Hackery, Math & Design

Steven Wittens i

In Search of Sophistication

In Search of Sophistication

Cover Image

Cultural Assimilation, Theory vs Practice

The other day, I read the following, shared 22,000+ times on social media:

"Broken English is a sign of courage and intelligence, and it would be nice if more people remembered that when interacting with immigrants and refugees."

This resonates with me, as I spent 10 years living on the other side of the world. Eventually I lost my accent in English, which took conscious effort and practice. These days I live in a majority French city and neighborhood, as a native Dutch speaker. When I need to call a plumber, I first have to go look up the words for "drainage pipe." When my barber asks me what kind of cut I want, it mostly involves gesturing and "short".

This is why I am baffled by the follow-up, by the same person:

"Thanks to everyone commenting on the use of 'broken' to describe language. You're right. It is problematic. I'll use 'beginner' from now on."

It's not difficult to imagine the pile-on that must've happened for the author to add this note. What is difficult to imagine is that anyone who raised the objection has actually ever thought about it.



Consider what this situation looks like to an actual foreigner who is learning English and trying to speak it. While being ostensibly lauded for their courage, they are simultaneously shown that the English language is a minefield where an expression as plain as "broken English" is considered a faux pas, enough to warrant a public correction and apology.

To stay in people's good graces, you must speak English not as the dictionary teaches you, but according to the whims and fashions of a highly volatile and easily triggered mass. They effectively demand you speak a particular dialect, one which mostly matches the sensibilities of the wealthier, urban parts of coastal America. This is an incredibly provincial perspective.

The objection relies purely on the perception that "broken" is a word with a negative connotation. It ignores the obvious fact that people who speak a language poorly do so in a broken way: they speak with interruptions, struggling to find words, and will likely say things they don't quite mean. The dialect demands that you pretend this isn't so, by never mentioning it directly.

But in order to recognize the courage and intelligence of someone speaking a foreign language, you must be able to see past such connotations. You must ignore the apparent subtleties of the words, and try to deduce the intended meaning of the message. Therefor, the entire sentiment is self-defeating. It fell on such deaf ears that even the author seemingly missed the point. One must conclude that they don't actually interact with foreigners much, at least not ones who speak broken English.

The sentiment is a good example of what is often called a luxury belief: a conviction that doesn't serve the less fortunate or abled people it claims to support. Often the opposite. It merely helps privileged, upper-class people feel better about themselves, by demonstrating to everyone how sophisticated they are. That is, people who will never interact with immigrants or refugees unless they are already well integrated and wealthy enough.

By labeling it as "beginner English," they effectively demand an affirmation that the way a foreigner speaks is only temporary, that it will get better over time. But I can tell you, this isn't done out of charity. Because I have experienced the transition from speaking like a foreigner to speaking like one of them. People treat you and your ideas differently. In some ways, they cut you less slack. In other ways, it's only then that they finally start to take you seriously.

Let me illustrate this with an example that sophisticates will surely be allergic to. One time, while at a bar, when I still had my accent, I attempted to colloquially use a particular word. That word is "nigga." With an "a" at the end. In response, there was a proverbial record scratch, and my companions patiently and carefully explained to me that that was a word that polite people do not use.

No shit, Sherlock. You live on a continent that exports metric tons of gangsta rap. We can all hear and see it. It's really not difficult to understand the particular rules. Bitch, did I stutter?

Even though I had plenty of awareness of the linguistic sensitivities they were beholden to, in that moment, they treated me like an idiot, while playing the role of a more sophisticated adult. They saw themselves as empathetic and concerned, but actually demonstrated they didn't take me fully seriously. Not like one of them at all.

If you want people's unconditional respect, here's what did work for me: you go toe-to-toe with someone's alcoholic wine aunt at a party, as she tries to degrade you and your friend, who is the host. You effortlessly spit back fire in her own tongue and get the crowd on your side. Then you casually let them know you're not even one of them, not one bit. Jawdrops guaranteed.

This is what peak assimilation actually looks like.

Ethnic food

The Ethnic Aisle

In a similar vein, consider the following, from NYT Food:

"Why do American grocery stores still have an ethnic aisle?

The writer laments the existence of segregated foods in stores, and questions their utility. "Ethnic food" is a meaningless term, we are told, because everyone has an ethnicity. Such aisles even personify a legacy of white supremacy and colonialism. They are an anachronism which must be dismantled and eliminated wholesale, though it "may not be easy or even all that popular."

We do get other perspectives: shop owners simply put products where their customers are most likely to go look for them. Small brands tend to receive obscure placement, while larger brands get mixed in with the other foods, which is just how business goes. The ethnic aisle can also signal that the products are the undiluted original, rather than a version adapted to local palates. Some native shoppers explicitly go there to discover new ingredients or flavors, and find it convenient.

More so, the point about colonialism seems to be entirely undercut by the mention of "American aisles" in other countries, containing e.g. peanut butter, BBQ sauce and boxed cake mix. It cannot be colonialism on "our" part both when "we" import "their" products, as well as when "they" import "ours". That's just called trade.

Along the way, the article namedrops the exotic ingredients and foreign brands that apparently should just be mixed in with the rest: cassava flour, pomegranate molasses, dal makhani, jollof rice seasoning, and so on. We are introduced to a whole cast of business owners "of color," with foreign-sounding names. We are told about the "desire for more nuanced storytelling," including two sisters who bypassed stores entirely by selling online, while mocking ethnic aisles on TikTok. Which we all know is the most nuanced of places.

I find the whole thing preposterous. In order to even consider the premise, you already have to live in an incredibly diverse, cosmopolitan city. You need to have convenient access to products imported from around the world. This is an enormous luxury, enabled by global peace and prosperity, as well as long-haul and just-in-time logistics. There, you can open an app on your phone and have top-notch world cuisine delivered to your doorstep in half an hour.

For comparison, my parents are in their 70s and they first ate spaghetti as teenagers. Also, most people here still have no clue what to do with fish sauce other than throw it away as soon as possible, lest you spill any. This is fine. The expectation that every cuisine is equally commoditized in your local corner store is a huge sign of privilege, which reveals how provincial the premise truly is. It ignores that there are wide ranging differences between countries in what is standard in a grocery store, and what people know how to make at home.

Even chips flavors can differ wildly from country to country, from the very same multinational brands. Did you know paprika chips are the most common thing in some places, and not a hipster food?

paprika chips by lays

Crucially, in a different time, you could come up with the same complaints. In the past it would be about foods we now consider ordinary. In the future it would be about things we've never even heard of. While the story is presented as a current issue for the current times, there is nothing to actually support this.

To me, this ignorance is a feature, not a bug. The point of the article is apparently to waffle aimlessly while namedropping a lot of things the reader likely hasn't heard of. The main selling point is novelty, which paints the author and their audience as being particularly in-the-know. It lets them feel they are sophisticated because of the foods they cook and eat, as well as the people they know and the businesses they frequent. If you're not in this loop, you're supposed to feel unsophisticated and behind the times.

It's no coincidence that this is published in the New York Times. New Yorkers have a well-earned reputation for being oblivious about life outside their bubble: the city offers the sense that you can have access to anything, but its attention is almost always turned inwards. It's not hard to imagine why, given the astronomical cost of living: surely it must be worth it! And yes, I have in fact spent a fair amount of time there, working. It couldn't just be that life elsewhere is cheaper, safer, cleaner and friendlier. That you can reach an airport in less than 2 hours during rush hour. On a comfortable, modern train. Which doesn't look and smell like an ashtray that hasn't been emptied out since 1975.

But I digress.

"Ethnic aisles are meaningless because everyone has an ethnicity" is revealed to be a meaningless thought. It smacks headfirst into the reality of the food business, which is a lesson the article seems determined not to learn. When "diversity" turns out to mean that people are actually diverse, have different needs and wants, and don't all share the same point of view, they just think diversity is wrong, or at least, outmoded, a "necessary evil." Even if they have no real basis of comparison.

graffiti near school in New York

Negative Progress

I think both stories capture an underlying social affliction, which is about progress and progressivism.

The basic premise of progressivism is seemingly one of optimism: we aim to make the future better than today. But the way it often works is by painting the present as fundamentally flawed, and the past as irredeemable. The purpose of adopting progressive beliefs is then to escape these flaws yourself, at least temporarily. You make them other people's fault by calling for change, even demanding it.

What is particularly noticeable is that perceived infractions are often in defense of people who aren't actually present at all. The person making the complaint doesn't suffer any particular injury or slight, but others might, and this is enough to condemn in the name of progress. "If an [X] person saw that, they'd be upset, so how dare you?" In the story of "broken English," the original message doesn't actually refer to a specific person or incident. It's just a general thing we are supposed to collectively do. That the follow-up completely contradicts the premise, well, that apparently doesn't matter. In the case of the ethnic aisle, the contradictory evidence is only reluctantly acknowledged, and you get the impression they had hoped to write a very different story.

This too is a provincial belief masquerading as sophistication. It mashes together groups of people as if they all share the exact same beliefs, hang-ups and sensitivities. Even if individuals are all saying different things, there is an assumed archetype that overrules it all, and tells you what people really think and feel, or should feel.

To do this, you have to see entire groups as an "other," as people that are fundamentally less diverse, self-aware and curious than the group you're in. That they need you to stand up for them, that they can't do it themselves. It means that "inclusion" is often not about including other groups, but about dividing your own group, so you can exclude people from it. The "diversity" it seeks reeks of blandness and commodification.

In the short term it's a zero-sum game of mining status out of each other, but in the long run everyone loses, because it lets the most unimaginative, unworldly people set the agenda. The sense of sophistication that comes out of this is imaginary: it relies on imagining fault where there is none, and playing meaningless word games. It's not about what you say, but how you say it, and the rules change constantly. Better keep up.

Usually this is associated with a profound ignorance about the actual past. This too is a status-mining move, only against people who are long gone and can't defend themselves. Given how much harsher life was, with deadly diseases, war and famine regular occurences, our ancestors had to be far smarter, stronger and self-sufficient, just to survive. They weren't less sophisticated, they came up with all the sophisticated things in the first place.

When it comes to the more recent past, you get the impression many people still think 1970 was 30, not 51 years ago. The idea that everyone was irredeemably sexist, racist and homophobic barely X years ago just doesn't hold up. Real friendships and relationships have always been able to transcend larger social matters. Vice versa, the idea that one day, everyone will be completely tolerant flies in the face of evidence and human nature. Especially the people who loudly say how tolerant they are: there are plenty of skeletons in those closets, you can be sure of that.

* * *

There's a Dutch expression that applies here: claiming to have invented hot water. To American readers, I gotta tell you: it really isn't hard to figure out that America is a society stratified by race, or exactly how. I figured that out the first time I visited in 2001. I hadn't even left the airport in Philadelphia when it occurred to me that every janitor I had seen was both black and morbidly obese. Completely unrelated, McDonald's was selling $1 cheeseburgers.

Later in the day, a black security guard had trouble reading an old-timey handwritten European passport. Is cursive racist? Or is American literacy abysmal because of fundamental problems in how school funding is tied to property taxes? You know this isn't a thing elsewhere, right?

In the 20 years since then, nothing substantial has improved on this front. Quite the opposite: many American schools and universities have abandoned their mission of teaching, in favor of pushing a particular worldview on their students, which leaves them ill-equipped to deal with the real world.

Ironically this has created a wave of actual American colonialism, transplanting the ideology of intersectionality onto other Western countries where it doesn't apply. Each country has their own long history of ethnic strife, with entirely different categories. The aristocrats who ruled my ancestors didn't even let them get educated in our own language. That was a right people had to fight for in the late 1960s. You want to tell me which words I should capitalize and which I shouldn't? Take a hike.

Not a year ago, someone trying to receive health care here in Dutch was called racist for it, by a French speaker. It should be obvious the person who did so was 100% projecting. I suspect insecurity: Dutch speakers are commonly multi-lingual, but French speakers are not. When you are surrounded by people who can speak your language, when you don't speak a word of theirs, the moron is you, but the ego likes to say otherwise. So you pretend yours is the sophisticated side.

All it takes to pierce this bubble is to actually put the platitudes and principles to the test. No wonder people are so terrified.

Courage  Featured  Immigration  Intersectionality
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