Political Language and the Construction of Identity: Essential v Constructed
Political language, especially when used in academic writing – (which then percolates into other, more popular domains of discourse) – is more a reflection of how the writer sees the world than what it is. This is true, of course, of language as a whole – language comprehends the world rather than describing it.
Language, in fact, has always been an essentially contested domain, thus, rendering every space where language is used into a contested one too. Taken to their extreme, attitudes inspired by such trends can be self denying, but, the recognition of the malleability of language, can make us sensitive to the question of power in everyday conversation.
I have discovered over the past few years the difference between ‘essential’ and ‘contingent’ qualities, in any subject, to be most crucial to my understanding of the world. Confusion between essential and contingent concepts, values, understandings and descriptions of the world lie at the root of many of our problems – which includes the meta-problem of not recognising the existence of certain very evident problems which exist all around us.
The difference between essential and contingent characteristics lies in the relationship between the permanent and the transient. Since this essay is about political language, and the subject of politics is the human being, or whatever concerns human beings, we should explore the question of the permanent and the temporary in human beings. This is not a metaphysical essay, I’m not referring to life, death, love, longing, etc. My concern is rather more mundane – (or maybe not!) – between the biological and the cultural. Even if not so in the (very) long run, the biological nature of human beings is ‘essentially’ the same. (We are well past the age of racialised difference.) Even as we evolve, in the short run, in the scale of evolutionary time, that is taking maybe thousand year perspectives, we’re going to remain more or less the same everywhere, globally. (In the very, very, very long run, we might evolve into different species on different planets, who knows, but let’s leave that for another time.)
Then, whatever natural biological categories go into making this human being, are essential human categories. This should be acceptable.
What does provide substantial, even endless, fodder for argument is the question of contingent qualities. In human beings, what is contingent is everything we understand as cultural. There is a narrow sense and broad sense of culture – the former certain activities like art, literature, religion and such, the latter all things beyond biologically natural behaviour – that is every thing that is learned and not passed on genetically, from generation to generation. Now, the capacity of developing culture, or Culture, might be a biological trait. Indeed, some animals, like birds and bees and ants, display inclinations towards culture, even as they display political and social behaviour. What separates human beings from animals is the collective nature of our cultural habits especially as they are passed, and remembered, from generation to generation. So, we have progressed from fire to the internet of things – via war and peace – at rapid speed while other animals cycle through mating and mortality at the regular evolutionary pace.
Further, certain cultural trends might be biologically specified, and in-built, so to say, in the systems of our species. Language, definitely. Art, surely. Religion, probably. But the possibilities of how, in the detail, and what, exactly, human beings create within these broad categories is neither determined by any perceivably co-related factor nor fixed by any supernatural force.
What sort of language, what sort of art, what sort of religion, or anything else that human beings do or make, nothing is essential to human nature. What these things are, their specificities, is contingent. On what, though? Contingent on, again broadly, two sets of forces – those relating to location, in time and space, and those concerning the operation of power in those locations.
Without getting into too much detail, what is important for now, however, is to know, and realise, the difference between the essential and the contingent. So, whenever we speak about things in the world, events and people, their histories and geographies, we must be sensitive to the difference between the essential and the contingent. What we must never do, or allow, or fight against is the essentialisation of the contingent.
That is, assign a value of permanence to the temporary, that is, the changeable. All contingent behaviour will change over time – that is a fact of nature. Rather than worry about conserving the present it’s more important that we build frameworks to guide the direction of the change.
Making suitable modifications in the language we use to understand the world is a good beginning.