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In what ways might language be used as an instrument of oppression?

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Introduction

In what ways might language be used as an instrument of oppression? The idea that language can be used as an instrument of oppression is one that is held by many critics of varying focus who stress the fact that language is both an instrument of social constraint and a means of resisting that constraint. It is an issue deeply embedded in the literary theory of gender and sexuality, race and nationality, and even social class. In this essay I hope to consider these issues in relation to three main literary texts that I have studied across this year: Jonathon Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. A good place to start is with the ideas of feminist criticism, where language is identified as one of the means through which patriarchal values are both maintained and resisted. Feminists are concerned with two main ways in which they claim women are oppressed by language, the first of which is the idea of male dominated language. In her essay 'Man-Made Language', Dale Spender argues that male dominated language constructs a sexist universe in which women are cast aside: The group which has the power to ordain the structure of language, thought and reality has the potential to create a world in which they are the central figures, while those who are not of their group are peripheral and therefore may be exploited. (Spender 106) She is basically saying that general categories of persons are often constructed through the language in male terms. This process serves to make women less visible in social and cultural activity. Deborah Cameron supports this idea with the citation of the following newspaper report from The Guardian: A coloured South African who was subjected to racial abuse by his neighbours went berserk with a machete and killed his next-door neighbour's wife, Birmingham Crown Court heard yesterday. ...read more.

Middle

This presentation of women is not just one made by individual writers but, as many critics suggest, in the entire construction of the literary canon. In particular, critics have explored the ways in which the canon is encased in questions of class, ethnicity, education, sexual and gender difference. In the case of women writers, it is often argued that such authors have been overlooked precisely because they are women. In her work, A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf immediately hints at this exclusion of women in her description of the narrator's visit to Oxbridge where she is repeatedly barred from areas deemed only to be for men: "His face expressed horror and indignation. Instinct rather than reason came to my help; he was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was the turf; there was the path. Only the fellows and scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me." (2155) It doesn't take a mastermind to work out the link between the narrator's experience (being chased off the grass and barred from the library) and the exclusion of women from the canon and literary establishment as a whole. Woolf continues by inventing a series of characters who further illustrate her point: Mary Seton who reflects women's historical lack of financial resources and Mary Carmichael whose writing is that of "a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman." (2203) Though she has no conclusion, Woolf does at least have a feminist moral. Illustrated by the two Mary's, Woolf is alerting us to the presence of a male elitism, a conspiracy to ensure that women are prohibited from utilising resources and censored so that they are unable to voice their protests, after all men have traditionally had better access to learning and hence to the full resources of literacy, and also have had better access to the means by which books are produced. ...read more.

Conclusion

However, I think that the following analysis of the word 'queer' from Bennett and Royle shows that sometimes this oppression can be rejected. They point out that, in the 1960's and 1970's, it was a word that became increasingly used in the English language as a derogatory term for (usually male) homosexuals. However, they reveal, this began to change by the late 1980's: Homosexuals themselves began to 'reclaim' the word, to use it in place of the gender-specific and arguably effete term 'gay' or the clinical and cheerless 'homosexual' or the polite and even mythological-sounding 'lesbian'. Queer becomes a term of pride and celebratory self-assertion, of difference affirmed and affirmative difference. [...] The fact that queers are different from straight people is seen as a source of power and pride - and 'straight' now becomes a term with potentially negative connotations (conventional, dull, unadventurous). (179) And so it would seem that it is not just the people in position of power who can decide how language is applied. The new application of the word 'queer' goes to show that people don't just have to accept their lot in life; they can challenge the dominant 'Eurocentric' view of language and replace it with their own meaning. In conclusion, I would argue exactly this: language may and can be used as an instrument of oppression to a certain extent, be it through what is included in literary history (or more specifically the canon) or how the language itself is constructed. Nevertheless, the oppressed groups can and do reject this application of language. The recent uprising of gendered, racial, social and queer approaches to language and literature have made sure that the voices of the oppressed can be heard. It is for this reason that I would suggest that, although there may have been a time when language acted as a tool to stifle the minority, it is now no longer the case, at least on a larger scale. ...read more.

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