about (oh my) god

She entered the lecture theatre with the decided headmistress gait of Minerva McGonagall, had we, at that time, been acquainted with the character. She smiled at us broadly and then said, in an American accent to which memory adds a little pop culture Queens Jewish inflexion that may not have been there: ”Morning! What you need to remember for the purposes of this class is that Noam Chomsky is GOD!”.

It was the first class on the first day of university and the funky style of our Phonology professor would be trumped many times over by the quirkiness of most of the teachers that stood in front of us after her.* However, that very first sentence of university life ought to have been met, had we been raised in schools where thinking was encouraged, with any range of reactions between ”Why?” and ”Wait, what kind of a scientist are you?”.

Against that backdrop, six years later, the first class of the General linguistics masters course in Amsterdam began with ”Please read this article that gives you tools to rip holes into scientific theories. Keep it at hand. Your job all throughout this semester will be to use the respective tools in order to deliver an argument as to the possible validity or invalidity of each of the theories we are going to discuss. This will be your weekly assignment”.

 

This not being a neverendingly whining story about how the system of education in which I grew up is inadequate in shaping critical thinking. This is about gods.

There is no doubt in my mind that our professor, with all her international pizzazz (as one would have perceived it in a decent school with provincial airs as mine) would have gone, in her heart, full thirteen-year-old ”OMGOMGOMG!!!” if she had been at a conference and in the position to say ”hi” to GOD. Just as kids in my daughter’s class would do if they met Justin Bieber. The admiration from afar for a skill that one finds extraordinary is quite easy to understand and recognize. With ”afar” being a bit of an issue and the person as a whole being admired as a reversed synecdoche for the skill being the bigger issue.

I imagine being famous as inhabiting a kind of bubble the glass walls of which are being licked (with the French expression) by anything between hundreds and millions of people, simultaneously looking up to their hero and waiting for them to slip up**. There must be a huge pressure to conform to a previously set in stone image of yourself, to not deviate from script in order not to lose fandom, or else, as only escape, to play it completely by ear and pretend not to care what the public opinion is saying. In both cases, there is hardly any constructive communication between the being on a pedestal and the people doing the watching and commenting. In a smaller circle, recognizing people as idols has the potential of bestowing upon them power over others to a degree that is not healthy, either for themselves or their environment – and sometimes for the very craft they are idolized for. It should not be the case that a school creates a halo of godness around a thinker.  On the one hand, because if they are wrong, it is at least a bit silly to spend another 40-something years publishing research embedded in a theory that could have been challenged earlier if people were not in love with its conceiver. Of course, ideas have their moments of glory and their own aging cycles, but science should be permeable to criticism and shielding science with personalities is a liability. On the other hand, this sort of cult should not be admitted because it gives the person inordinate power over the direction of a school and the lives of the people working in it. And not least, because thinkers going unchallenged risk getting infatuated with their image and muddling in their own original idea with no new input – and their thinking rusts***.

The same goes, however, to my mind, for every kind of pedestal. Musicians getting ”money for nothing and the chicks for free” is just one cliche of the structures underlying potential power abuse. The type of relationships revealed by ”The devil wears Prada” is another.  Gravitating around a center of public admiration seems prone to engender personal trade-offs that can encompass personal time, privacy, different levels of autonomy, dignity, ethical values as regards pain to oneself or to others etc. In a market-like scheme of thinking, there are things and values that people are willing to relinquish in order to be close to those centers. We seem to accept/tolerate this as a fact of life, given that people appear to perform those trade-offs out of free will and that many of the trade-offs of groupies, for instance, are perceived as genuine expressions of love. Yet when it turns out that relationships that were built crooked are being abused by those onto whom we bestowed power, we send the abusers to the rubbish bin and enclose them in another bubble, just as inescapable as the first one: they are monsters. I would like to contend that adulated thinkers risking eventual mediocrity, artistic or other kinds of celebrities risking monsterness and inspirational leaders risking authoritarianism are facets of the same public policy of creating gods out of people with special skills. It is that policy that effectively prevents pedestal people from getting useful, corrective negative feedback when they misbehave or are simply wrong (and makes some of them age rather horribly in the process). It is that policy which creates a layer of look-away-ers when power is being taken advantage of and a layer of victims who can determine only with difficulty whether they have not, at some point, made a trade-off themselves, given that they wanted to be close to a center. It is the same mechanism of stripping away the inherent humanity of our heroes that puts them at risk of no longer/never feeling empathy with their fellow beings and places us in the impossibility of forgiving them if they fall.

By no means do I want to diminish the responsibility of anyone invested with any kind of power for their own actions and sane decisions; nor do I want to place any burden on those who identify as victims in all this. I would, however, like it if at least the discussion started under the #metoo, if not the (just as important) discussion of our political cycles, moved from the (necessary, but not sufficient) singling out of visible personal responsibility to a discussion of the mechanisms that create the circumstances in which abuse is possible and condoned. I would like it to become about more than just misoginy, even though that is an integral part of the more salient strand of this power issue. I would like it to also be about how to teach ourselves, as individuals and communities, to say no to abuse and dictatorship of all kinds, from the domestic to the societal – to not make the trade-offs that tresspass our limits ourselves, to not hand over that power and to teach our children how to navigate the world without becoming either the abuser or the abused. I would like us to stop fighting the ripple effects of spoiled bratts and see where we spoil them and find out whether we have or can imagine the tools to change the game. To move from the identification of a problem to the ownership of our own role in it and the building of solutions.

 

Irrespectively of what the outcome of that process turns out to be, personally, I would also like most of the people who got singled out and do not legally belong in correction facilities or need to be in prolonged psychological care to go back to work and be brilliant at whatever they are brilliant – with a safety net of pure humble pie: ”Your bullshit is never again going to be a perk of your career, noone will ever put up with it. Live long and prosper, silly human and don’t allow yourself to get conceited again.” But this is a different discussion…

 

 

*Off topic, the class turned out to be an excellent piece of structuralist phonetics and phonology (we hardly touched upon generative grammar at all, in what I remember) that has been imprinted so deeply that I surprised myself about a month ago drawing the phonatory apparatus in order to explain to the kids the difference between a dental and a labial fricative rendered by the same letter in Dutch and Romanian. (They are, luckily, too young to say ”you are a horrible geek”, so I’m taking advantage.)

**Musical background 🙂

 

***No more than three weeks later this idea sprung back towards me as a boomerang off the pages of a Frans de Waal book. Possibly reading stuff as confirmation bias.

 

 

 

Anunțuri

soylent green and the locked-in syndrome

We need to talk. And I’m gonna do this one in English, because we all need to talk and, for now, this is the lingua franca.

It is the 10th of November, 2016. Things look grim to a whole lot of people. Our children have come home from school this year having been explained that a bomb had exploded near mom’s work, what Brexit means and, yesterday, that the smugly grinning gentleman that popped up on every screen in the house whenever one went on is the new (I swear) mayor. Talking about a global village. I have cried every time.

But then again, there really is a to-do list, and I don’t believe it’s entirely Michael Moore’s.

First of all, I do not think the solution is less democracy „ because people are stupid”, as some are starting to ventilate. We are all stupid to some degree, it’s not a +/- value. The solution is better democracy. And for better democracy, we need to fix something vital.

At all times, people have been ill-informed. Nobody knows every aspect of how government works, even while working in government, as hardly anyone even knows how their own appliances work; nobody takes perfectly rational decisions, because nobody sees every angle of a story and we all are prey to tons of reasoning fallacies. In this particular instance, half of the American planet bought into a story of fearing the corrupt left-claimed elite that only preserves privilege for itself and destroys the economy (Romanian friends, does this by any chance sound familiar and have you or have you not voted for pretty much everything except Vadim in order to keep that from happening?), while the other half bought into a story of fearing potential destruction of fundamental liberal values and democracy itself (which, you may tell me, is documented with more on-tape evidence – except it is still a story about fear). Early this summer, but actually over the years, half of Britain bought into a story of a big bad wolf out there stealing their money, telling them how to live and sending them the least desirable of people to drain their perfect system, while the other half bought into a story of becoming completely bankrupt as a result of breaking up (which, funnily, was labeled Project Fear). One could say that these deep divisions are an extreme consequence of political two-party systems. But then again, the two party-systems have existed before, the difference of opinions about how to go about doing things and the balancing of interests has worked before. Why does it seem so final now?

The thing that has grown and that we have not been able to sort out with democratic mechanisms is the toxic combination of internet and media. And the toxic element is the illusion of „ free ” (in both senses).

The things I have read during both these campaigns confirmed each other at an enormous (and, I now realise, alarming) rate. At the same time, every time I have tried to consume media that the other side was reading, it seemed impossible – the degree of disgust when I even opened a site made me shut myself off, try to protect myself. „How can people buy this crap???” was the constant reaction. But the thing is, they don’t. And yet they do. That is, we don’t pay for the information, but we do buy into the content. And while a part of us sit and ponder at the vile untruths written by Murdoch’s media empire, thinking we understand what the end political game is in shaping opinions about climate change not existing, because we can surely follow the money, we conveniently feel less critical of the mogul owning the media we ourselves consume. Or, should I say, that we are locked into.

Because the thing is, as long as we accept that we are the product of the media, as long as the business model is that we have to buy into the story so that advertisers can target us, and as long as the media are not accountable to us (as consumers, market-wise) or to any public good (as a public service, state-wise), but to the money that pays for its existence, we don’t even have the thin film of a consumers protection or of legal action to keep us from the cannibalization. And as far as self-regulation goes, journalism ethics appears to have gone out the window a while ago in much of the big business (while the nonsensical little outlets proliferate without any oversight). As long as we maintain the model of freedom of expression without modifying the financing system and we do not build enough independent outlets that can make sense of data and facts that we cannot make sense of by ourselves, the few poles of influence will continue to play one another with us as dedicated, extremely (though one-sidedly) informed, ever more hysterical and despondent pawns. Our opinion gets shaped and then just mirrored to us with the bits of reality that fit the bill for it to seem consistent with our narrative.

What is the last time you have changed your mind about something? We are increasingly incapable of seeing what others are seeing in their locked bubble, we distrust the competing message to such a degree that we shut our ears (and so do the others, if you are still wondering „how have we gotten here?”). People are not voting in spite of the facts, as it has been said a lot this year. They are voting, and making general life decisions, based on mistrust of anything presented as a fact by the other side, which should feel recognizable. It is not that a side is sane and the other isn’t, although it may feel that way wherever you are positioned. It is also not that one side is informed and the other ignorant, though both cast this accusation lightly. We have probably all consumed more media this year than in the course of entire lives (which proves that the fear and anger stories are extremely lucrative for the established outlets, and politics will surely provide all the necessary puppets for them to go on, because it’s a mutually beneficial deal  – there is little doubt that we can expect more of these rhetoric clashes, and it is probably not because of essential changes in moral standards). It’s that partisan press makes it impossible to tell the truth from the propaganda – both of those being pretty debatable as concepts to begin with, if you take into account the effects of framing, the inflation of communication, trolling as a phenomenon etc. – (EXCEPT for the things you disagree with, where you will conveniently say EVERYTHING is propaganda and your opponents are brainwashed).

More often than not, instead of having different opinions about the same issues – based on different values, for instance – we have gotten to the point where we do not even see the same issues as being issues. And we all solve it in our heads in the same way: if only more people saw that the main issue is the one I see, it would be so simple! But, as is the case with talking to one another in different languages, shouting harder doesn’t help. Bombs have never changed opinions towards that of the bomber, and yelling at anyone that they are a racist (or a communist, if you will) will never make them question their position or change their mind – if anything, it will make them dig themselves in. More than that, the things we all consider important will become increasingly invisible, because the divisive model pays better. Basically, it’s as if we all got our information about the world, our future and about our spouses from our respective divorce lawyers who get paid by the hour. As far as the lawyers are concerned, the angrier we are, the more we panic about our potential losses, the better off they are. Screw the kids!

We need to find a way to tell stories we can trust because they come from sources we do not see as intrinsically corrupt, stories that can help with the translation. We need to fix the story-telling, globally.

dadeceuri/uitedeaiauri

În dimineaţa asta de luni, printre mormanele de cuvinte care nu spun nimic, dar trebuie trecute prin moara traducerii mele urgent-urgent, am citit asta:

http://www.contributors.ro/editorial/cum-produce-scoala-tampiti/

şi asta:

Şi acum vreo trei zile, asta:
Şi dincolo de depresia inerentă şi de căutarea în creier a insulei pe care să fugim cu toţii, cel puţin ăia pentru care sunt eu răspunzătoare deocamdată, ca să ne salvăm încă o dată de la potopul zilnic de nămol, am găsit iarăşi firul comun care leagă în capul meu (şi sigur şi al altora cu cărţi groase) o mulţime din chestiile care merg prost pe lumea asta. Şi răspunsul e: absenţa motivaţiei intrinseci. Premisa cucoanelor care întreabă copiii în tramvai cât de rău e la şcoală este că e imposibil să te duci la şcoală ca să înveţi. Importante sunt notele. Premisa managerului este că tu nu munceşti ca să duci un lucru de la A la B, ci ca să acumulezi cretiniile lor de puncte fiindcă ai fost cuminte, aşa încât să te promoveze şi să-ţi dea mai mulţi bani când ai strâns destule. Premisa mass-media este că nu funcţionează ca să producă informaţie pentru oameni, ci ca să producă rating (ochi de oameni manipulabili), traductibil în bani de publicitate. Premisa politicianului este nu că câştigă alegerile ca să facă ceva… politic, să guverneze, să cugete cum trebuie să se îmbine rotiţele ca să funcţioneze mecanismul, ci că face ceva, orice, cât timp e la putere ca să câştige alegerile următoare. Totul e valorizat brambura, toată lumea este motivată să funcţioneze în direcţia obţinerii stimulului extrinsec, să citească pentru note, să lucreze pentru bani, să producă ceea ce produce pentru un motiv altul decât produsul în sine. A face o chestie bună şi durabilă este echivalent cu a te condamna la foame, cât timp, în cultura targetului de vânzări, nu măsurăm lucrurile în valoarea lor adăugată, ci în creştere economică, adică în cu cât mai multe din produsele pe care le fac azi voi putea vinde anul viitor. Or, dacă-s bune, anul viitor nu va avea nimeni nevoie de încă unul. Deci să am grijă să se strice repede. Să nu existe cine să le repare. Să fie mai scump să le repare decât să ia unul nou. Să adaug câte o lamă la aparatul de ras în fiecare an, ca să pară mai „performant”, şi după trei ani musai să scot din vânzare sistemul vechi, că altfel nu le cumpără pe alea noi. Or pe mine nu mă interesează clientul mulţumit de produs, mă interesează ca la bursă să iasă cu plus, ca să-mi dea investitorii încă nişte bani şi să-mi fac bonusul.
Nu e o problemă punctuală, rezolvabilă pe fiecare sector în sine. E una structurală. Şi ştiu că sună naiv că cineva ar putea munci ca să muncească sau învăţa ca să înveţe, sau fi jurnalist ca să producă ştiri, nu ca să producă premii traductibile în salarii mai mari, dar modul ăsta de valorizare produce o amoralitate care îmi zbârleşte blana de frică.