Reflecting on language and power

I sat in on a pre-IGF session: internet governance and human rights: strategies and collaboration for empowerment. 14h00 in Room 5 at the IGF venue.

What I noticed was the importance given to certain areas, and the language employed in speaking to certain issues:

1. Issues of access

a. Who has access or who do we focus on when speaking of access

Here one of the speakers, Anja Kovacs (CIS) raised the point that when we discuss issues, particularly groups are given preference/greater importance than others, primarily linguistic/cultural groups and persons with disabilities. She argued that this serves to render other groups’ rights invisible or well, basically off the table for discussion. I agree with her in that, we cannot be specific or focus on specific groups if we have not discussed the issue of access at its broadest level.

It is very similar to the idea that when we speak of regulating the internet the discussion usually falls to the protection of children, but we do not give focus to the rights and protection of other groups. The arguments cannot be polarized or pitted against each other as Maya Ganesh raised during the discussion – we need to deal with them in all their complexities, and refigure policies in such a way that they protect the rights of particular groups without infringing on those of others.

b. What do we mean by access?

The group of participants who broke off to discuss access remained focused on the infrastructrual component of access: tools and literacy. This was a useful discussion but I was more concerned regarding access to information, such as groups who cannot access their content due to censorship/regulation on content, such as members of the LGBTI community. What are the implications here for sense of self? Identifying organizations that protect the rights of these groups? Identifying support structures?

2. Language

I find that I often pick up on matters of language because I feel that the politics of individuals are often reflected in the ways that they are able to speak of issues. Not all individuals are necessarily prejudiced, rather oblivious to the lived experiences of groups that they discuss, and the subsequent politics that exist.

a. “preference” instead of “orientation” regarding LGBTI groups

I think it was Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur, who in response to a question regarding LGBTI people began to speak of “sexual preference”. If one is a member of the LGBTI community, you would understand that through employing the word “preference” you immediately signal (un/consciously) your stance that LGBTI people “choose” their “lifestyles”. You would also understand that “orientation” is the term best employed here as it does not imply choice.

b. “minorities” instead of “marginalized”

The second issue that stood out for me was the use of the word “minorities” which in my opinion serves to imply that there exist only a small number of individuals who transgress the ‘norm’. This may serve to suggest that one does not necessarily have to cater to these individuals. However, often those that are thought to be in the “majority” (or “qualify” as majority) are in fact a small minority of power elite ( in any space/context). I prefer to think of transgressive (I like this word, and so am employing it positively) individuals as being marginalized, so pushed to the outskirts of society/community/access to power by a small, strong, organized majority. This then provides for the notion or possibility of “struggle” or “contestation” between those deemed to be powerful/in the centre and those less powerful/on the outskirts/marginalized (ref: Gramsci’s notion of hegemony). Meaning: these marginalized groups can contest for power, and push themselves into the centre.


More from the edition

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Good observation. Thanks Nyx.
Posted on 09/20/2010 - 14:28 | Reply

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