We are talking about some early chapters in the text on language, meaning, and definition, and as usual the discussion turned to their relevant experience, providing excellent examples that help apply, refine, and illuminate the concepts. I am struck as ever by the intense level of engagement of this group, and their pleasure from learning, from thinking, really, and sharing ideas. They ended up rejecting the book’s simplistic distinction between the descriptive and evaluative functions of language in favor of something more like a continuum, and came up with tons of examples of not obviously emotive language that nevertheless did far more than objectively describe (or name): for starters (and please imagine quotation marks around all of these words and expressions): guard vs. CO; inmate, prisoner, offender, convict, felon; gay marriage vs marriage equality; illegal immigrant, alien, and undocumented.
And we spent a lot of time on the use of sex and gender specific language, and unpacked the recent phenomenon of making explicit e.g. she, her hers, and what adopting that practice reflects and advances our views about sex and gender, about the public presentation of and response to it, about our problematic judgments and presumptions. One inmate: A whole world is contained in that string! One young man who has been in prison for seven years (yesterday was the actual day of the anniversary) was particularly struck by the changes in language around sexual orientation, what the ever changing world of trans language and politics means for our conception of male and female. His confinement — and highly mediated access to information — during this period of great social change on this front made me think about how small changes over a shortish matter of years can throw us into what seems to someone outside of them a dramatically different conceptual landscape. And so it is. I asked them to think about how our thinking and practices would be different if we had three categories for sex rather than two (and, harder still to conceptualize, if the third one were not defined solely in contrast to the binary).
And then there was wholly new to me different and revealing ways new inmates choose to identify the crimes they are in for. Someone who cops to having caught a body is not new to the system and — well, this is probably obvious — wants everyone to know about his hard indifference to his victim’s humanity. But not everyone uses that language, ever, and those who report their conviction as murder, also give the degree.
Some serious business, some great thinking. And, as ever, big fun and a lot of laughter.