Discover more from Culture & curiosity
#35 Old words
In the summer of 2002, on the 16th floor of what is now named the Horst building at Twente University, I understood that languages are like mathematics: a tool to understand, structure, and explain the world. Three seconds later, I realized that this is why we call programming languages languages. The gap in my head between C++ and French closed, my imagined inability to learn languages dissipated, and my toolbox to interact with the world expanded significantly.
I also, finally, understood concepts such as the conditional and the subjunctive. It’s all just code! And the beauty of it is that language compiles much easier (except for French).
I was reminded of this private eureka moment this week when in a session, a participant said (and I paraphrase): “We cannot use old words to talk about new ideas.” The topic had been a new approach to culture. It could have been said, however, in any context.
Languages evolve. In natural languages, naturally. In programming, purposefully, rapidly. Fortran, COBOL, Basic, C, Pascal, C++, Perl, Python, Ruby, Java, Swift. Each new language is created in and for a new reality. J started learning Swift in Apple’s Swift Playgrounds recently. This is miles from my own forays at around his age in what I think was Turbo Pascal. Turbo Pascal would have failed utterly at controlling a Sphero. We cannot use old language to enable new ideas.
On Monday, I attended the launch of the first SDG Spotlight report of the Netherlands, prepared by World Connectors. The report looked specifically at two SDGs: Reducing inequalities (10) and Life on land (15). While the situation on 15 is among the worst in Europe, I want to focus on the one that we’re really flunking: reducing inequalities.
A few weeks ago, our central bureau of statistics had already prepared us for a cold shower in an analysis of the first five years of the SDGs in the Netherlands. The CBS is apolitical, so they choose their words carefully. Wedged in between disclaimers, however, the report clearly states that we’re not doing enough to reduce inequalities, that the situation is getting worse, and that progress on other SDGs seems linked to increased inequalities. I understand this to mean that more people can buy Teslas because it’s easier for them to exploit the poor.
The CBS will never say that. But the World Connectors did, albeit in different, but not milder, terms. I translate:
“Thanks to redistribution and our social safety net, net income inequality in the Netherlands is relatively favorable. But the gap between the richest and poorest 10% is growing. And wealth inequality in the Netherlands is one of the highest in the world: 1 or 2% own one third of private wealth. Part of the population, especially the less educated and people with a migration background, structurally benefits less from the broad prosperity and the inequality of opportunities is increasing. More than a quarter of the population indicate that they experience discrimination or exclusion.”
In the presentation, they went a bit further. Our country has a well-established system to transfer wealth from the poor to the super-rich and turn labor into private wealth. This system has been carefully constructed over the past years and decades, and it is well-entrenched. I should probably mention that most World Connectors are liberals, which in Holland means they’re centrist progressives, not left-wing agitators.
Beyond the economy, inequality has a social and cultural dimension. Here, also, we’re not doing well and getting worse. Large groups of people are systematically excluded and oppressed. As I wrote before, women, people with a migration background, the elderly, and people without a high education level fall behind on almost all metrics.
Beyond the horror of the statistics, what struck me most was that our inequalities are policy and have been policy for a long while. Governments with various different political parties have built and maintained this system. It may very well be that we cannot fix it using the old language. We need new words.
Kunsten 92, an association for art and culture, and the Federation for the Creative Industries presented a New Creative Deal this week. You do not have to read it; it’s predictable. One thing stood out to me, though. Let’s see if you catch it. This is the second of their three main ambitions for the next four years:
“The cultural and creative sector works together with governments and the business community to tackle major social issues. Large-scale and complex issues are given a multidisciplinary approach, in which technological innovation goes hand in hand with social impact.”
Then read the first:
“Every Dutch person can develop their creative talents and has unimpeded access to the widest possible range of cultural experiences, both physical and digital. After all, practicing and experiencing art, heritage and media is a fundamental right.”
Both statements are the kind of commitments that remind me of my own daily commitment to stop snacking in the evening. But that’s not it. I do not understand that while all Dutch people can develop their creative talents, they are not included in the work on major social issues. It is a small oversight, but it pulls the rug out from under the entire New Creative Deal.
Separating the work on social issues from the people that experience them is the old language. And as we cannot use old words to talk about new ideas, this is not a ‘new’ creative deal. It is an old creative deal.
I’m reading a magnificent book by the academic and journalist Sinan Çankaya, Mijn Ontelbare Identiteiten (My Innumerable Identities). Çankaya describes how his relationship to his various identities evolves as he moves from the small town in the east of the Netherlands in the 80s and 90s to the west in the 00s and 10s. His anecdotes are mostly of mundane events that turn into high-stakes moments because of people’s inability to see him as a complex and complete human being. The most frustrating thing for me, a reader who could very well have stood opposite Çankaya once, is the author’s unrelenting humility towards the world and himself. He refuses to commit to easy stereotypes of a predefined identity. He tells his own story.
Words. It makes me think of Teju Cole’s essay In place of thought, an hommage to Gustave Flaubert. The piece is a dictionary of words and how we use them ‘in place of thought.’ As Cole writes in the introduction: “As I wrote my modern cognates, I was struck at how close some of them came to the uninterrogated platitudes in my own head. Stupidity stalks us all.” We cannot use old words if we want to talk about new ideas.
My Russian is progressing smoothly. I can now tell you there are bread and juice and a lion on the table and that the girl eats tea with milk. Somehow, I’m unable to say horse – лошадь: llooshut, llooshet, llllooooshit! I flunked my first real-life conversation, though. Thanks, Duolingo!
And thanks to you, for reading, for subscribing, forwarding, replying, everything. I see this as my quest to find new words. I try to listen a lot and learn. If there’s anything on your mind, let me know. Have a wonderful week, and see you soon!