This post is part of a series celebrating Human Rights Day authored by members of the former AAA Committee for Human Rights, now represented on the Members’ Programmatic, Advisory, and Advocacy Committee (MPAAC). This piece was submitted by Kathleen C. Riley (Rutgers University).
Words, speech acts, and larger discourses have consequences. They have the power to give voice or suppress, persuade or degrade, encourage or shame, escalate or resolve. Thus, language is intimately implicated in the quest for human rights and social justice. In this piece, I consider this spectrum of verbal impact, but first discuss briefly a terminological matter: the potential tension between the two terms, human rights and social justice.
To generalize, human rights arose out of Western assumptions about the rights of all individuals to goods and freedoms primordially assigned by an essentially benevolent force; frequently the concept is applied to global/international issues. By contrast, social justice conceptualizes the need to negotiate with and wrest away equitable treatment and access from dominating institutions and classes of people; local/domestic issues are frequently framed in terms of social justice rather than human rights. Yet, in practice, the two are often coterminous and co-constituting.
With respect to language, both are concerned with accessing rights to a voice, to freedom of expression, to freedom to use minoritized ways of speaking, and to freedom from malevolent labeling, hate speech, and symbolic violence. Domestic issues are internationally instantiated via speech while global discourses emerge out of local talk. Discourse is used to express and implement power imbalances, whether at the micro-level of playground name-calling or at the macro-level of White House tweets and executive orders.
Sometimes social injustice is expressed via powerful signs and semiotic strategies, from the referential to the rhetorical. That is, loaded symbols are marshalled to unleash backlash and hatred – from Native American sports mascots to confederate flags and monuments. Labeled categories and epithets are constructed and deployed – consider the “I-word” in the media, “linguistically isolated” on the census, and “adjunct” on contingent academics’ contracts. Speech genres in the mouths of the powerful – scolds and bullying, tax laws and judicial pardons – become authoritative even when unjust and untrue – for instance, Trump’s claims about sexual harassment or tax cuts for the middle class.
Linguicism – or the denigration of others based on how they speak – is grounded in ideologies about how certain forms of language are insufficient (for example, foreign accents, socially-marked varieties, and code-switching codes such as Spanglish). Language-based discrimination of this kind frequently stands in for racism, sexism, and homophobia. Similarly, linguicide – that is, efforts to extinguish whole linguistic varieties and the identities that inhabit them (for example, the eradication of Tibetans’ rights to be educated in Tibetan) – have long resulted from colonialism, immigration, and now globalization. In other words, linguistic injustice is enacted via both every day practices and institutional policies.
But just analyzing the many semiotic ways in which structural violence is perpetrated is not enough. We must also consider the powerful discursive capacities of people to reclaim human rights and engender social justice. Genres of resistance include chants and signs at demonstrations, teaching and mentoring in classrooms and workplaces, expert witnessing in refugee court cases, propositions on bilingual education, statements protesting human rights abuses, petitions demanding that the Spanish page on the White House website be reinstated, and media interventions (for example, articles and blogs on the “language gap” or the role of silence in Black Lives Matter). Learn more about these sorts of initiatives by visiting: http://linguisticanthropology.org/aboutsocialjustice/