On the issue of linguistic imperialism and the use of Esperanto as a wedge issue

Recently, I had a spat with our friends of Las Indias, around the use of Esperanto.

Here is what they write:

“Recently, we were asked to help organize a meeting of groups for the commons in Madrid. Our proposal is to create a simultaneous interpretation system using volunteer Esperanto-speakers so that everyone can speak his/her language and be interpreted to the others with a minimum number of steps. But, no. Our partners at the P2P Foundation didn’t like it. The idea is English would be the only language, “and if someone doesn’t understand, special help can be provided.” In other words, those who own up to not understanding and speaking English perfectly (and we know that in Madrid, as in Prague, or Bonn, or Rome, or Athens, the large majority don’t) would be treated like they were handicapped… and so, of course, the committees and writing groups would be reserved for those who are “bilingual with English,” which is to say, the same people as always. To me, and to the rest of the Indianos, this would be a disaster. “

This is a bit, actually quite a lot, misleading, so here is some background.

First of all, Michel Bauwens, doesn’t speak for the P2P Foundation, which is a pluralist platform, I speak in my own name. Second, I have nothing against people speaking in their own language, nor against the use of Esperanto. I am absolutely opposed to imposing “English as the only language”.

The only thing I am opposed against is to impose the use of Esperanto to all meetings without prior discussion of the attendees. In language issues, I have personal experience that Las Indias has a bullying attitude, and one of the reasons I feel strongly against this imposition, is that I have been on the receiving end of it.

About two years ago, strongly admirative of the Las Indias cooperative model, and their concept of transnational phyles that is derived from Neil Stephenson’s Diamond Age, I asked them to help us so that our new P2P Foundation coop (which is distinct from the nonprofit that protects/enables our commons infrastructure and knowledge base). We invited Las Indias to our mailing list, which at that time was a small managerial list of our coop, with about 6 members, 2 of which also speak Spanish. Our lingua franca is therefore the second language of the majority of our members, which is English. But we were very surprised that we suddenly had a dozen members of Las Indias in our list, who started to talk Spanish, and upon hearing that most of us could not understand, told us to “go use Google Translate”. I protested this imposition and wondered whether it was a good idea to impose the use of Spanish on our list. This debate however, could not take place, because simply uttering it branded me as a ‘linguistic imperialist’ and as soon as they collectively came in, they all collectively left. At no time were they willing to engage in dialogue about this issue. Please note again that I did at no time said it was forbidden to use Spanish on our list. But I wanted to talk about the consequences of using a language that their host group could not understand. Bringing in a dozen people in a list of 6 people, and imposing the use of a new collective language smelled a lot like an attempt at psychological domination.

I learned a few things there and then:

1) that language is a ‘reactive’ issue for Las Indias, i.e. it immediately ‘pushes their buttons’;

2) that the issue is not debatable; disagreement means you are an imperialist;

3) that there position comes with a certain amount of bullying, i.e. they come in your house and except you to adapt to;

4) that they think and behave as a group, it is therefore an ideological group, and at no time do you actually have a discussion with individuals that have their own separate opinion on the matter. I will confidently say that no one in Las Indias would put a different position on that language issue. Just as they wanted Spanish then, then now all want Esperanto.

5) that they cannot listen to any argument in this area without deforming it just as soon as you make it (for example, in the example of the citation above, I would make repeatedly clear that I am against imposing English, but no matter, they keep repeating it anyways)

By contrast, the P2P Foundation is a group with different opinions (and we use different languages on our platform!), it doesn’t seem to be the cause for Las Indias. This may of course be related to their process of socialization through a Masonic structure of degrees, coupled with the personal experience of the founders regarding language imperialism. That was the unfortunate end of our attempt at cooperation. Note at that time they expected us to use Spanish, there was no mention of Esperanto. Nevertheless, because I make a difference between my personal feelings and the interestingness of their approach, I have continued to promote the concepts, practices, and insights of Las Indias in our various resources. By contrast, I have never been invited, or been supported by them, despite the p2p kinship in ideas and practices.

This latest ‘Esperanto’ incident was prompted by the invitation by Orsan Senalp, of the Social Network Unionism group, to make a P2P intervention in the Agora 99 event in Madrid, which is an event bringing together anti-austerity movements in Europe, and a group which explicitly refers to P2P Democracy.

From the very beginning, Las Indias proposed this meeting should take place in Esperanto, and please understand that at no moment did they announce they would fund and train a cadre of translators. This proposal came much later, for their own meeting on Economic Democracy, published on their own blog, outside of the list. It is an important detail because of the following argument.

My position is indeed the following. First, English is not an imperialist language by itself. It is a language used by dominant powers (and classes) but also the first, second, or third language of many peoples in the world, and therefore, it is a language commons that belongs to all the people that speak it. As any lingua franca, it will be exclusionary to those who do not understand it (or are less fluent). But, in this context, the use of other languages for common understanding will be even more exclusionary. There are only 2 million speakers of Esperanto. Thus, without a full infrastructure for translation, which they proposed later, and will be of course very costly for them, it would mean that people would speak their language (las indias actively discourages people from speaking English), that it would be translated into Esperanto , which nobody would understand. I repeatedly made that point and the proposal to have a fully paid infrastructure was not made in that phase of the discussion. When I saw that blogpost, I mistakenly thought it was a unilateral decision for the meeting we were discussing, and not another one that they were organizing separately. I confused their use of ‘Economic Democracy’ with our discussion on P2P Democracy. Obviously, had they explained that they wanted to fund and train people for the P2P Democracy meeting, I would not have argued that no one ‘would understand Esperanto’. Still how many times could a small group like Las Indias fund such an infrastructure. If not them, then who else will do it. What are the realistic chances for a global movement deciding to use Esperanto in every meeting? Who will bear the very heavy transactional costs of training translators, providing their presence at every meeting, and funding their travel if not their salaries. In the absence of a realistic expectation that this would happen, my basic argument, that in the absence of it, Esperanto is even more exclusionary than English, actually stands.

My proposal is simply that people in a meeting decide what language they prefer to speak , which would be the language that most people are speaking. This could be Spanish, English, Esperanto, etc .. And to, based on that decision, provide assistance to those who do not speak that language. Though I think English is a pragmatic solution in many occasions, it is not a must, and I have attended many non-english speaking meetings where people provided assistance so I could understand. Bear in mind that as a Flemish-speaking Belgian I’m very aware of the sensitivity of having to speak an ‘oppressor’s language’ that is imposed through force. My own father was fined for speaking his mother tongue in school, so this is burned in my own flesh. My very last idea would be to impose such an imposed choice on anyone. And it is precisely for that reason that I did not appreciate Las Indias attempt to use Spanish in a list where most could not understand it, while they actually speak the language that would have made them understood. And why I’m not happy about making Esperanto the condition for having international meetings. Any such decision must proceed from the participants itself.

What is therefore essential is that a peer dialogue takes place on this issue. Now, if las indias wants to fund a full translation infrastructure, train representatives of each language, and find volunteers to do so, and that the majority agrees to use it, I have really no problem at all.

My own ‘reactive’ reaction to their proposal, comes from my own experience. I don’t want them to do with others, what they did to us.

So do be absolutely clear:

– I do not want to impose the use of English on anyone

– I do not mind the choice of any other common language

– I have nothing particular against Esperanto

Regarding Esperanto , my doubts would be:

– Whether an artificial language makes any sense and has realistic chance of ever becoming a lingua franca

– Questions about its own Eurocentric nature

– Questions about its own massive exclusionary potential in the absence of a universal infrastructure of mutual translation in every language

But I do question if it is wise to make language such a divisive wedge issue in any proposal to organize a meeting.

It seems to be the case that Las Indias has decided that the use of Esperanto becomes a ‘wedge’ issue, and a core element of their struggle against ‘domination’. Is that really the central problem of our time? Is that the issue that should be discussed again and again when a joint meeting is planned.

The criticisms of Las Indias against the use of a common language are valid. I.e. that it privileges those that know the language well, that it leads to confused translations and misunderstandings, but they apply to any human language. The very same critiques apply exactly to Esperanto as well. Instead of experiencing them with English, we’ll experience them with another language. The use of Esperanto doesn’t solve any issue really, it’s changing tweedledum by tweedledee. The only advantage is perhaps that it is more ‘neutral’, not backed by political and commercial power, though its eurocentric nature may cause critiques as well.

So, I simply believe that this is a wrong set of priorities.

And I do actually believe that the use of English as continued lingua franca (as one of them), despite its imperial connotations, still makes a lot of sense for many social and political movements.

What percentage of the world population, barring coercion, would choose to put its energy in learning Esperanto?

What I fear is that at every meeting where Las Indias will be included, this will come up as a wedge issue. Instead of asking ourselves the question of how to include most people in our communication, and find helpful ways to translate amongst living languages .. the debate will be: we can’t talk English, we must use Esperanto.

I will not further intervene in such ‘internal’ debates. If others are fine with using Esperanto and there is funding for a full translation platform, it is fine with me. If there is no funding, then of course, the idea of participating in meetings where only 2% of the people can understand each other, makes little sense and I would forego participation.

5 Comments On the issue of linguistic imperialism and the use of Esperanto as a wedge issue

  1. AvatarDavid de Ugarte

    «Masonic structure of degrees»???? What do you say Michel? No workers coop in the world allows full membership until some months. So we do. Are coops masonic structured?? What are you trying to say?

    During all this debate I really asked myself many times why were you trying so hard to confuse the discussion and its terms:

    1. we offered ourselves to organize and to fund an interpretation system for all the participant languages whith technology based in Esperanto.
    2. you got crazy about it (in fact you had to sorry in your last email)
    3. when things seems to go back to rationality you write this post…

    Im very sad about it specially as we are working very hard in order to organize and fund the meeting you proposed us to do. But, has any sense co-organize anything after this post?? To me it is clear you have decided not to work with us and you are preparing how to explain it presenting us as talibans and writing tales such as the «masonic organization», etc.

  2. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Dear David:

    During my last trip, when we met in Madrid, you gave me a long and detailed explanation that the las indias coop was organized like the guilds and masonic orders, i.e. the 3 degree system of apprentice, fellow, and master craftsman. Is that incorrect?

    I thought that I had mistaken your proposal for funding the esperanto translation in a meeting on Economic Democracy, with Orsan’s proposal for the Agora 99 meeting on P2P Democracy, what you call ‘going crazy’, but in any case, you will realize that 1) you cannot possibly fund all p2p meetings ; 2) that it diverts funds and efforts from other applications in building the movement. My objection is to making this language issue so central in your approach and debates, not an opposition to efforts for language diversity, not even for supporting Esperanto as an add on to convince people in practice. As I said, what is essential is that people decide by themselves on language issue.

    I have no objection to cooperation, even though the emotional exchange will not have made it easier, but that is life and politics.

    Given the goal of transforming our society and economy towards p2p dynamics, is it wise to put such a central attention to the language issue?

    In friendship, and I will certainly continue to spread the world about the valuable and innovative work that Las Indias is doing in many areas,

    Michel Bauwens

  3. AvatarDavid de Ugarte

    As far as I remember I compared to you the idea of the three levels of technical knowledge / responsability with four examples: big consultancies, medieval guilds, freemasonry and Malcolm Gladwell’s «Blink». You could say we have different levels coops like Gladwell suggests about the famous 10.000 hours, or like a big consultancy firms has different wage levels or like medieval guilds had degrees, but you chooses degrees of freemansory in order to suggest… what? Spirituality? We talked about that and you know we are not «spiritual». Secrecy? you know we make all our internal discussions public. So, what? That youngest indjanos support English as only «gate language»? You know perfectly they dont speak English because they expressed it many times in mail discussions as they couldnt take part if of it if they were not allowed (and you didnt allow them) to write in their own language… Really is not understandable what do you want to say relating us with freemansory…

    The only question is: do people speak freer in their own language or in English? If you ask to normal people, not only to rich people educated in English speaking private universities, the big majority will say, undoubtedly that they will prefer to speak their own language.

    And we want to listen them.

  4. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    There is nothing wrong, to my mind, with levels of expertise. I’m more concerned actually with a number of different things: 1) internal socialisation processes that produce unanimity in any group 2) reactive politics that starting from a original trauma, become group politics; it wouldn’t be the first that a group claiming victimization, becomes itself dominant and exploitative against those it sees as exploiters, in fact, history is rife with those examples; 3) correct identification of the core of exploitation; in my opinion, language dominance is derivative and is the wrong focus; 4) best allocation of resources. The most important thing that any person our group can do is do pay attention to its own shadow (Jung), to process trauma, and to transform reactivity into an integrative approach to politics. For many reasons, I feel that it is really wrong to accuse working class people who speak english of being imperialist class exploiters, for the mere fact that they have chosen to put energy in a global language that makes them understood by many; (as I heard several times from people in Spain that have been at the receiving end of such critique). Any attention to language dominance can take many positive forms, and I seriously think that an aggresive focus on Esperanto as a marker of difference carries serious dangers of consolidating cultic tendencies. The tendency of in group vs out group dynamics is present in any group, but needs to be kept in check. Esperanto is fine for me as an added option to be discussed by conference organizers and participants, but I have serious problems in making an acceptance of that concept a sine qua non for cooperation. I have zero problems in participating in conferences using any language, as long as provisions are made for at least one language that I speak. Otherwise, pragmatically speaking, it makes no sense to attend, although I respect any choices that a group may make, which makes most sense for them.

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