Monday, March 10, 2014

Magic Words

The exchanges I've had with Senator Campfield this past weekend and the very strong response they generated have me thinking about words and how powerful they can be. Stunning as it may sound, I have come to believe that Senator Campfield and I may agree on something: that words are "magical." We disagree starkly, however, about how that magic works.

The Senator has been on the receiving end of the late-night comedy shows for a while now, a drubbing that began with the "Don't Say Gay" bill, otherwise known as S.B. 49. The bill would have restricted speech about homosexuality in schools, evidently on the premise that, as Stephen Colbert said, "if you don't talk about something, it disappears." Colbert's bit dialed into something about Campfield's talismanic approach to language, which grants words a terrifying degree of power over us. Our speaking (or not speaking) makes things happen in some primitive, mystical sense.  Like the origin of the curse, which retains its trace in our references to "curse words," an utterance is enough to strike down, raise up, or unleash horrors.

Here's the funny thing:  I agree that words have awesome power. Words have changed my life.  Reading George Etherege, Alexander Pope (shout out to my 18thC peeps), Judith Butler, the Bible, and Gloria Naylor were experiences that transformed me and that continue to transform me, as I bring new experiences and insights to the endlessly hermeneutic process of reading. Likewise, I've had conversations with students, with my teachers, and my colleagues that have made me see things differently. But those texts and conversations didn't change me because of some voodoo in the words before which I was helpless. They changed me because they allowed me to interact with other people's imaginations, perspectives, and ways of being. Through that process of interaction, I was able to discover new things about myself: what I thought, what I valued, what I love.

Campfield's desire to restrict speech, which is at the center of his most public bills, presupposes a scary verbal landscape in which one must take a defensive posture, or an excessively aggressive one, in order to be protected from words. It is a world of "avadacadabra," of verbal talismans and taboos. What that fearful stance shuts down is the beautifully arresting possibility that we might engage in conversations that change us, or clarify things, or make us think. We are desperate for civil discourse in this country so that we can renew civic discourse, in which we engage with actual ideas and wrestle with them, not each other. Our national discourse needs both respect and clarity in a condition of freedom. Yes, words shape ideas. But to fear this process is to fear thought itself and to alienate ourselves from each other.

Campfield seems to think there's not quite enough human agency to withstand words, or perhaps that freedom is too scary and overwhelming for mere mortals. So he responds to free speech as fundamentally threatening; ironically, he talks about it as "tyranny" and is willing to shut it down out of fear. I'm a good bit more optimistic about words, and I try to teach people how to use them well, with style, grace, thought, and yes, kindness. My teachers, Austen, Addison, Shakespeare, and Sterne, among others, along with those teachers I had the privilege to know in person, helped me to understand how to put my thoughts into words. They weren't magic words, but the experience of discovering them was magical. Jane Austen's matchless eye for human frailty, the chiasmus of the psalm that weaves together praise and lament, the elegant balance of the Johnsonian line, Sterne's fabulous brand of zaniness: they all matter to me deeply, both because of what these voices had to say and because of how they said it.  They brought me into the drenching rain of language that nourishes my heart and reminds me every day why I do what I do. Free speech is the guarantor of that project.

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