Sunday, April 17, 2016

Sapir-Whorf In The Saddle

     If you’re unfamiliar with the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, it’s time to get acquainted with it:

     Linguistic relativity, sometimes called the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis or Whorfianism, is a hypothesis in linguistics and cognitive science that holds that the structure of a language affects its speakers' world view or cognition. The strong version claims that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories. The weak version claims that linguistic categories and usage influence thought and decisions.

     The hypothesis evolved from work by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. The hypothesis has influenced disciplines beyond linguistics, including philosophy, neurobiology, anthropology, psychology and sociology. The hypothesis' origin, definition and applicability have been controversial since first outlined. It has come in and out of favor and remains contested as research continues across these domains.

     An early allusion to this thesis, albeit not by any of the above names, appears in 1984:

     "Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it."

     At this time, one of the Left’s major tactics for attaining its sociopolitical goals is based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis:

     A professional education consultant and teacher trainer argued at the White Privilege Conference (WPC) in Philadelphia that great teachers must also be liberal activists, and described in detail her goal for destroying the “white supremacist” nature of modern education.

     Heather Hackman operates Hackman Consulting Group and was formerly a professor of multicultural education at Minnesota’s St. Cloud State University, where she taught future teachers. On Friday, Hackman was given a platform at WPC to deliver a workshop with the lengthy title “No Freedom Unless We Call Out the Wizard Behind The Curtain: Critically Addressing the Corrosive Effects of Whiteness in Teacher Education and Professional Development.” The long title masked a simple thesis on Hackman’s part: Modern education is hopelessly tainted by white supremacy and the “white imperial gaze,” and the solution is to train prospective teachers in college to be activists as well as pedagogues.

     In fact, Hackman argued teachers shouldn’t even bother teaching if they aren’t committed to promoting social justice in school.

     Isn’t the connection clear? By associating the behaviors required to learn what is being taught with ugly concepts – “white supremacism,” “the white imperial gaze,” and so forth – Miss Hackman hopes to render actual examination of minorities’ relative lack of scholastic accomplishment impossible. A bit like Orwell’s Newspeak, in which serious discussion of the rights Thomas Jefferson enumerated in the Declaration of Independence is impossible because it’s been labeled crimethink.

     Sapir-Whorf linguistic tactics are important for another reason as well: if the perversion of language is directed toward rendering particular concepts immoral, it sanctifies the use of violence to suppress those who would dare to speak of them, much less act on them. And as we have seen in recent years, leftists are growing ever more ready to use violence to prevent the discussion of concepts unfriendly to their aims.

     There is, however, a fly in the ointment: Reality is not shaped by the terms we use to describe or discuss it. No matter what anyone says about it, it remains what it is. Only attitudes can be molded linguistically – and only the attitudes of the stupid, ignorant, or easily led.

     The prevailing attitude on the Left, regardless of whether we speak of the stratgists, the activists, or the unthinking sheep, is one of moral superiority toward the rest of us. Thomas Sowell has called this “an assumption of differential rectitude.” Its circularity should immediately be apparent: “We are morally superior because we are left-liberals; we are left-liberals because we are morally superior.” They have no other argument for their self-flattering stance.

     That stance is impossible to separate from Leftist linguistic practices. It was first necessary to define certain attitudes as inherently virtuous, entirely apart from their conformance or nonconformance with reality. That made it possible to condemn anyone who holds such attitudes. That automatically ennobles those who condemn and work against them.

     In a tangentially related essay, Andrew Klavan makes an interesting observation:

     In a veiled reference to Trump at a recent lunch on Capitol Hill, President Obama declared he was “dismayed” at the “vulgar and divisive rhetoric” being heard on the campaign trail. “In America, there is no law that says we have to be nice to each other, or courteous, or treat each other with respect,” the president said. “But there are norms. There are customs.”

     Are there? When I hear this sort of thing from Obama and his fellow leftists, what I wonder is: Have they not listened to themselves for the past 50 years? Do they really have no idea how vicious, how low, how cruel, and how dishonest their attacks on the Right have been?

     No, they haven’t; and, no, they don’t. The Democrat-monopolized media, which explodes with rage at any minor unmannerliness on the right, falls so silent at the Left’s almost ceaseless acrimony that leftists are never forced to confront what despicable little Trumps they often are. [Emphasis added by FWP.]

     The emphasized evaluation is correct 95% of the time or more. It takes more self-awareness than most left-liberals can muster to reflect on the contradiction between their behavior and their “assumption of differential rectitude.” Moreover, were they compelled to confront the facts – i.e., that their practice is the opposite of what they preach – they would thrust it all away as dangerous, not to be entertained lest it taint the purity of their Cause.

     I’m moved to recount an episode from 2005, after the Christmas Tsunami devastated many Pacific populations:

     Today, during an afternoon conference that wrapped up my project of the last 18 months, one of my Euro colleagues tossed this little smart-comment out to no one in particular:
     "See, this is why George Bush is so dumb, there's a disaster in the world and he sends an Aircraft Carrier...
     After which he and many of my Euro colleagues laughed out loud, and then they looked at me. I wasn't laughing, and neither was my Hindi friend sitting next to me, who has lost family in the disaster.
     I'm afraid I was "unprofessional", I let it loose -"Hmmm, let's see, what would be the ideal ship to send to a disaster? Now what kind of ship would we want? Something with its own inexhaustible power supply? Something that can produce 900,000 gallons of fresh water a day from sea water?"
     "Something with its own airfield? So that after producing the fresh water, it could help distribute it? Something with 4 hospitals and lots of open space for emergency supplies? Something with a global communications facility to make the coordination of disaster relief in the region easier? Well 'Franz', we peasants in America call that kind of ship an 'Aircraft Carrier'."
     "We have 12 of them. How many do you have? Oh that's right, NONE. Lucky for you and the rest of the world, we are the kind of people who share. Even with people we don't like."
     "In fact, if memory serves, once upon a time we peasants spent a ton of money and lives rescuing people who we had once tried to kill and who tried to kill us. Do you know who those people were? That's right Franz, Europeans."
     "There is a French Aircraft carrier? Where is it? Oh.. Right where it belongs! In France of course! Oh, why should the French Navy dirty their uniforms helping people on the other side of the globe. How Simplesse... The day an American has to move a European out of the way to help in some part of the world it will be a great day in the world, you sniggering little snob..."
     The room fell silent. My Hindi friend then said quietly to the Euros:
     "Can you let your hatred of George Bush end for just one minute? There are people dying! And what are your countries doing? has helped more than France has. You all have a role to play in the world, why can't you see that? Thank God for the US Navy, they don't have to come and help, but they are. They helped you once and you should all thank God they did. They didn't have to, and no one but them would have done so. I'm ashamed of you all..."
     He left the room, shaking and in tears. The frustration of being on the other side of the globe, unable to do anything to assist and faced with people who could not set aside their asininity long enough to reach out and help was too much for him to bear. I just shook my head and left. The Euros stood speechless. Later in the break room, one of the laughing Euros caught me and extended his hand in an apology. I asked him where he was from, he said "a town outside of Berlin". He is a young man, in his early 20's. I asked him if he knew of a man named Gail Halverson. He said no. I said "that's a shame" and walked away to find my Hindi friend.

     The first-person narrator of the above encounter “reared up on his hind legs” and poured unassailable facts upon those who had demeaned President Bush and the American response to the tsunami. The reaction from the left-leaning Europeans was virtually nonexistent. They couldn’t deal with the reality. They didn’t dare to confront the facts laid out so plainly because the consequences would be fatal to their “assumption of differential rectitude.” So they kept silent, with one honorable exception, and waited for the man who had threatened their worldview to go away.

     When Sapir and Whorf desert him, the typical left-liberal is entirely without weapons or arms. He must stand naked before reality – and reality, as history declaims most eloquently, has not been a friend to the Left.

     The Klavan essay is significant not merely for its stark delineation of Leftist rhetorical hypocrisy, but for the appropriate sort of response – the sort offered to his European colleagues by the narrator of the episode above:

     ...the Left has felt blithely justified in sneering at opposing opinions it deems racist, sexist, or otherwise hateful. But it just doesn’t work. The eyes see what they see; the heart knows what it knows. Bottle up the human experience in silence, and it will ultimately break forth in rage. Thus, the result of these last 50 years of ceaseless left-wing incivility has been not a rainbow-striped paradise of social justice, but the utter collapse of our civic dialogue as the Right now responds with vulgar cruelty of its own. “Those to whom evil is done,” as the poet Auden wrote, “do evil in return.”

     You might say to me, as my mother used to say, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” But I say to you, as I used to say to my mother, “They started it.”

     Klavan’s mother’s statement has a particle of justice...but to give true and vocal coloration to the combined viciousness and sanctimony of the Left is not unjust. It’s merely something we’ve found unpleasant and so have tried to avoid...up to now. Now, however, is when the disciples of Sapir and Whorf – whether they’re consciously or unconsciously so – must get what’s coming to them.


Malatrope said...

I was unaware of Sapir-Whorf's thesis, but it's pretty obvious that thoughts beyond simple appreciation of weather and food are formed through the mechanism of language (not always verbal language, since it's easy enough to get immersed in algebraic thinking, or straight C++ for that matter).

The most pernicious form of brainwashing is to limit and shape a subject's verbal universe. I having been banging hell out of this drum online for years and I'm pleased as punch to see a noted blogger like yourself bring more instruments to the cacaphony. Thank you!

Don K said...

Frances, I am one of the 300 - 500 clicks you say you get on this blog on a daily basis. I found you some time ago. I wouldn't miss a day - well I might miss when you wax eloquent on religion/Catholicism. I am a parochial school educated practicing Agnostic.

Thank you for your thoughtful writing.

Be well.

Donald Kotowski

Anonymous said...

White privilege? I was raised to believe that privileges must be earned. Okay, so what have white folks done for the benefit of the world at large?

How about sanitation, flush toilets, running water. Or radio/TV/iPods. The products from oil and gas, such as the plastics in your world. Medicinal ideas such as anesthesia and on up to MRIs. Heart transplants. Cancer treatments. Man in space. That should be enough for a start.

So, who besides the whites initially conceptualized such as the above and then brought them to fruition? Who?



jls said...

I have been searching to discover the point of departure between the left and right. I have a rather straight forward hypothesis about which I would appreciate your comments.

The hypothesis is that we humans all start out as fundamentally self-centered creatures but at some point in our development diverge in how we accommodated ourselves to others. For some, this accommodation takes the form of a set of rules or boundary conditions – such as, I can rightfully do whatever I like as long as it doesn’t intrude on the free space of others. For others, righteousness is defined as acting in a selfless way so that only activities that benefit others are morally superior.

This divergence has the effect of spitting the moral universe into those who are self oriented but accommodating to others and those who are selfless or other-oriented. This first group, Hume describes both selfish and humane. They possess both greed and also “limited generosity” — dispositions to kindness and liberality which are more powerfully directed toward kin and friends and less aroused by strangers.

The second group, has at its core the same moral disposition as the first, but adopts what they consider an enlightened additional perspective. This perspective holds that their own core is mean, selfish and greedy but that this defect can be overcome, or at least accommodated, by a selfless attitude and a series of altruistic acts which serves to counter balance the evil at the core.

As you can see the first group sees themselves as fundamentally moral and are free to pursue happiness as they see fit, as long as they respect the space of others. In other words they define morally in negative terms such as “don’t hurt people and don’t take their stuff” and refrain from limiting the liberty of others. The second group sees themselves as fundamentally immoral at the start but this condition can be overcome by positive acts of kindness or care for others. For the first group, morality can be sustained by ‘not doing the bad deed’, for the second, morality must be acquired by ‘doing the good deed’.

The first groups ethical mindset can be described as the ‘means justifying the ends’, meaning that each person is free to pursue their individual end if the means conforms to moral behavior. For the second group this mindset emphasizes the opposite side of the moral equation. Here the means are justified by the morality of the ‘end’, meaning that if the end is intended to ‘care for’ or help others then the means used to accomplish the task are justified.

jls said...

The natural extension of how best to order and coordinate society flows directly from these initial conditions. For the first group, if one wants to gain the cooperation of someone in accomplishing an ‘end’ that is not in that persons self interest, the natural approach is to offer a ‘fair’ trade in a free environment. Here, fairness becomes defined in terms of the process that accommodates both parties interests. In other words social morality emphasizes ‘process fairness’ and ‘freedom’ with ‘care’ being provided through self sufficiency.

For those of the second orientation, cooperation flows from the desire for each to help their neighbor and for the moral credits that are accrued. Here ‘care’ is the driving morality with those not sufficiently ‘caring’ understood as moral reprobates. From this sides perspective a persons self interests are expected to be met by a series of altruistic acts performed by others. Those others can then expect an act of reciprocation in turn to meet their own needs. It’s like a father and son each giving the other a $50 gift card to Home Depot. Both father and son’s Home Depot needs are met, while at the same time, each gains a moral credit for making the gift. Of course this scheme only works if both side pretends to not know of or expect the reciprocation. If the cards are on the table at the start then we see there is no altruism at all but merely a shuffling of the gift cards.

For this second group, unfairness is seen as equivalent to a lack of care or a failure to provide the expected reciprocal altruism. Here social morality emphasizes ‘outcome fairness’ – or equality – as the measure of virtue with ‘care’ and ‘force’ as the controlling means.

Unknown said...

The organized and well camouflaged attack on America’s education system has always been to dumb down ‘learning,’ not to dumb down ‘knowledge’ although the latter has been one effect of that, and the elimination of Christian faith another. In my own seventy year quest for more knowledge in the areas of science, I learned that neurologists have discovered there is a section of the brain suited perfectly for the insertion of the tool called language, along with the (oh, heck… let me call it “God-Given”) desire to communicate. Words mean things. That was a good thing you wrote, Francis, the “Sapir-Whorf in the Saddle” article. Or is it an essay? …maybe just a blog? Shucks, it’s just a word…
Another nugget I have panned out of the stream of society’s slag heap is that where ever there is a pillar of Truth, those who would deny it must constantly rail against it, beating their heads against the Pillar, almost with every breath they take. So, when I see a particular folk rail against something like “white supremacy” it makes me wonder if there is more to the misused term than an example of bigotry. It’s just my opinion, but I think that our Creator favored all tribes equally with talents, just different ones for each. The assortment was meant to complement, like a transmission box of gears, not divide and stop the machine. I’m not into churchology or ‘religion’ but I have observed that science and Christianity seem to converge to the point of Genesis. Makes me think I win both ways…

Joseph P. Martino said...

I used the S-W hypothesis as a minor element in a story I published in ANALOG many years ago, although I didn't use the name. The idea in the story was that it was impossible for people in the Soviet Union to have certain ideas because the language Communism imposed on them didn't allow for those ideas.

"The limits of my language are the limits of my world"