American Civilization and Its Discontents

Fresno Bee, July 4, 2020

Americans are dissatisfied, and that is good. Discontent is the lifeblood of democracy.

A recent poll from Politico concludes that 75% of Americans think the country is on the wrong track.  Another recent poll from the Pew Center found that only 17% of Americans are “proud” of the country.  When asked how they feel about the state of the country, 71% said “angry,” 66% said “fearful.”  Only 46% are “hopeful.”  Pew reports that only 12% of Americans say they are satisfied with the country.

These numbers indicate a low point for the American spirit.  But they also show that Americans are not stupid.  It is smart to be dissatisfied when there is a pandemic, economic collapse, confused leadership, and racial injustice.  It is surprising that anyone is satisfied with the country today.

The United States is a land of dissatisfaction.  People come here because they don’t like the old country.  The early Americans were not satisfied with British colonial rule.  The Civil War and the civil rights movement were expressions of deep dissatisfaction.  Donald Trump rode to power on a wave of discontent. 

And the waves roll on.  This nation is a changing multitude.  We have too much liberty to remain united for long.  America is anti-abortion protesters and Black Lives Matter marchers.  It is the anarchists of Seattle and the law and order crowd in Washington, DC.  Our divisions and our discontent are signs of the vitality of our democracy.  In a dull and dying country, no one has the energy to be fed up and people lack the right to express their unhappiness.  But in a vibrant and free country, the yearning for change is loud and proud.

Some dream of bland homogeneity.  They want an America that looks like what they see in the mirror.  They dream perhaps of resting in peace.  But life is a bubbling, boiling confusion.  There never was homogeneity on this vast continent.  The native tribes of pre-Columbian times were diverse.  For five hundred years, new generations of immigrants have brought different cultures, religions, and ideas.

The thing that unites us is our freedom to criticize and our right to think for ourselves.  Liberty creates difference.  The more freedom, the more divergence.  From creative liberty and diversity of experience emerges energy and enthusiasm.  Let’s embrace the fact that to be an American means to be cranky and critical, argumentative and evolving. 

The idea of productive discontent is central to the American myth.  The Fourth of July commemorates this process.  This nation was born out of the destruction of the old.  We celebrate it by blowing things up!  We hope that from the fireworks, something better will emerge.

The Declaration of Independence can be read as the expression of the complaints of a youthful spirit.  It’s timeless words about self-evident truths give way to an extended diatribe against old King George, who is described as a mean and tyrannical father figure.   

Thomas Jefferson was only 33 years old when he worked on the Declaration.  And while the Declaration described the King as an absolute tyrant seeking to impose an absolute despotism over the colonies, not everyone on the committee agreed.  John Adams was an older man.  He thought the accusation of tyranny was too personal and sounded like “scolding.” 

A decade later, Jefferson said, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”  This physical analogy is enlightening.  Storm clouds build as the atmosphere heats up.  There is thunder and lightning, rain and hail.  But this clears the air and waters the crops. 

This idea, that a little rebellion is a good thing, seems uniquely American.  This is the spirit of youth and rock and roll.  It is the creative destruction of the capitalist economy.  It spurs innovation in technology and scientific revolutions. 

The simmering dissatisfaction of the present will boil over and give shape to something new.  Of course, there are dangers.  Lightning can kill and flash floods can wash away things we love.  But that’s life.  We never really rest in peace until the day is done or freedom is extinguished.  Liberty creates discontent.  But from dissatisfaction, creative innovation develops, as today’s storms nurture tomorrow’s fruit.

Welcoming Strangers, Moral Thinking, and Diversity

Want a more peaceful world?
Start by learning about other cultures and languages

Fresno Bee, September 22, 2017

If we want to broaden our thinking, we must enlarge our vocabularies. Recent research shows how learning a foreign language changes the way we think about ethics. Experiments conducted at the University of Chicago indicate that non-native speakers tend be less emotional and more impartial in ethical decision-making.

Researchers confronted people with a typical moral dilemma. Imagine there is a run-away train headed for a group of five people. Is it morally correct to push a bystander in front of the train, slowing it down and saving those five people?

Non-native speakers are more likely to choose to kill the one in order to save the five. People are less likely to reach that conclusion when asked the question in their native language.

One explanation offered is that people who think in a secondary language tend to process information in a more formal and less intuitive way. Thinking in a native language is more deeply rooted in intuitions, emotions and taboos.

SECOND-LANGUAGE ACQUISITION TEACHES HUMILITY. OUR IGNORANCE OF OTHER LANGUAGES SHOULD MAKE US LESS PROUD AND SELF-ASSURED

This research is thought-provoking. Could international negotiations be affected by the choice of language? Or consider what this suggests about debates about immigration and multiculturalism. Immigrants may be thinking in more objective terms, while monolingual nativists are more emotional and driven by intuition.

This research also leads us to imagine that foreign language acquisition could help build a more peaceful world. Learning to communicate in a foreign language opens the door to a more cosmopolitan point of view. A new language helps you see the world differently. It also helps you understand the limits of your own language and worldview.

Second-language acquisition teaches humility. The easy conversations of children babbling in a foreign tongue are mind-blowing when you do not know the language. Our ignorance of their languages should make us less proud and self-assured.

Philosophers have long been interested in the language question. In the 17th century, the philosopher Leibniz—one of the inventors of calculus—hatched a plan to construct a universal language. This language would be used to transmit science. It would facilitate global commerce. And it would help create world peace.

In the 19th century, philosophers abandoned this cosmopolitan project in favor of an emphasis on national identity and the rich worldviews found in the depths of culture. The philosopher Hegel once said that we only truly possess ideas that are expressed in our mother tongue.

Romantics like Hegel celebrated the deep poetic resonances of life, language and thought. It is true that the overtones and connotations of the mother tongue run deep. But Romanticism can breed ethnolinguistic nationalism, which is divisive and undermines the cosmopolitan ideal.

These days the dream of a universal language has given way to the need for linguistic sensitivity and cultural pluralism. Instead of advocating a universal language, we need more and better understanding of other people’s languages and worldviews.

The philosopher Wittgenstein once said, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” This implies that we can only think what we can say. If our vocabulary and grammar are limited, so too is our thinking.

WHILE SOME PEOPLE REMAIN WEDDED TO CLOSED-MINDED NATIVISM, THE FUTURE IS COSMOPOLITAN, MULTICULTURAL, AND POLYLINGUISTIC

This sounds abstract, so an example might help. Consider how the introduction of foreign words into English helps us think more clearly. In English, for example, we have one word for love. But there are three words for love in Greek: eros (sexual love), philia (the love of friendship), and agape (brotherly or universal love). Understanding these words can help us think more carefully about love.

Or consider how much the American vocabulary (and diet) has been enriched by the inclusion of foreign words for food, from burritos and croissants to samosas and tofu.

While some people remain wedded to closed-minded nativism, the future is cosmopolitan, multicultural, and polylinguistic. We benefit from being uprooted. Change causes us to grow. It is good to be forced to think about things in new ways – and in a new language.

If you want to broaden your mind, travel, eat new foods and learn a new language. This can affect the way you think about ethics. It can make you more humble. And it can also help you develop agape, the kind of love that is hospitable and welcoming to strangers.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article174830841.html