The Politics of Naming: Languages Edition

After my last post on the use of Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) in the Canadian House of Commons, I received a comment on Twitter that asked why I was changing the name of the language. When I objected that I was not, in fact, the one making the change (since the name I was using was the one used by its speakers for generations prior to colonization), the commenter responded:


I was…a bit swift and facetious in my dismissal of this comment on Twitter (Ed: You kind of have to work on how Twitter does that to you. SS: Yeah, that’s fair). I was somewhat surprised (because Twitter) to learn that the commenter, Martin Haspelmath, is actually a linguist who has thought quite extensively on the implications of language naming. As another commenter pointed out, he has, in fact, written an article on the subject which was published in the (OPEN ACCESS!) journal Language Documentation and Conservation. So stepping back from my initial reaction, I wanted to consider the argument presented.

The first point to note is that proper names – for people, places, and things like languages – are complex and unique linguistic items. Their degree of specificity (in other words, the limited nature of their referent) makes them function differently than other nouns, including with respect to processes of translation, which is particularly relevant to the example discussed. In Haspelmath’s article, he outlines principles for naming languages for the purposes of the English-language resource Glottolog, which is intended to provide accessible information about lesser-known languages of the world. These principles include some motivations for changing the name of the language, including the possibility that old names become “unacceptable” for some reason and therefore require changing, and that speakers themselves should be the central in bringing forward that objection. He also acknowledges complexity in establishing how these objections emerge, especially in cases where there is no formal body that speaks for “the community” to which the language belongs (the idea of an easily definable “community” is one that I have also pointed out as problematic for purposes of “community-based” research, so I appreciate this point).

At the same time, I think there is a fundamental point missing in the article as a whole, and definitely in the short conversation that emerged under the constraints of 140 character interactions. That point is one that we, as anthropologists, are always hammering at: context.

Part of my snappy response to Haspelmath’s tweet was based on what I still find to be incredibly condescending in his judgment about the use of “Kanien’kéha” instead of “Mohawk” – the idea that the decision to use the former term denies the language an English form and therefore impoverishes it. In this formulation, the English language name, and the apparent accessibility that it provides to a general audience, is a pathway for transference of wealth, a formulation that reeks of colonial ideologies. And, as others commented in the Twitter exchange, this is precisely the grounds on which a name like “Mohawk” is only now starting to fall out of favour – the language acquired its English-language name under circumstances of genocidal violence, land theft, cultural destruction, and linguistic elimination (aka “colonialism”). The quick comparison to Japanese or German completely erases that vast difference in context, and the use of a metaphor like “deprivation” of an English name (when English naming has been primarily used to deprive Indigenous peoples and languages of their value and place in the social order) is downright offensive.

As noted, the article acknowledges a much greater degree of complexity, but still, to my mind, shows some disturbing trends. For one, it unquestioningly accepts certain forms of authority as entitled to sanction name-changes. These include academic prominence (“the usage of prominent authors is given substantial weight”, point 11 on the list outlined on p. 91), or minimally, status as an academic linguist. Where speakers’ own valuations are introduced, it’s with caveats that this is best done within defined structures of community authority – and while, as I’ve already noted, communities are incredibly complex things, these types of organizations are often formed in relation to and using models based in colonial governments. All in all, the result is a context in which colonial terms of reference and academic hierarchies are used as gatekeepers to a community’s right to self-definition and self-labeling, and that’s uncomfortable at best.

In the end, I want to call in to question the central assumption Haspelmath introduces to the conversation – that language names are, first and foremost, English words. Without delving in to a long theoretical argument about how the boundaries – and even the idea of boundedness – of languages are socially constructed, and not objective, entities, this claim works to define the context on terms that centralize English-speaking users of the names. In other words, rather than attuning to nuanced multilingual contexts of the meaning of different types of English-language names, it creates a context in which the rules are set, first and foremost, by English speakers, and, ultimately, colonial ideologies about language and its meanings. This is not to dismiss the problem Haspelmath faces with respect to his Glottolog project, which requires him to make decisions about the names assigned to and information given about a huge range of languages, many of which are currently undergoing shifts in sociopolitical status and meaning as a result of language revitalization projects and other Indigenous rights initiatives. But it is to emphasize that the project of naming and cataloguing languages is an act of power, situated within fields of power that are both pre-existing and actively created by the language namers.

Power and context, and the power to create context, may not be explicitly acknowledged, but they are never in fact absent from discussions about languages and the language we use to talk about them. Indeed, in the context of motivating his work on Glottolog, Haspelmath’s tweet makes a lot more sense – but even there, the role that English (and those who define the boundaries of what counts as English) plays in these descriptions should not be presumed as a neutral field. I could outline some specifics of my discomfort with “Mohawk” over “Kanien’kéha”, but ultimately these are less significant than my discomfort with accepting English as the field that sets the rules about language names. Hard to change? Of course it is. But no one said decolonization would be easy.

Translating “Mansplaining”

This article on The Establishment has been thoroughly linked in the rounds of linguist Twitter (sidenote: my favourite Twitter [ed: wow, you really are a nerd]), and for good reason. It contains several fun and informative things – an account of how useful new terms work, crowdsourcing, and creative multilingual language play. On the one hand, it speaks for itself, but I want to add to a few of its points, and then be a killjoy just for a minute.

  1. The ‘splain morpheme as a wondrous piece of semantic change. While the article covers the origins, meaning, and spread of the term “mansplaining” quite well, it only briefly touches on how productive the “splain” morpheme has become. There are widespread examples of it with any form of dominant identity as the prefix –
    Grateful acknowledgment for this meme goes to Femina Invicta 


    whitesplaining, cis-splaining, profsplaining, etc etc etc. It can even be used on its own, as simple “splaining”. Although this Merriam Webster [ed: the go-to dictionary of the resistance…because who knew that would be a thing?] post argues that ‘splain’ predates mansplaining, in the sense of a reduction of the original term “explain” (as in the famous “Lucy, you got some splaining to do” formation), its current use does shift that meaning. “Splaining” is not just “explaining” – it’s a condescending, unnecessary explanation based on the presumption that the splainer knows things and the splainee doesn’t. It’s such a great word that captures such a clear meaning, it’s almost hard to believe it’s not even a decade old.

  2. Semantic traveling. ‘Splaining’, and mansplaining in specific, is also a concept with legs, and as it was likely born on the internet in an age of internet communication, it’s only natural that it should strike some of those who encounter it in English that it may be useful in their native languages as well. Two different types of such applications were documented naturally, as Swedes comfortably borrowed the English term, while Icelandic speakers created a translation with relevant nativized terms and metaphors. Both excellent strategies for different contexts. The later “crowdsourced” list also includes a few examples that have developed on their own (as in they weren’t made up just for the sake of making the suggestion), like the French “mecspliquer”. As a reasonably decent French speaker, I particularly like this one, because it captures the “guy + explain” basic structure, but has the added bonus of punning on the reflexive “m’expliquer” (explain to me).
  3. THAT CROWDSOURCED LIST, OMG. It makes me happy for so many reasons. First, it reveals the varied strategies and selections from homophones to make the words fun and flowing. The Chinese correspondent used discourse-level markers (the wind character) to reinforce the perception of a haughty attitude. Some of the correspondents hesitated because their language lacks some key features – like say, gender marking in Swahili – that are necessary to capturing the translation. It wasn’t impossible to convey the term, you’ll note (the trope of ‘untranslatable terms’ is one for another day), but the structures of the language really do create different ways of expressing ideas.
  4. Inclusion of unusual languages. This deserves its own marker – there are even some endangered and marginalized languages on that list of only 34, which is something distinctly rare. The Mohegan example is particularly striking – the language had its own term for a concept like this, and in response to the inquiry about ‘mansplaining’, a correspondent brought it forward to illustrate a similar concept with different cultural roots. Irish and Welsh are also nice inclusions. Language endangerment contexts often involve a lot of opportunity to think creatively about the languages, developing new forms that sound and feel natural on the languages’ own terms, so it’s nice to see that represented here as well.
  5. We are all verbal artists. One more highlight – it’s worth noting the extensive engagement with the way the words sound. It might be easy to think of new word creation as a somewhat utilitarian enterprise, but as these show, it’s also fun because of semantic play, and it’s poetic. The words take hold because they capture something not just in their meaning, but in the way they sound/feel as we say them. We don’t always pay much attention to this fun point of language, treating it as something that professional wordsmiths get, but normal people don’t. In fact normal people are pretty linguistically fun, which is why I like paying attention to them.
  6. It’s all fun and games, except…Finally, my killjoy moment – yes, it’s presumably intended to be cheeky, but I hate when “cultural universal” is demonstrated by a few dozen examples, the vast majority of which come from Indo-European cultures or a couple of large major non-European ones like Chinese or Arabic. This one admittedly goes farther than most, with the inclusion of Swahili, Mohegan, Tagalog, and Indonesian…but please stop with the use of “universal”. Please?

No, Trump Doesn’t Speak “A Separate Language”

As the world is still reeling with varying levels of disbelief, anger, and fear in the weeks since Donald Trump has taken office in the US, there is still a desire to find some explanation for his popularity. How is it that some groups of people just can’t see through the lies, the manipulations, the threats, and the abject incompetence? What tools could we use to help understand this? With varying degrees of quality, I’ve seen several attempts to answer that question with reference to Trump’s unique public speaking (and Tweeting) style.

Here, I’m picking out a recent example of a Twitter rant that was particularly frustrating to me. I copy it here in screenshot form.



The most frustrating thing about this type of linguistic analysis is that it’s based primarily on assumptions about how language works, which in fact don’t rest on solid ground. Trump’s speaking style is far from a separate ‘language’, and while I appreciate the reference to one of this linguistnerd’s favourite Star Trek episodes, it isn’t remotely similar to that form of metaphorical/mythical/historical talk. The specific quote that is analyzed as three “sentence fragments” is nothing of the sort – each of the three is easily analyzed into its subject/predicate phrase structure, and each could essentially be meaningfully stated on its own as long as you know the pronominal referents (the one element that comes off as grammatically awkward when stated in isolation is the “you” in “You look at what happened in Sweden last night”. Delete the you, however, and you have a very common standard English sentence – I would use the linguistic term hortative to describe it [Ed: You linguists love your technical terms, don’t you?]). Sure, there are connotations and implicatures to what he is saying. But that’s a basic feature of talking, not some uniquely Orwellian “different language” that Trump is using. And in fact, Trump does complete his thought – he doesn’t describe in detail what happened (or, of course, didn’t actually happen at all) in Sweden, not because he’s invoking some reference points only those in the know will understand, but because it’s not the focus of his statement. He finishes the thought with “They’re having problems they never thought possible”. The utterance is entirely grammatical, with maybe one question mark for awkwardness, and at a discourse level, its overall meaning is absolutely clear.

This example annoys me enough to write about first because it was widely shared in my Twitter feed with many thumbs up emojis and exclamation marks of praise, but second because it illustrates a pattern of faux-linguistic analysis that is most often used in a classist/racist manner, rather than against people in power like Trump. It draws on a literary/written/schooled form of “grammatical correctness” to downgrade this way of speaking as not just odd or different, but as full on not English. And while it’s absolutely the case that Trump doesn’t speak as most presidents do in his public addresses, he uses linguistic forms that are extremely common in everyday spoken versions of the language. Generally such contexts have been treated as sites for delivery of prepared oratory, which uses much more literary style. In an everyday conversation, I might easily say something like “Look at what happened with my baby last night, she wouldn’t sleep, I’m having so much trouble concentrating”. I wouldn’t write that in a formal context, but that doesn’t make it “a different language”, and grammatically/stylistically, it’s essentially the same thing. And the vast majority of the time someone assesses these ways of speaking as “ignorant” or somehow fundamentally different/incomprehensible, it’s a form of marginalization of those who don’t regularly employ formal registers and schooled structures.

The thing is, I can relate to the urge to find some way of making sense of what seems like a chasm of difference in reactions to what Trump has to say. While I recoil in horror literally every time he opens his mouth, and while I respond to commentary on “what happened in Sweden” with a locked-in “WTF” face because I know it’s another “alternative fact”, somehow we have to figure out how to communicate that to swaths of people who really do believe actual real truth is a product of a giant fake-news media conspiracy. But, much as I love my discipline and value the explanatory potential that the study of language brings to politics and power, I don’t think the foundation of this divide is in a comprehension of his “language” that his followers have, but we don’t. In this case, I agree with many scholars of colour and critical race theorists who have pointed out that Trump’s popularity among white people is unsurprising in light of the historical and present patterns of white supremacy and racism. If “we” can’t see how those prejudices are being invoked in Trump’s language, or how his followers accept the lies that confirm their underlying views about racialized people, it’s not because “we” don’t speak Trump’s language. It’s because “we” haven’t been paying attention to whiteness.


Thoughts on a Pink Princess Party: Gender & Children


Sometimes being a parent influences my teaching and other times it is my parenting that is influenced by my being an anthropologist, a scientist, a teacher. I no longer know how to keep these roles separate, and indeed am not so uncomfortable when I fail to separate them.

We learn the appropriate ways of thinking and feelings behaving in our society through the process of enculturation. Similarly, socialization is the learning process for the skills we need to successfully interact in our social groups. Teaching gender as a social construct means that anthropologists recognize that socialization and enculturation teach us how we must behave as a gendered individual AND how to recognize other behaviours as gendered within a cultural context. This means that while we are assigned a gender at birth, we must learn what that means.

My husband and I assigned our kid a female gender at birth on the basis of their assigned sex at birth. We gave our kid a name that is identified as female within our culture. However, recognizing that the identities we are assigned at birth do not always “match” our personal identities as we grow and learn, we wanted to ensure our kid was exposed to diverse experiences, objects, and points of reference. Basically we wanted our kid to know that “female” does not necessarily mean sparkly, pink, princesses or other gender stereotypes. So books were purchased showing people in diverse rolls, with skin colours and hair textures and facial features and clothing etc. that are different from those represented in our household. Toys were selected without attention to which aisle in the store they came from. Cars, dinosaurs, dolls, balls, blocks, and costumes all had/have a place in our home. Awesomeness was defined based on personal interests. And it turns out that the last point is an important one.

See my daughter is a sparkly, pink, princess who is obsessed with all things Disney, and she wanted nothing more than a princess party for her fourth birthday. So that’s what she got – an over-the-top princess party. Now this post isn’t to brag about how great of a parent I am because that is far from the truth. It certainly does make clear the privilege I have on so many levels, because that I am privileged is the truth. What inspired this post is one of the things I saw in planning the party – I rented a princess.

It turns out that this is actually a thing (which will not surprise some of you with littles). You can rent an actor to come in full costume and character inspired by those, more often than not, belonging to the very large Disney universe to perform at your child’s party. There are several different companies in our city and each offer different takes on characters (to avoid copyright lawsuits) and packages. Unsurprisingly the more you spend, typically the more “stuff” that’s included in your package. I looked at the companies that focused on Princess Parties but some also had superhero or other characters available as part of their offerings.

What was extremely interesting to me was how the companies addressed gender.

Most companies clearly focused on stereotypes around not just princesses but females in western culture. Activities offered as parts of the packages included make overs, tea parties, and princess etiquette lessons. Some companies would note that other activities could be offered for boys in attendance but these mostly seemed to just include references to dress up items for knights and/or pirates. However some companies are trending towards a more gender inclusive approach.

While clearly a gendered term and while the actors who attend as princesses are female (they are meant to represent specific, beloved, and obsessed over characters), “princess” need not be defined nor represented exclusively as female. Several images used on promotional products for the company we went with show all children participating in various gender neutral activities such as face painting, crafting, singing, and dancing. Our princess painted the faces of any kid in attendance who wanted to have their face painted (I really appreciated the language of consent that was used “Would you like your face painted? May I touch your face?” btw) and offered two choices (shell or fish) based on her character’s world. The craft was for a crown or reindeer antlers because she “recently met a reindeer that another princess has and he was so cute [she] thought reindeer antlers would be perfect for our cold winter day”. She sang a song from “her” movie and read a story about “her” life. Only my daughter was referred to as “princess” because it was her birthday, all other kids were simply “friends”. So the “princess party” was themed to the character but not explicitly to a gender. Further it was inclusive in that the options were participation/non-participation based rather than female/male.

To wrap this up, my experiences with planning the perfect pink princess party as a parent and as an anthropologist reinforced the growing awareness that gender is a cultural construct. At the party I saw kids playing with a character that represented something important and meaningful to them – a princess who my kid described as friendly, fun, silly, kind, and who had a lovely voice. My kid saw qualities they liked, they aspire to embodied in that princess. I can’t find fault with my kid wanting to celebrate her birthday in a way that we might interpret as gendered but which she saw as simply “awesome”.

p.s. I  am also a little biased because I think one princess in particular is very awesome…


Note: I didn’t get compensated for this post. It is really hard to talk about princesses without mentioning Disney because let’s be real, they’ve locked the whole princess thing down!

The Lines of Sociolinguistic Decorum

Here’s the first thing: I love swearing. I mean that in both a personal and a professional sense. I love the act of swearing, but I also love the study of how swearing works. It’s an incredibly poetic area of language – people swear so creatively, anyone who says swearing is evidence of linguistic deficiency is simply not paying attention – and it’s also one where the linguistic and the social are clearly and inextricably intertwined.

Here’s the second thing: I make no qualms about my opposition to the political positions of Kellie Leitch, a candidate for federal Conservative Party leadership who has gone on record praising Donald Trump, and advocated a screening mechanism for immigrants on the basis of their presentation of “Canadian values”.


So this story – ‘Cuck’: a modern swear word that’s as dirty as the old ones –  and the very astute analysis that Leah McLaren brings to it, is another perfect storm about which I am just forced to write (Ed: this blog was your idea, not mine. Stop making it seem like you don’t want to be here). The story has been credited as one of the central forces that led to the resignation of Nick Kouvalis as Leitch’s campaign manager – no small feat for an article about words!

The thing this article really drives home is the complexity of what counts as a swear word and what that means for the usage patterns of different types of vulgar language or insults. As an example, McLaren notes that the word being discussed – ‘cuck’ – is, once you understand its meaning, so clearly vulgar and offensive that it’s surprising that it’s publishable in a respectable newspaper like the Globe and Mail. This highlights the inherent question that we’re dealing with when we think about swearing – is it the meaning that makes a word offensive, or is it the form? The short version is…both. And neither. And it depends. Some examples might help here.

  1. McLaren points to and clearly explains how the meaning associated with the use of “cuck” as a political insult is a) racist, b) sexist, and c) drawn from internet porn, which would seem to be an excellent recipe for “guaranteed taboo term in appropriate for polite contexts”. But it’s not disallowed from the newspaper she writes for (though some instances reporting on the Twitter exchange in question are prefaced with a “Warning: Vulgar Language Ahead” sign), primarily because the newspaper’s rules are based on the listing of forms, not meanings that are disallowed. The connections and connotations underlying neologistic forms would have to be argued as needing to be included on this list (a case that McLaren herself seems to be making with her article), as it seems like it wouldn’t make sense for an organization to list a set of meanings or connotations that are prohibited.
  2. There are any number of cases where we can replace a taboo word with one that is, in terms of denotation at least, semantically equivalent, and suddenly it’s ok. The referent for “shit”, “crap”, and even the childish “poo poo” are the same thing, so no matter how much we want to pretend that we forbid words on the basis of some kind of logical pattern of conceptual taboos, something else is definitely at work. That said, there is such a thing as euphemistic drift, whereby if a substitution is made often enough as a swearing replacement – “oh, crap” as an interjection meaning “bad thing just happened”, or “crappy” for something bad, in addition to just the literal meaning of the term – it comes to have some level of prohibition itself. A certain proportion of parents wouldn’t let their kids say “crap”, or in some circles, even “darn it”, any more than they would “shit” or “damn it”. Again, the meaning and sound relationship is complicated.
  3. I’m fascinated by how this plays out in terms of “what you can say on tv”. Battlestar Galactica‘s invented term “frak” was among the most interesting examples of this, as the term became a direct substitute for literally every possible time we would use “fuck” – “that fraking cylon”, “she fraked him”, “FRAK!” Again, from the network regulators’ perspective, it was clearly the form that was prohibited, rather than the meaning. There are segments of the population that clearly subscribe to this understanding of what makes certain words problematic – these were the ones who couldn’t get past the idea that it was the vulgarity of the word “pussy” that made that Donald Trump recording so upsetting.
  4. This form/meaning dynamic plays out in especially interesting ways when it comes to racial slurs – this is a topic that deserves a whole post of its own at some point, but for now, I’ll just plant the seed of thinking about how people draw on etymological arguments (accurate or otherwise) to make very specific claims about why the Washington football team’s name should be changed (preview note: I absolutely think it should be changed. I just don’t think the argument from etymology is the best claim to make for that).

In short, McLaren makes a great point about just how shocking it is, once you understand the implications, to hear the use of an insult like ‘cuck’, and I think Kouvalis was absolutely correct to resign on the basis that he is apparently incapable of modulating his language in a public, professional setting. And now I will watch with some care to see whether the word continues to be publishable in major Canadian newspapers, and think about what that says about our contemporary relationship with the semantics, rather than the phonetics of vulgarity.



The Politics of Bilingualism

Last week, 13 of the candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) faced off in a French-language debate. Kevin O’Leary, who has quickly taken the lead in the race [Ed.: WHELP!], is noticeably absent from that list because he didn’t declare his candidacy until a few days after the debate had taken place – a fact that did not register as coincidental for many observers.

Unfortunately for francophone Canada, for the majority of these candidates, the political ideas, commitments, and capacity for engaged discussion were not really available for them to assess, due to the limited French-language skills many of them had. Of the 13, two were native French speakers, and, according to a panel of reviewers organized by the CBC, only two of the non-native speakers demonstrated the ability to, well, debate in the French language (ie. communicate without reliance on pre-written notes).

There are a couple of things this illustrates about the politics of bilingualism (and the bilingualism of politics) in Canada.

  1. Despite the basic premise of official bilingualism, it requires little scratching of the surface to observe that this is a very assymetrical bilingualism. It is possible for monolingual anglophones to achieve a high level of political success at the federal level, while the reverse is almost unfathomable. Prime Minister Jean Chretien comes to mind as an example of a francophone whose accented English was frequently mocked or critiqued in English Canada, but in truth his ability to express himself fluently in both languages was quite strong (and any issues with his pronunciation were also related to his childhood Bell’s palsy, the mocking of which is certainly textbook ableism). In short, though: any candidate for leadership of a nationwide party (the term ‘nationwide’ there communicating the exception of the Bloq Quebecois, which only runs candidates in Quebec [Ed.: Canadian politics is complicated, yo]) that couldn’t debate in English would quite simply never consider a run.
  2. I don’t think it’s a coincidence this linguistic gap is so significant within the Conservative Party in particular. The regionalized nature of Canadian politics is such that the CPC is able to focus on winning seats mainly in the West and in suburban Ontario, and Quebec is not a factor. The Liberal party, and recently the NDP, relies heavily on campaigning in Quebec in order to win a significant number of seats and contend for government. The ways in which this regional pattern of partisanism maps onto language generates a self-reinforcing dynamic that ultimately strengthens the connections between language-region-partisan politics in ways that, to my mind unfortunately, limit the terms of debate. Some analysts believe the CPC needs to pay more attention to Quebec in forthcoming elections, but it’s also possible they could campaign with more force in Atlantic Canada and Ontario in order to gain back the seats Trudeau took in 2015.
  3. Say what you will about the poor showing in French of some of the candidates in the debate – at least they showed up and made an effort to communicate their positions to francophone Canada. Kevin O’Leary, in choosing to completely avoid the debate (by days), dismisses the very notion that the French language, and the concerns of its speakers, matter to his vision for Canada. O’Leary likes to claim that being from Montreal, he is able to understand Quebecois concerns, but detaching Quebecois from the French language seems like a recipe for failure (in Quebec, and with French speakers across the country) to me.
  4. As Celine Cooper observes in the analysis I also linked above, the language skills of each of the various candidates can’t be detached from the way that language policy is organized across the country – with each province taking responsibility for education, and official language teaching incorporated often as an obligation rather than as something that provinces understand to be central to their locally-based needs, it requires some effort for individuals to obtain English-French bilingualism. If widespread bilingualism were to become a real priority, the federal and provincial governments would have to work out a way to implement that; the fact that language policy in Canada has remained essentially static for decades would seem to indicate we are fine with the regionalized distribution of our official languages, and everything this implies for electoral politics.

It feels a bit indulgent to be writing this during the days after Donald Trump has firmly put down his signpost in the realm of the “English Only” movement in the United States by deleting the Spanish language version of the White House web pages, but I am often surprised at how even Canadians seem to lack understanding of the social dynamics underlying official bilingualism in this country. Language policy, as it turns out, is a complex thing that can’t be reduced to what happens on paper, but has to be understood in relation to what it looks like in practice.

Intertextual Politics in the Trump Era

I have to admit I’ve been feeling a bit shell-shocked as I’ve watched the inauguration of President Donald Trump from across the border. It still seems surreal, and unfair, and like something, anything, has to make it go away. But it’s real, and we continue to wait to see what it will mean.

That includes watching to see what it means for politics in Canada. While we have a different set of cultural expectations, a different political system, and a different team of players, it would be a mistake to assume that it would be impossible for a similar wave of white resentment, regionalized economic anxiety, misogyny against female politicians, and validation of outright lies to take over this country as well. In our parliamentary system, a leadership race happens when it is needed because the previous leader has stepped down, not according to a set electoral clock (Ed: Thank Cthulhu, because I feel like I can’t remember a time when the Americans have not been absorbed in this neverending series of primaries and elections). As coincidences would have it, the Conservative parties of both the country and my province (Alberta) are in the midst of leadership races. Watching the campaigns and the discourses around them, the influence of Trump’s victory, and his tactics, is undeniable, and the use of intertextual references makes the whole thing rather chilling to me.

Let me take an aside to define the term and illustrate what I think is its most powerful manifestation in this political context. Intertextuality basically refers to the way that we use elements of other texts in order to root the meaning of what we are saying in relation to those previous texts. So beginning a speech with “I have a dream”, regardless of what you say next, will always result in having it judged in relation to Martin Luther King’s famous words. During the Trump campaign, and since his victory, the most gutting intertextual reference, for me, has been to his now-infamous “Grab them by pussy” recorded comments. Immediately afterwards, women responded to this by invoking its vulgarity in a message of empowerment. T-shirts and posters appeared saying that on November 8, “Pussy grabs back”. But when he won, his words took on even more power than they had before – women attending protest marches after the election, or women whose bumper stickers revealed them as Clinton supporters, were approached by groups of men using Trump’s very words. The threat of sexual assault – always horrible – became something even deeper as a result of the specific word choice that linked it to the behaviour and implicit sanction of the man who is now running the entire country. Trump’s ongoing aggressive refusal to display even a minimal amount of grace and political decorum is echoed by his supporters’ creation of t-shirts that indicate they intend to violently dominate, rather than governing, the country. On the other hand, the incredible turnout on Saturday for the Women’s March opposing Trump and the violent misogyny he stands 16245029_10154686273846293_614535326_ofor and enables took this intertextual point to the next level with the widespread wearing of homemade “pussy hats” (witness the one worn by my esteemed colleague Biittner in the photo, which also includes an *additional* point of intertextual awesomeness in which General Leia Organa has become an inspiring face of this real-life resistance now that her portrayer, the inimitably fierce Carrie Fisher, has passed). While I think the criticism that the women’s march movement needs to find ways to ensure they are trans-inclusive (ie not every woman has the body part represented here), the potency of the multimodal (knit hats being used to bring words to more tangible metaphorical form) intertextual forms make me loathe to give them up completely.

This goes to show how a phrase can first come to mean something much bigger than it did when it was originally said, and how that expansion in meaning plays out in intertextual forms. So what are we seeing creeping across the border to Canadian politics? The one phrase that struck me the most was the chant “Lock Her Up” being applied to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley by a group of people who oppose the recently implemented carbon tax. The significance of that particular expression in that new context is that it only could have been used because it was one adopted by Trump’s supporters in their opposition to Hillary Clinton. While I think the threat to imprison one’s political opponents on, at best, spurious accusations of criminal wrongdoing is among the things that makes this president utterly terrifying, at least they made an accusation of criminal action. Since Notley hasn’t been accused of anything, the only source of meaning for those chanting “Lock Her Up” is its intertextual referent. The implication is less that she’s criminal (no one even said she was), but that she’s a left-ish female politician who needed to be put in her place. Earlier, a supporter of Jason Kenney’s campaign to lead Alberta’s conservatives made a red hat with white capital letter text that said make Alberta debt-free again“. On the website for the Fox-News-but-less-professional news organization Rebel Media, you can buy similarly styled hats that say “Make Canada Great Again”, and the phrase was used in a November 10 headline on the website of the Council of European Canadians (neither of these sites are ones I’m willing to link to), as well as in white supremacist poster campaigns.

I don’t mean to pretend that the use of these slogans necessarily indicates that Canadian politicians are going to adopt policies or practices that are in any way similar to Trump’s. But these phrasings show that, for at least some proportion of Canadian conservatives, invoking the image of Trump, even at his most vile, is a good thing. That’s what those forms of intertextuality are getting at, and for those of us who are on heightened alert of how to prevent a similar political disaster from taking hold in Canada, they’re worth paying attention to.

This past week, we had the announcement of an outspoken, proudly “politically incorrect” businessman-cum-reality-tv-personality entering into the leadership race for the federal Conservative party. While I’ve yet to come across any explicit intertextuality in O’Leary’s campaign, I’ll definitely be on the lookout for it. In the meantime, there’s another set of points to analyze about the discourse patterns these two men share, and how they are seen by their supporters and by their opponents.

It’s been a long week, and its meaning is reverberating. It will for a long time.