What is Freedom?: The Importance of Language

Freedom to express one’s identity is an important goal for society, and often one thinks of this freedom in terms of freedom of action- to do what one pleases. However, freedom in action requires freedom in language: creating a language with vocabulary that allows for change, so that new ideas and nuances in identities can enter discourse and can thus be accepted. In Tristan Taormino’s case, it is the vocabulary of “sex-positive” thinking coined to contrast with and highlight the “sex negative” thinking in today’s society that allows us to  grasp both her position and society’s in relation to sex and lifestyle. In Ellen Samuels’ work, when she discusses the search for acceptance for those with nonvisible disabilities, she must give examples of people with these disabilities (237-239). These descriptions insert this term into the vocabulary of her reader, who can only then understand a person with a “nonvisible disability” and their struggles. Samuels writes that, “In the dominant cultural discourse,… certain assumptions about the correlation between appearance and identity have resulted in an often exclusive focus on visibility as both the basis of community and the means of enacting social change” (244). If things are continually labeled by how we see them, without a coining of new terms or vocabularies to highlight those differences that may be unseen, people may continue to hide, and thus feel ashamed of, portions of their identity. Samuels describes how sexologists who categorized lesbianism struggled with “femmes,” as they stood outside the “butch” lesbian classification (245). The rigidity in labeling lesbians as “butch” created a conflict for the identity of “femme” lesbians. Thus, leaving room in language to grow and allowing definitions to be flexible, could allow for real freedom in how people can express their own and accept others’ identities.

Samuels, Ellen Jean. “My Body, My Closet: Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming-Out Discourse.”

Taormino, Tristan. Class Lecture.

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One Response to What is Freedom?: The Importance of Language

  1. eliseamitchell says:

    I agree that language is extremely important for one to express their own identity and accept others’ identities. However, your post raises questions for me about access to the language and about voice. Samuels develops a language to talk about disability, however she is in an academic setting. Can her language be heard outside of that setting? Is it even legible outside of that setting? In many ways I think your answer to the question “What is Freedom?” relates to another big question, “What is privilege?” While I commend Samuels and Taormino for developing new discourses, I am frustrated that these discourses are rarely made accessible to people without privilege. How can someone from a socially conservative community or someone without access to a high quality education learn Samuels’ language? How can someone who has not been exposed to feminism learn Taormino’s language?

    In addition, there is the problem of voice. What happens when voices are silenced in certain communities. For example Taormino talked about how people in the porn industry are rarely allowed to talk to people under the age of 18, even if they are only interested in promoting sex positive sex education. In this way Taormino’s voice is silenced. In our class discussion that day many of our classmates shared their experiences with sex education, which most often tried to instill the fear of pregnancy and STIs or promoted abstinence. Sex positive language is not allowed in those spaces. Even if someone has the language with which to talk about it their voice is silenced, rendering the language useless.

    The same goes for Samuels language. One of the ways homophobia perpetuates itself in certain communities is through silence around the topic. Even when people have the language to discuss those kinds of identities and the intricacies of them, they are denied that opportunity by other members of their community. Sometimes when people refuse to accept this silence, they are met with more coercive methods of restriction, including violence.

    Samuels, Ellen Jean. “My Body, My Closet: Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming-Out Discourse.”
    Taormino, Tristan. Class Lecture.

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