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.

Monuments contextualized

The American Civil War Center

A new museum has opened up recently here in Richmond, Virginia, namely the American Civil War Museum, located in the former Tredegar Iron Works, along the James River. The new institution is a merger of two museums: the long-standing Museum of the Confederacy and the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar. The museum is striking, dug into the Tredegar hillside, with a glass curtain as an entrance.  Upon entering, visitors pass through ruins of the Tredegar Iron Works before reaching the museum proper. The take on the Civil War is equally striking. Rather than serving as a shrine to the Confederacy, as one might expect in the city that served as the capital of that break-away entity, the museum strives to tell a balanced and broad history, one that includes narratives from the variety of participants: Union and Confederate, soldiers and civilians, women and children, enslaved and free African-Americans. There is no attempt to provide a single perspective, but rather to mirror the diversity of experiences. According to the architect responsible, Damon Pearson, that idea is built into the building design: “The exhibits themselves are meant to be fragmented. We tried to reinforce that with the architecture. You’re meant to see this event from as many different viewpoints as possible. And you’re seeing all of them simultaneously” (interview in the Richmond Times Dispatch).

One of the crucial aspects of the museum artifacts is that they are shown and documented in context, with rich information on their provenance and on the people involved. That’s in contrast to the famous (or infamous) Confederate statues along Monument Avenue in Richmond (of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and other Confederate war heroes), which are shown larger-than-life, sitting defiantly on their horses, inviting the admiration of viewers who must assume, given the statues’ size and prominence (on a famous avenue), that these were indeed great historical figures. Of course, the reality is more nuanced, as these were the men fighting to maintain slavery, the real issue of the Civil War, as the new museum makes clear. What particularly is missing in viewing the Monument Avenue statues in their current stand-alone status (a small name plaque provides basic info), is the fact that they were built during the Jim Crow era, as a manifestation of the belief in the Confederate “lost cause” narrative, i.e. that the Confederacy was a just cause and that the South was in its rights to secede (and to maintain slavery). In other words, the statues are a monument to white supremacy. Without the historical context, that is not immediately evident. Monuments have such a profound influence on the narratives that shape personal and group identities that we need to have as much historical context as possible to provide story lines that accord with historical reality.

One of the ways that context could be provided in viewing historical or culturally significant sites would be to use mobile technology through augmented reality. A mobile app could provide an overlay of information when a viewer points a mobile phone at a statue or other artifact. That is being done today often for tourists with apps such as wikitude, which uses image recognition technologies that allow for viewed images (through the phone’s camera) to trigger the display of localized information. That approach is being used today in Miami to provide context about climate change to murals in the Wynwood district of the city, famous for its many murals.

That might offer as well be an option in the reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris after the horrific fire last month. There have been a variety of fanciful suggestions for re-imagining the roof and spire of the Cathedral. However, the French Senate recently passed a resolution to rebuild the Cathedral the way it was, to the extent possible. The creative re-workings of the Cathedral, if not present in reality, could be available virtually through an augmented reality overlay. That could include not only striking visualizations of Notre Dame’s roof (the spire as a beacon into space) but also historical info, such as the role of Victor Hugo’s novel (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) in exerting public pressure to preserve the valuable cultural heritage the Cathedral represents.

Rejecting craft beer

Stone Brewing Berlin on a recent Saturday

Stone Brewing announced this week that it would be closing its brewery in Berlin. The announcement cited insufficient business, and also discussed the problems the company had in getting the brewery constructed in the first place. Greg Koch, the Stone Brewing CEO, said in his blog post announcing the move, that “the construction industry in Berlin is broken” and that the many delays in construction cost the company time and money (and, judging from the tone of the post, considerable aggravation). The long-delayed construction of the new Berlin-Brandenburg airport would seem to provide evidence for Koch’s assertion. That would seem to be supported as well by the growing housing crisis in the city.

On the other hand, I suspect cultural factors are at play as well. Germans have a long and proud tradition of beer brewing (and beer drinking). Traditionally, beer from the US has been seen as clearly inferior to German brews. There was a big uproar in Germany at the 2006 World Cup when only Anheuser Busch’s Budweiser (an official sponsor) was proposed to be served at the games. In fact, until the craft beer movement of the last decade, Budweiser was representative of the quality of US beers, that is, clearly inferior to German beer. The booming craft beer industry in the US has changed that situation, with American beers now winning many international awards. Craft breweries tend to experiment and innovate with small batch releases; they produce a wide variety of beers from strong IPA’s (with many Northeast and Brut styles recently) to sours (gose) and Belgian styles such as saisons. I suspect that a common German reaction to Stone’s coming to Berlin was why would they, in effect, want to bring coal to Newcastle, i.e. offer (inferior) American beer to compete with (superior) German beer.  That impression of inferiority was likely strengthened by the fact that Stones was making their beer available in cans. In Germany serious beer comes in bottles.

I visited the Berlin Stone brewery when I was in Berlin last month. In talking to the bartender there, he admitted that they were having trouble breaking through to German beer drinkers, who by and large know what they like and that is traditional German lager or Hefeweizen, not the stronger and more flavorful craft beers. He told me he was married to a German and had several times taken over Stone beer to his father-in-law, who had no interest in even trying it. When I visited the brewery, the very large restaurant and multiple bars were nearly empty – on a Saturday. The bartender also told me that part of the delay in construction was because the building was historic, an old Gasworks from 1901, and so they had special regulations to adhere to in doing renovation. Stone’s has a brewery here in Richmond and they have run up against a similar issue in starting work on transforming an old James River terminal into a restaurant. Meanwhile, the company just opened a taproom in Shanghai. It remains to be seen how Chinese beer drinkers will react to Stone IPA and the company’s other brews. Interestingly, the Chinese beer most consider the best is from the Tsingtao Brewery, founded in 1903 by – German settlers.

Civility: Necessary or stifling?


President Trump mocking asylum seekers / Paul Sancya/AP/REX/Shutterstock

NPR has been broadcasting recently a series on civility, mostly centered on the increasing lack of civility evident in public/political life in the US. While there have been many calls for toning down belligerent and ultra-partisan speech, there are also concerns explored in the series that the advocacy of civility may be in essence an attempt to stifle minority voices.

The opening broadcast defines civility as the “baseline of respect” that we need to show one another, a kind of social contract not to step over certain lines in the ways we address others, particularly those with whom we disagree. Those lines of behavior represent unwritten, but presumably widely shared (within a culture) social norms. Many blame President Trump for breaking those norms and being largely responsible for the nastiness in the public debate in the US, with his wide use of disparaging names and nicknames for opponents. The name calling tends to create bitterness, hardening positions on each side and making it more difficult to reach consensus. Social media spreads vitriol quickly, and services like Twitter make it easy to make and spread inflammatory comments.

On the other hand, calls for civility can be seen as attempts to limit the public discourse on important issues, as a way to silence particular groups. Historically in the US incivility has been a charge leveled against those flighting inequality or injustice, as in the women’s suffrage movement of the early 20th-century or the civil rights protests of the 1960’s. The story cites Lynn Itagaki from the University of Missouri: “Civility has been about making sure that the status quo, the hierarchy of the status quo at the moment, which means racial inequality, gender inequality, class inequality, stays permanent.” To bring about social change, groups have found that it is necessary to demonstrate and disrupt, to be uncivil, in order to garner the public’s attention so as to have their arguments for change be listened to and acted on. The series gives as examples the ACT UP AIDS activists of the 1980’s or Colin Kaepernick inspired kneeling during the playing of the national anthem (to protest police violence against Blacks).

An interesting case study in the debate on civility is the Charlottesville City Council, just down the road from me here in Virginia. That’s the city in which the violent “Unite The Right Rally” was held in 2017. The local authorities were blamed for not doing enough to prevent the bloodshed. As a result, the meetings of the city council became free-for-all shouting matches. The mayor at the time tried to set ground rules for how long people could speak along with prohibitions on heckling, harassment or foul language. However, this was seen by some, especially African-Americans, as a means to exclude voices. Jalane Schmidt, a Charlottesville organizer for Black Lives Matter comments:  “Civility is actually used to shut down discussion. It is often a way to ‘tone police’ the folks that don’t have power and that don’t speak in four-syllable words.” The current major, a Black woman (Nikuyah Walker) has not enforced those rules of civility, allowing citizens to speak freely and at length. This has resulted in very long council meetings. According to Council member Wes Bellamy, there is now in the Council meetings a more inclusive view of civil discourse:

I could have a conversation with you and because my vernacular is not the same, and because a topic makes me more emotional and I’m more passionate about it, it doesn’t mean that I’m not being quote-unquote civil. It could just mean that when I was talking to you in a way that you may deem civil, you refused to listen to me.

The Charlottesville City Council may be an example of how messy and inefficient it may be to allow for a wide-ranging exchange of views. Democracy is often untidy and aggravating, but in the end it should still allow all voices to be heard. By the same token, I would argue that it is the responsibility of those in power to provide an example to others of helpful ways to define ones views and address disagreement. That means not belittling others and certainly not stooping so low as to mock those fleeing violence and injustice in their home countries, as unfortunately President Trump has done recently.

Black faces in Virginia

Freeman Gosden, in blackface, as Amos

The current crisis in the government of Virginia is full of ironies. The three men at the top, all Democrats, are each facing scandals and calls to resign. That started with Governor Ralph Northam last week when a picture from a yearbook surfaced showing a man in blackface and another in KKK garb (Klu Klux Khan, the violent white supremacist group) on his personal page. Northam first admitted he was one of the men in the picture, then the next day denied it, but did admit to wearing blackface at a dance contest, where he imitated Michael Jackson. Should Northam resign, he would be replaced by Justin Fairfax, the Lieutenant Governor, who is African-American. But Fairfax faces 2 allegations of sexual assault. Third in line is Attorney General Mark Herring, who admitted that he too wore blackface as a student at the University of Virginia. Should all three be forced out of office, the governorship would go to…a Republican! House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox. That fact has led to some recent support for Northam to remain Governor, after near universal calls for him to resign early on, including from both local and national Democrats.

The ironies abound. Justin Fairfax, just over a week ago, stepped aside from his usual duty as Lt. Governor, of chairing the State Senate, in protest over the celebration of the birthday of Confederate Leader, Robert E. Lee. Richmond, the Capital of Virginia, was of course also the Capital of the Confederacy, the defender of slavery. Richmond is also the home of Freeman Gosden, Bojangles Robinson, and Charles Gilpin. Gosden, a white man from a socially prominent family whose members had included high-ranking officers in the Confederate Army, played a black man, “Amos”, in the Amos n’ Andy radio show of the 1920’s and 1930’s, which was hugely popular. He voiced Amos, as well as other Black characters such as Kingfish and Lightnin’ in an imitation of Black Vernacular English. He became very wealthy, moved to California and played golf frequently with the President of the United States (Eisenhower). The other two Richmond-born entertainers, Charles Gilpin, a famous actor, and Bojangles, a celebrated dancer/singer, both Black, each died penniless and forgotten. Gilpin became well-know from playing the title role in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, but his career when downhill when he insisted that O’Neill remove the word “nigger” from the play. Bojangles paired with Shirley Temple in many popular films but died so impoverished that Ed Sullivan stepped in to pay for his funeral. A statue of Bojangles was erected in Richmond in the 1970’s

Statue of Bojangles in Richmond, VA,

but it pales in comparison to the huge statues of Confederate heroes along Monument Avenue. Gilpin also is remembered in Richmond through Gilpin Court, the oldest and largest public housing project in the city, but notorious today for its high rate of crime and decrepit condition.

The supreme irony may be that while the three Virginia politicians are facing strong pressure to resign, at the federal level, the President of the United States faces no such pressures, despite having been implicated in many instances of racial insensitivity, misogynistic actions, and voiced support for white supremacists.

A rush to judgement

Confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial

“Hot takes left behind a hot mess.” This was the assessment in this week’s “On the media” episode from NPR of the incident in Washington, D.C., involving a Native American elder (Nathan Phillips), playing a drum and chanting, and a group of high school students from Kentucky. The initial reporting of the encounter resulted from a shared video clip that showed a white young man (subsequently identified as Nick Sandmann) wearing a MAGA (Make America Great Again) hat and standing very close to Phillips and smirking. The high schoolers were in D.C. for the anti-abortion March For Life, while the American Indians were part of the Indigenous People’s March. Given the apparent disrespectful and mocking attitude of Sandmann and his fellow high-schoolers, there was immediate condemnation of their behavior on Twitter and other online platforms. This was largely tied to the non-verbals being communicated by Sandmann’s dress (MAGA hat showing support for President Trump), his facial expression (expressing amusement/disdain), body language (standing too close, seemingly challenging Phillips), eye contact (direct, non-blinking, possibly threatening), and skin color (together with the political views shown through the hat, signaling a sense of superiority over a member of a minority group). The incident carried more significance due to where it took place: in front of the Lincoln Memorial, on the same steps where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. called for racial harmony in the U.S. with his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.

The reaction to the video went viral and led to many immediate actions, such as an apology from the students’ Kentucky high school and calls for the students involved to be named and shamed. However, since then, other videos and narratives have emerged that give more context and nuance to the confrontation. Most people assumed that the high schoolers had taken the initiative to approach the Native Americans. But, as Phillips explained, it was he who approached the high school group, because he feared a confrontation between them and a third group present, the Black Hebrew Israelites, who had been taunting the students earlier as “dirty cracks”, “incest babies,” and “pale-faced terrorists”. As discussed in the “On the media” broadcast, this changes the dynamics and interpretation of the interaction. It shows the problematic nature of our instant news and social media world, in which it has become commonplace to see immediate and strong reactions to events that have reported from a single perspective or without full context. That includes exposing identities of purported shooters or other individuals identified as being involved in crimes. Often such information is reported without the necessary words of caution or tentativeness, with the individuals reporting the information as absolutely factual. In too many cases, that certainty turns out to be misplaced.

Learning from history, or ignoring it

Lynching Memorial in Montgomery

Holocaust Memorial in Berlin

History is not an abstraction: past events shape our culture and our view of others. That’s why it’s so important to get history right. Made-up history can be as damaging as made-up science.

An episode from the NPR radio show On the Media, The worst thing we’ve ever done, that was broadcast this week (originally aired in June) seemed quite appropriate for this time of the end of the year, when we take stock of the past. It was an interesting comparison of how a shameful period in a nation’s history has been viewed by later generations. The contrast was between Germany and its Nazi period and the USA and slavery. The report pointed to how many public reminders there are in Germany of the Holocaust and how it is extensively present in education and in the public sphere generally. An interview with Peter Weissenburger, journalist for the Berlin taz was enlightening in that regard. He talked about how ubiquitous the presence of the Nazi past was for him growing up, in school and in the media. For him, German identity is defined by Nazi Germany, something that can never be “resolved” so that it belongs to the past: “There’s no point in which we can say, ‘ok, we’re done now.’ This is always going to be what happened.”

In contrast, the period of slavery and the following violence and discrimination against African-Americans is far less known in the US, or acknowledged as a problematic period in US history. According to the report, many US citizens believe that in fact slaves were treated well and are skeptical that lynchings took place (despite numerous photos and other documentation). Indeed, there are monuments to well-known slave holders and heroes of the Confederacy, which defended the institution of slavery. The report discusses initiatives to bring to the public’s attention the crimes and injustice associated with slavery and its aftermath. In Montgomery, Alabama, the first capital of the Confederacy, there are two monuments to that past, the Legacy Museum, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. As seen from the photos above, the massive hanging steel columns in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, each dedicated to a lynching in a particular US county, is impressive and haunting, similar to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. However, the project takes a step further, in an effort to bring home to local communities the reality of racist actions in the past. It is inviting communities where lynchings occurred to claim their histories in a tangible way:

The memorial is more than a static monument. In the six-acre park surrounding the memorial is a field of identical monuments, waiting to be claimed and installed in the counties they represent. Over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not. (Monument’s web site).

The current embrace by some of “alternative facts” has led to the questioning of widely accepted scientific findings, in areas such as climate change and pollution. Pseudo-science is used to justify political views and further entrenched economic interests. History too can be retold, refused, or re-focused to accommodate political or ideological positions. The Nazis used pseudo-history to legitimize their power, presenting themselves as continuing ancient heroic Germanic traditions. Just as we need to learn from history, so as not to repeat it, we need to recognize how history and science can be distorted to support group interests.

Learning a language changes lives

Linguist Daniel Everett in the Amazon

As a further example of the growth in support for STEM fields in education (science, technology, engineering, math) in the US, and the concurrent drop in support for the humanities, the state legislature in my state of Virginia this year changed the requirements for the academic diploma from high school to enable computer science to substitute for foreign language study. This aligns with the perception that employment opportunities of the future will call for skills in coding, not in speaking another language. In the US, the trend in education emphasizing vocational training is often linked to the economic downturn following the 2008 financial collapse. The result has been a decade of gradual decline in enrollment in foreign language classes at high schools and universities. As a consequence, fewer US students are learning a second language (at least formally in school). This has unfortunate consequences both individually and society-wide. On a personal level, students lose the opportunity to develop a new identity, by experiencing the world through the different cultural lens that a second language provides. That has social ramifications, as monolinguals tend to cling to the one culture they know and tend therefore to be less receptive to other ways of life.

These thoughts were prompted through a recent piece by linguistic anthropologist Daniel Everett, “Learning another language should be compulsory in every school“. Everett is Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley University in Massachusetts. He is best known for his work as a field linguist in the Amazon, learning Pirahã, which he described in the wonderful book, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle (2008). He’s also famous for his spat with the most famous linguist on earth, Noam Chomsky over the concept of universal grammar, aspects of which Everett found to be contradicted by characteristics of the Pirahã language.

In his essay, Everett, talks about his own language experiences, growing up in California, along the border with Mexico, learning Spanish so well that he joined a Mexican rock ’n’ roll band based in Tijuana:

Learning Spanish changed my life. It taught me more about English, it gave me friendships and connections and respect I never could have otherwise received. Just as learning Portuguese, Pirahã and smatterings of other Amazonian languages continued to transform me during my entire life. Now, after spending most of my adult life in higher education, researching languages, cultures and cognition, I have become more convinced than ever that nothing teaches us about the world and how to think more effectively better than learning new languages. That is why I advocate for fluency in foreign languages. But for this to happen, language-learning needs to make a comeback as a requirement of both primary and secondary education in the United States. Learning another language benefits each learner in at least three ways – pragmatically, neurologically and culturally.

He describes the practical and potential employment advantages of knowing another language. Then he provides an example of how learning a language provides insight into how other cultures see the world:

Beyond the pragmatic benefits to learning languages are humanistic, cultural benefits. It is precisely because not all languages are the same that learning them can expand our understanding of the world. Every language has evolved in a specific geocultural niche, and thus has different ways of talking and codifying the world. But this is precisely why learning them is so beneficial. Take, for example:

John borrowed $10,000 from the bank of Mom and Dad to pay down his college loan.

The Pirahã language of the Amazon has no words for numbers or for borrow, dollars, bank, mom, dad, college or loan. So this sentence cannot be translated into Pirahã (it could be if their culture were to change and they learned about the modern economy). On the other hand, consider a common Pirahã phrase:

Piibooxio xigahapaati.

This phrase means ‘go upriver’ in Pirahã. Innocuous enough, until you realise that Pirahãs use this phrase instead of the less precise ‘turn left’ or ‘turn right’ (which depends on where the speaker and hearer are facing) – this is uttered from deep within the jungle or at the river’s edge – all Pirahãs carry a mental map of tens of thousands of acres of jungle in their heads, and thus know where all points of reference are, whether a river or a specific region of the jungle. They use absolute directions, not relative directions as, say, the average American does when he says ‘turn left’ (vs the absolute direction, ‘turn north’). So to use Pirahã phrases intelligibly requires learning about their local geography.

Everett points to the broadening horizons language learning brings with it:

Language-learning induces reflection both on how we ourselves think and communicate, and how others think. Thus it teaches culture implicitly. Languages should be at the very heart of our educational systems. Learning languages disables our easy and common habit of glossing over differences and failing to understand others and ourselves. You cannot achieve fluency in another language without learning its speakers’ perspectives on the world, and thereby enriching your own conceptual arsenal.

Everett ends with a reference to a video presentation of the method he uses in learning indigenous languages, while not having a common language. In the video, Everett uses Pirahã in eliciting language lessons from a woman speaking Hmong. After the demonstration, Everett describes some of the fascinating aspects of Pirahã, including the variety of communication forms including humming, whistle speech, musical speech, and yelling. Speech acts are radically different from Western norms, with no greeting or leave taking rituals. Men and women speaking Pirahã use different consonants.

The experience of speaking Pirahã involves a very different human experience than speaking English. This is true of all languages, ways of life are embedded deeply in how languages work. Learning to program computers is a highly valuable skill, especially in today’s world, but it shouldn’t substitute for the invaluable human experience of learning a second language.