NSism and being a gadfly

My old tutor has taken the bold step of defending the veracity of the NS/NNS (native speaker/non-native speaker) dichotomy.  Why bold?  Well, NS/NNS is to ELT what male/female and white/black (or white/non-white) are to the social sciences.  That is, the implications, interpersonal and political, of the dichotomies are so reviled that their underlying reality ends up becoming toxic by association, and people end up denying the empirical existence of those categories altogether.  In such an environment, asserting that male/female, white/black, or NS/NNS are even scientifically justifiable categorization schemes puts one in the position of speaking against the vast majority of one’s peers, which seems, yes, bold.

It looks like I’m going to take the conventional position here of defending my tutor and others who take similar stances on other issues as put-upon whistleblowers who just want to stand up for an unpopular truth, but it’s quite a bit more complicated than that.  As it turns out, in some cultures (like this one), such positions frequently result in one being valorized as an intellectual martyr for pushing back against a stifling, politically correct consensus, making it tempting for a minority of commentators on any given topic to claim the “underdog truth-teller” ground and start getting invited to speak at universities just for being perceived as a rare straight arrow in topsy-turvy academia.  This is despite the fact that if 99 experts out of 100 believe one thing and the last believes something else, the one should be deemed less likely to be right than the 99, not equally or even more likely (is this related to the phenomenon wherein as the odds of winning the lottery decrease, people focus more on and overestimate more the likelihood that they will win?).  Also, the unconventional opinion being celebrated is often suspiciously close to the cherished beliefs of reactionary and conservative elements in society.  If you’re obnoxious enough in your determination to offend the progressive consensus, you might even get called a “gadfly” or “provocateur”, terms which like “curmudgeon” seem to indicate a type of backwardness that we are obligated to find charming.  The iconoclast is a role that many people would be happy to play.

I know my tutor better than that; he doesn’t endorse blanket favoritism of NS teachers based on their supposed innate qualities, nor does every evolutionary psychologist interested in biological sex think that men and women communicate differently because of gender roles in hunter-gatherer society, or every social scientist who includes race among his/her variables think that IQ might be tied to skin tone. But many people take the cultural cachet surrounding the consensus-challenger and the thread of empiricism in these categorizations and tie to it weighty bundles of prejudice, folk wisdom, and plain assumption.  That is, they use the role of the gadfly in challenging apparent ridiculousness at the far left to on-the-sly reassert regressive principles.  Under the pretense of stating clear facts, they Morse-code their chauvinistic political beliefs.  Telling someone that you believe that white and black are different races is oddly out of place unless it is taken to signify something of much more salience, analogous to how mentioning an applicant’s great hairstyle and friendly demeanor in a letter of recommendation sends a very clear message to that applicant’s detriment.  I’m not just saying that ordinary people are statistically illiterate and not strong enough critical thinkers to understand where the salience of these categories stops, and therefore that they mistake the significance of mentioning them.  The categories are the mastheads on vast memeplexes concerning “innate” differences, and accepting the categories reliably conveys the message that you endorse their usual hangers-on as well.

This is partly because people reliably can’t parse nuanced messages (like “NSs exist but NSism is wrong”), yes, but it’s also because time spent defending the categorizations rather than fighting against the various injustices that accompany them is a statement of one’s priorities.  By defending the categorizations you reliably affirm stereotypes associated with them by 1) taking part in a known code that believers in stereotypes use, and 2) signalling by omission that the categories have greater importance to you than the injustices that follow them.

Now to cut my tutor a break again, the NS/NNS distinction is much more to the heart of our field of study than gender or racial differences are in any of the contexts you often hear them discussed.  A lot of what we actually choose to do or have our students do in the classroom absolutely depends on whether we think they can learn English the same we that we did, i.e. mostly implicitly.  This makes the NS/NNS distinction worth discussing without implications for who should be teaching them.  In my mind, the NS teacher/NNS teacher distinction is an artifact of how we assume that those teachers were themselves trained, and has hugely diminished in apparent significance since we moved from Japan to California.  On the other hand, not many news readers hearing how people of African descent are more likely to have sickle-cell anemia have any practical use for that information.  HR interviewers have much less need for information on gender differences (in any skill) than they might think.  If you hear the subject of innate differences between two types of people mentioned in most common conversational contexts, you are probably hearing a real-time misapplication of mental resources.  This extends, by the way, to discussions of NS and NNS teachers.

If the categories are as durable as I and many others think, they will survive a period of neglect while we focus on addressing the many problems the hangers-on of these categories have produced.  I don’t even see a need here to define what I mean by affirming their empirical existence; presumably anyone reading this and my other posts on race (try “Search”) knows I think part of the socially constructed meanings of these categories is that they are supposed to be objectively real (and therefore very important and unchangeable), but that doesn’t mean that their real-world effects are limited to “hurt feelings” – or that no part of them is objectively real.  Merely mentioning them in this post is sure to invite insinuations that I think they mean more than I do.  I just mean to say that if “innate differences” really are innate, they will stick around and continue to have whatever effects they do even if we don’t take bold stands defending them.

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