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The Language Of Oppression

In Haig Bosmajian's essay, The Language of Oppression, he speaks of the value of a name. To receive a name is to be elevated to the status of a human being; without a name one's identity is questionable. A human being is defined by his name. Without a name no one knows who he is, for he has no identity. However, a name can also be used as a curse. Language can lead to the dehumanization of human beings and can ultimately lead to their extermination. As Bosmajian says, Just as our thoughts affect our language, so does our language affect out thoughts and eventually our actions and behavior. When the Nazis took over the Jewish population, they were only able to accomplish this through the use of oppressive language. They re-named Jews as bacilli, parasites, disease, demon, and plague. Because of the implementation of these names, people began to believe the Nazis, and the extermination of six million human beings was viewed as a Final solution. Language affects all aspects of our lives. Language and names can inspire us and motivate us but can also belittle us. As Stokely Carmichael said, ...people who can define are masters. When a person is given the power to change one's name and identity and to define, they are given the powers of a master, and therefore are seen as a leader. Bosmajian wants this oppressive language to stop. He wants the belittlement of humans, caused by their differences, to cease. Clearly, the only way to do this is to rebel against the use of these words and eliminate the categories they create. Santha Rama Rau illustrates Bosmajian's point in her essay, By Any Other Name. She speaks of her experience, as a little girl, going to school for the first time at an Anglo-Indian school. This experience changed her life and she shares it with us as a lesson about the labeling and naming of a human, and how it can dehumanize an entire culture. On the first day of school, her sister and herself were given new pretty English names. Her sister, Premila, was given the name Pamela, and Santha was given the name, Cynthia. At that moment, Santha saw herself as two different people. She felt that having a new name made her a new person, and when she was being called this name, she had no responsibilities. She was told to sit in the back of the class with all the other Indian children. At recess, she realized that all the Indian children were separated from the English children. While she ate her traditional Indian food, the other Indian children ate sandwiches. These assimilated Indian children wore English attire, yet couldn't eat with the English children. She did not last for more than a week in this school, because her sister came into her class one day and told her to gather up her things because they were going home for good. Later she discovered that the teacher caused her sister's actions. They were given a test and she was told, along with all the other Indian children, to sit at the back of the class with a desk between each of them. The teacher said, it was because Indians cheat. Because the teacher called Indians cheaters, Premila felt less civilized. She did not believe this label that was thrown at her, and her beliefs are what made her leave the school. This generalized labeling of the Indian culture hurt Premila and Santha very much, and this is an example that supports Bosmajian's theory. Names can be used to dehumanize, and separate human beings. Santha was just a child, but she clearly understood that they way all the Indian children were treated was not right. Santha's sister acted exactly the way Bosmajian wishes more people would. He wishes for those who find themselves being defined into subjugation to rebel against such linguistic suppression. There are many writers that support Bosmajian's thoughts on the use of names and labeling. One of these writers is Sydney J. Harris who wrote a column for the Chicago Sun-Times called, We Read the Label but Ignore the Jars Contents. In this column, he speaks of the psychological affect that comes along with the use of names and labels. One of his examples is the myth of [his] city, Chicago... Chicago is known as the Windy City and Harris explains how this affects the way people view this city. In reality, Chicago ranks about 30th among American cities in wind velocity. However, the fact that it is known as the Windy City takes a psychological effect on people. When people visit Chicago they insist that it is the windiest place they have ever been. Harris calls this a mind-fix. He feels that, we live by names and tags, rather than by realities; we distort our perceptions to fit our preconceptions. In other words, the people who visit Chicago and view it as the windiest place they have ever been, have listened to the myth for years and are pre-convinced that it is the Windy City. Harris and Bosmajian are pointing out the same matters that language changes our views about many different things. Harris notes that when we define something with a label, we tend to look for and find substantiation of our prejudice. His example for this is a person who doesn't like dogs. He will always see only the dogs that snap and snarl. He will most likely overlook any nice dogs, because he is expecting the mean dogs. Language can set ideas in a person's head and that person may not even know it. Although names are needed to define us, names can kill us if enough people call us 'Huns' or 'Reds' or 'Jews' when we are just individuals as diverse and as innocent as themselves. I have experienced the words of oppression that Bosmajian speaks of. When I was in sixth grade, we were studying the Holocaust in history class. My last name is Levy, which happens to be a Jewish name. My father's ancestors were Jewish, and the last name of our family has passed down through the generations, and I now hold that name. The teacher pointed out that I had a Jewish name and instantly I felt that I was different from all the other students. I was embarrassed to have this last name, and to top it off, everyone was looking at me as if I was different. After class was over, I was called names in the hall. Some of these names were, skin head, cheap, and greedy. I was very hurt by these names, and wanted to change my last name. But, as I got older, I realized that I shouldn't be ashamed of my name. I should be proud that I carry a name that was almost demolished in the years of the Holocaust. I know that I lost ancestors in this blood bath, but I also know that at least one survived, and that is why I am here today. I learned a lot from what happened on that fall day in sixth grade. I learned that language and names can hurt, just like Bosmajian says. I didn't know it then, but these students who called me names, were helping me to fight against the suppression of language. I now realize that names and labels do hurt, and because of my experience, I can't imagine calling someone a name today. I know what it feels like, and I wouldn't want to put someone through the same pain and turmoil that I went through. Although a name has the power to define, it also has the power to re-define and even undefine. As Bosmajian exemplifies, names are important in our society, and names have tremendous value. What would we call each other if we didn't have names? We would simply be objects that looked different. However, we do have names, and they have been used in the past and present to harm us. In Santha's story, we read of her experience as a young girl in school. Not only did the abuse of her name cause her pain, but also it caused the entire Indian society its reputation. This oppressive language has been used for many years, and continues today. I, as a young girl in junior high school, experienced the hurt of linguistic oppression. I went through a lot of confusion and pain because of the abuse of my name. Will this oppression ever stop? It is almost a tradition now, and traditions aren't easily broken. Bosmajian wants the oppressed to stand up for themselves and stop this abuse. However, as he points out, the resistance usually comes from the oppressor… The oppressor will not give up the power of defining others.

Word Count: 1471

 

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