Is Linguistics Selfish?

Hello all. This is Adam. We’re back in Athens for about a week! Here I present a letter that I think makes a pretty good companion piece to Jesse’s FedEx resignation letter. I wrote it in April of last year after one of my awesome professors at UGA noted that I wasn’t exactly performing to the best of my abilities. Enjoy. 🙂

Dr. Ranson,

I wanted to have an opportunity to talk to you about this in person, but that might not happen given the little time remaining in the semester.

You’re right that for the last semester and a half, my schoolwork has received significantly less than my full attention.

I feel bad about this, in that I greatly appreciate both the opportunity I’ve been given here and the dedication all of you have shown to our classes. However, I want to point out that I believe what I’m doing is right. I find linguistics endlessly fascinating, but that fascination seems now to be a luxury I feel I can’t or don’t need to afford myself. I see the world heading in a bad direction, and no longer believe that having the “right” opinions or voting the right way is a sufficient contribution, given what I know about what’s going on. I have an unusual lack of personal ambition and the ability to live very ascetically, so that being “successful” in a traditional sense means little to me. This, coupled with my intellectual gifts, permits me to make what I hope is a special contribution to creating a better world.

And, given the ability to do good, I feel an obligation to try to realize that potential. I admit fully that I’m not sure how to do this, but I know that I was mostly doing linguistics for myself, and not for humanity. Whether the best option is to work at politics, or in third world development, I don’t know.

This certainly sounds as convoluted as my thinking is, but as an example, I felt a great amount of rage and disappointment with myself after having a less than stellar performance in an interview with NPR. I felt I hadn’t fully taken advantage of an opportunity to excite and inform people about our May Day events. I could never feel so negatively about my performance on a test, for example, because I know that affects only me. I also know that I’ll be fine, because I tend to make the best of situations. The world, however, is not so fine. A billion people go to bed hungry every night. Millions of people in the richest countries on Earth struggle to pay rent and buy food, or live one illness or missed mortgage payment away from disaster. The rich countries cause an environmental crisis that the poor countries will suffer the brunt of. Our government kills and imprisons innocent people in unnecessary wars. You know the list of problems, and I know I can’t solve them all, but neither can I abrogate the responsibility I feel I have to do everything in my power, especially given that I don’t sacrifice any personal happiness, but rather find additional meaning, in the process.

Anyway, I guess all of this is to say that my decision to focus more on non-scholastic endeavors is a principled one (although of course it could be the wrong one). I hope that I haven’t been too much of an inconvenience in my lack of studiousness. I’ve tried to still be a positive force for learning and discussion in the classroom.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I almost want to ask for your advice on how to maximize my world-improving impact, but it seems somehow inappropriate, because that’s not your job. Then again, I’m fighting for a world where we treat other people as human beings, and not as their job titles or position in hierarchies of power, and I know that you’re both a very good and very intelligent person. So, without pressure, if you have any advice or comments about what I’m saying/thinking/etc. I certainly welcome them.

Now I’m really beginning to ramble, but as a last point about the world, I’d like to point out that we live in the first period of human history where we have the technical ability to provide a good, safe, meaningful life to every human being, but we’re not doing it, and it makes me sick inside. If I agreed with people who say that human nature is an unremovable obstacle, I could probably come to accept it. However, I think that’s fundamentally wrong. Human nature is incredibly malleable (think of our world views/morals compared to those of Americans in 1800 or Saudi Arabians today). Socialization and the system in which we develop shape us so much. Our current system clearly isn’t leading to the world that’s possible, but that world is indeed possible if we create the right conditions for it. I think those conditions involve less hierarchical forms of power, a greater understanding of the equal value of every human being (and the value of sentient non-humans), and a commitment to the idea that human well-being is of greater moral value than the maintenance of strict property relations. (Ok, enough of that, though I’m always willing to talk more about these things.)

Thanks again, and have a great day! We’re having a rally at the Arch for workers’, students’, and immigrants’ rights at 5 pm, followed by a march through Athens at 6. Solidarity. My final draft is attached.

– Adam

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