Ensouling tired language: On safety, confrontation/conflict, and collaboration

This reflection is adapted from my postgraduate work this year. I may come across as a little cynical about academia. I am, yes!. But I am also fully relishing this deep dive into scholarship. It is a privilege I do not take lightly. Sometimes (often), I find myself wishing post-secondary education is postponed to “middlescence.” This is a term I recently became aware of in reference to those in their late middle years, as opposed to the adolescence of the transitional years from childhood to adulthood.   If I have learned anything this past year, it is that life is a series of ands and but also’s.  I find myself getting (comfortably) uncomfortable in a new world I call “between worlds.” In this space, I am mostly confused. I think in one language and write in another. I live in one world (at the end of the world according to my little one) and dream of another. But I am not torn. I am extended and most importantly expanded. It is not an easy place, but that is the point. Growth is messy, uncomfortable, and highly disruptive. Sometimes, it’s multilingual and multicultural. Always, it is dynamic.

When I critique, my intention is to grow into a better human, one who strives to do better and be better. Learning should be disruptive and uncomfortable, otherwise… what is the point? 

On the subject of growth, I have been thinking a lot about anti-aging. My smart phone reads my thoughts (obviously.) It has flooded my feeds with anti-aging products. I gave in today. I downloaded an app that is supposedly what I needed to track how I was aging. The news is dispiriting but not hopeless: I am not reverse aging unfortunately but aging slowly. (Think of it as a silver medal of sorts.) The app says I am 41.5 years old, a good 8 years slower than the other people controlled by their smartphones. I will be busy this summer impressing the app. By the time my competitive drive is done with it, the app will be amazed. (Not to be continued.)

As I sat down to write, I realized that anti-aging is a loaded concept. Here is the dilemma: to be “anti” is to fight. Aging is the opposite of dying. To age is to be alive. [Pause for dramatic effect.]

Sigh… That is all I have to say on this for the moment. This will be continued, unlike the 7-day free trial I am currently impressing.

Which reminds me…

I want to name tired language, a symptom of overall fatigue and stagnation, mostly mine if I am being honest. Diagnosing the malaise of fatigue in our language has led me down a path that appears to “deconstruct deconstruction,” academia’s favourite pastime.

My intention behind this honest –uncomfortable –introspection of language and calling to ensoul words and world(s) is to share what continues to move and inspire me on this journey of unlearning. I intrinsically understand the magical power of language and lament the appropriation and careless overuse of words that must be contributing to worldly stagnation.

The initial title of this reflection was “Resuscitating Tired Language: Rethinking Safety, Confrontation, and Collaboration.” It quickly became apparent that the title was itself tired. A quick (albeit mental and very limited) review of titles of published papers in the field of humanities indicates that rethinkingrereadingreframingreclaimingdeconstructing, dismantling … are frequently employed. (I am out of breath just writing them.) The feminist scholar Sara Ahmed describes this frequency as “words that travel furthest” and in so doing essentially do less.[1]

For example, on “deconstruction” in academia, (the controversial and disruptive) Douglas Murray writes:

“And always and everywhere is the aim –taken from French literary theory –to ‘deconstruct‘ everything. To ‘deconstruct’ something is as significant in academia as ‘constructing’ things is in the rest of society. Indeed, it is one curiosity of academia in recent decades that it has found almost nothing it does not wish to deconstruct, apart from itself.”[2]

There is more. Consider the “ethical” label that adorns products (more so) in recent times. This and other blanket words are ambiguous and absolving at the same time. This paradox is intentional and disheartening. The term “greenwashing” blankets the blanket. “Humane” and “slaughter” are bizarrely used in the same breath, and more curiously commonly accepted without a thought.   “Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)” traveled quite far not long ago (and did less in the process. The less may have contributed more to suffering.) I recently had the unfortunate opportunity to attend a real estate sales pitch. The salesperson proudly repeated that their organization was a leader in development, referring to their skill at “putting lipstick on a pig” several times. The list is endless.

It is not always the case that the words that travel farthest do less. Sometimes words that don’t travel at all beyond the pages of academia fall flat on their faces. The human at the other end of the exhausted but less traveled words is the one who does all the traveling in popular spaces. Their stardom and bank account travel well too. Murray offers this published excerpt from Judith Butler as an example. (I have read the following statement over 40 times. I still do not understand a word. I am also out of breath. Bear with me.)

“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural tonalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”[3]

Merrium Webster defines bypassing as circumventing, neglecting, or ignoring. Tired language is an expression of linguistic bypassing that can best be described as a de-souling of language: sucking the life/breath/soul out of words –and out of our world. This is an intentional process of arming by de-arming: weaponizing language by robbing it of its potency and essence. Collaboration becomes lifeless. Confrontation is purposefully blurred.

Tired language is a symptom of a de-souled, apathetic world, a world that fears disruption, avoids sensation, seeks the comfort of stagnation.

Sara Ahmed explains how choosing words that do less becomes the strategy of safe activism. “Ironically, then, choosing words that do less becomes a strategy, almost as if to say, doing less is as much as we can do.” [4]  In doing less, institutions/systems/and even individuals convince themselves consciously or otherwise that enough is being done. Doing less, or just enough, is a strategy to avoid confrontation (unless the confrontation is violent requiring the trillion-dollar enrichment of the war industrial complex.) In reality, “enough” is the status quo: enrichment of a powerful few, oppression of the rest, and destruction of the planet. Zhen Dao could not have expressed it more powerfully when she said,

“Our society is diseased to live above all for money and greed, diseased to step over the body of a homeless person on the way to a yoga class.”[5] 

Our society is addicted to numbness and desensitization. The cognitive dissonance mustered to step over the body of a houseless person on the way to yoga practice is the breathing embodiment of tired words.

My very first reading in the doctoral program of Women’s Spirituality was by educators Brian Arao and Kirsti Clemens who describe the process that saw them shifting their facilitation work from safety to a focus on bravery.[6]Their transition to courage is exciting and hopeful, particularly in the light of the expansive potential it promises to ensoul activism beyond the classroom and academic scholarship. It is also indicative of the awareness that safety has become a bypassing and, in some cases, hindering tool. 

They describe how they

“have found with increasing regularity that participants invoke in protest the common ground rules associated with the idea of safe space when the dialogue moves from polite [read: dead] to provocative [read: alive]. When we queried students about their rationales, their responses varied, yet shared a common theme: a conflation of safety with comfort.”[7]

And so, they leaned into disruption. They asked themselves, “Were we in fact hindering our own efforts by relying on the traditional language of safe space?”[8] The result was a revision of language and more importantly the paradigm of work itself, shifting from an understanding of safety to bravery.  

“We have come to believe … that we cannot foster critical dialogue regarding social justice ‘by turning the classroom into a ‘safe space,’ a place in which teachers rule out conflict. … We have to be brave because along the way we are going to be ‘vulnerable and exposed’, we are going to encounter images that are ‘alienating and shocking’. We are going to be very unsafe.”[9]

Alienating and shocking images, and feeling unsafe and disrupted, came up recently in a personal experience in class. Our meetings are always started with a welcomed practice of grounding, an opportunity to land into our learning community space. That day, it took the form of sharing how we were doing. The “day” happened to be one of an ongoing series of days witnessing horrors unfolding in the Ukraine. (This is by no means intended to dismiss the more than 7 decades of despicable horror inflicted on Palestinians daily by the brutal and defiant occupation that uses silencing language like anti-semitism, “clashes,” and “conflict” to distract, dismiss, and diminish the military occupation of Palestinian indigenous lands.) Most painful was the fact that the day before, a maternity hospital was bombed in the town of Mariupol. The news coverage for 24 hours was filled with (alienating and shocking) images and reports from that city. I shared my sadness over an image I could not get out of my head: a pregnant woman bleeding, carried out on a stretcher from the hospital. The image had been all over the news and has since become symbolic of the depravity of (all) wars that literally and figuratively kill mothers and creation. I was very taken aback by the response of another student to what I had just shared. She blurted out, “Sheesh, trigger much?” 

Trigger: an occasional linguistic bypassing device to de-soul our spaces.

Arao and Clemens proceeded to challenge common (read: soulless) ground rules for classrooms. They argued that the tired rule of “agree to disagree” for example is used to “retreat from conflict in an attempt to avoid discomfort and the potential for damaged relationships.”[10] Another tired common rule they reconsidered was “don’t take things personally.” They admitted it encouraged apathy.

We should take it personally. Everything is personal. Brave classrooms –brave spaces –are radical spaces. In an ideal world, radicality is the process and the goal. It is digging deep to the root. 

Otherwise, what’s the point? 

Being radical requires you to be informed of what is happening in the world. Ignorance serves the status quo. The status quo murders mothers. (And children, and life.)

Bypassing confrontation is like living under the blanket of a de-souled ethical/humane label. These are the conditions imposed by a colonial system that can only survive on the sustainment of the status quo. 

The point of conflict is not resolution (although that can be an ideal outcome) but rather transformation. That could partly explain why conflict is generally avoided and bypassed. Sometimes, conflict can be so deep and overwhelming making resolution impossible and paralysing. Ensouling conflict is understanding it as an opportunity for transformation, or at the very least correction. 

Collaboration in its healthy state is not a static, dispassionate noun. It is an animated action that involves reciprocity and movement; in other words a soul. Collaboration transforms to a way of being in right relationship, in reciprocal relationship with (the animate) life around us. Ensouling conflict enriches it as an opportunity for growth and healing.

Activism is not divisible. It is a consciousness tool, in the classroom, boardroom, and bedroom. The soul of this transformative thinking that sees educators such as Arao and Clemens, feminists and scholars like Sara Ahmed, and others wrestling uncomfortably with these questions is precisely what enlivens and transforms our world. 

As Ahmed challenges readers to reflect on confrontation, we can venture further to consider collaboration not as the antithesis of confrontation but rather as an ensouled complement, and both as opportunities to transform. 

Should I have offered a trigger warning to our classroom community? Maybe. Should I have not shared, I feel not. How does this serve our quest to learn when the very “live” act of learning is in itself an action, an energy that triggers a cascade of other actions. Should I have just buried my head in the sand, offered a passing mention of war using other tired descriptors that offer lip service to outrage like “thoughts and prayers,” condemnations, and endless moments of silence? Our world continues to walk and function as though it were on auto-pilot.

Mothers demand our outrage. 

Here’s another well-traveled, bizarre phrase that continues to traverse our world. It reaches far and upon reflection has done what appears to be very little to end gender-based violence. The phrase “rape culture” has occupied headlines, lecture halls, and activist stages. The environmental activist Vandana Shiva refers to remarks made by the Prime Minister of the Tibetan government in exile Samdhong Rinpoche during a public dialogue on globalization and violence. She writes,

“The word culture in Sanskrit … means activities that hold a society and community together. Violence [as in culture of violence or rape culture] breaks societies up, it disintegrates instead of integrates. The practice of violence, therefore, cannot be referred to as ‘culture.’”[11]

I hope to leave you with this: choose your words with intention. Then breathe life into them. Shiva writes “Ghandi was asked what he thought of Western civilization. He responded ‘It would be a good idea.’”[12] 

It would be a good idea. 

[1] Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2017), 98

[2] Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity (London, Oxford, New York, New Delhi & Sydney: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019), 53

[3] Judith Butler, “Further reflections on conversations of our time,” Diacritics, vol. 27, no. 1, Spring 1997 

[4] Ahmed, 101-2

[5] Zhen Dao, “20 Questions, Hamlette, and the Transgender Necessity” TEDx Talks, April 23, 2019

[6] Brian Arao & Kristi Clemens, “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice” in From the Art of Effective Facilitation, 135-150 (Stylus Publishing, 2013) 

[7] Ibid., 135

[8] Ibid.

[9] R. Boostrom, “Safe spaces”: Reflections on an educational metaphor. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 30(4), 1998, 397-408, 407

[9] Arao and Clemens, “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces,” 143

[10] Ibid.

[11] Vandana Shiva, Earth Democracy. Justice, Sustainability, and Peace (Cambridge, Massachusetts: South End Press, 2005), 109

[12] Shiva, Earth Democracy, 109

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