In times of revolution, language is a weapon with more power than any gun or sword. Language has always played a profound role both as a vehicle to drive social change as well as an object that, when altered, is symbolic of new beginnings. To understand the implications of censorship on 21st century social movements and recognise the importance of access to language, it may be time to take a history lesson on two of history’s most notable revolutions.
During the French Revolution, the fragmented nature of France’s regional dialects was considered a counterrevolutionary barrier. It limited the extent to which the laws and rights of the new republic could be understood by the population. This compelled the leaders of the Revolution, such as Henri Gregoire, to both standardise the French language and make it a compulsory component of education. Words that had once not existed such as la patrie, la nation, le peuple, la fraternité and le citoyen – the homeland, the nation, the people, the fraternity and the citizen – now formed essential parts of the people’s vocabularies. These abstract concepts, which once could never have been imagined by the people, now had words attached to them.
Mao Zedong is well-known for his engineering of language to ignite revolutionary forces as well as to further strengthen his cult of personality during China’s Communist Revolution. He was known for changing the meaning of ancient philosophical texts to indirectly allude to new ideas in an enigmatic and indirect language style. The defining product of Mao’s way with words was the Little Red Book, a carefully collated collection of quotations encapsulating Mao’s philosophy. This was a book intended to be consumed by as many citizens as possible, thereby diffusing revolutionary discourse into the vernacular, and by extension the minds of the broader population. The Chinese Communist Party simplified Chinese characters from their previously complex, traditional forms as a means of improving literacy rates. Increasing access to literacy facilitated a broader reach of communication to drive revolution and brought an end to literacy being a symbol of privilege and aristocracy.
Regardless of whether it was for better or worse, leaders in these two revolutions recognised that by manipulating and increasing access to language they could alter the distribution of power. Once people share a common language, they gain the ability to communicate and can thereby relate to each other and recognise their similarities. How can a group of people recognise that they are being oppressed under the same system if they cannot communicate with each other?
In the dystopia portrayed by George Orwell in Nineteen-Eighty-Four, the totalitarian regime Ingsoc purges the English language to restrict citizens’ freedom of thought and thereby their ability to criticise the oppressive regime. Without the language to question the status quo, citizens have no power to change it. Language has evolved significantly since the days of Gregoire and Mao, but the lesson remains the same. If the internet is the soapbox of 21st century social movements, and hashtags are the language used to mobilise the masses, we must be wary of digital authoritarianism and censorship.
We can already see how language is being impacted in Hong Kong under the recently implemented national security law. Hong Kong authorities now have the power to block platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. Just as the lack of a common language created difficulties in the early stages of the French Revolution, a lack of common internet platforms that transcend state borders prevents global exchanges of ideas and information and thereby people’s ability to implement meaningful social change. Authorities in Hong Kong have also taken measures to ban anti-government slogans as a means of silencing protestors. However, Hong Kongers have been able to utilise the idiom-rich Cantonese language to work around this and express their dissent. For example, the traditional Chinese characters “香港”, meaning “Hong Kong” are extremely similar to the characters “香蕉”, meaning “banana”. Whilst the slogan “seize back Hong Kong” has been banned, protestors have replaced it with the slogan “seize back banana”. People’s desire to communicate and promote the idea of a democratic future for Hong Kong has caused significant political weight to be placed on a phrase that once would have sounded bizarre. It seems that the Chinese Communist Party now finds themselves doing all they can to suppress the same tactics of dissent that they once relied on to cultivate revolution over seventy years ago.
History’s revolutions tell us that language is a powerful weapon. Those who seek to maintain their power will therefore do all they can to ensure that they have control over it. However, when there is a profound hunger for social change, those seeking to drive change will find creative ways of taking the weapon of language back into their own hands.