World English, English World

I love the English language. I genuinely do. I’m not writing in English because I have no other choice; location being (almost) everything, there might be many advantages to writing in German. And while I did recently have a book published in Greece and loved working on that, the truth is that I do have a thing for English. A connection, you might say. Even my accent sounds kind of vaguely British. I love many aspects of what one might call British culture, whether it’s the poetry of William Blake or the comedy of Frankie Boyle. You can see it in my work, in my influences. My games have been described as “very English” more than once, and I don’t take offence at that.

And America? Well, we all know quite a lot about America. Partly because its culture is just so damn pervasive, partly because it’s bloody terrifying. People in the rest of the world tend to know a lot more about American politics than Americans know about international politics, for example, simply because we’re scared. We follow what’s going on in the United States not because we’re afraid that the American President will say something mean, but because we’re afraid of where the bombs will drop next. That sort of thing makes you pay attention. But even beyond that, despite all the terror, there’s plenty in American history to be inspired by. The history of the Civil Rights movement, for example, is full of truly courageous people, fighting against a system of apartheid that was frighteningly backwards even for its time.

English, as anyone interested in postcolonial/transcultural literature can tell you, is a world language in a sense that goes far beyond tourism and Hollywood movies. In fact, what could be a more perfect illustration of that than the fact that as I came over from Greece to Germany all those years ago, the book I read on the plane was Paradise Lost? I write in English.  I think in English. I speak English all the time. A big part of why people love my games is how they use the English language.

All of which is fine.

There’s a thing that happens, though: because I can participate in the English-language discourse a lot better than most non-native speakers, people tend to place me in categories that aren’t really appropriate. One of the most frustrating things about the Anglophone world  is that it is often very inwards-looking. (Something to do with having so few borders, perhaps?) A lot of people, including people who would place themselves on the Left, whatever that means, seem to have absolutely no idea that systems of thought other than their own exist – it’s not that they disagree about how to best describe reality, but that they instantly categorize anyone who doesn’t follow their particular logic and idiom as a terrible, terrible bigot. And the standard response to a form of thought critical of certain tenets (i.e. that racism is only when one race oppresses another, not when humanity is categorized into races in the first place) is to call the person expressing these thoughts “privileged” and “white” – to categorize them, essentially, as a white middle-class American, the traditional bogeyman of a certain type of radical politics.

What does not seem to be apparent to the people reacting in this fashion is the ridiculous cultural imperialism behind their response – the assumption that everyone can be neatly categorized into the tiny bit of the world that surrounds them. It is a bizarre spectacle to see American radicals raging about the white privilege of people from countries like Greece or Argentina; countries in which their simplistic dichotomies of “white” and “black”, barely applicable to the societies that originated them, are at best ludicrous, at worst accidentally supportive of fascists. The only people in Greece who would seriously argue that Greeks belong to some sort of “white race” are the neonazis of the Golden Dawn. My dad’s skin is quite brown, and that’s hardly unique where I come from.

The details of my background have nothing to do with the fantasy that I am “just another white dude”, to slightly paraphrase what I’ve been called by angry identitarians who are put off by Marxism. My Greek grandmother was a Pontian refugee; she and my Greek grandfather were resistance fighters. My German grandfather also fought in the war – but on the other side. A hundred years and a few days ago, the city I grew up in still belonged to the Ottoman Empire. There are histories and complexities here that have everything to do with colonialism and imperialism and racism and nationalism – and nothing to do with whiteness or other Anglophone discourses.

The fact that I speak English doesn’t mean you can throw labels at me. I’m not a middle-class American. I’m not English, either. I’m not your bogeyman. If you’re saying these things, you don’t know the first thing about me – or the world we all live in.

But I’m not the inscrutable Other, either. You can do your research. You can understand where I’m coming from. Greeks and Argentinians and Romanians and Poles and Venezuelans are not aliens – we’re people, just not the people you’re used to blaming. It’s really not that difficult to understand that diversity means more than a bigger variety of Americans who subscribe to the same ideology. It also means understanding that English is a world language, but that that doesn’t mean the world is English.

Thankfully, though, there is one language that is truly transcultural – the language of logic and facts. Instead of resorting to labels, we can do the hard work of finding out what’s going on in the rest of the world and trying to engage with it. We don’t need to agree about everything, but we can’t get anywhere if we never look beyond our borders.