A Language for the Unspeakable

In describing a situation of conflict, words detailing traumatic events can be hard to find. The thoughts and feelings evoked by the conflict may remain dormant for many years when no language of words exists to reflect upon the experience! How do we create a language for the unspeakable?

Professor John Paul Lederach of the University of Notre Dame explains how to create a language for the unspeakable, among other conflict transformation topics, in his recent radio interview  with NPR reporter with Krista Tippett, “The Art of Peace.”

To listen to the full podcast, please click here.

The highly praised work of Professor Lederach deserves a closer look for its encouraging contributions to music intervention theory that empowers youth and transforms conflict. This is apparent in his compelling interview.

After discussing the abstract of creative process in peacemaking, Lederach points to a very common human behavior that is within the realm of the familiar: habit. It is the shpilkes* of human behavior, where an individual constantly repeats a cycle of actions sans conscious decision. Routine may get a bad rap as signaling a lack of change or imagination, yet what if we alter our thinking of what constitutes routine? Ledearch gives an example in the interview of what he jokingly says to his colleagues about attending mass,

“Imagine for a moment if the funding agencies were coming here to Notre Dame and were inquiring about your behavior that they are noticing, which is that you keep doing mass, some of you every day, most of you at least once a week- is there something that is not effective about how you’re doing mass?

With this example, Lederach identifies a repetitious human action that is not linear with steps 1, 2, & 3. Rather, it is ritualistic and circular. Instead of thinking of a circular motion as inert going no where, he describes it as “a deepening.” Imagine a corkscrew. Its shape is circular but not static. Lederarch continues by stating that music or sound falls into this category of ritualistic, circular “deepening”. This is where we can find a language for the unspeakable.

There are many ways to define what music is on the basis of its multiple identities. One fact that musicians, educators, and theorists can agree upon is that when the sound is, as my mom calls it, pulled out from an instrument, the body of the instrument vibrates. In particular with string instruments, if you place the bow on the string (let’s say at the Frog which is at the bottom of the bow) and pull a long down-bow stroke rubbing against the string until the bow’s tip and then take the bow off the string, you can see the string vibrating in a circular motion. If a person placed their fingers on the backside of the instrument during the stroke of the bow, he/she would feel the instrument slightly vibrating. The vibrations give feeling.The repetition of doing this movement over and over again creates sounds of consonances and dissonances forming melodies and motifs in a piece of music.  The ritualistic practice of playing the instrument every day actualizes a circular pattern of action or habit.

Lederach claims that violence numbs an individual “destroying a person’s capacity to perceive themselves as an integrated part of a whole.” (“The Art of Peace with John Paul Lederach”) Playing an instrument, singing, raping, humming, etc., creates a means of expression that can not only help a person awaken through feeling, but as well find a means to express experiences and emotions for which there are no words. Lederach calls it a “whole body experience” that “connects the mind and the heart” towards healing and reconciliation. (“The Art of Peace with John Paul Lederach”) This holistic approach creates a language for the unspeakable.

You can guess what the next two books are on my reading list!

  1. The Moral Imagination– John Paul Lederach
  2. When Blood and Bones Cry Out– Angie Lederach & John Paul Lederach

“The Art of Peace with John Paul Lederach.” Interview by Krista Tippett. On Living. NPR. KUHF, Houston, Texas, 12 Jan. 2012. Radio.

*Shpilkes is a Yiddish word that describes the nervous movement that one does unconsciously when speaking in front of a crowd. For ex.: the unconscious swaying back in forth from one foot to the other while speaking in front of the classroom.

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