Back From the Edge: Defunding | Decentralisation | Decolonisation | (Re)Distribution

Is mise Sìne NicFhearghais. Tha mi nam oileanach PhD ann an sòiseo-eaconamas agus mion-chànanan aig Oilthigh na Gàidhealtachd agus nan Eilean. Mar phàirt dhen sgoilearachd PhD agam bidh mi a’ dèanamh mion-sgrùdadh air na toraidhean sòiseo-eaconamach a tha ceangailte leis na gnìomhachasan cruthachail agus cultarail anns na h-Eileanan an Iar agus na h-Eileanan mu Thuath.  Bidh an rannsachadh seo a’ coimhead gu sònraichte air a’ bhuaidh a tha aig poileasaidhean leasachadh sgìreil is eaconamach air a’ Ghàidhlig a ghleidheadh agus ath-bheothachadh anns na h-Eileanan an Iar.

My name is Jane Ferguson. I am a PhD research student from the Language Sciences Institute (LSI) at the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI).  As part of my doctoral research, I am examining socioeconomic productivity within the Western and Northern Isles’ cultural and creative industries, and the current policy environment which supports community development and Gaelic language revitalisation in the Western Isles region.

Amongst the groundswell of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, many voices from inside the movement are now being amplified, including those of previously overlooked academics and activists attempting to reshape the contours of social and redistributive justice via methods of ‘decolonisation’. As someone with a long-held interest in these topics, born in large part due to my time spent in Aoteoroa/New Zealand amongst Māori and Pacific Island peoples (my son is of Māori heritage) – where the social and political politics of colonisation, and the devastating consequences of the resulting racist policies on the indigenous (and now) minority population there, are foregrounded in everyday life – I am excited by recent developments. With a growing critical mass of support, change feels imminent: that we are potentially on ‘the edge’ of substantive and, hopefully, sustained changes in the measure of enhanced equality for those pinioned at the bottom or positioned in the peripheries.

Manaia (my son) in Te Awaiti New Zealand (Jane Ferguson)

Interestingly, the BLM movement very much ties in with some of the central themes of my research, and the observations I have made to date as my research inquiry progresses, although, prima facie, this may seem like a disparate claim. I hold no claims to truly understand the lived experiences of BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) communities or POC (People of Colour), but, as an ally, I fully support their attempts to force reformation through any forms of resistance and activism those communities see fit to use. From my perspective, whether the chosen methods seem disproportionate to people in positions of dominance and privilege is irrelevant. I would argue that using existing, and deeply entrenched, systems of disadvantage to provoke change is not going to have the desired outcome. Indeed, I would suggest that asking the permission of those currently in power to dismantle and reconstruct those systems merely concretises existing inequalities and injustices.

The twin forces of colonialism and capitalism (under imperialist policies) cut through these different settings I describe: the situation for Māori in Aotearoa, and the Black American descendants of the generations of slaves forcibly brought to the United States of America (which is not to ignore the First Nations people in America and Canada who have also been decimated under the imperialist regime).

Hangi, New Zealand (Jane Ferguson)

Moreover, these processes are strongly implicated in the setting of my own PhD research which focuses on the current situation for Island populations in the Gàidhealtachd: Gaelic language speech communities in the Western Isles. Sitting at the nexus between regional development policy, economic innovation and socio-cultural regeneration, my research explores the relationship between current policy and funding provisions, which support regional socioeconomic development, and commercial and community entrepreneurship within key cultural domains (i.e. ‘cultural entrepreneurialism’) – to question whether the current response to the Gaelic language situation is appropriate or effective. Indeed, it has become increasingly apparent that the recession of the Gaels and the Gaelic language has reached a crisis point (see Ó Giollagáin et. al, 2020), and they too are on ‘the edge’, albeit in a different way to that currently potentiated within the BLM as a growing momentum of (collective) positive change.

From an observational standpoint, there is certainly evidence of a collective consciousness regarding the social location, and attendant suffering (e.g. over representation in the Criminal Justice System and negative health outcomes) of BAME populations, which has erupted in the recent BLM protests, for example. It is also apparent, however, based on the responses to current events (both within and outwith BAME communities) that many do not support either the cause, or the remonstrative expression of their long-standing grievances — even as stakeholders in a more equitous world. As a largely ethnically homogenous population, the Gaelic community (rightly) does not escape criticism vis-a-vis diversity and inclusivity, or lack therefore, despite the historical imbalances wrought by colonialism, and despite their minority status (see Naomi Gessesse, 2019).

It is difficult to say whether there is any cross-identification between these particular groups, from either side. However, Māori and Pacific Island communities have long identified with Black American culture and the Civil Rights movement (e.g. Polynesian Panthers). But, intra and inter-discrimination manifests in all seemingly cohesive and bounded populations. These problematics cannot go without mention: most especially, as there are strong inner tensions within the Gaelic corpus, and divided opinion as to how to deal with the language problem, amongst other issues. These tensions are demarcated, for one, between academic/institutional perspectives and planning around the crisis, and community-held standpoints: those with ‘situated knowledge’ of the problem (see Donna Haraway, 1988).

Phone Box Breasclete (Jane Ferguson)

Whilst differing intersecting forms of discrimination distinguish these particular situations, the commonality between these populations is an existence characterised, in many cases, by marginalisation and peripherisation. And now, under the neo-liberal project, a subsistence often predicated on state programmes of socioeconomic support, rather than true redistributive and restorative justice in a putatively post-colonial world.

Reparative and restorative forms of justice are concepts very familiar to those in Aotearoa/New Zealand (a land very much considered to be geographically on ‘the edge’, at least from a eurocentric standpoint) where attempts to redress, and right, historical injustices have existed since the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi (1840) (The Treaty of Waitangi): a ‘treaty’ signed between Māori chiefs and white settlers [colonisers] which would provide, amongst other things, financial compensation for dispossessed [stolen] lands and resources. The complex and contestable nature of this document, and the subsequent difficulties and race relations that prevail to this day, is far too capacious to write about in a meaningful or elucidatory way here; however, is poses interesting questions about the need for a system of compensation that will restore, or return, these populations to a position they would have been in without (not necessarily prior to) the aforementioned destructive forces: to (re)position them on an equal footing on their terms. Decolonisation processes should be decided and determined by the dispossessed and disadvantaged.

Manaia in Te Awaiti New Zealand (Jane Ferguson)

Māori have a concept that plays a pivotal role in their worldview, and in their fight for recognition and reparation as colonised people: tino rangatiratanga. This is an expansive concept that loosely translates as total self-determination. Rather than being ‘state dependants’, that is, dependent on state sanctioned handouts in the form of treaty pay-outs or welfare transfers, Iwi have argued for increased political and social determination and representation so that resources are held and governed within Māori communities/regions (rohe) in a pluralistic manner. It seems very much that BLM activists’ calls for defunding of the police, for one, speaks directly to this understanding of tino rangatiratanga: to take that power and money from an ineffective and partisan (Law Enforcement) service that does little to serve their community needs or further their cause. This is by no means a new concept, but it is one that now seems to be gaining further traction.

Defunding, as a method of decentralising power, would allow for resources to be more equitably distributed. Moreover, rather than a “band aid” approach, resources could be diverted into community provisions and services in a preventative, not reactive (or curative), fashion. In other words, rather than drip-feeding money into communities in response to crisis or rupture (as we have witnessed with the recent COVID-19 pandemic), building cohesion and resilience through increased self-determination and investment (public and private) would, arguably, lead to better outcomes and a decrease in fiscal expenditure in the long-run. And it is this, without drawing too many parallels that are not necessarily there, that brings me full circle to my own research project, with its various and intertwining strands.

Over recent years, attempts have been made by the Scottish Government to support regional socioeconomic development via increased packages of investment for businesses and enterprises, and community schemes of assistance. In the Western Isles, these interventions have been used to stem both the flow of human populations from the Outer Hebrides, and the continued recession of the Gaelic language. Leading to a mixed and patchy, and arguably ineffective, response to the situation, which intertwines Minority Language Policy and Regional Socioeconomic Development Policy within a broadly neoliberal agenda.  My own research is ongoing; however, statistical forecasts regarding both the linguistic and socioeconomic condition for the islands remain bleak. Similarly, the current body of literature related to this topic depicts a somewhat negative disposition.

This situation has prompted  many to ask whether a more radical approach is required to effect the desired outcomes for the islands given the precarity of the current situation. Is enough being done in response to the crisis to pull the islands back from the brink?

Luskentyre, Harris (Jane Ferguson)

Minority populations, deletriously affected by the expansion of the British Empire, have attempted to succour greater political, social and cultural representation to varying success. Māori, for example, have fought doggedly for the best part of two centuries to reclaim their mana (power, prestige) through a longstanding renaissance movement and socio-legal mechanisms. The socioeconomic, cultural, and linguistic situation for Māori remains precarious and unsettled; however, much could be learned from the distinct restorative processes employed in Aotearoa to reconcile historical and cultural traumas. For the purposes of my own research into the revitalisation of Gaelic speech communities in the Western Isles, could these examples of tino rangatiratanga (in Gaelic, fèin-riaghlachas), provide a useful analytical framework, and paradigm, when considering the current sociolinguistic problem here in the Gàidhealtachd?

Consequently, in a similar way that BLM activists are demanding enhanced political and social control in the wake of recent events, in order to improve their life chances and outcomes, might there be potential for communities of Gaelic heritage to assert similar claims to autonomy (e.g. increased community governance, land and asset ownership) over their own socioeconomic, cultural and linguistic domains? Rather than the current rights-based approach, might a needs-based distributive strategy of language planning and economic development planning concentrated on the remaining (autochthonous) Gaelic speaker groups in the Western Isles promote a fairer and more equitable outcome for these diminishing language communities teetering on ‘the edge’?

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