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!

Looking back on my 35 year-old self – #1

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion. 

14 december

Three years ago, I left Hong Kong for Melbourne, at the end of a three-week scholarship in Tianjin that was going to profoundly change my life. In Tianjin, during a night of insomnia, I dreamt of building a website inviting learners to collaborate on the translation of new writing from China. Many details were clear in my mind’s eye – not the design, but the navigation, the shape of the community, who would come, what they would be able to do. I took a notebook in the dark, so that I wouldn’t wake up my roommate, and wrote the details in it.

Three years ago, Marco Polo Project was just a name and an idea. Now it’s my profession.

Why is this the first thing that came to mind when I decided to write this piece? I wasn’t starting with my professional career in mind. It’s 17 days to the end of the year, and I wanted to launch a project: every day, write a short reflexive piece about myself – where I’m going, where I’ve been. I’m hoping to gain some insight and energy from these reflections. I just read through the front pages of my five-year diary. I was full of confidence last year – I had become a social entrepreneur, I was being recognized as an expert on China, I made contacts, I raised three thousand dollars on pozible. I’m objectively further ahead this year – I got thirty eight thousand dollars in grants, I’m organizing an international literature festival and taking a delegation of social entrepreneurs to China – hey, I’m doing well. But, strangely, my confidence is much lower than it was last year.

Last year, I was accepted in established worlds. Last year, in 2012 – that’s almost two years ago now – my contact with the Department of Primary Industries was finishing, and I was over the moon at the prospect of, maybe, working as a communications person for Philip Kingston. I’ve got many contacts with him now – and with other, equally important people – Rick Chen, Liu Yan. If everything else failed, I could probably work for them, and it would be much better. So why am I feeling this way, as if I had wasted my time – why the doubt? Professionally, I am in a better position to get a great job now than I was two years ago.

Or am I? I got older. I’m not in my twenties anymore, and I’m heading towards forty. These two years were a burst of youth – trying things and taking risks – but hey – I can’t start over forever. I’m turning thirty-six – I’m twice eighteen in less than a month. Twice eighteen. That sense of doubt may be the cycle starting again. Twice eighteen, four times nine. Where was I at twenty-seven? I broke up with my five-year partner. At eighteen – I left the town where I grew up. What major change will happen in my thirty sixth year? What stable aspect of my life will shift? These two major changes I could foresee – but I don’t really know which one will come next.

I didn’t use to fear aging. I don’t think I do yet. But I have financial anxieties. What about my retirement? What if I can’t ever have a proper income? What if I am suddenly sick? I’m also worried for my health. My strange toenail fungus. My bizarre dizzy spells of the last week. But then I’ve always had health anxieties, and none of them were ever founded.

I think what I want is to find a road ahead. When I arrived in Australia, almost five years ago, everything was a ‘to do’ – make friends, discover my environment, become proficient in English, find a way to get income. I did all that – so what comes next? The moment I became a citizen, I fled the country for China. But I’m back in a month. What then? What’s my second Australian five-year plan?

 

What projects have I not yet brought to life, that I carried with me, and started:

  • a documentary film about ghosts
  • a photographic journey through suburban church architecture
  • a series of reflexive interviews with sellers of religious object
  • the Lesbian sequel of Honey Pot

What old projects are still in me that I might revive?

  • collective nouns in English and Chinese
  • the copy-shop – memories of Paris in the naughties
  • Saint Just
  • Voyage aux Antipodes et considerations sur la revolution francaise – a French-Australian moralist

What is coming over the horizon, that I didn’t anticipate five years ago

  • African connections
  • Social enterprise and international third sector partnerships
  • China seen by the Chinese – Chinese diversity
  • Chinese mental health and well-being.

The most important, maybe, to acknowledge, is that not everybody carries a list of twelve projects in their head, that they would really like to bring to life. If I’m feeling tired – that may be normal. But I should think of these – I do want to bring as many of them as I can to life – and for that, I need energy, joy – health will help – balance and focus. So no more anxious hesitation! I don’t know what I’ll bring to life in 2014, but something will happen. And if Marco Polo collapses, if other projects collapse – I have more to do.

I’ll be alright – mate.

On goal setting

There is a structural weakness to goal setting practices. For if you can articulate a goal from the start, then go through the motions, and hit the mark, you’re probably using a borrowed framework. You’re playing someone else’s game.

Sure, you might win, with luck and discipline. Like there’s always a winning horse in a race. But that’s not my gig. Instead, I try acting first, clumsily, messing with the concrete –  hoping the goal will reveal itself afterwards, retrospectively. I find it more human.

Intellectual labour – on bullshit

As we get out of lockdown, and my PhD comes to an end, I will share a short series of posts, write-ups from past notes and drafts, on the art of writing and the nature of intellectual labour.

The English languages likes a certain fuzziness in its use of words. The French are more literal: language must stick to the world. Is it because the French study philosophy, and philosophy is all about defining the properties of things, elaborating the clearest possible language? It is a general trait of French thinking then, that things have to be “clear” – what people sometimes call Cartesian?

When my Ozzie partner and I were living in Paris, he used to say “French people are so earnest”. He was giving English classes then, as Australians do, helping insurance brokers speakers better English. This took the form of simple small talk, with questions like “do you like the mountain or the beach more.” And he was constantly complaining to me: “They all say it depends! Of course it depends, but can’t they just, I don’t know, take a side for the fun of it?” This response came out as a desire to say the truth, but Philip was shocked. He went on to describe “debating”, an adversarial practice where two teams of three people compete to support or rebuff a ‘contention’: I had never heard of it before.

Reflecting back, the practice resembles what Harry G. Frankfurt’s describes in his book On Bullshit. A “bull session” is a conversation among men where they “try on” various identities and opinions. Bullshit being defined as “thinking that you’re not fully adhering to”. I heard of similar sessions from my father and Italian ex-boyfriend – how at the family table in the Mediterranean, you would embrace a certain point of view, opposing somebody else, just to mark interest. On the opposite, another ex-boyfriend, who was from Western France, would always say – this is not exactly how it is, and methodically, slowly, try to refine the use of the adjectives and nouns, until, collegially, a perfect definition of the issue was found.

In one of his essays, Alain defines French-ness as characterised by a deep sense of necessity. French women don’t get fat is based on a similar premise – nothing excessive. Our training in philosophy is about that same sense of necessity: defining concepts, slowly, methodically, developing a sense of speech that is clear and appropriate.  Using the necessary words to describe a thought – no more, no less. Translation plays a big part in that intellectual training: it’s not about debating a point, but finding the exact correct words and syntax.

This sense of necessity applies to language. No bullshit. Bullshit, however, is much more developed in the anglo and Mediterranean worlds, and goes together with a sense of humour – building a character, saying things that obviously aren’t true. We studied Lewis Carroll and the nonsensical school at university. There is no French equivalent for nonsense. Why would you say something that makes no sense?

But so, why do we engage in bullshit? Says Frankfurt, you see bullshit when people are asked to speak or have opinions in matters they don’t really know about. Asking everyone’s opinions will lead to bullshit. Just as pursuing sincerity (truth to oneself) rather than truthfulness (truth to the world) leads to bullshit. When I was in high school, and we were writing essays, the general rule was ‘your opinion does not matter’. I was trained to think against debating. And probably became a better thinker for it.

values cards project – spirituality

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: When I hear ‘spirituality’, the first picture that comes to mind is the Virgin of Lourdes in a yoga pose. A bunch of ex-hippies, some sort of new age thing. A mix of tradition, moral education, Kumbaya community. A sort of, Canada Dry, it looks like religion, but it’s not religion.

B: I like that you’re articulate spirituality and religion. Let me try a definition. For me, spirituality is about relating to something greater than yourself. Buddhism, for instance, is a spirituality. Though now it’s also a religion in Japan, with established schools, and distinct symbols, and people who belong to it or not. So, yes, that would be the distinction. Religion is about formal schools, symbols, and a group with clear boundaries. You’re in it or you’re not. But spirituality, it’s looser. I’ve actually seen the word… there is this thing, this website called Kumbini, where you see two words, and you must pick one. One of the pairs that often comes up is religion vs spirituality. Most artists choose spirituality. It’s almost as if religion was an insult.

A: I’ve been associating spirituality with a form of new age commodification. And so, from a religious perspective, a Christian perspective if you want, there’s something sinful about it. It’s fetishism, idolatry. Then there’s this illusion of choice. That when you talk spirituality, you choose a tradition, like you can pick your favourite yoghurt at the supermarket. It’s the opposite with religion, tradition picks you, and then you can accept it, or you can refuse. Even when you convert, it’s about acceptance, rather than a proper choice. Spirituality, it’s not about conversion, it’s, yes, it’s consumerism.

B: Maybe, it’s a bit like, rationalism. Look at France and the cult of republic. It’s not just the cult of established power, there is a certain… ideal. We could call it French Republican monotheism, we replaced the kind with a president-king, and we have an atheistic dogma to replace the dogmatic church. And then there’s the rejection of communities, particularly Muslims, they’re too religious, too different.

A: I’ve always thought an enlightened Catholic is better than a dim atheist. And the question here is, do we fight religion, or dogma, or just stupidity? But there’s another take on this, when we were speaking, I started to think about this thing, the cult of the Holy Spirit, and mad preachers in the Church. They could qualify as ‘spiritual’, quite literally. That’s, those American mega-churches, then? Are they ‘spirituality’, while the more established rituals, they’re religion? And so, then again, maybe that’s the ultimate downfall, when monotheism meets commercial practice. So maybe yes, spirituality does represent an intrinsic corruption of religion?

B: I wonder, what do you think would be spirituality for a rational, atheistic society? I think, when we took political power away from the church in France, we took out the good, and there is nothing really to replace it.

A: Well, there is the cult of common ancestors, the Pantheon and the ‘Great Men’ of the Republic. The unknown soldier. War monuments as landmarks of atheistic, republican spirituality. But there is something, I don’t know, kitsch about this. It’s like those shops in Paris, they called them ‘boutiques de creation’, they were selling arts and craft supplies, beads, ribbons, paper, that kind of stuff. And I always thought, it corrupted the meaning of creation. Trivialised it.

B: For sure, New Age caused more harm than good to spirituality. Because now, we can no longer talk about spirituality without seeming like we’re about to call in a Hare Krishna.

A: Could it be that, if we look again at those American mega-churches, or Pentecost even, there’s a revolutionary potential in spirituality, when it becomes common practice. It can create new communities, almost instantly. But when it’s just an individual practice, then it’s only consumerism.

B: So, could we say that one goal of religion is to establish new norms of exchange, based on a gift economy. And so, when enough people join, that’s very challenging to structures of power. But if it remains a set of disconnected individual practices, then it’s not a problem. So, religion is dangerous to the powers in place, but not spirituality?

A: That may be true. That we’ve limited spirituality to just individualism, and it reduces its subversive potential. While if you can extend it to the community, then it becomes the basis for new forms of solidarity, and it can threaten the power of the state. And for individuals, it’s the end of slavery.

B: I’m thinking now about those religious practices that have a social impact, like Zakat among Muslims. You give 2% of your income either to the poor, or to the mosque. And that’s somehow in addition to tax, but also creates another pool of money, parallel to what the state gets from tax. And here, I don’t know, I think we could say the divine goes before the state, this religious duty trumps tax, and that’s not in the interest of the state. It’s a counter-power.

A: In the same way that the Christian martyrs were resisting the power of the Roman state. And what this shows you, maybe, is that non-violence always wins in the long term. Because it’s just about the refusal to obey. But – that’s the greatest paradox of political philosophy, that La Boetie put forward, why do we do what we’re told? And if people start to refuse obedience, then everything collapses. Power is based on voluntary serfdom. And for that, non-violence is the most threatening strategy. It’s undermining the very basis of power structures. And so, that’s what spirituality can achieve, even maybe for individuals.

values cards project – respect

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: OK, I’ll start with that. I like to think of respect as a kind of mutual distancing, a power equilibrium if you want. It’s about finding stability, and it always involves, yes, distance between individuals.

B: Well, for me, respect has to do with authority. So, I have this impression that respect implies an unequal relationship, a power relationship. And it’s not about natural authority, like when you join a movement, because there’s a charismatic leader, but authority within an existing hierarchy. That’s what respect is about for me. Also, it’s the same when you think about filial respect, my impression is, it’s got to do with authority, with a relationship that’s clearly unequal.

A: I wonder how the two relate. I can’t, every time I think about respect… you know the commandment that says ‘respect your mother and father’. I had a conversation with a friend, it was a long time ago, when I was at university, but it stayed with me. They were studying Arabic, and said, based on the etymology, the words of this commandment said something like ‘far your mother, far your father’. Keep your parents at a respectful distance. That’s what it’s about, not a kind of emotional worship, or submission, but it’s about keeping your distance with them. Don’t get caught up in their affairs. Keep them at arm’s length.

B: I don’t know, when I think of respect… There’s two words in Japanese, ‘sonjo’ and ‘sonke’. The first is universal, unconditional respect, the kind of respect you should have for any human being. Even a jerk, they deserve that minimal level respect, sonjo. The other, sonke, it’s closer to what we would call esteem. It’s conditional. You don’t have to esteem everyone, or anyone. Esteem is based on a quality that someone has, whether it’s a certain ethical trait, or a technical skill, or a craft. But that’s not for everyone, not necessarily.

A: So, that makes me think of conversations I’ve had often about work and payment. With writers and artists, or with young people. That they feel a professional lack of respect, when they’re expected to work for free, talk for free, even when it’s an unpaid internship. It’s very strong in the arts, and the community sector, because there’s so many people there who don’t get paid, or not properly, and then after a while it breeds resentment, and it’s experienced, yes, as a lack of respect.

B: Maybe we’re touching something then, something about respect, youth, and anger. You know the figure of angry young men – angry young people in general – they’re angry because they want respect, and they’re not getting it. There’s an expectation there, from them, but it’s a confused expectation. Part of it is that unconditional human respect, and maybe that has to do with adulthood, they want to receive what any other human is receiving. But another part has to do with what we’re calling esteem, conditional respect. Only the two get mingled, it’s not quite clear what they want, so they feel frustrated, and angry.

A: We’ve got this way of thinking about unconditional respect, professionally when we say that ‘tout travel mérite salaire’. Because you do have the case of interns, who don’t get paid. And here, well, true, power relationships are not in their favour, they feel maybe, that they need to work for nothing, and they’re not respected in that sense. But then, it’s not necessarily the case that they should have esteem for what they do, many, they’re starting, it’s good that they’re out there, but they’re not doing wonderful work, they’re still learning. And so yes, the two things get mingled, and everybody’s angry.

B: So, maybe yes, there is a confusion between what we feel is our right to respect, unconditionally, and then this idea that you get respect on the basis of achievement, success. And the result is what you see sometimes, people who feel they have a right to be successful, and they get angry when they’re not, but that’s just because we messed up with the categories. It’s like, everybody wants to work in the sexy industries, like working for the arts or in graphic design or start ups, or whatever. But they won’t accept not to be paid for it. And that creates a power relationship that’s not favorable to the workers. And then, the personal desire for success, as the basis for respect, it becomes a problem for the whole community.

A: We had this thing, in Australia, a big movement to ‘pay the writer’. And I always found there was confusion in what people were asking for. It was surprising even, that writers, intellectuals, were confusing categories. I mean, they were looking for ways that writers would live with more dignity, and get their bills and rent paid, and that’s very fair. But then they were also – it was like, there was a right to be paid, for whatever you wrote, and the desire to be paid for their writing, not in another way – because that would somehow validate their status. It was messy, it still is, I find.

B: Well, we all have a need for recognition I think, but the question is, how is this recognition materialized, how is it generated socially, and how is it perceived? I mean, one characteristic of a neoliberal society is that we’ve commodified everything. And so, recognition goes through money. If you can’t get money for it, it has no value. So; the writers want to be paid for their writing because otherwise – it has no value, and they won’t be respected for it.

A: You’re right. There’s a need for recognition – esteem, for craft and effort – and there’s a need for food and shelter, but people conflate both, and they turn that into the need to be paid for their art, and so they can’t think about it creatively.

B: I wonder, if it’s the same for the young people you were talking about. They’ve got a need for some esteem, and that’s about identity, finding out who they are and where they can excel. It’s even, maybe, to help with their decision making. And then there’s a different aspect, that’s material needs to be met. And we’ve got a problem when we can’t find a way to separate those two.

A: That’s what I like about the idea of a universal basic income. It actually dissociates those two. You’ve got unconditional respect, on the basis of human dignity, and you get food and shelter. But then you’ve got esteem, and that depends on your achievements – and when you’ve got a universal basic income, that might be monetized or not, it no longer matters so much. I think, that need to monetise everything, it’s a problem for society. We push people to selfishness. While with all moral codes, they’re all about pushing people to be less selfish.

B: Maybe then it is about courage, and virtue. Because – there’s a lot of mediocrity. Generally speaking, we’re all rather mediocre. And we can move away from mediocrity, just a little, when we’re in the right environment. And if you’re in a setting that allows you to be less mediocre by default, then you don’t need so much courage to do things – but then do you deserve more respect? That’s what I wonder.

A: It’s like, international development, should you think of it as a form of justice, or charity? And if you’re simply doing the right thing, should you be praised for it? I mean, there’s this image in the Gospel of the widow who gives a little coin to the temple, but Jesus says she deserves most respect, because she had so little to start with.

B: It’s the same thing in Buddhism. If you give an offering of something you don’t need, it doesn’t count. You must give from the things you need, and then you will get merit.

A: Something I wonder, are we so decadent that we praise people for doing something like giving up what they don’t need. It’s a little depressing.

B: It is a little depressing. It’s, I mean it’s hypocrisy too, and I don’t know that it’s a new thing. I mean, there are many people who just want to look good, but then the cynicism comes through. Their way to gain respect is by moralizing others and judging them, but then they don’t apply the same criteria to themselves, and those people, I mean they deserve fundamental respect, yes, but not our esteem.

A: So, do you think, social, where we direct our esteem is fundamental question, and a fundamental mechanism, to promote certain behaviors?

B: Well, yes – and so, we might wonder then, what could we do, to give conditional respect in a way that promotes more prosocial behavior? Like, maybe we need not just universal basic income, but also more recognition for the most socially useful jobs, and then that will get us somewhere?

Values cards project – happiness

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: There is a song by a Belgian singer, Angele, that’s about happiness, and it says: ‘Il n’existe pas sans son contraire.’ I like that song, and I’ve been thinking, it’s probably difficult to recognise happiness, while unhapiness, that’s something you can recognise.

B: Maybe it’s that, one way to define happiness is just as an absence of suffering. So, there is no proper definition, we just look for its opposite.

A: You know the buzzword in startups, ‘chief happiness officer’. I hate it, it makes it sound like happiness is something that the company will try to sell you. Maybe you know this guy? Arnaud C**. That’s his whole platform. Pure platitude.

B: What if we tried to see it from a different angle? I like to think of happiness as a well-functioning immune system. Like a form of Nietschean ‘Great Health’, it works like a kind of armor, it’s, somewhat artificial, and protective.

A: What about this? We could say that most of the things we think about are things that will happen in the future. And they will only happen if we believe that they will. So, happiness is about our approach the world, the way we choose to encounter things. And there are different forms of approach, some more positive, some more negative. But if you somehow anchor yourself in the present, then there is a form of happiness that’s directly connected to this sense of a better future. And so, yes, maybe happiness is just something that derives from hope?

B: Maybe we can tie this with etymology. ‘Hap’ – or ‘heur’ in French – it has to do with what happens, what unfolds. And so maybe, thinking about hope, happiness is a certain way to perceive our environment as conducive to something positive, and that will naturally unfold into the future. If we think of it this way, we can make sense of injunctions, like Gide says, that it is our duty to make ourselves happy. It’s about cultivating a relationship with the world that sees the possibility of future good. And that relationship is experienced in the present as happiness.

A: So maybe, this also tells me something about cynicism and suspicion. When I reject what I would call ‘happiness in a can’, those happiness recipes and tricks and chief happiness officers, maybe that has to do with my own sophistication. I’m saying, this wouldn’t work for me, therefore it’s intrinsically wrong. Or it there is some truth to it, it would work, but only for less sophisticated people. But when I think like that, I fall into the pit of snobbism.

B: I like this image of ‘happiness in a can’. If we come back to the idea of happiness as an immune system, maybe that kind of happiness you describe is like an over-reactive immune system, and that’s dangerous, for individuals and for the collective. It’s like an allergic reaction, it can kill you. Or like drugs, it helps in the short term, but it’s harmful in the long run. Because, that kind of artificial happiness, It disconnects you from the real.

A: Or maybe it’s just that this ‘in a can’ feature, this pre-formatted message, it negates a characteristic of happiness, that it’s always experienced on a personal level, not as an abstract universal.

B: Is it then that this ‘happiness in a can’ presents happiness as a means, not an end in itself?

A: Yes, while wisdom traditions, like the Greeks, take happiness, eudemonia, as an end in itself, as a form of healthy relationship with the world.

B: But could it be that happiness is precisely the means to this healthy, fair, harmonious relationship with the world?

A: I think, happiness is a personal thing, it’s experienced individually, not collectively. It’s impossible for a collective to pursue personal goals. So, we cannot pursue happiness as a group. It doesn’t make sense.

B: Well, that would be particularly true if, as we said in the beginning, happiness is hard to define. Because if an end, or a goal, is hard to define, it is also difficult to pursue. And so, we could shift things a little and say the collective goal is to pursue the absence of unhappiness, but that’s way more depressing.

A: Doesn’t Aristotle write about happiness as a type of satisfaction that directly derives from the pursuit an activity? So maybe, we should think of happiness as an aristocratic type of virtue. That’s what you see today in startups, and all this talk about, your work should make you happy. You can get that kind of happiness if you’ve got slaves who do the dirty work. It’s probably not so easy to feel happiness from your activity when you’re a cleaner or a delivery person. And so –the practice of virtue that leads to happiness, that takes time, and it calls for certain conditions. So, there’s something dangerous about this discourse that says we should pursue happiness, and if we’re not feeling happy, we’re doing something wrong. I think, it’s hiding something, it’s not in touch with the real.