“The peasants had no choice…”

Talkin’ about the Revolution here. That would be the French Revolution. This from a student in my Capstone Seminar “Justice and the Disenfranchised,” many years ago.

The comment as a whole suffers not so much from inaccuracy as from the invasion of jargon, or what I (and probably others) call “pop-talk.” Here it is, for your possible pleasure:

“The peasants had no choice but to react with violence. They were suffering, angry, and frustrated. At that time, there was no other way to raise the consciousness of the aristocrats.”

Nowadays, there are other consciousness-raising techniques, heaven knows—some legal, some illegal. I like to think about all those aristocratic heads that might have stayed on their necks if only a few princes and duchesses had toked up or turned on with the people, or spent some time in therapy, or engaged in some of those trust-building exercises so popular Back In The Day.

But I don’t think my student had any of those in mind as a form of communication with those in power. I believe he was actually thinking about voting, which is the alternative to violence when the people want a change in government. But voting isn’t aimed at raising politicians’ consciousness; it’s aimed at putting (or keeping) the good guys in and throwing the bums out.

Energizing voters and awakening the government can also be accomplished by non-violent means, as Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., showed, as did much of the multi-purposed demonstrating of the ‘Sixties and, today, the Occupy/99% movement.

Will the congressional consciousness be raised?

I’m sure that if the ready-made phrase “raise the consciousness” hadn’t been available to my student, he would have come up with words better suited to his purpose. The worst thing about pop-talk is that it doesn’t supplement the vocabulary; it alters it, replacing perfectly good (and usually more precise) terminology with a word or phrase that sounds much more hip (because everyone cool is saying it) and probably is less precise.

I remember when one of my deans discovered the term “input,” at that time just crossing over from the still-young world of computers into the general population. He raised an issue at a faculty meeting and then invited everyone to “send me your input.” And we asked one another afterward, Does he want our opinion or assessment of the issue? our critique of his presentation of the issue? our suggestions for resolving the issue? complaints? sympathy? supporting or clarifying evidence? alternative issues? sartorial recommendations for his next public discussion of the issue? candy?

Similarly, the student who criticized a man who “did not act as a good parental unit in guiding his son” turned a human being into a concept, or possibly a robot; and I think expecting  a concept or robot to be a good guide for a young person is unfair. Why she couldn’t have stopped at “parent” instead of letting the pop-talk flow, I can’t say. Probably neither could she. Like the auto-correct feature in Word and texting programs, the machine takes over—not always accurately, but so swiftly and smoothly that the writer doesn’t even notice.

One thing I know: raising the consciousness of someone whose head you are in the process of removing is a waste of time. I’m not even sure it goes very far to encourager les autres.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

One response to ““The peasants had no choice…”

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    Phil and I were just talking about Vaux le Vicomte. It’s been in the news lately. The owner is finding various ways to use the estate in order to get the funds needed for its upkeep. This is the estate that Fouquet built, at an unbelievable cost, then had the foolishness to invite Louis XIV to come and feast there, along with a cast of thousands. Louis took one look at all the magnificence, and arrested Fouquet for stealing money from the state. How else could he have built such a thing? Then, Louis stole the furnishings of the chateau, the exotic trees planted around it, and all the craftsmen and artists who produced this place, and installed them at Versailles to transform the little town into his showplace.
    Why all this info.? Because Phil and I were talking about how amazing it is that so many royals and aristocrats still have so much wealth and property. We can see WHY the French Revolution took place, but there’s a lot of evidence in this world that it didn’t work!
    For the record, we are not advocating violent anything, nor confiscatory anything. We’re just saying, privilege is still deeply embedded in our society. Vive La Meritocracy! But, Diane von Furstenberg is still using her first husband’s name and title because he was a prince.

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