Archive | 10:33 am

Speech Therapy: Cultural Expressions and Healthy Communities, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Feb

IMG_0026                                                             photo by H. Hanafin

I feel a sadness on me, Dane. That’s how the Irish people say it. In their language, you can’t say, “I am sad,” or “I am happy”. They understood what we English have long forgot. We’re not our sadness. We’re not our happiness or our pain but our language hypnotizes us and traps us in little labeled boxes.  Grant Morrison

The totality of utterances that can be made in a speech community is the language of that speech community. Leonard Bloomfield

English, unlike Arabic, was not a poetic language. English had been cobbled together by too many unknown parents, too many unsure users. English lacked the single word that differentiated an attacking lion from one at rest.  Aminah Mae Safi

Languages, just like people, are worlds within themselves. They have the incredible ability to provide us with a clearer, more profound and detailed perspective of a culture and its views on life, nature, and death.  Orge Castellano

Yes, the structure of language both expresses and stretches  the culture to which it is joined, and the replacement of one language form by another is more than just an inconvenience, more than a mere strategy for achieving “fluency” in the expressive forms most characteristic of “modern” societies.  Such replacement represents, if we are not careful, the substitution of one worldview by another that is, in the end and in its own isolation, no more adept in guiding us on a more peaceful, sustainable path.

We all know that the UN is full of high-sounding jargon which sometimes allows us the luxury of forgetting how superficial such language can be.  We are all busy “leaving no one behind,” “promoting resilience” and “building back better,” while employing endless acronyms to describe institutional responses to complex challenges that sometimes confuse even regular UN observers. Moreover, we traffic almost exclusively in what are known as the “official” UN languages, mostly “official” in the sense that they appear on UN “letterhead” indicating that UN business will essentially be conducted only in these languages (with occasional accommodation for foreign dignitaries).

Moreover, these official languages are utilized unevenly while reinforcing a certain brand of cultural hegemony.  Only the Chinese delegation speaks Chinese in UN conference rooms.  Only the Russian delegation speaks in Russian.  However, senior Secretariat officials from Russian and Chinese backgrounds speak mostly in English and many delegations have no choice but to forsake their own official tongues in favor of those “favored.” Indeed, the “mostly in English” signs should be hung throughout the building, for this tongue (with all of its mostly unexamined cultural assumptions) has become the “lingua franca” of UN Headquarters to a degree that actually might shock outsiders.

Such linguistic hegemony works out well for people like me who have failed to benefit to any degree from more language courses than I care to count.   Were English not such a dominant mode of expression inside UN headquarters, my own (and my office’s) presence probably wouldn’t add much of any value at all.  I am especially reminded of my own linguistic privilege when finding myself in rooms where important ideas are being discussed in languages other than English and without interpretation, places where my language skills are (far-too- often) simply not up to the challenge.

One such occasion took place this week at a workshop in Mexico City put on by the Humanitarian Encyclopedia, a project co-sponsored by the increasingly prestigious Instituto Mora and represented by Dr. Lucatello Simone. Through workshops conducted in several global regions, this project smartly seeks to “collectively question” how humanitarian concepts evolve over time, geographical contexts, cultures, disciplines, and professions. This particular workshop space was filled with some truly remarkable people, including leadership from Mexico’s highly-regarded civil protection and relief sector, key figures from the UN office in Mexico City and a few highly committed NGOs.

What most attracted me to this event, ironically perhaps, is the contention of this project that “existing narratives and concepts of humanitarian action still largely reflect the values and practices of long-established organizations of high-income countries.”  Moreover, the project fully embraces the important critique that the jargon we toss around within the often-stretched humanitarian sector (and within the rest of the policy community as well) – such as this “resiliency” we now seek to spread – can constitute a stubborn barrier to a “clearer, more profound and detailed perspectiveon the local cultures we seek to serve. Such perspective is essential if we are to truly “accompany the localization of humanitarian knowledge” as key to the success of the vital and urgent action undertaken over and over by the broader humanitarian community.

Unfortunately, I was able to grasp only a small portion of what were apparently rich technical and community-contextual discussions in Mexico City.  For I was stuck yet again inside my own “labeled box,” a limitation largely of my own doing; someone functioning in a singular language structure that cannot easily distinguish between “an attacking lion and one at rest,” but also someone reinforcing a system which now expressly privileges his language and both its conceptual contexts and limitations. Such participation leaves me (and many others) trading in concepts that only incompletely explain the world we inhabit while virtually (if inadvertently) demeaning much of the full range of cultural expressions, passions and feelings which continue to breathe life and urgency into our collective human strivings.

The Swiss leadership of the Humanitarian Encyclopedia Project clearly understands better than most the alienating nature of much of our policy jargon, those words we routinely employ in our important humanitarian (or peace and security) spaces as though our short-hand has become something other than the “blurred messages” that we so often extend towards each other and towards communities in need.  Certainly we “experts” in this Mexico City space — groupings similar (I suspect) to other rooms in other global regions — have perhaps also become a bit “hypnotized and trapped” by our own expressive limitations as evidenced by the “heady” language we often use with peers, funders and in polite culture, the nomenclature of policy that impedes as much access at community level as it invites.

As it turns out, this Mexico story had another chapter. At the end of this week in the remarkable Zócalo of Mexico City, a different (unrelated) type of linguistic critique and cultural representation was being staged.  “Lingüística Indígena” brought together thousands of people (its final day is today) largely from the southern regions of Mexico (especially from Chiapas) to speak the language forms of their forebears more than the colonists, to share their food, crafts, poetry and dances, and to place in this very public domain the unique and deep challenges faced by the region’s indigenous peoples.

Some of these challenges are a function of government suspicion regarding the unwillingness of peoples in the indigenous south to abandon the language that expresses their lives and relationships for a language closely allied with colonial occupation and, perhaps more importantly, “fit” for modern economic and bureaucratic life. Amidst the colorful dance, indigenous poetic forms and some unusual (for me) food offerings, there was also a palpable sadness directed towards the memory of those martyred trying to defend the rights of indigenous persons, including their right to linguistic and cultural expression. The crosses demanding attention on the Zócalo, with wilting flowers and palms placed nearby, served as a reminder that language is not only a means of expression but is an embodiment of community values and cultural significance, the struggle for which costs some advocates their very lives.

It was the television personality Trevor Noah (of all people) who noted that if you talk to people in a language they understand, that message goes to their head. But if you talk to them in their own language, “that goes to their heart.”  In the UN “Grand Bargain” of 2016, key donors agreed to expand pooled funding to address seemingly-endless humanitarian crises including from armed violence and climate threats.  Moving forward, we need another “bargain” but this time one that both embraces and transcends the sensitive “accompaniment” advocated by the sponsors of this Mexico City workshop, a “bargain” to protect and honor the “totality of our utterances” and those who dare to express the heart-felt visions and aspirations that remain essential to a healthy and responsive human community.