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Violating Language

sara.gladwin's picture

Sara Gladwin

Critical Feminist Studies Final Paper

Anne Dalke



Violating Language

As I was reading a chapter in the book “Feminism is for Everybody” by Bell Hooks, I became inspired to start thinking about the ways in which language was used in the classroom and what effect changing that dialogue would have on classroom experience. I became interested in exploring how language could be used to alter the classroom to become a more inclusive place, where silenced voices are able to have the opportunity to be heard.  Hopefully I could find a way that the classroom could validate students experiences instead of conditioning students to filter out certain parts of their lives from the classroom.

In “Feminism is for Everybody,” Bell Hooks has a chapter in which she describes her no tolerance policy toward violence of any kind- whether it be through physical force or language. Children learn to accept and normalize certain types of violence through their parents: “A mother who might never be violent but who teaches her children especially her songs, that violence is an acceptable means of exerting social control, is still in collusion with patriarchal violence.” (Bell Hooks 64). She acknowledges her difference in thinking from current feminist ideologies. “Significantly I am among those rare feminist theorists who believe that it is crucial for feminist movement to have as an overriding agenda ending all forms of violence” (Bell Hooks 62). However, as I was reading I found her tone and language itself to be “violent. “ The word violent is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “Of things: Having some quality or qualities in such a degree as to produce a very marked or powerful effect (esp. in the way of injury or discomfort); intense, vehement, very strong or severe.” So violent language will have a strong effect on the listener. The word that stands out in this definition is “discomfort.” When I refer to language as being violent, I mean that the way in which the language is used toward a person is able to do violence to the mind of that person. It is language that is not concerned with being “too confrontational” or making others uncomfortable. It has the ability to force people to confront and reassess their identities and perspectives. Language that can push a just person past their comfort zone can possibly open the doorway for a new and different kind of learning experience, one that does not perpetuate the conventions of society and oppressive power structures.

Bell Hooks is unapologetically and purposefully direct in way that almost seems abrasive. The book title, “Feminism is for Everybody,” does not mean that feminism includes everyone; instead it means that there is only one kind of right feminism, and it’s the one people not only should but need to adopt. When describing the solution to a mother who inadvertently teaches her children to be desensitized toward violence, she asserts, “Her thinking must be changed” (64). Bell Hooks is adamant that this forcefulness is necessary to change the cycle of violence.  Initially, I was concerned with her aggressive language; I was uncomfortable when I felt like I was being told what I should believe in as a feminist. While her language did not seem entirely violent in my mind, it still felt aggressive. There are several definitions of aggressive in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Of or pertaining to aggression; of attack; offensive,” “Tending or disposed to attack others,” and “Self-assertive, pushful; energetic, enterprising.” The first and last definitions appear to describe Bell Hooks language the most accurately as aggressive language.

I still don’t know if I completely agree with aggressive language as a sole means of communicating and learning. However, I began to see potential value in a kind of violent language, one that would have the power to require those who encounter it to step outside their comfort zone and cast a critical eye on their surroundings.  I chose to use the word violating to describe the language instead of violent for several reasons. The first reason is that violate is a verb and suggests direction; movement. It has a connotation of being forceful and intrusive.  The meaning of violate in the Oxford English Dictionary is “to break, infringe, or transgress unjustifiably; to fail duly to keep or observe.” This definition is aligned with my vision of language that can push or move people; has the ability to change their thinking. The movement also suggests an end to the rigidity of particular structures that we uphold in the classroom. Other definitions included, “to do violence to” and “to interrupt or disturb,” both which also suggest that language that violates is a form of violence.

The second reason is that it can encompass other forms of language, which I previously use to describe Bell Hooks’ text, such as aggressive language or violent language. Both aggressive language and violent language can be violating to a listener. As a result, the phrase “violating language” takes on a dual function. It has the ability to be inclusive of meanings, interpretations and associations, while still possessing a particular direct and forceful nature. However, it is not confined to either of these functions. I use the term violating language as opposed to solely relying on violent language or aggressive language because I feel it is a more encompassing term; it involves any language that desires to push past boundaries. While both aggressive language and violent language seek to do this, they do so to different degrees and in varying ways. I would describe Bell Hook’s “Feminism is for Everybody” as aggressive but not necessarily violent. Aggression and Violence have differences within the context of language; while aggression attempts to unsettle conventional notions and limits, violent language more often can push past boundaries. Violent language can only truly be manifested by language that is so disruptive it forces one to re-assess his or her entire identity and reality.

As I thought more about violating language, I eventually had to ask whether or not it could serve a purpose inside the classroom. Can language that violates actually help us learn?  What potential does it have as an educational tool? To answer some of these questions I looked to another book by Bell Hooks, “Teaching to Transgress,” which focuses on essays about education. In particular, one of her chapters focuses on language and another on class difference within the classroom. Both share common ideologies however, and Bell Hooks asserts that the classroom can perpetuate power structures that are used to silence voices of the marginalized. Hooks sees her commitment to learning itself as an anti-racist act to counteract white hegemonic power. She designs a classroom that adapts to become a confrontational space, in which students are encouraged to speak in their own languages and from their own experiences. “In the classroom setting, I encourage students to use their first language and translate it so they do not feel that seeking higher education will necessarily estrange them from that language and culture they know most intimately.” (172).

Language is a very important component of Hook’s classroom experience. “In both cases, the rupture of standard English enabled and enables rebellion and resistance. By transforming the oppressor’s language, making a culture of resistance, black people created an intimate speech that could say far more than was permissible within the boundaries of standard English”  (Bell Hooks 171).  Bell Hooks discusses different types of speech that are shut out of the classroom. Certain slang, colloquial or ethnic speech is filtered through and eliminated because it is perceived as exclusive as it cannot always be understood by everyone.  

“It is evident that we must change conventional ways of thinking about language, creating spaces where diverse voices can speak in words other than English or in broken, vernacular speech. This means that at a lecture or even in a written work there will be fragments of speech that may or may not be accessible to every individual. Shifting how we think about language and how we use it necessarily alters how we know what we know… I suggest that we do not necessarily need to hear and know what is stated in its entirety, that we do not need to “master” or conquer the narrative as a whole, that we may know in fragments….” Hooks stresses that the most important part of the learning experience is not that we understand everything but only pieces and that this is central to how we learn. If we were able to access and understand everything in its entirety, there might not be a reason to learn from one another. However, having different points of view encourages a diverse, more inclusive conceptualization of classroom learning.

The idea that the classroom can be a violating place is most likely extremely uncomfortable for many people. Classroom experience is often perceived as separate from everyday life.  Bell Hooks, in her chapter “Confronting Class in the Classroom,” discusses the ways that “Bourgeois values” dominate the class atmosphere and how this has continually silenced the voices of those who do not share the same values.  “…all possibility of constructive dialogue is undermined.” (179).  While the classroom is generally viewed as a democratic and fair environment, it actually perpetuates the same patriarchal power structures that are designed to elevate certain people and subdue others. Students who have had the advantages of class privilege fit into the right model of classroom, while other students who are not necessarily of the same background sometimes are unable to fit into the small, neat box that these power structures reinforce. Bell Hooks argues for some of her classroom tactics in which she desires that each voice is present and heard in the classroom. “A distinction must be made between a shallow emphasis on coming to voice, which wrongly suggests there can be some democratization of voice wherein everyone’s words will be given equal time and be seen as equally valuable (often the model applied in feminist classrooms), and the more complex recognition of the uniqueness of each voice and a willingness to create spaces in the classroom where all voices can be heard because all students are free to speak, knowing their presence will be recognized and valued” (186).

 While I agree with the theory behind this exercise that Hook’s writes about, I question using it as a sole way of hearing everyone’s voice; not everyone’s real voice is best heard through this exercise. The classroom must be able to accommodate the many ways in which a voice best is heard- even if that does not necessarily include speaking. Some students are better at speaking, some are better at writing papers. But some students are better at communicating through drawing, or writing poetry, or through teaching others. There are multiple ways of communicating and they are not limited to solely the words that come out of our mouths. Through these methods however, Bell Hooks attempts to break down the barriers created by class difference in the classroom. Not only can violating language be useful for breaking down these barriers, but it also can allow for a more meaningful, impassioned class experience.  The classroom should not have to be a place in which students are encouraged to be passive about what and how they learn. A classroom that includes a violating experience opens students up not only to deeper learning but to vulnerability as well. Students would be subjected to being changed and moved by the classroom in a powerful way- one that can even be painful or hurtful. The nature of language that violates is that it is not comfortable. Why should we open ourselves up to this? The classroom then becomes not just an education endeavor and investment but an emotional investment as well. Learning would be able to not only engage other voices excluded by traditional academia, but support them. The only way to do this is to blend classroom experiences with life experiences. Why were these two separate to begin with?

            Another aspect of Bell Hook’s argument I was wary of are her views about loud discussions inside the classroom. She emphasizes that power itself is not negative but power that is used as a tool of oppression is. Power that mimics a patriarchy or conventional structure is damaging to the mutual learning of every student in the classroom (187). I wondered what changing the language of the classroom would result in, and whether or not the structural barriers that language perpetuates could actually be changed or would they simply be reformed under new rules and new conventions? Does take away some of the falseness, the contrived image of how a person should be when communicating to others? The niceties, the emphasis on polite speech and the intended, conventional trajectories of social interactions all could fall away. At first, I was apply this theory to the Internet, a place where different types of learning has definitely taken place for many users and has seemingly broken down some of these social conventions as well. People can post anything, saying almost anything and get away with so much more. However, the more I considered it, the more I came to understand that the Internet just another place were people have constructed new rules, new guidelines, on the basis and guise that there are no rules to follow. While the same norms do not apply, there are still basic guidelines to “Internet conduct” that can be problematic toward the way we treat one another. Tumblr is a blogging community where many of its’ members follow particular archetypes. When people refuse to follow it is allowable to accost them with language. It appears as though this can also be dangerous for how we learn. There is also the potential for argumentative language to be unable to move students forward to a new place of learning.

She also talks about fear of losing control in the classroom. But why is that fear so dominating?  Why is it “right” that the professor have total control in the classroom; why is this a permeating fear for us? In my eyes as long as professors are still in charge of grades they will always be in charge, as long as teachers have standards of measurement for judging students there will always be hierarchical structures within the classroom (188).

Thinking about violating language in action brought me back around again to my initial readings of “Feminism is for Everybody.” I wondered if my own feelings of discomfort while reading the article could be a space where I too could learn and if so, what was I learning from this article? By reading “Feminism is for Everybody” I think I broadened my understanding of current feminist vision for language and was able to see the value of forceful, “violating” language. It’s ability to make a difference in how we communicate now seems not only relevant to how we should start to change the classroom experience but necessary.

Another aspect to this way of learning is its ability to change the way language is used and how students interact. There is merit to confrontational speech, but I also see value in questioning and allowing for openness in the classroom. Both direct speech and more open language can have a place and function inside the classroom in helping students to grow and think critically.

I want to further explore the potential for violating language to have a powerful effect on the thinking of students inside the classroom. This language may be used as a tool for learning where the listener is required to change their thinking upon opening themselves up to listen.  This language that violates may or may not be useful to learning. It may have the capacity to effect true change in a student and how that person thinks about the world. Instead of learning to shy away from language that is not able to be understood, this language can be embraced.

If we are careful enough language can both break down conventional structures of speech in the classroom and push people to the space just beyond their comfort zone where learning can take place. “Pedagogically, I encouraged them to think of the moment of not understanding what someone says as a space to learn.” The idea is that the student would learn what you don’t know but what you do not understand.


Works Cited

Hooks, Bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Hooks, Bell. Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge, MA: South End, 2000. Print.

"Welcome to the New OED Online." : Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 14 May 2012. <>.