Deaf Community as Imagined Community?

Imagined Communities

Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities should be required reading at all interpreter training programs. (I just added it to the Interpreter’s Library.) The thesis is quite simple. The idea that you and I belong to a community called a “nation” is an enormous stretch of reason, given that we can’t possibly be in daily relationship with the other people in this “national community”. Yet, this is precisely the ideology of nationalism, which seeks to collectively represents people on the “inside” against people on the “outside”. Anderson never says that imagined communities aren’t real simply because they are imagined. On the contrary, imagined communities have even more power because they are imagined. If this seems trivial, take a quick glance at the news coming out of Crimea this morning.


Politics of Language

Language is central to Anderson’s argument. The bulk of Imagined Communities is about how nationalism took off and where nationalism got its start (spoiler alert: its not just about Europe). One of the major players here is language, because language became such an important element of nationalism. Even in the U.S., where the dominant language of English is hardly owned by U.S. citizens, English-only policies have been regularly introduced for well over a century to distinguish so-called “assimilated” immigrants and foreigners from “native” residents. Yet, Anderson reminds us that what is truly at stake in the politics of language is its ability to create a strategic boundary around a political community.

“It is always a mistake to treat languages in the way that certain nationalist ideologues treat them — as emblems of nation-ness, like flags, costumes, folk-dances, and the rest. Much The most important thing about language is its capacity for generating imagined communities, building effective particular solidarities. (133)

Why should interpreters care?

Here’s why I think this is important for interpreters to think about.

First, we know that Deaf communities have always experienced social oppression in various forms. What hasn’t been sufficiently explored is why much of this has taken place within the field of language. In my view, the literature in Deaf studies and interpreting studies has over-emphasized the direct anti-Deaf discourse by people like A.G. Bell, but hasn’t sufficiently challenged the nationalist ideas that makes language discrimination possible in the first place. When the English language is used as a “national bond” for U.S. citizens, it justifies the exclusion of non-English speakers (Deaf individuals included). In other words, the U.S. as a “nation” is an imagined community – it is not simply “real” in any everyday empirical sense. (As a side note, it is fascinating to me how many Deaf and hearing ASL users have made anti-immigrant comments to me, always failing to recognize that every argument against immigrants in the U.S. – true or not – has been used to discriminate against Deaf people, too.)

Second, the politics of language isn’t just about hearing English-speakers. As I said in my previous post, Deaf consciousness in the U.S. emerged alongside ideas of culture and nationalism in the 1880s. Sign language in the U.S. (even before it became “ASL”) became a signature feature of the U.S. Deaf community, and for very good reasons which my readers probably do not need explained to them. But the story isn’t quite as clear-cut as it seems. If we want to take Anderson seriously, we should recognize that language identity is always a political strategy, not just an empirical reality. And like all strategies, it includes some things and excludes others. ASL research — again, for very good reason — has tended towards ASL purism in the confines of a media room with Deaf-of-Deaf participants. No significant research exists on the everyday diversity of language use in mixed Deaf-hearing workspaces, for instance. So I wonder how this imagined community that Anderson talks about also applies (as he says it does) to minority social groups like the Deaf community. It’s not just about dominant groups; it’s about the conditions of political recognition for minority groups, too.

Third, this starts to provide a more interesting context for understanding Deaf advocacy. The value of the strategy of rigid Deaf cultural distinction (see Mindess 1999) and ASL purism is that makes it possible to advocate for recognition of ASL as a real language at a time when many people are still ignorantly skeptical that ASL should count. ASL has justifiably been seen as probably the marker of the Deaf community, or as Anderson says, an “effective particular solidarity”.  But in doing so, we should always be cautious about believing in the idea of linguistic or cultural purism itself, an idea that is tied to the conditions of Deaf oppression in the first place.

Deaf Community as Imagined Community?

Calling the Deaf community an “imagined community” sounds risky. Many people have lobbed misplaced and ignorant criticisms at the Deaf community for not being a “real” culture, a “real” social group, not using a “real” language. The reaction has been to dig our heels in to the slippery soil of the “real”. And we respond. Yes, Deaf people are a “real” culture. Yes, Deaf people use a “real” language. Yes, Deaf people are a “real” oppressed social group. Indeed, much of the research on ASL, interpreting, and the Deaf experience has defended this position. This is somewhat unfortunate, in my opinion, but entirely understandable. But the side effect is that we are less and less capable of challenging oppression on its own conceptual grounds. We end up playing a game in which the rules are already set against us. Suggesting that we understand the Deaf community as an imagined community (per Anderson) doesn’t compromise the credibility of Deaf advocacy. Instead, it advances advocacy a step further by suggesting that not only do Deaf individuals not need to justify themselves to hearing individuals, hearing critics themselves don’t have a foundation for judging what a “real” language, culture or social group is in the first place. But it may also mean that as interpreters, we need to let go of simplistic divisions between what we think of as “Deaf” and “hearing”, what we view as “pure” ASL, and to challenge the ideas (such as some versions of nationalism) that make Deaf oppression possible.


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