Monday, August 07, 2017

Challenging Linguistic Determinism

I've never been a great believer in Linguistic Determinism. That said, too many philosophers - all much smarter than me - have argued their points persuasively: "Whereof one cannot speak; thereof, one must say nothing!" And as for those who say that language cannot be trusted because it allows us to describe things that don't exist, or which are untrue... Don't get me started!

But I feel like the past year (and a bit) has reinforced my view that we can, in fact, extend our knowledge and understanding independently of language and that we don't need our passions or impressions to have been previously distilled or crystallised into absolute words or phrases which nail them down for us. I propose that language is determined by us, its creators; it is not some primordial AI which has developed the capacity to control us. 

Language is running harder and faster just to keep up with us. My suspicions were first aroused last year when the OED appealed to Mumsnet to contribute some words from its online community sociolect for inclusion in future editions of the dictionary. Since when did we have to go soliciting for new words? After some quiet reflection, I considered that the rising popularity of Identity Politics might be the cause. 

In recent years, we have refused to be pigeonholed according to our social status, sex, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, creed, politics, and so on. For decades before, these aspects of ourselves seemed reductive when used by others to define us or our beliefs in any way. Now it feels different. As individuals we suddenly want to assert our individuality with confidence again. Who can say what has reanimated the ghost in the machine? Strength in numbers accumulated in the virtual world moving into the real? An evolutionary or biological imperative to be seen, heard and understood? Some commentators even suggest that it is a subversive, anarchic and masochistic action: "Here I am, Establishment! This is me! I dare you to offend me or to be offended by me!"

There's no doubting that identity politics seems to be developing contemporaneously against the backdrop of changing economic and political landscapes around the world, though this is, perhaps, better left to another writer! It can only be a good thing that people now feel able to show their hand. Maybe they have simply looked around and decided that there is nothing more to lose and everything to gain.

Fittingly, in this 50th year since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, we have seen the LGBT movement grow into LGBTQIAPK. (No, I'm not going to do all the work for you, dear reader! Get out and research the other letters yourself!) This is a fabulous expansion of language in the form of an initialism which seeks to be as inclusive as possible. 

And to remind us where we started, we imposed this development on language because it was necessary; the lack of adequate terminology and the absence of an a priori knowledge that such an initialism would one day be required to fight against man-made prejudices did not hamper our ability to extend our knowledge or understanding of the issue, bending language to our will. So much for linguistic determinism!

Of course, things are far more nuanced than they appear. While it is now considered a positive step for most people to identify themselves as transitioning, bi-curious, Marxist, a single parent, pro-Brexit or anything else in the free spirit of identity politics, it is much more of a challenge to find language capable of embracing more subtle differences without being too sweeping or even dismissive of the finer points of issues such as race and cultural heritage.

In a recent article on pay inequality between particular social groups, tennis superstar, Serena Williams made reference to 'women of colour'. Using '... of colour' to refer to the unspecified and diverse cross section of society who identify with an ethic group other than that termed 'White', or who identify as mixed race or mixed heritage, is nothing new; but it did remind me of the historical problems associated with finding language to embrace ethnic and cultural diversity which is neither offensive, patronising, tokenistic, nor which (by its nature) excludes. 

The traditional paradigms of Black and White never really held up in linguistic terms due to their inability to make any further distinctions. Even the great John Lennon didn't contribute anything especially helpful when he included 'the Yellow or Red ones...' in 'Happy Christmas (War is Over)'! One of the more recent attempts has been to cluster everyone together in the BME category (Black and Minority Ethnic), but even this seems like a feeble attempt to recognise and celebrate diversity. Mere lip service.

On balance, '...of colour' is far more inclusive and (I think) represents the best compromise language has delivered so far. But it's not perfect. Just as no one is Black (in terms of its denotation rather than its connotation), no one is White. As such, we are all 'of colour', QED.

So what are we to do? Settle on uneasy compromise on this one issue? No. We should not be defined by language any more than we should be defined by our colour or any other part of our internal or external selves. We have already seen that the perceived constraints of linguistic determinism have been proved to be a fiction. If we can conceive of absolute equality; if we can conceive of absolute representation; if we can conceive of identity politics as being part of the body politic, then we will harness language and find the path to resolution.




1 comment:

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