Going For A Burton

Meaning no disrespect to the 17th-century physician, the Victorian explorer, the Welsh actor or the American director, I am applying the name of Burton, bearing a certain superficial resemblance to a real name known to me, to a phenomenon that I do not think anyone has ever treated before. Let us imagine a Country A. Our Burton is the first native of that country to reach Country B, where by dint of networking skill he becomes thoroughly established. He becomes the go-to authority, a one-man cultural ambassador, interpreting Country A to the natives of Country B, and perhaps the other way round as well.

If he is a moral, learnèd and wise man, this will no doubt be a good thing. But suppose that Burton is a knave or a fool? The authorities of Country B will be in no position to realise this, as Burton is all they have to go upon, and he will take good care to be judge in his own cause. He will obtain bureaucratic cover, occupy academic positions, impose examinations and recruit acolytes, thus creating a School of Burton to which no opposition is possible. Anybody who points out that what he says about his own language is gibberish, anyone who argues that the imputed national characteristics are merely the eccentricities or uncouthnesses of Burton as an individual, will be culled from the herd. Anyone newly arriving from Country A will find that the “intercultural expertise” is a done deal, and that he had better conform to Burtonism or else.

I have studied this phenomenon quite closely in a pair of European countries. I may even have been guilty of practising some Burtonism myself. Certainly it is a standing temptation to the expatriate to defend himself by claiming that his personal vices are the Done Thing in wherever he comes from. Other cultures I do not know well enough to prove the Syndrome, but I nevertheless suspect that it is a universal law, because it follows from human nature and government practice.

Should the scenario sketched above remind us somewhat of the plot of Shōgun, that is all the more felicitous insofar as Occidental-Japanese understanding is a vast and lucrative business. This is because the complexity of the respective cultural codes is a gift to anyone wanting to attribute their own incompetence to a whole nation. I myself do not speak Japanese and am totally at sea with many aspects of Japanese behaviour. But I have known a professional at “inter-cultural communication”, allegedly balancing between not merely two but three cultures, whom I am pretty certain was a phoney practising the Burton technique. She seemed to be telling all three sides that her faults were the authentic cultural practices of one of the other two.

Moreover, a little research into the eikaiwa or conversation-practice industry suggested that it was full of losers and psychos. After all, the colonial European nations know that we exported our worst specimens, so that cross-cultural interpretation can become the continuation of Empire by other means – a cushy number for the scoundrel who has failed at home and now seeks to cash in on his sole asset, his foreignness. Similarly, I have encountered teachers of Japanese in European countries who strike me – on the basis of my bullshit-meter – as merely making stuff up and claiming authority for their own ignorance and mental quirks. Nice work if you can get it.

Whenever you are told something about his home country by an expatriate, the question you should be asking yourself is, “Were this to be absolute bullshit, how would I know? Who is in a position to say that this emperor has no clothes?”

Posted on February 3, 2019 at 15:08 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: CULTURAL ODDS AND ENDS, Some Notes On Language

Leave a Reply