Showing posts with label Steven Pinker. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Steven Pinker. Show all posts

Monday 18 May 2020

The "We" Vote in Quebec

Les Patriots 

Today is la Journée nationale des patriotes in Québec.   (Prior to 2003 it was Dollard des Ormeaux Day in celebration of the garrison commander who died fighting the Iroquois [Haudenosaunee]  at the Battle of Long Sault in 1660. Times change.)  In the ROC (the Rest of Canada) today is Victoria Day (in honour of Queen Victoria).

In popular lore, les patriots are remembered as French peasants battling their English overloads.  This version of history is at least partially true; however, some leaders of the rebellion in Lower Canada (today Quebec) were English (notably Wolfred Nelson and his brother, Dr. Robert Nelson), some members of the upper class--opposing les patriots-- were French Canadian seigneurs, and, at the same time (1839), a similar rebellion of English-speaking farmers was taking place against the ruling-elite Family Compact in Upper Canada for the same reasons--demanding representational government.

In Quebec, history is often retold as a battle between English and French

In this age of polarizing algorithms, viral conspiracy theories, fake news and internet trolls, it might seem like small potatoes that Canadian history tends to get rewritten from a linguistic perspective (not to mention the obvious, that it is written in two languages).  In Quebec, at a popular level and sometimes beyond, the stories of Canada tend to be told (or performed) as a conflict between an oppressive English elite and an oppressed, minoritized French-Quebec majority.

"Mon non est québécois"

During the 1995 referendum campaign on Quebec independence, a whisper campaign emerged suggesting that advocates for the "non" side ("no" to separation from Canada)  didn't have French-sounding names.  In response, the "non" campaign led by Claude Ryan, came up with a slogan punning on "non" [no] and "nomme" [name], which are homophones in French.  (See Quebec and the ROC.)

Since those days, I've thought someone needs to write an article entitled "The 'We' Vote in Quebec."  (Much as I hate to kill the pun with an explanation; to be safe, I should explain that "we" and "oui" [yes] are homophones.)

"We" yes; "ethnic nationalism" no

From a sovereigntist perspective, there are certain words that cannot be used to describe the movement for Quebec independence.  In 2013, Bloc Québécois member of parliament, Maria Mourani was expelled from the party for stating publically that many of her constituents viewed the Parti Québécois “Charte des valeurs" [Charter of Values] as ethnic nationalism.  "Ethnic nationalism" is verboten, but I think we can safely describe the sovereigntist position as being in favour of "we." "We" (in its various cases--us, our, ours) is a consistent presence in independentist slogans:  "Nous sommes un peuple" [We are a nation], "Maîtres chez nous" [Masters of our house], and the PQ slogan for the “Charte des valeurs":  “Parce que nos valeurs, on y croit” [Because our values, we believe in them].

"Nous et les autres"

Although it might be viewed as politically incorrect in recent times, the dichotomy of "nous" and "les autres" [the others] has always been a part of life in Quebec.  I grew up in a small town on the Quebec side of the Ontario/Quebec border.  From birth to retirement I spent virtually the entirety of my life and career in Quebec; as a bilingual anglophone, perennially perched on the divide between "nous" and "les autres."  Contrary to what you might imagine, most of the time, it wasn't a bad place to be.

Lord Durham's Report on the Affairs of British North America 

As the newly-installed Governor General of British North America, John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham, was tasked with writing the (in)famous Report in which he claimed:
There can hardly be conceived a nationality more destitute of all that can invigorate and elevate a people, than that which is exhibited by the descendants of the French in Lower Canada, owing to their retaining their peculiar language and manners. They are a people with no history, and no literature.
[ . . . .]
In these circumstances. I should be indeed surprised if the more reflecting part of the French Canadians entertained at present any hope of continuing to preserve their nationality. Much as they struggle against it, it is obvious that the process of assimilation to English habits is already commencing. 
Despite (or perhaps, in some small part, because of) Durham's predictions, the language and culture of the people of Quebec are still with us 180 years later.

How has Québécois culture survived?

Asking how French Quebec has lasted so well for so long, you might credit the enlightenment of the British Quebec Act of 1774  allowing French inhabitants to maintain their language, social structure (the seigneurial system) and religion (Catholicism), or modern Canadian federal policies of bilingualism and multi-culturalism.  However, within Quebec, the long-term objectives from The Conquest onward--including the Durham plan as well as multi-culturalism and bilingualism--are understood to be the reduction of the French of Quebec to one of many minorities, the tokenization of their language, and ultimately their assimilation within an English federalist system.

The real answer to the question of French Quebec's survival is the willingness of individual Québécois to privilege the collective over individual ambition, to think in terms of "we" rather than "I."   Quebec's language law (Bill 101) is a constant target of attack as it restricts the use of English on signs and requires immigrants to educate their children in French. What is truly striking, and rarely discussed, in the context of English being the lingua franca of North America and global business, is the willingness of the French-speaking majority of Quebecers to accept that their children may never learn to speak English (See "Yes, no, toaster").

Individual rights versus collective rights

The conundrum of parsing perceptions of and from Quebec boils down to the distinction between individual and collective rights. (Personally, I tend toward a libertarian, live-and-let-live view though I remain wary of radical individualism.)  As a minority in Canada and the Americas, francophone Quebecers are entitled to claim the collective rights of their language, culture and identity.  However, as the majority in Quebec, they are compelled to respect the individual rights of citizens and the collective rights of minorities within the province. When the collective rights of the Quebec majority collide with the individual rights of persons within Quebec, whose values should prevail?

Rights versus privileges

Quebec's privileging of the collective rights of the French-speaking majority--most often in the form of language laws (Bill 22 and Bill 101)--is typically met with incomprehension in the ROC and by minorities within Quebec. Conversely, what Anglo-Quebecers might claim as "rights"--the "right" to a public sign in English, the "right" to educate offspring in English--are viewed from a French perspective as "privileges." Actually, parents who were educated in English in Quebec themselves maintain the "privilege" of having their offspring educated in English in Quebec.

English common law versus Napoleonic civil code

A typical criticism of Quebec legislation (beyond the infringement of human rights) is that it tends to be a solution in search of a problem.  Certainly, this seems to be an apt critique of the recent Bill n°21 : An Act respecting the laicity of the State.

Is the wearing of religious symbols by persons in authority a threat to the collective rights of the people of Quebec?  The English common-law approach to solving this question would be to allow a number of cases to be brought to court; that is, a number of plaintiffs claiming that their rights had been prejudiced by someone wearing a religious symbol (a police officer, a judge or a teacher).  This jurisprudence, these precedent decisions of various judges, would eventually become the "common law."  The French tradition, in contrast, is more top-down.  A code of laws is enacted, and future judgments are based on that code.  This legal tradition, together with the privileging of collective rights, adds to incomprehension in the ROC.

The Bouchard/Taylor Commission on Religious Accommodation

In 2007, Professors Bouchard and Taylor were commissioned by the Liberal government in Quebec to review, analyze and make recommendations on  "Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences in response to public discontent concerning reasonable accommodation."  In what might be taken as a "common law" approach (although, obviously, the Commission was not a legal body), Bouchard and Taylor did a substantial stock-taking of all the legal cases related to religious accommodation in Quebec--73 cases over 22 years prior to June 2007.  What emerged from their review was that an "accommodation crisis" was being provoked by a series of fairly minor, misconstrued incidents which escalated because of media attention:
40 cases out of 73, were brought to the public’s attention during the period March 2006 to June 2007 alone. The investigation of the cases that received the most widespread media attention during this period of turmoil reveals that, in 15 of 21 cases, there were striking distortions between general public perceptions and the actual facts as we were able to reconstitute them. In other words, the negative perception of reasonable accommodation that spread in the public often centred on an erroneous or partial perception of practices in the field.

Bouchard's and Taylor's repudiations of Bill 21 

As the authors of the report upon which Bill 21 is ostensibly based, it is telling that both Bouchard and Taylor have publicly stated their opposition to the legislation.  Taylor has flatly declared that he has changed his mind.  Bouchard argues that the timing was wrong, and the bill should not have been passed in the current climate of polarization.

The Separation of church and state is a French idea

The concept of laïcité (or, more commonly, "secularism" in English) is rooted in the French Revolution and the political desire to undo the domination of the Catholic Church. When Durham claimed that the French of Lower Canada were a people "without a history," he was no doubt considering that between the settlement of New France and the publication of his report in 1839, there had been a revolution in France, cutting the Québécois off--practically, ideologically and culturally--from the motherland.

Catholic church domination prevailed in Quebec until the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s.  Bill n°21 : An Act respecting the laicity of the State, which prevents persons in authority from wearing religious symbols, is less broad than the law in France banning religious symbols which applies to all civil servants and to students in public schools and has been in force since 2011.  Bill 21 is less strident and overarching than the charter of values proposed by the Parti Québécois in 2013.

Individual liberty:  the ultimate shared value in Western democracies

In Western democracies, there is a presumption that individual liberty is our ultimate shared value--which paradoxically makes it a collective value.  Part of our belief in individual rights is respect for the collective rights of minority groups.  To further confuse the paradox, all individual rights, upon reflection,  end up being collective.

Rights versus freedoms

Nour Farhat, a young lawyer with aspirations of becoming a crown attorney in Quebec,  has become the poster person in the conflict between individual religious rights and the collective aspirations of Quebec's becoming a secular society.  The question being asked in Quebec is: "Should Nour Farhat have the right to display her religious convictions while she is prosecuting someone who might be Jewish or Hindu or Buddhist or Sunni or Shiite or Christian or an atheist?"  But the underlying question which Quebec has raised, since the opening discussion of a charter of values, is:  Are religious rights individual rights?   Interestingly, both the Quebec and Canadian Charters of Rights and Freedoms identify religious expression as a "freedom" not a "right."  I have not, however, been able to find a succinct legal or constitutional distinction between a right and a freedom.

Freedom from Religion

The broader Freedom from Religion movement puts Quebec secularism in a slightly different perspective.  You might have seen Steven Pinker's endorsement of the Freedom from Religion Foundation television ads.  Pinker, himself an Anglo-Quebecer who studied at Dawson College and McGill University before moving on to California then Harvard, established his position as an avid atheist in his monograph Enlightenment Now.

While I have generally accepted the idea that Quebec has little to fear from the growth of Islam; not only is Islam the fastest-growing religion in the world but, as Pinker points out, its adherents have proven more faithful and tenacious in their religious beliefs than followers of any other religion.  In terms of (non)religious trends, the growth of Islam and of atheism have outstripped all other movements in Quebec in recent years.

It's about equality, stupid!

The purpose of a Charter of Rights and Freedoms is to create equality.  The problem with "being equal" is that it often seems to imply "being the same."  The challenge of our time is to honour equality and celebrate difference at the same time.  In Quebec, the interpolation to "join the family" and "become one of us" is frequently and reasonably met with wariness and skepticism.  As George Orwell pointed out in his allegorical novella, Animal Farm, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

Friday 6 December 2019

Who Needs English Grammar? Part II

English Grammar and Social Class

The unspoken subtext of English grammar is its connection with social class.  Traditionally, "proper English" meant whatever was used in the golden triangle formed by London, Cambridge and Oxford. As Tiger Webb explains, "in socially-stratified and newly literate Georgian England, any guide to 'proper language' would have sold like hotcakes"--which is exactly what happened with Robert Lowth's Short Introduction to English Grammar.  With the democratization of the language, a number of dialects, sociolects, idiolects and sublects emerged (there are a lot of lects out there--each with its own slight adjustments to the grammar).  David Crystal suggests that every Anglophone needs to know at least two Englishs:  one that is spoken locally and a second that is understood and accepted globally (or, at least, more widely).  (The local, more colourful version of English is the one more likely to be used in poetry and literature, by the way.)

With grammar, as with everything else in life:  there are choices to be made.  A pop icon or populist president might discover advantages in gainsaying the grammar of standard English in favour of a local dialect or patois.  On the other hand, scrupulous attention to the rules of prescriptive grammar might be the kind of branding with which you as an individual or your company or institution might want to be identified.

Beyond Fashion and branding, who does need English grammar?

Let us not be too quick to turn up our noses at branding and fashion.  In liberal, egalitarian societies, codes for dress as well as for language are invariably a source of protest. However, linguistic knowledge is stereotypically taken as a sign of general knowledge and intelligence (even if unwarranted).  Passing up the opportunity for respect, confidence and admiration which your grammar might impart (or undermine) isn't a wise decision--unless you are already a pop star or a president. Beyond fashion and making a good impression, there are practical reasons for knowing the grammar of the language which you speak.

Learning a foreign language

One of the strongest reasons for a native speaker to know the grammar of English is that it will facilitate the learning of a foreign language.  This is strictly anecdotal (not empirical evidence) but, having taught grammar to both native speakers and second-language learners, I noted that some native speakers were understandably reluctant to accept and even disbelieving that there were "rules" for something they had done naturally all their lives.  Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker both argue that language is innate, even genetic and instinctive, and that there is a universal grammar of all languages.  However, knowing the distinctive grammatical features of your first language is a huge advantage,  giving you parameters and a framework, as you take on a foreign language and can note its differences.  Conversely, I would add that you really don't know your own language until you have been required to learn another one.

Redundancy and entropy

The principle purpose of most grammar rules is to create redundancy.  Basic communication theory indicates that the greater the redundancy in a message the greater its clarity.  In oral communication, we use tone of voice, facial expressions, and gestures to reinforce the message.  In written communication we depend on grammatical features, subject-verb agreement, correct syntax, agreement between adverbs of time and the tense of the verb, and correct word type (see "What Is English Grammar?) to be doubly sure that our message will be clearly understood.  Consider some simple examples:

"I stopped there yesterday."  Here the past tense of the verb and the word "yesterday" are transmitting the same information; i.e., there is redundancy in the sentence.  The adverb "yesterday" makes it clear that the action was in the past.  The rules of grammar, which require the past tense of the verb plus the word "yesterday,  make it redundantly clear that the action was in the past. "I stop there yesterday," though ungrammatical, gets the message across.

"He is here."  The agreement between the third person subject "he" and the third person of the verb "is" is basically redundant.  "He are here" would transmit the same message but, in the absence of redundancy, with a touch of ambiguity.

When the message matters, the grammar matters

Legal documents are notoriously tedious to read.  They use more nouns than most writing, and avoid varying vocabulary, action verbs, adverbs and intensifiers.  In other words, they avoid all the features that make writing interesting.  They will also tend to be repetitive and redundant, strictly following the rules of grammar.  When clarity is of the utmost importance, grammar becomes important, even if (or because) it creates redundancy.

Grammar can change the message

As I pointed out in Part I, I am not partial to the "you're shit" versus "your shit" distinction as grounds for knowing English grammar.  However, there are subtle, refined distinctions in English messages that are transmitted through grammar.  Consider these pairs of sentences:

1. The less people know about us the better.

2. The fewer people know about us the better.

In #1 "less" applies to an uncountable abstract, the implied knowledge.

In #2 "fewer" applies to the countable "people."

1.  I'm going to see her tomorrow.

2.  I'll see her tomorrow.

In #1 "going to" implies a previous arrangement or understanding.

In #2 "will" does not carry the implication of an arrangement, and can be a spontaneous decision.

1.  I've seen that movie.

2.  I saw that movie.

In #1 "I've seen" (the present perfect tense) implies some effect on the present (i.e., "I don't want to see it again").

In #2 "saw" is past tense and neutral about the present. (see The Truth about English Verb Tenses)

Who needs English grammar?

Most English speakers will use these grammatical variations correctly without being aware or able to explain them.  I began these posts on "Who needs English grammar?" by pointing out that we impose grammar most on people who need it least.  At some point in the learning process, language learners will benefit from instruction in grammar, but that point is late in the process (See The Ball of String Theory).

My own rule of thumb for when to teach grammar in an ESL or EFL context was whenever a student asked a question about grammar.  Teachers of English need to know the grammar.  I'll go one step further and say that anyone who teaches anything in English needs to know English grammar.

"Yes, no, toaster"

I still remember watching a documentary series in Quebec entitled Yes, No, Toaster.  The expression "yes, no, toaster" was a typical comedic response from a young Quebec francophone to the question "Do you speak English?"  The documentary, which investigated the relative ineffectiveness of English language instruction in Quebec, was provoked by Audrey de Montingy, a finalist in Canadian Idol in 2003, who confessed that she couldn't understand a word of what people were saying to her during the show, even though she had had six years of ESL instruction.  The Yes, No, Toaster  series took cameras into various English-language-instruction settings.  The one that sticks with me (sticks in my craw, I should say) was an advanced class in which a student asked her teacher "What's the difference between 'will" and 'going to'?"  The teacher not only refused to answer but used the occasion to mock the student by saying "You're not ready for that level yet?"

The Moral of the story

The moral of the story I've been telling is that we should ensure that the right people are being criticized, and the right people are doing the criticizing.  Teachers mocking inquiring students; unilinguals criticizing polyglots--these are just plain wrong.

Wednesday 1 May 2019

The Pronoun Wars

Pronouns and antecedents

When I first heard about "the pronoun wars," I assumed the debate was about the old problem of the correct pronoun to use when "everyone" was the antecedent.  This is the related question that I put on the mid-term exam for the course on Applied Grammar I was teaching in 1994.

You have been asked to edit an official government document.  You have to decide what to do about the following sentence: 
"In the future every university student will be required to pay 51% of the cost of their education." 
If you decide to change the sentence (or not to change it), you will have to explain your decision to three people:  Mr. Boyle,  who is a strict grammarian; Ms. Doyle, who is a proud feminist, and Mrs. Murphy, who likes to see problems solved in a practical, common-sense fashion.Explain the problem with the sentence, and give your decision and justifications.  

Traditional grammar versus feminism

The traditional grammarian would insist that the antecedent "every student" was singular, and the pronoun which followed must be the singular "his."  The feminist would not accept that all university students should be identified with the masculine "his." Ultimately I was directing students to the "professional writer's" solution, which was to restructure the sentence to eliminate the problem and impasse. However, unbeknownst to me, in the same year, psycho-linguist Steven Pinker published The Language Instinct in which he argued "that everyone and they ["their" in my example] are not an 'antecedent' and a 'pronoun' referring to the same person in the world, which would force them to agree in number.  They are a 'quantifier' and a 'bound variable'."

Singular they

Consequently, Pinker concludes:  "There is no reason that the vernacular decision to borrow they, their, them for the task is any worse than the prescriptivists' recommendation of he, him, his.  Indeed, they has the advantage of embracing both sexes and feeling right in a wide variety of sentences."  The problem I was teaching my students to correct simply did not exist in terms of linguistics, but it did perhaps persist as a sociological problem at the time.  These days Pinker's solution seems to have gained consensus, and what is known as the "singular they" has certainly become commonplace.

Pronouns in the new millennia

However, my imagining of the "pronoun wars" came nowhere near the complexity and sensitivity of the conflict as it has recently played out online and in the media.  In my 1990s reflections, the proper pronoun to use when referring to "transgender" or  "non-binary" or "non-conforming" individuals never crossed my mind.

It is impossible to research this question without encountering the name Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto professor of psychology, who has parlayed his fifteen minutes of infamy for refusing to follow the University's transgender pronoun policy into a career as a viral presence on the internet and in the media.  My millennial counselor (my guru on all things post-2000) has strongly advised me against reading Peterson as a waste of my time.  Of course, that injunction has made me all the more curious.

Jordan Peterson:  victim or villain?

The obvious question:  why wouldn't Professor Peterson address his students in their preferred pronouns?   Isn't it just a matter of politeness to address people the way they want to be addressed?  Isn't that what we do with titles, names, nicknames, preferred middle names, etc?  The supreme irony in Peterson's interviews is that, despite the difficult lives (lives Peterson is making more difficult) of people who suffer the dysphoria of feeling or appearing that their genders have been misaligned, he manages to make himself appear the victim.

Peterson frequently refers to two letters he received from the University of Toronto which he manages to make sound quite dire.  Here are the letters in question:

The gist of the letters is "you have been making some people uncomfortable, please stop." However, Peterson is quite right to point out that they invoked "the law." The second letter states, "The law in Ontario, specifically the Ontario Human Rights Code, protects against discrimination based on gender expression and gender identity."  This overkill invocation was an invitation to Peterson to escalate his opposition.

Pronouns for every gender identity?

Peterson typically makes the valid point that the pronoun shifts being proposed by LGBT Resource Centres seem impracticable and awkward.

I am honestly confused by this table from the LGBT Resource Centre. Peterson claims that "in New York there are 31 protected gender identity categories."  I wondered if this was true, and if the number of new genders explained this plethora of pronouns.  There are over 100 pronouns in the English language.  By my count, around 40 of them might be affected by gender (presuming you need new versions of "they" and "you"). The idea of introducing 124 new pronouns into the English language is fantastical--exactly the point the project's detractors take delight in emphasizing.  Is this what advocates want or are asking for?  Do transgender individuals even care about pronouns?

Who's side are you on?

When I watched the TV Ontario episode of The Agenda with Steve Paikin on "Genders, Rights and Freedom of Speech" (which has itself become a source of controversy), I was surprised that the only transgender individual on the forum panel, Theryn Meyer, sided with Jordan Peterson in opposition to the University's pronoun policy (and the Human Rights legislation in both Ontario and Canada intended to prohibit discrimination against transgender individuals).

The Argument against "gender expression"

The intent of the recent changes to the Ontario Human Rights Code seems clear enough--and similar legislation is being proposed at the federal level and in various countries.  "Race, age, sex, and sexual orientation" seem evident categories, but I noted with interest that "The Code does not define creed" even though it is listed as a category to be protected from potential discrimination.  The newly added category of "gender identity and gender expression" is extremely vague and fluid.  It has been suggested (not entirely facetiously) that the legislation would open the door (literally) to the cisgender male using the women's locker room on the grounds that he is "expressing his female gender."

"Gender identity" and "gender expression" remain undefined

"Expression" and "identity" are problematic concepts (see "Be Yourself": Is This Really Good Advice? and "Be Yourself": Part II).  Apparently, the framers of the Code, decided to pass on the problem of definition to "the courts and tribunals," as they have done with "Creed."  Anywhere this subject is discussed, it is noted that "gender" is cultural and "sex" is biological (although some postmodern deconstructionists like to challenge the latter claim--see Deconstruction and "Ways of Talking).  "Gender" could be listed as a proscribed ground of discrimination without any reference to "expression" or "identity."

Is a new law necessary?

Just as sexual discrimination covers both men and women (even though the original impetus was discrimination against women), gender discrimination would cover every possibility from hyper masculinity to extreme femininity and every mix, variation and crossing in between--without necessarily making any reference to sex or identity or expression.  However, while this change might solve legal and discrimination issues, it does not address the question of pronouns.

Do we really need new pronouns?

Do we really need gender neutral pronouns?  Maybe.  In writing I find myself using "s/he" and "his/her" fairly frequently, or sometimes using "her" when the tradition is to use "he"--when talking about God, for example.  However, are transgender persons being served by the pronoun debate?  It seems the public sphere is being dominated by "experts" on the extreme fringes of the issue with little voice being given to the .6 percent of the population who might be personally affected.

Practical matters

I struggle to imagine myself asking someone "What pronouns do you use?"--as is recommended by LGBT Centres and legislators.  Would anyone, including a transgender person, be pleased with or even understand this question? In a personal interaction, it is highly unlikely that I would use a gendered pronoun with someone:  "you" is gender neutral, and we do not address people in the third person in English; i.e., "he/she," when we are speaking to them.

Gender binary is arbitrary (but so is language in general)

As I have commented elsewhere, the gender binary (he/she) is arbitrary and certainly isn't a necessity in the English language (see Falling in Love is Unprofessional).  Third person singular is the only gendered pronoun in English; therefore two pronouns "he/she," which expand morphological to his/her, him/her, herself/himself--a total of eight possibilities.  Not an enormous stumbling block for Anglophones, but French and other Romance languages add gender to every noun and adjective.  Is anyone seriously considering that some of the worlds most widely spoken languages are going to completely restructure themselves to become gender neutral in order to accommodate transgender individuals?

What really matters to the people most affected?

When I ask myself what is the pronoun debate really about, I come away with the conclusion that we are witnessing a variety of agendas--political agendas, academic and professional agendas, self-aggrandizing agendas--but relatively little focus on what might really matter to transgender people.  When Jordan Peterson claimed to fear that he might be accused of "hate speech" if he failed to use the correct pronouns, I thought this counterfactual claim to be farfetched.  Unfortunately his opponent in the debate, Nicolas Matt, a lecturer in Transgender Studies at the University of Toronto, was all too eager to confirm that refusing to use the required pronouns "was hate speech."

Are the pronoun wars helping or hurting LGBT individuals?

As I researched online to confirm Peterson's claim that New York had instituted "31 protected gender categories" what I immediately discovered in print and on Youtube were individuals gleefully mocking the notion of 31 different genders.  Since the point of the legislation is to protect the transgender non-conforming individuals from mockery and intimidation, I couldn't help but recognize that the legislation was providing the opportunity for widespread public mockery and intimidation.  I fault Jordan Peterson for using his authority as a professor and a psychologist, as well as a writer and intellectual, to give license to the willful ignorance of yahoos and trolls.  At the same time, LGBT communities have a lot of work to do to clarify and, I dare say, simplify their positions.  The legislated Orwellian threat of prison sentences for faulty pronouns is the wrong way to go and has encouraged a backlash against exactly the people the legislation was intended to support.

As I researched the claim of "31 protected gender categories," I eventually came across this New York City publication:

The "31 gender categories" are, in fact, an ostensive definition to explain "gender identity" and "gender expression" rather than new categories of gender.  The legislation will doubtlessly be difficult to implement, but perhaps we should all begin by attempting to understand it.

Facebook's 51 Genders

Wednesday 3 October 2018

Why Are the Poor Always with Us? "Moral Hazard."

The Poor Are Always with Us

“The poor are always with us.”  What a discouraging declaration!  More disturbing still, it is attributed to Jesus Christ.  Although the details vary from one gospel to another, Mary of Bethany (some say Mary Magdalene) was pouring expensive oil on Jesus’s feet (in some versions on his head) when his disciples complained  (some say Judas specifically) that the money could have been used to feed the poor.  (The Gospel of Matthew suggests that this incident is what caused Judas to betray Jesus.)

Moral Hazard

Why are the poor always with us?  Consider  “moral hazard.”  “Moral hazard,” according to Alan Blinder in After the Music Stopped:  The Financial Crisis, the Response, and the Work Ahead, “has nothing to do with morality.”  The concept originated in the 18th century in the insurance industry and suggests that having insurance might encourage risky (and therefore immoral?) behaviour.  

Today the concept is very much with us as insurers worry aloud  that house insurance will encourage us to smoke in bed, car insurance will promote real-life Gand Theft Auto, and medical insurance will cause all of the above.   In fact, “moral hazard” is pervasive because it underpins all the “self reliance,” “free market” arguments of, in particular, American capitalism.

The concept arose in Blinder’s book because “moral hazard” also applies to making risky investments.  In 2008, super wealthy financiers and bankers, who were typically the defenders and upholders of “moral hazard,” found themselves in a situation where they needed hundreds of billions of dollars in bailouts because they had made risky, losing investments.  To accept government money instead of facing the consequences of their behaviour was to repudiate “moral hazard”—which is what they ended up doing.  However, “moral hazard” when applied to the holders of underwater sub-prime mortgages was kept in tact when TARP (the bailout program) was implemented.

Social Spending and Moral Hazard

Though you may never before have heard of “moral hazard,” you have undoubtedly heard one or more of the “common sense” claims based on “moral hazard.”  “Moral hazard” is the idea behind arguments against the guaranteed income, free day care, tuition-free university education, family planning, and the decriminalization of drugs, to name but a few.  Despite arguing the case in favour of “enlightenment,” in  Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Steve Pinker claims that “Social spending, like everything, has downsides. As with all insurance, it can create a 'moral hazard' in which the insured slack off or take foolish risks, counting on the insurer to bail them out if they fail.”

Poverty Versus Wealth Inequality

If not through social spending how can poverty be addressed? Pinker argues, quite rightly I would say, that it is a  mistake to confuse poverty and wealth inequality.  Some Americans may be disgruntled, may even think of themselves as poor, not because they are poor in any real sense but because they are struggling to "keep up with the Joneses."

"The confusion of inequality with poverty comes straight out of the lump fallacy— the mindset in which wealth is a finite resource, like an antelope carcass, which has to be divvied up in zero-sum fashion, so that if some people end up with more, others must have less. As we just saw, wealth is not like that: since the Industrial Revolution, it has expanded exponentially."

True enough, but it takes a lot of poor people to create one billionaire.  Pinker's use of J.K. Rowling as his example of a billionaire is disingenuous.  Sure, it's hard to get a hate on for the welfare mom whose Harry Potter stories have made her the wealthiest writer on the planet, but even in her case if we consider the copy editors, bookstore clerks, theme-park employees and printers at the bottom of the pyramid we can begin to see signs of the poverty which supports her wealth.  Pinker's graph correlating wealth inequality with everyone getting richer is cutesy and confusing, but his conclusion that "the world’s poor have gotten richer in part at the expense of the American lower middle class" who would in turn elect Donald Trump President seems clear enough.

Does Wealth Inequality Make Us Richer or Poorer?

Much of the world may have been pulled out of dire poverty over the last 200 years, as Pinker claims, but extreme wealth inequality is a destabilizing force in any society.  Pinker's graph notwithstanding, wealth inequality also produces an inefficient and wasteful economy.  The purchasing power of the haves puts pressure on both the have-nots and those who have less. For example, London, England has some of the most expensive real estate in the world, but it is also known for the number of homes and mansions which are left empty by the super wealthy. Take note the next time you are watching a a premiere sports event on television:  how many of the best seats are left empty because someone is wealthy enough to buy them and then not bother to attend?  Is the economy really being served by one man owning a dozen houses or fifty cars or paying tens of millions of dollars for a painting?

The Financial System Depends on Moral Hazard ...

Money, as we have seen, is just a measuring system for debt (see What Is Money?) or what  Yuval Noah Harari, in Sapiens:  A Brief History of Humankind, calls "imaginary" and "a psychological construct." Money is created every time someone signs a mortgage, takes out a loan or uses a credit card.  It is therefore limitless and infinite--definitely not a a zero-sum game.  Since money is "imaginary," nothing real or tangible, why can't we put Santa Claus and Tinker Bell in charge and just give poor people the money they need?

And Moral Hazard Depends on Poverty

The answer is, of course, "moral hazard,"  . . . and I'l bet you're thinking "and the whole financial system would collapse."  Conclusion:  the whole financial system is based on moral hazard.  Why are the poor always with us?  Because without them "moral hazard" would disappear.

A billionaire asking for millions of dollars in subsidies, grants and tax breaks is so common that we hardly notice.  An indigent standing on a street corner asking for twenties would have to be out of his mind.  The richer you are the less moral hazard applies.  The burden of moral hazard falls most heavily on the poor; in fact, poverty and moral hazard are inseparable.  The threat of poverty is what keeps the rest of us from stepping out of line.

Thursday 28 December 2017

What Is English Grammar? More Importantly, What Isn't English Grammar?

The Split Infinitive:  “To really error is human.”

One of my senior colleagues was taken aback when I, a tenured professor of English and Comparative Literature, volunteered to teach a course on Applied Grammar.  Teaching grammar was not at the top of the prestige ladder.  “Are you sure you are ready to start teaching about split infinitives?” he asked me.  I thought he was pulling my leg, but I wasn’t sure, so I photocopied a page from Steve Pinker’s The Language Instinct and slid it under his door.  He never responded.

[. . .] ‘don’t split infinitives,’ ‘don’t end a sentence with a preposition’ can be traced back to these eighteenth-century fads. Of course, forcing modern speakers of English to not split an infinitive because it isn’t done in Latin makes about as much sense as forcing modern residents of England to wear laurels and togas. (The Language Instinct 374)

I would like to emphatically reiterate what Pinker is pointing out.  (Did you notice that I just split the infinitive and ended the sentence with a preposition?) The notion that there is something wrong with  putting a word between the “to” and “reiterate” (as I have done) or ending a sentence with a preposition comes from the ludicrous but long-lasting notion that the English language should follow the rules of Latin grammar. (In Latin you cannot split the infinitive because the infinitive is one word, nor can you end a Latin sentence with a preposition.)

According to Bill Bryson, in The Mother Tongue:  English and How It Got that Way, the source of the notion that we shouldn't end an English sentence with a preposition "was one Robert Lowth, an eighteenth-century clergyman and amateur grammarian whose A Short Introduction to English Grammar, published in 1762, enjoyed a long and distressingly influential life both in his native England and abroad." As Bryson points out, Lowth was never adamant about this "rule," but thought it preferable in "solemn and elevated" writing. In later years, literal-minded academics would insist, on the grounds the Latin root of the word "preposition" was "place before," that a preposition must be placed before something.

Definitions of grammar:  theirs, yours and mine

Surfing the internet for definitions of grammar, I was surprised to discover that there are even more definitions than I had anticipated, and most of them are even less helpful than I suspected. I think it would be useful to talk about grammar according to what most people think the word means.  Experts and pseudo-experts talking about grammar almost invariably include areas of language under the category of “grammar” which make grammar a lot more complicated and difficult to grasp.  A helpful starting point (at least for you and me) would be to eliminate much of what gets included with but really isn’t English grammar.

What isn’t English grammar

If you have ever studied English grammar, chances are you used a textbook with a title like “Grammar and Usage” or “Grammar and Composition.”  What you may not have stopped to realize is that “usage” isn’t “grammar”; “composition” isn’t “grammar.”  You may have seen “grammar” defined as “a study of the language.”  “Linguistics” is “the study of language,” though “grammar” might turn out to be the product of that study.  Perhaps the hardest distinction to make is between “semantics” and “grammar”; that is, between meaning and the rules for putting words together.  If a student writes “A dozen is twenty-one” or “The Earth is the largest body in the Universe,” these statements are wrong and may not even be what the student meant to say, but they are not ungrammatical.  There are no errors in grammar in these sentences.

Grammar in the everyday world

When people usually ask about English grammar it is because they want to know “is this right?” or more pointedly “is this a mistake?”  The kind of grammar they are asking about is more precisely known as “prescriptive grammar”; that is, the language as people are supposed to speak and write it. "Prescriptive grammar," how people should use English, is typically contrasted with “descriptive grammar,” how people actually do use English.  Prescriptive grammar has developed a bad reputation and gone out of fashion because, among other things, it has been held responsible for absurdities like the split-infinitive and no-preposition-at-the-end-of-a-sentence rules. However, if we want to talk about grammar in the sense that most people have in mind when they use the word, then we need to focus on prescriptive grammar.

Errors in grammar

With descriptive grammar, since its intention is simply to describe usage, the concept of an error hardly exists.  To point out a mistake is to invoke prescriptive grammar. If we keep to this precise and strict definition of grammar, what grammar is becomes much clearer.  In fact, there are only four different types of errors in grammar:

  1. Errors of word order (syntax)
  2. Errors of word type (adjectives versus adverbs for example)
  3. Errors of agreement (eg, yesterday requires the past tense of the verb)
  4. Errors of word form (morphology, actually a sub-category of “agreement” and  "type”)
There are many other ways that we can make mistakes in English—spelling, punctuation, vocabulary, vague pronoun reference, faulty parallelism, redundancies, dangling modifiers and so on—but they are not, strictly speaking, errors in grammar.  And speaking strictly is exactly what I am trying to do here. If you want to reverse the direction and speak of English grammar in the affirmative: it is the rules for putting words in the right order, using the correct word type in each position, and ensuring that the parts are in agreement or concordance with each other.

Grammar versus discourse

Grammar is a collection of those rules that apply within a complete sentence.  How the sentences and parts of sentences are connected together is called “discourse.” The rules of discourse are generally more difficult to specify, but they are what you are being taught if you are studying writing or composition or rhetoric.

Spoken versus written English

It is an exaggeration to claim that grammar does not apply to spoken English but, in fact, moving outside of complete sentences it becomes increasingly difficult to apply the rules of syntax, word type and agreement.  People do not speak English in complete sentences.  A lot of spoken language is just grunts and nods. 

Steve Pinker observes:
The Watergate tapes are the most famous and extensive transcripts of real-life speech ever published.  When they were released, Americans were shocked. [ . . . .] one thing that surprised everyone was what ordinary conversation looks like when it is written down verbatim.  Conversation out of context is virtually opaque. [. . . .] even when transcribed perfectly, conversation is hard to interpret.  People often speak in fragments, interrupting themselves in midsentence to reformulate the thought or change the subject. (The Language Instinct 224)

People remain generally unaware of the degree to which written and spoken English are different kinds of discourse. The rules of grammar still apply but only in about the same degree as the rules of the NHL (National Hockey League) apply to street hockey or the rules of golf apply to most of the guys I play with.

The Latin origins for the parts of speech in English grammar.

What Does Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty Actually Say?

In The Room Where It Happened , John Bolton points out that "This provision [article 5] is actually less binding than its reputation [....