Monica Heller is Professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. Her most recent book, with L. Bell, M. Daveluy, M. McLaughlin and H. Noël, is Sustaining the Nation: the Making and Moving of Language and Nation (2015, Oxford University Press).
A few months ago Mela Sarkar asked me to consider contributing a blog post. I told her I wasn’t sure what I had to say. Then, well, Autumn 2016 happened, and it became obvious that the least I could do was to write what I was thinking, which is that this is, once again, a time when attention to language-as-power is really, really, important. I was moved to write today, because before lunchtime I was drenched in evidence.
As my colleague Susan Gal once wrote : those who control representations of reality control reality. And as I had unfortunate occasion to write a year or so ago, symbolic and physical violence feed off each other. As analysts of language and discourse, we have plenty of tools to use to follow and document how language is being used to legitimize political positions, how it is used to exclude people from discursive and hence material spaces, but also how it is used to make solidarities. We can also go farther, creating our own discursive spaces for alternative and counter-discourses, like this one, like right now just in your ability to get me to write this, and post it, and keep the space safe from flaming and hate.
Just two examples. The first you may be familiar with : the notebooks of Victor Klemperer, published in English under the title I Will Bear Witness. Klemperer, a German Jewish Romance philologist, kept a notebook through the 1920s to the end of World War II, documenting meticulously how the use of language changed under Nazism. He paid attention when he would notice for the first time the appearance of words, for instance, to how the word fanatic was introduced and taken up as a call to a particular, valued, moral and affective position. Here and there at first, and then everywhere, all the time. He took these notes as he was removed from his university position, then from his house, then from the streets. He only escaped being removed from life by the fact that Dresden, where he was confined, was bombed the day he was supposed to report for « deportation ».
The second is from today’s Twitter feed. It is an account published on January 10, 2017 in Teen Vogue, by Lauren Duca, and entitled « To Trolls, With Love ». Duca is an American journalist, and a woman. Hers is just the latest account of hate speech directed at women who dare to speak in public, in attempts to drive us out of the public arena. Our own Canadian newspapers had accounts just two months ago of the verbal attacks on some of our female elected officials. Duca documents, resists and asks for solidarity. This example happens to be on the terrain of gender; we know the same thing happens on the terrains of race, and sexuality, and disability and class, and all of the them at once. They are after all discursive, semiotic means of making difference in order to make inequality.
We can do the things that Klemperer and Duca did. We can document, and report, and circulate. We can get each other’s backs in holding the line against the backlash that will inevitably ensue. We can imagine better worlds into being.