Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Bit Stuffy, Don’t You Think?

Everybody calls me by my first name. In ordinary circumstances in the 21st century, we no longer address one another as Mr. or Mrs., and even doctors become Joe or Jimmy when they’re on the golf course. My closest friends use pet names, like “Lil” instead of Lillian, my kids call me Mom, and my lovers call me darling, honey, sweetie pie, and all those lovely appellations of endearment that help me feel beautiful and loved.

So, why, if we animists are hoping to develop a closer relationship with nonhumans, do we insist on formality of address? I’m talking about the “other-than-human persons” form of address commonly used in bioregional animism and academic circles. It just seems a bit stuffy to me. It’s like using the vous form of address in French when we’re really family and should address one another as tu.

Neighbors, friends, and kinfolk all have forms of address that express congenial relationship. The convention of having students call teachers by their last names lingers for the purpose of distancing, not of drawing closer. Does it indicate respect? One would hope so, and yet, respect is no longer indicated by formality of address: I call the cop “sir” when he pulls me over because of fear, not because I respect him as a person. So, are we scared of the nonhumans? Do we seek to distance from them?

And then, there’s the issue of naming by type. If I want to indicate the group of people with whom I work, I call them “teachers” or “my colleagues” or even “the folks in my building,” not “fellow persons with whom I teach.” How awkward that sounds! Even in indicating ethnic or subculture groups, the politically correct terminology is often awkward and distancing. The African-Americans I know, for example, call themselves “Blacks” or use other informal designations.

So, what’s up with “other-than-human persons?” In our zeal to show respect, have we become so formal in our relationship that the local trees are no longer our home-boys? The deer aren’t those pesky varmints anymore? Hell, y’know that damned carpenter bee who lives above the back door? I could tell you some nasty names I’ve called him this season!

But Bee is still a “him” to me and not an it. I know that the nonhumans are all alive, intelligent, and ensouled. Of course they are, but if I live in relationship with them, I know their beauty and majesty and their annoying habits. They’re whole people, like my husband or my kids, and like those human relationships we have our ups and downs, our times of closeness and our times of distance, and we call one another by name. My tree friends call me Puny and I call them by their names, to wit, Grandmother, Beauty, West Gate, Bee Tree, Foursome, and all the others. I don’t call them “other-than-human tree persons.”

In addressing people of great power or to whom we wish to show the most formal respect, we use titles. Mr. President, Your Honor, Your Majesty, and so on. Just so, I always address Uncle Karma by his full name, and I say “Yes, Sir” when he asks me to love. Grandmother Ocean, The Creator, Green God, all those with whom I have only the most solemn and ritualistic relationship, I address by their titles and their full names. But to refer to the bunch of them as “greater-than-human persons,” again, is awkward. The ruling elite serves to name our greater-than-ordinary human persons. Gods, forces, powers, and so on, work for me to collectively address those nonhumans who are immensely greater than I am.

So, let me humbly suggest that we ditch the formality. Calling my nonhuman friends “nonhumans” or “trees” or “cloud people” hasn’t seemed to insult them any more than their calling us humans “humans” or “those selfish idiots” has insulted me. Hey, as the ancient Greeks once said, let’s call a fig a fig, ok?


masterymistery said...

the recognition that members of the species homo sapiens sapiens are not the only entities that warrant the application of the label "people" or "persons" is in my view one of the key lessons in life. Unfortunately, it's a lesson than many "people" fail to learn...

I don't believe there is such a thing AS zero consciousness/awareness. I think that a rock, for instance, has its equivalent of consciousness/awareness: it is not zero. The consciousness of a rock lies in its mere existence. That sounds ridiculous I know, but I firmly believe it to be true, though I have no means of providing it. Yet.

masterymistery at cosmic rapture

masterymistery at cosmic rapture

Anonymous said...

I agree with you Lilly about the formality of the term other-than-humans amongst like minds. However, I feel there is value to the term when addressing audiences of those who are not of like mind. Among ourselves, and with our personal use of language in our relationships with all that is and within the living world, you are absolutely right! we need to drop the formalities. The term itself came from academia in an attempt to press the underlying point they found about animism to those of more (post)colonial mindset. In that use its is a wonderful tool to challenge the status quo because it almost always demands you explain your self and start dialog and conversation with humans who are unfamiliar with animist world views.

puny human said...

Hi Mystery: It doesn't seem ridiculous to me that a rock has its own consciousness. If one needed to choose one defining characteristic of the animist reality, it's that, as you put it, there's no such thing as zero consciousness.

Fishbowl: You make an excellent point. For those humans who don't have a relationship with ANY being other than human, we first have to point out their very existence. Formal language can help with that.