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 How language conveys discrimination: a conversation with Federico Faloppa

(University of Reading)

One of the key points of your research is that language, far from being a set of neutral words we use to communicate our own ideas, implies a certain vision of the social order. How does language embody social relations?

As we know, language is not exclusively about communication and communicating. Language conveys thoughts, images, ideologies. And creates, maintains, and changes power relations in society. That is why it is important to understand the social and political implications which lie behind the use of language, of any language. Understanding and unveiling these implications is the object, for instance, of so-called “Critical discourse analysis” (CDA), a wide scholarly interdisciplinary domain which includes approaches and contributions from Foucalt to Bourdieu, from Fairclough to Wodak. Moreover, language is the medium through which we not only describe the world, but – according to linguistic anthropology – participate (and are allowed to participate) in social activities. Not to mention that whenever we use language, we produce messages about our messages, or “indexical meanings”, which resonate with the social and cultural frameworks of particular groups of users (and see a very insightful work by Asif Agha, Language and Social Relations, 2007). “Behind every word” – to quote Heinrich Boll – “a whole world is hidden”, since “every word has a great burden”, and “can even kill”. Language is a (powerful) social weapon, and speakers should be aware of this. That is why it is important, and useful, to de-construct it on a diachronic and synchronic level. That said, we must also keep in mind that – in linguistics – meaning is a complex matter, that a language is not good or bad per se, and that a single word, or a single utterance, when isolated from its co-text and context, does not convey specific connotations. What is harmful to someone can be innocuous to someone else…

What is the relationship between language and diversity, i.e. between the words we use and the way we construct and communicate our idea of diversity?

In my research, I have always assumed that identity and diversity are not only anthropological given, but also cultural and historical constructions. That is, identity and diversity are not ontologically given once and for all, but are closely related to (and determined by) historical circumstances and social factors. That is why my de-construction is based on diachronic analysis. I tend to see the relations between “us” and “them” (or between “in-group” and “out-group”, to use a sociological lexicon) as the product of contingent causes, of social processes, of ideological clashes. The idea of diversity (which often conveys negative, derogatory connotations) implies, of course, the idea of normality. But what is normal for a group of people in a given time can be abnormal for other people, or for the same group in a different period of time. Think about the so called “colour bar” – that is, discrimination against people with a different complexion – which was of little importance during the Roman Empire, but became almost an obsession in Europe a few centuries later. The core of my research is exactly this: trying to see when certain words and expressions, in Italian and more generally in neo-Latin languages, began to express a judgmental (i.e. derogatory) idea of diversity, and how they have been used to establish and keep power relations and social hierarchies.

In what sense did colonial power forge language for its own purposes?

In several ways. Firstly – and this is where my focus lies – by creating and imposing taxonomies which, far from being just neutral classifications of human types and social hierarchies, became powerful tools for preserving the status quo (i.e. the colonial dominance). Let us think of the names given by the colonizers to the colonized according to their skin colour, or the percentage of “whiteness” in their blood, like – for example – mestizo or cuarteron in Central and South America. These were labels which implied (and still may imply) having or not having access to rights, resources, social status. Secondly, by adopting and implementing language policies, which imposed – at different levels – the colonizers’ language and devalued the idiom(s) of the colonized. Thirdly, by describing – via stereotypes and clichés – colonies and the colonized to a “domestic” readership, to create consensus around colonial expansion: let us think of imperialist rhetoric in public discourse or, on a different level, of popular literature with colonial subjects. A good work which looks at all these phenomena in Italian colonialism is Laura Ricci’s La lingua dell’impero (2005).

What is the performative value of racist abuse?

When we talk about performativity (or performative value), we assume that our (social) reality is not a given but is continually created through language, gesture, and symbolic signs. Or, in other words, that discursive practice enacts and produces that which it names. Moreover, as Judith Butler maintains in her works (particularly in her book Excitable Speech, 1996), via discourse – and by repeating and citing conventions and ideologies – we not only enact the reality, but also we embody those conventions and make them appear to be natural and necessary. By using or even citing “hate speech” or “racist language abuse”, we then make real what is only a discursive/ideological convention (for instance, by saying nigger we make that label, and that category, real), we shape our sense of subjectivity (which is not a self-willed subjectivity, but rather a retroactive construction based on the enactment of social conventions) around that new “reality”, and we set in motion a series of consequences, which have an impact on people’s life (i.e. the target of a racial slur). And this happens regardless our (good or bad) intentions, since the illocutionary force of “hate speech” does not vary with the context, and even if we try to regulate and censor it – via “politically correct” policies, for instance – we simply reinforce its status by taking into account its performative value. Butler’s interpretation has been highly contested, especially among linguists. But it raises a couple of points which are worth debating: the pervasiveness of hegemonic social conventions in language, the incidence of “hate speech” in people’s life, and the ineffectiveness of speech codes and prescriptive approaches, which can sometimes cause more damage than the abuse itself.

What kind of political implications do you think derogatory words may have nowadays?

Derogatory words doubtless have huge political implications. But we have to keep in mind that racism in language is not only evidenced by the use of derogatory expressions, and that “political” cannot mean only “political parties”. In my work Razzisti a parole I try to disentangle what van Djik calls “hegemonic discourse” to show that in Italy we have experienced (and are still experiencing) not only a brutal, crude “racist discourse” by the Northern League and other openly xenophobic movements (which have used derogatory expressions to incite their audience against migrants and ethnic minorities), but that a wide “grey area” exists (exemplified by the expression “non sono razzista, ma…”) in which racism is not expressed outwardly but sneakily by politicians, journalists, intellectuals, and common people belonging to different (and sometimes in unsuspected) contexts. My argument is that the problem is not the persistence of some harmful derogatory expressions, which nowadays can be clearly identified and easily stigmatized, but the argumentative inconsistency and fallacy within this “grey zone”, and the absence of a counter-hegemonic discourse about migration, citizenship, and civil rights.

Have you noticed a shift in the usage of words like “negro” and “clandestino”? Do they fall out of fashion and reappear with a new or broad meaning?

Synchronic and corpus-driven research is proving that “negro” has become a derogatory expression in Italian (but again, it depends on the context and on the extra-linguistic phenomena involved in your “speech-act”), and therefore it is rarely used to name someone with a dark complexion. Evidence of this is that, as a label, it is mainly used in fixed lexical pairs like “sporco negro”, “negro di merda” etc., which are explicitly derogatory. That said, if the analysis spans a longer period, we can have a deeper understanding of the word and its semantic change, and see that, for instance, its recent “tabooisation” has certainly been determined by the emergence of the PC debate, but also that the negative connotations attached to its meaning have been the result of a longer historical process.

The story of clandestino is quite revealing of the xenophobic climate we have been experiencing in Italy since the early nineties. Actually, it has become a broad label for migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees, and conveys a sense of illegality. To this meaning – which is not only caused by circumstantial events (i.e. breaking the immigration law, or becoming irregular), but also by an anthropological/ontological condition (if you are migrant you are by definition “clandestine”, until you prove you are not) – is attached a dangerous (and xenophobic) social stigma. This is a clear example, I am afraid, of what I was saying about performativity: by using a conventional label, you create and enact a reality, which is the basis of a new subjectivity, and which has clear consequences on a human, political and legal level. That is why we have to be fully aware, and responsible, for what we say.

Federico Faloppa is Lecturer in Italian at the University of Reading. His research interests mainly concern sociolinguistics and the representation of “otherness” in the Italian language.

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This entry was posted on June 4, 2012 by in Academia.
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