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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
In observing the last several months of public discourse about sexual violence in the wake of the allegations against several powerful Hollywood men, I am both heartened and incredibly frustrated by the way this conversation is happening. It is, for me, positive to see the spaces being created for people to articulate the big and small ramifications of male dominance, rape culture, and gendered economic inequality. The structure of sexual violence is not one in which every attack is equally vicious or harmful, it is one in which there are thousands of constant paper cuts coexisting with life-threatening stab wounds. It is a world where the ability to say ‘no’ to powerful men is undermined not just through their use of physical force or economic coercion, but also through repeated, minor dismissals of our wishes, our pleasure, our consent.
Fast forward to this week, when a woman using the pseudonym Grace came forward with a story about a “bad date” with comedian Aziz Ansari. This story has quickly become the most hotly debated sexual encounter of 2018, as countless people are writing think-pieces about the nature of consent, digging in to the details of the interaction as Grace describes it, considering Ansari’s apology, and offering their conclusions about whether this was criminal, whether it was simply terrible, or whether Grace is just completely over-reacting. Here are a handful of the more well-done pieces on the topic:
But then there is a piece in the New York (won’t link it, sorrynotsorry) entitled “Aziz Ansari is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind-Reader”, and plenty of people are on board with that basic notion.
Here’s the thing – sexual encounters are communicative encounters, and the giving of consent is a socially rooted linguistic/communicative act. The debate about this encounter is fundamentally one about how language, meaning, and understanding work. An important ideological position is being staked out in the NYT article, and it’s one that articulates concepts ‘consent’ and ‘intent’ as properties within the various parties’ minds. Since that is their locus, we cannot possibly access through observation of their actions. How was Ansari supposed to recognize her lack of consent, the reasoning goes, if her communication was only nonverbal, if she was merely hesitating rather than outright shouting, if she didn’t get around to saying ‘no’ until after several rounds of deflection?
However, as all of the sociolinguists and linguistic anthropologists I follow on social media have been observing, this interaction reflects very common patterns used in communicating refusals. Conversation analysts Celia Kitzinger and Hannah Frith published an excellent article on this way back in 1999. Kitzinger and Frith illustrate the way that politeness expectations dictate our expression of refusal, and note that we are very strongly socialized against giving a hard no – and further, that men and women alike are, in general, perfectly capable of recognizing refusals that are communicated through deflection, hesitation, subject changes, and mitigation. We generally don’t even imagine that people wouldn’t be able to see this…except when the interaction in question is one of the most intimate possible.
Think of the last time someone invited you to do something you really didn’t want to do. Did you say “NO!” and run in the opposite direction? Or did you say “I’m busy that night”? Or maybe you gave an explanation, like “I actually really hate mountain climbing, but thanks for the invite!” What if someone offers you a taste of food that they clearly love, but you think looks like warmed up snotballs? Do you say “OH HELL NO”? Or do you hesitate, move your face away, give a bit of a grimace, and shake your head?It’s true, maybe your answer to these questions is that you jump straight to the no. And it’s worth thinking about what makes you able to do that – if you’re in a power position, it’s somewhat easier to say “no” directly, than if you’re not. If you ask your boss for a raise, they have more ability (and actual training, in many cases) to say “absolutely not” in a direct way than you have if said boss comes to you and asks you if you can take on an additional work task. So you can also think about the last time you invited someone over for a party – if their answer was ‘maybe’, you were probably considering any number of other aspects of how they said it (intonation, eye gaze, posture, other added comments) in figuring out whether they meant “I really want to but I have to check my work schedule” or “Don’t actually count on it”.
My point here is, there is empirical linguistic evidence about how refusals work in a number of different contexts, and there is additional empirical anthropological work examining how meta-discourses about our ability to interpret different forms of communication can either reproduce or reconfigure relations of social power. My frustration, then, is twofold: first, that these powerful and dangerous ideologies about consent and its elusive, gray nature are still circulating in high-profile contexts as well as in general discourse, and second, that I have seen almost no engagement with work on the linguistics of refusal and consent in any of the discussions. This is an area where our expertise is highly relevant and easily accessible (in the sense that the information presented is generally not hidden behind jargon and complex social theory), so it’s frustrating to see journalistic commentary fail to use the evidence provided to support the arguments they are making. I know linguists and linguistic anthropologists are making these points on their blogs and social media feeds, but they don’t seem (to me) to be cracking the mainstream discourse.
There’s more to unpack here about, again, the recognition of expertise and validation of different forms of empirical research, which I’ll just file away as a side point. For now, I’ll sum up – refusals are always complex linguistic acts, and we use a ton of contextual cues to identify them, because they’re a highly socially regulated territory. This doesn’t mean consent falls into so-called ‘gray areas’ or that we require mind-reading abilities to identify anything other than a direct ‘no’. It means we have a ton of skills around this, the evidence from linguistic research demonstrates our ability to navigate these acts, and we need to think about claims not to recognize refusals in sexual encounters as deliberate acts that go against all social training, rather than as accidents and natural misinterpretations.
In recent years, several groups in Eastern Canada, and especially Quebec, have been pushing for recognition as “Métis”, or otherwise Indigenous. Their claims rest on a number of ideas that are, at best, dubious, and that ultimately function to undermine, erode, and erase Indigenous rights and identities. Excellent work outlining both the ideology of “métissage” that they invoke and the anti-Indigenous ways in which they function has been published by scholars like Chris Andersen, Adam Gaudry, and Daryl Leroux (academic book by the former here, excellent and easily accessible article by the latter two here). As these authors illustrate, these “self-Indigenization” strategies ultimately support the agenda of a settler colonial state in which “Indigeneity” is a meaningless concept.
I have little to add to the work that these scholars have done on the historical and political complexities of these claims and their implications for Indigenous (and particularly Métis) people, but I do want to say a bit about the ways in which words and meaning are invoked in this discussion.
It was through Leroux’s Twitter feed that this (especially heinous) example came to my attention. In this case, the leader of a white supremacist organization claims the label of “autochtone” (translated as “Aboriginal”) for himself because all it takes, in the “literal sense of the word”, is for you, personally, to have been born in the territory you wish to claim. This is, as Leroux and others make clear, a way of directly undermining the rights of Indigenous nations by rendering “autochtony” or Aboriginality something that essentially anyone can have access to. This also occurs through efforts to “prove” a shallow time depth for Indigenous presence in the Americas, a topic that Dr. Biittner dives into from the archaeological perspective in this post, and through discourses that situate Indigenous people as “just earlier settlers” in order to invalidate their positions.
In addition to dubious grasp of politics and history that these claims represent, they also draw on a view of language and meaning that is both flimsy and incredibly common in mainstream North American contexts – the idea that meaning is best determined by examining origins, etymology, and the breakdown of components of a word. Jane Hill refers to this as a “baptismal ideology” and shows, in her fantastic book The Everyday Language of White Racism, how it shapes a variety of positions in relation to the use of slurs (I unpack this a bit here). It emerges in slightly different ways here. The attempts to gain power of a particular form depend on enregistering a very specific definition of the words that are involved . “Métis” must be “directly” translated as ‘mixed’, so that Métis identity is not a political category, but rather one determined within white Euro-American biological categories. “Aboriginal” must be broken into its component parts to say that it is based on a personal – again, in contrast to a legal and political – ability to place oneself as an individual within the history of the land. Other borrowed words are allowed to undergo changes of meaning – the story that the name “Canada” derives from a word meaning “village” does not cause anyone to object that it can’t be a real label for an entire nation, for example, so why are the Métis asked to be so beholden to etymology?
In making this claim, then, people are articulating a position on the politics of Indigeneity, and about the nature of language and the source of its meanings. And this latter element is remarkably prevalent, despite the fact that many who disagree with these political claims see it as transparently ridiculous when applied in these cases. In this example, it is further intriguing that the journalists translate the word for which the writer offers a “literal” definition (“autochtone) into English (as “Aboriginal”) and, in doing so, imply that his claim about literality and meaning transcends the linguistic boundaries. I would suggest that in translating and then uncritically repeating his claim, the authors of the newspaper article are doing even more work to assign authority to his view of how meaning works, and further revealing assumptions about some kind of permanent core to semantic connections that hold no matter what transformations happen in space and time. [Ed: What now? SS: Sorry. That’s probably more complex than I can manage for a blog post].
Mainstream dictionaries ultimately help to support this position, whether they want to or not, in the degree to which they refer to etymologies, origins, and first uses, which are then taken as markers of authoritative meaning. So, too, do linguists providing glosses of unfamiliar languages, where we love to show how we can work out a morphological puzzle and reveal how the word for ‘computer’ in some language is built out of words for, say, ‘brain+machine’. This is fun to see, but, especially as these linguistic stories are popularized for mainstream audiences, can lead to the perception that speakers of these languages perceive these objects in terms of those components, when in fact this is simply a widespread pattern of word formation.
“What a word really means” is a powerful rhetorical tool. The “literal” definition, often invoked by referring to “the” dictionary (a topic I looked at, along with Lavanya Murali Proctor and Michael Oman-Reagan, from another angle in this Sapiens article), by pointing to the “original” meaning, or by deconstructing the morphemes in a word, is something that North American English speakers believe in very strongly…when it suits them and upholds specific types of political beliefs. The word “literally” is a good example of this in and of itself, as many people insist that the movement to using it as, essentially, a qualifier, is the current crisis in the English language (but hint: think about the breakdown of the word “really” and ask yourself whether you always use it to describe that which is straightforwardly real).
The meaning of words (and expressions, and any number of other symbols) comes from a number of different places, and it’s difficult to pin down the notion of a single ‘true’ or authoritative meaning. What we can see well in these discussions isn’t necessarily the ‘true’ meaning of the words themselves, but in fact the beliefs that people hold about where that meaning comes from, and what they do both to the meaning of the words and their political implications by making those claims about meaning. It isn’t an accident that there is a relationship between these political positions and the perception that semantics must work in a particular way, that there is a ‘rational’ (read: rooted in white masculinist literate thought traditions) way of understanding ‘meaning’. Indigenous people and those who seek to support Indigenous rights are forced to argue not only about the political enactment of their rights, but about the very conceptual foundation of their existence, represented in the availability of terms that can describe the legal relationship that they have to the land on which they live.
I was pithy about it in my response to this tweet on Twitter, where I said “that’s not how words work”, but the point holds – this isn’t how meaning works. The so-called ‘literal’ meaning of a word is a construct, just as a legal, political, or yes, dictionary descriptive, definition of a word is a construct. The relationships of specific meaning, and the nature of meaning in general, is a highly political project, and it is one that right wing organizations like La Meute clearly understand as having power. Disrupting that power is necessary, and a lot more significant than simply “arguing semantics”.
For the last few months, we’ve experienced a growing onslaught of stories about powerful men (in Hollywood, politics, and academia) being accused of sexual violence of various forms. I will state up front that this is not a conversation in which I am willing to debate the merits of the accusations – telling these stories publicly requires great courage on the part of victims, who have little to gain and much to lose, and I believe them.
The responses from the accused have been varied, and subject to much discussion that I want to weigh in on here, however briefly, as I poke my head out from under a mountain of grading. Two in particular stand out: those of Louis CK and Kevin Spacey. Both of these have been described as “apologies”, but simultaneously criticized as non-apologies. Within the last few days, Al Franken’s statement has been added to this list of questionable apologies, even though his includes just about all the formal elements one could possibly expect to see in such a statement. One question worth asking, as Jacob Sugarman does here, is whether a ‘public apology’ will ever be judged as ‘good’.
From a linguistic anthropological perspective, there are several elements at work here that are worthy of discussion.
Apologies as speech acts, and the conditions that are needed to make them felicitous.
The participants and participant roles that are involved in a public apology.
The social and structural motivations leading to the performance of different types of apologies.
First off, while I have talked previously about the ways we can consider multiple types of
speech as actions, apologies live in that category of speech for which the concept of ‘speech act theory’ was prototypically developed by philosophers like Searle and Austin. Speech acts are forms of language where the speaking constitutes the doing – making promises, for example – and whose meaning should be judged not in terms of propositional truth, but in terms of ‘felicity’. A speech act is judged felicitous if it works to do what it says. For promises, this is contingent on the sincerity of the speaker, both in the moment and in future, and on the perceived or actual ability of that speaker to successfully carry out the actions associated with the promise in question (I could promise that I will get something done on time, for example, but you may have many reasons to doubt that I will successfully do so, one of which might be that you know I’m writing this blog post right now instead of doing that thing). Anthropologists have critiqued the original formulations of this theory as failing to account for widely varying cultural perceptions about the relationship between a speaking ‘self’ and the types of statements encoded under speech acts, but it remains a useful concept to examine in its culturally specific manifestations.
Apologies are, in most English speaking environments, clearly speech acts, and the set of conditions needed to make them ‘work’ has been widely discussed. These properties, for the most part, emerge as functional criteria rather than formal ones. In other words, we cannot assess the merits of an apology based on the specific words or structures it does or does not include; rather, we attune to what happens in the social relationship within which the apology is situated. Janet Holmes* describes them as ways of “restoring the equilibrium” between the parties involved by addressing the “face-needs” of the victim of the action being apologized for.
The context here is a somewhat unusual one – these are public apologies for more or less private offenses. They differ from ‘political’ apologies (a topic about which my Language & Power class had a fantastic discussion emerging from Bonnie McElhinny’s** recent article on Canadian political apologies) in that they are issued by a public figure as a result of their actions as an individual, not in their role as a representative of a political organization. In part, what this means is that there is some discussion about who is receiving the apology, and who the participants are in this speech act. There are the specific, sometimes named, victims, which would make the apologies of the ‘normal’ interpersonal type. But at the same time, there is a public that is clearly invoked as receiving the apology. There are audiences, constituencies, co-workers, and fans who are situated as having been harmed and, if the explosion of responses and assessments of these apologies is any indication, who view themselves as appropriately able to accept or reject the proffered apologies. As that linked Alternet/Salon article indicates, this is a tough crowd to please, and it’s possible that there is no way to deliver an apology of this type that will be received without contestation and pushback. One element that became clear in our class discussions about political apologies is that in North American society, we retain a heavy emphasis on “actions speaking louder than words”, especially when it comes to apologies. The best anyone of these men can hope for is that we will wait and see what kind of change may come with respect to behaviour.
Before looking specifically at the three exemplars referenced here, I want to give an overview of my third point – there is a reason this is all happening now. One element I really like about McElhinny’s article is that she examines why, in the last 10-15 years, we’ve seen such an explosion of apologies offered by states for wrongs of the past. Specifically, she highlights how it serves the needs of neoliberal multicultural politics by legitimating certain claims to redress and implicitly delegitimizing others by not offering apologies for them. It’s clear to anyone observing right now that the apologies being offered by these men cannot be detached from current political concerns and debates – not only are they occurring as a result of the dam that was opened with the Weinstein accusations, they are also a response to outrage at the election of a president who admitted on tape to sexual assaulting women simply because his power let him do it. These circumstances obviously lead us to question the sincerity of the apologies in light of the public relations necessity they have become, but they also offer useful lenses into what else the accused men invoke in their statements.
With all that in mind, let’s look at what is happening in the language of these apologies. First, how do they fit in to different apology ‘types’? While an explicit apology (a statement that directly says “I am sorry”) is most obvious, it is possible to have a successful apology without these words – there are no formal universals, after all, and someone saying “I will never do that again” may be just as or more meaningful that “I’m sorry” in defining a victim’s response. Expressions of regret are also key components, and the way in which an ‘explanation’ is invoked in apology statements becomes subject to heavy scrutiny.
Of the three apologies in question, a formal consideration of what they do and don’t include reveals that Franken’s is the most direct and explicit in its apology. He says “The first and most important thing [to say]….is I’m sorry”. He prefaces this with a list of people to whom he is offering the apology, then expands into an explanation and reflection on the social context in which he situates both his past actions and his present apology. Various listeners will have different responses to his sincerity here, and to how this apology relates to his previous denial that the events happened as they were remembered by his accuser. His, in particular, however, clearly exists in a framework in which all of these other apologies, responses, and statements have taken place, and in which he wants to take a stance directly about violence against women and gendered power.
Spacey’s statement, by contrast, does have the words “I owe him the sincerest apology” and “I am sorry”, but they are heavily mitigated with the surrounding language, which notably avoids direct admission that the accusations are true and sets the harm in the victim’s feelings rather than in the accused’s actions. This construction is famously lambasted as a part of insincere apologies, and again manifests the ideological belief that a focus on action is paramount, because actions are the primarily source of impact. What is most heinous about Spacey’s apology, of course, is the qualifying information he offers. Although he doesn’t directly say that his sexuality is the explanation for his behaviour, the position it takes within his short apology statement clearly suggests it is intended to play that role. He aims to place his response in a political context that celebrates coming out, that recognizes the struggles that gay men and queer people specifically continue to face, and that challenges heterosexist dominance. In putting this coming out in the explanation position, however, he ultimately suggests that sexual assault is caused by gayness, as well as re-centering his apparent apology on his own closeted suffering. The felicity conditions in this one are…pretty clearly not there.
Louis CK I have saved to the last because it has been, from what I can tell, the most contentious of the three, in that there is wide variation in whether or not people believe it meets the conditions of a true apology. The statement has been labeled an apology even though, as many have been quick to point out, CK never says “I apologize” or “I am sorry”. He does, however, do many of the other things associated with an apology, which Spacey clearly does not. He admits the truth of the stories, he discusses his regret, he assesses the various types of harm that he has done, and he outlines a specific plan of action that he will take (in this case, simply listening). The key feature that is making many dismiss CK’s statement as an infelicitous apology is his explanation section, in which he seems to reproduce exactly the problem that women are calling attention to in the current climate – the ways in which powerful men justify their actions precisely through reference to their social, economic, and political power. He did not understand these actions to be wrong, he says, because he was convinced of the weight of these women’s admiration. That, coupled with the degree to which CK talks about the pain of others primarily through reference to his own experience of struggle with that pain, is a sign that his entry into this sadly-still-repeating drama of public apologies will be judged on the ‘failed’ side. He sees the politics in which the apology takes place, but he misses the mark on how they work.
What’s the takeaway message from all of this? I’m not entirely sure I have one, to be honest. I am watching with skepticism the claims emerging that we have seen a watershed moment that shifts the view of sexual violence by powerful public figures, as I’m not confident we have yet reached a point that will really change things. The debates and assessments and ideologically rooted analyses of these various apologies are examples of why I feel pessimistic. There are a great number of people who, especially with respect to CK and Franken, feel that these statements mean that discussion of their actions should be over, and to me, this shows exactly what many are highlighting that all of this is about – the basic needs of women, as humans in the workplace and as victims in a public apology, are to be put aside for the comfort, economic advancement, and egos of powerful men. And if I can fight that with linguistics, well, I’ll do my best.
*Holmes, Janet 1989. Sex Differences and Apologies: One Aspect of Communicative Competence. Applied Lingusitics 10(2): 194-221
**McElhinny, Bonnie 2016. Reparations and Racism, Discourse and Diversity: Neoliberal Multiculturalism and the Canadian Age of Apologies. Language & Communication 51: 50-68
Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Daliso Mwanza, a student in Dr. Shulist’s seminar class on Language and Power. It was completed as a response to the book Confronting the Death Penalty: How Language Influences Jurors in Capital Cases by Robin Conley, and originally posted on Dali’s own blog.
The topic and environment of capital sentencing is quite frankly compelling when trying to capture the essence of state level violence. I could list a few theorists such as Michel Foucault, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Antonio Gramsci, Karrebaek, and Mehan that have all discussed the mechanics of meaning, socialization, power, and the language that perpetuates these three topics. The entity of “The Law” often referred to as something all knowing or the order to our society, but to gain such formative power, society needs to feed into its legitimacy in all of our interactions. This sort of relationship between people and a system is best described by a fellow classmate of mine and brilliant critical thinker, Ruth Werbiski. How they put it, the entity of law itself creates codified rules and responsibilities that every citizen should follow through consent and coercion, which is understood as order by society. In a way this is a form of omnipresent violence that every citizen understands but some will follow and some will break, but the power is still in the hands of the law. The law feeds from the response of citizens, because it requires society to socialize each other to follow said entity, inherently feeding into it and making it grow bigger and bigger. Other institutions such as family, education, and politics aid in the growth of “Law and Order”, sometimes with the use of discourse of safety and also fear. This is where my colleague aided me in picturing the nature of Law- The Creature.
This ^ is the nature Law-The Creature.
As Ruth stated, it is comprised of multiple different parts (institutions) in our society that teach us to conform to the system of law, giving it more power. Within this process people gain an identity in relation to Law, and this is where we see the creation of jurors in capital sentencing.
Don’t get me wrong, capital punishment is pretty fucked up for so many reasons and I will get into those reasons, BUT (yes big ol but) the structures surrounding those reasons are extremely interesting and somehow offer us anthropologists a gaze into a striking aspect of human behaviour and socialization. Recall the relationship between the Law and society that was painted oh so eloquently? Yes? Great! Well in the center of that relationship is a driving force that allows the perpetuatuation and efficiency of the death sentence, and that is Objectivity.
Throughout the book, Objectivity is what allows jurors to perform the judgement of someone’s life. Firstly, objectivity is a socialized trait that is required of each jury member to remain unbiased and most importantly keeping emotion out of their judgments. The way Emotion was tied together with empathy, therefore it was not supposed to be offered the defendants. How I see it, emotion is something that cannot be turned off whenever a person sees it fit, especially in the highly emotional act of taking someone’s life. Secondly, there is the use of deitics/distancing when jurors are placed in “face-to-face encounters” with defendants. In my opinion I feel that deitics sole tool that allows the jury, defendant, and state to kill and do so while feeling sure that it was the right thing to do. We see this performance of dehumanizing, distancing, and judgement in colonial violence; war and within our modern society. Distancing allows us to be rid of empathy towards another humans life, and if we are to examine deitics within socialized objectivity in court, we can see that the state has created a language towards criminals that allows the jury to perform the act of killing. Jurors are found saying such things as “Murders are not people and do not deserve the oxygen they breathe”, this is an ideology to crime that is socialized and shared within our education systems that tell us to fear the other along with their behaviour. This made me think about the Sif Karrebaek article “‘Don’t Speak Like That to Her!’: Lingusitic Minority Children’s Socialization into an Ideology of Monolingualism”, which has a lot of similarities in language socialization within juries (2013). Jurors are constantly told to keep objective from the begining all the way to the end, and as highlighted before it usually shows through dehumanization. Discourse is what allows them to maintain the identity of law abiding, but once placed in near proximity of criminal, the mask they are wearing begins to fall apart.
The mask is what I was truly interested in, not only because I’m a Goffman groupie, but rather the reasons why we put it on! At the first layer, we put it on for our own safe. Something we can keep separate from who we really are, and once the act of killing is complete we can walk away without it being apart of us. This is very important because of how emotionally disturbing the act of capitol sentencing can be. Once brought up outside of the event jurors shared feelings of emotional trauma throughout the book, and to me this just means the mask was not really intended for the jurors. If we examine it from the second layer we can see that the mask is in place to benefit the state who must maintain control through “The Law” (DUN DUN)
Order is why this whole performance is present. There are constant reminders of following the law throughout capitol punishment, and these reminders are what keep us from going against the law (SUPER FOUCAULT). If you ask me, this is clearly a form of discursive violence that begins to fester within our society. Only thing is, we see this system as our saviour not our oppressor.
It’s been a difficult week to be paying attention to the media. The events at the University of Virginia this weekend, where a white supremacist demonstration turned predictably violent, and many legitimately fear that the current President of the United States refuses to denounce these actions because he agrees with them. There are many things to say about these events, and many others who are better equipped to say them, but I want to zero in on the commentary about how to address the question of “freedom of speech” in light of this significant social threat.
Now, first off, remember that I’m Canadian, and while there are many in this country who believe in an absolute and unfettered “right to free speech”, our actual Charter of Rights & Freedoms places somewhat more restrictions on the concept than does the United States Bill of Rights. In particular, “hate speech” is disallowed, though in practice this remains difficult to define, and many marginalized groups in this country (especially Indigenous people) would note that a significant amount of violent rhetoric gets through the pages of our mainstream newspapers, but is never labeled as “hate speech”. These are longstanding debates, and I am only using the legal context to establish and remind others that it is, in fact, possible to develop a legal framework in which restrictions are placed on certain kinds of speech and still have a functioning democracy. This point seems often forgotten or ignored in discussions on this topic.
I’ll take a step back from the violence in Charlottesville for a moment to point to another case in which “free speech” has been on the public radar this week – the firing of a Google employee who sent out a company wide memo suggesting that the effort to get more women into engineering positions within the company was misplaced, since women are biologically ill-equipped for these roles. It was backed up with multiple pseudo-scientific arguments that have been debunked by multiple people, but nonetheless, certain segments of the internet have claimed that he was fired for his ideas and that this represents thought policing. In fact, he was fired for his actions – he wrote and sent a memo to his entire company outlining not only his beliefs, but also his suggestions for how the company should implement policies based on his beliefs. And these actions – the writing and the sending – entail acts of aggression against a specific group of co-workers (women). He has presumably thought these things for a significant amount of time, perhaps even prior to his hiring at Google, but he was never fired for thinking them – he was fired for the act of writing them in “manifesto” form, and sending it to the entire company.
The idea of “freedom of speech” in its broadest sense is premised on an ideology that posits speech is not action. There are any number of idiomatic expressions and signs that this is a commonly held belief among many English speaking North Americans. You have to “walk the walk, not just talk the talk”. “Stick and stone will break my bones” and all that. And to be clear, speech should be protected in some ways in a democratic environment – government silencing of dissent is a necessary part of authoritarianism, and people are rightfully highlighting press restrictions as one of the scary signs coming from Trump’s administration. But a robust theory of freedom of speech has to address the fact that ‘to speak’ is a verb – in other words, it is always an action.
How does this relate to what happened in Charlottesville? The march clearly crossed the line between acceptable speech and unacceptable acts of violence at some point, under all but the most hateful defenders’ definitions, as people were killed by the protesters. As many others are also noting, that point comes well before the killing, before the beating with torches even. It comes when they adopt the language and symbols of genocide as the semiotic frame for their speech. The use of swastikas, the “Heil Hitler” arm movement, and Hitler quotations on t-shirts — these are acts of symbolic violence. In and of themselves, they do harm to people (the ideas that they represent, if implemented, would do horrendous amounts of harm, but even in the absence of that implementation, their being stated publicly, justified by those in power like the police who responded only tepidly, or Trump who suggested it was somehow proportionate to violence on the left, does actual harm).
I’ve seen a lot of people suggesting “rights are rights” and that if I want to right to continue to speak openly in the way that I do here, I have to allow even actual Nazis to organize and publicly speak. That I must counter their positions with rhetorical force, and that it would be unconscionable to suggest that they should be legally silenced. This kind of argument assumes that these people can be reasoned with, and in making that assumption tacitly implies that promotion of genocide is a reasonable position that one should argue with. I refuse that assumption and its implication.
It is, of course, easy in principle to say that we will easily be able to recognize what forms of speech are acts of violence, and that we can guarantee that no democratically elected government would suppress legitimate speech. This latter point is obviously false, and the former is much more complex in practice. But at the same time, it’s not always easy, in practice, to spell out any clear cut rules that place limitations on actions. The same physical actions can, in one context, be loving, and in another, be violence, because of the presence or absence of consent. The presence of a law against arson doesn’t preclude us from setting a campfire. We are imperfect at interpreting legal and moral culpability and consequence in many of these situations as well, but it doesn’t lead to an interpretation that the underlying actions must be allowed to exist unchecked by legal authority.
All of this is to say: in order to effectively account for the impact of these forms of speech, it is important to move beyond an ideology that speech is not action, and therefore cannot be limited in the same ways as we limit physical actions. The oft-quoted statement that “my right to swing my arm ends at your nose” is meaningfully applied to the act of speaking as well. Because speech is an action, not an impactless idea floating meaninglessly in people’s minds, it can also be violence. Violence that not only can, but must, be restricted and stopped.
Members of primarily English-speaking communities (and those of many other large, widely-spoken, culturally dominant languages) rarely encounter a situation in which their language doesn’t have a word for something they need to say. Sure, there are the proverbial “untranslatable” words (which is a whole other thing to unpack, really), but English does have a word for the German-associated emotional concept of ‘schadenfreude’. It’s schadenfreude. If the term can be the title and central focus of a Broadway song, it’s pretty thoroughly integrated into our lexicon. In any case, when we encounter a situation where we don’t feel like we have a word for something, we borrow it, or we make one up. All speakers are essentially able to make words up; the question of whether they are taken up broadly and clearly enough to really ‘count’ as lexical items in that language is the one that dictionary-makers wrestle with constantly (I will almost certainly have a post about whatever word becomes the cause of outcry when it is authenticated as a ‘real word’ by Oxford, or Websters, or whatever, next year).
Speakers of very small languages have a fundamentally different experience. One of the defining features of a language that is losing ground to one or more dominant others is that it becomes used in fewer and fewer domains or contexts. It is less likely to be spoken in schools, in political leadership, in media, in business, in courts of law, in medical centres, etc. A common goal of language revitalization and reclamation is to bring it back into all areas of life for its speakers. In trying to do this, speakers and learners often encounter situations in which no one knows the word for a given concept – in some cases because it never existed (like with words for newer technology) and in some cases because it’s been forgotten as no one has used the language in those domains for several generations. In these cases, the stakes are different – borrowing words from the dominant language might be fine, sometimes, or for some languages, but there is often the (legitimate) fear that this will simply result in the complete use of those dominant languages because they’re ‘easier’. Inventing new words can be fine, but usually, there isn’t the body of speakers who can take the word for a test drive and see if it works in context; in addition, many communities have different beliefs about who has the authority to create new contributions to the language (it may be Elders, it may be a group of local linguists, it may be a community as a whole). The values that inform what makes one form a ‘good’ representation of its meaning are often deeply rooted in the cultural framework.
All this is to lead up to what I think is an especially lovely example of conscious, considered word creation, discussed in this short article about New Maori words for disabilities and mental health conditions. The story describes the specific words for ‘autism’ as translating directly as ‘his/her own time and space’ and for what we call ‘disability’ as ‘to have ability, otherly abled, enabled’. It clearly describes the values underlying these choices – consultation with the community of people the words describe, with the goal of having them feel inclusion, safety, and lack of judgment from their potential health caregivers. It also drop some information between the lines about how both Maori language and whanau health are being addressed as parts of a broader approach to improvement in their lives. Language development is a process incorporated within mental health initiatives, not one that is being done by linguists and then stapled on to these other concerns. In other words, language is embedded in understandings of health and wellbeing, and in treatment for health concerns. In addition, the ‘preferred language’ of Maori is being welcomed into these domains, so even where people may be fluently bilingual, they are able to access vital services that support their greatest vulnerabilities based on preference and comfort.
At the same time, there are elements of the process that tweak my anthropological eye, notably that the idea of ‘autism’ is treated as a straightforward, translatable concept, without addressing the implications of such a diagnosis as a socially-embedded phenomena. Some insights from medical anthro would be very welcome here. There’s also the pattern of reporting the ‘meaning’ of newly invented terms using the more literal gloss into English. Obviously, this is a phenomenon based in the use of English for reporting, but its widespread prevalence deserves more scrutiny than it gets. This isn’t to return to the ‘untranslatability’ trope mentioned above, but it is to note that translation is much more nuanced than this framing might suggest. There is often a notion that by presenting these kinds of glosses, we English speakers are able to gain a clear insight into the cultural world of speakers of these languages, when that strikes me as dismissive of the full weight of socially embedded meaning. This makes sense for short, journalistic reports, of course, but is something I see in more academic work in the area, and it is definitely something we need to think about changing.
(PS. Shortly after I bookmarked this post, I saw someone tweet about disliking the word for autism in one of the Canadian Indigenous languages – I believe it was Anishnaabemowim – but my internet research skills are suffering from summer atrophy and I lost it. If anyone knows anything about words for these concepts in other Indigenous languages, I would be very interested in expanding this discussion).
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:
Normally languages have English names, e.g. “German” or “Japanese”. So why should Mohawk be poorer and be deprived of an English name? https://t.co/jA5MvO98vR
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.