I write to you today about the Shibboleth. For many of you, this might be a term representative of a secret—a whisper hinting toward the unknown. Others might know the way this word signifies a keeping out—a way to prevent a group of people (or a person) from affiliating with another.
The shibboleth is a reminder of our humanity. It takes from us everything sacred and unspeakable, and reaffirms itself in the other. Without getting too abstract and philosophically convoluted, I’ll give you a reference:
Herein lies what Derrida calls a secret that is meta-rhetorical (Gift of Death, 77). Hanks’s character must use a shared, yet secret language to connect himself to his friend when expected identity-markers have gone. Without this shibboleth, Josh would have suffered unduly. Without this shibboleth, we would have no movie. The secret keeps the narrative alive.
It can be important to remember that Derrida asks us, “How would you justify your presence here speaking one particular language, rather than there speaking to others in another language? And yet we also do our duty by behaving thus” (71).
We do, don’t we? Secrets we keep. Secrets we tell. Secrets that hold us together. Secrets that drive us apart.
When we set out to determine a person’s affiliation in our group by way of the shibboleth, we envelope ourselves in a secret so mysterious, we do not even know why it matters. We only know that it does.
Here someone can die by “not knowing the code.” This situation forces us to realize that language is more than words. It is dress, knowledge of cultural references, race, ethnicity, gender, and social attachments.
“The silhouette of a content haunts this response” (75).
The shibboleth of the angry mob of women who judge me for not wearing a wedding band. The hungry eyes of the men who think that means I am unowned property awaiting a price. The prize of my heart locked in a cavern.
“Speaking in order not to say anything or to say something other than what one thinks, speaking in such a way as to intrigue, disconcert, question, or have someone or something else speak (the law, the lawyer), means speaking ironically” (76).
When we let someone else speak for us—speak on our behalf—irony takes the form of the secret. It points to the hush without a visual of the finger. The shibboleth is in the transference of speech, but the meaning always lies connected between those two people. The “lawyer” will only be a third party holding power, but owning no meaning.
“But besides that, mustn’t responsibility always be expressed in a language that is foreign to what the community can already hear or understand only too well? ‘So he does not speak an untruth but neither does he say anything, for he is speaking in a strange tongue’ ([Kierkegaard] 119)” (74).
Rather than hating, or judging, or leaving someone to wander alone for speaking in a strange tongue, it is, perhaps, more moving to remember that a person speaks with a hope of being understood. A person speaks, and to speak is courageous.
And it hurts everyone when we don’t listen.