Thursday, April 28, 2011

About This Topic, well honestly

It is less dangerous to draw a cartoon of Allah French-kissing Uncle Sam — which, let me make it very clear, I have not done — than it is to speak honestly about this topic.
-- authoress, comedienne, Tina Fey, "Confessions of a Juggler"
I know that there’s going to be a segment of people for which, no matter what we put out, this issue will not be put to rest. But I’m speaking to the vast majority of the American people, as well as to the press. We do not have time for this kind of silliness. We’ve got better stuff to do. I’ve got better stuff to do. We’ve got big problems to solve. And I’m confident we can solve them, but we’re going to have to focus on them — not on this.
-- speaker, President, Barack Obama, The White House
Tina is speaking honestly about the dicey topic of mothers in the workplace; Barack about the public certification of his birthplace.  I'd like to speak about something else too.  (But feel free to skip down to the last couple of paragraphs, more on Tina and Barack and silly topics.)

One thing that first motivated me to do human-subject, sociolinguistic research on prejudices of certain individuals toward others was encountering the profound and hurtful ugliness that my colleague Tan Ai Lin (Ailene) experienced.   Would you believe that the prejudice was unfair?  Not only had Ailene grown up in a nation that saw her Chinese roots as a threat to the "indigenous" race of people who ran their country politically and culturally but she also had grown up there, in that place, a girl (and not a boy). When I met her, she was in the U.S.  She was multi-lingual (her mother mainly speaking Hakka, her father Cantonese, her maternal grandmother Hokkien, and her playmates and school teachers also Malay and English), she was a graduate student in linguistics at the university where we both worked as instructors, and she was more than qualified to teach first-year writing and English as an additional language.   In fact, the faculty members in the Department of Linguistics were so impressed with her pedagogy that they assigned her to mentor other graduate students who were just learning how to teach.  I was one of her mentorees and acquired from Ailene numerous tricks of the trade which, some twenty-three-years later now, I still use and try to pass along to those I mentor.  However, the natural fact is Ailene had darker skin, a "non-native," "non-standard" English speaker's accent and lexicon and syntax, and a body sexed female.  And the silly thing is that her U.S. "freshman" composition students and her international ESL students believed that she was inadequate.  The tragic thing is that Ailene herself came to believe some of the prejudicial things that some of her students said about her.  It wasn't so much that she was convinced that they were right when they said she was "not a good teacher"; rather it was more that she was hurt when the student evaluations came in and there were racist and sexist, anonymous, comments made about her, comments which the departmental chairman had the audacity to call her in to question her about.

That's what first prompted me to start doing sociolinguistic research using W. E. Lambert's matched-guise technique.  I wanted to investigate the prejudices.  Prejudices is actually one of the words in the title of my M.A. thesis and it figures again in other research I've done in different places, some published.  What are the profound beliefs one person has about another?  Why?  How do they become public or stay private?  When do they form into hurtful silliness?  How come they don't change easily?  How do institutions and textual authorities and cultures perpetuate the beliefs?  How long?  How long?

My first project was to interview 100 Chinese students at the university.  Some, like Ailene (whom I did not interview for this study), were from Malaysia.  In fact, 50 were from Malaysia or some other former or current British colony such as Singapore, Brunei, and Hong Kong.  (The other 50 were from the mainland or Taiwan.)  So I asked them about their own languages, about their English, about others' English, about who they believe speaks the best English.  "The British speak the best," was the general answer from those who grew up in Hong Kong or in the former colonies.  ("It's the Americans," was the general answer to the same question from those who were here in the USA for higher education after having had the rest of their education in Chinese, not British-system, schools.  So far, no surprise.)  However, what is surprising was the contradiction.  Most of the 50 Chinese students who grew up in the British-influenced school systems and who professed publicly their belief that "The English speak the best English" ended up contradicting themselves.  They believed, they said, that the best English is spoken by the English not the Americans.  But they believed that actual speakers of British English did not speak as well as actual speakers of American English.  That is, when they listened to tapes of people speaking British English and American English, they overwhelmingly rated the language of the British speakers much lower than they rated the speech of the Americans (at least overwhelming in terms of statistical significance).  They rated the American English speakers as having better English, as better models of English for learners, and as better teachers of English.  And then it got really personal.  The Chinese who'd publicly said that "The best English is spoken in England by the English" rated the American speakers of English, in general, more intelligent, better looking, friendlier, more trustworthy, kinder, and wealthier than the British speakers of English.  (Now, to be sure, the American speakers and the British speakers were talking about the very same topic in the very same -- weather in Texas and how it changes constantly.  So it wasn't the topic that prejudiced Chinese students on their private ratings of the speakers.  And, the American speakers and the British speakers were actually the very same people.  Yes, that's right.  I'd hired actors who could speak both varieties of English, and other varieties too.  Linguistics faculty members and graduate students -- all from America -- listened and were fooled into thinking the actors speaking British English were not the same individuals who were speaking American English.  Likewise, all of the members of the British club in Dallas at the time listened and believed that each actor was different people, a Brit and an American and so forth.  So it wasn't the voice quality that prejudiced Chinese students on their private ratings of the speakers.  It was something else.  In public, British England was the standard, the model, the gauge by which a Chinese English speaker's English is to be measured.  But in private, the Chinese speaker was willing to believe, to really believe, something else.)

Well, I've bored you long enough with science, with research.  I might as well have bored you with stories of my childhood, of my father, who believed he was the God-appointed head of his household, that his children were to obey him but that his wife really was too.  His employer, a Christian foreign mission board, believed that he should hold the position of "field evangelist" while his wife should be assigned differently and in a complementary way, as his "helpmeet," to "church and home."  His bible and his reading of that Bible reinforced those beliefs.  And my mother, his wife, had no say.  Literally, she had no say in church when it came to teaching men or to preaching in public or to asking questions in the public assembly; at home is where she was to ask her questions, in private, not to question her husband ever but to get all answers from him.  At home, likewise, she had no say when he ruled on any matter or any topic.  Eve sinned first, and she was blessed to have children but cursed then to have them in pain, while he toiled in this work of his naturally outside of the home to save the world from hell.  That last word, I know, is a little harsh.  But it goes to those beliefs which many now have divided over before reading a book about love.

So I want to come back then to Tina Fey.  After reading some of her essays in old issues of The New Yorker in a Dr.'s office waiting room this week, I want to read her book Bossypants.  There readers find that, when she wants "to speak honestly about this topic," this topic for her is the topic of being a woman, a woman who is both an employee and a parent.  The profound beliefs of many are that this should not be so.  That is is not natural.  Yes, I'm not just talking about beliefs of Aristotle, who thought that it was the mother's fault when she gave birth to a girl and not a boy (because girls are, he believed, beings with botched bodies and souls) and who was married to a woman (who bore him only a daughter) and who shacked up with another woman (who finally produced a son for him) and who thought that women really shouldn't work outside the home or the brothel and who backed up his beliefs with Greek culture and with Greek Politics and with Greek Poetics and with Greek Rhetoric and especially with good Greek language and Logic.  Yes, I mentioned this to my wife this week; and she laughed knowingly at Tina's jokes and said with all sincerity, conviction, belief, and experience:  "you have no idea just how 'dangerous' it is to be a working mom."

So I also want to come back then to Barack Obama.  After hearing his press conference yesterday, I too want us Americans to start spending time on "better stuff."  Worse stuff to spend time on is the evidence-defying belief that we've elected a president unconstitutionally.  Yes, the Constitution of the United States of America, like the Organon of Aristotle, like the Bible of my father, can be the rein-force-r of our beliefs, of our silliness.  We may even feel forced to say something in public while we contradict ourselves in private.  The depths of our raced and sexed bodies feel these beliefs.  The beliefs may come before full evidence as something to be valued, which is what Frank Schaeffer said before the birth certificate long form was made public:
How is it possible that a significant portion of the American population believes, or says it believes, that President Obama was not born in America, that Donald Trump would make a great president, that Sarah Palin is fit to lead our country, that Michele Bachmann is telling the truth, that health care for all means "Death Panels" etc., etc., ad nauseam?

Put it this way: being ignorant in America is now considered a virtue.
Or the beliefs may come after the evidence, which is what Aaron Rathbun said after (HT Mike Aubrey via Facebook):
With Donald Trump parading around as a possible Republican presidential candidate (God help us), he has been reviving the “birther” issue: whether or not Obama was in fact born in the U.S.

I think this is a fascinating case study in the radical “believing” nature of human beings, as noted in Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith’s book, Moral, Believing Animals (2003).  There, he suggests humans are not the autonomous, rational cognizers that so much of our political-economic theory makes us out to be, but rather humans are fundamentally believing creatures (“homo credens”), situated in a moral order.
And either way, the questions in front of the beliefs may remain (again HT Mike via fb):

I guess what I'm trying to say and to convey in this post and its final paragraph is that talking honestly about deeply held perpetual beliefs of anybody who would believe that they should somehow put other people down or hold them back is sometimes mostly dangerous.  And that's why I first started using the matched-guise technique to - in some way if possible - get at, and - maybe - to allow someone some day to change, the prejudices.


Theophrastus said...

What this is really about.

Theophrastus said...

Now -- a hijacking -- I just can't resist -- I'm psyched:

Although I have not seen it yet, I am cautiously optimistic about the new Norton Critical Edition of the English Bible (KJV) forthcoming later this year (ISBN 039397507X and 0393927458). Perhaps you are familiar with the Norton Critical Edition series — it is a standard series of annotated volumes used in literature classes. The editors working on these volumes are top-notch, and the blurbs are impressive at least:

Robert Alter: “The Norton Critical Edition of The English Bible, King James Version, appearing on the four hundredth anniversary of the great translation, is a real gift to the English-reading world, making this classical version freshly accessible. The introductions to the different biblical books are apt and often illuminating; the generous annotation clarifies archaic terms, corrects translation errors, and provides insight into the texts; and the appended critical and historical materials give readers a wealth of relevant contexts for both Old and New Testament.”

Harold Bloom: “Herbert Marks demonstrates in this work that he is now the foremost literary exegete of the King James Bible and of the Hebrew Bible that it translates.”

If the work is up to the standard of the better volumes in the Norton Critical Edition series, I expect this will become the standard secular teaching text on the King James Bible, and because of its explanation of archaic terms and phrases, may prove useful for ordinary readers as well.

(I should mention that additional materials and notes included in the Norton Critical Edition of the Writings of St. Paul [ISBN 0393972801] make it the best secular one-volume guide to the subject, although it uses the TNIV translation of the Epistles and Acts and Elliott’s translations [ISBN 0198261810] of the apocryphal works related to Paul.)