Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Lazy Prisoner

Plato worried that writing would make people lazy. They would not rely on their memory to rally cogent argument and participate in quality rhetoric. He was right.

Every time my eyes fall on any piece of text, I am attracted to read it. Bill boards, car stickers, road signs, advertising on trucks and overpasses, book covers, T-shirts, my grocery docket, whatever. Brought up in a literate society, addicted to reading, this means my mind is occupied for some life time on the messages the writers of those signs want me to attend to. Isn't this mind control?

Commercial television advertisements come at you in every mode: moving visuals, shouting spruikers, the message also rammed home by key words in bold colour print that leap out at us. If nothing else, they want that jingle and that brand name fixed in my mind. They want some more of my life time as well. They want me to walk into their shop, choose among their goods, get out that credit card and buy. I take pride in being a resister.

Language is the medium in which we live much of our lives. It is almost the DNA of the “cultured” human mind. Our first language becomes the map on which we record, categorise and manipulate our perceptions of reality and our thinking. As we acquire our language, so we give up the flexibility and tolerance for ambiguity we were born with. Wittgenstein famously declared that the limits of our language are the limits of our thinking. Our first language and our first culture are our mental home and also our prison. We feel comfortable in there. It is so well fused in my brain, I can get messages and send messages with ease. The laziest person in the world can.

This is why it is incredibly important – if we really believe in freedom, that much abused word – that we liberate ourselves from the parochialism that our first language/culture instills. Every language in the world comes with its inbuilt biases about what is normal, acceptable, natural and what is not. Human beings get their sense of belonging and security from being tribal. What my tribe eats, says, believes, the way it brings up its kids, worships, dances, produces and trades goods and services, all this is my culture and all this gets into my head as I grow up as “normal”, even though there is phenomenal variety inside every culture.

Diversity is a fact of nature. It is perhaps a principle of life: diversity means a better chance of survival. Human societies, however, often convince themselves that uniformity and conformity are the best option for survival. This nearly always benefits those with power at the top. They maintain considerable freedom. Everyone else should behave as dictated.

Perhaps if your tribe is being attacked by another, and survival is on the line, military discipline is essential. No time for debate or regard for individual opinion or freedom (which may be why some powerful people seem to love war.) At any other time, a culture and society that exists “for the people” should encourage diversity of opinion, behaviour, worship. Innovation and invention arise from experimentation. They do not arise from perpetual maintenance of the existing order. Happiness arises from both belonging and the freedom to express and act on one’s particular intentions.

It is clear that language is a massively powerful form of control because it sits at the very seat of human consciousness. The conscious mind is – as said above – made up in large part of our language (but also of emotions, moods, outside physical influences and internal ones such as hormones and hereditary neuronal dispositions). If I am told from the time I am born that there is one universal God, I will believe that. In a polytheistic culture, my mind and my thoughts and my words will be shaped by that culture of beliefs, songs, poems, rituals, stories, conversations, sayings and metaphors. Whatever society we are born into, that culture will no doubt have many supportive and beautiful aspects and almost always structures of power, belief and language that constrain or outright oppress the unfortunate.

How can one be conscious of oppression, lack of freedom, or possibilities, if one’s value system or one’s very vocabulary does not contain words like “individual” or “aspiration” or “democracy”, sexism, or equivalents? We may think this applies only to traditional or backward-looking societies. That very thought shows our imprisonment. How can Westerners liberate themselves from the disastrous mistakes of colonialism, industrialization and consumer capitalism which threaten the planet if the minds of their citizens are so forcefully moulded and daily reinforced to believe that their civilization is superior and always right and destined to prevail?[1]

The flip side of languages is that they are infinitely flexible. They were made and re-made and are re-fashioned on a daily basis to mediate the infinite experience of human beings and perhaps the almost infinite creativity of human minds. Language bore the thoughts of gloomy old Wittgenstein. It mediated the genius of Einstein. It mediates the furious scream of the unhappy infant, the last words of the dying, the prayers of billions of people giving thanks or asking for consolation or expressing resignation. Language expresses the mystic musing of Emily Dickinson and the bawdy mysticism of Omar Khayyam.

Language may be a prison but we can climb out of prisons, we can tear them down and rebuild other things with those materials in their stead. We may even come to recognize that the bars are made of rubber, or bamboo, or thin air. Buddhists seek awareness of reality beyond words through a long apprenticeship in meditation.

We can all recognize that the screaming television advertisement, the weasel politician, the boring teacher, the badgering spouse, the comedian, the signboard and the computer screen, all are trying to communicate – which, in many senses, is trying to control. They are trying to plant messages in our minds. [2] They try to have us think as they think, or at least about what they think.

There is one method to escape the prison of our native language. Learn another. It is such as simple escape route that many people cannot consider it. It’s like saying to a lifer in prison: “There’s the gate. Walk out through it.” If he has been inside his hated cell, the dining hall and the exercise yard so long, he will actually fear that open gate. Because beyond lies frightening freedom and the requirement to process so much unaccustomed new experience, and deal with consequences for decisions and fend for himself.

Learning a foreign language – even in a structured and safe manner – starts to make us see that our native language and way of expressing, seeing and being are not the only ones. [3] In fact, there are beauty and genius in other languages, their songs, their poems, their novels and their daily sayings and thoughts and funny ways. There will be things (and people) that repel and things that delight, as in our own culture. And, at some stage, early or late, you will find yourself looking back at your first language and culture and thinking: “That’s stupid.” And, “That’s beautiful.”

You could think critical thoughts of your own language/culture by watching a provocative film, reading a great novel or history book in your first language. Or studying sociology or anthropology at university. Must we learn another language to be liberated from parochialism?

YES. How can we claim to look truly at our own culture and lives and language unless in some way we stand outside them. We need points of comparison. It’s like a married couple who influence each other over some years and only later look back on the person they were and the family they grew out of. Despite lingering loyalties, nostalgia and love, we will acknowledge that all was not perfect in the family we grew up in (nor the one we have created). Life experience means we change: all experience, painful and pleasurable, makes us who we are.

Deep language experience means we change in the seat of consciousness. Or we can. Not all do. Some learn another language as they learn to use a set of tools. They get a job done with it and stay – doggedly, comfortably perhaps – their old selves. At least they have the opportunity.

Pity the poor person who will not allow themselves to walk out the prison gate. In many parts of the world, infants are walking in and out of many gates and language worlds on a daily basis, even inside the family. Most Indonesians, even the least educated in the formal sense, speak at least one local language, more if they have mixed parentage or live on a border zone between language groups, and the national language. And English if they can afford the lessons. As is the case in many countries. This is a power that all human beings have: to learn a first language (complex, marvelous, useful, established, ever evolving), and then another, and another. This ability brings great power of understanding. It is something democratically bestowed by our birth as human beings.

The most affluent English speaking countries in the world have the worst record at learning other languages. We like our comfy mental, linguistic and cultural padded cells. We have open gates in front of our eyes and most of us cannot be bothered to walk through. Too much like hard work. Why bother when everyone seems to be walking this-a-way? They can learn all about us. We do not need to exert ourselves to learn about them.

What does that tell us about ourselves? What would Plato think?

These comments from a former student.
[1] Citizens of modern democracies in the 21st century all have the ability – if not always the upbringing – to do as Robert Kennedy claimed: "I look at things that are and I ask why? I look at things that never were and ask why not?" (Learning From Einstein's Creativity By Ron White;read=460 )

[2] I recognise as a teacher that this is what I do, but not what I want to do. You have to be pretty diligent to remain unbiased in order not to push your philosophies onto the students, especially when some of them are important to you. Is this morally legitimate? How can we encourage free thought in other ways besides second language instruction?

[3] Is it just the language or its link with a foreign culture, a different way of life? Indeed, can one be learnt without the other? How much of a view do you have if you stay within the comfort of your usual surrounds? How much is learnt out of the comfort zone, learning to survive under different circumstances, understanding what it is like on the receiving end, to be different? How do we learn to empathise and understand another point of view? Are we generalizing??

See an inspiring page on the experience of language learning written by this writer in 2006. "Completely new worlds" 8 October 2006 Maybe good to share with students if you are a language teacher?

1 comment:

Aaron Peeters said...

'We've been saying... you must work with others, you must accept the rule of the majority. But any rule is tyranny. The duty of the individual is to accept no rule, to be the initiator of his own acts, to be responsible. Only if he does so will the society live, and change, and adapt and survive.' So wrote Ursula Le Guin in her book 'The Dispossessed.'

She was talking about a utopian society founded on the absolute right of each individual to determine the terms of their own existence; true freedom of choice. Attainable only through the efforts of the trained mind. Trained to think for itself, to determine right from wrong, to understand your opponents perspective and choose the right course of action. A mind that craves choice, yet understands the limits and responsibilities that must accompany it.

What is language learning if not the training of such a mind. The preparation to judge each situation on its merits, unbiased and without prejudice. The development of an empathy that would forestall any type of judgement, as you acknowledge and appreciate the differences inherent in every new situation.

In my opinion, I agree with you Phil, in that how can you truly experience such thoughts without stepping outside one's experiences and seeing through unknown eyes. A second, third, fourth language is the key to bridging the gap that divides the human race and opening the door to partnerships, understandings and consistent change for the better.