Trevor Noah’s Insights on the Power of Language

Trevor Noah’s Insights on the Power of Language

Trevor Noah’s book, Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood has a glowing 4.8-star average review on Amazon. He’s a comedian who is currently heading the satirical news show The Daily Show.

 

 

Trevor was born during apartheid, which, in his words, “was a police state, a system of surveillance and laws designed to keep black people under total control.” He grew up in the complex post-apartheid South Africa. Being a mixed child–from a white father and black mother–he was literally born a crime, because the law prohibited interracial marriage or “carnal intercourse” between blacks and whites. For most of his childhood, he navigated life as an outsider, since the way he looked and how he was brought up did not align with the typical constructs of the South African sub-societies. A chameleon was what he called–and still does–himself.

 

Using Language to Change Perceptions

 

Yet one poignant insight that he gleaned from his outsider-ness was the power of language in “hacking” racism. Apartheid did not only separate black and white people; it separated every identifiable skin color and subculture to weaken its opposition. Crediting his mother, who really is the heroine of his book, he says, “Living with my mom, I saw how she used language to cross boundaries, handle situations, navigate the world.”

 

If you’ve seen any of Trevor’s stand up, you’ll see that he’s incredibly skilled in accents and imitations. He speaks something like six or seven languages.

 

I learned to use language like my mother did. I would simulcast—give you the program in your own tongue. I’d get suspicious looks from people just walking down the street. “Where are you from?” they’d ask. I’d reply in whatever language they’d addressed me in, using the same accent that they used. There would be a brief moment of confusion, and then the suspicious look would disappear. “Oh, okay. I thought you were a stranger. We’re good then.”

 

In another instance, a group of guys intended to mob him because they thought he was white. But as they plotted in their language, Trevor, who understood what they said, replied in kind and suggested that they all mob someone else together.

 

They were ready to do me violent harm, until they felt we were part of the same tribe, and then we were cool. That, and so many other smaller incidents in my life, made me realize that language, even more than color, defines who you are to people. I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.

 

Language, Connections, and Trust

 

Language is key in defining a tribe.

 

Language brings with it an identity and a culture, or at least the perception of it. A shared language says “We’re the same.” A language barrier says “We’re different.” The architects of apartheid understood this. Part of the effort to divide black people was to make sure we were separated not just physically but by language as well. In the Bantu schools, children were only taught in their home language. Zulu kids learned in Zulu. Tswana kids learned in Tswana. Because of this, we’d fall into the trap the government had set for us and fight among ourselves, believing that we were different.

 

Yet, he continues, language’s power to divide can easily be reversed.

 

The great thing about language is that you can just as easily use it to do the opposite: convince people that they are the same. Racism teaches us that we are different because of the color of our skin. But because racism is stupid, it’s easily tricked. If you’re racist and you meet someone who doesn’t look like you, the fact that he can’t speak like you reinforces your racist preconceptions: He’s different, less intelligent. A brilliant scientist can come over the border from Mexico to live in America, but if he speaks in broken English, people say, “Eh, I don’t trust this guy.” “But he’s a scientist.” “In Mexican science, maybe. I don’t trust him.” However, if the person who doesn’t look like you speaks like you, your brain short-circuits because your racism program has none of those instructions in the code. “Wait, wait,” your mind says, “the racism code says if he doesn’t look like me he isn’t like me, but the language code says if he speaks like me he…is like me? Something is off here. I can’t figure this out.”

 

Reflecting on my own experience with languages, I realized that I was spared weird looks and condescending stares when I moved to the US because I was reasonably trained in English. I don’t recall an incident where an English speaker had to slooowlyy spell out each word they’re saying with his head tipped down, with that wide-eyed, condescending look that I see a lot in situations related to immigration or airport security. At least, this act won’t last long because I could meet them where they’re at in comprehension and speed of pronunciation. But certainly, I see it a lot when I travel with other non-native English speakers who may not be as quick in understanding the rapid speaking pace of a native speaker. It annoys me tremendously.

 

Incidents like this reveal the deep interconnection between language and trust. People naturally don’t trust those who are different than them. But a common language, even though skin-deep differences exist, can override that prejudice and engender trust.

 

Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, “I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.”

 

Check out Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood for a treasure of hilarious and insightful stories. I recommend getting the audiobook, which you can get at a hefty discount using the trick outlined in this post.

 

Uncle Tungsten: Oliver Sacks on Leaving Childhood Fascination

Uncle Tungsten: Oliver Sacks on Leaving Childhood Fascination

In Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Childhood, Oliver Sacks recounted memories of his younger years being fascinated and consumed by chemistry. Under the familial apprenticeships of his chemist uncles, he enjoyed the exploration of a scientific field with all the joy and wonder a boy could experience in his favorite playthings. Except that for Sacks, his toys were chemicals, including metals and radioactive materials that were much more accessible to the general population in the 1940s.

 

As a chemistry fan myself, I was actually jealous of the hands-on experiments he could do for fun, at home. Not very many college educated chemists would have half of what he got to do as a child. He got to know each element of the periodic table simply out of curiosity and joy.

 

At the end of the book, however, Sacks asked these profound questions on what happened as he entered adolescence. Somehow, his fascination with chemistry faded. I think we can probably resonate on the experience of growing up, and letting go of a childhood fascination.

 

But now all this had changed: other interests were crowding in, exciting me, seducing me, pulling me in different ways. Life had become broader, richer, in a way, but it was also shallower, too. That calm deep center, my former passion, was no longer there. Adolescence had rushed upon me, like a typhoon, buffeting me with insatiable longings. At school I had left the undemanding classics “side,” and moved to the pressured science side instead. I had been spoiled, in a sense, by my two uncles, and the freedom and spontaneity of my apprenticeship. Now, at school, I was forced to sit in classes, to take notes and exams, to use textbooks that were flat, impersonal, deadly. What had been fun, delight, when I did it in my own way became an aversion, an ordeal, when I had to do it to order. What had been a holy subject for me, full of poetry, was being rendered prosaic, profane.

 

Was it, then, the end of chemistry? My own intellectual limitations? Adolescence? School? Was it the inevitable course, the natural history, of enthusiasm, that it burns hotly, brightly, like a star, for a while, and then, exhausting itself, gutters out, is gone? Was it that I had found, at least in the physical world and in physical science, the sense of stability and order I so desperately needed, so that I could now relax, feel less obsessed, move on? Or was it, perhaps, more simply, that I was growing up, and that “growing up” makes one forget the lyrical, mystical perceptions of childhood, the glory and the freshness of which Wordsworth wrote, so that they fade into the light of common day?

 

This change, Sacks felt, happened when he was fourteen years old. Between then and the writing of Uncle Tungsten, many decades passed, and of course, Sacks became a neurologist, author, polymath. While he ended the last essay with these sobering questions, he gave a hopeful afterword. Many decades after his passion for chemistry faded, he found it again, triggered by a friend who sent him a poster of the periodic table with a picture of each element and a little bar of tungsten, his childhood favorite element. With that, a flood of memories overcame him and his old love for chemistry was unearthed. One of the last essays Sacks wrote before he died was about his love for the elements of the periodic table. You can find this essay in Gratitude.

 

I love the contrast Sacks made between learning out of joy vs. necessity, and how one is more poetic, lyrical, the other prosaic and dull. Do you have a childhood fascination that faded away too?

 

Image credit: freeimage.com
Honda’s Three Joys: How the Founder Understands Human Psyche

Honda’s Three Joys: How the Founder Understands Human Psyche

Ever owned a Honda? I have one. And I enjoy driving a Honda.

 

While reading the book A Whole New Engineer by David Goldberg and Mark Somerville, a brilliant piece on the coming revolution in engineering education, I came across this gem from Soichiro Honda, the man who originated the now-giant car company.

 

In 1951, he wrote this manifesto to his employees in a company newsletter, also known as Honda’s Three Joys. You can find it here.

 

Honda Monthly No. 4

December 1, 1951

 

The Three Joys

 

I am presenting “The Three Joys” as the motto for our company. These are, namely, the joy of producing, the joy of selling, and the joy of buying.

 

The first of these, the joy of producing, is a joy known only to the engineer. Just as the Creator used an abundant will to create in making all the things that exist in the natural universe, so the engineer uses his own ideas to create products and contribute to society. This is a happiness that can hardly be compared to anything else. Furthermore, when that product is of superior quality so that society welcomes it, the engineers joy is absolutely not to be surpassed. As an engineer myself, I am constantly working in the hope of making this kind of product.

 

The second joy belongs to the person who sells the product. Our company is a manufacturer. The products made by our company pass into the possession of the various people who have a demand for them through the cooperation and efforts of all our agents and dealers. In this situation, when the product is of high quality, its performance is superior, and its price is reasonable, then it goes without saying that the people who engage in selling it will experience joy. Good, inexpensive items will always find a welcome. What sells well generates profits, as well as pride and happiness in handling those items. A manufacturer of products that do not bring this joy to people who sell those products is disqualified from being a manufacturer worthy of the name.

 

The third, the joy of the person who buys the product, is the fairest determiner of the products value. It is neither the manufacturer nor the dealer that best knows the value of the product and passes final judgment on it. Rather, it is none other than the purchaser who uses the product in his daily life. There is happiness in thinking, “Oh, I’m so glad I bought this.” This joy is the garland that is placed upon the products value. I am quietly confident that the value of our company’s products is well advertised by those products themselves. This is because I believe that they give joy to the people who buy them.

 

The Three Joys form our company’s motto. I am devoting all my strength in order to bring them to reality.

 

It is my hope that all of you, as employees of the company, will exert every effort so that you never betray this motto. I also hope that our agents will understand my desires in this regard so that we may continue to benefit from cooperation.

 

In the post-WWII era of assembly lines, in a mechanistic industry such as car manufacturing, I love that Honda understood that his was a human endeavor. Given that everyone involved was human, it was important to him to establish joy as the essential drive to live and work well. In a sense, this newsletter is very much in sync with our generation’s aspirations of combining work, passion, and play into one.

 

These three joys capture the essence of doing good work, that there’s pleasure in doing something well and doing something right. They’re timeless principles that every organization would do well to emulate.

 

Still curious? Couple this with how engineering needs to be a work with soul, using individuality as an asset in the joyful act of creating something, and how a creator uses his free will to transform a thought into reality.

 

Hope Jahren’s Love Letter to Life and Science

Hope Jahren’s Love Letter to Life and Science

Hope Jahren’s memoir, Lab Girl, is beautiful and poetic love letter to science, to the world of trees and plants. When a scientist also has the gift of language, something like a miracle gets produced. Jahren seems to weave words so naturally, putting together words that mere mortals don’t usually put together, unexpectedly, surprisingly, and wonderfully.

I have recommended this book many times, and will continue to do so in the future. I guarantee that you will never look at a tree the same way again.

If you are not yet convinced, here is a trailer for the book with excerpts read by the author herself.

To give you a taste of Jahren’s tapestry of words, here are some of my favorite quotes from Lab Girl.

In this quote, Jahren reminisces the garden she built with her mother in her childhood. But it’s not a typical description of a garden.

My strongest memory of our garden is not how it smelled, or even looked, but how it sounded. It might strike you as fantastic, but you really can hear plants growing in the Midwest. At its peak, sweet corn grows a whole inch every single day and as the layers of husk shift slightly to accommodate this expansion, you can hear it as a low continuous rustle if you stand inside the rows of a cornfield on a perfectly still August day.

Only someone in love with plants can notice this amazing fact and put it down in those words.

 

 

Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. – Hope Jahren

In the book, the narrative of Jahren’s life is interspersed with poetic reflection on the life of a tree, perhaps as a metaphor, a lesson, or just for fun (or all of the above). She has a way of pulling you into the mystery hidden in the silent lives of trees, and also perhaps the silent life of a researcher. Here is the first one on a tree’s initial stage of life: a seed. As if describing a baby, Jahren infuses life to this Earth’s tiny detail that we often overlook.

A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance—to take its one and only chance to grow.

When the seed decides to begin its incarnation as a tree,

Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.

She does this again and again. In describing leaves, “The first real leaf is a new idea.” Or the wood,

A tree’s wood is also its memoir: we can count the rings to learn the tree’s age, for every season of growth requires a new sheath from the cambium. There’s a lot of additional information written into tree rings, but it is coded within a language that scientists don’t speak fluently—yet. An unusually thick ring could signify a good year, with lots of growth, or it could just be the product of adolescence, a random spurt of growth hormones cued by an influx of unfamiliar pollen from a distant source.

 

Here’s a new way to look at the furniture in your house.

Every piece of wood in your house—from the windowsills to the furniture to the rafters—was once part of a living being, thriving in the open and pulsing with sap. If you look at these wooden objects across the grain, you might be able to trace out the boundaries of a couple of rings. The delicate shape of those lines tells you the story of a couple of years. If you know how to listen, each ring describes how the rain fell and the wind blew and the sun appeared every day at dawn.

On science and scientific discovery,

A true scientist doesn’t perform prescribed experiments; she develops her own and thus generates wholly new knowledge.

One of the most exquisite passages in the book is when she describes her first discovery as a graduate student (see also The Joy of Discovery). Science is usually covered in the media or movies as something sexy and high-tech. But the reality is most of science is done in humble labs with exposed pipes, hidden in the basement of a building, and during the hours most people are asleep. In this instance, the discovery comes during a certain all-nighter.

I was the only person in an infinite exploding universe who knew that this powder was made of opal. In a wide, wide world, full of unimaginable numbers of people, I was—in addition to being small and insufficient—special. I was not only a quirky bundle of genes, but I was also unique existentially, because of the tiny detail that I knew about Creation, because of what I had seen and then understood.

 

…But on that night, I wiped my face with my hands, embarrassed to be weeping over something that most people would see as either trivial or profoundly dull. I stared out the window and saw the first light of the day spilling its glow out upon the campus. I wondered who else in the world was having such an exquisite dawn… Nothing could alter the overwhelming sweetness of briefly holding a small secret that the universe had earmarked just for me. I knew instinctively that if I was worthy of a small secret, I might someday be worthy of a big one.

 

Finally, this one here is now among my top favorite quotes of all time.

Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.

These quotes make me smile. Pick up Jahren’s beautiful book and join in the discovery.

 

Abraham Heschel: Two Ways of Seeing the World

Abraham Heschel: Two Ways of Seeing the World

Feature image: Sunrise at Bryce Canyon National Park. Credit: Johnny Loi Photography.

 

The Watchman. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Temple of Sinawava. These are not religious allusions, but names of the rock formations in Zion National Park, Utah. Soaring to majestic heights, it is not surprising that they inspired spiritual experiences in those who named them.

 

From the ground to thousands feet above sea level, these rocks’ vertical dimension tells a mysterious story of time and nature. Carved to each groove is the invisible movement of waters over this Earth’s lifetime. History collapsed into formations. Rocks stand as though holding secrets, as natural monuments, as silent witnesses to the forces of nature that humans will never uncover.

 

Face to face with this hushed grandness, one cannot help but sense the drama hidden in the place. There are things bigger than me and I am overwhelmed.

 

I found myself in this tension at Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks recently. I found that I could see these mysteries in two ways.

 

One was the questioning way. What happened here? How did the rocks get shaped this way? What was it about this area that made this structure possible? Is there consensus whether it was something catastrophic or gradual? Could geologists distinguish the footprints of a catastrophe vs. gradual canyon creation by water year by year?

 

The monkey mind could go on and on.

 

But then I found that there was another way of looking at the scene. Asking what happened was futile, since no one knew what exactly happened, how precisely the waters flowed to create the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon. No one was there. With that, I silenced my monkey brain.

 

Then it happened. Silence, awe, wonder, reverence.

 

It was a way of looking at things for what they were, just as they were, acknowledging the mystery and admiring it in peace.

 

I was reminded of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words on the two ways of seeing the world in his beautiful book, Man Is Not Alone:

Standing eye to eye with being as being, we realize that we are able to look at the world with two faculties-with reason and with wonder. Through the first we try to explain or to adapt the world to our concepts, through the second we seek to adapt our minds to the world.

 

In one, the world is subject to us. In the other, we are subject to the world. One is scrutiny; the other is surrender, a succumbing to something other than us.

 

Wonder rather than doubt is the root of knowledge… to doubt is to question that which we have accepted as possibly true a moment ago… But if we must know in order to question, if we must entertain a belief in order to cast doubt upon it, then doubt cannot be the beginning of knowledge.

 

Wonder is not just about receiving information; it is the amazement at being able to see at all:

Wonder goes beyond knowledge… We are amazed at seeing anything at all; amazed not only at particular values and things but at the unexpectedness of being as such, at the fact that there is being at all.

 

Even before we conceptualize what we perceive, we are amazed beyond words, beyond doubts.

 

And here is the crux of the two modes of seeing:

When in doubt, we raise questions; when in wonder, we do not even know how to ask a question.

 

 

Couple this with Before Learning and After Learning, applying the two modes of seeing the world in the process of learning. Also read Wonder and Fear: Thinking Two Thoughts at Once on the experience of encountering nature.

 

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