The Negro debate all over again

Two negroes are taking a walk in the woods. Suddenly one of them exclaims, “Look, there's a mushroom!” – “So what!?” says the mushroom.

Such runs a Sponti joke I've heard back at school; it stuck in my mind ever since. The absurdity of the described situation is hilarious as such, the choice of words is peculiar, and the multi-layered observation embedded in it is highly accurate.
What is your immediate response to it? Are you taking offense by my using the n-word? Or do you see the underlying satirical remark on people pointing fingers at something that (or someone who) is disturbing their perceived state of normalcy?
When I grew up in Germany's seventies and eighties people would stand and stare at anyone and anything that seemed sort of off of what they were used to encounter: people of colour, long-haired men, bald-headed women, patchwork clothing, homeless folks, Turkish couples (her dressed in a chador or hijab, following two paces behind him), sports roadsters, wheelchair drivers, atheists, unmarried mothers, or two-headed cats, to name few typical examples. The Spontis – leftist political activists of the students' and pupils' movements in Germany who thought that spontaneity and humour were revolutionary elements – with their above-quoted joke pinpointed the discriminatory finger-pointing goggle-eyedness and threw it back at a blaming and shaming duplicitous society. “Everyone's a stranger – somewhere,” the Spontis noted accurately.
One would think that those times are over. But not only does discriminatory thought persist in backward countries like Japan where I – the tall blond long-haired stranger – got photographed and giggled at underhandedly on the Tokyo metro, and in India where I get invited to random people's weddings or excluded from farmers' meetings merely because I'm fair-skinned; the discrimination in our heads survived in Germany just as well as anywhere else. That it's not showing as obviously today as it did in the seventies and eighties doesn't mean a thing. What we are engaged in since the nineties are political correctness (pc) debates which in their mind-fucking sneakiness are far worse than the obvious separation and animosity of earlier decades.
On the surface pc seems to address discrimination against others by shaming the use of certain vocabulary while underneath the emphasis on the right to be different crystallizes the specific phenomena of human existence – skin colours, sexual preferences, religious beliefs, nationalities and what not – into distinct identities such as politics, genders or races. For example, as pc does not address racism as such, merely its ways to express itself, a politically-correct racist simply takes over the new pc lingo for spewing hatred against people of colour. And thus we shift from nigger to negro to black to Afro to coloured to pigmented and so forth in a constant effort to evade the discussion we have to have in the overcoming of racism and xenophobia (as well as sexism, genderism, speciesism and other low-consciousness notions): that there is a focus on differences rather than similarities, that there is an arbitrariness to what marks someone as different, and – most significantly – that difference is perceived as unnatural or evil.
The terms used for pc speech – which are really the same as those later-on used for discriminating against others – are subject to a self-perpetuating process called the euphemism treadmill. This means that whichever correct term is chosen for a person discriminated-against, it eventually turns into an insult, triggering the quest for a new pc term.
The other day (sorry for being so day-istic) I have been writing a comment on one of my favorite topics, what makes wild communities generally work as compared to the multiple ever-increasing, ever-worsening problems that civilized societies experience. Both consist of human beings; almost everything else is different. With both populations being of the same species the traps of whether “human nature” exists and what it implies – the nature-vs-nurture debate – is irrelevant to the discussion. Me using the term “wild,” though, became an obstacle for people looking for a pc word pointing at the non-civilized. Someone argued that “wild” and “civilized” were the language of the European colonizer and that these words were discounting the deep wisdom and cultural sophistication of these “indigenous people,” as he called them. The whole notion of “wild” needed to be rethought after we found out that “jungles” like the Amazon, the Mayan heartlands or the North American west coast have actually been food forests, carefully stewarded lands at the time of European conquest.
Those were careful considerations, but like so many post-modern thoughts they have not been mindful of the difference between judgmental discriminatory dominator language and distinctions consciously introduced for communicative or research purposes. The use of “wild” alone implied “colonizer” mentality to them.
I have to admit that it is not so easy, these days, to tell the difference when our whole language, including ordinary words like “green,” “democracy,” and “free,” are getting hijacked by the corporate dominator culture. Think of the facebook “friend” and other “social-” media “community” fakery, think of “humanitarian aid” (weapons deliveries), “peace-keeping operations” (invasions), “health insurance” (enslavement to a system of chemical poisoning) and countless further examples from the Falschwörterbuch (German: fake dictionary) of Neoliberalism. More important than the face of a book is the idea it wants to sell. As all views are perspectival, all communication of views, all writing is in a sense propaganda, with the ambiguity of words (and images) used for this or that purpose. No statement, no information can be taken at face value. The recipients' job is to notice the sales pitch and to inquire within for the deeper truth about it. So let's do this as an exercise in the context of my distinguishing “wild” peoples from “civilized” humans.
Regarding “wild” peoples, there is no (other) word that is fully and properly including everybody we mean by it: modes of being that are not domesticated, not based on abstraction and abstracting, on strong hierarchies, strict separation of labour, state institutions, large numbers and growth, categorization, separation – in short, not civilization. The way I have put it in the above sentence suggests negative phrasing: not-civilized, un-domesticated, non-hierarchic etc., which I find weird because it implies a lack of something. In the same way, our culture could be called un-free, non-egalitarian etc. -- which I actually use sometimes for breaking the spell of mainstream vernacular. By pointing out in which way we find a culture wanting does not describe its asili, its core and ultimate cause of collective thought and behaviour. I would like to say somehow that certain cultures exist in their own right rather than being underdeveloped predecessors to the crown of human evolution.
In many of my writings I have clarified what I mean by “wild,” and it is so obviously not derogatory of those cultures – neither consciously nor unconsciously so – that anybody with a different opinion who notices it would have to wonder why. That the term loses its negativity anyway can be seen in the establishment of “wilderness reserves” and the emergence of the “rewilding” movement. While for some there is certainly a derogatory (or romanticizing) connotation to the word, it is the only phrase that people from across the spectrum may understand, while it is not reducing the “wild” to the negation (or lack) of “civilization.”
Is there no other positive term we could use for talking about the common denominator uniting the thousands of different communities outside of civilization?
  • I find “Intact” is a wonderful word, though it requires a lot of introductory explanation as to what it relates to. Basically, “intact” can only serve as a label in the face of disturbed societies, and it becomes increasingly inaccurate with civilization's progressing encroachment. The introduction of so much as a simple idea embedded in the seemingly harmless question of an anthropologist may already disturb social peace within previously intact cultures, like asking men who have no knowledge about fertility on the tribe's means of birth control.
  • I also like “free” as an attribute, but it would surely be misunderstood in the sense of our shallow civil rights.
  • Primitive?” I have used it, explaining that I mean it in the sense of 'originally, appropriately human;' its derogatory meaning “underdeveloped” nevertheless co-vibrates.
  • Tribal” – another phrase I like to use, seems almost perfect... if it weren't abused for “tribalism” (as in “groupism”).
  • Indigenous” (from Latin, born on the land)... well, no; Italians and British – melting-pot peoples – are indigenous to Europe, Japanese are indigenous to East Asia (though the Ainu have been preceding them), modern US citizens are indigenous to North America; it's a matter of where you draw the historical-ancestral line required for someone to count as “native,” – 200, 2000, or 10000 years ago – and it does not define culture, the issue I'm pointing at when distinguishing the wild and the civilized. The whole concept of cultural indigeneity / nativity makes little sense without its historical perspective of conquest, colonization, displacement, domination and elimination of preceding peoples and species.
Struggling with finding a positive vocable for non-civilizational cultures since years, I have come to the following conclusions:
  1. In principle, one word would be as good as another if it weren't for the fact that, by using language, we attempt to tap into each others' concepts for communicative purposes. So what I am looking for are terms that express shared concepts.
  2. European languages, especially in recent decades, have been altered to a degree that they have become hardly recognizable to someone from the past. In Germany, the expression “Falschwörterbuch'”– dictionary of falsehoods - has emerged, a word that implies that meaning in language gets turned upside down so much so that e.g. 'freedom' has become the constitutional freedom of subjects being allowed to chose their oppressor. Has any word remained untouched, untainted? I don't feel so.
  3. The Falschwörterbuch means to hide what's beneath, similar to politically-correct phrasing which hides (for a while) an ugly notion, basically the idea of separation. The “indigenous” debate falls in the same category as the “Negro” debate and the rapidly expanding gender alphabet (LGBTQIA+, for crying out loud!). As long as words are to express or whitewash the notion of complete separateness and dehumanization of Other there is no end to such debates. So when we communicate to others and interpret incoming communication, a word's meaning has to be derived from context and/or explanation. Therefore I'm happy when people question my wording. This is the moment we actually have a debate.
  4. Every word is a symbol for the “object” it creates in the mind, an abstraction from the world. The Latin root of “abstract” points out that a piece of the All is conceptually ripped from its context. As an abstract, symbolic representation of reality, a word both generalizes diverse phenomena, while at the same time it creates distinct boundaries where there are shades of gray. For example, “Germany” generalizes the many differences between regional ethnicities such as Bavarians and Saxons while it creates an artificial boundary to neighbouring countries such as France and the Netherlands where there live German minorities, derivates and mix cultures; it also reduces people's identity to being born within Germany's boundaries. Definitions of words are arbitrary, objectivity is an illusion. It is in the responsibility of each the speaker and the listener, to be aware of the virtual reality that words create. Without that awareness language-based communication, through illusory precision, paradoxically becomes more fuzzy than it needs to. The Falschwörterbuch's successful manipulation of our shared reality seems, to me, a sure sign that we are generally not aware and awake.
My aim is the raising of awareness and the sparking of consideration of what makes us the culture we are, and wild peoples the cultures they are. The search for matching terms continues, probably with someone coining new pc ones.
As for the ancient cultures of the Mayas, Anasazi, Songhai, old Zimbabwe etc, I would classify them as civilizations, as they were based on separation; they were practicing domestication and were held together by force, for the benefit of a wealthy elite. Consequently they collapsed after having over-exploited their habitat and overstretched their citizens' capacity for suffering. Obviously, Californian Indians, Mbuti, !Kung, and Aborigines lived a different kind of approach – which is what I'm pointing at when distinguishing between “wild” and “civilized” cultures.


Tom Pope said...

this is a highly nuanced piece that dives deep into language and the scourge of group-ism that resists (very effectively) to allow 'other' to be recognized on its own merits. I appreciate the effort you personally expend to undress the falsehood and bias of language as it evolves (without progressing out of its dark aspects).

In the discussion of wild regarding civilization, the linguistic evolution needed will be to have the word civilized itself to become anathema, which is to say, a construction thoroughly fraught with, well, civilized notions. For now though a more neutral expression for wild might be liberated from civilization or civilization-free, civ-free, for short. As always new usage of language must be accompanied by by a narrative, which s where you come in.

pax said...

Hey Tom, great suggestion. Let's use civilized as a curse word :D The free already have their stories ready. I guess it didnt take them long to come up with them, and it won't take us, the domesticated, long either once we're waking up from our nightmare. Authors may still fool around some more with romance or crime novels.

Unknown said...

civilized:from latin civis,meaning people who live in cities.for me personnally a thing i do not want to be.whenever in my life i came closer to something like wilderness i felt really at home,either in old forests or in rainbowgatherings or by reading books about natural nations...how would the word naturvolk be translated into english?the word wild is for me very positiv,but the word primitiv sounds negativ in my ear,like as if it includes a superior position of the speaker of that word.so i would like to say "natural" or "close to nature" or "wild in a positive meaning".thank you for the reflection of these words and the use of language!