In our latest instalment of our Paper Trails series, MBC’s Andrea Potts spoke with Samuel Bennett about the relationship between British colonialism and contemporary immigration discourse in the UK, and how we can interrogate language to expose myths.
Samuel Bennett is an Assistant Professor at Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań (Poland). His research centres around discursive constructions of migrant integration, (non)belonging and exclusion, populist politics, and online communication. He has been involved in immigration, community building, and empowerment charities for over 20 years, most recently as a board member of Migrant Info Point in Poland.
MBC: How would you describe your area of research?
Samuel Bennett: I take quite an interdisciplinary approach to linguistics, and in particular, I look at discourse analysis. Discourse analysis is understood in lots of different ways by different people. I look at what can be broadly termed political or social issues from a discursive perspective. My methodological approach is using linguistic analysis to research migration and belonging. I’m interested in silences in language and discourse surrounding immigration, and in particular, how British politicians tell certain stories about the country in order to justify immigration policies.
In my current work I look at how myths are constructed and how we can analyse them. A myth is a story that we tell ourselves collectively. The story we tell includes some people and excludes other people. But the reason myths become myths is that we take them to be natural, right? We take them for granted, they become objective rather than subjective, and a lot of them we don’t question. For a myth to be cohesive and for people to understand it as natural, a myth needs to selectively choose certain events and processes in history. It important to uncover those stories that have been consciously backgrounded.
MBC: And you do think that this is a conscious process?
SB: Yes. I do think it’s a conscious process. That doesn’t mean that I think people consciously say, well, we’re not going to include this, we’re not going to include that. Part of my research is looking at how textbooks are used. If we’re creating a school textbook about history, and particularly colonial history, we want to do that for a reason. Any type of selection is to some extent a subjective selection. This works on a linguistic basis. Language can be understood as a system of choices, we can choose to say one thing, we can choose to say another thing. There is a function in language and part of the function is to communicate and another function is to shape how we view something. What I’m trying to do is mix a close analysis of language with these broader issues of myth-making and the selective creation of history.
I’m also interested in silences and how myths legitimise further action, i.e., we’ve got a track record in A; therefore, we’re going to do B. I looked at UK election manifestos from 2010 to 2019 and how they talked about immigration, integration, belonging, foreign policy. And there are several coherent myths that are used again and again to justify actions and to legitimise the British state as an actor. Part of this is a very positive representation of what Britain is and always has been. That Britain has always been a safe haven for those in need. Even in criticisms of migration policies, this is so often repeated – they will foreground what they say by saying, Britain has a long history of helping those in need and this policy goes against it. But that same myth, Britain has always helped those in need, isn’t questioned. And again, this is a selective understanding of Britain. Current exclusionary understandings of immigration are based on racialised colonial imaginaries.
MBC: How does studying and unpacking these myths provide a useful way to approach British colonialism and its legacies?
SB: You can’t understand immigration policy now without understanding where we’ve come from. To be able to understand current approaches to immigration we need to go back and see throughout the 20th century, and even further back, how the Other has been constructed and how immigration policies have been constructed. Colonialism plays an important part of that. We can’t understand Brexit, for example, without really having a look at where these attitudes came from. This isn’t new. I’ve really tried to take a historical approach to using critical discourse studies, to think about how texts and their contents change over time and how they link to each other.
MBC: Does it matter who is vocalising and reproducing these myths? Can they be used in quite different ways for different purposes? For example, emphasising that Britain has always been welcoming and has a long history of immigration could serve to normalise the movement of people.
SB: Yes, I think so. I think that’s a really interesting part of it, that maybe we can see these myths as headline concepts that can then be utilised in different ways, I think you’re right. I think what we’re seeing at the moment is a broader uncovering of these narratives that have always been there, but that have been backgrounded, whether consciously or unconsciously, I would say consciously. And because we now know these, it becomes easier to use these myths in a more positive way, because then you can actually point to these examples. The more that’s uncovered, the more that we can use these myths and actually, like you said, create something more positive, maybe something more emancipatory, something more inclusive. But because I look at political discourse, I am more of a sceptic!
MBC: Is there a risk of this political discourse shifting in ways that simply adopt and contain that progressive potential?
SB: Absolutely. It can often operate only at a surface level. These myths are used positively in the sense that they are trying to show that Britain is amazing. I mean, shock horror, politicians tried to say country is good. From a linguistic perspective and looking at this idea of linguistic choice, I find it very interesting that that Boris Johnson has spoken about the relationship between Britain and India as a long history of cooperation. Now, that is an extreme euphemism. We need to unpick these positive stories. And there’s obviously a lot of work is being done to challenge this.
MBC: You use Gayatri Spivak’s concept of ‘sanctioned ignorance’. What does this refer to and how do you use it?
SB: Linguistics is not the most diverse of academic fields and it is quite Eurocentric. I’m trying to use non-European epistemologies, especially Spivak to make Linguistics less Eurocentric. Spivak speaks to how we know that there’s something there, but we don’t want to know about it. We can say, well, they’re failing to include all of these other stories in the narrative, why don’t they do it? Surely they’re doing something wrong. But they’re doing it on purpose. And this is why I think it’s a much more conscious approach. It’s the silencing of voices and experiences. And through that, we get a purification of the narrative of what Britain is and does. Spivak was referring to academia, but it can be extrapolated to different fields to think about intentional silences. These are intentional omissions, ones that are done so for a reason.
MBC: How can we move forward then?
SB: My colleague Ruth Wodak wrote recently that we’re not in a post-truth society, we’re actually in a post-shame society. It doesn’t matter if you do something wrong, you’re still going to keep your job. Criticisms can become subsumed into a much wider critique of ‘culture wars’. Anything that challenges a conservative and ‘positive’ identity of Britain is somehow threatening. So if we say, hang on, where are the voices of West Indians in history books, someone will respond that this is part of the woke agenda. From a linguistic perspective, this is this is a logical fallacy. It’s not actually taking into account the criticism. It’s not even trying to face the criticism head on. By calling someone part of the woke agenda, you’re automatically delegitimising what they’re saying. But as activists and scholars we still need to challenge these myths. Because even if it doesn’t necessarily change the policymakers mind, the knowledge is out there. It can support long-term change. This is a constant struggle to challenge these myths. We might feel as though it’s a losing battle at the moment, but I think that by constantly talking about it, we’re helping to bring about a wider acceptance and recognition of alternative stories. And this whole idea of these British myths are maybe losing some of their shine, because what it means to be British is changing. I think we’re in a moment where Britain’s history of colonialism is finally being questioned publicly by people and actors who wouldn’t normally do so, up to now.
Samuel Bennett is the author of Constructions of Migrant Integration in British Public Discourse: Becoming British (Bloomsbury 2018) and is currently writing a book entitled Myths and sanctioned ignorance in British immigration discourse: Towards a linguistic sociology of absences.