Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Chapter 15 - "Let The Dead Be Heard": Part 5 - The International Labor Conference

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish 
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

An International Labor Organization (I.L.O.) had been established earlier that year at the Paris Peace Conference. Although a separate body, it was set up to work in cooperation with the League of Nations. Even though Congress had rejected the peace treaty and U.S. membership in the League, the U.S. had membership among the I.L.O. National delegations, which included representatives from governments, labor unions, and employers, meeting periodically in international conferences throughout the life of the organization. The first International Labor Conference was held in Washington, D.C. from Oct. 29, 1919 until Jan. 27, 1920. Korzybski attended in November and December, as a member of the Polish delegation. 

Conference sessions involved discussions on proposals for reducing work hours, providing unemployment benefits, establishing child labor policies, setting up policies for working women, etc. The most memorable point of the meeting for Korzybski had less to do with these issues per se than with how they were evaluated and addressed by those attending:

…a problem [came up.] They were talking at cross-purposes. The groups [of employers, union representatives, etc.] could not understand each other at all. They were talking English, perfectly good English, but they were speaking such a language that it was [getting] in the way of intercommunication. Finally, [Samuel] Gompers got up, …“Ladies and gentlemen, may I ask a question?” Of course when Gompers was asking a question everybody was at attention. He was a real fellow, a very reasonable man. The answer, of course, was “Go ahead, Mr. Gompers.” And he asked, “Does yes mean always yes, or does yes sometimes mean no?” The conference was thrown into a panic. They adjourned. The verdict came back. Some professors of Harvard and Yale they were specialists in languages of some sort, or economists, I don’t know, wrote down the verdict that yes always means yes and no means always no. The most idiotic thing any group of scholars could do because even the question may be asked in such a way, the same question, that in one way you may answer yes, the same question, the same answer, and if you put the question otherwise you might have to answer no. It is so idiotic to have that kind of stuff… (28) 
[Some time later] Gompers…rose to his feet, waited solemnly for a longer while, and when everybody was expecting a flood of words, he said very calmly one word “YES.” The whole conference burst into laughter. (29)
Samuel Gompers (1850-1924)

Korzybski and everyone else who laughed with Gompers could sense the folly of the professors’ approach to language. But they had no decent language themselves to talk about it. It bothered Korzybski that “the whole conference collapsed. No results whatsoever.” He came away feeling disgusted: “…those international meetings, the League of Nations, they simply cannot talk sense.”(30) It would take a number of years before Korzybski would be able to explain the mechanism of the professors’ folly in terms of his future theory of human evaluating. His more immediate response was to run to do something practical. He was still planning to return to Poland and he wanted to get beyond the realm of empty words he had been listening to, to do something with down-to-earth value for his homeland.

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
28. Korzybski 1947, pp. 197-198. 

29. Korzybski. Manhood of Humanity and Its Universal Language, Unpublished First Draft, p. 40. AKDA 4.52. 

30. Korzybski 1947, p. 198.

< Part 4      Part 6 >

No comments: