Virtue Signalling, feigned interactions, and In-N-Out

Virtue signalling” has sort of become this generation’s “politically correct”, a term of abuse for supposedly vacuous public communication by the political left. Much like political correctness, it actually describes something universal across political groups, and use of the term is itself is an example of the phenonemon it describes (i.e., calling something out as “virtue signalling” is a way of virtue signalling to one’s peers, much like decrying “political correctness” is a literally politically correct thing to do in certain circles).

Certain kinds of virtue signalling consist of messages ostensibly sent to the out-group, actually meant for the in-group to see, where the appearance of communication with the out-group is an important part of the real message. The real act of communication seems to be, “Look at me, trying to talk to these savages! That’s how committed I am to our cause!” Unfortunately, a lot of political communication these days really consists of ostentatious displays of self-sacrifice to one’s own tribe, where the sacrifice lies in having to tolerate communication with members of the other tribe.

I’ve covered this ground before, but have a few new insights:

  1. The proportion of apparent communication between tribes which is really feigned communication designed for consumption by members of one’s tribe may be increasing
  2. Some communities place a higher value on communication with out-groups than others, perversely raising the likelihood that it is feigned

The first is just a result of the increasing siloing of discourse; communities have more opportunities for self-selection with cable news and social media than any other time in history. Few conservatives watch MSNBC, and fewer liberals watch Fox News. Odds are, when you see a commentator or guest that appears to be ideologically opposed to the main viewership of whichever cable news network you are watching, you are seeing a feigned communication in which the fact that the host is trying hard to “reach the other side” is the real message of value, and that message is solely intended for his or her own political tribe. Any bonafides that the heel commentator may possess only serve to increase the value and validity of the real message. This has been true of talk radio and conservative commentary since at least the days of Wally George, but the fact that any subculture can now have a facebook group or YouTube channel all its own makes the incentive for in-group signalling so much more valuable than genuine out-group communication that a high proportion of fake out-group communication is inevitable.

The second was brought to my attention by my wife, who asked me what the “Revelation 3:20” on the bottom of our In-N-Out burger wrapper meant. She had heard that In-N-Out food comes with Bible verses written discreetly somewhere on the packaging, but still couldn’t decode this apparent combination of TOEFL vocabulary and time of day. It hadn’t occurred to me that In-N-Out’s Bible verses could also be an example of feigned communication, but of course I grew up in a household that at least pretended to think that church was important and hadn’t thought of how opaque something like “Nahum 1:7” (on the bottom of a Double-Double) looks to someone raised without any exposure to the Bible. A straightforward interpretation of the presence of these phrases is that to Christians, this is like whispering a codeword, a message which shows insider knowledge and expertise, while to non-Christians, it is pretty much indistinguishable from “Xanthan Gum”. If that were the sum of its meanings to both groups, it would be either straightforward in-group communication or simply failed communication rather than feigned communication. However, I doubt the owners of In-N-Out, conservative Christians though they are, would waste ink telling fellow Christians something they already knew or giving non-Christians the equivalent of a Dewey Decimal number to look up. They might instead be communicating something to their fellow Christians besides literal Bible verses – they are communicating the fact that they are trying to reach non-Christians, a message with special currency among evangelical Christians. Seen this way, the use of Bible verses makes more sense – it is vastly more important to put the message in an emic form that Christians recognize, since they are the true recipients of the message, than in a form that non-Christians would, since they are only the feigned recipients. In a community where outreach is a core value, feigned communication with out-groups is an especially tempting form of in-group signalling, and although I haven’t been to church in many, many years, I suspect feigned communication with non-Christians is pretty common. I noticed feigned communication first in Japan, but clearly this type of feigned communication takes place in other groups with similar ways of defining themselves.

Source. Hard to believe this was ever questioned.

Not meaning what you mean

When a colleague in ESL or English answers “how are you?” With “I’m well”, I always think the substitution of “well” for “good” is a bit like pulling rank. It’s the linguistic equivalent of casually mentioning that you’d “been praying about something” or commenting on the gluten content of foods that your neighbor is eating – the invocation of a hierarchy that you know the you place yourself highly on, and everyone else lower. I do not accept the premise of that hierarchy (nor the others that I mentioned), but explaining that point is another long conversation that ends up making me look like the pedant.

Often, I find that in these conversations the core of the misunderstanding (from my perspective) is that there is a correct way to use words and that the speaker is showing off that he knows it.

There’s a switch in my mind that keeps flipping back and forth between annoyance and acquiescence at people’s tendency to talk about words this way – as if they had “true” or “original” meanings clear as day to prudent and thoughtful individuals (like the speaker), but which idiots (like you) are prone to getting wrong.

You see this most clearly nowadays in the Princess Bride meme, which always goes something like the following:

(can you believe Inigo Montoya and Saul Berenson on Homeland are the same actor?)

LITERALLY YOU KEEP USING THAT WORD. I DO NOT THINK IT MEANS WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANSYOU KEEP SAYING 'IRONY. I DON'T THINK IT MEANS WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANS.

You might see this idea that words contain meanings which fluent speakers are capable of getting wrong (in its Princess Bride form or otherwise) deployed a variety of ways (here is one), but usually to condescend to someone and argue against their position ad hominem – the implication being that someone who is so slipshod with words must be mentally deficient in general. It also has a general-purpose use, outside of any particular argument, to serve as an in-group signifier. In these cases, the person complaining about other people’s poor language use is asserting his or her status as a “correct” language user. A knight of the old code, if you will, a defender of the faith.

The idea (that words contain true meanings which fluent speakers can be wrong about) behind this meme is clearly wrong, and no one who ever heard the words “social construction” as an undergrad should ever think otherwise. Words can only mean what speakers think they mean, and saying that someone doesn’t know what a word that they just used means usually is really a way of saying that usage is known but frowned upon (i.e., I am classier than you).

This is a transparent power play, often classist, chauvinist, or elitist. Certain words (I only know Japanese and English, but both languages have plenty) in languages are wedges used to distinguish members of groups, as in the story behind shibboleth. Two groups which seem to always exist in highly literate societies are “those whose language, culture, and customs are objectively correct” and “those whose are particular, local, and temporary”, and many words like “ain’t”, “a whole nother”, or the above memes, in addition to grammatical structures like “might could”, “to boldly go” or “It’s me”, serve as the stars on our proverbial Sneetch bellies. These usages aren’t really mistakes so much as an open flank for pedants to attack and claim the position of “correct language user” as outlined above. They have a negative sociolinguistic meaning, not an incorrect literal meaning.

Some pedants claim that such overcorrection is necessary, because languages need standards to maintain intelligibility. But intelligibility is never the issue. I’ve seen people point out the supposed illogic of a double negative in sentences like “I ain’t never”, but have never seen anyone actually act on the mistaken belief that the two negatives cancel each other out –  the supposed confusion is always feigned and exaggerated. If a pedant has ever legitimately been confused by “literally”, I’ve never seen it. The claim that by correcting misuse pedants are defending standards is doubly false – first because the violation is really an opportunity for them to play referee, and second because the standard doesn’t exist, or at least not as described.

Now, there are reasons as language teachers to treat words as objects of study in themselves, and use the metaphor of words “having” meaning, although as trained linguists we know that this can only be in the sense that an electromagnetic frequency “has” color or a country “has” borders. But grammar pedants are not all language teachers, and a conversation in the break room is not (generally) a language lesson. Turning lunch into a site of linguistic one-upsmanship literally decimates the mood of the break room, and is fulsomely ironic because as an otherwise full-time pedant you should be on a break.

Instances of class Noun

I sometimes find my background in computer science helpful for understanding language – ironically, since computer science often uses language as a metaphor for computing functions. One case where this is true is in understanding the various ways that nouns work in world languages and the difficulties that English learners face in adapting to our particular system.

Let’s say both our learner’s L1 and English both have a similar definition of a “tiger”:

public class Tiger {

//assume I put the necessary constructors etc. here

public static int eyes=2; //static because each Tiger has the same # of eyes

public static int legs=4;

public String name;

boolean hunt(Animal prey) {

//do something

return true;

}

}

ESL teachers can probably predict what would happen if this student were called upon to write an essay on these Tigers: lots of sentences like “Tiger is the largest cat in the world” or “Tiger does not live in Africa”. It is a mistake to conclude that this student doesn’t realize that there are many tigers in the world, not just one.

English forces you to declare an instance of class Tiger before you make any reference to its number of eyes or call its hunt() function.

Tiger a_tiger = new Tiger();  //declaring an instance of class Tiger

System.out.println(a_tiger.eyes);  //printing a_tiger’s number of eyes

I know – this isn’t good coding style. At least I can take comfort in the fact that not too many people are interested in both Java and semantics. Saved from criticism by my small audience!

Still, I hope you take my point about English nouns: they refer to instances, rather than classes, by default. We demand that references to Tigers in general need to be plural, because there are many instances of Tigers (I’m just going to keep capitalizing this word) in the world, or that they be marked and elevated with the definite article the, singling out one instance of Tiger to stand for the rest. Both of these are ways of signalling to listeners that we mean something other than actual instances of Tigers, although that is what their form implies. So in English, this would cause an error:

System.out.println(Tiger.eyes);

because you can’t refer to the class itself. As in the above examples, you need to (at least appear to) talk about actual Tigers, not just the abstract idea of one.

Meanwhile, in Japanese, the same line produces no error:

System.out.println(Tiger.eyes);

It just prints “2”, as one would expect, because Japanese, unlike English, treats nouns as class references by default, as do many other languages. In fact, you can talk quite a lot about classes in Japanese without making any implied reference to actual instances of those classes.

if (Tiger.legs == Human.legs) {

System.out.println(“それはおかしいでしょう”);

}

if (Tiger.hunt(Human)) {

Human.run();

}

None of this requires us to posit that Tigers or Humans are even real. We can comfortably refer to them as classes and talk about those classes’ features, even imagining interactions between one class and another, without ever letting the wheels touch the ground, so to speak, on actual, flesh-and-blood Tigers.

This requirement of English for instantiation of nouns is unintuitive for many learners. Countable nouns in English must be referred to as if they were either solitary or in groups, a distinction which we call singular/plural, even when the distinction doesn’t matter (e.g. everybody has “their” own problems). There are uncountable nouns, of course, but as any learner who’s ever gone shopping for “furniture” or “equipment” can tell you, the rules for their deployment are not prima facie clear, nor are there reliable rules for making countable nouns uncountable or vice versa as communication requires (one can refer to breads to mean “many kinds of bread”, but not equipments to mean “many types of equipment”).

This is by no means universal, and our approaches to learners shouldn’t make the naïve assumption that mistakes in English countability or plurals indicate some kind of lack of comprehension that more than one Tiger exists in the world. In many languages, class reference is the default (or definite reference, which I was surprised to find is the case with Farsi), and even in the ones where it isn’t, not all share the particular plural/the cheat code for class reference found in English.

Different languages can treat “reality” differently, or sometimes just appear to. This is a major lesson from learning another language – even if that language is a programming language.

A Taxonomy of Untranslatability

I started this post after hearing Lingthusiasm’s excellent podcast episode (referred by my colleague and work döppelganger Heidi) on this topic, wrote about 800 words before finishing the podcast and realizing that they said pretty much everything I was going to say but with much more finesse. Anyway, I changed the focus a bit and here it is.

Once in a while you’ll come across a listicle like this that tries to convey some of the majesty of world culture through “untranslatable” words. Notably, no list of this type is ever just a list of words in foreign languages without translations… that would be extremely boring. Instead, they usually have English translations for each word with accompanying explanations for why those translations are inadequate, usually something about the unique piquance of the origin language (henceforth OL) missing or some other woo-woo. Of course, nuance often goes missing when one speaker has less information about a word than another; one could argue that adults talking to children or experts talking to non-experts always results in nuance being lost. This could be why talking to children often has the same feeling as cross-cultural communication. When I explain metal to non-metal fans, I get the feeling that only about 60% of my words are being received with their intended meanings. If I were to make a list of words which are untranslatable from my head to the head of someone who actively listens to Justin Timberlake, it would include “Maidenesque”, “djenteel”, and “filth” (as a good thing).

Not just words in other languages, but all words exist differently in the minds of other speakers – even speakers of the same language. Since all communication is a matter of messages being sent and received by people with different lives and therefore different mental representations of words and worlds, one could argue that all language is untranslatable, if our bar for perfect translation is putting the exact same idea in the listener’s head as was in the speaker’s. For example, for a long time my prototype of a “dog” was a friendly but mischievous toy breed, because I grew up with pugs. Obviously, someone who grew up around Golden Retrievers will have a different idea about typical dog qualities, and someone who grew up in hell will have different ideas from both of us based on their long experience with Chihuahuas. When I used the word “dog” with one of these people, I’m not exactly putting into their minds what is in mine, because our experiences have built different conceptions of “dogs”. Instead of circling off certains words as “untranslatable”, we might do better to call all words “imperfectly translatable”, including among native speakers of the same language. This definition doesn’t respect the commonsense view of “translation” as a matter of crossing linguistic/national boundaries, but it does change the unhelpful “translatable or not” dichotomy into a spectrum of difficulty that includes issues of nuance, grammar, and culturally unique concepts. At one end are unique people who have the same denotation of the word “dog” as referring to a 4-legged furry companion animal but necessarily different personal experiences with dogs, and at the other end citizens of different planets whose languages either are dance-based or feature non-linear conceptions of time, and neither of which has carbon-based life (or by extension, dogs). They would probably write (or dance) some very interesting listicles.

We should also keep in mind that words “not existing in (language)” is a readily fixable problem: when speakers of that language start using those words, then they are words in that language. In that sense, “schadenfreude” is as much a word in English as “skirt” or “scaffold” (although marked for the time being as foreign in origin, while the others have lost that distinction). Lists of foreign words can easily become lists of English words if English speakers pick up on them and start using them – every nam pla is a potential future ketchup, and every ikigai is a possible candidate for kaizen.

uncaptioned image
Source. Note that they get the pronunciation wrong – why not just ask someone on Twitter?

Now, you should listen to the podcast episode linked at the top of this post to get some more nuts-and-bolts reasons that translation is difficult, but if you’re interested in why people persist in using the label “untranslatable” for socio-cultural reasons, I think I have a decent taxonomy of reasons below.

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Hegemonic metaphor

Assuming you don’t believe in free will – and I am of the opinion that no one should – have you ever tried to explain it to someone who’s never considered the question? Among the many stumbling blocks is the fact that you might find need for words like “choice” and “decide” and even “your mind” in your explanation. That is, you use language that implies the existence of the concept that you are arguing doesn’t exist.

My colleagues and I were in the middle of trying to choose a topic for the final essay of a writing class when the topic of free will came up. The book that we assigned, The Power of Habit by Duhigg, has a final chapter that leaves a tasty morsel of philosophy dangling in front of the reader in the form of the question: Is there a meaningful difference in the decision-making power of someone who commits murder while sleepwalking and someone who gambles impulsively to the point of bankrupting her family many times over? Some people thought this would be a good foundation for a final essay, and I disagreed. I think free will is too heavy a lift for a 5-6 page paper in an ESL class, and only part of the reason is that it’s a hard topic in general. The main reason is that it’s a hard topic especially for language learners in that explaining one’s position involves a lot of scare quotes around otherwise normal vocabulary because one is using words while consciously denying that they really mean what most people think they do. It involves a great deal of questioning the meanings of the very words that we are using to explain our position, words which often come pre-packaged with an assumption that free will is real.

I am very fond of the story of the philosopher Wittgenstein asking his friend why people thought for so long that the sun revolved around the earth. His friend responded that “It just looks that way”, to which Wittgenstein posed the question, “What would it look like if it looked like the earth revolved around the sun?” (Paraphrasing, of course). The palette of intuitive concepts, what things naturally “look like”, is quite limited in our species. Whoever was the first one to think that maybe the relationship of the sun to the earth was the other way around almost certainly had to explain it to her tribe with reference to what came intuitively to them, that the sun “looked like” it went around the earth. Even stronger than the intuition that small things (as the sun appears to us) go around big things (as the earth looks from its surface) are intuitions like dualism of mind and body, linear time, heritability, purity (of substances, but also of blood, morals, etc.), and free will. These concepts are not just commonplace assumptions about how the world works, but they also infiltrate our language and force us to assert them offhand while having unrelated conversations. If I say “I decided to write a blog post about free will”, I’ve made an implicit argument already with my use of the phrase “I decided”. It’s the same if I say that “In my mind, I feel that duality is false”. Arguing against these concepts requires using language that presupposes them.

I call these concepts hegemonic metaphors* because they subsume even the arguments against them. Just like making extremely convincing arguments against capitalism is a highly marketable skill, arguing against the existence of a “will” fills the listener’s head with many repetitions of the words “choose” and “mind” and implicitly argues for the validity of the concepts that they stand for. I “choose” not to make my ESL students play this game.

*As with many of my posts, this naming reflects both a lack of reading of real philosophers who probably already a name for this phenomenon as well as a desire to give my posts the most pretentious titles possible.

The corpus of rejection

Every few weeks, depending on the season, I get a message like the following in my inbox:

Dear [name],

On behalf of the application review committee, we thank you for the submission of your application for the [position]. We recognize that the application process requires a great deal of time and effort on your part. Regrettably, you were not selected to move forward for an interview.

[more stuff that I never read]

Sincerely,

[Office of Somethingorother, name of college]

The slightest amount of experience with this type of letter lets you figure out the gist after the first line, or even from the existence of the email itself, coming as it does prefaced “DO NOT REPLY”, a subject line with the illocutionary force of a restraining order.

I’ve gotten enough of these over time (more than some, not as many as others – adjunct is a job with a depressing number of grizzled veterans sporting depressing amounts of grizzle) to start noticing patterns in the language that these messages use. A mini-corpus thereof can be found below.

Image result for gordon ramsay fuck off
Spoiler alert: This level of frankness would be refreshing.
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Justified adjectivization

This post springs from, but then quickly digresses thoughtlessly from, a question from a student about the difference between the adjectives “justifiable” and “justified”.

My answer at the time, that the difference was whether the process was capable of being applied or had been applied, was probably too first-principlesy to be useful. I probably should have directed her to COCA and let her work back to that conclusion from examples. Incidentally, after doing so myself, it turns out that “justified” is much more common overall, and especially more common in post-hoc rationalizing. That squares with what I said, but I could have found a more brain-friendly way of putting it.

(I find I have to force myself not to correct dangling modifiers these days, perhaps out of some misplaced notion of descriptivism – did you notice the one in the last paragraph? To me, it’s like an ingrown hair that the doctor has ordered me to leave be.)

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Birth tourism and base rates

South Orange County social media has been blowing up over a recent report of arrests of proprietors of “birth tourism” businesses, who accepted money from pregnant women, mostly Chinese, in exchange for airplane tickets, lodging, coaching on evading detection, and presumably lamaze classes, in an effort to have their babies become Americans via birthright citizenship. There are plenty of scandalous details in the indictments which seem designed to boil the blood of the still-common OC Republicans, but the rage-sieve that is social media has boiled the situation down to “I KNEW the Asian moms at the Spectrum were suspicious” and “China is playing us for chumps #MAGA”. I thought I would do a bit of simple math to see exactly how likely my neighbors are to be bigots.

My favorite book ever makes two points of relevance for this story: One, that memorable cases are likely to have their prevalences overestimated; and two, that base rates are often ignored when determining the degree of surprise in any given observation. In this case, the valences of the story (foreigners disregarding US immigration law, newcomers refusing to assimilate, Chinese economic exploitation) made it a particularly strong mindworm for OC conservatives, reactivated whenever an Asian woman blocks the aisle at Sprouts with a $2,000 stroller. The neglected base rates arise when every pregnant Asian woman becomes Exhibit A, despite the city having a large resident Asian population, many of whom are pregnant for non-criminal reasons.

Irvine is home to 277,453 people, and 41.2% are of Asian descent. That makes approximately 114,310 Asians. Assuming that the national average of 50.9% female holds true as well, that makes about 58,184 female Asian residents (pace non-binary Asian residents, I am rounding up). Assuming again (probably unreasonably this time) that the age composition of the female Asian population in Irvine is also the same as the US overall, 36.5%, or 21,237, are between the ages of 18 and 44. Using an Internet rando’s back-of-the-envelope calculation, and also assuming that the rates of pregnancy among Irvine residents are the same as the national average, 3.4%, or 722, are pregnant at any given time. Again, out of Irvine’s 277,453 residents, about 722 are pregnant Asian women between 18 and 44. I will guess, not unreasonably, that anti-immigrant conservatives will have some difficulty in distinguishing Chinese and Chinese-American residents from the other Asian ethnic groups that call Irvine home.

The news stories on the recent arrests do not make clear how many of the mothers resided in Irvine. The OC Register says the birth tourism companies has as clients “thousands” of women, and OC Weekly has one LA-based company accused of serving 8,000 over 20 years. An earlier article says the 2015 raid which yielded the evidence for the arrests was of “three dozen” homes, and one wonders what the maximum throughput of clients could have been for that space. For the purposes of this post I will assume 400 clients of these services per year reside in Irvine. This is almost certainly a high estimate, since it comes from dividing Star Baby Care’s 8,000 total clients evenly across the 20 years that they were in business and assuming that they all lived (and continue to live at the same rate even post-raid) in Irvine. Nonetheless, it yields a workable figure of 100 clients in Irvine at any given time after dividing a year by the 3 months that clients apparently stay/stayed before giving birth and returning to China.

So, assuming that 100 Chinese mothers-to-be in Irvine are here after misrepresenting their intentions to customs agents, and 722 Asian mothers-to-be are just minding their own business, you have 87.8% odds of getting it wrong when accusing random Asian women of being a part of this criminal conspiracy. As it turns out, in a city where almost half of the population is Asian, it shouldn’t necessarily arouse suspicion to see pregnant Asian women in public.

ESL Students’ Feared Selves

Part 3 of a 3-part series on possible selves (scroll down for parts 1 and 2).

If I’m being honest, these were the most fun to read, although as I stated before I can’t share any of them with you.

It’s not some kind of sadism that prompts me to say that: The descriptions in students’ responses to this final question were much more affective in content than the first two. Rather than lists of future colleges and jobs, here we had responses more along the lines of “I have no friends and I have a SAD SAD life”. Again, you can’t see them, but you can see what types of complaints were the most common, which should be just as fun. As in my last 2 posts, I combed over each entry looking for mentions of specific subjects. Because emotions were much more commonly mentioned for the feared self than for the other 2 selves, I tried sub-categorizing types of negative affect as well.

Below was the prompt, answered by my 2 multi-skill intermediate classes and 2 advanced academic writing classes over the past 2 semesters.

Imagine the worst version of you in 5 years (the opposite of the first). What happened to your English, and why didn’t you succeed? Give details. What is different in your life because you can’t use English?

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