What Words Express and Hide

Harry Drabik

Marshall McLuhan. CBC
Marshall McLuhan. CBC

   The way people express things interests me. Manner of use is often more informative than content because choices made in.expression tell us what words cannot. The McLuhan concept of medium as message is a slippery one, but it still works. Take this. In ordinary talk we often hear people described as X-American; X referring to membership in some essentially unchangeable group (color, ethnic origin, race, etc.). I first became aware of a distinction as a child when one of my uncles flatly rejected any modification on his being an American. Poor, he left a rural part of war torn Europe to basically work his way to the US where he arrived at age sixteen. The US soon entered WWI. My Uncle joined the military to become a citizen. To my uncle earning citizenship mattered. He still spoke with an accent, but his spirit was un-hyphenated American. When I was young hearing an elder gruffly rebuff any attempt to get details of his pre-American life my uncle came across as grumpy and uninteresting. But I’m a little more appreciative now. He came from a place where people were divided and hyphenated. He knew what that meant and what it had done. He wanted no part of it here. So my Uncle John who’d never breathe 100% due to effects of a gas attack was one thing only. He was an American.

   It’s interesting to think how the separating hyphen has become an acceptable form of division. Interesting, too, to note the effect of order in the sequence. Emphasis is considerably different being a European-American versus an American from Europe. Sequence does present an order that signals priority by putting something in first place. In society we attempt to deal with the favoritism of place by using alphabetical order, date, or other neutral so as to avoid prioritizing the first in a sequence. This is common enough practice to make it pretty obvious people know about it. I’d say public officials are quite aware of using signals giving precedence to a segment of population rather than the whole. In practice, however, it’s not simple as pointing at a signal pandering to a minority or one courting the majority. For all its issues the US system did a decent job recognizing rights while guarding against tyranny by a majority. It is tricky business made all the more daunting because we can’t actually count on things being what they seem or honesty in explanations. If my Uncle John rejected European divisiveness he was equally firm scorning political bullies. He knew very well how leaders can talk peace, love, fraternity, and equality while meaning the accumulation of increasing power. 

   A recent example of word choices is still spinning around a MN Representative statement about 9/11 as some people doing something. That does rather tame down 9/11 doesn’t it? Should the same taming down be used to describe what happened in Christchurch (the name an attention grabbing windfall) NZ? The scale is different of course. One shooter sympathetic to Communist China in NZ killing a number while a group of coordinated Islamic activists doing considerably more damage. If this is someone doing something then the events become somewhat equal. Does the same hold true for other someone’s in Sudan doing something? The Sudan something ran for decades (lingering yet) with a body count impossible to know. It’s worth noting that some of the someone is somewhat the same but instead of Saudi activists the Sudan militants were Arab on a grander mission to purge Sudan of its Dinka population who had the ill luck to be black, poor, and infidel. When aid workers tell of the tens of thousands of boys who fled the accounts and numbers become too much. It is hard to believe these children were hunted to be sterilized or killed to exterminate the Dinka people. Posing a future reproductive threat, boys were hunted whereas women and girls could be bred to fill the emptied portions of Sudan with believers. Nothing I could say about this would be nasty enough to do justice to the cruelty inflicted on the helpless. It was and is monstrous. When I hear political figures today speak in outraged terms about events far less awful I feel human sadness at the denials and evasions used. Those in politics like to voice their self-aggrandizing outrage as speaking truth to power. We listen in vain for truth to be spoken to the power of those backed by oil money and religious zeal. Clever politicos carefully select the victims they speak for. In the guise of speaking truth are voices seeking power.

   A long time ago I wrote a Holocaust program that tried to cover a wider view of the Nazi camps. Gypsies, homosexuals, dissidents, Soviet POWs, were all vulnerable. Most were subject to the Socialist government’s need for cheap labor. Death camps were factories as were Soviet gulags. In reading, study, and from visiting locations I began to sense something I had no desire to find. The simple and easily understood formula of SS and Gestapo on one side versus victims on the other wasn’t entirely reliable. Some prisoners were bad as the guards toward their fellows. Some guards were decent people in roles they despised. Oh yes, and I make no bones or excuses. One side had power and advantage. The other did not. Over a period of one year 90 of 100 thousand Soviet POWs were killed by injection. This saved feeding them while leaving enough alive to handle the considerable disposal task. Life in the camps was horrific and fickle. A prisoner’s hope preceded her or him in death.

   My uneasy realization was the followers (SS, Stasi, Gestapo, Capos, etc.) knew how little hope was theirs. In a flicker any of them could be denounced, deemed unneeded, and be thrown powerless into line like any prisoner. Mistreatment and misrepresentation of others has the effect of telling followers to stay in line or face merciless “justice.”  A bad system does damage to opponents and followers. This can be seen in lockstep agreement or group solidarity. Sometimes, it seems, the hyphen is left out. But then diversity-conformism or truth-dogma is an uneasy thing for true-belief followers who prefer railing at a target over trying to improve understanding.