What If We Occupied Language?
When I flew out from the San Francisco airport last October, we crossed above the ports that Occupy Oakland helped shut down, and arrived in Germany to be met by traffic caused by Occupy Berlin protestors. But the movement has not only transformed public space, it has transformed the public discourse as well.
It is now nearly impossible to hear the word and not think of the Occupy movement.
Even as distinguished an expert as the lexicographer and columnist Ben Zimmer admitted as much this week: “occupy, ” he said, is the odds-on favorite to be chosen as the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year.
It has already succeeded in shifting the terms of the debate, taking phrases like “debt-ceiling” and “budget crisis” out of the limelight and putting terms like “inequality” and “greed” squarely in the center. This discursive shift has made it more difficult for Washington to continue to promote the spurious reasons for the financial meltdown and the unequal outcomes it has exposed and further produced.
To most, the irony of a progressive social movement using the term “occupy” to reshape how Americans think about issues of democracy and equality has been clear. After all, it is generally nations, armies and police who occupy, usually by force. And in this, the United States has been a leader. The American government is just now after nine years ending its overt occupation of Iraq, is still entrenched in Afghanistan and is maintaining troops on the ground in dozens of countries worldwide. All this is not to obscure the fact that the United States as we know it came into being by way of an occupation — a gradual and devastatingly violent one that all but extinguished entire Native American populations across thousands of miles of land.
Yet in a very short time, this movement has dramatically changed how we think about occupation. In early September, “occupy” signaled on-going military incursions. Now it signifies progressive political protest. It’s no longer primarily about force of military power; instead it signifies standing up to injustice, inequality and abuse of power. It’s no longer about simply occupying a space; it’s about transforming that space.
In this sense, Occupy Wall Street has occupied language, has made “occupy” its own. And, importantly, people from diverse ethnicities, cultures and languages have participated in this linguistic occupation — it is distinct from the history of forcible occupation in that it is built to accommodate all, not just the most powerful or violent.
As Geoff Nunberg, the long-time chair of the usage panel for American Heritage Dictionary, and others have explained, the earliest usage of occupy in English that was linked to protest can be traced to English media descriptions of Italian demonstrations in the 1920s, in which workers “occupied” factories until their demands were met. This is a far cry from some of its earlier meanings. In fact, The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that “occupy” once meant “to have sexual intercourse with.” One could imagine what a phrase like “Occupy Wall Street” might have meant back then.
In October, Zimmer, who is also the chair of the American Dialect Society’s New Word Committee, noted on NPR’s “On the Media” that the meaning of occupy has changed dramatically since its arrival into the English language in the 14th century. “It’s almost always been used as a transitive verb,” Zimmer said. “That’s a verb that takes an object, so you occupy a place or a space. But then it became used as a rallying cry, without an object, just to mean to take part in what are now called the Occupy protests. It’s being used as a modifier — Occupy protest, Occupy movement. So it’s this very flexible word now that’s filling many grammatical slots in the language.”
What if we transformed the meaning of occupy yet again? Specifically, what if we thought of Occupy Language as more than the language of the Occupy movement, and began to think about it as a movement in and of itself? What kinds of issues would Occupy Language address? What would taking language back from its self-appointed “masters” look like? We might start by looking at these questions from the perspective of race and discrimination, and answer with how to foster fairness and equality in that realm.
Occupy Language might draw inspiration from both the way that the Occupy movement has reshaped definitions of “occupy,” which teaches us that we give words meaning and that discourses are not immutable, and from the way indigenous movements have contested its use, which teaches us to be ever-mindful about how language both empowers and oppresses, unifies and isolates.
For starters, Occupy Language might first look inward. In a recent interview, Julian Padilla of the People of Color Working Group pushed the Occupy movement to examine its linguistic choices:
To occupy means to hold space, and I think a group of anti-capitalists holding space on Wall Street is powerful, but I do wish the NYC movement would change its name to “‘decolonise Wall Street”’ to take into account history, indigenous critiques, people of colour and imperialism… Occupying space is not inherently bad, it’s all about who and how and why. When white colonizers occupy land, they don’t just sleep there over night, they steal and destroy. When indigenous people occupied Alcatraz Island it was (an act of) protest.
This linguistic change can remind Americans that a majority of the 99 percent has benefited from the occupation of native territories.
Occupy Language might also support the campaign to stop the media from using the word “illegal” to refer to “undocumented” immigrants. From the campaign’s perspective, only inanimate objects and actions are labeled illegal in English; therefore the use of “illegals” to refer to human beings is dehumanizing. The New York Times style book currently asks writers to avoid terms like “illegal alien” and “undocumented,” but says nothing about “illegals.” Yet The Times’ standards editor, Philip B. Corbett, did recently weigh in on this, saying that the term “illegals” has an “unnecessarily pejorative tone” and that “it’s wise to steer clear.”
Pejorative, discriminatory language can have real life consequences. In this case, activists worry about the coincidence of the rise in the use of the term “illegals” and the spike in hate crimes against all Latinos. As difficult as it might be to prove causation here, the National Institute for Latino Policy reports that the F.B.I.’s annual Hate Crime Statistics show that Latinos comprised two thirds of the victims of ethnically motivated hate crimes in 2010. When someone is repeatedly described as something, language has quietly paved the way for violent action.
But Occupy Language should concern itself with more than just the words we use; it should also work towards eliminating language-based racism and discrimination. In the legal system, CNN recently reported that the U.S. Justice Department alleges that Arizona’s infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio, among other offenses, has discriminated against “Latino inmates with limited English by punishing them and denying critical services.” In education, as linguistic anthropologist Ana Celia Zentella notes, hostility towards those who speak “English with an accent” (Asians, Latinos, and African Americans) continues to be a problem. In housing, The National Fair Housing Alliance has long recognized “accents” as playing a significant role in housing discrimination. On the job market, language-based discrimination intersects with issues of race, ethnicity, class and national origin to make it more difficult for well-qualified applicants with an “accent” to receive equal opportunities.
In the face of such widespread language-based discrimination, Occupy Language can be a critical, progressive linguistic movement that exposes how language is used as a means of social, political and economic control. By occupying language, we can expose how educational, political, and social institutions use language to further marginalize oppressed groups; resist colonizing language practices that elevate certain languages over others; resist attempts to define people with terms rooted in negative stereotypes; and begin to reshape the public discourse about our communities, and about the central role of language in racism and discrimination.
© 2011 H. Samy Alim