Tuesday, February 3, 2015

2014: The year of "I can't breathe" and #blacklivesmatter


Words are sort of "my thing."

Comes with being a writer and a professor of writing. As such, I'm always fascinated with the political power of words. Like ions or subatomic particles, words carry charged energy with them and they help create our reality. They also have an intriguing tendency to instill, remove, and regulate power. I was never more aware of this than at the end of last year.

Two decisions were announced by linguistic authorities in recent months. These choices are indicators of a shift in public conscience.

The first decision came in December, 2014 from Fred Shapiro, the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations. One phrase stood out above all others in 2014 for Shapiro: "I can't breathe." These were of course the last words of Eric Garner, repeated 11 times as he was locked in a hold by New York City police officer, Daniel Pantaleo. This hold resulted in Garner's death as he choked to death. In the wake of a decision not to indict Pantaleo on charges of any kind, the phrase "I can't breathe" became a protest chant. This came in addition to unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and greater scrutiny over police practices as related to human rights. "Hands up, don't shoot" along with the seemingly perennial "No justice, no peace" had strong appearances in the protest lexicon.

But Ben Zimmer writing for Wired argues that "I can't breathe" is a far more powerful phrase than the other two of the aforementioned ones and I agree with him. First of all, it includes the word "breathe." To breathe is one of the most essential necessities of human existence. If someone is being denied that ability, that is a strong indication that a fundamental right is being violated. Perhaps more importantly, the phrase starts with the pronoun "I." When someone repeats the phrase, it is not only a statement of solidarity with Garner and his family, it is a cry. It is a cry of someone who perhaps politically, socially, or economically...or a combination of all three or more...cannot breathe. When thousands chant these words together, this represents a problem for society of Brobdingagian proportons. More critically, the "I" in the phrase becomes a "we" when repeated by crowds. This means power.

There is great power in the "word of the year" for 2014 as chosen by the American Dialect Association. There was also controversy and consternation among linguistic purists as the "word" was not really a word. It was a clause. As an even greater sign of the times, the phrase comes with a hashtag before it.

It is #blacklivesmatter.

This is another protest phrase but, as the hashtag indicates, it was one for the social media age. It was spawned of the same incidents of death involving police and African American men. There are, however, a few unique aspects to it. As mentioned previously, it is a tag in social media. It spread across Twitter from its point of origin in the U.S. to being applied to similar incidents overseas (you can see examples of the tweets at the link.) It no longer solely signifies injustice in America, but across the world. Also, #blacklivesmatter tends to stop being a clause and become a noun when used, signifying an entire political movement.

All of the above is enough to make these quotes/phrases/clauses/words/whatever you wish to call them significant, but there is one additional attribute that they both share that really seals their importance for me.

There is very little ambiguity in either one of them.

There is no political play room. Look at what politicians, specifically Republicans it seems, have done with the phrase "entitlement program." The phrase often gets applied to government programs such as Social Security. Labeling such programs "entitlements" is not inaccurate. You are entitled to them because you helped pay for them. Despite this fact, by hammering on the moniker of "entitlement" over and over until it sticks, politicians change the tenor of words. When it is said that someone feels "entitled" to something, there is often an unsaid implication that the individual in question did not earn whatever it is. It's a twist of meaning in the case of "entitlement program" but it seems to have worked. Thank goodness we can't say the same for their other horribly misguided phrase, "legitimate rape."

Fortunately, you can't really mitigate the meaning of "I can't breathe." Likewise, it's tough to dilute #blacklivesmatter. This is significant. It is further indication of a movement, of an open statement of what people will no longer tolerate and for changes to be made.

Let's hope for words indicating positive change in 2015.




Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

1 comment:

  1. My political and social commentary posts just don't seem to be popular.

    ReplyDelete