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24.8.03

Ampersand points to a series of posts by Scott M of Pedantry (start here) on language rights. One important issue that Scott highlights is that language rights are inherently collective rights -- knowing a language is merely an issue of intellectual curiosity (as is the case for my attempt to learn Finnish by myself) if you have nobody to speak to in it. Thus language rights differ from individual rights such as free speech that can, in principle, be exercised alone.

In this sense language rights are similar to economic lifestyle rights -- the right to make your living doing a certain thing. This is nearly always something that was a sufficient source of livelihood in the past but which has become unviable because of changing circumstances or context -- similar to the way that linguistic diversity is nearly always premised on preserving and reinforcing old language diversity, rather than introducing a new language to a monolingual community for the sake of making it more diverse (though individual-level newly created diversity is common in places that have a requirement to learn a foreign language -- any one will do -- in education). Economies, like languages, are nearly always collective (the exception being the hermit or self-sufficient mountain man -- though even they depend on the outside society to refrain from encroaching on the individual's resource base). There are certainly unjust infringements on collective economic rights, such as the prohibition on alcohol brewing during Prohibition. This would be analagous to Native American children being punished for speaking their native language during the same time period. However, collective rights are also vulnerable to being undermined by their collective nature. If you can't get enough people to cooperate with you, you lose the ability to make use of your collective economic and language rights.

I wrote a post a while back (it didn't get published into the archives, and I'm leery of republishing at the moment because of my previous bad experience with the new Blogger) that was somewhat critical of this type of presumed right in the case of the Uros of Lake Titicaca. I also have a negative reaction in the case of farming. The stated justification for the enormous and damaging regime of agricultural subsidies handed out by the US is the preservation of the family farm lifestyle. The only economic lifestyle right that can definitely make a claim to being supported by society (that is, one that must be subsidized rather than relying on voluntary tourist/charity support) are those that are beneficial to society as a whole but for whatever reason are not profitable on their own. Of course, where you draw the line of what's beneficial enough to society is less clear -- an argument could be made for supporting the Uros on the same grounds as an argument for government funding of historic preservation in the case of material culture (old buildings and archaeological sites and so forth). This would justify the distinction made between formerly-viable lifestyles and never-viable lifestyles, though the latter may be able to draw on the same justifications that are used for public financing of the arts.

But this seems to blend back into issues that affect individual as well as collective rights -- the question of positive versus negative rights. Certainly a right entails that nobody can directly stop you from doing the thing you have a right to. But does it also entail that society must make sure you have the resources to exercise that right? Does freedom of the press merely mean that the government can't censor anything you manage to get printed, or does it mean that you must be enabled -- persumably by some sort of social subsidy -- to have access of a certain quality to a press, so that external factors such as your economic situation don't prevent you from making good on your right to publish?

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