06 December 2012

Defining yourself by what you're not....

There is a danger, which many of us fail to avoid, that we start to define ourselves as individuals or as groups by identifying what we aren't, or what we don't do, rather than what we are and what we do.

France has traditionally had a strong identity, but all too often it is by defining differences.  They have a phrase: "exception française".  But this exception very very often becomes an excuse.  "We're different" ends up being a weakness, a reason not to even try.  And that's very, very sad.

Here in Corsica, they talk about the "exception corse", a philosophy which boils down to "the French are different and we're different from the French, so we're really different."  And again, it becomes an excuse for weakness, particularly when it comes to English classes.  Some of my strongest students aren't from Corsica -- they're from the mainland.

Why should Corsica be any worse off than mainland France?  It's a Mediterranean island, so it's a popular tourist destination for people from all over Europe.  English is spoken here all the time by tourists from the UK and the rest of Europe.  Heck, I've seen reviews by Germans online complaining about the fact that the owner of a dirt-cheap backpacker's campsite can't speak English.  A) why complain?  B) proof that English is vital to tourism.

But they've managed to define themselves as a community that can't learn English, and they're doing their best to fulfill their own prophecy.  Which is very, very sad.

The same philosophy of "we're different" seems to underlie their own language, too.  Many are fiercely proud that Corsica is very different from French.  But at the same time, many go to pains to identify it as different from Italian, its closest relative (the nearest part of mainland Europe is Tuscany, where most of the features of Modern Standard Italian are taken from).

As a learner, it's a bit frustrating, though, when you say something and get told it's Italian.  Quite often it is, because I'm just guessing, but very often it is Corsican.  Because as with any language, there are variations.  Things I have learned from one source are "corrected" by someone from a different region with the usual "no, that's Italian" - it's kind of off-putting.

That said, it's not like I haven't experienced this kind of thing before, and it's not like I wasn't guilty of it myself for a fair while, because isn't it true that in the same way UK English defines itself as "not American"?  How many times do we criticise each other for using "Americanisms", when a great many Americanisms actually originated in regional variation within the British Isles?  And given that a great many of these originated in Hiberno-English or in Scots, or indeed the Gaelic languages of both Ireland and Scotland, and given that I'm a Scot of Irish ancestry... well, when someone from another part of the UK criticised me for using Americanisms, was it true?  Had I really picked up "bad habits" from TV?  And when I did the same thing, was it true?  Or was the real crime not "Americanism", but simply "being different from me"?

Because that's one of the biggest problems that any group identity faces: the false assumption of identicality.  Even within a group, we must all be allowed variation and individual identity.  One of the reasons Scottish nationalism often slips into Anglophobia is as a reaction to the uniform notion of "Britishness" that is imposed on us from the south.  "British people" hate the French (Scotland's historical ally) and "British food" includes many regional English dishes, but no Scottish ones.  "British people" wave the flag and love the queen.

This narrow notion of "Britishness" doesn't account for or allow the full variation of individual identity within the group of people it purports to define, so it is rejected by a great many people.

People say that nationalism is inherently bad because it focuses on differences, and is therefore divisive.  I say that is not to be taken as a given: I believe that there is a real need to focus on our differences and to accept them.  It is when we try to pretend that those differences don't exist that we become divided.

No comments: