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Our Assumptions …about language

Language builds reality. The terms that are available, accepted and mutually understood both construct and reinforce not only what we are able to think, but how we are able to think it. Far from simply transmitting neutral information, words assume and imply. They also carry associations, no matter how carefully we choose them.

In research on violence, learning, and literacy, we tend to encounter certain terms over and over. “Trauma” and “healing” are two of these. We also hear many labels for people, such as “victim,” “learning disabled,” “psychiatric patient,” or that people are “suffering from” “disorders” and “syndromes” such as Oppositional Defiant, or Conduct, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. While these medical labels may help us make sense of our own experiences, they can also lead others to define our limitations, or categorize what services we can access.

On this site, we have taken serious and soul-searching care with the words we use. In the case of how people are portrayed, we often describe the event or experience rather than saying that the experience is, essentially, what that person is. (For example, someone is a person who has been involved with the sex trades, rather than is a sex-trade worker.) In the case of describing someone as a member of a community, we always defer to how that person or group self-identifies (“Deaf,” capitalized, is the way many Deaf people refer to their unique culture and language group, not viewing deafness as a disability, while “low vision” and “blind” are terms to describe people with distinctly different ways of experiencing the world).

The stakes are also high when choosing how to use the “master terms” of the theoretical work and research. From a critical and self-reflexive perspective, the writing on this site aims to interrogate all the words that may not be helpful to our understanding of violence’s impacts on learning, and to ensure they are used in the service of societal transformation.

The way the word “trauma” has been medicalized and individualized in mainstream writing and thinking can take our focus away from political issues and toward medical solutions. Similarly, the soft focus and somehow private intonation of the word “healing” may lead us to think of the impacts of violence as an illness, or even a personal failing, to be cured and made better, rather than as experiences that shape us in powerful ways, strengthening us as well as presenting difficult stuff to work through.

Fundamentally, our demand of language is that it must provide enough space for us to speak, explore, and reveal our realities, rather than be spoken about, and defined by others; that it must be as realistic and accurate as possible—and support us in changing the status quo.

Read Jenny Horsman’s reflection about “Trauma” and “Healing”. And Heather Lash’s reflection on the word “victim” in Walking the Line.

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