Saturday, August 18, 2007

Diversity and trust

A little while back, I posted Robert A. Heinlein's credo. As reported by John Derbyshire, it went like this:

Eschewing any religious or metaphysical affirmations, Heinlein laid out his social credo: “I believe in my neighbors... in my townspeople... in my fellow citizens.” He went on to write about his local priest, whose “goodness and charity and loving kindness shine in his daily actions. ... If I’m in trouble, I’ll go to him.” (Heinlein was an atheist, by the way.) Heinlein’s next-door neighbor, he tells us, was a veterinarian: “Doc will get out of bed after a hard day to help a stray cat — no fee, no prospect of a fee.”

Heinlein went on to praise the charity and conscientiousness of his fellow citizens: “For the one who says, ‘The heck with you, I've got mine,’ there are a hundred, a thousand, who will say, ‘Sure, pal, sit down.’ I know that despite all warnings against hitchhikers, I can step to the highway, thumb for a ride, and in a few minutes a car or a truck will stop and someone will say, ‘Climb in, Mack. How far you going?’ ... I believe in the honest craft of workmen. Take a look around you. There never were enough bosses to check up on all that work. From Independence Hall to the Grand Coulee Dam, these things were built level and square by craftsmen who were honest in their bones.”

Derbyshire went on to offer an explanation for the disappearance of this world. Firstly, the means by which we got rid of some unsatisfactory aspects of that world were such that, along with them, we lost "civilizational confidence". I had no trouble with that. His second reason struck me as both true and unpleasant. We had passed from social homogeneity to diversity. When I posted the Heinlein quote I said very little else, in part so as not to deal with that.

The other day, I came across a piece in the WSJ called "The Death of Diversity" by Daniel Henniger. In it, he reports the findings of Robert Putnam, a Harvard don, whose researchers did 30,000 interviews in 41 U.S. communities and whose conclusions were that "in areas of greater diversity, our respondents demonstrate:

Lower confidence in local government, local leaders and the local news media.
Lower political efficacy – that is, confidence in their own influence.
Lower frequency of registering to vote, but more interest and knowledge about politics and more participation in protest marches and social reform groups.
Less expectation that others will cooperate to solve dilemmas of collective action (e.g., voluntary conservation to ease a water or energy shortage).
Less likelihood of working on a community project.
Lower likelihood of giving to charity or volunteering.
Fewer close friends and confidants.
Less happiness and lower perceived quality of life.
More time spent watching television and more agreement that 'television is my most important form of entertainment."

[The above list is actually from this post, which Derbyshire had linked to, but which I didn't see originally.]

Putnam was not pleased by his results, and nor were his colleagues.

Prof. Putnam and his team re-ran the data every which way from Sunday and the result was always the same: Diverse communities may be yeasty and even creative, but trust, altruism and community cooperation fall. He calls it "hunkering down."

How does trust break down? Obviously, language difficulties would be play their part, but I suspect it's more to to do with less definable factors than the level of someone's English.

I saw one small example of this on a language teaching course in the 80s. Linguists had arranged that 2 people entered a post office, requested a form, then changed their minds and requested a different one. The first person was a native English speaker; the second a Pakistani whose English was structurally perfect. Both used the same words, both the same register: formal and polite. The reaction of the clerk serving them, however, was perceptibly different. He showed signs of impatience with the second speaker that were entirely absent before.

Many would jump to the conclusion that the clerk was racist. But there was another factor to consider: intonation. Its importance should not be underestimated.

Anyone who has learnt or taught another language will know that  intonation is even harder than pronunciation to get right. It may well be the first aspect of spoken language that we learn as babies, and it is incredibly difficult to acquire another language's pitch patterns. 

I discovered this in two ways. I taught English for a long time and can remember one or two adult learners out of thousands whose intonation was even close to a native speaker's. When I was learning Italian, it was the thing which gave me the most difficulty, and I would try to imitate Italians with a flatter, less expressive intonation just to get round that insuperable barrier.

Because it makes such a difference. Every teacher must have had students that made them feel violent just because of their tone of voice. Perfectly civil Germans would have me clenching my fists, and it was simply that they were speaking innocent English words with a German intonation, and sounded rude

In the case above, the Pakistani used an intonation that to a fellow Urdu speaker expressed politeness, but to English ears sounded very much like, "you idiot". He most definitely did not mean to 'say' that; he knew he was being filmed. But that is how he sounded.

A little thing, but one of many. Trust requires predictability in social relations, but that takes in whole worlds of behaviour, much of which is unconscious and all of which is very easily misinterpreted.

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