On polarisation

One on one confrontations have a certain appeal. It’s grand final day, and a 50/50 chance of either team winning. Who do you back? Us vs Them, and a sense of clarity.

We like to polarise – as does our media. Yet I tend to prefer triangles. They’re more stable, more fun, and allow for a bit of play.

Often, polarisation is a matter of framing. We choose to see the world as polarised, based on the categories we use. Recently, two maps I saw circulating on social media captured this very clearly.

The first was looking at the now-usual US vs China narrative, and how the latter is threatening to take over the world from the former. A scary shift from the blue world to the red world.

Yet a second one painted a different picture. I saw it on my friend Ray Taylor’s feed – Ray is and effective altruist, working with Allfed on global food solutions for catastrophic scenarios, and generally a good source of insights. So, the map he shared was this. (The source is unknown, but Google searches have yielded somewhat similar maps)

Here, the polarized world order is replaced with a three-kingdom narrative: US, China, EU. Fair, yet the result of a deliberate choice. The story now is very distinct. Not a global take-over in a game of economic go, but a shifting balance between three poles in a multilateral world order.

I like this map, because it reminds me of the role and values of Europe, as a beacon of global peace. In visual terms, it shows how the EU can serve as a global balance, and counter the war of superpowers – if we recognise its existence, as a coalition of states. The map tells a story of hope. It serves as a precious reminder that polarised situations are so because of the categories we use – hence, we may defuse them by inserting a third term.

Together, those two maps also serve as a reminder that images fascinate. There is a self-evidence to maps and graphs, pressing pause on critical thought. Yet just because a map or graph tells a compelling story, does not mean that story is true, or the only one. And because there is such strength to images, the best way to defuse them is make others. In other words – cultural work, artistic work, aesthetic work, is a critical part of peace making.

On reading Harry Potter

Over the course of lockdowns #5 and #6 – and that short nondescript period of time in-between – I ran out of gay fiction to read. To keep myself sane, I turned to that millennial classic, and finally read the seven volumes of Harry Potter.

For about a year, I have renewed my commitment to writing fiction. The exact project is still taking shape. It started as a climate change revenge tragedy, and evolved into rom-com. It has, however, prompted me to read genre, unashamedly. Since March, I have devoured gay literature. Much recommended in times of pandemic. It started on a high with Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, and slowly went downhill from there. Before trying my luck with How to Bang a Billionnaire, I thought I would take a pause.

Harry Potter was referenced in almost all of the books in my gay rom-com pile. I missed that train at the time – but it struck me that I could not really understand my own generation without reading Harry. And that it could even make for a good time. Well it did. And it prompted a few reflections. I have not engaged with the fan-fiction, or any critical reading, so I’m sharing impressions here in a loose manner, somewhat unsure how much of this will be somewhat original, or totally self-evident. If the latter, I hope at least it will show the ongoing relevance of the book.

From about the end of volume two, I started telling my partner: ‘I think Harry Potter is about climate change.’ Of course, I’m biased – it’s a key preoccupation, and the latest IPCC report is not helping. But bear with me here. Isn’t Voldemort all about unrestricted appetite for power, and contempt for all life-forms he perceives as below him? And isn’t that the precise ideology that has led us to climate change? A sort of coal-based dark magic, that will not recoil at destruction and pain, let alone consequences, to get its way?

Then come the Horcruxes. Claim immortality by tying parts of your soul to precious material objects, and lose your human shape in the bargain. Isn’t that exactly what Western boomers have been doing, trading their conscience for jobs in the system, to buy SUV’s and house extensions with the cash? A vain attempt at immortality.

I recognised a lot of my own feelings in Harry’s experience – I’m only two years older, after all – particularly the lack of elder support, and a sense of betrayal from those in power. Ministers are not to be trusted. ‘Wait a minute,’ I thought, ‘I’m sure Scott Morrison was imperiused by Gina Rinehart and the coal barons.’ That’s what Dark Money‘s all about, right?

The book does encourage a healthy mistrust of power. Our politicians would rather force youth into silence than acknowledge their own limitations, past errors, or present fear. Large parts of the population side with them. Those who don’t are soon disposed of, or drained of their souls by the media dementors.

The final heroic triumph of youth, however, gave me some hope. Go Greta, go the climate kids! Maybe you can defeat evil. Painting youth triumphant is part of the young adult trope, certainly. What I enjoyed in Harry though is how this youth is trained, not purely naive. Knowledge is part of the package – enter Hermione, saint patron of nerds – and knowledge is something you learn at school.

Hogwarts is a the core of the series. It is a school where people actually learn things, and what they learn is useful in the world. It is what all my friends working in education and edtech are looking to build. A place where you develop the skills to change the world for the better, build deep companionship and a sense of identity. Note how, as part of the package, Harry Potter values teachers. McGonaggal is fierce. Even Snape knows how to turn a good potion. None of that ‘those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’ bullshit here.

Beyond this clear respect for knowledge, I enjoyed and celebrate the book’s radical technophilia. There’s no wizard without a wand. And good magic is not purely about the mind. It involves matter – knowing plants, spells, and the structures of the real. It involves objects, and learning how to use them appropriately. To defeat the Voldemort’s of today, and their armies of doom – vampiric boomers and Fox News dementors – the path is not to retreat into the forbidden forest, and embrace centaurian arrogance. It’s about building tools, learning to use them, and take over from evil through better magic.

Three forms of failure

Failure always involves an error of judgement. I took the wrong course of action. I made inaccurate predictions. I missed an important factor. I estimated that something would work out, and it didn’t.

Yet failure can take three distinct forms, that I have rarely seen distinguished explicitly. Let’s call them Failure #1, Failure #2, and Failure #3

Failure #1. I knew precisely what I wanted to do, I had a clear model for what needed to be done, but it wasn’t executed properly. I failed to do the thing altogether, or I made a fatal mistake, or I was too slack on quality. Nobody came to the party, because I forgot to send my invitations, or I put in the wrong title on my emails and it all went to spam, or I wrote such poor text that people chose not to come.

Failure #2. I knew precisely what my goal was, I had a clear model for what needed to be done, and I executed everything well. Still, things didn’t work out, because the plan was off. I made wrong assumptions about the world, or omitted a major factor. I sent my invitations on time, but nobody came, because it was the World Cup Final that evening, or people simply won’t leave their house for a ‘strategic storytelling’ night. 

There is a measure of overlap between those two types of failure. The boundaries between execution quality and relevance of the model are often blurry. Was my invitation badly written, or was it not pitched appropriately? Should I blame myself for ‘poor execution’, or consider it a clear case of bad judgement, that I overestimated my capacity to get things done. Lack of self-awareness is common, dangerous, and a lame excuse. 

Failure #3 is different. Here, there’s a proposed course of action, execution works out, and things went according to plan. Except, the goal was hazy somewhat, and so, after the deed is done, the praise doesn’t ring right: what you achieved is not exactly what you set out to do. With this comes confusion and frustration. People came to the party, they would come again, some enjoyed themselves. But that elusive magic you were hoping for, that thing-whatever-it-was, it never happened.  

I believe this to be the bitterest type of failure, and the least acknowledged. It is particularly common when we try to build something bold, radical and new. We need people to work with us, but the goal is somewhat unclear, or goes against common wisdom, so we simplify it, we make it more generic, in order to bring them on-board. In the course of things, as other people join the team, that intuitive goal gets lost. The loudest impose their views. The dumbest flatten our nuances. The most narrow-minded stifle our ambition. The most narcissistic hijack our project to satisfy their ends. Whether malice, negligence – or good intentions gone to seed – this happens all the time.

Failure 1 and Failure 2 can yield precious nuggets of wisdom, and knowledge about the world. Those are the failures we can learn and grow from. Not so Failure 3, or at least not so directly. At best, it offers a chance to take perspective, figure out where the path actually led, or what the north star was. Then, maybe we can nail the goal properly this time, so we can try again, and eventually get there, or at least meet failure #1 or #2, and learn something specific, and precious.  

On failing and losing

Things go wrong when you try new stuff. I’ve been reflecting on that a lot lately. It’s made me aware of a conceptual distinction I hadn’t really ticked on before.

We make a serious category mistake when we use the verbs ‘lose’ and ‘fail’ indifferently.

Loss marks a dissipation of substance. What I had, I no longer have. Maybe someone else does? Or it might have simply disappeared. All things solid vanish into thin air.

Failure is a return to the original chaos. It’s a stumble, and a fall to the earth. I resolved on a course of action, but the result was not what I projected. Gravity triumphs over shape.

‘I lost’ implies scarcity. There was only so much substance around. Through my negligence, weakness, or hesitation, I let someone else grab it all. Now, there is no longer anything for me. I must wait for another opportunity.

‘I failed’ implies abundance. I chose one course of action among infinite options. I am not satisfied with the results. I stopped, and am now back to a state of maximal density. I must wait for momentum to get out of stasis.

Those words define two versions of the blank slate. Loss offers open space to dance around freely. Failure offers fertile clay to play with and mould. Loss is about ownership. I get my substance from the outside. I am what I have. Fail is about action. I get my substance from the inside. I am what I do.

The parallel stops here, however. The nouns present an interesting contrast. If I lose, I’m a loser: someone incapable of holding to substance. I only become a failure by failing someone else – including my own past self. I’m a failure when I am no longer part of anybody’s course of action. Everyone has given up on me, even myself, and I remain stuck.

Stating ‘I failed’, therefore, is a way to regain agency. It shifts my relationship to failure. By merely saying it, I am no longer a failure – only my project, my actions, my past self are. With this distance, momentum returns, and the possibility to try a different course. ‘I failed’ is a celebration of life.

‘It failed’ is a gift to the world. This is what science and experiments are all about: see not what worked, but what failed. I only know that ‘y’ is a better path than ‘x’ by comparison. Those who never failed have nothing to teach.   

How, then, do we create environments, where people are encourage to say ‘I failed’? And by doing so, regain dignity and agency? Why are we so reluctant to fail?

Maybe we’re afraid of the real and its chaotic possibilities. Pure shapelessness is the stuff of horror. Or maybe we’re afraid of our peers. For with cultures that celebrate failure comes the risk of a supporter, peer or colleague stating of my project – it failed – and regain their sense of agency by making me their failure, and pushing me back into chaos.

On monolinguals

Learning new languages played a critical role in my education. I like to say that I learned how to think through classical philology, translating Greek texts into French, and reflecting on the distance between those two languages. But it all really started seriously in middle school. Back then, I was playing adventure games, and learning English was the way to explore this passion, and gamer identity. They were text-heavy games – anyone remembers King’s Quest, Maniac Mansion, or Leisure Suit Larry? – and none of those were translated. English was also a major subject at school, and I was well-aware that mastery would impact my academic success, and future social positioning.  

Not long ago, I posted the following on Facebook: “Facetious but real question to my multicultural friends (and others): are there any (good) program or resources out there to help multilingual migrants (or minorities) help build empathy with monolingual people? As in – what is it like to live with only one language in your brain? How does it affect your vision of the world? What are the associated blindspots? This is for a potential project I’m ideating on. I’m not looking for a rant on how monlinguals are the worst, but rather, ways to genuinely empathise with what it’s like to * not * have multiple languages, which I believe is deeply inconceivable to many multilinguals.” (The project, incidentally, is a new turn in the Marco Polo Project story, supported by a City of Melbourne grant, under the codename ‘migrants to citizen’. Keep posted for more.)

My post attracted interest, and it seems there is no model to build said empathy. One friend though (thanks Armelle du Roscoat!) raised the following question: ‘aren’t multilinguals able to remember how they used to think before they have multiple languages in their head ? What that opened up in them?’ This triggered a new insight. Sure, I can sort of remember what it’s like to be monolingual, but I was a child back then. Learning foreign languages was so central to my education that, at some level, it is inconceivable for me to be an educated adult, who speaks and understands only one language.

Which means, when I think of, or speak with, monolinguals, I have three ways of relating to them. The first is, those are uneducated people. Which is fine, unless they’re in professions and positions that call for education – teacher, lawyer, doctor, manager, or any role of responsibility. Then I cringe. The second is more disturbing. I came to realise that I tend to think of monolinguals as radically immature, some sort of monstrous child-like narcissist, trapped in an adult body. Here, there is an odd mixture of repulsion and fascination. But the third mode offers a way out. My multilingual identity, the capacity to shift across languages and cultures, emerged from puberty onwards. I became able to decode various social cues, and adopt my performance, in a form of ‘language-fluidity’. Maybe, monolinguals are just like extremely cis-gender people, who wouldn’t dream of performing beyond received gender-norms – or fall into the worst stereotypes when they try. Sure, it’s a limited take on the world, but I have learned to relate to cisgender types, and I’m on that spectrum myself – so, monolinguals may not be continents away.  

PS: if you know any good resource to build empathy with monolinguals, or would like to work on one, please reach out!

What’s a doctor? On original knowledge

In 2020, I completed a PhD. My thesis maps an emerging ecosystem of digital Chinese language learning. I started the research in January 2015. At the time, the PhD was a way to fund my work on Marco Polo Project. Short-term, through a scholarship; longer term, by looking for ways to build partnerships either with universities or other digital platforms. Then life knocked on the door, and messed up with the plan. I was offered a COO gig with the China Australia Millennial Project, then a seat on the THNK School of Creative leadership, then a job as editor in chief with the Global Challenges Foundation. My skills, my interests and my perspective evolved, impacting both the PhD research proper, and the motivation for it.

I decided to stick with it though. This was my second PhD. I enrolled in one from 2003 to 2008, at Paris Sorbonne University, exploring collective nouns in contemporary English. I was on scholarship, and expectations were that I would get a role at a French University right after finishing – although life came knocking when I met my Australian partner in 2006, and messed up with the plan. Still, I completed my thesis. I was due to defend in early September 2008, a few weeks before leaving Paris for good. The research was ‘stimulating and original’, yet two of my assessors had found that the thesis fell outside of disciplinary boundaries. My supervisor had been aware of issues, I learned later, and conducted backdoor negotiations, but would not force things. Bad reports would stand in the way of any future academic career. There was an option to stay in France for another year, rewrite, and try again. I had planned a move Down Under, and wanted a fresh start, so I let it go.

It left me with a sense of caution regarding universities, and PhDs, but also with the sense of something unfinished. When I decided to try again at Monash, on the very first conversation with my prospective supervisor, I shared the story of this debacle. I was also very clear that I did not want to work in academia, but was genuinely committed to the sharing of knowledge. Gloria was wonderful, and fully on board. I knew better what to do this time – and was more closely guided – so, despite occasional bouts of ‘I should quit’, I completed the second PhD, through the pandemic.  

Why did I bother? Sure, there is a title, photos with a floppy hat, and the job done. But I also did learn certain things that – maybe – only doctors know. Reflecting on that question, it strikes me that we put so much focus on the product, the thesis, and forget about the person. It’s not just about having a PhD, but becoming a Doctor. So, what have I learned by becoming one? And how is that valuable? Since the purpose of a PhD is to articulate original knowledge, I think I did learn something about knowledge – and originality. In a knowledge economy, this is probably  valuable. But let me dig deeper.

We know less than we think

Education is always about confronting one’s own ignorance. Writing a PhD means confronting collective ignorance. I realized this most clearly when I tried to answer a seemingly simple question: how many people are currently learning Chinese around the globe? I had always assumed that we – somebody, somewhere – knew the answer, and everybody could get that answer if we – myself, anybody keen to find out – simply knew where to look. I had also assumed my supervisors, experts in the field, could direct me to the right source. No such luck. All sorts of figures floated around the Internet – 40 million learners now, 100 million soon, typically. But when I tried to confirm those numbers, the tracks lost themselves after some late 2000’s newspaper article from Canada, or a vague unsourced mention of ‘Hanban’.

I once wrote, in a moment of annoyance, that much of academic writing is not original thought, but platitudes with footnotes. I have come to appreciate the value of footnotes. At least, you can check where ‘facts’ come from. If a statement is not congruent with the source, you have grounds to start doubting the author. It takes effort, sure, but ensuring that facts and assertions at least can be verified is some protection against fraud. It also keeps in check the drive to cut corners and put forward unverified assertions in order to make a point. 

Now, I have also learned to be cautious of footnotes. Not everyone follows the rules in spirit. When trying to figure out how many people are learning Chinese, I found an article – somewhat by chance – by Professor Hyeon-Seok Kang, called ‘Is English being challenged by Mandarin in South Korea? A report on recent educational and social trends involving the two languages’ (published 2017). The paper had a reference to ‘Lei & Cheng, 2010’, stating that there were 40 million Chinese learners around the world in 2010. Curious, I went to check that Lei & Cheng source. It was not, as I naively hoped, a solid survey from a pair of serious researchers from a serious university, but an article from China Daily online, attributing this figure to Hanban, with no source. Innocent overlook, or underhanded rebrand of hearsay? We shall never know.  

When I look back, I think: of course, nobody knows how many people are learning Chinese. It’s incredibly difficult to assess. For one, what do we mean by ‘learn Chinese’? Is it anybody enrolled in any language class? Of any age? And for how long? Plus, how do you aggregate figures from around the world? How do you keep the numbers up to date? At best, we might have educated guesses (which I attempted – my rounded estimate is 6 – 17 million).

Yet before the PhD, I had an illusion that there was knowledge – illusion fed by the Internet, where figures were quoted in apparent confidence. On this point, and on many others, I was convinced that someone, somewhere, must know the facts, and the truth. This is a dangerous illusion, which I am now less likely to fall prey to.

So, learning #1: we know less than we think. If I don’t know, maybe nobody does. And if you’re ever doubtful, check the source.

It takes effort to build knowledge

Ignorance is uncomfortable. It brings feelings of shame, and anxiety. Research demands courage: willingness to face the chaos of radical uncertainty, and associated social ambiguity. It also demands endurance. Contemplatives are at risk of sloth – acedia, the noon-day demon of depressed procrastination. ‘Just write’ said my supervisor. I did, mostly. It was not my first rodeo, I wrote four novels (one published), and one thesis before. I have also written and edited hundreds of shorter texts. From experience, though, I know there’s a big difference between a 1000-word essay or short-story, and an 80,000-word document. A PhD thesis is not something you can physically complete in a burst of inspiration, or over a couple of late evenings. It is mainly perspiration, and you cannot afford to burn out.

Yet there is something about completing a PhD that differs from other long-form writing – say, novels. It’s not just about endurance, but patience. You must accept others’ unbearable slowness. Academic degrees up to Master’s level have skills and knowledge assessed by people who know more than the student. As a Doctor, author of original knowledge, you are by definition the world’s foremost expert in your topic. Meaning, you’re assessed by people who know less than you. Not in absolute, just on your topic. Still, this marks a step-change, directly related to my first insight, that we know less than we think.

So, learning #2: a doctor has shown capacity to present original knowledge to the next most knowledgeable audience, and convince them to reorganize their understanding of the world on the basis of that presentation. Doctors reduce ignorance, absolutely.

Knowledge does not exist in a void

New knowledge is not another brick in the wall. When I was a teacher, I used the following mental model: that my students already know everything. Except, that knowledge is vague, and mainly incorrect. Early in my candidature, I remember identifying the KPI for a successful thesis as: it will prompt readers to reshuffle their mental library. Incidentally, this is the purpose of the literature review – a section that gives a brief overview of relevant writing on the topic. It’s a trust building exercise, demonstrating homework done. It’s also there to assist the reader in this mental reorganisation: help them identify where to place the thesis and its original insights.   

This was a piece I had to do right. My first attempt at a PhD failed for overstepping disciplinary boundaries. Academic disciplines are branches of knowledge: conventional ways of describing an aspect of the world, what counts as a fact, and how to gather valid data. They’re also social constructs – people working in different buildings, reading different books, and writing in different journals, with different funding streams and criteria. I’ve come to think of it like sports. Each discipline has its own rules, its own league, and its own champions. Sure, you won’t get anywhere unless you’re generally fit and coordinated, but it’s not the same skills, or body types, or attributes, that make for success. So, each discipline gathers different types of people, who have spent years honing a very narrow set of skills.

When you start a PhD, you can choose to play by the rules. Pick your sport, find a good coach, train hard, and if you’re good enough, with a bit of luck, you’ll make it to the league – i.e. tenure at a university. That’s disciplinary research. There’s another approach though, which is about figuring out what discipline – what methods and models – will be most useful to better understand a part of the world, or solve a complex problem. In academic jargon, that’s ‘transdiciplinarity’. It’s not a good bet for a research career, but if done well, it’s useful ‘out there’. It’s also what my research does. It tries to make sense of ‘what’s happening’ in that part of the digital world where people learn Chinese – what that part of the digital world looks like, who’s creating and maintaining it, and what we could do to make it work better. It’s about tech and education. It’s about digital communities, startups, and geopolitics. It’s looking at companies and people, websites, apps, and social media streams, and how all those pieces combine. It’s about what is there, measured against what was, and what could be.

Now, a PhD – whether ‘trans’ or not – goes beyond insights and good ideas. It is a question asked well, and a detailed protocol to reach an answer, with a lot of referencing in the middle. It involves not only reading piles of books and papers, but also gathering ‘data’ from the world, then analyzing it, in line with a defined method. Each discipline has its own key concepts, methods and benchmarks. Each sees ‘the world’ differently, and gathers different data. In my case – in ‘trans’ research – part of the work is precisely figuring out what to do. There was no ‘state of the field’ I could question or build on, nor a clear method to follow. So, there were wrong starts and double-ups. I observed, I interviewed, I reflected, I read. Methods attempted yielded insights which suggested other methods. Not all the data was entirely consistent. And there certainly wasn’t a neat linear process, following a clear-cut hypothesis-method-gathering-analysis-conclusion sequence. Describing this was embarrassing: it was not grand, and it was certainly not clean. Yet – and here I was very well guided – I had to be precise. ‘What did you do? Just write that’. I interviewed people. ‘How many? Where? For how long? Why them?’ I spent a few hours using a range of apps, read through the ‘how-to’ guide, and associated social-media feeds. ‘Which apps? Why those?’ I unlearned habits developed at innovation events – always present your best angle – and listed exactly what went into the sausage. I was terrified it would cause horror. It didn’t, and I strengthened my honest muscle in the process.

The final layer of work was to put the research into words: order the argument into chapters, and make sure all key terms were rigorously defined and consistent. In early drafts, I used ‘agent’ and ‘actor’ indifferently. Surely, the reader could figure it out? It was a firm ‘no’. Different disciplines use different words – or worse, the same word with a different meaning. I should not leave ambiguities, and always make it easy for the reader to ‘get it’. The same ethical drive towards maximal comprehension impose the drudge of formatting standards. You’re asking people to change their habits of thoughts, by reading a very long, very detailed argument – so please, be consistent with your style at least. Common courtesy, really.

So, learning #3: the reader is not you. If they miss the point, don’t blame them, write better. Leadership 101.  

This process, of course, is extremely slow. It is made even slower by the machine, the very bureaucratic university with its many dysfunctions, ‘tick-the-box’ exercises and arbitrary deadlines. Waste of time? Well, a friend once put it this way: ‘creating a new product and selling it on the market, that’s easy. We all have desires and too much money to spend. But having one person really see the world differently, and change their minds, now that’s hard.’ I’m not one to praise impatience, and even – not always, but sometimes – found freedom in the deliberate slowness imposed by academic procedures. I rediscovered the world of otium, open intellectual leisure, that I first encountered in Year 12 philosophy. Here was a space where I could be free from the dominant logic of business. I would get no reward for ‘saving cost’ or ‘bringing revenue’. Quality standards were non-negotiable. This caused frustration, yes, but also protected my freedom to think, and for this, I am very grateful.

When I was close to completing, and at peak frustration, I described the PhD process as a deliberate exercise in humiliation. In retrospect, I think I was onto something. There is no good research without radical humility: that we know so little, that knowing is exhausting, that others resist correct knowledge. In the words of Pascal, that truth has no force of its own. Yet on the other end of humility comes deep self-confidence. With courage, and efforts, and discipline, I have touched on a solid kernel of correct knowledge. Others have seen and recognised it. So, whatever comes next, I’m probably not up to the task, but I might well be just as good as it gets. And that’s a doctor for you.

Three challenges of language learning

Language learners face three very distinct pedagogical challenges. Each demands very distinct pedagogical approaches. Yet most language courses tend not to distinguish them.

The first challenge is to learn the morphosyntax, vocabulary, phonetics and pragmatics of a specific language. For instance, learning French, I need to learn that the word for ‘grapefruit’ is ‘pamplemousse’, I need to master the phonetic realisation of French nasal sounds to pronounce (and recognise) the first syllable, learn about gender in nouns to use the word in a sentence (by the way, grapefruit is a boy). I also need to learn common ways to communicate intent through grammar and intonation, for instance, the word ‘pamplemousse’ used alone with a rising tone on the last syllable to mark surprise when someone is about to throw pieces of grapefuit into the bowl of punch – and stop their heresy.

The second challenge is learning to communicate in a language you do not fully master. This is a very distinct difficulty, which more generally ties on our capacity to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty. Low levels of linguistic mastery bring chaos in their wake. My phonetics are off, my vocabulary patchy, people misunderstand the words I’m using, or they must focus hard, and miss on other cues. I misunderstand their words and intention, my response is off, and after three cues, we’re both knee-deep in quicksands. This is exhausting cognitively, and emotionally draining. Survival requires personal resilience and self-awareness, but also the capacity to get help from strangers, and trigger their benevolence.

Finally, there is the challenge of incorporating the new language to your identity, and enacting a persona consistent with your own in the new medium. This is more than expressing meaning adequately, or attuning emotionally with a Frenchman: it’s about being ‘you’. More specifically, it’s about being ‘you’ as a wriggling, helpless linguistic larvae, stumbling on consonants and stifling on vowels. It’s ‘you’ desperately trying to keep the ‘pamplemousse’ off the punch, yet only producing meaningless foam (in French, ‘mousse’). It’s your adult self trapped in the linguistic body of a 2 year old, or worse. It’s you defining your relationship to smelly cheese, and politeness codes expressed in pronoun choices, and adapting your body language to the next context.

Incidentally, those are the very same challenges a new staff member faces when joining an organisation. Learn the jargon, master local norms of communication, and expand their persona to the new context. And so, if we were to do language learning right, just imagine the value for culture building across the board, from community groups to start-ups and large corporates. Oh but wait, I forgot, is ‘pamplemousse’ a boy or girl?

On arguing and listening

Sometimes, little linguistic observations reveal the deep shape of your thinking patterns. I was sitting at the breakfast table with my partner this morning, and said about the coming US election: ‘My friend X was saying the other day, no matter who wins the election, I think the US-China relationship will improve. It was fascinating to me how detached she seemed to be. As if, being Chinese, the US election was somewhat less existentially central to their world.’ My partner replied, interested ‘oh, why did they think the US-China relationship will improve?’ I experienced a very familiar sense of embarrassment. ‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘they didn’t say more, and I didn’t ask.’

People have often described me as open and accepting. Here is one of the manifestations. I often let people take positions without asking why, and I certainly don’t argue. My focus, when I listen, tends to be elsewhere.

Many people seem to like having positions, defending them, attacking the positions of others. The whole debating circus. I find all that about as dull as competitive sport. What interests me more is existential embodiment. Figuring out the personal, emotional, cultural details of why that person came to have that position at that time in history? What categories are they using to frame their position? What do those categories tell me about the world they inhabit? And what does all this tell me about the world that I inhabit, and the categories that shape my own thinking? For this, I must often be silent: if I started asking for justifications after every statement – or worse, if I was to start arguing – how would I ever hear enough that I can begin to sense how another person thinks, and how I think differently from them?

The result, however, is this regular sense of embarrassment when I discuss things with someone else, and realise, in the course of listening for categories, I took on someone else’s position, almost by default – repeated it, and find myself challenged on it. Often causing a measure of perplexity from the person I speak to, wondering how come I utter second-hand opinions, without knowing what reasoning goes behind them. Strength of your weaknesses, weaknesses of your strengths: the method I adopt to follow the thoughts of another person properly, comes with this regular blindspot.

Amplifying the signal

My partner used to take me to concerts – not so long ago, when concerts were still a thing. Last year, we listened to the Doric quartet. Walking back from Hamer Hall, I raved about that concert. Here is how I phrased it: their interpretation was such that I could identify the signal clearly – the melodic phrase, and the harmonic intention. There was a deliberate attempt at making sense of the score. Playing in that manner takes expertise, but also courage. Because, when you decide to interpret music in this manner, you state this is the music. No fudging. And if you made a wrong choice, inaccurate interpretation, people notice.

I had the same experience a while back, listening to Peter de Jaeger play a piece by Messiaen at an ANAM concert. Suddenly, there were echoes of jazz, it sounded like Gershwin. That was the message. I thought: ‘Of course, that was the musical world of Messiaen, no wonder he captured it, incorporated it to his work’. Peter de Jaeger revealed this to me, and showed how this piece fit in historically with others at the time, only by a choice of deliberate interpretation. He was reading the score, and shared the meaning he found with an audience. He made sense of the piece.

For this, he amplified a certain signal – melody, harmony, rhythm – isolating it, muffling the rest as noise. In the same way, the work of an editor is to amplify a signal. This is what I do, when editing: I look for the signal in the noise noise, then work with an author to amplify the first, and reduce the latter. It is a very personal process. I might be right or wrong. In fact, what I perceive may not even be clear to the author themselves. My unconscious brain, or whatever it is, comes into play.

Corollary: when a piece has nothing but noise, no signal, I will sense this, make it clear to the author. So, the skill – my gift, one may even say – is not my capacity to understand, but remain puzzled. In fact, I have never felt – or been – more useful than when I got puzzled.

 

On friendships in a global world

The rise of China, the rise of Asia, call for new personal and collective histories. In that effort, writers have a major role to play. We speak about ‘bringing cultures together’, but this expression is incredibly vague. Who’s ever interacted directly with a ‘culture’? No, we read books, listen to music, look at various artefacts, navigate foreign cities, and engage with individuals. So, the better way to phrase it would be, we must create conditions where friendships can be formed between people who do not belong to the same culture.

Friendship might begin out of pleasure or utility: that’s Aristotle. It grows as we come to appreciate the character of the other person. Friends come together because of shared activities: it is the foundation of cultural and economic activities. Friendship holds a city together. It is also the fabric of our ethical lives, and our political existence. But it goes beyond the boundaries of a city, those close networks of regular physical encounter. It exists also between cities, supporting trade, nurtured by a network of diplomats and merchants who know each other, trust each other, and enjoy each other’s company. Who share something together: that very network, that very connection between their main place of residence, and the communities that live there.

As the world becomes more global, that network is becoming broader and broader. We need new ways for the people belonging to those different worlds to come together.

Here is the crux: friendship exists on the basis of a shared virtue framework, anchored in common practices, and common judgements of what is good or bad – or shared criteria to assess it. How can friendship begin, and grow, between people who do not share this common framework, or a common vocabulary? That is the difficulty, but flip it around, and you find opportunity.  Friendship is political at heart, and therefore building new friendships is – genuinely – the way to change political structures. For with it comes a new vocabulary, a new understanding of virtue, new norms – and new collectives. Friendship is the most potent political antidote to tyranny – the Greeks knew that very well. As did the French revolutionaries, who proposed to list not only family relationships, but friendships on their registry, and declared ‘who has no friend shall be banished from the Republic’.

The root of society, this is what I propose here, is not family but friendship. Connection between families. Like a web. So, when studying abroad, when travelling, the injunction to ‘make friends with locals’ is not benign. This is how radical change might come about.

This network of friendship is, in turn, an ecosystem for trust. It is a way to overcome the prisoner’s dilemma: tragedies of the common have this element in common, that people fail to collaborate effectively, maximise their own interest at the expense of others. Not so with friends, we work together to find balance. Climate change, ecosystem collapse: a proper understanding of friendship – could – help us find a way forward. Because we need to build new collectives, united by new shared understandings of what is good, and communicating this through new language. And then, as we face a period of fast change, we will need the warm emotional support of friendship, simply to get through.

The proposal then is – could we build a friendship school for the 21st century? What would this look like? Please share ideas in comments, or reach out if you’d like to discuss!