Ecolinguism: Languages are wealth

There is a way to avoid responsibility and/or guilt by, precisely, emphasizing one’s responsibility or too readily assuming one’s guilt in an exaggerated way, as in the case of the white male PC academic who emphasizes the guilt of racist phallogocentrism, and uses this admission of guilt as a stratagem not to face the way he, as a ‘radical’ intellectual, perfectly embodies the existing power relations towards which he pretends to be thoroughly critical.
Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute, p. 46

Can ecolinguism really undermine privilege?
Can ecolinguism really undermine privilege?

Ecolinguism sounds like a PC scheme to assuage a white, upper middle-class, American man’s guilt. I’ve claimed that ecolinguism can help combat rich, Western privilege. Can my dedication to minority languages really disrupt the power dynamic, or is just a different mode of the typical white privilege that PC liberals rail against?

People probably got upset with me because I sounded just like the academic that Žižek describes. I just replaced phallogocentrism with Anglocentrism, and instead of racism I discussed the desire for the exotic other. But maybe I emphasized my responsibility and assumed my guilt in an exaggerated way.

The first step I took was to admit my role in the system. I have privilege. But is it really this simple?

My privilege makes “them” poor

But am I guilty? I don’t know if I’m guilty. Like the song goes, I was born this way.

One critique of my position was that by assuming my privilege, I was assuming the lack of privilege of the object of the discussion: the immigrants’ and refugees’ poverty. My main critic wanted me to see both parties, me and the immigrants, as equals. Privilege, I asserted, differentiated us, whether we like it or not.

By assuming that paradigm, though, I’m contributing to the very system that puts these immigrants in the impoverished place they are in. In other words, when I assume I have privilege and they don’t, I hold them back from privilege.

In this way, I have to undermine the system of privilege that grants me overabundance and them poverty. How can I change the paradigm in order to allow the immigrants privilege?

To overcome the obstacle that Žižek sets in place, I cannot admit guilt and thereby admit the relevance of the paradigm that gives me privilege if I actually want to confront the power relations that give me privilege.

Therefore, I have to admit the riches and privilege of the immigrant, of the outsider, if I want to confront my privilege in a real way. I have to deconstruct my privilege.

Linguistic poverty

I am poor in language. I am able to understand the English-language discourse when I go to Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, but the locals can follow both the Somali and sometimes Oromo discourse that takes place—while also understanding English. The typical approach is to consider the Somali- and Oromo-speakers as possessing “poor” English. In fact, they possess multiple languages; the monolingual English-speakers are poor.

Admitting wistfully that the immigrants speak more than one language does not solve the problem, because it does not place real value on the languages they speak. A materially poor person would not simply notice that some people possess more; he or she would try to acquire those riches, or at least a part. In the same way, if the Anglophone actually recognized the riches of the multilingual, he or she would try to acquire the other language(s).

The way, then, that I confront my privilege is to look at my poverty. I have to see where I am poor. The white male PC academic has a hard time seeing that he’s poor since he’s got a stable job, knows a lot about his subject, and knows that he’s “guilty” of his privilege. He knows a lot. Where is he poor? And if he’s truly poor, how does he pursue riches the way a poor person pursues food?

Once I admit what I lack, I must pursue it. If I really value it, then I must pursue it with desire, with passion, even with covetousness.

How do you confront your privilege? How do languages help?

By Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Public Domain, Link


7 thoughts on “Ecolinguism: Languages are wealth

  1. I think you make a good point here. I’ve just finished In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri, daughter of Bengali Indian immigrants, and in one chapter she touches on the fact that, growing up in America, none of her childhood friends ever showed any interest in her being bilingual or knowing another culture. None whatsoever. As long as mainstream culture (not just in America, this issue exists elsewhere as well) remains unaware of the value and richness of this human experience/skill, then who’s going to feel motivated to put in the momentous effort required to actually learn a community language?

    On top of that, there’s also the insidious belief that, if one grows up speaking anything other than English, they cannot possibly be a “Real American”, leading kids to try and hide their “otherness”. (Again, this perception is not just limited to the US).

    Those are some big hurdles that must be overcome…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes! My kids’ school is surprisingly diverse, and so I tell them to be sure to wish their classmates well on different holidays. They (perhaps as typical teenagers) find that so weird, since their friends and even teachers don’t do so. Nevertheless, I tell them that they have a duty to reach out to their Indian classmates and wish the well for Diwali, for example.

      You make me happy by calling out the two problematic assumptions of Western culture that prevent us from connecting with immigrants: 1) lack of awareness of the value & richness of experiences/skills of others, and 2) the “Real Americans speak English only” fallacy. If we take on these assumptions, we can move the needle a little. That’s why I write–but you’re right that they’re big hurdles.

      I’m excited that Zizek just wrote a book on immigrants. Can’t wait to read it.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Following on that, it seems to me that “What do you call someone who speaks only one language? An American” is not a joke but an ideology. 20% of Americans are not monolingual, yet it is considered a “typical” national trait.

      Liked by 2 people

    3. Your anecdote was helpful. I told my oldest daughter about it when I drove her to high school in the morning. On the way home after school she told me a story. She, in fact, wished her Indian classmate a happy Diwali. The friend was overjoyed and flabbergasted, telling my daughter that she was the only white person she knew who knew what Diwali was. She asked my daughter how she knew. My daughter said that her dad knew a lot about different cultures.

      My daughter’s friend (parents are immigrants from Spain) chimed in, “He’s the most culturally-aware person I know.”

      “I want to meet your dad!” the Indian girl said.

      “You don’t want to meet my dad,” my daughter replied (eye-roll).

      I told her that I want to meet her friend and her family.

      Your anecdote helped break down that weird cultural divide in the US. Thank you!

      Postscript: I found out that our high school is better than most. The same Spanish friend of my daughter’s told me that people are aware that she is multilingual and knows about another country, and find that cool. A friend of their family lives in another town just outside the Twin Cities, and she won’t speak Spanish at school because she’ll get made fun of.

      Liked by 1 person

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