01 May 2012

Language is Identity and Domination

A friend asked me for an English version of this blog post - so I translated it, and I'm just putting it here so it has a place to live on the Internet - though I might add that I find it to be a good, succinct description as I work through some of these thoughts myself.  Credit goes to the author, Jean-Marie Rossi, and the original article can be found here - the emphasis is from the original.

Language is Identity and Domination

There is, perhaps, a lesson in particular that we really do not want to learn from post-modernism. And that lesson, first sociological and then anthropological, was the firm realization that any tool - physical and otherwise - carried within itself the spirit and culture of those who had developed it. It is not a question of renewed spirituality, some kind of New Age mysticism and, even less, being read in an introduction to the historical and religious imagery in Tolkien.

Language, as we all know, is obviously a tool. But it is not just a tool. And at every level, from the first words spoken by Homo sapiens to the most beautiful pages of Melville’s Moby Dick, it imposes rule on chaos. And the rules define what is right from what is not: in this, language is the first scheme of manners that we encounter as children. It is, broadly speaking, what is closest to a matrix, and matrices define a particular way of seeing things.

Any language has a dual character: it is a means of communication and a carrier of culture. English, for example, is spoken in Great Britain, but is also used in many other countries, like Sweden. But for the Swedes it is just a means of communication with those who do not speak Swedish. It is not, at first glance, the generic carrier of English culture. For the British, of course, their language is both a means of communication and the fundamental carrier of their culture.

By “carrier of culture” we mean that every word corresponds inescapably to definite cultural and symbolic baggage is inscribed in the collective memory and imagination of those who share the same language. The word “republic” for an Italian or a Frenchman has the same meaning, but lights up different collective memories and expectations in each of them.

That having been said, it remains only to give an example. One hundred and twenty years ago the European capitalist states sat down in Berlin with a machete and cut an entire continent - Africa - with the greatest multiplicity of the world's peoples, cultures and languages, into different colonies. The draft partition of Africa made in Berlin was economic and political, but it was essentially cultural.

The Congress wanted by Bismarck, to prevent a massacre of Europeans in Europe, divided Africa into several states and, therefore, in different languages; ​​and these languages ​​were European. Since then, the African states define themselves based on languages imposed upon them by their colonizers: Anglophone African countries, Francophone African countries and African countries of the Portuguese language.

It was like the detonation of a bomb, a cultural bomb.  And the cultural effects of this bomb were those of annihilating people's faith in their names, their languages, their relationship with their natural environment in their communities, in their abilities, and finally, in themselves. So language, and its enforcement, became a weapon. Because the control of a language and its use has the power to control one of the main tools of self-definition of people in relation to their natural and social environment and, of course, in connection with the entire universe.

The decisions made in Berlin in 1884 were imposed on African people with the use of force. But violence is not enough to subdue an entire community.  Economic and political control can not be considered truly complete or effective without mental control. And to control the culture of a people it is necessary to check the instrument with which it is defined in comparison with other nations: its language.

It is how Ngugi Wa Thiong'o writes in his essay Decolonizing the Mind: “The night of the sword and the bullet was followed by the morning of the clack and the blackboard.” So in late nineteenth century Africa, if violence was the means of physical subjugation, language was the means of spiritual subjugation. So the Africans slowly began to dream of the West, to want to live like Westerners, want to be Western.

For the imperialism of the time, like that of today, the psychological control of the colonized is a nodal appearance for the maintenance of power. It goes without saying that the imposition of their language allows both the progressive destruction of the culture of the colonized people through the undervaluation of its arts, its religions, its history, its manners and it is the conscious elevation of the language of the colonizer. And all this in one step.

One example of today's Hollywood. We've all dreamed of living the American Dream and this is cultural control, of language and dreams. In it, the Yankees won against the Soviet Union, because, after all, the ballistic missiles would not be enough. And China today in its rise to world leader is still lacking on this point. No one dreams of becoming Chinese, and this will not change for a very long time.

A hundred and twenty-eight years later after the psychological education strategies implemented in the context of the “Scramble for Africa” ​​we have not yet fully understood the value of our languages ​​in the preservation of our independence as individuals and as collectives. Yet in an era where chaos reigns, but where war – among peers - is no longer allowed to dominate the Other all that is left is culture war. In the final analysis, it is the most devious.

1 comment:

Anne N said...

Thank you!