Catriona Robertson

journeys at home and abroad

Who are you?

Who Are We by Gary YoungeNo, not genealogy – spare me – but identity.

Gary Younge was on BBC2’s The Review Show (the arts show that hasn’t quite found its feet since it stopped being Newsnight Review) and also on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week (catch both on iplayer), talking about his new book, Who Are We and Should it Matter in the 21st Century? I can happily listen to Gary Younge for a long time, even if he is plugging a book.

Belgium’s election has produced a leap in support for a Flemish separatist party.  I’m told language is the key symbol of difference there, with a lot more – economics, history – stacked up behind it.  The language you speak defines you.  Which surprises an almost monolingual Brit like myself when I know that Belgians (and most other Europeans) are pretty multilingual.  Younge says of the EU, ” borders have come down, but the borders of the mind have gone up”.

How different can we be, how similar do we have to be,  to live peaceably together?  Over 140 languages are spoken at home by schoolchildren in my part of London.  Language is not a key identifier here – it’s just one of several.  But then English is the only language of government, the judiciary, science and the academy in London.  Business, the media and the arts are more varied, but on the whole, no English = no participation, so there are strong reasons to acquire it, pronto.

Do we need to eat the same food?  I used to take enormous care to make sure that no-one felt left out at large multifaith gatherings – everyone should be able to eat everything on the table.  The end of the line on this one is a diet of kosher hummous and fresh fruit.  At some point, exasperation took over and I adopted a smorgasbord approach – lots of different food, well labelled, so that everyone could eat happily while learning something about other people’s dietary rules and preferences.

Should we wear the same clothes?  Barcelona is considering banning face-coverings in public places, such as municipal markets and town halls.  At a café this morning (I’m in Vienna), I overheard three businessmen talking about the headscarves some Muslim women are wearing in Austria.  One said, “It’s what Tyrolean grandmas have been wearing for centuries”.  Face-covering, whether balaclavas (sometimes adopted by bank-robbers), motorcycle helmets or the niqab or burka, is different – but whether a general ban on all or some of these face-coverings in all public places is a useful thing to do is questionable.  I wore a face-veil on my wedding day.

I wrote most of this last month in London but never got around to finishing it.  Having just been at the Learning to Live in a Multicultural Europe gathering at Caux, I’ve been more aware than usual of our tendency to over-culturalise.  A good example was given by Judith Jordaky, a project manager at TikK (taskforce for intercultural conflict resolution) based in Zurich – she talked of a difficult situation that a Swiss family of Turkish origin faced.  Those responsible for their welfare worried that they couldn’t really understand what was going on ‘because they were Turkish’.  With TikK’s careful listening, it transpired that mental health and employee conduct were the key issues, and neither had much, if anything, to do with ‘being Turkish’.

“Identity is an essential place to start but a very bad place to end” says Gary Younge.

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One comment on “Who are you?

  1. Catriona Robertson
    8 July 2010

    Thoughts from a language & identity tracking blog http://languagetrendstracking.wordpress.com/2010/06/26/language-as-a-proxy-for-conflict/

    And a piece by Newsnight Review regular Sarfraz Mansoor in the Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/may/29/gary-younge-who-are-we

    Should also have mentioned Kapuscinski’s The Other which I re-read after returning from Pakistan http://www.amazon.com/Other-Ryszard-Kapuscinski/dp/1844673286

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