Posts Tagged ‘culture’

Culture not worthy of “appropriation” does not deserve to survive

June 11, 2020

In the blinkered world of the politically correct, “cultural appropriation” has now become a very “bad” thing.

One would reasonably think that cultural appropriation is when elements of a culture are so highly valued that they are adopted by other cultures. It is how cultures change and evolve. Static cultures stagnate and die. Peoples whose culture stagnates, but who themselves adapt, survive by merging into a dominating culture. When a culture is not viable its practitioners gradually disappear as an identifiable, ethnic, cluster of people. And so it should be. It is cultures and peoples with the ability to adapt, to absorb and appropriate from others, which survive. Contemporaneous cultures are always in competition and, that too, is an essential part of how they evolve. Ridicule is a common expression of such competition. Cultures which cannot stand the heat of appropriation and assimilation of elements of their culture by other cultures, do die out – as they should. Appropriation by others is a very good indicator of the value of a cultural element. Cultural elements not worth appropriating by others are often just being continued because of inertia and should probably be discarded by the originating culture. A culture or cultural element not robust enough to withstand ridicule does not need to be kept alive on artificial support.

Elements of culture are absorbed, (or appropriated or copied or improved) by others because they are advantageous or desirable. The Romans followed the Greeks and appropriated large, desirable chunks of Greek culture. Including the chiton. What was not desirable was rejected. Fortunately, we are not doomed to all wearing the chiton. Trousers were invented, at least 3,000 years ago, by the hordes of Central Asia for riding horses, and not primarily as a fashion statement. But while, through Greek and Roman times, trousers were known, they were confined to the uncultured masses. In the present day, sagging trousers are used by the great unwashed, as a cultural and tribal symbol. Cultures are established, they live and some die. They are subject to evolution as all languages also are. Elements of doomed cultures survive if they are worth adopting. Minority cultures – like communities – can try to remain separate and isolated and pure – and gradually wither away. But useful, desirable elements of any culture, if adopted, appropriated or assimilated by others, can survive for ever.

Trousers for example.

A culture with nothing worth appropriating has little value and should be allowed to die quietly.

A culture unable to appropriate from, or allow appropriation by, other cultures deserves to die out.

“Cultural appropriation”, as a term, has now been hijacked by the politically correct as fuel for the manufactured indignation they cannot live without. They have defined a special subset of “cultural appropriation” which is considered evil and a fundamental sin. It is declared unacceptable and morally reprehensible when elements of a subordinate (minority) culture are adopted by members of a dominant (majority) culture. It is especially evil when this happens for economic gain. Subordinate cultures, inevitably, are sometimes those of minorities who have been oppressed. Adopting elements of such a culture (food, symbols, clothing, language, music ….) is apparently, in the world of political correctness, to participate in oppression. The argument is illogical, contrived and makes no sense but rationality is not the point of being politically correct. Members of minority cultures may, however, freely adopt elements of the majority culture provided they have not been coerced to do so. Furthermore, the same argument continues, a member of a disadvantaged minority culture adopting some element of a majority culture is, in itself, proof of coercion. All the people from former colonies who now continue using English or Spanish or French are thus keeping their own oppression alive and are – often unknowingly – morally degenerate. A minority culture appropriating elements from another minority culture can be politically acceptable only if both minorities are equally disadvantaged. Thus, poor Asians in black-face are less reprehensible than rich Asians in dreadlocks. Black Africans wearing a Hindu bindi (which is a quasi-religious statement of marital status) are considered less immoral than when white Europeans use the bindi as a fashion statement.

This incoherent indignation is rich in self-righteousness and borders on idiocy. Sometimes, they manage to hear the nonsense in their own babble and then the fall-back, defensive position is that while cultural exchange is acceptable, cultural appropriation is not. (Five words of your language for five words of mine? or your trousers for my chiton?) One accusation is that elements of a culture are used by members of other cultures for purposes not intended by the original culture. They find it sinful that non-aborigines create art purporting to be of cultural significance for Aborigines. Especially if it is for monetary gain. Just as Andy Warhol must have sinned with his Campbell soup cans. For the Washington Redskins to use the head of a “Native American” (Red Indian) chief as their symbol is now tantamount to approving of genocide.

(The efforts at the UN to make cultural appropriation illegal only demonstrate how stupid humans can be. But stupid is also part of the diversity of humans. It is worth noting that the sanctimonious attempts by the politically correct to “protect indigenous peoples” are inherently racist. They perpetuate racism. In the name of protecting indigenous peoples, the UN has effectively enshrined them as racially different groups, imprisoned them in their backwardness and have created zoo animals of them).

k2p: Keeping backward tribes isolated to “preserve” their cultures and freezing them into backwardness (by preventing them from merging or being absorbed by the world) is immoral.

What especially fuels the indignation of the sanctimonious is if “offenders” make money from the use of the element of  appropriated culture. The list of such morally reprehensible, “cultural appropriations” is very long  – and very muddled.

  1. Citizens of former colonies now using English are unknowingly continuing the oppression of their ancestors by colonists, and are in grave moral danger.
  2. The appropriation of elements of minority languages (Welsh, Gaelic, Hindi, patois, ….) into English is immoral (and, horror of horrors, nobody asked for permission).
  3. The inclusion of elements of minority music in mainstream (majority) music is exploitation and wrong.
  4. Appreciation or the playing of Jazz by non-blacks, or the sitar by white Englishmen, is a heinous sin.
  5. Non-blacks with dreadlocks are destined for hell.
  6. Non- Japanese wearing a kimono outside of Japan is not OK. (A Japanese not wearing a kimono inside of Japan is cultural coercion. A salary-man is not even aware of his masochistic self-oppression).
  7. A non-Mexican doing business with burritos, and a non-Indian chef cooking chicken tikka, are sinful (unless royalties are paid).
  8. Non-Hindus dressing in fabrics bearing Hindu symbols is blasphemy.
  9. For fanatical (but pc) Hindus, the worst thing that Hitler did, was to culturally appropriate the Swastika.
  10. Misguided Indians earning more from cricket than English cricketers don’t realise their own moral turpitude.
  11. The Washington Redskins (or the Chicago Blackhawks) using Native American symbols is immoral.
  12. Dressing up as Pocohantas is sinful, because the real Pocohantas was oppressed by a person of English birth, and all descendants of all Europeans should therefore feel guilt.
  13. White Australians earning more money by playing the didgeridoo than any “native Australian”, are bound for everlasting hell.
  14. When a non-black person earns more wearing black-face than a black person, it is a sin by the non-black person.
  15. Non-black actors playing black roles is politically incorrect. Black actors playing non-black roles is affirmative action and therefore acceptable. (This is part of a larger political – rather than cultural –  movement aimed at  ensuring that minority roles are only played by members of the minority who will not then need the ability to act. Pantomime will, of course, be banned).
  16.  …..

The primary drivers for the movement against “cultural appropriation” would seem to be envy and a need to stoke the fires of its own indignation.

Related: Extinction is normal

Living things evolve, dead things can be remembered but extinction is normal.

I have no objection to expressions of regret, but I find the hand-wringing and sanctimonious claptrap about the extinction of species, languages and cultures illogical and without thought. I don’t miss the dodo or any of the dinosaurs. I don’t miss Latin or Sanskrit (even though I had to sit through boring lessons in both). It is only a natural course of development that isolated Amazonian tribes have disappeared as their members have joined the rest of the world. I don’t miss the cannibalistic cultures which have disappeared.

 ….. Species evolve to survive or they go extinct. Languages evolve and they die when they are of no use to anyone anymore. Cultures evolve and merge with other cultures or they try to remain separate as a distinct, (often racial) identity by isolation and inevitably they die out. The cultures that disappear don’t survive because they are not viable in the world they live in. Regret is one thing, but trying to artificially protect non-viable species, languages or cultures or peoples by putting them in a “zoo” is mawkish and irrational and, ultimately, unethical. Keeping backward tribes isolated to “preserve” their cultures and freezing them into backwardness (by preventing them from merging or being absorbed by the world) is immoral. Freezing individuals from unfit species in a zoo, and neither helping them to evolve nor allowing the species to go extinct, is immoral. Preserving dead languages is of academic interest and does not prevent the extinction of languages which no longer serve a useful purpose.

To the best of our knowledge there are about 7,000 languages recognised today. Depending upon when language began (between 50,000 and 200,000 years ago) between 90 and 99% of all languages are now extinct. Written languages are much younger of course. An extinct language is a matter of history. Some languages evolved and produced versions still in use today. Others did not. We know about some of these because they developed writing and left some records which have survived. Languages die a natural death when they stop being used. Of course there is nothing wrong in speakers of dying languages trying to revitalise them. Governments have sometimes tried to promote particular languages (French, Hindi), and sometimes to suppress some (Welsh, Sami). Languages have been invented (Esperanto or Klingon). Most of these attempts of artificially creating, protecting or suppressing language are futile. The ultimate arbiter of language (and of grammar and of spelling) is usage.  The real question should not be whether a language is “endangered” and should be protected but whether a language serves any useful purpose. If it does, it will survive. If it does not, it should not survive. Endangered languages should be recorded for history and allowed to die in peace.



Numeracy and language

December 2, 2013

I tend towards considering mathematics a language rather than a science. In fact mathematics is more like a family of languages each with a rigorous grammar. I like this quote:

R. L. E. SchwarzenbergerThe Language of Geometry, in A Mathematical Spectrum Miscellany, Applied Probability Trust, 2000, p. 112:

My own attitude, which I share with many of my colleagues, is simply that mathematics is a language. Like English, or Latin, or Chinese, there are certain concepts for which mathematics is particularly well suited: it would be as foolish to attempt to write a love poem in the language of mathematics as to prove the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra using the English language.

Just as conventional languages enable culture and provide a tool for social communication, the various languages of mathematics, I think, enable science and provide a tool for scientific discourse. I take “science” here to be analaogous to a “culture”. To follow that thought then, just as science is embedded within a “larger” culture, so is mathematics embedded within conventional languages. This embedding shows up as the ability of a language to deal with numeracy and numerical concepts.

And that means then the value judgement of what is “primitive” when applied to language can depend upon the extent to which mathematics and therefore numeracy is embedded within that language.

GeoCurrents examines numeracy embedded within languages:

According to a recent article by Mike Vuolo in, Pirahã is among “only a few documented cases” of languages that almost completely lack of numbers. Dan Everett, a renowned expert in the Pirahã language, further claims that the lack of numeracy is just one of many linguistic deficiencies of this language, which he relates to gaps in the Pirahã culture. ….. 

The various types of number systems are considered in the article on Numeral Bases, written by Bernard Comrie. Of the 196 languages in the sample, 88% can handle an infinite set of numerals. To do so, languages use some arithmetic base to construct numeral expressions. According to Comrie, “we live in a decimal world”: two thirds of the world’s languages use base 10 and such languages are spoken “in nearly every part of the world”. English, Russian, and Mandarin are three examples of such languages. ….. 

Around 20% of the world’s languages use either purely vigesimal (or base 20) or a hybrid vigesimal-decimal system. In a purely vigesimal system, the base is consistently 20, yielding the general formula for constructing numerals as x20 + y. For example, in Diola-Fogny, a Niger-Congo language spoken in Senegal, 51 is expressed as bukan ku-gaba di uɲɛn di b-əkɔn ‘two twenties and eleven’. Other languages with a purely vigesimal system include Arawak spoken in Suriname, Chukchi spoken in the Russian Far East, Yimas in Papua New Guinea, and Tamang in Nepal. In a hybrid vigesimal-decimal system, numbers up to 99 use base 20, but the system then shifts to being decimal for the expression of the hundreds, so that one ends up with expressions of the type x100 + y20 + z. A good example of such a system is Basque, where 256 is expressed as berr-eun eta berr-ogei-ta-hama-sei ‘two hundred and two-twenty-and-ten-six’. Other hybrid vigesimal-decimal systems are found in Abkhaz in the Caucasus, Burushaski in northern Pakistan, Fulfulde in West Africa, Jakaltek in Guatemala, and Greenlandic. In a few mostly decimal languages, moreover, a small proportion of the overall numerical system is vigesimal. In French, for example, numerals in the range 80-99 have a vigesimal structure: 97 is thus expressed as quatre-vingt-dix-sept ‘four-twenty-ten-seven’. Only five languages in the WALS sample use a base that is neither 10 nor 20. For instance, Ekari, a Trans-New Guinean language spoken in Indonesian Papua uses base of 60, as did the ancient Near Eastern language Sumerian, which has bequeathed to us our system of counting seconds and minutes. Besides Ekari, non-10-non-20-base languages include Embera Chami in Colombia, Ngiti in Democratic Republic of Congo, Supyire in Mali, and Tommo So in Mali. …… 

Going back to the various types of counting, some languages use a restricted system that does not effectively go above around 20, and some languages are even more limited, as is the case in Pirahã. The WALS sample contains 20 such languages, all but one of which are spoken in either Australia, highland New Guinea, or Amazonia. The one such language found outside these areas is !Xóõ, a Khoisan language spoken in Botswana. ……. 

Read the whole article. 

Counting monkey?

In some societies in the ancient past, numeracy did not contribute significantly to survival as probably with isolated tribes like the Pirahã. But in most human societies, numeracy was of significant benefit especially for cooperation between different bands of humans. I suspect that it was the need for social cooperation which fed the need for communication within a tribe and among tribes, which in turn was the spur to the development of language, perhaps over 100,000 years ago. What instigated the need to count is in the realm of speculation. The need for a calendar would only have developed with the development of agriculture. But the need for counting herds probably came earlier in a semi-nomadic phase. Even earlier than that would have come the need to trade with other hunter gatherer groups and that  probably gave rise to counting 50,000 years ago or even earlier. The tribes who learned to trade and developed the ability and concepts of trading were probably the tribes that had the best prospects of surviving while moving from one territory to another. It could be that the ability to trade was an indicator of how far a group could move.

And so I am inclined to think that numeracy in language became a critical factor which 30,000 to 50,000 years ago determined the groups which survived and prospered. It may well be that it is these tribes which developed numbers, and learned to count, and learned to trade that eventually populated most of the globe. It may be a little far-fetched but not impossible that numeracy in language may have been one of the features distinguishing Anatomically Modern Humans from Neanderthals. Even though the Neanderthals had larger brains and that we are all Neanderthals to some extent!

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