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Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Cultural Instability: A Cognitive Approach to Cultural Change




Abstract: An atttempt to demonstrate how and why cultural change occurs continuously and  independently of any social dynamics and simply as the result of the working of ordinary cognitive processes understood here without recourse to specific versions of cognitive theory. 

The past is a lost world. We know so little about it. Of all the trillion upon trillion conversations, speeches, sermons, invocations, recitations, chants, songs, concert performances, which took place before the 1870s (at the earliest) hardly a trace remains. Their sound is recorded nowhere; the memory traces which they left are gone because everyone born before the 1870s is dead. Only where something was written down in a musical score, the text of a play or a prayer, or an entry in a diary, does something remain. The farther back in time we go, the more reconstructive (and hence at least partly speculative) is any attempt to reproduce the sounds and gestures of the past. We can reconstruct the conversation at a nineteenth century country house dinner table guided by what we read in Jane Austen; an eighteenth century concert fit for a king guided by a musical score; a seventeenth century theatrical performance guided by all that Shakespeare researchers can tell us; a sixteenth century speech by Queen Elizabeth the First as handed down in the history books …. but in the end only one thing is certain, that somewhere we will have got it wrong. We are guessing – we are theorising and we are improvising. There are no Big Data such as we now possess in sound and visual recordings and even those, I will later argue, are fraught with problems.

I am making an important assumption. Surely, you might say, there is at least a possibility that person B who heard it from person A passed it to person C who then passed it on to person D, and so on down the line so that a twenty first century rendering of a prayer may be sounded out in pretty much an identical manner to the way it was sounded out ten or twenty generations ago.  I don’t believe this is true and rather than just say Haven’t you heard of Chinese Whispers? I want to use this essay to argue that case.
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In logic, if A implies B, and B implies C, and C implies D … all the way through to Y implies Z, then it follows that A implies Z. Logical implication and entailment just is a transitive thing.
But if I understood my mother when she talked to me, and she understood her mother when she talked to her, and that mother understood her own mother …. it does not follow that I would understand my 26th great grandmother if she were still alive to talk to me. Indeed, it is at least very likely that I would not understand.  There will be a failure of transitivity.

Such failures arise in two main ways. First, the things I want to speak about are different to those my 26th great grandmother wanted to speak about. My vocabulary is different, full of words which would be to her incomprehensible neologisms. Likewise, her vocabulary included words which have fallen completely out of use and which can now be found, if at all, only in specialist dictionaries. It is a perfectly general truth that the world we inhabit change and the words we use to talk about our world change with them, sometimes very rapidly, sometimes more slowly.

Second, the way we speak changes over time under both external and internal pressures. 

Pronunciation, accent, intonation patterns, all change – indeed, are changing all the time, never stop.
These simple ideas can be given expression in terms of very simple set theory. There is a set (almost certainly fuzzy at the edges) of all the possible utterances which I can passively understand should they be addressed to me. That set changes over a lifetime – in my late teens I could understand utterances in Swedish because I had learnt some Swedish but which I would no longer understand because I have forgotten what I learnt – but importantly the set includes most (perhaps all) of the utterances which my mother ever addressed to me. But my set does not perfectly overlap with her set, not least because the world has changed a great deal and now includes the internet, emails, and so on indefinitely. Included in her set were most (perhaps all) of the utterances which her mother addressed to her, none of which were ever addressed to me because this grandmother was dead before I was born. Probably there were things which my grandmother said which I would not understand if by some extraordinary means I could hear them now.

I can even give a sort of proof. Recently, going through things which belonged to this grandmother, I found the printed prayer which stood like a photo in a frame on her bedroom dressing table. I looked at the back where I found printed the words MOWBRAYS’ DEVOTIONAL GLAZETTES G 7. Well, I know that Mowbray is a big religious publisher confirmed by the later words A.R.MOWBRAY & CO Ltd. London & Oxford – something which has not stopped the company putting the apostrophe in the wrong place, useful evidence that the decline of civilisation did not begin last week. And I know the word devotional. But what about this glazette? I’ve never come across the word before. It sounds like it has some connection to gazette, but what connection? So I google and for the first time ever, Google really struggles. There is no definition of the word on offer anywhere but there are a handful of other uses which Google finds on ebay, including uses to brand-name early (1890s – 1910s) picture postcards which have a glazed surface – what we would now call a laminated surface. So here we have a word which my grandmother would have presumably known and understood but which, unaided, I did not. And here we are only talking about the very, very recent past.
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It takes only a bit of imagination to see that over time, the sets of all possible utterances which a person in generation Z can understand have migrated so far away from those which a person in generation A could understand  that there is eventually minimal or no overlap at all. There is a more or less complete failure of transitivity. Or, to put it in the language of set theory, sets migrate. If this is true of language, then it will be true of many other forms of expression. That claim requires some fleshing out.

Why is it not possible for a singer in an oral culture to orally transmit a definitive version of a song to an apprentice singer who then in turn passes it on to the next generation apprentice, and so on, indefinitely?

First, and not at all trivially, a singer may not care at all about a definitive version and from performance to performance may vary in all kinds of ways the song they sing. The singer acts creatively, improvises, but is also affected by how much they have had to drink, how much they like the audience, and so on through an indefinite range of possibilities. So an apprentice has to somehow figure out what is essential to learning and reproducing “the song” and what is incidental. And there is no guarantee at all that all apprentices will figure out in the same way, even if they have never heard the expression “cover version”.

This is really a way of introducing the idea that in relation to cultural transmission or reproduction, there is always and inevitably an inescapable moment of interpretation. That idea can also be expressed in the claim which tells us that a theory (an interpretation) is always underdetermined by the data which support it. There is always more than one way to skin a cat.

Second, it is extremely rare for something like a song or a dance to have only a unique performer at any one moment in time and for that unique performer to have a unique apprentice. At any one time, the performances of a living group of performers are attended to by a group of apprentices. When a culture is dying, one way of showing that is to point to the fact that the group of apprentices is smaller than the group of established performers. But dying or expanding, the performances of current performers constitute a set (almost certainly fuzzy at the edges) of what constitutes the empirical reality of a particular song. When a couple of centuries ago (or less), ethnographers began to collect the words of folk songs one of the first things they had to cope with was the huge variation between versions of what were,  in some sense, renderings of the same song. The set which made up a song was not only fuzzy; it was positively indeterminate.

I once encountered a real-world near-demonstration of this truth. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, men from the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland found employment with the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada which traded with the Inuit population of the north. Some Orcadians also served on whalers which hunted in the Canadian north. These men left behind not just babies but fiddles and the knowledge of how to play them. Long after the Orcadians left, there continued to be Inuit fiddlers playing Orcadian music. In 1978, holidaying in Orkney, I found myself one evening attending a unique, first-time-ever gathering: a group of Inuit fiddlers had travelled to Orkney and they were going to play their fiddles. Then some Orcadian fiddlers were going to play theirs. Then, it was hoped, the two sets of fiddlers would play together. Well, they tried and they partially succeeded but you would not have called it a successful jam session. Cultural drift had taken Inuit and Orcadian fiddlers in separate directions and after a period which could have been more than 150 years, they were playing differently from each other. But in between, sons had learnt from fathers in unbroken chains. The line of descent was there but the music had migrated enough to create quite a lot of intransitivity.
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But suppose there is just one performer and one apprentice, and suppose the performer is an obsessive about maintaining just one version of a song, a dance, a prayer and boxes the apprentice’s ears when they deviate ever so slightly from the standard? Surely this can stop the set from migrating, stop later versions from becoming intransitive with earlier ones.

I have six inter-connected arguments to offer against this possibility. One I develop through the concepts of foreground and background. That is connected to what I call the sample book problem. Then there is the important problem of forgetfulness. Then there is a problem of context which is often overlooked. There is a problem of finite intelligence. And, finally, there is the problem of unique experience.

Human beings, constructed as they are, can only attend to some things at any one time out of all the possible things which could be attended to at that moment. They can, in fact, only notice some things out of all the possible things that could be noticed. About these things to which they attend or which they notice, they can say at least something, though even then it may be sketchy and not very informative. Nonetheless, it is a whole lot more than can be said about all that was not attended to, was not noticed.

There is a foreground of experience - things we notice - and a background of things we don’t. Quite often, we can change our focus of attention in order to pull something out of the background and into the foreground. But not as often as we may imagine and quite often we only do it when prompted.
This is not just a fact or truth about perception. It is perfectly general. Everything we experience and everything we do is handled within the frame of foreground and background and there is no avoiding that fact. The consequences are multiple, not just for everyday life but also for things like artistic creation and political understanding.

The contrast of foreground and background is played out very obviously in relation to spoken and written language. Parents, teachers and ministers of education habitually foreground some bits of language as particularly important for children to learn. They emphasise bits of pronunciation, bits of grammar, bits of punctuation as things which are very important to get right. Quite often, these foregrounded features are selected with a view to stopping some incipient change occurring. They are conservative measures.

You can only practise so much vigilance. No ordinary parent or teacher or even minister of education can be googling all the time. As a result, some changes get past even the most vigilant defenders who are thus always in the position of King Canute, unable to turn back the waves. Change will happen even on those language fronts you have opted to foreground and defend.

Worse, there is the background of language use still to consider, all those things which aren’t being attended to. Here change happens unnoticed even by those who pioneer the changes. They just do it without knowing that they are doing it or why they are doing it. I will give an example from written language. Recently, I was reviewing articles and chapters I had written forty or fifty years ago. As I turned some of them into new Word documents, I realised there were things in them that I now write differently. Decades ago, I would have written U.S.S.R. and N.A.T.O. and B.B.C. and so on indefinitely. But nowadays I don’t do that. I write USSR, NATO and BBC and so on indefinitely. But there was no point at which I was conscious of dropping the stops and I did not know that I had indeed made this discontinuous change in the way I type until I got involved in reading my own old work. Likewise, there was that point when – like many people –I stopped speaking and writing Roumania or Rumania and switched to Romania. Don’t ask me when or why.

So in the background, even though it involves things which we do quite consciously – as when we sit down to type – changes happen which are not reflected on or brought into consciousness at the time they occur and may indeed not be noticed until much later. Historical linguists come into their own studying such changes but what is happening here is not specific to or confined to language. All things change, whether we like it or not or whether we notice it or not. And All does mean All, even those things we may imagine are under our own control. To return to language, if you think there is something called The Queen’s English or BBC English which does not change, just try listening to a fifty year old recording of a BBC radio broadcast or a fifty year old Queen’s Speech.

So far, the argument amounts to this. Everything we experience and think about is handled in terms of foreground and background. We have a bit more control over foreground but not enough to prevent change even when we are trying to prevent change. We have less control over background, often none at all, and background changes all the time and sometimes very fast. Change goes on in the background willy-nilly, as I have already suggested with the example of pronunciation. We are capable of changing things in the foreground and liable to change things left in the background. The dynamics of change are different in the two cases.

In the foreground, we are liable to influence from others (often massively so) but when we make a change it is often (perhaps always) of a discontinuous nature and involves a decision on our part, as when we decide to quit smoking and move from being a smoker to being a non-smoker which in turn makes us an agent within a broader cultural shift. But when something in the background changes, unknown to us, it often does so in a way which has a sort of continuous character. So we start to say “Hi” instead of “Hello” on a few occasions, without knowing why we pick those occasions, and then we start to use “Hi” more often and, perhaps eventually we move to a situation where we become a monoglot “Hi” user rather than a monoglot “Hello” user. But we didn’t decide to do this. We still understand what other people mean when they say “Hello” but we just stop using “Hello” ourselves.
(The contrast between continuous and discontinuous change is important. There is a long history of theorising about the contrast, with the science of geology having been a major site for the early discussion. Nowadays we are most familiar with the idea from the way we contrast analog with digital. Think of clocks).

How does all this apply to the single performer with a single apprentice? Suppose it is a singer and a song. The singer has a unique voice profile (as modern technology knows) and it changes through time: an old man does not sound like his younger self. The singer can’t do much about this and almost certainly discounts it and consigns it to the background when teaching an almost certainly younger apprentice. The singer can only foreground so much of the song and its singing and inevitably some things will pass unnoticed. Maybe the singer takes four minutes thirty three seconds (on average) to sing the song and the apprentice takes four minutes thirty one seconds. If you don’t notice and stop that, then the song has already changed. In contrast, when the singer foregrounds something, like a drawn out note or word, then that does mean that the apprentice may well get their ears boxed for getting it wrong.

There is still a double problem. The poor apprentice has to understand what they have got wrong and find a way to correct it. Because of the ubiquity of the need for interpretation, the apprentice has first to correctly identify what the singer is so agitated about. The problem is analogous to that children have when their speech is corrected and they have to grasp what it is that it is being corrected. Not so long ago, I listened to a young child reciting numbers from one to twenty with complete accuracy. But at the end, his father intervened to say No, not twen-ee, it’s twen-tee. The child was completely baffled by this piece of linguistic correction which had absolutely no connection to the task he had set himself of reciting the numbers in correct order. How was the child supposed to know that though living in south east London he was not supposed to speak like south east London?

Even if he had been a budding theorist of cultural arbitraries, there would still be the problem of converting advice into successful practice. Children do often get it right in the end, though it probably has little to do with advice they are given, and as anyone who has ever learnt to drive a car will know, giving advice is more easy to offer than to act upon.

Worse is to come. In oral cultures, singers forget today what they prescribed yesterday or, perhaps to make it more plausible, they forget next year what they prescribed this year. They have no sample book outside their own heads and we all know that our memories are constantly re-organising themselves. They have no means of comparing the sample which occurs to them today with the sample which they were using yesterday, let alone last year and which is almost certainly completely forgotten.

But suppose there is a real sample book in the form of a voice recording, even a film which shows all the accompanying gestures and so on?

The very same problems recur even if they seem less severe. Eliminate the possibility that the singer says they were having an off-day when the recording was made, there is still a problem of determining what is foreground and what is background in the recording, what matters and what does not matter. If the singer looks up at a certain point, does that matter or is it just because a bird was flying overhead at that moment? Then again the apprentice has to convert what is available in the recording into a new performance which uses the apprentice’s unique voice rather than that of the recorded singer, and so on.

Sample books do not solve any problem in some automatic way; they have to be interpreted and a regress can only be stopped by making a decision: this is the way we will do it. And decisions, one might say, are fatal to the integrity of cultural transmission. The decision indicates what will be allowed to Pass and what will Fail. But on a different day, or with a different judge, it is entirely likely that the bar would have been set higher or lower.

Imagine the teacher listening to the apprentice and eventually declaring That’s it! or perhaps merely That will do! That’s a decision, not something completely grounded in the sample in the teacher’s head. Nor is there any guarantee that next time around the teacher will come down in favour of the same version; the teacher is capable of forgetting the sample used last time and also capable of unconsciously modifying it. The mind is always at work, in one way or another, and it is the mind at work which makes all culture unstable even in what we might think of as an otherwise unchanging world.
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There is a further peculiar, problem created by the fact that all our activities have a broader context.
Background and foreground are separated by temporary boundaries – things move in and out of focus, the change triggered for many different reasons. But even when something stays for a long time in background, even deep background, it exerts an influence on what goes on in foreground. I use a hypothetical example to develop the argument.

Imagine a culture in which it is expected that certain utterances will be produced in a voice which is loud, clear and decisive. Maybe when a prayer is spoken or a sentence handed down by a judge. But suppose that in the wider culture there is an unmonitored and untheorised drift towards quieter forms of speech. The explanations could be purely external and chance. Maybe people are living in a police state and fall into the habit of talking in whispers; maybe more and more people work in open plan offices or live in apartment blocks with flimsy party walls. Whatever, people are talking more quietly. In this situation, the priest or the judge who continues in the old way will begin to sound ridiculously loud rather than impressively loud. Quite unconsciously, but affected by what is happening all around, an officiant shifts towards dropping their voice by a decibel or two. Should their audience contain an old-school office holder in retirement, that person may be saying to themselves Speak up! Speak up! because they happen to be outside the loop of an ongoing, broader cultural change.

It is in such continuous contextual interaction that I think we may find part of the explanation of cultural changes which it seems no one intended but which have happened anyway. For example, if a broader culture gravitates towards greater informality of style, then that may provide a kind of push towards making things like weddings and funerals more informal, even though those are things which most people might be happy to regard as governed by tradition and to be kept going in their older forms. Context is not a sinister force, but it is a powerful one.
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There is one final and very important thing. Our brains aren’t big enough and the time available to us is so short that it’s not possible for every bit of cultural material to be given foreground attention. That implies that those who want to stop cultural change cannot win every battle because they can never have enough troops to deploy. There aren’t enough hours in the day for anyone to stay on high reflexive alert to more than a small number of things which may change if not attended to.
 To write English properly, you are supposed to master apostrophe rules. As it happens, they have a rather complex and confused structure which make them very difficult to learn without a quite disproportionate expenditure of effort. Very few people master this glass bead game. In this case, there is a long-term dislocation between a set of rules which tell you what you are supposed to do and what is actually done. The most likely resolution is that the rules will eventually be abandoned.

The problems which arise from limitations of time and intelligence can be seen in comic form in the desperate, expensive and futile attempts which English schools make to get pupils to conform to school uniform rules. The Deputy Head goes on offensive against jewellery but misses what is happening to finger nails; they switch to finger nails and miss what is happening to skirt hems; they focus on skirt hems …. The only sound conclusion available is that they never will succeed because they never can. To a disbelieving audience, King Knut proved that claim a very long time ago.
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Last but not least, people do not share the same experience set, the set of things which happen to them and which provide the raw material for their minds to work over, interpret and act upon. Experience sets are unique to individuals. Every day and all over the world, many millions (maybe more) people use or hear used the word Heathrow but only a very strange fluke would ensure that over time they have identical sets of Heathrow experiences. In all probability, they hear the word pronounced in different ways and out of that experience they have to fashion their own pronunciation, much affected by the language context from which they are working – Cantonese, French, Russian…. Very few will head to the online forum where such things are discussed and even then the effect will not be decisive.

We do not have a Big Data set which harvests the sounds of each day’s token utterances of the Heathrow type. There is no central depository, only the experiences of millions of individuals. A linguist with a sample of all the utterances will be able to sort them into sub-types – for example, the sub-type HEATH-row with stress on the first syllable and the sub-type Heath-ROW with stress on the second. The linguist may be able to hypothesise that the distribution of sub-types have shifted over time, the first pronunciation (American) overtaking the second and original English pronunciation for reasons much connected to patterns of global aviation. So we have the beginnings of an account of cultural change. The only sure thing is that it would be absurd to suppose that the continuously updated pie chart breaking down Heathrow pronunciations into their variant forms could have remained unchanged even over the short period of time in which the airport has existed.
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The lines of argument developed in this essay apply equally to the understanding of changes in beliefs, belief systems, ideologies. Those who wrote the religious texts on which many cultures have relied probably thought that they were settling things for the future. In fact, as everyone knows, they simply provided data for an indefinite number of ever-changing  interpretations. The human mind seems to like nothing better than the challenge of a text.  This inherent instability in what in some cases are presented as unchangeable belief systems has one major advantage. It also allows for scientific progress and revolution. Of course, there is also an external dynamic provided by migration, war, conquest and economic change. But even without that external dynamic to prompt it, human minds are always churning.


© Trevor Pateman 2018; first published in slightly different form on my Blog readingthisbook.com,  September 2018











Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Spelling Reform: A Progress Report





Considerable progress has been made in the past year towards the goal of ensuring that the word **** is spelt **** in all printed and online media. With one exception, major news organisations have co-operated fully with our campaign to standardise the spelling of **** as ****. Previous partial reforms which led to a proliferation of variants (most commonly f*ck, f**k, f*** ) were deemed unsatisfactory by the Office for the Reform of Spelling and we can report general agreement that these variants should be phased out. However, when recently a well-known troublemaker called on his supporters to “**** Business” his words were persistently reported in old spelling by the Financial Times; we put pressure on this Japanese-owned organisation but achieved only limited success. In contrast, OFFRESP welcomes Mr Corbyn's decision to refer to the troublemaker's “Anglo-Saxon word”, which in our view helps educate citizens into understanding that the Anglo-Saxons were on the wrong side of history.

We have made great progress in correcting online resource spellings. Thus, for example, an attention seeking poet, some years ago, wrote a “poem” about mothers and fathers, alleging that they “**** you up”. We found many online versions of this silly claim which continued to use the poet’s original spelling and others which used three, two or even just one star. However, when we pointed out that all these versions would be blocked by our latest Child Protection software, most online sources fell into line with the correct **** spelling. We are now considering whether a similar policy should be extended to the coarse “you up”, which would yield a first line of the poem reading, "Your Mum and Dad, they **** *** **".

But problems do persist, especially because of our current inability to control what are known as graffiti “artists”. For example, in a study authorised at the highest level, sixty school pupils at Key Stage One (5 to 7 years old), were asked to spell aloud ****. Ninety percent responded with  “Fir, Uh, Curly Cur, Kicking Cur” and ten percent proposed “ Fir, Uh, Kicking Cur”. None were unable to complete the task. When asked to write down the word, ten percent expressed reluctance to do so; of those who did write down, none used **** and forty percent wrote their letters very large with double outlines showing the clear influence of graffiti “artists”. Some of the pupils seemed to be pleased with their efforts which they coloured in and showed, not only to our testers but to their friends. We repeat the argument advanced in our previous report, that this disastrous state of affairs can only be improved if there is a complete ban on the sale of aerosol paint cans.

A main purpose of spelling reform is to protect the young, and though it is admirable that the elderly readers of popular newspapers are spared the old spellings, it is really the young with whom we should be concerned. All the evidence is that they are in clear and present danger.

In our next report we will look at progress in the reform of the spelling of ****, ****, *** and ********.  


© Trevor Pateman 2019. First published here April 2019

Defending Dogs against Dog Lovers



The last thing I bought and loved was my German Shepherd, Mowgli. He is so adorable. Eternal requited love in one package, on all fours. He’s 11 months old and I’ve just taken him for his first cycle ride on Rotten Row.

Claud Cecil Gurney interviewed in the Financial Times, March 2019 How To Spend It supplement

In many - maybe most - countries, dogs are bred to satisfy the needs of humans. Some of those needs seem to me strong enough to justify the breeding; in this category I place sheep dogs, sniffer dogs, guide dogs. Those dogs are usually well-cared for. Other human needs I am doubtful about.

At the top end, exotic dog brands are created to satisfy a demand for status symbols. Some of those exotic dogs suffer from chronic health problems which are reckoned a small price to pay for the exoticism. Far from providing a status symbol, ownership of such dogs ought to downgrade the owner’s status as it would if the symbol was a dwarf or a black slave.

But the vast majority of dogs are bred to satisfy ordinary human needs for companionship or to compensate for chronic emotional problems. It’s not that easy to find a dog owner who does not have fairly obvious emotional needs or psychological problems to assuage which a dog has been selected as the drug of choice. Those problems are evident in the way dog owners address their dogs and talk about them to others.

From the perspective of the owners, the wonderful thing about dogs is that they are liable to Stockholm Syndrome; they adopt the values of those who have taken them hostage. Occasionally, a dog will go on the attack, but not against its controller; the victim is either a complete stranger or else a child in the same house. But most of the time, dogs are compliant in a way that other human beings aren’t. Part of being mentally healthy is being able to accept that other people don’t always want to run fetch or sit up and beg. Some people can’t come to terms with that and that’s probably a mental health problem in itself, or a sign of one.

The dependence of owners on their dogs is not just a worrying mental health fact; it is also a significant social problem and a growing one since dog ownership is ever-increasing, partly due to the advertising efforts of very large pet food corporations. They encourage the dependency in exactly the same way as the purveyors of alcohol and tobacco. Their advertising is long overdue for the same kind of regulation as applies to the promotion of other drugs, though I am not sure how you regulate sentimentality. You can’t just proscribe doe-eyed, floppy-eared doggies; maybe you just have to ban all pictures of dogs in dog food advertisements.  They are exploitative of canines who have not signed consent forms and do not get paid. They feed the traffic in dogs.

The dependency would not matter so much were it not for the fact that it spills over into a variety of social nuisances. Rather like street drinkers who scatter cans and bottles and piss on the pavement, dog owners think that public space exists for the benefit of their pets,  that the main function of public green space and lampposts is to provide convenient pit stops for dogs. If dogs did not shit and piss, you can be absolutely certain that very few of them would be taken for such regular walkies.

Though in my country (Great Britain) it has now become more common for dog owners to Pick Up - and what does that tell us about their state of mind, for goodness sake? - they have at the same time become more grandiose about their own entitlements. A few decades ago, it was unusual for dogs to be allowed into shops, restaurants, offices, schools, hospitals, trains, buses …. Now they are everywhere and there are moves afoot to get them into the last hold-out against their presence, rented homes. So if you live in a converted Victorian terrace house with no sound-proofing and grubby public areas, prepare for the next deterioration in your quality of life. The dogs are coming.

If I see a sign in a shop or restaurant window saying “Dog Friendly” I simply don’t enter any more. I want places which are human-friendly. I suppose the turning point came after two occasions on which I watched café servers bending down to fondle dogs, letting them lick their faces and hands - and then going off to handle cutlery and plates without washing. Both cafés had local council five start hygiene ratings. You must be joking, I thought. We know, for example, that many dog owners do not worm their dogs.

Ultimately, we should consider a ban on the breeding of dogs as pets. That would be in defence of the dogs against  humans. Such a world is a long way off. Right now, one public policy aim should be to stigmatise dog owners in the same way that smokers have been stigmatised. Huddled in doorways for a fag break, there is now no disguising the fact that theirs is an addiction which other people, who were once forced into the role of passive smokers, now refuse to share. It took a long time to reverse the grip of Big Tobacco over our lives and it began with a pushback which progressively eliminated smoking in enclosed spaces.

So I think that in relation to dogs, the place to begin is reversion to how things were before. First off, dog ownership should be taxed as it once was and dog licences re-introduced, very much for the same reason that alcohol and tobacco are taxed. The taxes discourage use but also pay for the clean-up costs of other people's addictions: the street mess, the hospital admissions. Second, we should re-introduce the old policy of Dogs not admitted. Hospitals, chemists’ shops, schools, anywhere that serves food and drink - these are obvious No Go areas. In relation to public recreational space, a good starting point would be to exclude dogs from half of them. Parents of young children, especially, would welcome more dog-free green spaces and more people-only beaches. Weekend football and cricket players would welcome playing fields which do not do double duty as dog shitteries.

I like animals. I am uncomfortable with human dog-dependence, so obviously a symptom of emotional and psychological difficulty; but more to the point, I am tired of dog owners’ sense of entitlement, their sense of privilege in which their rights trump those of dog-free people. It should be possible to enjoy a meal in a restaurant without someone else’s dog under your feet and go for a walk admiring the scene, rather than keeping your eyes down for the dog shit.


© Trevor Pateman 2019. First published here April 2019

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Sex and Gender: Binaries and Continuums




I think of sex as mostly binary and gender as pretty much a continuum. There are intersex individuals and more of them than cursory midwife inspection may suggest; some intersex features only reveal themselves later, often in adolescence. But it's still a small number and to treat sex as binary has always been a fairly good approximation for practical purposes; it has high predictive value for such things as who will get breast cancer and who will get prostate cancer. Worldwide, it also predicts which foetuses are more likely to be aborted: if the scan shows the foetus female, then that is more likely to be aborted.

But gender characteristics are distributed along a continuum rather than distributed into a binary of trans and cis. Most boys, by whatever are the accidents of their upbringing, acquire some feminine characteristics and most girls some masculine ones. Some children end up more thoroughly transgendered than this but manage to find niches in life which suit them.

There are a very small number of people who feel strongly that their gender character is so misaligned with their body that they want to change their body, and some do so using whatever chemical and surgical methods are on offer from the current medical profession (which has a less than glorious history in such matters, one should always remember). 

But I doubt that those who change sex in this way end up completely cisgendered in relation to their new body. They will still have gender characteristics left over from the sex they are leaving. It can get very complicated and that’s fine, though complicated does not necessarily mean heroic or morally unproblematic. You can get rid of parts of a male body to make yourself more of a woman but it's still possible that you act like a bully.

That gender is a continuum has  always had some recognition. The terms sissy and tomboy indicate very obviously that there was long ago a recognition that some boys had more than their average share of feminine characteristics and girls ditto for masculine. Sissies had a bad press, but tomboys usually a more indulgent one. The differences sometimes had obvious explanations in accidents of parenting and the sex distribution of siblings. An isolated boy growing up with six sisters would probably end up playing their games; a girl growing up on a farm often got handy at doing things that we might think of as very masculine, like killing. And, living on a lighthouse, Grace Darling knew how to row a boat in a storm.


Parents very often try to ensure that their children get gendered in as binary fashion as possible and schools to their shame often co-operate in things like school uniform and separate classes for this or that, swimming or cookery. Toyshops insist that there are boys' toys and girls' toys and even stamp the fact on the boxes to prevent any accidental transgendering. But children are not docile in these matters and may resist. They are very alert to other forms of fun than the ones they are being channeled towards.


© Trevor Pateman 2019. First published here April 2019

Monday, 8 April 2019

The Social Function of Political Correctness





In all societies, at least some important goods are scarce. In all societies, goods are unequally distributed. Some societies are more rigid than others but probably none prevent all kinds of upwards social mobility. In a despotic monarchy, a king surrounded by unreliable nobles, each with their own power base, may choose to promote to high office a complete outsider -   someone who has no title, who owns no land, and who may even dress badly and speak coarsely. That person is completely dependent on the king and so the high office does not strengthen an existing power base. That is why the person has been favoured.

It’s supposed to be the case that in caste societies you cannot move up from your caste of birth, or down for that matter, but that in class societies you can. Nonetheless, in class societies it’s blindingly obvious that though those one step up are obliged and even willing to admit newcomers to their ranks, entry is always policed in one way or another. If too many people are trying to climb the ladder at some historical moment, you can be sure that more rungs will be added to it to make the climb more difficult and to reduce the numbers of those making the upward ascent.

When Britain was numerically dominated by an industrial working class, some members of that class sought to differentiate themselves from the mass and thereby achieve a sort of internal mobility. If you played your cards right, you could make yourself better off than those around you. The key to this internal mobility was respectability which took you away from the roughness of those around you. Over time, the markers of respectability evolved but for most of the industrial period they included habits of religious observance, sobriety (which quite often meant total abstention from alcohol), avoidance of coarse language, cleanliness and thrift. When you got down to the smaller details, they might include shining your shoes, having net curtains, and reading The Daily Mail rather than a workers’ rag like the Daily Herald (now The Sun).

Those who pursued respectability were most often taking their cues from what was then called the lower middle class of people who did very modest jobs that did not involve getting their hands dirty. There was no such thing as rough lower middle class and the lower middle class as a whole renewed itself by recruiting from the ranks of respectable working class or their children. The daughter of a miner might become an elementary school teacher; the son of a factory hand an office clerk. But the entrance tests, the signs you had to display to move up, were quite demanding and, of course, differentiated by sex. The use of a swear word which might be tolerated in a male could be fatal to the aspirations of a female.

The vast industrial working class and the vast lower middle class, symbiotic with it, are no longer with us, though it is a bit unclear what is with us. My own lifetime has been marked by the advent of mass higher education, every polytechnic and technical college turned into a university to keep young people out of the labour force for three more years after the end of a schooling extended to eighteen. This expansion does not appear to have been associated with an equivalent expansion in the number of jobs for which a university degree is an essential entry requirement. As a result, many graduates now face the prospect of working in low-paid, low-status jobs which do not make any use of what they studied at university. Enter the graduate barista.

But there’s still some nice work if you can get it and for that work there is fairly intense competition. A lot of people would like a decent salary, decent career structure, decent pension. It is in this context that I believe we should understand what is called political correctness at least insofar as it is something driven by organisations like the National Union of Students and by young graduate employees. The social function of political correctness is not to make society a nicer place in which to live; it is to keep potential competitors away from desirable jobs. It is a sharp-elbowed politics of exclusion rather than a cuddly-bear politics of inclusion.

The topics which agitate the sharp-elbowed are simply a revised and updated version of those which agitated the old defenders of respectability. The emphasis on unacceptable language is the most obvious example. Where once coarseness would block upward mobility, especially for females, now language which can be construed as racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, … will halt you in your career tracks.  Tellingly, the list keeps getting longer and the barrier raised. Words which were acceptable to those who first thought of political correctness no longer are. I think this is indicative of the real intensity of competition for scarce goods.

There is one key difference. Whereas one hundred years ago, women were most likely to fall foul of respectability tests, which were always set higher for them than for men, today it is men who are most often tripped up. That may reflect nothing more than the fact that university expansion has hugely increased the participation of females in higher education, where they often form a numerical majority. At the same time, more women want to participate on a permanent basis in economic activity. The truth is, sexual equality in the job market cannot be achieved without some men going down the social mobility ladder. Faults against political correctness are one way of kicking them down. Just as in the past, coarse language excluded women from respectability so now the wrong words or actions can exclude men from desirable employments.

Time and time again, those who fall foul of the vigilantes of political correctness are groups like male-dominated or male-exclusive sports clubs and other “fraternity” outfits. They are not organisations which appeal to me - they are too much  like permanent stag do’s, high on my list of things to be banned -  and I realise that the mass expansion of higher education means that some students are not just rough but downright unpleasant. There are now frequent, shocking incidents of racism on English university campuses and in halls of residence.

But I am still not convinced that the vigilantes of correctness always occupy the moral high ground.  In the past, dreadful things went on behind the net curtains of respectable homes. I am pretty sure that some dreadful things are said and done behind the closed doors of righteous groups who self-identify as this-or-that. Just as with the old-time deranged headteacher at the school gates, excluding pupils for breach of some wilfully elaborate uniform code, so does political correctness assume absurd and grotesque forms – hence all the stories of “Political Correctness Gone Mad”. But the madness is not really a mental disturbance; it has very material roots in the competition for scarce goods.

© Trevor Pateman 2019. First published here April 2019





Nature and Culture: A Manichean Heresy


A nature can never be made to change; what has been once formed in it cannot be reformed by any sort of change. Change does not involve the nature itself; it necessarily modifies, but does not transform the structure - Clement of Alexandria


I discovered that something was wrong when I was thirteen. My mother and I had been taken in by an aunt and uncle, and my aunt - who was a ward sister in a mental hospital - noticed that when I ate, I held the knife in my left hand and the fork in my right. She thought this should be corrected, partly as a matter of social etiquette and partly for the good of my mental health. My aunt was not an eccentric; the forced conversion of left-handers has a long, worldwide cultural history and Wikipedia can entertain you if you want to know more.

The situation was, in fact, rather complicated. I am naturally right-handed and my aunt could see that I wrote right-handed and that when I used my knife to spread butter on bread, I held the knife in my right hand. And I was not ambidextrous: I couldn’t spread butter on bread holding the knife in my left hand. But when it came to knife and fork, I had to have the knife in the left.

My mother wasn’t left-handed, as far as I know, but somehow she had mishanded or transhanded me when, early on, she taught me how to hold a knife and fork. Despite my aunt’s concerns, my mother declined to co-operate in putting the matter right. I continued to eat meat and two veg with a knife in my left hand. This gave strength to that hand and a lifetime later I still twist off jam jar lids and open bottle caps with my left. But I uncork with my right and likewise hold a bread knife in my right and the same for hammers, scissors, and so on.

When I got to university, I discovered that something else was wrong. I sat down for the first time in my college dining hall and confronted four pieces of cutlery rather than the three I was familiar with. In addition to knife, fork and spoon there was a second fork. I had not previously eaten puddings - things I grew up calling afters - with two implements. I used just a spoon. But now, it seemed, I was supposed to address apple pie and custard with spoon and fork. On my first day at college table, I held back and watched what other students were doing with this second fork and discovered, as you may have worked out if you are with me so far, that I had a problem. I had grown up to hold my main course fork in the right hand, and likewise the solitary spoon used for afters.

Decision time. After a bit of experiment, the spoon stayed in my right hand and the fork went to the left where I suspect it is still not fully functional. But I conform to etiquette and pick it up in restaurants, sometimes to the bafflement of servers who have seen me switch knife and fork for main course and now see me switching the fork back again.

There is a point to this story. It probably explains why I tend to Manichaeism in all my thinking. I believe in both Nature and Culture and in their interaction. There are some things where I think Nature has the upper hand, and others where I think Culture does. In addition, there are areas where the outcome of the interaction might best be described as uncertain. But even with that qualification, were I still looking for work, my Manicheanism would probably disqualify me from teaching Cultural Studies, since it violates the first article, That all things are made Cultural and none Natural. 

This belief has been very successfully propagated in a very short space of time despite being expressed in execrable prose and explains why, for example, our Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA) has converted the Sex I gave them many years ago to a Gender which I am not sure is mine. But the word Sex to all intents and purposes has been banished to outer darkness leaving me not much choice. As far as I am concerned, I am male by nature and not very masculine by culture, but I don’t expect the DVLA to get their heads around such subtleties and simply wish they had stuck with the Sex.

In the past I did work hard to articulate my core belief, without knowing that really it was all just an attempt to understand how in life you can get to be transhanded. My academic publication most cited according to Google Scholar, and in my own mind the one over which I sweated most effort, is a defence of the coherence and plausibility of Chomskyan linguistics, Language in Mind and Language in Society (1987). The book goes beyond Chomsky’s core concerns with how the human mind spontaneously develops the representation of a language and tries to show how, within a Chomskyan paradigm, there is still space for an account of an interaction between Nature and Culture in ways where the outcomes are not always easily predictable. Language growth is indeed triggered in the mind of human infants, but it is also to some degree shaped even though in growing their language infants do not begin by targeting the language around them. Infants are not heat-seeking missiles and they make their own way into language by a more devious route than imagined in theories (easily falsified by observation) which imagine language learning as a cumulative, straight line affair in which culture is simply ladled into the child. 

Later on, as teenagers or adults, many of us will fine-tune our language - spoken and written - to conform to what we think are prestige norms or political expectations. These adaptive modifications are made using small mental Apps. But those quite often get things wrong and are never comprehensive. You might not catch me out if we talk about philosophy, but should I have occasion to tell you to pull your trousers up you will probably spot that I have said trowzis as I still do despite much well-meaning correction. It was just so early in life that I learnt about trowzis and I’m rarely on high enough alert to defeat the past in the present. In contrast, in my writing life I have willingly moved from he to he or she to they and I can do the last so that it does not clunk, seems to be the natural thing.

The belief that all is cultural and nothing natural does have a longer history than I have so far implied. It fits well with any aspiration to control the lives of others. Despite their belief in original sin and such like, most religions are convinced that children can be moulded to fit, perhaps with some local difficulties needing to be overcome by beatings and starvings.  That religious conviction has been shared by English public schools and by American behaviourist psychologists - Chomsky earned some of his early fame from comprehensively trashing the mindless work of the behaviourist, B F Skinner.

But the belief that humans can be shaped has also been shared “on the left” where there is a long tradition of believing in the perfectibility of human beings. The long philosophical tradition was then reinvented in things like Soviet Pavlovian psychology and now in contemporary gender theory. 

The only comfort in all this is that it is just mistaken; beat and starve and shame on Twitter as much as you like and still human beings refuse to be shaped to order. It’s a wonderful if sometimes demanding thing that we live at the interface of nature and culture. But to my mind, it is the mark of authoritarian thinking to suggest that the interface does not exist, and that’s as true of those who believe that there is only Culture as those who believe that there’s only Nature.

But how the interface works is a complicated affair, each aspect of it no doubt subtly different. There are aspects which make humans more like cats and others which make them more like dogs. When there is a choice available, my advice is to feed your inner cat.



© Trevor Pateman 2019. First published here April 2019. The passage from Clement of Alexandria comes from his Christ the Educator, quoted in Jonathan Dollimore, Sexual Dissidences, page 108



The Avoidance of Power






The psychoanalyst Karen Horney thought that people fall into three main types in their interactions with others. There are those who generally move towards other people, seeking attachments; those who move against others in more or less aggressive ways; and those who move away from people, seeking satisfactions outside of human relationships. Trinities should always make us a bit suspicious, but Horney’s old tripartition strikes me as exhaustive and still useful.

Most discussions of the realities of power, whether historical or analytical, focus on power conceived as enabling (“empowerment” is the shorthand) or as disabling (“oppression” the shorthand). They focus on movements towards power and movements against. The possibility of moving away from power itself, if not simply neglected, is denied outright: How can you escape from the force-fields of power? Haven’t you read Foucault?

But just like mobile phone reception, the force-fields of power - of whatever kind - never operate uniformly and with equal intensity over all possible spaces. Totalitarianisms try for universal coverage but in reality, as opposed to fiction, there is always somewhere, something, which escapes them. The possibilities of moving away from power may be very limited but they always exist.  Even in North Korea, there are unknown people who have carved out some private space away from the megaphones. It helps not to be prone to fear because fear is what gives totalitarianisms the nearest one can ever get to universal control.

In World War Two, Jews who were fearless enough to go underground in German-controlled Europe had a much better chance of surviving the war than those who did as they were told and turned up at the assembly points. Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem put the chances of those who hid at fifty-fifty, those who obeyed at less than one in ten.

Almost by definition, moving away from power must be attempted on an individual basis. The moment you begin to combine with others then, in however small a way, you are setting up a counter-power. So in a totalitarian system, something like the publication and dissemination of material by samizdat methods constitutes itself as a challenge even if it does not intend it.

In contrast, consider instead the person who could have contributed usefully to some cultural/political samizdat network but instead chooses to bury themself in the study of local fungi, lichens, and mosses. When the story is fleshed out a bit more, we have a way of talking about such people; we say that they are examples of inner emigration, people who try to find some escape from power in maximising their irrelevance to others. That twins with what is simply called emigration. Emigration means that you cross a border which takes you out of one force-field and into another where you may simply hope to be left alone. But you may instead wish to be more free to take up hitherto frustrated movements towards or against power. Marx and Lenin became emigrés to increase their potential power, not divest themselves of it.

The more general paradigm or stereotype for the person who wishes to be left alone is the recluse, a person who is almost by definition an eccentric trying to move away from the centre of something. In fact, it’s very hard for us to think of force-fields in general or those of power in particular as other than things which have a centre. We are always very interested in where the centre of power lies in a country, a political party, a publishing industry, a marriage. Franz Kafka demonstrated that such a centre may not exist, and that it is futile to think that if only you could find it then you could take a bulldozer to The System.

But some fields of power do have a centre, geographical and even personal. When in 1989, President Ceausescu of Romania and his wife Elena were taken out and shot, that put an end to an entire regime.

When there is a power centre, it is sometimes possible to avoid it simply by moving some physical distance away from the centre and even without crossing a border. In Imperial Russia, political dissidents were more often exiled than imprisoned or executed. The country was big enough for them to be forgotten about, out of sight and out of mind. In that context, it was also possible to take yourself voluntarily to some remote place on some pretext or other and to live in an obscurity which did not attract anyone’s malicious attention.  

Like Australia, Russia had an Outback. On its own, going the extra geographical mile away from the centre took you into a force-field where Imperial power was weaker. If there was a local representative of distant authority, you might be able to do a local deal to make life more pleasant for both parties. If you ended up playing chess with the one local policeman, so much the better for him and for you. If he had to file reports, he could say you were a decent person and took it in good spirit when you always lost at chess. You just kept your fingers crossed that you were not playing against someone who would one day turn into the grim reaper.

In Imperial Russia, that possibility of a local deal had an ironic version. Over a very long period, it was the practice to exile religious dissidents to the most distant and often inhospitable parts of the Empire. But those parts had to be administered and not everyone wanted to volunteer to go and do it. Local populations were often hostile and unreliable. But the religious dissidents were generally hard-working, honest, literate, and - importantly - Russian speaking. So in the end the power which had exiled them sometimes employed them to run things. It’s a story which probably could be repeated from other parts of the world.
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Those who avoid power are very sensitive to it; their antennae locate its presence very precisely. They may be very ordinary and unexceptional people, but they sense power. That is true in such simple cases as the person who prefers to be self-employed rather than employed by some corporate power, caught up in the force-fields of office politics. You may not earn as much money but no one is telling you how to dress or putting you through performance reviews or holding out incentives. Corporate power can be suffocating and self-employment feels like freedom. It’s true that you are then face-to-face with the tax system, but you can dodge that by employing an accountant who is used to it.

You can also avoid power by ignoring its updates. It may seem hard to believe, but there are indeed many people who do not know the name of the Prime Minister (it can change so often!), the current foreign exchange rate, the content of Donald Trump’s latest tweet. True, they may be able to tell you the names of celebrities who have recently had a Brazilian bum lift, but it is well-recognised that Celebrity News is a standard escape from the “real world”. It is actually quite effective. The problem with regular News is that it gets to us and reminds us just how strong are the force fields to which we are subject. Rather as we can take a paracetamol and try with reasonable success to ignore the cold we have got, so we can take a dose of who is sleeping with whom and thereby avoid thinking about who is bombing whom.

This will encourage the reader to interject that it just shows that you can never escape from power. Foucault was right. That can always be made to be true, but it is also true that concepts are rendered vacuous when they cease to discriminate. Power is everywhere, but some good and some bad. Power is everywhere but sometimes more benign, sometimes less so. You could say that a good society is one where power is something which can be fairly easily avoided and where there is no need to spend much time either seeking power or contesting it. 

There are those who have thought of the ideal society as one which is a bit laid back and where no one is desperate to monopolise power or destroy it. In that situation, we can just get on with our lives. Rather than Power to the People we may be lucky enough to live in a space where there is no need for power to anyone. Utopian, I know.

© Trevor Pateman 2019. First published here April 2019