Linguistic diversity and “cosmopolitan bias”

By September 18, 2017Culture

One of the consequences of the recent upsurge in nationalist politics around the world has been a rise in attacks on the idea of linguistic diversity. As national language ideologies are increasingly promoted as part of the general symbolism of monoculturalism (‘America First’; ‘Take back control’), so multilingualism and diverse linguistic identities become delegitimised, and minority communities ever more marginalised. But there’s also another consequence that stems from this anti-diversity rhetoric – a subtle but important shift in the way that knowledge is being framed, and a move from debate to dogma.

In early August, Stephen Miller, advisor to the US president, got involved in a heated confrontation with a reporter from CNN following the announcement of a new immigration-reform bill. The ‘Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy’ or RAISE Act, which is being supported by the White House, seeks to replace the current immigration system with a merit-based one, and in so doing prioritizes people with, among other things, a high level of English-language proficiency. The reporter, Jim Acosta, asked Miller how the bill squared with the ideals of the poem engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty – ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses’ – and particularly, whether the stipulation about English proficiency was a means of ‘trying to engineer the racial and ethnic flow of people into this country’. Did it not have the effect of favouring people from Great Britain and Australia, while excluding others? Miller’s short-tempered response was to accuse Acosta of promoting the needs of immigrants above those of hard-working Americans, and in so doing, harbouring a ‘cosmopolitan bias’.

It’s this notion of ‘cosmopolitan bias’ which tells us almost as much about the politics of diversity in contemporary society as the policies which explicitly support a monocultural view of the nation do. The provision about language proficiency in the RAISE Act is part of the apparatus of a very standard national language ideology – the idea that (in this case) English is a fundamental part of the country’s cultural-political identity, and that linguistic diversity stands opposed to the integrity of this identity. Its inclusion in the act should come as no surprise given the ‘English only’ stance that Trump has previously voiced. For example, during the primaries he scolded his rival Jeb Bush for code-switching, insisting that ‘This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish’.

But what’s of equal interest is how the broader discourse of diversity is also being framed in these comments. The word ‘cosmopolitan’ when used here by Miller is a near synonym of the right’s other go-to insult, ‘elite’, and an antonym of ‘nationalist’. The political idea of cosmopolitanism is of humankind existing as a single community with shared moral values, in which people from different backgrounds (including different nation-states) can co-exist based on mutual respect, and despite different cultural, political or religious backgrounds. As such it stands in opposition to a belief in the primacy of the traditions and ideals of the nation. In the cosmopolitan equation, shared values are a stronger bond than the arbitrariness of shared inhabitancy of a nation.

This is clearly anathema to nationalists, for whom love of country and its citizens is paramount, and for whom the president is the a priori figurehead for this, and thus deserving of an unquestioning loyalty. ‘Cosmopolitan’, on the other hand, implies an inbuilt scepticism of this ideal, and by extension, for the nationalists, a lack of patriotism.

According to Jeff Greenfield in Politico, one of the reasons why ‘cosmopolitan’ is a particularly loaded term in this context is that it was ‘key to an attempt by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to purge the culture of dissident voices’. Cosmopolitanism and diversity for Stalin were synonymous with criticism, and for this reason seen as a direct threat to his power. Greenfield sees the traces of a similar undercurrent in Trump’s message. The “American First” mantra is a way for his administration to enforce its own ideology while at the same time labelling any dissent as anti-patriotic. By this logic, simply speaking a ‘foreign’ language can be categorised as an act of dissent.

And it’s here that the ‘bias’ element of Stephen Miller’s term comes in. There’s an interesting rhetorical sleight-of-hand in the way he’s structuring his argument. In effect, by complaining of bias, what he’s doing is trying to appropriate the concept of diversity for his own side. He’s accusing his opponents of themselves taking a closed view of issues; suggesting that it’s journalists such as Acosta who are intolerant of different opinions, and are in effect the ones arguing for a monoculture. And the monoculture they’re arguing for is cosmopolitanism.

This is a common strategy amongst the alt-right. For example, James Damore, who was recently fired by Google for his sexist critique of the company’s diversity policies, subtitled his memo ‘How bias clouds our thinking about diversity and inclusion’. He’s since gone on to complain of the way that today’s mainstream culture ‘tries to silence any dissenting views’. His rather convoluted argument is that mainstream culture is fine with diversity as long as it’s the sort of diversity that it itself promotes; but that diverse views such as his (which, as it happens, are an attack on this mainstream notion of diversity) are censored – thus proving that there’s a hypocritical bias in the culture!

In many ways it’s a similar pattern to what happened in the ‘fake news’ debate. In that case, initial concerns about how media (both social and traditional) was sifting out the experience of diversity in society (by creating ‘filter bubbles’), and thus preventing people from being exposed to a broad range of opinions and values, got hijacked by assertions of bias in the ‘mainstream’ media from the Trump camp. ‘Fake news’ went, within a few months, from being the phenomenon of how the circulation of fabricated stories and highly-partisan opinions get circulated in society, to a blanket insult for anything the president and his supporters disagreed with.

The singular national language ideology is, of course, vastly out of line with the reality of the linguistic identity of the US. For a start, over 50 million people in the US now speak Spanish – which means it has more Spanish speakers than Spain. And, as research into multilingualism across the globe has been highlighting in recent years, the norm in all societies is variety, diversity and a mixed use of resources – so much so that many sociolinguists are advocating a change in the vocabulary we use to describe people’s language practices, so that the idea of discrete national languages no longer operates as the default.

But the concept of ‘diversity’ that’s being demonised in the discourse from Miller and associates is not just a diversity of cultural values and practices (symbolised, in the argument with Acosta, by language). It’s also a diversity of opinions and perspectives. And demonising this thus becomes a way of re-categorizing open debate as dissent. A way of undermining the importance of critical thinking in favour of an obedient devotion to ex cathedra assertion.

Author Philip Seargeant

Philip Seargeant is a senior lecturer at the Open University, where he specialises in language and communication. He has published several books on topics ranging from social media to linguistic creativity and English around the world. His most recent titles include "Taking offence on social media" (2017, with Caroline Tagg and Amy Aisha Brown) and "Creativity in language" (2016, with Zsofia Demjen). He can be found on Twitter @philipseargeant.

More posts by Philip Seargeant
  • Miriam Faine

    interesting. there is also a long history of ‘cosmopolitan’ being used – by Stalin as well as on the Right – as code for ‘Jewish’. In the Nazi version, now appropriated by some on the Alt Right, the cosmopolitans are accused of diluting White purity by promoting immigration and race mixing. Scary stuff ,

  • David Marjanović

    Interesting that there’s a comma missing on the plaque, confusingly in “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!”.

    Also, everything Miriam Faine said.

  • GlobalMikeW

    I had never read the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty. What a beautiful, inspiring message to greet newcomers to America… and how vastly different is the current political climate. The hijacking of a phrase like “cosmopolitan” highlights the vast propaganda machine in motion designed to instil fear and division. What is most disturbing, and what I thought the author did a fantastic job of explaining, is the re-framing of terminology that clearly represents an opposing point of view. By reversing contextual meaning, it essentially disempowers not just the term, but the very concept. I would suggest this as much an anything was what dismayed Jim Acosta. Afterall, as the other example of “fake news” reveals, it is very easy to see how the adoption of an alternate meaning can go mainstream, ultimately leading to a scenario where the very concepts we want to protect, such as linguistic diversity, are no longer represented by the term with which they are identified. And if it can’t be identified, how can it be fought for?

  • Eleonora Beolchi

    Totally agree with this post, especially when you say that the idea of monoculturalism is a concept that relates to the Anglo-Saxon world. It is also interesting to see how easily the word “cosmopolitan” is juxtaposed to “nationalism”, and how easily the connection with “lack of patriotism” is made, which on the contrary has nothing to do with it. This is an unfair political way to raise tension and frictions in a country’s population by associating concepts that not necessarily are related one to other, playing on a very sensitive topic like the one of migrants.

  • Dhanisa Kamila

    I agree that this matter can be seen as a racial propaganda. USA is a country built by immigrants from around the world, if “nationalism” is what they really after, then they should think about everyone equally despite of their language abilities. English proficiency is sure important. However, it’s not the most and only weighed aspect to consider in reforming the immigration system.
    USA’s development is not a hard-work by Americans only, as a report by Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation ( stated that foreign-born scientists and engineers contribute to more than half of the international patents filed by the USA.

  • Kaniz Rahman

    I remember reading about “American Dream” where anyone (speaking any language) can come to US and become successful with his/her hard work and now I find it really funny that one’s nationalism is being judged by the language he speaks. This is the century when diversity is warmly welcomed, properity is only possible when every culture and langauge is accepted as it is rather than pusing away!

  • Min Wu KIM

    I think Miller’s comment ‘cosmopolitan bias’ was only for redirecting Acosta’s question into an attack on the media as current strong men in US always have done. In my opinion, this Mono-lingualism or ‘English first’ policy in a big country like USA, economically and geographically, can get itself more harms than benefits since I believe that one of the crucial reasons that USA has got its current leading status in the world is its embracement of various cultures. By embracing the differences, creativity, valuable feedback, and efficient development has harmoniously been yielded. The linguistic policy excluding diversities can cause conflicts among its nations and lead the country to the past, not future.