In his reflections on life as a French academic working in a British university, and living in a rural English village, Alain Wolfe finds more openness and tolerance in his village than his workplace. A refreshing counter-narrative to much received opinion that that sees academics as the enlightened ones and others as bastions of intolerance:
There is little doubt that anti-Brexit groups have been very successful at claiming the moral high ground, portraying themselves as educated, socially progressive and generally mindful of the many injustices in our society. On the basis of this portrayal, I – a French national and University lecturer in Linguistics – could not be anything else but opposed to Brexit.
And so it was with jaw-dropping effect that I disabused my colleagues one cold February evening last year, ‘coming out’ as a ‘Brexiteer’ at the end of a public lecture on ‘Gay intercultural relationships in post-Brexit Britain’. I use the expression ‘come out’ advisedly because, as a gay man, I experienced the arduous process of ‘coming out’ as a teenager in the 1970s – but never thought to repeat the experience as a Brexiteer in academia 40 years later.
So why were my colleagues initially so shocked into silence and utter disbelief by my words? Why, in the corridor afterwards, was I subjected to quasi-inquisitorial grilling? ‘I simply don’t understand how you, an educated EU citizen, could be against such a force for the good,’ said one of my colleagues.
My first point in reply was that their consensus of worthiness was unhealthy and led them to make the kinds of unexamined assumptions one would not expect to find in an academic context. The most glaring assumption in my colleague’s question is of course that a French national can be referred to as an EU citizen. There is no such thing, yet, as EU nationality. Nonetheless, our UK universities persist in referring to students coming from EU member states as EU nationals.
Other answers to my colleague’s bemusement can be found in a book I recently published, Researching across Languages and Cultures (Routledge, 2017), in which I set out to describe the experiences of doctoral students who conduct research internationally and then disseminate their data in their UK PhD theses through the medium of English.
The student-researchers I interviewed all emphasised the importance of trust and dialogue as they tried to represent societies from very different traditions faithfully in the context of Western, largely English-speaking, academia.
I particularly remember one young researcher who reported not being able to collect meaningful data in an area of the world where the population thought of her as a spy in the pay of the Foreign Ministry. She said rather eloquently: ‘I felt as if I had stepped in a context of enmity.’ And yet, over the course of a year, her data collection suddenly blossomed thanks to a ‘Kefil’, a person in the community who vouched for her as someone who could be trusted.
I had not hitherto realised quite how important trust is in the context of research: trust that the researched community is being faithfully represented; trust that the data, generously given to the researcher, will be ethically translated into English. All of these factors contribute to harmonious dialogue across languages and cultures.
So why am I relating this? Well, I frequently write about dialogue and trust as important conditions for successful communication across languages and cultures. When applied to Brexit, it is important that we realise the relevance of dialogue and trust in our valuable, albeit often overlooked, rural communities.
I live in the North Norfolk village of Matlaske. The village has retained much of its history, the Jacobean Hall and its medieval Church, a central part of community life. It is a reflection of many identities intersecting. My partner and I represent the Global. We have a gay intercultural relationship: I was born in Provence and he in Essex.
In sheer contrast to the Remainers’ stereotyped view of the typical Brexiteers, and despite the fact that we are the gay Other, my partner and I have been welcomed by this North Norfolk village with open arms. We take part in its various activities and, because of my training as an ordinand in the Church of England, I am entrusted with leading Church services on several occasions. The village is a harmonious resolution of the tensions between the Global and the Local.
In the words of French philosopher, Ricoeur, my partner and I have experienced cultural and ‘linguistic hospitality’. Linguistic hospitality occurs, says Ricoeur, ‘whenever the pleasure of dwelling in somebody else’s language is compensated for by the pleasure of putting him up in one’s own home’.
This kind of cosmopolitan reciprocity, however, is not without its risks. And here is the conclusion which so shocked my colleagues:
The ability to assert one’s membership of a global community beyond borders is one which I embrace with passion in my own life as a linguist. But the tolerance my partner and I have experienced develops organically, newness comes into the world slowly; indeed, it cannot be imposed on rural communities top down, by technocratic diktat.
When cosmopolitanism is enforced upon communities by the inflexible institution of the EU, as in the imposition of free movement, it can be interpreted as showing disregard for local communities, such as, for example, in the lessening of opportunities for the most vulnerable in our society. This is when the concept of cosmopolitanism takes on an ethical dimension.
The biblical, ethical and ecological injunction is that we should act as the stewards of our environment, looking after the local and the global in a way that leads to harmony, not discord. Interestingly, the etymology of the word ‘hospitality’ itself is derived from the Latin hostis, ‘enemy’. Our open and tolerant English villages are an immensely valuable feature of our society, but when we risk outstaying our welcome, we risk turning hospitality into hostility.
Photo credit: moritz-knöringer, unsplash