Thursday, June 11, 2009

Raising consciousness

There are moments in our lives, perhaps when reading a book or when talking to someone or even when in thought, when we go "aha!". A moment that fundamentally alters our vision, our carefully constructed world-views, and perhaps even our calling in life. A moment in which our consciousness is raised.

Words are especial transport vehicles for such moments. Simple substitutions in everyday phrases can add a wealth of information to common understanding. An example of that was in the '70s and '80s, when feminists consistently challenged the phrase "one man, one vote" and successfully substituted it with "one person, one vote". Such a simple change can carry an important social message. If "man" in the former phrase is meant to represent an adult of the human species, then using "person" is more precise and inclusive, and is less misogynistic in usage. Importantly, when people start watching their phraseology deliberately to avoid any unintended misogynistic connotations, the consciousness of both the speaker and the listener is enriched.

Recently, I had the opportunity to interact with Jane Sahi, who runs Sita School outside Bangalore. She is an inspiring educator, thinker and speaker who has the ability to communicate in a manner that fosters mutual learning and understanding. And, she also did something far more important for me: she raised my consciousness by choosing her words so carefully and precisely. The effect is quite stunning. 

Learners vs school-goers
To her, education for a child is far more than the child just going to school every day. This leads her to use phrases like "first generation school-goers", as opposed to the more commonly used "first generation learners" to describe children who are first in their families to get a formal education. When you think about it for a minute, you realize how many profound thoughts can be conveyed just by being precise with your words - school-going is not necessarily learning, learning does not happen exclusively at school, people who are considered "uneducated" (defined by the world as folks without a school education) actually have a lot of learning to offer their children, learning happens in the home, the community and other communal spaces. And so on.

Economically Poor
Another example of her consciousness-raising for me was this: about how we call some people "poor" or "under-privileged" in an unqualified manner. She makes it a point to be more concise in how she describes people: for instance, who we think of as poor are actually only "economically poor". The term "economically poor" says a lot about these people, and also about what the speaker thinks of them - you realize their poverty is in only one dimension among many, unlike the meaning conveyed by the more generic "poor". So people may be intellectually rich, emotionally rich, culturally rich etc, but in just one aspect, they are impoverished. 

Under-privileged vs dis-privileged
And how about saying "dis-privileged" instead of "under-privileged" when you want to convey that some people were denied or stripped of their privileges, as opposed to being born into them. Again, says a lot about them, and also establishes the existence of more active agents.  Again, the difference in the effect it has can be dramatic - "under-privileged" people need our charity, while "dis-privileged" people need the active dis-privilege-ising agent removed. Using the latter term forces us to recognize the existence of agents that strip away privileges. Do starving third world agricultural communities need our aid pennies, or would they rather have the crushing "free-trade" agreements modified and first world subsidies removed? Depends on how you think of them, "under-privileged" or "dis-privileged".

Choosing the right words is important. In some cases like the ones used by Jane, it can show how thoughtful we are, can convey precise and concise meaning, and could ultimately even bring about a change in the way we think. And collectively raise our consciousness for a better world for all of us.

Some links to Jane Sahi's work: