Posts Tagged ‘social science’

When you hear about a linguist writing a book on a distasteful word, you might think it’s going to be a certain kind of book. Geoffrey Nunberg’s Ascent of the A-word (2012) is as much about crude language, as it about the concept, or the modern phenomenon it stands for, and the values it expresses. Nunberg has been coy about using the word on the cover of his book (he is a lot more forward in the text), and I am going to take his lead and not use the word in question (we all know what it is).

Nunberg says, that far from being a vague vulgarity, the A-word has a very precise meaning, albeit one that has shifted in past few decades. The word first gained popularity during World War II, GI-speak for pompous superiors, and later became part of working-class vernacular to represent its contempt for middle-class pretentiousness. In the late 60s and throughout the 70s, the word was appropriated by the feminists to represent a man, a self-involved man who expertly exploited women. Today, it is…

a basic category of our everyday existence, our reflexive remonstrance for people who behave thoughtlessly or arrogantly on the job, in personal relationships, or just circulating in public.

The common denominator in its various shades of meanings is the notion of self-importance, a deluded sense of entitlement, and obtuseness. Such a person is by definition inconsiderate and insensitive. You might encounter him (or her) in the parking lot, while in line waiting for coffee (or a restroom cubicle), or in that thoughtless birder who steps in front of your binoculars to get his (or her) view. You might vocalize your feelings, sometimes by using sanitized versions of the A-word, or not. You might never have used the word yourself. But, as Nunberg puts it, “it’s one thing to refuse to let a word pass by your lips and another to exclude the concept it stands for from your mental life”. We know the concept, alright.

And what a useful concept it is.

“It sometimes seems as if every corner of our public discourse is riddled with people depicting one another as a******* and treating them accordingly, whether or not they actually use the word.”

So you’re either one of them or not. And if we ever encounter one, it is often the word of choice used to call them out. Ironic, that the very word we use to censure inconsiderate behavior is an indecent word with a vulgar meaning. Hardly considerate and well-mannered. Society imposes on each of us certain obligations to extend basic courtesy to most others. Does society give us the right to respond discourteously to people who disregard these obligations? Do we…

“have a right to treat a****** as a******* because the a******* have it coming”?

With shifts in lifestyle, unwritten social rules about using profanities, obscenities and vulgarities (in adult company) change every few years, as do the words themselves. Reading Nunberg has certainly conditioned me to be more aware of their usage – recently, while watching Foyle’s War, I was just a little bit shaken when DCS Foyle uttered the word ‘Goddamn’. To be clear, he was repeating another character in his characteristic deadpan manner. But, I wondered, were there any social sanctions imposed on users of profanities in the 1940s? Did ‘Goddamn’ figure in popular vocabulary? ‘Damn’ certainly wasn’t acceptable just a few years earlier.Officially, that is. Nunberg reports that David Selznick paid a $5,000 fine to include that memorable closing line in Gone with the Wind (1939), “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”.

Nunberg is a fine writer, and I enjoyed this book more than I expected to. Ascent of the A-word has a lot of political and cultural references, some from half a century ago, and while I won’t pretend that I got every single one of them, I’ll say that I found this book on insults rather educational.


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In The Immigrant Advantage: What We Can Learn from Newcomers to America about Health, Happiness,and Hope, Claudia Kolker, herself the daughter of an immigrant from Mexico, examines certain practices and customs that are brought to the United States from other, more traditional societies and which are often modified by second-generation immigrants to  result in hybrid versions, and ponders their applicability and benefit to American society as a whole.

In 2009, a conference hosted by Brown University brought together researchers, policymakers and educators to look into the question: Is being American a developmental risk? The conference probed the phenomenon of, what was later termed, the immigrant paradox. Despite the many disadvantages that may exist in the context of immigration, such as low education, low socioeconomic status, and a general unfamiliarity with the many, not easy to navigate, US systems, early generation immigrant children and adolescents demonstrate better behavioral and academic outcomes than later generation peers. Academic success aside, foreign nativity also seems to protect against mental illnesses. While there is no conclusive evidence to believe that early generation immigrants, in general, enjoy a better quality of life because of their ‘healthful’ customs, some of their habits and conventions are certainly comforting and unifying. The question is, can these practices be adapted to the American household, and if so, how? Are they relevant? Are they practical? And are they always enriching?

Specifically, Kolker considers:

  • the Vietnamese hui, a revolving loan money club –  a tradition that hinges on mutual trust and peer pressure
  • the Mexican cuarentena, a postpartum ritual that prescribes a 40-day period of rest for the new mother
  • the Indian assisted marriage, a modern variation of the traditional arranged marriage
  • Korean hagwons, popular private afterschools
  • Jamaican multigenerational living
  • Stoops, sidewalks and neighborhood shops that boost community cohesiveness in Little Village, a Mexican community in Chicago, and
  • the Vietnamese com thang, inexpensive home-style Vietnamese food delivered every night

None of these practices are exclusive to the communities in which they are practiced. I can think of an Indian counterpart to each of these systems that operate similarly, if not identically. What distinguishes these traditions from those practiced in origin countries is that they have been successfully adapted in a country that does not mix friends and money, that prides itself on being self-reliant, that frowns on parental interference in one’s love life, that shudders at the parenting practices (often humorously) suggested by the Tiger Mother, that disdains  living with one’s parents when one is an adult, that is mostly roads and cars, and take-out food and TV dinners (generalizations, that needn’t always be true).

In a country of immigrants, some who arrived earlier than others, none of these traditional practices should really sound strange and foreign to Americans. Kolker throws in some numbers to assure us that there are fewer foreign-borns in the country today when compared to a hundred years ago. Many of the immigrants who entered the New World a century ago surely had their own version of these practices. Somehow, in the intervening years, they have been displaced by ‘modern American values’. I certainly don’t wish to idealize either the ‘traditions’ or their modern counterparts, but it is fascinating to note the rate at which cultures and people change, or stay the same. While immigrant pockets might still be practicing ‘assisted marriages’, their peers in origin countries might consider the practice as antiquated as contemporary Americans do.

Kolker points out the merits of these customs. “They fortify our most portable resource – our conduct. And they harness core instincts like reciprocity, the need for approval, love of laughter.” And then, noting that these traditions needn’t be as alien to Americans as they are, she says:

Ingenious as they may be, I realized, most of these traditions aren’t really foreign at all. They are masterfully refined variations on classic American good sense. Mean to promote thrift, community, and individual backbone, versions of these customs lie packed away in every American’s family tradition.

While I couldn’t agree more with Kolker that these traditions are universal, I am not quite sure what to make of the ‘classic American good sense’. Good sense, I would like to think is also universal, a hallmark of humanity, and not a quality to be appropriated by any nationality.

While Kolker does not mean to look at these traditions through rose-colored spectacles, it might be worthwhile to note the essence of these habits. For instance, the cuarentena might be 40-day mandatory resting period for new mothers, but it no means prescribes a forced quarantine, or isolation. The cuarentena is based on rest, guidance, and companionship, and bans ‘tiresome acquaintances’. Unfortunately,more often than not, the “components for a traditional cuarantena in this country don’t exist”. What results is a semi-cuarantena which could well be a prescription for postpartum depression, and not peace.

In doing her research, Kolker speaks of asking immigrants this question: “What habit do you think people from your country should hang on to when they move here?”. One little girl’s response to this question, “Little shops you can walk to”, resonates with me deeply. Having lived in communities that have semi-public spaces, porches, parks, sidewalks, and shops one can walk to, my affection for these neighborhoods stems less from a laziness to drive, than from a sort of near desperate longing for the kind of living that is associated with a walker-friendly community. Kolker associates such neighborhoods with protection from asthma, but she doesn’t have to convince me.

Traditions are neither good, nor bad. They are practices, and just like others, may or may not work for you. Foreign-borns like me can benefit from a different perspective that does seem to offer some comfort. The Immigrant Advantage invites us to be more accepting of our traditions and be a part of a ‘tossed salad’ culture, instead of wanting to melt into a homogenous, American melting pot. Towards the end of the book, Kolker writes of a research project focused on adolescents in immigrant families.

They [the researchers] found that the more years they lived here, the more urgently the youngsters wanted to break with their parents, speak only English, and emulate longtime Americans…”It’s a bit of a twist,” the director of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health told the New York Times. “Linguistic isolation is a positive thing because it slows assimilation…[and assimilation can mean] adopting unhealthy behavior and risk factors from which they are protected by their own culture.”

Assimilation. That may well be the real paradox.

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