americans writing about Palestine, edited by Ru Freeman. You can read an excerpt from the book here.

How the Book Works

Naomi Shihab Nye's poem, "Before I Was a Gazan," can be read in full at the Academy of American Poets website.

Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Before I Was a Gazan,” can be read in full at the Academy of American Poets website.

Extraordinary Rendition brings together poems and essays by sixty-five writers. One of them is the poet Naomi Shihab Nye, whose poem “Before I Was a Gazan,” which begins like this:

I was a boy

The poem cannot be read without the title, and so it effectively begins with this construction: “Before I was a Gazan/I was a boy.”

The distinction between Gazan and boy matters. The first is a political term, indicating that someone lives in the Gaza Strip, a small area of Palestinian territory along the Mediterranean Sea, between Israel and Egypt. To call someone a Gazan highlights geography, something we do on a daily basis. I am an American. Since I was born in Kansas, I consider myself a Kansan. I live in Texan and can probably be called a Texan—though “real” Texans might disagree with this statement (and now we can begin to see how fraught such simple geographic terms can be).

Someone’s identity as a Gazan can be important to know, but it can also color everything that we see, hear, or read next. Shihab Nye’s poem is about a bombing, and its title and first line point out the fact that, for many of us, these two sentences will not be read the same way: “Some Gazans died in an explosion” and “A boy’s uncle and teacher died in an explosion.” For most American readers, the word Gaza almost always appears alongside a report of violence. As a result, when we see the word Gazan, we anticipate violence. We expect it and are not shocked by its presence.

But if, instead, the violence happens to a boy, we’re more likely to pay attention. As writers, it’s important to understand the associations that readers have with the words we use. If we want our characters to be viewed as people, not political furniture, then we should use terms that highlight humanity, not politics: boy, not Gazan.

That’s the first step. The next requires that the writer invest the character with the texture of humanity, as Shihab Nye makes clear in the poem’s next lines:

I was a boy
and my homework was missing,
paper with numbers on it,
stacked and lined,
I was looking for my piece of paper,
proud of this plus that, then multiplied,
not remembering if I had left it
on the table after showing to my uncle
or the shelf after combing my hair

The boy is not doing anything political. He’s being a boy, a child, and so that is how the reader sees him, as a person doing things that all people do. When the politics arrives in the poem, when the boy becomes a Gazan, we experience the violence differently than if we’d only viewed the boy as a political figure. He isn’t collateral damage or any of the other dehumanizing terms we invent to reduce our guilt over the victims of war. He’s a person. We’re invested in the boy’s humanity. This is one of the purposes of art, to combat the dehumanizing effects of political language and make us see people as people.

On Pandering

Claire Vaye Watkins’ essay, “On Pandering,” is based on a lecture she gave during the 2015 Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop.

Of course, endowing our characters and writing with humanity isn’t easy. We often use words and phrases without thinking about their source or the intent behind their creation. So, we must be thoughtful and self-aware. Thanks to writers like Junot Diaz and Matthew Salesses, among others, there is now an active conversation about the experience of writers of color in writing workshops. Claire Vaye Watkins’ recent essay, “On Pandering,” has reminded us that women are part of that conversation as well.

Anyone who has read student writing has, no doubt, seen a story with a black or Hispanic character or a female character who acts, talks, and thinks like a Black or Hispanic Character or Female Character. (Many of us have written drafts of such stories and then shelved them.) It’s been my experience that the authors of such stories don’t usually mean to fall into cliché. They may even be actively writing against it. But the characters never realize any kind of humanity. Instead, they’re representatives for the beliefs and attitudes of the writer or the discourse informing the writer’s prose. If you believe that art has any mimetic property—that it’s intended, on some level, to represent or reveal or portray the world around us—then these purely ideological characters are an artistic failure.

This failure can impact an entire story, novel, or essay. Plot is determined by characters: they make choices that are influenced by their circumstances, personalities, preferences, vices, virtues, and desires. If a character represents an ideology or bias, then that character will make a choice or act in a way that fits within that ideology or bias. The plot becomes a kind of ideological allegory and, as a result, predictable and clichéd. Prose that thoughtlessly parrots politically-created language is bad prose. A novel, story, or essay that reinforces or follows ideology, even unconsciously, is almost always bad art.

Of course, some will say, well, what about this book, Extraordinary Rendition? Doesn’t it have a clear political bent? It’s true that some readers will take issue with some of the essays or poems. But it’s also true that the overriding ideology in the book is the need to recognize the humanity of the Palestinians. This means actively dismantling the language of politics and ideology, seeing black as black.

So, how can we write prose that escapes the trap of ideology, bias, and politics?

  • First, to create “real” characters, the writer must be willing to imagine how the world might look from those characters’ eyes. This means stripping away received rhetoric and its corresponding ideology. It also means filling in the gap left by that rhetoric, whether by research or observation or by the general trappings of humanity: “paper with numbers on it,/stacked and lined.”
  • Then, the writer must re-examine what he or she has written—this potentially “real” character. I give some strategies for this below, and some of these constitute a kind of test. Just because a writer—and, let’s say it, a white writer or a white male writer, like myself—has tried to escape bias and create, for example, a “real” African-American character doesn’t mean that he has succeeded. Trying doesn’t guarantee success. As with all aspects of writing, sometimes we fail, and we need to learn to recognize those failures, especially if they reinforce a bias. Sometimes this means scrapping a novel, story, or essay.

No writer is perfect, but, as writers, we have an obligation to ensure, to the best of our abilities, that our failures don’t advance beliefs that contribute to oppression and human misery.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try to escape ideological or biased language, using “Before I Was a Gazan” by Naomi Shihab Nye as a model:

  1. Avoid words that can’t be drawn as a picture. Gazan can’t be drawn. Boy can, as can a stack of paper. This is an old idea. In his novel A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway’s narrator expresses disgust at the language that brought him to war. He says, “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.” Glory cannot be drawn in a picture. Courage cannot be sketched. The point of much of Hemingway’s early writing was to escape such abstractions, as he most successfully did in “Big Two-Hearted River,” which contains a two-page passage about making coffee, pancakes, and onion sandwiches and ends with the sentence, “It was a good camp.” The language is aggressively plain and concrete. I’m not saying to never, ever use abstractions, but there’s a real risk that a story that begins with such words may never become more specific and concrete.
  2. Consider your audience. Certain words are used by politicians like dog whistles. Some of them are invented terms, like Islamofascism. Others invoke real things but with a consistent connotation, like welfare. Some, like mugger or terrorist, have been given racial associations—not for everyone, but certainly for some people. If your readers may have such associations, you should be careful about using words that trigger those associations. An interesting test is to find a purely biased website, something that every reasonable reader would identify as biased. Read it for a few minutes and then read a passage from your novel, story, or essay. Does any of the language get repeated? If so, you don’t necessarily need to cut those words, but you should be aware that they have been politicized. Or, simply imagine that you’re a reader with a particular set of beliefs. Read your passage with that reader’s eyes. Are there words or images that trigger a kind of automatic ideological or biased response? If so, you might consider revising those words in order to complicate that response.
  3. Build a character with mundane details. Characters need to inhabit a concrete world, whether that world resembles ours or is some invented world. The character should take up space in that world. The dust should get kicked up when your characters walk across it. The boy in Shihab Nye’s poem is looking for his homework, “papers with numbers on it/stacked and lined.” In his novel Long Division, Kiese Laymon (whose work is included in Extraordinary Rendition) begins with a sentence that focuses on race (“LaVander Peeler cares too much what white folks think about him.”) In that same first page, though, we also learn that Peeler wears “blue-black patent leather Adidas” and has “an ellipsis tattoo on the inside of his wrist.” He “smells so good that sometimes you can’t help but wonder if a small beast farted in your mouth when you’re too close to him.” Writing about race, ethnicity, gender, religion, geography, and politics doesn’t require generalization. Specific details drawn from the mundane grit of the character’s world give breath and odor to the character and bring him or her to life.
  4. Put your character into a scene with other similar characters. A scene with all white characters and one character of color carries a great deal of risk. It’s true that such scenes exist in life, but it’s also true that these scenes are often the only times that white people encounter people of color. In these scenes, as in life, it’s tempting to make the token character a standard-bearer for his or her race, ethnicity, or gender. No real person can bear the weight of such expectations, and neither can a fictional character. So, to test whether your character is merely a standard-bearer, put him or her into a scene with other black characters, other Latino characters, other women, other Muslims, etc. Make them argue about something simple: where to eat, what to watch on TV. Can you write that scene? If not, you may need to re-conceive the character as something more than a manifestation of a group or ideology. Political figures, such as Gazans, are framed by politics; it’s what they talk and think about. Humans, such as boys, are not restricted by frames. They worry about where their homework has gone, who farted, and what’s for dinner.
  5. Identify what your characters believe. Some writing teachers like to say that no character should voice the writer’s own views—or that you should put your opinions into the mouth of the worst character in the story. That’s not bad advice, though I’d add something to it. If the characters who most resemble you consistently believe things that you don’t or act in ways that you wouldn’t, and if the characters who don’t resemble you consistently state things that you do believe or act in ways that confirm your beliefs, you may have a problem. We tend—both as writers and humans—to endow the other with our hopes and fears. If the other in your work always confirms something you believe to be true or that you find comforting, then that character may be an ideological construction, not a fully realized character. A good example of this is the magical negro, a term for a black character who exists primarily to teach a white character a lesson. If characters who don’t resemble you exist mostly to impart some knowledge or experience on the character who more closely resembles you, you may need to re-conceive of both characters and the narrative itself.

The goal is to use language that is free from politics and ideology and to create characters that have the idiosyncrasies of humanity, not the consistency of bias.

Good luck.

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3 Responses to “How to Escape the Trap of Ideological Language”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Ru Freeman | Read to Write Stories - December 3, 2015

    […] To read an exercise about avoiding ideological and biased language, click here. […]

  2. How to Give a Character a Job | Read to Write Stories - December 8, 2015

    […] entity.” As with Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Before I Was a Gazan,” which I wrote about last week, the goal is to view a character not as a political entity but as a unique individual. […]

  3. Wie man Neusprech vermeidet | Literatur-O-Meter - December 14, 2015

    […] seinem Post How to Escape the Trap of Ideological Language erklärt Noll, wie man es vermeidet, leere Worthülsen zu produzieren oder ideologisch gefärbte […]

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