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8435: Corbett responds to Coates on the ENGLISH spelling of the name of the Haitian religion

>From Bob Corbett

I must disagree with Carrol Coates with whom I am normally not only in
agreement, but to whom I often go for information and help.  However,
we're back on the issue of the ENGLISH spelling of the name of the
religion of Haiti, and on this point we disagree.

Carrol raises two arguments:

	-- the name of a religion is a proper name and as such it should
		be capitalized.
	-- the preferred spelling IN ENGLISH in Vodou because that is the
		official HAITIAN spelling.

The arguments I am addressing are the spelling of the Haitian religion in
English, not in Haitian Creole.  I think Carrol and I are in no
disagreement about the spelling in Haitian Creole.

The first argument is certainly true and one of my own campaigns has been
to get people to recognize this fact.  I spell the religion's name Voodoo.
Since voodoo if often written by people who know English grammar well one
can assume they are not making a simple grammatical mistake.  Rather,
spelling the religion as voodoo strongly suggests that they do not see it
as a religion.  There is a sense of the word in English which does not
refer to the religion, but to a practice of magic.

In the same sense that we write "black magic," "witchcraft" and other such
words often properly with small letters they do not refer to a religion,
but a folk practice. I've noticed (with great approval) some of the
experts of Haitian Voodoo on this list writing voodoo with a small "v"
when talking not about the religion, but about certain practices which are
often referred to by folks loosely as related to the religion when these
commentators don't see these practices as related to the religion at all.

Thus on the issue of using a capital "V" (no matter what letters then
follow), I would argue that when one is referring to the religion of Haiti
a capital "V" is demanded by the standard rules of English grammar and to
fail to do so when referring to the religion is either mistaken grammar,
or a stand that the practice is not a religion -- which I would then argue
is a completely mistaken assumption.

I think Carrol and I would be in agreement on this issue.

But, are there practices in Haiti (or elsewhere) which are referred to as
voodoo practices which are not part of the religion and thus should not
carry the capital first letter signifying the name of the religion?  I
believe there are.

The only example I can think of right at the moment isn't a very good one,
but we do have the common adjective "catholic" to mean the same thing as
universal as in the phrase, "she has catholic tastes in literature."  The
parallels are not exactly alike there since one doesn't confuse "catholic
tastes" with things to do with the Catholic religion, whereas the
Voodoo/voodoo usage does carry that confusion.

Our major difference however, is on what follows the "V" when speaking or
writing English about the religion of Haiti.  I use and prefer Voodoo,
Carrol uses and prefers Vodou.

Vodou is for me a word in Haitian Creole and in the rare cases when I'm
writing (badly) in Haitian Creole I use the word Vodou.  When I write in
English I use the standard English spelling of long-standing.  It is not
the word in Haitian Creole I'm quite aware of that.  When I write home
from here in (English words) VIENNA, AUSTRIA, I would not think of writing
to my English language friends that I live in Wien, Osterreich.  But
that's what everyone here writes.  And no one pronounces the name of this
city as we do when we say Vienna.  They use Wien (pronounced Vien) were
one to say it in English.  The major city of Italy in English is Rome.  In
Italy it is Roma. 

Behind the position which Carrol articulates is an important objection
which he doesn't raise here, though he has often raised it eloquently in
earlier posts.  The image of the Haitian religion Voodoo/Vodou in the
English speaking world and especially in the U.S. is often extremely
wrong-headed, very negative, even such that the religion is regarded as a
laughing stock or as a barbaric practice.  This image is part of a much
larger negative image associated with Haiti and Haitians and those of us
who care for Haitian and Haitians, or are Haitians have a care and
interest in changing that image in the English speaking world.

Carrol and I are in no disagreement about that aim.  Both of us have
demonstrated that in past posts and published writings.

However, we are in disagreement as to whether a useful and important part
of that re-imaging of the Haitian religion, the Haitian nation and the
Haitian people is best served by trying to change the normal centuries old
word for the Haitian religion in English. Coates thinks so; Corbett

I would like to go on for many pages and hours about my own reasons for
why I vehemently reject the tactic of changing the normal, acceptable and
familiar English spelling.  But, those arguments go far beyond Haiti and
are concerned with much larger issues in the philosophy of language and in
the philosophy of human responsibility.  These arguments have nothing to
do with Haiti.

I'm certainly willing to discuss these issues IN GREAT DETAIL with any who
are interested, but not on this list which is about Haiti and not about
these larger these other issues.  But in just some undefended assertions
(for which I have an huge array of defenses ready at hand), my objections
are centered in several things some being:

	-- such a practice of changing names and spellings to achieve
		desired political or moral outcomes is a practice
		connected with force and pressure in our society (the
		notion of political correctness) which
		is for me one of the most repellant notions I can imagine.

	-- such a way of approaching the problem often seems to me to
		leave all the biases and negative sentiments in place and
		just gets people to change language to get people off
		their backs.  Calling American people
		color "African Americans" seems to me to do very little
		in changing racist attitudes.  I'd rather spend my energies 
		on other ways of addressing racism than trying to
		cram language usages down people's throats.

And on and on.

My sugest is not that Carrol is interested in such tactics as force
and pressure to use politically correct thems.  I don't know that since
we've never talked about it.  However, we live in a world in which 
this common association of people who have views they believe as true
and just and good HAVE and continue to use lots of pressure and forced
to make others change their language to me the moral views of the
superior truth and moral views of the politically correct folks.  This
is an invasion of the moral autonomy of others that the noble outcome
goals do not, on my view, justify.  It isn't Carrol whom I attack for
this, it is part of the mileau of moral fervor of those who seem to 
believe they know better than all others the moral truths of society.

In relation to Haitian Voodoo (as I term it), I have tried to wage my own
mini-war against the negative false stereotypes.  I pleaded with the
religion department of my university some 15 years ago to allow me to
teach a course on the Haitian religion and they welcomed this.  It is one
of the many options in the study of world religions the department offers.
In that course I tell my students that the primary task of this course is
to demonstrate that the religion of Haiti is a religion is the same sense
as any other major religion they know of such as Christianity, Judaism or
Islam and that we will study it as such.

And then we do that in a very serious intellectual investigation.  I think
I can say that virtually ALL my students come out of that course not with
some (for me) utterly trivial shift of how they spell the word, but with a
profound respect for the Haitian religion even though they usually find it
to be far from their own faith if they have any.  I'm never out to convert
people, only to inform and enlighten them.  Perhaps it helps that I am an
atheist and have no use for any religion as a faith.  But that doesn't
mean I don't want to understand it as it is rather than as what it is not.

Secondly, I mounted a large web site on Haitian Voodoo to which I keep
adding all the time.  In the fall term I will be offering my course in
Haitian Voodoo here in Vienna, Austria (not in Wien, Osterreich), the
first time such a course has ever been offered in this important European
capital and already I've heard from the registrar that the course is
completely filled and students are begging to get in. I had offered a
course in Haitian history back in 1998, my last guest professorship here
and it was the first Haitian history course every known to have been
offered in Vienna.  This course was popular and laid the ground for my
current (delightful, but hard) dilemma.  My quandary is that I like
small discussion oriented classes, but were I to change
this one course to a lecture format I would probably have several hundred
students in a flash.  I'm undecided at to whether I go for the higher
quality education I can provide with a discussion format, or go to have
the wider impact on Austrians' minds. Not an easy decision for me.

In any case the teaching of this course will be an impetuous to me to add
significantly to my Voodoo web page, a page that attracts a significant
number of visitors who write me constantly about thing Voodoo (from
serious inquiries about the religion to wanting to know if I sell spells).  

There are many other ways to address the problem of Voodoo's negative
image which other people, many on this list I'm sure, use.  All of them
are important.  The only significant problem I have with the spelling
issue is now closely allied it is the to political correctness movement,
which, on my own view, is so destructive of intellectual freedom and of
good sense that such a tactic is just not acceptable to me.   Nor am I
convinced that trying to force upon a language a new spelling for an old
word in the language is of much value.

Any wishing to discuss the larger non-Haitian issues contained in this
discussion please don't hesitate contacting me.  It is one of the issues I
am most interested in concerning contemporary moral notions of the use of
pressure and force to seek goals that are otherwise laudable.

Bob Corbett