an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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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

final remarks preliminary to a voyage, part 2

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This photo anticipates, but it intoduces my illustrious Travelling Companion, who hardly needs any introduction,  here at Dubai Airport

This photo anticipates, but it intoduces my illustrious Travelling Companion, who hardly needs any introduction, here at Dubai Airport

We arrived at the airport unfashionably but sensibly early, driven by a kindly friend of my TC, who has many kind friends quite prepared to let me tag along as my TC’s friend.

It wasn’t busy. En fait, as airports go, plus ou moins vide. Which was nice, frankly. We could check in our baggage before time came when we’d actually have to queue.

As mentioned our flight was with Emirates, in association with Qantas. I feel unnerved by these Middle-Eastern-Arabic cultures with their male superiority BS and their nonalcoholic antifun holier-than-thouness, and I had imaginings of semi-veiled, infantilised, under-the-pump air stewards failing to perform their modest duties, all of which I knew was molto-ridiculous, having taught a few feisty Iraqi and Arabic mothers in my time. I also had visions of Dubai airport, our stopover, as awash with tall white-robed mullahs disdainfully observing our decadence from under their sanctified headgear. Strange, smug, scared phantasies….

Baggage processing was a breeze. Of the Emirates-uniformed staff that ushered and dealt with us there was a dark-skinned male, probably Indian, and two females, one probably Chinese, the other possibly Scandinavian, and I saw that it was good. The women wore vestigial hijabs, bits of white cloth dangling from the backs of their Emirates caps (and later, in flight, I noticed that many of them had shed even this vestige). I look forward to many correctives over this trip, experiential reshapings of vague fantastical ideas.

So the big luggage had scarily disappeared and we rambled on with our carry-ons, browsing and buying in the airport shops and looking out for eateries. Typically, we chose to calm our (or at least my) silently screaming nerves with doses of champagne. Then, to absorb the alcohol (we argued), we ordered a bowl of ‘phat chips’. They turned out to be reasonably fat, but were they in fact phat? I went into a little language dive; maybe phat is related to fat as phantasy is to fantasy? Or phact to fact? Ph words generally do have a cachet, as in physics, phenomena and pharmacology, unlike farmer, fart and fool….

My TC pulled me out of this phrolic by adverting to the tastiness of our phrites. ‘Have you noticed how soft they are to the tooth?’ In truth, I hadn’t. ‘I think they’re made from mashed potato!’ Sure enough, they seemed so to be… unless of course it was the more cacheted smashed potato…..

I lost myself in further labyrinths of language and style, luckily enough, until it was near time to bustle aboard with the finally sizeable crowd. Not a busy busy crowd though by any means. We were of the economy class, bien entendu, and had to wait until the best and second-best classes were settled in. I noticed too, with a kind of peculiar relish, that we were herded through the established better classes to the back of the bus, like ‘people of colour’ in former times and places. We were treated very nicely though.

Written by stewart henderson

April 27, 2016 at 1:57 pm

remarks subsequent to my preliminary remarks preliminary to a voyage

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the modest vessel we may be travelling on - specially designed to resemble passing buildings

the modest vessel we may be travelling on – specially designed to resemble passing buildings

As might’ve been guessed, I’ll be maxing out on prétention française in this blog series, as soon I’ll be desecrating French soil for the première fois since gaining a degree in French Lang & Litt, aged 32, more than a standard generation ago. Just the other day I reached the end of my French duolingo app. I was horror-shocked, I thought it just lingoed on forever, but no they have no more to teach (BS really) and the only next step is immersion, supposedly.

The problem is, l have enough trouble speaking to people in my first language. I wouldn’t be surprised if l’ve spoken to myself (aloud) more than to the whole rest of humanity. The best conversations, selon Chekhov [literary ref 1]. My vocab’s pretty extensive, my reading’s well fluent but I have trouble stringing a speaking sentence together even in my head (l’m referring to French by the way), so l’m looking forward/not looking forward to the challenge of Paris.

But before that lies the riverboat cruise, and I’m prepping for it by rereading David Foster Wallace’s ‘a supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again’ [litt ref 2], which l first read when it came out 20 years ago and found almost inexplicably exciting, comparing it (in conversation with myself, aloud) to Shakespeare himself [litt ref 3] in its lingual liveliness.

‘a supposedly fun thing…’ was a piece of journalism Wallace wrote for Harper’s, reflections on a 7-day Carribean cruise in one of those floating wedding-cake-type vessels passengered almost entirely by obese middle-aged-to-elderly Americans and mainly owned-and-operated by those seafarers of long standing, Greeks and Scandinavians. I thought that rereading it now would happily reinforce my cynicism about such pleasure cruises, and also provide a rich scatter of points of comparison. What I’ve found is a darker side to his observations I hadn’t fully noted on first reading, but which Wallace’s suicide in 2008 has naturally primed my attention to. Here’s the clearest example:

There is something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive in its causes and simple in its effect: on board the Nadir – especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased – I felt despair. The word’s overused and banalified now, despair, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture – a weird yearning for death combined with the crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It’s maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it’s not these things, quite. It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling  of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.

These dark remarks, out of a clear Carribean sky, made for an unexpected turn in the narrative, but they forced my focus onto the saturnine aspects of the whole. Was the staff’s hierarchy really so aggressive? The pampering so relentless? The passengers so grotesque or pathetic? The cruise in general so despair-engendering?

Anyhow, Travel Marvel, the cruise company we’ll be sailing (deliciously al fresco word) with, is Australian-owned, a marvel in itself, so l’ll be expecting a more laid-back perfection. And though l may lack Wallace’s prose luminosity l may also lack his lugubriosity, for better or worse. Encore, on verra.

Silly postscript: While writing this and getting tired, I baulked at having to copy out the longish quote from Wallace (I type horribly), so I tried Siri, the not-so-hot Apple voice-recognition thingy. It did mostly OK with the occasional mangle, to be expected with oddities like ‘banalised’ and ‘gaiety-noise’, but there was one cackle-inducing clanger – ‘with the crushing sense of my own small nose’. Poor D F Wallace, rest in peace with no more crushing burdens large or small.

Written by stewart henderson

April 21, 2016 at 11:39 pm

some thoughts on urbanisation, language and culture

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Australian_language_families.png

Australian language families. From west to east:

Mindi (2 areas)
Daly (4 families)
Tiwi (offshore)

Pama–Nyungan (3 areas)

The trend is massively towards urbanisation, though it varies massively between nations. The big urbanising country now is China of course. Citification leads to homogenisation, as everyone strives to be original. Anthropologist Wade Davis says that of the 7,000 or so extant languages, more than half are not being taught to the next generation. Cities are about communication, requiring a common language. It’s unlikely to be Wajarri or Pitjantjatjara. How about English? Language groups, it has been argued, constitute the most natural nations, rather than states with their artificial boundaries. There’s a whole theory based around this but I say, whenever you hear the word natural you should be skeptical. Why did a diversity of languages arise? A very very complex question. Or rather a simple question but the answer…

It presumably wasn’t the case that each language was invented from scratch. My speculation – somewhere, sometime, a human or proto-human population developed a language (a bit like saying ‘here, a miracle happens’, but we know more than that about the earliest abstract sign systems). That population grew, split up and separated to such distances that the languages followed separate developments, just like, say, chimps and bonobos followed separate lines of development after being separated by the Congo River, if that’s what happened. But then it could have been invented from scratch more than once, as is supposed to have been the case with writing.

Surely though the emergence of all these languages is primarily due to migration and isolation. Surely this is neither natural or unnatural. It happens. The loss of many of these languages will be due to their being surplus to requirements, due to a modern process that has reversed the ‘tyranny of distance’. The need to communicate effectively across distances, between nations, has meant that a lingua franca has been a high priority, and the more such a language dominates, economically and culturally, the more small, local languages will die of neglect, or be rendered redundant. Is this tragic? I’m not entirely sure.

Wade Davis is quoted (in issue 63 of Cosmos magazine) as saying:

The central revelation of anthropology is that other peoples of the world are not failed attempts at being you, at being modern. On the contrary they are unique answers to a fundamental question: what does it mean to be human and alive? And when the peoples of the world answer that question they do so in 7000 different voices, and those voices and answers collectively become our human repertoire for dealing with the challenges that will confront us all. When we lose a culture we lose a part of ourselves. And it doesn’t have to happen.

This is all stirring stuff, and it would seem bad form to demur, even slightly. But I would like to reflect a bit more on this. First, note that Davis is equating language with culture, which is fair enough to a degree, but some people may be separated by language but have more cultural similarities than differences. After all, this is part of the raison d’être of the European Union, that the French, the Italians, the English etc have enough in common that they should work together rather than separately. And I would dispute the claim that there are 7000 different voices answering the basic questions of human existence and purpose. Surely there are no less than 7.2 billion? On my street, I know there are at least a couple of people who speak a different first language from me. It’s highly likely, though, that I would share more with them in terms of outlook or interest than with others who share my language. But I wouldn’t share every interest or preoccupation with anyone, and nor would anyone else.

And to look at the first part of the quote: I’ve never seen other cultures, such as Australian Aboriginal cultures, as failed attempts at being modern. I see them as generally quite successful attempts at surviving and multiplying in a fairly inhospitable but obviously not uninhabitable environment, in which they’ve had to adapt to a world of resources, opportunities and threats that has remained relatively static, and certainly far far more static than was the situation in Europe over the same time period. And then, 200-odd years ago, Europeans arrived here, with (always in hindsight!) predictable consequences. The very concept of modernity would not have occurred to humans who had lived in a pretty well completely unchanging environment for more than 40,000 years, whereas for the Europeans who arrived here the concept of modernity was very much a living thing, as they were constantly aware of their changes and development, in technology, in politics, in lifestyle. They naturally believed in the progress which had, after all brought them to this great southern land and enabled them, they felt, to lay claim to it.

So, many of us are well aware of the situation. Just keeping to our Australian circumstances (though I’m actually a Brit, if it comes to strict definitions), one culture or set of cultures was long habituated to stasis, the other set of cultures was long habituated to dynamics, and, as a result of having survived all those dynamic processes, to ‘progress’. So, in an important sense these two different groups aren’t answering the one fundamental question, they’re answering two quite different questions. The Aborigines had answers to ‘what is it like to be a human in a world which for 40,000 years has been unchallenged by other humans, and which has enough resources to survive on if you know how to read the signs, and if you pass knowledge and skills on down the generations’, whereas the Europeans had answers to ‘what is it like to be a human whose ancestors have fought and defeated invaders, conquered other lands and enslaved or exploited their peoples, cultivated soils and experimented with plants and animals to provide a variety of foodstuffs, exploited mineral resources for construction and technological purposes, etc etc’.

So, it comes to this. We Europeans, sharpened by our historical experience, have come to Australia and transformed it. We – some of us – tried to make peace with the Aborigines while taking the best land to cultivate ourselves. We brought in our sheep and cattle, we took over the rich coastlines, we built our industries, and we made an assumption of ‘Terra nullius’ because it was so obviously in our interest to do so. We had no idea, of course, of the history of the Aborigines – being all ‘young earth creationists’ at the time. The Aborigines had no more chance than, say, a tasty flightless bird would have if feral cats were introduced onto an island that the birds had comfortably and skilfully survived on for a million years. Of course we didn’t eat any Aborigines (as far as I’m aware) but we transformed their environment almost beyond recognition and made a continuation of their habitual way of life well-nigh impossible.

I make that comparison to suggest that humans are nothing special. Cultures, like species, go extinct, or adapt. That’s a harsh reality, but somehow, in our sophistication, we know, at least some of us do, that diversity, of species and cultures, is a good thing, not just intrinsically but for our own selfish benefit. It’s a balance maybe – we strive to preserve, but also encourage to adapt.

Written by stewart henderson

July 18, 2015 at 3:44 pm

some thoughts on humanism and activism

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jim-al-khalili

What Australia needs

 

I’ve been a little more involved in ‘movements’ in recent years, though I’m not usually much of a joiner, and I’ve always been wary of ‘activism’, which is often associated with protesting, personning the barricades (doesn’t have quite the aggressive ring to it, does it?), even a bit of biffo – if largely verbal, by preference. I’ve just been hungry for a bit of stimulus – salon culture, witty and cultured and informative exchanges with people cleverer than myself. But since I’ve been occasionally asked to engage on a higher, or deeper level, in ‘the culture wars’, on the side of reason, atheism, secularism, humanism, whatever, my thoughts on the matter have started to crystallise, and they’re hopefully in evidence in my blog writing.

I don’t mind calling myself an activist for humanism, or for other isms, but I think we should be activists for rather than against. Now it might be argued that to argue for one thing is to argue against another, so it doesn’t really matter, but I think it matters a great deal. It’s a matter of trying to be positive and influencing others with your positivity. Secular humanism has a great case to promote, as do reason, self-awareness and ‘skepticism with sympathy’.

I’ve learned from years of teaching students from scores of different countries and cultures that we all can be excited by learning new stuff, that we’re amused by similar things, that we all want to improve and to be loved and appreciated. The ties that bind us as humans are far greater than those that divide us culturally or in other ways. I’ve also learned that the first principle of good teaching is to engage your students, rather than haranguing or badgering them. This may not seem easy when you’re teaching something as apparently dry and contentless as language and grammar, but language is essentially a technology for communicating content, and if we didn’t have anything meaningful or important to communicate, we’d never have developed it. So the key is to engage students with content that’s relevant to them, and stimulating and thought-provoking enough that they’ll want to communicate those thoughts.

I suppose I’m talking about constructive engagement, and this is the best form of activism. Of course, like everyone, I don’t always ‘constructively engage’. I get mad and frustrated, I dismiss with contempt, I feel offended or vengeful, yet the best antidote to those negative feelings is simple, and that is to throw yourself into the lives, the culture, the background of your ‘enemy’, or the ‘other’, which requires imagination as well as knowledge. I mis-spent a lot of my youth reading fiction from non-English backgrounds – from France and Germany, from Russia and eastern Europe, from Africa and Asia. It was a lot cheaper than travelling, especially as I avoided a lot of paid work in order to indulge my reading. Of course I read other stuff too, history, philosophy, psychology, new-wave feminism, but fiction – good fiction, of course – situated all these subjects and issues within conflicted, emotional, culturally-shaped and striving individuals, and provided me with a sense of the almost unfathomable complexity of human endeavour. The understanding of multiple backgrounds and contexts, especially when recognising that your own background is a product of so much chance, creates multiple sympathies, and that’s essential to humanism, to my mind.

However, there are limits to such identifications. Steven Pinker discusses this in The better angels of our nature (the best advertisement for humanism I’ve ever read) by criticising the overuse, or abuse, of the term ’empathy’ and expressing his preference for ‘sympathy’. Empathy is an impossible ideal, and it can involve losing your own bearings in identifying with another. There are always broader considerations.

Take the case of the vaccination debate. While there are definitely charlatans out there directly benefitting from the spread of misinformation, most of the people we meet who are opposed to vaccination aren’t of that kind, usually they have personal stories or information from people they trust that has caused them to think the way they do. We can surely feel sympathy with such people – after all, we also have had personal experiences that have massively influenced how we think, and we get much of our info from people we trust. But we also have evidence, or know how to get it. We owe it to ourselves and others to be educated on these matters. How many of us who advocate vaccination know how a vaccine actually works? If we wish to enter that particular debate, a working knowledge of the science is an essential prerequisite (and it’s not so difficult, there’s a lot of reliable explanatory material online, including videos), together with a historical knowledge of the benefits of vaccination in virtually eradicating various diseases. To arm yourself with and disseminate such knowledge is, to me, the best form of humanist activism.

I’ll choose a couple more topical issues, to look at how we could and should be positively active, IMHO. The first, current in Australia, is chaplaincy in schools. The second, a pressing issue right now for Australians but of universal import, is capital punishment.

The rather odd idea of chaplaincy in schools was first mooted by Federal Minister Greg Hunt in 2006 after lobbying from a church leader and was acted upon by the Howard government in 2007. It was odd for a number of reasons. First, education is generally held to be a state rather than a federal responsibility, and second, our public education system has no provision in it for religious instruction or religious proselytising. The term ‘chaplain’ has a clear religious, or to be more precise Christian, association, so why, in the 21st century, in an increasingly multicultural society in which Christianity was clearly on the decline according to decades of census figures, and more obviously evidenced by scores of empty churches in each state, was the federal government introducing these Christian reps into our schools via taxpayer funds? It was an issue tailor-made for humanist organisations, humanism being dedicated – and I trust my view on this is uncontroversial – to emphasising what unites us,  in terms of human rights and responsibilities, rather than what divides us (religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation etc). To introduce these specifically Christian workers, out of the blue, into an increasingly non-Christian arena, seemed almost deliberately divisive.

Currently the National School Chaplaincy Program is in recess, having been stymied by two effective High Court challenges brought by a private citizen, Ron Williams, of the Humanist Society of Queensland. As far as I’m aware, Williams’ challenge was largely self-funded, but assisted by a donation from at least one of the state humanist societies. This was a cause that could and should have been financed and driven by humanists in a nationally co-ordinated campaign, which would have enabled humanists to have a voice on the issue, and to make a positive contribution to the debate.

What would have been that contribution? Above all to provide evidence, for the growing secularism and multiculturalism of the nation and therefore the clearly anachronistic and potentially divisive nature of the government’s policy. Identification with every Christian denomination is dropping as a percentage of the national population, and the drop is accelerating. This is nobody’s opinion, it’s simply a fact. Church attendance is at the lowest it’s ever been in our Christian history – another fact. Humanists could have gone on the front foot in questioning the role of these chaplains. In the legislation they’re expected to provide “support and guidance about ethics, values, relationships and spirituality”, but there’s an insistence that they shouldn’t replace school counsellors, for counselling isn’t their role. Apparently they’re to provide support without counselling, just by ‘being there’. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just have their photos on the school walls? The ‘spirituality’ role is one that humanists could have a lot of fun with. I’ve heard the argument that people are just as religious as ever, but that they’ve rejected the established churches, and are developing their own spirituality, their own relationship to their god, so I suppose it would follow that their spirituality needs to be nourished at school. But the government has made a clear requirement that chaplains need to be members of an established religion (and obviously of a Christian denomination), so how exactly is that going to work?

While humour, along with High Court challenges and pointed questions about commitment to real education and student welfare, would be the way to ‘get active’ with the school chaplaincy fiasco, the capital punishment issue is rather more serious.

The Indonesian decision to execute convicted drug pedlars of various nationalities has attracted a lot of unwanted publicity, from an Indonesian perspective, but a lot of the response, including some from our government, has been lecturing and hectoring. People almost gleefully describe the Indonesians as barbarians and delight in the term ‘state-sanctioned murder’, mostly unaware of the vast changes in our society that have made capital punishment, which ended here in the sixties, seem like something positively medieval. These changes have not occurred to the same degree in other parts of the world, and as humanists, with a hopefully international perspective, we should be cognisant of this, aware of the diversity, and sympathetic to the issues faced by other nations faced with serious drug and crime problems. But above all we should look to offer humane solutions.

By far the best contribution to this issue I’ve heard so far has come from Richard Branson, representing the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP), who spoke of his and other commissioners’ interest in speaking to the Indonesians about solutions to their drug problems, not to lecture or to threaten, but to advise on drug policies that work. No mention was made about capital punishment, which I think was a good thing, for what has rendered capital punishment obsolete more than anything else has been the development of societies that see their members as flawed but capable, mostly, of development for the better. Solutions to crime, drug use and many other issues – including, for that matter, joining terrorist organisations – are rarely punitive. They involve support, communication and connection. Branson, interviewed on the ABC’s morning news program, pointed to the evidence showing that harsh penalties had no effect on the drug trade, and that the most effective policy by far was legalisation. It’s probably not a story that our government would be sympathetic to, and it takes us deeply into the politics of drug law reform, but it is in fact a science-based approach to the issue that humanists should be active in supporting and promulgating. Branson pointed to the example of Portugal, which had, he claimed, drug problems as serious as that of Indonesia, which have since been greatly alleviated through a decriminalisation and harm-reduction approach.

I hope to write more about the GCDP’s interesting and productive-looking take on drug policy on my Solutions OK website in the future. Meanwhile, this is just the sort of helpful initiative that humanists should be active in getting behind. Indonesians are arguing that the damage being done by drug pushers requires harshly punitive measures, but the GCDP’s approach, which bypasses the tricky issue of national sovereignty, and capital punishment itself, is offered in a spirit of co-operation that is perfectly in line with an active, positive humanism.

So humanism should be as active as possible, in my view, and humanists should strive to get themselves heard on such broad issues as education, crime, equity and the environment, but they should enter the fray armed with solutions that are thoughtful, practicable and humane. Hopefully, we’re here to help.

on cowardice, courage and the abuse of language

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pretty much bog-standard definitions

pretty much bog-standard definitions

In this post I want to try to avoid politics, and to focus on the English language, its use and abuse. If you google the word ‘coward’, followed by the word ‘meaning’  (I often ask my NESB students to do this with words they don’t know), you’ll come up first with this definition: a person who is contemptibly lacking in the courage to do or endure dangerous or unpleasant things. Second comes this: [a person who is] excessively afraid of danger or pain.

These are, to me, bog-standard, uncontroversial definitions of the word ‘coward’. To be a coward is to be nothing more and nothing less than what these definitions describe.

So, as a person who cares about language, it disturbs and aggravates me that the word ‘coward’ is now regularly used by the media and by commentators of all kinds, from world leaders to pub philosophers, to refer to suicide bombers, mass shooters, Wikileakers and terrorists of every description. I would ask you to pause for a moment, and think of these categories of people, and the people themselves, if you can bear it. Think of, say, Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, a member of the Tamil Tigers and the suicide killer of Rajiv Ghandi and 14 others beside herself in 1991. Or Reem Riyashi, the wealthy Palestinian mother of two and Hamas operative who killed herself and 4 Israelis at the Erez Crossing in Gaza in 2004. Think of Martin Bryant, the murderer of 35 people at Port Arthur in Tasmania in 1996, or Anders Behring Breivik, killer of 77 people by bombing and gunfire in Norway in 2011. Think again of Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, who leaked large quantities of classified US information to Wikileaks in early 2010, or Edward Snowden, recent leaker of classified documents from the USA’s National Security Agency to various media outlets. Now think finally of Mohamed Atta, a principal player in the September 11 2001 attacks in the USA, and pilot of the plane that crashed into the North Tower of the world trade centre, or Noordin Top, mastermind of several fatal bombings in Indonesia, and indefatigable recruiter and indoctrinator for the Jihadist organisation Jemaah Islamiya.

No doubt these characters will awaken many diverse thoughts, but it’s unlikely that cowardice would be part of your description of any of them, especially after having been primed with the definitions of a coward at the top of this post. It seems like describing any of these various characters as cowards would simply be what philosophers call a ‘category mistake’, so far from cowardly, in the bog-standard sense of that term, have been the actions that have made them notorious.

So what is going on here? Intellectual laziness? Overblown rhetoric? Well, yes and no. To dismiss this rhetoric of cowardice as just plain ignorant or lazy would be to miss the point of it, for there is method in this apparent madness, intended or not. The real point of describing any or all of these people as cowards is to remove them as far as possible from any association with another word, more or less directly opposed to cowardice: courage.

Courage is seen as positive of course. It’s seen as a virtue, yet when we delve further into it, as Socrates and his interlocutors did in the Laches, we find it be a more slippery concept than at first glance. It rather sticks in our craw, to say the least, to claim that Mohamad Atta was courageous in carrying out his mission to fly an unfamiliar Boeing 767 into the World Trade Centre, or that Thenmozhi Rajaratnam showed amazing courage in blowing herself up with Rajiv Ghandi and many others, or that Anders Brehvik displayed steely resolve and courage in carrying out his long-planned slaughter of scores of innocent children. The actions of Manning and Snowden have naturally received more mixed responses, with some feeling that the term ‘courageous’ is singularly apt in describing them, while others would baulk at the term.

So let’s perform the same operation on ‘courage’ as we did on the word ‘coward’. Here’s the very straightforward result:

Courage: the ability to do something that frightens one.

Now, it’s worth noting that this bog-standard definition, as with that of ‘coward’, has nothing whatever to say about the moral implications of the action or actions that the brave person engages in and the coward avoids. That action might be the slaughter, or the rescue, of thousands. This is key: the moral implications or the consequences of the actions are irrelevant to the definition. For some, it seems, this point is hard, if not impossible, to swallow. That’s the problem; because of the negative load that the term ‘coward’ carries, some people are determined to describe any action that they consider has negative consequences as cowardly. But to try to extend the meaning of the term from the bog-standard, more limited definition quoted at the top means moving away from consensus into a field of contestation that enormously diminishes the coherence and so the usefulness of the term.

I was prompted to write this piece because a recent editorial in a major Australian newspaper, attacking Edward Snowden as a coward, was brought to my attention. It was the last straw, you might say. I admit I haven’t read the editorial, and I can’t recall the newspaper, but really, you don’t need to read the detail – and I may well be convinced by the newspaper editor’s views of the implications of Snowden’s actions – to know that the application of the term ‘coward’ to Snowden’s leaking of classified information is just wrong, by the definition of terms.

This sort of thing should matter to those who respect language and its value as an effective communicative tool. By the bog-standard consensus definitions given above, we need to admit that the actions of Atta and Rajaratnam, for example, were courageous. As people in full possession of their faculties, as I assume they were, they would have had to overcome enormous fear and anxiety to perform their suicidal actions. Of course we can and should condemn their actions on a whole host of ethical grounds, but to call them cowardly doesn’t add anything to the ethical debate, it just muddies definitions (while allowing us to let off steam, to vent our indignation and disgust). It’s just name-calling.

contested definition no. 45737932

contested definition no. 45737932

contested definition no. 7353289
contested definition no. 7353289

contested definition no. 36921856

contested definition no. 36921856

contested definition no. 45210678 - but a pretty good one!

contested definition no. 45210678 – but a pretty good one!

 

Written by stewart henderson

January 8, 2014 at 9:30 am

where does our alphabet come from?

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Etruscan ink-holder, with alphabet, from the early 7th century BCE

Etruscan ink-holder, with alphabet, from the early 7th century BCE

I’m currently reading Lost languages: the enigma of the world’s undeciphered scripts, by Andrew Robinson, a pretty demanding work in parts, though designed for the general reader. It’s looking at the difficulty of scripts of which we have too few examples, and too few connected languages – either descended from or ancestral to these extant fragments – to be able to get a handle on them. However it also looks at famous decipherings of the past – of the Egyptian and the Mayan hieroglyphs, and of Linear B (Mycenean, the earliest form of Greek), as well as at written languages in general, which inevitably makes a fellow think of his own taken-for-granted language, its origins and its ‘type’, among all the types of writing we have.

Robinson informs us of a consensus among scholars, arrived at though much struggle – that all written languages contain phonemic and semantic, or logographic, elements. A dummy’s way of presenting this is that they contain both sounds and signs. Our alphabet is, of course, largely phonemic, but in writing we also use signs, such as full stops, question marks, apostrophes, quotation marks, etc. We also use capitals. For example B represents the same sound as b, but it also signifies the beginning of a sentence or (the beginning of) a name of something. It follows that b also has a sign value, in contrast to the sign value of B. Apparently Finnish is the most purely phonemic language we have these days, while Chinese and Japanese are very heavily sign based.

So what about the English language, or more strictly, the alphabet we share with many other European languages. It’s generally known as the Latin alphabet, and it was introduced to England by Christian missionaries in about the 7th century, replacing Anglo-Saxon runes that date back at least another couple of hundred years. These runes may also be traced back to the Latin alphabet – we don’t have enough extant examples to be sure.

The alphabet has evolved over the years. Wikipedia tells us that back in the year 1011 a polymath named Byrhtferth set down the alphabet as it was understood at the time. It comprised 23 of our modern letters (J, U and W had not yet emerged), the ampersand & and five other letter/symbols no longer recognised, or at least formally recognised, as alphabetical. One was the ligature æ, called ash. In the fourteenth century the letters uu, often used together, were merged to make w, still called ‘double u’ today. The alphabet became fixed in the sixteenth century, when j and u emerged as distinct from i and v.

So it would seem that the Latin alphabet evolved, much like humans evolved from earlier forms, with little mutations along the way, so that if you go back far enough it’ll be barely recognisable. What is called the classical Latin or Roman alphabet derived from a western variant of the Greek alphabet, used in southern Italian colonies such as Cumae in modern-day Campania. This was in turn modified by the Etruscans (800-100BCE) before being taken up and modified further by the Romans.

It’s an enormously complicated story of interaction and modification. The English alphabet isn’t exactly the Latin alphabet, which itself changed as the Romans developed and advanced their civilization, incorporating more territories and their cultural influences. It’s not something you can trace in an obvious linear way. The Romans were influenced linguistically by both the southern colonies and the northern Etruscans. After the Roman conquest of Greece in the first century BCE, the Greek letters Y and Z were added to their alphabet, giving them 23 letters during the ‘classical’ period (the period of the late republic and the empire). Our number system – obviously a part of our written language, but I won’t get too much into mathematical symbology here – is often described as Arabic, but the Arabs and Persians adopted it from the Hindus, who apparently developed the place-value notation in the fifth century, adding zero a century later.

If we want to go back to the origin of writing systems and writing itself, it seems not to have had a single origin. I’ve mentioned the  ancestor of Latin, the Greek alphabet, which has been around since the eighth century BCE and is still in use. It consists of 24 letters from alpha to omega, and of course many of its symbols, including pi, are used in mathematical notation. The Greek alphabet in turn derives from the Phoenician. There is some dispute or at least conjecture as to how far back the Phoenician alphabet can be dated – a bit like putting a date on the first humans, who after all had parents who were much the same as they were. Scholars generally put the date back to 1050 BCE, and inscriptions with Phoenician elements before that date are attributed to ‘parent scripts’. To quote the Wikipedia article:

The oldest known inscription that goes by the name of Phoenician is the Ahiram epitaph, engraved on the sarcophagus of King Ahiram from c. 1200 BCE.[5]

However, the immediate predecessor to Phoenician is conventionally referred to as Proto-Canaanite. Ancestral to this was the Proto-Sinaite script, used by Canaanites in the Sinai region from about 1850 BCE. We don’t have too many examples of it, but it’s claimed by some to be the first ever alphabetic writing system. Most of the inscriptions using this language, generally accepted as Semitic, were found among Egyptian hieratic and hieroglyphic inscriptions, and there are graphic similarities to the hieratic script, which is less elaborate than hieroglyphics, but little headway has been made in deriving the Semitic script from Egyptian hieratic.

Egyptian hieroglyphics can be dated back to 2700 BCE. They’re complex beasties that can be used as phonograms, logograms or determinatives; in other words as sounds or sound sequences, as pictorial representations, or as clues to meaning neither clearly pictorial nor phonological (in earlier times hieroglyphics were doggedly construed as almost entirely logographic, and this hindered a full decoding). It’s quite possible, apparently, that the Proto-Sinaite script was influenced by the phonological (hence alphabetical) elements of hieroglyphics.

The Meroitic script, again probably derived from hieroglyphics, is an alphabetic script used in the Nubian Kingdom of Meroe in what is now northern Sudan. It first appeared in the second century BCE and flourished at the height of Nubian power (750 to 300 BCE). It appears to have developed independently of the Greek alphabet, though some scholars claim a connection.

One of the earliest known writing systems, Cuneiform, emerged in Sumer in the late 4th millennium BCE . The term ‘cuneiform’ means wedge-shaped, and was so named by its wedge-shaped markings left on clay tablets. The earliest Cuneiform was pictorial, but over time it became more stylized, simplified and abstract. The Cuneiform of the early bronze age contained about 1000 characters, but this was down to 400 by the late bronze age, some 1500 years later. Sumerian is not really recognised as a fully fledged language by scholars until about the 31st century BCE.

So is there an earlier form of writing than Cuneiform? I suspect that there were innumerable forms of proto-writing, symbols used with a shared, tribal meaning indecipherable to outsiders, and that this could have gone on for millennia. It just happened that with early Sumerian civilization we had a larger clot of people together than ever before, and with that, language took a further step towards codification and regularisation.

So I’ve gone a bit further back than our alphabet, but I’ve barely scratched the surface of language development. Tracing all the connections is an endless and ongoing task, and we’re continuing to make headway, but the key to all this is human ingenuity in finding such a variety of more or less efficient systems to communicate and preserve increasingly complex ideas, which whole regions of our developing brains are devoted to. There’s so much more to say on this subject.

Written by stewart henderson

September 24, 2013 at 11:06 pm