Anger on display (or not): Ford and Kanvanaugh

Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh

The explosive Senate hearing last week involving US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault is still resonating this week. The two not only told different versions of what happened at a high school party 36 years ago, they differed significantly in how they expressed themselves. That includes paralanguage — tone, volume — and body language. The situation is of course unique and it’s problematic to extrapolate too far from the specific exchange to general differences in communication styles between men and women (a topic studied extensively by scholars such as Deborah Tannen). Nevertheless, I do believe the exchange fits into familiar patterns of communication that are gender-specific and socially-determined.

Ford’s testimony was calm, measured and deferential, while Kavanaugh was aggressive, belligerent and bullying. Some have commented that of course Kavanaugh was angry, since he was convinced he was innocent of the charges. However, there’s no doubt that Ford was just as convinced that she was telling the truth – many Republicans, including the President, found her testimony to be “credible”. Yet, she did not yell and engage in angry outbursts and accusations – despite the fact that the assault she alleges (attempted rape) would amply justify that behavior.

In a commentary yesterday on NPR, Rebecca Traister, author of Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, explains that contrast by pointing to the social acceptability (in the US at least) of verbal displays of anger by males, but not by women: “He had in his arsenal the ability to use anger, fury, tears in a way that he felt confident would resonate with the American people”. According to Traister, those same tools were not available to Ford, at least in the sense of being socially acceptable as used by a woman. They are even less likely to be available to women of color in the US:

I think it’s almost impossible for us to conceive of the voices of women of color as being heard loudly enough because they have been so unheard and so marginalized for so long. In fact, it’s women of color who have been the leaders and the leading thinkers of so many of our social movements, in ways that have remained invisible to us.

For Traister, the anger that Ford suppressed in the hearing is likely to re-emerge in a different form:

My argument is not that women’s anger is always righteous. It’s that it’s very often politically potent and yet we’re told not to take it seriously, still. I think that it’s the anger that women are feeling across the country that is having a catalytic connective impact. And this is part of a long process — social movements take a long time. The kind of anger that women are feeling in this moment around Kavanaugh is going to be part of a far longer story that’s going to extend deep into our future.

It’s been interesting to follow as well as the analysis of the encounter from the perspective of nonverbal communication, as in a minute by minute analysis by Jack Brown. His conclusion, from studying the body language: “Judge Kavanaugh’s nonverbal behavior indicates he’s lying as well as deliberately withholding information (lies of omission). He believes he is guilty of sexual assault.” On the other hand, Carol Kinsey Goman, another body language expert, comments:

Habitual and well-rehearsed liars can become quite comfortable with their falsehoods. But the same response is true for liars who believe their own lies. When Ford and Kavanaugh say they are “100% positive,” they may both genuinely believe it.

This echoes an assessment by another analyst, Patti Wood:

Wood says that a key piece of Dr. Ford’s testimony was revelatory; when she said that Kavanaugh and Mark Judge’s laughter — “the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense” — is the strongest impression in her memory. “If Kavanaugh did it and he was laughing, he may not have seen it or felt it as anything but ‘horseplay,'” says Wood. “He may not have had it register in his memory as anything wrong or bad. And if he was drunk, he may not have remembered it at all. This is important because his anger is so strong and he seems so emphatic, and he could actually feel he never did anything like this.”

We will see this week what conclusion the FBI investigation reaches. It seems likely that we will never have factual information that settles the claims once and for all. In the absence of conclusive evidence or convincing witnesses, we will have to continue to rely on our interpretations of the words and behavior of the two individuals involved.

Linguistic relativity: Insights from cognitive science

Blue in Russian: 2 different words

A recent piece in the online magazine, Undark, Scientists Probe an Enduring Question: Can Language Shape Perception?, examines an interesting, new approach to the topic of linguistic relativity, i.e. the extent to which the language we speak influences how we see the world. It starts with a familiar topic within the scholarly debate around this question, namely whether the existence or absence of words for specific colors in a language affects speakers’ perception of colors. This was famously studied by Benjamin Whorf, the very same of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which first laid out this strong connection between language and culture. Whorf studied Native American languages and noted that Navaho speakers split black into two colors and lumped blue and green together into one, thus providing a slightly different color lens on the world than English. Later scholars had doubts, such as Berlin and Kay (1969), who argued that there are cross-linguistic regularities in the encoding of color such that a small number of basic color terms emerge in most languages and that these patterns stem ultimately from biology. This was put forward as evidence against the linguistic relativity hypothesis. Other researchers went further, labeling Whorf’s views as “vaporous mysticism” (Black, 1954),

In this piece in Undark, the example centers on the color blue, and the distinction between shades of blue made in Greek (and in other languages as well) with a separate word, ghalazio, for light blue (akin to goluboy in Russian) and ble for darker blue (siniy in Russian). Instead of the usual procedure in experiments of this kind, the researchers involved (at Bangor University) did not show the participant colors and ask them to name them. Instead, they attached electrodes to their scalps in order to track changes in electrical signals in the brain’s visual system as they looked at different colors. This allowed researchers to observe directly neural activity. In the experiment, native speakers of English and Greek were shown a series of circles or squares of different shades of blues and green. Electrical activity measured in the participants revealed that in the Greek speakers, the visual system responded differently to ghalazio and ble shapes, a change not seen in the English speakers. Thus, for the English speakers everything was “blue”, while the Greeks see the world in a more differentiated way, at least in references to things bluish.

The research team decided to replicate the experiment, this time with shapes:

The Spanish word taza encompasses both cups and mugs, whereas English distinguishes between the two. When Spanish and English speakers were presented with pictures of a cup, mug, or bowl, the difference between the cup and mug elicited greater electrical activity in the brains of English speakers than in Spanish speakers.

Such experiments from cognitive scientists seem likely to continue – and to continue the debate around linguistic relativity. They do seem to provide scientific evidence that our brains are wired by language, at least in some areas. It would be interesting to see experiments of related phenomena, such as the presence or absence of grammatical genders in languages. As Guy Deutscher described in the NY Times Magazine a few years ago, psychologists have compared associative characteristics of objects with different noun genders in different languages (such as the feminine word for bridge in German, die Brücke with the masculine el puente in Spanish):

When speakers were asked to grade various objects on a range of characteristics, Spanish speakers deemed bridges, clocks and violins to have more “manly properties” like strength, but Germans tended to think of them as more slender or elegant. With objects like mountains or chairs, which are “he” in German but “she” in Spanish, the effect was reversed.

Another area of interest would be time perception, as discussed in a recent article in Popular Science, “The language you speak changes your perception of time”:

Different languages frame time differently. Swedish and English speakers, for example, tend to think of time in terms of distance—what a long day, we say. Time becomes an expanse one has to traverse. Spanish and Greek speakers, on the other hand, tend to think of time in terms of volume—what a full day, they exclaim. Time becomes a container to be filled.

The article cites a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, in which Spanish and Swedish speakers were asked to estimate time based in either distance (how long a line took to grow) or volume (how long it took for a container to fill). The results showed that there were indeed clear differences in the two groups in how they measured time in terms of length or volume, in other words, that the language they spoke affected how they estimated the relative passage of time. The original article, not surprisingly, is full of cautions and caveats. That is likely to be the case in such studies and provides a rationale for cognitive scientists to continue their efforts to measure brain activity related to language and culture.

Africa wins the World Cup!

There have been some interesting stories coming out of the recent World Cup which deal with the make-up of European teams consisting of players from families with immigrant backgrounds. Given the large number of players on the French national team with North African roots, Trevor Noah, the host of the US TV show The Daily Show, exclaimed on his show last Monday, that “Africa won the World Cup!”. It was a joke and meant as a complement (Noah is himself from South Africa), but the French Ambassador to the US, Gérard Araud, didn’t see the humor. He wrote a letter of complaint to Noah, in which he wrote:

As many of the players have already stated themselves, their parents may have come from another country but the great majority of them, all but two out of 23, were born in France. They were educated in France, they learned to play soccer in France, they are French citizens. They are proud of their country, France. The rich and various backgrounds of these players is a reflection of France’s diversity.

Noah read the letter on the air and added commentary. After reading the statement in the letter that the variety of backgrounds of the players “is a reflection of France’s diversity,” Noah paused and commented, “That line here was interesting. Now, I’m not trying to be an asshole, but I think it’s more a reflection of France’s colonialism.” That is indeed the hard reality of French diversity, that in fact the French language and aspects of French culture were imposed on those conquered countries – it’s not that they had a variety of options to choose from and selected French.

The Ambassador’s letter continues: “Unlike in the United States of America, France does not refer to its citizens based on their race, religion or origin. To us there is no hyphenated identity. Roots are an individual reality. By calling them an African team it seems you are denying their Frenchness.” This is in fact an area where there is a clear distinction between France and the United States. Many Blacks in the US identify as African-American and many other “hyphenated identities” are commonplace: Asian-American, Native American, etc. Rachel Donadio wrote about the difference in The Atlantic recently:

In the United States, just about everyone’s hyphenated. In France, or among parts of the French establishment, the notion of communautarisme, American-style identity politics in which groups derive identity and clout from their backgrounds, is seen as anathema, an affront to the French ideal that all citizens are equal in the eyes of the state…It’s a hard-won notion of citizenship that comes from a history in which the ancien régime was overthrown to create a modern French state.

France has a particular history that shapes attitudes towards citizenship and identities, especially the French Revolution and its embrace of secularity and social leveling as well as colonialism and its bitter end (Algerian war). Indeed, all European countries have histories and geographies that guide perceptions. Immigration in recent times has played an increasingly important role in that process, as large numbers of migrants have changed ethnic and racial population mixes. In Germany, there are a large number of inhabitants with Turkish heritage, with many families arriving in the 1950’s and 1960’s as Gastarbeiter (guest workers) and eventually settling in Germany. One of

Özil with the Turkish President

those families was that of a prominent soccer player for the German national team, Mesut Özil. He has been in the news recently, having quit the team under accusations of racism that he wrote about on Twitter. He stated there “I am a German when we win and an immigrant when we lose”. In fact, Özil has been criticized not only for lackluster play in Germany’s embarrassing early exit from the World Cup, but also for something he did before the competition. He had his picture taken with the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan is a controversial figure in Germany, a country of which he has been very critical in recent years. The picture was much discussed in the German media, with some seeing it as evidence of misplaced loyalties.

From cave to KFC

The Wild Boars football team in Thailand

The Wild Boars were released from the hospital yesterday to their families, the young Thai boys trapped in a flooded cave for over 2 weeks. They will be overjoyed to be back with their families, but they will likely be especially eager to get back to the food they love. Having suffered from hunger while in the cave, food was one of the things they tried not to think about, but which, according to notes they wrote to their families, they couldn’t help but daydream about.

Pad kra pao

The foods they craved in the cave provide insights into the tastes, at least, of young Thais. One of the dishes several boys mentioned was pad kra pao, a fried rice dish which usually served with chicken, normally quite spicy. That spiciness is a common theme across most of the dishes the boy mentioned. That even includes KFC, the US fast food chain. The menu in Thailand is quite different from that in the US (and other countries), with most of the chicken dishes being spicy.

It’s an interesting experience to visit fast food chains in different countries. I note that the “burgers” at the Thai KFC do not include any beef versions, only chicken or fish. That’s not maybe a big deal for KFC, but I visited a McDonald’s in India, curious about how beef (taboo in India) would be replaced; after all Big Macs and beef burgers are the staple of that chain – in India, too, plenty of chicken to replace beef, but also many vegetarian dishes.

A member of the KFC founder’s family, Colonel Sanders, has been in the news, defending the Colonel in accusations from the fired former CEO of Papa John’s Pizza, John Schnatter. Schnatter defended himself from accusations of racism by claiming that the Colonel himself had made racist comments, something refuted by the Colonel’s grandson, Trigg Adams

Immigration: For France a winning formula

French national team

On his recent visit to Europe, US President Trump asserted that immigration is “changing the culture, I think it is a very negative thing for Europe.” He warned that in countries like Germany, which has received large numbers of immigrants in recent years “they better watch themselves because you are changing culture.” Changing in his view is not a positive development, but rather “very bad”. British Prime Minister May countered that “immigration has been good for the UK. It has brought people with different backgrounds, different outlooks here.” Anyone who has visited Britain and enjoyed the infusion of Indian and Pakistani food into the UK way of life can testify to the benefits of immigrant communities when it comes to food. Similar perspectives could be offered for Germany, where Turkish influences have changed the culture not only in terms of food (döner kebab) but also enriched film and literature: Turkish-German authors and directors are among the most creative and popular country-wide in Germany.

The victory of the French national team (“Les bleus”) in the World Cup today is testimony to the benefits of immigration for excellence in sports. The French football (soccer) team has a large number of players with immigrant backgrounds. Out of the 23 players, 16 are from families recently immigrated to France, most from African countries; 7 are Muslims. The team won not just due to the individual talents of the players, but because they played as a team; in the words of Roger Bennett, host of Men in Blazers, they “subsumed their egos and played as a collective.”

The US national team didn’t qualify for the World Cup this time. Maybe immigrant communities could help?

Nonverbals at the World Cup

The World Cup is being played now in Russia and it is offering a lot of entertainment for soccer [football] fans. It’s also interesting from a cross-cultural perspective, as teams come from around the world this year, including, for the first time 4 Arab nations (Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Morocco) and 3 Nordic entrants (Iceland, Sweden and Denmark). This represents a variety of cultures, which makes for interesting interactions.

One of the cultural manifestations is in nonverbal communication. There is body language galore, with players using gestures and grimaces widely, often to protest referee actions or to indicate their pain after being fouled. Many players are skilled at pantomime, “diving” or “flopping” at the merest touch from an opposing player. Several players have shown particular talent in that area.

Double-headed eagle

What has generated the most attention and controversy has not been related to the play on the field, but rather to nonverbal actions with political motivations. Two players for Switzerland, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri made a hand gesture, the double-headed eagle, widely understood to symbolize the Albanian flag. Both players are ethnic Albanians, originally from Kosovo, and they made the gesture in a match against Serbia, the country responsible for a crackdown on the Albanian population in Kosovo which ended only with Nato military intervention in 1999.

Three-finger salute


Serbians were angry over the gesture; the Serbian Football Association filed a complaint in which they labeled the use of the gesture “provocative”.
Serbians have their own nationalist gesture, the “three-finger salute”, which Serbian player Aleksandar Kolarov displayed in celebration after scoring a goal in a game against Costa Rica.

Meanwhile, the team from the former Yugoslavia that is still in the tournament is neither Serbia nor Kosovo (although the Swiss team is in) but Croatia – so far no nationalist gestures from that team.

Sensitivity training at Starbucks

African-American being arrested at Starbucks

This week I was on the way to a conference in Illinois and changed planes in Chicago. I had time, so I stopped by Starbucks for some caffeine. I asked the barrister whether she shouldn’t be at sensitivity training. She laughed and said she thought it was a big joke. The executives of Starbucks certainly didn’t see it as a joke. This was May 29th, the day when most Starbucks (except apparently the airport outlets) closed down for sensitivity training. The employees were asked (on a voluntary basis) to take part in a workshop on countering bias and prejudicial treatment of customers based on their race or ethnicity. This developed out of an incident at a Starbucks in Philadelphia in which 2 black men waiting there to meet others for a business meeting were arrested. The rationale given by the manager was that the two men had not ordered anything and thus were not allowed, according to Starbucks rules, to be there. Many people have pointed out that if the men had been white, the manager likely would have not called the police.

Following the uproar over the incident, Starbucks announced the training session, aimed at showing employees their unconscious bias, with the hope that doing so would result in more equitable treatment of all customers. Part of that training was viewing a powerful 7-minute video by documentary maker Stanley Nelson, which included moving statements of personal experiences:

As good as that short video is, its effect, as well as that of the rest of the 4-hour training may expose Starbucks employees to the reality of inequitable treatment of African-Americans in public spaces, but there’s no guarantee that such knowledge will change behaviors. Sherrilyn Ifill comments in the film that when Whites in the US encounter Blacks they use “the shortcut that’s been wired into your brain because of the society we live in that tells you when you see me that you should be nervous”. Such prejudicial views may not be something we are aware of – it is likely to be a case of unconscious or hidden bias.

This is a topic that has been studied in sociology and social psychology as well as discussed in public forums. The Project Implicit provides a popular online test, the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to reveal “your implicit associations about race, gender, sexual orientation, and other topics”. However, being aware of one’s implicit biases may not be the key to changing behaviors. A recent critique of the IAT by Olivia Goldhill in Quartz points out that “the implicit bias narrative lets us off the hook. We can’t feel as guilty or be held to account for racism that isn’t conscious. The forgiving notion of unconscious prejudice has become the go-to explanation for all manner of discrimination”. The article cites studies that have “found that reducing implicit bias did not affect behavior”.

The kind of training and workshops being conducted by Starbucks have been used by many other companies and organizations in recent years. It is certainly well-intentioned, but it may not be the best approach to changing people’s hearts and minds. Goldhill points to what may be more effective:

Hiring goals, diverse senior management, and penalties for those who repeatedly exhibit prejudiced behavior—rather than a soft talk about how we’re all biased but it’s not really our fault because it’s unconscious—would be effective alternative strategies for those serious about changing institutional inequality.

In the US – and we’re not alone in this – we’ve made slow progress in bringing more diversity to upper levels of management and government. Seeing more individuals who are not white males in high social, educational, and other institutional roles may over time shift views. However, it is no easy task to change systems that benefit those holding privileged positions and thus have the power to hire and fire.

Chinese prom dress inappropriate?

Keziah Daum in her prom dress

The issue of cultural appropriation often comes up in the US in relation to Halloween. Costumes based on Native American traditions, for example, are considered to be inappropriate, unless one has that particular ethnic background. Especially problematic is the use of blackface by whites. This month cultural appropriation was in the news in reference to a prom dress, an important dance and social event for North American high schoolers in their last 2 years of school. An 18-year old from Utah wore a Chinese dress to the prom and posted pictures on Twitter.

This caused a great deal of tweeting about whether it was appropriate for a white American to wear this traditional Chinese dress, known as a cheongsam (from Cantonese), also known as qipao (from Mandarin Chinese):

Others on Twitter pointed out that dresses, fashions, and other items associated with particular cultures are “appropriated” all the time with no criticism:

This is in fact an issue in which opinions may vary significantly and where sensitivity is called for, as well as looking at contexts and intentionality. I wrote about that in a post last year:

In the US, assuming for fun and celebration a different ethnicity can be a tricky proposition. No one is likely to complain if a non-German wears Lederhose and a Bavarian hat to an Oktoberfest celebration. But donning a Native American costume for Halloween is considered inappropriate, an example of “cultural appropriation”. This month Is Black History month in the US, but it’s not likely any White Americans will honor African-Americans by wearing blackface. It may come down to the context in which the ethnic borrowing takes place, and the kind of portrayal used. Representing German ethnicity by wearing an SS uniform would be problematic, as would enacting an Irish identity by dressing as a starving potato farmer. It’s also the case that historically disadvantaged and mistreated groups, like American Indians and African-Americans deserve to by treated with dignity and respect by the mainstream culture, which oppressed them. There have been too many distorted and negative portrayals of those groups in the US media and culture for it too be ok to perpetuate the stereotypes.

One of the interesting aspects of both the German and the Irish events this week-end was the incorporation of women’s domestic work in a humorous or musical way. One of the talks at the Karneval Fest was given by a self-professed “Putzfrau” (cleaning lady), who brought along her mop and bucket. Two Irish sisters, preceding Cherish the Ladies (the Ganleys), did a “brush dance”, using ordinary brooms as props around which and with which they danced. Perhaps such evocations of an underprivileged class (women in domestic roles) is permissible in this instance because of the fact that both Irish-Americans and German-Americans have become part of the cultural mainstream. We White Americans can laugh at our own, confident, at least for now, in the maintenance of the power structure that provides white privilege, even for the least prestigious among us.

A related story in the news recently is about a quite different case of cultural borrowing, namely a white woman passing for black, Rachel Dolezal, who taught in the Africana Studies program at Eastern Washington University and even became head of a local chapter of the NCAAP. She has now been charged with welfare fraud, after authorities in Washington State learned that she had income from a variety of sources, while receiving public assistance from the state.

Best time ever to learn languages?

MinorMynas app for language learning

The BBC recently ran a story, “Is this the best time in history to learn a foreign language?”, with the subtitle, “Today’s youngest generation is more multilingual and wired than ever. Could the tech they’re using breed a global army of polyglots?”. I would say that depends. Certainly, the opportunities are there now for language learning through resources on the Internet, most available on mobile phones as well. The article provides an example, through this combination of collaboration and smartphones, with a profile of Hillary Yip, a 13-year-old student from Hong Kong, who created a smartphone app (MinorMynas) for enabling young people to connect with one another for the explicit goal of language learning. The article cites the increase in migration patterns worldwide that increases the multicultural make-up of the population in many countries as one of the developments that is leading to greater interest in language learning: “This increased migration, especially in cities, brings people with a wide variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds into close contact. Could a more multicultural world lead to a more multilingual generation?”. Yes, that could be the case, certainly among the younger generation, as the article points out. Unfortunately, in older populations, the influx of newcomers from different cultures may lead to discrimination and nativist political views, as we’ve seen in the US, UK, and elsewhere.

The article references the idea of “translanguaging”, the informal mixing of languages common today on the Internet, as well as in many multicultural classrooms. The opportunities for encountering other languages online are increasing, as social media enables contact with people from around the globe. One of the new options is the availability of streaming videos–especially in English– in the target language (with native language subtitles) now available in many countries through Netflix and other services. In many countries, TV shows and movies, shown on TV networks, are dubbed. However, in some countries, such as the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries, videos are shown in the original audio soundtrack. It’s no coincidence that citizens of those countries have typically had better English language skills. The availability of target language videos on commercial services as well as on YouTube offers the possibility of learning or refreshing a language through entertainment. This is, as the article discusses, a way to learn without having the goal to learn, or even without the realization that one is learning.

Several recent studies document this process for learners in Europe and in Brazil. The study from Brazil found that “fully autonomous self-instructed learners” of English gained a high level of proficiency without formal instruction, revealing “how the new affordances for naturalistic learning through the Internet have transformed informal language learning, enabling significant numbers of independent, informal learners in foreign language contexts to achieve very high levels of proficiency” (Cole & Vanderplank, 2016, p. 31). In fact, the study showed that the autonomous learners studied had fewer “fossilized errors” than classroom-based learners at a similar proficiency level, that is, fewer persistent, baked-in errors in grammar or word usage. This may be a wake-up call for instructed language learning, to look at more ways to encourage students to make use of online language resources.

Cole, Jason, and Robert Vanderplank. 2016. “Comparing autonomous and class-based learners in Brazil: Evidence for the present-day advantages of informal, out-of-class learning.” System 61: 31-42.

Tech addictions

The Yondr device for locking up smartphones

The current episode of “On the media” discusses the recent breach of privacy at Facebook and the backlash against the company, which has led to calls to delete the application altogether (#deletefacebook). This is difficult for a variety of reasons. For many people, particular Facebook-based communities have become centrally important in their lives. An article in today’s Wall Street Journal describes leaving Facebook as “socially messy and psychologically fraught”. Many users have gotten so habituated to use of Facebook as a way to connect with friends and families that the idea of leaving would likely mean a loss of meaningful human contact. In some cases, I imagine it may lead to withdrawal-like reactions. There is also a practical problem leaving: People have used their Facebook login as a way to authenticate themselves to different online sites and services and will have to do a lot of new registrations and password resettings.

The problem for Facebook to solve is not an easy one: how to protect users’ privacy when their entire business model is based on being able to supply personal data to advertisers. In other words, how Facebook does business flies in the face of the company’s claim that they “put privacy first.” Somehow, Facebook needs to figure out how to be a viable company (i.e. to make money) while still keeping user data private. Facebook has become a public utility – in that role, being at the same time a profit machine is problematic.

If Facebook is additive, so are smartphones. Giving up or restricting smartphone use is a topic that’s been trending lately, as in the recent piece in The Atlantic, The Case for Locking Up Your Smartphone. It highlights the use of Yondr devices, small fabric pouches, which close with a proprietary lock that can be opened only with a Yondr-­supplied gadget. They have been in use at concerts, as well as in hospitals and law courts, to prevent use of smartphones in those environments. The article also discusses education-related initiatives, such the proposal by French President Macron, to ban student phone use in public schools.

Banning phones from schools, to my mind, is misguided. I made that argument recently in a white paper for Cambridge University Press: Using mobile devices in the language classroom. I argue that for language learning in particular, having access to smartphones in class can bring significant benefits, both in terms of language learning resources and communicative/collaborative opportunities. Banning mobile devices can have undesirable results:

  • A good number of students will likely continue to use their phones, but surreptitiously, possibly resulting in classroom conflict.
  • Prohibiting phones leads students to view what happens in their language classroom as separate from their ‘real’ lives.
  • Students don’t see their devices as potential learning tools, in particular for language study.
  • Classroom instruction does not take advantage of the wealth of tools and resources available for language practice on mobile devices.

The white paper outlines a number of specific activities using smartphones that can enhance student learning in the classroom. I also point out that having a class full of distracted students may tell us something about the dynamics in the classroom:

In a classroom in which students are fully engaged in the learning at hand, there are likely to be fewer bored or distracted students. In communicative language learning, we expect students to be using the language actively as much as possible, collaborating and communicating among themselves, not listening to the teacher lecture. In that sense, introducing mobile devices as a new teaching and learning tool follows this instructional pattern, with the teacher as guide and facilitator.

I advise in the paper steps for creating a productive environment for mopbile use in  the classroom: Discussing the issue with all stakeholders – teachers, students, administrators, families – is a recommended first step. Studies have shown that students are very much aware of the distraction factor and are amenable to finding and adhering to a workable set of guidelines.

Imagining worlds

I’ve been interested for some time in organizing a course focusing on developing competence in intercultural communication through fiction. An obvious choice are language autobiographies such as Eva Hoffmann’s Lost in Translation: Life in a New Language (1989) or Richard Rodriquez’ Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982), which offer insight into language and culture through individual stories, making language choice and the affective side of second language acquisition personal and concrete. Fantasy stories and science fiction, from Tarzan to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy provide radically different perspectives on human culture. They invite us to see our world through fresh eyes. The best of such fiction engages us emotionally, making us participants in the stories, and thus making them meaningful and memorable.

At times, they may offer interesting takes on human language as well. That’s the case with the fiction of Ursula Le Guin, who died last month. A recent blog post by Martin Edwardes points to this aspect of her work:

Le Guin’s tales give us insights into different ways of being human, from the deceptively mundane (the Orsinian Tales) through the remote but plausible (the Hainish Cycle of science fiction novels), and into the enchantingly fantastic (the Earthsea stories). Her stories help us to understand others and ourselves. They demonstrate the great power that language has in creating imagined worlds.

This came naturally to Le Guin, growing up with parents who were both anthropologists. That may have been at the root of her interest in languages, which is a major theme in her fiction. In the Dispossessed (1974), an anarchist society (on the planet Anarres) is evoked, which has no laws and no property ownership. The people of Anarres have developed their own language to reflect that culture and ideology. In that language, Pravic, there are no possessive pronouns (“my”, “your”, “their”, etc.) and there are no verbs such as “have” or “give” which index personal ownership.

Other kinds of stories offer different insights into the human condition and how it is manifested in different cultures. Folk tales, such as the Brother Grimm’s fairy tales, evoke shared human dreams and desires through the many variations stories like Cinderella have in different cultures. On the other hand, works which are concrete and localized in their story lines and social contexts may offer illuminating views into our own lives and times. A recent story on NPR reported on two sisters in Pakistan who were inspired by the novels of English writer Jane Austen, such as Pride and Prejudice (1813), to curate reimagined Austen-like stories set in contemporary Pakistan, Austenistan (2017). Austen’s stories revolve around women who need to marry well and face pressure from family and society to do so. The Pakistani sisters, Mahlia Lone and Laaleen Sukhera, explain in the NPR interview that that situations is very similar to theirs:

We find it easy to relate to her. We find it easy to relate to her era and her characters because Pakistan 200 years later is still very similar to the Regency period… So one of the basic themes in, for example, “Pride And Prejudice,” was the law of primogeniture. If there is no son, then the father’s estate goes intact to his next male relative. We actually have a law like that here. How much more real and substantial can it be?

In some respects, contemporary Pakistan may have some cultural characteristics and norms which share more similarities with the world portrayed in Austen’s novels than does 21st-century England. In his book Intercultural Communication and Ideology (2011), Adrian Holliday points to this aspect of Austen’s work:

While many historical cultural references may be shared, the early 19th-century British society depicted by Jane Austen is no less alien than that of a so-called ‘other culture’. The richness of thick description in Austen’s literature as art enables greater understanding than the fragmentation of available information about such foreign locations.

The “thick description” Austen provides – detailed information about the setting, the characters’ social and economic situation, the social mores and laws in place at the time, the insights into the characters’ thoughts and dreams, which may be at odds with social norms – makes the world both real and believable, enabling the reader to experience the events vicariously, along with the heroines. As Holliday points out, this is quite different from the fragmented and arbitrary views we typically get into other cultures. In the case of Brits reading Austen, there is also not the barrier of a foreign culture:  “Understanding Austen’s society is not inhibited by our long history of mistrust for the foreign Other. Studying Austen’s society would be an excellent basis for studying the universals of the nature of culture.”

That is the wonder of reading novels, being able to see common human characteristics through individual life histories. The stories intrigue us with their uniqueness and specificity, while the shared human experience they evoke may lead us to more acceptance of surface-level differences among us. An article in Science a few years ago described experiments that showed how literary fiction can play an important role in “understanding others’ mental states…a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies”. In other words, stories lets us experience what it is like to see the world from someone else’s perspective.

Leaders of state and language

A recent article in the NY Times discussed the influence that Kazakhstan’s first and only president, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, has had on the development of a new alphabet for the Kazakh language, which is currently written using a modified version of Cyrillic. Nazarbayev announced in May that the Russian alphabet would be replaced by a new script based on the Latin alphabet. However, there is a problem with representing some sounds in Kazakh. The President has decided, according to the article, “to ignore the advice of specialists and announce a system that uses apostrophes to designate Kazakh sounds that don’t exist in other languages written in the standard Latin script. The Republic of Kazakhstan, for example, will be written in Kazakh as Qazaqstan Respy’bli’kasy.” Apparently, linguists had recommended that the new system follow Turkish, which uses umlauts and other phonetic markers, not apostrophes, but the President has insisted on his system. According to the article, this has led to intense debate in the country, with the President’s views being widely mocked:

“Nobody knows where he got this terrible idea from,” said Timur Kocaoglu, a professor of international relations and Turkish studies at Michigan State, who visited Kazakhstan last year. “Kazakh intellectuals are all laughing and asking: How can you read anything written like this?” The proposed script, he said, “makes your eyes hurt.”

Another President, Donald Trump, has made waves with his use of language as well, as in his re-interpretation of “fake news” to mean any reporting critical of him or his actions, his use of vulgar language to describe African countries, or his habit of using insults and abusive language in his tweets. In an interview with the Deutsche Welle recently, well-known linguist, George Lakoff, commented on Trump’s use of language. Lakoff laments how the wide-spread reporting of the President’s tweets tends to cite the texts. According to Lakoff, just having that language repeated – even if within an article attacking what was said in the tweet – tends, through repetition, to plant Trump’s ideas in our heads. He points out that this is the strategy used by Russia propagandists and the Islamic State in their online messaging. The twitter bots used by Russian hackers repeat tweets over and over again, with slightly different texts, but always using hashtags that support divisiveness in the US population and electorate. This was done in the 2016 election, and is continuing, as in the recent bots’ activity in spreading the #releasethememo hashtag, in reference to the controversial classified memo that some Republicans say shows bias in the FBI’s Trump-Russian probe. This is in an effort to discredit both the FBI and the investigation into the Russian electoral interference, in the desire to undermine the US people’s faith in their government, and thus weaken US democracy.

Lakoff’s advice to the media on reporting on Trump tweets:

Don’t retweet him and don’t use the language he uses. Use the language that conveys the truth. Truths are complicated. And seasoned reporters in every news outlet know that truths have the following structure: They have a history, a certain structure and if it is an important truth, there is a moral reason why it is important. And you need to tell what that moral reason is, with all its moral consequences. That is what a truth is.

He’s not advocating stopping news reports on the tweets, but rather to put them into a proper context, and point to factual discrepancies, when they exist – and in the reporting, to forego inadvertently spreading messaging through textual repetitions. The way that politicians use language can make a big difference in how policies and actions are viewed by the public, especially if a term is repeated frequently. We are seeing that currently in the US in relation to immigration. Trump and Republicans use the term “chain migration“, which has negative connotations rather than the term preferred by Democrats, “family reunification”, which makes the process sound much more positive.

More desirable – less desirable

https://abagond.wordpress.com/category/interracial-marriage/

Example of ad for online dating service featuring “yellow fever”

A recent story on NPR shines a light on racial and ethnic prejudice in online dating services. The story, “‘Least Desirable’? How Racial Discrimination Plays Out In Online Dating”. The story highlights the difficulties Asian men and black women in the US have in using online dating services. A Filipino man reported receiving disturbing message from dating apps, such as the following:

I don’t date Asians — sorry, not sorry.
You’re cute … for an Asian.
I usually like “bears,” but no “panda bears.”

The story also provides examples of the difficulties African-American women have. It cites Ari Curtis, a young black woman, who used data she saw from the dating service OkCupid about the role of race, as the basis of her blog, Least Desirable, about dating as a black woman. According to Melissa Hobley, OkCupid’s chief marketing officer, the service is trying to “encourage users to focus less on potential mates’ demographics and appearance and more on what she calls ‘psychographics.'”. She defines that term as “things like what you’re interested in, what moves you, what your passions are.” That may be a hard sell in a society which is still widely segregated. It also runs up against the familiar human phenomenon of homophily, our tendency to want to be together with those similar to us.

A quite different angle on dating across racial lines was discussed in a recent piece in the NY Times, “The Alt-Right’s Asian Fetish“. It turns out that the white supremacists have what’s sometimes termed “yellow fever”, an Asian woman fetish. The articles gives numerous examples of alt-right leaders dating or marrying Asian women. This is despite political positions that would seem to make this unlikely; Richard Spencer, one of the most prominent on the alt-right commented at a conference that the USA was a “white country designed for ourselves and our posterity.” According to the article, the fetish “exists at the intersection of two popular racial myths”. The first is that of Asian-Americans as a “model minority”, stereotyping them as “hard-working, high-achieving and sufficiently well-behaved to assimilate”. Of course, the reality is quite different, obscuring the vast differences among Asian-Americans. The “model minority” myth also, according to the article, tends to strengthens the white liberal order in the US and “legitimizes white America’s power to determine who is ‘good’ and to offer basic dignity and equal rights.”

The other myth involves a stereotypical view of Asian women: “The second myth is that of the subservient, hypersexual Asian woman. ” As the article points out, this view is “consistent with the alt-right’s misogyny and core anti-feminist values”. White women have become too feminist, while “Asian women are seen as naturally inclined to serve men sexually and are also thought of as slim, light-skinned and small, in adherence to Western norms of femininity”. The article, by Audrea Lim, traces these myths back historically, and offers some interesting insights from the author, based on her own experiences growing up as an Asian-American.

Monument of shame?

Replica of Holocaust memorial next to Björn Höcke’s home, a German politician who called the memorial “a monument of shame.”

This year there has been considerable controversy in the US over historical monuments, namely statues of heroes of the Confederacy. That came to the fore this summer in the white supremacists’ march in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The debate over monuments has led to discussions on how to interpret the US Civil War with, for example, White House chief of staff John Kelly citing as the cause of the war an “unwillingness to com-promise,” not the maintenance of slavery.

A similar debate has occurred recently in Germany. In this case, it is not about the removal of monuments, but rather the placement of a monument. Last month, the local head of the right-wing political party, AFD, the Alternative for Germany, awoke one morning to find a new monument next door to his home. It was a smaller version of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, a set of concrete slabs. The miniaturized monument was set up as a protest over politician Björn Höcke’s comments on German history, particularly the statement that Germans were “the only people in the world to plant a monument of shame in the heart of their capital,” referring to the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. This challenged the founding narrative of modern Germany, the acceptance of guilt for the crimes of Nazism.

Höcke is the leader of the AfD branch in the central German state of Thuringia, a place rich in history, as remarked in a recent story in the NY Times: “The memorial has put an uncomfortable national spotlight on Bornhagen, a village of 309 inhabitants on the former border of East and West Germany in the fabled rolling hills of Thuringia, where the Brothers Grimm long ago collected fairy tales.” The situation is rich in ironies and contradictions, pointing to the complexities both of German history and recent German politics. Bornhagen has a connection to the greatness of German culture – not just the Grimm Brothers, but also Goethe visited the town. The major tourist attraction there (up until the new monument) has been Burg Hanstein, the ruins of a 13th-century fortress, a reminder of the old German empire.

Ruins of Castle Hanstein

That is the setting for a popular Christmas market every year. As the fortress was almost on the border between the two Germanies, one of its towers was used by the East German border guard as a watch tower.

Because of Höcke’s prominence as a spokesperson for the extreme nationalist wing of the AfD, Bornhagen is considered a very “brown” town, in German political symbolism, a color associated with neo-Nazis. In fact, in the federal election in 2017, the AfD captured 34% of the votes in the town. On the other hand, Bornhagen is home to 80 refugees from countries like Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, a large number for such a small village. Reports indicate that the refugees have been treated well and some have found employment there.

The NY Times article concludes with comments from a local inhabitant, Susanne Prinz, who visited the monument and found that it serves the purpose of leading people to think and to take a stand on historical events:

“You can’t just look the other way; that is one lesson we learned from history,” she said. “When children ask questions, you have to explain.”
“Yes, it’s uncomfortable,” Ms. Prinz added. “But then, Germany’s history is uncomfortable.”

That discomfort is a feeling that has become familiar this year in the US, as a new President has upended many long-accepted views on a variety of issues, including US history.

 

Voluntary simplicity?

Black Friday shoppers: Fewer this year

It’s Black Friday in the US, and surprisingly, in European countries as well, despite not celebrating US Thanksgiving. I guess retailers are quick to find an excuse to hawk their goods, no matter the cultural significance. I’m wondering if Canadians also observe Black Friday today, given that Canadian Thanksgiving is in October. Although today is a celebration of buying stuff, it appears that overall we are becoming less materialistic. That is according to Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, an economic geographer at the University of Southern California, who recently published The Sum of Small Things. In the book, according to the Princeton University Press advert, Currid-Halkett argues, that “the power of material goods as symbols of social position has diminished due to their accessibility. As a result, the aspirational class has altered its consumer habits away from overt materialism to more subtle expenditures that reveal status and knowledge.” Members of this new class, which she labels the aspirational class, have moved away from conspicuous consumption: “Highly educated and defined by cultural capital rather than income bracket, these individuals earnestly buy organic, carry NPR tote bags, and breast-feed their babies. They care about discreet, inconspicuous consumption—like eating free-range chicken and heirloom tomatoes, wearing organic cotton shirts and TOMS shoes, and listening to the Serial podcast.”

In a recent interview on NPR (wow, I must be a member of the aspirational class), Currid-Halkett asserts that in fact US Americans are becoming less interested in owning more and more: “As a society, we are getting less materialistic. So we can see that in a cultural way in just the way we talk about things. We can see that in movements like voluntary simplicity.” She backs up her assertion with data she has been collecting on spending patterns. In fact, one of those patterns is less interest in spending the Thanksgiving break shopping. Fewer stores opened this year on Thanksgiving. That contrasts with recent years in which retailers were opening on Wednesday at midnight and all day Thanksgiving. It appears as well, that the violence that occurred in the past, as shoppers battled one another over the few extra cheap TVs, has not happened this year. Maybe we are moving in the direction of voluntary simplicity – giving up the pursuit of happiness through material goods, to focus on living with less and growing spiritually. Or maybe we just have now accumulated all we can fit in our homes/apartments – or that we can afford.