Friday, August 06, 2010

your language controls your morals

In school I was lucky enough to study two languages that are relatively uncommon subjects of study for my generation, and for Americans in general. First I studied Russian, and later I took a year of modern Greek (a year's not much but I had a Greek girlfriend who helped me understand a lot of etymological, idiomatic, and historical details that enhanced my ability to appreciate the way the language is used). I didn't master these languages, but towards the end of my study, while I was in college, I gained enough of a fascination with them to marvel at the drastic differences in grammar between them and English, and the logic in the speech patterns of foreigners that I could only apprehend after being so exposed.

For example, hearing my girlfriend speak English in a way that made sense to her Greek mind was always cute to me, and it gave me a lot of clues about how to speak Greek. In Russian, the ordering of words, and the types of words that are included or excluded, is quite different from English, so when I was in Russia trying to communicate with Russians, even if I was speaking English I would sometimes speak it in a way that was heavily influenced by Russian grammar. It's like the trick of speaking English with a Chinese accent - I think that really does make it easier for Chinese people to understand you if their English is not that strong. Think about the languages you studied and how hard it was to understand native speakers - if they spoke with an accent like yours it would be much simpler right?

Learning these other languages changed the way I spoke English. It also changed the way I saw events and agents in my life. Greece and Russia both have long histories with some very sad chapters, and I believe that I gained more patience and resilience after being exposed to their cultures. On the other hand, there are also moral codes that are mostly respected by Americans that Greeks and Russians regularly flout. There are economic, political, and historic reasons for many of them, but there are also patterns and biases in the languages themselves that lead to these consequences.

This article gives a number of examples of how your native language impacts your cognitive abilities and thinking patterns. They do devote some space to questions related to blame and culpability, which I find to be one of the great crutches of American intellectualism and politics. I worry that people assume a problem is solved once they find someone to blame (banks, BP), and they fail to step back and observe the rest of the ecosystem that contributed to the failure. I think this culture is buttressed by the legal system's treatment of admissions of guilt. Although I am not a lawyer, my understanding of tort law and, to a lesser extent, criminal law, is that if you admit that you were at fault, the court doesn't make much of an effort to examine (or deny) your culpability; rather it relishes the opportunity to "call it a day" and just let you take the fall. This atomic view of agency (i.e. each crime is the "fault" of exactly one person) not only leads to elaborate and irrelevant machinations in the courtroom, and pathetic framings and cover-ups, but it also makes people behave in a truly shameful way just so they can avoid being under the gun at the wrong moment. Seeing a disaster about to happen, Americans are less likely to lend a hand, lest they be standing closest to the pit when things collapse. (Conversely, if everyone stepped in and grabbed on, the thing wouldn't collapse at all).

I think the oil spill in the Gulf is a great illustration of how we miss the point. When the explosion first happened, the survivors were isolated for days until they signed papers exonerating BP - their families had no way to know if they were alive or arrange care for their injuries. This is barbaric but it makes perfect sense in light of the American laws under which the company was operating. On that topic, part of the reason the rig was so unsafe in the first place is because it was registered as a vessel under a foreign flag that you've never heard of - a nation whose safety standards for oil rigs are essentially non-existant. Now, the issue of America regarding the sovereignty of other nations is complex, but to an extent I think it's accurate for me to portray the situation as follows: by mandating a full safety inspection for American vessels, but allowing unsafe vessels under other flags to operate in the Gulf, our government is encouraging businesses to skimp on safety-related investments, and simply shrugging and passing the buck when the other shoe falls. This time, the penalty for this short-sighted approach will cost us dearly in many ways. Is this the idiot tax we pay for speaking English?

BP's spokesperson, Tony Hayward, has been roundly criticized for not being more apologetic. Yet, in both cultural and legal terms, this was exactly the right course for him to take. Legally, his non-admission will make it much harder for courts to rule that BP was negligent and not merely unlucky. Culturally, the withholding of a memorable moment of denouement will make it harder for Americans to remember BP in a negative light.

I want to take a quick digression here to clarify that I understand why courts and laypeople refer to admissions as reliable indicators of guilt - in the aftermath of a tragedy, no one typically can ever reconstruct events with the same clarity that is available to the perpetrators. If Tony really thinks this was just a fluke accident, that is relevant information with regard to our attitude and policy on other underwater oil wells (which are mostly managed by BP, incidentally). If he, deep down, knows that they were taking too many chances with their safety policies, then that's an indication that we will potentially be able to prevent more disasters by running a tighter ship.

So yes, an individual's assessment of his own guilt is often the most reliable information on what can be done to prevent future tragedies, and it rightly has a prominent place in an investigation. Yet we must make more room for revision and elaboration - especially when you consider how faulty our memories have been shown to be, and how irrational our motives actually are (refer to Arielly and Vedantam for more exposition of this topic). We do want to know whether BP knew the practices were unsafe - but we don't need to know that so we can punish them. We need to know it so that we can figure out how to keep the other wells managed by other companies safe. I am really worried that Americans and our politicians are just going to focus on BP and allow this and other disasters to happen over and over. The masterful job that BP has done at deflecting the blame (replacing Hayward with an American, keeping journalists away from the Gulf without raising a stir for doing so) will prolong the obsession with nailing them to a cross, and postpone the process of doing the cleanup and reform that actually matters. And since BP only sells oil to other oil companies, not to consumers, there is nothing to boycott and really no action we can take. It is a British company. (Don't be fooled by the BP branding on gas stations, it's a vestige).

As you may be able to see, the entire company is set up in a way that is ideal for deflecting culpability, and the laws governing their operation have just the same orientation. Sadly, many American businesses are set up this way, and this leads to massively wasteful business practices. Most of us can understand that in the long run, it is more profitable to respect the environment, both natural and social, even though doing so incurs many expenses in the short term. Yet American businesses are mostly focused on the short term, and this is, in a nutshell, why our economy has failed to take care of us and our happiness despite the tremendous natural and intellectual resources we have at our disposal.

So what does this have to do with the language we speak? English sentences put a lot of emphasis on the actor, the agent, the responsible party. We are in the habit of specifying who does things, and this tendency helps us forget that they are acting within a set of circumstances that were created by thousands of other agents. It tricks us into thinking that people plan and intend to do whatever they end up doing. And it leads us to thoughts of punishment rather than prevention. English is great for things like scientific investigation and storytelling. But, for maintaining a civil society, we would have a lot to gain from the viewpoints cultivated by languages spoken in places with a longer history of keeping themselves safe by keeping their neighbors content. Remember, although English is not as young as America itself, the British Isles are physically isolated from all of their contemporaries, which is a situation that could have cultivated something of a blissful arrogance, an attitude unworkable in a truly huge society.

All these are some of the reasons why I think learning language skills should not be an undertaking of learning words, so much as one of learning sentences (or lines, if you will). Words can mean any number of things depending on how they are used - so seeing how they actually have been used gives you way more information about what they really mean.


Blogger schwabsauce said...

This article talks about how humans mimic each others' accents - a little different than what I mentioned because in this case it's not even intentional..

10:12 PM  
Blogger schwabsauce said...

I have often wondered if Russians have a word for "I apologize" (as opposed to "excuse me"). I'm not sure if Hot for Words is Russian, but her attitude on apologies is: here it is

11:23 PM  

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