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Language Log

Sunday, Aug. 23, 2009 - 8:06 a.m.

A friend of mine, just back from a summer of linguistic fieldwork in Mali (working with the Dogon! Diagnosed a language isolate!) linked to this article http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8216568.stm on her blog. She was disappointed, to say the least. I also heard of a similar situation in Uganda in the last year or two, where there were protests against a proposed law making marital rape illegal (though I don't know if it was mainly women or mainly men objecting to that one).

I'm not going to hold forth on false consciousness or Those Poor Deluded African Women. I see a similar thing happening in some quarters with respect to the current health care debate in these here parts. My question: What makes people come out so strongly against something that would seem to be entirely to their advantage? Here in the US, I'd attribute it to years and months of propaganda that has successfully molded the opinion of some of the public. Confident radio/TV guys spouting off for sponsor dollars and a fat salary. What is it in Mali? Who forms public opinion there? Local religious leaders? Husbands? A handful of (elder?) women with very strong personalities and conservative views? The weight of tradition? In both cases (and I'm making this up for Mali-- obviously the article says no such thing) I'm guessing part of it is fear that sure, they may benefit, but so will someone else, who doesn't deserve it; someone who, if they are given an iota more, will Ruin Everything. For US healthcare, that vast Someone are the illegal immigrants and the great Lazy, in Mali (here's where I'm making it up), I'm guessing it's Bad Women, or maybe Modern/Westernized Women. A salient Other, in any case.

Of course, with the healthcare thing, there's also cost to consider. The Fear Of Helping The Undeserving is only a small part of what's driving the opposition. In Mali, it doesn't seem that the law would require anything of the people. Just, here, here's some more freedom. So let us not underestimate the power of the Fear Of Helping The Wicked. (if that's what it is in the case of Mali-- again, I really don't know).

I might also connect it up to the idea that some religious people have that without religion, there is no basis for morality. I assume this view is not limited to anyone particualr religion. It's a big assumption underlying the very existance of religion, so you'd expect it to crop up in many settings. Anyway, if you also believe that the laws of your religion should of course be the laws of your country (indeed must be, if the place is to properly run), then by extension, you do not have morality if it is not legislated. So maybe that's the threat; removing laws enforcing certain behaviors removes any obligation to behave morally (however you define moral behavior).

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