In his seminal text Ways of Seeing, John Berger describes how seeing is believing. He describes how bourgeois sensibilities have enclosed [high] art: not only has popular participation in art been foreclosed, but this enclosure has entirely compromised the way that we see the world. Using Marxist theory, he describes how this mystification — the creation of a hegemonic gaze that eliminates the possibility of other valid, competing and undermining ways of seeing and knowing beyond European coloniality — alienates our selves from material realities and produces perceptions of different and often contradictory realities. It is this obfuscation, these distortions and creations of altered consciousnesses, that enables the interests of ruling classes to prevail. (I’m deliberately avoiding Orwellian concepts of “doublespeak” and “doublethink” and “Newspeak” created in 1984 because Orwell used them not to describe the machinations of fascism, but rather totalitarian communism/Stalinism.)
The very same process can and does also occur within our relationship to the written word. Seeing is believing, yes. But written and verbal articulations also lends themselves to particular ways of seeing and interpreting (this is, I think, why we have art critics: to create an interaction and feedback loop between cultural production/producers and audiences consuming and evaluating their work). But what happens in the cases of misarticulation, of cowardly and even improper uses of the written word?
The first example is the case of the recently proposed Boston Straight Pride event that would, permit permitting, happen in August. The prevailing response, of course, has been to laugh. I laughed. The necessity of “Straight Pride” is as equally amusing and insulting and trivializing to commemorations of queer and trans struggles/liberation/community celebration as “White History Month” is as an observed and apparently celebratory foil to the calendar of cultural heritage months. But missing from so much of the reporting scoffing at the ridiculousness of the event if the fact that the organizer, Mark Sahady, is a Proud Boy-affiliated, anti-Marxist (in the way that the far-right is pointedly anti-Marxist) figure: that this “Straight Pride” event and its basic ethos that “it’s okay to be straight” is a repackaging of the idea that “it’s okay to be white” that has been adopted and parroted by the far-right in its celebration of white civilizational excellence. (There is no such thing as white civilization. Whiteness itself is not civilizational; whiteness is new, and it is culturally vacuous because the specific cultures of peoples described as white in the United States— western and eastern European cultures — are erased in order to become assimilated into a higher order of dominant identity, i.e. whiteness).
Laughter is seductive and cathartic, but laughter alone is improperly equipped to address the threat this parade potentially poses if violent Proud Boys and white supremacist figures successfully mobilize in the streets of Boston. And laughter fails to address the way that this is an attempt for fascists to insert far-right positions into public discourse as legitimate positions and “opinions.” Heterosexuality is being treated (by the organizers, and the right writ large) as an aspect of white supremacist cultural purity: pride in straightness (and requisite desire for and to procreate with white women) is deployed as a resistance to bully pulpit “left identity politics” in an era of “political correctness run amok.” To them homosexuality and transgender identities are mental illnesses, deviations from sexual and cultural norms, elements of cultural marxism, symptoms of social degeneracy and the erosion of real masculinity— and so they must be weeded out from a [white ethnonationalist] society that is to thrive at all costs. It is curious that more journalists have not foregrounded their reporting of the parade with the politics of the organizer and the subtext of the event, both of which are easy to find. In a media landscape that truly fancies itself equipped to #resist Trump’s ushering in of American fascism, one would think (or hope) that incredulity would be generously coupled with information and context. It largely has not been.
The other conversation that has often been dangerously voided of urgency is that of the state’s treatment of migrant children. While analogies between present-day America and the early stages of the Nazi Holocaust have been made with increasing frequency over the past months, there seems some allergy to calling these “federally-contracted migration shelters” what they clearly are: concentration camps. There are political-grammatical purists who have decided “concentration camp” cannot be used in the absence of some arbitrary criteria of badness. But the death tolls witnessed in German (both in Europe and South West Africa), Ottoman, Italian, British, and other historical concentration camps do not solely define the function of the camp: not only can concentration camps function as a space for mass extermination or labor, they can also be used for detention and indefinite internment as were the camps used to hold Japanese-Americans during World War II. These distinctions are important for precise taxonomy’s (and, sometimes, pedantry’s) sake, but what kind of cowardice do we nurture when we adopt and re-use the same euphemistic language offered by a violent state? Migrant children are being separated from their families, neglected, traumatized, and killed (yes, death as a result of improper care and neglect is murder); pregnant migrant women are being denied medical care and miscarrying while in detention; another trans woman, Salvadoran Johana Medina León, has died in custody after her pleas for medical care were ignored (mirroring the death of Roxsana Hernández, a trans woman from Honduras who died in ICE custody after similarly being refused medical care. Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, commented on the nature of this camp system: that it is expanding, that there is little persistent popular opposition, and that opposition within the state apparatus has been purged.
We repeatedly share the information about the stages of genocide to locate and track which stage the Trump administration has placed us in, with the confidence that with education will come the motivation to take action — that we, in the 21st century United States, will not succumb to the same mistakes of the German populace. But white supremacy is always already pre-genocidal: with identity- and class-based hierarchies come the production of populations that are expendable and disposable. The United States, a settler state, is already centuries into indigenous genocide and centuries into a horrific necropolitical management of Black people (that has endured even after formal emancipation). If being able to track the stages theoretically enables us to interfere and prevent greater losses of life in the future, what does it mean that we are so unable to communicate political urgencies in our writing? And what does it mean for our ability to prevent future violence by the state or non-state actors not only if we are afraid to pointedly describe social-political realities?
The imprecision of language, which is informed by our politics as writers/commentators as well as the kinds of demands and language standards made by editors, colors our reality. And this linguistic mystification has a tragic human cost.