Aggressively Human: An Anthropological Manifesto

A few months ago, I was talking to a group of students after class. One of them commented that they appreciated my openness about different things as a prof, and how it made me more “human”. I responded by saying “Yeah, that’s intentional. Dr. Biittner and I are, like, aggressively human“.

It was a quick, off the cuff, semi-joking statement, but as we thought about it afterwards, we realized it was much more than that. It was, and is, our guiding principle in approaching teaching and doing anthropology. Anthropology as…aggressively human, if you will.

I’ve been thinking more and more about this idea as we’ve observed the discussion around the abusive practices that have characterized the work of the journal Hau. For a quick primer on the issues and concerns that have been raised, see this Twitter thread by Hilary Agro (and links within). There are also too many fantastic critical posts and threads to note, but I would highlight Zoe Todd’s powerful discussion of decolonial anthropology, as well as discussions and contributions organized by Allegra lab (disclosure: a short comment I made will be part of a discussion about the implications for teaching and education to appear there shortly), and of course, searching #hautalk will bring up a lot of great commentary and information.

As those links show, this story has quickly become one that is about how academic institutions, and anthropology in particular, can work to not only shield abusers, but also create contexts in which they able to perform their violence – for example, through the exploitative and insecure structures of employment and payment that make some members of our community very vulnerable to economic abuse, as well as preventing them from speaking up about other forms of abuse at the risk of losing their job (or, more commonly and frighteningly, losing the opportunity of a hypothetical job well in the future). As several BIPOC scholars have noted, the revelation of abusive practice of Hau’s editorial board was unsurprising to them, because the journal was premised on an exploitative, white-centric model of anthropology and ethnographic theory, visible immediately from its choice of name (see this illuminating discussion the Mahi Tahi collective of New Zealand scholars).

As I note in my contribution to the forthcoming Allegra post, this story reflects a pervasive pattern within academic, and specifically anthropological, teaching and training – the idea that learning occurs through suffering, and that suffering is therefore a necessary part of one’s experience as a student. This is especially true at the graduate levels, where we undergo our final set of rigorous tests to obtain credentials that admit us into the ranks of disciplinary experts, but certainly doesn’t start there. I have heard far too many colleagues justify teaching practices that leave their students in tears, dismiss traumas that they have experienced in the field, or suggest outright that emotions have no place in the academy. To be clear, academia is difficult. Knowledge can be upsetting. Fieldwork is inherently stressful. But it is possible to support students through those difficulties, rather than minimizing their suffering, or worse, actively creating it in the spirit of some kind of “trial by fire”  – abuse disguised as pedagogy.

I link this back to our intention, here to be “aggressively human”, because to me, the model that I have seen reflected in the stories about the abuse at Hau, and the defenses of this abuse as some kind of “difficult but fair” authoritarian model of scholarly practice, is one that is profoundly inhuman and inhumane. This is especially ironic, to my mind, in a discipline that is about the human, and a subfield (ethnography) that develops knowledge through the human practice of connection and empathy.

So, then, an aggressively human anthropology, and specifically, an anthropological pedagogy, is one in which

  1. We place empathy at the core of our learning and teaching experiences, and the human at the centre of our approach to theory and method
  2. We engage directly, constantly, and actively in calls to decolonize the discipline, to move away from and explicitly renounce anthropological practice that is dehumanizing, dismissive, and exploitative of Indigenous and racialized people
  3. We use our positions of relative privilege and power to advocate for humane academic working conditions, to push against increasing precarity, and to protect students from exploitation and abuse within their learning environments
  4. We push against status hierarchies and the creation of academic ‘rock stars’ who can use their status to shield themselves from the consequences of their own abuse, and we advocate for a community of academics that is collaborative and mutually enforcing rather than competitive and egotistical.
  5. We exemplify kindness and care toward ourselves and others, and we aggressively insist on reminding people that we are humans first and scholars, teachers, and employees only in addition to that.

I write this post from my own position, but in consultation with my blogging partner Dr. Biittner, and these points are a shared commitment for us. Continuing this conversation, we need to define what kinds of attainable goals exist within each of these principles, and consider more fully what this looks like within our work as undergraduate instructors, or within our research practices in various communities. Suggestions from fellow aggressively human scholars and anthropologists more than welcome.

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Student Guest Post: The Cat Kicks the Language Because it is Tired.

Shulist’s introduction: The following is a guest post by my student, Harry dal Bello, who was brave enough to work on constructing a language with me as an independent study project. The story behind this is that last year, after seeing the ConLanging documentary (which, as my review here noted, I loved), I was inspired to think about ways to use language creation in my teaching (and for fun, but I’ve had less time for fun lately).

Enter Harry. Harry has, from the first day of my introduction to linguistic anthropology class, had a passion for the topic, and in September, will be entering a graduate program at my own alma mater, the University of Western Ontario. Given that MacEwan has no courses in linguistics proper beyond the first year level, Harry lamented that he hadn’t had a chance to learn more about grammatical description and other key elements. And here was my guinea pig – an opportunity to use the ConLang creation process as a way to teach a lot about language in a relatively short period of time and a fun way. 

On the whole, it turns out it worked fairly well. We definitely had fun. We formed an informal “ConLang club”, and a few interested students joined us, and met weekly so that I could give a very quick lesson about different linguistic concepts – how do nouns work, what is agreement, what is case, whoa holy crap verbs, etc. Harry’s reflections on his first experience with ConLanging and learning about language in general are below. 

Language is hard. This is something I don’t think that people think about enough, just how complex this thing we call language is. We take it for granted every day that we are able to communicate with each other. There is an uncountable number of different systems at play when we use language. I just finished spending the last 4 months trying to make one from scratch and have acquired a whole new appreciation of just how complex language can really be. So when Shulist (the linguistic one) gave me the opportunity to look back on this project and write a post about it I jumped at the chance. I thought I’d take the time to give you some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way so hopefully you can avoid some of the pitfalls that caught me if you ever give it a try.  So without further ado I present: Tips for making a language from someone who’d never done it before.

  1. Know a language other than English (at least know someone who does)

Let’s take a quick detour to talk about the most commonly used word in the English language: “the”. How do you define “the”? Well the Miriam Webster dictionary does it in 507 words and only uses “the” 24 times to do it. Why so long? Because “the” does a lot in English: It’s a determiner we use for almost everything and yet it still finds time to be an adverb. “Harry”, I can see you asking, “what does this have to do with learning another language, let alone making one?” Well there are a lot of things a language has to do, and English make things like “the” and word order do a lot of it. This is great for us, but makes using English to make examples difficult. Learning a new language is hard, if it wasn’t we would all be polyglots, but I’m not saying you need to go out and become fluent in Portuguese. Even my tenuous grasp of Spanish grammar was invaluable when it came to understanding things like conjugating verbs and nouns.

  1. Get yourself some IPA (the alphabet not the beer)

Do you have a favourite sound? Mine is probably either / n / or / ʃ / . Now if you just sounded those out in your head as you read them then you can probably skip this section but for the rest of us: let’s chat about IPA. The International Phonetic Alphabet was an invaluable invention to linguists everywhere, a universal set of glyphs that corresponded to every possible human mouth sound. A way to bypass cumbersome Latin alphabet transcription. There is only one problem: It’s not very user friendly.

This is something I can’t stress enough: if you have no experience with IPA you are going to have a hard time making a language that sounds like anything other than English, a problem you are going to have anyways. While you are at it start to play with sounds, see if you can make some of the strange ones (read: any missing from English) by arranging your mouth in the right shape. This aspect of language making is probably the one that will get you the most weird looks, I know I got some when I spent a 3 hour flight trying to untangle the difference between / ɳ / and / ɲ /. Don’t worry about it though, because a good grasp of what symbol sounds like what and why will save you a ton of time down the line.

  1. How does your cat sit? (use example sentences)

When I started my language I had no idea what I wanted it to sound like, let alone what it’s structure would be, but I quickly started to fill out long list of parts you need to make a functional languge. How big is this list? I’m still not sure, but It certainly isn’t all written somewhere for you to read. This is where Example Sentences come in to play. Starting with short, simple ones, come up with a list of phrases that you would like to be able to say in your language. From there take a crack at translating them. Uh oh, you can’t translate this sentence because you forgot about pluralization? Well guess what, now you can add pluralization to that list of things to do. Using this method of trial and error I was able to find what I had finished and what I was missing in a way that is easy to visualize.

Cat sits /sɨh ɵoɳ wol/
Cat eats rat /loh ɵoɳ wol ɲɨlɵoɳ/
The cat eats the rat because it is tasty /loh ɵoɳ wol  ɲɨlɵoɳ ɵolɨlan/

Above are a few of my example sentences with English on the left and / ʃɨðʎom / (read something like sh-ith-yom) on the right. Note how I keep as many words the same between sentences as I can. This is so I can avoid having to make to many words up while I am still playing with the grammar. It would suck to come up with a whole collection of plural nouns just to later decide that you don’t need them. This way I can focus on just filling out what I need to make a fully functioning grammar. This is actually the biggest perk of example sentences. They let you slowly put together your  language in a modular way, so that even if you don’t have verb conjugation sorted out (like I don’t) you can still see how it works in a practical situation.

  1. Verbs do things. LOTS of things. (and this makes them hard)

In the over 4 months I worked on this project I found again and again that verbs only made things harder. Verbs were about as complex as nouns but three fold. Think back to your last English grammar lesson: what were the parts of a sentence? Well you had verbs and nouns, nouns were things and verbs were what those things did. Simple right? Well not so much unfortunately. English teachers have been lying to us for YEARS now telling us that “verbs are action words” when they are so much more than that. If a noun is a thing then a verb is what you know about that thing, what it does, what it’s like, how it feels, all kinds of stuff. These are just the beginning as well. Verbs can (and often do) encode all kinds of other information such as tense, gender, number, aspect, mood (don’t get me started on modality), voice, and any number of other grammatical categories.  Add adverbs to the mix and things get even worse. In fact a lot of things we call adverbs are just stuff that didn’t fit in another category. So enough doom and gloom about verbs then, whats my advice about them? Well unfortunately I don’t have much except: worry about it later. I haven’t even made a verb system for my language yet. Don’t get bogged down trying to perfect your verbs until after you sort your nouns out. If you are working with example sentences like I recommended then just make some placeholder and don’t worry about conjugating. This is exactly what I did, and you can see it in my above examples If you look close enough. You can always leave verbs to another day.

Student Guest Post: Play Ball, But Stay on Your Own Team!: Language and Gender Differences in Athletics

Editor: This is a guest post by Ash, a student from Dr. Shulist’s Language, Gender, and Sexuality class, on the many ways that the idea of binary gender affects the world of sports. Ash is a science major who was taking this course mainly for fun, and we love this example of how to use anthropological tools to think through topics that surround us literally constantly. 

The gender binary has been, throughout history, rigorously upheld in the field of athletics. Presently, we still have strict divisions between men’s and women’s leagues, and more often there are now recurring issues with transgender athletes being put into either category regardless of their gender under the guise of a fear of unfair advantage (Gleaves & Lehrbach 2016) . In ancient times, women were excluded from participating in large events and athletic activity altogether, but more modern times are where the league division by gender has emerged. The only “co-ed” teams appear in non-serious, recreation-type leagues. Even non-contact sports such as curling have leagues divided by binary gender within the upper ranks. In the latest winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, the long standing statistic of more male athletes to female athletes persisted, despite female athletes in teams such as the USA obtaining more medals than their male counterparts. Even when discussing gender in athletics and critiquing its use of binary here, it is nearly impossible to avoid separating men’s from women’s athletics.

This brings us to the obvious question of: Why? Why are sports inherently viewed and treated as more male dominated and suited? Likely it is the common association of physical strength with masculinity, whereas we have seen in class what “feminine power” is portrayed as on Google images. This fractal recursivity whereby masculinity is strong and femininity is inherently weak, among other negative traits, contributes to this. There is also related and specific language difference used when describing each group’s athletics and athletes in disappointing trends over the years, and this language surrounding athletics continues to uphold the gender differential within the community. Examples of this include women’s sports as being marked, whereas men’s categories are left unmarked (ex: “hockey” implies men’s hockey but “women’s hockey” must be denoted as such), and occasionally the female leagues are not called “women’s” leagues but rather, unfortunately, “ladies” (ex: Wimbledon Ladies Singles). Men’s leagues and teams, in my experience, are not called “gentlemen’s”. Even the athletes themselves are often marked as female, including at times when it’s not entirely relevant or necessary (ex: woman golfer).

This relates to our class lecture on men and masculinities where we discussed athletics and associated spaces (such as locker rooms and “man caves”) as creating sites of toxic, male-only culture. These hyper-masculine spaces simultaneously prohibit women’s presence yet demand that they exist in the periphery simultaneously for sexual experiences and heterosexual indexing (Kiesling 2005). In the male-only spheres, misogyny is able to flourish as masculinity can reach an un-compromised and un-rivalled peak. An example of this is Donald Trump’s infamous “locker room banter” comment whereby he insinuates that conversations about sexual harassment and misogyny are appropriate in male-only spaces such as gendered locker rooms. This “old boys club” mentality contributes to the underlying parts of rape culture that are pervasive in society but often less detectable and thus more likely to be ignored or dismissed, as, for example, just “locker room banter”. Even when changing clothes in preparation for the sport at hand, the binary precedent is already being set.

More specific examples of language upholding toxic gender binaries can be seen abundantly in the hockey community. Only the men’s leagues (as with most professional sports) are considered popular and profitable. The highest league in the sport, the NHL, is not specifically men-only yet a single female athlete has only ever played one game. Furthermore, within the broader hockey community, it is a culture of high masculinity with that same pushing of all femininity, women included, into the periphery. Specifically, female players and fans alike are required to understand the vast lingo and jargon associated within the hockey community and culture, yet they are not permitted to use or access it themselves. Furthermore, there is a very limited and particular pool from which male players may choose to form romantic relationships, and that group does not overlap with their female hockey playing counterparts. It is also assumed and reinforced that male hockey players are not homosexual, despite movements such as the NHL’s “Hockey is for Everyone” campaign. There are explicitly drawn lines between the two binary genders within hockey culture, and each has very obvious and laid out roles and rules. When sports are so heavily divided by gender, these rigid systems within are able to emerge, and language further enables it to do so.

Language upholding this rigidity also extends to the differences among interviews between male and female athletes. Many female athletes have taken issue with being asked questions that they felt were extremely inappropriate given the contexts. For example, being asked about their “ultimate date”, why they aren’t smiling, which male athletes they “like”, and general comments and questions about their attire. Generally it is reported that male athletes are not asked questions of these unrelated natures. The hashtag #CoverTheAthlete made a point of imploring journalists to ask consistent types of questions regardless of the gender of athlete they were interviewing⁹.  A video in support of the #CoverTheAthlete movement highlighted the baffling inappropriateness in the difference in the line of questioning between athletes genders by having multiple journalists ask some of the most outlandish but actual questions that have been asked of professional female athletes to their male counterparts.

Sexism in sports is nothing new, but I used this opportunity to explore the ways in which language and league divisions within athletics perpetuates it. It is commonly assumed that athletics require division by gender at all due to perceived differences in strength and skill whereby women are understood as the lesser, despite several sports, leagues, and statistics debunking this¹¹. From the initial gender division, we see right away that this causes negative implications for transgender athletes. From there we see how highly segregated leagues can create hyper-masculine spaces resulting in unbalanced sports cultures including justifiable “locker room banter” and exclusionary attitudes and expectations. Lastly, and even more language focused, we examined the differences in interview questions between male and female athletes wherein the women were asked remarkably inappropriate and unrelated questions compared to the men: When the lines of questioning were reversed as seen in the #CoverTheAthlete video, the male athletes were less than impressed. Unfortunately, athletics and surrounding culture embodies many more categories and examples of sexism and gender differences than what was mentioned here, such as outstanding differences in pay. It remains a highly divided area and progress within it is slow. It is hard to say what the next 100 years of professional sports will look like: Will gender divisions between leagues be demolished? Will transgender athletes not be a controversial issue of feigned unfairness? Will the #CoverTheAthlete campaign and similar movements lessen the amount of absurd questions that female athletes receive from journalists? Will sports stop being a site of hyper-masculinity due to gender division causing rampantly created and perpetuated sexism?

The ball is in our court.

 

Bibliography

  1. Gleaves, John, & Lehrbach, Tim. “Beyond Fairness: the Ethics of Inclusion for Transgender and Intersex Athletes”, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 43:2, 311-326. 2016.
  2. Kiesling, Scott Fabius. “Homosocial desire in mens talk: Balancing and re-Creating cultural discourses of masculinity.” Language in Society, vol. 34, no. 05, Dec. 2005.

Student Guest Post: A Peer’s Wry on Netflix’s Queer Eye

Editor’s note: This guest post comes from our student Becky, who has revised it from a piece of work for Dr. Shulist’s ANTH308 class on Language, Gender, and Sexuality. As your usual bloggers are currently digging their way out of the end-of-term grading pile/why-won’t-it-stop-snowing grumpy funk, it’s great to be able to highlight some of the insights our students are bringing. Also, this editor is putting Queer Eye on the Netflix queue for a post-term binge-watch (thanks, students!). 

 

To preface this, I would like to admit that I’m an avid viewer of all things transformative in nature in reality TV set-ups. There’s something so appealing in seeing someone’s life get turned around in 40 minutes or less- especially if you consider yourself a before rather than an after effort.

(Side note: HGTV producers, if you’re out there, call me.)

Netflix’s Queer Eye certainly offers all this and more. The show’s premise is that a group of five gay self-identified men come to renovate a straight self-identified male individual’s life through multiple focuses like food, culture, style, and home renovation; Hence to what the title refers to, in giving a queer eye for the straight guy.

It makes for an entertaining concept, but it became all the more compelling to start this series right we started to discuss the concept of masculinity in one of my anthropology classes.

At it’s most basic, masculinity is the association to what is culturally assumed in being a ‘man’. Masculine ontology would therefore be one’s pursuit to be a man (in establishing particular associations linked within masculinity). But, being a man means different things, which diversifies masculinity in how it relates to the relevant cultural discourses at play that are created through the social practices of those that enact them. There’s a dominant discourse but there are always competing discourses that create these conflicting ways people may express their masculinity.

In Kielsing’s (2005) article, men’s talk is described to respond and recreate four main cultural discourses that surround the dominant discourse of masculinity. While these cultural discourses – gender differences, heterosexism, dominance, male solidarity – are examined through the language community of an American fraternity, let us now turn to Tom, from the first episode of Queer Eye.

In episode one, the ‘Fab 5’ introduce a middle-aged man from Georgia named Tom. What follows is how Tom reacts to the group’s questioning of Tom’s choices, and a push towards a competing discourse that works to challenge what Tom uses, while also making continuous acknowledgment of the dominant discourses. In this respect, this parallels to what Kiesling also describes, that when one engages with a competing discourse, one can still find themselves evaluated in reference to the dominant discourses withstanding. So no matter what you choose sooner or later you’re going to have to acknowledge the bulking frat-boy in the room.

Towards the beginning we get a sense of the schema of what Tom identifies as part of his self through repeated use of words like redneck, ugly, country, old, and fat. Based on what Tom uses to describe himself, there’s a lack of self-confidence is readily apparent. This is where I question Tom’s use of gender difference as Tom often uses his ex-wives as those behind many of his stylistic choices, in that there is some innate separation between caring for one’s appearance (and home) to being separate from masculine. Tom’s lack of confidence and physical masculinity is oddly balanced towards gender difference as having that relation to his masculine identity both negatively and positively impacting his confidence.

Further in the episode, when Bobby mentions to Tom that he’s been married to his partner of 13 years, Tom questions if Bobby is the ‘wife’ or the ‘husband’ of the relationship. In seeing Bobby as masculine, Tom still assumes a degree of heterosexuality despite the fact that Bobby is very direct about the whole husband-husband thing. To rectify Bobby’s masculinity then, Tom assumes a positionality relatable to a hetero-relationship. From previous experience with a similar line of questioning (y’know, the ‘who wears the pants’ debacle) this brings up the subordination of the woman role as being natural by placing an association to the dominating role as masculine.

This also comes to naturalize the heterosexual relationship as the representative of all relationship types. The straight couple is the original, and everything outside of that is just a spin-off series.

Moving back here, Tom also briefly demonstrates the cultural discourse of male solidarity. This is particularly emphasized by his group, the ROMEOS, or the “Retired Old Men Eating Out” … and I’m trying not to think too hard on that one.

This group represents Tom and other retired old men who meet up once a week to eat out at a restaurant, who then go and admire each other’s classic cars. Judging from these activities, there isn’t any necessarily that would suggest a gender divide to being necessary, but the important of male solidarity is emphasized by the men as being important. I mean, it’s in the title!

Besides forming the basis of Tom’s social life (in exclusion to his grandson, and his ex-wife) they’re also a heavy influencer on what social practices therefore become acceptable to establish the types of social practices to engage in. When he is recorded with a group of men, he often uses swears to accentuate his speech patterns and play into his physical masculinity.

These social practices are part of the journey the Fab 5 take on with Tom. By accepting some of the discourse that the ‘Fab 5’ utilizes for themselves, and encourages in Tom, we see a difference between Tom and the fellow ROMEOs at the end of the episode. When he is presented to the men, he is complimented with a degree of emotional restraint to the achievement of his transformation by the men merely pointing out changes (“Look at that beard”) or veiled compliments in the form of insults (“You look vaguely familiar”). Tom instead is openly boisterous and presents himself with a right bit of flair. Tom reflects on these changes when he says goodbye to the ‘Fab 5’, in stating his experiences of being open with them and himself, hoping to continue this into the future.

So, while there isn’t necessarily all four of the dominant cultural discourses present that Kiesling has outlined—there’s certainly some recognizable parallels to be drawn. Tom is definitely one of the more relaxed straight individuals that are introduced on the show, and there certainly isn’t too much push in getting him to accept the group’s mentalities. What I am suggesting still is the balance between how masculinity is practiced and conceived within the narrative of the show, as it dissects how these various men actively construct and promote their identities.

Maybe there’s a little more anthropological footwork at play than the show recognizes, but then again, that’s what nerdy bloggers are for.

 

References

Kiesling, Scott Fabius. (2005) “Homosocial desire in mens talk: Balancing and re-creating cultural discourses of masculinity”. Language in Society 34 (5): 695-726. doi:10.1017/s0047404505050268.

Gender Role “Reversal” Requires Revision

Photographer-Eli-Rezkallah-reverses-the-roles-in-the-sexist-pubs-of-the-60s-and-the-result-is-very-interesting-5a5f135dab6da__700

Recreated ad by artist Eli Rezcalla

I’ll admit that my first response to these vintage sexist ads where the photographer, Eli Rezcalla, “reversed” the gender roles was “lol :D”. By “simply” switching the genders of the subjects, Rezcalla was easily able to show how these ads, much like many today, reinforce sexist gender roles. Now I’m always a fan of calling out the patriarchy and sexism, however, as I scrolled down through the images my initial feeling of glee was overwhelmingly replaced by feelings of grossness. Why? Because with many of the ads selected, for both the original and the reversal, toxic heteronormativity is represented and reinforced. So what do I mean by heteronormativity and what about it is toxic? Well as is well described here and here, heteronormativity packages ideas like there are only two genders representing two sexes, that members of these two sexes/genders are heterosexual, that this heterosexuality must be strictly monogamous, and that sex serves for reproductive purposes only and then argues that these are the only “normal” or “natural” ways to be human. This is toxic because it has serious consequences for individuals who aren’t heteronormative simply and importantly because it invalidates their existence. Clearly it’s not just ads that represent toxic heteronormativity; this article is a good discussion of toxic monogamy in F.R.I.E.N.D.S. because yes, heteronormativity dictates not just who we have sex with but what kind of sex we can/cannot have, how many partners we can/cannot have, and what is/is not acceptable in relationships in terms of jealousy, commitment, competition, and communication including whether or not you can have other kinds of relationships like friendships (*coughs* “But we were on a break!”*coughs* smdh). So really heteronormativity is toxic for everyone including heterosexuals and cisgender individuals.

I was also bothered by the choice to represent domestic violence. As several commenters noted on the “if your husband/wife ever finds out” ad – it’s not o.k. or funny to hit your partner. Listen I get that spanking can be a very exciting and healthy part of a consensual relationship (especially if it IS being used as “punishment”) BUT there’s nothing about that particular ad that reads as consensual (and no it’s not representing BDSM and I am also tired of that being misrepresented in media too!). And I won’t accept “but it’s supposed to be funny” as a counter-argument because no, domestic and/or sexual violence are never funny. The broader use of domestic and/or sexual violence in advertising is a problem that only serves to promote misogyny and sexism.  I know that challenging all of the problems represented by the “everyday sexism” of these ads wasn’t the point of the project but simply “reversing” the players only serves to reinforce other toxic aspects of heteronormativity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Languages, Linguistics, and Legislation: Some Reflections on Supporting Revitalization Programs in Canada

Sometimes, I am amazed at the opportunities afforded to me by my life and work as an anthropologist. I have just returned home after an 8 day visit to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, where I had the opportunity to teach a course on Language Policy and Planning for Indigenous Language Communities, run through the University of Alberta’s CILLDI program. The goal of CILLDI (the Canadian Indigenous Languages and Literacy Development Institute) is to provide training in linguistics, language planning, and pedagogy to Indigenous communities in Canada in order to support their language documentation and revitalization efforts. Students are typically members of Indigenous communities, either native speakers or learners of their Indigenous languages, working in various capacities to support these languages (many are language teachers, others are coordinators or staff members of language programs or cultural centres, others are translators, some are students, etc). I could talk for a year – and if you know me in person, you may confirm this is true – not only about the value of a program like this for supporting language work, but also about how being involved with CILLDI is a life-changing experience for students and staff alike, but I want to focus here on what I learned from the opportunity to deliver this particular class in Yellowknife.

In order to better serve the needs of Indigenous language communities, and with the support of various funding agencies, CILLDI has increasingly been offering its courses outside of its standard venue (hosted at the University of Alberta campus in Edmonton for three weeks each July). These new versions mean that the instructors come to the students (or closer to them), at various times throughout the year, instead of always having all the students relocate for several weeks in the middle of the summer, often at considerable inconvenience and expense. The course I taught last week was part of a block of three courses organized and funded by the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) Department of Education, Culture, and Employment, which houses their Indigenous Languages and Education Secretariat. Students were from all over the territory and included speakers of Nehiyawewin (Cree), Dene Zhatie (South Slavey), Dene Yati/Sahtu (North Slavey), Gwich’in, Tɫicho, and Inuvialuktun. They were regional language coordinators, language project workers, teachers, translators, and administrative personnel, some were fluent speakers and others were learners, and ranged in age from Elders to a 24-year-old social media guru. It is a truism of any teaching situation that the best part is always the students, but this was a particularly powerful example, as this group brought energy, creativity, and strong knowledge of their languages and communities. They came with different levels of experience and comfort in project planning and thinking big picture about language revitalization, and each one of them took the opportunity to learn something new about how to best do this work.

It’s always incredible to be in a room where there is so much positive energy and a commitment to action in support of language, culture, healing, and Indigenous autonomy, but it was especially so during a week in which the discourse about Indigenous people in this country has been so ugly, so dismissive, and so violent. There is a need to confront all of that awful reality, but there is also a need to be able to take concrete steps toward improving things, whether the rest of the country wants to come along for the ride or not.

It was also an eye-opening experience to have led this course with the direct support of the territorial government, and to spend time with some truly great public servants who are genuinely dedicated to making Indigenous language revitalization work. The NWT has had an official language policy in place since the 1980s, which recognizes 9 Indigenous languages alongside English and French, and which emphasizes the revitalization of these languages as a formal priority of the official languages act. My work in the Brazilian Amazon, where official language policy has also been used as a strategy for revitalization, has made it very clear to me that while such policies can be important symbolic acts, examining how they work and what they mean requires much more careful consideration of how they are being enacted, taken up, and talked about by the local populations (here’s a recent article I wrote about this, apologies for paywall). To say that colonial governments are inevitably fraught with problems in relation to Indigenous peoples and languages is the understatement of the last several centuries, but one thing I saw in Yellowknife was what it can look like if a government actually wants to see Indigenous languages succeed. The primary outcome, for students, of the course is the preparation of a mock (or actual!) grant proposal for a realistic potential project for supporting their language, and in this case, we were able to get a lot of help and guidance about what kinds of projects would have the potential to receive government funding, and how students could reframe their ideas in ways that would strengthen their chances of success.

I admit: “reconciliation” is a Canadian politics buzzword that is eminently critiquable, both in its overall framework (which implies that there was a positive, healthy, mutually sustaining relationship that we will be able to return to, somehow, rather than an entire foundation of violence and theft) and in its incredible overuse (seriously, doesn’t it seem like people throwing a few coins in the cup of a homeless person who appears Indigenous will then write a Facebook status about their contribution to reconciliation?). But with that caveat in mind, I feel like this course was driven by the spirit that the term ‘reconciliation’ should imply. The foundation for this is, in part, the way that Northern Canada operates on a different set of rules than we do here in the South (Ed: South? Shulist: Why yes, it is weird to call Edmonton the South, but all such things are relative). One of those rules is that movement toward Indigenous self-government is much more of a reality, and several groups have either an established agreement or are working towards one. Indigenous languages also have a distinct presence on signage, on the radio, and in other aspects of public life (this could definitely be strengthened, but it is far more significant than in much of the rest of the country). This was my first visit to the North, and there is much that I don’t know, but I learned enough to know that I want to know more, and to think that lots of others should want to know more as well (just because it was -50 one day while I was up there doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go! It’s actually totally great).

This is an important moment for Indigenous languages in Canada as a whole, as the Trudeau government is currently developing the research around how to create the Indigenous Languages Act they promised after they were elected, and in light of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Sadly, I don’t really have a lot of faith that the federal government is going to create something truly meaningful with this act. I think such an act has the potential to be an important symbol, and while I’m definitely not someone who dismisses symbolic change as meaningless, I think that the primary goal of any Indigenous language revitalization legislation at the federal or provincial/territorial levels should be to get the funding in to the hands of Indigenous people who can do the work of making their languages viable again. And in order to do this most effectively, a genuine commitment to Indigenous self-government is needed. Language programs that rely too much on expensive, university-based resources and researchers*, that are incredibly narrow and specific in their requirements, and that create endless mounds of paperwork people must do, are doing everything they can not to actually work on language revitalization. While this may be the topic of another post (because complicated), we also need to seriously engage with the ways in which official bilingualism and the political influence of French influences our ability to focus attention on the needs of Indigenous languages and communities (again apologies for the academic paywall, but this article by Eve Haque and Donna Patrick, if you have access, is a great primer on this). It is true that the federal government has made funding available through programs like the Aboriginal Languages Initiative, but I’ll leave it to the reader to consider whether the process and requirements outlined on that website really make this opportunity accessible to those that need it.

I left Yellowknife feeling really invigorated, but also angry. Invigorated because the students did such excellent work, and because I think there is the real possibility that their projects will get support, and because taking action to support change is so much better than sitting in the narrative of decay and death in which we ‘tsk tsk’ about

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Your friendly neighbourhood linguist blogger outside the best-named business in Yellowknife, featuring multilingual English/Tlicho wordplay

language loss without ever attacking it as a problem. But angry because throughout Canada, the political story remains one in which Indigenous people and communities are portrayed as incompetent and incapable, requiring oversight and paternalistic intervention. This emerges from both the left and the right, with the difference being that the right places the causes in some kind of cultural dysfunction or backwardness, while the left acknowledges the role of colonialism, but still situates the pathology in Indigenous communities, with the solutions coming from benevolent outsiders. This obviously isn’t just about language revitalization, but that’s my entry point in to it. I’m not sure we’ll be able to get out of the damn way enough to enable real change, but I want to believe that it’s possible. At the very least, we can look to the North for some paths to improvement.

*Yes, this includes me. We definitely have a role to play in this, but we don’t belong at the centre.

A Statement on Structural Racism in Canada

Content Warning: This post includes details about the murder of a young Indigenous man. It is directed at Canadian settlers and other non-Indigenous people who may be unaware or dismissive of the degree of racism and violence present in this country. We recognize that our Indigenous friends are all too aware of these stories, and have no need to repeatedly revisit that trauma. In short, if you are already grieving and pained by this week’s events in Saskatchewan, we are sorry, and you probably don’t need to read this post. 

We are writing this point jointly because we are jointly horrified by the outcome of the trial of Gerald Stanley, a white farmer who shot a 22-year-old Cree man named Colten Boushie in the summer of 2016. Many people, both in Canada and outside of it, remain under the illusion that Canada is “less racist” than our neighbours to the South, or that we are a “nicer” people than many others in the world. This story is one that has revealed, through the actions of the RCMP, the court, the jury, journalists, and the general commenting public, how deeply wrong that narrative is.

From the get-go, this story has been one in which the narrative of what happened hinged on whether Gerald Stanley legitimately had reason to be so fearful, so panicked, and in such distress as a result of the car carrying five Indigenous youths arriving on his property, that he retrieved his gun, and that in the chaos and confusion, one of those young people was shot in the back of the head, dying as a result. He was acquitted based on a defense that the shooting was accidental – a magic gun, some are calling it, based on his description – but as the barrage of post-verdict commentary has revealed, the core of jury sympathy rested on the idea that he was defending his property. This justification was established the day after the murder, when RCMP follow-up to the events at Stanley’s farm described their ongoing work as relating to a ‘theft investigation’, immediately giving credence to the farmer’s version of the story that characterized the young people’s presence on his property as based in their desire to rob him. The witnesses in the car explained they had been seeking help for a flat tire — a story fairly obviously supported by the state of the vehicle.

The perspectives on the story are very much racially rooted. White settler Canadians, even after the verdict, are commenting on social media and on news sites saying that the victim and his friends should not have been drinking, and should not have driven on to the property. The events are ‘tragic’, they say, framing Stanley as a victim of circumstance, a landowner naturally terrified of these rowdy young people being present on his property, whose fear and apparently poor gun safety skills led to a death that could only have been avoided by the victim himself (and, often, his entire culture/race, which is blamed for failing to teach its children not to drink and steal, despite the fact that there was never any evidence that the youth were even trying to steal anything).

We are not writing this with any pretense at neutrality: we believe that Gerald Stanley is guilty of murder. We believe his fear and anxiety about the presence of these young people on his property would be better described as racist anger and hostility, built around a lifetime of stories about how Indigenous people threaten white property. We also believe that the not guilty verdict was produced by the actions of a racist police force, who immediately accepted the Stanley family’s story about ‘theft’, who informed the victim’s family of their loved one’s death callously while searching their home for evidence of that theft, and who later cleared themselves of wrongdoing in those actions – saying, of course, that the officers were perfectly reasonable to prioritize a theft investigation based on the word of a white farmer who had just shot one of the accused thieves in the head. The murder investigation was not only secondary, but apparently a fairly low priority – the same police force failed to treat the vehicle in which the victim died as a proper crime scene, turning it over to a towing company without thorough investigation of important evidence like blood splatter patterns that would corroborate or complicate the testimony of various witnesses.

We believe that while the Canadian news media did report on the racist vitriol that emerged on social media in the wake of the murder, and did talk about the experiences of the victim’s family with the RCMP, they have failed to fully interrogate the racialized nature of this crime, and have allowed aspects of the racist narrative to be perpetuated in the name of some form of ‘neutrality’. We also believe that they have used language that deliberately centres the narrative on the victim, rather than the criminal, rarely using the words “The Gerald Stanley trial”, and instead placing the victim’s name in that role. This focus not only erases the actual criminal, the descriptor makes it appear that the murdered man is the one on trial. The media’s repeated use of the victim’s name also constitutes a violation of the spiritual and cultural values of his family, which is the reason that in this post, we use his name only once.

We believe that the system allowed for the creation of an all-white jury in a situation where the question of guilt hinges entirely on whether or not you believe that this white landowner was truly and reasonably fearful of these youth, and whether or not you find his story of accidental shooting to be credible. The defense was able to remove any visibly Indigenous people from the jury without explanation or justification, as many times as they liked, without question. This is a system that favours the perspective of an unmarked dominant position – it is difficult to imagine a story in which an all-Indigenous jury was allowed to decide the fate of a person like Gerald Stanley, or of any defendant for that matter.

This is a statement we are writing from our perspective as white settler anthropologists, and it is rooted in our analytical understanding – developed primarily by listening to Indigenous voices, as well as to the voices of Black activists and scholars, whose descriptions of how policing as an institution rooted in the protection of white property have helped us to recognize the depth of injustice in a country that proclaims itself (and is internationally seen as) a human rights champion. Our call to settler Canada, and to anthropologists, in response to this specific manifestation of a very deep, very broad injustice, is this:

That we write, post, and talk about the need for an appeal of this verdict, for the possibility of a mistrial, for a re-opening of this case in a way that may allow for a more fair assessment of Stanley’s actions.

That we demand an external investigation of the RCMP’s actions in this case, both in relation to the material outcomes of the trial and in relation to the emotional harms caused to the victim’s family and to all Indigenous Canadians.

That we become much louder, much more aggressive, and much more insistent on the need to counter the racist narratives that Canadians are taught in schools, in the media, and in general conversation, about Indigenous peoples.

That we constantly remind our friends and family that a 22 year old who happens to be drinking does not deserve to be murdered for getting a flat tire, and that life is infinitely more valuable than property.

That we examine the role that anthropology and other forms of scholarship have to play in re-creating the fabric of how we understand this country, and actively work to correct the colonial injustices that our discipline is built on.

That we talk to our white children about this story, and about the fear that it brings to our Indigenous friends, that we do not tell them fairy tales about how the police will always be the good guys in a story, and that we do not allow them to walk through the world unaware of the implications of their whiteness.

That we oppose the narrative of Canadian exceptionalism that says we are different, better, less racist, and more accepting than any other country in the world, that we respond to declarations that this is the best country in the world to live in with disgust and anger rather than pride, and that we demand that the insights presented in report after report about the ongoing systemic violence of colonialism (of which the TRC final report is only the most recent) become more than descriptors on a page.

That we support our Indigenous students, colleagues, and friends. That we do not center discussions around our own anger and tears and instead that we give space in our classrooms, our offices, and our institutions for those who are rightfully grieving but whose voices, emotions, and actions are already being challenged and critiqued.