Thursday, April 27, 2017

Language Legislation is Identity Theft

In her article “The Push to Ban Arabic Sermons in Europe’s Mosques,” published in The Atlantic on April 12, 2017, Sigal Samuel writes, “In several Western European countries, some politicians want to force imams to deliver sermons only in the official language: In Germany, imams should preach in German; in Italy, in Italian; in Britain, in English; in France, in French.

“To justify this requirement, two rationales are cited.  Some say it will function as a counterterrorism strategy.  Others say it will promote the social integration of Muslims.  A few appeal to both lines of reasoning.”

We could discuss all the ways in which this is obviously Islamophobic and racist—as Samuel points out, no one is proposing that Catholic priests stop praying in Latin or that Jewish rabbis cease using Hebrew.  Or we could discuss how, according to terrorism expert Scott Atran, “As a counterterrorism strategy, it’s likely to be worthless,” since “considerably less than 1 percent of ‘susceptible’ populations ... ever come close to joining violent extremist movements.”

But I want to talk instead about how language legislation of any kind, whether it’s the legal privileging of one language or dialect over another, or the systematic attempt to outlaw or eradicate a language completely, is morally untenable and antithetical to any portrait of a free society.

Linguists recognize that an individual’s native language and dialect are as integral a part of that person’s identity as their race or their gender.  During the boarding school era of Native American colonization, when Native children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to white boarding schools, they were often physically punished for speaking the language of their tribes.  Along with forcing Native children to cut their hair and wear western clothing, robbing whole generations of their language was seen as an integral step in killing Native culture, and in many places it was successful.

Further, it’s no accident that even as Black people make major strides in education, government, science, and other parts of mainstream American society, hallmarks of Black identity such as natural Black hairstyles and Black English are still often considered improper or unprofessional in workplaces and schools.  The adoption of white standards of beauty and language are a prerequisite for advancement for Black people.

Attacking a culture by attacking its language is not a new practice, and talks of banning Arabic in European mosques are simply a novel way of doing it, as morally reprehensible as beating Native children for conversing with their peers in Lakota or Diné.  But in addition to this, prohibiting Muslim people from worshipping in their native language is a legislative attempt to impede their ability to practice their religion at all.

Studies show—and multilingual people will attest—that emotions feel different in the speaker’s native language.  Writing in Frontiers in Psychology, Catherine L. Caldwell-Harris says, “Bilingual speakers frequently report that swearing, praying, lying, and saying I love you feel differently when using a native rather than a foreign language.”  In a secondary language, professing love or praying forgiveness can feel akin to communicating through an interpreter; it can erect an emotional filter, a barrier between the speaker and the intended recipient.

Regardless of your attitude toward Islam in particular or theism in general, if you agree that the free exercise of religion is a right worth defending, then you must acknowledge that the imposition of language bans in mosques (or any religious gathering place) is a serious infringement on that right.  Even if you do not accept the fundamental premise of prayer—that a personal god is listening and, perhaps, responding—again, the fact remains that if you support the religious individual’s right to practice prayer and exercise their relationship (real or imagined) with that god, forcing them to do so in a secondary language necessarily deprives them of that right.

If you are non-religious, imagine a comparable scenario: that you are forced to interact with your spouse or your children exclusively in a language other than your native one.  If English is your first language, imagine never hearing “I love you,” but only “Te quiero” or “Je t’aime” or “Ich liebe dich.”  If you ever learned to swear in a second language, you’ll recognize that for a native English speaker, “Fick dich” or “Baise toi” simply does not carry the same weight as a sincere, well-aimed “Fuck you.”  Although you understand their meanings, the words are physically processed in a different part of the brain and do not elicit the same emotional response.

Language legislation in any form—whether aimed at religion or some other aspect of human life—is a violation of an individual’s fundamental right to their identity.  It has been imposed on marginalized cultures for centuries and, in some cases, has achieved its aim of annihilating those cultures.  If we recognize the value of diversity, and our goal is not total homogeneity in appearance, thought, and speech, then we must speak out against these legally sanctioned attempts to eradicate linguistic practices that differ from the dominant culture.

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