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The Language Of Oppression

In Haig Bosmajian’s essay, The Language of Oppression, he speaks of the value of a name. To receive a name is to be elevated to the status of a human being; without a name one’s identity is questionable. A human being is defined by his name. Without a name no one knows who he is, for he has no identity. However, a name can also be used as a curse. Language can lead to the dehumanization of human beings and can ultimately lead to their extermination. As Bosmajian says, Just as our thoughts affect our language, so does our language affect out thoughts and eventually our actions and behavior. When the Nazis took over the Jewish population, they were only able to accomplish this through the use of oppressive language. They re-named Jews as bacilli, parasites, disease, demon, and plague. Because of the implementation of these names, people began to believe the Nazis, and the extermination of six million human beings was viewed as a Final solution. Language affects all aspects of our lives. Language and names can inspire us and motivate us but can also belittle us. As Stokely Carmichael said, …people who can define are masters. When a person is given the power to change one’s name and identity and to define, they are given the powers of a master, and therefore are seen as a leader. Bosmajian wants this oppressive language to stop. He wants the belittlement of humans, caused by their differences, to cease. Clearly, the only way to do this is to rebel against the use of these words and eliminate the categories they create.

Santha Rama Rau illustrates Bosmajian’s point in her essay, By Any Other Name. She speaks of her experience, as a little girl, going to school for the first time at
an Anglo-Indian school. This experience changed her life and she shares it with us as a lesson about the labeling and naming of a human, and how it can dehumanize an entire culture. On the first day of school, her sister and herself were given new pretty English names. Her sister, Premila, was given the name Pamela, and Santha was given the name, Cynthia. At that moment, Santha saw herself as two different people. She felt that having a new name made her a new person, and when she was being called this name, she had no responsibilities. She was told to sit in the back of the class with all the other Indian children. At recess, she realized that all the Indian children were separated from the English children. While she ate her traditional Indian food, the other Indian children ate sandwiches. These assimilated Indian children wore English attire, yet couldn’t eat with the English children. She did not last for more than a week in this school, because her sister came into her class one day and told her to gather up her things because they were going home for good. Later she discovered that the teacher caused her sister’s actions. They were given a test and she was told, along with all the other Indian children, to sit at the back of the class with a desk between each of them. The teacher said, it was because Indians cheat. Because the teacher called Indians cheaters, Premila felt less civilized. She did not believe this label that was thrown at her, and her beliefs are what made her leave the school. This generalized labeling of the Indian culture hurt Premila and Santha very much, and this is an example that supports Bosmajian’s theory. Names can be used to dehumanize, and separate human beings. Santha was just a child, but she clearly understood that they way all the Indian children were treated was not right.
Santha’s sister acted exactly the way Bosmajian wishes more people would. He wishes for those who find themselves being defined into subjugation to rebel against such linguistic suppression.
There are many writers that support Bosmajian’s thoughts on the use of names and labeling. One of these writers is Sydney J. Harris who wrote a column for the Chicago Sun-Times called, We Read the Label but Ignore the Jars Contents. In this column, he

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