From An Historian’s Notebook: Shibbolethics

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shibboleths and history

The Dutch town of Scheveningen was once a shibboleth. During the Second World War, one apparently efficient way to spot a German spy trying to mingle with the Dutch population was to ask him to pronounce the name of the town. If, as was likely, he could not, he was at least suspected of being a German spy. Whether this little test was a sufficient indicator of a person’s foreign and potentially evil status remains a matter of some uncertainty. One would have hoped that persons with speech defects were not a subset of persons who were suspected of being Germans, for their own sake. 

What’s a shibboleth? Here’s where some biblical references might become necessary, and a little hermeneutics, which as far as I remember was once a word that related to the study of different meanings in a single book – and a book, it should be added, that has been subject to much censorship and forcible revision over the years. Imagine a Mahabharata with all the so-called original bits marked out and therefore kept in, but with a Mahabharata Purification Committee appointed to make sure that all the additional bits were restricted or thrown out, as impure and unsacred. That’s what the Papacy was to the Bible, both to the Old and New Testaments. And those knowledge communities who have been spared a Papacy and a Reformation should count themselves lucky to still possess and be allowed to read their versions of the Apocrypha, which were removed in the 18th century by Protestants who thought one should read one’s Bible, whereas the Catholics mostly relied on illiteracy and the impenetrability of Latin. There is a PhD by one Mary Carroll Smith on the Mahabharata from the 1970s, in which that scholar sorted out verses and lines on the basis of differences in meter and claimed she could indeed separate the original story from the later bits (but she didn’t suggest that we shouldn’t read those bits).

Scheveningen beach.

But we digress: it’s shibboleths we’re after, after all. This, according to the Old Testament, is how it goes:

‘Art thou an Ephraimite?’

‘Nay.’

‘Say thou the word for an ear of corn.’

‘Sibboleth.’

The unfortunate man was put to death. He should have said shibboleth. According to Judges 12:5-6, forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed by means of this simple test. 

And ever since then, a shibboleth is a word that must be pronounced to demonstrate the proper belonging to a community. Without having the proper word at your disposal, you could easily come to a sticky end. Like the Germans in Scheveningen. Or the Germans who never had any intention to go anywhere near that town, but found they had to feign that intention and pronounce a propensity to visit it, by popular demand, at a particular point in history. 

All of this sounds a bit primitive to me: can one really condemn a person for the pronouncing, or the non-pronouncing, of certain words? But what it sounds like to me is irrelevant; and indeed, since it is now considered primitive to use the word primitive, we have to be careful. We have now a world in which belonging is the essential category: identities are formed and maintained, and they are often matters of life and death: perhaps differently, because you aren’t always literally killed if you don’t belong; you are sometimes merely isolated from the ability to live a meaningful life and to participate in society. And in order to understand this, you need to understand what, to coin an important term that will be around for some years to come, we shall call shibbolethics.

a shibboleth is a word that must be pronounced to demonstrate the proper belonging to a community. Without having the proper word at your disposal, you could easily come to a sticky end. Like the Germans in Scheveningen. Or the Germans who never had any intention to go anywhere near that town, but found they had to feign that intention and pronounce a propensity to visit it, by popular demand, at a particular point in history.

The art of shibbolethics is the ability to say the right thing to the right people at the right time, in order to demonstrate to them that you are morally and ethically on their side. Suppose, you’re surrounded by a group of angry vegans who suspect you of having had a few bacon bits in your fried potatoes, a casual recitation of the phrase ‘meat is murder’ might save your life. Or at least a long and unpleasant conversation about cow farts and global warming, the ethics of introducing impure substances into your body, which might or might not include angry recriminations regarding vaccinations against viruses. It might, though, get you invited to glue yourself to an airport runway so that planes have to fly to other cities or airports and make forced landings after having had to burn up all their fuel. It follows from this that a shibboleth does not need to be a single word: it can be a phrase (‘meat is murder’; ‘from the river to the sea’) or a longer passage (pages one to five of an East German research monograph on history, which repeated Marxist-Leninese to the point up to which the author had pleased her handlers, and could then proceed to write something more seriously grounded in her concerns). Shibbolethics is the art of implying an entire set of assumptions, beliefs, and arguments, from those words, phrases, or passages. 

Shibboleths have to be used in combination, sometimes, with another attribute that is an unspoken, non-verbal and/or visual part of the shibboleth itself. For instance, the accidental tabla maestro, Badal Roy, extracted from his statistics degree by John McLaughlin to play a session for Miles Davis, was puzzled by Miles’ instruction to him to ‘play it like a n****r’ (a word, when written or said uncensored – it’s pronounced ‘the N-word’ when it’s not pronounced – can get you into a world of trouble). If you say it out loud, you’d better be black and proud, or else it’s better not to pronounce it, as a teacher once discovered while teaching James Baldwin’s iconic test, I Am Not Your Negro when she pointed out that Baldwin’s original title had been ‘I am not your n****r’. Yes, Baldwin wrote it out in full. But his publishers didn’t like it. And the teacher? She was reported by one of her (white) students for quoting Baldwin, and got into a lot of trouble for upsetting his white sense of anti-racism.

How can the tactic of erasure applied to statues?

This makes the N-word a very interesting shibboleth. It is a shibboleth not to pronounce it. But for this shibboleth to work, you’d have to have had the opportunity to pronounce it, and have refrained from doing so. This might be called a negative shibboleth. Entrapment, which doesn’t work in legal terms as a way of gathering evidence (making a librarian or lecturer type the N-word into a search engine in order to search for racist literature and then denouncing the user of the search term for typing out the word in full) seems also to function to make the person initiating the entrapment procedure achieve the shibbolethical outcome of his or her non-pronouncing of the word. If you need to supplement this non-pronunciation with other shibboleths to establish your nonracist shibbolethics, try saying ‘black lives matter’, ‘critical whiteness’, or ‘check your privilege’ in quick succession, especially if you’re white. If you’re Jewish, talk about Israeli apartheid loudly. It goes without saying that these shibboleths can actually represent sincerely held positions, with shades and subtleties; but no external observer can read intention, only proclaimed intention, and there’s no room in a shibboleth for more than a few words. And the point of their use in shibbolethics is that they are necessary signals, establishing the users’ ethical credentials, and tell the listener precisely nothing about the beliefs of the pronouncer of shibboleths. They ease the way for those who will use them. And they can be used by people who don’t believe a word of it.

Negative shibbolethics is becoming something of an industry for young and enthusiastic librarians. I followed with interest the work of one such person, whose work on the library catalogue at her university consisted of removing words from potential searches so that their use in a search engine would yield no hits: ‘yellow peril’, ‘eugenics’, and of course the N-word and its variables. That we know this is a paradox in itself: she must name what she cancels from the catalogue so that we understand her negative shibbolethics, but that doesn’t actually count as pronouncing them, because she has taken the elementary precaution of being black. To an anguished (brown) researcher’s claim that this would be tantamount to making it impossible to research anything in the past that we now regard as morally wrong, and how was she going to find anything relevant to her research on science and racism, the librarian replied triumphantly: ‘You won’t’. This was to be her, and potentially our, revenge on the past’s ethical and moral deficiencies: we’d refuse to acknowledge that these had ever existed, in an updated version of the Stalinist tactic of airbrushing inconvenient people out of historic photographs, placing a blank wall or a flower pot where they once had been.

Shibboleths have to be used in combination, sometimes, with another attribute that is an unspoken, non-verbal and/or visual part of the shibboleth itself. For instance, the accidental tabla maestro, Badal Roy, extracted from his statistics degree by John McLaughlin to play a session for Miles Davis, was puzzled by Miles’ instruction to him to ‘play it like a n****r’ (a word, when written or said uncensored – it’s pronounced ‘the N-word’ when it’s not pronounced – can get you into a world of trouble).

I have been wondering, in recent times, what this tactic of erasure might mean when applied to statues. Especially the statues that we now know to represent the wrong kinds of historical remembering. Will we get to know that there was once a statue here, where now none stands? Will there be a plaque telling us that there was a statue here, and whose it was? Or will the plaque say we’re not allowed to know whose it was, nor what he did to be decommissioned in retrospect? Or will we be told what his contemporary or retrospective crime has been? Perhaps he had had a debate with a eugenicist and used words in the debate that he had had to use to refute the eugenicist, but that led to him being cancelled? Perhaps he was indeed an evil man, but will we ever know? Will the plaque survive the statue, or the plinth the plaque? Will nothing survive at all, as in Shelley’s Ozymandias, leaving us with no traces of what we know we’re not supposed to know but we’re aware there are uneasy sensations of once having known?

If you really belong without needing to prove it, you don’t need shibboleths. But you are then the custodian of shibbolethics, the gatekeeper of the Paradise that need not speak its name. ‘Tis a position devoutly to be wished – for oneself. And it is for other people to whisper fearfully in your ear what they hope is the right set of words that will keep them safe. 

Images courtesy: Wikipedia & Flickr

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Thespace.ink or its editorial team members. 

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