Is there a common error in Chomsky’s linguistics and his politics?

(This is just a super-sketchy idea I had. I don’t have any particular confidence that there’s any error in Chomsky’s politics or in his linguistics, and my knowledge of each is limited. I have no formal education in linguistics. But I was reading something and this clicked so here it is.)

Chomsky is known in linguistics for his idea that human language acquisition is helped along by an innate “universal grammar.” It hinges on an observation about “the poverty of the stimulus” from which infant children are able to learn language. The thought is that it seems like it should be really hard to competently learn a human language based just on the incidental exposure that infant children normally have — there’s just not enough evidence for the rules and structures of a language to be learned completely from scratch. Since they couldn’t be learned completely from scratch, they must be learned with the aid of an in-born cribsheet built into the brain. Since all languages are learned from the same cribsheet, the fundamental structure of all languages is similar. Hence, universal grammar.

Chomsky basically won the debate over universal grammar, but apparently there are still critics, and recently they have been empowered by advances in computational pattern recognition. Wikipedia: “A common argument is that the brain’s mechanisms of statistical pattern recognition could solve many of the imagined difficulties.” More.

If we agreed with the critics, we could say that Chomsky has made the error of thinking that there must be sort of a preset master plan for languages, when in fact they could be constructed by bottom-up learning with the right tools.

Now compare Chomsky on the media, explaining that sports are an opiate of the masses:

Take, say, sports — that’s another crucial example of the indoctrination system, in my view. For one thing because it — you know, it offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. [audience laughs] That keeps them from worrying about — [applause] keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in [discussions of] sports [as opposed to political and social issues]. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in — they have the most exotic information [more laughter] and understanding about all kind of arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this.

You know, I remember in high school, already I was pretty old. I suddenly asked myself at one point, why do I care if my high school team wins the football game? [laughter] I mean, I don’t know anybody on the team, you know? [audience roars] I mean, they have nothing to do with me, I mean, why I am cheering for my team? It doesn’t mean any — it doesn’t make sense. But the point is, it does make sense: it’s a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority, and group cohesion behind leadership elements — in fact, it’s training in irrational jingoism. That’s also a feature of competitive sports. I think if you look closely at these things, I think, typically, they do have functions, and that’s why energy is devoted to supporting them and creating a basis for them and advertisers are willing to pay for them and so on. (Source.)

Here and throughout the interview (see link), Chomsky is telling a story where pro-establishment features of the media seem to be an effect of a conspiracy among the powerful — corporate and government executives, etc. So something like televised sports is explained as top-down propaganda, which is intentionally cultivated in order to serve the function of inculcating pro-establishment values. The pattern of media institutions that we see is explained as the product of a propaganda plan that serves a particular purpose.

But we might think it’s just as likely that our media environment is explained by bottom-up instead of top-down forces. Entertainment providers, advertisers, etc., are all in competition blah blah to sell things people want. And so the sports leagues are just low-cost providers of feelings of band-belongingness etc. that people tend to want. No overarching plan necessary, just as for the critics of universal grammar no innate cribsheet or plan for the structure of a language is necessary.

See the connection? Maybe it’s just me. A thought, anyway.

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