Orality and Iraq

Pundita’s recent “Law of Leaving” post made me realize that I’d sat on this idea long enough. This post is based on ideas that occurred to me nearly two years ago and I’ve been researching them ever since. The more I researched the more I realized that this was not a post or even a series of posts but a book and to do the topic justice I’d need to master skills that, themselves, would require years. That’s simply not going to happen so I’m putting these ideas out there and what you see is what you get. Nearly everything in this post is disputed or controversial and a lot may be just plain wrong.

One more point: I don’t consider orality a put-down. It’s merely a characteristic like having green eyes or being left-handed although (unlike eye color or handedness) it’s one that can be changed with study.

There’s no generally accepted definition of literacy. Not only do different cultures define literacy differently but it may be defined differently in different studies of the same culture. Take Chinese, for example. Since the official simplification of the Chinese writing system on the mainland starting in the 1950’s there have been claims of enormous improvement in the literacy rates there with figures as high as 90% frequently being seen. A frequently seen definition of basic Chinese literacy is 1,500 to 2,500 characters. However, since reading anything but the most basic of texts requires knowledge of 3,000 or more characters (for example, to read a newspaper) reading a newspaper would be beyond the abilities of such a basically literate reader.

There’s a similar issue with Arabic. The 2002 Arab Human Development Report (prepared by Arabs for Arabs) claimed an average 63% adult literacy rate in the Arab world. There are reasons to doubt that the literacy rate is this high. Again, according to the 2002 AHDR, the Arab world translates 330 books into Arabic per year (about the same number as Greece). One would think that a large literate populace would have a greater demand than that. Reported teaching methods (group repetition and memorization) used for the Qu’ran suggest oral learning rather than literacy.

One of the reasons for the likely lower literacy rate is the gender gap (women generally receive less schooling than men). But another reason is diglossia. I wrote about this at some length here. Window on the Arab World [ed. link updated] has recently posted on this subject, as well. The diglossic nature of Arabic means that Arabic speakers need to learn a new language as well as learning to read to actually become literate.

I think it’s quite likely that the Arab world is an oral or vestigial oral one. Well, so what?

In his seminal book, Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong noted that literacy reorders consciousness and characterized the psychodynamics of people in oral cultures (there’s a mature body of scholarship which has studied this systematically). Orally-based thought and expression are

  • additive rather than subordinative

    Complex constructions are avoided in favor of simple conjoining of ideas.

  • aggregative rather than analytic

    Standard expressions, stock phrases, and cliches are preferred over novel descriptions.

  • redundant or “copious”

    Repetition is an aid to memorization.

  • conservative or traditionalist

    Knowledge is hard to come by and traditional ways should be conserved.

  • close to the human lifeworld

    Knowledge of skills is passed person-to-person rather than through manuals or books.

  • agonistically toned
  • empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced

    Gaining knowledge is an empathetic and participatory process: don’t expect objectivity.

  • homeostatic

    Memories without relevance are discarded.

  • situational rather than abstract

    Objects are grouped pragmatically rather than in abstract categories.

In an oral world you know what you can remember.

This has real relevance and real practical application. The Bush Administration has made bringing democracy to Iraq a keystone of its policy in the War on Terror. This would be a formidable task under any circumstances but a major complication is the oral or vestigial oral nature of the culture. When the United States began its own experiment with democracy the literacy in the adult population in New England is estimated at around 90% (somewhat lower in the rest of the new country although statistics are very hard to come by).

I’m not saying, by the way, that orality means that democracy is impossible. I believe, along with Mr. Bush, that all people aspire to freedom. But communicating effectively with the people and making freedom part of the prevailing wisdom in the society requires using modalities of communication that are meaningful to the people.

Mr. Bush or his surrogates should speak directly to the Iraqi people frequently on radio or television. The speeches should be repetitive and should use stock phrases. The translation should actively employ constructions that have resonance in Arabic even at the expense of literal meaning. Abstractions e.g. freedom, democracy should be avoided in favor of concrete examples of the exercises of freedom and democracy. The speeches should be aggressive, energetic, and argumentative rather than conciliatory or temperate. Hardest of all, liberal democracy should be sold using an appeal to traditional values. The early Jesuit missionaries to China had considerable success in converting the Chinese to Christianity by reinterpreting the gospels in traditional Chinese terms i.e. Jesus as a sage and a similar approach should be used in the conversion of Iraq to liberal democracy.

I recall a radio interview of columnist Thomas Friedman in 2002 or early 2003 in which he was discussing the hazards of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. He characterized one of the possibilities as “Surprise! You’re the new Saddam Hussein.” I doubt that this is what he meant but if the style and approach above sound at all familiar they should—they’re how Saddam Hussein spoke to the Iraqi people. He understood how to communicate with them effectively.


References:

Orality and Literacy, Walter J. Ong, (New York: Methuen, 1988)
Walter Ong’s Paradigm and Chinese Literacy, David Ze, Canadian Journal of Communications, Volume 20, Number 4, 1995

16 comments… add one

  • Great post and excellent conclusions.

  • collounsbury

    There is no reason to doubt literacy rate is not around 65 percent due to the number of books translated. That’s sloppy thinking

    First, of course there is taste: taste for translated books may or may not have anything to do with overall literacy.

    Second, there is readership habits. Book reading in Arabic does not tend toward the literary. And reading in general does not tend toward books in my experience. That, tied with buying power and a tendancy to share (newspapers, books) entirely skews any potential conclusion you are trying to draw.

    Further, Quranic schools (madrasas as the Western media likes to name them, although it simply means schools), leaving aside the simple minded ignorant stereotypes bandied about in the West, are not the dominant form of schooling in the Arab world. Largely secular state schools are.

    Regretably you start from poor assumptions and dig deeper from there.

    I note the comment you link to in re langauge is inexact; the author is taking a rather arch definition of “able to speak Modern Standard Arabic” as able to speak MSA well. My experience is most literate people, which varies from lows of 50 percent in Morocco, to highs of 90 percent in Jordan, can speak MSA – but one mixes in dialectal pronunciations, sometimes grammatical forms. Only the arch purist would call this “unable” to speak – unable to speak, perhaps in the highest register. I further note that the commentator exagerates in regards to Maghrebi Arabic (the absorption of French is a constant exageration by Mashreqi speakers – the real issue is the influence of berber / Amazight on grammatical forms and above all pronunciation).

    In sum, the idea, while elegant, I think is utterly irrelevant to Iraq; certainly truly oral (predom. illiterate) societies such as Mali and Senegal have taken to democracy (imperfect to be sure) without immense difficulty.

    The problem for the US in Iraq is not Iraqi orality (false presumption) nor any such thing. It is quite simply US Admin incompetence in the start combined with a lack of basic legitimacy among the target population – the old bugbears of colonialism and resentment of US interference, real or perceived.

  • Thanks for taking the time to look at my crackpot ideas, collounsbury. I genuinely appreciate your comments.

    Evidently I didn’t communicate my point about the Qu’ran clearly. My point is that familiarity with the Qu’ran or the ability to recite long passages from it by memory is not evidence of literacy any more than comparable familiarity with the Bible is.

  • collounsbury

    Well, that’s true, but most education in the MENA region (not Pakistan, etc) occurs in proper schools (most of course is not all).

    Even the Islamist run schools around here do teach basic literacy – I’ve known enough people that I can say that at least they got basic reading and writing skills out of it. Rather clearly this differs from place to place, and indeed to the degree to which the population if Arabophone (or uses Arabic – e.g. most Berbers in North Africa are functionally bilingual even if the arch and far too special Arab purists mock them).

    One the problems you have in this connexion, e.g. given the quick glance I gave to the memri art (I’m sure you know I hold memri in contempt), is the tendency among Arabic professors (and by extension many new langauge learners) to hold “purist” standards of usage in re MSA – as a pragmatic businessman I don’t give a fuck about literary quality, if it’s reasonable strikes me I can call it MSA even if grammatical “errors” based on dialect creep in.

    However, I note that I missed your final paragraph Mr. Bush or his surrogates should speak directly to the Iraqi people frequently on radio or television. The speeches should be repetitive and should use stock phrases. The translation should actively employ constructions that have resonance in Arabic even at the expense of literal meaning. Abstractions e.g. freedom, democracy should be avoided in favor of concrete examples of the exercises of freedom and democracy. The speeches should be aggressive, energetic, and argumentative rather than conciliatory or temperate. Hardest of all, liberal democracy should be sold using an appeal to traditional values. The early Jesuit missionaries to China had considerable success in converting the Chinese to Christianity by reinterpreting the gospels in traditional Chinese terms i.e. Jesus as a sage and a similar approach should be used in the conversion of Iraq to liberal democracy. which I am less in disagreement over (although as noted the way you got there I disagree with).

    That is to say, I have long argued that instead of Americans pissing away untold millions on the false model of al-Hurra, they should be putting their arguments forth in the local idiom constantly. Constantly on al-Jazeerah, al-Arabiyah, and elsewhere where they can (i) get on, (ii) have an audience.

    Your characterisation of the style of address – well no. I would not suggest “aggressive and argumentative” – it’s hard to get that right in that context. But the suggestion of putting it into the local idiom (which is indeed finding those arguments etc rooted in usage, not mere transation) is precisely right.

    Apologies then, I missed what was the perhaps best part of the post in my initial irritation. Of course the reference to pundita as an opening irritates me in anything in connexion with MENA.

    One other item, I think I stated above too strongly that most literate people can speak MSA – of the literate population I would opine that a majority can speak in MSA – certainly not perfectly and to the polished standards of the TV or those demanded by Arabic language purists (who often claim that even TV commentators “can’t speak Arabic” meaning they don’t maintain prissy levels of purity), but most can speak MSA.

  • That’s extremely gracious of you, collounsbury, and I continue to appreciate your input.

  • collounsbury

    Ah well, every once in a while I am capable of some degree of manners. My initial reaction was somewhat unfair, based on the first part rather than your real substance.

  • Thanks for the post and, to collounsbury, thanks for the comments. Good food for thought.

  • But Bush’s speeches *are* repetitive and *do* use stock phrases!

    On a more serious note, I’m extremely skeptical of hyperliterate Ongists concocting mental dichotomies between themselves and imagined oral Others. It sounds too much like Manhattanites concocting mental dichotomies between themselves and imaginary rural Kansans, Alabamans, or whomever.

    Nor does literacy have any clear correlation with readiness for democracy. I’ve done fieldwork in two small Pacific island societies with low rates of dependency on literacy for decision-making in their daily lives. The one in New Guinea was extremely egalitarian, democratic, and consensus-oriented. The one in Micronesia was even more stuffily hierarchical and socially repressed than Japan. Still, PNG’s institutions of democracy are a shambles, while Yap’s are more like Japan’s: a facade that somehow manages to muddle through.

    Otherwise I’ll just second collounsbury.

  • “I think it’s quite likely that the Arab world is an oral or vestigial oral one.”

    Attaturk thought so, too. That’s why he had the Koran translated out of Arabic so that it would be read and not simply memorized by people who didn’t understand what they were saying.

    Coming from a literate culture which prizes orality (the Irish), I can see your point. Orality is, in a way, more primitive. Which, if you’ve ever sat in on an Irish argument, is a conclusion you’d come to quickly enough.

  • Which, if you’ve ever sat in on an Irish argument, is a conclusion you’d come to quickly enough.

    How about at night around the dinner table when I was a kid? Or visiting my mom’s relatives? (I’m somewhere between a quarter and half Irish.)

  • Brian H

    One or another of either the Fadhil brothers or Zeyad did some extensive blogging on the urban/rural dichotomy in Iraq, though mostly from the point of view of tribalism/clannishness/Sharia rather than oral / literate. It seems like they would overlap quite extensively, though. And I suspect that Pundita’s comments about the Law of Leaving, which basically posit that the “role” of conqueror / new chieftan / patriarch should be taken seriously, also apply even to the urbanites, to some extent. It’s what they’ve known, after all.

    And for “primitive”, Sharia exceeds even the Irish by quite a stretch. ;)

  • Osifeso Abisola Angela

    First of all why don’t we ask ourselves the question “WHAT IS LITERACY”.If the answer is one’s ability to read and write in the’ENGLISH LANGUAGE’ then we are wrong.Because ‘literacy’ is the ability to read and write.Language is an aspect of culture,everybody’s culture is unique and special in different ways.Though some people’s language have a great advantage than others, especially in the area of communication e.g English Language.I agree that arabic has a very unique oral culture in which only people inbibed in the culture have a clear understanding of it.

  • Over at Democratic Underground, evidence that the tactic is being tried

    http://www.democraticunderground.com/discuss/duboard.php?az=view_all&address=102×1650910

    Mantras on our side

  • In other words, join Toastmasters.

  • Briefly — the Window on the Arab World post you link to is no longer at that address, but can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/3dda3p

    Most interesting and appropriate to see Walter Ong referenced in this context.

  • Thanks, hipbone. I’ve made the necessary change.

    I’m a fan of Ong’s work. Besides the implications for the Arab world there are also serious implications for the future of China in his findings.

Leave a Comment