Specter of Reason

Friday, February 27, 2015

Cold In July: Grappling With Character and Narrative

I watched Cold In July last night.  It's not a bad movie.  The acting and directing are stellar, and it is in some ways original and daring.  But when it was over, I was more frustrated than satisfied. Be warned: the following contains spoilers.

Rich (Michael C. Hall) accidentally kills a man whom he and Ben  (Sam Shepard) are told is Ben's son.  Ben makes thinly veiled threats, but the police refuse to act until Ben does something illegal.  The police are very concerned about the law, apparently.  Then Ben breaks into Rich's house.  That gives the police enough suspicion to watch the house, but not to arrest Ben?  Fine.  So they watch and find out that Ben never left the house.  Well, they don't see him, but they assume it was him.  So they arrest him. For what?  For breaking in and not leaving until late at night?  They couldn't have just arrested him for breaking in in the first place? In any case, they arrest him.  Then the police try to kill him.  They sneak him out of jail and try to make it look like an accidental death.  For what?  There is no reason at all for the police to want him dead, or to break the law to get rid of him.  One minute, the police are very concerned about carefully following the rules; the next, they are breaking them without any reason.

What was Ben going to do to Rich's son, anyway?  He could have killed him.  He could have kdinapped him.  He did nothing.  Did he just want to scare Rich?  He hid in the house all day and then risked getting caught (or killed) by the cops, just to scare them?  Ben must be insane to do that to a person's family just because the father accidentally killed his son in self-defense.  Which makes us wonder:  Why was Ben in jail for most of his son's life, anyway?  We never find out.

The Ben of the first part of the film is a dark, deranged and menacing figure.  Then Rich saves his life.  After that, Ben seems remarkably centered and disciplined, with a strong sense of duty.  Sure, he persumably a bit disturbed and he is clearly comfortable taking the law in his own, violent hands; but he's not so off-kilter that he would terrorize a family in these circumstances.  He is not so dark and not at all deranged or menacing.  Instead of carrying through with Ben's sinister edge in the second half of the film, Ben comes across as too likable, too principled, too moral.  This is not the same Ben that was in the first half of the movie.

This may to some extent be intentional.  The movie might be saying something about monsters and men.  Perhaps Ben has two sides:  one is a monster, the other is a man.  And we can see Rich's character arc in these terms.  By the end of it all, Rich has changed.  He is no longer afraid to use his gun.  He kills with determination.  Rich and Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson) help him along with this transformation, but it comes from within.  Rich changes himself, and it is compelling drama.  He becomes more like Ben and Jim Bob Luke.  Perhaps we are supposed to be left with this question:  Has Rich become a man, or has he become a monster?

Perhaps they wanted Ben to have two sides, one monster and one man.  But in that case, we should see them co-existing.  We should be able to interpret the same action from both sides.  Instead, we just get two different characters when it is convenient to the plot.  Thus, Ben's character doesn't ring true, and the entire story that brings him and Rich together is unconvincing.  It's really a shame.  I found a lot to enjoy in Cold In July, but couldn't shake the bad taste after it was over.

The Unintended Irony of Birdman and Big Hero 6

Birdman, Oscar's Best Picture of 2014, is a satire of Hollywood's lack of artistic gravitas.  The primary target is the dark hole of superhero films that attracts much of the industry's money and talent.  Birdman goes out of its way to repeatedly poke fun at superhero movies.  And yet, the Oscar for Best Animated Feature went to Big Hero 6 . . . a superhero movie.  Who said the Academy had to be consistent?


I just watched Big Hero 6 and enjoyed a lot of it.  Yet, it suffers from all of the problems that often plague superhero movies.  It is the perfect example of the sort of film that Birdman is making fun of.  (Warning:  the rest of this post contains major spoilers.)

The hero (subtly named "Hiro"), a thirteen-year-old boy of limited means, somehow manages to produce thousands of tiny 'microbots,' and gear for controlling them directly through his thoughts.  It's not even so ridiculous that he could come up with a way to build such things--it's that he actually was able to build them.  But okay, he does.  Absurd, but let's move on.

He builds them and shows them off, because he wants to impress the head of a school:  Callaghan, who is duly impressed and convinces Hiro to bring the new technology to his school for further research.  To repeat, Callaghan--who is in charge of what may be the most advanced technological research academy in the world--has successfully convinced Hiro to bring the tech to his school.  This would put this new technology in Callaghan's hands.  Callaghan wants the technology in order to exact some twisted revenge fantasy.  So what does Callaghan do?  He destroys one of the buildings at his school, fakes his own death and steals the technology.  He risks his life and gives up his career just to steal technology that he otherwise would have had complete control over at his school.  Nonsense.

Also, remember that Hiro thought all his microbots were destroyed in the fire.  Hiro, the person who built them.  If anybody knew how those microbots would respond to a fire, it was Hiro.  But Callaghan assumed that the microbots could protect him from the fire--that the microbots were actually fire-proof.  How did Callaghan know that, and how could Hiro not have known that?

Then there's the fact that Callaghan's plan is absurd:  he thinks the best revenge is to destroy Krei's building.  The building?  If he just wanted to destroy a building, he didn't need microbots.  And if he just wanted to destoy a building, he didn't need to put together that weird interdimensional teleportation device.  (And how'd he get that device to work without a power source?  Where were its controls?)  As with many superhero movies, we have a villain who is so poorly motivated and whose plan is so convoluted, we cannot possibly take it seriously.

The flaws don't end with Callaghan.  There's also the fact that Hiro knows every spec about the microbots and the headgear which Callaghan steals from him.  It should be very easy for him to regain control of the microbots, or just build new ones of his own--which could've been cool:  a microbot showdown--but he never even considers that.  Instead, he creates superheroes out of his late brother's fellow science students (and one mascot), people who have had no combat training at all.  How are they all of a sudden supposed to be super warriors?

At the beginning of the movie, we learn that Hiro is a hustler.  He does not respect authority or rules.  He is a loner, happy to use his skills to take advantage of others.  At the end of the movie, he has control over the most powerful technology in the world.  Why are we supposed to trust him?  Oh yeah, because he gave up his prior life and decided to commit himself to . . . to what, exactly?  To going to school, where he could develop even bigger and better technology?  To exacting revenge on the person who stole his technology and killed his brother?  At what point did Hiro become a good person with a convincing sense of social responsibility?  Never.

There was supposed to be some transformative moment when he watched the video of his brother.  He learned that we should heal people, not hurt them.  That's it?  One video, and he's a different person?  That's just the sort of magic moment that distinguishes popcorn entertainment from serious drama.  It's just the sort of narrative weakness we have come to expect from Hollywood.

In reality, Hiro does not seem interested in making Baymax the sort of health care provider his brother had intended.  Instead, Hiro makes Baymax into his personal slave.  Why isn't Baymax constantly trying to help as many people as possible?  Why is this "health care provider" only doing what Hiro wants?  We are supposed to think that Hiro is following his brother's altruistic footsteps, helping bring his dream of health care to life.  But in reality, Hiro is stealing his brother's invention and using it for his own personal betterment.  Sure, Hiro thinks he can save the world.  He's delusional.  He's selfish.  He's thirteen.  We should not be happy with how this movie ends.

Last point.  At the end of the film, before Baymax uses his super-punch to send Hiro back into our world, he takes out the disc which controls his programming and puts it in his hand.  That way, Hiro is able to make another Baymax just like the first one.  The problem is, how and why would Baymax send Hiro back into our world once he removed the disc?  Without the disc, he is nothing.  Baymax magically transcends his wiring in order to make sure that Hiro gets a hard copy of his programming.  Again, nonsense.  This plot hole could have been avoided.  Hiro could have returned home after losing Baymax and then found a copy of Baymax's program.  I mean, his brother must have made a back-up disc, right?  No?  Seriously?

Big Hero 6 is funny, exciting, touching and visually-entertaining.  It lacks well-developed characters and the plot is absurd.  Nobody acts in a way that makes sense, and the whole thing is an absurdly disturbing sort of wish-fullfilment.  It is everything that Birdman is against.  Yet, both films won Oscars.  Can we be fans of both?  Can we enjoy Big Hero 6 one minute, and make fun of it the next?  What does this say about us?  Are we just used to living with cognitive dissonance?  Do we enjoy it?  Or are we not even paying attention?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Movies of 2014

In lieu of the Oscars, here are my own categories (and winners) for 2014 films.


Best Drama:
Leviathan

Best Sci-Fi:
Under The Skin

Best Horror:
The Babadook

Best Comedy:
Frank

Best Action:
Edge Of Tomorrow

Best Children's Movie:
Maleficent

Best Director:
Richard Linklater (Boyhood);
Runners Up:
Jonathan Glazer (Under The Skin)
Jennifer Kent (The Babadook)
Ava DuVernay (Selma)

Best Actress:
Julianne Moore (Still Alice);
Runner Up: Essie Davis (The Babadook)

Best Actor:
Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler)
Runners Up:
David Oyelowo (Selma)
Miles Teller (Whiplash)


Best Actress in a Supporting Role:
Laura Dern (Wild);
Runner Up:
Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role:
J. K. Simmons (Whiplash)
Runner Up:
Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)

Best Cinematography:
Mikhail Krichman (Leviathan)

Best Adapted Screenplay:
Jonathan Glazer & Walter Campbell (Under The Skin)
Runner Up:
Jon Ronson & Peter Straughan (Frank)

Best Screenplay:
Andrey Zvyagintsev & Oleg Negin (Leviathan)

Most Overrated Movie:
The Imitation Game;
Runners Up:
Captain America: Winter Soldier
Gone Girl

Most Underrated Movie:
The Amazing-Spider Man 2
Runner-Up:
Annie

Biggest Disaster/Disappointment:
Transcendence

Movies I still want to see:
Grand Budapest Hotel
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
Song of the Sea
Inherent Vice
Two Days, One Night
Two Faces of January
Mr. Turner
Chef
Winter Sleep
Maps To The Stars
Into The Woods
and all of the Oscar-nominated documentaries

Oscar-nominated movie I don't want to see:
American Sniper

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Judaism Lost: A Comment on "Ida"

My initial reaction to Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida was anger and frustration:  Not at the historical injustice documented in the film.  Not at the personal tragedy.  Rather, it's the film itself that bothers me:  It is a film about two Jewish women in the wake of the Holocaust, but Judaism itself is absent from the picture.  A. O. Scott observes, in his New York Times review, the film "unfolds at the crossroads where the Catholic, Jewish and Communist strains of Poland's endlessly and bitterly contested national identity intersect."  What Scott fails to notice, however, is that Judaism exists in the film only negatively:  Jews are victims of the Holocaust; Jews are corrupt communists, faithless, self-destructive and morally lost.  The film makes "an implicit argument . . . between faith and materialism," as Scott also observes, but it is Catholic faith that is on the line, not Judaism.  There is no representation of Judaism as a viable option in the film at all.

Finally, thanks to Joanna Auron-G√≥rska, there is a review of the film I can wholly get behind.  She writes: "Ida shirks the responsibility that there is in the terrible knowledge imparted to its main character."  That knowledge, of course, is that the titular Ida is a Jew whose parents were slaughtered by Polish farmers during the Holocaust.  The entire review is well-worth reading, but this is where she identifies what I think is the main problem with the film:

"Why doesn't Ida ask herself what her being Jewish may mean to her? She has a go at the secular life; why does she not at least try on her Jewishness, the way she tries on the pearls and the vodka? It may have been difficult if not impossible to be a Jew at that time in Poland in any other sense than that of an internalized, partially hidden identity, of memory, or of faith; but it was certainly possible in those ways. For Ida, though, Jewishness is inconsequential. Had she at least explored the appearances, she would have to ask herself what it is like - if it is not possible to learn what it actually is - to be a Jew; she would have to assess the viability of her Jewishness; try to make meaning out of her family's death; attempt to understand the significance of the virtual disappearance of Jewish communities from Poland; finally, she would have to critically appraise the Poles and their Church. She does none. The return to the convent is Ida's best, in fact her only choice."

During a scene in the middle of the film, Ida and Wanda struggle over a Christian Bible.  It may be the most emotionally salient scene in the film, for it is the only time Ida expresses any significant emotions.  As Wanda suggests, it is as if a wild beast awoke inside the otherwise placid and stoic girl.  When Ida finds out she is Jewish, her face doesn't change.  When she sees the man who killed her parents during the Holocaust, her face doesn't change.  When she is handed their remains, and travels a long distance to bury them properly, her face doesn't change.  But when Wanda wants to quote the Bible to her, seeking to justify her decadent lifestyle, Ida erupts in violence and forces the holy book out of her hands.  Ida can face genocide with a dispassionate eye, but she cannot tolerate misuse of the Christian Bible--at least, not in the hands of a drunken, promiscuous Jew.

Ida's violent outburst over the Bible is not a sign of bubbling anger or frustration with the world and her place in it.  She never again shows any inclinations towards violence.  She never again shows anger or frustration at all.  In fact, her only other outburst in the film is the momentary, slight laugh she accidentally emits during dinner back at the convent.  What recollection or insight brought laughter to her lips?  We have no way of knowing.  The point is not why she was laughing, but that she was noticeably out of place, no longer comfortable in her old skin.  It didn't have to be laughter.  It could have been any emotional outburst at all.  Why does she laugh?  This should be striking, for nowhere in the film is Ida ever given reason to laugh.  She and Wanda have just found the man who killed her parents, watched him dig up their remains, and then driven a long way across Poland for a proper burial.  After all of that, Ida returns to the convent without any hint of emotion.  No anger, no frustration, no tears.  Then, for no apparent reason, she gives a small laugh over dinner?

Imagine if, instead of a laugh, Ida had quickly suppressed an unintended cry of grief?  What if she gripped her fork tightly and brought it down just a tad too hard on the table, causing some heads to turn?  Wouldn't that have made more sense?  Wouldn't it have given some depth to her journey, and not made her seem so empty and uncaring?  Some sense that she was struggling with what had happened to her and her family?

Or does she simply not care?  Is that the point?  Forgive and forget, as they say?

When Ida finally decides to leave the convent on her own, it is not because she is Jewish.  It is not because of her situation, her family's fate or her people's tragedy.  It is because she is childishly and innocently curious about the world.  And what she finds is death and a meaninglessness that cannot be cured by romance or the possibility of a family.  So she turns back.  Pawlikowski has said that we are not supposed to know if Ida returns to the convent or not at the end of the film.  Why, then, does he have her dress as a nun?  If he wanted an ambiguous ending, he should have had Ida wearing plain clothes at the end of the film.  And how much more effective would that have been:  a young woman taking the first steps alone towards self-discovery as a Jew, with no clear path forward, venturing bravely into a mysterious world alone, hoping for meaning but not sure where to look?  That would be a powerful ending, especially if we had seen her struggling with anger and rage, fear and mortification, beforehand.  Especially if we had seen her doubt the institution and faith which so far had dressed her.  Unfortunately, that is not Ida.

Ida looks most comfortable, most natural, when she is a nun.  At the hospital, after they have confronted the man they believe killed her parents, Ida holds Wanda, comforting her.  Wanda is in turmoil, but Ida is emotionless.  She is dutiful.  That is her character, but it does not feel real.  She does not seem human.  This may be partly because of how the part is acted (we have to wonder whether Ida's restrained characterization is the result of Agata Trzebuchowska's acting talents or the lack thereof; either way, it is surely intentional), but it is also because of how unnaturally the image is framed:  the two women are at the lower right-hand corner of the screen, their bodies cut awkwardly out of the frame, and their huddled shapes overwhelmed by the vast, barren wall behind them.


img_ida4

Such awkward framing is common in Ida, and it is visually striking.  It also draws our attention away from the characters, making them seem less real, as if they aren't quite there.  The characters take on a more symbolic significance:  Ida, the innocent, graceful child; Wanda, the emotionally-charged victim of evil, her own as well as others.

Has Ida struggled with her faith?  Presumably she had some doubts, or she wouldn't have left the convent the second time.  But where is her struggle?  How does it play out?  In a short-lived experiment with alcohol and cigarettes?  In a one-night flirtation with secular romance?  These are traversed without pause or hesitation, without reflection or consideration of their significance.  It is as if Ida is trying to force her awakening before its time.  Or perhaps she is awake, but unable to feel.

Ida tries on Wanda's decadent lifestyle, but without Wanda's tears.  Ida still does not cry.  She does not scream.  She does not rage against her fate.  There is no visible grief or struggle at all.  Instead, she is playful.  She spins delicately in Wanda's curtains and falls clumsily to the floor.  As with the laugh in the dining hall, this scene would make much more sense in a different movie, one with a lighter tone and less at stake.  Ida does not seem to experience the world around her.  She does not respond to the world as it is.  She is not there.

Ida is a film, like its protagonist, without an emotional compass.  It ends with Ida as she has always been:  most comfortable clothed in Catholic garments, without an identifiable sense of loss or discovery.  Ida is more cipher than human.  And while we might respect the artistry with which the auteur has pulled off this abstraction, we have to wonder at its meaning.  What is gained by making a film about the Holocaust in which the only salient emotional struggle occurs between two Jewish women and a Christian Bible?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Thought, Speech and Interpretation

I was thinking about how we sometimes speak without editing ourselves, and we can have the experience of hearing ourselves as if we didn't know what we were going to say.  This kind of immediacy of speaking can be discomfiting.  Perhaps it is because some of us (and I count myself here) are so used to thinking about what we are saying while we are saying it that we confuse the thinking about what we are saying with the actual act of saying something.  And it occurred to me that we could make this mistake about other mental processes, too.


So I asked the question:  Is thinking about what you are saying while you are saying it the same as thinking about what you are interpreting while you are interpreting it?

Can we imagine a situation where a person says one thing but thinks they are saying something else? I think it is possible.

And I suppose we can imagine a case where a person interprets a text one way, but thinks they are interpreting it differently, too.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

TOK: Reason and Emotion

The following is a post I put together for my TOK class this year:

 We're often told to listen to reason and not our emotions.  Emotions might help us in the moment, but they won't help us in the long run.  Emotions are about immediate gratification (getting what you want right away, living for the moment), not long-term planning.  Emotions are wild and unpredictable.  Reason is domesticated, calm and respectable.

But is that really so?

Or is the truth more like this:  People who try to change your mind about something by telling you not to follow your emotions are actually being hypocrites.  When they tell you not to follow your emotions, they are actually appealing to your emotions.  They are appealing to your sense of responsibility, and where does responsibility come from, if not emotions?

Emotions give us love, empathy, compassion, joy and excitement.  Emotions may just be the glue that holds society together.

Consider this scenario:  You don't want to do your homework--you'd rather go out with some friends.  A voice in your head says, "Aw, the homework isn't so important.  You can get it done during a break tomorrow.  It won't be great, but it'll be fine.  Just go out and have some fun!"

Then another voice says, "Wait a minute, now.  Let's be responsible.  You know that if you don't do the homework tonight, it's not going to get done properly.  You might get a bad grade, and you won't learn the material."

The first voice returns:  "Aw, you're no fun.  Come on, let's have some fun for once!"

The second voice answers:  "Fun?  Is that all you care about?  What about your education?  What about your future?"

I'm sure you've had similar arguments in your head about all sorts of things.  Is this a fight between reason and emotion?

We might say that reason is the voice that is concerned about the future, about education and responsibility.  We might say that emotion is the voice that wants to have fun with friends, and which is trying to justify not doing the homework.  Emotion is the voice of rationalization.  So reason seems smarter, perhaps, but also totally boring and a real downer.

But we don't have to look at it that way.  Actually, I don't think we should look at it that way at all.

First of all, there are reasons to go out and have fun.  Not every homework assignment is going to make that much of a difference.   That argument about your education and your future all hinging on this one homework assignment?  That's a very bad argument.  Why should you think that your entire future is going to be destroyed because of one homework assignment?  It's not like the first voice was saying that all homework is a waste of time, and that you shouldn't do your school work at all.  The first voice was just talking about one homework assignment and one night.  So the so-called "voice of reason" here wasn't being very reasonable.

We can easily be misled into thinking that we are listening to the voice of reason, when all we are actually hearing is a very bad argument.

This is not a fight between reason and emotions.  It is a fight between two different points of view:  One view is that you need a break and going out with friends is more important than doing your homework.  The other view is that doing your homework is more important than going out with friends.  Both views rely on reason and emotion.

QUESTION 1:  Can you think of any real situations where you had a conflict between reason and emotion?  How do you know it was not just a conflict between two different points of view, each with their own emotions and reason?

Emotion keeps us interested in the world and our role in it.  If we had no desires or feelings, we would have no motivation to act.  Without emotion, our reason would be a cold, heartless tool.  In fact, we might not be able to reason at all if we didn't have emotions.  What motivates us to formulate arguments in the first place?  What motivates us to accept premises?  Remember: no matter how well-reasoned your argument is, your conclusion is only as good as your premises, and those can't all be based on reason.  If we had no emotions, we would have no reason to use reason.

Yet, there is a common belief that reason and emotion are against each other.  It's a very, very old idea, going back many centuries.  In fact, the idea that reason and emotion are enemies is such a well-established part of Western culture that it was used in the 20th century for propaganda. And so we have the 1943 Disney cartoon, "Reason And Emotion."

(The actual cartoon starts about 30 seconds into the video.)




This unfortunately very sexist cartoon was one of numerous wartime propaganda films that Disney made for the US Government in the early 1940s.  On the surface, the cartoon appears to be about the dangers of being led by our emotions.  That is not what the film is really about, though.  The purpose of the film is not to educate Americans about human psychology or theory of knowledge.  It is to increase support for the American war effort.

The propaganda really begins in the middle of the cartoon, when we see John Doe, an everyman, sitting at home trying to "keep up with current events."  He does not know who to believe or what to think:  On the radio, in the newspapers, in the streets, everywhere he looks he hears people talking about the war, about how America is doomed, about how it is a waste of money.  His emotions are driving him crazy.  Then the friendly narrator's voice comes in to guide him away from his emotions and towards reason.  And, of course, reason tells him that America should be in the war and everything is going to be okay, so stop worrying and just be happy.

The irony is that the narrator does not really lead us away from emotions at all.  Instead, we are given exaggerated representations of Hitler which appeal heavily to our emotions.  Apparently reason and emotion have a common enemy:  Nazi Germany.  At the end, we are told that reason and emotion should be patriotic--notice that patriotism is an emotion--and they should fly together.  If our emotions are good and healthy (in other words, if they are patriotic), then they will let reason drive.

The conclusion of the movie is very clear:  It tells us that any Americans who oppose the war are unpatriotic and led by emotions.  Of course, the cartoon does not appeal to reason--we are not given factual reasons to support the war--but only to emotion.  But it creates the illusion that we are following reason, and that is the key.

Again, it seems that when we are told that we must choose between reason and emotion, we are being misled.

QUESTION 2:  Why do we distrust emotions?  Perhaps because we think that emotion and reason are at war.  Where does this idea come from?

QUESTION 3:  What if reason and emotion don't compete for the driver's seat?  What if we need a totally different metaphor to understand the relationship between reason and emotion?  Can you think of any other possibilities?

Perhaps reason is the navigational tools on a sailboat, and emotion is the water and wind that keeps it afloat and moves it forward.

Or maybe reason is a flashlight, and emotion is the bulb that glows.  Or is emotion the flashlight and reason the bulb?

QUESTION 4:  The ultimate question is, in our quest for knowledge, how do we know when we can trust our emotions and the emotions of others?

TOK: Language, Identity and Community

The following is a post I put together for my Theory of Knowledge class this year:

How important is your language for your sense of identity--your identity as an individual, but also as a member of a nation?  It's common nowadays to associate a nation with a language, even though many nations have more than one national language.  Should a nation be defined by a single language?

Consider what political factors have shaped the language that you speak.  Why do you speak Polish, Flemish, Danish, Czech, German, Russian or English?  Why did you grow up learning your native tongue, and why are you learning new languages today?  Are you learning new languages so that you can join new knowledge communities?  Bigger knowledge communities?  Better knowledge communities?

Communities rely on communication.  Community, communicate:  Both words come from the latin root, communia, meaning a large gathering of people sharing a way of life. Communication is not simply about sharing information.  Some say language is primarily for persuasion:  for getting people to think and act the way you want them to.  We communicate, ultimately, to arrange a shared way of life.  Language helps us work together; it shapes our expectations, allowing us to create very sophisticated maps of ourselves and the world around us.  But it also gives us a shared identity, and keeps foreigners out.  It brings people together, but it also builds walls.  It controls and limits, perhaps as much as it guides and enables.

The people who control language have control over the community.  Who controls the language in your knowledge communities?  (Think of the languages of science, of art, of culture, of politics, of education.)  What gives them that power?

Have you noticed how language can shape your political views?  Have you ever criticized a nation or a political faction for the way they talk?  Are there political conflicts in your home country that involve language?

In America, there are some cities with large Spanish-speaking populations.  Should those cities have Spanish street signs?  Should there be government agents in those cities which are fluent in Spanish?  Or should the residents in those cities have to become fluent in English?  Some Americans say that all Americans should speak English, but this is a controversial topic in America.  Are there similar issues in your home country?

There can be benefits to having a shared language, of course.  One benefit is that language helps us share information, and this is necessary to create a knowledge community.  Do we need a shared language to have shared knowledge, though?

Imagine you and a friend visit a beautiful landscape and watch the sunset together.  You do not speak about it--and maybe you don't even speak the same language.  But you have shared an experience, and that gives you shared knowledge.

Imagine you want to teach a friend how to tie their shoes, but you don't speak the same language.  You can still instruct them with gestures.  You can show them how to do it, and so you can share your knowledge, even without a shared language.

When it comes to more abstract ideas, however, you need a shared language if you want to share knowledge.  The problem is, which language should be shared?

This is a political issue that has an influential history.  Some people believe that their language is just better than all the others.  A couple of centuries ago, people in Germany started to take this idea very seriously.  They believed that their language was pure, original and natural, and that other European languages were corrupt and weak.  The modern German language was still being formed in the 18th century and German nationalism was growing rapidly, with dreams of unification.  As you can imagine, some people felt a very strong connection between the need for a shared language and the swelling tides of nationalism.  People started to believe that the very identity of a nation was reflected in its language.  German intellectuals believed that the power of the German mind and spirit was determined by its language.  This idea became known as linguistic determinism, which says that language determines what you can think.  (These days, experts are more likely to believe in a weaker view, called linguistic relativity, which says that your language only influences what you think.)

The belief in linguistic determinism was very racist.  For example, Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) wrote: "the German speaks a language that has been alive ever since it first issued from the force of nature, whereas the other Teutonic races speak a language which has movement on the surface but which is dead at the root."  In other words, languages like English, French, Dutch, Flemish, and so on--these languages were all inferior to the pure, original German language.

Another German, Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), was one of the first to promote the idea that a nation was defined by its language. He wrote the following lines of poetry in 1772, which are rather offensive to the French (and other non-Germans):

Look at other nationalities.  Do they wander about
So that nowhere in the whole world they are strangers
Except to themselves?
They regard foreign countries with proud disdain.
And you German alone, returning from abroad,
Wouldst greet your mother in French?
O spew it out, before your door
Spew out the ugly slime of the Seine.
Speak German, O You German!
While Herder wrote poetry, Fichte believed that simpler language was necessary to unite the German folk.  The Brothers Grimm agreed.  They believed their beloved book of fairy tales, published in 1812, was authentically German and could unite the nation with a common language and cultural heritage.  Around the same time, Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767 - 1835), a German philosopher, linguist, Minister of Education, diplomat and founder of the University of Berlin, also promoted the idea that a people is defined by their language.  He wrote:
Language is deeply entwined in the intellectual development of humanity itself . . . Language is . . . the external manifestation of the minds of peoples. Their language is their soul, and their soul is their language. . . . The creation of language is an innate necessity of humanity. It is not a mere external vehicle, designed to sustain social intercourse, but an indispensable factor for the development of human intellectual powers . . . .
In other words, language is not just a tool for communication; it is a fundamental property of humanity.  We would not be human--we would not have our advanced intellectual powers at all--if it were not for language.

On the one hand, the belief in linguistic determinism helped develop Germany into a remarkably strong nation which would come to lead the world in the arts and sciences.  However, the same belief fostered racism and helped pave the way to war and genocide in the 20th century.  Ideas like "linguistic purity" and "linguistic determinism" can be dangerous; however, that does not mean they are wrong.  They are powerful ideas and should be treated with caution.

Consider other ways language can alienate or oppress people.  When you learn a new area of knowledge, like a science or art, you learn a new language.  The more advanced the field, the more alien the language.  Expert languages can be alienating and can even be used to oppress people.

Even common language can be used to oppress people.  For example, poor people tend not to finish secondary school or go to university.  Their language skills are often noticeably weak.  They tend to speak in ways which are usually not accepted in professional or formal situations.  This can make it very difficult for them to move up in society and improve their economic situation.

Another interesting case is so-called "Black English," which I encourage you to read about.  Basically, the idea is that many black Americans have not been able to get a proper education because their unique language has not been respected, or even recognized, by schools.  Imagine being a child at a school that did not recognize that your language was significantly different.  You were told that your speech was simply wrong, even though it was how you were raised and how your family talked.  You were basically taught that your community was inferior.  What kind of psychological effects might that have on a child?

Can one language be inferior to another, or are all languages equal?  This is often a political question, as history has shown us.  To avoid war and oppression, should we just say that all languages are equal?  What if some languages really are better than others?  What if we can improve lives and our communities by improving our language?

Well, how do you improve a language?

One belief, which was popular in the early 20th century, was that a perfect language can be created: the language of logic.  It was believed that all the ambiguity and confusion that arises with natural languages could be avoided.  All we needed was a system of logical symbols and we would be set.

Another belief, which actually goes all the way back to Galileo, if not older, is that mathematics is the ultimate language, the only pure language with which we can understand the world.  Many modern physicists agree.  When you try to put physics in common language, you end up with nonsense.  You can only understand the world with mathematics.

On the other hand, there is the point of view of Nobel prize-winning Danish physicist Neils Bohr (1885-1962).  Bohr was one of the pioneers of Quantum Mechanics; yet, he famously said that anybody who claimed to understand it didn't really understand it at all!  One of the key ideas in Quantum Mechanics is complementarity.  Two properties are complementary if they cannot both be known at the same time.  For example, position and velocity are complementary:  The more you know of an electron's position, the less you can know its velocity; the more you know its velocity, the less you can know its position.  Bohr once claimed that for every measurable quantity, there was another which was complementary to it.  He was then asked, "What quantity is complementary to truth?"  He replied, "clarity."  In other words, the more you have truth, the less you have clarity; and the more you have clarity, the less you have truth.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), an Austrian-British philosopher, made a related observation in the middle of the 20th century.  While some philosophers were trying to find perfect clarity through logical analysis, Wittgenstein realized that ordinary language is clear enough.  And when we try to "fix" it with logical analysis, we actually make it worse.  He wrote:
When I say: "My broom is in the corner",—is this really a statement about the broomstick and the brush? Well, it could at any rate be replaced by a statement giving the position of the stick and the position of the brush. And this statement is surely a further analysed form of the first one.—But why do I call it "further analysed"?—Well, if the broom is there, that surely means that the stick and brush must be there, and in a particular relation to one another; and this was as it were hidden in the sense of the first sentence, and is expressed in the analysed sentence. Then does someone who says that the broom is in the corner really mean: the broomstick is there, and so is the brush, and the broomstick is fixed in the brush?—If we were to ask anyone if he meant this he would probably say that he had not thought specially of the broomstick or specially of the brush at all. And that would be the right answer, for he meant to speak neither of the stick nor of the brush in particular. Suppose that, instead of saying "Bring me the broom", you said "Bring me the broomstick and the brush which is fitted on to it."!—Isn't the answer: "Do you want the broom? Why do you put it so oddly?"
What is clear to you might just depend on what you are expecting; it depends on your map.  Would a perfect language give us a perfect map?  What would the perfect language be like?