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Modern China and the Uyghur people

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Uyghur youngsters – from the East Turkistan Australian Association

A dozen or so years ago I began teaching English at a community college in the north-west suburbs of Adelaide. I didn’t know it at the time, but the area was home to the largest Uyghur community in Australia. The word ‘Uyghur’, of course, meant nothing to me, nor did the English name they gave to their homeland – East Turkistan. My classes were filled mostly with middle-aged Moslem women, along with Vietnamese and other Asian nationalities. Some of them wore hijabs, others didn’t. They – the Uyghurs – were an interesting lot, feisty, chatty, politically aware and close-knit. Over time I learned to my surprise that they weren’t quite ‘middle-eastern’, whatever that vague term means. Or at least they were more eastern than middle, geographically speaking. Had I been forced to guess their nationality, I’d have said maybe Iraqi or Afghani – I had only a vague impression of the various ethnicities – Uzbek, Tajik, Khazak, Pashtun, and their histories of interaction and/or tension. So I was surprised to learn that the Uyghur people live within the current borders of China – specifically, a large, sparsely populated region north of Tibet, which the Chinese call Xinjiang – which translates, interestingly, as ‘new frontier’. Knowing this, of course, alerted me to the probability of tensions in the region, or worse.

This was fully confirmed when the Uyghur social worker at the community centre, with whom I’d become friendly, asked me to help her write a letter to the Australian authorities for assistance in the case of her brother, an Australian citizen, who had been incarcerated in neighbouring Kazakhstan while on a visit to his home region. She explained that the Kazakh government had long been currying favour with the Chinese authorities by rounding up anyone who might favour East Turkistan independence. She also assured me that her brother, while resistant to the brutalities of China, was anything but a terrorist, and wanted nothing more than to return to his family.

I don’t know if our letter had any impact (I very much doubt it), but everything I’ve learned about the region since has, when I’ve turned my attention to it, gripped me with the usual impotent rage I’ve felt whenever a weaker nation, or culture, or person, is harassed and bullied by a stronger one.

Uyghur is a Turkic language, most closely related to Uzbek, and many Uyghurs live in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan as well as in the ‘Xinjiang autonomous region’, their principal homeland. The term ‘autonomous’ is risible these days, as the Uyghurs are under increasingly intense surveillance and pressure from their Chinese overlords. Arbitrary arrest and imprisonment is commonplace, and the number of Uyghur inhabitants has dropped from around 76% in 1949, when China annexed the region, down to 42% today. In the same period the population of Han Chinese has risen from around 6% to 40%. It’s a situation that immediately makes me think of Palestinian Arabs under the sway of the Zionist movement since early in the 20th century. To describe it as ethnic cleansing by stealth would underplay the brutality and consequent suffering.

In his very thought-provoking little book The dawn of Eurasia, Bruno Maçães provides a more subtle and certainly less emotionally-charged account of China’s modernising movement, a movement which has little patience for ethnic diversity and the preservation of traditional cultures. Of course, nations like Australia and the USA are also struggling with the rights and aspirations of traditional indigenous cultures in the light of a relentless modernism, but both of these ‘western’ nations seek to accommodate those cultures under a framework of individual freedom (more or less). Maçães notes that China’s modernist ‘dream’ is more collective, requiring everyone to ‘get with the the program’.

I should point out that Macaes is talking about the Chinese government’s dream, one first iterated by Xi Jinping, who clearly wants to make a distinction between what one might call European, or European-style, liberalism and what he personally wants his country to be. The question of what ‘the Chinese people’ actually want or have dreams about – well, it’s moot. Nobody can say, certainly not Xi.

Nevertheless Xi and his cohorts are wielders of massive power, and for the time being they’re suppressing all but their own manufactured vision of the Chinese future. Maçães writes of a document distributed within the CCP shortly after Xi’s public maundering about the Chinese dream:

It outlined the main political perils the Party leadership was urged to guard against, all of them located within the ‘ideological sphere’ and calling for an ideological response. The document started by denouncing those who replace the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation with an obverse ‘constitutional dream’, imported from the West and claiming that China should strive to catch up with the West by adopting a form of constitutional government and following Western political models. Linked to this, a second false trend attempts to promote Western values as ‘universal’, claiming that the West’s value system ‘defies time and space, transcends nation and class, and applies to all humanity’. The document then goes on to complete a full indictment of Western political ideas, including an independent civil society, economic liberalism and freedom of the press. The General Office is particularly insistent on the principle that ‘the media should be infused with the spirit of the Party’. Criticism by the media must be managed, supervision supervised. Those who deny this principle are looking to use media freedom in order to ‘gouge an opening through which to infiltrate our ideology’. By allowing mistaken ideas to spread, critics will disturb the existing consensus on which road to take and which goals to pursue, and ‘disrupt our nation’s stable progress on reform and development’.

Bruno Maçães, The dawn of Eurasia, pp125-6

This is truly chilling stuff. The chances that an ‘existing consensus’ can be found regarding China’s future are about as likely as finding proof of the existence of some god or other, and needless to say, this fake consensus finds no place for the Uyghur people or any other minority culture within China – in fact they’re clearly in the way of what the current dictatorship deems to be progress, and nothing illustrates this so well as the city of Khorgos in Xinjiang, right on the border with Kazakhstan.

If you haven’t heard of Khorgos, you’re not alone. The city didn’t exist 5 years ago, but now it’s full of skyscrapers and already has a population of 200,000. It has been built as a major component of China’s ‘Belt and Road’ economic infrastructure project, which seeks to connect with central Asia and Europe as a means of facilitating trade, cultural exchange, financial ties and the like. Ambitious young people are being attracted there in large numbers, from all over China and other distant parts. The place apparently does have a multicultural feel, but only from a high-flying, business perspective – though cheap labour from the surrounding country side (e.g the Uyghurs) is an essential part of the plan. The Belt and Road future, if it can be pulled off, will mean that freight services will be able to shift products overland from China to Western Europe in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost of current maritime transport. Interestingly, China has been turning its back on seaports, due to environmental congestion and high labour costs, and building more inland cities such as Khorgos. The future, as China sees it, lies with ‘a new network of railways, roads and energy and digital infrastructure linking Europe and China through the shortest and most direct route’ (Maçães).

the Khorgos gateway – a new rail port for Eurasia…

The Chinese government is arguing – no doubt sincerely – that its Belt and Road project will provide great opportunities for those who get on board with it, and that includes not only the Uyghur people, but the peoples of the Eurasian region, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, to name a few. This vast region is seen as a reservoir of barely-tapped economic potential, and the Belt and Road is being sold as a grand tide lifting all boats between and within Western Europe and China. But of course there are critics as well as fierce opponents. The growing presence of Chinese on the borders of and within Kazakhstan, for example, has seen protests there which have threatened the stability of the Nazarbayev regime (Nazarbayev resigned as President of Kazakhstan in March this year, but essentially still runs the country). Russia, India and a number of Western European nations have expressed grave concerns – Russia in particular is seeking to build its own rival economic network, and ‘infiltration’ of the project into Pakistan and Kashmir is creating regional tension. Obviously, any threat of a Chinese ascendancy outside its borders, given the Chinese government’s totalitarian control of its own people, is of global concern. The only way to allay those concerns, at least from a western perspective, is liberalisation within China, and a full recognition of the diversity of its people, in cultural, ideological and other respects.

Reference

Maçães, Bruno, The dawn of Eurasia: on the trail of the new world order. 2018

Written by stewart henderson

July 5, 2019 at 1:10 pm

the self and its brain: free will encore

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yeah, right

so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible – in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

Victor Hugo, author’s preface to Les Miserables

Listening to the Skeptics’ Guide podcast for the first time in a while, I was excited by the reporting on a discovery of great significance in North Dakota – a gigantic graveyard of prehistoric marine and other life forms precisely at the K-T boundary, some 3000 kms from where the asteroid struck. All indications are that the deaths of these creatures were instantaneous and synchronous, the first evidence of mass death at the K-T boundary. I felt I had to write about it, as a self-learning exercise if nothing else.

But then, as I listened to other reports and talking points in one of SGU’s most stimulating podcasts, I was hooked by something else, which I need to get out of the way first. It was a piece of research about the brain, or how people think about it, in particular when deciding court cases. When Steven Novella raised the ‘spectre’ of ‘my brain made me do it’ arguments, and the threat that this might pose to ‘free will’, I knew I had to respond, as this free will stuff keeps on bugging me. So the death of the dinosaurs will have to wait.

The more I’ve thought about this matter, the more I’ve wondered how people – including my earlier self – could imagine that ‘free will’ is compatible with a determinist universe (leaving aside quantum indeterminacy, which I don’t think is relevant to this issue). The best argument for this compatibility, or at least the one I used to use, is that, yes, every act we perform is determined, but the determining factors are so mind-bogglingly complex that it’s ‘as if’ we have free will, and besides, we’re ‘conscious’, we know what we’re doing, we watch ourselves deciding between one act and another, and so of course we could have done otherwise.

Yet I was never quite comfortable about this, and it was in fact the arguments of compatibilists like Dennett that made me think again. They tended to be very cavalier about ‘criminals’ who might try to get away with their crimes by using a determinist argument – not so much ‘my brain made me do it’ as ‘my background of disadvantage and violence made me do it’. Dennett and other philosophers struck me as irritatingly dismissive of this sort of argument, though their own arguments, which usually boiled down to ‘you can always choose to do otherwise’ seemed a little too pat to me. Dennett, I assumed, was, like most academics, a middle-class silver-spoon type who would never have any difficulty resisting, say, getting involved in an armed robbery, or even stealing sweets from the local deli. Others, many others, including many kids I grew up with, were not exactly of that ilk. And as Robert Sapolsky points out in his book Behave, and as the Dunedin longitudinal study tends very much to confirm, the socio-economic environment of our earliest years is largely, though of course not entirely, determinative.

Let’s just run though some of this. Class is real, and in a general sense it makes a big difference. To simplify, and to recall how ancient the differences are, I’ll just name two classes, the patricians and the plebs (or think upper/lower, over/under, haves/have-nots).

Various studies have shown that, by age five, the more plebby you are (on average):

  • the higher the basal glucocorticoid levels and/or the more reactive the glucocorticoid stress response
  • the thinner the frontal cortex and the lower its metabolism
  • the poorer the frontal function concerning working memory, emotion regulation , impulse control, and executive decision making.

All of this comes from Sapolsky, who cites all the research at the end of his book. I’ll do the same at the end of this post (which doesn’t mean I’ve analysed that research – I’m just a pleb after all. I’m happy to trust Sapolski). He goes on to say this:

moreover , to achieve equivalent frontal regulation, [plebeian] kids must activate more frontal cortex than do [patrician] kids. In addition, childhood poverty impairs maturation of the corpus collosum, a bundle of axonal fibres connecting the two hemispheres and integrating their function. This is so wrong foolishly pick a poor family to be born into, and by kindergarten, the odds of your succeeding at life’s marshmallow tests are already stacked against you.

Behave, pp195-6

Of course, this is just the sort of ‘social asphyxia’ Victor Hugo was at pains to highlight in his great work. You don’t need to be a neurologist to realise all this, but the research helps to hammer it home.

These class differences are also reflected in parenting styles (and of course I’m always talking in general terms here). Pleb parents and ‘developing world’ parents are more concerned to keep their kids alive and protected from the world, while patrician and ‘developed world’ kids are encouraged to explore. The patrician parent is more a teacher and facilitator, the plebeian parent is more like a prison guard. Sapolsky cites research into parenting styles in ‘three tribes’: wealthy and privileged; poorish but honest (blue collar); poor and crime-ridden. The poor neighbourhood’s parents emphasised ‘hard defensive individualism’ – don’t let anyone push you around, be tough. Parenting was authoritarian, as was also the case in the blue-collar neighbourhood, though the style there was characterised as ‘hard offensive individualism’ – you can get ahead if you work hard enough, maybe even graduate into the middle class. Respect for family authority was pushed in both these neighbourhoods. I don’t think I need to elaborate too much on what the patrician parenting (soft individualism) was like – more choice, more stimulation, better health. And of course, ‘real life’ people don’t fit neatly into these categories, there are an infinity of variants, but they’re all determining.

And here’s another quote from Sapolsky on research into gene/environment interactions.

Heritability of various aspects of cognitive development is very high (e.g. around 70% for IQ) in kids from [patrician] families but is only around 10% in [plebeian] kids. Thus patrician-ness allows the full range of genetic influences on cognition to flourish, whereas plebeian settings restrict them. In other words, genes are nearly irrelevant to cognitive development if you’re growing up in awful poverty – poverty’s adverse affects trump the genetics.

Behave, p249

Another example of the huge impact of environment/class, too often underplayed by ivory tower philosophers and the silver-spoon judiciary.

Sapolsky makes some interesting points, always research-based of course, about the broader environment we inhabit. Is the country we live in more communal or more individualistic? Is there high or low income inequality? Generally, cultures with high income inequality have less ‘social capital’, meaning levels of trust, reciprocity and cooperation. Such cultures/countries generally vote less often and join fewer clubs and mutual societies. Research into game-playing, a beloved tool of psychological research, shows that individuals from high inequality/low social capital countries show high levels of bullying and of anti-social punishment (punishing ‘overly’ generous players because they make other players look bad) during economic games. They tend, in fact, to punish the too-generous more than they punish actual cheaters (think Trump).

So the determining factors into who we are and why we make the decisions we do range from the genetic and hormonal to the broadly cultural. A couple have two kids. One just happens to be conventionally good-looking, the other not so much. Many aspects of their lives will be profoundly affected by this simple difference. One screams and cries almost every night for her first twelve months or so, for some reason (and there are reasons), the other is relatively placid over the same period. Again, whatever caused this difference will likely profoundly affect their life trajectories. I could go on ad nauseam about these ‘little’ differences and their lifelong effects, as well as the greater differences of culture, environment, social capital and the like. Our sense of consciousness gives us a feeling of control which is largely illusory.

It’s strange to me that Dr Novella seems troubled by ‘my brain made me do it’, arguments, because in a sense that is the correct, if trivial, argument to ‘justify’ all our actions. Our brains ‘make us’ walk, talk, eat, think and breathe. Brains R Us. And not even brains – octopuses are newly-recognised as problem-solvers and tool-users without even having brains in the usual sense – they have more of a decentralised nervous system, with nine mini-brains somehow co-ordinating when needed. So ‘my brain made me do it’ essentially means ‘I made me do it’, which takes us nowhere. What makes us do things are the factors shaping our brain processes, and they have nothing to do with ‘free will’, this strange, inexplicable phenomenon which supposedly lies outside these complex but powerfully determining factors but is compatible with it. To say that we can do otherwise is just saying – it’s not a proof of anything.

To be fair to Steve Novella and his band of rogues, they accept that this is an enormously complex issue, regarding individual responsibility, crime and punishment, culpability and the like. That’s why the free will issue isn’t just a philosophical game we’re playing. And lack of free will shouldn’t by any means be confused with fatalism. We can change or mitigate the factors that make us who we are in a huge variety of ways. More understanding of the factors that bring out the best in us, and fostering those factors, is what is urgently required.

just thought I’d chuck this in

Research articles and reading

Behave, Robert Sapolsky, Bodley Head, 2017

These are just a taster of the research articles and references used by Sapolsky re the above.

C Heim et al, ‘Pituitary-adrenal and autonomic responses to stress in women after sexual and physical abuse in childhood’

R J Lee et al ‘CSF corticotrophin-releasing factor in personality disorder: relationship with self-reported parental care’

P McGowan et al, ‘Epigenetic regulation of the glucocorticoid receptor in human brain associates with childhood abuse’

L Carpenter et al, ‘Cerebrospinal fluid corticotropin-releasing factor and perceived early life stress in depressed patients and healthy control subjects’

S Lupien et al, ‘Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behaviour and cognition’

A Kusserow, ‘De-homogenising American individualism: socialising hard and soft individualism in Manhattan and Queens’

C Kobayashi et al ‘Cultural and linguistic influence on neural bases of ‘theory of mind”

S Kitayama & A Uskul, ‘Culture, mind and the brain: current evidence and future directions’.

etc etc etc

Written by stewart henderson

April 23, 2019 at 10:53 am

adventures in second language acquisition – my first gleanings

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maybe...

maybe…

Some 35 years ago a new science was born. Now called cognitive science, it combines tools from psychology, computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and neurobiology to explain the workings of human intelligence. The science of language, in particular, has seen spectacular advances in the years since.

Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct 1994.

The above words, from over 20 years ago, now seem a little overblown. My experience as a general absorber of sciency stuff suggests that it’s still a bit premature to speak of a science of language, but of course we know more about it than ever before. My hope is to bring whatever knowledge I can glean from some of the fields mentioned above to my understanding of language in general, and second language acquisition in particular, with a view to helping others to acquire the English language, which is my job.

My method is to start in medias res, as an innocent little fish dropped into the vast ocean of knowledge about the subject that I hope and expect to find online and elsewhere.

My first encounter as I bob about in this ocean, is this video, which introduces me to what the speaker calls ‘the zone of proximal development’, and the ‘five stages of second language acquisition’. On a slide, the zone of proximal development (ZPD, in case I need to refer to it again) is defined as ‘the difference between what a student can do without help and what a student can do with help’. The speaker, Jane Hill, a Managing Consultant for English Language Learner Effectiveness, starts by telling SLA educators that they would benefit their students by teaching not only content but ‘the academic language of the content’, and presumably this ZPD is part of that academic language, as will be the five stages, not yet enunciated.

I have to say that in my fifteen years or so of teaching ESOL I’ve never mentioned the ZPD, nor any 5 stages, to learners. I do have a vague memory of coming across this ZPD concept years ago, but it obviously didn’t stick particularly well. Not surprisingly, if the definition given above is a generally accepted one, for it makes little sense to me – but I won’t dwell on that for now, except to say that I might look up this ZPG notion elsewhere to see if a better definition or elaboration of it can be found. Hill herself does elaborate further, by saying that we should know ‘where students are, and where they’re capable of working to with the help of a knowledgeable other’, and I find this more comprehensible but still problematic. We try to find out where learners are by listening to and reading (and assessing) their productions, and testing their reception of our productions and the productions of others (e.g. English texts). This isn’t always an easy process as their production and reception can vary from day to day and between tasks. And surely it’s even harder to find out ‘where they’re capable of working to’. This is partly because learners are in our class for only a matter of weeks and it’s hard to measure or even to discern progress. The better students seem uniformly and constantly to be at a higher level than the strugglers who seem constantly and uniformly struggling. Test scores aren’t a straightforward indication of progress as each test is different and some, such as essay tests, have a strong element of subjectivity in assessment. SLA, for most adult learners, is a long, slow and partial process, it seems to me.

So, with these doubts and uncertainties in mind I’ll continue with Hill’s slightly annoying presentation of the five stages of SLA. Annoying because of the condescending infant-teacherly tone and because she’s clearly presenting them as facts to be poured into us rather than as someone’s theory. Anyway, she begins with what she describes as a modelling of good teaching. She introduces the five stages of SLA (concepts which we as learners aren’t aware of) by connecting them to the five stages of first language acquisition, concepts which we are apparently familiar with (though I for one have never heard of this breakdown of my language acquisition into five stages – but I’m keen to learn!).

Hill starts by gushingly asking us to remember how our kids acquire their first language. I’ve never had kids, but I’ve certainly observed them, and with great interest, so I can cheerfully concur with her slide-supported enumeration:

  1. preproduction –  about 9 months (no verbalisation, minimal comprehension, some yes & no head movements, some pointing and gesturing)
  2. early production – about 12-14 months (limited comprehension, one- or two-word responses, use of keywords & familiar phrases, present tense only)
  3. speech emergence – age?? (good comprehension, simple sentence production, grammar and pronunciation errors, misunderstands jokes)
  4. intermediate fluency – age? (excellent comprehension, few grammatical errors)
  5. advanced fluency – (near-native usage)

However, no linguistic prizes for guessing this is just a handful of post stages picked out in the continuous process from no language to full language production, with 5 being a more or less arbitrary number. The ZPG seems too vague a concept to be of much practical use, and in all my years of teaching I’ve never heard a colleague fretting over how to get a learner over the early production stage into speech emergence, say. Another problem is that this admittedly bare-bones presentation says nothing about the difference between SLA and learning the L1, except to say that the stages are similar, but not exactly the same. But it seems to me the differences are very significant.

The difficulty I’m becoming aware of here is a very scary one. I don’t think I’ll be able to make much headway in understanding SLA without understanding language itself and how we acquire it. And I suspect that nobody fully understands that.

Pinker has argued that language is an instinct, something innate, which we don’t learn, or not in any straightforward way, from our parents, or by mimesis. Yet it’s surely clear that without an environment of language speakers we’d get nowhere. A child brought up by wolves, if there ever was one, would not be able to speak a language, because she hasn’t had the opportunity  to learn one, and I’ve heard that children deprived of that opportunity during a certain crucial period in childhood are unlikely to become effective language users thereafter. The near-miraculous thing is that children become sophisticated language users very quickly, and I’m interested in the neurological processes involved, as well as whether our understanding of those neurological processes can help with developing effective SLA.

So language is certainly something learned, but there’s something about us that makes us primed, so to speak, to pick up one of the 7000 or so fully grammarised (if there’s such a word) languages. We also learn to walk, but I wonder how we’d go if we weren’t surrounded from earliest childhood by fully adept walkers whose ambulatory achievements and successes we’re naturally keen to emulate. And in a way, I’m answering my own query – we learn language because we hear it all around us, and we want to share in that human experience, to be like them, because we see clearly, though in a sense unconsciously, the obvious advantages of that communication system. It gets us somewhere in the human world.

I’m also interested in this whole concept of grammar. I’ve read, though without quite grasping it, that children can create grammar out of non-grammatical (or perhaps partially grammatical) pidgin, a collection of keywords cobbled together in the intersection of two languages for the purpose of needful communication. ‘Research’ has found that the children of pidgin users are able to create from these fragments a full-blown grammatical creole, as if by magic. This has been cited by Pinker and others as evidence for an innate faculty. I need, obviously, to learn more about such research and the various interpretations of it.

I don’t want to forget embodiment either. I’ve been very encouraged in my practice lately, teaching EGP, the lowest level of academic English (actually pre-pre-academic English),  by responses to certain simple tasks. I’ve asked learners to come out the front and act out simple sentences, with gestures and facial expressions. These are students who generally have difficulty in forming complete grammatical sentences. So they come out and try saying, for example, ‘Hello class, I want to tell you about a really funny movie I saw on the weekend’, accompanied by laughter, hand-on-chest gestures and what-not. Humour, sadness, fear, anger and so on can all be acted out to the accompaniment of a simple sentence, and what I’ve found is that, after a few practice runs, they become more articulate and confident when they express themselves this way. The words come out with less effort, it seems, when they’re concentrating on the emotion, and I get the impression that they’ve taken some sort of ownership of some English speech acts. I’d be interested to find if there is any work being done to confirm these impressions I have of embodied SLA. It’s not much, perhaps, in the mountainous task of facilitating SLA, but it’s something positive.

Written by stewart henderson

January 26, 2017 at 8:23 am

Limi girl – part 3

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screen-shot-2016-12-19-at-9-51-30-am

Jacinta: So it’s been a while, but let’s return to that fascinating movie about identity, ambition, entrapment and dislocation, Limi Girl.

Canto: After this poignant moment when Xiumei and Heigo recognise the difficulty of living independently, of controlling the forces around them, Heigo announces his arranged marriage to Shugio – ‘but it’s you I want to marry.’ When Xiumei rather cruelly ticks him off about this, he apologises, says he was joking.

Jacinta: And he clearly wasn’t, poor fellow. He’s fighting a losing battle.

Canto: Men chase, women choose. Desperately, he warns her that going to college is no guarantee of a good future. But she’s resolute in her irresolute way – it’s the closest thing to her dream. She walks off, leaving him to wonder if the chase is off.

Jacinta: In the next scene we see Shugio at home, apparently mixing farm work with school work – first writing on a blackboard (there appears to be a calculator on the table), then sifting some kind of foodstuff, then reading some paper. She might be learning some basic literacy and numeracy. She looks happy, no doubt dreaming of her marriage, till she sees Xiumei go by at the bottom of the hill, followed by Heigo. It’s more like a funeral procession than a chase, though. Angrily, she throws a basin of water down towards him.

Canto: Poor Heigo’s not too popular with the womenfolk. The next scene is quite obscure for non-Mandarin speakers. Heigo’s home with young Gaidi, having cooked her dinner. He finds her absorbed in watching a Chinese TV program with a lot of people staring at the Chinese flag, with a soothing voice-over. I think I hear the name Shifang. Heigo turns away, looking slightly perturbed.

Jacinta: Yes, don’t know what to make of it. But in the next scene Gaidi is in bed with her aunt, and has woken up in the middle of the night. She says she wants to go to school. To college in Szichuan, like Xiumei. To find her mother and father. So presumably the program she was watching has influenced her. Her aunt isn’t sympathetic. Shugio didn’t go to school and is having a good life. Xiumei, on the other hand… besides, she doesn’t have the money to waste on such things.

Canto: So Xiumei is being denigrated, but the more aspirational, such as Gaidi, see her as an inspiration. In the next scene, Xiumei is out with her fellow-villagers,  all female, working in the ‘fields’ (actually tough, wooded mountainsides) digging up fleece-flower roots (used in TCM – traditional Chinese medicine – and therefore of very doubtful efficacy). One of the girls steals a root that she has dug up, leading to a confrontation. Another girl joins in and they mock the ‘college student’, who finally storms off, vowing to go back to college. Clearly there’s jealousy here, and a fear/dislike of ‘difference’, typical of a traditional culture.

Jacinta: I’m interested in these fleece-flower roots. Apparently they’re used for hair growth by ‘increasing blood circulation’, but that was on a beauty site. A google search turns up numerous sites, none of them particularly trustworthy in my estimation. A Chinese site states this, in quite scientific-sounding, if garbled, language:

Modern researches showed that fleeceflower root has effects in lowering blood lipids and sugar, preventing atherosclerosis, immune enhancement [?], expanding blood vessels, promoting adrenal gland secretion and blood cell productions, smooth heart and brain circulations [?], protecting liver functioning, enhancing neural and bowel transmissions [wow?!], promoting hair growth, anti-septic and anti-aging [?].

All of which sounds absurdly impressive, but the reference it provides takes us nowhere. Still, I hope it really is the good oil, for the Limi people’s sake…

Canto: Yes, there are no reliable scientific treatments of this ‘superflower’ on the search list, and Wikipedia merely tells us that ‘fleeceflower’ is a common name for several different plants, so it’ll be a tough job getting to the truth of it all. And the fact that this somewhat marginalised culture is relying, at least in part, on these doubtful TCM products for survival is another worrisome sign.

Jacinta: I like the way Xiumei stands up for herself when she’s mocked. She’s always feisty. So she heads back home with her donkey, but when she stops to drink at a stream, her donkey jogs off, after shrugging off its load – baskets full of plants. Xiumei has to carry the load herself. Meanwhile Gaidi, who recovers her donkeys, sets out with Haigo to find and help her. They find her struggling uphill with her baskets. Heigo chides her for ‘being like this’ – presumably referring to her stubborn independence. Xiumei, exhausted, complains tearfully that everybody, even the animals, are bullying her. Nevertheless she lets herself be ‘rescued’ by her ‘sister’ and her suitor. They ride off on what appears to be the village motorbike.

Canto: Yes, a most versatile machine, now carrying three people and a couple of hefty baskets. Next we see Shugio, again doing physical work – she appears to have a herbal medicine-type business operating from home – together with some kind of study, as she examines papers. She sees Heigo arrive from her window, with baskets, and looks pissed off. Heigo announces that he has come to sell herbs. Shugio’s angry because she knows the herbs have been harvested by her arch-rival Xiumei. She agrees to buy the stuff but – never again! Heigo then returns with the empty baskets to Xiumei and Gaidi, who are hiding round the corner. He hands Xiumei the money from Shugio, then tries to talk her out of trying to earn money for her education in such a piecemeal, grinding way. This time young Gaidi speaks up, defending her ‘sister’ and announcing that she too will earn money by her hard work, so that she can go to college in Sichuan and find her parents. Still Heigo insists on giving Xiumei some money, which she reluctantly accepts via Gaidi.

Jacinta: And these scenes highlight the interconnectedness of village life, where enemies must still have commercial connections, where one person’s actions influence another’s – everyone is in each other’s way, and co-operation is necessary for survival.

Canto: So the trio ride off again on the motorbike, taking Xiumei home, apparently with Shugio’s blessing, though Heigo claims, probably rightly, that she’s only faking civility.

Jacinta: Next we see that Xiumei and Gaidi have been dropped off, and then the two females separate, at a kind of outdoor entrance constructed of wood. I’m fascinated by the depictions of rural life here – everything is indoor-outdoor, a far cry from our constructed indoor worlds. Anyway, it seems the pair live side by side, but not together. Or maybe Gaidi is just seeing her elder ‘sister’ to the door.

Canto: In the next scene we have book-burning, always a bad sign, and a heavy symbol. Xiumei’s father is angrily tearing up her college books and throwing them into the fire. Her mother rescues some of them, then Xiumei arrives and protests passionately. Her father, half-brought to his senses, half-relents and stomps off. Her mother consoles her, defends her tormented husband, and brings news of the village gossip. She shouldn’t be hanging out with the engaged Heigo, and she should reconsider all this college malarky. Xiumei, devastated and tearful at all these forces arrayed against her, sobs out that she ‘will not submit to fate’.

Xiumei pleads with her father to stop burning her books

Xiumei pleads with her father to stop burning her books

Jacinta: It’s another powerful yet low-key moment. I want to shout for her and I want to cry. How well this captures the struggles of the poor. No, not the poor, but those trapped in a web of culture, a culture that understandably wants to maintain itself as it has been for centuries, huddled in a sense with its back to the changing, widening and deepening world around it. We often see these cultures, off-handedly, as lacking, smothering – their shared knowledge of soil, seasons and locality irrelevant to the modern world. Xiumei is half-keen to strip off that knowledge and take on modern clothing, but she’ll inevitably be caught between two worlds and may not succeed or be happy in either.

Canto: Well meanwhile life and the movie goes on. In the next scene, Xiumei’s tormented father visits her as she sleeps in her bedroom, tries to make sense of the schoolbooks there, the posters on her wall, and tucks her in gently. Next morning, Heigo is waiting on his motorbike to take Xiumei to the fields, but she ignores him, saddling up her donkey. As she passes him, she says that his fiancée should ‘watch her mouth’ – presumably it’s Shugio who’s spreading the gossip – and her father later shouts to him a reminder that he’s due to be married (the poor sod), and he also reminds him who the motorbike belongs to.

Jacinta: Yes, but without telling the viewers. Who does that bloody bike belong to? Maybe it’s a community bike. Maybe he’s reminding Heigo of the community values he’s apparently trashing as he chases Xiumei while being engaged more or less against his will to Shugio. The cultural web is doing its ensnaring job.

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Written by stewart henderson

December 19, 2016 at 9:58 am

patriarchy, identity politics and immigration – a few reflections

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Germany. Muslim migrants  being threatening. Note the female presence.

Germany. Muslim migrants being threatening. Note the female presence.

 

A conversation between ‘apocalypse man’ Sam Harris and Gad Saad (evolutionary psychologist and producer of a Youtube channel critiquing inter alia various shibboleths of the left), together with some overheard comments at my workplace, as well as other promptings, has led me to consider writing about some major issues confronting our increasingly secular society and it maintenance…

As everyone  knows, in Australia as in other western countries, the influx of refugees from such countries as Iraq and Afghanistan, relatively small though it has been, has ignited a response of what has been called ‘Islamophobia’ amongst a certain sector of the public. This is of course connected to a more generalised xenophobia and nationalism. My own response to all this has been a fairly unconcerned dismissiveness, though coloured by a definite distaste for such items as the niqab, and such customs as the strict segregation of males and females, which I’ve long been exposed to as a teacher of English to Arabic-speaking families. Insofar as I gave it thought, I tended to believe that the children of these immigrants would become more drawn to western secularism and everything would be more or less hunky dory. But the more I read, listen and observe, the less sanguine I’ve become about all that. We may need to defend secularism more robustly in the future.

I think it’s true, though dangerous, to say that the greatest threat to secularism today is Islam. Previously, I’m not sure that I’ve been able to admit this, even to myself – even though it’s been articulated clearly enough by concerned thinkers I admire, such as Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. So now it’s time to face the issue more resolutely and to think about solutions.

Here’s an example that illustrates the problem. In my workplace as a TESOL educator, dealing with mostly Chinese students, together with a substantial proportion of Vietnamese and Arabic speakers, I have a colleague who is an Israeli-born Muslim. She doesn’t wear any kind of head-dress or make any outward display to show that she believes in Islam, she is very professional and hard-working, and she’s very well-liked by and supportive of  her colleagues. In fact, in the first few months of working there, having heard that she was born in Israel, I assumed naturally enough that she was Jewish. Only later did I learn that her native language was Arabic, and even then I wasn’t sure whether she was a practising Muslim. In fact apostate Muslims are rare, but as a sometime member of atheist and humanist groups I do encounter them, and this has probably skewed my views on the possibility of abandoning Islam for those born into it. In any case, three experiences in recent months have brought home to me the difficulty of dealing with even the most apparently liberal Muslims on issues which, for virtually all secular liberals, are no-brainers. First, during a brief staff-room discussion of the marriage equality plebiscite being mooted here in Australia, she quietly stated that ‘we think homosexuality is wrong’. Second, on a video I watched in which she was assessing a seminar on political violence given by a student, she quietly, and very briefly, stated her doubts about the truth of the holocaust (it’s unlikely that her students had the language skills to comprehend her comment). Third, in another staff room discussion, she stated that ‘we don’t believe in evolution’. So herein lies the problem. It is, and I think plenty of research bears this out, a standard view of even the most liberal Muslims, that homosexuality should not be allowed, that natural selection is false and shouldn’t be taught, and that Jews are liars, or worse, and can’t be trusted.

These views are a part of identity politics, hence the regular use of ‘we’ in their delivery. Intelligent though my colleague is, I’d be willing to bet she wouldn’t be able to explain the mechanism of natural selection from random variation that’s the basis of our understanding of life on earth, nor would she be able to give a detailed explanation of how the holocaust ‘myth’ became widespread, or of why homosexuality is so wrong. My guess is that her very being, as part of a rigid collective consciousness, would be threatened if she disavowed these beliefs, and it’s the collective consciousness of Islam that’s my main concern here. Of course this consciousness isn’t absolute, because if it were there would be no apostates and no possibility of apostasy. However, it’s also very powerful and compelling, because if it wasn’t the opprobrium and the violence meted out to apostates wouldn’t be so extreme. So the situation in the Muslim world bears similarities to that of the Christian world in Europe before sceptical individuals such as Cristovao Ferreira, Jean Meslier and Julien de La Mettrie began to proliferate in the eighteenth century – a situation that prevailed for over a thousand years. However, there are important differences between contemporary Muslim collective consciousness and the Christian variety that’s now fast disappearing in Europe. The most important difference, of course, is that European Christendom wasn’t faced with the external pressure of sophisticated societies on its borders, demanding trade deals and seeking to impose universal, largely secular values more or less in exchange. So today there is very much a clash of cultures, though probably not as described in various books on the subject (none of which I’ve read). It’s quite possible, though by no means certain, that this clash, and the greater fluidity of human movement in the 21st century, will speed up the process of change, of a Muslim enlightenment, in coming decades, but there seems little sign of that at present.

So what with Muslim identity politics and no Muslim enlightenment on the horizon, issues arise with respect to immigration, multiculturalism and the like. And I have to say I’m very much torn on this issue. On the one hand I’m disgusted by our former PM Tony Abbott’s portrayal of Syrian refugees as largely economic migrants who need to be turned back if their lives are not in immediate danger, despite the worse than horrendous conditions they suffer under. On the other hand I recognise the difficulty and the danger of accepting people who have been living on a diet of violence and hatred for decades into a peaceful country. The evidence is clear that though the majority of these refugees want nothing more than to find a peaceful place to restart their lives, there will be a certain percentage that bring their grievances with them, and most disturbingly their long-held grievances against western values.

So this is one of the biggest problems facing western society currently. As I’ve said, I’ve tended to minimise the problem in my own mind up till now. After all, Muslims make up only about 2.5% of the Australian population and haven’t caused too many problems as yet (with apologies to the families of Tory Johnson, Katrina Dawson and Curtis Cheng), and my own experience of Muslim residents and students here, which has been quite considerable of late, has been almost entirely positive. However, events in Europe and the USA in recent years give cause for grave concern, as have statistics relating to the growth of Islam worldwide. While projections about the growth of Islam in the the future are never going to be entirely reliable, being based on a host of assumptions, it’s pretty clear that it’s growing faster than Christianity or any other major religion. This has more to do with fertility rates than any other factor, but the fact that it’s generally dangerous to abandon the Muslim faith doesn’t help much.

At the moment, this is not an Australian problem, even though we have a rise in thuggish xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment, but it’s clear that if the Muslim population continues to rise, and screening of extremists isn’t adequate, there will be incidents (to use a euphemism), and reactions to incidents, which will adversely affect our civil society. But of course things have changed already in this ‘distant’ western society. When I was growing up (and at 60 I’m no spring chicken) there were no Muslims whatever in our very Anglo working class community – Italian market gardeners were our version of exoticism. Now, in my workplace, we have to provide ‘multi-faith’ (but actually Muslim) prayer rooms and deal with the guardians of (rare in comparison to male) female Arabic students who refuse to shake hands with our course co-ordinator who happens to be female. This is a far more challenging and personally offensive situation than anything I’ve experienced before, as someone brought up on and profoundly influenced by seventies feminism, and part of the challenge is having to counter absurd arguments by members of what has been termed the ‘regressive left’ who have actually suggested, in discussion with me, that western women are coerced into wearing bikinis and short dresses in much the same way as Muslim women are coerced into burqas and niqabs.

Anyway, now that I’ve ‘come out’ on this major issue, I plan to deal with it further in future posts. I want to look at the European situation as an object lesson for Australia, because what I’ve been learning about it is quite alarming. I’m also keen to connect what I’ve been learning about all this – the Saudi guardianship system and the macho jihadist culture – to patriarchy and its obvious deficits. I still think this is the area in which Islam can be most constructively critiqued, with a view to reform.

Written by stewart henderson

November 13, 2016 at 9:34 pm

beyond feminism – towards a female supremacist society

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Canto: I’ves decided to declare myself as a female supremacist.

Jacinta: Really? I thought you had nothing to declare but your genius. So you’ve come out at last?

Canto: Well it’s not as if I’ve been stifled in the closet for years. I’ve rarely thought about it before. I’ve always considered myself a feminist, but recently we’ve been looking at female-male differences, and it’s been making me feel we need more than just equality between the sexes.

Jacinta: You’ve got a hankering for that bonobo world, haven’t you? Females ganging up on you and soothing your aggressive macho emotions with a bit of sexual fourplay.

Canto: Well, yes and no. I first learned about bonobo society almost twenty years ago, and of course it excited me as a model, but then the complexity of human societies with all their cultural overlays made me feel I was naive to imagine a non-human society, without even its own language, could teach us how to improve our own. And the sex stuff in particular – well, that really got me in, but then it seemed too good to hope for. Too much self-serving wishful thinking, to model our society on a bunch of oversexed, indolent banana-eaters.

Jacinta: Do they have bananas in the Congo?

Canto: Absolutely. They have a town there on the Congo River, called Banana.

Jacinta: Oh wow, sounds like heaven. I love bananas. Let’s go there.

Canto: Anyway, now I’m thinking that a female-supremacist society is what we need today, though not necessarily based on bonobos….

Jacinta: That’s disappointing. I think it should be based on bonobos. Bonobos with language and technology and sophisticated theories about life, the universe and everything. Why not?

Canto: Well then they wouldn’t be bonobos. But do you want to hear my reasons for promoting female supremacy?

Jacinta: I probably know them already. Look at the male supremacist societies and cultures in the world – in Africa, in India, in the Middle East. They’re the most violent and brutish societies. We can’t compare them to female supremacist societies because there aren’t any, but we can look at societies where discrimination against women is least rampant, and those are today’s most advanced societies. It might follow that they’ll become even more enlightened and advanced if the percentage of female leaders, in business, politics and science, rises from whatever it is today – say 10% – to, say 90%.

Canto: Yes, well you’re pretty much on the money. It’s not just broader societies, it’s workplaces, it’s schools, it’s corporations. The more women are involved, especially in leadership roles, the more collaborative these places become. Of course I don’t deny female violence, in schools and at home, against children and partners and in many other situations, but on average in every society and every situation women are less violent and aggressive than men. In fact, all the evidence points to a female-supremacist society being an obvious solution for a future that needs to be more co-operative and nurturing.

Jacinta: So how are you going to bring about the female-supremacist revolution?

Canto: Not revolution, that’s just macho wankery. I’m talking about social evolution, and it’s already happening, though of course I’d like to see it speeded up. We’ll look at how things are changing and what we can hope for in some later posts. But the signs are good. The feminisation of our societies must continue, on a global level!

Written by stewart henderson

September 22, 2016 at 12:06 am

bonobos and us – lessons to be learnt

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Let’s be sexy about this

Bonobos separated from chimps maybe less than a million years ago, according to some pundits. We haven’t yet been able to determine a more precise date for the split. So which species has changed more? Have chimps become more aggressive or have bonobos become more caring? Is there any way of finding out?
It’s not just about genes its about their expression. It will take some time to work all that out. Brain studies too will help, as we move towards scanning and exploring brains more effectively and less invasively.
But surely we seek not just to understand the bonobo world but to change our own. Who wouldn’t want a world that was less violent, less exclusionary in terms of sex, more caring and sharing, without any loss of the dynamism and questing that has taken us to to the very brink of iphone7?
That last remark will date very quickly… Nah, I’ll leave it in.
So we can learn lessons, and of course we’re already on that path. Advanced societies, if that’s not too presumptuous a term, are less patriarchal than they’ve ever been, without losing any of their dynamism. On the contrary, it can easily be seen that the most male-supremacist societies in the world are also the most violent, the most repressive and the most backward. Some of those societies, as we know, have their backwardness masked by the fact that they have a commodity, oil, that the world is still addicted to, which has made the society so rich that their citizens don’t even have to pay tax. The rest of the world is supporting tyrannical regimes, which won’t change as long as they feel well-fed and secure. Not that I’d wish starvation and insecurity on anyone, but as Roland Barthes once said at one of his packed lectures, the people standing at the back who can’t hear properly and have sore feet must be wondering why they’re here.
Maybe a bit of discomfort, in the form of completely shifting away from fossil fuels for our energy needs haha, might bring certain Middle Eastern countries to a more serious questioning of their patriarchal delusions? Without their currently-valuable resource, they might wake to the fact that they need to become smarter. The women in those countries, so effective on occasion in forming coalitions to defend their inferior place in society, might be encouraged to use their collective power in more diverse ways. That could be how things socially evolve there.
Meanwhile in the west, the lesson of the bonobos would seem to be coalitions and sex. We’ve certainly arrived at an era where sexual dimorphism is irrelevant, except where women are isolated, for example in domestic situations. The same isolation also poses a threat to children. The bonobo example of coalitions and togetherness and sharing of responsibilities, and sexual favours (something we’re a long way from emulating, with our jealousies and petty rivalries) should be the way forward for us. Hopefully the future will see a further erosion of the nuclear family and a greater diversity of child-rearing environments, where single-parent families are far less isolated than they are today, and males want to help and support and teach children because they are children, not because they are their children…

Written by stewart henderson

September 10, 2016 at 6:54 pm