Welcome, Basil, my friend! Come, take thy place on the settle
Close by the chimney-side, which is always empty without thee.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Evangeline, 1847
We give voice to an oxymoron when we say that “anyone is welcome,” for the word “anyone” does not comport with the word “welcome.” Welcome is simply not the sort of thing that we can say to anyone, since the word bears discrimination in its bones.
It springs from the Old English roots willa and cuma, which combine to mean a willed or chosen guest (one who comes). When I will the coming of a guest, I obviously will the coming of that particular guest, or at least that type of guest, and not just anybody who might come my way. A wilcuma is always somebody.
There’s ne’er a flower that blooms in May
That’s half sae welcome’s thou art.
Robert Burns, “Willie Stewart,” c. 1780
In time, the word welcome ceased to be the name of a chosen guest and became the special greeting and treatment by which this guest was honored and distinguished. When I give a man a hearty welcome, I say in word and deed that I desired his coming. And I express my delight in an eager smile, a hearty laugh, a warm hand clasp, a lively eye.
Tis sweet to know there is an eye will mark
Our coming, and look brighter when we come.
Byron, Don Juan, 1824
Of course, these signs of a hearty welcome can be counterfeited, and many of them are petrified in the cool formalities of common courtesy, but welcome, sensu stricto, is personal, hearty, and exclusive. We are really welcome only when we come to a place that someone knew was conspicuously empty without us.
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Modern Christians might be surprised to learn that that the word “welcome” does not appear in the King James Bible. It appears once in Douay-Rheims, but that is in the apocryphal book of Sirach, so there was no dispute between the churches on this point. Four hundred years ago, all English-speaking Christians agreed that the gospel could be told without once using the word welcome.
How times change!
I must add that men of that age were not unacquainted with the word. Shakespeare used it hundreds of times!
Where modern translations have introduced the word “welcome,” older translations used the word “receive.” Strangers are “received” into houses; converts are “received” into fellowship. The implication, I believe, is that such guests were admitted out of duty, rather than with expectation of delight. They were received in the way one received a hungry wayfarer who knocked at the door on a bleak night.
It took a long time for the austerity of biblical language to relax. The word “welcome” crops up three times in the American Standard Version of 1901, but in only one of these passages (3 John 1:8) might it be said to bear doctrinal significance. It wasn’t until the Revised Standard Version of 1946 that the floodgates began to open, so far as the word welcome goes, as by this date the translators had discovered no less than twenty-five passages where no other word would do.
It may be significant that the word “welcome” gained in appeal just as rules of church discipline and membership were being relaxed, for relaxed standards is precisely what the word “welcome” had begun to mean. In the late twentieth century, a Christian welcome was not so much “joy in the presence of the Angles of God over one sinner that repenteth” as it was making space at the table with no questions asked.
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I was set to thinking about the word welcome by this advertisement for a teachers’ workshop. As you can see, it defines an “inclusive learning environment” as one that is “welcoming for all students,” be they purple, mauve, or green.
Close reading discovers that the word welcome has undergone another semantic transformation. Now it means something more than indiscriminate acceptance. Mr. Mandala’s idea of an unwelcoming syllabus is not, we may suppose, a syllabus that daunts students with the promise of mind-bending difficulties. Nor should we suppose that it is a syllabus that taunts students because they are purple, mauve, or green. What we must suppose that an unwelcoming syllabus somehow fails to acknowledge and affirm the being and experience each of these multicolored tribes.
In other words, the rule of truly inclusive welcoming is not satisfied when students of every color are welcome in the classroom, but also requires that these students find their facsimiles in class material. If the class makes use of slides, some of these slides should depict purple people. If the lectures make use of hypothetical examples, some of these hypothetical examples should feature mauve people. And if it is possible to do so, there should be adequate notice and discussion of issues that are of particular concern to people who are green.
The point of all this is to expand the range of normality. As this workshop will be run by the Program Coordinator of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Resource Center, this will almost certainly include expansion of the range of sexual normality, which in in its present scope is said to express “heteronormativity.” Heteronormativity is in force when public representations, procedures, policies and doctrine presume binary sexual identities and heterosexual erotic relationships. What we might call postheteronormativity is in force when these same instruments represent heteronormativity as abnormal and deviant.
Inclusive learning environments will therefore be highly unwelcoming to heteronormative deviants. This is, of course, partly the intent. They will expose the tactful silences of heteronormative instructors as ugly imprecations, and thereby close off this last refuge of dissident conscience. They will disturb and offend heteronormative students, driving them either to incriminating outbursts or conditioned tolerance of the new normativity (social tolerance operating just like drug tolerance).
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From kingly group, from menial crowd,
The cry of welcome rings aloud.
John Ruskin, “The Scythian Guest”
We have strayed some way from old Basil, comfortably filling his rightful place, close by the chimney side. We have wandered from that snug place into the cheerless barrack of bureaucratic welcome. So, to end I must return to the place I began, to the real welcome that is personal, hearty, and exclusive. A cry of welcome rings aloud only for the man who comes to take a place that was “always empty” without him. Highbrows call this “the presence of absence,” humble folk say he was missed.
If you wish to be really welcome, you must be a man who is really missed. You must be, in other words, a man.
Beyond the path of the outmost sun, through utter darkness hurled,
Further than ever comet flared or vagrant stardust swirled,
Sit such as fought and sailed and ruled and loved and made our world.
So, cup to lip in fellowship, they gave him welcome high
And made him place at the banquet board, the Strong Men ranged thereby,
Who had done his work and held his peace and had no fear to die.
Rudyard Kipling, Barrack Room Ballads, 1892