Tuesday, July 29, 2008


What comes to mind when you hear that word? I think of rules, religion, zealots, exclusivity. One thing I didn’t think about until recently was the role fundamentalism in other spheres of intellectual life. I’m of course talking about the pejorative way the word has evolved, not the dictionary definition about a 19th century Christian movement. I’m talking about narrow-mindedness. An unwillingness to consider points of view that fall outside of one’s comfort zone. And most of all, a dehumanizing of those who hold contrary positions. The religious fundamentalists call their opponents heathen. The political fundamentalists call their opponents ignorant. Or worse, as I found out recently on a normally friendly forum I frequent.

Our little cyber community has a pretty wide range of backgrounds. The only ostensible connection being an appreciation for a particular metal band. We’ve got our stoners, preppies, left wing, right wing, Christians, agnostics, atheists, etc. A political discussion about the Iraq war comes up from time to time and things get heated. This time a couple people decided to go for the jugular. One of the members has served in Iraq and they said his service meant that he had killed innocent people. They said he was a chump who was lining the pockets of Cheney. They posted a picture of dead babies from Iraq. They repeated over and over that Iraqis don’t want Americans there. They said we are a horrible, imperialistic nation trying to force the world to do our bidding and that this soldier was a dupe for helping the process along. (This is all my summation, not direct quotes.)

I’m sure most of us have heard these arguments made in various forms and various places. This is the first time I’ve seen people personally attacking people with them. It wasn’t, “This is a horrible situation we are in.” It was, “You are a horrible person for being in this situation.” It made me wonder about the confidence that these attackers put in their sources. They had to be so sure of the data they had -and their ability to process it and form accurate opinions- that they had no problem calling a person a mindless killer. No moral qualms about slander or misdirected distain. No wrestling with a complex situation. No doubting the sources that fed them their information on the topic. No tergiversation over the fact that they could be wrong. This, to me, sounds like a fundamentalist.

Knowing their distain for fundamentalism I thought that if I pointed out that the attitude was festering in their hearts, maybe they would relent. Maybe they would see that they were treating a human being like an evil monster based on their dogma. So I didn’t attack their individual arguments about the merit of our involvement in Iraq. For all I know they may be right about a lot of it. That was the point I tried to drive home.

We aren’t on the in. We weren’t privy to the intelligence that our government received leading up to the war. We weren’t there, observing our military and government leaders to ascertain their motives. We aren’t in their meetings, being forced to decide between impossibly bad options. Even if we were, we lack the education and experience to understand and interpret an impossibly complex and evolving situation. (Though there are a couple books that claim to give us all this info.) We aren’t in Iraq, living with those affected. We can’t tell how accurate the reports from the troops, the media, or our government are. We can’t confirm the “facts” listed on all these websites that we use for research. Given all these epistemological problems, is it really all right to call someone a mindless killer for being involved in this war?

Let me put up this little comparison: We weren’t there when Jesus walked the earth. We didn’t hear His actual words. Even if we were there, what’s to say we would understand Him any better than the crowds and His own disciples? We can’t confirm the reports in the gospels. We can’t be sure Saul actually had a conversion experience. We weren’t at the councils that ratified the cannon of scriptures that became “the” Bible. Given all these facts, is it really all right to call someone an evil pagan for disagreeing with our beliefs?

So… if it’s not all right for a religious person to persecute people for not buying into their worldview, why is it ok for the non-religious person to do the same? Aren’t both camps dealing with less than all the information and wisdom necessary to accurately ascertain whatever issue it is in contention? There are obviously some exceptions. I think there are plenty of opportunities for righteous indignation in life. But they are necessarily intimate and in a familiar context to you. They must involve people you know well or situations with little contextually specific details. Things like your brother picking on your sister. Or a gunman shooting at people in a mall. These are situations that present themselves fairly clearly and with no middle men interpreting the data according to their worldviews. But the big issues we people tend to argue about are not like that. These issues like the war in Iraq or flat taxes require us to put our faith in other people’s understanding of things. Experts.

Highly trained specialists making a case based on their specific field of knowledge. They should be the ones that we can count on to settle these issues, right? But then again… they are always arguing amongst themselves. Here, I think, is a great opportunity to expose ourselves to our own self-deceptive patterns. What I mean is that we can examine a contested issue in a field we know little about, that doesn’t affect our lives directly, and isn’t a political boondoggle. By doing this maybe we can see that complex issues can be hotly debated by two sides without one being evil and the other righteous.

I just finished a college course on CD about the history of human language, so I’ll pull a test case from that field. Here we have Professor John McWhorter of the Manhattan Institute presenting a contested idea amongst linguists. Here is the lecture outline:

Lecture 26 – Does Culture Drive Language Change?

“Scope: Amateur linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf presented a hypothesis in the 1930s that features of our grammars channel how we think. This may encourage a sense that language structure and, by extension, change is driven significantly by culture rather than being an independently driven process. However, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was based on faulty evidence and is even counterintuitive. In experiments, it has been show to be true only in small degrees, such as color perception. Language and culture are surely related, but not as intimately as some researchers would assume.”

So my virtual professor clearly disagrees with the hypothesis. Let’s hear a snippet from Whorf on the subject:

“We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way – an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but it terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.” (Whorf~ Language, Thought, and Reality pp.213)

According to my professor, Whorf bases his examples on flawed data, especially concerning Hopi grammar. Whorf noted that the language of the Hopi Indians has a word, masa ‘ytaka, for all flying things except birds, while English requires separate words for all such things (pilot, airplane, dragonfly). Hopi has a word for water as it occurs in nature (pahe) and a word for water as drunk and cooked with (keyi); English has just water for both. He proposed that differences like this signal different ways of viewing the world.

Further, Whorf depicted Hopi as having no words or grammar placing actions in time similar to English’s past and future markers. He claimed that this corresponded to the Hope’s having a cyclical holistic sense of time in contrast to European language speakers’ more linear one:

“Our objectified view of time is, however, favorable to historicity and to everything connected with the keeping of records, while the Hopi view is unfavorable thereto. The latter is too subtle, complex, and ever-developing, supplying no ready-made answer to the question of when “one” event ends and “another” begins.” (pp153)

Speaking from the gut, I can say this all seems to make a great deal of sense to me. It seems to me to be very intuitive that the structure of our grammar will channel the way we think. I’ve talked about this before in regards to our language’s appalling lack of granularity and specificity when it comes to “love”. Just like the Hopi would have to make additional effort to get out of the thought channel of “flying things” when they refer to a bug or a thrown rock, we have our thoughts channeled by the categorization of sex, infatuation, crushes, sacrifice, and many other kinds of love into one overburdened word. This doesn’t mean that we can’t differentiate between the different kinds of loves when we put our minds to it, any more than Hopi couldn’t tell the difference between a butterfly and a missile. It means that a language can make you much more likely to think along certain lines and can make you less likely to make connections that are not codified in it.

I see it like a habitual route you take to work. There are always different ways you could go, but you primarily go a certain way based on what is most expedient to you. Therefore you will know the landmarks and details of your route pretty well, and you will not know the landmarks and details of alternate routes as well. Imagine your brain as your town, and your language as the road your thoughts take to various locations. When you’re driving to Loveville you are less likely to take the back roads of Sacrificial Love Lane, Puppy Love Boulevard, or Brotherly Love Avenue simply because the road to Loveville is a freeway with few linguistic off ramps. Sure, some people make the effort to wind through the narrow side streets, but if it’s a more complicated route than it’s probably a good guess that only a minority will take it. And if you have a majority of people taking the freeway, ignoring the more nuanced picture of the area we call love, how could that not affect the culture of a society as a whole?

A few other examples that seem like they would obviously affect a person or culture’s view of the world are the gender signifiers that many languages have for inanimate objects, and the various honorifics that many Asian languages have depending on who you are speaking to or about. It seems like these sorts of things must shape a society in subtle but profound ways. Well, that’s the way I see it. Let’s see why my professor disagrees.

John McWhorter points out that Whorf was simply mistaken about the Hopi’s conception of time, and that they do indeed have various ways of marking time. They have calendars and sundials. My prof. thinks Whorf was inspired by the belief that was becoming popular in his day that the native American people were simply better than Europeans. Here’s a statement from Whorf to that effect:

“Does the Hopi language show here a higher plane of thinking, a more rational analysis of situations, than our vaunted English? Of course it does. In this field and in various others, English compared to Hopi is like a bludgeon compared to a rapier.”

So yeah, the guy is obviously caught up in the noble savage zeitgeist. And it seems to have colored his views.

McWhorter’s other issue with the idea of culture driving language change is the fact that there are simply very little conclusive studies done on the subject. People whose language has specific words for two shades of yellow will pick out colored chips in that range faster. And people who have no word distinction between blue and green will be slower to separate those colors. But that is hardly hard evidence to him that this is a pervasive and consistent force on society.

He sees it as actually counterintuitive, pointing out languages that have alienable verses inalienable possessive marking.

“We have seen that many languages mark the difference between how one ‘has’ an eye versus how one ‘has’ a chair. This would seem to index a focus in a culture on materialism. But this distinction is very rare in languages spoken by First World, capitalist nations and most common in languages spoken by indigenous peoples.”

So if such a specific focus on how one ‘has things’ truly does what Whorf proposed, then one would expect such a culture to have a greater focus on the activities surrounding the idea of ownership. But this is not the case. (I think he is also under the false impression that capitalists are greedier than non-capitalists.)

Other examples that McWhorter brings:

“Western European languages tend to have two verbs for our know: one for being familiar with a person (That is, Spanish conocer, French connaitre) and one for factual knowledge (that is, Spanish saber, French savoir). Yet do we sense that Europeans are more sensitive to the difference between knowing a person and knowing a fact than we are?”

“In English, scissors, pants, and glasses are marked with the plural. In Dutch, they are singular (schaar, broek, bril). But do we think of scissors as “two things”? Is a pair of pants “two things” to us?”

I think these are valid points. Though I wonder if he isn’t simply picking some of the more facile examples possible in order to make a point. If Whorf’s hypothesis was ideologically driven by a desire to show the superiority of native American culture, I wonder is McWhorter’s objection is simply an ideological backlash. Indeed, he gives some indication of that.

“Finally, to imply that language channels thought leads to uncomfortable implications given the difference between a language such as Tzes or European languages and ones like the Riau Indonesian, where it often seems as if one barely needs to say much at all! Do Riau Indonesian speakers think less richly than shepherds in the Caucuses Mountains and functionaries in Brussels?”

In the current politically correct atmosphere of academia the automatic response to this rhetorical question must be a resounding ‘No!’. But I’m not bound by the constraints of politics or correctness, so I say, ‘maybe.’ Is it really an impossibly silly thought? Could a very simple language retard the intellectual life of a community? And conversely, could a very complex language fertilize complex ideas? Or maybe there is a sweet spot somewhere in the middle. Maybe both very simple and very complex languages trip up the mind as it does its thing. Or maybe most languages have a mixture of complexities and oversimplifications (Like the English love problem) that help to shape a culture’s identity. (Or visa-versa: culture shaping the language, pruning out the word branches that it finds less helpful.)

I think the problem with the whole debate is that there are simply so many factors that go into making a culture what it is, that it would be next to impossible to isolate the language as a primary shaper. So naturally, there would be no scientific way to measure the effect, or quantify the results. Unless you can take two identical groups and give them two radically different languages then measure the effects a couple generations later.

So there it is. A brief overview of a complicated debate within a discipline far removed from us and politics. Most of us probably don’t feel passionately either way about this issue. I don’t think we look at McWhorter as a villain and Whorf as a hero, or visa versa. We can see that they are both smart guys who know a lot about their field and have opposing views. They have both published books, studied data, and interpreted it. If we were forced to take a side on the issue we would have to decide who is the better authority on the subject.

Now how do you suppose we go about doing that? Since we are not linguists, how do we judge a person’s aptitude and expertise in the field? The most obvious answer to me would be to investigate the respect of their peers in the field. But this is faulty for two reasons. First, is the fact that all societies form cultures that are beneficial to certain views and opposed to others. I would hope that in general, a community focused on one issue (Such as language) would tend to have the majority support what is correct, but I don’t see any way of verifying that.

The second, related problem is that if we are to believe whatever the popular opinion among a group of specialists declare, we are ignoring a valuable lesson that history teaches us. Namely, that great breakthroughs in every field usually occur when a small minority presents an idea that is not at all popular with the mainstream. If experts on the inside can’t tell when such a paradigm shift is happening, how are we supposed to know who’s right and who’s wrong?

Answer: we can’t. My professor could be right or wrong. Whorf could be right or wrong. Both could be quoted by a non-expert as evidence for some opinion. And this is the case with every debate. The difference between this sort of scholarly debate and those that affect politics are the way the sides are cast. Instead of one egg-head debating another, it’s seen as one evil monster debating a white knight of truth.

This façade can only be brought about by fundamentalism. This can only happen when a worldview is exalted above people, facts, and the obviously overwhelming gray area. Fundamentalism forces a person to categorize and compartmentalize everything and everyone. Because if you know that you have THE TRUTH, the logical conclusion is that all who disagree with you have half-truths and lies. And why would anyone promote half-truths and lies, unless they are stupid or evil?

This is how I see my e-buddies who are maliciously attacking my other e-buddy, the military man. As fundamentalist zealots. THE TRUTH that they believe is the same TRUTH that the majority of our entertainment/media complex has been refining for the past 40 years… Authority can’t be trusted. The military are bloodthirsty hawks out to wage war for no reason. Rich, white men control everything. Giant corporations want war so they can profit off of it. Religious and traditional institutions are a form of mind control. (Keep in mind I’m not debating any of these points. I think there is some truth in all of them.) Within this worldview the war in Iraq is simple to ascertain. The motives are clear. Those involves are all culprits of the same crime.

I don’t argue with the power of this logic, only the premises that they so whole-heartedly accept. I submit that their (fundamentalists) trust is misplaced due to a simple epistemological problem. They accept the authority of those with whom they already agree. I think the most concise example of this is the highly politicized issue of global climate change. (Formerly know as global warming.) Here is an issue that is completely contingent upon expert’s opinions. Yet the experts are completely divided on it. There is a petition signed by over 30,000 scientists (over 9,000 PhDs) that emphatically denies the evidence for manmade climate change. http://www.petitionproject.org/ As non-experts we have to decide who to believe.

And what guides that decision making process? Well, I think a lot of things do, but ultimately, for the most part, it comes down to what we want to believe. Sure, that statement has limits. For example, most of us would like to believe that eating delicious fatty foods is good for us. But if some nutrition experts came out with a statement declaring it to be true, I bet a lot of people would not believe them.

That’s why I brought up the example of global climate change. Who wants to believe that we are killing ourselves? It doesn’t seem like the notion would be that popular unless there was some overwhelming proof, right? I’m going to psychoanalyze western culture here real quick. One of the most interesting things about our culture is the self-loathing and guilt complex our liberalism has cultivated. Why we aren’t proud of our achievements seems counter-intuitive to me. It’s certainly anti-Darwinian. Which I don’t think is a bad thing. But our western, first-world culture has become very concerned about how we have used the resources of the third-world, peripheral societies creating a very imbalanced world economy. From what I have learned about world history this is the normal status of things, and has never been different. But a desire for all to be equally comfortable is a very laudable thing.

Perhaps it is the fairly sudden awakening to the plight of the third word -emphasizing our hypocritical consumer patterns- that has been the fire fueling this guilt complex we rich, whites have. Whatever the reason, I think it’s quite clear that our culture has been training us to feel bad about who we are and our favored status in the world. Especially the U.S. has been caricatured as the brashest, coldest, bully in the world. The majority media complex teaches us that we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.

Within this context the idea that we are destroying the world is a natural fit. We can easily see local ecological degradation and project that to the whole earth, combine it with the zeitgeist of guilt, and viola, a recipe for whole-hearted belief in man-made global climate change.

Keep in mind, I’m not weighing in on either side. I just think it’s interesting how adamantly people can argue one side or the other when they really don’t have a clue, and are basically pointing at the authorities that they believe. I think this pattern is a universal one that applies in every sphere of mental activity. We have so many authorities, making so many disparate claims that it’s no trouble at all to have a very well researched, completely reasonable worldview that is completely wrong. All you need is a propensity for liking ideas that are wrong.

This is one of the most frightening thoughts I’ve ever had. Because of course it runs both ways. I’m just as likely to be programmed by my impulses and upbringing to like ideas that are wrong as the guy who believes the opposite of me. I could be interpreting all the data around me bass akwards because of a deeply encoded framework that is faulty. This wouldn’t be so scary if not for the fact that people’s brains simply don’t allow contrary information to stick without a fight. Here’s a very short article about that:


Basically, our brain labels everything we see and hear as plausible or implausible. The implausible stuff may be entertained for a few moments, but unless there is a conscious struggle for retention, the natural process is that it gets deleted. Our brains seem to want as much space as possible for the stuff that we already feel comfortable with.

This is something I’ve been coming to grips with over the past several years, and learned about myself though some difficult self analysis. The struggle to keep myself open to data that doesn’t fit my system can be taxing. But the thing that keeps me coming back is the fact that clearly intelligent, moral, wise people hold views that are so different than mine, I can’t possibly be the one who is right about everything. In fact, I have to be open to the fact that my core system, my worldview, my framework for analyzing the world could be fundamentally flawed. THIS, I believe, is the only power that can overcome fundamentalism. This sad, scary, meek idea. It’s the opposite of everything that makes for good rhetoric. It will cripple your ability to convince people. It flies in the face of our every desire to be right and to win.

Now what do you suppose it is in my worldview that makes the idea appeal to me so much?