It’s amazing to me how our language contains the ancient seeds of current biases. Today, as a culture, it appears that many Americans, have this unreal view of ourselves as the superior purveyors of all that is right and good; we keep telling ourselves these “sincere fictions” (Joe Feagin , 2006, pp.44-46) as if to prove that we are the most righteous, civilized, and most democratic nation on the globe. We profile Islam as being a violent religion; we profile Africa as being the immature continent of internecine, feudal conflicts, pointing to many dictators who have used their position to rob and pillage their own people. We think of ourselves as the “beacon of light,” and the epitome of the Christian hope living in the promised land of “manifest destiny.” We go to war in places like Iraq with the lip service that we are making the world a better place, a place where democracy can flourish, as a micro replica of ourselves. We valiantly fight ‘the war on terror’ based on the lies of twisted paranoia and patriotism, and as the “born again” liberators of the new frontier, a land ruled by immature tribal heads who threaten to annihilate civilization.
Crusading in a New Light
So, when we go off after some agenda, we call it going on a “crusade.” We crusade for freedom, democracy, western values, Americana pieces of pie, and for God. Interesting that we feel we aren’t in the same class as other past empires. But what of the reports and evidence of torture we’ve used against our enemies? These are the enemies of true freedom and Christian beliefs. After all, they are the ones who may ignite the next war, because of their closeted WMDs. We spy on our own people with the collusion of corporate monsters who control the electronic industry. We kill unarmed, fleeing people from the sea monster named Katrina and leave for dead those who have the least resources to escape. Then we drag our feet leaving our internally displaced peoples in the limbo of dislocation. But, after all, aren’t we the best nation in the world? We are the symbol of peace and opportunism. Isn’t this the right of any messianic people? But is neglect and indifference a universal human right?
Were not the Crusades a very similar situation? Men from Christian nations going to far away, Middle Eastern lands, to annihilate the infidels. The Christian Crusaders went in the spirit of ‘right makes right because we’re white’—we are right, our interpretation of words on a page is right. Our concept of God is right. ‘We are right because we are light.’ We have come to liberate the Holy City from the grasp of Mohammedans who are a savage, godless throng, intent on bringing the whole world under the sway of Allah. Do we want to be governed by Islamic law and justice, after all? We fought against an apostate people. Only problem with that reasoning is that we were doing the same thing, only we committed our acts in the name of Jesus, choosing to call our God by another name because we thought this God had another face—a white one.
Studies in linguistic worldviews, general semantics, neuro linguistic programming and cognitive therapy have informed us that our language about ourselves and the environment outside of ourselves shapes our belief systems and emotional intelligence. For European and American culture, much of our language has been molded by patriarchal and racist ideology. When we speak about “crusading” for something, naturally we don’t have any conscious thought of going to the Holy Land to convert infidel Muslims. But language also perpetuates our pathological behavior of superiority and continues to feed our white, racialized thinking and practices since it’s deeply embedded in our collective unconsciousness. It is an integral part of our European ancestry and thought processes. Some in the past used the term “the American Israel” for America the Free.
Our nation has spent ninety percent of its history under the boot of slavery and legal segregation. This monstrous percentage often goes unnoticed. If one individual spent ninety percent of her time, from infancy to old age, living with one people group that was cut off from the rest of the world, she would be highly conditioned to behave as one of these beings. Near the end of her life, she leaves her insulated existence and goes to a big metropolitan city full of diversity and multifarious activities; she would probably have a very difficult time adapting to her new place of existence.
Languaging Racism: Words Don’t Mean, People Mean
Author Joe Feagin writes about what he calls the white “racial frame” (ibid. pp. 25-28) that is a worldview that has been generationally transmitted through human relationships, religion, culture, media, along with institutional norms and practices. This has uniquely patterned our language and thinking processes in habitually intense and divisive ways. Indeed our language does create our reality. Changes in thought processes and language may change ways of experiencing life, but this social education is a slow evolutionary process. Some components of our culture have been exposed to much more egalitarian consciousness than others. It is only as the majority of messages begin to emit a more universal consciousness of tolerance, social justice and respect for human dignity that the language of bias and racism begin to fade. As ‘do unto others as you would have done to you’ begins to be played in the currency of time, it may become more conditioned as an emblem of reality.
As a nation, those of us who may consider ourselves more progressive seem often shocked and horrified at the racist and sexist acts of individuals or groups. When we hear of these events, we are able to see a very vivid contrast between the “way things were” and what they can be today, and what they may be tomorrow. Yet, as Reinhold Niebuhr reflected, as an empire we don’t seem to be able to see past our innocence to our own abuses of power.
This is compounded by the language used by so many people who practice racism and bigotry on a constant basis. Their language is often permeated and salted with the language of superiority such as “our way is the only way, and it’s the truth.” It is often flecked like salt and pepper with the blended ideologies of fundamentalist, religious doctrine.
A good contemporary example of this can be found in the case of the Jena 6 in Louisiana. The District Attorney in this case, Reed Walters, is unable to see how blind he is as far as applying equal justice to blacks and whites. His languaging of the situation is powerful in its bigotry and intensity in terms of its Christianized message. He has ordained himself the crusader. He recently told the media that he felt the outcome of the case would be guided by Jesus Christ. (the implication of his talk is that God will judge the case, not the people who are impacted by it, the community, those who have come to protest, a jury of one’s peers, and the criminal justice system). He’s taking himself into and talking himself off the hook as if he has no responsibility to practice legal ethics, and this seems to this writer to be a cop out. This outside observer sees this kind of language of the crusade as being one of the major affects of the language of superiority. The DA appears to be desirous of standing ‘for the truth’ no matter how many voices protest the extremes of injustice and racism cloaked in religious speak. He takes himself out of the equation by his religious statement, and leaves it in the hands of ‘an angry and fearsome God.’ His justification is a deterministic view of the rule of law within the context of a Judeo Christian social milieu—the only way this can be true is by viewing white, Christian culture as the standard of ethics and morality above every other kind of moralism.
Looking at the languaging of the crusade from another angle, I would like to suggest that this kind of language really hasn’t been assayed by the deliberate critique of people with free and intelligent minds. In so many places within our cultural system, folks have been conditioned to remain enslaved by their minds ceasing to exercise the virtue of critical thinking. The memorization of facts in our academic environment too often passes for intelligence and learning. This kind of blind faith and submission to the general, run-of-the-mill myths, assumptions and legends, sets people up for a kind of disemboweled responsibility and learned helplessness that militates against the belief that we really can trust ourselves and our own inner ethos to choose what is good and right for our communities. The forces of power and privilege, of course, apply every kind of resistance and opposition to communal consensus, and the check and balance of the people, the legislature, the criminal justice system, the judicial system and the executive function of government too often cow before the threat of constituencies and the perpetuation of political position.
The forces of the domination system use its language of crusade to ignore the major problems of a culture on the skids. Their language appears to be a manipulative tool of denial and ignorance of the nature of white, racialized posturing. For example, the DA in Jena, Louisiana emphasized and focused almost entirely in his public statements on the so-called crime caused by the black adolescents. He repeated over and over again that the white victim was the victim, and that justice must be exacted. He completely trashed the idea that a hate crime had been done by the white students at the school by hanging nooses on the school tree. He failed to really mention that there had been other incidents or fights in which white students had been involved as instigators. He charged the young black men with using their sneakers as a deadly weapon. Come on, does he think that most people are that stupid!
He didn’t own up to the time he went to a school assembly and told the black students that he could change their lives forever with the stroke of a pen (Luqman, p. E1). This is the kind of crusading language that has been his trademark throughout this very arduous time for the community, the parents, and the students involved. Unwittingly, DA Walters spoke about the nature and source of the problem: that the white power structure did wield the power to oppress and imprison blacks in that community. This was the language of intimidation, and certainly not the language of legal impartiality that was needed to bring real justice to this small town in Louisiana. This form of crisis talk does damage to a dialogue of understanding that is reasonable and seeks a resolution.
So the language has continued, perhaps in different forms and with different masks, but nevertheless, it’s the same language of oppression and unequal treatment. It has inflamed the hearts and minds of many people around the country around the Jena 6 movement; in the main, we must look closely and critically at a key issue here. The language of the crusader comes from inside the head of the crusader. This language has been brewing in the pot of generational, white, supremacist teachings and rituals for generations. So the language of the crusader is both a stimulus and a response. It is both a receiver and transmitter. This language is slanted and skewed by the power system, and by those who are invested in the system. Without it, they would have no certainty about their existence; they would have no orderly, hierarchal matrix on which to base the reasons for their actions, except to choose a course of social justice. They would have no rock to hide behind. They would stand naked with the reality that they are human beings just like all the rest of humanity.
Language is self-reflexive. Language has been fixed as habit, both in formal and non-formal contexts. Language feeds back into our thought processes as being right, and is our compass for our thoughts and lives. Unless the languaging of our selves and others is critically examined, it continues on its circular pattern, and allows no room for new concepts to grow green. There is no hint of a lightened window that could be opened to view how we’ve shaped our philosophies and lifestyles of racialized thinking in this climate. We grow so accustomed and familiar with our old, shabby ways of talking that they become the “norm” of how we choose to make decisions, act towards those who are different, and perceive the world. Even in an era of acceptance of diversity and cultural competency, the unedited prejudices and “isms” of our childhood continue to be projected onto others as shadows of our outer conversations with the world.
The Privilege of Crusading
The word crusading speaks volumes of Christian privilege. The crusades vaunted the world with genocidal and murderous acts of pillage, all justified in the name of saving souls for Christ. There were vile, despicable acts on both sides; what is pathological, however, is our utter refusal to look back into our collective historical psyches and see that our Christian ancestors did these cruel acts towards others we labeled as uncivilized, godless, and Christ-denying. We choose rather to hold to our own innocence. To use the term crusading in less extreme contexts ignores our identificational accountability in the annihilation of Muslims and Jews. Why do we insist on using a word that is freighted with this kind of baggage of hate, bias, xenophobia, and parochialism? Couldn’t we say “take a stand” or “fight on behalf of,” or “campaign for” and by changing our language change our consciousness? Can’t we use our creativity to invent new conversational terms?
I think one of the reasons that folks keep using this term, albeit without thinking of its meaning, is that most orthodox Christians in the United States still firmly believe that we were justified in the attempt at genocide of the Muslim religion. We ought to know, too, that genocide doesn’t necessarily mean that every human within a certain group has to be killed; the intent of genocide is the belief that those who hold beliefs that oppose Christianity (in our case) do really deserve to be completely silenced, and stopped in their tracks from living out their religion. They deserve to be watched, guarded, and manipulated by a cultural occupier. If a dominant power seeks to re-make a people in their own image by taking away their customs, their language, their religion, their clothing, and the way they communicate—replacing it with their own—this so traumatically damages the spirit of the targeted group, that they will end up killing themselves in many different ways.
Thus, we need to take another look at how we use this word. We need to take another look at the use of Native American symbols, for example, in our sports culture. We need to take another look at why we rise up in resistance and holy horror when Native Americans demand that we cease using the symbol. What’s the source of our resistance and opposition? Why is it so easy for white Americans to say, when these protestations come, that the protesters are too sensitive, and that all of this is old news, and old history in books that we say really don’t matter anymore? Every symbol and every word has some kernel of meaning that humans to which humans give attribution. Perhaps that kernel has morphed somewhat with the passage of time. Since humans perceive symbols, and words are representational symbols, humans are the ones who give the words meaning. We ought to examine what the kernel of words like “crusade,” “blacklisted,” “jewed down,” “gypped,” “wetback” mean to those who don’t think or speak like us.
Perhaps we can learn to overcome “social alexthymia” (Feagin, ibid., p. 28) that is the seeming inability to understand the emotions of others, and to empathize with people. This task is much harder for European Americans who live deep in a cave called denial for their part in systemic, white racism. Essential to being an oppressor, Feagin goes on to say, is the lack of consciousness and feelings for the pain of others. For me, this is a good place to start. I’d say this is something we can crusade for—let’s not use that word—better to say commit to do our work of the creative design and art of empathy, compassion and interrupting racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia–wherever we see it raise its head.
Feagin, J. (2006). Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression. New York: Routledge.
Luqman, A. (2007, September 23). Why Jena Touches Black Souls. Houston Chronicle, p.E1.
© Christopher Bear Beam, MA, October 2007