The Cracks in the Tower of Babel’s Foundation

Painting by Marten van Valckenborch, 1595

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America stands by the belief that strength and growth come from its imperialist tendencies, taking what it deems the best from peoples all around the globe for its personal benefit. However, a more nuanced understanding would suggest that imperialist tactics represent western powers’ stagnancy and show where they need to grow.

One of my favorite albums to listen to is the soundtrack for the 1995 classic Pocahontas; both for its stunning musicality and its political poignancy. The last time listening through, a specific verse jumped out at me:

You think the only people who are people

Are the people who look and think like you

But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger

You’ll learn things you never knew you never knew.”

The heels of these words carried another image into my mind: a tower so massive the small group of people gathered beneath it would achieve permanency, building a world from people who think and act like them. 

I speak specifically of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. In this parable, mankind stumbles upon the valley of Shinar and decides to construct a tower here so high that its top touches the Heavens, creating a name for themselves and ensuring they will never be scattered. Upon returning to Earth and visiting his people, God became uneasy with their construction of this tower and what else mankind would do if left unchecked. To deter this blossoming narcissism, God caused all gathered men to speak different languages and cast them to different corners of the globe.

This is widely interpreted as a story about the importance of humility and obedience to the will of a higher, moral power. While there’s truth to this, there seems to be an interesting second layer to this story, which can only be understood from the perspective of a human race that has lived a few more years. From where we sit, we can understand that those constructing the tower in the valley of Shinar were—in the context of the human race as a collective whole—still incredibly young. Human existence is about growth, not attaching yourself to one stagnant identity; it is about allowing yourself to fall apart and come back together as necessary. Speaking in a generic sense, if it’s the job of whatever God you follow to guide humanity to its highest version of self, it should prevent the construction of a premature concrete identity.

When the human race stumbled into the valley of Shinar, they were full of conviction and an untested sense of self; the ego that would accompany a devotion to such an unexplored identity would be unlikely to submit to anything beyond its own will. As we stand on the precipice of a new global lingua franca—English—it would seem as though this is the point the global west has reached. The west has constructed a Tower of Babel in the form of democracy, allowing its self-worship to turn it away from morality and close its ears to lessons, exemplified by its refusal to take action on climate change. It chases only the immortality of its empire. 

Exemplifying the idea of closing ears to others, one of the many ways imperialism is embodied is through the domination of language. As Sam L. No’eau Warner mentions in his article “Kuleana: The Right, Responsibility, & Authority of Indigenous Peoples to Speak and Make Decisions for Themselves in Language & Cultural Revitalization,” “Language…is a medium through which people transmit culture and history.” Upon colonizing indigenous peoples, westerners will often enforce the learning of English at the expense of native tongues. After the western takeover of Hawai’i, for example, the Hawaiian language was banned in educational settings. During the British colonization of India, debates were held regarding whether English or native Indian dialects should be taught in British-sponsored schools. 

T.B. Macaulay argued that the dialects spoken in India are too crude to contain any information or value and that the British would be doing the native Indians a favor by allowing them access to the vast knowledge contained in the English language. Sam L. No’eau Warner points out the repetition of this disrespect. It does not seem as though non-Hawaiians involved in revitalizing the Hawaiian language have a legitimate interest in preserving the culture or helping the people; instead, they seek to bring it under the control of their growing empire. Otherwise, the revitalization of the Hawaiian language would go hand in hand with the revitalization and empowerment of the Hawaiian people. 

Even as they debate the right of indigenous peoples to their language, some westerners have also taken issue with people making changes to English as it becomes a global lingua franca, citing their cultural rights. Regarding whether the British Received Pronunciation should continue to be used as the standard for English, Peter Trudgill, an English sociolinguist, said, “Even if the native speakers do not own the English language, it’s important that it stems from them, particularly historically, and resides in them.” But as he concedes and as others argue, non-native English speakers now outnumber native speakers (1.5 billion to 400 million). When English is used among these groups, it isn’t used as a national language or to express a cultural identity; rather, it’s used mainly for intercultural communication—especially for business purposes—and people will bring their own cultural understanding of language to English. 

It seems as though western powers may have created their own linguistic nightmare as they try to build their Tower of Babel—a global empire so powerful that those living under it will never be scattered as they have yet to learn the lessons God offered upon our last attempt. If, as mentioned earlier, languages are the means by which we transmit cultural identity and history, then each of the roughly 7,117 languages spoken today transmit their own specific worldview. It would seem we were told to learn the lessons from each of these before we build our tower. Yet today, globalization is viewed as Americanization; rather than weaving many together into a collective whole, parts are being reduced or destroyed to fit under a singular identity. 

It seems impossible to believe that when God twisted the tongues of all those gathered in the valley of Shinar and scattered them to the wind, his end goal was for all these new languages and peoples to eventually be destroyed and replaced by one. This interpretation of God punishing his people because he did not want to see them threaten or challenge him seems to be more of a reflection of the values of those interpreting it. It’s known that one day we will die, and if you want any trace of the world you knew to remain, you must teach it to your children; before we pass on, we must ensure that they are ready to inherit the world. If God is read as the father of all mankind and all things are cast in his divine image, then it would stand to reason that he would have an understanding of how to father the human race. His lesson was delivered so that mankind may learn many different facets of life on Earth; we interpreted it as a cruel obstacle in our path.

Rather than learning this lesson, the global west built a world in which they created the lessons to be learned. As Sam L. No’eau Warner shares through a quote from the grandmother of a woman named Nākoa:

“E pa’a pono ka ‘ōlelo a ka haole. Mai kālele i kā kākou ‘ōleo, ‘a’ohe he pono i laila. Aia ke ola o ka noho ‘ana me kēia mua aku i ka ‘ike pono i ka ‘ōlelo a ka po’e haole.” [Learn well the language of the whites. Do not rely on our language, there is no value there. One’s future well-being is dependent upon mastering the language of the foreign people.]

As opposed to practicing globalization and working towards a world that honors and holds space for all people, the global west has built a world where life depends on assimilation. 

This goes directly against the lesson taught to us in the Tower of Babel, reinforced by the words of Pocahontas: “But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger / You’ll learn things you never knew you never knew.” The global west is convinced they have stumbled upon the perfect form of government because they have never truly considered the path any other country has taken. When they gaze behind themselves, they see only their own footprints and not the many intertwining trails that brought all of us to where we stand today. Each and every one of these paths came with its own lessons that birthed an understanding of the world, transmitted through language. Any truly global entity must be fluid and multi-faceted enough to be shaped by and allow room for these different viewpoints. 

On the stance of English as a global lingua franca, it seems the solution is to admit that anything global can’t be cast in the image of any one nation and instead must be a shared creation. If they step down from their stance as imperialist powers, the largely English-speaking world powers can take their place as parts of a greater whole and claim the rights, responsibility, and authority of their own language. At the same time, they can release control of English as a global lingua franca and allow it to evolve into the form the world needs, allowing us to construct an entirely new, shared understanding of the world. If a Tower of Babel is to be constructed in the modern age, it must not serve any single image and, instead, go further to ensure that no people can ever be scattered at the whim of another. 

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This article was edited by Anousheh Naqvi and Anthony Vu.