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.

Language Change, Racism, and White Ideologies

*Content note: This post is explicitly about language that some consider racist, and it’s extremely difficult to talk about that language without using the terms themselves. While I will endeavor to avoid some of the slurs when I can make my point without them, some will end up being used.

A week or so ago, a friend linked this post on social media. It’s a common type of post, really – here are some words you might be saying that actually maybe you should think about *not* saying, because racist. And as happens in many instances when this type of point is raised, some (generally white) people respond with some questions about whether all of these terms really are, in fact, racist. As I’ve observed the way these conversations happen, I notice two types of arguments that are raised:

  • Look, this term wasn’t originally intended to be offensive. Here’s an etymological dictionary that says it meant something innocuous. Therefore, it’s not racist.
  • But…language changes, doesn’t it? So just because this term originates as a racist insult, does that still matter if we no longer know about that original association?

If you noticed that these are inherently contradictory, ten points for you! They are, of course, not applied to the same terms, nor are they necessarily arguments used by the same people. But it is worth comparing and contrasting the ideas, assumptions, and beliefs about how meaning works that are underlying each of them.

The first comes up a lot in relation to the controversy surrounding the Washington NFL team name. This NPR article does a nice job outlining the point in detail. The work of linguist/historian Ives Goddard is the authoritative reference point invoked in these, and

Source website: Indian Country Media Network (image uncredited)

as that article outlines, it is possible to conclude that indeed, the word was not a hateful slur from its origin. There is, however, an alternative possible origin story for this word, which is indeed very offensive and violent, and which is cited by many Indigenous people as what they were taught about the word’s origin. It’s worth recognizing how this works as yet another example where Western academic knowledge is prioritized over Indigenous knowledge, but at the same time, I want to make the case that even if the benign story is the accurate one, using that as justification to keep the name and logo is still racist.

A very similar type of argument (complete with another etymological trace done by Goddard himself) is outlined in Jane Hill’s fantastic book The Everyday Language of White Racism, where she refers to this as a “baptismal ideology”. The idea is that the most authoritative definition of a word is found in its original meaning, and it’s one we use in a number of different contexts beyond debates about racism. In academics, for example, we often explicitly try to return to the original coinage of a term in order to ensure that we aren’t relying on misinterpretations or a kind of “broken telephone” effect. In addition to the weight of the origin, this argument treats linguists like Goddard as authorities not just about the history of certain forms of language, but about the actual meaning of particular words (to my knowledge, Goddard has never commented on these ways of deploying his name in support of the continued use of these words). This is rooted in assumptions not only about etymology, but about authority, in establishing meaning.


The opposite comes up with respect to words like “gyp”, meaning “to short change, rip off”. As the article linked above notes, this is derived from the word “gypsy”, which is itself a slur applied to Roma people (who remain a highly marginalized group of people living primarily in Europe). That meaning is, to a degree, opaque at this point, so the argument goes – if the vast majority of people using a term are not only not trying to be offensive, they’re not even aware that there is a semantic connection to this other word, has the meaning drifted enough from its source that we don’t have to call it racist anymore? This perspective is rooted in the (correct) notion that language changes, and places authority over what a word “really” means in the intentions and knowledge of the speakers who use it.

What is important about this argument, to me, isn’t to decide which of these two views is more “correct” than the other. Both contain some elements of truth, in a historical as well as a broad theoretical sense. Both also contain some ideological bases that assume meaning works in specific and limited types of ways. The overall picture of how meaning does work, especially in regard to heated and complex areas like linguistic racism and what constitutes a ‘slur’, is far more complicated than either of these positions can singledhandedly capture. As someone who is very much invested in expanding people’s acceptance of language change (because refusal to allow it to change is so often a tool used by the privileged to put down those most likely to change it), I will admit I wrestled for a while with what was wrong with the second one. And then I saw it – the position used changes depending on what is the most efficient ideological approach to allowing dominant folks to feel okay about using terms that are, at best, problematic (and at worst, overtly racist). Though they are, on their face, opposite to each other, they work to accomplish the same task. That task, at its core, is about the maintenance of privilege.

Slurs – whether racist, sexist, homophobic, or any other mode of oppression – are particularly potent forms of language. Because their meaning and the weight different connotations carry within them is subject to such constant commentary and debate, these meanings are enhanced – we don’t just hear them when they are used, we hear them when they are discussed, and analyzed, and discussed again (like I am doing right here, yes). To an extent, this is why the negative meaning is almost always going to outweigh any neutral version. At the same time, the very fact that such heated debates emerge whenever people point out that specific words are hurtful or upsetting to them illustrates how hard privileged people work to protect their privilege. The loss of a few (or even a lot of) words from my repertoire doesn’t really hinder my communicative creativity all that much – it limits me verbally about to the same degree that not being allowed to hit people limits my range of acceptable arm motions. The fact that we strive for ideologies of maximal offensiveness allowed is yet another ugly feature of a structurally racist society.

How Languages Get “Lost”: Did You Look in the Last Place you Colonized Them?

In my last post, I mentioned that the discourse around how Indigenous and minority languages are ‘dying’ almost inevitably involves erasure of the vibrant activity around learning them that has been taking place within these communities for decades. Another aspect of this metaphor that is also important to note, however, is addressed very clearly in this recent post by Rick Harp on MediaIndigena:

Yet make no mistake: None of these so-called ‘dying’ languages got where they are today by accident. Far from being ‘lost’, our mother tongues have been under constant attack – what some call premeditated linguicide – by forces hell-bent on their destruction.

Harp’s post directly attacks the colonial reasoning that continues to inform settler Canada’s approach to Indigenous languages – their presence is an inconvenient, nagging reminder that we are living on someone else’s land, and therefore, they must be eradicated. In anticipation of the federal Aboriginal Languages Act that Prime Minister Trudeau has promised is coming, Harp also calculates a baseline for the financial support that we should expect to see for each of Canada’s 58 (or so) Indigenous languages, given the amount that is spent supporting each of the English and French languages in regions where they are the minority. If that seems like a high demand to you, you might want to ask yourself why.

The point I want to emphasize here is how dominant narratives about languages being “lost” or “dying” are framed in such a way as to elide the agents who cause this loss. Indigenous voices often talk about having their languages “taken” from them in residential schools or equivalent institutions, but mainstream reporting presents the concerns in much more naturalistic terms. “Dying” is certainly a powerful and unpleasant explosion-123690_1280metaphor, but it’s something that occurs to living beings as they age; when applied to Indigenous languages it therefore performs double duty – not only does it naturalize the process, it also makes Indigenous languages seem old, like relics of the past more suited for museums than modern life. Where human subjects are present in these stories of loss, they are likely to be the Indigenous people – which on the one hand is appropriate, as this story matters deeply to them, but on the other, makes it appear as though these events are transpiring in some place and time that is detached from the actions of settler Canada. Non-Indigenous people only appear in benevolent roles, like linguists in rhetorical superhero garb arriving to save the day. Language loss, then, appears as no one’s fault, because the reality is, quite frankly, upsetting. This is a tale that has a villain, and it’s not a villain whose good intentions have gone awry. It’s a villain who has been very successful in working toward a selfish and malevolent goal, and who continues to manage the great diabolical trick of convincing the world he doesn’t exist.

Telling Stories about Indigenous Languages:”DIY” Immersion in Vancouver

My main area of research as a linguistic anthropologist is how to support the continued growth and strength of minority languages, and to try to understand how social, political, and ideological structures create challenges we need to address in this work. There is an increased awareness, in Canada at least, of how the eradication of Indigenous languages in particular has been a part of ongoing colonial violence, efforts to assimilate Indigenous people, and to eradicate cultural difference. Within the recently concluded Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the impact of Canada’s Residential School system, language appears as a central theme in statements about both the damage done within these institutions and the possibility of a new path in the future.

The reality is, though, that getting language programs to work is hard. Learning languages takes a lot of energy and time even when there are tons of available resources (like classes, online learning resources, dictionaries, pedagogical textbooks, immersion programs, conversation circles, exchanges to areas where the language is spoken, etc.), opportunities to use the language, and motivation (such as improved employment possibilities). For languages with small numbers of speakers, limited opportunities for use, and marginalized political status, it takes even more.

Which is not to say it can’t be done. The central theme of the best language revitalization stories is an unwavering focus and persistence of even a small number of people who commit to making the language an active part of their every day lives. This CBC story about a Vancouver-based Skwomesh language “Immersion House” is an example of exactly that. As the story illustrates, a group of young people felt frustrated by the classroom-based learning environment that had been their only opportunity to learn the language, and created a “DIY” solution. They set up house together and established specific times and ways of using and learning the language. For busy young people, time is often a factor, and bringing it into the home, setting language-learning around mealtime, is a way of combating the constant threat of other priorities. It also, as the house’s language teacher Khelisem notes in the article, keeps them insulated from the swinging winds of funding patterns that plague a lot of these programs – periodically supportive governments at the local, provincial, or federal level will offer one-time funding, or even commit to language programs for a few years at a time, but rarely are language advocates able to count on having truly sustainable funding sources. As one might imagine, starting an immersion school or even language classes, getting kids enrolled and participating, then forcing them to drop the classes when they reach grade 4 or 5…it’s not going to provide the kind of sustained commitment that language learning requires. All that the roommates in the immersion house need is their rent – which, given that it’s Vancouver, is not small change, but it’s split amongst them and, just as with the time taken for meals, it’s an expense category they were all going to have to meet anyway.

The article doesn’t say so, but this “Language House” initiative has some particular features that are somewhat rare in the revitalization world. First, it is in a major Canadian city. Often, revitalization initiatives remain focused on places where the majority of the population belongs to the speaker group – in Canada, this usually means reserves or the Northern territories. Cities, despite obviously being part the lands taken from Indigenous people, are not usually recognized as Indigenous spaces, either in formal initiatives or ideological frames. Settler Canada continues to construct a dichotomy that says that “Indigenous” is incompatible with “modern” and urban, and this has an impact on how programs are funded and planned. Second, it’s focused on young adults, and taught by a young, semi-fluent adult. The former part of that is not exactly unheard of – there are several revitalization strategies that target adult learners – but it isn’t all that common either. Schools, and a focus on children, remain central in most contexts. The latter part is something that needs to be encouraged a lot more. There is sometimes a tendency to over-emphasize the need for teachers to themselves be fluent, first language speakers. I think, to a degree, this is something that linguists involved in documentation and revitalization initiatives need to be conscious of – since we are most interested in how the language is spoken by these folks, we might be guilty of perpetuating this idea of who ‘counts’ as a ‘real speaker’. The tendency in articles like this to enumerate the number of “fluent speakers” (often, as in this case, very low), and I rarely see counts of strong learners emerging, or even fluent second language speakers coming to be added to those counts.

This connects to a theme that Khelisem himself raised about the article, and about the way these language initiatives are talked about in general – by highlighting those involved as “saviours” of the languages.

As Khelisem further noted on Twitter, the framing of stories about Indigenous languages is always about their decline, rather than their strength. The number of people who speak Skwomesh has been on the rise for some time, but as with any minority language situation, this is never the story that gets told. On the one hand, I think this is embedded in colonialism – Indigenous ways of life are never seen as thriving, vibrant, and changing, they are always relics of the past, dying, and incompatible with the contemporary world. On the other, I think it also connects to the privileged status that first-language speakers have in these discussions. Since this group, still, is almost always elders, who are never getting any younger, the numbers only ever seem to go down. And then at the same time, the people learning or supporting the language don’t necessarily want to be seen as “missionaries”, as Khelisem puts it (as a non-Indigenous person involved in these initiatives, I am especially reluctant about this, but media outlets, quite frankly, love it). Learning the language is a highly political act that connects in vital ways to Indigenous rights and decolonization; it’s not necessarily about saving it.

The happy ending to that tweet is that in response to Khelisem’s emailed complaint about the framing, the article was revised to remove that “saviour” dynamic. I didn’t see the previous version, but I’m certainly heartened to see that this type of feedback was taken seriously by the CBC journalists.

Anyway, I could, and probably will, write for ages about this topic, but the short version is – yay Language House! I’m going to be making a donation to their campaign at their website, and certainly encourage anyone able to do the same.

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.



Intent, Social Responsibility, and Alternative Facts

The world has felt intensely awful this past week, and a sense of existential dread and foreboding has settled into my knees. And within that, the only real, concrete thing that I feel able to do is teach, and speak, and sometime to laugh at the absurdity of it all, and so here I am.

Kellyanne Conway handed a gift to the comedy and internet meme worlds when she suggested that the Trump administration’s statements about attendance rates at the inauguration should be seen not as lies or misrepresentations, but as “alternative facts”. The Orwellian subtext has so rapidly become text that it is destabilizing to even think about, and of course that is, at least to some extent, the point. But this conversation about Trump and his absolute disregard for truth is not a new one, and watching how we have gotten to this point feels illustrative to me.

This article from the good old days of 2015 gets at some major parts of this matter. The key point:

Donald Trump lied. And yet traditional news organizations can’t or won’t call him that in the name of “objectivity”—appearing to favor one party over another—even if one candidate is spreading a rumor that unfairly maligns an entire race.

Post-enlightenment Western cultures are enthralled with the ideal of “objectivity-as-truth”, and such objectivity requires the observer to stand outside the context of the observation itself in order to get an accurate view. Taking a position internal to the story – one that comments directly on the relationship between Trump’s statements and the actual world – would violate this tenet. “There are three sides to every story”, the adage goes, “your side, my side, and the truth”. This framing places “the truth” in an essentially unreachable place, neither yours nor mine, and validates the idea that wherever it is, it is outside of our rooted positions. The central crack in this nice ideal view of a world in which we have to agree to disagree and collectively navigate our way through inaccessible complexities of reality is that it fails to adequately account for cases in which one of the sides is actually equivalent to the truth.

Fast-forwarding towards ‘alternative facts’, there is discussion now about whether it is appropriate to call Donald Trump (or Conway, or Spicer, or any of nose-156596_960_720the others speaking for him) “a liar”. This NPR piece exemplifies the main principle behind even raising this question, which focuses on the concept of speaker intent as the central relevant point, before concluding that, because we cannot read Trump’s mind, we cannot conclusively declare him “a liar”.

This is, of course, to use the polite term (thanks M*A*S*H*) “grade A, 100% bull cookies”. But it’s both persuasive and pervasive because it ties in to some important common sense Western conceptions about how truth, knowledge, and intent work. While explaining the linguistic/anthropological theories behind these conceptions would take up far too much of your time (Ed.: which you should totally be spending calling your MP and demanding real action instead of reading this, unless of course you’ve done that already, in which case carry on), what I do want to point out is that there are many alternative understandings of the relationship between truth, responsibility, and intent.

The theme of “intent” and how it connects to a lie always makes me think of the way some of my Amazonian friends would use the Portuguese word for a lie (“mentira”) for situations in which the person was, to my mind, much more likely simply mistaken. If a person said, for example, that an event had happened three years ago rather than five, with no motivation to have me believe the former, I felt odd when it was categorized as a lie, but when I explained that fact, I was told it was the same thing. If the speaker didn’t really know the answer, they should’t give information as though they did. I have not had a chance to explore this idea in depth, but I have a hunch it may be connected to the fact that the Indigenous languages these Amazonians speak make use of what are called evidentials – basically, ways of grammatically encoding how you know the information communicated. If the information is hearsay, or if you are uncertain about it, you have to say so directly in your statements. The bare presentation of information without a sense of source and authority, then, appears the same, and functions socially as, a lie, in its insufficient verification of truth.

The question of “intent” re-emerges repeatedly in relation to accusations of racism or other forms of prejudice. A example of this emerged in a recent discussion I had on Twitter about how anti-hate speech laws work, in practice, in Canada (thanks to James Leask for so concisely getting at major issues). By locating the racism so firmly within the intention of speakers/actors, we create a huge loophole in which we can never call any statements racist, because that is a thing that is located in the unknowable, inaccessible ether of their consciousness. It’s because of this that anti-oppression advocates often emphasize the need to interpret speech in terms of its impacts – in other words, to see the existence of racism and assess racist speech as something whose meaning is interactionally produced. not a nebulous beliefs located in people’s minds.

The same thing applies, albeit in different ways, to truth and lies. As we teeter into a post-truth world, where lies proliferate without liars to speak them, I want to tune in to how that is happening, beyond the obvious Newspeak terminology produced by people like Conway. Instead of upholding these ideological notions about where truth is, and how difficult it is to access, we need to dig in to the roots of how a focus on individual intent and a continued belief in the value of detached observation create the conditions for “alternative facts” to become materially significant. Because the material significance, as this weekend has shown us, is huge.

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.