Separated by a common language

We are used to language and geography indicating cultural differences, and it’s easy to forget that cultural differences exist just fine even when linguistic and geographical boundaries are removed.  There’s a shock of surprise when people whose entirely understandable words are only a click away turn out to have different assumptions, different beliefs, different attitudes and different cultural references.

One of the things that’s still cool about the web is that it gives us un-mediated access to other people.  Quite literally so.  It lets us find other people’s words without filtering them through TV or Film or News or any other medium.  Simply clicking around WordPress here gives me access to all sorts of people with all sorts of attitudes and all sorts of beliefs. But because they write in English, it’s all to easy for me to assume that we have far more in common than in fact we do.  It’s only when I read what they have say that I realise that one of us is barking. The apparent transparency of the internet shows us just how culturally fractured the English-speaking world actually is, but we have to be paying attention to notice it.

The Son of Roj Blake commented on how easy it is for cultural references to just whizz past in his remarks about the opening credits of The Watchmen:

how many 18 year olds (or anyone, for that matter) would recognise or be able to explain the significance of (in order):
– the Enola Gay at 0:51
– the subversion of an iconic photo from Times Square at 1:11 (in our universe, that nurse was kissed by a sailor, and the photo made the cover of Time magazine. You can see the sailor in the background…)
– would they know who the guy shaking Dr. Manhattan’s hand at 2:28 is? Would they recognise his wife on the left?…

He’s right: those references are accessible and inaccessible at the same time. They are accessible because it is a globally released English-language film and they are inaccessible because they are culturally specific to one nation and one generation. I finally understand the point that George Bernard Shaw was making when he said: ‘England and America are two nations separated by a common language’.

This separation is invidious because we don’t expect it.  We try harder when there are linguistic barriers because we actively expect differences in attitudes and beliefs and cultural references and we cut some slack accordingly or make an effort to bridge the gap.  As Obelix says so often in the Asterix books:

These Germans / British / Spanish / Romans are crazy…

Take those linguistic barriers away and all sorts of odd things happen.  We can miss cultural references without even knowing we are missing them as SoRB observed with the Watchmen trailer. But we assume a greater similarity than there is, which is one of the reasons that Sarah Palin seemed unreal to Britons, like some kind of bizzare caricature.  She was almost impossible for us to understand: we had no concrete cultural references for her. If her foreignness had been signalled by a foreign language we might have recognised the cultural differences for what they were.  We would have realised that she was real and not some engineered cross between Barbie and Lara Croft.

As with so many things, Douglas Adams put his finger deftly on it when he described that instantaneous and universal translator the Babel fish:

Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.
The Hitch Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams.

I’m still thinking this whole thing through, but the long and the short of it is that the world is a whole lot more multi-faceted and culturally fractured than we think.  The internet appears to break down barriers and boundaries, but in fact as any comments thread on YouTube shows us those barriers and boundaries are alive and well.


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8 responses to “Separated by a common language

  1. I’m thankful for difference even if having a common language does cause confusion.

    I can’t think of anything worse than this planet having a homogenised population.
    We’d probably end up, like the ancient Easter Islanders, arguing over the more subtle differences like size of nose etc.

    People like Sarah Palin exist in order to make the rest of us feel superior.

    • And she does it so well… 😀

      She still frightens me. But what really frightens me is the number of people who genuinely think she’s wonderful.

      Ach, this isn’t meant to be a political blog.

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

  2. I’ve come to the conclusion that all communication is superficial and illusory, and that we are all more different than we imagine. We pretend otherwise, because to acknowledge the reality of our differences would send us mad.

    One fundamental necessity of functioning in society is the ability to understand that other people are, well, PEOPLE. Each of us has an inner life, a personal conscious monologue defining our impressions of the world. Without that, we’d not be people, we’d be unconscious automata. For some people, this appears obvious. For others, less so. Some people never get it, and those people are labelled “autistic”. I get it, but I have to concentrate. It’s a conscious effort to continually remind myself that other people experience the world just like I do, with an inner monologue, conscious attitudes driven by feelings and thoughts, and a feeling of self.

    It is therefore massively disconcerting when someone demonstrates, by something they do or say, that in fact any similarity to the way I think is me deluding myself, and that in fact they’re not like me at all. At that point, I’m lost. If they’re not like me, what are they like? Never mind what is it like to be a bat, what is it like to be a Creationist? They’re the same species as me, by some definitions. (Then again, by others, they’re not. I couldn’t interbreed with a creationist, for instance, although admittedly that’s only by my own choice…) How can something that looks, acts and talks almost entirely like me can operate so differently at a fundamental level?

    That, I just don’t get. And frankly, I find it a bit scary. And I think other people do, too. Because we all stick our heads in the sand and pretend we’re all the same really, when all the evidence tells us we’re not. But then, what’s the alternative? Global anarchy. See you back under the sand…

  3. Interesting. We have the same problem with people in the past too. They used the same words but in different ways or within a different conceptual framework. It’s something i’m aware of when i’m reading literature written centuries ago, but sometimes the issue can arise closer to the present and in subtle ways. For instance, i’ve just finished a book in which the French philosopher Roland Barthes mulls over the meaning of photographs. Only towards the end of the book did i fully grasp that for Barthes a photograph is always a physical object, an image on photographic paper; whereas along with others of my generation i talk of “printing a photograph out”. A shift in meaning that will become even more pronounced as fewer and fewer people bother to print them out.

    • How very interesting eyoki.

      I had a similar moment when I realised that for the author of the Odyssey, everything in it could have been true, from one-eyed giants to sorceresses turning men into pigs and back again. How would one negotiate a world where those things could happen?

      That still blows my mind when I think about it.

      Thanks for dropping by.

  4. I agree that people are lulled into a false sense of security by bein able to communicate, but then the Internet does also allow you to interact with people from elsewghere, geographically or philosophically, for long enough to find out that they aren’t joking, they really do think like that, and sometimes you can see why.

    I don’t think that I would have realised that not everybody is a more or less secret lefty quite as quickly without it, although obviously going to a foreign country and meeting people from other foreign countries did help. Still, because in real life you spend a lot of time getting along and talking about the weather, even that can cover up the deeper disagreements until it’s two in the morning and the third bottle of vodka. By which time everyone is too incoherent to make a good argument anyway.

    I’m not sure it will do any good. I spent a while a couple of years ago trying to convince myself that because when you teach history you have to teach historical empathy, ie exactly the sort of thing eyoki is talking about, it actually encourages tolerance, as the first step to not shooting the outsider is, I think, some rudiamentary appreciation of the idea that different doesn’t mean bad or stupid or whatever. Sadly I never really was that enamoured of the argument, and in any case ’empathy’ is not on the curriculum because people confused it with ‘sympathy’.

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