Sapir-Whorf on its head

Mike Lieber (U28550@UICVM.BITNET)
Fri, 30 Dec 1994 20:50:28 CST

I have a very high regard for Cliff Sloane, one of the more creative people
I know. But on his last post, I have to disagree. The "thought control"
imputation was a kinda nasty rhetorical ploy. Culture, as anthropologists
normally talk about it, is nothing if it is not thought control, and
language is the human code for its communication (though not the only code).
For shame, for shame, you dirty old man.

As far as standing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis on its head, what's so bad about
that? A hypothesis like this one, without (to my knowledge) a shred of
unambiguous evidence to confirm it, doesn't take on the status of a canon just
because people keep referring to it. It's about time it got stood on its head,
and Ruby is as welcome to do that as anyone else. Indeed, the evidence
in support of the notion that by changing language usage one can change the
premises that underlie it is my stronger than anything to the contrary. The
best examples of this that I know are Alcoholics Anonymous and Synanon (at
least in its earlier incarnation). By manipulating the way language is used,
both of these organizations achieved success at controlling addiction through
habituating new ways of talking in order to channel new ways of thinking.
Synanon turned this into an art form, beginning with junkie street language
(e.g., "cop out"), holding its denotations constant, and changing its
connotations. Copping out is the worst thing you can do on the street--it
isolates you. In Synanon, its the best thing you can do both for yourself and
for the people you're copping on. It binds you into the community, exactly
the opposite of what it does on the street. Synanon went a lot further with
this, introducing terms drawn from Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay on self-reliance
and from Buckminser Fuller's papers. These terms had to do with honesty, with
responsibility, and with integrity. For those--and there were lots--who had
trouble making intelligible sentences, they were given tape recorders and stuff
to read into them to get them used to saying whole, clear sentences. The idea
was that to live in Synanon, you had to be able to communicate clearly with
others. It worked reasonably well for a long time.

When feminists chose key terms in English that imply denigration of women in an
attempt to substitute for them other terms that communicated equality, they
did so with clear, hard-won precedents. It is a strategy that works if it is
worked at consistently. But feminists did not have the advantages of AA and
Synanon, where these communication strategies are played out in a group of
committed people and help to make them better members of their organizations.
The context that feminists have tried to change has been largely hostile or
indifferent. It is amazing that the language usage strategy has worked as well
as it has.

I have one more thing to say, and I know that it isn't going to make me popular
with most people here, but what the hell, I'll just have to live without dinner
invitations from pissed off colleagues. I noticed that there were very few
responses to Bjorn Fry's blatant ethnocentrism. No one appeared to be offended
by them. Maybe because Bjorn is so clearly well intentioned. But the
response to Ruby's post was immediate and massive. This is not the first time
on this net that an earnest young woman has gotten flamed fast while an equally
earnest young man posts some of the most ethnocentric stuff imaginable without
so much as a peep. Think about it. The New Year is upon us. It's a shitty
way to send out the old one. We can do better.

Mike Lieber