Monday, December 21, 2015

Austin in Augusta: how is it that non-performative non-assertions can be problematic?

Recently, a geography teacher in Augusta County, Virginia named Cheryl LaPorte set her students the following homework assignment:
"Calligraphy - the art of writing - is sacred to Muslims [sic]. It was born from the Arabic script of the Koran. [...] Here is the shahada, the Islamic statement of faith, written in Arabic. In the space below, try copying it by hand. This should give you an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy."
The shahada is the statement that "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Prophet of God". Predictably, this made some parents very angry. Less predictably, it ended up making the national news, rather than remaining a question for Augusta County to worry about. Concerned editorials presented the situation as either an example of creeping Islamic indoctrination or a symptom of reactionary Christian ignorance, while concurring in any case that we should all be deeply concerned about it. So many emails poured in, threatening protests and violence, that the county was scared into closing the schools temporarily.

How could asking students to copy out a short phrase have this effect? Well, we know the objections of one parent at least, Kimberly Herndon (WHSV):

"I am preparing to confront the county on this issue of the Muslim indoctrination taking place here in an Augusta County school. This evil has been cloked in the form of multiculturism. My child was given the creed of the Islam faith to copy. This creed that is translated: There is no god but Allah. Mohammed was Allah's messenger. This is recited during their pledge to the Islamic faith. This creed is connected to Jihad in that it is the chant that is shouted while beheading those of Christian faith, or people of the cross as being called by ISIS. [...] Also unknowingly they [the children] were instructed to denounce our Lord by copying this creed of Islam."
Apart from the ridiculous ISIS connection, the keywords here are "indoctrination" - the idea that this assignment constitutes an attempt to make students Muslim, or at least to make them believe a particular ideology - and "to denounce our Lord by copying this", the idea that copying the shahadah amounts to declaring that Jesus is not God. Of these, it's the latter that is fundamental: the former makes little sense unless taken as a corollary of the latter.

If this is indeed Ms. Herndon's understanding of the situation, she would be well-advised to read John Austin's How To Do Things With Words. Austin, an Oxford philosopher, became famous in linguistics for pointing out that many sentences that superficially look like statements of fact are, in fact, actions in their own right: "When I say, before the registrar or altar, &c., 'I do', I am not reporting on a marriage: I am indulging in it." These sentences he termed performatives. The shahada is a classic example of a performative sentence: by uttering those words under the appropriate circumstances, one becomes a Muslim. Such an outcome is clearly not desired by Ms. Herndon, and for the teacher to seek it would violate the US constitution.

However, as Austin points out in great detail, performatives are effective ("felicitous") only when appropriate circumstances apply. These are determined by social consensus ("accepted procedure"), and, where relevant, by sincerity of intention. In this case, Muslim scholars have devoted a good deal of thought to the question of what count as the appropriate conditions for the shahadah to be felicitous from their perspective - for some English samples, try eg ConvertingToIslam.com or Dr. Fouad - and copying out an untranslated phrase in a language you don't understand in order to complete your homework fails at the first hurdles: the student neither has knowledge of what is being said, nor certainty as to its correctness, nor sincerity in its assertion... In short, this exercise does not satisfy the conditions for performativity, and as such does not commit the student to the claim made in the shahadah. So there's nothing to worry about!

But surely Ms. Herndon would already agree that the children who copied this didn't actually "denounce our Lord", since they copied it "unknowingly"? If so, then her issue must lie elsewhere. "Indoctrination" is perhaps a relevant lead; the teacher presumably knew the meaning of the words, so, in Ms. Herndon's view, that presumably means that she was attempting to make them repeat words they wouldn't have repeated if they had known what they meant, which would be an abuse of authority. But that just leads us back to the original question: why wouldn't/shouldn't they have been willing to copy these words if they had known what they meant?

I'm not sure I have a philosophically sound answer, yet on that question I share the same intuition: I wouldn't sing or want my children to sing a song about Jesus being God, even though songs don't commit their singer to the statements they contain. It seems that statements felt as blasphemous, rather than merely false, continue to be felt as such even in contexts where they clearly can't be interpreted as assertions by the speaker. In that respect, they resemble swearwords, although with swearwords it goes even further - if you give an accurate quote of someone swearing, then you're swearing yourself, quotation marks be damned. In a Christian context, one might explain this by the commandment not to take the name of the Lord in vain. However, the fact that she didn't appeal to it, and the fact that this intuition is shared by non-Christians, suggests that that would merely be rationalisation.

This is not a domain I've worked on much, so let me open up the floor to any reader who's made it this far: what's going on here? Does anyone have a coherent and empathetic explanation for why some types of statements should be felt as problematic even when clearly not asserted?

28 comments:

John Cowan said...

The best explanation I can think of is the Christian distinction between actions done ex opere operato ("by the effort of the work") and those done ex opere operantis ("by the effort of the worker"). Thus, most Christians agree that baptism is done in the former way: the mental state of neither the baptizer (beyond the intent to baptize) nor the baptizee is relevant, because it is done in the name of (the Trinitarian) God rather than any human person or organization. If the baptizer is a Christian and intends to baptize, and the formal verbal conditions ("I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit") and non-verbal conditions (which are variable, but all sects accept triple immersion: it's debated whether single immersion, affusion (pouring), or aspersion (sprinkling) suffice) are met, then that's it, the baptizee is a Christian. Motive is irrelevant, consent personal or parental is irrelevant, everything else is irrelevant. It's unconditionally performative.

Now it so happens that Southern Baptists (which Ms. Herndon probably is) don't actually accept the ex opere operato or performative theory of baptism, which is why they only baptize those who have come to the age of reason. So a good counter to Ms. Herndon would be this: "Do you think that if your child had had water dripped over her head as an infant while a priest said something in Latin, it would be enough to save her from Hell?" Assuming she is not as ignorant of her religion as she is of Islam, she would have to say no, to which one could reply "And tracing the Shahada doesn't make you a Muslim, either."

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

That's a very interesting angle. Insofar as this difference of opinion is historically the defining feature that distinguishes Baptists from "everybody else", I wonder if she's assuming that Muslims believe that the shahadah is effective ex opere operato, and hence that this constitutes an unsuccessful attempt to "de-baptise" the kids by stealth. But in practice, I think there's something different going on - something about taboo speech and blasphemy, rather than about performative utterances. But I don't understand it well enough to theorize it yet.

David Marjanović said...

I wonder if she's assuming that Muslims believe that the shahadah is effective ex opere operato

Of course some do. Not the theologians, of course – but this guy, who has been to lots of rural places, reported in many of his books that (upon finding that he was not only fluent in Fuṣḥa, but also knowledgeable of Islam) he was often asked the trick question if he could say the Shahāda, he always played along and said it, and jubilations would break out that he had become a Muslim.

Anyway. Ms. Herndon probably not only assumes this, but is also afflicted with:

1) Old-time religion – the kind that takes for granted that all deities ever worshipped by anyone really exist. All except one are evil lying demons, and to do anything that they would interpret as worship or dedication is (somehow) actively dangerous, quite unlike talking to a wall. This attitude from Roman times, unknown over here (except probably in tiny fundamentalist denominations like Jehovah's Witnesses), is widespread in American fundamentalism.

2) American fear. Fear that has become really deeply ingrained in the culture in the last half-century. You're not sure if something exists? Be afraid of it anyway. Probability? But what if?

John Cowan said...

an unsuccessful attempt to "de-baptise" the kids by stealth

Just so. Of course, there may be and probably is more than one thing going on. When panic is to be supported by reasons, there are usually plenty of reasons to go around; I saw that when the Second Gulf War was beginning, and it was clear that people who believed in it were always going to have one more reason than I had an argument against.

In general it is hardly surprising when persecutors take a broader view of "Who is an X?" than members of the X group themselves do. The Israeli Law of Return applies to anyone with one Jewish grandparent, because that was the Nazi definition, and if you are enough of a Jew to be persecuted as a Jew, you are enough of one to become an Israeli citizen. Personal status law, however, depends on the religious definition, which is that (converts aside) only those with Jewish mothers are Jews. So my wife, who had a Jewish father but was baptized, could become an Israeli citizen by mere declaration, but she could not get married as a Jew in Israel, nor to me, as I am neither Jewish, Christian, Muslim, nor Druze, and so couldn't get married in Israel at all until 2010, and then only to another heathen.

You're not sure if something exists? Be afraid of it anyway. Probability? But what if?

The American duality goes back further than that: we are the country of immigration par excellence to the point of establishing ius soli not by law but by our almost unchangeable Constitution, and yet we have spasms of nativism and xenophobia to match any in the world, the Civil War being the worst of them (again, over-determined). We invented science fiction because we asked "What if?" in hope; we made horror into literature because we asked "What if?" in fear. Of course, all these things are worldwide tendencies. "A child may well believe a report that there are ogres in the next county; many grown-up persons find it easy to believe of another country; and as for another planet, very few adults seem able to imagine it as peopled, if at all, by anything but monsters of iniquity", said Tolkien. But in the U.S. the tendencies become extremes.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

David: your 1) would fit nicely. On that assumption, the felicity conditions for conversion recognised by general American opinion or by Muslim scholars would be equally irrelevant: all that would count is the effectively unknowable felicity conditions required for invoking this mysterious demon named "Allah". Isn't there a Chick Tract along similar lines? As for Scholl-Latour's account, I can well believe that; the Muslim world has no fewer naive people than other areas...

John: The interesting thing about this case is that actual Muslims don't appear to be involved at all on either side. I'm quite sure that no Muslim in the US would have set an exercise like this (quite apart from respect for others' religious sensibilities, it basically trivialises a declaration that means a lot within Islam itself), and for that matter I suspect that in the same circumstance a Muslim teacher would already have been fired. The people Ms. Herndon thinks are trying to indoctrinate her kids, and the person whom she's trying to get fired for it, are, in point of fact, all-American liberals. The relatively recent upsurge of fear of Islam is getting seamlessly integrated into the older and more deep-seated narrative of culture war, and that narrative is determining responses all over the country with the predictability of clockwork. I'd like to think that exercises like the post above help move these issues out of that unhelpful framing; America would be better off without a binary culture war, and if it must have one, American Muslims would be better off not being roped into one side of it.

Y said...

I would also compare it with the taboo that existed and exists in Orthodox Judaism against anything that smacks of paganism or alien rite, עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה. Maimonides, AFAIK, is the basis of later codes of idolatry avoidance. One practical manifestation of it is the encouragement, in Israel, to substitute for the plus sign the 'inverted qamatz' version ﬩ (U+FB29), so as not to make the sign of the cross inadvertently. This practice is still widespread, especially at the grade school level, even in secular schools. Different interpreters vary on cross avoidance. Reb Chaim of Brisk reportedly was careful not to cross the fork and knife at the table. In contrast, Ovadia Yosef, the leading theologian of Sephardi Judaism until his recent passing, even allowed the wearing of a cross-shaped medal (given by gentiles). This difference of attitudes no doubt reflects the specifically Europen history of Christian antisemitism.

To get back to your question, I think Herndon was pretty clear about two motivations: one is the mere association with a religion which she dislikes. This seems to me a taboo akin to Jewish cross avoidance. The other is the indoctrination issue. As I see it, there is not an explicit belief in indoctrination by writing the Shahāda, but rather an issue of distrust and suspicion that this is at least a subterfuge, opening the door to later indoctrination. This argument is understandable in the context of the struggle to maintain a foothold for Christian indoctrination in American public schools, which has been going on at least since 'God' was inserted into the pledge of allegiance in the 1950s.

John Cowan said...

Maimonides, at least according to legend, recited the Shahada himself on one occasion to save himself and his companions from mob violence, and then fled to Jerusalem. At least, he certainly advises other Jews in the same situation to do so. He later went to Egypt, though, so either the matter was dropped or he was able to defend himself against any charges of Muslim apostasy.

David Marjanović said...

Isn't there a Chick Tract along similar lines?

I don't know, but I expect so.

The people Ms. Herndon thinks are trying to indoctrinate her kids, and the person whom she's trying to get fired for it, are, in point of fact, all-American liberals. The relatively recent upsurge of fear of Islam is getting seamlessly integrated into the older and more deep-seated narrative of culture war, and that narrative is determining responses all over the country with the predictability of clockwork.

Of course.

Y said...

John Cowan: This is a very good point, because conversion, along with incest and murder, are the three sins for which Jew must avoid even at the cost of his or her life. This is a very strong demonstration indeed that Maimonides did not consider reciting the Shahāda as rejecting Judaism or converting to Islam.

Y said...

"...which a Jew must avoid..."

Yitzhaq Bergmann said...

Islam - unlike christianity - isn't considered as paganism (עבודה זרה) according to jewish low, a jew mustn't practice pagan worship even at the cost of his life but can convert - temporary of course - to another monotheistic religion in order to save his life.

John Cowan said...

Not all Jews hold that Christians (much less Muslims) are pagans in the relevant sense.

Y said...

Maimonides ruled that Muslims are not pagans in many relevant senses, in that they don't worship idols, and therefore many of the prohibitions against idolatry don't apply to them; for example Jews may pray at a Mosque. He has not ruled explicitly on forced conversion to Islam vs. to a pagan religion. In his Letter on Apostasy, written to advise the Jews of Morocco under Almohad rule, who were threatened with death or conversion to Islam, Maimonides gives many ways out for those forced to convert, but does so generally, quoting many instances of forced conversion to paganism which were justified, but does not mention Islam in particular or give it any special status.

The story about Maimonides converting to Islam has been questioned as a myth.

Chick, unsurprisingly, does have a tract (see online) which presents Allah as a pagan moon god. His view is that all pagan worship and false religions (including Catholicism) ultimately mean dedicating oneself to Satan and strengthening him, and earning oneself eternal perdition.

Yitzhaq Bergmann said...

John Cowan wrote:
"Not all Jews hold that Christians (much less Muslims) are pagans in the relevant sense"
Of course not all Jews but it was a widespread opinion (maybe less widespread nowadays).
Maimonides himself considered Christianity a paganism but judged Islam as pure monotheistic religion.
Converting to Islam when the rulers tried to force the entire Jewish community to abandon Judaism raised another issue - according to the Jewish law in such times (שעת השמד) one have to resist - although it costs his life - even to change a minor Jewish custom, thus the difficulty Maimonides faced when he advised the Jews under Almohad rule.

Peter Norman said...

Wow! There are so many interesting things going on here. To get the less interesting things out of the way first: what on earth does it have to do with "geography"? I might have thought calligraphy belonged in art or language or English class. But it's been a long time since my own school days, when what passed for geography was taught by the gym teacher.

I guess none of us are assuming Cheryl LaPorte (wonderful name btw, sounds like a drag act) is a crypto-muslim trying to subliminally indoctrinate her students. She might have been better advised to choose a less controversial example of Arabic calligraphy, but in her defence, the shahadah is something one sees "everywhere", and is thus pretty familiar to Europeans (don't know about Americans) who may be ignorant of its meaning. I bought a little brass pot (Indian, I think) with the shahadah inscribed on its side, which the previous owner had been using as an ashtray. I probably paid more than it was worth, with the vague notion that I was "rescuing" it from degradation. We're all guilty of superstitious thought in one way or another, but American Protestants seem to have raised it to the level of Grand Opera.

(Even?) in Western Catholicism, there is a clear distinction between "effective" performatives and "quoted" performatives. So if an actor recites the verba (supposedly transforming bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ) he's still just an actor "pretending", and that holds true even if the actor happens to be an ordained priest. (Intention and context.) There IS an apparent contradiction regarding Catholic opinion on infant baptism. Even a non-Christian may felicitously baptize an infant in extremis, though it's not clear in what sense the former can have the "required intention".

The taboo-ness of taboo words is frighteningly powerful. When my ex and I visited my mother, we were a bit puzzled by why my older (English) sister kept "pulling a face" and sometimes even left the room when he and I were talking. My mother explained that it was because (to my sister's ear) we were perpetually saying "fuck". Actually, we were saying, in Romanian, "fac". Clearly an unavoidable word (it means "do"), but we "evolved" a pronunciation "fæk" which seemed to be more acceptable to her ear. Bizarrely, we still catch each other using that pronunciation now, on the phone.

You ask for "empathetic" explanations, but while my heart goes out the the innocent Ms LaPorte, it's harder to empathize with Ms Herndon. Probably, as linguists, we're the worst population of whom you could ask such a thing, as our job requires us to sever the "visceral" link between the form of words and their meaning that naive speakers apparently feel, like med students who extract and dissect some dead guy's eyeball, then happily go drink coffee and discuss the latest baseball game.

alynch said...

Lameen, you're expecting people to have a rational and well thought out philosophy for what they say and do - you should be an economist! :-)

I think you hint at the answer yourself, the act of writing a statement of faith must feel a bit like reinforcing the verbal statement itself, rather like a signature. It's that feeling that the parents are objecting to.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

alynch: As a linguist, I expect people to be quite unable to explain why they say and do what they say and do - but to be saying and doing it in strict obedience to a set of rules and principles that they don't know they know, and that must be inferred by observation and introspection. Whether the resulting set of principles counts as rational is a question I'm less sure of!

Peter: Empathetic != sympathetic, but actually, I feel some sympathy for Ms. Herndon too. Her sense of being beleaguered by Muslim liberals is obviously a media-transmitted confabulation, but the feeling of being part of a threatened community that this narrative "explains" probably has some foundation in her life experience. Even if it doesn't, it must be terrible living in such a state of fear that you interpret little slips like this as Satanic attacks.

Y: The comparison with Jewish cross avoidance is great. But what's the explanation for that? How was that elaborated?

Peter Norman said...

I too am not without sympathy for poor Ms Herndon, beset on the one side by "Muslim liberals" and on the other by nigger-jew-queers. My point was rather that as linguists, we are perhaps radically desensitized to the "magical" power of words that some "ordinary speakers" seem to feel so strongly.
Do you really think Ms LaPorte's homework assignment was a "little slip"? Copying different versions of the shahadah is not at all a bad exercise in calligraphy. I'm pretty sure that in Europe, any objections to it would have come from Muslims ("trivialization" etc).
In my down moments, I think our whole life is devoted to explaining why dumb people say the particular dumb things they say, rather than some other equally dumb things they might as well say.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

For practicing calligraphy per se, it doesn't really matter which text you pick. But if you're teaching world religions, of all subjects, you should be able to anticipate that some students/parents might not feel comfortable with copying out another religion's creed, and plan accordingly whether you personally think that makes sense or not. Even staying with specifically Islamic texts, something more ecumenical like "God is the light of the heavens and the earth" might have gone down better, though with people like Ms. Herndon it's quite possible that nothing would be good enough.

Peter Norman said...

True, but well-calligraphed texts are bound to have SOME significance. Nobody ever wasted their good calligraphy on their shopping list. I didn't know that "teaching world religions" fell within the purview of a geography teacher. I was hitherto defending Ms LaPorte more or less as an art teacher, concerned with the nitty-gritty of calligraphy. If her intention was to educate her students about "world religions", in this case Islam, it was a singularly inept way to do it.
It's hard for any monotheist to fault the statement "God is the light of the heavens and the earth", even from Ms Herndon's anabaptist perspective, but I suspect she might categorize it as "devil's trickery" simply because it comes from the Quran, not THE BIBLE, which was of course written by God in 17th century English before time began.

Peter Norman said...

The more I think about it, the more I see of the problems you have already picked out. No Jew or Muslim could object, per se, to the statement "Credo in unum Deum", but the close association of that phrase with the Catholic liturgy would make it problematic as a calligraphy homework assignment. Maybe Ms Herndon has a point after all.

alynch said...

Lameen:
>but to be saying and doing it in strict obedience to a set of rules and principles that they >don't know they know

I think that's a very simplistic representation of mind, body and soul! Just sticking to the mind for now, the brain is a massive neural network and not some sort of huge database of facts and rules to process them. It's analog, not digital, it's messy. It's a hundred competing strands of thought, drives and emotion being bundled up, mixed, merged, filtered and thrust forward to the upper echelons of the mind. You can't represent that with any set of rules and principles.

David Marjanović said...

You can't represent that with any set of rules and principles.

Well, you get surprisingly far when you try.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

I certainly don't claim that everything about the mind can be reduced to rules and principles, much less the body and soul. But the observed fact is that syntax and phonology - both apparently arising from this massive neural network - can in fact very effectively be described in terms of rules and principles. If neurology predicts otherwise, so much the worse for neurology.

Y said...

I haven't yet been able to find more details on the history of cross avoidance. Mainstream rabbinical opinions have usually held that cross-shapes by themselves (often called שְׁתִי וָעֶרֶב shti vaerev 'warp and weft') are not idols if they are clearly merely decorative and not used as objects of worship, though occasionally they mention that over-strictness is commendable.
I surmise that the stricter forms of cross avoidance arose in the 19th century, when secular and reform Judaism were on the rise in Europe, since fundamentalism and over-strictness are so often reactions to reform movements.
I've heard, anecdotally, of other examples of cross avoidance. Some newer religious neighborhoods in Jerusalem supposedly have no 90° intersections. The Israeli army, goes a story, favors a particular boot-lacing style with the laces running horizontally between the eyelets rather than crisscrossing. The official reason for this was to make it easier for paramedics to cut through the laces to remove the boot, but the rumor held that it was done to avoid forming crosses, under pressure from some religious higher-ups. I don't find the story too believable, but even as a myth, it is grounded in awareness of cross avoidance among some haredi folks.

John Cowan said...

Indeed, secular law distinguishes between true and false performatives too. If the mayor of your town walks down the street, stops in front of a random man and a woman, and says "I now pronounce you man and wife" (the classic example of a performative), absolutely nothing happens. Whether "I, Terry, take you, Pat, to be ..." etc. etc. is performative depends on local law.

I expect that "geography" really means "social studies".

Peter Norman said...

Is cross-avoidance an Ashkenazi thing? I'm not familiar with it from Sephardi sources, but that could just be my own ignorance.

Paul Ogden said...

Is cross-avoidance an Ashkenazi thing?

In at least one of the old synagogues in Safed /Tsfat in the Galilee, built in the 16th century by Sephardic Jews, the floor tiles are set such that they do not form a cross.