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
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.
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.