Posted by: Kay Heffernan | December 4, 2014

Dangerous Language, Damaging Narratives: the Case of Ferguson

Here is a link to the tweet and illustration by Nicky Case (@ncasenmare) mentioned in class last night. I find this particularly relevant to the discussion we had about Wilde: the mixing, the compounding, and the reification of verbal and visual descriptors – in short, the dangers of representation.

As the Mount Holyoke community continues to respond to the Ferguson case and related ones – Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Renisha McBride, and too many others – I find myself thinking about stories, legitimacy, and truth. I think about language, imagination, fear, and power. How can dialogues about these recent events introduce, validate, and disperse alternative/non-mainstream perspectives? How can we move towards justice by shifting the normative “frame”?


  1. Thanks so much for posting this illustration, Kay. It really opens up an urgent conversation about the relationship between narrative and politics, between narrative and power and violence.

  2. Thanks for posting this, Kay. I suppose the danger of language lies in the misconstruing of truth and narrative, which in return, miseducates. In many ways, I find that the misuse of language sits at the root of our most prominent contemporary national issues. We are constantly bombarded by media (Buzzfeed, Vulture, Gawker, etc.) and that can be overwhelming in the average reader’s quest for truth. Furthermore, when journalists don’t stick to their code of ethics—when a story is not done well—it can stagnate the very topic of debate. A huge example of this would be on the catastrophe that is Rolling Stone’s article, “A Rape on Campus, A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA.” Essentially, the reporter got many, many crucial facts wrong and thus discredited the narrative of the alleged rape victim and the larger context of campus rape itself. It has set us back in regards to an issue that, in the past several years, was just beginning to move forward. Now it’s time for damage control.

    You mentioned truth, stories, and legitimacy— to push that one step further, we cannot also forget the importance of credibility, which is, ultimately, established through language. My only hope is that language—in media, protest, poetry, song, and commonplace discussion—will continue to be used responsibly in regards to Ferguson and propel America further towards action rather than push it away.

    I wanted to draw attention to another visual campaign regarding Ferguson as well as a poem that I believe beautifully captures a lot of what Ferguson embodies, as well as a responsible use of language. First, the images:

    Humans of New York (HONY)

    The poem, written by black poet Danez Smith, is paired with an extremely powerful photo from Reuters’ photojournalist Lucy Nicholson. The title is called “Not An Elegy for Mike Brown.”

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