Social distancing: Cultural perspectives

Human beings are social animals. That makes social distancing very difficult, the practice of keeping ones distance from others in order to slow the spread of disease, in this case, the COVID-19 pandemic. Each one of us is of course different in terms of sociability but it’s likely that almost everyone needs some degree of regular social contact. That can come through being together person-to-person individually or in groups with friends, family members, classmates, co-workers, club members, etc. Often language will play a major role in our connections with others, in that one of its major functions is to negotiate social relations. Non-verbal communication too plays an important role in relating to others. With the arrival of COVID-19 pandemic, we still have language (more and more mediated electronically) but we have largely lost personal contact, while non-verbal behaviors have changed significantly.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the aftermath of the pandemic, whether social conventions, work arrangements, and educational delivery systems will experience long-term changes, i.e. more folks working remotely, increased use of online learning, and shifts in behaviors involving such phenomena as greetings and physical interactions. Will social distancing become engrained behavior, by default keeping our personal distance from others greater than has been the social norm in the past? Will we no longer go into automatic handshaking mode in particular situations, such as meeting someone new? If the pandemic were short-term, or likely to be a once in a lifetime event, one would not expect such changes, but neither seems to be the case. Instead of weeks, the pandemic looks like it will play out for months, maybe longer, and may be with us as a recurring event. Nor is it likely the last coronavirus we will see.

One might suspect that cultures labeled “collectivistic” would have a harder time with social distancing, given communal orientations. However, cultures generally associated with that label, namely China and South Korea, have been quite successful in fighting the virus. Keeping to cultural stereotypes, one might argue that, in fact, the willingness of individuals to forego direct social contact is in line with expectations, in that they are sacrificing in the name of the greater social good, namely slowing the spread of the virus. A recent piece in the Atlantic magazine discusses the cultural difficulties many Americans have in adjusting to social distancing. The argument is that “America’s individualistic framework is deeply unsuited to coping with an infectious pandemic”. The author, Meghan O’Rourke, asserts that the North American cultural frame of self-reliance makes it more difficult for individuals to consider the common good. Similarly, the cultural theme of individual freedom of action runs counter to the need for the restriction of movement through self-quarantining. She points out that the mania for individual responsibility has resulted in the US in a lack of universal health-care system and a weak social safety net, situations which are likely to make it more difficult to deal with the pandemic and its economic aftermath. She finds it unlikely, that the pandemic will bring a change “from an individual-first to a communitarian ethos”.

One should always approach broad-brush cultural characterizations with caution. That’s called for here, as the US is culturally very diverse, with significant regional, ethnic, and socio-economic differences, despite the undoubted presence historically of the themes of freedom and individualism in the US. It may be that the pandemic will bring about different mindsets and behaviors. It seems clear at this point that not everyone will weather the storm under the same conditions. While in some professions, work at home is doable, that’s not the case for many jobs, typically low-wage work. In an opinion piece for CNN, a group of sociologists from UCLA discuss the need to offer help to those in that position:

We must be particularly supportive of those among us who are vulnerable to contagion — unable to “physically distance”– precisely because of the work they do. This includes not only health care workers but also service and delivery workers, domestic and home care workers, cashiers, sanitation workers, janitors, store clerks, farm workers, and food servers who quietly but vitally sustain our collective lifestyles, even in a pandemic.

These are jobs for which the workers cannot afford to be absent from work, cannot work remotely, and often do not have health insurance. In parts of the US, those workers are likely to be immigrants, already suffering from discrimination and unequal treatment. The authors urge that instead of using the term “social distancing” we refer to “physical distancing” to encourage the practice of maintaining physical spacing, but not being distant socially. That involves practicing solidarity with those suffering more from the pandemic, as well as using technology to maintain social connections. In the process, they write, “Just as physical distancing can give us a fighting chance of combating this virus, finding creative and socially responsible ways to connect in crisis can have positive and long-lasting effects on our communities.” So long-term changes may be on the horizon; we’ll see.

The coronavirus and globalization

The President of the United States today labeled the Novel Coronavirus outbreak a “new hoax” from the Democratic party. It’s far from being a hoax, as the number of people infected with COVID-19 has continued to mount, particularly in countries other than China, where the disease originated. Particularly worrisome are outbreaks in South Korea, Italy, and Iran. Numerous cases in the US are reported as well, including some representing community transmission, i.e. not connected with known travel to infected areas or contact with others already infected. Today the first death in the US was reported.

The virus has led to understandable concern everywhere and to draconian measures to contain its spread in infected areas. Less rational are reported incidents in currently unaffected areas in which individuals perceived to be Chinese – or just Asian – are being singled out for prejudicial treatment or even abuse. CNN reported recently on a number of such incidents, demonstrating that “rampant ignorance and misinformation [about the virus] has led to racist and xenophobic attacks against fellow Americans or anyone in the US who looks East Asian”. A byproduct of those misinformed views is that Chinese-American businesses are losing customers, particularly Chinese restaurants. Normally popular and busy restaurants have become virtually empty. One response on Twitter recommended a possible response:

Air travel has been severely affected by the virus, with wide-spread reduction or cancellation of flights to and from affected areas. Global trade has been disrupted as well, with suppliers and manufacturers not being able to sustain normal supply chains. Apple, for example, has warned that its revenues will be down due to Chinese factories being shut down. While these developments result from one specific event, the virus outbreak, its repercussions point to the vulnerabilities of the massively globalized economic world in which we live. An article in the NY Times this week speaks to that phenomenon:

Even before the virus arrived in Europe, climate change, security concerns and complaints about unfair trade had intensified anxieties about global air travel and globalized industrial supply chains, as well as reinforcing doubts about the reliability of China as a partner.

Globalization has been under attack from various directions, especially through populist and nationalist views that blame international commerce, mass migration, and global cooperation for a loss of local jobs and perceived threats to established ways of life. The likely impact of the COVID-19, especially should it become a pandemic, is likely to strengthen those sentiments. As the NY times’ article put it:

The virus already has dealt another blow to slowing economies, and emboldened populists to revive calls, tinged with racism and xenophobia, for tougher controls over migrants, tourists and even multinational corporations.

That crisis of confidence in China extends beyond China’s ability to handle the virus, said Simon Tilford, director of the Forum New Economy, a research institution in Berlin. The lack of trust “will only reinforce an existing trend among businesses to reduce their dependency and risk,” he said.

But the spread of the virus to Europe will also have a significant impact on politics, likely boosting the anti-immigrant, anti-globalization far right, Mr. Tilford said. “We already see a lot of populist concern about the merits of globalization as benefiting multinationals, the elite and foreigners, not local people and local companies,” he said.

Politicians who insist on control over borders and immigration will be helped, even as the virus transcends borders easily. “Their argument will be that the current system poses not only economic but also health and security threats, which are existential, and that we can’t afford to be so open just to please big business,” Mr. Tilford said.

That argument may attract voters “who hate overt racism but fear loss of control and a system vulnerable to a distant part of the world,” he added. The virus also allows people to express hostility to the Chinese that they may have felt but had been reluctant to articulate, said Mr. Tilford. “There is already an undercurrent of fear of the Chinese in Europe and the United States because they represent a challenge to Western hegemony,” he said.

Instead of bringing peoples from different cultures together to fight the virus cooperatively, it looks like instead there will be a game of misplaced blame and an ongoing process of accelerated racism. Our leaders need to play the roles only they can play to warn against both panic and against xenophobia. We will see in the coming weeks to what extent that occurs.

Working within or dismantling institutions: Miss America vs. the Presidency

Both serve as national icons, the President of the US and Miss America, but they represent institutions not normally brought together, although President Trump does have a history with beauty pageants. 

Miss America, Camille Shrier

Both figures were in the news this week. It so happens that the recently crowned Miss America, Camille Schrier, is a VCU student, working towards a doctorate in pharmacy. Her talent in the contest was doing chemistry experiments, with eye-popping results. She was back at VCU this week as part of her national tour to promote medication safety and to prevent drug misuse. She has said that her mission was also to promote science careers for girls, stating in an interview, “I’m trying to be like Bill Nye [the science guy]…That’s what I’m going for. I want to get kids excited, but I don’t want it to be boring.” Although in the pageant, Schrier wore a white lab coat and safety goggles for the talent performance, it’s clear that if she were not an attractive woman, she would not have earned the crown. However that may be, she is leveraging the exposure and publicity she is receiving to engage in public service, something in fact that is expected of every Miss America. In that sense she is working within normal institutional parameters.

That is hardly the case recently for many US politicians, including not only the President, but members of Congress as well. Their behavior in the impeachment process has been largely dictated by personal political interests, not by a concern to strengthen the institutions they represent. That’s not true of all those in Congress, but it’s a pattern that we’re seeing more often, and not just in politics. Self-interest rather than institutional support has become a driver of actions and attitudes, leading to wide-spread distrust of institutions in the US.

That’s laid out in a new book by Yuval Levin, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream, recently discussed with the author on NPR. In the interview Levin points out that many members of Congress “think about the institution as a way to raise their profile”, for example, Senator Ted Cruz after every session of the impeachment trial hosting a podcast commenting on the session. While Levin comments that it is legitimate “for important public figures to also have a profile in the culture”, doing so excessively and making that one’s major focus, “makes it much harder for the institution to function and much harder for us to trust it”:

When members come to think of Congress as a platform for themselves, it becomes much harder for them to see how working within the institution cooperating and bargaining is really what Congress is for…What happens in most congressional hearings now is basically a bunch of individuals producing YouTube clips to use later in campaigns.

One can make the same argument for President Trump, who has used the institution of the presidency as a platform, through Twitter, to promote himself:

President Trump is the first of our presidents who has not been formed by any of the institutions of public service in our country. President Trump has been a performer his entire adult life, and he’s been a performer as president, too. He uses the office of the presidency as a platform from which to comment on the government.

In the process, he is debasing the institution of the Presidency, leading to growing public mistrust. This is all the more disturbing given the power of that office. Levin sees this as a lesson for us all:

All of us have some roles to play within some institutions, even if that’s our family or community or workplace, let alone national institutions and politics and the economy. As a as a parent, as a neighbor, as a member of the PTA, as a member of Congress, as a CEO, what should I do in this situation? Not just what do I want, not just what would look good, but given my role here, what should I do? It is a question you ask when you take the institutions that you’re part of seriously.

In other words, in the institution in which we are involved, we should all be focused on civic engagement. Our current Miss America can function as a model. While she had participated in pageants as a girl, she stopped on starting college, as she wanted to focus on her interest in science (she has undergraduate degrees in biochemistry and systems biology). When she was a graduate student, she heard that the Miss America pageant had been revamped — eliminating the swimsuit competition and emphasizing professionalism and social impact. That provided an opportunity for her to showcase her own interest in science and potentially to serve as a role model and mentor for girls, demonstrating that, in her words,  “Miss America can be a scientist and a scientist can be Miss America”. She is using the institution, as she found it, to further goals of inclusion and acceptance, not self-interest.

From the Capital of the Confederacy:  “Rumors of War” points to change

Rumors of War

This week in Richmond, Virginia, the Capital of the Confederacy a monumental shift took place, literally, with the erection of a new statue, a young black man astride a horse. That statue by Kehinde Wiley, entitled “Rumors of War”, installed in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts,  is located a short distance from a famous row of statues of Confederate war heroes and generals along Monument Avenue. Those statues, installed in the early 20th century, celebrate the Southern “Lost Cause”, the idea that the Confederacy, rather than being a defender of slavery, was a just and heroic effort, bolstered by the primacy of states’ rights. The era when the statues were erected was also the time of the Jim Crow Laws, which institutionalized segregation and the inferior status of African-Americans in all spheres of public life.

JEB Stuart monument

One of those statues, of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart was, according to Wiley, the inspiration for his own statue. The Stuart statue was the first to be erected on Monument Avenue, in 1907. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, when Wiley, on a visit to Richmond, first saw Stuart’s statue, it “filled him with dread”. As an African-American artist, that reaction is quite understandable. As a White Northerner, coming to Richmond in the 1970’s, I had a less visceral reaction to the Lost Cause iconography, one of surprise. In civics class in Illinois (“Land of Lincoln”) in the 7th grade, we understood that the South not only lost, but did so defending the cruel institution of slavery. My assumption was that folks in the South would much rather just forget that whole episode of American history. Imagine my surprise on seeing huge statues of the folks who were on the wrong side of history.

“Rumors of War” is of the same monumental scale as those of Stuart and the other Confederate heroes. The black man featured is no shrinking violet. He boldly sits astride his powerful horse, with looks that celebrate the contemporary young black American male: dreadlocks, ripped jeans, hoodie. In that way, the statue is not just a counterpoint to Stuart, it is a defiant celebration of young black men, a group not widely celebrated in the US today. As cited in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Wiley wanted to suggest through the statue that US society “say yes to black men”.

A Christmas market heralds the Great Replacement

I was in Germany last week and, among other cities, I spent some time in Nuremberg (Nürnberg), the second largest city in the state of Bavaria. For US Americans, the likely association of the city is with Nazi Germany, as it was there where the war crimes against top Nazis were held after World War 2. It was, in fact, a favorite city of Hitler’s, where the huge Nazi party rallies were held every year and where the infamous Nuremberg Race Laws against Jews were announced in 1935.

For many Germans, the association is likely to be different, namely, connecting the city to traditional arts and especially to Albrecht Dürer, a native son and one of the greatest artists during the transition from medieval art to the modern era. The city had one of the best-preserved medieval town centers, until leveled during the war. Another – and possibly the strongest association – many Germans have with the city is its Christmas Market (Christkindlesmarkt). Many cities, large and small, throughout Germany have such markets, which provide street food (most prominently sausages) and drink (Glühwein = mulled wine), as well as traditional artisan products, gifts, and local specialties.

Nuremberg Christmas market

Nuremberg’s market stands out due to the number and quality of artisan products and its reputation as the center of production of Lebkuchen, a traditional gingerbread-style cookie. It also has a long tradition which includes a competition each year for a young girl to play the role of the official representative (Christkind) of the market. Her role is to open the market in a formal speech (and fancy costume) the opening day and to serve for 2 years as a goodwill and publicity ambassador for the market and the city

Benigna Munsi of Nuremberg

This year there was some controversy in the choice of the Christkind, Benigna Munsi, the local daughter of a father from India and a mother from Germany. After her selection was announced, a member of the far-right AFD Party (“Alternative for Germany”) posted on Facebook, along with a picture of the 17-year old girl, the comment, Nürnberg hat ein neues Christkind. Eines Tages wird es uns wie den Indianern gehen.” (“Nuremberg has a new Christkind. One day we will suffer the same


Benigna Munsi as the Nuremberg “Christkind”

fate as the American Indians”). The comment evokes the anti-immigrant and nationalistic “replacement theory“, the idea that whites are being systematically (and with support from Western governments) winnowed out of majority status due to mass immigration and low birth rates among whites. The comment was roundly denounced in Germany, but its racist tone is reflected in commonly heard remarks from far-right politicians in many European countries today. The white genocide conspiracy theory of the “Great Replacement” (title of a book by French writer Renaud Camus in 2011) was also on display in the US in the Charlottesville alt-right march in 2017.

The irony of making this racist statement in – of all places in Germany – in Nuremberg was surely lost on the Bavarian AFD Party. But the rest of us should make the connection between such dangerous racist remarks and Nazi ideology, which lead to real, not imagined, genocide.

A beloved McDonald’s…in France?!

McDonald’s in Marseille, France, under threat of closure

The popular view of French food veers toward the gourmet side – fine wines, superb cheeses, elegant sauces, local specialties – enjoyed at a leisurely pace, with rich social interactions. One of the delights of being in France is the high quality of dining at neighborhood bistros and cafes, with a surprising variety of dishes on offer. In other words: the opposite of American fast food, epitomized by McDonald’s, with its uniform, mass-produced food, designed to be consumed quickly, often on the go. 

France has its own fast-food traditions and street food, including croque-messieurs, crepes, and baguette sandwiches. But those foods seem more sophisticated and in tune with French culture than what you get at Mickey D’s. No surprise that McDonald’s has a checkered history in France, with its first restaurant in Paris in 1971 closing soon after opening. Over the years, as more McDonald’s franchises have opened throughout France, the company has experienced more success, but also continued resistance – not only to its non-French approach to food preparation and consumption, but also because for the French the company represents globalization, Americanization, and unfair trade and labor practices. In 1999 a group of protesters led by farmer José Bové destroyed a half-built McDonald’s restaurant in Millau.

So why is there a passionate campaign in Marseille to keep a McDonald’s threatened with closure? It’s not the food, it’s the community role that particular restaurant plays, according to the New York Times:

A group of workers and their union leaders in Marseille are fighting tooth-and-nail to save a McDonald’s from closing in a working-class, largely immigrant neighborhood. A so-called “Festival of Dignity” protest was recently organized by the McDonald’s employees in an effort to save their roughly 70 jobs. Even though McDonald’s was once seen as a cultural menace to a glorious French tradition, the workers say this particular McDonald’s, in its quarter-century of existence, has played a vital role as a social integrator in one of France’s most troubled districts — providing employment and shielding local youth from pervasive drug-dealing, getting them out of jail and helping them stay out.

The article chronicles a number of personal stories of neighborhood youth, all from economically disadvantaged families with migrant backgrounds, who were hired by the McDonalds, giving them an initial foothold in life and keeping them off the streets and out of trouble. That has been particularly important for Muslim youth, often facing employment discrimination. The restaurant is the second largest employer in that part of Marseille.

Ironically, the current owners of the McDonald’s want to sell the restaurant to a Muslim halal food operator who wants to open a new restaurant serving Middle Eastern food.  The reaction of McDonald’s employees to that plan, most of them Muslims, as reported in the NY Times has been anger: “’This is an insult. We’re fighting for laïcité here,’ said Salim Grabsi, a local schoolteacher and former employee, referring to France’s official credo of secularism. ‘The republic is one and indivisible’.” That perspective seems to echo the reaction from France decrying some comments on the African origins of the families of many French players on the French national soccer (football) team’s which won the World Cup in 2018 (for example, Trevor Noah’s “Africa wins the world cup!”). The point made was that in France, everyone is “French”, no matter their heritage (i.e., no hyphenated identity descriptors, as in the US).

Here’s another irony of the Marseille McDonald’s story: There was a controversy in Marseille in 2017 on a city government crackdown on street vendors of kebabs. Given that the owners of those establishments are overwhelmingly North Africans, most of them Muslim, this action was decried as “gastronomic racism”. As far as the closure of the McDonald’s is concerned, a French court for now has blocked the sale of the outlet – so that location will for now continue to offer the “Royale with Cheese” (McD’s quarter-pounders; see Pulp Fiction), not kebabs.

Treetop Barbie: Ecological girl power?

Treetop Barbie working

Barbie was launched in 1959 by the US Mattel toy company and over the years the doll has accumulated a boyfriend (Ken) and many accessories. Barbie dolls have been a controversial figure, as an embodied example of the media-propagated version of the ideal female figure, tall, blonde and white, with an exaggeratedly thin waist and disproportionally large breasts. This led to what has been termed “Barbie syndrome” among pre-teen and teenage girls, namely the desire to have Barbie’s “unattainable body proportions” (Lind, 2008), leading in some cases to eating disorders such as anorexia or even plastic surgery. Ukrainian model Valeria Lukyanova, the “living Barbie doll,” is an example of such fetishism.

The Barbie doll series has also been criticized for its lack of diversity and stereotyping of women as “dumb blondes”. Over the years, Mattel has responded to such criticism with the introduction of black and Hispanic dolls, as well as Barbies engaged in a variety of professions. On the other hand, in 2014 Mattel published Barbie: I can be a computer engineer. As I reported at the time in a blog post:

 In the opening pages we see Barbie working on developing a game: “I’m designing a game that shows kids how computers work,” explains Barbie. “You can make a robot puppy do cute tricks by matching up colored blocks!”

That sounds great, but when Barbie’s sister asks to play the game, here is Barbie’s response: “I’m only creating the design ideas,” Barbie says, laughing. “I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!”

That’s right, Barbie of course can’t actually write the code – she needs boys to do that. As a blog post from Pamela Ribon details, things get worse from there. It turns out that Barbie has infected her own and her sister’s computers with a computer virus and that she has little clue what to do, or other basics of how to work with computers.

So is Treetop Barbie in a similar mode? The idea is that Barbie is an engaged ecologist, working as a forest canopy researcher, just like her creator, Nalini Nadkarni. Nadkarni is a biology professor at the University of Utah and is well-known for her work unraveling the secrets of rain forest ecologies by climbing trees and investigating the nature of “canopy soils” (a type of soil that forms on the tree trunks and branches) and “aerial roots” (above-ground roots growing from branches and trunks). In working in the field, Nadkarni saw few other women. To encourage girls to consider ecology as a profession, she and her lab colleagues came up with the idea of Treetop Barbie. Mattel was not interested in the concept, so Nadkarni carried out the project on her own, buying used Barbies, dressing/equipping them as canopy researchers, and selling them at cost. After the project started to attract attention (New York Times), Mattel tried to shut her down over brand infringement, but eventually relented, and, given the publicity and marketing benefits, decided to partner with National Geographic to roll out this year a a series of Barbies focused on exploration and science, with Nadkarni as an advisor.

Nadkarni realizes that using Barbies is controversial, as she admitted in a recent NPR interview:

My sense is yes she’s a plastic doll. Yes she’s configured in all the ways that we should not be thinking of how women should be shaped. But the fact that now there are these explorer Barbies that are being role models for little girls so that they can literally see themselves as a nature photographer, or an astrophysicist, or an entomologist or you know a tree climber… It’s never perfect. But I think it’s a step forward.

Nalini Nadkarni at work

Interestingly, Nadkarni herself is far from being a Barbie type. Her skin and hair are brown, her father is from India. From videos of her working in the rain forest, it is clear she is rugged, daring, and independent, not characteristics one associates with the doll. The initial idea of Treetop Barbie was made in fun, but then she and her colleagues decided it could be an effective way to get young girls thinking that being a scientist or researcher might be a doable future career. The transition from appearance-obsessed glamor girl to working ecologist is laid out in an “interview” with Treetop Barbie published in the Seattle Times. Nadkarni gives voice to the doll and mentions the importance of tying back your hair when climbing trees, including her habit of using a “very attractive red bow”. After all, Treetop Barbie/Nadkarni remarks, “There’s no reason why scientists have to look messy or unattractive.”

Lind, Amy (2008). Battleground: Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Greenwood Publishing Group.

Gestures: Context is everything

A recent media account discusses the addition of a number of hate symbols to the Anti-Defamation League’s database, “Hate on Display” . Those include images and logos used by white supremacist groups, such as the  Rise Above Movement from Southern California or the recently-formed American Identity Movement. The surprising addition to the list, however, was a commonly used hand gesture, the “ok” sign, forming a circle by connecting the index finger to the thumb, with the other fingers spread out. In some communities, especially online, that gesture has become associated with white supremacy and the far right (outstretched fingers as “W”, the circle and hand as “P”, for “White Power”). That apparently had its origin in a prank by users of the 4chan website in 2017, then consolidated by the use of the gesture by the Christchurch, NZ shooter who killed 51 people at two mosques in March.

That certainly does not mean that anyone using the gesture is a white supremacist.  The usage and cultural context will determine both intent of the user and the message received. In the US in most contexts, the gesture will likely continue to be understood as “that’s fine” or “a-ok”. However, in other countries that gesture has had different meanings. In Germany, for example, the gesture has a vulgar meaning (representing the human anus) traditionally equating to “you’re an asshole”. In Japan and other cultures, the gesture is used to symbolize money (i.e. representing a coin), or to ask for a bribe. In France, the symbol has been interpreted as zero, thus transmitting the meaning as worthless. In some Arab cultures, it represents the evil eye, therefore used as a curse. Complicating those meanings, however, is the wide influence of US culture through popular media, so that in some cases, especially among younger people, the gesture may be used in accordance with US mainstream culture. That phenomenon has been seen in the spread of other gestures as well, such as the middle finger as an insult gesture. How the gesture is intended will likely be signaled through other indicators, such as facial expressions or body language.

Another interesting hate symbol added to the ADL’s list is a hair cut: the “bowlcut“, a style that looks like a bowl was used in cutting someone’s hair, as in the early Beatles’ look. In this case, however, the reference is to another white supremacist, Dylann Roof, responsible for the attack at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015. Other white supremacists have referenced Roof’s haircut by using screen names that incorporate the world “bowl” or use the word in catch phrases. According to the ADL,

Roof promoters also create and share Roof-related memes across the Internet, including depictions of Roof as a saintly figure with a halo around his head.  Even more common are memes featuring Roof’s bowl haircut, either by itself or digitally affixed to other people’s heads. In one shared image, Roof’s haircut has been superimposed on a shield designed to resemble the divisional insignia of Waffen SS military units of Nazi Germany.

Other hair styles have been associated with white supremacy as well, namely mohawks and especially shaved heads, known as skinheads. That shows the importance for members of groups (especially traditionally outlier groups) to show group adherence through explicit symbols, dress, or other aspects of personal appearance.

Two world leaders on climate change

Greta Thunberg striking, Stockholm, Aug, 2018

Today is the United Nations Summit on Climate Change. That follows on the Youth Summit which was held last week. Leaders from around the world are participating in the summits, which are designed to draw public attention to the issue of global warming and to generate action for change in environmental policies and measures before irreversible damage is done to our planet. Ordinary citizens are participating in the summits as well, including large throngs of protesters in the streets of cities in many countries. If there were ever a need for an embrace of the notion of global citizenship, this must surely be it. One country alone cannot change the pace of degradation of the earth, it will take a sense of responsibility and stewardship from citizens and leaders from all countries.

9/20/2019, Berlin: Fridays for Future movement

On the other hand, one person can make a huge difference. That is the case for Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old Swede behind the “Fridays for Future” movement, calling on her generation to skip school on Fridays to protest inaction on climate change. Her campaign started last August, as a solitary protest in front of the Swedish parliament. In time others joined her, at first in Sweden, then in other European countries, and now world-wide. For this cause, it makes perfect sense that there be youth leaders, as they will be the ones inheriting the earth we are in the process of damaging. Studies have shown that polluted air and exposure to toxins is not just bad for our planet’s health, it can have a devastating impact on human health as well, especially on children, because their immunity systems are weaker than those of adults. Magdalena Burton comments in a blog post:

The environmental question is about the present as much as the future. It concerns our daily wellbeing as well as our long-term health, the dignity of human life and our ultimate survival as a species. It impacts on everyone currently living on planet earth and anyone who is yet to arrive here. Today, we are not even able to guarantee fair access to clean air to anyone born on this planet, whether in high- or lower-income countries. This is precisely what Thunberg’s call not to steal her and all our futures is all about – and the reality we all need to wake up to.

Greta Thunberg may seem at first blush an unlikely world leader on climate change. She is not a scientist or a politician. She is small, shy, and self-effacing. She comes from a small country. But she is determined and persistent. She herself has aligned her single-mindedness to the fact that she has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, on the autistic spectrum. She is asking the public not to listen to her, but rather to the overwhelming consensus of scientists on climate change.

She offers a sharp contrast to a figure we might expect to be a world leader on climate change, the President of the United States of America. Anyone in that position not only has an immense influence on public opinion, but can also take advantage of the tremendous power of the office, to gather the best and brightest minds in science and policy making, in order to be well-informed and therefore be in a position to offer reasoned and evidence-based public statements on the topic. President Trump has dismissed global warming as a Chinese hoax. He is skipping the UN Summit today. Leadership is not likely to be forthcoming from that direction.

Update.  President Trump did after all attend the Climate Change Summit – for 15 minutes, later mocking Greta Thunberg in a tweet. Her testimony today:

Advanced tech: No need to learn a language?

From Ciklopea (Juraj Močilac)

I’m currently in Belgium, attending a conference on language learning and technology (EuroCALL 2019). Many topics are presented and discussed at such conferences, but one which came up repeatedly at this one is the use of smart digital services and devices which incorporate voice recognition and voice synthesis, available in multiple languages. Those include Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google Assistant, available on mobile phones/watches, dedicated devices, and smart speakers. In addition, machine translation such as Google Translate is constantly improving, as artificial intelligence advances (especially through neural networks) and large collections of language data (corpora) are collected and tagged. There are also dedicated translation devices being marketed, such as Pocketalk and Illi.

I presented a paper on this topic at a previous conference this summer in Taiwan (PPTell 2019). I summarized current developments in this way:

All these projects and devices have been expanding continuously the number of languages supported, with as well language variations included, such as Australian English, alongside British and North American varieties. Amazon has begun an intriguing project to add additional languages to Alexa. An Alexa skill, Cleo, uses crowdsourcing, inviting users to contribute data to support incorporation of additional languages. Speech recognition and synthesis continue to show significant advancements from year to year. Synthesized voices in particular, have improved tremendously, sounding much less robotic. Google Duplex, for example, has rolled out a service which is now available on both Android and iOS devices to allow users to ask Google Assistant to book a dinner reservation at a restaurant. The user specifies the restaurant, date and time, and the number of the party. Google Assistant places a call to the restaurant and engages in an interaction with the restaurant reservation desk. Google has released audio recordings of such calls, in which the artificial voice sounds remarkably human.

Advances in natural language processing (NLP) will impact all digital language services – making the quality of machine translations more reliable, improving the accuracy of speech recognition, enhancing the quality of speech synthesis, and, finally, rendering conversational abilities more human-like. At the same time, advances in chip design, miniaturization, and batteries, will allow sophisticated language services to be made available on mobile, wearable, and implantable devices. We are already seeing devices on the market which move in this direction. Those include Google Pixel earbuds which recognize and translate user speech into a target language and translate back the partner’s speech into the user’s language.

Conference participant, Mark Pegrum, kindly summarized some of the other informationpresented in his blog.

The question I addressed at the conference was, given this scenario, will there still be a need for language learning in the future. Can’t we all just use smart devices instead? My conclusion was no:

Even as language assistants become more sophisticated and capable, few would argue that they represent a satisfactory communication scenario. Holding a phone or device, or using earbuds, creates an awkward barrier, an electronic intermediary. That might work satisfactorily for quick information seeking questions but is hardly inviting for an extended conversation, that is, even if the battery held out long enough. Furthermore, in order to have socially and emotionally fulfilling conversations with a fellow human, a device would need support far beyond transactional language situations. Real language use is not primarily transactional, but social, more about building relationships than achieving a goal. Although language consists of repeating patterns, the direction in which a conversation involves is infinitely variable. Therefore, language support needs to be very robust, to support all the twists and turns of conversational exchanges. Real language use is varied, colorful, and creative and therefore difficult to anticipate. Conversations also don’t develop logically — they progress by stops and starts, including pauses and silences. The verbal language is richly supplemented semantically by paralanguage, facial expressions, and body language. This reality makes NLP all the more difficult. Humans can hear irony and sarcasm in the tone of voice and receive messages accordingly. We understand the clues that nonverbals and the context of the conversation provide for interpreting meaning.

It remains to be seen how technology will evolve to offer language support and instant translation, but despite advances it is hard to imagine a future in which learning a second language is not needed, if not alone for insights it provides into other cultures. Smart technology will continue to improve and offer growing convenience and efficiency in providing language services but is not likely to replace the human process of person-to-person communication and the essentially social nature of language learning.

Sophi’s choice is America’s shame

3-year old Sophi

From a story on NPR:

At a Border Patrol holding facility in El Paso, Texas, an agent told a Honduran family that one parent would be sent to Mexico while the other parent and their three children could stay in the United States, according to the family. The agent turned to the couple’s youngest daughter — 3-year-old Sofia, whom they call Sofi — and asked her to make a choice.

The choice the little girl was asked to make was whether she wanted to go with her father, to Mexico, or stay with her mother and her siblings, in the US. If this sounds eerily familiar, you may be thinking of the film starring Meryl Streep, Sophie’s Choice, about a Polish woman in a Nazi concentration camp who is forced to make a horrendous decision about her family, namely to decide which of her two children will live and which will die.

How can it be that in the US we are tearing families apart? And that we are asking a 3-year old, likely already bewildered by her journey and the strange new culture and language, to make such a choice? The Honduran family’s dilemma is a result of the US government policy known as “Migrant Protection Protocols” — also known as “remain in Mexico” — which requires Central American migrants to wait in northern Mexico while their immigration cases are handled by U.S. courts.

Sofi’s family was trying to migrate to the US because the violence in Honduras was coming very close to the family; her grandmother was killed by the gang MS-13, a murder that Sofi’s mom witnessed. Sophi’s aunt was also a witness and was later kidnapped, tortured and slain to keep her from testifying against the gang. The gang then posted a note on the family’s door telling them they had 45 minutes to leave. That’s when the family decided to flee. Added to the very real threat of violence, little Sophi has a heart condition. A US doctor examined Sophi and pronounced her condition as serious. With the help of the doctor, the Department of Homeland Security was convinced to allow the family to stay together for now. Whether they are eventually granted asylum in the US is uncertain.

BTW, Sophi elected to stay with her mother, but she and her brother and sister wailed when their Dad was led away and clung to him to try to prevent the agents separating the family.

Contrasting views

I am writing this from Brno, Czech Republic, where I have been attending a conference on intercultural communication. There are attendees from all over, but more from Asia than from Europe or North America. The theme of the conference is “East / West: New Divisions, New Connections and Populist Political Reality”. Many Western speakers (UK, USA, Europe) have highlighted (and bemoaned) the populist political atmosphere in many countries, which encourages suspicion of immigrants/foreigners and celebration of nationalist views. In the process, they often critique their national governments, especially the xenophobic rhetoric from Donald Trump’s White House. On the other hand, the Chinese colleagues (not those from Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Macau) have highlighted in their talks a Chinese government development which I have not connected with intercultural communication: the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. The project involves Chinese companies working with local authorities on infrastructure projects. In the West, it has been controversial due to insensitivity to local cultural conditions and to debt-trap diplomacy.

Another controversial issue that arouse at the conference was the social responsibility of teachers, especially university professors, to speak out publicly about issues that might be viewed as political such as social justice or income inequality. Some colleagues pointed out that in some countries doing so might lead to those speaking out losing their jobs, or even going to jail. Others pointed out that just because of that fact, those of us in countries where it is (relatively) safe to speak out should do so. From that perspective, it may be that for those working in the area of intercultural communication might think about adding to the traditional components of intercultural competence, i.e. skills, knowledge, attitude, a fourth element: action. That would translate into encouraging students to take action to promote intercultural communication, which could involve political engagement, such as working to elect leaders who support tolerance and diversity. If we have that expectation for our students, that translates into teachers doing the same.

Inappropriate arrogance?

Megan Rapinoe celebrating

Alex Morgan celebrating

The US Women’s National Team won the FIFA World Cup in soccer (football). They have had a very successful tournament, not having lost a single game. But they have been controversial as well. That started even before the tournament started, as the team sued the US Soccer Federation over a significant discrepancy in pay (and in other areas) between the men’s and women’s national squads. The controversy continued after the US team beat Thailand in their opening game 13 to 0, being accused of bad sportsmanship for running up the score and for overly enthusiastic goal celebrations. There have also been comments off the field that have been in the news, particularly star Megan Rabinoe’s emphatic statement of disinterest in visiting the White House, should the team win the World Cup.

It’s particularly the nonverbal behaviors around the goal celebrations that have aroused controversy. In part, the criticism is a natural result of the US being ranked number 1. On the other hand, there has been body language from the players’ celebrations that has been interpreted as arrogant and even culturally insensitive. That has been the case for Rapinoe’s power pose with outstretched arms and especially for Alex Morgan’s tea-drinking mockery. The latter came in the match against England, where tea time is an essential cultural practice. Such body language has been criticized for disrespect of opponents.

The US players have responded, especially comparing their behavior and public reaction to that of male players. Morgan commented,

I feel that there is some sort of double standard for females in sports, to feel like we have to be humble in our successes and have to celebrate, but not too much or in a limited fashion. You see men celebrating all over the world in big tournaments, grabbing their sacks or whatever it is. And when I look at sipping a cup of tea, I am a little taken aback by the criticism.

As in other areas, there does indeed seem to be a revealing discrepancy when it comes to what’s acceptable in the behavior of men and women. It’s not just lower pay and lower respect, there is also a higher bar of expected appropriate nonverbal behavior among female athletes – all evidence of the power gulf between men and women resulting in gender discrimination. That extends well beyond the US.

Another undercurrent of criticism of US players celebrations derives from an interpretation of the player’s behavior as instantiations of US feelings of superiority and national arrogance. While that may frequently be on display when it comes to US behavior at home and abroad (maybe too loud and frequent U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A chants?), I think it’s misplaced in this case. There has been so much pressure on the US team due to their ranking and to the public attention to key players that I judge the celebrations as understandable outward manifestations of letting off steam.

Interesting that Ellen White, star of the English National Team herself used the tea-drinking gesture after scoring a goal in the 3rd place game against Sweden (which was later disallowed due to a hand ball). That was clearly a response to Alex Morgan, intended to signal English pride. BTW, in terms of exhibits of patriotism, the Dutch team offers a wonderful model. All dressed in national orange color and vocally very supportive of their team, the Dutch fans have been at the same time the most popular among the national fan groups in France, where the tournament took place. Although devoted to their team, they have not gone overboard in demonstrations of patriotism and have easily gotten along with fans from other countries. They demonstrate that you can be proud of your country but respectful of other cultures at the same time.

When words belie the message

“Don’t interfere in our election.” That sentence could be expressed in a variety of ways, as a serious insistence, a cautionary warning, or a mild plea. The tone/volume of voice, and intonation are likely to be telling, as well as the facial expression and body language. President Trump today at the G20 Conference used that sentence in a unique way, in addressing President Putin of Russia and his staff. It was clearly expressed as a joke, as Trump waggled his finger at Putin while smiling, as Putin smiled as well. The meaning was clear: The words spoken were not to be taken seriously, as Trump does not believe Russia interfered in the 2016 US election, or at least he does not want to admit that may have happened, as it calls into question the legitimacy of his presidency (as Jimmy Carter claimed today). The lack of concern on the part of the US President clashes with the consensus of his own intelligence agencies, which have clearly stated that Russia did in fact interfere.

Trump’s demeanor and behavior offered a dramatic contrast to that of Prime Minister May of the UK, who was stone-faced in her obligatory handshake with Putin, after describing Russia’s behavior in poisoning a Russian dissident in England as “despicable”.

Angry White Men

I was recently at a conference at the University of Oregon and while waiting to give my presentation at the Student Center there, I walked around and noticed a “Men’s Center” located on the same floor. The existence of a student organization dedicated to men was in itself surprising to me – it seemed to me the only thing more superfluous than a “men’s center” (which after all equates to US society as a whole) would be a “white, heterosexual men’s center”. Surprising to me as well were the posters and messages on the door and outside the walls of the Men’s Center, which voiced support for all kinds of marginalized, disadvantaged, or traumatized groups: Native Americans, LGBTQ+, the disabled community, African-Americans, non-gender-binary individuals, and rape victims. Nothing in support of men’s rights.

It turns out that this Center was established in 2002, according to the university website, to address issues of male behavior in general in the US, and specifically at the University of Oregon (UO):

The development of the Center occurred in response to concerns raised by UO staff, faculty and students about men on campus…nationally, college-aged men were having serious problems: committing over 70% of the major conduct violations, engaging in sexism, sexual assault, and other bias incidences. Additionally, men are responsible for the overwhelming majority of shootings that have occurred on college and high school campuses nationwide…UO staff, faculty and students recognized that UO men were in crisis and wanted to take action. These pioneers decided to open the UOMC, the first center of its kind in the USA.

The mission of the Center, according to their website, is to fight “toxic masculinity”, defined as “the current configuration of practice that legitimizes men’s dominant position in society and justifies the subordination of women”. So the Center is not at all about supporting “angry white men” upset at the prospect of losing their dominant place in US society. The book by Michael Kimmel, Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, documents that perspective through interviews with men from around the US. Kimmel introduces the idea of aggrieved entitlement in the book, namely that for white men social equality means not equality, but a loss of social position. They are aggrieved because they expect life to be the same as it was for their fathers or grandfathers. The book was published in 2013 and republished recently, as the election of Donald Trump has shown that those grievances have been widespread enough in the US to lead to the election of someone who rejects social equality and the declining role of white males in US society. The slogan of “taking back our country” represents well this idea of going back to a time when white males had undisputed primacy in society.

Kimmel has a new book, Healing From Hate: How Young Men Get Into And Out Of Violent Extremism, in which he looks at how aggrieved white males have become neo-nazis, extreme right-wing skinheads, or adherents to the Alt-Right in the US, Sweden, and Germany. He documents in the book stories of men growing up isolated or abused and who turn to right-wing extremism for social acceptance. The book also shows that such men can go in different, healthier directions if they can find fulfilling relationships with women or within other groups. In fact, small numbers of men who have not had successful relationships with women have turned to aggrieved violence. These are the so-called Incels, short for “involuntary celibates,” a largely online group who have been in the news in recent years through violent attacks as retaliation against women. It may be that a group such as available through the University of Oregon’s Men’s Center, which sponsors weekly discussion groups, can be helpful in showing young white men another avenue towards social acceptance and group solidarity.