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.
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.