Radical Hope

“Language figures in human life in many ways. We inform, we request, we persuade, we interrogate, we orate, and sometimes we just schmooze. But the most remarkable thing we do with language is learn it in the first place.”

—Steven Pinker in The Stuff of Thought

Psychologist, cognitive scientist, and linguist Steven Pinker says that language is the greatest of our human faculties, “ubiquitous across the species, unique in the animal kingdom, inextricable from social life and from the mastery of civilization and technology, devastating when lost or impaired.” 

I’m going to take a break from the rather depressing domestic and international political scene and present to you a couple of really remarkable, and remarkably uplifting, stories via YouTube. Both of the videos below have to do with forms of human communication and interaction and will together take you less than 20 minutes to watch. I promise it will be worth your time.

Last night 60 Minutes paid tribute to a journalist’s journalist, Bob Simon, who was killed in an auto accident in New York City recently. One of the featured stories was one I had not seen before. Simon reported on a place called Cateura, which is a town in Paraguay that was essentially built near a large landfill so that its residents could rummage through the garbage and harvest something of value. Needless to say, Cateura is one of the poorest places in South America.

But what Simon’s story reveals is just what amazing creatures we human beings can be, especially when someone with an idea—and the will to carry it out—comes on the scene and brings the light of a radical and transformative hope, a hope that a better, fuller life is within reach. You will hear the words that summarize the work of Favio Chavez: “Go on, send us your garbage. We’ll send it back to you as music.” Watch:

The next story, only four minutes long, is equally inspiring. Before you watch it, let me give you a basic definition of the word “language”:

the system of words or signs that people use to express thoughts and feelings to each other

“To express thoughts and feelings to each other.” But what if you had never had that experience? What if you were 15 years old and had never expressed any thoughts or feelings to anyone? In the video below you will meet a young man named Patrick Otema, who was born deaf in a remote part of Uganda. You will also meet a saint of a man, Raymond Okkelo, who, like Favio Chavez did in Cateura, Paraguay, also brought the light of radical hope to desperate people. In the face of Patrick Otema, you will literally see what that radical hope looks like:

In both of these stories you can see how Favio Chavez and Raymond Okkelo are really doing the same thing: bringing the gift of higher humanity, of civilization, to their fellow human beings. And after several days of listening to Republicans question the patriotism and religious beliefs of Barack Obama, after years of listening to them tell me how much he wants to destroy the country, I needed some inspiration.

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11 Comments

  1. Craig Tally

     /  February 24, 2015

    Duane,
    I read your blog but have yet to reply or comment, until today. These two stories pulled that first reply out of me. I will certainly pass them along knowing they will bring a vast amount of goodwill to many who, like yourself (as you said) and me, can stand a good dose of “radical hope” at this time.

    Thanks-

    Craig Tally

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    • Thanks, Craig. We humans are amazing creatures, especially when we embrace the fact that we are, or should be, our brother’s keepers. Hope you feel free to offer your comments more often.

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  2. Brain power alone does not explain humans’ unique ability for abstract thought. Some animals, like elephants, whales, porpoises, have larger brains and the highest brain-to-body weight ratio is found in the shrew. Some birds are remarkably intelligent despite a low ratio. Language appears to be a major factor. Patrick’s story resonates in this puzzle. It occurred to me that without language, he would be unable to think analytically about things like:

    love
    death
    religion
    evolution
    health care
    technology
    politics
    science
    money
    crime
    war
    math

    Great post, Duane – I too needed some inspiration.

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  3. Duane,
    There is little more that could be added to your last paragraph. What has most stuck in my mind is the spontaneous smile of happiness of Patrick Otema. Thank you for reminding us that the nearly impossible, can be possible. This is one for the records.

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  4. We are a strange and varied animal. On the one hand, we have people who help others just because they can. On the other hand we have people who take from others just because they can.

    I recently read a book called “The Prisoner’s Dilemma”, mostly about the life of John Von Neumann, but also about the idea of cooperation between people versus non-cooperation between people. In a large number of experiments, cooperation was shown to be the winning strategy. Humans need to understand that and employ it. The consequences of failing to do this are dire.

    Enrico Fermi articulated a point of view called the “Fermi Paradox”. He simply asks the question “If there are so many planets in the observable universe that can support life as we know it (there are billions), then where are they? Why haven’t we heard from anyone else?”

    The answer could be cooperation strategy versus non-cooperation strategy. I know that sounds dramatic, but I think it does come to that.

    We need to learn.

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    • @ Michael Gaden,

      I agree. Cooperation within the whole of humanity appears shaky at best, and its root cause, I submit, is the enmity created by the tendency of cohorts to adopt conflicting cultures and religions. It may well be that the trait of intelligence is fundamentally flawed in that way. The prime exemplar: the U.S. Congress. Like American exceptionalism, human exceptionalism is, so far, nothing to brag about.

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    • Michael,

      Thanks for the references to Von Neumann and Fermi. That will give me something to explore this afternoon. We are, indeed, “a strange and varied animal,” especially when you consider that so many people are offended when humans are referred to as “animals.” Man, oh, man.

      Duane

      Liked by 1 person

    • Michael Gaden, this tension between the individual and the group has been around since we climbed down from the trees. Maybe even longer.

      If you haven’t already read it, there is a very good perspective on this issue in Garret Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” which was written way back in the dark ages of 1968. You can find it here: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/162/3859/1243.full

      I don’t know if it will be published or not, but I put my spin on Hardin’s thought-provoking article in an Op-Ed piece submitted to the Joplin Globe. If it’s not in the Globe in a week or so, and if Duane doesn’t mind, I’ll copy it here.

      Herb

      Liked by 1 person

      • Don’t mind at all, Herb. I’ll be looking forward to it.

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      • @ Herb,

        Your piece was on the Joplin Globe’s op-ed page this morning. I thought it was excellent. On finishing it, I wanted to stand up and shout, so vote Democrat, dammit! It made about as clear a case as one can for the role of government in the common interest and counter to the natural tendency to self-interest. My preliminary conclusion: the far future, and maybe even the not-so-far future, for humanity looks terrible. However, the meaning of life lies principally in the quality of the journey, and opportunities for satisfaction are possible, both for individuals and populations.

        Hardin is a remarkable find. I am still wading through his article, awesomely dense with information. It’s the kind of analysis that deserves more than one reading. He was obviously a prescient polymath, backing up his conclusions with real data and calculations. Remarkably, one of the links in his essay led to another paper he co-wrote on why interstellar travel is not an option, something I have believed. But, Hardin proved it.

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