“Industrious and conscientiousness are often at odds with one another because industriousness wants to pluck the fruit from the tree while it is sour, whereas conscientiousness lets it hang too long until it falls and smashes itself to pieces.”
~Frederick Neitzsche, Human, All Too Human, A Book for Free Spirits
This week we celebrated Martin Luther King Day, the inauguration and the Women’s March. On all occasions, the power of language and words came front and center and I am reminded again and again of how much our use of language can either obfuscate an audience or inspire people to speak truth even in the face of power.
President Trump, for example, tweeted John Lewis is a man of no action and only talk, talk, talk. But just a few days later, these were the words that characterized his first talk to the Nation:
In a recent article in the National by Joseph Dana, he describes the power of language and words to manipulate:
Mr Trump, a thin-skinned political novice who has lied so consistently in his political career that he has rendered his words meaningless, is such a person. Through his rejection of facts and aggression towards the mainstream press, Mr Trump is inculcating the American people with the idea that belief systems outweigh rational thoughts and discourse.
How are we supposed to trust our leaders and hold fast to moral clarity if we are constantly being manipulated by words and language? Further how can we combat irrational thought when we are told in some cases that words are meaningless and that there is this thing called “alternative facts,” while in other cases, words hold us accountable such as in our legal documents, however old and outdated they might be?
I did find solace for a moment watching Amy Goodman who played one of Dr. King’s old speeches. It was from 1964. I was amazed to find that Dr. King spoke about how we can twist words to mask our intentions or act for our convenience:
“I would like to mention one or two ideas that circulate in our society—and they probably circulate in your society and all over the world—that keep us from developing the kind of action programs necessary to get rid of discrimination and segregation. One is what I refer to as the myth of time. There are those individuals who argue that only time can solve the problem of racial injustice in the United States, in South Africa or anywhere else; you’ve got to wait on time. And I know they’ve said to us so often in the States and to our allies in the white community, “Just be nice and be patient and continue to pray, and in 100 or 200 years the problem will work itself out.” We have heard and we have lived with the myth of time. The only answer that I can give to that myth is that time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. And I must honestly say to you that I’m convinced that the forces of ill will have often used time much more effectively than the forces of goodwill. And we may have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around saying, “Wait on time.”
And somewhere along the way it is necessary to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. And so we must help time, and we must realize that the time is always ripe to do right. This is so vital, and this is so necessary.”
What does this word mean, Time? What do you or I attach to this notion of Time and even, the word Patience? An examination of our words is so critical to our collective consciousness and understanding of what we stand for, especially if we want to take this notion of Time and translate it to real Action. At the Women’s March with my daughter, we were surrounded by words on placards and we were simultaneously immersed in the flow of an enormous movement. Both words and actions matter.
Teachers use and teach words every day. We use words to learn, to inspire, to share, to communicate. We also want our Actions to be aligned to the words that we say. In my forthcoming book, Teacher Agency for Equity: A Framework for Conscientious Engagement (Routledge, 2017), I talk about this notion of language and words as being a reflection of our inner thoughts or streams of consciousness as educators. I argue that we have to be aware of how we communicate with each other and how through our language we can often confuse or misdirect our agency for equity. In my book, I ask teachers to consider the type of language that is required of a teacher who is committed to fighting for equity, who sees herself as a change agent and to consider her audience when she speaks. What type of words should teachers use when talking to their colleagues about ruly students and what types of words should she use when speaking to students directly? Do our words and language change when addressing a parent, or when we are in offices with school leaders during an evaluation? Or even—what language characterizes who we are in our personal and private space on the weekends with our friends and families, our churches, temple or the mosque–and how does this impact who we are in the school building on Monday?
In my career, I have come in contact with many teachers, school leaders and education consultants who acknowledge the strange intersection of separate worlds in schools and in our communities but may not be aware of how our every day language and words may communicate mixed messages about what it means to advocate for equity in education and are we expressing the same value for all perspectives, and all human beings?
There is a great challenge that we face in education and it has to do with Martin Luther King’s notion of Time. I want us to be clear that there is a time when its good to sit still in Mindful Inquiry and Reflection but there is also a time when we must take Decisive Action and radically change a Practice or Policy. I want us to be clear about how easy it is for us to channel our energy in ways that stifle agency and progress for equity. I want us to be clear about when is the right time to say, “Now!” And dig in our heals until we see an immediate shift in priorities. I want us to practice saying “No,” and saying, “This is not okay.”
In my writing and instructional design, I am preoccupied with how we can be the architect of bridges across worlds with our words, language and interactive activities that when done well and with care, have the power and potential to pull us together for a common good in education. I often worry that we still project to others a subtle expectation that for some people in society, they should be patient and wait, even though we are in the midst of this fast wave towards a very ominous future, a future that is quickly defining our social, cultural and political landscape.
I do believe it is important to examine how we got here and I believe in our collective Spirit to move us in the right direction. But, still—I worry. I worry that we sometimes get confused about the power of words and language on our thinking and we forget how much power we have as teachers to make a difference in the streams of consciousness of the children we teach. I don’t want teachers and school leaders to stay transfixed and silent, but I also want them to choose their words and language very carefully.
Words and language matter. Pay attention to what you say, how you say it and to whom you are speaking. Words and language are a real reflection of your inner world, your beliefs and your emotional landscape. Check in with yourself and see to it that you manifest through words and language what you truly envision for our future.