No @$#*% Way!

13 July 2009

A Word or Two about Swearing

Broken, by Aeioux, with Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic licenceAge, a family and a sneaking suspicion that things can be better said are often what push people to swear less often than they might. There is always a sort of opprobrium to cursing, or what my grandmother (and yours, no doubt) calls ‘foul language’. Cue images of stench and decay, of wrongness of language that must indicate the decomposition of thought. Perhaps there’s a point to the moralising, but it often seems a convenience, a judgment of what’s proper and prudent without any indication of how that position has been attained. There are undoubtedly situations in which swearing is unnecessary – variations of the word ‘fuck’ used an adjectives can range from the emphatic (as in “I really fucked up”) to the needlessly vulgar (as in “oh my fucking God”). Yet, as it happens, swearing does have at least one purpose – to mitigate physical pain.

In the current issue of NeuroReport, Richard Stephens, John Atkins and Andrew Kingston describe the results of an experiment in which subjects were asked to immerse a hand in icy cold water and “repeat a swear word”, and then asked to undergo the process again while repeating a “neutral” word. The result? When the subjects swore, they tended to keep their hands immersed longer. Stephens and his associates explain it this way: “swearing increased pain tolerance, increased heart rate and decreased perceived pain compared to not swearing”.

As an interesting aside, in an interview with the London Telegraph, Dr Stephens mentioned that he first thought about the link between swearing and pain when his wife was in labour; it would be difficult not to imagine why. His findings could well have verified what delivery ward nurses already know, and there’s a fitting counterpoint. It turns out that “swearing did not increase pain tolerance in males with a tendency to catastrophise”. Drama queens, in other @$#*% words.

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Babble On

25 January 2009

The Value of Minority Languages

2103512683_7bbf68822e_mLanguages are the commerce of life, the additions and subtractions of our days. Through them we communicate, but they often restrict us in what we can say, how we can say it. And when we can’t understand a language we baulk at the impediment to exchange, often without thinking much about whether there would have been any exchange anyway. People get uptight about minority languages in all countries, insist that they shouldn’t be part of the public conversation. To be an Australian, people will say, you must speak English. To be American as well, in the United States. But why? Surely a common language is convenient and translation for minority language speakers can be expensive, but so too are grants to sporting clubs, support for the arts, government-funded advertising campaigns, and so on. I’m sure you get the message.

We live in a world in which mutually incomprehensible languages are a fact of life. Voters in Nashville, a city of around 600,000 people, voted down an ‘English first’ proposal this week, which would have taken away translation support services for the 10% of the population who don’t speak English. Sure, Tennessee’s official language is English anyway, but this would have been a nasty jab at people who have recently arrived as refugees, and the long-term Spanish speaking population.

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Worthless Words

25 November 2008

Wherein the Editor Vents, a Little

One day this will seem like youth, by Greg Gladman, with Creative Commons licenceBad writing is my bane. I don’t mean the sort of writing that appears on blogs as streams of consciousness, a quick and ready reflection of the world as it changes. That can be excused because it doesn’t carry with it the pretence of anything that might even approach perfection. I can even reluctantly leave aside newspaper journalism, for much the same reason. And my concern is not so much with the elision of facts or any confusion of dates. That happens to the best of us, and most readers are wise enough to navigate through the discrepancies. No, my beef, and what pains me professionally, is with writing that should be good but isn’t, that has a message but can’t communicate.

Where does written communication start and end – how does it happen? All communication should be a two-way process. Speaking and listening creates a dialogue, an exchange, and in a similar manner writing should always acknowledge the reader. Quite obviously writing can’t be as dialectical as a conversation that reaches agreement, but writers should always imagine the reception of their account or argument before they begin. Even if you write for yourself you’re still an audience and things have to make sense. But how many times have you heard someone say “I don’t know what I meant when I wrote that”?

Bad writing by people who should know and do better can be intensely frustrating for someone like me, but it also has practical implications. Allow me to given an example. Last night I rewrote a domestic helper’s statement that originally described a situation in which she was given a letter telling her that if she didn’t improve her performance after a week of compulsory training she would be sacked. This, in itself, might not seem confusing, but the statement had been transcribed by a help agency that often deals with cases of unfair dismissal and knew the details of the woman’s situation. By passing on the statement without thinking whether it communicated the problem at hand, that problem could well have grown.

Even though things could better, by Darwin Bell, with Creative Commons licenceAlthough this missive was labelled a “termination letter”, what the statement actually described was an official warning, and it would have been considered as such under the law in Hong Kong. Had the statement been submitted to the Labour Tribunal unaltered it would have been considered evidence of the woman breaching her own employment contract by leaving after being given a mere warning, with the concomitant financial burden of having to pay her employer the equivalent of a month’s salary and make her own way back to the Philippines without a ticket provided as part of her severance package.  But what the woman had related to be written down was that she was given a termination letter that would be rescinded following the compulsory notice period of one month if she performed well after her training.

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The Teacher as Token

12 November 2008

A Lesson in Communication

Sms, by Pixel Action, with Creative Commons licenceCommunication is an abstraction, regardless of how we look at it. Writing, reading, talking, listening, waving, frowning – these are all immediate actions that convey information. Communication is but the rubric under which we usually group them, the point at which hindsight dwells on their similarities rather than their differences, considers the sum rather than the parts. A teacher, for instance, communicates in a number of different ways: pointing, talking, pausing, walking. Together these actions constitute not only the lesson in action, but also the way in which meaning shifts from one mind to many. There is a certain symbolism in them all and the teacher becomes a token, at once surface alone and substance entirely, imposing order and challenging the structure of existing thought.

Having spent time lecturing honours students about academic writing at a Hong Kong university recently I’ve had time to ponder the multiple meanings of the token as a concept rather than an artefact. At the most obvious level a token is a souvenir, a small reminder of something. In that sense I’ve been nothing but a presence, reminding 70 students that their classes are compulsory, that something must be said between the start and finish of each lesson. This is the teacher’s role as an authority figure, and with students in their third year as undergraduates the figure is a little more obvious than the authority.

We begin, then, with a sort of restrained communication, which is really closer to tokenism.

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The Rise of Little G

3 September 2008

On the Semiotics of Household Dominance

Every family has a dominant member – he who grabs the purse strings, she who brings order to the house, whoever defines the discourse of domestic life. In extended families a grandparent might hold sway, in single parent families the eldest child could well prevail. Depending on the extent to which physical space is at a premium, there may be a competition of interests, a battle of wills if you like. All of these scenarios apply to hamlets as they do to cities, and shift with relative ease across countries and cultures. People live to together and they have to get by. So one person emerges as the conciliator, the arbitrator, the boss. In my apartment, Little G reigns supreme.

Now let me tell you something about two-year-old children, if you don’t already know. They are, as you might imagine, just approaching and sometimes just passing the threshold of rationality. Those who speak early and easily take little time to insinuate themselves into higher levels of the hierarchy, on par with their elder siblings. Before they know it, your older children have no effective seniority, and they wish for a slightly dumber – but not too dumb – younger kid around their knees. But my step-daughter never had a chance.

Little G, now almost three, realised very early on that speech patterns determine thought, that convincing other people to speak in a certain way will limit, mould and direct the manner in which they think. From the moment her younger brother arrived, barely a year after her own grand entrance, she insisted on calling him Baby. She knew his name but spoke it not once in his first year. After a month or two of resistance her sister, my wife and I were all in line, using the now correct term for the kid. Then Little G began the second stage of her strategy – objectification. Her brother became The Baby, and we fell into line. She had risen above her station, breached mere childhood and entered the realm of personhood.

Soon, my step-daughter was The Ate (ate, for those or you who don’t know, is ‘elder sister’ in Tagalog). Little G had leapt up another level, into the embrace of adulthood – The Ate is eighteen.

Because parents love their children – or at least they ought to – we accepted this shift in the power balance with a certain calm naiveté. Cute little kid we thought, and strong willed. But we were just kidding ourselves. I soon became The Papa and my wife, as you might imagine by now, became The Mama, although Little G sometimes condescends to call her Aida. More recently we’ve had two women staying with us long enough for them to become de facto members of the family. Little G mostly calls them by their names, Beth and Yayah. She considers them her equals.

Little G can rise no further in this household – she’s already at the top.


They Can Have My Support . . .

18 June 2008

But I’m Keeping My Mind

The Passage of Time, by ToniVC, with Creative Commons licenceTime plays terrible tricks on rhetoric. A statement that might once have seemed self-evident or deeply insightful can, with passing years and changing circumstances, become stale, then dated and eventually ludicrous. The slogans of the seventies and the formulas of the fifties don’t always work in the here and now. They retreat from understanding, with social cues and passing references no longer able to carry the intended meaning. But they persist in a kind of Twilight Zone, uttered by those who want change yet don’t really know how to achieve it, or are relatively powerless to do so in one way or another.

If you think the rhetoric of revolution is dead in the developed world, you’ll need to think again. It’s alive, though barely, in some migrant worker organisations, and it surfaced here in Hong Kong recently.

Attending the opening session of an international migrant worker conference on the weekend I was in turn bewildered, amused, annoyed and finally, almost inevitably in hindsight, stunned by a barrage of rhetoric that I thought no longer had a place in political discourse. Raised voices, thumping on the lectern, fingers stabbing at the air, all these things shouted indignity at the capitalist world system, the ‘imperialist’ agenda of multinational business, the sins of the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the relentless ‘toil’ of comrades in struggle.

Now, regular readers of this blog will know that I’m very much supportive of migrant worker groups, and write often about the virtual commodification of domestic helpers here in Hong Kong. An image that will never leave me is my wife, crouched on the floor at 4 o’clock the Monday morning after we married, crying because she had to be back at work in an hour. That, and worse, is the constant outlook for the domestic helper in Hong Kong – few escape it and most are items to be used, and discarded when no longer needed.

A Night out at the Opera..., by CARF, with Creative Commons licenceSuch is the exploitation inherent in the wage differentials between developed areas and those like my wife’s native Philippines, which is in the chronic grip of underdevelopment, mismanagement and the sheer avarice of massive corruption. When you move from the glare of poverty to the shadow of wealth your situation obviously improves, but we should never under-estimate the capacity of employers to sense vulnerability and exploit it.

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When the Message Matters

20 May 2008

On the Importance of Communicating Importance

365.016, by r5d4, with Creative Commons licence‘Speak truth to power’ is an often cited phrase, a catch-cry for change in a world that flaunts stability. But even if we have a message, and it’s a message that matters, how do we speak its truth? What methods should we use to argue for social justice when every government, every authority, has heard it all before? Unfortunate as it sounds, the direct approach isn’t always the most successful. So for this week’s microreviews, now in the sidebar at the right, I’ve drawn together three volumes that describe unusual ways of delivering important messages. And it’s fitting that they do so to varying degrees of success.

Over 40 years ago Marshall McLuhan pronounced that “the medium is the message”, that how we communicate shapes what we say. He was particularly keen to show that each medium, whether it be the alphabet itself or a television programme, has limits and possibilities that affect both the speaker and the listener, the writer and the reader, the actor and the audience. Take a message, shift it from a movie theatre to the radio, and the message changes in the process.

But what if we take one message out of its original medium, maybe not even legally, shove it into another, and mix in a few more ways of tailoring it to a new audience? We can now control messages in new ways because they are not so tightly strapped to any particular method of communicating. Yet we have to become a little unlawful, we have to be prepared to share information in uncertain conditions – no-one really owns the message any more. That’s what Matt Mason calls “the pirate’s dilemma”, and he wants to unleash the buccaneer in us all.

Mason’s Pirate’s Dilemma, the subject of my first microreview this week, focuses on what you might call ‘remix culture’. It captures the ways in which ideas can shift between youth culture – in movements such as punk, hip-hop, graffiti tagging and file sharing – and commercial culture, changing in outline, skipping across media, but retaining and even strengthening their messages.

New, by karroozi, with Creative Commons licenceThe result, he writes, is a world in change, where – to give an intriguing example – disco’s original message of tolerance and the open society, born in the Loft with David Mancuso, has delivered us the open source movement. In computer operating systems such as Linux, Internet browsers like Firefox, and many other forms of software, the exchange of once proprietary information is now leading towards greater possibilities for collaboration in education, library work, and even the concept of intellectual property itself.

Bill Gates, you would image, never learned to boogie.

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