"The function of words, then, is to be sensible marks of ideas." ~ John Locke

Philosophy Articles

Linguistics Articles

About Me



Sensible Marks of Ideas

Tuesday, 24th Nov. 2015

11.31 am - Ceci n'est pas l'Oignon! (or: Yoga as Canadian Cultural Appropriation)

I used to use yoga as a reductio ad absurdum of cultural appropriation, but it turns out some students are actually protesting against yoga classes on these grounds. Following the fashion of the hyper-privileged banging on about oppression, some students at Ottowa University lambasted the free yoga classes on campus, stating that many of the cultures Yoga comes from "have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy … we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practicing yoga." With the pusillanimity we have come to expect of universities these days, the administration reacted by cancelling the classes, though it was at pains to point out that this email was not the sole reason. Suuuure.

But let's assume that the university, after consulting with all parties (i.e., anyone who can invent a grievance), decides to resume the courses in a more ideologically sound manner. How exactly would we be mindful of oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas while practicing yoga? Should I be thinking about the British-inspired famines in India while relaxing in Savasana? Or should I be thinking about how Mr Patel who runs the corner shop has been diasporised? (As well as being a cultural stereotype, of course.) FFS, do you think about the Greek diaspora every time you eat feta cheese?

This aside, an indication that the person who typed the mail was simply vomiting rhetoric rather than actually thinking is the claim about "cultural genocide." It is sometimes meaningful to talk about cultural genocide, though personally I avoid the term, as I think it lessens the impact of the word "genocide", which in my humble opinion should only be used for actual genocide. But yoga comes from India, and India has not suffered cultural genocide; on the contrary, it has a vibrant, self-confident culture which it has exported worldwide, one manifestation of which is yoga.

In more specifically Canadian political silliness, the yoga teacher offered to rename the classes "mindful stretching" but that was dropped because they couldn't translate it into French.

post a comment

Wednesday, 18th Nov. 2015

1.46 pm - Not the Fall of Rome

One of the sillier commentaries on the Paris attacks I have read so far is Niall Ferguson's "Paris and the Fall of Rome". It's ironic that it comes from a historian, given its romanticised view of history. The author draws an analogy between Daesh/ISIS's attack on Paris and the Goths' sack of Rome, quoting Gibbon to illustrate the savagery of both:

In the hour of savage license, when every passion was inflamed, and every restraint was removed … a cruel slaughter was made of the Romans; and … the streets of the city were filled with dead bodies … Whenever the Barbarians were provoked by opposition, they extended the promiscuous massacre to the feeble, the innocent, and the helpless.

Apart from the fact that you can't really compare the sack of a whole city with a terrorist attack, Gibbon was, as usual, playing to the gallery. As it happened, the sack of Rome, far from being an unprecedented act of barbarity, was mild by the (admittedly brutal) standards of the day. Certainly a lot of Roman civilians were killed or enslaved, but that wasn't the Goths' main aim; their aim was to show the government in Ravenna who was boss, and carry off loot. The city was not put the torch and there was no systematic massacre. The Goths didn't want to destroy the Roman Empire but to be part of it, preferably the part that was ruling it.

Ferguson also goes along with the pop-history narrative whereby empires fall because they get soft and decadent. In this view, empires are started by hardy, plain-living folk who epitomise the manly virtues (think of those hunky guys in 300). Their descendants become victims of their own success, succumbing to luxury and debauchery, throwing orgies and eating big bunches of grapes. (It's a trope in historical/fantasy films that soft people eat soft fruit.) Too effete to practice the arts of war, they are overthrown by manly barbarian hordes, and so the cycle continues. Like Rome, Ferguson warns, Europe will be overrun by barbarians because we let our martial prowess droop.

There are two things blatantly wrong with this argument. The first is that the Roman Empire became more, not less, militaristic as time went by. From the end of the second century, the empire was basically a succession of military dictatorships, with the most powerful general becoming emperor. (Incidentally, "imperator" was originally a title bestowed on successful generals by their troops.) Late Roman field armies could wipe the floor with anyone—the problem was that there weren't enough of them because there weren't enough Romans. (The reasons for that are up for debate; poor agricultural practices, a slave economy and even lead poisoning have been suggested.) When the empire split into East and West, the depopulated, impoverished West didn't stand a chance, while the wealthy, populous Byzantine Empire carried on for centuries.

The other mistake is to think that Europe, because it has been relatively peaceful, is militarily weak. European states played a considerable role in the adventurism that brought about the current mess, from Iraq to Syria. It's true that mounting a full-scale invasion of a Middle Eastern country would be beyond the capability of any European state, but then wars these days are fought by coalitions, and a coalition of EU states, even without American support, could probably take out any of Europe's neighbours except for Russia. In any case, if we're talking a fall of Rome scenario, then Daesh would have to come over here as an army, not a handful of serial killers, and such an army wouldn't get further than the Turkish border. Alarmism about Europe's supposedly weak defences is no more useful now than it was during the Cold War.

It may be true that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it, but we need to learn the right lessons. We also need to learn what things are different. Europe is not the Roman Empire, its neighbours are not barbarian hordes, and modern warfare is a world away from the Dark Ages.

post a comment

Friday, 18th Sep. 2015

2.43 pm - What's Wrong With Animal Rights

I've just been reading a touching but rather confusing article by a lapsed vegan that frequently mentions animal rights. After a while I realised what it was that I didn't like about this term. Our relations with animals should be based on compassion, not rights. It's a fairly safe bet that higher animals, including some of those we eat, are sentient, and if a creature is sentient then we probably don't want to cause it unnecessary suffering. Whether that implies veganism, free-range eggs, humane slaughterhouses or whatever, I'll leave to others to debate.

Rights are different. Rights are for people we may feel little compassion for but nevertheless have to get along with. Consider health care, which in most countries is regarded as a right. My granting you this right does not depend on my wanting to ease your suffering or promote your health; I accept your right to health care because if I don't, nobody gets that right. I don't have the option to provide health services only to people whose health I care about; if that were the case, it would be a privilege, not a right. Similarly, I respect the right to free speech of groups that I would happily see wiped off the face of the earth. With people we like, we don't generally think about rights; in fact, they can sometimes get in the way. If I'm preparing a meal for my wife and myself, I don't consider how much of it I have a right to. If we start thinking about rights, then we have a problem, because rights are about dealing with conflicts of interest.

Because of this, I don't see how rights enter into our relations with animals. If I argue that chickens should be allowed to roam freely rather than being cooped up in factory farms, or even that we shouldn't keep chickens captive at all, I'm not arguing that we're in some kind of social contract with chickens; I'm saying that I don't want chickens to suffer (assuming here that they're on the right side of the sentient/non-sentient divide). I'm arguing on the basis of compassion, not rights.

8 comments | post a comment

Wednesday, 2nd Sep. 2015

12.35 pm - Identity Politics and Goodhart's Law

I've just read Yasmin Alibhai Brown's article "I like Corbyn, but let's face it: we don't need another white man at the head of a political party" because it was generating so much controversy, with even Richard Dawkin wading in. Many of the comments accused Brown of racism, though I suspect many of these commentators hadn't read much further than the (admittedly very long) title. Personally, I found the article confusing. That could be because I teach academic English and I've come to expect a thesis statement that lays out the argument somewhere near the beginning, and I tend to get lost with this kind of op-ed journalism where you just ramble around a topic without coming to any definite conclusions. Not that there's anything wrong with that (in fact, it's pretty much what I'm doing here) but it's confusing to encounter someone taking what is obviously a controversial stance without being sure exactly what that stance is. Brown likes Corbyn's politics but would prefer the leader of the Labour Party to be female and non-white; that much is clear. The rest of the article is not.

Brown is obviouslyt saying that identity politics is important in Britain, but I'm not sure whether she regards this as good, bad or merely inevitable. Most confusingly, she praises the American political system for its acknowledgement of identity politics and its tacit admission "that America proclaims oneness but is, in truth, a land of many peoples, competing interests, and hostilities." Is she seriously suggesting that UK politics become more like US politics? Could it possibly be a good thing when a candidate's gender, skin colour or sexual orientation become as important as their policies? A lot of people voted for Obama because of his race, but then a lot of people voted for Margaret Thatcher because of her sex, and we don't want to go back down that road.

Brown does make some good points, though. Britain may well be less united than politicians would have us believe. She is also right that those in privileged groups (white, well-off males, for example) have a natural tendency to promote unity and underplay conflict because it is in their interests to do so. This does not mean, however, that unity is in itself a bad thing, or that conflict is inherently good.

Like Brown, I would also be happy to see more women, members of ethnic minorities and other marginalised people leading political parties and other organisations. However, my perspective is somewhat different. It would be great to see, for example, an Asian woman as prime minister of the UK. But this is not because Asian women would make better PMs, or that they would represent Asians or women better, or because I'm an Asian woman. (I'm not, by the way.) It would be good because it would be an indication that British political culture had progressed to the point where an Asian woman could become PM. This is where Goodhart's law comes in: "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure." (Note: this quotation is often misattributed to Charles Goodhart; the actual wording, though, comes from Marilyn Strathern). Goodhart's Law is the fly in the ointment of diversity. If we were to decide that Corbyn had the best policies and personal qualities to lead the Labour Party but voted for another candidate because we don't want another white man running a political party, we screw up our measure. Once identity politics rears its ugly head, we don't know if a candidate is being elected for their ideas or their identity.

1 comment | post a comment

Monday, 6th Jul. 2015

5.16 pm - Deal-breakers

We all expect our idols to have feet of clay (except for the really expensive idols, which have feet of solid gold, but it's hard to get hold of those these days.) I'm a big fan of Noam Chomsky, for example, despite the fact that I think he talks rubbish from time to time. Some things, though, are deal breakers. There should be a long German word for* that sinking feeling you get when someone you'd always admired, or perhaps had just started to like, says or does something that wipes out all the good stuff. Recent bits of news reminded me of three people I feel that way about.

1. Pope Francis
Great stuff about the global warming, capitalism etc., shame about the sexual politics. On the other hand, I'm more forgiving of Francis than the others on the grounds that he is, after all, the pope. He's supposed to be like that.

2. Aung San Suu Kyi
For years I had a kind of lefty crush on Aung San Suu Kyi. She was beautiful, brave, inspiring and a damned good writer. Now she's trying to paper over a pogrom.

3. Barack Obama
I know most of my Amercian friends love him, but once you get outside the USA, he doesn't look so good. I'm very happy for all those people who now have health care, but that pales beside having a civil war on my doorstep.

* In fact, there should be a long German word for "there should be a long German word for."

3 comments | post a comment

Saturday, 13th Jun. 2015

8.35 pm -

Every time I go to see the doctor to have blood-boogers removed from my nasal cavities, my body sulks afterwards and doesn't want to do anything. The interrnal conversation goes a bit like this.

"You HURT me."
"No I didn't. That was the doctor."
"You let him stick things in me."
"It's for your own good."

7 comments | post a comment

5.48 pm -

Happy birthday, ironed_orchid!

post a comment

Sunday, 7th Jun. 2015

4.27 pm -

Happy birthday chr0me_kitten!

post a comment

Thursday, 14th May. 2015

10.17 pm -

Happy birthday sjcarpediem (if you're still around here).

post a comment

Wednesday, 29th Apr. 2015

6.38 am -

I'm trying to remember - which of my LJ friends did all that clever work on historical narratives and political worldviews?

3 comments | post a comment

Friday, 24th Apr. 2015

6.40 pm -

I love teaching this ENG 102 course. Where else could my gamer and linguist personae combine to produce lesson materials with sentences like:

Speaking of Super Mario Brothers, should it be singular or plural? If you're talking about the game, then it's singular; otherwise (and with different formatting) you are referring to Mario and Luigi, who form a plural noun phrase.

post a comment

Thursday, 12th Mar. 2015

2.22 pm - Faustian Fringe

The other night while watching Project Runway, I had to explain the term "fringe" to my wife, which inevitably led to the question of how this related to the eponymous TV series. This in turn got me thinking about Fringe, why we loved it so much, why we found the last season rather disappointing, and what this means in a broader context.

There is one obvious reason why the last season of Fringe couldn't possibly be as good as the others: Fringe was all about mysterious possibilities, and once they'd decided to wrap everything up, they couldn't play that game any more; instead, the last season warped into an entertaining but much less intriguing "resist the alien invaders" adventure.

However, there was something that went further and actually irritated me about the last season that I couldn't put my finger on until now: it uses the Faustian deal-wtih-the-devil trope clumsily. The Faustian bargain is a staple of science fiction, and it can be done well. Frankenstein is a secularised version where there is no devil to make a deal with, but just a line in Nature which shouldn't be crossed (Shelley subtitled her novel "the Modern Prometheus" but Frankenstein is more like the hubristic doctor than the altruistic Titan). In fact, earlier on in Fringe we see two good examples of this trope: first where Walter experiments on children to enhance their psychic abilities, and later where he crosses into a parallel universe to save the son of his parallel self (by kidnapping him), thus creating a rupture in the time-space-quantum-thingummy, not to mention some unusual family drama.

Season 5 is an example of how not to do the Funky Faust. Our world has been invaded by our descendants, who have come back in time because they've messed up the environment so much. They also have amazing psychic powers, something you associate less with the kind of people who create ecological mayhem and more with cute natives who live in harmony with Nature (so I suppose we should award the writers points for avoiding one common cliche). The road to environmentally unfriendly transhumanism starts when some Dr. Faustustein finds he can short-circuit the part of the brain used for jealousy, freeing up neurons which then go on and develop psychic powers because quantum. This is the kind of neurological wackiness that is fine in a show like Fringe; the problem is in what happens next. Having got rid of a thoroughly unpleasant and fairly useless emotion and got some cool new abilities in return, our future selves get addicted to their new powers and use more and more of their brains to get them, resulting in all normal emotions getting thrown out. Yet the future folk we see are prone to primitive emotions like anger, and even lust after 21st century women, as we see when our heroes sneak into a private club where the Übermenschen unwind after a hard day of world domination.

Now the whole point of the Faust story is that Faust is a pretty smart fellow; in fact his problem is that he's too clever for his own good. The Faustian bargain has to look like a smart idea at the time, but this looks downright silly. I get rid of a negative emotion in return for some psychic powers, so I then go on and eliminate all of my positive emotions while keeping as many negative emotions as possible? Hmmm, we can't do without lust, anger and greed, so let's get rid of love, compassion and humour. If you want to raise some questions about planned human evolution, this is not the way to go about it.

The other Faustian bargain is the familiar one where humans seek power over Nature and end up destroying it. Arguably, this is the one we are living at the moment. Yet Fringe presents this in a very short-sighted way by simply projecting current environmental degradation into the future. We're creating a lot of environmental damage now, so as we get more technologically advanced, we'll create even more, right? In fact we'll have screwed up the Earth so thoroughly, the only way out will be to transport the whole population back in time.

Whoa. This is a society so advanced they can send millions of people back in time, but they can't work out how to clean up industrial pollution? Not even with those hyper-intelligent psionic megabrains they've developed? A similar silliness lurks in the ending of Avatar, where the humans are sent back to live in the ashes of the Earth they had plundered. Now I'm not saying that humans can't make the Earth uninhabitable; what I'm saying is that they would not develop the technology to go all over the galaxy looking for rare minerals yet be unable to clean up their home planet. Stupid species don't make it into space.

Of course it's good to post warnings about our potential to destroy our planet, but we need to be careful about the way we frame them. This century looks like being make-or-break for our species, as we are at the most dangerous stage of technological development, half way between technology that is too feeble to have much of an impact on the environment and technology that is sophisticated enough to protect it. In contrast, the Observers were created in 2167 and didn't make the planet uninhabitable until 2609! That's nearly half a millennium of technological progress powered by superbrains. When we compare this to the actual timeline, we don't seem to be doing so badly: a few maverick scientists started warning about climate change in the 1970s; less than half a century later we have developed solar power that's as cheap as fossil fuels and are looking to have workable fusion energy in a few decades. It may not turn out to be enough, but it's actually quite impressive considering we haven't even swapped out parts of our brains to do it.

3 comments | post a comment

Tuesday, 10th Mar. 2015

6.33 pm -

Happy birthday asteriskhere!

post a comment

Saturday, 7th Mar. 2015

8.28 pm -

Happy birthday trochee!

post a comment

Friday, 13th Feb. 2015

4.08 pm - Literal Grammar Nazis

Recently on Quora, there was one of the usual threads about grammar Nazis, with the usual three response types.
1. Grammar Nazis are just mean people who use grammar as an excuse to be mean.
2. So-called grammar Nazis are just people who care about accurate communication.
3. So-called grammar Nazis aren't Nazis because they don't send people off to concentration camps.
1. and 2. have points for and against, but 3. is just silly. If I describe Uncle Joe as a piss-artist, would someone object because Uncle Joe has never exhibited a painting? If I describe Uncle Albert as a drag queen, would anyone object because he is neither female nor a hereditary ruler? The use of "Nazi" in this and other phrases takes one characteristic of Nazism - excessive authoritarianism - to create a metaphor. That's how metaphors work. You could argue that using "Nazi" like this is tasteless, but since Seinfeld's soup Nazi, there's no going back.

Speaking of metaphors, one comment listed as a symptom of grammar Nazism objection to the metaphorical use of "literally". Personally, though, I don't think this is the kind of carping pedantry that earns grammar Nazis their names. The word "literal" means "not metaphorical", so using "literally" metaphorically robs your utterance of meaning.

post a comment

4.08 pm - "Are you sure you...

"Are you sure you want to delete your account? Yes/No"
"I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that."

post a comment

Tuesday, 10th Feb. 2015

10.51 am -

Happy birthday chippiex!

post a comment

Tuesday, 13th Jan. 2015

6.57 pm -

I would never describe myself as a "traveller", partly because I haven't travelled enough, and partly because when a lot of people call themselves travellers, it means "stingy but pretentious tourist". But I do like travelling sometimes. I've had enjoyable holidays in Rome, Vienna, Zurich and various Greek islands; I've been Interrailing; and once I travelled to Turkey and wound up spending 23 years there. Nevertheless, I sometimes open travel websites, and think "Why do people bother?" OK, adventure, but as a wise hobbit once said, adventures make you late for lunch. Sometimes I think Lao Tsu had a point when he said "One may know the world without going out of doors. One may see the Way of Heaven without looking through the windows. The further one goes, the less one knows." And he wrote that before there was the Discovery Channel!

Oh well, it's probably because I'm ill and feeling unenthusiastic about going to Paris this month.

8 comments | post a comment

Sunday, 11th Jan. 2015

10.04 am -

Keep calm, and do a failure analysis.

post a comment

9.48 am -

Looks like I won't be having my nose/sinus operation until Spring. I was hoping to get it done in the winter break, but now I need to plan my course around my non-appearance for a couple of weeks. Surprisingly, I don't relish this prospect - I'd like a medical procedure that allows me to teach but doesn't allow any kind of grading or admin work rather than the reverse, but such a thing has yet to be discovered. On the bright side, I may finally get round to reading all those articles I've saved to Pocket.

post a comment