Lived Experience

March 14, 2007

Lynet‘s point about the difference between different applications of lived experience is strong enough to require me to clarify my general anti-anecdote position. To summarize the original bone of contention, I said just taking women’s (and minorities’) word for it whenever they say something offends them is akin to taking pro-Israeli Jewss whenever they say criticism of Israel is illegitimate. Lynet responds,

You seem to have some concern that anyone could pick a particular word or phrase, claim to be offended by it, and demand that it not be said. One point that needs to be noted is that such a demand is considerably more reasonable when the word or phrase in question is not necessary in order for some particular statement to be able to be said at all. Thus, for example, demanding that no-one criticise Israel for fear of being anti-Semitic stifles an important viewpoint, and should be disallowed. On the other hand, asking that people not refer to women as ‘cunts’ only stifles an important viewpoint if you really do think that the word ‘cunt’, with all its implications, is best way to get your viewpoint across.

I suppose in this case a better analogy of “cunt” is to “apartheid.” It’s not really necessary to invoke the word “apartheid” in reference to the situation in Israel; I manage to criticize the occupation perfectly well without having ever used it, except for one instance in which a South African UN official said so. The term itself is offensive to many people, including many who oppose the occupation, precisely because it has a strongly delegitimizing connotation. Since so much of Zionism is concerned with the very legitimacy of Israel, comparing it to such a pariah state as South Africa under apartheid touches a nerve.

In fact, I don’t use the word “apartheid” for the same reason I don’t use “cunt”: precisely because it’s so emotionally loaded. I strive for factual arguments, which is why I tend to avoid touching people’s nerves. But at the same time, I defend people who use the word “apartheid” against accusations of recklessness or anti-Semitism. Just because a group claims to be oppressed doesn’t give it the right to control anyone else’s vocabulary.

The “claims” part is crucial; although it’s possible to separate oppressed from non-oppressed groups, in practice the left tends to separate the two based primarily on political alliances. In cases of serious oppression, such as legal discrimination or economic and social inequality, there are ways to separate the two without any a priori assumption about who is oppressed and who isn’t.

And that brings me to my main point. Lived experience in such matters as gender and race is very useful as a motivating example. Betty Friedan’s research into the condition of housewives began with an observation about herself and her college class.

But just as motivating examples in mathematics aren’t proofs, so are motivating examples in social policy not evidence. The problem is that people routinely get offended over frivolities, and, in a suitably radicalizing context such as a consciousness raising group or a housegroup, turn them into very deep and utterly wrong theories about the world. Susan Brownmiller’s theory of a rape is a good example of this on a large scale.

Part of this stems from confusion between legal reasoning and scientific reasoning. The law is inherently based on anecdotes, both in its reliance on eyewitness testimony and the common law system’s emphasis on precedents. A sexual harassment lawsuit’s success depends on whether the plaintiff can produce several women independently claiming harassment by the same person or witnesses to a single act of harassment.

But that’s not a good basis for social policy. Social policy should inform the law, not the other way around. Even branches of feminist and antiracist movements that aren’t overtly policy-related are in the realm of social science, which has more statistical standards of evidence.

And that brings me back to claims that the word “cunt” is oppressive based on women’s lived experience. Lived experience is only the first step; it has to be followed with rigorous inquiry into the evidence that underlies it. For example, is there any longlasting psychological trauma associated with “cunt” (or “apartheid”) the way there is with “nigger”? Is there any evidence that in general, gender-neutral language promotes less sexism given that e.g. China is perfectly sexist even though spoken Mandarin is almost entirely non-sexist?

That, ultimately, is what matters. Anecdotes can give powerful indications a trend may hold, just like motivating examples in math can give strong evidence for a theorem that will take a hundred years to prove. But there’s a reason conjectures need to be proven to be considered full-fledged theorems.

Hivemind Question

March 2, 2007

After he published his book, he had arrived (here, “arrive” means “make it,” not “come”).

What do you think the chronological order of the two activities described in the sentence is?

Refuting Versus Rebutting

February 5, 2007

On Pharyngula, commenter Zuckerfrosch talks about the myth that Darwin recanted on his death bed, using the word “refuted”: “But my comment is: who cares? Who cares if Darwin really refuted the theory of evolution?”

I answered,

I think you mean “denied.” To refute means to prove wrong: “the Great Depression refuted the classical notion that recessions were always self-correcting”; “many creationists have tried to refute the theory of natural selection, but none has been successful.”

What’s more interesting is the way the English language divides the semantic space of words like “debunk,” “refute,” and “rebut.” The way I’ve seen them used, “refute” tends to be a lot stronger than “rebut.” You rebut an argument and expect your rebuttal to be rebutted the next time your opponent speaks. In contrast, you refute a lie or something that in light of your refutation is obviously wrong.

A somewhat subtler quirk is that only people can rebut. Scientific evidence doesn’t rebut theories, but refutes or falsifies them.

Educational Links

January 29, 2007

Mark CC has a post explaining the basics of formal logic as well as the difference between syntax and semantics.

Logic, in the sense that we generally talk about it, isn’t really one thing. Logic is a name for the general family of formal proof systems with inference rules. There are many logics, and a statement that is a valid inference (is logical) in one system may not be valid in another. To give you a very simple example, most people are familiar with the fact that in logic, if you have a statement “A”, then either the statement “A or not A” must be true. In the most common simple logic, called propositional logic, that’s a tautology – that is, a statement which is always true by definition. But in another common and useful logic – intuitionistic logic – “A or not A” is not necessarily true. You cannot infer anything about whether it’s true or false without proving whether A is true or false.

In line with the theme of studies about racial or gender bias, here‘s a study that shows that legal immigrants to the US make more money when they have lighter skin or bigger height, even after controlling for other possible variables (via Retrospectacle).

Whether and how quickly immigrants assimilate into the U.S. labor market is an issue of great policy importance and controversy. Using newly-available data from the New Immigrant Survey 2003, this paper shows that new lawful immigrants to the U.S. who have lighter skin color and are taller have higher earnings, controlling for extensive labor market and immigration status information, as well as for education, English language proficiency, outdoor work, occupation, ethnicity, race, and country of birth. Immigrants with the lightest skin color earn on average 8 to 15 percent more than comparable immigrants with the darkest skin tone. Each extra inch of height is associated with a 1 percent increase in wages.

Ruchira Paul of Accidental Blogger writes about Noor Inayat Khan, a Muslim Indian who volunteered to engage in espionage for the British in World War Two.

After a hurried (and rather incomplete) training in England, she was posted in Paris as the first woman radio operator for the SOE, entrusted with intercepting Nazi wireless transmissions. This gentle, shy and talented young woman became a thorn in the side of the German military – an unlikely, intrepid, wily spy, expertly eluding capture. Noor was later betrayed by one of her own colleagues. Captured, questioned and beaten by the Nazis, she was deported to Dachau for her non-cooperation, where after further beatings and torture, she was shot. At the time of her death Noor was thirty years old. According to her biography (and the testimony of her captors), she died without divulging any secrets and the last word she uttered was liberté.

Via Pharyngula: in honor of Charles Darwin’s upcoming 200th birthday, the Beagle Project is planning to rebuild the Beagle and sail along the same path Darwin traveled along.

Imagine: 2009, and a replica Beagle sailed around Capre Horn and through the Pacific by an international crew of young scientists sails into The Galapagos as part of a recreation of the Voyage of the Beagle. That, surely will be the TV picture of the Darwin 2009 celebrations. How can Darwin’s 200th anniversary pass without that happening? Donate, and help us give a new generation of young people the chance to see a replica Beagle built and launched, and the opportunity to head for horizons of their own.

More on Definitions and Feminism

December 21, 2006

In the comments to the post just below this one, Roy asks whether abortion can be a litmus test for feminism. He says,

I think that the problem is that feminism, like some other movements, is pretty broad, and covers a lot of topics. There are myriad issues that feminists have strong views on, and I doubt that you’ll find that all or even most feminists have like minds about all of them.
And that’s part of why it’s hard to say whether or not a person who doesn’t personally identify with feminism has feminist ideas or not. Take the abortion issue- it’s certainly a hot-button issue, and one that many feminists are pretty vocal about. Is it possible to be a feminist but not support abortion on demand?
I think that it is. Just as one could potentially be, say, a Christian who supports choice, or a liberal who doesn’t support gun control.
If there are, say, 6 major issues (making up a number), and someone agrees with The Feminists on 5 of them, there’s a good possibility that such a person could be a feminist.

Here is a good place to make a distinction between the entire left (or right), and the sub-movements that comprise it, like feminism or labor liberalism. Liberalism has several main issue planks, which you don’t have to agree with all of to be considered a liberal: racial equality, gay rights, feminism, civil liberties, health care, immigration, labor rights, liberal internationalism.

In contrast, sub-movements focus on only a few issues. Movement feminism is about a plethora of issues, but in most countries that I know of, the most important two are reproductive rights and economic equality. Reproductive rights don’t equal abortion in places where the main RR battle is about contraception (see Liza’s post for more details), but in the US, they do. Economic equality usually centers around equal pay for equal work.

I’ve seen people summarize American feminism several times as being primarily about abortion and equal pay, so I suppose these are the two issues you have to agree with the feminist mainstream on to be considered a feminist. There are other issues, which feminist organizations emphasize less – daycare, parental leave, family law, health care, sex ed, sexual assault, media stereotypes. On these issues, there’s a lot more leeway, especially for people who have a strong activist record on the two main issues.

This is not just a definitional issue. Most movements are about just one issue – gay marriage, withdrawing from Iraq, raising the minimum wage, and so on. The fact that feminism defines itself around two issues signals that these two issues are strongly coupled, and people who agree on just one are unwelcome. Because movements center around one issue at a time, what usually happens is that one issue gets deemphasized; in Latin America it’s usually abortion, I think, but in the the US it’s been equal pay since the demise of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Definitional Games

December 20, 2006

A thread on Feministing straddles the line between being dismissable as a prime example of trivialization and being an instructive example of definitional games. In a nutshell, some commenters are complaining that people are afraid of the word “feminism” even when they agree with most feminist political planks.

For example, a year-old CBS poll reveals that in the US, 24% of women and 14% of men call themselves feminists, rising to 65% and 58% respectively when a dictionary definition is supplied. Ostensibly, it’s supposed to show that people really are feminists but just don’t identify that way. In reality, it’s yet another case of too many where people come to utterly wrong conclusions because they don’t understand how language works.

The definition provided is, “Someone who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” With that definition, it’s hard to see how the majority would fail to describe itself as feminist. Equality is a motherhood value, like freedom, so everyone says he’s for it.

If someone came to Pandagon or Feministing, started disagreeing with the regulars too much, and defended his feminist credentials by pointing to the dictionary definition, he’d be laughed at. It’s not enough for one to profess to be for equality; at a minimum, one must also recognize the existence of serious inequalities, and preferably the need for social or political action to remedy them.

The civil rights movement is a good analogy. In the 1960s, plenty of Southerners, especially politicians, said things like, “Lynching is a tragedy; thank the Lord it doesn’t happen in my state.” And even people who opposed lynching often insisted that Martin Luther King’s movement stop engaging in civil disobedience and instead keep appealing to the courts. MLK didn’t think they were civil rightists, and neither does anyone who matters today.

Most movement feminists have a list of litmus tests for feminism: support for equal pay laws, support for laws against sexual harassment, a liberal position on abortion, even a liberal position on gay rights. In the US, far fewer than (65% + 58%)/2 ~= 62% of the people are pro-choice enough; support for abortion on demand is in the low 30s. The terms “pro-choice” and “Roe vs. Wade” carry a lot of power, but the median voter’s position on abortion is to the right of what is permissible under Roe vs. Wade (I have no idea about Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, which is less familiar to the average American).

Movements don’t arise in a vacuum. You can’t define libertarianism without reference for the fact that every non-marginalized libertarian has supported conservatives over liberals, often vociferously. You can’t define civil rights without reference to the state of race relations. And you can’t feminism without reference to the actual struggles feminist activists are engaged in.

Today’s YouTube Find

December 7, 2006

Sarah Silverman tells the brutal truth, as always.

Speaking of which, “political incorrectness” was a massive success of reclaiming a term that Democrats often neglect. The original meaning of the term was used by punk artists who were the 1980s’ equivalent of Sarah Silverman, or by leftists who criticized other leftists’ overemphasis on language. Then in 1991 Dinesh D’Souza started using the term to refer to overt racism and sexism; whereas Lakoff’s theory retrodicts that it would’ve only activated the original subversive frame and backfired, in fact it caught on quickly and popularized the notion that crass hate speech was good and the science backing racial and gender equality was just politics.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.