“I learned a lesson at Sunday school,” said my domestic partner-in-crime. “It said that God prevented our rise to power by making us speak different languages so we couldn’t understand each other. Different languages aren’t a blessing; they’re a fucking punishment.”
He’d just got off the phone with Vodafone internet support in Berlin, our home of mere weeks. They didn’t speak a word of English and his German is non-existent right now. He works online and so can’t earn a living without the internet. His experience is just another piece of anecdotal proof that not being able to speak a common language diminishes your power.
I work online as a radical feminist activist in English and my audience is supposedly worldwide. But although English might be a common language for many, it also erases many distinct and important differences.
It was eight years ago that Jessica Valenti, founder of feministing.com, suggested the fourth wave of feminism was online. And certainly for the last six years, as I’ve lived on a remote carless island in Sweden, the way I’ve learned about feminism is from online publications delivered to my curated feed via Facebook and Twitter. It has been a godsend. Fourth wave feminism, I’ve learned, is intersectional, queer, sex-positive and trans-inclusive. These are the lessons that have been circulated to me, a native British English speaker, mainly from America.
There’s only one problem: I don’t speak American.
It’s not just the newer terminology, which is unfamiliar, but the different uses for old terms. I’ve recently had the opportunity to write for a widely-read American magazine. During the initiation attended by diverse writers, we introduced ourselves.
“And where does your heart sit right now?” said the Californian editor.
Um… in my chest?
I understood the words, but not the meaning, and I was powerless to respond. Culture shapes language, and language shapes culture. Often it’s like the proverbial chicken and egg: impossible to discern what came first. But since the hottest English debates are raging in America right now, it’s their culture which is shaping our modern English language, a language I’ve studied and loved for years. But due to a global online anglophile community, English is now getting increasingly and more rapidly nuanced. Terms and acronyms enter modern online parlance at the speed of light: “caudacity”, “Becky”, “juggalo” and “Men Going Their Own Way” (MGTOW). Rarely a day goes past where I don’t have to look up a new word.
Since the internet is perceived as globally accessible, a radical “fourth wave” feminist such as myself is expected to know what’s going on. Often, I don’t. It takes me a long time to fully understand the gist of what’s being said, necessitates Urban Dictionary open on my browser, and requires background reading to identify who first coined which terms and in what sense. But I do it, because it’s my work and my passion. Many more people aren’t in my position. They simply don’t have the time.
Europe is far more fragmented than North America. Movements do not sweep the continent like they do over the pond because the cultures and languages are different. Europe has no common culture and no common language. It barely has English as a second language. Hell, it’s my first language and I still struggle.
Sweden, for example, doesn’t understand racism as the Americans have defined it. At least not yet (if ever). They cannot since their country wasn’t directly built on the backs of slaves. Racism still has the old-school meaning there: only understood and accepted as personal prejudice. And whilst I can clearly see prejudice enshrined in their systems — especially regarding the recent influx of Syrian refugees — it is of a different texture and thus less comparable.
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You can’t educate with words which don’t mean the same thing or which are not culturally appropriate because it facilitates denial and makes re-education that much harder.
As a movement, feminism takes on different flavours in different countries. That much is obvious. Fighting for equality in Kabul is not the same as fighting for equality in London. Empowerment for women in China is needed in a different way, not least because middle-class women are traditionally in charge of investing the household income earned by the man. But the assumption that those who speak English speak an English which can be mutually understood is a common misconception.
The online fight for equality brings other complications too; for one, accessibility dictated by how and why national media distribute particular news items. The headlines I scanned briefly on Saturday, August 12th, 2017 in between feeding my family and other household commitments included Angela Merkel’s progress in the run-up to the German election, and a suicide bomber killing fifteen in Pakistan. I heard about the events in Charlottesville a day later, and only then when an online American feminist suggested that my silence on Charlottesville could be seen as complicity. Feminism is intersectional, they said, and my silence was complicity. But as I have to repeatedly remind them, Britain is not America, and Europe is not the United States. There is no such country called Anglostan outside of the internet.
America is at war. I don’t like war, but fascism is oppression and as a believer in equality I will fight it. But the reason America is able to fight hard, maybe more effectively than the rest of us, is only because the intentions of each side are explicitly understood by the other. Trump has exposed it all in his unambiguous, racist misogyny. There is something to be said for his one-syllable simplicity. When you can’t understand someone else’s position, you cannot fight against it, and neither can you fight for it. Other more traditional politicians have known this for years. Accordingly, they cover their true intentions with clever words and lies, leaving the public bemused and apathetic.
Some things are clear to me. They translate well, are delivered in a timely fashion, and are the things I can fight for. Black lives matter. Fourth-wave feminism must be inclusive of all, not anti-trans and not anti-men.
And yet it’s occurred to me that I am spreading myself thinly, less effectively, online. Shouldn’t I be focused on fighting the battles in my own backyard, somewhere I can make a difference, instead of sharing an article about punching Nazis to an audience for whom it feels largely irrelevant?
British equality battles are weighted by colonialism, feudalism, classism, and island mentality. We need the appropriate verbal arsenal to fight these things because the communication, words and style used by Americans for America often won’t work in Britain. And more widely in Europe, each nation is very different and often anti-American. Fighting the issues which led to Brexit is not the same as fighting the issues which led to the election of Trump, not the same as fighting the far-right parties — AfD in Germany, FN in France, or the SD in Sweden — even though the same words are often used online to describe them all.
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Fighting the feminist fight in Europe means understanding and adapting to each nation’s differences. Our battles have been actively set back by the flood of English discourse and the ensuing cultural erasure which propels its way from across the Atlantic thanks to the ubiquity of the internet.
Though America provides certain models which are undoubtedly useful, we need to translate them into the ciphers of our individual cultures and our differently-constructed systems. Our own prejudices, whilst all rooted in insecurity and entitlement, should be described in our different languages and fought from within the culturally nuanced behaviour that can make sustainable changes. This will allow us to take progressive steps to create a deeper understanding of how we can eradicate our own unique and heavy legacies of harm.
[Featured Image: A photo a person standing in a crowd. They have long brown hair and beige skin. They are smiling and the word “Slut” is written on their cheek in green ink. They are wearing a dark shirt. Next to them is a person who also has long brown hair and beige skin. They are wearing a purple bra and the world “slut” is written on their cheek in purple ink. Source: Charlotte Cooper]