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The raving thoughts of a misanthropic academic

December 18, 2013

Language, Identity and Culture

We had a farewell morning tea for a colleague earlier today. My friend is a lovely woman of British extract who will be moving away to start life anew with her 'partner'. The use of the term partner as a synonym for all manner of couplings is something I've found strange here in New Zealand. I suspect that if I ever called Gwyn my partner rather than my wife, I might see more than a few raised eyebrows back home in the good old U.S. of A.

Language

While stubbornly drinking my morning coffee (all good Patriots know that tea is for redcoats and commies), I had a chat with an acquaintance who forcefully insisted that New Zealand's adoption of the Māori language (te reo Māori) as one of the country's official languages was one of the most 'liberal' and forward-thinking moves NZ had made in recent years.

Before I had time to reply, she then took aim at the United States, arguing that America's refusal to adopt Spanish and the 566 languages of America's Indian tribes was an especially sordid transgression. By the same token, she ignored the fact that America doesn't actually have an official language. Perhaps this was an inconvenient truth as Al Gore might say. Nevertheless, in her view, such a lack of linguistic accommodation reduced the American values of equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to nothing more than empty falsehoods.(They [Americans] don’t support those [values]. Not really.)

Identity

As one might imagine, I've had several conversations about America with my Kiwi friends. The lone commonality between them is that everyone seems to have an opinion of America. (Do you really own a gun? What’s Walmart like?). Despite the many chats I’ve had, I can’t recall having ever been told, prior to today, that the bedrock values of my Country are a sham. Suffice it to say, this particular conversation did not last long and I excused myself for the comforts of a quiet office.

When my blood pressure reached a plateau, I paused to consider her comments. She was correct in that in so many places, the notion of language is inextricably tied to notions of culture - almost to the point that a language can define one's national identity. This is true, perhaps, in most places - China, France, the UK, Germany and even Mexico all come to mind. Still, I don't think my colleague quite appreciates how things work in America.

Unlike New Zealand which has a total population that is roughly the size of Boston, the United States is a massive, free-wheeling, culturally diverse Nation. In previous posts, I’ve likened the US to a big dysfunctional family that stays together for tax purposes. Like it or not, the left is stuck with the right because, let's face it, the costs associated with revolution and secession would really cramp our style. We’ve already tried a separation, and as the fates would have it, we’re better off together than apart. True love lasts, as the kids say.

As this matter of population diversity relates to identity, perhaps nowhere in the world is identity so loosely linked to language than in the United States. English is spoken by the vast majority of Americans, so this is the de facto language in which we do business. It’s not prescribed by law (although attempts have been made). It’s simply the way things are done. In America, language, then, is not so much a matter of national identity as it is a matter of national convenience in a wildly diverse country.  

Culture

Even so, perhaps my acquaintance’s remarks are more on point as they relate to culture. Perhaps American values are moot points because we do not accommodate a plethora of languages and the cultures they purportedly represent. It’s true that culture is a thorny concept in America. Historically, we don’t do very well with cultures that are not our own. The trail of tears and subsequent expropriation of American Indian lands come to mind. Slavery and Japanese interment camps also ring a bell.

Still, I’d like to think that these are exceptions to the rule of American exceptionalism. Our values aren’t diminished because we fail to meet the standards. Even under our founding documents, the values of equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are objectively self-evident truths. As such, our standards should rather inform our future actions as opposed to being defined by them.

And I think, in general, this is how it works. This is why Edward Snowden’s revelation of the NSA’s domestic surveillance programme prompted such a strong reaction. Same for Obamacare. Same for drones. Same for Benghazi. Same for the IRS harassment of conservative groups. These issues became big deals because they so starkly cut against the core of what America stands for as a Nation. 

As a country, then, America is not a Nation that finds its identity through the mass conformity to or accommodation of a particular language. America finds its identity through the common acceptance of a shared set of values, no matter how imperfect our policies may be.

Sum

And with that thought, my temper cooled. My pulse no longer raced. In fact, I quite nearly felt a twinge of sympathy for my acquaintance. For unless one is an American and rather accustomed to breathing the sweet air of freedom, I suspect that it is very difficult to apprehend how this all works in practice. Easier to find inconsistencies and write off the whole system of universal human rights than to accept the nuance reflected in the universality of the human condition. 

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