Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Language of Imperialism

In a seemingly innocuous story about the identification of a new monkey species in Tanzania, my wife noticed imperialist language popping up. From the CNN story:

Two separate teams of researchers working hundreds of miles apart have discovered a new species of monkey in Tanzania

There's that word--"discovered." Another example of white people discovering something in darkest Africa. This despite the fact that the monkey was well-known among local people and it was only that white people had not found the monkey that it remained undiscovered.

Why does it matter that a little word like "discovered" was in this story? Certainly CNN does not mean to denigrate Africans in this story. But I think that it is important because this subtle language of exploration and discovery is still a major linguistic theme in America today and that language has consequences across the globe.

For one, the language of discovery says that there is something out there for us to go and find. And what an undiscovered world means is that we must go and discover it. When this exploration takes place, we are going into another culture and changing it, subtlely perhaps, but real nonetheless. Of course cultures change all the time but this is a particular kind of change where a very empowered groups (Westerners) go in and place values on a particular thing (monkeys today, land 125 years ago) that local people perhaps do not place a high value on. The interest of the West makes those things commodities of sorts out of these things. And the commodification, whether for sale, for conquest, or for tourism changes cultures in profound ways.

Moreover, I think that the myth of exploration within America has affected the course of the American environmental movement, particularly its emphasis on wilderness that I have spoke of with trepidation on this blog in the past. I have heard the argument made that one of the most important reasons to preserve wilderness is because people have the right to explore. I am not saying that this is a majority view within environmentalism, only that I have heard it expressed. I'm really uncomfortable with a "right to explore" because again it implies that we need to continue pushing the bounds of what white people have seen and where they have gone. I have read writings from nature adventure magazines with people who are obsessed with going somewhere no one has ever stepped foot before. It can be a pretty easy leap from exploring areas where no one has explored before and finding species no one has found before to placing ownership claims upon the land--Columbus' "discovery" of America, the exploration of the American West, and the race to colonize Africa all being prime examples. Of course there were people there but not people assigned equal values to the conqueror.

Again, I am not saying that CNN is intentionally pushing the exploration myth or the language of imperialism, but the use of this language, however unintentional, gives one more push to these unfortunate ideas.