Civility and Denunciation in an Age of Linguistic Injustice


Talk script: “Dear friends in Gaza, it is lovely to see you again this afternoon. Thank you for joining me once again to explore some of our shared ideas and hopes and ambitions for the future. I think, when we last spoke two weeks ago, we were thinking about different ways to Palestinize the concept of linguistic disobedience, and I am eager to hear from you about how that goal of Palestinization has been going. Many of my colleagues here around the United States have been inspired by our dialogue and they also look forward to the possibility of speaking with you and learning from you about language, justice, disobedience, injustice, and the like. So if you are willing to meet other colleagues like me for chats like this, just let me know and I can probably help us continue the conversation and widen the circle of participants a little bit.

“I also remember very clearly the questions you posed to me about how linguistic disobedience can be meaningful in our daily work as language teachers, translators, applied linguists, world citizens, critics of empire, and members of communities and families, and I continue to be eager to hear your ongoing thoughts on that subject. So let’s continue to Palestinize some more ideas today.

“We are of course at the 101th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and that is a good a time as any to think about linguistic injustice. And one of the reasons why the Balfour Declaration is an instance and a promulgator of linguistic injustice, and not just general injustice inheres in the text of the declaration itself—the second half of which does something with language that I think deserves more attention. Of course, the first half of the Declaration notoriously conveys the British government’s political sympathy with Zionism and plans for settlement and colonization of Palestine. And that is a general political injustice.

“But the true linguistic injustice comes in the second half of the Declaration, which reads as follows: “It being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Now the second part of that clause, “civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” is clear to me. It proposes that “non-Jewish” communities in Palestine have rights, and that those rights are civil and religious in nature. It further recognizes that there is a possibility that such rights may in future be prejudiced or impugned and that this is a matter of concern. So far so good. It’s relatively clear, meaningful, and propositionally precise, as political hegemons’ Declarations go. And, should such a Declaration be considered binding in some light, offending against its propositions would indeed be a general, political injustice. But the specifically linguistic injustice occurs, I think, before that last clause, namely in the phrase “it being clearly understood that.”

“Now I am a 42-year-old speaker of English, and I’ve been speaking English for all of those years. English is my first language. I’ve written books and books in English and have been educated in it formally for twenty years, and I need to tell you, friends, that I do not know what this clause means: “It being clearly understood that.” And this is the seed of linguistic injustice in the Balfour Declaration, alongside all of its other injustices, of course, which are political, moral, ideological, colonial, and imperial in nature, and with the outcomes and violences of which you and I are compelled to continue living.

“‘It being understood that’ is a linguistic injustice, but it is also an instance of civility and linguistic obedience. To cite the French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne, “I have often seen people uncivil by too much civility, and tiresome in their courtesy.” The phrase “it being clearly understood that” is a linguistic injustice that relies on a fiction of order, decorum, civility, and courtesy that has never existed. From a syntactical / grammatical point of view, we are left unable to identify who is doing the understanding. Who understands? Who understands that Palestinian civil and religious rights are imperiled and must be vindicated? There is no indication in the Declaration about who is responsible for such an understanding. And it’s not just a matter of figuring out the ambiguous subject of the phrase “it being clearly understood” but rather about the temporality of the phrase. Does the second clause follow from the first because the second clause is a purportedly established, historical judgment? That is, did His Majesty’s Cabinet think already that these rights are being protected? Or, is the grammar of the clause prospective and optative, in the sense that it envisioned a future in which those rights will be understood and respected?

“This is a very big difference. Did the Cabinet-level supporters of the Declaration believe that this understanding, this “being clearly understood,” had already been accomplished in their Cabinet room? Or did they suspect and require that such an understanding would have to be arduously built and cared for through certain kinds of political work? These are huge differences. So we have two major zones of ambiguity in this tiny phrase of a declaration which has had such devastating impact for all of you, all of us, for all the world. There is the zone of ambiguity of the subject: who is responsible for understanding, and there is the zone of ambiguity about action and temporality: is this understanding a past accomplishment or a future prerequisite for justifying political empathy with Zionist settlement.

“Now, many of us in this room are language teachers. Many of us are translators, applied linguists, literary critics. And we know that minute, granular word-level and sentence-level details of language are keys to how we make and remake the world everyday We know that if you write, or translate, or teach language in this way, rather than that, you will get profoundly different outcomes and worlds. And we know that, in the case of the Balfour Declaration, we end up living with these language choices for centuries or more and so we can help our students and readers see when a particular linguistic choice—of grammar or vocabulary or formulation—is a linguistic injustice.

“Beyond the ambiguities of subjectivity and temporality that make the Balfour declaration so linguistically unjust is the fact that the formulation “It being clearly understood that” relies on a certain vision of social order and civility, of agreement and common ground. And this is the true linguistic injustice. Or perhaps we should call it a discursive injustice. It relies on a presumption of order and civility to do the work of understanding for us. It overestimates the cognitive and ideological coherence of our societies, the clear order of our societies, and underestimates the work of political education that needs to be done to earn understanding in order to truly understand what it means to not prejudice someone’s civil and religious rights, in this case Palestinians’ civil and religious rights.

“And so we can identify how deliberate linguistic ambiguity becomes linguistic injustice and how linguistic injustice, once committed, can lead to an “age of linguistic injustice” that lasts a hundred years, the Balfour declaration is of course no exceptional aberration. We language teachers could also look at the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 with its red spots on the map for Baghdad and Basra for the British the blue spots for coastal Syria, and the brown spots for an “international administration” of Palestine that was still to be determined. This too is the strange symbolic ambiguity of linguistic injustice at work, and the more we look, the more we find instances where linguistic injustice is somewhat different than moral and political injustice, where a linguistic or semiotic design of a certain kind allows injustice to reproduce itself endlessly.

“And so, as we teachers, translators, and critics commence our work in identifying instances of linguistic injustice as they happen, in the moments where they happen we will notice that a linguistic injustice is not the same as a promise broken. For example, the promise of the Balfour agreement was broken, but that promise-breaking was a general injustice, a political maneuver, but its nature was not quite linguistic. The linguistic injustices we need to identify are not just broken promises or lies or insults or mischaracterizations of the world, they are most often the smaller more unassuming phrases like “it being clearly understood”, which assume a kind of social order and civil consensus that simply never has existed outside of the British aristocracy’s fantasies about itself and which endanger the possibility of language to effectively promote justice and capacity for fellow human beings.

“And that is, I think, what linguistic injustices do: they weaken our ability to be ethical and accountable to one another across time across cultural difference, across gender, across faith, and indeed across languages. I wonder, for instance, not only what the common translation of the Balfour declaration looks like, and particularly how the phrase “it being clearly understood” is rendered in Arabic, and in Palestinian civil conversations about it. Did the Arabic translator or translators preserve the radical ambiguity of subjectivity and temporality of the English original? Or did the translator try to resist the linguistic injustice that the declaration perpetrated, by giving that second clause about civil and religious rights of non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine a clearer path toward accountability and clarity of agency and action?

“What the translation scholar Juliane House calls an “overt translation” of the Balfour declaration in Arabic would preserve the imperious, aristocratic ambiguity of the phrase “it being clearly understood” in an Arabic translation so as to show exactly how that phrase and its context would have been received among a British Anglophone audience. A “covert translation” in turn, still using the concepts of Juliane House, would have used the Arabic translation of the Balfour Declaration as an opportunity to interpret for Palestinians and other Arabic speakers how they, the second-order audience for the declaration, needed to understand the implications of the text’s ambiguity. and to interpret the kinds of British cultural and discursive norms that permitted such a declaration to be formulated in precisely this way. And so I’m very curious now what the discussions were, early on, about how to deal in Arabic with this linguistically unjust phrase “it being clearly understood” Maybe some of you know and you can tell me. But the point is that these kinds of formulations not only reflect linguistic injustice,  but they also allow new ages of linguistic injustice to begin, and as you know, they then last for a century.

“And so, in closing, today, I want to suggest that visions of civility and politeness are often the conditions that allow for linguistic injustice and that we cannot fight linguistic injustice with the tools of decorum and obedience and civility. Martin Luther King knew this in his Letters from a Birmingham Jail, when he decried “the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”

“Lots of people in the US these days think that civility is the antidote to Donald Trump’s predatory politics of hatred. And yet Black Americans know that this has never been a winning strategy. Ibram Kendi, for one, insists that “If my ideological ancestors did not harass their political opponents, I would still be enslaved.” The great abolitionist Fredrick Douglass knew this too, when he wrote that “The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”

“And so I’m becoming more and more interested, in this age of deep and dark political and linguistic injustice, in the rhetorical art of denunciation, which goes beyond mere incivility. One person I think has done this extraordinarily well in the age of Trump and the rise of nationalism globally is the Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby. During one of her comedy specials Nannette, she shocked the audience half-way through by saying that she believed she could no longer do comedy, And her “comedy show” turned into an extraordinarily powerful denunciation of Donald Trump and his culture of sexism, violence, and impunity. There was something magical, masterful in the way Hannah Gadsby was able to break the genre of the comedy show, turning it into a stage for political denunciation. I’d never seen anything quite like it. And so, I want to look for more instances in which denunciation breaks through artificial civility the kind of artificial civility that permits linguistic injustice to grow and reproduce itself socially, and I think this kind of breaking of genre, this denouncing linguistic injustice in the moment of its commission is one of the key pathways toward linguistic disobedience in our time.

But I imagine that you have many examples and thoughts to share, and I also know that Palestinian poets and thinkers have been some of the most powerful artists of denunciation and I’d like to continue to think with you about ways we can together Palestinize the denunciation of linguistic injustice in our history, our world, and our work as teachers and scholars.

Thank you!

About livelongday

Associate Professor of German Studies, Director of Graduate Studies Co-Editor of Critical Multilingualism Studies | Co-Investigator, Researching Multilingually at the Borders of Language, the Body, Law, and the State (2014–2017)
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