Thursday, June 15, 2017

A discourse upon the sapir-whorf hypothesis, with particular reference to nineteenth century slave trade nostalgia in the west of England. Together with a logical exegesis of blog commentators. (Possibly too long and boring for anyone to actually read.)

The story so far:

Andrew doesn’t see any problem with changing the name of a concert hall.

The green inkers in the Bristol Post think that only True Bristolians get to decide what their concert hall is called.

Andrew isn’t at all sure he knows what a True Bristolian is.

Simon writes in the comments on this page:

So, and by way of addressing the relevant part of your earlier post also, let's take "born and bred Bristolian". The meaning of that is clear enough, as signifying someone born in Bristol (or is its near surroundings, I suppose) and having spent the major part of their formative years there. Were I, on the other hand, to move to Bristol next week, and then demand from the get-go that the city alter whatever outward aspects of its heritage I didn't approve of, and that, furthermore, I had every moral right to do because, simply qua resident, I was as much a "Bristolian" (!) as anybody else... Then in that (admittedly extreme) scenario, you might reasonably call me a pretender, a presumptuous fool, and possibly a dogmatic ideologue to boot.

Mike writes, also in the comments:

There seems to be something about people like this that makes them write sentences like "Then in that (admittedly extreme) scenario, you might reasonably call me a pretender, a presumptuous fool, and possibly a dogmatic ideologue to boot." You can see the same tendency in Five times Hugo award loser John C. Wright: "having the form of C. S. Lewis, but denying its power".

Simon says put your hands on your head:

Mike, whatever "people like this" is supposed to mean, I write the best I can, and generally express myself fairly well I think. I don't set out to imitate anyone, least of all CSL.I could easily poke fun at your own style too Mike, but it would seem a cheap and nasty substitute for argument.
Now read on.

I agree with Mike.

People of particular political or religious persuasions often write in the same style as one another. People of a right-leaning, conservative, Christian persuasion — the kinds of people who are inclined to think that changing the name of a concert hall is a silly idea — adopt a wordy, flowery, archaic style, full of “qua” and “to boot” and “methinks”. Left leaning writers equally fill their texts with buzzwords and -isms. The reason isn’t particularly obscure: the conservatives think of themselves as speaking olde worlde common sense, a bit detached from the barbaric modern world every one else inhabits. The Left want to appear clever and technical and scientific and modern. 

I realize I am offering myself as a hostage to fortune here. I look forward to some wag demonstrating the unspoken assumptions in my writing style. I would say in my defense that I have already done it to myself far more viciously than you are likely to be able to.

I called my first essay on John C Wright “Pastiche” because I found the fact that he was trying to look and sound like G.K Chesterton more significant than the content of his essays. Someone has made out a very good case that Wright tries to make his prose sound as if it has been very literally translated out of Latin  — because that’s what the most important and authoritative books in a Catholic seminary sound like.

The other day, Wright pretended to be incandescent with rage because a journalist had said that “there was some confusion” as to why Donald Trump’s female entourage had covered their heads while meeting the Pope, but had not done while meeting the King of Saudi Arabia. 

“Please note the careful use of language. ‘There was some confusion’ is a phrase in the passive voice that nicely avoids stating who was confused, or when, or on what grounds It also avoids stating whether such confusion took place inside or outside the confines of a padded cell in a madhouse. I suppose that a raving lunatic in a straitjacket, who cannot distinguish between the traditions of Christendom and the traditions of Dar-al-Islam, might be confused. I suppose someone who cannot distinguish friends from enemies might be confused. Someone who thinks the earth is hollow, the sun is a fried egg, his dog is Satan, the CIA are beaming messages into his molars from mind-control satellites, and who thinks his left foot is an outerspace enemy cunningly disguised as a body part but that must be chopped off with a fire ax might likewise be confused.”

A hundred and fifty words to express what could have been said in seven. (“I do not think it is confusing at all.”)  Why does the Greatest Science Fiction Writer Of This Or Any Other Age choose to render “outer space” as “outerspace”, incidentally? 

Grud knows, my own writing sometimes runs away with itself — I find myself typing “The overweight lady hasn’t belted out the last few bars of Tannhauser yet” to avoid the cliche “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings”. But I hope I never give the impression that I am saying the same thing over and over again to make myself seem clever. I am sanguine about conveying the outward appearance of cultivating a repetitious ambiance to aggrandize my own persona. And I hold fast to the faith position than the face I present to the world is not that of one who recapitulates, reiterates and echos identical texts like some Hindu pundit intoning a mantra in order to raise my status above that of mere mortals.

For the avoidance of doubt: I am not equating “Simon” with Wright politically. But like Mike, I find his use of language a bit odd. 

Let us try C.S Lewis’s experiment of translating the offending paragraph back into everyday English. 

To make the experiment work, I found I had to start at the conclusion and work backwards.

“Then in that (admittedly extreme) scenario, you might reasonably call me a pretender, a presumptuous fool, and possibly a dogmatic ideologue to boot.”

This could be paraphrased as:

“It would be reasonable to say that a person who does [X] has the following attributes:

A: Being a pretender
B: Presumption
C: Dogmatism
D: Being an ideologue”

We’ll come back to what [X] is in a minute. 

A pretender means someone who falsely claims to be King or Queen or otherwise aspires to some role they do not have. Presumption is the quality of being over-confident to the point of rudeness; or of doing something that you have no right to do. So “being a pretender” and “being presumptuous” amount to the same thing.

An ideologue is someone who uncritically follows an ideology; an ideology means something like “a systematic collection of theories and beliefs.” Dogma means “one of the official teachings of the Catholic church”, a “dogmatic” person is one who behaves as if all his beliefs have that kind of authority. Colloquially, ideologues and dogmatists are both people who insist on their own point of view much too strongly. 

This gets us to: 

“It would be reasonable to say that a person who does [X] has the following attributes: he claims rights which he has no right to claim; and he believes things without question.” 

I think we can simplify that further, to something like:

“The person who does [X] is aggressively claiming a right he does not in fact have.” 

So, what is the “X” that the dogmatic stands accused of? Going back a sentence, we find this: 

“....and that, furthermore, I had every moral right to do so because, simply qua resident, I was as much a "Bristolian" (!) as anybody else... “

It is fairly self-conscious, not to say presumptuous, to use the word “qua” in an informal discussion: it almost makes you sound like a parody of a philosopher. (Remember poor Lucky in Godot: "given the existence as uttered forth in the public words of puncher and wattman of a personal god quaquaqua".) But I think we all understand what is meant. If someone said “I am going to consider the story of Noah’s Ark qua story” they would mean “I am going to consider only its narrative qualities and disregard any liturgical, moral, historical and theological qualities it may also have. So "rights qua resident" are rights that you acquire simply by virtue of living in place. You have the right to vote for who should be Mayor of London simply by living in the city: you only have the right to drive sheep across Tower Bridge if the Mayor has made you a freeman.

But we are not talking about legal rights here. We are talking about moral rights. I suppose that a legal right is granted by the government, but a moral right is granted by God — one of those pesky inalienable rights which Americans think that even kings can't interfere with. For example, I might think that a woman had a moral right to have an abortion, even though in some jurisdictions she does not have the legal right to one. 

So: a person with a quality called "Bristolianness" (which we will come back to) has the moral right to do [Y] (which we will also come back to) while a person who is merely resident in the city does not. The exclamation mark seems to signify that the idea of residency and Bristolianness being equivilent is so silly that no-one would seriously put it forward. ("My friend asked me if I had seen any Dodos during my visit to Mauritius.(!)”)


X = "The belief that all people living in a town have the same moral rights to do [Y]”

So if we combine that with the proposition we reached above, we come down to:

“The person who believes that all people living in a town have an equal moral right to do [Y] would be aggressively claiming a right that he does not in fact have.” 

We could simply it a bit further: 

“All people living in a town do not have an equal moral right to do [Y]”

So finally we have to define [Y].

Simon writes: 

“Were I, on the other hand, to move to Bristol next week, and then demand from the get-go that the city alter whatever outward aspects of its heritage I didn't approve of...”

This seems to involve some deliberately exaggerated language. A person who had just moved into town might, indeed demand that the road sign pointing to Cuntgrope Lane be taken down; he might on the other hand simply express the opinion that the sign is a bit rude. He might be one of a number of people who signed a petition to change the street name. Perhaps he would only be pretentious and doctrinaire in the extreme “demanding” case, not the more moderate “asking nicely” one?

The request might, in itself, be reasonable or unreasonable; sensible or silly, but we aren't interested in that here: we are only interested in whether the resident-qua-resident has the moral right to make it. I grant that the long-term resident might well have knowledge which the recent arrival does not, and this might affect the validity of the short-term resident's complaint. We can easily imagine a situation where he honestly misunderstands what is going on. “Oo-ar, every fellow does think that, sire, when they first moves here, but that thar name “Spankers Lane” be having something to do with the rigging on a ship in olden times, and nothing to do with smacking a wench’s bottom, indeed no, sire.”

There are some things which it would be more reasonable to complain about than others. I would be on stronger grounds complaining about your black-face Morris dance (because it is racist and racism is a moral evil) than I would be asking you to ban Morris dancing in general (because I think Morris dancing is silly.) And I would have not only a moral right but a moral obligation to prevent you putting a Scottish policeman into a giant wicker man and setting fire to it, even if human sacrifice really is a long established tradition round these parts. Perhaps the newcomer is only being presumptuous and doctrinaire if he makes his demands based on personal whim rather than serous moral indignation. 

So we can say: 

Y= “The moral right to insist that any aspect of a city be changed based on private whim”

Putting it all together, we end up with: 

“All people living in a town do not, in fact, have an equal moral right to demand that any aspect of the city be changed based on private whim".

I think we could simplify this as:

“Some people living in a town have the moral right to ask that some aspect of that town be changed, while others do not.” 

Going back yet another sentence, it turns out that the difference between a Bristolian and a resident qua resident is that the former was “born and bred” in the city and the latter was not. “Born and bred” is defined as 

“as signifying someone born in Bristol (or is its near surroundings, I suppose) and having spent the major part of their formative years there.” 

Now, the length of time you have lived somewhere is a variable — a sliding scale or a continuum. But being “born and bred” in a place is very much an either/or: you either were born in Bristol or you weren’t. 

So while:

“The longer you have lived in a town the greater your moral right to ask that some aspect of it be changed” 

might be quite a mild claim, 

“A person who was born in Bristol and spent the major part of their formative years there has a moral right to ask that some aspect of the town be changed, while other people do not.”

would be a much stronger one. It could be simplified to: 

“Only a person born and brought up in Bristol has the moral right to ask that some aspect of the town be changed” 

Or, more generally

“Natives have more moral rights than incomers.”

This is why I characterized Simon's viewpoint as “nativist”. Because it is. 

I grant that Simon says that his example is “admittedly extreme”. And the admitted extremeness of it may be part of the point. I have said that I think that a committee of people, appointed by the council, have as much right to change the name of a building as anyone else, regardless of where they were born and how long they have lived in a particular place. It may be that Simon's point is point is “Okay. You are talking about people who have lived in town for some years, quite tentatively making a very small change for quite a good reason. But let’s go the extreme: suppose someone who has lived in town for one day were very forcefully asking for a very big change for a very poor reason. You would certainly agree that he had less right to do this than a person who had lived in the city all his life. If the incomer has considerably less rights than the native in this extreme scenario, then it follows that he has slightly less rights than the native in the more nuanced case.” (This is a bit like me and C.S Lewis saying that if a galaxy is infinitely more significant than a human being because of its size, then a tall man must be very, very slightly more significant than a short one.)

The argument fails because I wouldn’t acknowledge a difference in moral rights even in the extreme case. The case for removing the Myra Hindley pub sign from Manchester stands or falls on its merits, regardless of who is making it. 

I think it is most unlikely that Simon, or anyone else who contributes to this forum, is consciously trying to obfuscate or pull the wool over our eyes, much less befuddle us or throw sand in our face. But I do think that all his words create the impression of arguing with me; where all he has actually done is re-stated the contrary position. "I think that natives have more moral rights than incomers" is not a response to "I think that incomers have the same moral rights as natives." 

I think that everyone has the same moral rights as everyone else, unless you can show a good reason why they haven't. (Everyone has the right to keep a dog, except you, because you have been convicted of cruelty to animals in the past.) I think that the burden of proof is on the person who rejects my position. I need to be shown reasons why the opinion of a person who was born in Bristol 50 years ago counts for more than the opinion of a person who moved here 20 years ago, or indeed, yesterday.

And yes: “Natives have the moral right to talk about Bristol’s heritage. Incomers do not” does sound oddly reminiscent of the passage I quoted before: 

" For the state must make a sharp distinction between those who, as national comrades, are the cause and bearer of its existence and its greatness and those who only take up residence within a state, as 'earning' elements."

You can see how I might find that a bit worrying.


Anonymous said...

I'm happy to argue for the position that some residents of an area have more moral rights to an opinion over what happens in that area than others.

Let me start by saying that I agree that being born and bred in an area has no moral significance. But in my view the difference between someone who is temporarily living somewhere and someone who intends to make that place their home is morally relevant. This distinction is probably correlated with being born and bred there, and this correlation may well have confused the (not terribly bright?) correspondents in the Bristol paper who you have been quoting, and Simon may well have adopted their language without sufficient consideration as to whether it was the concept he wished to defend.

Let me give a concrete example: I was born and bred in Walsall, but moved away when I went to university. Given that I haven't lived there for 30 years and have no intention to move back, it would be absurd to claim that my being born and bred in Walsall gave me any moral rights. Since moving away from Walsall I have lived in Warwickshire, and I moved to the village where I currently live 19 years ago, and actively intend to continue living here. I think that this gives me more moral (though not legal) right to express an opinion about whether housing developers should be allowed to fill the gap between my village and the nearby town with houses, than someone who is temporarily living in my village but intends to move away next year and never return.[1]

So, if I am right about the potentially morally relevant distinction, it raises the question: for what sort of decisions is it morally relevant? I think the answer is decisions where a significant part of the effect will be felt in the long term, where the person who is only temporarily resident need not care about the long term consequences, but the one who intends to remain expects to be affected by them.

Now, the question of whether a music arena should be renamed doesn't seem to me to be a question of this type (if there were unfortunate long-term consequences then the venue could after all be re-renamed), so it could be argued that this comment was moot. But surely no one thinks I should have let that stop me.

[1] For the avoidance of doubt, I oppose filling the gap between village and town with houses, while also believing that housing in the area is too expensive. I do not however oppose building more houses in the area more generally, nor in my village in particular, so long as they do not tend to fill the gap.

Simon said...

I've read with interest and close attention as promised, Andrew, and shall reply in due course (doubtless in that pompous, poor-man's-Jack Lewis style which seems to provoke Mike!).

If I leave it a while, it's because I'm presently spending my days at a hospital in California on account of my father-in-law being in bad shape (any prayers for him just now would be most welcome). But I should be back in Blighty next week.

Mike Taylor said...

I enjoy how Anonymous constructed a pretty convincing argument that the votes of young citizens should count more than those od older citizens.

SK said...

I enjoy how Anonymous constructed a pretty convincing argument that the votes of young citizens should count more than those od older citizens.

Indeed, it almost balances out the fact that the votes of older citizens should count more than those of younger citizens because they have had more time to become wiser, less idealistic, less naïve, etc.

Unknown said...

Is there a distinction between objective and subjective being overlooked here?

- There is an objective reason why such-and-such should be done, vs
- We communally need to agree on whether something needs to be done, and need to decide who has a stake in that discussion?

In the former case, the background of the speaker is irrelevant. In the latter, it is clearly relevant. The problem is that it become circular, since you then have to communally decide on who has a stake (unless there is an objective means for doing so).

Louise H said...

I'm not sure why, given Andrew's argument, we end up with a geographical link at all, though. What is it about living in Bristol that gives one a better moral right to ask that a part of it be changed than, say, someone who lives in York but is remarkably well informed about Bristol local affairs? After all, the moral case for changing the name of a hall surely doesn't depend on the requirement to actually walk past it regularly?

Mike Taylor said...

SK, you make a good point. (Although it's rather undermined by the lamentable tendency of a lot of people to accumulate years without acquiring any political wisdom along the way. Certainly, the most reflexive and unthinking voters I know are all 70+; but I admit that's a small sample.)

I. Dall said...

Wright is really not that Chestertonian: reminds me more of Jack Vance, or, on a bad day, Lin Carter. To be fair, part of it seems to be an honest love of words: to be a bit less fair, he tends to confuse whimsy with gravitasohdearIamdoingitmyselfnowarn'tI

Andrew Rilstone said...


1: I agree that what you are intending to do in the future has potentially more relevance to your moral rights than what you have done in the past. (I might have been born and brought up in Bristol, but intending to get out of the hell-hole the first chance I get; I might have had the misfortune to be born and bred in Wiltshire but intending to stay in God's own unitary authority for the rest of my life.)

2: I agree that people who live in a place, or intend to stay in a place, have a different take on certain questions (e.g should we cut down some trees and build more houses) than people who do not. But everyone will always agree that in general we need more houses and in general this sometimes involves chopping down trees; but would rather that it wasn't the pretty trees near them that get chopped down. We call this "nimbyism" -- "Not In My Back Yard". (Of course, it could go the other way: the local people might desperately want new houses, but the out-of-towners might want to preserve the habitat of a rare species of weasel.)

3: You should certainly take specific local interests into account when making these decisions. e.g It really does make a difference if all the local people say "You can't cut down that particular tree! We've been having our Maypole dances round it since 1623." (But beware! If a Native Australian says "You can't build a carpark on that hill: it's been sacred to my people since way before Captain Cook got here", most of us would take that very seriously indeed. But there is a danger that some white resident will say "Okay then. I am going to arbitrarily declare that having a bonfire on my lawn [contrary to the clean air act] is part of the sacred traditions of MY tribe." [See also Dawkins, Richard.]

4: I once heard an Irish Singer (Ron Kavana) remark "I understand that you English people regard Cromwell as a bit of a hero because he stood up to the King. We Irish have a slightly different attitude to him." I could imagine a situation where the people of Bristol said "Yes: the historical Colston was probably a bastard; but in Bristol, we have a rich folklore about Colston the swashbuckling privateer who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, and it's that fictitious Colston we put up statues to." That would again be an example of an honest difference of perspective. But I see nothing like that being said. What I hear is "So what if Colston kidnapped black people. It was a long time ago and zero hours contracts and hadrians wall exist. You foreigners have no right to an opinion about it."

Nick M said...

All this is very worrying as I am not sure if I'm allowed any opinions whatsoever
"You can't have an opinion on what happens to the Cavern club - you left Liverpool when you were 10"
"You can't have an opinion about whether Cheltenham's museum is named after Edmund Wilson or not - you weren't born here"

Andrew Rilstone said...

Kevin: I think that the idea of "stakeholders" is very useful. And clearly, local people "on the ground" might be differently invested than out of town folk looking at the "big picture". e.g The small congregation who actually attend Little Thodding Parish Church legitimately want to be able to make a cup of tea and go to the toilet after the service; English heritage legitimately don't want them to knock a hole in the wall of a medieval church to build a modern hall.

There are clearly some people -- including one of the more regular green inkers in the Evening Post -- who think that any change whatsoever to a city is against the interests of the people. (You can't change the menu in a pub without being accused of being a P.C marxist Eurocrat!) On the other hand, local people can genuinely be emotionally invested in a particular shop or landmark in a way that out of town people might not understand.

I don't believe that anyone in Bristol has a personal stake or a person investment in Edward Colston or the name Colston Hall, any more than anyone on Stapleton Road has the faintest idea who the Earl of Stapleton originally was. The point of principal at stake is about "non Bristolians" having power over "our" city. If I am in a good mood, I would say that the real issue is gentrification and hipsters. If I am in a bad mood, I would say that the real issue is black people. But one sign above one door has been allowed to become a symbol; and crazy people are willing to say "slavery was a good thing and the slaves were all really happy" rather than admit that some people nowadays grow their beards long and drink posh coffee.

Nick M said...

My Richard Thompson newsletter says Richard is going to be doing a gig at Bristol, Colston Hall???

Andrew Rilstone said...

Yes, the hall is still called "Colston Hall" at present. I think the idea is that it will close for part of 2018 for refurbishment, and then reopen in 2019 with a new name.

Since everyone is keen that it should be named after a statue in central Bristol, I am holding out for the Edmund Burke hall.

Andrew Rilstone said...

While I yield to no-one in my admiration for Beeswing, Galway To Graceland, God Loves a Drunk, Waltzing for Dreamers and the one about the motorbike, I have not enjoyed the last few R.T gigs I have been too, and may not shell out to hear him in the big hall. A lot of people (wrongly) feel the same way about Dylan -- they like his songs but not his act.

Mike Taylor said...

And Luke Jackson does Beeswing better, anyway.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I do love Luke's version of Beeswing, although I think Christy Moore's is definitive. Mad Dog McCrae does a nice one too.

Mike Taylor said...

I have to admit I'd never heard of Mad Dog Mcrea. It's hard to imagine anyone less deserving of that nickname. But I do like the very matter-of-fact way he tells the story.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Mad Dog McCrea aren't a very famous band, but they seem to always be playing late night spots and small stages at festivals. At one stage they were a lot more punk tan they are now. (See "Pikey Killed My Goldfish.")

Mike Taylor said...

Listening to the Christy Moore version now. I like it, but his voice is so very distinctive that I can't quite fix it to that song in my mind. I do sometimes think my career as a low-rent pub singer would be more successful if only I had an Irish accent.

Still; Luke Jackson's remains my favourite of the four.

Andrew Stevens said...

Why there was ever any kind of fuss about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis I will never understand. The weak version of the theory is so trivially true that I don't think anybody has ever disputed it. And the strong version of the theory is so obviously false that it's frankly amazing that anyone ever asserted it.

Gavin Burrows said...

Cor lumme guv, am I the only Richard Thompson fan around here? Well all I can say is that when I see him in Brighton you lot won't be blocking the view!

Mike Taylor said...

Well, I wouldn't go that far! He's obviously done some very good things, not least writing Beeswing. There's no shame in having someone cover your song in a way that's better than the original.

Nick M said...

No, you're not the only one!

Gavin Burrows said...

You and me against the world, Nick.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I have no doubt that Richard Thompson is an excellent singer and guitarist. (And as I say, he is superlative good song-writer.) But I have seen him live I think three times and his stage act left me cold. (The last time I remember thinking how good the drummer was.)

What do you Thompsonites make of Luke's cover, incidentally? Interpreting other people's songs is an artform all of it's own. I think he's a remarkable story teller. (All in the eyes.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

I have no doubt that Richard Thompson is an excellent singer and guitarist. (And as I say, he is superlative good song-writer.) But I have seen him live I think three times and his stage act left me cold. (The last time I remember thinking how good the drummer was.)

What do you Thompsonites make of Luke's cover, incidentally? Interpreting other people's songs is an artform all of it's own. I think he's a remarkable story teller. (All in the eyes.)

Mike Taylor said...

I think it's pretty amazing that Luke Jackson, at whatever crazy young age he was when he recorded that cover, can so effectively sell the idea that he was young and carefree back in the 1960s, not like now. He inhabits the song, if you like.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Yeah. Look up his cover of Fairy Tale of New York (probably not now: probably in December). Makes the song seem fresh and brings the two characters to life.

And that voice...

Richard said...

"‘There was some confusion’ is a phrase in the passive voice that nicely avoids stating who was confused"

Sorry I'm a bit late to the party, and I don't doubt that this is not news to you, but I wasn't able to read this bit without various alarms going off: "there was some confusion" is absolutely not in the passive voice, but mistaking that kind of thing in that way seems quite common in whiny comments, as if "passive voice" has, to the commenter, come to mean something more like "way of avoiding being explicit about agency" (although this case is slightly different, in fact its being active is what makes it possible to avoid spelling out the sufferers of confusion!).

The guys over at Language Log have been cataloging this stuff for ages, if you're interested: