November 25, 2009

I had an interesting talk with a classmate today after seminar today. She’s from a psychology background, and I’m from the historical black arts.We thus have differing opinions about language and objectivity. Helen very much wants to hold onto the idea that objectivity is possible and desirable; I have my doubts about both. What I wish to present here is a defense of my position without in any way attacking hers, which I respect. Understand that all of this is coming from a person whose background is the telling of stories.

I came to understand fairly early on that the “bare historical fact” is a fiction. Everything a historian does is reconstruction from the best materials available, this allows us to be more or less accurate to the truth of the story we’re telling, but in no way are things evident on their face. Even a recording on audio or film can be misleading, as it is only a section of time bereft of context. We can’t see or hear or read what happens before or after our sources finish telling us things. We fill in gaps all the time with our best guess. In some cases an allegiance to “facts” can prevent a historian from presenting the “truth” of the matter. There come moments when loaded language (At least, more loaded than ordinary language) has to be used to describe events in history, because without that language the reader will not understand the importance of the event.

Today in seminar we were asked to choose how best to describe the Holocaust. Would we say
1. The country was depopulated
2. Millions lost their lives
3. Millions were killed
4. Millions were massacred

An exclusively “fact-based” method of history would lean toward option 1 or 2, as they don’t prejudice a reader. I think to not prejudice the reader in this case betrays the story. Option 3 or 4 must be chosen, because the reader must understand, on an emphatic level, what occurred. This is a frightening responsibility. People read historical accounts trusting that the historians will be telling them a true story, and at no point should a historian betray that trust. I think the same applies to science. More and more we scientists (natural and social) are being made aware that our perceptions and our measurements are contingent things, not inescapable truths. But the people we speak to are trusting us to tell a true story; this makes our choice of language necessarily interpretive, too.

It is no bad thing to be biased; it is a great responsibility to use that bias to tell the truth.


November 24, 2009

Last night at the AMA’s a performer danced suggestively during a performance and shared a kiss with the guitarist. This is noteworthy (apparently) because both the performer and guitarist were men. Adam Lambert, the singer in question, has responded to criticism pointing out a double standard. And he’s right.

Apparently a bunch a people have their knickers in a twist over this, but unless they’re also going to complain to the FCC about women kissing and dancing suggestively they have absolutely no leg to stand on. The lesbian kiss is a tried and true gimmick trotted out by flailing television shows in order to bring eyeballs back to the broadcast. Ally McBeal did it; The OC did it; heck, Buffy did it, too. With the exception of Buffy these moments of passion didn’t really come in a longer, well developed story that was respectful to the characters; they were naked audience grabs, hyped up in the weeks preceding the episodes. I don’t really recall America getting up in arms about this when it was women kissing, but Adam Lambert kissing his guitarist apparently crosses a line of propriety we’re not willing to sanction. It’s more than a little ridiculous.

My generation is the first that is by and large unconcerned with peoples sexuality, and when you plot attitudes toward homosexuality demographically it looks like a pyramid. Each successive generation is more ok with homosexuality than the last. Maybe in twenty years this won’t even be a conversation we’re having, but I wish it was now.

Vande Mataram

November 22, 2009

(Totally unrelated thought, why is it that so many languages’ words for “mother” start with an ‘m’ and sound vaguely similar?)

Vande Mataram is the national song of India– not to be confused with the national anthem– and it translates as “I bow to my mother(land).” I was listening to a radio show today on my way from church, and one of the stories centered on this song, specifically on a controversy about it. It’s a perfect example of what I talked about in my paper.

Hinduism is far and away the predominant religious faith in India, but Islam is second with around 161 million adherents in the country. Some– and I have to emphasize that this doesn’t seem to be the predominant view– Muslims have issued a fatwa declaring that singing the song is counter to Islamic belief and that no Muslim should sing it. Guess what has happened in return? Some Hindu nationalists have decided to question the patriotism of Muslims and have declared that anyone who won’t sing the song should just leave.

We have to understand a bit of the history behind all this, first. India and Pakistan used to be the same thing, but after independence the two territories were partitioned. Obviously a lot of Muslims were still in India after partition, and relations between them and the Hindu majority can get tense. This is a great example of two differing cultures not coming to the table in good faith.

It’s all well and good to hold the belief that the words contained in the song constitute a violation of the Islamic injunction against worshipping anything other than God. Fine. But that’s a personal interpretation of the words of the song, and if a person understands the lyrics metaphorically and wants to sing them in gratitude to the country they live in there’s no reason they shouldn’t be allowed to. The religious rule is just silly. Equally silly is the reaction, though. In the story Muslims reacted to the suggestion that they be forced to sing the song by saying in effect, “I don’t mind singing the song; it doesn’t bother me. But if they try to make me sing it, I will not comply.” The reactionists should just back off and let the Muslims sort this one out, because if they interfere it will only exacerbate tensions that have existed ever since the country gained its independence. It seems like a small thing, but small things add up.


Totally unrelated topic(s):

I’m currently very frustrated at the disconnect in US education between the schooling we get and what the job market expects of us when we enter. After four years of private school (Which were certainly a financial mistake) and a year of master’s work, I need to have a job. Good luck to me. This isn’t even a function of the current job environment, as I remember things being like this before the economy tanked. I want to do public service jobs, which don’t exactly pay great. One other problem? They require experience. Experience I don’t have and can’t get unless someone hires me. I understand that I need to volunteer and take internships, and I’ve done those things. I’m looking at job postings asking for three to four year’s experience, with no entry level positions offered. I can’t do three to four years of volunteering and interning. I have loans to pay off, so I can’t afford to not be making money. Maybe four years of school works for people going into business or education, but it seems to me that the university system doesn’t really serve public servants very well.

Finally, I’m finding it kind of interesting to see the reactions across the board as the realization of just how bad the economy is truly sinks in. The meltdown has pushed me further away from capitalism, and I’m seeing others echo that sentiment. Capitalism is (at it’s root) based on people’s willingness to take advantage of each other, and to me the poverty of that economic stance has been laid bare by the current mess. But others, friends even, are doubling down on capitalism, insisting that it just needs to be done right in order to work. I assume that these feelings are really just reflections of where we already were before the crisis hit, and everything subsequent has just been a confirmation of that. Kind of annoying.

A (Cosmic) Game of Chicken

November 19, 2009

First, read this: Shane Claiborne to Non-Christians via Esquire

It is kind of creepy how relevant that article from Shane is to a discussion I had tonight. A group of four of us (Myself, Mark, Karl, Michelle) gathered in the house of two people who are volunteering at EBM to watch a section of The Gods Aren’t Angry and to talk afterwards about it. Little did we know what we were getting into. I think C.S. Lewis once described friendship as two people saying “Oh really? I thought I was the only one.” Tonight it was four of us, and it was strange to be in a room with people whose thoughts were so in synch with my own. At one point one of the guys turned to me and said, “You’re the first person I’ve ever met who’s said something like that. Thank God, because when I say it people look at me like I’m mad.”

So wait, what were we talking about?

Appeasement and sacrifice. In the segment of the talk that we watched, Rob Bell describes the paradox of the altar, and how it arose out of good intentions. People understood that they were somehow beholden to powers and processes beyond their control, and they attempted to appease those powers. (I particularly liked that in this part, all of the revelations were worked out by the women, and the men just hunted. Wonderful.) But what’s the problem of an altar?

It always demands more. Have a great year? Give more to the altar in order to show the powers you appreciate the generosity. Have a bad year? Give more to the altar in order to make up for whatever mistake had been made earlier to invoke the anger of the powers.

And it begs the question: Aren’t we still doing this?

Think it through, we haven’t really gotten over the altar problem, have we? Except now, in Christian circles, we’ve made the cross/Jesus/God the altar. Mark went on to describe the crucifixion as what I liken as a cosmic game of Chicken, instigated by humans. It’s God saying, “No. You don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t know why you’re doing it. You’re going to kill me, and I will not be provoked by this.” In the end, looking at what transpired then, isn’t always humans who blink first?

In this reading, dying on the cross doesn’t get people into heaven, but what does it do? It shows boundless love. It shows God will not be wrathful. You are free. You do not need to be ashamed; you certainly don’t need to fear appeasing God, because God doesn’t need to be appeased. Michelle marked this, wonderfully, as a return to the Edenic conception of humanity’s relation with God. A repentance in the truest Hebrew sense of the word.

Where does this leave a Christian, then? So often our mindset is “I have to go spend time reading my Bible. I need to go pray.” They’re obligations to a lot of folk.


These are not obligations, because these don’t appease God. This kind of stuff doesn’t change God, it changes the person performing the practice. God is already well pleased with you, and nothing you do can improve that attitude of God’s, so chill. Spiritual practices are things you get to do, but if they were prerequisites to entry into the Kingdom of God, wouldn’t that negate Jesus’ declaration that the Kingdom was already among us? Wouldn’t this just inaugurate a gospel of shame, in Mark’s words? A contradiction in terms if there ever was one. No, no; the good news of this gospel helps us recognize how radically free we are, and if your gospel does not free you then it is not good news.

East Belfast

November 17, 2009

I spent the day at East Belfast Mission today, and it was wonderful. I’d been reading US political news and was getting really down on humanity; being around a bunch of people who want to make their community better and don’t bring politics into it was the perfect antidote. Myself and two other volunteers walked around the community handing flyers out for an event held to commemorate the Mission before it gets torn down to make way for Skainos. People who attend Newtonards Methodist Church have been having something of a long goodbye during services on Sundays, giving the congregation time to say goodbye to a building that holds a lot of memories for folks. Monumental things have happened in the walls of that building.

Many people living near the Newtonards Road don’t attend the church, though, and a few had heard the building was going to be torn down and wanted to make sure the whole community got a chance to say goodbye on their own terms with the structure. After all, even if the folks don’t go to the church, the Mission is involved in most people’s lives in some way or another. So we walked around letting people know what was going on and chatting them up for the morning; it was wonderful. In the afternoon I went with a couple of other people to a local school and laid the groundwork for an after school soccer program, which will hopefully give the kids in the school something to do other than sit at home watching television after class is out.

Afterwards I met with the Community Outreach director, Sarah, and discussed some things that I could get involved in as the year progresses. I am le psyched; I should be able to do some really interesting stuff at EBM in the coming months. And that will make me feel better about people.

Seriously Americans. Just stop that crap; it’s annoying. So poisonous.

Why, Hello Life

November 16, 2009

Thus ends The Most Boring Week in History.

I’m trying to figure out how sad it is that I didn’t leave my room except to eat and clean myself Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday last week. Thursday I finally got sick of looking at my walls and spent my day in Common Grounds finishing up my reading. And then I took to the rest of the day off.

See, I have a process when I’m writing a paper. I collect all my notes, bookmark the pages, underline where necessary, write down disparate ideas hoping that they’ll turn into a thesis, and then, after about five days of aggregating, I write. I just sit down and finish the damn thing. So I think I can be forgiven if after digesting about 400 pages of academic literature on multiculturalism I decided to take Thursday night off instead of writing.

Then came Friday, and I feared I had lost my window of opportunity. I had a thesis in front of me, screaming off my notes, and I could not bring myself to start. Paragraphs started and erased themselves, and then, at about 9 o’clock in the PM, I started. I was about 700 words in when I realized that the LA-Houston MLS Playoff game was on.

Guess what I did then?

Yeah… I watched. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t have been all that bad. A soccer game is about two hours long, half-time included, and I thought I could spare that. It would clear my head, right? The game took almost four hours. California has this power generating problem, maybe you’re heard of it? Well, the lights went off in the stadium. Twice. Forty minutes lost to darkness while the electrical stations figured out what they’d done wrong, and then– joy of joys!– overtime. That’s right, neither team scored in regulation, so they played thirty minutes of overtime. Great game, but I spent far too long watching it.

I realized this after it was done and I looked at the clock on my computer. Sick. So I doubled down and got on with it. And at about 9:30 in the AM, the previous post was finished. I added about two hundred words to it today before I turned it in, but there it is: first grad school assignment done.

The weekend consisted of me trying to forget what I’d been doing the previous week, so Saturday I watched Ireland and France play a World Cup Qualifier in a bar full of Irish fans. I learned a lot of interesting things to say at people I dislike. I also watched the Chicago Fire go down in a penalty kick shootout in the other MLS Playoff game this week. (Yes, both games went to overtime.) So that’s Real Salt Lake and LA in the final. Always next year, I guess. Oh yes, and it was Çem’s birthday over the weekend, so we all sat down and had a meal together for that.

I should mention that Thursday I went to a public meeting at EBM, which I mentioned in the paper. I’m going to get a most substantive post on that up fairly soon here. It was tense. Really, unbelievably tense. I don’t usually get uncomfortable, but that did it to me.

Tonight after class I’m going to grab a few drinks with my classmates to celebrate finishing our first paper, and then I’m going to watch The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which my brother Jacob bought me. No doubt Dostoevsky will be read at some point tonight, too. For now, a nap before class.

Or, my big freaking paper.

The world is more mobile now than at any other time in human history, and one consequence of this mobility is increased interaction between disparate cultures. In industrialized societies this increased mobility, along with the needs of global economic players, has resulted in a remarkable migration of peoples. Many non-industrialized nations felt the effects of humanity’s increasing skill at travel much earlier than this, as colonialism and imperialism brought the frameworks of the modern nation-state and the European Enlightenment to the far reaches of the globe. In parallel with this was the repression of regional identity in Western states in the face of strongly propagated national identity. Slowly and implacably modern nation-states are being made to face the heterogeneous make-up of their citizens instead of the hoped for homogenous state identity. Many Western states have adopted policies of multiculturalism in order to address the diversity in their societies, but they are finding multicultural ideals difficult to put into practice. Similarly, many non-industrialized nations are facing calls to extend rights and differentiated treatment to minorities in their territories. This strains at the essential makeup of modern states, as they are inherently monocultural in set-up. As Parekh points out, multicultural pushes in liberal societies have had to strain against a tradition which is actively hostile to heterogeneity.

It is my contention that when undertaken in good faith multiculturalism can be a useful tool in promoting understanding and peace between differing cultural groups, but it cannot exist in a vacuum and is not sufficient on its own. In examining this I will use observations from a public forum on security held at East Belfast Mission 12 November, 2009, as well as examples drawn from reading and everyday life in a Western society. My ability to describe life in an industrializing context firsthand is nonexistent, so my discussions on the usefulness of a multicultural approach in that context will be drawn from articles contributed by professionals.

Andreas Wimmer identifies five conditions that must be met for multiculturalism to be effective:
Liberal democracy
Enforcement of human rights
Clear cultural lines
Dominant groups must not fear the results of multiculturalism
The programs supporting multiculturalism must not be seen as colonialist

Clearly the last condition is only applicable in countries outside the Western, previously colonial context. While these conditions are a useful rough guideline, I think they break down in practice. The first condition assumes that a multicultural societal framework could not work outside the bounds of liberal democracy. Given that the author is from a liberal society this seems to reflect ethnocentrism at the very least. Russia, for example, is hardly held up as a paragon of liberal democratic strength, but the nation has twenty six autonomous zones of administration controlled by minority groups. The second is reasonable, and it is hard to imagine multicultural appreciation outside a context in which human rights were paid more than lip service. The third and fourth are very difficult to unpack, and their implications will be discussed below. The final condition seems to presume a lot about both former colonial powers and their former colonies.

The contention that a state must have clearly delineated cultural lines is a weak one, and ignores much of the subtlety evident in world societies. Because of the multiplicity of identities that people carry with them, sometimes it is difficult to identify a group that should be represented in a multicultural discussion. Furthermore, at what level should the distinction be made between a legitimate minority cultural group and a small collection of like-minded people. Church groups in the United States have courted controversy in the face of new marriage equality laws, claiming that they will have to refuse service to gay couples, potentially putting them in violation of pending legislation. In this case do churches constitute a broad enough minority group to warrant appeasement, even though, by and large, church going Americans are very much within the mainstream of American society? Parekh argues that immigrants– particularly, in this case, to Western countries– implicitly accept the cultural values of the states they choose to live in. This sounds good as a rule of thumb, but at what point does an immigrant group become an imported nation?

The contention that dominant groups must be made to see that their interests are not undermined also rings a bit hollow. It sounds obvious enough, but in practice it does not seem possible to see through. Connolly points out that a pluralizing shift often serves to fundamentalize the majority group, at least in the short term. Any culture wishing to extend differentiated rights to minority groups must bear this fact in mind. Tepelman describes an idea of a primordial identity construction which parallels this fundamentalizing shift. He notes that for a primordialist within an emerging multicultural system the survival of the group is the most important thing, and that they define themselves in opposition to other groups they view as absolutely different.

One can see similarities here with the experience of Northern Ireland, particularly Belfast. Tensions in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants had always been fraught, but Catholic pushes for increased civil rights in the 60’s helped ignite The Troubles which raged in the country for thirty years. The rhetoric of Protestant and Catholic leadership after tensions boiled over was remarkably similar, with both sides tarring their opponents. Tepelman also remarks that this primordial conception of identity leads to majority groups attempting to separate themselves from minorities and to evict them from shared cultural space. In Belfast this separation and eviction is embodied by the Peace Walls all throughout the city keeping the two groups apart. Nagle studies the use of the Belfast City Centre, and the findings reinforce this impression. Catholic’s living in Belfast had long felt that the City Centre was not open to them in any meaningful way. The city hall had a statue of Queen Victoria in front, and only Protestant groups were allowed to route their marches through the central square. Once the Belfast government made concessionary moves to the Catholics in the city, allowing them to march and have equal access to services provided in the centre. Predictably, Protestant partizans did not appreciate these gestures, and they led to a further entrenching of rhetoric. The lesson to take from this episode, however, is that decades on the question of equal access to the city centre is much less contentious.

Cultural division has not disappeared altogether in Belfast, though. Thursday, November 12, 2009 East Belfast Mission held a forum entitled “Securing the Future” which was open to the public. The Mission invited two MLA’s, one from Sinn Fein, the other from the DUP, and the PSNI officer overseeing the Newtonards Road area of East Belfast. Tensions ran high at the meeting, as East Belfast Mission made it a point to invite a mixed audience to the proceedings, which took place in a Unionist, Protestant area of town. Each member of the panel was invited to make a statement about ensuring security in East Belfast, the Greater Belfast Area, and Northern Ireland as a whole, and then they answered questions from the audience.

While the SInn Fein and DUP MLA’s predictably disagreed on much concerning specific policy, both stressed that they thought that a one-dimensional solution was not an appropriate answer to the still very real tensions between Protestants and Catholics in Belfast and Northern Ireland. Both agreed that comprehensive solutions must be put in place in order to ensure lasting peace. Neither MLA downplayed the need to keep the citizens of Belfast and Northern Ireland safe and the importance that securing the safety of residence played in ensuring peace, but also emphasized that stopping there did nothing more than securing what Nagle likens to civility based on indifference. While neither of them could come to any kind of consensus during the two and a half hour panel as to what those comprehensive solutions would look like, at the very least they have that bit of agreement on the table.

The member of the police service emphasized that while what was termed a “dissident threat” was still very real, the threat was much less severe than just fifteen years ago. Also covered were some unique challenges the police service faces in the country. Many places in Northern Ireland are not used to getting prompt service from the police, and when they called in the past did not expect a response. In recent years the service has attempted to address these shortcomings, but now face challenges in engaging with previously isolated communities. As an example, the officer noted that the police get calls fairly frequently for assistance that is outside of their officially delineated responsibilities. But if that call comes from a previously neglected area the service faces a decision: If they choose to respond they potentially set an unwelcome precedent for the services they are able to provide, but if they choose not to respond they risk losing the trust of a community that is already suspicious of police motives. Acknowledging the difficulty faced, the officer said that no matter the decision the service needed to do a better job communicating to the public what could and could not be expected of the police.

Most illuminating was the question and answer period. Since the forum was taking place in East Belfast, I expected most of the questions to be directed at the Sinn Fein MLA, and for those questions to be rather accusatory and confrontational. To be sure, he did face this kind of questioning, but the DUP MLA got an earful as well. While the panel members tried to emphasize that public safety was much improved, and stood to improve still more, members of the audience were considerably more skeptical. Questioners were able to cite specific instances in which police response had left something to be desired, and they pressed the police representative about it; they noted that the Sinn Fein MLA was on a police regulatory body and questioned whether or not he really cared whether East Belfast was properly policed; they noted that the DUP MLA was formerly a member of the police service and had family and friends who had served and died in police and paramilitary service and wondered why he wasn’t pushing harder on security issues. At one point a questioner was so agitated that he needed a rebuke from the moderator to stop him from interrupting the speaker. Clearly these people did not feel secure, and the shared mistrust in the room prevents them from engaging with each other on equal terms.

Clearly the challenges of accommodating diverse cultures into a modern state are difficult, and no state can be argued to be doing the job perfectly. Rainier Baubock surveys the scene and assesses three likely scenarios: Multiculturalism as it currently stands in the Western World is as good as it will get; the world may be seeing a backlash against multiculturalism both in the industrialized and non-industrialized nations; or, the theories underpinning multiculturalism may need to be changed. Baubock argues for the third option, and Will Kymlicka agrees, arguing that case-by case interaction on an international scale is what is needed, not whole scale intervention. Kymlicka thinks that the important thing to do in all cases is to lay the foundation for a multicultural society and let things flow from that point adapting to the circumstances each society faces on the ground.

Rowan Williams’ now infamous speech on multiculturalism in the United Kingdom offers an intriguing look into how the process could play out in an industrialized nation. Williams was at pains to emphasize that though the substance of his speech dealt with British society’s relationship with its growing Islamic population, the example was merely the most convenient and timely one for him to use. Williams points out that the vast majority of of Muslim states in the world operate under a similarly separated system of laws, in which a Muslim has to navigate a cultural life with more than one identity in the public sphere. Because this situation is already extant in other countries, it makes no sense to deny those cultural rights to a minority in the United Kingdom, provided of course, that no one else’s rights are impinged. The philosophical ideas underpinning Williams’ arguments are dealt with in further academic detail Parekh’s writings, which make for a good starting point when discussing the usefulness of a multicultural approach.

Parekh notes that shared social life is constituted on at least three increasingly specific levels: constitutional, legislative, and civic. A state’s constitution lays out the framework of the state; the guidelines of what a citizen can expect. The particular laws enacted by the various bodies with jurisdiction over a given area further bring into focus what exactly is permissible and what is not permissible in a legal sense, and the civic culture of societies deals with the day the day customs of a particular location. It is into these circles, moving between the civic and legislative levels, that a multicultural approach must insert itself. The process described here is very different from autocratic decisions one way or another about a particular cultural practice. Instead, conditions must be right, and all parties must come together and participate in a good faith dialogue. In this situation all parties feel safe entering into discussion and negotiation. I realize that I may be describing the unicorn of political science, but the point is that negotiations and dialogue cannot simply start on their own once a conflict is identified. All sides must approach from a position of humility seeking to find the best solution for shared life. And dialogue cannot stop, either; no society is static and it would be a grave error to assume that just because one problem has been ironed out that no others would appear. The lines of cultural communication must stay open.

As part of the attitude of mutual respect necessary to making these kinds of cultural negotiations work, all sides must commit to making positive arguments for their position instead of attacking the other points of view. It is important that each side make a compelling case explaining to the other why keeping things the same or changing them is important. Minority spokespeople must frame the question from the point of view of the majority, while the majority must seek to present its position from a perspective germane to the minority. All parties to the negotiations must admit when they have made mistakes, and must demonstrate that they are working in good faith to correct those errors.

Sometimes these negotiations will be a rousing success and the majority society will reflect upon itself and make a change; sometimes a change may need to be forced upon a majority society; other times the majority society may decide in good faith that no change need be made and no concession granted; and other times a minority may suffer an outright defeat and have to bide its time until public opinion has changed to be more favorable. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a good example of the first, Brown v. Board of Education a superb example of the second. In some Scandinavian countries Jews and Muslims have accepted restrictions to their ability to slaughter meat in halal and kosher fashions due to the prevailing sentiment of the majority. In the United States, some have suggested that eventual nationwide extension of marriage equality is just a matter of time and demographics, meaning that gay right’s advocates should by no means keep quiet, but accept that the time is not just yet for their point to carry the day.

By no means is a multicultural approach a panacea to ethnic conflict; the whole thing is contingent upon so many other factors as to make reliance solely on it impossible. The migration encouraged by the modern economy makes multiculturalism at least one method in which to confront cultural clashes, and perhaps the best one out there. By using this tool, “conflict” is channeled into the sphere of public policy and debated. Baumeister points out that at least in liberal societies all policy is the result of antagonistic forces in the first place, making disputes like this familiar and manageable. Those hoping to solve problems of ethnic conflict within cultures, both in and outside the industrialized nations, have to address several things at once in order to assure that conflict resolution is able to occur. This will involve significant amounts of time spent laying the foundations for peaceful results, and ensuring that all involved will come away from the situation satisfied.

Language, How You Charm Me

November 10, 2009

I ran across a few things today related to language that intrigued me. I should probably just devote a regular section to language and all the fascinating things I find out about it.

Many languages in the world use gendered nouns; in fact, English may be an exception to the rule in having nouns which are not grammatically gendered. Evidently, researchers have discovered that this gendering of nouns has a greater impact upon people’s perception of the world than previously thought.

The word they used as a specific example when presenting the research was “bridge.” In German this is a feminine noun, but in Spanish it is masculine. (Gosh, I hope I got those genders correct.) When shown a bridge, German speakers tended to use more “feminine” words to describe the structure, and when shown the same bridge Spanish speakers tended to use more “masculine” words. I imagine that the masculinity and femininity of the words was ascertained by recourse the the native language of the study participants, but if it were ascertained on the basis on English, I think it is very telling that the interpretation of the study results would then have been based solely on the cultural perception of which terms were “masculine” and which terms were “feminine.”

I love how much this shows how language– in its verbal form– is infused with a person’s conceptual architecture. This goes back to the constitutive rules idea I posited earlier; language created the way the study participants perceived the bridges. Realities like this are important to understand when interacting with people from different cultures, and it surprises me how much people are unaware of the pervasive reality of language. For example, in my last seminar for my ethnic conflict class one of my classmates stated that he didn’t have much use for tradition, and, in his words, tries to “do nothing that I didn’t invent.” He’s a smart guy, and I was surprised that he didn’t realize that his ability to take that stance stems from a long line of radical free thinkers in Western society.

Human beings are historically created and rooted creatures, and recognizing that fact is a huge step in understanding each other.

No Bodies and Our Souls

November 9, 2009

Say it fast a few times, and imagine you’re not from America. You may find a surprise hidden in the words.

I went to Ikon tonight, and that was the title of the night’s reflections. The purpose was to provoke those attending to consider the mind-body paradox. Well, at least, it has (seemingly) always been perceived as a paradox by those of us in the West. One thing that Christianity has historically pushed back against is the gnostic conception of the flesh as evil– really it is matter that is evil, represented in weak human flesh. To a gnostic only the spirit is pure, and the spirit needs to escape from the fallen corruptible matter that traps it.

Sound familiar? It should.

Like I said, Christianity has been pushing against this idea since before it stopped being Jewish. The world is GOOD, and the world is redeemed. Humanity is part of this, created alongside it, and is inseparable from it; this is why the Biblical endgame is God coming here not the other way around.

So tonight we had reflections on each of our senses, trying to figure out how our senses relate to our bodies and our souls; how our bodies and our souls relate to each other. Someone pointed out that when a person attempts to insist that humans have no soul, they are just a body, that something feels wrong about that, yet our souls are so physically connected it is impossible to deny that they could exist separate our bodies. This fearful complexity may be just glimpse of the complexity that is the Trinity.

Are human beings integrated wholes, or are they a body and soul? Yes.

Maybe the thing to take from this is that human beings are irreducible. This is different for insisting on a vision of humanity as just the body, just the chemical connections in the brain. This is also different from insisting that humans have a soul separate the body. Maybe we’re just too damn complicated to ever comprehend.

So when you’re interacting with another person, no matter how fleeting, keep in mind the inconceivable thing that you are confronting in another person. Fearfully and wonderfully made indeed.


November 4, 2009

I’m wanting to get a few more things on paper (electronic paper, at that) as regards my recent classes. So here’s some stuff about multiculturalism.

Interestingly enough, multiculturalism is in fact, the scourge of the modern state. The conservatives are right. But hold on; is this necessarily a bad thing? The vast majority of current nation states are predicated on the idea that the mechanics of government are blind to any difference in citizens. This attitude is a relic of the enlightenment, itself a product of the West. (Please note, I’m not making a normative claim here.) As currently constituted, the United States is one of the oldest countries in the world. Most of the governmental systems that have arisen since the American revolution, and more importantly the French Revolution, have consciously placed themselves in a difference blind national set-up. Indeed, the French are still the most difference blind nation state in the world.

There’s something to be said about this difference blindness; for example it has the effect of putting everyone under identical jurisdiction in matters of citizenship, legal standing, and national rights. It can also most certainly be argued that an immigrant should expect to make changes in order to fit in with the cultural life of the country they have moved to– I don’t really think that’s unreasonable, if for no other reason than the fact that it will make life easier for them.

What it does a poor job of is recognizing the differences within a society, much less the difference that gets imported in. Take Canada, for example. It isn’t like the French Canadians moved there after the country was created, and yet for a long time the state of Canada attempted to function as though no difference existed between French Canadians and English speaking ones, in fact trying to assimilate the French Canadians. Here again is where France has succeeded in its mission; since it can conceive of no-one being a citizen of France who is not “French” the authorities of the country after democratization pushed a homogenizing agenda on the country, aiming to bring people in line with a “French” way of life. It still exists today; they’ve got a group of people who decide if a word is French enough to be used in the language!

Admitting that differences exist in the various people who make up a society undermines some of the authority of the state. If not all Americans are identical, then that makes the claims of governmental sovereignty more or less strong depending on the standing of the citizen. I think it is rather funny that the ascendancy of free market economic thought has spurred this change along. As the free market ideology gained ground it promoted movement of people and services in order to best maximize profit. This is why Southern California relies so much on migrant workers to work in the fields, or why Iowa meat packing plants are so stocked with Latinos; they’re the cheapest. But by importing these people to work the machines of the market, the market has ended up undermining its arbiter– the state. Free markets need a robust governmental system in the states in which they are active in order to ensure a “level” playing field. (Be honest, in practice this means Western multi-nationals get the best deals because they’re best set to make use of whatever resource is in question. And this is because they have a head start on doing work like this. And that’s because they prevented the people in the state in question from doing the work themselves in the past. Which is why they don’t have the expertise to do it now. Convenient circle, huh?) Once this field gets skewed because governments have to start recognizing the differences within their citizens and adjusting national practice for it, the foundations of the state– and indirectly, the markets– get eroded.

The next few years ought to be interesting.