Occupy vs. Decolonize: Semantics or More?

Perhaps the so-called Occupy Movement has fallen out of the public eye in this world of the 24-hour media cycle.  But last I checked, even the DC Occupiers are alive and well, planning weekly actions, teach-ins and even producing a nightly radio show.  Nevertheless, considering I’m both in student mode, and presently studying linguistics, I’m curious: What does a linguist have to say about the Occupy (Language) Movement?  What can the field contribute?

Professor H. Samy Alim from Stanford University wrote an op-ed for the NYT calling for  an “Occupy Language” movement.  In the same way that Occupy has transformed the way we think about politics today, shifting the public discourse to issues of government corruption, corporate greed and environmental degradation, he proposes that the Occupy Language movement could “expose how educational, political, and social institutions use language to further marginalize oppressed groups; resist colonizing language practices that elevate certain languages over others; resist attempts to define people with terms rooted in negative stereotypes; and begin to reshape the public discourse about our communities, and about the central role of language in racism and discrimination.”

But Alim asks, “What would taking language back from its self-appointed “masters” look like?”

  • Reconsider the use of the word occupy itself.

Alim could not have predicted this, but just recently, several committees of the Occupy Oakland movement joined together to form what they are calling Decolonize Oakland, citing Occupy Oakland’s “failure to fully address the ways that race, gender, and sexual oppression intersect with capitalism in the lives of Oakland’s communities of color.”  In this case, it wasn’t just that appropriating the word Occupy aided in the erasure of a history of White occupation of indigenous lands, but that it also “continues through gentrification, military occupation by OPD and ICE, predatory practices of Wall Street banks.”  Other regional encampments are now reconsidering their own use of the term.  As Alim so dutifully noted, we must be “ever-mindful about how language both empowers and oppresses, unifies and isolates.”

If there’s anything you pick up from anthropology 101, it’s the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which suggests that our language influences our thought, and ultimately our behavior.  Whorf’s 1956 article “On the relation of habitual thought and behavior to language” he shows that the way we think about words influences the way we behave toward their referant.  Drawing from his work at a fire insurance company, he noticed for example, that when someone sees a gasoline tank labeled “empty,” they might be more inclined to smoke nearby them or even flick a cigarette in that general vicinity, despite that full tanks are far less combustible than empty ones.  The point here is that language is powerful, influencing our thought and behavior.  Calling someone an “illegal” or “illegal alien” is not only pejorative, it is dehumanizing.  It is no coincidence that hate crimes toward Latinos have spiked so dramatically in recent years, no thanks to polimigra campaigns initiated by Arizona’s Sheriff Arpaio and other copycat legislation.

But he says this Occupy Language movement should concern itself with more than just the words we use, but also with “eliminating language-based racism and discrimination.”

With this suggestion in mind, I would add a third action item to the list, namely:

  • Promote language access awareness and advocate its legislation at your local level

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, prohibits discrimination of the basis of race, color, or national origin in government (or government funded) programs.  Since then the national origin clause has been interpreted to include discrimination on the basis of language (see Clinton’s Executive Order 13166).  But language access advocates working on the ground know that enforcement on the federal level can be a tangled and messy process.  And despite these legal protections, their clients were still unable to access critical services due to language barriers, affecting their ability to speak with teachers, police, healthcare providers and more.  That’s why in 2004, a group of concerned social service workers came together and were able to successfully advocate for the passage of the DC Language Access Act, in many ways a model piece of legislation that has been replicated in only a handful of other local jurisdictions.  What this example illustrates is that denying someone access to public services because of their language preference is a clear form of language-based oppression and discrimination.  Certainly an Occupy Language movement could get hip to that…

With a keen awareness of the connection between language and discrimination, (applied socio)linguists could play a key role in working with others toward a more just linguistic ecosystem, by continuing to “speak to the power of language to transform how we think about the past, how we act in the present, and how we envision the future.”

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