Saturday, December 19, 2009

Yankee Doodle, Lorena Bobbitt and Labeling

Yankee Doodle is widely known as an upbeat song of the American Revolution. There are many versions to it, as well as verses. Originally, it started out as a derisive song, adapted from an English folk tune that poked fun at American freedom fighters. Yankee was coined as a derisive term for Americans and "Doodle" was a term for a simpleton. As the tide turned in the American revolution, the song was adapted as a defiant badge of honour by American fighters.

I experienced this phenomenon of a label of derision being turned inside out 16 years ago when John and Lorena Bobbitt made the news when Lorena Bobbitt, tired of abusive treatment from her husband, cut off his fifth appendage, which in a miracle of medical expertise was reattached to good enough effect to see him through two additional marriages and star roles in two porn flicks.

My coworkers in the factory where I was employed included quite a few Ecuadorians, who taught me a bit of Guayaquil street slang and Quechua profanity. One day at lunch we were talking about John and Lorena. I mentioned that she was Ecuadorian. The first reaction was disbelief and then denial. An Ecuadorian woman would not, according to them treat a man like that. Very quickly, when the news became common knowledge, they reframed the story. Lorena, the downtrodden Ecuadorian woman had taken revenge against her Yankee tormentor. Instead of denying Lorena Bobbitt's Ecuadorian origins, they expressed raucous pride in Lorena's bloody deed. The best I could manage as a comeback was a lame joke about Lorena losing her driver's license for cutting someone off.

The Lorena Bobbitt episode was a valuable lesson in how people can turn something pejorative into a badge of pride. When people put labels on each other, it reduces dialogue to sign waving and to flag displays. It doesn't change anyone's minds and simply results in the formation of ideological encampments. "Liberal" , "Bible thumper", "appeaser" and "war monger are among the epithets that short circuit the thinking process in much the same way as does profanity. When one stops using profanity, one is more descriptive of one's feelings in a way that facilitates communication. The same happens when one articulates concepts instead of trading dismissive labels.

There is a place for labels and symbols. In elections, after having made one's case, a party symbol might help a voter find the candidate they have decided upon. In countries with a high rate of illiteracy, this can be critical. Beyond this, dismissive labeling should be avoided and replaced with the exchange of ideas and concepts that distinguishes us as human. Sphere: Related Content

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