Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

Esploitier (Revision) (5)

Sydney's picture

In Exile and Pride, Eli Clare stitches together stories and experiences from his own life in order to create a memoir about trying to understand his identity. Although tales of the destruction of a local forest and histories of freak shows do not initially sound like similar stories, Clare relates the two misfortunate events with one common word: exploitation. To Clare, the word is not a pleasant one; to him, exploitation is “pure thievery” (Clare 91).” This definition of the word appears clearly in parts of his text, yet by thoroughly analyzing his words and drawing parallels, the meaning of “exploitation” does not remain quite clear.

Clare begins his tale with a description of his childhood safeplace, the forest. He then explains that logging companies intruded his environment by cutting down numerous trees. Through this illustration, one could see that the logging companies were exploiting the land,  removing trees in order to create a useful product. This application of the word follows one of the Oxford Dictionaries’ definition: “to use something to its full (Oxford Dictionaries).” However, Clare continues his tale, explaining that his once comforting environment was becoming a place of ruin. The logging companies preyed on the ignorance of those in Clare’s town. “No one told us, and the logging industry had quite a stake in the silence” (Clare 23).” Unfortunately, this silence led to the demolition of the trees so that the workers could take from nature in order to turn a profit.

Clare experienced exploitation both without and within. As a young girl, Clare was sexually abused. This experience is painfully described with the modern meaning of the word: to “use or take advantage of another person, especially sexually, with little or no regard for their desires or pleasures (Urban Dictionary).” Clare describes his recovery as, “long periods of time uncovering the memories and working through persistent body-deep terror, grief, and confusion (Clare 35-36).” Being exploited sexually brought him not just physical pain, but severe mental suffering. He regarded his body with terror: being taken advantage of as a small, young girl, marked his body as a confusing entity.

Later in his book, Clare communicates his own  struggles with cerebral palsy through a series of histories in which  disabled individuals have been exploited, labeled as freaks, deemed as useless. He describes the freak shows that traveled the country in the early 20th century  to showcase difference. These sideshows of foreigners, women without arms, dwarfs, and other. are prime examples of exploitation: disgusting portrayals of how difference can be taken advantage of for profit.

After studying freakshows, journalist Robert Bogdan “refused to situate the people who worked the freak shows as passive victims (Clare 90).” This meaning complexifies the idea of exploitation. If those in the freak shows were passive, that implies that they accepted their roles to certain extent. However, Bogdan studied the treatment of these individuals and perceived that they were taken advantage, not complying to their harsh treatment (“Sideshow”). Instead, these individuals should have been accepted as victims, actively suffering from their positions in the freakshows. This particular understanding of the  term “to exploit” links back to the origin of the verb in the Old French word esploitier. In the fourteenth century, this  French verb meant to accomplish, achieve, or fulfill (Online Etymology Dictionary). However, in 1838, the verb was laced with a harsher meaning, “to use selfishly.” This connotation was believed to be given to describe the actions of mine owning companies and how miners were not treated fairly (Online Etymology Dictionary). Miners were often victimized adults and children, forced to work in harsh conditions with little pay (“Child Labor”). Similarly, “workers” in freak shows were treated without respect,  enslaved to a life with little pay and poor living conditions (“Side Show”). Clare gathered these histories to portray how exploiting can turn so serious that people are stripped of their dignity.

Today, freakshows would probably not be tolerated in the United States. Our society is more sensitive to people’s disabilities than it was nearly a century ago. However, if freakshows were once acceptable, when did society perceive the people in the freakshows as victims? At one point, the majority must have decided that these shows exceeded “full use” into something harsher. This illustration reveals that society decides when the word exploitation evolves from using something into taking advantage of something. Knowing this, people need to consider their actions as a whole, considering the future along with the present, and the thoughts, feelings, and livelihood of the people or how how an object relates to people  in order to avoid taking advantage of someone or something. For example, If all of the trees from Clare’s forest were removed, then the forest was used completely. However, if no trees were replanted, then the forest no longer has a use for future generations. Also, the freakshow exhibitonists neglected the livelihood of the freakshow members. Although they seem dissimilar, these two examples demonstrate how society can cause the meaning of the word exploit to evolve.

I now know that I do not like the work exploit. In society, we exploit so many. We exploit the uneducated in politics by appealing to persuade them without presenting them with all of the facts. We exploit people, both children and adults, in foreign countries to labor for us in order to have inexpensive goods. People exploit others too often; those two examples could be easily transformed into an extensive list, yet it's terrifying to think of how often and easily we allow others to be exploited. I think not being awareness of these repulsive meanings is dangerous. Through analyzing Clare’s texts, I feel responsible for more pain than I thought that I caused. This is not necessarily a bad realization. Instead, I feel that I have more power to refrain from stealing someone’s peace of mind as they search for their identity. Understanding that society is actually capable of changing what is negative exploitation is conflicting; however, I am glad that I know that I am part of a group who can expose acts of negative exploitation.