Friday, November 25, 2011

On Languages, Both Dead and Deaf.

For the past few months, I have been teaching Stephen Latin and we've both been trying to learn some British Sign Language.

Somehow, Stephen managed to get a degree in Classics without any Latin learning so he thought it was about time he got some. I did three years of Latin at high school and loved it. I also enjoyed German and French, but you don't ever have to speak Latin. There were no spoken exams based on the premise that you're a tourist visiting ancient Pompeii, your friend has really annoyed you on the coach trip there and now you want to find the Coliseum so you can feed him to the lions. We sang Latin in the school choir but we knew that, whilst nobody can say for certain, it's unlikely that Italians from two thousand years ago pronounced things in much the same way as BBC presenters from the 1950s.

Our Latin books were also brilliantly designed and so when Stephen expressed his wish to get on an learn some Latin, I found a copy of part one of the Cambridge Latin Course on eBay. Most British people reading this who learnt Latin at school will have learnt with these books, starting with stories about Caecillius, a merchant who lives in Pompeii up until the point Versuvius erupts. These stories had such a strong influence on the those who studied them that the screenwriter James Moran wrote a Doctor Who episode The Fires of Pompeii in which the Doctor and Donna meet Caecillius, his wife Metella and son Quintus, as well as a daughter who wasn't there in the Latin books but is involved in some alien cult or other which brings about the eruption of Versuvius. It rocked.

But every bit of Latin you're given is part of the story. It starts off very basic - Caecillius is in the study, Caecillius is writing in the study etc. - but pretty soon you're learning about the affairs of slave girls, gladiators, what goes on at the baths and even werewolves. There's a lot of humour – the very first story, told in very simple sentences and entirely in the present tense is about a dog who creeps into the kitchen while the grumpy cook is asleep and startles him. The characters die very Roman deaths, and there's some gentle titillation, although not nearly so much as a classroom of eleven and twelve year old girls found in it when we read it in the first year of high school. The mere concept of public baths was enough to set us off giggling for a full half hour.

So when I say I've been teaching Stephen Latin, we've really been working through the book together and I've been trying to remember my vocab when he gets stuck.

Latin has a surprising amount in common with British Sign Language. This was something we both fancied doing, partly because we eventually want to be able to communicate in all the languages of the British Isles, but it also gives Stephen and I another means of communicating when talking or typing is difficult.

Both Latin and BSL do, in a sense, simplify language – there are less “words” (although in Latin, this is compensated for by many many more word-endings). There are also different word-order to English, something that surprised me about BSL - I think I'd seen people in movies speak and sign at the same time, which I realise now would be extremely tricky*. But it's funny how easy the rearranged sentence is to cope with; Stephen went to hospital school, where the only non-English language he learnt was that mysterious jagged script employed by doctors and whilst he learnt how to read and write beautifully, he learnt nothing about the formal mechanics of grammar. Yet he doesn't start talking like Yoda when the verb appears at the end of the sentence.

To English readers, meaning in both Latin and BSL implies itself in the same kind of way. In BSL, meaning obviously implies itself through the action - verbs often look like the action they refer to. The action for eating and drinking, for example, look like a mime for eating and drinking. In Latin, eats is consumit, like consume, and drinks is bibit, like imbibe. In fact, I reckon perhaps two thirds of Latin verbs have some English word or words derived from them, which can give us a clue as to what they mean; sedet (sits), dormit (sleeps), spectat (watches) clamat (shouts) and so on. To an English reader, reading Latin is a little like looking at strangers in our family photographs from 1920 and recognising the eyebrows, cheekbones and jaw-lines of people we know intimately.

Except, you know, Latin is a wee bit older. British Sign Language is also many hundreds of years old. Both of them are great languages, made relatively easy by being restricted to one medium (Latin is always written, BSL is always signed). Both of them teach us things about writing and speaking in English.

By the way, here I am this week over at the BBC Ouch!

*As an after-thought, it occurs to me that this might not apply to American Sign Language, but ASL is based on Langue des Signes Française, so I have no idea. Any ASL-users about?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Be Nice & Grow A Thicker Skin

There's been a lot of talk about on-line abuse lately. I think it all started with the brilliant S E Smith's post On Blogging, Threats & Silence, then there were posts at Geek Feminism, Hoyden About Town and others. In the last week or so, there's been a load of UK newspaper and blog coverage of the highly threatening on-line abuse of women writers and bloggers (round up of British articles and posts here). Yesterday Louis Bolotin pointed out that disabled people are often victimised on-line in much the same way. I know from my friends that LGBT writers and anyone who writes about race is subject to the much same kind of thing, tailored to the appropriate bigotry.

Lots of silly things are said in response to these kinds of complaints. Much of it is along the lines of “If women complain about something happening to women, they are implying that nothing bad happens to men and men are to blame for everything.”

Certainly, men experience on-line abuse but much of it is very different in nature and women can't speak for men's experience*. Meanwhile, on-line misogyny is a uniquely equal-opportunities form of hatred; few of the writers above were naïve enough to imagine that, from behind the mask of anonymity, nasty women who hate other women won't take the opportunity to use the sexualised and violent language which isn't so readily available to them off-line.

However, I wanted to focus on two common and contradictory pieces of advice that are given to women and others in the fact of on-line abuse.
  • Be Nice and
  • Grow a Thicker skin

Be Nice

There is an argument that women who experience on-line abuse just need to be nicer. In the comments threads under the posts and articles about this, there were frequent references to certain writers' tone, or the fact that a writer has said once something a bit strong or little mean about a particular group, a politician or another public figure. Of course, some of these writers had said silly and provocative things, but none of it came close to the abuse they had received. Even women victims of domestic violence are sometimes advised not to wind their partner's up, not to nag, not to show any anger or be difficult. For a very long time, our models of femininity have involved an element of passivity and infinite tact. It is ladylike to say nothing or only speak very calmly, to choose words very carefully and to try and take into account everybody's needs, desires and point of view.

Now, I've received very little abuse here, and as well as the other factors (chiefly low traffic and an extremely well-mannered and physically attractive readership – the latter point being irrelevant to this, but it happens to be true), one reason is that I don't often write when I'm angry. I'm not angry very often in any case, but when I am, it kind of shuts me down. Now, there are a few things to say about that.

The first is that one of the reasons I get relatively low traffic is that I don't write when I'm angry. When a person or an organisation or the government do something totally outrageous, I don't often have the strength to respond to events as they happen. People who have their finger on the pulse and express themselves with great passion are far more readable to greater numbers.

On the one hand, this means there's nothing forced or vitriolic here – some people with their finger on the pulse like to apply pressure to the jugular vein of debate. On the other hand, this means that I don't produce stirring polemical posts which can change people's minds about a subject and stir them into action. I mostly write about things that I am trying to understand, which is interesting to some people, but it doesn't stoke any fires in any bellies. It shuffles the embers about, at most. And people like their belly-fires stoked. The big, important bloggers are highly polemical bloggers. They get worked up about stuff. Their readers get worked up about stuff.

And so when readers disagree with what these bloggers say, they tend to get cross. This part is inevitable; if you contradict a view people are invested in, you may meet a few receptive ears, but you're going to make smoke come out of others (the anatomical metaphor thing has become a bit of a compulsion, sorry). What is not inevitable is that once enraged, people should respond with personal abuse, sexualised insults and threats. That's not inevitable at all, but it happens more often to people who are not afraid to put anger and passion behind their words.

On the whole, people who disagree with me have always done so politely – even on big sticky subjects like abortion or euthanasia. But that's not because I'm doing anything better (or worse; I'm not ashamed of my place in the blogosphere) – I'm doing something completely different. Political debate and social reform need impassioned voices. That sometimes means crossing over the line from what some people regard as being nice

There are some people who are affronted by women and other marginalised people speaking up. These include inadequate men for whom the supposed inferiority of women is a comfort and who hate for that to be challenged. Women who are themselves invested in a particular version of womanhood – especially, but not exclusively, motherhood – can be among the most vicious critics of women who have different ideas or behave very differently. As Nicky Clark discovered, even expressing an opinion about language can get a woman accused of being a bad mother. S E Smith received violent and sexualised abuse just because she wasn't keen on Glee.

Grow a Thick Skin
or If you can't stand the heat, get back to the kitchen.

A thick skin is overrated. A thick skin involves some acceptance that others will mistreat you, which in turn requires mistrust and cynicism. It is not a healthy thing to toughen up in the face of abuse – it's not good for your mental health or your humanity. When others are against you, the trick is to keep a hold of yourself, your sympathy and sensitivity. Those things are virtues, and ones which are in no way incompatible with strength, courage and so on. You need strength and courage to remain sensitive to other people's feelings and to keep your faith in other people.

Everyone who writes on-line gets abuse, they say. One commenter – probably more than one, I didn't get that far down the threads – even suggested that everyone gets the same abuse, but women's hormones and genes made them react differently. Ha ha.

This is another impossible message about femininity. Women overreact, so when a woman complains about mistreatment, whatever she says happened, she must be overreacting – if she's not lying out of malice or the need for attention. This is less likely to make women shut up than the Be Nice message, but it is more likely to keep women silent about their bad experiences – especially shocking private experiences like sexual harassment and violent threats. Anticipating the assumptions of others, no woman wants to speak out and be seen to overreact.

I don't believe that the world is full of over-sensitive people, but everyone has different squidgey bits; we squeal when poked in different places. So if someone is poked in the knee and squeals, when your knees can bend around the wrong way without so much as a twinge, you might think they're being a wimp. I have known a few people who claim to be very difficult to upset, but usually they just have rather novel sensitivities (not that I go about poking at people to find out what upsets people, either metaphorically or literally). A truly over-sensitive writer objects to any criticism or debate at all. Ordinarily sensitive writers object to abuse. That's utterly reasonable.

People who are genuinely impervious to the opinions of others are lost to the rest of us. They're dangerous, frankly. Some public figures, including writers, have had to come to terms with the idea that some people will always think they are scum. But people who are not afraid to upset anyone? Terrifying.

* Another reason I don't get much gendered abuse is that while there's a lot of personal information on here, it's spread out, and lots of people landing on a random post have almost no information about me. So I have had comments questioning the length of my penis, assuming I have one, and assuming I care.

Monday, November 07, 2011

In bed with my paintbrush

The artist with prize-winning 'Hydranga'I've been rather quiet here lately due to a combination of computer problems, minor but disruptive health problems and a fair amount of stuff going on. Life, however, is rather wonderful.

As anyone who is anyone in the art world knows, I won first prize in the Aberaeron Holy Trinity Church Summer Craft Fair Painting Competition (Painting of a Flower). It cost 50p to enter and the prestigious prize was £1. And there were, like, twenty other paintings. As far as I am concerned, this makes me a prize-winning artist. Like Tracey Emin, but with better personal hygiene*.

Stephen's Dad made me a device so that I can paint in bed. This is wonderful and has revolutionised the way I paint. No longer must I wait until I'm well enough to sit up in a chair for a while, then paint against the clock with increasing levels of pain, trying to get to a certain point before I have to stop and wait for another window. I can take my time. I can rearrange myself and my pillows. I can take breaks and carry on looking at what I've done while I'm resting, able to reach for a brush if I see that something needs touching up.

Stephen & IThus my painting has become more relaxed and brave. I'm experimenting much more. I seem to be painting faster, although that's probably just that I can do it for longer at a stretch. And that's much better for me. No more angst about a picture I've been fiddling with for five minutes a day for weeks and have now spent so long looking at the thing that I'm never going to be happy with it.

I didn't think this was possible; of course people can paint in bed (Frida Kahlo did) but only when you can't get out of bed at all. I didn't think anyone would let me. But apparently I can do whatever I like! Almost.

TGranny & Alexhis is a painting of my nephew Alexander (5) and my Granny Kelly (87) and I reckon the best painting I have ever painted.

I've also been writing a very great deal, made some tentative steps into learning British Sign Language and I've been teaching Stephen both Latin and the ukelele. We have four ukeleles now. Imagine! Two at my folks' place, two at Stephen's, so we don't have to transport them backwards and forwards. It's another disability accommodation. When we're in one place for good, we'll downsize the collection. Maybe.

[Image description: Top - a photograph of brown-haired white youngish woman smiling and holding a picture of a slightly decaying hydranga. Middle - a painting of the same white woman with an extremely handsome dair-haired and bespectacled young white man. Bottom - a painting of a young blond white boy cuddling an elderly white-haired white woman, both smiling. ]

* This is a reference to her famous installation My Bed which won the Turner Prize and made her famous - I didn't mean to imply that the lady doesn't clean her teeth or something. Except perhaps for artistic purposes.