|Promoting Literature, Defending Freedom of Expression|
Free expression has fallen on hard times in this era of the New Right and corporate globalization. Not only do we witness the suppression of critical thinking and reflection on a global level, we also see the mushrooming of undemocratic identities throughout the world: identities rooted in religious fundamentalism, ethnic/racial essentialism, historical/traditional/cultural fixities, and so on. Traditionally, emancipator struggle used to be articulated in the context of replacing racist/chauvinistic/oppressive systems with progressive, forward-looking, and freedom-centered ways of acting and governing. Nowadays it is becoming fashionable to encounter chauvinism by an even stronger chauvinism, to challenge racism by racism, to confront fundamentalism with other forms of fundamentalism and bigotry. This undemocratic condition foregrounds the necessity and vitality of free expression, on one hand, and an acknowledgment of the risks engendered by it, on the other.
In the context of education and learning, this double recognition becomes more salient simply because schools and universities are knowledge-producing places; and knowledge cannot be effectively produced, maintained, and disseminated under repressive conditions. If “the development of the mind” is still considered to be one of the major tasks of education, then it is imperative that educational centers enjoy unconditional degrees of freedom to promote free expression and independent thinking.
This is the era of the New Right, dominated by new media and information technology when, in the words of Henry Giroux, “on almost every political, economic, cultural and educational front, the market forces of privatization, deregulation, finance capital, and capital accumulation are radically altering the national and global landscape.” Under such conditions, critical reflection is discouraged, and fewer people are ready to take risks by engaging in serious dialogue. Instead, we have a culture of what Zbigniew Brzezinski called “tittytainment,” a situation in which a combination of entertainment and tits offered through modern technology functions as the contemporary version of bread and circus, leaving no room or need for critical reflection. In such an environment, succumbing to the now well-known TINA (there is no alternative) syndrome seems to be the best and the only option available for some academics. For in cultures dominated by fundamentalism, ultranationalism, and overt patriotism, it is extremely risky to take any kind of critical stance against the sources, sites, and symbols of power and privilege.
As universities are becoming more and more bureaucratized and marketized, little time, space, and resources are allocated for critical, creative, and intellectual work. In the realm of commercialized higher education, students increasingly come to view education in the context of upward occupational and social mobility rather than as a means of developing the mind, enriching the intellect, and training conscientious, responsible, and sociopolitically committed citizens. Marketization of higher education tends to engender a state of soulless competition where market mentality and capitalist logic dominate everything else. Although this state of affairs may be attractive, even inevitable, to some individuals, those of us working within a framework of transformative learning find no comfort in catering to a senseless commercialization of education devoid of social conscience and critical reflection.
Building on the critical tradition of the Frankfurt School, we take pleasure in jaytalking: the practice of “speaking truth to power”; the ability to question, critique, and rupture through dialogue and communication. For us, a fulfilling education is not possible in the absence of interrogation of ideas, critique of ideologies, and questioning of unjust social relations. Without critical dialogue, there can be no transformative education, no critical hope, and by extension, no liberation. Hence the necessity and urgency of an unconditional freedom to express, to talk, and critique. It is through the realization of such necessity and such urgency that international education may be able to reach its goal of contributing to a more humane, inclusive, and peaceful world.
It has always been my firm belief that in the absence of critical thinking and reflection, undemocratic notions of identity, essentialist thinking, and reactionary ideologies will continue to flourish. It must also be noted that concerns around critical dialogue, freedom of expression, and politics of voice are universal concerns applicable to/in various cultures and environments. Freedom of expression is defined here in the context of “speaking truth to power.” Depending on specific contexts, this power may have multiple bases and manifestations such as those emanating from racism, sexism, abelism, ageism, imperialism, colonialism, fundamentalism, and so on. A subaltern-centric approach to social and educational struggles would direct one to explore various sites of power, privilege, exclusion, and oppression more effectively.
Human rights concerns need to be situated within the wider issues around multiculturalism, multilingualism, human rights, and pluralism. In today’s world, globalization has necessitated the centrality of intercultural communications in all multicultural environments. If such communications are to take place effectively, a plethora of language-related issues and concerns ought to be explored in a democratic fashion.
bell hooks has rightly observed that to be critical one has to start from oneself. That is to say, from critiquing not only one’s own racist, sexist, chauvinistic, ableist, classist, and homophobic thinking and acting but also the racist and chauvinistic ideas of the community from which one comes. Once one is able to critique one’s own undemocratic sociocultural baggage, critiquing of larger systems of exclusion and oppression follows naturally. It is at the personal level, though, that one’s courage ought to be mustered to initiate the launch of a rebellious spirit through critical voice. hooks’ own struggle starts at a very young age from home, where she was not allowed to speak unless she was spoken to. To speak in other occasions was “an act of risk and daring.” Hence the emergence of “bell hooks--a sharp tongued woman, a woman who spoke her mind, a woman who was not afraid to talk back;” a woman who dared to take risks and to endanger herself by thinking and by talking back. In talking back, though, hooks is not entirely unaware of the politics and realities of the tongue with which she talks. She finds it difficult not to hear in standard English “the sound of slaughter and conquest.”
“When I imagine the terror of Africans on board slave ships, on auction blocks, inhabiting the unfamiliar architecture of plantations, I consider that this terror extended beyond fear of punishment, that it resided also in the anguish of hearing a language they could not comprehend. The very sound of English had to terrify”. . .
How to remember, to invoke this terror? How to describe what it must have been like for Africans whose deepest bonds were historically forged in the place of shared speech to be transported abruptly to a world where the very sound of one’s mother tongue had no meaning?
How can one indeed describe the terror of being rendered speechless, the horror of tonguelessness? The Azeri writer, Reza Baraheni, came closest to describing such a terror. “Bring the saw up here.” Thus starts Baraheni’s (2000) famous novel Les saisons en enfer du jeune Ayyaz [The Infernal Times of Mr. Ayaz]. The saw with white and sharp teeth is brought up to dismember a man, a captive man, tied up to a rack, with a spike passing through his body. His crime? Standing at the crossroads and speaking truth to power, praising freedom, “shouting something like ‘Annal haq!’” And now his arms and feet are being sawed and severed in the most graphic, excruciating manner. However, the man is still alive, for his tongue is intact, and this makes him defiant as ever. As long as he can talk, as long as he has his means of expression, he can be defiant and dangerous. Because he can still talk, he therefore is a threat, no matter how incapacitated, how mutilated, wounded, and broken he is. His spirit is still alive because his tongue is intact.
“We requested a long and sharp pair of scissors, and when they brought them up we requested . . . two ladders . . . we ascended them to tear out the roots of his speech . . . and then, working together, we cut out his tongue . . . we forced him not to think, and if he should think not to speak, because he no longer had a tongue . . . the slippery, blood-covered tongue, blood fresh and brightly colored, was held in Mahmoud’s hand. . . . Words ceased to exist, and he forgot letters and sounds and words and speech.”
In this graphic image of tongue-cutting there is an echo of Baraheni’s own self-amputation. For his mother tongue too was cut out during the rule of Pahlavis (1925-1978) in Iran where Baraheni was forced to write in “the language of the nation.” For as long as he has been a writer, Baraheni has been writing in the imposed tongue of “the nation.” For this veteran Azeri writer, writing in the language of the oppressor has been an excruciating act of self-mutilation, a painfully slow performance of hara-kiri, the traditional Japanese form of suicide, which has been uninterruptedly going on for more than four decades. What can one do in such an oppressive condition?
Is there any hope other than a critical one? At least for those with critical gaze, with mutilated bodies and amputated tongues, maintaining a critical hope seems to be the only healthy option. In the words of Paulo Freire, “we need critical hope the way a fish needs unpolluted water.”
And it is the educational ramifications of these poetics and politics of voice that bell hooks seeks to highlight as a feminist and an antiracist pedagogue. She draws our attention to the power of language to disrupt, dismantle, and resist. She talks about the ways in which the Black people in America transform the standard English in such a way that it can reflect their own cultural milieu, through their own articulation and their own voice. They use language as an oppositional strategy to resist assimilation, to protest against Eurocentric, racist, sexist, and classist biases in society, in educational settings, and in the official standardized curriculum. Her educational theory calls for the acknowledgment of multicentric knowledges, multiaccentual classrooms, plurality of voices, perspectives, and narratives. She challenges notions of monocentrism, monoculturalism, and monolingualism embedded in the standardized curriculum.
There are different ways in which one’s language and means of communication are amputated. Most of the time they are amputated by the oppressor, and sometimes by the self. Irrespective of this, individuals always seem to find unique ways of resisting acts of amputation. The Argentinean philosopher, Maria Lugones, has found it necessary to articulate her points simultaneously in Spanish and English as a way of resisting “self-mutilation.” Lugones has been living in America for more than three decades. Her resistance to amputation is manifested through the use of her mother tongue vis-à-vis the standard English, as a mechanism to “exercise multidimensionality” through the validation of voice. Sometimes this act of resistance against linguistic amputation takes place collectively. “Spanglish” is a glaring case in point.
Spanglish provides a favourable habitus for the Hispanic population of the United States, where they exercise their subjectivity by interfering their voice to reduce the colonizing effects of standard English. Ed Morales defined this particular habitus as “displacement from one place, home, to another place, home, in which one feels at home in both places, yet at home in neither place.” In this definition of home(lessness), there is an echo of Homi Bhabha’s notion of beyond, a moment of transit “where space and time cross to produce complex figures of difference and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion.”
Although Spanglish is a habitus of resistance to the dominance of standard English, there are other hybrid and mutilated languages that are created as a result of linguistic racism. “Fazeri,” for instance, represents the case of a hybrid form of speech created from Azeri and Farsi as a consequence of politics of linguicide exercised by successive Iranian governments in southern Azerbaijan. Azeri (a Turkic language also called Turkish) is the natural tongue of millions of Azerbaijanis living in Iran. Since 1925, the use of this particular language (along with Kurdish, Arabic, Baluchi, Turkmeni, etc.) has been banned in Iran. Farsi is the government’s official language imposed on the majority non-Persian population. Fazeri is the illegitimate child of this colonial relationship, consummated by an unholy marriage between Farsi and Azeri. Unlike Spanglish, Fazeri does not invoke a spirit of resistance; what it invokes is the deplorable sight of a language being devoured by an imposed “official” tongue.
And then there is the example of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the architect of decolonization through language. No one knows the central role of language in the processes of colonization and decolonization better than Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the prolific African writer and scholar. The well-seasoned Kenyan writer has traversed among English, Kiswahili, and Gikuyu, eventually choosing the latter as his main medium of expression. His journey from English to Gikuyu has been fraught with struggle and contains valuable lessens for those who suffer language-based oppression.
Similar to the official status of Farsi in non-Persian regions of Iran, English is the colonial tongue in Kenya, now one of the official languages. Kiswahili is an African language and the second official/national tongue in Kenya. Gikuyu is Ngugi’s mother tongue that does not enjoy an official or national status in the country. Yet Ngugi has chosen to write in this marginalized, oppressed, and broken mother tongue. Why?
For Ngugi language is, among other things, a naming system. “You name, you own!” Naming and renaming are all about appropriations and ownership. If a colonial government renames an indigenous territory, it wants to lay claims of ownership on that territory. The new owner is the one from whose language new names are derived. Language is also a means of self-definition. It is a glue that keeps a community together, allowing its members to identify themselves, express their feelings and emotions. Whoever controls the language controls a people’s means of self-definition. This language-based domination is so devastating that Ngugi referred to it as “cultural bomb.”
“The effect of the cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves.”
It is little wonder then that the first thing the dominant and colonizing groups do to their subjects of domination is to deny, delegitimize, and destroy the subjects’ language, the very gate to a people’s collective consciousness. It is through this realization that writing in an African language becomes Ngugi’s means of resisting colonialism and neocolonialism. Writing in Gikuyu empowers him to acknowledge the existence of his community in the very language of that community. As soon as he starts doing this, he becomes a threat to Kenya’s national security. All of a sudden, the word written in the mother tongue becomes a threat. Words written, sung, and uttered in the mother tongue become a creative force that has to be stopped by all means. These words begin to disturb the colonial absurdities, to disrupt the colonialist definitions of peoples, lands, identities.
As a result, writers, speakers, and singers must face imprisonment, exile, torture, and even death--the death of tongue, of language, culture, writer, and poet.
How can one overcome this permanent silence—the silence resulting from the loss of one’s tongue, either physically or symbolically? To overcome such a silence, we will need a sense of Freirean “critical hope” coupled with the resistant spirit of Gloria Anzuldúa, when she defiantly declared:
“I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of existing. I will have my voice: Indian, Spanish, white. I will have my serpent’s tongue--my woman’s voice, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence.”