Archive for the ‘Education’ Category
I have never experienced synesthesia, but I think I have a fairly reasonable understanding of what it would be like; hearing colors, feeling sounds, experiencing the taste of words are all something I can understand at a subconscious level.
But like so many things taste is cultural.
That’s why, to a man bathed in the baptismal waters of modern fundamentalist Christianity, someone like George W. Bush, the flavor of the word “crusade” is a word with positive connotations. He associates it not with a physical war but with a social movement.
And in a very real sense, Bush and the people who craft his speeches and form his verbal soundbites are right. In America, crusades are largely social and not physical. We find the overt Campus Crusade for Christ but also find it natural to describe crusades to help the homeless and crusades against poverty.
Crusades are about spreading Good News, harmony and help; not oppression or hate. Crusades are about aiding the needy, showing the blind the error of their ways; leading the lost back to the path leading to salvation. From the perspective of the average fundamentalist Christian, a crusade is not negative – it is basically about helping others.
Unfortunately, to non-English speakers not immersed in the American cultural discussion, the word crusade has a far different flavor. In Muslim countries the bitter aftertaste of the word “crusade” is steeped in the historical realisation that very word is related to religion. Just as crucifixion has become the English word for a form of execution most closely related to the death of a religious figure, crusades were originally used to carry that religion out into the world, specifically into and against the Muslim religion and cultures. The crusades were a century’s long attempt to replace local Middle Eastern cultures with a Christian dictatorship. Perhaps more ominous, it was an attempt doomed to failure.
Seen in that light, the presidential confusion generated by the controversy shortly after 9/11 when George W. Bush declared a crusade against terrorism – a crusade to free the world from the evil of unexpected horrors – was understandable.
Now, if one can imagine the same word having a positive, glowing, warm feeling for one person while at the same time having a discordant, spikey, uncomfortable feel to the other, than it is a small leap to understanding why the same effect can be reversed. Words like jihad and intifada with one cultural feeling in Arabic are interpreted in an entirely different light by others in the English speaking west.
Whereas Americans would have shaken their heads in wonderment had Bush claimed “We will carry the fight to them in a global jihad against terrorism,” his meaning would have been far more clear and precise to Asian and Middle Eastern Islamic listeners.
What most people don’t understand is that is next impossible for people in the one culture to use a word imported from one language and translate the word back into the original while keeping the new cultural baggage associated with them. The more similar meaning of what have become two completely unrelated concepts, the more likely mistranslations will occur. The flavors become lost and distorted – like putting a five course meal through a blender, the ingredients remain the same but the result is less than appetising.
To show how this works in a slightly less politically charged atmosphere, I turn to a something near and dear to the hearts of many red blooded Americans – beer – or at least the containers you drink it from. For English speakers, the classic German vessel used to drink that oh-so-Teutonic ambrosia is called a “stein.” Unfortunately, native German speakers have absolutely no understanding of that use of the word for “rock.” The origin for the misunderstanding is likely very simple. The proper German word is “Krug” (related to the word pitcher). This word can, in some cases, be extended to the word “Steinkrug” if the vessel in question is made not of glass or porcelain but of clay. Since Steinkrug was likely too long for foreign ears to pick-up and remember. The word got shortened and imported into English as stein and not krug. Again, it’s important to realise that the word stein does exist in the German language but it has little to do with late night binges and Saturday morning hangovers and far more to do with something one shouldn’t throw the first one of and glass houses.
The flavor of words caused a small flap in early August when the principal of a recently founded New York bi-lingual school was forced by political pressure to step down. Debbie Almontaser lost her job due to her understanding of a word in based not in the language she uses in America, but in the language it originally came from. The story is even worse. As best as I can understand from the New York Times ($elect) article, she was fired after a controversy was created after an interview with the New York Post from a question clearly designed to spark exactly this brouhaha. From the Washington Post coverage,
Principal Debbie Almontaser said her mission was to foster tolerance and understanding. But she resigned Aug. 10 after the New York Post quoted her talking about definitions of the word “intifada.”
Almontaser’s critics say she failed to immediately condemn the slogan “Intifada NYC” on a T-shirt displayed by a group with no connection to the school. She later condemned it.
“You don’t want to have a school that confirms people’s worst fears,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers.
At core in the debate is a linguistic disconnect. The word “intifada” crystallized in its current Arabic meaning during the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s and early ’90s. It is seen by many Arabs as a valid term for popular resistance to oppression, while for many English speakers it has come to conjure images of violent attacks on civilians.
The right-wing punditry attacked the woman for all the things they see as being wrong in America. She was running a bi-lingual school, Arabic-English; this is in and of itself suspect because as we all know you can’t learn Arabic without learning the motives and religion of the Muslim religion and creating a madrassa. (It’s not like having a bi-lingual charter school, Hebrew-English, being run in Hollywood Florida run by an Orthodox rabbi. That’s OK. Hebrew has nothing to do with religion.) The mote of an Arabic-English school is a beam in the eye of the right-wing radicals.
Almontaser was attacked because she was an educator, someone who wanted people to understand not the westernised meaning of intifada but the current meaning in Arabic. Why an intifada is about protest but that protest can take many forms. That kind of cultural understanding leads to the very bedrock of multiculturalism. If children in New York start to read Middle Eastern newspapers and realise that there are good and bad sources of information, Arabic pundits as acerbic as any Fox News anchor. If the children in New York would begin to realise that the “them” in the “us and them” are just as much the bad guys in Hamas as the bad guys in RNC, then billions of dollars in propaganda will have been wasted.
Finally, Almontaser was probably attacked for simply being who she is; a proud, intelligent, Muslim woman, willing to openly wear the symbolic sign of her religion – a head scarf. The very same group of people who barked long enough and loud enough to get this woman fired would go into a mouth-foaming rage at the thought of a school system judging someone for wearing a cross or a Star of David on a T-Shirt or as a lapel pin. Almontaser was attacked because she is a woman capable and willing to accept a difficult and complex job and not stay at home, out of sight taking care of the children; a cultural tick that seems to be shared equally between fundamentalist Christians and Muslims.
But then again it isn’t about equality, or fairness, or even about the word itself. It’s about perception.
Which brings me back to George W Bush.
I think he would be shocked and amazed if people were to accuse him of fighting a global jihad to impose American culture on the world in general and the Middle East specifically. He would be shocked if he really thought people felt his invasion of Iraq was about crushing a 1500 years of Middle Eastern culture to replace it with western – or perhaps better American – values. An invasion bent on killing all who oppose his plans; the utter destruction of all those who want to live under different values.
If only Bush could make his critics understand that is far from his purpose. People would finally understand and accept that he is merely leading a world wide crusade to bring American ideals to the oppressed people of the world and specifically those in the Arab countries. He wants to help in the deepest most substantial way he can find, bringing harmony, hope and Good News.
It is all too clear once you understand the flavor of words why one side doesn’t understand the other. The problem is bitterly apparent.