No Gender Neutral God

taylor-mason

In the steady stream of bullshit news about Sweden, you might have seen the one about the Swedish church banning the use of “he” to refer to God.

IT NOT TRUE. I know; shocker. It seems there have been theologically interesting amendments – in places, not throughout – in order to agree with original Hebrew texts on the one hand, and the nature of the Trinity on the other.

It’s also not a news story here in Sweden, but it’s been widely circulated by spittle-flecked English-speaking Scandi-bashers. Farage (tell me why that doesn’t rhyme with English ‘garage’, again?), O’Reilly, et cetera ad nauseum.

No, it’s not been on the radar here. Not to say that Sweden doesn’t have its traditionalists. The gender neutral pronoun “hen” has become reasonably well established (created 1960’s, popularised this century, dictionarised 2015), but it still attracts flack.

Most of the ire seems to stem from fear of hen’s magical gender-warping properties as also evinced in this – of all places – Slate article from 2012. No, even the most right-on Swedes are not trying to “banish gender”. In my experience of Swedish TV news, I’ve more often heard hen deployed when gender is unknown – say, discussing what a hypothetical future minister might do.

At least no-one really objects to hen on grammatical grounds, it avoids the prescriptivist nonsense that English singular pronoun “they” attracts. As I noted re: the snopp/snippa phenomenon, these linguistic adaptations have been absorbed by modern Swedish without great friction. Which is perhaps more an indication of the small, contained nature of the linguistic group than any testament to the open-minded fairness of the Swedes, though that’s surely a factor too.

Anyway, the Lord God is still a He, here, though the Trinity is sometimes God instead of He, and the Holy Ghost, yes is Hen, but was the Ghost ever a He anyway? Excuse me, I’m exhausted. That stream of negative propaganda about Sweden is likely to turn into a flood in the coming year, with an election on the horizon.

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The Long Ships and Viking Textiles

TheLongShips

In which the hero, Red Orm, adventures and swashbuckles through assorted lands, returning home to cement his legacy. The Long Ships is the English collected version of Frans G Bengtsson’s Röde Orm sagas, the first volume of which was published in Sweden in 1941.

I first read this in 2013, but have been thinking about it recently because of the brouhaha over the supposed Viking “Allah” textile. Earlier this month, a mildly interesting news story broke of research claiming that Viking burial clothes unearthed in Birka, Sweden, which supposedly had the name of Allah woven into the fabric. (The altright and their far right chums went nuts: “how dare you say all Vikings were Muslims” etc.)

The research was debunked in an illuminating tweet thread by Stephennie Mulder, a Professor of Islamic Art. (Again, the altright/far right went nuts: “see, this proves there were no Muslim Vikings” etc.)

So, Red Orm. In the early part of the saga, as a youth in Skania, he’s captured by Vikings, who are in turn captured by Andalusian Muslims. After a few gruelling years as galley slaves the Vikings eventually become bodyguards to Almansur, the de facto ruler of the Cordovan Caliphate.

During this time, Orm assumes leadership of the Norsemen largely due to the fact that he’s the first to learn the Arabic spoken by their masters, and thus the conduit of all communication between the groups:

Orm always afterwards used to say that, after good luck, strength, and skill at arms, nothing was so useful to a man who found himself among foreigners as the ability to learn a language.
– I. The Long Voyage, p57-58

When Almansur asks if Orm and his men will worship Allah, the Skanian responds with calm practicality. In the gloss given to his men, Orm adds that conversion will earn them better treatment, that going against their lord’s wishes wouldn’t be a smart move, and that that they can quit worshipping the foreign god when they return home. He puts a different slant on it for Almansur, but one that’s equally pragmatic and no less honest:

“We men of the north do not worship our gods except in time of necessity, for we think it foolish to weary them with babbling… Perchance it may be that our gods wield but little power in this land; therefore, lord, I for my part shall willingly obey your command and worship your God while I am your servant.”
– I. The Long Voyage, p57-58

Later in the saga, Red Orm converts to Christianity, again for practical reasons. But it takes a while to win him over. The process starts in the first volume and isn’t concluded until the second:

“St. Finian’s bell helped you, too,” said the monk; “and now that you have seen what the saints can do, even for heathens, would it not be a wise thing for you to start believing in God and become Christians?”
Orm said that he had not given the matter much consideration and that he did not think there was any urgency about deciding.
– I. The Long Voyage, p99

So at different times, Red Orm is a Norse pagan, a Muslim, and a Christian. (Noah Harari notes in Sapiens how polytheists have no issue with incorporating monotheistic deities into their worship, believing every situation calls for its own god.) Certainly the reader always feels that Orm treats these religions with a non-nonsense cynicism, and in every case he approaches his worship in a fair dealing spirit. When he converts to Christianity, he gives “a large sum for the protection and luck that I expect to receive”.

Stephennie Mulder started her epic ‘Allah textile’ debunkening by noting that the Vikings had “rich contacts w/Arab world”. Later – it’s an x/60 thread, folks – she underlines the importance of getting such a story, however niche, correct in the current policitical climate. The Islamophobes hopping onto the thread, obviously, crowed about “lies” and “propaganda” from those famous bedfellows/co-conspirators, academia and the mainstream media.

Because the knowledge and painstaking research of specialist professors is nothing compared to the unshakeable certainty of one who has watched Kirk Douglas in “The Vikings” (and who will no doubt simply rewatch “Spartacus” if they ever need to dismiss Mary Beard’s in-depth knowledge of the Roman Empire).

The Long Ships has long been praised for its historical and indeed historiographical (um wait while I look that up) accuracy. And since it was published in 1941, I think we can safely discount the possibility of it being a propaganda ploy of the SJWs. The knowledge of Viking ties to the Arab world, and even the notion of Vikings converting to Islam (#notallvikings) is old news.

Old news or not, The Long Ships is a blast. Röde Orm (orm = serpent) himself is an enduring hero: canny, witty, and wise, his bravery never outstripping his common sense or ship-smarts. It’s a fun, wry read, with the worst of its scorn reserved for literary folk, Orm knowing enough about men not to argue with poets concerning their respective merits.

He would have hated Twitter.

 

Serenity When? Serenity Now?

serenitynow

I started writing this post ten days before the US election. The premise was that it’s massively unproductive to worry about things we have no control over: football results, Brexit, that US election I mentioned.

… worry is a dividend paid to disaster before it is due…

– Ian Fleming, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”

The aim was to quit the “read the entire internet” impulse that fretting encourages. Stop skim reading every article. Stop following inflammatory tweets back to the shithive of alt-right white supremacist scumbaggery they dribbled out of.

Reading every viewpoint and counter-viewpoint on a subject doesn’t leave you better prepared to absorb the consequences of an outcome you don’t have any control over. That view/counterview thing? Horribly overdone. Depressing to see news outlets follow up with the counter-opinions, because often it seems so forced. (“OK, who wants to write an opinion piece saying Bowie was shit? Come on, someone has to write this thing…”)

In praise of disengagement? Sort of. This is tacking pretty close to the serenity prayer.

Anyways, history overtook my sluggish blogging (that’s how fast I blog, at a sub-historical pace), and the US somehow elected a candidate who makes more false statements than true ones. As I lazily pondered how Facebook and Twitter had played a disastrous role in the dissemination of bullshit during Brexit and the US election, the media duly decided to get riled about fake news.

What of serene disengagement in 2016, then? Disengagement from the internet, I hasten to add, not from “real life”. The last thing we need now is disengagement from reality. Ever think: if we’d all stayed off Twitter and Facebook in 2016, and instead had talked to our less politically-aligned relatives, we might not be now suffering the spittle-flecked, oddly angry, victory shitposting of the Brexiteers and Trumpkopfs? Even without social media we would still have been appalled by the atrocities in Syria, still mourned Bowie and Prince.

I stand by the point that over-reading is unproductive. It’s a one-way street, a dead-end download that will likely go unanalysed and unsynthesised, which will never be shared except in an angry diatribe to a colleague with better things to do.

This isn’t a solution for the awfulnesses we’ve subjected ourselves this year. It’s a modest contribution to your own mental health not to pore over things, obsessively, until you lose your grip on what they actually mean. Don’t read the comments. Don’t feed the trolls. Twitter sparingly. Facebook for event invites and birthdays only.

As for King Troll, all I can do is trust in the survival instinct of the US people, and have popcorn on hand in case of impeachment. Regarding the disengagement policy, I’m convinced that the most constructive thing people could do is unfollow Trump on Twitter. Can you imagine how much more effectively he could be scrutinised if we weren’t wasting time evaluating his tweets by the normal standards of political/civil discourse, instead of dismissing them out of hand as the deliberate misinformation they are? Imagine how that fragile ego would take a plummeting follower count…

 

PS The one topic I did manage to disengage from in the latter half of the year was football. I’ve avoided the brief, addiction-forming highs of the wins and the days-long toxic fug of defeats. It’s easier, living outside the UK, but I’ve seen a few results by accident, or knee jerk click-impulse. On the whole I honestly feel that if anything it’s helped my mood. (I reserve the right to revise this opinion if Arsenal win the League.)

 

Google Translate and Plato

google-translate-ai-2016-11-24-01

So you’ve seen this news [New Scientist/Wired], right? That the Google Translate AI has supposedly invented a new internal language to help it translate language pairs it hasn’t learnt. Having been taught English <> Japanese and English <> Korean, it can then do the job for Japanese <> Korean.

The headlines position this as the AI inventing its own internal language, or interlingua, to handle those conversions. Every article notes the difficulty in anyone knowing exactly what is happening in there, the deep learning that’s going on inside the AI. (Engadget had the slightly more nuanced report on this, further from the “invented a language” headline.)

An invented language? That’s one interpretation. But if a language consists of signs, symbols that exist in the world, is that the best description for the process?

So Google Translate learns that English table means both Spanish mesa and Swedish bord. Does it then need to tell itself:

IF table = 1010101011101 = bord
AND table = 1010101011101 = mesa
THEN bord = 1010101011101 = mesa

?

That’s not how we meat-sacks use language. It skips over another interpretation, lacking from the reporting I’ve seen so far, which is either totally thrilling or utterly chilling, depending on whether or not you’re looking forward to the ascendancy of Skynet.

I (and I’m willing to assume you too) have an idea of a table, based on years of experience:

  • It’s a flat surface atop a number of legs (often 4);
  • It’s usually (not always) around thigh height;
  • Most are made of wood, or metal, or plastic;

All these things contribute to a mental representation of [table]: a confluence of images, physical experiences, language labels, and a heap of Venn diagrams of different properties that coalesce around the label of table. A lot of overlap with something like [chair]; less – but some – overlap with [dog]. A mess of connections and firings in the neural pathways, impossible to pin down, even while it’s possible to see where they cluster.

The Platonic form of a table, if you like. That is what’s triggered when I hear the English or Spanish or Whateverish word for [table]. English is my mother tongue, but if I were to translate a Stockholm restaurant reservation for a Spanish speaker, the mental process wouldn’t be “(Swedish) bord = (English) table = (Spanish) mesa”. It would be “bord <> [idea or Platonic form of the table] <> mesa”.

Look at that map up top again. That string of Japanese word/concepts on side, the English string on the other, the Korean somewhere in the middle but tending closer to the Japanese. The whole forming a neat oval, a cluster of meaning. OK, so the AI only has language input, there are no sights/feelings/memories of [stratosphere] associated, not yet.

But what if that oval, that pattern of pinpricks of understanding, represents the rough formation of a Platonic form; an AI idea?