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Shallow Equality and Symbolic Jurisprudence in Multilingual Legal Orders
The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong S.A.R. (China)
This keynote address, based on a forthcoming book Shallow Equality and Symbolic Jurisprudence in Multilingual Legal Orders (OUP, Feb 2019), offers a critical perspective to official multilingualism as proclaimed and practised in many polities today. Through diachronic and synchronic comparisons, it shows that official multilingualism has become a norm in the political management of linguistic diversity, but actual practices vary according to sociohistorical contexts and current power dynamics. It explains such convergences and divergences using a theory of symbolic jurisprudence, which posits that official language law has served chiefly as a discursive resource for a range of political and economic functions, such as ensuring stability, establishing legitimacy, balancing rival powers, and harnessing trade opportunities.
I will demonstrate the practical impact of official multilingualism on public institutions and legal processes and the application of linguistic equality – frequently asserted in multilingual polities – on the ground. I argue that serious pursuit of linguistic equality calls for elaborate administrative effort in public institutions and carries a potential to clash with existing legal practices. However, such changes – however extensive – hardly ever disrupt the status quo. Linguistic equality is shallow in character, and must not be confused with the kind of equality that has a universalist backing.
I conclude that both symbolic jurisprudence and shallow equality are components of a policy of strategic pluralism that underlies official multilingualism. Although official multilingualism can legitimately be used to pursue collective goals, it runs the underlying risks of disguising substantive inequalities and displacing more progressive efforts in social change.