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The Hayakawa Approach

Ben Compaine ‘67, Guest Writer

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Perhaps the single most significant concept that I left Dickinson with was that cow 1 is not cow 2. This basic concept has informed my critical thinking and writing for over five decades. I’ll explain what this has to do with Leda Fisher’s op-ed (“Should White Boys Still Be Allowed to Talk?, Feb 7, 2019) as well as many of those who commented on her op-ed column.

All first year students at Dickinson in 1963 were required to take Soc Sci 10 and 11. There were many complaints from my new classmates about its breadth. One of the books assigned was Language in Thought and Action, by S.I. Hayakawa. The author was a linguist and, late in life, a U.S. Senator. The book is still in print.

Hayakawa’s premise is that the words we use often connate abstractions. But we can also use the same words to be very specific. 

For example, consider “dog.” This refers to an animal we are all familiar with. All dogs have some commonality: four legs, head, body, ears, tail. We might generalize that dogs are “man’s best friend” that they are domesticated and so on. But “dog” is an abstraction.  We can be less abstract when specifying a breed of dog: Greyhound is very different than Chihuahua. And we can be most specific when we point to an individual dog—this greyhound or that Labrador. This greyhound may be a different color than that greyhound. It may be able to run faster—or is slower, than that one. It may have been trained to sit on command—or not. Yet they are all, in the abstract, dogs.

So there is a “ladder,” explained Hayakawa, with steps that move between the most abstract to the most specific. Thus, Hayakawa would say that white boy 1 is not white boy 2. If Ms. Fisher had written that “In one class, Chris, Ryan, Oliver, and Sean [white boys 1, 2, 3 and four] regularly spout the narrative of dominant ideologies and pretend they’re hot takes….”  she would have been on firmer ground. (I also understand that if she had been less strident it’s less likely her column would have gotten so much attention.  But being extreme is exactly why society seems so polarized today—whether a President’s extreme Tweet or a college senior’s screed). 

By the same token, many of those who commented on the article need to internalize that Dickinson student 1 is not Dickinson student 2. One such critic wrote, “I will no longer consider making contributions to your college,” thereby generalizing that the opinion of one student captures that of the entire institution. 

If we bring the discussion down from the abstraction to the more specific we may be able to reduce polarization. 

I pulled my yellowing copy of Language in Thought and Action off my bookshelf today—one of two books I have saved from my Dickinson days (the other being Janson’s History of Art.) There, on page 88, is the section “Race and Words.” He notes that words can have both informative and emotional (affective) connotations. As one example he uses, saying that someone is a “communist” can mean that they believe in the communist political philosophy. But used with a different tone (That communist!) has a connotation that the person ought to be thrown in jail or run out of the country. (Note that the book was written in 1939). 

“White boys” certainly has an informative connotation. Leda Fisher could point to Jake or Chad and say “white boy.”  Factual.  But she is using white boy for its emotional connotation, ultimately saying or implying that, simply by this characteristic alone, they all should be muzzled and ignored, at least.

Ms. Fisher’s actual recommendation for white boys is to “encourage you to critically examine where your viewpoints come from, read a text that challenges you without looking for reasons to dismiss it, and maybe try listening from now on.

Perhaps this would be a reasonable suggestion for some white boys, perhaps many white boys.  Most specifically, she may point to Jake, Chad and Alex. But her affective connation up to that point is that white boy 1 and white boys n are all the same. I think she knows better. In casting such a blanket condemnation of white boys 1 and 2 she has created noise that has overwhelmed a reasonable conclusion.  

Maybe we should again make Hayakawa’s book required reading for all students.

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2 Responses to “The Hayakawa Approach”

  1. george e thomas on February 22nd, 2019 5:37 pm

    Wow – i didn’t keep Hayakawa’s book – did become an art historian so Janson is around here somewhere – but as a cultural historian I realize the important issue of the date of Hayakawa’s book in 1939 – three years before the federal government, operating on the same theory that Jap 1 was the same as Jap 2 interned all Japanese Americans and created on the great stains on our national history — and anticipating the present Trump doctrine along the southern border.
    Way to go Ben!!

  2. Jennifer Mac on February 22nd, 2019 6:05 pm

    This article on the Hayakawa approach gave much relief to the pain of the “white boys” article from a “woman of color” and of the resulting emotional turmoil. Thank you!
    Reading through some of these opinion articles almost makes it sound like it’s time to start having some segregation, or maybe have the class break up into small groupings, including black/ white, boys/ girls, so that everyone has a chance to say something, then re -convene again as a bigger group.
    One great thing I remember about Dickinson was the Spanish language table for dinner, so those of us learning a new language could practice in an environment where it was safe and comfortable for learning. There may be other similar scenarios that various categories of people might have, when trying to learn. The black and white people issues are really hot topics in politics these days, so I can totally understand how this kind of commentary might arise on college campuses. I’m thinking it’s not about racism so much as it is about comfort in the current political environment.
    I have a really great multicultural, multiracial,and multidisciplinary workplace where people are truly amazing how they work together. Yet when it comes to socializing, the blacks find it easier to chat with other blacks , where at least racism is guaranteed to be a nonissue. I also find it easier to deal with people that look a little like me, so I can let down my guard a little and not feel so vulnerable to racism, sexism, or any other “ism”.
    So in conclusion, I want to say that COMFORT, matters a lot. We all know and respect people of every race, even people outside of our own. I can’t imagine that there are not beautiful black women out there who really enjoy the “white boys”, and vise versa.
    This is my opinion for now, always subject to change.
    By Jennifer,
    Dickinson class of 1990

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The Hayakawa Approach