A couple of linguistics bloggers have mentioned the panel on missionaries and linguistics which took place at the LSA 2007 meeting. Your host attended this discussion (except for the talk by Courtney Handman, which he skipped in order to go hear Claire Bowern's talk on Nyikina), and took some notes. While The Tensor already made the most comment one most hopes to hear in contexts like this -- no chairs were thrown in the making of this production -- SC wishes to discuss his view of what went on at the panel, as he found it mildly dispiriting for many of the usual reasons that underlie his general refusal to discuss religion or politics at work.
As many of the participants found it a matter of good faith in argumentation to briefly disclose their own views on the ontological question undergirding the discussion, your host will do likewise. Longtime readers know SC makes no secret of being a practicing Conservative Jew, although he has generally restricted my posts in that regard to issues of language, cultural practices, or the desperate longing for leavened bread that generally strikes SC shortly after he stops eating in preparation for the first night of Passover. Your host is under no illusions about the views of most visitors to this site, but it's not the purpose of what goes on here, and as long as nobody wants to throw punches over things unsaid, we're all happy. Readers who wish to inquire further along these lines are welcome to do so by e-mail, but proselytizing in the direction of either Jerry Falwell or Richard Dawkins will not be well-received.
Having said that, the questions raised by the panel are threefold:
- Does the missionary goal of organizations like SIL negatively impact the quality of the work they do as linguists?
- Does the missionary goal of organizations like SIL negatively impact the communities that they operate among?
- Given the divergence of goals between academic and missionary linguistics, should any sort of formal recognition be extended between the two communities?
The panelists responded to these in a variety of ways; what follows is based on my notes, which should not be treated as quotes in any case, and handouts where possible.
Lise Dobrin and Jeff Good, who organized the discussion, framed their talk as a series of questions not necessarily to be answered by them, but in need of discussion. They introduced several premises meant to be treated as the givens from which the discussion would start, but which SC found to be debatable notions in themselves:
- Missionary linguists impose Christian values on their hosts even while conducting only their linguistic business
- Academic linguists have recently discovered endangered language preservation as a moral cause (treating it as a human right)
- The goals of missionary and academic linguists diverge because academics treat languages as ends in themselves, while missionaries ultimately subordinate their language work to the goal of evangelization
- Different goals include different working priorities, such as SIL's shifting of spending on software from Shoebox development to font development, which isn't helpful to academic linguists
Starting from these premises, they ask some further questions:
- Is it desirable for academic linguists to be dependent on missionary-developed tools when their goals diverge?
- Is it desirable for SIL to have de facto control over things like the upcoming ISO standardization of language codes based on Ethnologue merely because nobody else has done the work, especially when there is disagreement over the empirical adequacy of SIL's categorizations?
- Should academic linguistics be reconfigured in the 21st century to eliminate these dependencies?
While Dobrin and Good would argue they were just raising the questions, SC is concerned that it is hard to suggest anathematizing people or organizations without provoking the suspicion that an affirmative answer is the intended result. They emphasized repeatedly that they were not questioning individual motives or work, but rather the existence of formal relations with an organization that ultimately has missionary goals. The attempt not to cast individual aspersions is admirable, but as a number of commenters pointed out afterward, it was very hard to determine what practical effects were meant to be had by dissociating from SIL without treating the collection of SIL linguists any differently.
They were followed by William Svelmoe, a historian from Saint Mary's College, who did not address the questions of the panel from the standpoint of professional relevance, but rather came to provide some helpful historical context. William Townsend, the founder of SIL, originally trained as a preacher, but eventually wound up as a missionary to Guatemala. His work there convinced him of the need to learn about local languages in order to communicate effectively with the populations, and that it was important this be done well, because if the Bible was to be presented as the word of G-d, it would not be particularly credible if G-d was seen to have a hard time speaking the local language. This would be particularly unfair in light of the fact that the responsibility would actually lie with human translators; therefore, Townsend undertook to establish "Camp Wycliffe" to train missionaries.
Fortunately for Townsend, Ken Pike shared his religious convictions and had the drive to be a great linguist, and thus set out to help him by establishing a school for translation, based in Texas. Townsend was thus free to concentrate on training the budding linguistic missionaries in their missionary skills specifically, which he did through a school based in Mexico. They clashed frequently over the need to emphasize getting good linguistics done versus good missionary work, but ultimately settled on a formula whereby the linguists would worry about linguistics, and would go into the field as members of SIL, whereas the job of translating the Bible would be carried out under the rubric of Wycliffe Bible Translators. Since all SIL members are Wycliffe members, this can be seen as something of an accounting fiction, but the take-home point is that the linguists are in no way supposed to proselytize as part of their work. SIL has since signed contracts with a number of governments to do language preservation work, contracts which specifically preclude their proselytizing (although not their contribution to Bible translation); however, the degree to which any individual is capable of keeping these goals separate cannot be predicted merely from their assent to such contracts. After all, it takes a committed person to go live in a foreign, and generally quite poor and remote, country for 10-20 years at a time.
Prof. Svelmoe was followed by Courtney Handman, whose talk SC missed in favor of Claire Bowern's, and so the next speaker heard by your host was Patience Epps, a specialist in Amazonian languages. Prof. Epps was there to argue for a separation between the LSA and SIL, and spent a number of slides establishing that SIL members view their work as a means to the end of "making disciples of all the nations" (quoted from Matthew 28:19). One example of the alleged dishonesty of SIL is provided from this page of publications by the late Nathan Waltz. While it lists his scholarly works, it makes no mention of Old Testament summaries or hymnals that he has also worked on. We'll address the relevance of this point later.
Prof. Epps claims that because some SIL members have been demonstrated to engage in active proselytizing, that this demonstrates the inherently proselytizing nature of the organization -- specific examples being adduced in support of this claim. She then made a point SC wishes to highlight for later discussion as well (and this is a quote, taken from her handout):
Translation of a text from a different language and culture into the target language is not documentation of the target language and culture itself.
We then get to the heart of her argument, that SIL's work is allegedly incompatible with group rights to self-determination. In a citation of Nettle and Romaine somewhat reminiscent of Jack Hitt's writing on language death ([be nice -- ed.]), she quoted their statement that "Every language is a living museum, a monument to every culture it has been vehicle to". In case the Hittite nature of that remark is questioned, she then cites the same authors as saying "a way of life disappears with the death of a language". A number of slides are then spent on the argument that while cultures may change organically, the introduction of Christian beliefs is specifically damaging because individuals with money, power, and prestige come into these societies, and no matter how scrupulously they may behave, it is impossible for the locals not to make connections between the outsiders' culture and their wealth. This then leads to an abandonment of the prior culture for reasons other than internal change, which SC thinks it is fair to say Prof. Epps considers an illegitimate prospect. Prof. Epps noted that the wealth brought by the outsiders includes food and medicine, and that this is a welcome charitable contribution, but questioned why the charity couldn't come "with no spiritual strings attached" (again a quote from the handout).
Prof. Epps was followed by Ken Olson, arguing the case for SIL (he's an active member, as well as a professor at the University of North Dakota, but spoke in his personal capacity only, not as a spokesman for the organization). Prof. Olson briefly acknowledged the dual nature of the organization from its founding, but gave a "top ten reasons to consider SIL a scholarly organization" which really had just one that mattered -- the existence of over 13,000 scholarly publications in the SIL bibliography (which itself states that it has grown to 20,000 entries; it's not clear when Prof. Olson's figure dates from). That's a fair amount of language work to do in 70 years.
Prof. Olson addressed the same self-determination issue that Prof. Epps brought up, both reiterating that active proselytization is not sanctioned by the organization (although he did not address what SIL does to actually prevent such efforts by non-conforming fieldworkers), and bringing in a quote from Matthew Dryer, who commented (in a personal communication to Prof. Olson):
The question of whether SIL's religious activities have a negative impact on indigenous communities misses a fundamental point. What right do we as academics...have to decide what is best for indigenous communities? Isn't that for them to decide?
Missionaries do not force people to become Christians. They simply give them the choice...I have made the choice not to be a Christian. Why shouldn't people in indigenous communities also be allowed to decide whether or not to be Christians?
Prof. Olson also raised the fact that charges of "ethnocide" have been previously brought against SIL by professional anthropologists, and found lacking by the American Anthropological Association. Finally, he produced evidence from a number of case studies that SIL involvement has actually helped grow the number of speakers of some endangered languages, weakening the charge that their influence leads people to "go Western" and abandon their historic roots.
Finally, Daniel Everett, a former SIL member, gave a speech opposing the organization (his work has been discussed by Geoff Pullum, especially with regard to anti-SIL bias, here). Prof. Everett is of the opinion that SIL exists to fulfill prophecies in the book of Revelation, and that this warrants a cautious stance toward them, but lauded many of the activities the organization has carried out to date regarding language documentation and the development of useful software tools. Since SC's laptop battery had run out by Prof. Everett's talk, and there was no handout, he must be especially cautious in what he says here, so we'll restrict ourselves to one comment Prof. Everett made that did not have the effect he intended.
Discussing a tribe he had worked with, and describing them as "hyper-empirical", he recounted a conversation that he had with some of their members one day where they asked him to stop talking about Jesus. It seems that because he had not personally seen Jesus, the locals concluded that he had no evidence for his existence. Therefore, they would like him to cease discussion of the topic. From this, Prof. Everett concluded that the people SIL workers visit would prefer not to hear about Christianity, and that they should not be spreading things which said people do not wish to hear about. In SC's view, this illustrates Prof. Dryer's claim rather clearly -- Prof. Everett's community had heard the claims, weighed them, and found them wanting. It hardly was the case that they could not handle the introduction of other cultures' views into their community.
SC found this debate wearying, as noted above, because so much of it seemed to be post hoc justification of already-held positions. Nobody in the room was going to shift their views on religion on the basis of what was presented -- it seemed even less clear to your host that anyone would shift their views on SIL, either. If you came in with an innate dislike/distrust of Christianity, you were likely to side with Prof. Epps, and take her anecdotes as sufficiently damning of the organization. If you came in with positive or neutral views, you were likely to side with Prof. Olson, and take his smoothing over of the existence of instances of coercion by resorting to their high-level policies as sufficiently redemptive.
Having said that, and not speaking as a person with any history of fieldwork abroad, it was SC's own opinion that the anti-SIL view is much ado about very little. Returning to the questions that formed the basis of the discussion, the answers seemed to be:
- SIL's missionary goals do not appear to have systematically undermined the quality of the scholarship produced. Ethnologue may contain arguably wrong classifications, but it was not at all demonstrated that these stemmed in any predictable way from the specifically missionary goals that had sent the workers who produced it into the field.
- SIL's missionary goals do not appear to have negatively impacted the communities they serve in a systematic way. While evidence of specific cases of coercive behavior was produced, and merits intervention in those cases, it is not at all clear that this behavior is widespread, nor that any kind of large-scale "ethnocide" is ongoing.
- While the goals of missionary linguists extend beyond treating languages as ends in themselves and are thus not identical with those of academic linguists, it is neither clear from the above two answers that any kind of organizational malfeasance exists, nor that a specific formal tie between SIL and LSA exists to be severed.
The problem here is not only that the answers to the questions which inspired the panel are either favorable to SIL, highly ambiguous, or that the questions are too ill-formed to answer (i.e., nobody could agree on what relationship presently existed between LSA and SIL). It's that the posing of the questions itself seems to follow from a prejudgment against Christianity. SC will readily grant the veracity of every charge Prof. Epps leveled in its specifics -- this still leaves him believing that the organization as a whole is no threat to indigenous communities. An effort to show good faith on SIL's side might involve the public articulation of clearer policies for dealing with coercive proselytizing by actively rooting out offending individuals. This hardly requires renunciation of their beliefs, though.
More seriously, the insistence that language documentation not result in the translation of any documents from English/Hebrew/Latin into endangered languages makes no sense unless it is grounded in specific animus against the documents in question. In machine translation, the gold standard for training statistical algorithms is to use parallel corpora, where the semantic content is identical and the structure of the documents at the level of both individual sentences and higher-level discourse can be cleanly mapped from one language to the other. People spend fantastic sums of money just to get parallel corpora of single pairs of languages, like the Canadian Hansards (the minutes of Parliament proceedings, in both English and French), or the 5 official languages used by the United Nations. SIL is an organization producing a parallel corpus spanning as many of the world's languages as possible. This is potentially an enormous gift to the field of machine translation (in fairness, SC is not aware of anyone using the data for this purpose at present, although it is not obvious why this should be the case). Irritation with the fact that the Christian Bible is the chosen document instead of a myriad of culturally-specific tales (which would be extraordinarily expensive to render in numerous other languages) is very hard to comprehend unless prior bias against Christianity is involved.
Returning to Prof. Epps' concern that Nathan Waltz had done religious work not mentioned in his c.v., it was not at all clear that his academic work qua academic work was in question. So the man wrote hymns. What if he had written erotic fan fiction centered around Mario, Luigi, and Princess Toadstool? Would that have impugned his academic work? It might not have been a credit to him personally, but surely the answer is "no". And if he had written such works and then proceeded to introduce them to the populations he worked with? Would that have been a lesser disservice to them than the sharing of religious ideas? More than a few concepts which might be foreign to the indigenous cultures would be passed along. If the transmission of any specifically Western knowledge or beliefs is an unacceptable incursion into the right of self-determination, all linguists, anthropologists and sociologists need to get out of the field right now and not return until they are sure that the abstract documentation of the local language and culture for the sake of disinterested knowledge is a value of the communities being studied as well as their own. Obviously this is not a serious proposal -- the point here is rather that secular scholars possess their own values, and it has not been demonstrated that those values are shared by the communities they visit any more than the missionaries' values are. So long as systematic coercion is not demonstrated, the relevance of non-scholarly activities by SIL workers is exactly as relevant as those of secular academics -- which is to say, not at all.
Last in the list of issues, the question of whether or not the academic community should cease its reliance on SIL-developed grammars and software struck SC as entirely ill-posed. If the work is lacking in scholarly utility, then yes, of course it should. But if that's not in question, then we return to the problem above -- namely, that the specifics of extra-academic work are irrelevant. Clearly, there are cases where this would not be true; the Nazis conducted gruesome experiments on their prisoners, and the question of relying on their medical work has been addressed by practitioners in that field . The reductio ad Hitlerum is grossly inappropriate here, though -- SIL linguists aren't murdering anyone. They're bringing food and medicine. It's hard for SC to understand why this taints their software while the unknown values of presumably secular developers should be assumed to be pure and beyond reproach.
One might read all this and conclude that your host merely had his own pro-SIL biases reaffirmed. While he nominally has no brief for specifically Christian belief, perhaps he merely sides with the SIL folks for fear that this was all just rehearsal for religious tests in reviewing linguistic work. Actually, SC is now curious to read some of Prof. Epps' citations -- it certainly sounds like specific wrongs have been committed, and this was something SC had not been aware of prior to attending the panel discussion. However, it certainly is the case that he came away from the discussion convinced that everyone involved might have benefited from reflection on a parable dear to the faith of the SIL founders. Jesus told those who would stone an adulterous woman not to do so unless they were free from sin; none could, and she lived. But this did not prevent him from then admonishing her: "Now go, and sin no more".