Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Identity Matters: Language

By way of introduction to what I intend to be a series of posts examining the politics of identity in the twenty-first century (a subject that any regular readers will know is near and dear to my heart), I'd like to direct readers to a great post at Freakonomics on language and globalization. Four thinkers give their thoughts on the interaction between economic globalization, cyberspace, colonial legacies, and language. I found a few quotes to be particularly illuminating.

John Hayden, president of Versation, speculates on the effects that emerging economies will have on the primacy of English as the World's lingua franca:

English is a tool, just like a piece of technology. Much of the world’s economy is tied up in English-speaking countries and for that reason, English is like a cell phone provider offering the best plan. But if the dollar continues to drop, the most viable option could shift. Mexico and Korea don’t need English to communicate if Korea begins to find it profitable to learn Spanish.

Mark Liberman, a linguistics professor at UPenn, addresses some of the more overtly political implications of language in the coming years:

Much of today’s linguistic politics are rooted in the residues of colonial rule, itself an earlier form of globalization — but paradoxically, the recent spread of former colonial languages is sometimes driven by local resistance to domination by outsiders...

Kurdish officials resist being forced to do business with the central government in Arabic, and sometimes insist on English, even if their command of Arabic is excellent. They recognize that they can’t force the central government to deal with them in Kurdish, but they see English, the language of the former colonial power, Britain — and of the current occupying power, the United States — as a symbol of resistance to the cultural and political hegemony of the Arabic-speaking majority...

And at the same time that big languages like English, French, Chinese, and Arabic have been spreading among present or past imperial subject populations, local linguistic nationalism has been increasing in strength, and winning some victories.

In Belgium — which is number one in the 2007 KOF Index of Globalization — Flemish cultural nationalism, very much based on language, is threatening to split the country in two...

Paradoxically, the force that freed “regional and minority” languages throughout Europe was exactly the economic and political unification created by that poster child of globalization, the European Union.

If you’re going to combine many countries with different national languages — and do it by political compromise rather than by military conquest — then you can’t impose any single national language on the result. And once you admit a dozen or so national languages to official status in the resulting union, why not throw in a hundred more — even if the local nation-states have been busily trying to promote national unity by suppressing them for the past few centuries?

Hayden and Liberman touch on a whole mouthful (brainful?) of issues, which I couldn't begin to fully address here; but, I'll offer a few thoughts on which I hope to later expand. There are many "dark sides" to the emergence of the global economy, and though I think that globalization on the whole has been - and can continue to be - an immensely positive phenomenon for people all over the World, our political institutions have done a poor job addressing the very serious environmental, economic and cultural dislocation that has accompanied its emergence. The immense changes that have taken place in the past few decades have upended the lives of billions of people in the space of a single generation, affecting not merely the size of their pocketbooks and the cleanliness of their drinking water, but also the way in which they perceive their place in the emerging global order. The complex mix of family, tribe, race, gender, religion and language that defines the boundaries of political kinship is changing, and if we as a species are to address the myriad economic, political and environmental challenges that face us, we must have a handle on the opportunities and limitations that such changes will present.

Liberman's comments on the European Union, for example, are particularly intriguing. Europe as a society is playing a fascinating multi-level game with the identity of its citizens. Just as the ethno-nationalist project that has occupied European peoples for the better part of two hundred years has come to fruition, Europeans are being encouraged to subsume their national identities in favor of a larger, pan-European one. At the same time, increased immigration from other areas of the World is challenging Europeans' identities at a time when they are uniquely plastic. Responses have run the spectrum from ethno-localist xenophobia to cosmopolitan acceptance, with most people falling somewhere in between. Language, as the premier marker of nationalism in the modern era, remains powerful in its potential to both unify and divide Europeans as they lurch haltingly towards their post-modern "paradise."

The situation around the rest of the Globe is no less complex.

Before I launch into what I hope will be a fruitful discussion, I do want to make a couple of things clear. First, though a person's political identity is, in my opinion, a social construct - "imagined" if you like - that is not the same thing as saying that it is false. The facile crutch of "false consciousness" has blinded thinkers and politicians from Marx to Obama to the very real concerns of people whose identities are inseparable from their dignity, and who legitimately seek to pass both on to their descendants. Second, identity is not an inherently moral concept. What a person does with their identity, whether they harness it for peace and unity or for power and violence, is of course morally relevant, but identity itself simply is. If we as citizens - and this is one issue in which citizen involvement at all levels of global society is absolutely crucial - are going to navigate the complex and treacherous waters of twenty-first century geopolitics, we must all give due respect to the values and aspirations of communities with whom we do not feel an immediate bond, and we cannot do that while sitting in perpetual judgment.

Much has happened in recent weeks that is highly relevant to this discussion, from elections in Europe to violence in India and South Africa. I hope to address many of them soon, but in the mean time, I would love to hear what readers think of this issue, where they see trends in global political identity heading, and what role, if any, language plays.

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