WHY LANGUAGE MATTERS MORE THAN EVER
Integration. Citizen. Inclusion. In 2018, understanding the true meanings of the words we choose is particularly important
By ADRIENNE CLARKSON
Saturday, September 15, 2018 Print Edition, Page O6
The 26th governor-general of Canada (1999-2005) and co-chair of the ICC. She delivered the 2014 Massey Lectures, Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship.
A lice, having passed through the looking glass, meets Humpty Dumpty on his wall. He explains his use of language to the interloper.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things - that's all."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."
Like Alice, we have all passed through the wonder of the initial engagement with language. In Canada, we pride ourselves on literacy as a mark of our civilization. But literacy does not mean that we use our ownership of language in order to make words mean what we want them to mean. Why can't we?
Well, for one thing, we then take away the universality of language and the basis upon which we understand each other. We start out from the cradle, as Noam Chomsky indicated half a century ago, with an innate ability to acquire language. We don't have to be taught the grammar of our first language. As part of our humanness, we are able to process meaning. We develop vocabulary and are able to communicate in varying degrees of adequacy, intelligence and even brilliance with each other.
When we deform language, when we choose words and make them mean what we want them to mean, then language becomes loaded. The whole human purpose of language is lost. Referring to doctors' patients as "clients" puts a whole new meaning on the relationship between the healer and the to-be-healed. At the very least, it subverts the Hippocratic oath.
If we become lazy, obfuscating and malicious, we subvert the very means by which we communicate with each other. When we kidnap language and Humpty Dumpty-ize it, we are saying that we no longer want to really communicate, but that we simply want to state our point of view, or put forward propaganda.
In a country such as Canada, it is particularly important that we understand the meanings of words. Diversity is our strength.
Diversity can also cause division.
In Canada, we do not use citizen in the same way as it was used when it came into its modern context, as a result of the French Revolution - when the people became a power in and of themselves, without reference to any hierarchical structure. From the 18th century onward, we were not prepared for the consequences of overthrowing an order that had been in place for centuries, however shakily and however flawed. And now, more than anything, the idea of personal responsibility entered into the consciousness of the people postRevolution, and it is today still part of the consciousness of Western societies.
In the Canadian context, being a citizen means being part of a collection of people who are not related to each other by blood, religion or even shared history. We understand what it is to have at the heart of our citizenship an act of imagination. We believe that by acting together, we start in this country not with a political status quo from which the idea of citizen devolves, but with an idea of citizen from which a nation evolves.
We cannot have a country in which we do not have a common vocabulary and an agreement on what the words mean. A country of Humpty Dumpties cannot be put together again once it has fallen off the wall.
In Logico-Philosophical Treatise, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argues against "private language." He points out that language is primarily social and words get their meanings by the way they are used by communities of users. Humpty Dumpty - who is actually a fragile egg - sits all alone and means what he says and says what he thinks things mean. It is the very opposite of what we must have for a society in which citizens understand each other. Language must not be privatized; words should not be kidnapped.
In the Bible, we are told that Adam named everything appropriately. Humpty Dumpty-ization of language means that there is only subjectivity to legitimize language. We must all try to use words correctly, and protect them from the shiny patina of misuse.
integration / noun.
[From 1610s, to mean "act of bringing together the parts of a whole," from French intégration, from Late Latin integrationem "to make whole."] 1. Probably better than assimilation, but a poor second to inclusion.
2. Unfortunately assumed to be a benign process by which someone is incorporated into a society.
3. A step, once understood as the only one necessary for dominant groups to deal with others.
4. Assumes a list of adjustments that newcomers must make to become acceptable.
5. Views societies as static and brittle that will crumble upon contact with difference.
6. Provokes fear under the guise of stability.
7. Discourages innate human curiosity.
8. Denies happy human complexity.
9. Totally wrongheaded.
S E E : inclusion inclusion / noun.
[From 1839, to mean "that which is included," from 1600s, to mean "act of making a part of," from Latin inclusionem "to shut in, to enclose."] 1. The act of including, the state of being included, with unhelpful Latin roots.
2. Actually, the process of creating an authentic space for belonging, regardless of who you are or how long you have been here.
3. Once established, best left to grow on its own and shape itself.
4. Dead in the water if reduced to government policy.
5. Complicated by realistic expectations on an unrealistic timeline.
6. Essential for gauging a society's fairness and spiritual health.
7. Ultimately, about learning how to live together.
S E E : belonging; community; integration belonging / noun.
[From Old English langian "to go along with, to pertain to," from late 14th century, meaning "to be a member of," Germanic origin.] 1. The fundamental human need to be a part of something larger.
2. Once understood as a necessity for survival, now a sign of psychological well-being.
3. Thrives on co-operative sharing and balanced relationships with others.
4. A necessary ingredient for social, cultural, political and economic resilience.
5. I belong, therefore I can.
S E E : community; migrant; refugee multiculturalism / noun.
[From Latin multus "much, many" + cultura "growing, cultivation."] 1. An Indigenous concept that balances difference with belonging.
2. A policy devised to explain how people from culturally distinct and diverse backgrounds can live together.
3. A Canadian invention supporting - in theory at least - notions of equal rights, recognition and opportunity for all, regardless of their roots.
4. An example of how confused and blissfully optimistic policy-making can become a strength.
5. Misunderstood, to put it politely, by Europeans and Americans. And some Canadians.
6. On paper, the opposite of interculturalisme. In practice, identical.
7. An important step on the road to pluralism and inclusion.
8. A rare unapologetic Canadian mic drop.
S E E : citizen; community; democracy; inclusion - Adrienne ClarksonTuesday, September 18, 2018