The Role of a Scholar in Gaelic and other Marginalized Cultures

This is a difficult, sensitive, complex, and multilayered topic. It’s hard to write about and it’s not surprising that so few people have tried (“I am a ‘white linguist’” by Dr. Cassie Smith-Christmas being one of the few examples). I am only human, as are the members of the communities I’ve worked with, so we will make mistakes and hopefully be compassionate with one another and allow ourselves to reflect on and learn from the process. I end up rewriting and improving my all of my blog posts to try to add and improve nuances, this post perhaps more than most (with significant encouragement and suggestions from my friend Tad Hargrave).

I love Scottish Gaelic culture for many reasons: a sonorous and eloquent language, a long and sophisticated literary tradition, a beautiful music and song tradition, a dynamic dance tradition, a rich mythopoeic cosmology, a deeply-rooted sense of belonging, and so on. Engagement in Scottish Gaeldom has given me the privilege of experiencing the world with different way of being and knowing. And it’s also given me a deeper appreciation for how fragile cultures can be, and how easily they can they become entangled in and appropriated by empires and colonial enterprises.

One of the most ambitious, multi-pronged enterprises launched in the late twentieth century is that of decolonization. Modernity is the product of the élite of European empires of the last several centuries, and modernity has permeated the globe with many manifestations of coloniality. Virtually everyone is implicated in this web of domination, control, and exploitation, some as victims / exploited, some as victors / exploiters, and most of us as a mixture of both. But even the humanity of the “victor” is compromised in a system that thrives on creating and enforcing hierarchies of power and privilege.

I cannot speak for all scholars, but many I know choose to work with and for minoritized communities for altruistic reasons, in the hopes of restoring some justice and beauty to the world. We can make mistakes, and academia seldom provides us adequate training for the imbalances between dominant and subjugated communities, or the emotional stresses and tolls inherent in such work. The latent faultlines in a community are likely to come to the fore when the prevailing assumptions around a culture are questioned, or one becomes involved in the community’s issues of representation, power, or privilege (or those of particular groups within the community). These can be very difficult to navigate and negotiate, but the process of collaboration between scholar and community can and should be mutually enriching and enlightening.

So, this blog post speaks primarily from my own point of view and personal experiences in Scottish Gaeldom in Scotland and Nova Scotia. …

There is not necessarily a compelling reason for members of dominant, majority cultures, content with their dispensations and opportunities, to seek out the history of their societies and question of the assumptions that make up the stuff of their everyday lives. They can afford to live in the present, buoyed by myths of inherent and eternal greatness, floating along the effervescent and evanescent stream of fads and fetishes.

Members of subjugated societies, who are trapped in the debris of wrecked communities, whose lines of historical continuity and cultural aspirations were cut short by invasion, intrusion, imposition and conquest, who will not or cannot silently acquiesce to the demands made by those who dominate them, experience life with a different kind of consciousness.

It is natural for people in such situations to have the need to address these issues, to have burning questions about their past, present, and future, for which they may not find answers easily: Why did this happen to us? Was it due to some intrinsic weakness or flaw of our own? How did it happen? Did someone within our group betray us? Can we do anything to regain our own identity and internal compass? How can we regain control of our destiny and self-determination? Do we even know what that is any more? Are our losses a series of random events, or is there some larger pattern to help to explain them? Are our losses similar to those of other people, whose recovery might provide us with inspiration and leadership to help us recover ourselves?

When a society is invaded and dominated by another, it can easily lose its sense of self, especially if the dominating group imposes a different language, culture, worldview and cosmology upon the conquered, stigmatizing their former ways of knowing and being in the world. The conquered become dislocated from their rootedness in the world, ontologically speaking, often still in their old physical location but like zombies or ghosts mimicking the ways of the victors, alienated from their ancestral inheritance, the deeper meaning of their customs, their old divine order. They cannot completely step into the shoes of their conquerors and leave their old selves behind, nor can they easily recapture the wholeness of their past.

The dominant culture, of course, constructs its own stories to explain its supremacy over others: it is more advanced, more civilized, more virtuous, more worthy of leadership. These ethnocentric fictions are regurgitated in schools, imaginative literature, mass media, public monuments, and so on, so that it seems hard to question, dislodge and replace them in defense of the marginalized and minoritized.

Although all humans are members of societies that constantly create, negotiate, and reinterpret culture, understanding culture in all of its historical depth, constituent elements, and conceptual complexity turns out to be more difficult than most people expect. It is, I think, for better or worse, an innate human tendency to see social groups in terms of essences or essentialisms: especially given the reinforcements of stereotypes in popular culture, it might be easily assumed that all French people are excellent chefs, all Germans are natural-born engineers, all Japanese are expert origami-makers, and so on. These expectations can be easily reinforced by positive affirmation bias and the desire to preserve a sense of internal group cohesion (“Of course, we’re all similar, especially because we’re different from them!”).

Likewise, it seems an innate human tendency for people to see the world in the “eternal present,” to assume that the present was fundamentally similar to what we now know, and that it is safe to assume that we can project the concepts, categories, experiences, habits, and objects we know now unproblematically into the past.

These common human traits and propensities, however, amongst many others, muddle and sabotage our ability to think clearly and accurately about the past. People’s identities change over time: some people who were born as members of one group join another, or entire groups disappear, emerge, or reinvent themselves. Objects – clothing, weapons, musical instruments, … – created by one group get claimed by another, change function, becoming charged with new meaning, their origins lost in complex and unrecorded exchanges. Ideas and concepts are even more ghostly and elusive to track, but have just as profound and transformational impact upon those who hear and understand them.

Culture exists in variation in social groups at different scales: individuals, families, neighborhoods, states, organizations, institutions, professions, ethnolinguistic communities, nations, etc. Culture can be differentiated by context and domain: the culture of the home may be different from the culture of the religious institution, the culture of the élite different from the culture of the peasantry. Culture changes subtly and sometimes mutely, but always inexorably, over time. Seeing it as a singular, homogenous monolith is self-deceiving.

This is a rather long-winded introduction to the question of what contributions a scholar or intellectual can make to a minoritized culture, but my 25 year engagement in Scottish Gaeldom suggests that such observations are crucial for discussion of any depth, and this conviction has been confirmed by my discussions with people similarly engaged in revitalization projects with other minoritized groups.

When a culture is severely compromised, it tends to lose control over its own institutions, especially those that help it to understand itself. Those aspiring to higher social classes have little choice but to assimilate to the conventions of the dominant group, and to adopt language, ideas, values and assumptions accordingly. This compromises the ability of the invaded culture to recover the past or envision a path for the future in alignment with its pre-conquest self. There often emerge huge gaps between the assimilated élite and the lower-class natives, who no longer feel confidence or trust in their former kinsmen, but rather might feel resentment, shame, and/or humiliation, along, sometimes, with pride for their “accomplishment.”

Language and cultural revitalization is one of the most difficult undertakings a community can attempt, given that the decline of language and culture is itself a symptom of the undermining of the community’s basic abilities to chart its own course and transmit its own blueprint across generations.

I remember well sitting in a brainstorming workshop in Nova Scotia (c.2012) meant to generate suggestions for how Gaelic revitalization might be advanced in the community. The elder with whom I was sitting and to whom I spoke was kind, hopeful, and committed to his language, but he was also at a loss. For him, Gaelic was something “organic” that was simply spoken by family and community members as a matter of course, and personal choice. It required no planning, analysis or forethought, unlike the tortuous thought experiments which we were discussing at the meeting. He had no training the social sciences or sociolinguistics, or familiarity with institutional issues. The old world in which he was born and raised no longer exists, and he had a difficult time imagining how language regeneration could happen within the context of governmental policies, educational exercises, or community initiatives. It seemed to me to be a chasm he did not know how to cross, and he was by no means alone.

Gaelic will only survive and thrive to the extent that the community will come to terms with the conditions that exist now, in the present world. This does not require, by any means, that Gaels have to jettison the content, ethos, or principles of their culture wholesale – I have argued strongly against that – but it does mean enlisting people who have a foot in both settings and can manage that adaptation thoughtfully and sensitively. Crafting solutions in modern settings requires thinking in terms of structures, systems, institutions, and ideologies: these are very unnatural ways for human beings to approach challenges unless they have been given particular kinds of formal training and tools.

It was my distinct impression that there is a common distrust of institutions and scholars in Gaelic Nova Scotia because they have failed and betrayed the language and culture so many times. And yet the reach and impact of institutions is now unavoidable. For any community to survive within modern political entities, it must present a case to be represented in and supported by institutions of some sort, or maintaining a thriving community is virtually impossible otherwise. People with particular skills – usually those acquired within formal education – can act as intermediaries and aid in these processes in the interests of the community. And in time members of the community will learn from and integrate knowledge about these new contexts or settings, and assess their successes and failures on their own terms.

I think that there is a common insecurity around intellectuals and academics, whether it be a fear of inadequacy or difficulty in finding a common language with scholars, who often, by default, rely on erudite jargon and concepts. And many intellectuals can be introverted, clumsy, or overly cerebral by disposition. However, in ideal circumstances, scholars (and other professionals) can create symbiotic relationships with elders and community members to find creative solutions that have been shown to work in general but adapt them to the local community. This relationship-building requires mutual trust, respect, and patience — as well as time, which implies sustained funding … a rare commodity in the Gaelic world.

I found a widespread implied misunderstanding of the purpose of Celtic Studies in higher education in Nova Scotia. People seemed to assume that the purpose of attending courses and studying the field is to learning how to be a Gael. One well-known figure, who I like and admire very much, jokes that her instructor should not have chided her for missing class because she was attending a céilidh, where she was learning more about being a Gael than she could have in the classroom. This is, in my opinion, misguided. These are different ways of knowing and being that are distinct but complementary.

“French Studies” is not designed to teach students how to become French, or “Canadian Studies” to become Canadian. Rather, such courses and fields endeavor to provide a wide and deep background to the ways in which people in these ethnolinguistic groups have experienced the world and expressed themselves, to give students the critical thinking tools to understand the remains of the past, to question the interpretations of these things provided to us in the present (not always from our friends and allies), and to (re)construct new means of expression for ourselves in the future which are concordant with that past and its integrity. In addition, this deeper understanding allows one to see common patterns across different cultures and communities and historical time in a way that allows us to gauge what efforts are likely to succeed, which are not worth pursuing, what are common pitfalls and what are likely outcomes. It also enables building bridges across marginalized cultures for common goals.

There are many claims and assumptions about “authenticity” and cultural “purity” in Gaelic Nova Scotia. It is not unusual for a minoritized community to make such claims, as it can enhance its sense of integrity or social prestige. According to some, for example, fiddle music and step-dance in Nova Scotia are fossilized relics of the 18th-century Highlands. I am critical about such claims and continue to review the evidence and attempt to debunk misinformation, but it is not because I am hostile to the Gaelic community, tradition(s) or performers, or intend to be disrespectful to them. Rather, I think that relying upon claims of purity or authenticity is historically unsound and anthropologically untenable, and a weak plank upon which to rest self-esteem.

Understanding the development of art forms in the past and the ways in which people have negotiated between tradition and innovation is important because it provides us with precedents and exemplars of how to work in the present.  It is possible to celebrate the Nova Scotian forms of music and dance as signs of the ingenuity, resilience and creativity of Gaels responding to their contemporary environment in North America. The idea that the assimilation of external influences or new materials is a sign of corruption or dependency is outdated and smacks of the colonialist thinking that is ultimately of disservice to any culture.

All cultures consist of many strands, some conservative, some radical, potentially activated or disabled according to the social context and dominant forces. For the last two and a half centuries, Gaeldom has been dominated by conservative forces and personnel, as a matter of limited options as a conquered society. People might assume that Gaeldom is inherently conservative because it has been used to prop up the imperial military, colonial settlements, puritanical religion, and so on. Gaeldom has been so thoroughly impacted by and intertwined with British imperialism for the last several centuries that it is impossible to understand the history – or culture – without taking this imperial/colonial context into account.

But Gaeldom need not be relegated to or limited by this coloniality: there are radical strands in Gaelic heritage as well that have been waiting to be reclaimed and reactivated. This re-radicalization has been particularly lively in the last decade in Scotland due to a re-enfranchised political context, and as scholars we can question the dominant narrative of conservativeness by highlighting the radical Gaelic voice that does exist, and the potential for self-liberation and social equality latent within the tradition.

A creative scholar with a substantial knowledge of the history of the varied cultural expressions of a society can find older elements which have been lost, submerged, suppressed, or distorted, and help to give them new life that restores a sense of purpose and coherence to a group. Knowledge need not be just a passive asset, it can be energizing, visionary, revelatory, and healing. The work of decolonization requires both the head and the heart, pulling together in concert.

Scholars are not just one-dimensional, disembodied brains lacking qualifications to be one of the “real folk” – we are also musicians, dancers, creative writers, singers, and producers and transmitters of culture. A fully revitalized language needs to be used and usable by everyone in a society: the farmers and the philosophers, the bakers and the bankers, the children and the teachers … we all have a potential contribution to make that reflects our own skills and perspectives and helps to enhance the resilience, diversity, and resources of a culture.

Of course, scholars can make mistakes, have limitations and shortcomings, and change their minds – just like members of the community itself. Fortunately, many people have been very generous with and forgiving of me, and I have attempted to return the kindness and faith that many people placed in me over the years. They have shared their sense of injustice, their devotion to their heritage, their frequent despair, their fragile hopes, usually in hushed tones. I’ve tried to lift up and amplify those otherwise unheard voices in my work, because I am a scholar with a Muse and a mission, amongst many others who want to work toward a better world.

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