March 31, 2008
From Liberty Street

Linguistic Holidays

John Turner

This week I went to the library in Williston, Vermont to talk about a history of the boarding schools conducted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the latter part of the 19th century and the first quarter of the twentieth. The book's author is David Wallace Adams and the title is Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928.

The explicit, stated purpose of these schools was to bring civilization to a savage race. Civilization was represented by the dominant European culture and savagery by the Indians inhabiting the western states.

I led off by saying that I had a list of words banging around in the back of my mind that I would like to send on furlough, that is, I would like to see them dismissed from use for about ten years. My reason is these words, as they have been employed recently, seldom function to convey meaning or clarify anything. Instead, they serve mainly as a rationalization for hurting people. Near the top of my list is "civilization."

In 1885, U.S. Commissioner of Education William Torrey Harris was the main speaker at the Lake Mohonk Conference, convened each year from 1883 to 1916 at a resort hotel in New York state to discuss how to improve the living standards of American Indians. In his 1885 address, Mr. Harris laid out the attributes of civilization, which in his view were:

  • Commitment to the values of individualism.
  • Industry.
  • Private Property.
  • Acceptance of Christian Doctrine.
  • Abandonment of loyalty to the tribal community, in the interests of nationalism.
  • Willingness to become a producer and consumer of material goods.
  • Belief that the conquest of nature constitutes one of humanity's noblest accomplishments.

It's an interesting list. It might well have been part of a speech delivered yesterday by Karl Rove and if nothing else it shows us the persistence of certain social attitudes. But, to me, the most fascinating thing about it is that not a word is said about art, literature. aesthetic appreciation, works of the imagination, or even philosophy, unless one assumes that Christian doctrine is all the philosophy one would ever need. But, despite these deficiencies, I suppose we have to admit that it's a pretty good definition of American civilization as that concept has been developed in this nation over the past two centuries.

I may seem to be contradicting myself because I said earlier that the word "civilization" doesn't convey meaning and yet here I am now giving a definition of it, at least in its American guise. But my argument is that the definition is no longer thought about, no longer examined, no longer evaluated. It is taken for granted in a vague way that allows almost anything to be done in its name. And in that process of being taken for granted it also permits us to think we have some cosmic right to impose it, through whatever means we choose, on all the people of the world.

The sad truth is that there's not a huge difference between what we are now trying to do to the people of Iraq and what we did to the children of Indians more than a century ago. Actually, the percentage of each group that we, the dominant culture of the United States, killed in the process of trying to civilize them is pretty close to equal.

The time has passed in the United States when we should have awakened to the results of our unexamined assumptions. We need badly to be aware of what their consequences are. Yet we continue with a political culture in which any attempt to analyze what we take for granted is denounced as being un-American. Nothing will sink a national candidate faster than a call to look deeply at what we as a nation have done and ask whether it has been done well.

And why is that? Because we're for freedom; we're for democracy; we're for civilization. And if we don't have an idea in hell what any of those words means to us, and certainly not what they mean coming out of the mouths of politicians, we can't be bothered about that. We need to move on.

In 1881, Helen Hunt Jackson published a book that has since become a classic, titled A Century of Dishonor.  In it she argued that the treatment of the native populations by the government of the United States constituted a dark and bloody stain on the nation's honor. That judgment is now pretty freely acknowledged as being accurate. But what do we learn from it? How many dark and bloody stains on the nation's honor do there have to be before we begin to question the popular belief in our almost perfect beneficence?

We could start the process of asking either by retiring certain words we have used to praise ourselves, or else, digging into how our employment of them has covered up practices that fail to paint us in a glorious light. Words do matter, and if they can't be used sensibly they ought to be put away.


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