THE POWER OF NAMING by Max Dashu

STEREOTYPING entire peoples as mad, uncontrollable threats: “Wild Indians,” “Yellow Hordes” or “the Yellow Peril.” As inferior nonhumans: “primitives,” “savages,” “gooks,” “niggers” — this last term used not only against African-Americans, but also by 18th-century English colonizers of Egypt and India. Even the word “natives,” which originally meant simply the people born in a country and by extension the aboriginal inhabitants, took on heavy racist coloration as an inferior Other.

POLARIZATION: “Scientific thought” vs. “primitive belief”; “undeveloped” vs “civilized”; or “the world’s great religions” vs. “tribal superstitions,” “cults,” “idolatry” or “devil-worship.” Depending on where it was created, a sculpture could either be a “masterpiece of religious art” or an “idol,” “fetish,” or “devil.” Few people realize that “Western” scientists did not match the accuracy of ancient Maya calculations of the length of the solar year until the mid-20th century.

RENAMING: Dutch colonists called the Khoi-khoi people “Hottentots” (stutterers). Russians called the northwest Siberian Nentsy “Samoyed” (cannibals). These are blatant examples, but many nationalities are still called by unflattering names given by their enemies: “Sioux” (Lakota); “Miao” (Hmong); “Lapps” (Saami); “Basques” (Euskadi); “Eskimos” (Inuit). European names have replaced the originals in many places: Nigeria, Australia, New Caledonia, New Britain, etc. (But “Rhodesia” bit the dust, after a revolution.)

DEGRADATION OF MEANINGS: “Mumbo jumbo” has become a cliché signifying meaningless superstitions, but it comes from a Mandinke word — mama dyambo — for a ritual staff bearing the image of a female ancestor. (Look it up in any good dictionary.) “Fetish” now connotes an obsessive sexual fixation, but originated as a Portuguese interpretation of sacred West African images as “sorcery” (feitição). The holy city of Islam is often appropriated in phrases like “a Mecca for shoppers.”

DOUBLE-THINK: Conquest becomes “unification,” “pacification,””opening up,” and conquered regions are dubbed “protectorates.” The convention is to use Europe as the standard, writing texts from the viewpoint of the conquerors / colonizers. Thus, a Rajasthani rebellion against English rule was termed the “Indian Mutiny.” A peculiarity of this thinking is the tendency to refer to times of bloody invasions and enslavement with respectful nostalgia, as in “The Golden Age of Greece” and “The Glory That Was Rome,” or “How the West Was Won.” British subjugation of southern Nigeria is recast as The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.

A contributor to Men Become Civilized, edited by Trevor Cairns, explains it all to children:

“When the king of one city conquered others, he would have to make sure that all the people in all the cities knew what to do. He would have to see that they all had rules to follow, so that they would live peacefully together.”

Double-think finds ways to recast genocide as regrettable but necessary, due to failings of the people being killed, who are somehow unable to “adapt.” Distancing the agent is key here, obscuring the violence with the idea that some kind of natural process is at work: “vanishing races,” “by that time the Indians had disappeared.”

Read THE POWER OF IMAGES by Max Dashu here

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