The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation.
Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence…
1993 Nobel Lecture in Literature
Like many authors I dive headlong almost every day into a torrential flow of words sparkling with possibilities. I then work to extract from that linguistic flow a collective of sounds, imagery, ideas, and entire compositions capable of offering relevant reflections of the world experienced both inside and outside my own head. Such a mindful exercise in disciplined creative passion tends to focus my thoughts more on striking a balance between the unyielding clarity of prose and the seductive allusiveness of poetry than on the demands of managing a public image.
Because I give myself so wholly to the furious embrace of language on a regular basis, I rarely classify myself as a specific kind of writer. It is usually editors or readers who decide on my behalf whether I am more welcome in their world as an essayist, fiction-writer, historian, poet, or another breed of fever-driven scribbler. They provide the context in which a meeting of our minds may occur and share notes on specific facets of what it means to be in this world.
The differences between the various literary forms are obvious enough but it is not unusual for one genre, during a heated word-session, to flow at will into another. It happens much the way a dancing couple or individual might boogy-bounce nonstop from one song to the next––the rhythm calls and the soul answers.
An editor or reader also often decides which of the subjects I address––social learning, politics, spirituality, literature, sexuality, history, or something else–– best suits me, for them, as a writer. This quality of aesthetic malleability is not unprecedented in literature. It in fact shines brilliantly among the aspects that distinguish the pens of many authors celebrated around the globe. Salman Rushdie comes to mind, as does Margaret Atwood, Ben Okri, Herta Müeller, and Alice Walker.
One interesting question this poses for the 21st century is the following: how might humanity transfer such fluid adaptability from the clairvoyance of polished pages to the hearts and minds of those stuck in the belief that annihilation of life is the only solution to the more difficult dilemmas in life?
Twisted out of Context
Imagine if those rulers inclined to slaughter their own countrymen year after year chose instead to exercise greater flexibility in perspectives and freed themselves from the need to govern with such an iron-gloved fist.1 Consider the possible results of those biological families where a father or mother did not deem it necessary to degrade a child’s individual personality with physical or emotional cruelty. What else might a young man or woman become––as opposed to shredded flesh and splattered DNA–– if instead of strapping bombs to their torsos they ignited greater faith within their hearts and shined the light of that love for the full span of a full productive life?2
Or imagine this staggering idea: what kind of conversations might have gotten underway in communities worldwide if instead of kidnapping almost 300 Chibok schoolgirls in Nigeria in April 2014 (as well as many other girls and boys elsewhere before and since then) members of Boko Haram had chosen to promote their cause by building a new school superior to the one the students already inhabited?3 It is true social media would have missed out on the viral hash tag #BringBackOurGirls. But other equally-striking phrases could have taken its place:
As it was, the choice Boko Haram made destroyed the previous diplomatic efforts of individuals like Hillary Clinton and organizations such as the United Nations to refrain from attaching the polarizing label of “terrorists” to the group. 4 5 6 It also prompted Muslims around the world to note how the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau , extracted choice passages from the Holy Quran to justify its inhumane campaign and declare their actions, at most, a betrayal of modern Islam rather than a true observance of it.7
Their actions were––and as of this writing more than 100 days later remain––parallel to those individuals and organizations in American history who employed specific Biblical scripture to justify the enslavement of people of African descent, or to withhold the basic human rights of women of any race.8 In both cases, a text provided to help humanity develop its greater spiritual potential was twisted out of context. The original intent of sacred radiant wisdom gifted to the world to help people make their way past the ignorance and fear that too often mangle it, was instead served up as a feast of propaganda. Rather than nourishing minds with inspiration, it poisoned hearts with hatred, denial, and rage.
Gifts from the Earth
Have you ever noticed how closely the words community and communicate resemble each other? They are both derived from the Latin root communis, which means common, as in sharing a language known to many within a specific space or region.9 Or: sharing traits easily identifiable with one’s species or culture. There are also universal languages relayed by action or conduct. Smiles and tears, for example, communicate joy or sorrow in pretty much any language.
Centuries ago in Europe, large areas of public land were referred to as commons and villagers were allowed to let their livestock graze on them, and to plant gardens, or if a lake sat on it or a river ran through it, they could take a swim.10 It was only necessary that those using the land respect it and recognize that others had the same rights as they. Their cooperation was bound more by mutual trust than by law or ownership.
These shared public spaces could be thought of in the context of gifts from life, or from the earth, itself, because they had not been created by the hands of human beings. But more and more these common lands became privately-owned lands. What once were owned by all became the possessions of a few. People’s new understanding of it was placed within an economic context that benefitted “owners” but not so much “others.”
To this day, many people debate which is the better system because they believe something more than property or access to open fields was lost when the commons became the privately-owned.11 They came to believe the qualities of trust and integrity that made men and women something unique upon the planet had been destroyed. To them, the purpose and nature of public lands had been taken out of context and assigned a lesser meaning, a lesser function, and one which no longer inspired unity, cooperation, love, or gratitude among members of a community. What it often encouraged instead were divisions and violent conflicts that tended to carry over from one generation to the next.
If philosophers, economists, politicians, and laymen can, as noted, to this day debate the proper context in which humanity should regard something such as land, what about the context in which we regard––or disregard––human lives. Simple shifts in points of view can open doors to expansions of consciousness as easily as rigid dispositions can close hearts and minds to such elevated awareness. It generally depends on whether you allow fear and violence to rule your actions or whether you give wisdom, courage, and compassion the authority to do so.
The notion and reality of context is profoundly important because it is what gives meaning to an idea, an experience, or a life. Before their kidnapping, the lives of the students attending Nigeria’s Government Secondary Girl School in Chibok were defined by the fact that they were bravely pursuing an education in a country where many do not wish to see girls educated. Yet many others considered them heroic pioneers and representatives of a more enlightened future.12 After the abductions, they became known as victims of terrorism, symbols of institutionalized sexism, and subjects of a popular social media campaign. In one fell swoop, Boko Haram had replaced the more inspiring context of their lives with one that broke hearts on virtually every continent.
The term guerrilla decontextualization generally refers to the conscious, or subconscious, act of severely distorting an individual’s public image for the purpose of decreasing his or her perceived influence while attempting to increase one’s own or someone else’s.13 The concept arose out of an increasing practice over the past decade in which battling politicians and ambitious journalists extract fragments of recordings or videos made in private settings; they then rebroadcast them for public consumption as if the single fragment told the entire story.
Some might read the previous statement and think to themselves that politicians have always trashed each other’s reputations to win political offices. That would be true enough, but one major impact on contemporary practices has been the boom in communication technology, cable network “news” outlets, the Internet, and social media. While these have greatly benefited the lives of billions across the globe, they have also been used as savvy tools to manipulate the general public’s understanding and experience of truth.
Unfortunately, powerful examples are numerous. One of the most infamous instances occurred during the 2008 presidential campaign when Fox News re-introduced the world via guerrilla decontextualization to one Rev. Jeremiah Alvesta Wright, Jr.14 They did it by repeatedly broadcasting a 15-second video clip in which Rev. Wright had made his scandalous “Goddamn America” exclamation as part of his “Confusing God and Government” sermon made some five years previously on April 13, 2003.
The original 5,000-word sermon lasted almost an hour. While referencing the Biblical scripture Luke 19:37-44, Wright took to task half a dozen countries and cautioned world citizens not to look “to the government for that which only God can give.”15 That was the one message which anyone would NOT have gotten upon tuning into Fox News’ hourly broadcast of the 15-second video clip. Nevertheless, opponents of then presidential-candidate Barack Obama saw no problem with reducing the entirety of Rev. Wright’s distinguished career as a U.S. military veteran and public servant to a single non-definitive clip–– and by extension using the same to characterize the political and spiritual beliefs of Mr. Obama himself, who had previously attended Wright’s church.
Had the presidential candidate not been courageous enough to confront the issue head-on, the attempt to characterize him as an extremist secretly intent on destroying America’s government likely would have worked. No matter how anyone feels about the possible alternative history that may have resulted, the issue comes down to choices based on truth versus choices based on manipulated perception, i.e., guerrilla decontextualization.
Another example, in April 2014, involved a would-be political blogger who reportedly sneaked into a private nursing home to snap pictures of 72-year-old Rose Cochran, who suffers from severe dementia and is the bedridden wife of U.S. Senator Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).16 The blogger was part of a group of “conspirators” that included former tea party official and lawyer Mark Mayfield, who reportedly committed suicide following the abuse against Rose Cochran, and a few days after Senator Cochran won re-election.17
The photographs of Rose Cochran were included in a video. It was posted online but only remained there for a few hours before outcries of outrage forced it to be taken down. The conspirators’ action was not described as guerrilla decontextualization but that is very much what it was. Mrs. Cochran’s illness had nothing to do with either her husband’s political campaign or the tea party’s well-known agenda (unless guerrilla decontextualization is now an official part of that agenda). She was a woman whose family, like so many families in similar situations, was doing what they could to maintain whatever quality of life she had left.
The conspirators against Sen. Cochran dismissed her humanity as well as their own and in doing so fell into one of the biggest traps constructed by guerrilla decontextualization: the annihilation of one’s own soul. If the word soul used here sounds unnecessarily grandiloquent, replace it with conscience, spiritual integrity, ethical values, moral substance, sense of compassion, or capacity for love. They all fit and they all matter.
Holiday Letter for a Poet Gone to War
If in the midst of mannequin bombs
disemboweling pregnant insanity,
a poem of love should seduce your lips,
sing each soul-dazzling stanza
with such soft rapture an an angel might.
If your comrade’s head should explode while
you sing with such soft rapture as an angel might,
bandage your heart with thoughts of simpler things-
mowing the lawn, washing dishes,
waking up dreaming in your lover’s arms.
What can bombs know of the illuminated fields
so golden with heaven in your heart’s sacred lands?
How can bullets hope to penetrate the armor
of your soul’s endless capacity for love?
If death should suck the marrow from your bones
while you move, wash dishes,
or wake up dreaming in your lover’s arms,
remember: you were born a child of light’s wonderful secret-
you return to the beauty you have always been.
(from Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black)
Guerrilla decontextualization encompasses a range of actions, methods, and consequences which all have in common the corruption of authentic truth and value. The passage of California’s 2013 “Anti-Paparazzi Law,” designed to protect the children of public figures from dangerously overzealous photographers, testifies to the kind of havoc it generates when willfully employed by those whose sole interest seems to be in manufacturing controversy, at the expense of someone else’s pain, to sell newspapers.18 The chaos it created in the life of the iconic performing artist and philanthropist Michael Jackson, as well as in many others’ classified as “celebrities” and their children, is considered unimportant. The specific opposite of that word, “important,” is reserved for desired power and potential profits.19
Too many have come to place a lot of faith in the practice because it provides an illusion of self-empowerment and invulnerability. It is when these unsustainable illusions and delusions fade inside the glare of reality that the greater costs of guerrilla decontextualization become apparent. By that time, however, not only has a great deal of life-damaging injury already occurred, but wheels have been set in motion to cause much more.
Collective Voices and Shared Journeys
Human beings, in a sense, may be thought of as multidimensional creatures composed of such poetic considerations as the individual need for self-realization, subdued passions for overwhelming beauty, and a hunger for meaning beyond the flavors that enter and exit the physical body. A person might even be described as a self-contained multiverse. The difference is this: instead of an unfolding expansion of star systems, galaxies, black holes, and antimatter, ours is an evolving schematic of bristling neurons, pulsing heated blood, stubborn bone, persistent sinew, and seeded dreams infused with divine inclinations.
However: most people prefer the more simplistic label of a single category––or context–– based on something such as a profession, sexual preference, nationality, or family connection. For that reason I am often intrigued to discover which of my literary aspects––or possibly personas might be a more interesting term–– stand out the most in the minds of different readers.
In the book Journey through the Power of the Rainbow, Quotations from a Life Made Out of Poetry, I note that different excerpts from my writings have been utilized by assorted individuals (yes, some are “celebrities”) and organizations for their specific political, social, or spiritual needs.20 The publication of the book was prompted only in part by practitioners of guerrilla decontextualization who had paired the quotes in it with offensive images and unauthorized commercial advertisements, or even used them to create products for which there were never any established agreements.
It was also published to allow myself and others to stand in stronger solidarity with those relentlessly trampled by injustice, oppression, and more interior psychological demons of one kind or another, and who genuinely needed the assistance of additional voices to help intensify the volume, clarity, and context of their own. Providing such assistance is in fact one of the main reasons I began writing with any sense of mindfulness in the first place.
The regressive issues humanity continues to address in this second decade of the New Millennium are many, and therefore require collective voices to confront them: the persistence of human trafficking in a technologically advanced world, striking the right balance between personal freedom and civic responsibility, “war and rumors of war,” environmental sustainability, political chaos, correcting the antagonistic anachronistic inequality between the sexes, and adjusting to the irreversible evolution of cultural and racial demographics.
What good is the ink of a pen in this digitally-defined 21st century if not offered in service to replace the skull-exploding impact of bombs, bullets, and varying forms of psychological mayhem? An offering, however, no matter how sincere, divine, or ingenious it may be, can only make a substantial difference if it is accepted with the same authentic hope with which it is given.
Such acceptance requires what is sometimes referred to in literature as a suspension of disbelief. In the technical academic sense, it means setting aside your awareness of literal truths, or known facts, for the purpose of accepting those constructed truths presented within a literary fictional narrative. In the real-time off-the-page world, it means foregoing the kinds of arrogance and delusion that convinces an individual, or a group or a nation, that it is ok to annihilate, maim, or otherwise compromise another person’s life for any reason at all. It means we can afford to take the time to find better ways to confront grievances, resolve differences, and create more life-enhancing contexts in which to share and honor our common humanity.
© July 23, 2014: Aberjhani; Savannah, GA, USA
author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
and The River of Winged Dreams
i Natasha M. Ezrow and Erica Frantz, Dictators and Dictatorships: Understanding Authoritarian Regimes and Their Leaders (London, UK: A&C Black Pub, 2011), pp xiii, 119, 217, 220
ii A. Christian Van Gorder, Islam, Peace and Social Justice: A Christian Perspective (Cambridge, UK: James Clark & Co. Pub, 2014) pp. 40-47
iii Charlotte Alter, “New Boko Haram Video Appears to Show Kidnapped Nigerian Schoolgirls” Time Magazine, May 12, 2014 time.com/95932/boko-haram-video-nigeria-kidnapped-girls/
iv Josh Rogin, “Hillary’s State Department Refused to Brand Boko Haram as Terrorists” The Daily Beast, May 7, 2014 www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/05/07/hillary-s-state-departm…
v David Francis, “Why Hillary Clinton was Right On Boko Haram” The Fiscal Times, May 18, 2014 www.thefiscaltimes.com/Articles/2014/05/18/Why-Hillary-Clinton-Wa…
vi Colin Schultz, “The UN Security Council Just Officially Labeled Boko Haram Terrorists And Tied the Group to Al Qaeda” Smithsonian Magazine, May 23, 2014 www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/un-security-council-just-offici…
vii Gholamali Khoshroo, “Taking Schoolgirls into Slavery, Sign of Boko Haram’s Profound Ignorance of Islam” Iran Review, May 14, 2014 www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Taking-Schoolgirls-into-Slav…
viii Dorothy Schneider and Carl J. Schneider, An Eyewitness History of Slavery in America: From Colonial Times to the Civil War (New York: Facts on File Checkmark Books, 2001), pp. 93, 107
ix Adrian Room, Cassell’s Dictionary of World Histories (London: Cassell & Company, 2002) pp. 123, 124
x Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics: Money, Gift & Society in the Age of Transition (Berkeley: Evolver Editions, 2011), pp. 57, 69-71
xi Tim Swineheart, “The Real History of the Commons and Today’s Environmental Crisis” Utne Reader Magazine, May/June 2013 http://www.utne.com/environment/history-of-the-commons-zm0z13mjzbla.aspx…
xii Janice Jiggins, Changing the Boundaries: Women-Centered Perspectives on Population and the Environment (Google e-Books: Island Press, 2013), chaps. 6, 7
xiii Aberjhani, “Putting Text and Meaning to the Guerrilla Decontextualization Test” National African-American Examiner Column, Jan 5, 2014, www.examiner.com/article/putting-text-and-meaning-to-the-guerrill…
xiv Aberjhani, “Guerrilla Decontextualization and the 2012 Presidential Election Campaign” Part 1, National African-American Art Examiner Column, July 29, 2012 www.examiner.com/article/guerrilla-decontextualization-and-the-20…
xvi Associated Press and CBS News, “Blogger Accused of Exploiting Sen. Thad Cochran’s Ailing Wife” CBS News, May 18, 2014 http://www.cbsnews.com/news/blogger-accused-of-exploiting-sen-thad-cochr…
xvii Scott Kaufman, “MS Tea Partier Who Conspired to Photograph Sen. Cochran’s Wife Commits Suicide” The Raw Story, June 27, 2014 www.rawstory.com/rs/2014/06/27/ms-tea-partier-who-conspired-to-ph…
xviii Laura Olson, “Paparazzi Bill Passes in California, Protecting Children of Public Figures” Associated Press and Huffington Post, Sept 24, 2013 www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/25/paparazzi-bill-passes_n_3991404…
xix Aberjhani, “Guerrilla Decontextualization and King of Pop Michael Jackson” Guerrilla Decontextualization website, Aug 26, 2012 www.guerrilla-decontextualization.net/1/post/2012/08/guerrilla-de…
xx Aberjhani, “This Is Why Hip-Hop Icons Like LL Cool J Tweet Positive Quotes” The Journey and the Rainbow: Inside the Wisdom of the Rainbow Blog, April 21, 2013 the-journey-and-the-rainbow.weebly.com/blog-inside-the-wisdom-of-…
Creative Flexibility and Annihilated Lives is sharing publication with the Voices Education Compassion Project at this link voiceseducation.org/node/7863
Aberjhani is a member of PEN American Center and the Academy of American Poets, and a native of Savannah, Georgia. He received the Choice Academic Title Award for Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (Fact on File/Infobase Publishing) and numerous other honors for works in journalism, poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction. He is also a recipient of the 2011 Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait VIP Dot Award.
In 2007, he founded the online Creative Thinkers International community to help promote nonviolent conflict resolution in the aftermath of 9/11 and to encourage camaraderie among creative artists and cultural representatives across the globe. He established a forum in support of the Charter for Compassion on the website in 2013 and signed the charter on January 1, 2014. His works-in-progress include the reference book, Journey through the Power of the Rainbow, Quotations from a Life Made out of Poetry, slated for publication this spring: Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind, a book of essays on culture and history in Savannah, Georgia; and The Boy with the Guerrilla Decontextualized Face, on the rampant practice of utilizing partial truths to distort larger public realities and the various dangerous consequences of the same. He may be contacted through his website, Bright Skylark Literary Productions www.author-poet-aberjhani.info/ .
*Editors Note: For more examples and information about “Guerilla Decontextualization” and Aberjhani’s definition see: www.guerrilla-decontextualization.net/