Barbershops in Sociology

I was at the cigar store in Harvard Square yesterday and saw a wonderful book on their shelf called The American Barbershop: A Closer Look at a Disappearing Place. It was an extremely insightful look at what makes a barber shop a real place for men, why people go there, and what happens there. Another book in this vein, discovered on Amazon when I got home, is Do Bald Men Get Half-Price Haircuts?: In Search of America’s Great Barbershops. I recommend both of these books to people in search of what I’m about to describe, especially the former. But the first was written by a photographer, and the second by a freelance writer. Neither book would be considered a “scientific” look at the barber shop in the way that a peer-reviewed journal article would be.
Read the rest of this entry »

Posted: July 15th, 2010 | Book Reviews 2 Comments »

Religion, Big Statues, and Humanist Values

I am tired of hearing about religion and evolution. I have read about the subject since I was 13. So, let’s look at a much more fascinating subject: religion and archaeology. Actually, this subject is written about far too little. Anyone can give you a long list of reasons why students must learn evolutionary biology properly and not buy into old myths instead. But who has discussed why archaeologists are so interested in old artifacts?

In 2001, the Taliban destroyed some gorgeous Buddha statues in Bamyan, Afghanistan. This evoked outrage all over the Western world; through our international media, soon the whole world had heard the story. What provoked such universal condemnation? Obviously there wasn’t some secret Buddhist lobby behind the scenes. Their purely scientific value was minimal, as they had already been examined. Was it because they were such beautiful statues, or so big? I’m sure there was someone who would try to argue this, but it is easy to disprove. Later the same year, the French government destroyed an enormous statue of a cult leader in Castellane, France. This elicited precisely no outrage from anyone, even though a cult spokeswoman made an explicit comparison between her group’s statue and the Bamyan Buddhas.

The Islamic ideal that provoked the destruction of the Buddhas is easy to identify. In Islam, as in humanism, the story of humanity is a path from darkness to light. But the Islamic message, especially in its modern and unstudied forms (c.f. the Kitab al-Asnam for a medieval counterexample), is much simpler than the humanist. In the past Age of Darkness, the story goes, people worshiped idols and killed each other for stupid and barbaric reasons. In the current age, people move away from profane habits and towards purer and more divine activities, and treat each other with dignity and justice. There is no need for doubt about social aims or cross-cultural dialogue, because the only message that is needed is all contained in the Qu’ran.

The Western ideal that led people to condemn the destruction of the Buddhas while ignoring the cult statue is somewhat harder to define. Looking at both these cases betrays the actual interest we have in these Buddhas, which none of us had ever seen before. They were important because they were relics of an ancient culture, and were a significant marker of human achievement from that age. We can’t name one specific faith that leads us to treasure these relics, because secularism specifically denies assigning names to its ideals. But in the legally encoded humanist language of the United Nations, it is easy to identify the parallel term: “World Heritage”. We believe that everyone should have knowledge of and access to the historical artifacts which tell us about our shared humanity.

Looking from the outside in at these two cases, I do feel a little conflicted. Personally, although I am Buddhist, I think the cult statue was much more interesting, a veritable monument to the unstoppable creative force in humanity. Given the resources of the modern age, a small cult was able to build a ridiculous tribute to an individual nobody else cared about. The Bamyan statues, on the other hand, were just a few Buddhas among many, and we all know what Buddha looks like. I can understand why the Taliban decided to blow them up; they must have represented to those clerics a history of outside domination, and were physically two big idols towering above them in a position of authority. Sure, it was an arrogant show of personal insecurity, but haven’t we all felt insecure at one point or another?

I think the proper response to events like this is not to unilaterally condemn one group and praise the other, but to understand where humanist beliefs like “World Heritage” come from, and why they are necessary for the future of humanity. Too often, shared sentiments like these go unanalyzed in the West, or even ignored entirely; even recognizing the simplest things, like “nobody wants war”, can stir something in people’s hearts, as it did in the case of Samantha Smith. By explaining where we come from, we can invite other people to understand us.

Posted: July 12th, 2010 | Secular-Religious 2 Comments »

Why Esperanto is Fun

In the Land of Invented Languages
by Akira Okrent. Spiegel & Grau, 2009. Buy it on Amazon

This book is relentlessly fun to read and written from the perfect point of view. Okrent is a practical linguist, who harbors no fantasies of a universal language, but is yet open-minded and deeply interested in the people who do invent languages, and why they make them. I think the most important lesson I learned from it is why Esperanto is fun, and people should make an attempt to learn it.

Back around 1998 I stumbled across the website Learn Not to Speak Esperanto and had myself a good laugh at the people who would try to promote this clumsy language. Why, it’s like Italian written in Eastern Polish! Any other constructed language is better than this one! What a joke! Already I was thinking about it the wrong way, but even though I examined constructed languages many times over the intervening years, I never was able to approach it in the way Okrent presents it for our edification.

Everything about Esperanto makes it more interesting to learn than its competitors. First, despite its weirdness as a language, it’s easy to learn; and once you learn it, you can make new and funny uses of the weirdness to delight your fellow learners. Second, it’s fun to speak in, as opposed to its predecessor Volapük. Third, and finally, the Esperantist culture is one of promoting universal brotherhood and is so lively that it makes you want to speak the language more and more.

Consider the fundamental differences between the way language is thought about in Esperanto as opposed to its competitors, as pointed out by Okrent. One of the example texts that Zamenhof used the original Esperanto books is a letter to a friend, which starts, Kara amiko! Mi presentas al mi kian vizaĝon vi faros post la ricevo de mi a letero, or “Dear friend! I can only imagine what kind of face you will make after receiving from me this letter.” Clearly the intent of this passage is not to make a perfect language, but to puzzle and delight the reader. Reading this example, perhaps more than a few Esperantists sent off some puzzles to their friends as well. In the context of thinking about language as puzzle, we do not need to strive for perfection. But if we do strive for perfection, then we start to forget about how much fun learning a language can be.

The way Esperantists congregate and talk to each other also makes the language more enjoyable. The chief argument against Esperanto, of course, is that English is already a world language. But contained in English, for non-native speakers, is an undeniably bad implication. They are forced to learn English, whether they like it or not, to conduct business with native speakers; and they will be mocked if they speak it poorly, since it has a large native speaking population who more often than not simply assume other people have learned it for their sake. Now consider how people learn Esperanto. It is learned by choice, outside of school, as a “useless” but fun hobby. (Isn’t it interesting how the most enjoyable endeavors in modern society are “useless”?) It has no business application, but is only used for sharing humanity. When the learner comes together with other Esperantists, there are very few or no native speakers, and everyone treats each other as equal. At a conference, the Esperantists genuinely encourage each other to keep it up, and enjoy themselves by singing songs, dancing, and so forth. Conferences receive letters from other parts of the world, for no purpose other than to let them know that they can communicate in Esperanto in any country.

Finally, as an English speaker I can stay at any classy hotel in the world when I travel, but it will be a lonely stay, and English will be part of the room service rather than an enjoyable endeavor for the staff. As an Esperantist, not only could I have lodgings in the homes of fellow Esperantists, but we would have a hobby to talk about and a good reason to become long lasting friends.

In short, this sounds like something I would very much like to do; but business interests are forcing me to learn Japanese first.

Posted: July 1st, 2010 | Book Reviews, World Peace 6 Comments »