Friday, 28 August 2015

26. Walls, language, resistance and adopting a new motherland

Chinese symbols for adopt, accept, naturalise
They don't speak our language! is one of the most common complaints when any European is arguing against immigration. Language becomes a wall between two equals, a way to shut the other out. "I'm in this country but I don't want it inside my head" might be the never-articulated thought of one of those immigrants. And thus showing a degree of resistance against the "adopted" motherland. From this point of view, it's probably a process of self-preservation, of not mutating too fast (or at all) and getting lost in adaptation.

In France, the language conflict is probably even deeper: the French criticise immigrants whilst the French themselves are also consciously or unconsciously resisting the imposition of English as the "universal language". So, I'll try to touch the two points of view with the hidden emotional significance they share as they touch our sense of self but also loyalty and betrayal.

video: RSA, Sudhir Hazareesingh on How the French think

Learning a new language 
Anyone that has ever taken a language course knows that language is not innocuous. It is not a tool that we use. It is a tool that by using it, it changes us too.

Grammar as the world interpreter
Grammar is not only the structure of the sentence, it is the structure of the thought itself, which then affects how you interpret the world. The article in the Guardian "Think your view world is fixed? Learn another language and you'll think differently" by Panos Athanasopoulus reports on a study conducted on English and German monolinguals and bilinguals. 
"We showed German-English bilinguals video clips of events with a motion in them, such as a woman walking towards a car or a man cycling towards the supermarket and then asked them to describe the scenes.
When judging risk, bilinguals also tend to make more rational, economic decisions in a second language.
When you give a scene like that to a monolingual German speaker they will tend to describe the action but also the goal of the action. So they would tend to say, “A woman walks towards her car,” or “A man cycles towards the supermarket.” English monolingual speakers would simply describe those scenes as “A woman is walking,” or “a man is cycling,” without mentioning the goal of the action.
The worldview assumed by German speakers is a holistic one – they tend to look at the event as a whole – whereas English speakers tend to zoom in on the event and focus only on the action."
The article explains that in English the Present Continuous exists whilst in German it doesn't, and somehow this may explain why the English speakers are happy describing an action in itself, whilst in German you feel you need a goal for the sentence to convey enough information.

But they also found that bilinguals who are given the test instructions in a second language "adopt" the perspective of that second language. So a German, performing the test in German would describe an action with its goal (eg A woman walks towards a car), but if he were performing the test in English, he would describe the action itself (A woman is walking). Participants were found also to change their opinions on how ambiguous some scenes were. So... we can wonder: Which of these different views we can have in different languages truly represents us? which one enables us to express ourselves? 

It makes me wonder how a language like Indonesian that -does not have future or past tenses, or that forms its plurals by repeating the same word twice- changes the way people think.

Hidden social codes
Beyond grammar, it is also easy to recognise that different languages come with different social codes. They are full of nuances regarding the choice of words, the formulation of an idea, the which words are emphasised, etc. We all know that when learning to write a complaint letter in English (British style), there is a specific structure. You are polite. You are not angry, but disappointed at most. In a German course, well... it is different. What Germans would describe as clear and to the point, British standards would qualify it as blunt. In the country where I can from, we wouldn't bother to write a letter. 

Beyond the course itself, when living in a foreign country these codes are almost as important as the language itself (I know it because I've lived in five different countries). You can get very frustrated if you don't learn the art of French confrontation even to discuss something utterly insignificant with a plumber. When trying to swim through the labyrinth of Italian bureaucracy, building a familial rapport with the civil servants gets you a long way -in fact this used to drive mad an american friend of mine that expected customer service american-way-. You also learn the multi-layered meaning of the word "interesting" in Great Britain, which is very commonly used to express disagreement subtly. 
It is not only through language but also through these codes that you "make things work". 
As a consequence, the emotional charge you put in certain transactions has to change when you are performing them in different countries. If you are very uncomfortable with confrontation, France might feel hostile. If you are uncomfortable with building a sense of familiarity with someone you don't know, Italy might feel difficult. If you are not perfectionist, Germany might feel too negative-focused.
There is a point, however, that you learn to see as a game you have to play, which has certain rules. But that requires you to disembarrass yourself of some of your own feelings and emotions which might bring a sense of loss and even betrayal. Normally the mother-tongue is the one that carries the most emotional weight, as behaving in a certain way is related to being accepted or rejected by your mother (your family, your clan)Even though maternal love is supposed to be unconditional, maternal rejection exists (even in nature) and we fear its potential toxicity. Allowing yourself to be confrontational -for example- when confrontation was frown upon by your mother (or culture), or ambitious, sometimes even being thin or fat... is an unconscious betrayal. You are running a significant emotional risk of being rejected by your own family and country and thus cutting that umbilical cord that connects you to your home and the possibility to come back. And here is where the sense of self is challenged. Do my emotions define me? Are they defending me, my sense of self? Are they defending my mother's and culture accepted version of me? Are these boundaries mine? Where do the boundaries of who I am are? 
All these questions are not easy to answer, and it takes time. Sometimes crossing too many of the internal boundaries too fast brings of sense of identity loss.

Beyond language: Conflicting narratives and codes

Let me start with the most obvious of the examples. For many years History books described the arrival of Colombus to America as the "Discovery of America". There are even academic discussions about who discovered America first. The Vikings! And we naturalised it. But of course America had people already who perfectly knew the land below their feet existed. The ones that added America to their cognitive map were the Europeans. It is an European subjective narrative. The native narrative would've been very different.
So what happens when we confront two or more narratives? 
Studies prove that pluralistic groups can detect lies better, confirmation-bias is reduced. Groups are more successful than individuals to find the "truth" (as opposed to a lie). However, confrontation of narratives sometimes forces a choice. The ban of face covering in public spaces (effectively banning the use of the burqa in public spaces) or of the use of religious symbols in schools in France generated clear conflicts between two social norms whose rejection/acceptance criteria contradict each other. Adhering to one of them implies betrayal of the other.

I'll go outside the world of immigration for a second, to bring the example of Argentina's stolen children documentary by RT. During the military dictatorship of 1976-1983, the Junta organized the kidnap, torture and execution of opposition militants, including pregnant women. The mothers were allowed to give birth (but were subsequently killed). These babies were placed in "right" families, many of them were families of members of the army. These children grew up not knowing their origin and many times were educated under the ideology that justified the killing of their biological parents. In the documentary these babies, now adults, tell the process they went through when discovering the truth. Some of them approached the truth by their own initiative, but some others by judicial searches. In the latter, they were asked to provide blood to run DNA tests. Even though they could understand that there was significant evidence to suggest they had been stolen, some of them refused to give blood. They were facing all these questions that affected their identity that had to be resolved in what it probably felt a split of a second. They knew too that it represented a betrayal towards the family they grew up with and there would not be a way back, even if some of them were directly responsible of their abduction. The sense of identity changes deeply in this sort of process.

A little less than 120 out of the estimated 500 were found. It is suspected that many of the missing ones are not coming forward for fear their adoptive parents would go to prison. This is based on the fact that many of them approach the authorities once their parents die.
This is -of course- an extreme case of having to integrate a very difficult past. 
But I think this example illustrates in its extremity how clan loyalty works, how difficult it might be for some to go against it, and how it affects our sense of self.
Immigration as rebirth
All immigrants face this moment, like Frodo in Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings, when we need to let go of our "given" sense of self, our dependent relationship with our mother and the possibility to go back. But this moment comes with doubt and with resistance, not learning the language is one of them. If I shed the old skin... Who is giving birth? who is being born? who dies? what's the essence that survives in this transition?

How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Jes’ like a rolling stone?
~Bob Dylan

By attempting to answer these questions the awareness of who we are, what is ours and not, increases. Opening the doors to different ways of thinking, learning new meanings through new words, observing and comparing, we are bringing down some of our internal walls and connect with new parts of ourselves. But in this greater level of awareness the connection to this new motherland is not blind.  

The other end
So what is happening to the observers of these transformations? The ones that point a finger and tell their motherland "they don't speak your language". What's going on with them? They too are faced with the realisation their view of the world is not as universal as they used to think. For them, these immigrants act like messengers. Then they also start to wonder then, am I right? is this right? They also build a wall of resistance for not getting lost in the adaptation. They also need time to absorb. With this comment, I don't mean to "excuse" racism or xenophobia. We are all part of a human race that has historically struggled with change and otherness. Self-preservation instinct kicks in, walls are built. In the past most of these questions had been only answered by the generations that came after. They were the ones that having less internal barriers, being freer from some narratives, were more able to work out "the integration part" of the story. They become culturally bilingual. 

Somehow President Obama is caught in the middle of the question of how to integrate narrative with reality (at least in what internal politics is concerned), particularly when he needs to tap into the cultural narrative of the american exceptionalism. As a African American president, he cannot turn a blind eye to dark chapters of American History or even dark corners of American present. He cannot repeat the prevailing narrative without adding new tones. In preparation to the speech he delivered in Selma these were some of the ideas that appeared in drafts: 
 “Even today we continue to have debates about what it means to love this country, to be a true patriot. But what greater expression of faith in the American idea; what greater form of patriotism is there than to believe that America is not yet finished; that it’s strong enough to be self critical; that each generation can look upon its imperfections and say we can do better.
However, he has constantly faced republican criticism like what Giuliani said to Republican donors: 
"I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America. . . . He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up, through love of this country.  
Even if it is easy to say that one is right and the other are wrong (depending on which side you are), I described above that we all have a little conservative inside who is concerned with self preservation and prefer to build walls (the main difference is what it is exactly that thing each of us wants to preserve). Obama addressed this opposition directly in his speech drafts:
Those who only understand exceptionalism as preserving the past; who deny our faults or inequality; who say love it or leave it; those are the people who are afraid. Those are the people who think America is some fragile thing.
With these words I'm not trying to endorse this exceptionalism claim, only to illustrate how narratives feel that any sign of self reflection is a threat, somehow showing that the biggest threat is internal. The thing that no one should see or know about us is what we fear the most, what weakens us. 

I round the circle I started in a previous entry, when I said that strength that is based on the rejection of weakness is a false strength. So it is probably only by embracing these weakness, this vulnerable self, that we can complete this re-birth process stronger than before, which allows us to defend the permeable walls that keep our sense of self from falling apart: the ones that protect our essence, our uniqueness, the "myself-but-connected", and tear down the barb wired concrete walls we no longer need. 


Interesting articles:
Laurie Penny: "Gender-neutral language is coming - here's why it matters", The Newstatesman

Sunday, 23 August 2015

25. Predators and Trojan horses

It is naive to think there are no predators in the world. Detecting predators is so important that fears and traumatic experiences are being found to be passed on in our DNA to the next generations. However, it is one of the areas where justice and the political system struggle the most. 

Today I found in the newspapers the news that Bansky opened last Thursday a new art show in Weston-upon-Mare called Dismaland which included some works on the theme of predators. According to The Guardian, Dismaland includes "a “pocket money loans” shop offering money to children at an interest rate of 5,000%. In front of its counter is a small trampet so children can bounce up to read the outrageous small print drawn up by artist Darren Cullen.". There is also a Cindirella crash scene being photographed by papparazzis, which is a stark reminder of something we all remember.

Even though conservative thinking claims some sort of ownership over the rule of law, it tends to dismiss and turn a blind eye on anything related to predatory behaviour at any level. From child abuse to economic predators. Under the conservative narrative they don't exist.
The left, on the other hand, is prone to portray predatory behavior in conspiracy terms, where everything is consciously and machiavellianly orchestrated to work in favour of the predator whilst allowing the predator to remain in the shadow. Under this narrative the full system is predatory. 
None of these positions offer full clarity on how to recognise and respond to a predator. In one, there aren't any and we should accept whatever is going on because that's reality, in the other the task is simply too big and too shadowy. In both we are powerless.

Predators feed from the vital energy of a situation, a person, a family, a country or the world itself. They suck up their victims out of money, youth, creativity, attention, beauty, physical strength or innocence. They make others fall into their hunger.

Not listening to our negative emotions
So why is it so complicated dealing with predatory behaviour? There are many cultural nuances that play a role here. The first trap we often find is the denial of what's negative, like shutting down our self-defence systems. We ought to be always positive and optimistic. If we feel a negative emotion, we have to suppress it. We are the owners of this negativity so we must be wrong. Finding or even sensing something negative is somehow a proof of a lack: lack of emotional balance, lack of drive, lack of proficiency or lack of understanding the world. 
This authoritarian positivism got so far that there are discussions on whether mindfulness or meditation are being used as control mechanism to soothe people and make them more accepting and submissive, instead of a tool to achieve the clarity we need to act and resolve our problems. 
We need to start to revalue the importance of negative emotions and how to use them. Fear, anger, sadness, etc. For instance, anger can be an explosive reaction or even malevolent but it does not have to be. Anger gives us the strength we don't normally need or use to reassert a limit, to say no, or to demand something that it is due. But we need to educate our anger for it to become an assertive negotiating tool that works for us, without violence or malevolence.
In the case of fear, and even though it can be paralysing, it is also a basic traffic light in our self-preservation. 
Whatever the emotion, sensing that we are being drained of vital energy in any way is an important signal to recognise to be able to defend ourselves. You can sense a bit of this dynamic in the chat Owen Jones (a journalist writing for The Guardian and The New Statesman) had with one of his online trolls. The troll admits on calling him a racist just to get his attention. And although he does not like him nor agrees with any of his views, he repeatedly asked to be unblocked on twitter. Something Owen Jones did not do.

Victim blaming

The second trap is the complex land of victim blaming. Why is it complex? There is a psychological exercise that illustrates this complexity. The exercise consists in presenting a crime situation to a group to discuss blame. I could not find the original exercise so I'll describe what I recall from it: a 18-year-old girl is walking home at 10 PM alone when she is raped in a park. Her father had told her he could not pick her up from her friend's home. Her friend knew there had been cases of rape in the neighbourhood but failed to tell her friend about it. The policeman who was supposed to be patrolling the area at that time had stopped for a coffee. Someone saw the scene but failed to react. Who is to blame? You can pick only one.
I was hugely surprised to be part of a discussion where there was no anonymous blame on the rapist (the only character not mentioned in the exercise, ie the girls "is" raped). The girl was to blame for walking alone so late -and probably she was wearing a mini-skirt someone might add-, the father for not protecting his child, the friend for not warning her, the policeman for not being in the area, the witness for doing nothing... Our sense of blame is very subjective and is rather aligned with cultural and personal structures, values and expectations: we expect a lot from a father, a friend, a policeman. Of course, we have responsibility over our alarm systems working, but we cannot and should not lose sight of who is the actual perpetrator of the crime. However, the force of public opinion tends to get dispersed when dealing with blame and guilt, and so loses its strength to put on pressure onto politicians.

In predatory lending we see the same phenomenon. Banks -highly professionals- offer credit cards or mortgages to people who don't have the financial strength to engage in a risk-free debt. On the contrary, the bank knows they are quite likely to fall behind payments. Culturally, people who took on debt bear the weight of the guilt if they cannot pay back. The missing due diligence of the highly educated experts in finance who work in those banks, who were payed bonuses for achieving the related targets, is minimised. 
In the following video, Prof. Joseph Stiglitz discusses blame on the financial crisis of 2008. He argues against those making a case to lay blame on the regulators and the central bank for lending to banks at a very low interest rate instead of looking at the banks and the role in the out of control private debt accumulation.

legal and political system struggled to do anything after the financial crisis of 2008. Banks had to pay some fines, and accept to take part in some stress testing but no significant structural changes happened. Structural changes is what should happen after a crisis (the emergence of a new paradigm). Otherwise, the crisis "purpose" (and opportunity) is lost and another one will be needed.
Only Iceland took a strong position after the crisis and is now pursuing further changes in the banking system, building a case to prosecute banks for counterfeiting. When being able to give away loans sidestepping capital requirements, they argue, banks were effectively creating money out of thin air, violating the mandate that only the central bank can issue money.  
The rest of the countries, with public opinion confused, dispersed and misinformed, and politicians that don't do much if not truly forced, did not resolve their own tragedies. Similar things happen when dealing with crimes against humanity when local systems fail to judge criminals and end up only prosecuted at the international court of law. In this sense, and only due to the inability of local political power to act, there are initiatives to include economic and environmental crimes under an universal jurisdiction. 

Letting the Trojan horses in
When discussing why it is difficult for the legal and political system to deal with predatory behaviour, we have to touch the issue of how they sometimes operate as door openers. 
In his Confessions of an economic hitmam (a best-selling book - there are also many videos available in youtube), John Perkins describes how through loans and conditionalities, transatlantic corporations manage to get countries to devaluate their currencies and thus being able to buy assets for a fraction of their value (the current version in Greece is that creditors are able to switch bad bonds for actual assets), to impose or remove existing laws, to open up the economy to foreign goods to compete against sometimes not fully developed local companies, to allocate large contracts to foreign firms, etc.

Europe is preparing the ground to sign the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement with the US. Beyond the typical negotiating points in any trade agreement (ok-let's-agree-that-bananas-can-have-different-curvatures-here, you might-need-to-drop-this-ban-on-animal-testing-there), they want to impose an Investor State dispute settlement, which is a parallel, closed and secret judicial system which also allows corporations to sue countries for anything they regard as affecting their profits.

Reclaiming power

Unfortunately I don't think there is an easy answer. 

We need to recognise our own hunger, our internal predator. At the end of the day, a hungry paparazzo is selling his pictures to a hungry magazine which is selling its magazines to a hungry public. As long as we are blind to this side of ourselves, we'll struggle to see it outside. What are we willing to sell ourselves for? and our children? For a cheaper tablet? cheap clothing? a promotion? what's the price tag we put on our country? 
And then address this hunger. We might need to connect to other sources of human or spiritual "food" to domesticate our inner predator. 

We need to have our alarm systems up and running. But this cannot be done if we don't learn to listen to our instinct, and to understand our negative emotions. We also need to use our intelligence to dig out the true meaning of what we are feeling, what's the true motivation and then dare to have adult conversations -with ourselves and with others-. We cannot live with a Facebook or Linkedin etiquette where no real discussion can ever happen. You only "like" what the others say; you say things the others won't be afraid to say they "like".  We sign this unwritten deal of inflating each others egos and not having any real conversation (I'm discounting bullying or any sort of trolling out of the definition of real conversation).
We need to be aware of our inherited fears to ensure that our alarm systems are actually working against our reality instead of memories that are not ours.

We need to put pressure on politicians and encourage young people to ask questionsto use their alarm systems and to be politically active.

As we were born out of the concentrated state power (the matriarchal state), we need to be born out of the concentrated corporate power too (the patriarchal sector). States and corporations are important, only they need to operate within democratically drawn boundaries. 


External links:
Helen Thomson, The Guardian: "Study of holocaust survivors finds trauma passed on to children's genes". 
Ashifa Kassam, The Guardian: "Spain's campaigning judge seek change in law to prosecute global corporations".