Sunday, September 03, 2006

Arabic T-shirt incident

Here are a few articles about a recent incident in which someone ready to board a JetBlue flight in New York was asked to remove his t-shirt because it had writing in Arabic on it, and some other passengers were 'concerned' about it:

BBC article
MSNBC article

This passage from the second (MSNBC) article especially caught my eye: "One official told him, 'Going to an airport with a T-shirt in Arabic script is like going to a bank and wearing a T-shirt that says, ‘I’m a robber,”' he said.

Of course this raises lots of questions, like, is freedom of (clothing) expression also subject to censorship, search and removal on the airlines and in public space now? What is the power of words, or, just the shape of words, to mean something totally unrelated from what the 'content' of those words means?

I have a strong visceral reaction to the story, but it's helpful to think about it in terms of the theory we're studying in Language and Power: How would Saussure explain what's going on? How about Sapir? If the shirt is bilingual in Arabic and English, and 'says the same thing,' then we might assume when we think in Saussure's terms that the signified is the same (though the idea of "value" shows us that it's not just what the words mean in themselves, but what they mean in contrast and copresence with all the other words that can be said in that language). And there are two different signifiers--in the case of English, the phrase "We will not be silent".

But the fact that the Arabic script itself was 'read' in a very different way, the fact that it elicited fear and discomfort among a group of people who didn't know 'what it said' suggests that Saussure's model (or at least the 5 pages that we've read!) doesn't do everything we need it to. Sapir's idea of the referential and expressive functions of language may be going in the right direction. the passage about the 4+ things that language does besides serve as a channel for communication is helpful. And we'll want to look at Barthes' idea of myth, and, coming up for next week, Austin's speech act, expanded on later by Butler. Language doesn't just describe things; it does things, and what is done (social effects, etc.) by what we say and what we wear can't always be predicted...


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