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.


December 4, 2006

At the progressive bloggers’ panel I attended yesterday, some people (especially Jeffrey Feldman) talked about framing. In particular, they advanced the argument that using a frame the other side was already using, say “big government,” was counterproductive because it would only remind people of the existing frame. In other words, if the Democrats brand Republicans the party of big government, then it’ll just make people remember that the Democrats are for big government.

Lindsay applies the same reasoning to sexist epithets:

Calling Michelle Malkin “a cunt” is the equivalent of calling the Republicans “the party of big government”–a terrible rhetorical move whether it’s deserved or not. “Big government” is a Republican frame that Democrats have to counter with a better frame of their own. Fighting about who’s really the party of big government just helps the Republicans by reinforcing their way of looking at taxes and the state. Likewise, “cunt” and “fag” originated in a conceptual scheme where vulvas are gross and gay people are subhuman. It’s very difficult to use those insults without reinforcing the values that made the epithets make sense in the first place. An individual can sever the tie between the word “cunt” and cunt-hatred, but that doesn’t mean that word has lost its associations for its audience.

I don’t want to disagree with Lindsay too much about the application to sexist epithets, considering that I think Parachutec irretrievably lost his mind. But the only evidence I can find for the theory of activating frames is the anecdote that when I read radical critiques of liberalism that use anti-communist language (Tony Judt’s hit piece is a good example), I tend to discount them even more quickly than critiques that don’t use that language.

In the real world, inverting frames can be immensely useful. The first time ever that feminists talked in terms of privacy was when abortion became an issue in the 1970s. The more radical ones still haven’t gotten over the fact that the feminist movement made abortion rights mainstream by using language that up until then was conservative; the rest of the political landscape has accepted privacy as a liberal frame. Contrariwise, anti-feminists are using the “pro-woman” frame again; it didn’t work in the 1900s and the 1960s, but at least for now Feminists for Life has become a fairly robust organization.

The other option is to pejorate existing Republican terms. The person who popularized the term “big government” was J. K. Galbraith, who promoted it as a necessary check on big business; right-wing spin doctors then pejorated the term and used it against the Democrats. The most vulnerable point of attack is “moral values,” where the relevant soundbite is “It’s not up to the government to legislate morality” (it’d have worked better if liberals had used it after Milton Friedman, who came up with that phrasing, died).

What won’t work is frames that really don’t mean anything. In Wait! Don’t Move to Canada, Bill Scher suggests talking about a representative, responsive, and responsible government. That might work if someone like George Soros puts a few billion dollars into producing thinktanks and media channels that can actually explain to people what those mean.

Right now, “representative” sounds like some process issue, and “responsive” and “responsible” smack of “we’ll make the trains run on time.” The only Americans who care about making the trains run on time are commuters from New Jersey and Connecticut, who already vote Democratic.

Look, if you want to make liberal values resonate with people, get over the fact that John Rawls couldn’t write to a general audience if his life depended on it. “Maximal equal rights” is very stiff, but “civil liberties” and “equal rights” aren’t: “we’re for equal rights: that’s why we support affirmative action legislation to combat discrimination at work.” The principle of equality should be glossed over, if only because utilitarianism sells while categorical morality makes you look like a feel-good bleeding heart.

Wednesday Miscellany

November 29, 2006

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society will perform a new chart at the Bowery Poetry Club on 11/30 at 10:00 PM (directions).

The accent quiz is generating a second wave of buzz (see for example Feministe, Pandagon, Majikthise, and Retrospectacle). There’s a lot of confusion about Inland Northern, which the quiz diagnoses in people who distinguish the vowels in cot and caught in all contexts (some Midlanders distinguish cot and caught but not don and dawn), but don’t distinguish Mary, marry, and merry. The most egregious feature of Inland Northern isn’t the mergers, but the vowel shifts. If this word sounds like “cot” to you, you’re probably from the Inland North; if it sounds like “cat,” you’re probably not.

Update: the Youtube link still doesn’t work for me, so you can hear the word here instead.

Amanda notes that Bush’s new appointee for head of the Office on Violence Against Women has no anti-VAW credentials; her past experience is with prosecuting people who sell bongs or write child porn fiction. Jessica, who broke the story first, also notes that the appointee said the Patriot Act supports civil liberties.

You may recognize the author of this story about the scandalous scaffold situation in New York (alliteration not intended).

Under the cover of construction, ads for some of the world’s biggest brands are taking up residence at many of New York’s most prestigious addresses, including many buildings designated as landmarks. So far, Stringer’s PR campaign seems to have had little affect on the number of illegal ads vying for public attention.

Why do these blatantly illegal ads flourish in plain sight, despite the vocal opposition?


“There are different approaches to policing sidewalk shed ads,” explains Givner. “If the OAC is labeled on the sign, we can issue a violation to the OAC. The fine is $10,000 to $25,000. If it doesn’t have a label, [we] issue the violation to the building owner for 0 to $2,500.”

As Scott Stringer notes, building owners risk these fines because it can be very profitable for them to do so. Advertising Age estimates that illegal ads, including sidewalk shed wraps can bring in $40,000 to $50,000 dollars a month, a figure also cited by the trade journal Media Buyer Planner. Moreover, the DOB has no power to remove illegal ads, even if it issues a citation.

Slut Shaming

November 14, 2006

Skatje used to have a long-distance boyfriend named Rob she talked a lot about on her blog. Two days ago, she lambasted him for cybering with other girls – I’m not sure when, but I’ll make the charitable assumption that it was when he and Skatje still went out. She says,

I don’t know where to start. I’m sick of Rob. I’m sick of his emotional abuse. I’m sick of his whining. There is no sympathy left here. For the record, cyber sex is the most disgusting thing ever. Honestly. Sex without intimacy. Sex without love. I wouldn’t touch that shit with a ten-foot pole. Oh, but Rob would. With other girls (boy?) who were willing, since I wasn’t. Deception. Betrayal. Does not compute? For someone who took me to meet his family, and showed them so much commitment to me, I don’t see how he could be so unfaithful. And sick. Sick too.

Katie took exception to her characterization of sex as something that must be done in the context of a loving relationship. It tends to be more fun when there’s enough intimacy and trust around – for example, the strongest orgasms tend to require one partner to tie the other up – but you don’t have to love someone to have good sex with them. If you personally want to eschew certain forms of sex, there’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t pretend that your views are normative.

In response to Katie’s somewhat embellished description of her sex life, Skatje said, “And if I may be blunt, isn’t your lifestyle a perfect definition of the word ‘slut’?” Then Katie posted about the problems with slut-shaming, and the entire thread devolved into a kerfuffle about the definition of the word “slut.”

The only thing I can say about that is, “Way to miss the point.” If someone calls Jessica Valenti a wop, it’ll make no sense to say, “A wop is someone of Italian descent, so it’s correct to call Jessica a wop.” The word “Slut” doesn’t just mean “a promiscuous woman,” but also has an in-built negative connotation. Like many other loaded terms, it serves not to elucidate but to prejudice.

The precise meaning of “Slut” is not relevant here. Slut-shaming isn’t about the use of the word, but about the implication that if a woman has sex that traditional society disapproves of, she should feel guilty and inferior. Using the word “Slut” descriptively is impossible, just like with “nigger.”

Sorry about the fluff

November 13, 2006

I promise I’ll get back shortly to ranting about sexism, racism, religious fundamentalism, wars of aggression, and American politics’ promotion thereof. But for now let me just note a few more things:

1. Health care update: I still haven’t gotten the referral I need. But I have an appointment for 5:20 that should give me that.

2. One of the things I didn’t notice about the accent quiz I just linked to is that it omits African-American accent. Even without Ebonics grammar, black Americans usually have a distinctive, nationally uniform accent, which would register as Northeastern on the quiz on account of its relative lack of vowel mergers (but it’s still closer to Southern).

3. Speaking of “African-American,” a while ago SLC said he preferred to use “black” because it wasn’t hyphenated. Personally I don’t distinguish between them when it’s clear that the context is American, so I tend to use the shorter term. But sometimes it’s important to distinguish the American ethnic group from the race(s): hence, I never say “black accent,” “black English,” etc.

4. If I don’t write any real post today, check out Belledame’s commentary on an essay of Orwell’s on Tolstoy and Lear, which connects to the issues of totalitarian ideologies, pleasure, and coercion. Even if I do write something real, read Belledame’s post.


November 13, 2006

Gotoquiz has a surprisingly accurate quiz about US accents I’ve been clamoring to see for years, after being subjected to quizzes that ask about how I call buckets and pillbugs. Predictably, I got Northeast. I don’t sound like a native speaker of any kind, and I have an online sound sample that proves it, but I don’t have any American vowel merger except this of the British /A/ (“cart,” “father,” “balm,” “calm”) and /Q/ (“cot,” “bother,” “bomb,” “com”) vowels, which to the quiz is what matters.

On the other hand, outside the US the quiz will be completely inaccurate for obvious reasons. Brits will probably get pegged as Northeasterners. Katie, whose accent is 100% Ontario, was pegged in the North Central region, because she has the same vowel mergers and the same Canadian raising as Minnesotans; but her vowel shifts are characteristic of Canada rather than the Old Northwest, so you’ll never confuse her with William H. Macy on Fargo.

Discrete Ideological Systems

November 3, 2006

Bora is doing me a great favor by reposting all of his old posts on ideology, which I usually disagree with. Now he reposted The Perils of Ideological Continua, which argues that continuous representations of political views, such as the traditional left-right line or the Political Compass, are invariably wrong. Instead, he says, a real representation will be discrete and have two different camps, liberalism and conservatism; then each camp has some continuum for its subvarieties.

Although the current ideological spectra have their problems, discrete systems are only good when classifying purity-minded idealists. More pragmatic people, and people who aren’t ideologues, don’t fit into the system at all. If the basic purpose of an ideological classification is to predict which political groupings people will support, Bora’s discrete system is no better than the standard spectrum.

Discrete classifications measure basic values. I’ve already explained that there are many more than two systems of incompatible values. Even in their most abstract cores, liberalism, socialism, and conservatism are equally distant from one another. Libertarianism is slightly harder to classify, but saying it’s just a type of conservatism is wrong.

Libertarians love this scheme for their own emotional reasons. Their core value is anti-authoritarianism (frankly, it is also mine, but I am a liberal). But, if you follow the libertarian logic to its full conclusion, you will end in tragedy. If libertarians ever took control of the government, there will be two possible outcomes. First one will start with anarchy, leading to dog-eat-dog world, leading to nationwide murder-fest, leading to emergence of a few most unscrupulous murderous thugs as “leaders” of the new totalitarian regime. We’ve seen this happen in many places, including in post-communist Eastern Europe. The second possible outcome is a more ordered system, something I like to call “dictatorship of the proletariat”, an illusion of personal freedom similar to that fostered in the past by Mr. Stalin and Mr. Zedong.

This is actually a very incisive observation, but Bora takes it the wrong way. It’s not that libertarian rule is in fact authoritarian because libertarianism is conservative. Bora’s classification places postmodernists in the liberal camp; but their only real-world political manifestation, postcolonialism, has been just as authoritarian. In contrast, traditional conservatism has actually been less visibly authoritarian.

The main distinction there isn’t liberal versus conservative. It boils down to the circular view of politics that Bora deprecates. You take a spectrum measuring the ideologue’s attitude toward change, and label it radical on one side, reactionary on the other, and progressive, reformist, and conservative in the middle. Then you note that radicals and reactionaries behave in exactly the same way and turn the spectrum into a circle. This will measure methodology more than values, but will explain almost perfectly which groups will turn totalitarian if given power and which won’t.

Along with explaining what a group of ideologues will do if given power, we’re also interested in explaining natural alliances. Some can be explained by shared ideals – the fusion of socialism and postcolonialism comes to mind – but not all.

Here, a discrete system fails especially spectacularly, because it makes alliances look permanent. It works reasonable well with conservatism and libertarianism, but not with anything involving socialism. In the academia, which this system is best suited for, it won’t explain the attacks on scientific positivism from both conservatives and socialists, and the attacks on science from both postmodernists and theologians. In politics, it won’t explain alliances between various kinds of reformists (who in the US include Schwarzenegger, Feingold, Wellstone, McCain, and most Independents) on such issues as campaign finance reform and electoral reforms.
Most political alliances can be explained fairly well with a spectrum that takes priorities into account. Libertarians’ first priority is capitalism; Hayek said political freedom is impossible without economic freedom rather than the other way around. And indeed, libertarians ally themselves with conservatives. Feminists’ first priority is gender equality, which explains why even radical feminists, who are ideologically almost identical to Marxists, tend to view Marxism as another patriarchal adversary rather than an ally.

An even better system would eschew a priori categories altogether and concentrate on real world questions. If I tell you I’m an individualist, you won’t know what my positions on most political issues are. If I tell you I’m enthusiastic about Russ Feingold, you’ll still be in the dark about education and trade, but you’ll know about my positions on many other key issues and about my priorities.

Empirical Rhetoric

October 17, 2006

I don’t get many opportunities to say it, but I’m a big fan of empirical rhetoric. What that means is that instead of trying to convince people that I’m right using an overarching theory, such as framing or center-shifting, I aim to just apply current thinking well. Some parts are already well-known (for example, when talking about abortion, always say “woman” and not “mother”), but occasionally there’s a refreshing idea.

While I’m not saying that Bora’s point about the -ism frame, in which you tag an opposing view with the suffix -ism to make it look dogmatic (“evolutionism”), is anything new, it does illustrate how you can play with connotations. When I took a class in military history two years ago, the professor who functioned as the TA talked about American attitudes with respect to the Cold War, “In the US, the only acceptable -ism is Americanism.”

The most effective liberal American rhetoric is indeed based on observations like this one. Obviously, just tagging the religious right’s ideology as “Dominionism” isn’t enough. To use the argument that Dominionism is a pernicious ideology correctly, you need to not just call it an -ism, but also portray it as one, preferably with good comparisons to previous ideologies that produced lies.

The main problem with liberal rhetoric is actually not the marketing, or the theory. It’s that religion has a privileged position in society, whence it’s difficult to make people sneer at its excesses the way the right, center, and moderate left have gotten people to laugh at the radical left. It’s possible to make a Judean People’s Front joke about religion, but it’ll be less effective.

Gendered Language

October 7, 2006

A thread on Feministing about models’ weight got derailed multiple times, eventually leading to a discussion about connotations of terms used to refer to races and genders. At one point, the Law Fairy brought up the terms “male” and “female,” asking whether it’s patriarchal that “female” is “male” plus a prefix.

In fact, “female” derives from Latin “femella,” a diminutive of “femina” (woman), while “male” is “masculus” (itself a diminutive of “mas,” male) subjected to severe wear and tear, courtesy of the French language.

It’s possible that the final step of the shortening of “masculus,” that from “masle” to “male,” was conditioned by the similar word “female” – I’m not sure. This thing happens; the initial sounds of the numbers 4 and 5 in Proto-Indo-European are *p and *kw, but in Latin the number 4 got the same initial consonant as 5, and in Germanic the opposite happened (*p regularly became *f in Germanic, hence father/pater).

A more common linguistic issue among some feminists is woman/man, and the annoying and fortunately rare spelling womon/womyn. The general argument is that it’s bad that the word “woman” is a derivative of “man.”

In this case, it’s not a coincidence: woman is a derivative of man, indeed – it’s a contraction of wifman or wyfman. In Old English, “wyf”/”wif” meant woman, and now survives as “wife”; “man” was completely gender-neutral; and “wer,” as in “werewolf,” was strictly masculine. Over time, “man” acquired the dual epicene/masculine meaning it has now, displacing “wer,” and “wifman” contracted to “woman.”

There’s no real alternatives to “woman” if you want to use non-sexist language. The Old English words, mainly wyf and girl, exist in Modern English; and I don’t see English either borrowing Latin femina/masculus or Mandarin nü/nan.

If like me you’re a sucker for Germanic terms, you can epicenize “man” and then coin “wereman” as the gendered word. Then you need to come up with unified pronunciations for “wereman” and “weremen” (I suggest /”w@rm@n/ for the singular and /”wIrm@n/ or /”wErm@n/ for the plural). This takes care of expressions like “manned missions” and “enlisted men.”

Or you can do what most people are doing, and what I do when I speak to anyone but myself, which is use “person” as the epicene term and “man” as the strictly masculine one.

Just Links, Plus Some Commentary

October 3, 2006

Jessica has a YouTube snippet from CBS Evening News’ Free Speech segment, which makes me doubt the wisdom of freedom of expression for a bit. The person manages to include every fundamentalist talking point in a sixty-second segment about Columbine: evolution is responsible to the world’s evils, abortion makes human life less valuable, schools teach moral relativism, etc.

I like quoting Mark Rosenfelder on this: “Not trying to be diplomatic: “moral relativism” is propaganda; it’s the invention of people who don’t understand and don’t want to understand that people can disagree on morality. Differing moralities consider each other immoral. Why is this hard to understand? It’s not that liberals or Marxists (these are, please note, two different creatures) want to erase moral distinctions. They are absolutely brimming with moral judgments of their own. They simply don’t agree with some of the moral judgments of conservatives.”

Lindsay writes about one of the released IM conversations between Mark Foley and the teen he harassed. The conversation demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that Foley is destroying this generation. Why, you ask – because he sexually abused a 16-year-old? No. Because he encouraged the 16-year-old to drink? Again, no. Because he said, “your [sic] not old enough to drink.”

This sort of thing makes me understand one of the running themes on The West Wing, wherein the White House senior staff would poke fun at other people’s poor grammar or spelling. At one point, Press Secretary C. J. Cregg remarks about one horribly-phrased statement, “I’m more and more in favor of English being the national language.”

Amanda documents yet another example showing that the leading anti-choice politicians don’t give a damn about reducing the number of abortions.

In other words, Ryan’s “allies”, when they realized that he was serious about a pragmatic program to reduce the abortion rate, flipped shit and started taking out the very things that will be effective, from sex education so that women know how not to get pregnant in the first place to actual female-controlled contraception.

There are fewer abortions per capita in Canada than in the United States (but the difference is only about 10%), despite the lack of regulations and the state funding of abortions. On the other hand, the United States’ rate of teen pregnancy is still off the rest of the developed world’s charts despite dramatically decreasing in the last fifteen years.

Susie Bright confronts people with the harsh truth: Foley’s sex scandal is nothing compared to the legalization of torture and the rubber-stamping of arresting people without charge.

Sex sells, and Susie Bright will be the first person to recognize it, of course. In 1998, everyone worried about the Lewinsky scandal while Clinton was bombing civilians in Serbia and Iraq; even in Israel the media was plastered with pundits explaining the American impeachment process and speculating about whether Clinton would admit he had oral sex with Lewinsky. But in the real world, warrantless wiretapping – a category that includes wiretapping with no review but for a secret court’s rubberstamp – is far more chilling, and far more destructive.

Women and Language

September 28, 2006

Hat-tip to Battlepanda: Mark Liberman of The Language Log refutes the latest binge of “women are verbal and men are visual, so let’s perpetuate the patriarchy” arguments so that you don’t have to.

It’s recently fashionable for books and articles to enlist neuroscience in support of the view that men and women are essentially and unavoidably different, not just in size and shape, but also in just about every aspect of the way they see, hear, feel, talk, listen and think. These works tend to confirm our culture’s current stereotypes and prejudices, and the science they cite is often overinterpreted, and sometimes seems simply to have been made up. I recently discussed an example from Leonard Sax’s book Why Gender Matters (“Are men emotional children?“, 6/24/2006), which David Brooks has used to support an argument for single-sex education. The latest example of this genre, released August 1, is Louann Brizendine‘s book “The Female Brain“.

One of Brizendine’s claims is that on average, women use 20,000 different words a day whereas men use 7,000 (presumably, there’s the assumed qualifier “Anglophone” or “American,” considering that there are plenty of languages that don’t even have 20,000 unique lexemes). Mark eviscerates that claim, showing that there’s no evidence for it, to the extent that he can prove a negative:

I looked through the book to try to find the research behind the 20,000-vs.-7,000-words-per-day claim, and I looked on the web as well, but I haven’t been able to find it yet. Brizendine also claims that women speak twice as fast as men (250 words per minute vs. 125 words per minute). These are striking assertions from an eminent scientist, with big quantitative differences confirming the standard stereotype about those gabby women and us laconic guys. The only trouble is, I’m pretty sure that both claims are false.

With respect to the speech rate claim, I’ve just run a script on a corpus of 5,202 transcribed and time-aligned telephone conversations, involving native speakers of American English with a wide variety of ages, regions and backgrounds. The average speech rate for the males was 174.3 wpm, and the average speech rate for the females 172.6 wpm. I assume that Brizendine didn’t just concoct her figures about male vs. female speech rates out of thin air — she must have gotten them from a study that someone did somewhere, sometime, or at least from some other author plugging another work in the flourishing genre of pop gender studies — but let’s say, at least, that it ain’t necessarily so. I’ll post something more about Brizendine’s striking speaking-rate and words-per-day claims as soon as I can figure out what evidence she based them on. [More on female and male speaking rates is here, and more on the number of words men and women typically speak per day is here.]

Even if men and women do use different numbers of unique words per day, automatically attributing that to innate sex differences is hasty. Consider this thought experiment:

Freedonia is a very patriarchal society, where men are subject to universal conscription, and women are not allowed to take jobs outside home. Freedonia hasn’t fought a war in 40 years and its military is primitive, and its male-dominated industries are stagnant enough that they don’t produce any new specialized vocabulary. In contrast, there are plenty of household appliances, and a rich semantic space in Freedonian for household tasks. Further, military terms are largely native and can only be augmented by native derivational affixes, of which there are few since Freedonian is an analytic language in origin. But most household terms are borrowed, and can be augmented by the much larger set of affixes available in the languages Freedonian women come into contact with. Naturally, women will use many more unique words than men.

In contrast, suppose that Kumran is an equally patriarchal society, but its language partitions different semantic spaces differently. Its military is modern and so is its oil industry, so its (invariably male) industrial workers possess an enriched specialized vocabulary and are often able to choose between a general Kumrani word, a specialized Kumrani military or industrial term that got generalized by analogy, or a borrowing. At the same time, women, who are conclaved in their homes and shut off from the outside world, have little opportunity to communicate with other people, read books, or be exposed to the public sphere’s vocabulary. In Kumran, men will obviously use more unique words than women.

It matters which language you decide to base your research on. It matters which society you do your study in. It matters which social factors control men and women’s language use.

And, of course, it matters that there’s no evidence that there’s even a discrepancy to explain with social factors.

Arbiters of Normality

September 26, 2006

LizardBreath’s responded to the feedback she received about her whiteness post, including my post about the issue (welcome, all Unfogged readers). She raises a valid point about decentering identity, namely that it makes the default group – in the USA’s case, whites – the arbiter of what’s considered mainstream.

This does not appear to be the case: people who commented in the thread (and others) came down pretty heavily on the side of thinking that this is a bad idea — that whiteness should, rather than being treated as a marked ethnicity, be de-emphasized until it essentially disappears as a concept, and is just what people without any other strong ethnic identity do (eat meatloaf, Mexican, and Chinese food; decorate holiday cookies; dance poorly and without enthusiasm). People with no other ethnic identity just end up partaking in the melting pot of all the various ethnic stuff that’s gotten normalized as American over the years; people with a strong ethnic identity can do the same at will, or not, as they choose. And I can see that maybe this might work: I can’t imagine being able to erase ethnicity at all from people’s minds, but I can see it being possible to sort of erase whiteness — it’s what the discomfort I talked about in the earlier post leads people to want to do.

I’m curious about this, though — doesn’t it still leave people like me, white folks with no other particular ethnicity, as the arbiters of normality? Ordering take-out Chinese food is a normal, ordinary American thing to do, because white folks like me do it. Naming your daughter Tamesha on the other hand, is a weirdo ethnic thing to do, because white people don’t do it. And I come back to thinking that treating being Anglo as a marked ethnicity is necessary. A white boss shouldn’t have any more reason to think that a black employee’s being named Tamesha rather than, oh, Karen is abnormal or bizarre, than a Latina boss would have to think that a white employee’s being named Karen rather than Rosita is abnormal or bizarre — in each case, it’s a wildly unimportant expression of ethnicity.

When I talk about decentering identity, I talk about a lot more than just retreating into some vaguely defined mainstream identity. My individualist project is about much more than that; it’s about deemphasizing conformity to the mainstream, too, to the degree that it’s possible to avoid conforming at all. It all depends on how daring you are with things, but at a minimum, I’m talking about not even caring about the American mainstream to judge people by.

To put it in less pie-in-the-sky terms, decentering ethnic identities will work because any standard of conformity that’s now applied will have to be applied equally to everyone. (White) racists will obviously have plenty to work with – skin color, hair texture, and accent for one – but it’ll be much harder to devise ostensibly neutral standards to exclude minorities.

The problem of what’s considered normal is more or less independent of that. The standard of “ethnic food is okay for OKOP, ethnic names aren’t” is as far as I can tell universal, though obviously, different countries’ dominant ethnic groups disagree on what’s considered “ethnic.”

So it’s probably not that when ethnicity is deemphasized, the dominant group gets to define what’s acceptable – it’s that certain cultural aspects are considered more acceptable to appropriate. And, I think, it’s generally about what is considered easier to change and less central to one’s culture: food is something you can easily mix and change every day, fashion styles slightly less so, hair style even less, and names even less.

Coming back to LizardBreath’s point about names, I therefore don’t think deemphasizing race will change the current situation. Most Americans are native English speakers, so it’s safe to assume that whatever happens, English names will continue dominating. The trick is not to make Jerry as marked as Tyrone, which won’t happen under any circumstance, but to make people stop caring about whether someone is named Jerry or Tyrone.

A Note on “Third-Worldization”

September 18, 2006

The US-as-a-third-world-country argument has brought me to etymology territory, via the term “third-worldization,” which Chomsky uses to describe the increasing inequality in the US (but note that continental Europe is following a similar trend now, deregulating incessantly and throwing people off welfare).

For some reason, I hate excessive use of Latinate words, especially Latinate suffixes. Generally, the ending for “to make” I always think about isn’t “-ify” or “-ize” but “-en”: third-worldening, worsening, etc. This is true especially when the root is Germanic, as in “world” but not in “Germanic” (“Germanicize”).

I’m not sure why it’s so – maybe it’s because I tend to borrow expressions liberally from the language I have created/am creating. In that futuristic English, the immediate source of borrowings is older forms of English, or new coinages from existing words, and the affix en-/-en is used far more often. Tolkien had to write an entire pulp book to have a setting for his language’s expressions; I just tend to use them in this world and hope people don’t notice.

Amelioration and Pejoration

September 8, 2006

Samhita’s rant about the increasingly casual use of the verb “to pimp” and the comment thread, which added similar litanies, got me thinking about the entire ideas of amelioration and pejoration. Wikipedia’s article on semantic change defines them as two particular kinds of changes in the meanings of words: amelioration means “improving” in Latin, i.e. improving the connotation of a word, and pejoration means “worsening,” i.e. worsening the connotation of a word.

In a socio-political context, they occur fairly predictably. A specific term invented or borrowed to refer to an atrocity is generally very pejorated: holocaust is a prime example. Lynch changed from a legal term to severe torture followed by execution inflicted by a mob; ghetto changed from a designated area for Jews in Venice to a highly emotive term conjuring poverty and oppression.

In contrast, after an oppression ends or is lessened, various terms that were used to refer to it become debased via metaphor, and are then ameliorated. This is where pimp and whore fall into: when I say I’m a blog whore, I don’t mean I have sex for links, or anything like that. Many terms used to refer to racial oppression in the US are like that: lynching, slavery, segregation, and disenfranchisement have a far better connotation than they used to have.

A related socio-political semantic change is the euphemism treadmill: a pejorative word is replaced by another to give it an artificially better connotation, then that word becomes pejorated and is replaced by yet another, lather, rinse, repeat. A few millennia ago, the Indo-Europeans did that to wolf and bear (in Germanic languages, bear comes from the euphemism “brown one”); now, English speakers are doing that to gay and black.

Complaining about these changes makes as much sense as complaining that single-member district systems discriminate against third parties. Not using terms that are pejorative because they connote an oppressed group (effeminate, juvenile) or debasing them till the original oppressive meaning is obscured (sissy, to suck) is one thing. Helping the language become more politically neutral is a good thing. Standing on the sidelines and drawing wrong conclusions from inevitable linguistic changes just makes no sense.