Saturday, January 21, 2006

Them vs. Us

One of the stupidity holes we seem to stumble into over and over again--often not even understanding that we are in a hole--is the "them versus us" trap. It appears to me that it is partly hardwired into our noggins, but it seems like we overdo the distinctions between the "them" and the "us".

This was something I have thought of blogging about in the past, but never got around to. But recently, The Language Guy did a post called The Last Bastion of PC Prejudice and it got me thinking about this topic again.

His post was only partly related to this topic, but in it he talks about how our prejudices can be exercised against other groups by making politically correct (sounding) statements disparaging how others speak. In short, this provides a polite (sounding) mechanism for attacking another social class or ethnic group.

His discussion reminded me about a thought I have often had about how we instinctively--is it really an instinct?--divide the world into them and us. And, more specifically, how in some cases we seem to have certain common indexes for making the decision about who is them and who is us. And language is one of those indexes.

Look at it this way. Let's suppose that we evolved this tendency in order to survive in our cave man days. Now I don't have any idea if that is actually what happened, but let's say it is for argument's sake. Let's say we needed a way to differentiate between groups whose collective DNA we want to help preserve and groups whose DNA we should be hostile to. Well, if we don't have common indexes, then differentiating becomes very haphazard.

Let's say for example, that we have 4 cavemen, Fred and Barney who are part of the Bedrock community, and Og and Zog who are members of the Cave Bear Clan. If there is no common index for determining who is a member of us and who is a member of them, then it all becomes very haphazard, and social groupings become difficult to manage. Let's say, for example, that Barney differentiates us-ness vs. them-ness based on toe shape, and Fred bases his distinctions on beer preferences. In such a case, Fred and Barney would have a hard time determining who to be nice to and who to be hostile to. Fred and Barney would have a devil of a time coordinating hostilities because they couldn't be sure who is friend and who is foe. More importantly, since they don't share any common indexes to determine who is us and who is them, they would be completely unable to even maintain a distinct social group. If Og and Zog, by contrast, did maintain a common set of markers, then their social grouping would have an edge over that of Fred and Barney.

One thought that I find interesting is that it may not even matter too much what their indexes are, as long as they have common ones.

What all this has to do with the Language Guy's post is that, I suspect, we do have these common indexes, and language is one of the key ones. Of course, looks and grooming behaviors would be another. If language is a key index in determining them-ness vs. us-ness, then it seems likely that part of the reason we behave the way the Language Guy describes is that we have a special propensity to think that way.

Of course, it could be argued that I am providing a justification for such behavior as he describes (in his post) by suggesting that it is hardwired. Well, I suppose a person could interpret things that way, but the truth is, I do not condone prejudice. Rather, I am trying to fight it. Starting with myself. I am fighting it by trying to understand it.

I am not actually claiming that it is hardwired. More that it's softwired. I am suggesting that we may have a strong tendency to make distinctions, based largely on specific indexes, such as language and appearances, to treat some people as us, and to treat others as them. And we do this even when the basis for that distinction is not germain to the defence of the real needs of any important social groupings. In other words, we tend to treat others like outsiders, and with hostility, for really stupid reasons.

I am suggesting that we do this partly instinctively--without realizing--but we shouldn't. We needn't. It is part of our stupidity that we do this. It is a recognizable error that we can catch ourselves doing. Even if our instincts tend to lead us in this direction, our higher brains, our sense of decency, should steer us right again.

I wanted to give some examples, but as I often do, I have droned on without carefully planning my exit strategy. And it is now almost midnight so I just have to bring this to an unceremonious and abrupt end.

So in closing, let's just forget that I'm us and you're them. For tonight and tomorrow, let there only be us -- and you're included.

Spread the word.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

With that thinking, why have standards at all and why would we bother to teach anything to anyone. Then everyone could be uneducated and we all could be equal. This is why our schools are in such dissaray. The thinking is is; anything is OK as long as we do not offend anyone. As I said at LG's, poppycock! Expect little, get little, expect much get much. That is too much for most to understand I guess.

5:23 AM  
Blogger Copernicus Now said...

Okay, J_G, so now I see the reason for your cryptic comment on Language Guy's post.

It appears to me you may be making some unwarranted assumptions. I have never argued against the teaching of standard English, or the standard variety of any language. I can't speak for the Language Guy, but I didn't notice him making any any arguments against the teaching of standard English either. In my opinion, the teaching of standard forms of a language makes perfect sense.

It doesn't follow from anything he or I said that it is okay to have people uneducated.

On the question of standards, however, what Language Guy seems to be saying (as I understood him) is that these notions of "correct" and "incorrect" language are not based on any real appreciation of the nature of language itself. And, as for their claim to be standards at all, they tend to be applied very unequally. And the fault line of these poorly applied notions about standards all too often seems to split along class lines.

7:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't had the formal education that most of the people that comment on LG's blog have had. I am just a middle class person with a high school education. I have been a technical instructor at the railroad I work for. I must adhere to standards for safety’s sake because I teach air brake theory and troubleshooting. There must be no miscommunication about what it is I teach. I went to LG's blog to see if I could learn more about language to help me communicate what I have to say. When it comes to class lines I make it quite clear to the instructed that a black person will be just as dead as a white or Hispanic person if they do not learn and apply the safety rules I teach.

I am not a bigot but I do have prejudices like everyone does. There is no way that holding people to standards and imploring them to improve themselves is a bigoted act to me. Quite the contrary, a man that I have studied for many years said this "I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it". This was uttered by Benjamin Franklin in 1766. I firmly believe that demanding higher standards will bring higher standards. Low expectations are the worst form of bigotry I can think of. It assumes that those persons are not capable of meeting the higher standards so why expect them to achieve them.

My Father never graduated high school yet he went on to become the Chief Engineer at the Railroad where I work. Because my Father was the big cheese I was watched by every single person and held to higher standard because there was not going to be a free ride for me. I had to earn every single position I attained the hard way by proving I was able to do the job and excel in it. I tell my fellow employees that at the beginning of each instruction and that I expect the same of them. That is a direct challenge and it works every time. If you have read any of my posts at LG’s or at my blog you should understand that I live what I say and I try to express it in the best manner I know how. I really don’t mean to sound so blunt and hostile but the mindset of some of the people at LG’s blog just do not make any sense to me. I have to work with people that are just barely literate but most of them try hard when I challenge them. I will help them and spend extra time if necessary because I care but the higher standards that I demand in my class must be met or they will have to come back on their own time. Lives depend on these people understanding their job. It does matter to me if someone attending a college on a sports scholorship learn how to or at least attempt to learn something while they are there even if it isn't as important as learning how to be safe while working on trains.

10:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the second to last sentence of the above post, I meant to say "on a sports scholorship learn how to speak"

10:22 PM  
Blogger Copernicus Now said...

J_G, You make some excellent points about the importance of communicating clearly and correctly. And I must say, I agree with the importance of learning to communicate precisely and accurately.

But communicating--especially avoiding miscommunication--is not just about how we speak. It's also about how we listen. (And how we read, for that matter.)

I get the impression you are so caught up in your experiences--and I do not take away from the significance of your life's experience, it sounds very impressive to me--that you may not actually be hearing (or reading) the Language Guy's message as he wrote it.

He did not say that it is okay for people (of any race or social class) to speak unclearly. He did not indicate in any way that he condones ignorance.

The example he used was of a university educated man who pronounces certain words differently than most of us. As far as I know, the man is quite easy to understand and is able to form intelligent sentences that most native English speakers comprehend easily. But many people criticize him over a trite detail of pronunciation.

More importantly, the Language Guy pointing out that the very people who criticize do equivalent acts of supposed mispronunciation day in and day out. But they take no mind of their own speech behavior.

Awhile back I realized that a manager in my workplace--whom all respect for his fantastic communication skills--happens to pronounce his 'th' sounds like 'f' sounds. He is quite understandable and we do not even remotely consider him to be ignorant. Most people don't even notice it. Nor does anybody suggest that he should change his behavior.

It seems to me that the Language Guy is really talking about a tendency people have to insist on applying one set of standards to themselves, and those they consider like themselves, and quite another to people of other races and social classes.

There is one more thing I would like to add, and that is confusion between the notion of a "standard language" (e.g.: standard English), and standards. I am for the teaching of standard English, standard French, etc., but just because somebody doesn't speak a standard language does not mean they don't have worthwhile standards. And many important people that we all love to hear speak in the media do not speak standard English.

Standards yes. Double-standards, no.

2:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not just LG that bothers me when I read such statements that he made. LG follows a whole mindset of elitism. I don't have a real problem with someone mispronouncing a certain word. I have to put up with men "axing me a question" about this or that so I just let it go. It's not that important. I understand what they are saying.

LG claims to be an accomplished Linguistics professor and the mindset of institutions of higher learning he has been a part of not only deny people a good education they actually are stealing from those that try very hard to make accomplishments academically. They are in favor of those young men that are able to catch or throw a football. That is really my beef and I wrote about this just recently on my blog. I see young blacks that get jobs at my work as coach cleaners that are very talented. These young men have worked hard to overcome the "hood" and have learned to read, write, speak and hold themselves to very high standards. I have helped at least two of them get better jobs at work but they have been denied entrance to colleges because they are too poor and just don't have high enough scores and most of all they can’t play ball. They get a job at my work because they are able to pass drug tests. I believe if the schools they went to would improve their curriculum and boost standards these fellows would have been going to college instead of cleaning human feces off of trains. The school systems place too much emphasis on sports and not enough on academics. What I read into what LG wrote is that it is OK to make excuses if the guy can throw a football. These so called institutions of higher learning let them get away with taking easy courses so they can meet some very low standards. The fellows at my work didn’t go to college because they can’t throw a ball or jump ten feet in the air but they can write report on why they think the management is overstaffed and under worked :-)

I have been reading and commenting at LG’s blog for a couple of months now and I have the distinct feeling he is one of those fellows that leans hard to the left politically and makes that quite clear in every post. I am a conservative and have objections to his views most of the time. I consider professors like LG to be part of the problem and I let him know about that every time I am able. I don’t much care to post comments there anymore because I am not learning anything from going there anymore. LG’s blog has just become another one of those leftwing blogs that exasperate me. So it’s like saying “I like banging my head against the wall because it feels so good when I stop”. Have a good day and visit my blog once in a while if you care to.

11:23 AM  

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