Monday, January 5, 2015

That's Correct

In my most recent article, I talked about racism and how we needed to be a bit more aware of it, as well as understand its impact.

The responses were amazing. Thank you, all.

And I don`t mean thanks for the praise, for there wasn`t much of it, and what there was I don`t feel was deserved. It would be like thanking me for pointing out that there is garbage strewn around a park. It's sort of a thankless task.

The reason I am thanking you is for all your heart-felt concerns and questions about your own lives, and the confirmation of the breadth of the problem. The stories often brought me to tears, and the confessions raised some very interesting and real points about how to deal with racism in your own life.

Out of it all, one thing in particular stood out and that was the recurring theme of how to handle someone who does something in the "wrong" way. While the words "correct", "right", "appropriate" and all their synonyms and antonyms came up often when describing the problem, I don't think it was really what was meant.

Let me explain.

One friend very lovingly gave a real example from their own life. He is in a position of hiring people to work with a team of others. When he interviews people, the concern is not only their experience and expertise, but also their ability to work well as part of that team. So far, so good.

Where he lives, in the US mid-west, there is a great difference in style of speech between the African-Americans and the White folk. It is a very real difference, and a lot of prejudice surrounds it. To the White folk, this other style of speech sounds ignorant. To the African-Americans, the other people sound snobbish. This is only exacerbated by my friend's very natural assertion, "we speak correct, un-dialected un-accented grammatically-proper English".

When I read that phrase to my wife, who is from Quebec, she just about doubled over laughing.

You see, what my friend meant was that he was speaking in the normal style for his community. It is an agreed upon standard, and it feels natural to him. It would never occur to him that there is anything else.

But it accented. (To my ear, it sounds very nasal, and that they are about to swallow their vowels.) And it is a dialect. (Their phonology, grammar, and vocabulary are used by a group of speakers who are set apart from others geographically and socially, hence a dialect, just in case you want to dispute it.) And it is only grammatically proper according to that group. If we were to drop anyone from there into the middle of Oxford, England. they would all stand out, and would sound quite ignorant to the people there. (I am certain they would never use the phrase, "up with which we will not put".)

You see, this is the sort of thing that is very difficult to recognize when you are continually immersed in your own group. The problem is not the standard of that group, for that is part of what makes up community. It is the thought that one is right and the other wrong. This inappropriately places one group in a position of advantage while saying the other group is somehow lesser. It is the old "I'm right" reflex. (Search that term in my blog for more information.) And it is the root of most prejudice.

In other words, when speaking of language differences, what you mean to say is that these "others" speak differently than your cultural norm. That's doesn't make it "incorrect" or "wrong". It just makes it different. When you say that your way of doing things is "correct", you are making a judgement call. You are implying that you are right and everyone who does otherwise is wrong.

Another way to look at it is to use French as an example. With French it appears to be easy. After all, there is a board in Paris that decides which words become part of the French language. They are the Académie française, or l'Académie. Yet, even with this board, there are still at least 24 different recognized dialects. Which one is "correct"? The answer, of course, is none of them. They are each and all correct and add to the richness and diversity of both the language and the culture.

In English, though, there is no such board, and there are far more recognized dialects, including various pidgin and English-based creole versions. My friend, whether or not he realizes it, speaks "Inland Northern American English".

While the written standard of English seems to be fairly normalized, in that virtually all variants agree on the written rules, the spoken rules vary widely.

And yet, all this is actually beside the point. The real issue is judgement. I only wrote all the above to show that I am not speaking from a perspective of ignorance, but from the stance of one who loves language, diversity, and the variety of cultures. It's not that I have a doctorate or anything in this area, for I don't, but I am searching to learn, and longing to see greater unity in the world.

'Abdu'l-Baha said, "The fact that we imagine ourselves to be right and everybody else wrong is the greatest of all obstacles in the path towards unity, and unity is necessary if we would reach truth, for truth is one."

With the language issue, it is not a question of who follows which rules, or which dialect is preferred, but whether or not communication occurs. That is the purpose of language. The rules are there to serve that end.

In a social or work setting, to judge someone else based on their language is not only silly, but detrimental to both communication and unity. Einstein's use of English left a lot to be desired, but we don't think of him as ignorant. We know that he was an immigrant, and that English was not his primary language.

If someone has shown themselves to be a good, upright person, with considerable knowledge in a field, it is to our own detriment that we would judge them based on something as silly as a few of their word choices. Soda? Pop? Who cares? We know that both refer to a carbonated beverage.

It is appropriate, though, to let them know of this perception, and help them learn to adapt, while not judging them yourself.

While there may be no right or wrong way to speak, there are cultural preferences, and these can be shared in a spirit of love and respect. But to insist that one is right while all others are wrong is always detrimental to the development of all.

Whether it is clothing, food preferences, hair style, or language, they all influence our perception of others. And when we embrace the great variety of these on the planet, then the world becomes a richer and more beautiful garden in which to live.

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