Quote of the day: how to be a modern Renaissance man

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Here is a quote I first read a month back, one that is quite applicable to the movie Avatar and the reaction to it. It's from a thread on Reddit where the question was how to be a modern Renaissance man (a well-rounded person, skilled in just about everything and with an overall understanding of how the world works). What needs to be avoided on the way to the top though is a kind of snobbery that accumulates over time. Or in other words:

Don't forget more banal pursuits like sports or celebrity gossip. A Renaissance man can converse about Homer, a homer or Homer Simpson.

So what does this have to do with Avatar? Well, the movie just happens to benefit two fields that Page F30 has a lot of content on, namely space and constructed languages (auxlangs). Simply put:

- Avatar is set in the Alpha Centauri system (Alpha Centauri A) and we're on the verge of being able to discover planets and moons of just about our own size. Thanks to Avatar there are millions more people thinking and talking about this subject than they would without the movie.

- The Na'vi on Pandora speak a language that has its own grammar and vocabulary (i.e. it can be learned by anyone that puts in the effort) and since its release many people have begun trying to learn it. Thanks to Avatar there are thousands of people trying to learn a constructed language. And if they are willing to learn that, they will certainly be willing to consider the idea of an auxlang as well.

So these new "adherents" need to be engaged. Many who have been wowed by the movie have begun seriously thinking about space and constructed languages for the first time...and the wrong approach to take with them is a kind of moody snobbery that one sees from old hands in the field. On the space side it is expressed by "Eh, they're just fanboys and they're never going to do anything practical like writing a letter to their member of Congress for more funding", and on the auxlang side it is expressed by "meh, the language's grammar hasn't even been published yet", "They're just fanboys and will get tired of it soon", "I didn't like the movie so therefore I don't want anything to do with it".

This is an unproductive attitude to take. How many of us were born auxlangers? (besides denaskuloj) How many of us were born knowing how funding for NASA worked and how to get action from one's member of Congress? The answer is none; it is always some friend, some book, some TV program or other event that gets a person interested in a subject, and looking down on those that have not yet had the good fortune of hearing just why space needs to be explored and why auxiliary languages are worth learning is never a good idea.

Good politicians are a good example of this. Pick your favourite politician, the most honest and hardworking one you know. Americans might choose someone like Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich, Canadians might choose someone like Preston Manning or Garth Turner or maybe even Giles Duceppe. Depends on your political preference. But what makes a good politician a good politician is this: they never tire of explaining their message. Watch a dozen or so speeches by a good politician and you will begin to see a trend, that they have a message that is imparted every single time they give a talk, and they don't mind explaining it over, and over, and over, and over again. We'll go with Ron Paul as an example but feel free to substitute him with anyone else you admire.

Ron Paul was first elected in 1976 and is still a member of Congress, and he'll still sit down with anyone that asks and explain why he sees limited government, low taxation and a non-interventionist foreign policy as the best way to run a country. Now imagine how far he would have gotten if he had chosen back in the 1970s to mope about how nobody understood his message. Thanks to his tireless engagement with anyone that is willing to listen, he is now a powerful force in politics instead of a bitter old man. Anyone with a message needs to understand this, and avoid the snobbery and exasperation that seems to claim so many.

As the late Don Harlow put it, promoting an auxlang (in his case Esperanto) is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. Rome wasn't built in a day. Build it and they will come (and if they don't come, sulk!) is not the right approach.


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