Introductory Note: Welcome to the Book Club discussion of Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Eerdmans 2009), by Marilyn McEntyre, professor of medical humanities at UC Davis and the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program. McEntyre is also the author of three books of poems, including The Color of Light: Poems on Van Gogh’s Late Paintings (2007), and other books of scholarly and general interest. I became acquainted with her writing through her poetry books, and when Caring for Words came out and I read it and filed away the idea that it would be great to have her come to Andrews University. The occasion presented itself with the meetings of the Adventist English Association, in June of 2013, where McEntyre was the keynote speaker. Our book club discussion will run from March through the end of May, with a week devoted to each of the chapters. A different writer is scheduled to introduce each chapter, and we invite you to join in the discussion.
“Why worry about words?” That’s the title of chapter one. For me it’s easy: it has been my job for 25 years as an English professor. But my interest in words goes way back. One day (when I was in high school) my dad asked if I knew the meaning of “acquiesce.” I didn’t, but I liked its watery sound and learned its definition. I remember (around second or third grade) none of us could spell “t-a-x-i” in the class spelling bee. And in another spelling bee (I’m thinking fourth grade) I got eliminated for spelling “a-l-s-e-e-p” by mistake on a word I could have spelt in my sleep. I was so mad at myself. And I’ve never forgotten the story in our book of elementary school readings talking about a boy named Sam who won an old-fashioned spelling bee by remembering “there’s ‘a-rat’ in s-e-p-a-r-a-t-e.” Just this afternoon I heard the word “trenchant,” and I thought “I haven’t seen that old friend in quite awhile.” I love words, the idea that you and I, though separated by time and distance, can communicate through squiggles on a page.
In Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn McEntyre takes things a bit farther: we are not just to love words, she says, but to see ourselves stewards of language, to sharpen our reading, speaking, and listening skills, to “regularly exercise the tongue and ear: to indulge in word play, to delight in metaphor, to practice specificity and accuracy, to listen critically and refuse clichés and sound bites that substitute for authentic analysis” (10). Otherwise, she warns, that not unlike our natural resources of clean air and water, words can be polluted by careless usage—or by careful usage in a culture of relentless marketing which manipulates words to manipulate consumers.
This book has a special relevance for participants in an online discussion forum, for here there is no physical presence to qualify or give context to our words, no intonation, no gesture, just colored pixels on a virtual page.
With that in mind, I wish to give one small example of how words shape our thoughts and interactions. In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the narrator observes that by changing the labels used to identify the indigenous persons (the setting is the western coast of Africa in the late 19th century) from “natives” to “rebels” or “criminals,” the white imperialists can “justify” changing their relations. “Rebels” can be cannonaded with impunity. “Criminals” can be shackled and put into forced labor. Using words to manipulate others can be a temptation whenever we have an argument we’d like to press, an opposing voice we’d like to put down. But this technique is something we should be very wary of. For if we use language as manipulators we cannot turn on a dime and use it authentically again when that’s what we’d like to do. To use the imagery of Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, “when a man takes an oath, he's holding his own self in his own hands like water, and if he opens his fingers then, he needn't hope to find himself again.” Words too, are precious, and we must consciously cultivate the habit of using them with integrity.
In the post-structural age, it is a commonplace that words imperfectly describe reality, and that the way we perceive reality is colored by the words at our disposal. But for all the challenges of language, McEntyre believes, and I hope you do too, that with due diligence we can raise the level of our communication. God gave us our remarkable language abilities to be used with care: to seek truth, to build community, to create humor, to create beauty, to tell each other stories. Let me encourage you to invest in acquiring and reading McEntyre’s book. After all, anyone who can write a sentence saying “the legacy of the English Bible alone is at least equivalent to owning all the oil in the Middle East” (19) is worth further investigation.
Meanwhile, as a starter exercise, I invite you to respond to one of these two questions.
1. Can you think of an interesting instance or anecdote of how language shapes perspective? This could have to do with choice of words, translation, miscommunication, what have you.
2. Do you have a story to tell that represents excellent stewardship of language?
Scott Moncrieff is an English professor at Andrews University.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5835