Just one little linguistics conference

Trump’s un-American attempts to block immigration on the basis of religion have far more effects than might be obvious. Here’s one of them.

HPSG representation of the English verb “walks”, as in “she walks”. Picture source: https://goo.gl/YRKyzJ

In the constant buzz of news about Trump’s various and sundry evils, with their implications for the entire world–Syria, Korea, China, Russia–it’s easy to lose track of the fact that all of this crap has implications for the daily lives of millions of individuals, in ways both large and small.  I came across the email that you’ll see below today while cleaning out my email inbox.  Sent in February of this year, it’s a letter from the organizers of a scientific meeting that will take place in the US this summer.  HPSG is Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar, an approach to modelling syntax that’s popular amongst computational linguists.  In one of those small-world things, I took my second semester of syntax from Carl Pollard, one of its creators.  He gave me an A-, which was much higher than I deserved.  Along with my grade, I got a little note, which read as follows: You were willing to ask the questions that everyone else was afraid to ask.  (Don’t get excited–my questions were primarily along the lines of What does X mean?)      

Not being sure whether or not you’ll be allowed into the country to attend an academic conference is not nearly as bad as, say, the situation of a green-card-holding Persian friend of mine who went to the airport in Tehran the day that the first executive order was signed–and wasn’t allowed to come home to the United States.  But, you heard stories like his on the news.  Here’s a view of the crappy situation that you might not have run into.  This is just one little linguistics conference–multiply it by…multiply it by a lot, and you get a view of just one of the effects of Trump’s un-American immigration-related crap.  Obscure vocabulary items explained in the English and French notes below.

Dear HPSG Colleagues,

As you are probably aware, towards the end of January the US President, Donald Trump, issued an executive order which sought to suspend entry to the United States for all refugees for 120 days; to bar Syrian refugees entirely; and to block entry to the United States to citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for a period of 90 days. This order has been widely condemned by academic and scientific bodies, including the Linguistics Society of America (LSA, see below), and the constitutional legitimacy of this order been challenged in the courts. It is not clear what the outcome of this challenge will be.

This is directly relevant to this community because the 24th annual HPSG conference is scheduled to take place at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, in the USA (between 7-9 of July).

The main implications for this community are: first that scholars and researchers from the affected countries may not be able to attend the conference; and second that scholars and researchers from countries not directly affected by the executive order may withdraw from the conference as a form of protest against it, and in solidarity with those who will be affected by it (e.g. by not submitting papers, not attending the conference, refusing to serve on the Programme Committee, declining invitations to be guest speakers).

Given this, the Standing Committee (whose primary task “is to see that the yearly conference is organized, preferably at accessible places”) have been discussing whether the location of the conference should be changed to somewhere outside the USA.

After considerable thought, and consultation with the Local Organizer, we have decided that it should not be changed. One reason is that simply moving the conference would not avoid the problems that the executive order raises (e.g. it will prevent citizens of the affected countries who are US residents from leaving the US, because they will not be certain of their right to re-enter the US).

We appreciate that this decision will be contentious, as would the decision to move the conference, because it raises the issue of how one should respond as an individual or an academic to the actions of governments that can be seen as violations of human rights and which have the effect of inhibiting open international dialog and which are therefore damaging to the whole scientific enterprise. Questions about whether one’s opposition should take the form of continuing to engage constructively, or of boycotting? Which is more likely to be effective in a particular case such as this?

These are questions for individuals, and we think it is unlikely that a consensus will be possible, even in a community such as this. We absolutely respect the right of individuals to respond to this situation as they see fit (e.g. by refusing to serve on the Program Committee, refusing to attend, etc.).

From a practical point of view, we will be exploring the possibility of providing remote access for any potential attendees who are unable to attend in person because of this ban.

Best wishes,

Nurit Melnik
Chair, HPSG Standing Committee

English notes

contentious: “causing or likely to cause an argument; controversial” (the definition returned by Google–I don’t know the source)

How it appeared in the post: We appreciate that this decision will be contentious, as would the decision to move the conference, because it raises the issue of how one should respond as an individual or an academic to the actions of governments that can be seen as violations of human rights and which have the effect of inhibiting open international dialog and which are therefore damaging to the whole scientific enterprise.

French notes

contesté ou controversé: potential translations for “contentious” (from WordReference.com)

14 thoughts on “Just one little linguistics conference”

  1. You highlight the inanity of this Order perfectly with this illustration. Indeed it is ‘just one little conference’ but of course, implicit in that headline is the fact that this foolhardy and, I would suggest, futile knee jerk demonstration of ‘the hard line’ will do nothing but hinder those that have nothing to do with any imagined danger. Those that are going to do whatever they will do will do it anyway. Most of them are safely stowed in the US or France or Britain or wherever the hell else they decide to attack in any event. Rocket Science, Mr President …. surely it must be since one who proclaims himself as smart as you is unable to grasp that fundamental fact.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I have no insight into what goes on inside the Molester in Chief’s “very good brain,” but I have no doubt that he has some very smart advisors. Very smart and very evil, unfortunately. You have to wonder if their point is to protect the country (doubtful, since they’re not doing a very good job) versus to attack the Constitution–and get away with it, figuring that getting away with it once makes it easier to get away with it lots more times.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Indeed. As in most countries the leader is a figurehead and the real power rests with the advisors. With great power, we are reminded, comes great responsibility. A fact that most will forget when they are given the giddying and intoxicating chance to steer the boat. Greed is the motivator and the only thing they want to protect is their own interests. Business as usual 😡

        Liked by 2 people

    1. Humankind is rapidly reinventing itself humanUNkind. I can only hope that decency and sense will bleed back into the masses. At least we have been spared a Nazi leader here in France for the time-being!

      Liked by 3 people

      1. This one has been spared but the new president’s plans will make poor people poorer, the nearly poor really poor and only a few will be happy in their madness . I’m desperate we only had the choice between a lightning-fast cancer and a slightly slower one . My concern now is “Do we each time reincarnate on the same planet ?”

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I agree with you wholeheartedly – the Cancer analogy is sadly apt. The only good I can see out of the result is that it buys some time to retrench and hopefully find real quality of humanitarian candidature for the next time. I look across the water to the land of my birth and I see a dismal future. The Wicked Witch will be elected and she will sell the country for her own ends – her place in the history books. She has no opposition – the place for ideals is not when times are grave and M. Corbyn is an idealist to the core. I admire him but he is not a viable vainqueur in this election. Here in France it is essential that people start to plan now, that young people engage not with fire but with energy and intelligence and that the poor understand that no right wing politician will ever have their interests at heart. It is a steep and unforgiving mountain but the view from the summit is beautiful and the air clear and breathable. In the meantime, I can only hope that M. Macron does not do too much damage. He has, of course proved that in charge of the economy under Hollande, he achieved a weak economy. A fact that many who are celebrating appear to have missed.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. He said he wants to complete the destruction of the Labour Code, increase the destruction of ” la Sécurité Sociale” and he wants to start immediately after MP’s elections, in the beginning of summer . He plans to do this by using the antidemocratic instrument that De Gaulle added in his Bonapartist Constitution, the famous “49-3” article that skips the Parliament . Usually governments wait a little before aggressing the masses but this guy is a very faithful tool of world Finance, so I’m afraid times will get hard in France very soon .

    Liked by 1 person

  3. An idea. Conferences should move out of the US as suggested and as a protest (“speak with thy pocketbook”), but they should organize themselves to allow for full-fledged on-line participation. NIPS has gotten quite close, with video coverage of workshops and plenary sessions, but not all in real time, and it’s not particularly easy to do posters on-line! (Posters make up most of the accepted papers at NIPS.) But we are smart people. We ought to be able to figure out how to solve this, although it might require spending some money.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. You raise an interesting thought. My response of the moment: what you’re suggesting is already entirely possible, but we choose to continue to get on planes and fly way too far to do these things. I suspect–actually, I’m 100% sure–that we do it because there’s more to the whole enterprise than the exchange of information via a formal presentation.

    It’s striking that after 9/11 shut down air travel for a while, the business in videoconferencing and the like boomed. And yet: I still fly all the time with people who are going to meetings that they could, in theory, do by conference call. They choose not to. It seems like there’s something in the human contact, and I don’t want my Iranian, Israeli, Arab, or other colleagues to get locked out of that. I don’t want to get locked out of it, either.


    1. Neither would I. It’s only suggested as a way of protesting, moving the conferences outside the US (sort of like the athletic boycotts of South Carolina), then handling those left behind with technology. Back when I was still going to conferences, I did so for the conversations, collegiality, friendships, etc., too.

      Liked by 1 person

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