My Family Doesn’t Know Who Noam Chomsky Is

August 18, 2019

The poor kid couldn’t think of anything to back up his desire to celebrate Christmas. This scene grabbed my attention not only because it discredits the beliefs of millions of people, but also because no one I was watching the movie with knew who Noam Chomsky was. One of them even said, “Who’s Noam Chomsky?”

Noam Chomsky street art

Contributions to linguistics

Noam Chomsky is a distinguished linguist, philosopher, activist, and political analyst. He’s associated with the most radical and critical political currents in the United States. However, he may be best known for his work in linguistics. He developed a theory on language acquisition that people have written hundreds of pages on.

Chomsky suggested that from the moment we’re born our brains have an innate ability to learn and use language almost by instinct. Many agree with him even today, and it shattered all earlier theories that said language could only come through learning.

His theory made the assumption that there are universal grammatical principles for all languages. This explained how children can learn to talk so quickly. It also explained why basically all children go through the same stages when they’re learning a language and make the same mistakes.

Case by case, we find that conformity is the easy way, and the path to privilege and prestige; dissidence carries personal costs that may be severe

-Noam Chomsky-

Political activist

Some people think of Chomsky as the most important intellectual of our time. That’s partly because of his work as an activist. Chomsky sees himself as an anarchist, specifically in the tradition of anarcho-syndicalism, and he’s a huge supporter of civil disobedience. One example Chomsky uses to explain his positive attitude towards activism is this:

Imagine that you’re walking down a street at night. All of a sudden, you see someone severely beating someone else on the other side of the street. Without even thinking you head towards the crosswalk to go help the victim. But the crosswalk sign is red. What would you do?

Crossing the street on red is illegal. That means if you cross you’re breaking the law. On the other hand, if you don’t cross and wait for it to turn green, it might be too late for the victim.

The point of the story is that it can occasionally be a good thing to break the law. Going outside the law can be positive as long as we do it for a good moral cause. Here, the cause was to help the other person. Chomsky thinks that the illegality set down by the government doesn’t always line up with what people actually see as illegal.

Pepe Mujica and Noam Chomsky

Defender of human rights

As a response to the Vietnam War, Chomsky started on a path of criticizing the lack of democracy in countries like the United States. He’s always defended the lack of symmetry between public opinion and the decisions politicians make. He supports the use of grassroots movements to pressure political powers and bring about real change.

Even though he also sees himself as a Zionist, Chomsky has also harshly criticized Israel. However, he still supports the kibbutz lifestyle as a social alternative. He’s been one of the biggest defenders of boycotting Israel, a movement pushed by BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sanction). The movement is trying to put political and economic pressure on Israel to put an end to its occupations.

The media and manipulation of the public

He also argues that everyone should participate in politics. Not just professionals like journalists, intellectuals, or politicians. One of his most important contributions here has been his analysis of the media. Here are some of his conclusions:
  • The media shifts our attention away from the important problems. 
  • The media will feed us an unacceptable way of doing things a bit at a time so that we’ll accept it without a fuss.
  • They’ll help people accept an unpopular decision by making it seem “painful but necessary.” That way they achieve public acceptance they can use later on.
  • They lean on the emotional factor to short circuit people’s rational analysis and critical thinking.
  • They spread the belief that it’s in fashion to be stupid and uncultured.
Noam Chomsky writing on a chalk board

Now that you’ve learned a little bit more about Noam Chomsky, if you think it really is important to celebrate his birthday, then mark down December 7th. Like Chomsky said:

If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.”