Monday, June 30, 2014

The Hobby Lobby malfunction

Here's the thing: No matter how "sincerely" you believe in them, your imaginary friends should have absolutely no say in how you treat your employees. Period.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Consequences of dysfunctional enculturation

This happened a day or so ago, in New Jersey.  A woman was brutally beaten in public by a MacDonald's coworker, her 2-year old son tries to stop it, and the adults stand around taking video.  Welcome to America.

And then, on CNN's New Day (Saturday) the hosts interviewed a "licensed psychologist" about this, and he actually came scarily close to explaining it, but without the anthropological insight (shouldn't psychologists, almost by definition, have to know some anthropology?).  Anyway, the CNN guys asked how this could happen, and the psychologist pointed out that the adults had been socialized (we would say enculturated) into being witnesses, bystanders, not participants; the 2-year old, on the other hand, was not "socialized" and thus didn't know he was supposed to just watch or try to film it.

If only this psychologist had known about psychological anthropologist Francis Hsu, who wrote about a thing called Independence Training way back in the 50s.  Independence Training, in the extreme form we see in America, turns us into unempathetic, socially irresponsible psychopaths: she's not beating me, what's the problem?  I'll be writing an email as soon as I get his name...

Friday, June 13, 2014

Culturally-induced psychosis

President Obama held a Q&A session Tumblr yesterday (June 10).  At some point questions about the seemingly never-ending series of school and other shootings we have been experiencing - about one a week - came up.

As reported on WUSA, the President responded with the following:
"We're the only developed country on Earth where this happens.... And it happens now once a week.  And it's a one-day story. There's no place else like this."
Casting about for ways to understand the problem, President Obama said:
"the United States does not have a monopoly on crazy people."
Right.  We are not the only nation with crazy people mixed into the population.  We are however, to a large extent, the only (or at least one of very few) nations that actively socializes and enculturates our people into craziness.  Or rather, into the kind of behavior that can all too easily slide into what we are seeing now, something I am calling culturally-induced psychosis.

All human cultures need to produce people who are both autonomous, independent agents and also willing to participate in networks of obligations and rights that tie them to others in the culture.  So, there must be independence training (IT), which turns out individuals, and dependence training (DT), which creates group members. One of the important ways that cultures vary is in the degree of emphasis they place on these two let's call them modes of enculturation. As anthropologist Francis Hsu noted back in the 1950s, one major difference between traditional Chinese culture and traditional US culture was precisely this emphasis: China emphasized DT; the US emphasized IT.

Let's be clear that both IT and DT are required for a culture to run smoothly. Too much emphasis on DT and you might get a society of people unwilling or unable to take risks, unable to make decisions for themselves, and so on. But too much emphasis on IT and you might get, well...  the USA.

Put briefly, too much IT gets you people who are unwilling to acknowledge the reciprocal rights and responsibilities that bind members of a healthy society together. And with that, you get people who are capable of carrying the extreme social irresponsibility of murder.

Anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt, in the 60s, wrote that we can judge a culture without being ethnocentric. We can base our judgement on how good a job the culture does of satisfying the physical and psychological needs of its adherents. One of Goldschmidt's criteria had to do with whether or not the culture discouraged crime and violence.  On this and other criteria, our culture is failing.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

My problem with Maya Angelou (and Jesse Jackson, and...)

This post is prompted by Maya Angelou's passing a few days ago. I was privileged to see her perform at UNF some years back, and of course she was very, very good at what she did.  What she was not good at is being a linguist.  And she's not alone.

When the Oakland School Board tried to declare African American Vernacular English (AAVE, or Ebonics) a language separate from English back in 1996, a shitstorm ensued, as everyone in the country (it seemed) came down on them.  The school board made two fatal errors:
(1) They used the term "genetic" in trying to trace the West African roots that help make AAVE different from English. This was a mistake, because people were able to take a descriptive term out of context and accuse the school board of claiming that there were "genes for" AAVE, or something like that, which is of course biologically false. 
(2) In attempting to claim the status of "language" for AAVE, they broke a rule established by Max Weinreich back in the 1940s: "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy."  Nearly all linguists know that there is no qualitative difference between a "language" and a "dialect" and that, indeed, everyone speaks a dialect.  Languages are social constructions of convenience that encompass in some cases widely divergent dialects; dialects, the stuff on the ground, are what is real.
So... by making these errors, they left themselves open to all sorts of ridicule.  We can ignore the ridicule coming from the Cracker class, at least for now.  But the ridicule also came from people who one wishes had known better, and the result was yet more evidence that we need linguistics and anthropology taught to everybody, in the public schools:

Maya Angelou:

  • The very idea that African American language is a language separate and apart is very threatening, because it can encourage young men and women not to learn standard English.

Jesse Jackson:

  • I understand the attempt to reach out to these children, but this is an unacceptable surrender borderlining on disgrace. . . . It's teaching down to our children and it must never happen.

    And, perhaps most disturbing...
  • You don't have to go to school to learn to talk garbage.
No, Maya, what encourages students "not to learn standard English" is just the opposite: pretending that there's no linguistic difference, that AAVE consists of nothing but mistakes and deviations from the standard, is what fools students into imagining that they already know the standard.

And no, Jesse, making students aware of the systemic linguistic differences between AAVE and standard is not "teaching down" to them; it is respecting their intelligence and ability to live up to what ought to be our expectations for them.


And of course, Jesse, AAVE is not "garbage."  Decades of research by far too many language scholars to list here has shown that if AAVE is "garbage," then so is English and every other language on the planet.  And that was a pretty despicable claim for one who claims to be a civil rights leader.


The reality is, we need people with real knowledge about languages and culture (i.e. linguists and anthropologists) in leadership roles in this country.  Instead, we get people who are illiterate in these areas, people who are only capable of vomiting up what amount to racist claims.  Yes, racist.


By the way, there were even Senate hearings on this.  If you ever want to be driven to poke your eyeballs and eardrums out with toothpicks, watch US Senators try to ask questions of linguists.