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Why we need a shared language

It is not just a matter of communication but of culture

Artillery Row

Who are we? It’s such a short question, with an existentially important answer. Are we members of a national community built on shared loyalty to a place and its history, grounded in a sense of fellow-feeling that can reach across divides of creed, colour and location? Or are we a collection of atomised individuals and isolated groups, living parallel lives? The Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, dared to raise such matters in two recent speeches that considered the problems associated with multiculturalism and mass immigration.

Amongst the usual outcry of intolerance, xenophobia, bigotry and all the rest, Braverman’s defence of the need for immigrants who come to this country to learn our language (i.e., English) as a crucial part of weaving us together into a “first person plural” has also been strongly criticised. Apparently, Braverman’s arguments constitute little more than “invective”. Further, “there is no such thing as the ‘language’ of the UK” and “This country does not have, nor has it ever had, an official language, and the notion that immigrants need to be pressured into learning English is preposterous”.

How does this attitude towards our national life fit in any way with this definition of a nation, as “a named human community residing in a perceived homeland, and having common myths and a shared history, a distinct public culture, and common laws and customs for all members”? Underlying such a definition one would surely expect a common language as a binding agent. How else can a named human community name itself, see itself as a community, share common myths and a sense of history, hold a public culture in common, and adhere to common laws and customs? If there is no national language that enables the articulation of such a concept, implicit and explicit, there can be no country that forms, holds together and continues into the future.

Some are trapped by a wall of sound, impassable because it is incomprehensible

This is not invective, bigotry or prejudice. These concerns go to the fundamental building blocks of human communities and political forms of life, which intertwine to comprise the sense of who we are. This isn’t some kind of hysteria cooked up by rabid nationalists, but the stuff out of which everyday life is made possible and civilised. The ability to speak and reason together, to laugh and grieve together, to plan and act out a future together, relies on the ability to speak with each other in a lexicon that we can understand, both in a literal and a moral sense. A cavalier attitude to such a basic part of our status as political animals, bound by our social nature, displays a negligence towards the common life of a nation that is so common amongst both the technocratic neoliberal overclass and its legitimators and rhetorical enforcers in the Clerisy.

Desiccated rationalism becomes unreasonable. The fact that Britain does not have a formally mandated or stated official language does not mean we have no national language at all.

The argument also fails on its merits as a supposedly anti-racist, pro-multicultural affirmation of diversity. I suppose those who hew to such a worldview are perfectly happy with over a million people in the UK being unable to speak English well (880,000) or even at all (161,000). I guess 1.04 million people unable to engage with their fellow subjects, outside of their own communities in the back and forth of everyday communication, is just fine and poses no problem whatsoever for our ability to cohere as a nation, even across the lines of creed, colour and geographical origin?

David Cameron was attacked in the early 2010s for addressing just this issue, centred around the fact that 22 per cent of Muslim women don’t speak English, along with 10 per cent of Muslim men. These women are often living in highly patriarchal communities, economically dependent and impoverished, unable to break beyond the communal bounds of their lives partly. They are trapped by a wall of sound that is impassable because it is incomprehensible. Apparently, we shouldn’t worry about such cases, as that would disturb the rich tapestry of our multicultural society. Braverman has been relentlessly attacked for reformulating the same critiques uttered by those now considered the “sensible centre” that practised “grownup politics” before nasty “populism” came along and despoiled our neoliberal Garden of Eden. This is the epitome of the politics of vibes, expressed in infantile negative partisanship. It is a perfect illustration of this that Cameron, now part of the sensible centrist tribe, was himself attacked at the time for stating the same facts.

The diversity that so many in the Clerisy celebrate, in knee-jerk reaction to mild critiques from those like Braverman, is in no way an unmitigated good. In his book Out of the Melting Pot, Into the Fire, Jens Hycke draws on case studies from mediaeval Mexico, post-Golden Age Islam, the Balkans in modernity, Rwanda before and during the genocide, and Sri Lanka’s catastrophic civil war, to show how diverse societies that engage in ethnic preferentialism in politics and economics always devolve into a welter of bloodshed. Humans are so tribal that experiments show kids set on rival teams will immediately create in-group/out-group identities. They will engage in increasingly brutal competition to achieve mastery over the other. The results of such conflicts have been on show in the murder, massacre and mutilation of Israelis by Hamas since Saturday, 7 October.

One doesn’t even need to get this extreme to see that diversity isn’t a good in and of itself. We know from analysis by Robert Putnam that increasing diversity reduces trust between groups and within groups. People withdraw and “hunker down”. This has since been reaffirmed by a large 2020 meta-study, which reported that “the literature on the relationship between ethnic diversity and social trust” of “1,001 estimates from 87 studies” found “a statistically significant negative relationship between ethnic diversity and social trust across all studies. The relationship is stronger for trust in neighbors and when ethnic diversity is measured more locally”.

For our own circumstances, in light of the recent harrowing scenes from Israel and the moral blackhole revealed by leftist and Islamist-sympathetic reactions on British streets, Heycke’s example from Sri Lanka is particularly illustrative. Sri Lanka used to be a land where, believe it or not, the different ethno-religious communities rubbed along fairly well, confirmed by Muslim and British travellers as far back as the mediaeval and early-modern periods. Any clashes were political in nature, rather than exterminatory ethnic warfare. There was even enough intermarriage that individuals weren’t always ethnically identifiable on sight.

As Heycke shows, this comity extended into modern times, according to a 1948 account. This fell apart after independence when inter-communal relations, made more fragile by the effects of colonial rule and its political hiring policies, devolved into inter-tribal warfare, exploited by “ethnic opportunists” for their own political and economic gain. In Sri Lanka’s case, the main culprit was S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, the son of one of the country’s richest families.

The divide in spoken language is deepened by a divide in the language of morality

The conflict between groups was rooted in geographical concentrations that contributed towards economic disparity. These nascent divides were inflamed by ethnic opportunists for their own ends, the zero-sum nature of such tribalism furthering an increasingly violent situation. Policies designed to advantage one group at the expense of another were enacted, harming everyone in the process. Both those favoured and disfavoured ended up all the poorer: such conflicts destroy the economy as such, leaving everyone materially destitute and morally bankrupt. The violence between Sinhalese and Tamils only ended in 2009, after the government levelled the Tamils into submission with artillery and ground operations.

This case study is relevant to us in Britain because, as part of Bandaranaike’s move towards his “Sinhalese only” vision, he aimed to change the official language of the government from English (a foreign language but one which united groups across ethno-religious lines) to Sinhala. This showed his drive to put his own group ahead of others, even though he himself was a Christian who could hardly speak Sinhala at all. After this, there was no common language that enabled a sense of a “we” across the tribal lines of “them” and “us”. Instead, students were taught in their own language, Sinhalese attaining a better education than Tamils as a result, furthering the resentment stemming from educational, economic and political disparities. Heycke reports, “As one Sinhalese journalist wrote, this divided Sri Lanka, depriving it of its ‘link language’.” The mutual loyalty that had been cultivated by a shared language was shattered, as society became an anarchy of competing ethnic groups.

Heycke further writes:

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s “founding father,” visited Sri Lanka many times from independence until his death in 2015. He cited Sri Lanka’s disastrous experience with abandoning English as motivation for his own country’s insistence on English as a common, shared language — even though most people in Singapore speak other languages at home. If Singapore had followed Sri Lanka’s example, he asserted, “we would have perished politically and economically …” The contrast in the progress of the two countries since independence bears this out. At the end of World War II, Sri Lanka was wealthier and more democratic than Singapore. Since then, Singapore has enjoyed seven decades of peace and prosperity; Sri Lanka has suffered nearly five decades of political turmoil, violent conflict, and poverty.

The idea that we don’t have, and even don’t need, a national language in common will only make it all the harder to grapple with the problem of national cohesion in an increasingly diverse society. The end result of such neglect and repudiation is seen in the Sri Lankan case above. In the past few days, we have seen what these ethno-religious divides can result in, with the slaughter by Hamas of Israeli civilians. The divide in spoken language between the two communities is deepened by a divide in the language of morality. This language forms the lifeworld that we all inhabit, defined by the words we use to give it shape and expression. The same chasm applies here at home, between those who believe in the rule of civilisation, and those whose view of civilisation we rightly consider barbarism.

This divide is now playing out in central London. In response to massacres in Sderot, Kfa Azar, the Nova desert rave and elsewhere in southern Israel, those we allowed to move here repay that generosity by celebrating slaughter and calling for the genocide of Jews. Our ability to comprehend each other’s speech is essential to allowing the possibility of a nation. How such speech is employed, whether for righteousness or evil, speaks to a moral conflict of lifeworlds and moral foundations. We in the West are wholly unprepared to admit to this conflict, let alone engage in it. Those in the Clerisy who diminish such realities are playing with fire. Let us hope we escape the conflagration.

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