Challenging the Oppressors’ Language

This morning, I’ve been thinking about the Ecopsychology class I will be teaching this afternoon. I’ve also been considering the work I do with clients in my psychotherapy practice. The two have in common a concern with language. In both instances,  I am engaging others to work with me to free language from the control of that which oppresses.

Psychotherapy, it seems to me, is about discovering language that expresses Self. (Perhaps, true education has the same goal.) Sometimes, I forget this, and becoming impatient, find myself thinking that psychotherapy is both inefficient and irrelevant. At such times, my friend and colleague, Susan Grimaldi, reminds me that sometimes shamanic work, alone, is insufficient for healing, especially in Western cultures. Often, one must also challenge the language and stories of oppression as internalized by the client. Psychotherapy is then the practice of working together to seat internalized oppression. This may take time.

Anthropologists have been recording cultural traditions amongst First Nations peoples for well over 100 years. For those of us who hail from cultures that have lost their healing traditions, the anthropological record can be invaluable.Yet, when reading anthropological accounts, one must compensate for the distortions created by the anthropologists’ language, for anthropological discourse has, at least until recently, been the language of the oppressor. The most effective way to do so is simply to try the techniques described in the literature for oneself, carefully avoiding any negative prejudicial beliefs inherent in the anthropological description of the activity.

Often, the recovery of Self requires the same commitment to careful attention to language, and openness to experimentation. In therapy, we seek a language that arises from, and does justice to, the client’s personal experience. In order to find this language, the therapist must cede authority to the client, and work with the client to identify the language and beliefs of the oppressor. This way of working has its roots in the work of Michael Foucault and Michael White. ( I have written previously about the work of Michael White, and his understanding of Narrative Therapy.)

As I wrote in my last post, one of the tasks of the Ecopsychology class is to explore the colonizing language inherent in the Western rationalist tradition, as applied to Nature. This is not a comfortable endeavor, as such language is deeply rooted in the psyche of all persons educated in Western school systems. It is also the same language used by anthropologists, traditionally, to describe first Nations cultures.

As Freud noted over 150 years ago, we internalize the language, beliefs, and opinions of our parents and teachers, and of other significant adults in our lives. We also internalize the values of the dominant culture in which we are raised. When these views of us are negative, we may see ourselves in a negative light. It is the task of therapy to challenge the authority of those internalized voices, and to create space for the emergence of new Self-knowledge, and of language native to the individual or group. Michael white saw this process as emancipatory.

As I prepare to go into class today, I am aware, as when practicing psychotherapy, I am attempting to find the balance between imparting knowledge I believe essential, and supporting others in finding the truth inherent in their own lived experiences. Not surprisingly, this is also a dance of the shamans.

2 thoughts on “Challenging the Oppressors’ Language

  1. “. . . the colonizing language inherent in the Western rationalist tradition, as applied to Nature.”

    Perhaps the the language itself reflects the colonizing nature of the Western Rationalist tradition. Take, for example, the fact that if you ask someone from the “United States” (more an etymological conveyence than an empirical fact) what language he or she speaks, their answer will undoubtedly be “English.” This is even more ironic when prefaced by some words similar to “If you live in my country, you should learn my language!”

    When in fact, one of the hallmarks of the social entity known as a “country” is having it’s OWN language.

    Perhaps, when we, as a collective, are not so afraid of losing what we refer to as “OUR” traditions, nor so afraid of allowing those traditions to flourish within the context of a society, we’ll actually be open to our diversities, and a new language (“American?”) will arise which both accepts and derives its identity from those diversities. My guess is that once this happens, the colonizing spirit will be, in great part, laid to rest. . .

    1. I suspect that territoriality and aggression are innate to us as a species. Maybe we can limit their impact by doing as you suggest, allowing for a multiplicity of languages. What a bureaucratic nightmare! LOL!

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