The Negative Externalities of the Linguistic Convenience Industry

This article is part of AASYP’s first-ever “Break the Chain” programme which highlights innovative solutions to modern slavery, human-trafficking and forced labour.

Must we understand every word?

Given that modern slavery, human trafficking and forced labour (‘MS/HT/FL’) are industries requiring its victims to be in states of disempowerment, it is incumbent upon us to seriously reconsider the power structures that our economic system perpetuates – particularly, the covert dynamic between language and domination. 

At least ostensibly, the goal of any economy is to maximise the welfare of the aggregate by maximising the welfare of the individual – the unarticulated premise being that maximising profits is the means to this end. However, suppose a firm that manufactures clothing determines it could cut costs by dumping industrial waste into a nearby river. Profits have been maximised, the welfare of that firm has increased, but the community has been poisoned. In other words, a negative externality has been created. Increasing profits does not a priori increase welfare, and we ought to come to terms with this reality rather than blindly operating as if profit maximisation is the panacea for all social ills. 

Years ago, when I volunteered at a Refugee Support Centre, I befriended a boy my age named Adil. ‘Adil’, in Arabic, means to be just and fair – a bitter irony which will be made apparent later. A refugee migrant from Aleppo, Syria – the epicentre of the civil war – one would think that his spirit would be broken down upon arrival to new shores. The opposite was true. He was the social butterfly of our ‘Coffee Community Connection’ meetings where, with an infectious grin, he would either be laughing or making others laugh. Adil would tell funny stories, banter with young and old, strum a guitar or drum a novelty doumbek while singing the Australian national anthem in charmingly cheeky jest – all in his broken English.

It was through SCARF’s Coffee Community Connections that Amir met Adil.
(Courtesy: SCARF Refugee Support)

Soon after, he started work as a waiter at a local Lebanese restaurant. My friends and I would dine there and, when it wasn’t busy, would sit and chat with him about everything from politics to sports. Yet, over the coming months, Adil’s cheeky grin turned into a sober disillusionment. 

For 12 hours of work, he was being paid around 120 Australian Dollars – close to half the minimum wage

Naturally, this news was met with our indignation. He should leave them and work at a fast food restaurant instead. There they would at least pay him better.

‘But I can’t speak English…’

When we value one language over the other we are also valuing one mode of being over the other.

And this is one of the negative externalities of the Linguistic Convenience Industry. In selecting workers who allow the ‘Consumer’ to avoid the horrors of, as hooks puts it, not being able to ‘”master” or conquer the narrative as a whole, we make the individuals causing this inconvenience prone to exploitation. Moreover, focusing on the production of convenience as a means to increase profits reinforces the idea that the Consumer is mercilessly intolerant to all utterances they cannot comprehend. Instead, in this frenzied fight against occasional incomprehension, we have commodified our workers along linguistic lines. As follows, Adil’s ‘value’ as a commodity leaves much to be desired as his English is poor. Thus, he is cast by Consumer decree to the bottom of the economic hierarchy. 

Safi Din al-Hilli, a 14th Century Arab poet, opined that ‘every tongue is, in fact, a man.’ The Self and the Tongue are inextricably linked because how we view and derive meaning from the world and how we view ourselves are one and the same. When we value one language over the other we are also valuing one mode of being over the other. I am bilingual however my Arabic is weak compared to my English. When put in situations where I can only speak Arabic, I feel muzzled. It is in this sense of disempowerment that would allow for my exploitation. 

Amorally, in not being able to fully articulate the meaning I’ve derived from a certain situation I am only utilising a fraction of my Self, a fraction of my potential. Migrants like Adil have so much more to offer than we are allowing to be showcased; a large portion of their human capital is stifled due to it existing in a non-English form. To unlock this potential, we ought to take on hooks’ following proposal

I suggest we may learn from spaces of silence as well as spaces of speech, that in the patient act of listening to another tongue we may subvert that culture of capitalist frenzy and consumption that demands all desire must be satisfied immediately, or we may disrupt that cultural imperialism that suggests one is worthy of being heard only if one speaks in standard English.

—bell hooks

MS/HT/FL cannot be seen as mere aberrations as there is a direct causal link between our insistence on comprehending every single word and the exploitation of people like Adil. I am not advocating for anything radical – merely calling to attention that in this consumer-driven world we often lose sight of the fact that you and I are the Consumer. We can finally put an end to the Linguistic Convenience Industry by refusing to be complicit in its operations.

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