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Thursday, 25 April 2019

Bus Passes & Benefits


April 25 2019 and a House of Lords committee chaired by Lord True has published a report arguing for the downsizing and discontinuation of what are known in the UK as "pensioner perks" - freebies available to those over a certain age: free bus travel, free TV licences, pension top-ups labelled as "Winter Fuel Payment",  and so on. These benefits are not means tested and not taxed - so they are regressive benefits, worth more to higher rate taxpayers than basic rate taxpayers. I re-publish below my 2016 case against them all, as published in my book The Best I Can Do.

I’ve never claimed my Free Bus Pass. I would be ashamed to wave it while paying passengers watch. Imagine that it was Coloreds who paid and Whites who didn’t . Where I live, looking at workers boarding the bus and paying their fares on the way to low-paid jobs, that’s not far from the reality. Nor is it far from the reality, that poor people pay and better-off Over Sixties don’t. Yet the Over Sixties, quite solidly and sometimes fiercely, now seem to believe that they have a Human Right to bus travel paid for by others – even though Bus Passes are a very recent invention. How did this come about? The fault lies with our political parties, always looking for cheap ways to gain the favour of those most likely to vote. Any party now proposing to withdraw the passes would face a backlash of unreasoned wrath. My Benefits, right or wrong!

Bus Passes are not Pensioner Passes. You qualify by virtue of reaching your 60th birthday, well below the ages at which most people qualify for state pensions. At sixty, many people are still working, their children are gone and they have paid off mortgages. They are better off than at any time before. Many of those waving Bus Passes – of course, not all – are better dressed than they have ever been. They can afford to be. Eventually, they will become old and even frail. It’s always stressful to watch a frail elderly person board a bus, struggling with shopping bags and sticks. They don’t need a Bus Pass any more. They need a once-a-week Taxi Pass.

Or, rather, they need adequate pensions. Free bus passes are not only electoral bribes; they are also one of the cosmetic means by which feckless governments have sought to disguise the inadequacy of State Pension provision in the UK. In relation to former earnings, that Pension is much lower than the European average: about one third against an average of a half across twenty-seven other European nations. Our governments have been too fearful to force people to pay enough into retirement income schemes to fund adequate pensions and reluctant - until absolutely forced by a huge rise in life expectancy- to raise the pensionable age. Until very recently in the UK, the State Pension age for women was set at sixty. Men at sixty-five.

No one challenged that extraordinary bit of entrenched sex discrimination. It had its origins in discriminatory thinking: women filled up the workforce during two world wars and thus qualified for pensions. But allowing them to take their pensions at sixty was also meant to ease them out of the workforce, leaving more room for men who had fought. Over time, the discrimination transformed from discrimination against women to discrimination in their favour. But for decades no one challenged it.

Self-respect is very much connected to the ability to make your own choices. Older people generally benefit from walking or even cycling but politicians want you to take the bus. The bus companies are happy enough; they get paid. The Bus Pass is a clunking decision by politicians to make choices for you: Here, my good woman, take this Pass and use that bus over there! And show some gratitude! In a better world, older people would dispose of enough income to make their own choices and thus maintain an important aspect of personal dignity. It would be acceptable to withdraw the Bus Passes and add to the State Pension the equivalent of the money saved. All that you lose is the self-satisfied smile of the politician who wants you to doff your cap and thank him (Gordon Brown, Ken Livingstone).

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The Bus Pass is a symptom of a deeper problem which resides at the core of the British Treasury and the way it relates to British governments. The Treasury hates two things above all: ring fenced money and entitlements. It is committed to the ideas that all revenues should go into a single big undifferentiated Pot under its own control and that all outgoings, whether to government departments or citizens, are a matter of discretion.

That is, of course, an understandable way for a Treasury to think. It gives you the maximum of flexibility in what is often – thanks to politicians – a struggle to make the books balance. But it is also completely symbiotic with the interest of party politicians. They too want maximum discretion. Let me give one example.

British prime ministers normally want to pick at least one war to fight during their time in office. These wars of choice can be vote-winners. They allow the prime minister to walk tall. Mr Cameron was deeply disappointed in 2013 when he was not able to get his war in Syria, supporting Syrian jihadis. He had better luck in 2015 when Parliament agreed to his new plan to attack jihadis in Syria. It put him up there with the Big Boys.

But equally a government going to war does not want voters to think about the financial costs. The last thing it wants is being forced to impose a War Tax. That would make voters think twice about their gung-ho enthusiasms for bombing far away countries. Fortunately, the Treasury pot is usually big enough to absorb the costs of a small war, one which sticks to the cheap route to failure, that of bombing civilians. Money can be shifted between notional budgets and, if not, borrowing can be discreetly increased. But when monies are ring-fenced and there are entitlements, it becomes more difficult. As a result of this way of thinking, both Treasury and politicians are committed to the ideas (though they would never admit it) that All Benefits are Voluntary Hand Outs and No Benefits are Entitlements. In other words, citizens have no rights.

The obvious way to create entitlement to benefits is through insurance schemes. People pay into the scheme and, at the same time, they are informed of their entitlements under the scheme. That is what Britain’s National Insurance system was once supposed to be about. But now it isn’t. No one pays in anywhere near enough to accumulate entitlement to the benefits they can claim. Nowadays, it is merely a concession to the idea that there can be benefits to which you are entitled because you have insured for them. If the Treasury had its way, even that concession would be abolished. The Treasury loathes the idea of insurance. It gets in the way of tax and spend.

The Treasury has almost a winning hand in one simple fact about our psychology. We hate it when we see money removed from our pay packet before we even get it: Pay as You Earn taxes, National Insurance. If National Insurance was for realistic sums of money we would hate it even more. But when it comes to paying 20% Value Added Tax on virtually everything we buy – well, we don’t even notice it (often we don’t see it separately itemised). This is the Treasury’s winning hand – taxes we don’t notice. Not only that: such invisible taxes are not linked to any specific government expenditures. The Treasury gets just the kind of money it wants, money it can use as it (or its political masters) please.

The symbiotic Treasury - Politician commitment to avoiding entitlements and favouring handouts immediately opens the door to the parlour game known as Benefits Scroungingin which the winners are those who work out every handout for which they can make themselves eligible and promptly claim them all. Those who celebrate their 60th birthday by claiming their Free Bus Pass are benefits scroungers. They have no entitlement to the pass, they have done nothing to deserve it, they often don’t need it – but it’s there, a handout, yours for the asking.

*

We have an increasingly shaky idea of what it means to be a citizen. The benefits culture, created by politicians and sustained until very recently by an all-party consensus, has been disempowering. It encourages childishness at election times as voters shop around looking for the party which offers three for the price of two. No more than that. No expectation that you think about the future, about your children and grandchildren; certainly no expectation that you think about right and wrong, justice and fairness.

An obvious route towards re-building ideas of citizenship involves, among much else, dismantling the Handouts culture and re-instating the idea of a contributory system: you pay in for health care, unemployment benefit, and pensions. That must be the expectation for nearly everyone, with a non-contributory social safety net principally for those who are born disabled or become so. It also involves challenging the Treasury - Politician collusion. There is no reason why money should not be ring-fenced, why taxes on X should not go towards paying for Y and only for Y. If politicians want a war, then they must use a War Tax to pay for it. If voters want a war, then they should be obliged to put their money where their flags wave.

Probably the only interesting alternative to this approach is the idea of a universal Citizen Entitlement to a flat monthly income just about big enough to live on. Everyone would get it, regardless of income or age. For those in work, for example, it would simply lower their tax bill. For those not earning, for whatever reason, it would be a handout but without the disfiguring features of the electoral bribes currently on offer to selected groups, most obviously and repeatedly in the UK, the voting over 60s.

The idea has the merit of threatening the destruction of a thousand benefits bureaucracies, most of which end up in the newspapers for incompetence of one kind or another. So it is a sleek proposal. It has the de-merits that it hands money to people who don’t need it and, in practice, will still have to include small print provisions for special cases like those whose disabilities oblige them to make use of expensive equipment or carers. From where I am coming from, it has the demerit that it puts all citizens in the position of state dependents. I have yet to read an argument that persuades me that is not the case.



© Trevor Pateman 2016. First published in this form in Trevor Pateman, The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016)

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Everyone A Sinner


Once a year I attend a local fund-raising event where the raffle promises “Everyone a Winner”. I buy my ticket knowing that very shortly I will be handed a bar of Lily of the Valley soap which was someone’s Christmas present, circa 1970, and which I shall generously hand back for inclusion in next year’s raffle. 

We inherit traditions that tell us that we are all sinners. As a result, in the Catholic confessional there must be many dull days for the priest which nothing would brighten so much as the confession of a half-way decent sin. It must be very difficult not to hand back some of the sins offered. Maybe there is an online forum somewhere where priests can let off steam about time-wasting confessions, just as the police vent their exasperation by publicising examples of time-wasting 999 calls.

The tradition is not kept alive only, or mainly, by the Roman Catholic church; it is central to all evangelical versions of Christianity some of which expect us to make our confessions, however trivial, in public so that we can be Saved by someone who is probably engaged in serious financial or sexual misconduct or both. After all, we are all sinners.

Social media have been turned into an extraordinarily powerful vehicle for that doctrine, a space where no sin is too small to be publicised and “Called Out” by people who are usually no more than unpaid vigilantes for the Promotion of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice.

I’d like to put a stop to it all, but I confess, I don’t know how. Everyone a sinner? That’s uninteresting, in the way that We Are All Going To Die is uninteresting. What matters is when and how, and some whens and hows are more unfair, more cruel, than others.

The Roman Catholic church did do a half way decent job in trying to grade sins but Protestant versions of Christianity got their original impetus from insisting that it was important to lay on the guilt as thickly as possible, and that has become the modern consensus position. There is no escape from sin!

It now results, among other things, in the tendency for the number of legislated-for criminal offences to constantly expand. No one seems to realise that there may be some tension between creating a civilised society and creating one where every citizen is a criminal. If you are going to be criminalised anyway, why bother trying to be civilised? It’s the old dilemma: Why let yourself be hanged for a lamb when it could have been a sheep? It’s true, I agree, that there are some offences which should be on the statute books in order to indicate what counts as uncivilised behaviour - but which should  rarely, if ever, be pursued.

It is damaging for the morale, and the sense of perspective, of the Police and the Courts if they are made to spend time dealing with what are called Minor Offences. Worse, it provides an excuse for the more indolent kind of police officer (the kind who traditionally did not pound the beat in Neasden) to avoid the unpleasantness involved in tackling Major Offences.

As a general rule, Minor Offences - like Minor Sins - should be ignored. But not only by the police. They should be ignored by the victims. Here is the argument.

A car or house insurance policy usually includes what is called an Excess. Below the amount you pick, you cannot make a claim and are expected to deal with the matter yourself. If your time is precious, this makes sense - who enjoys reporting things, filling in forms, answering questions, waiting for the reply? Not many of us and not me: ask me for an Excess figure and I will reply, “The highest possible”. If someone then scratches my car, I am perfectly satisfied if I can manage the kind of comment which, thanks to modern attempts to curb Sin, can now only be only be printed as, You  ****! As for the targets of such linguistic virtuosity, they can take comfort in the fact that I am someone who is not going to make them report things, fill in forms, answer questions …. We can both forget about it and get on with our lives. (In truth, I am unlikely to have managed much more than an “Oh dear!” but I am trying here to appeal to an audience which may include the less virtuous).

When we are victims of crime, the sensible thing is to consult our personal Crime Excess. Is the offence to which I have been subject worth the cost of reporting it and dealing with the consequence of reporting it: making a statement, potentially going to court as a witness, and so on? Do I really want to go after the criminal? My answer tends to be, No. My culture expects me to say, Yes.

A few years ago my office was burgled, a door forced, some quite valuable things stolen - uninsured, of course. I had other worries at the time and thought, I can’t be bothered and the chances of the police finding my stuff are very small. So I did nothing and just got on with my life. Then a year later I got a phone call from a colleague: I’m looking at something in an auction which looks like something of yours. It was. The police had recovered it as “Proceeds of Crime” but did not contact me because I had not reported the loss. The police had consigned the material to auction, as they do. But it did have my name and contact details all over it, which is what alerted my colleague, who then helped me recover my stuff. I made a donation to a charity of his choice, since with no exertion on my part I had been helped to recover things worth a few thousand pounds. A very satisfactory outcome.



© Trevor Pateman 2019. First published here April 2019. An earlier discussion of this theme is in my essay "Crimes and Punishments" included in The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2106) 

Monday, 22 April 2019

Advanced or Advance? A Lesson in English Grammar



With over one thousand visitors, this was one of the most popular posts on the old The Best I Can Do blog. The argument in this December 2014 piece is incorporated into Trevor Pateman, Prose Improvements (degree zero 2017)



Drive along an English road and you will soon see a sign giving you “Advanced Warning” of forthcoming roadworks. We do lots of roadworks and advanced warning is always given.

I try not to be a pedant but I smile. When you give warning in advance that something is going to happen, you give an Advance Warning not an Advanced one.

Part of the explanation of the error lies in sound similarity: say “advance warning” quickly and it sounds more or less the same as “advanced warning”. But this coincidence does not explain why the makers of road signs have picked “Advanced” rather than the grammatically correct “Advance” for their signs. Since the sounds are more or less the same, why pick the wrong one when it comes to spelling?

I think there must be a chain of association to other uses of “Advanced”. For example, in England, school students take exams called “Ordinary Levels” when they are about sixteen and more difficult – more advanced – exams when they are  eighteen. The latter exams are called “Advanced Levels”. These are not Levels in advance of something, but Levels which are more advanced than something else, namely Ordinary Levels.

By analogy, an Advanced Warning would be a warning more advanced than some other kind of warning – for example, an Advance Warning. That is not the kind of warning road sign makers are giving you. But they have very often seen the words "Advanced Level" in print - they are a regular newspaper topic and, in addition, sign makers' children may well bring home bits of paper about Advanced Level courses. The sign makers then just go with the flow of words they have read in quite other contexts.

I suspect that in time, “advanced warning” will take over from the grammatically correct “advance warning”, just as we now refute things when in fact we reject them and you just have to live with it. 

Here, for example, is the 11th March 2014 front page of the Financial Times – normally pedantic about English grammar:

“…the wealthy would find ways around the proposed tax grab, especially now they have had so much advanced warning …”


I suppose that is one of the problems when you are of advanced years – you see these things coming in advance.

Simon Maris: Young Girl With a Fan?


A revised version of this Blog post now appears in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016) to which it would be better to refer when citing. I have re-blogged this old post from 2015 - 2016 [ removed along with all the old material on this site] because that  had over 700 visitors and there will still be would-be readers looking for an Internet version.In addition, I have added a significant postscript ...



1

Those who set themselves up as arbiters of political correctness rarely consider the possibility that they may get things wrong. By which I don’t mean that they may make enemies unnecessarily (as they often do) but that what they think advances the cause of a better society – a society less discriminatory, less prejudiced, more just – may not in fact do so. Our arbiters of correctness sometimes over-compensate for some guilt or some insecurity. Sometimes they are simply lazy or ill-informed. Either way, it’s easy to do damage to a good cause. Skip to Section 5 if you don't have the patience to wait for the story - history and herstory - of the painting shown above to unfold.

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In January 1921, an Amsterdam diamond dealer Andries Wezel, died on board the S.S. Rotterdam en route from New York to the Netherlands. He was wealthy, a prominent Dutch Jew, a philanthropist and an art collector. He bequeathed his large collection of around 140 paintings and drawings to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. In among many more valuable or important works was a small (41 x 29 cm portrait format)  oil on canvas painting signed by and attributed to a contemporary Dutch portrait painter and art dealer, Simon Maris ( 1873 – 1935), the son of a landscape painter, Willem Maris.

In 1922, the Rijksmuseum staff - working their way through the bequest - inventoried and catalogued this painting under a title which they provided themselves,  Negerinnetje  which is sometimes translated to English as “Little Negress” and sometimes as  “Young Negro Girl”. The former translation is an older one, since the recent history of both American and British English has led to the progressive disappearance of  the  “ – ess”  forms to indicate a female: so “actress” has given way to “actor”, “authoress” [ which never had much currency] to “author” and so on. Likewise, “Negress” has no currency now.

The form “Young … girl ” (and its twin, “Young  … boy”)is a bit odd in English since it is unclear what “young” changes in “girl” or “boy”. Perhaps it indicates to the listener to think “pre-puberty” or something like that, but I am not sure – it isn’t clearly wrong to call a fifteen year old a “young girl” or “young boy”.

It is quite important to note that Dutch “Neger” and “Negerin” do not translate to American “Nigger”; they translate to American and British “Negro”. The “ – etje” ending  does a number of jobs, indicated by the English translations to “Little” and “Young”.

One hundred years later, Google the word which some museum curator picked for the  title of the Maris painting and, well, you get an awful lot of  Dutch porn sites (there is a negerinnetjes.tube.nl) but you also get some Facebook-type family images of children(female, black) under the age of about 10. This surprised me because I had expected that, as in American and English, “black” would have completely won out over “Negro” as a clearly non-offensive term of choice.

 “Black” does exist in Dutch, with a phrase like “ Yonge zwarte vrouw” available as a neutral description. However - and this is relevant for what follows - “Yonge zwarte vrouw” can translate as both “young black woman” and “young black girl”.

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At the end of 2015, Amsterdam’s  Rijksmuseum announced to the world that it was in the process of re-titling works in its (vast) collection which had racist or, more generally, offensive or Eurocentric  titles. I say “announced to the world” because I can find the story carried in news media in many countries. After all, most countries have art museums and the Rijksmuseum project is probably relevant to all of them. [As at 5 February 2016, the story has been carried by national newspapers and online media in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador,France, Hungary, Indonesia, Italy, Poland, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom and USA].

I have not seen the original Rijksmuseum press release but I get the impression that it did not labour the fact that many titles used to label works in galleries and museums have not been provided by the painter or sculptor. They are due entirely either to custom or, more likely, the curator who inventoried the work at the time of its acquisition. That is an important difference.

If a painter gives a title to a work, it may have no more significance than an inventory title. Not all painters want to provide a verbal guide to their work. But sometimes they do and that is then an important fact. It tells you how the painter wants / wanted you to look at the work. So if the painter assigns an indicative title, The Very Fat Man, then the painter is saying to us (as it were): Look, start from the fact that he’s very fat. Not from the fact that he’s bald or black. Look at how I have tried to represent his fatness or – more subtly – how this fat man relates to his own fatness.

In these circumstances, it would be a foolish curator who interposed and decided, No, we are not going to use that title (any more). We are going to re-title this painting The Bald Headed Man or Man Sitting in an Armchair. The first of these would privilege the curator’s interpretation of the picture over the painter’s. The second is, effectively, banal and simply removes the guidance provided by the original title. Or if it is not just banal, it is misleading if it leads us to ask questions like, How does the man manage his relationship to the chair? instead of the previous (possible) question, How does the man manage his relation to his fatness?

Of course, there will be occasions – perhaps numerous – where we conclude that the painter’s indications are uninteresting or unhelpful or simply express prejudices which the painting may not even confirm. There almost certainly exists a painting where the painter points and says Portrait of a Shifty-Eyed Thief  but where the spectator promptly dissents and thinks Portrait of a Thief pretending to be shifty-eyed to conform to your stereotypes...

In other words, though an artist’s title may in some sense be intended to close down interpretation, it may not in fact do so. Painters do not have a monopoly of wisdom, even about their own work. Spectators may see more than the painter ever saw.

But nonetheless, they probably want to start from where the painter started (why else look at paintings?) and if you remove the painter’s title, then spectators are going to cry “Foul!” and “Anachronism!” and “Political Correctness Gone Mad!”. And indeed they did in response to the Rijksmuseum’s press release

4

That press release appears in almost identical form in all the media coverage I noted above. And just one image  appears in nearly all the coverage. It is the image of Simon Maris’ painting once given the title by a curator, Neggerintje, and which now has its shiny new curator title, Jonge vrouw met waaier which you can translate as either Young Girl with Fan or Young Woman with Fan.

In context, “Young Girl” is more accurate as a translation since the Rijksmuseum on its website also groups the painting under Children’s Portraits (Kinderportret) - and, indeed, the English-language version of the new title used in its press publicity and on its website was Young Girl with a Fan.

Since this is just the replacement of one curator title by another, one can ask quite simple questions about it. Does it help us see the painting for what it is (for what is intended)? Does it do better than the old title?

I think the answer here is clearly, No. The world’s art galleries are full of portraits of young girls with fans and the new title is as banal as Man Sitting in an Armchair.

If you start looking at this portrait by looking at the fan, how the girl holds the fan, and so on – well, you are wasting your time.

The gallery labelling tells you that this painting is dated as having been painted between 1895 and 1922 (the latter the date at which it arrived in the Rijksmuseum) and attributes it to a white Dutch portrait painter and art dealer, Simon Maris, active between those dates.  If that is all correct, then just the smallest bit of historical knowledge will suggest to a spectator that more interesting than the fan is the fact that the sitter is black. Not only is she black, she is rather finely dressed and she is sitting rather confidently in her chair to be painted by a leading Dutch portrait painter of the time. You might at least expect a bit of curiosity about those facts. Not many black girls got to do those things then.

The Rijksmuseum does acknowledge her blackness in its longer description of the work (which I take from the Museum website):

Een sittende jonge zwarte vrouw, met een kanten hoed op het hoofd  en een waaier in de rechterhand

Which I translate as

A young black girl sitting, with a lace bonnet on her head and a fan in her right hand

Is that enough to get started on looking at this painting? I think not.

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I suggest instead that you try looking at her left hand which - as far as I can discover -  no one has previously proposed.

The sitter has been posed by the painter with her left hand splayed so that it is easy to see that on the third finger of her left hand she is wearing a ring.

In European cultures, the third finger of the left hand is the ring finger [Dutch ringvinger ] and is by very long tradition reserved for a married woman’s wedding ring and, sometimes, for the engagement ring (promise ring) which precedes it and which is moved to the right hand on marriage. In this painting, the ring looks to me like a simple gold band and in that case, it is almost certainly meant to be seen as a wedding ring.

So much for young girls with fans. We are looking at a portrait of a married or soon-to-be-married woman.

6

So who is the sitter?

That question almost certainly has an answer and at some point the answer was probably known to the Rijksmuseum, which chose to ignore it – that is the claim of a Dutch art historian, Dr Esther Schreuder. She did some research into the provenance of this painting in connection with its use for a 2008 exhibition of paintings with black subjects, Black is Beautiful, and concludes that the painting came to the museum identified as a portrait of a named person. It was probably identified as a portrait of a Mrs Alting in which case the likely artist’s title for this painting is Portrait of Mrs Alting

That would be an appropriate gallery title and an expanded gallery description could then tell us who Mrs Alting was, to whom she was married (and maybe their respective ages at marriage) and whether (for example) this picture was painted as a marriage portrait - that might explain how she is dressed.

The answers to those questions probably exist in three archives not available on the Internet:

-          The papers relating to the Andries van Wezel Bequest, held by the Rijksmuseum since 1922
-          The Simon Maris family archives for which an outline catalogue can be found on the Internet; the contents themselves are in public custody in the Netherlands
-     Dutch registers of births, marriages and deaths

The matter is not entirely straightforward because there is another version of this painting which on the Internet is identified as a portrait of a Mrs Allwood and a third  version which identifies the sitter as Spanish. Both of these paintings, in a very different style to the Rijksmuseum portrait, are signed Simon Maris but on the right rather than the left hand side. The "Mrs Allwood" painting was offered for sale by the Amsterdam auctioneers Glerum in 2008. The auctioneers said that it came from the De Visscher family in Zeist and that the family had got the painting from the artist in the 1920s. The painting was unsold. It's possible that some kind of Chinese Whispers has been played out with the names - maybe Alting is the whispered version of Allwood or vice versa. But whatever the case, none of this is ancient history and somewhere it is documented.

It’s a separate issue, but I merely note here that this painting does not look like the majority of Maris paintings you can find on the Internet and I simply don’t know why. Likewise, it is rather puzzling that though Maris was living, working and well-known in Amsterdam at the time of the van Wezel bequest, it seems that he was not asked to date the painting (the range 1895 - 1922 is very wide for a modern work) or offer a title. And where was the sitter in 1922 and why wasn't the painting with her? It clutters up the simple morality tale I want to tell, but I have to say that lots of things in relation to this painting seem not quite right. The sitter does look very young, the painting does not look like Maris's regular work, the style could be that of a work painted many years before the dates (1895 - 1922) given to it.

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But, leave aside those queries, why is my simple tale  important for political correctness?

If you turn a portrait of a named person into a generic portrait of a little negress or a young girl with a fan, then you deprive the original sitter of her identity. You also obscure the fact that the painting was worked out in the context of someone sitting for her portrait with someone whose business it was to make portraits. You obscure access to what the work is about. Crudely, there are differences between paintings where an artist has paid a model to sit and be painted as the artist chooses and paintings where someone has paid the artist to paint the sitter - and, usually, giving some attention to the way the sitter wants to be painted or the way the person paying wants them painted. Portrait painters usually work to commissions and Maris often did.

Simon Maris was what here in England would be called a “society” portrait painter. He painted wealthy and fashionable women. He was white and mostly they were white and quite often their portraits are identified on the Internet by the name of the sitter. Some of course remain in private hands and the owners simply know who the portraits are portraits of.

In this case, political correctness does not require much more than that a black woman sitting for Maris should be accorded the same respect as a white woman. She should be allowed to keep her name and gallery visitors thus allowed to appreciate that she is sitting for her own portrait in what seems to me  a calm and dignified manner. From open access Internet sources, there seems little room for doubt that this rather striking portrait was painted as a portrait of someone and the Rijksmuseum is probably in a position to tell us who she was and perhaps also, who commissioned the painting. If so, it should now do so.

For later developments of this story, please refer to  my book The Best I Can Do and to the Rijksmuseum website and to the following Postscript:

Image result for simon maris at auction heritage

Added April 2019. In December 2017, Heritage Auctions USA sold for $875 (hammer) a painting by Simon Maris which it dated to 1907, measured at 25 x 17 inches,  and titled "Portrait of a seated lady in a blue dress". I have cut and pasted a link below but show a thumbnail above. The painting shows the same chair, the same dress, the same bonnet, the same reflection of the image in the rear mirror. The fan is closed, the pose of the sitter different, and the sitter appears to be either white or possibly mixed race. I understand that it was not unusual for portrait painters to use their own props, even clothes, because familiarity withe the props used made their task easier and quicker.

https://fineart.ha.com/itm/fine-art-painting/simon-willem-maris-dutch-1873-1935-portrait-of-seated-lady-in-blue-dress-1907-oil-on-canvas-2/a/5337-62373.s?ic4=GalleryView-Thumbnail-071515



A Case Against Freedom of Religion





There are many countries in the world, maybe the majority, where you grow up to believe in Freedom of Religion without ever giving it a second thought - rather in the way you never actually argue your way to the conclusions that cannibalism and suttee are not very nice. Big Mistake.

There are very good reasons not to give Freedom of Religion a free pass, not least because those who do have an interest will find themselves able to make the idea mean whatever they want it to mean. We end up signed up to something about which we might, on reflection, find ourselves having second thoughts.

To begin with, freedom of religion was invented as a compromise to bring an end to religious wars in which no side was strong enough to win – and here “win” basically meant strong enough to slaughter all your opponents. Unable to achieve that final solution, the warring parties agreed to grant each other a bare toleration. You would not call it ecumenism: there was no love lost and merely terror foregone.

Over time, as states became at least partly secular in the way they operated and even the state church was left to operate at half an arm’s length, freedom of religion came to mean something else. It came to mean that the state should keep its nose out: that it should not pry into how religious organisations conducted their affairs, nor seek to control how religious people lived their lives. The general idea became remarkably effective, even to the extent – for example – that states tolerated religious organisations whose committed members refused absolutely to bear arms and fight in wars. Since fighting wars was for a long time the major business of states, the forbearance is really quite remarkable and extended even to countries not otherwise noted for tolerance, Imperial Russia among them.

Today, Freedom of Religion functions almost entirely as a Keep Out warning. Though we have government agencies which routinely inspect schools and hospitals, slaughter houses and restaurants, there are no agencies which routinely inspect religious organisations. Indeed, one of the world’s largest organisations, the Roman Catholic church, succeeded in 1929 in putting its headquarters entirely beyond the reach of anyone else’s civil and criminal law when in the Lateran Treaty, Italy foolishly granted independent statehood to the Vatican City.

The consequences of keeping out of religious affairs have been disastrous. Every day some religious organisation is in the newspapers because activities which are seriously criminal or simply cruel have come to light. American evangelical churches turn out to be financial scams; Catholic boarding schools and orphanages are exposed as nests of sexual abuse and sadistic cruelty; Anglican vestries are revealed as places where choirboys are buggered. There is less about non-Christian organisations which seem to know better how to protect themselves from exposure, but there seems no reason to suppose that they are free from corruption and cruelty and, from time to time, stories emerge to support that conclusion. 

In all these cases, Freedom of Religion has functioned to provide a screen against scrutiny. We are so taken in that we may suppose that we are protecting freedom of conscience – a rather different idea – when really we are doing no more than tolerate the unconscionable. On our part, it’s basically cowardice.

As a rule of thumb, I suggest that the bigger a religious organisation then the more it requires regular and intrusive inspection. It will have the worldly wealth to hire lawyers and publicists, the networks to undertake lobbying. Those need to be matched by powerful regulatory agencies, not timid and underfunded ones. In Italy, there is no excuse for the special status accorded the Vatican City. It should simply be brought back under Italian jurisdiction, even if that means sending in the tanks and closing the banks. The evidence that the special status has been abused ever since it was granted is overwhelming – money laundering, cover ups, collusion with crime, endless political interference … the list is long and shocking.

But what about freedom of religion understood as the right of religious people to live their lives according to their beliefs? No such right can be unconditional. Treated as if it was then  it implies that things which would not otherwise be tolerated are allowed. It means that if you invoke religion, you get a free pass to mutilate your children’s genitals or beat their bodies until they bleed. Or wash out their mouths with soap and lock them in dark cupboards. Or refuse to let them wear seat belts in a car (see Tara Westover’s Educated for that last example).

That states allow such things is a shocking betrayal of children who are also citizens but differ in that they are in much greater need of state protection than adults. Time and time again, the stories tell us that religion and the abuse of children go together but we decline to think it ought to concern us. We wash our hands: it’s their religion, we say, when really it is no more than adults abusing children who have no means of redress. Rather than confront the adults, we find it more convenient to allow the children to suffer.

© Trevor Pateman 2019. First published here April 2019








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 not 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