It’s Not About Words

In a recent conversation between Edward Snowden and Ai Weiwei, they discuss the power people have, whether or not they might use it and how. “Our universal truth is to grow, fulfill our imagination, and to create our own language,” Ai Weiwei states.

What does it mean to create your own language? 

One of the problems facing the not-for-profit sector is that we have tried to professionalise our work so much that social change becomes synonymous with interest groups: it’s for experts, policy-makers and professional lobbyists. 

In doing so we have also created our very own language which is not inclusive, but exclusive. It is mostly vertical, only serving upwards, the system, the policymakers. And along the way, we forgot the people.

How often do you catch yourself using jargon or terminology that immediately defines your occupation, even when that was not your intention? I think about this every single time I meet someone who asks me what I do. I’m often disappointed in my own answer.

Jargon, of course, is never justifiable, even if its use lends itself beautifully to satire, a useful release and a reminder not to take ourselves too seriously. But when it comes to specialist vocabulary or terminology, where do we draw the line when our jobs primarily concern society as a whole? Do we not have a responsibility to use language that is open, horizontal? When we sometimes don’t understand each other even within our own organisations, how can we expect anyone else to? 

The reason this question is so important is because we are facing a crisis of legitimacy. Are we serving the people we claim to help? Should we involve them in our work and decision-making? And if so, how? While these may not be new questions, they are becoming increasingly urgent to resolve – that is, if you believe in dismantling the unjust system to build anew. 

There are many organisations that encourage membership, action and involvement in different ways beyond just asking for donations. But this only suits those who want to buy into a brand or step into a set structure, it’s a commodification of social change. In the children’s rights field, we often refer to this as “participation”, which implies we are inviting them to come into our existing system with its set language. It is rarely about building with them.

We know that today what is most needed is solidarity between different causes and groups, and for existing movements and organisations to work together so we can build together. But this requires a different language or even new language.

But it is not about words. And it’s not just about the crisis of legitimacy. It is also about the role language plays in human nature.

So let’s return to Ai Weiwei’s statement from the beginning. What does it mean to create your own language? 

I am often asked by people I meet outside the work space how they might contribute, what they can do about what they see happening in the world. The answer they are seeking is not “go to a march,”, “give money away,” or “get a job in a non-profit.” While those actions are legitimate, encouraged, and sometimes effective, it’s not always an option for everyone, nor does it fulfill the desire to contribute to what many people see as an unjust world in a meaningful way. 

Comedian and Writer Deborah Frances-White once said that if you are an ally, meaning someone who shares concerns but is not necessarily directly affected by an issue, “then our job is to build bridges, to make connections.” At the Rights Studio, we see this as one of our goals: to take on the role of bridge building in order to explore this idea.

Words, Veronica Yates and illustration, Miriam Sugranyes