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

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