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book cover speaking and being gümüsay

Speaking and being: how language binds and frees us

Speaking and Being might not be the most melodious title for a book, but that should’t deter anyone from reading Kübra Gümüşay’s important work (translated by Gesche Ipsen). In it, Gümüşay looks for ways to make our society more just and explains convincingly that language plays a central role in doing this.

Gümüşay begins by dealing extensively with the interaction of language and perception. In order to understand the power of language, it is necessary to know how language constructs human lived realities. On the one hand, language makes the world perceptible to people, it allows them to express everything they see, feel or taste, and thus makes these experience real. Language adapts according to the geographical and cultural context of people. On the other hand, language also reveals what is important and valued – or not valued – in a given society. Language is rarely neutral. This foundation is important for Gümüşay’s main thesis: Language codifies things and people, which often has negative consequences. Language and discrimination are closely related – in Speaking and Being, the focus is for the most part specifically on sexism and anti-Muslim racism.

To facilitate her discussion, Gümüşay uses the beautiful and fitting image of a museum of language: Here, unnamed people curate and thus define everything exhibited. Everything that can be said (in other words, the whole world) is arranged according to their worldviews. They also name those who are excluded from the curatorial team and who, instead, form part of the exhibitions. Some of the exhibited want to get out of their glass cases and rebel against the rules of the Museum of Language. They want to point out the gaps that were not thought through when the museum was designed. Gümüşay’s museum metaphor brings their questions – and the motivation behind this book – to the fore: Does the resistant speech of the named remain merely an exception that entertains the unnamed? Can the distribution of roles between the unnamed (namers) and the named be resolved? Can there be equality?

According to Gümüşay, the way public debates are conducted in Germany constitutes one of the main reasons that discriminatory thinking, speaking and acting persists. In her understanding, it is all too often about polarisation, and tends to degenerate into battles for attention and absolute truths. This discussion culture strongly influences listeners:

“the more polarized such show-fights are, the more they change the audience, which is supposed to be entertained. The clearer and more homogeneous the positions, the more idealized and uncompromising the attitudes, the deeper the social rifts become. There is hardly any room left for doubt, hesitation, and reflection, until we finally forget that they were once possibilities”.

Speaking and Being

Gümüşay criticises that public debates not only lose complexity in this way, but ultimately also restrict people’s thinking and learning. It is only through the nature of public debate that certain issues are caused to become polarizing. Forms of discrimination and resistance to them often belong to this category.

Ultimately, Gümüşay is looking for solutions. Her suggestions emphasize what is also often conveyed, for example, in social justice theories or anti-discrimination training: The conscious use and avoidance of terms is a form of resistance and an expression of solidarity. When a conversation is not about being right or image cultivation, there can be space for consideration and real exchange. In principle, a benevolent attitude serves to shape a more just society.

Gümüşay elegantly sums up the political dimensions and lived effects of language. She does this with sensitivity and clarity. While reading it, I often had the feeling that I had been waiting for just this book for a long time: It expresses criticism, initiates thought processes, creates space for fallibility, teaches humility, and gives hope.

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