The temptation to repeat

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Monday, November 19th, 2012
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Harold A Maio, 75, is retired from teaching German and mental health editing, though he keeps a hand in both. Through art and German he has a lasting interest in expression, particularly in language. To him word is art, he likes to discern the meaning in word.

Harold speaks to Newry Times this week about the temptation to repeat.

Harold A Maio

I struggle to recognize when I am being led and when I am following, and of course the reasons for doing either. I struggle to understand whom people follow and why without carefully examining that whom.

I received a letter from an editor stating he was not responsible for the words on his page, they were a press release. ( He was being led.) I regularly receive e-mails from editors and reporters that they do not change quotes, it is unethical to do so.

In each instance I respond,“It is your page, whatever appears on that page was edited there by you.” Those words are your responsibility. Our words are our responsibility.

Of course editors, reporters do not change quotes, editors, reporters choose quotes. In doing so one’s choice reflect one’s beliefs, unless the quote has been chosen critically, to expose a prejudice, or a questionable belief.

We each of us edit observations into our own minds, sometimes uncritically, unexamined. But only sometimes. Generally we are aware, we choose carefully. Only sometimes we allow ourselves to be led, not actually choose, but accept, accede.

For much of my life I acceded to ideas without being aware I was doing so. My responses were too often automatic, I simply repeated many prejudices, half truths, around me, I parroted them. In midlife I began to carefully examine my choices. I began to make disciplined choices. Today I examine carefully what I choose, what I repeat.

I do not let words lead me, I attempt to lead instead. It is no easy task, there is much around me tempting me to repeat.

A few days ago I received a letter from a prestigious US newspaper, telling me the next time I saw “the” mentally ill in his paper to let him know. It is a very large paper, no single person can know each word that appears. From the Ombudsman of another I received a letter, we have a new editor. maybe he will make the change.

And from a columnist for a nationally known paper, in response to judges claiming a “the” mentally ill,” I know what they meant, what they said is not important. If you cannot imagine that response, neither can I.

“The” mentally ill, unexamined, has replaced other examples of that form, “the” Jews,”the” Blacks, there is along list of irresponsible examples. .

I examine words, phrases people repeat, as well as their origins. The origins are sometimes difficult to trace. The play, “Blue/Orange” by Joe Penhall is currently being staged in Scotland. It is a three person play. One is a person who may or may not have schizophrenia, the two others are psychiatrists, one younger, one older.

Each is struggling over the power to define, three men wrestling with definition. It is not an unusual struggle, nor is the setting unusual. I have not seen the play, have only read it, and envy anyone who has the opportunity to see it staged. Three men wrestling with definition, classical drama.

The older psychiatrist has one view, the younger one another, and the person who may or may not have schizophrenia another. He is cast as “Black,” for Joe Penhall’s  inspiration for the play actually was a person of African descent.

To universalize the play, substitute any other players, two men and one woman for example arguing over the role, definition of women. Two women arguing over the definition of women with a third. Two politicians and one citizen, two people with any view of the third.

In the end we each have to decide who holds the power to define us. I believe it eventually it rests in the hands of the individual. Erving Goffman, Canadian sociologist, wrote a book about “spoiled personalities.”

In it he makes the argument that society defines and marginalizes those it considers “spoiled.” He was widely read, and widely repeated. We, of course, disagree. As in the Penhall play, no one takes from me self definition.

Though society may well deprive me of the trappings of self definition, I define myself. I have the power to self define. People have that power. Sometimes it is a struggle to establish it.

It has been for me. It has taken years.


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