liv: alternating calligraphed and modern letters (letters)
[personal profile] liv
It's always hard to come back to posting after a hiatus. I have too many and too few things to say that aren't about Worldcon or house buying, and I have all these new readers who subscribed post-Worldcon and I feel too self-conscious that my first past should be "good" to even get started. So I am taking my cue from [ profile] siderea and posting a links round-up and not worrying so much about being original that I fail to post at all.

Everybody's been linking to [ profile] shweta_narayan's really impressive piece about cognitive linguistics and social justice. It's brilliant, both in terms of how it explains an academic concept in an accessible way, and because of making a novel and cogent connection between different ideas, and it also feels pertinent to stuff I've been trying to think about recently about politically correct language.

I've been encountering a surprising amount of pushback lately, some personal and some just in public discussions I've happened to read, against the very idea of being careful with language so as not to hurt members of discriminated minorities. I can see the point of disagreeing with particular instances of terms considered politically correct by some, especially as some of them are controversial even among politically aware and clued-in activists. I have sympathy for the argument that insisting on politically correct terminology shouldn't be a priority in social justice activism; it's possible to have a reasoned disagreement about how important it is. But I am really struggling with understanding how anyone can be against the basic idea of preferring non-offensive terms. (I wrote this about political correctness about six years ago and I still agree with most of what I said there.)

Like, the position that people should be able to choose their own identity terms rather than having to put up with ones that have been imposed on them by oppressors or have acquired insulting connotations seems almost unassailable. Likewise the view that if I'm insulting someone I should take care to avoid collateral damage to people who have nothing to do with the problem I'm complaining about. I suspect part of the problem is that people aren't emotionally distinguishing between someone making a conscious choice to use language in a way that conveys meaning without insulting a minority group, and people criticizing them for not making the same choices. It's a bit like people who think vegetarians or people who don't watch TV or teetotallers are inherently getting at them for eating meat or watching broadcast TV or drinking alcohol. I'm sure there are some shouty judgemental vegetarians, TV-avoiders and teetotallers out there, but the fact of abstaining is not itself judgemental.

Certainly I can see the analogy to PC and langauge issues. There are a lot of people who are really really scared that they are going to get shouted at or be socially ostracized if they inadvertently use the wrong term, and a lot of the pushback is coming from that. Partly because there's just no way, I think, to be polite enough in criticizing language to sound non-judgemental. Everybody always says that you should criticize the actions, not the person, but I've frankly very rarely seen somebody using carefully neutral, depersonalized language about how a particular term could be considered offensive and get a positive response any different from "how dare you accuse me of racism?!"

One link that's also been passed round a lot which somewhat helps to clarify where the vehemently anti-PC crowd are coming from is this critique of online social justice stuff. I disagree in many respects with deBoer's article, in particular that he seems to think that the main point of what he calls "liberalism" and I would call social justice is to make life better for young white people from relatively Conservative backgrounds. Whereas to me that's a nice bonus, the actual point of social justice is to achieve equality for people who have previously been discriminated against and treated very badly by those in power. (Also I really hate the use of violent metaphors like lynch-mob and minefield to describe criticism of the kinds of bigotry which support actual violence against victims.) But his writing gives me some insight into why there is so much backlash about the idea of making language and media less racist and prejudiced.

[ profile] shweta_narayan's piece, on the other hand, makes it clearer to me why caring about language is important, in spite of the objections articulated by people like deBoer. I don't know at the details but apparently at Worldcon there was an incident where an audience member complained about how it's censorship that you're not allowed to use the racial slur euphemized as the N-word (but which this person actually said out loud), in the presence of a panellist to whom that slur might be directly applied. And it feels like casting this as a free speech versus censorship issue, as so often happens in online debates, is missing the point. It's not censorship, it's attempting to broaden category structures so that everybody gets included in "people".

Somebody on the panel about Kameron Hurley's double-Hugo winning We have always fought essay mentioned that satire by Hofstadter on Purity of language, where he basically says that it would be horrifying to mark words by the race of the person mentioned and therefore we shouldn't mark words by gender either, an analogy I've always found dubious, though ok, it's probably reasonably progressive for thirty years ago. But even without the very dodgy analogy between race and gender, Hofstadter's argument seems unconvincing to me as a reason for saying "chairperson" instead of "chairman". Whereas Narayan's piece makes a much stronger case, that we need to make an active effort to avoid assuming that men are the most representative of categories like respected jobs.

The other thing I liked about the category structure piece is that it provides a rebuttal to this rather tortured argument about the weak man fallacy, which seems to be a justification for the whole annoying and much-mocked "not all men" thing. I mean, there are obvious things wrong with it like a completely horrible analogy about pogroms against Jews, but I couldn't quite put my finger on why I disagree with Alexander here. But I think I'm starting to be able to articulate the difference between comments like "men oppress women" and comments like "black people commit violent crimes"; the relationships of who's considered prototypical and who is affected by such generalizations are simply not symmetrical. Sure, there's an asymmetry in who has "privilege" but I basically have major issues with the privilege framing, and Narayan's cognitive linguistics explanation works better for me.

Also applicable, I think, is this piece by [ profile] poliehierax about the need to be able to make blanket statements about oppressing groups, rather than deal with the fact that an individual person you care about has contributed to hurting you. (Thanks for pointing to that, [personal profile] kaberett, and for finding it for me when I couldn't think of search terms.)

(no subject)

Date: 2014-08-28 06:07 pm (UTC)
kaberett: a patch of sunlight on the carpet, shaped like a slightly wonky heart (light hearted)
From: [personal profile] kaberett
[I would like to leave kudos on this work]

(no subject)

Date: 2014-08-28 07:30 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
Let's talk about category structure and oppression!

Oops, I'd seen this a lot before but only skimmed it, and only now actually read it properly and appreciated it.

Although I was constantly confused that "category structure" wasn't a sort of category theory :)

I've been encountering a surprising amount of pushback lately... against the very idea of being careful with language so as not to hurt members of discriminated minorities.

It seems like people have been complaining about this (and every other innovation) as long as it's existed.

I'm obviously in favour, and am steadily becoming more and more in favour. (That is, I agree the concept can be unhelpful some of the time, but I find more and more areas where I think updating language is useful.)

I think maybe one thing that makes it difficult is that people are often naturally really defensive when corrected, so they're inclined to argue rather than say "I'm sorry, I didn't realise". Especially because sometimes it's something you really, really should have known in advance (using the N-word is unacceptable in most mainstream culture even if it's not very politically correct), and sometimes you're actually using the terminology most people you know would prefer, but you happen to be talking to someone who prefers the opposite. So it's easy for people go on the defensive, rather than accepting they'll sometimes accidentally hurt someone where they're sensitive and be ready to apologise.

Of course, I also think there are some cases where PC language is used over-the-top, but I don't know how widespread it is: it's not what I usually see.

I'm starting to be able to articulate the difference between comments like "men oppress women" and comments like "black people commit violent crimes"

I'm trying to work this through in my mind and still not quite sure where I end up. It seems like blanket statements about a group seen as the "default" are less indicting than ones about another group. But it seems like it holds up even apart from that, if the favoured group is _so_ favoured they're not really prototypical any more -- that it's a matter of circle theory, that people need a greater freedom to vent "upwards" even if they're being too generalising, whereas venting "downwards" incurs an obligation to be especially careful not to be accidentally bigoted..?

(no subject)

Date: 2014-08-29 12:19 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
Maybe I should just assume that all the shouting is a natural stage that people have to go through and maybe later on, in private when they're not losing face, they will actually adjust their language.

Well, I don't necessarily mean it's *ok*, just that I'm not *surprised* there's pushback. I expect some people will just always be defensive, but some people may eventually get on the right side if they realise it's not about them having said the wrong thing in the past, but about not saying things which hurt people in future.

Don't feel the need to link to particular examples if it might be controversial, but what sort of things were you thinking of -- did it seem like NEW objections, or just ongoing objections gathering momentum rather than dying away? Whether people had some specific objections, or were just saying "don't understand, don't want"?

(no subject)

Date: 2014-08-29 01:37 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
I think I am more surprised than you to see so much vehemence against what seems like a pretty obviously morally good idea.

I'm not sure. Like, lots of things are wrong with society all the time, and we often get re-outraged when we happen to see them closely, but get too fatigued to be continually outraged for the next 100 years until they're fixed. Like, I'm often totally shocked that people would do things that _I_ know are wrong. But also, I know that slurs like the N-word have been getting slowly less acceptable for significantly more than a hundred years, but I know there's many people who want to ignore that, so however obvious a point of view, I always expect _some_ people to object to it, even some usually sensible people :(

it's just something that seems to be around a lot recently.

Thank you for expanding. FWIW, I don't take Scott too seriously on this sort of subject -- he often has good insights, but also has personal reasons for being very resistant even to things I think are obviously good.

But you're right, there might be increasing pushback from cultures who are progressive and object to something about the language specifically, not SJW-ism in general. I'm really not sure -- I get the impression that people like Jack Halberstam might be reacting to a conversation I can't see, like some people ARE using SJW-terminology in harmful infighting ways (a bit like Scott always expects to happen but I'm not completely convinced of), but it's all happening in bits of the internet I don't know?

(no subject)

Date: 2014-08-29 06:24 pm (UTC)
kerrypolka: Contemporary Lois Lane with cellphone (Default)
From: [personal profile] kerrypolka

(no subject)

Date: 2014-09-04 09:48 am (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
Yes, I was thinking that, but I didn't want to assume...

(no subject)

Date: 2014-08-29 12:23 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
I'm finding thinking about defaults or prototypes potentially more helpful than thinking about punching up versus down

I think for me, the analogy was so useful because it makes clear that if the direction is clearly up, it's usually ok to vent, and if the direction is clearly down, it's usually not ok, and if the direction is unclear, you may have to exercise caution and be aware that while your shouting to be heard, you may have to pull back if you find you're trampling other people in a similar-but-different situation to yourself.

If other people don't see it like that and think it implies a black-and-white linear up/down scale, then maybe I should drop the analogy and find one that works better for that?

Right now I'm finding thinking about defaults or prototypes

What is it that you find useful? I thought I was getting it, but now I'm not sure.

I'm also thinking, this analogy of prototypical groups suggests that, for instance, it's more ok to make critical generalisations about men than critical generalisations about billionaires, because billionaires are on average more privileged but less prototypical. But that feels wrong to me. Is that right?

(no subject)

Date: 2014-08-28 07:33 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
It's not censorship, it's attempting to broaden category structures so that everybody gets included in "people".

To me it feels like most people agree it's unacceptable and shouldn't be tolerated, and it's a red herring whether you call that "censorship which is worthwhile" or "not censorship"?

(no subject)

Date: 2014-08-28 07:37 pm (UTC)
kaberett: Overlaid Mars & Venus symbols, with Swiss Army knife tools at other positions around the central circle. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kaberett
IMO the distinction between "that is a thing you are not allowed to say because Majorly Bad Life-Altering Shit Will Happen To You And Possibly Everyone Close To You" and "sure, you can say that shit, but people will base their opinions of you on it because it is information about you" is a useful one to maintain, not least because of the ways in censorship is used as a tool of oppression and violence. "Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences", as I summarised on twitter, to which the response was "that's the most sinisterly Orwellian thing I've ever heard". Obviously there isn't a binary - state-imposed consequences for hate speech are a thing, and not a thing I disagree with, but I'd argue that (1) for all it's a continuum there is shit that is Clearly Not Okay for states to do to subjects more generally, and (2) state-imposed consequences - or consequences imposed from a position of power - are not the same as your peers going "wow, that's an awful and unsupportable thing to believe, and I think the worse of you for knowing you hold this position".
Edited Date: 2014-08-28 07:38 pm (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2014-08-28 08:10 pm (UTC)
kerrypolka: Contemporary Lois Lane with cellphone (Default)
From: [personal profile] kerrypolka
the distinction between "that is a thing you are not allowed to say because Majorly Bad Life-Altering Shit Will Happen To You And Possibly Everyone Close To You" and "sure, you can say that shit, but people will base their opinions of you on it because it is information about you"

I found this a very useful way of thinking about this issue, thank you for writing it like that!

(no subject)

Date: 2014-08-29 12:45 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
I'm sorry, I think I shouldn't have brought this up. I emphatically agree that there's a continuum from "stuff you can't easily say because people will disapprove of you" to "stuff you can't say because you might be beaten/threaten/stalked/fired/arrested/etc". And that censorship, state-sanctioned or not, is used as another tool of oppression. And that people who conflate "mild disapproval" with actual censorship are being disingenuous and often ridiculous.

But in my head, throwing around the N-word was the sort of thing that people do get fired for, which isn't as bad as some of the things that happens to people to enforce censorship, but wasn't benign enough that I thought I could comfortably say it's "not censorship" -- I don't feel views I agree with are sufficiently free if you can't express them without being fired.

And I thought it was important to make that distinction before someone popped up and said "oh, but ANY curtailment of freedom of speech is censorship, so can dismiss it out of hand without caring if it hurts people". I wanted to head that argument off, that the important thing is NOT ACCEPTABLE, where it's censorship or not. And some people walk into that argument genuinely by accident, by thinking too much about free speech and not enough about anything else. However, I gave the awful argument some people make too much validity simply by mentioning it, leaving well alone would have been a lot better, I'm sorry I seemed to validate this guy :(

(no subject)

Date: 2014-08-29 07:53 am (UTC)
azurelunatic: A glittery black pin badge with a blue holographic star in the middle. (Default)
From: [personal profile] azurelunatic
(The "you" here is the generic second person, rather than specific.)

One of the forms of "lowering the wall" in regards to getting people to stop saying terrible things which I have seen used to great effect, which has been used to great effect on me, and which I try to practice myself, is the difference between:

Don't say that.


Don't say that around me.

Of course I would prefer if this person did not say that thing at all. It is probably terrible and perhaps it should not be said by anyone. But what is my moral authority to exert that kind of control over someone else's entire life when they maybe do not agree with my premise that this is causing harm in the world and they should not say it?

I have much more authority to say what sort of things I will and will not tolerate being said in my presence. Yes, you can say that sort of thing elsewhere. I do not think you should, and if I know you are doing it, I may cease to operate any of my discretion in your favor, and I may mention this fact about you to my like-minded friends. And if you say these things in my presence against my stated wishes, perhaps I will make sure that you're not around me anymore.

When I'm in charge of a space, I can say "Don't say that here." Which is a really important part of moderating an online space. You might not be welcomed if you say terrible things somewhere else, but if you say terrible things here, you're definitely getting booted.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-08-29 12:27 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
Oh, that's a really really good description. I don't always want to give people a pass, but also, I often want to be able to ask people for something that they CAN do fairly easily. And maybe, once they've bought in to the idea that that's an ok thing to ask for and they needn't feel defensive, it will be much less of a leap for them to stop saying that elsewhere.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-08-29 12:57 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
it would be horrifying to mark words by the race of the person mentioned and therefore we shouldn't mark words by gender either, an analogy I've always found dubious, though ok, it's probably reasonably progressive for thirty years ago

I'm embarrassed to ask, but how is the analogy incorrect? I mean, I'd expect a mathematician trying to deduce egalitarianism from first principles to say a lot of tone deaf things, so I'd much more expect his thirty-year-old essay to be problematic than not. And I don't remember it well, and analogies between marginalised groups are often hurtful.

But how is it incorrect? It seems like, people may not be able to verbalise what's wrong with using words that assume a white/black split and words that assume white people have almost all positive characteristics, but most people's instinctive humanity makes it very clear to them that it is wrong. And even if they can't articulate the reasons why it's wrong, don't those reasons apply as much to gender?

Hofstadter's argument seems unconvincing to me as a reason for saying "chairperson" instead of "chairman". Whereas Narayan's piece makes a much stronger case, that we need to make an active effort to avoid assuming that men are the most representative of categories like respected jobs.

I thought that was pretty much exactly what Hofstadter was saying, what am I missing? I mean, it probably wasn't as well thought out as the essay written recently, but I remember him describing a story of trying to persuade a friend that "guy" meant "male or female, but especially male", and the friend kept saying, "no it's totally gender-neutral", until they accidentally said "I've even heard a bunch of guys use it to refer to a mixed group" and realised what they'd said. That seems basically the same point made in the recent essay, albeit a lot more rudimentary.

Of course, I think that was a theme he came back to in several essays but didn't explicitly say in the white/black essay. In fact, in the white/black essay I thought he didn't give any reasons why it was unacceptable to use words with badly-hidden-default-assumptions-about-race-or-gender AT ALL, I thought he just parodied the argument that it would be ok, and expected it to be obvious to people why it wasn't ok?

(no subject)

Date: 2014-08-29 01:41 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
Thank you for replying. I'm not eager to defend Hofstadter specifically, but I wanted to understand what was wrong. It sounds like it might be a case of what I was trying to talk about last night, an essay which is offensive not incorrect? I'm not sure if that's a sensible distinction, it's bad either way, but to me there's a difference in how you react, between "recognising the offensive bits you hadn't previously notice and avoiding perpetuating them" vs "rooting out the ideas the essay promulgated and recanting them"?

(no subject)

Date: 2014-08-31 07:16 am (UTC)
lavendersparkle: Jewish rat (Default)
From: [personal profile] lavendersparkle
I think something that people are responding against is what was cutely referred to in Offbeat Empire as semantic scolding as an internet sport. On the internet it can be difficult to tell the difference between someone who is trying to make the internet a more comfortable place for marginalised groups and people who are using semantic scolding to go "you used the wrong word therefore nothing you say is right and I WIN!".

This can be harmful because it can make some spaces appear hostile to people who haven't learnt all the correct terms yet. For example, a transexual who is just coming to terms with her gender identity might not feel comfortable seeking support in online forums if she'll encounter hostile responses from people if she uses the wrong term or every comment she makes gets derailed into linguistics. This can enforce financial and educational privilege, because people with mobile internet devices and lots of experience assimilating information in general will find learning the correct terms easier than someone with limited internet access.

Another place this can go wrong is where different social justice groups decide on different terms as appropriate ones and then meet on the internet and discussion just descends into mutual yelling about how the other group is using the wrong term. For example, from what I've seen it seems like US disability rights people prefer the person first 'people with disabilities' language whereas UK disability rights people prefer 'disabled people' with it's connotations that it is society disabling people with impairments in line with the social model of disability. Every so often this leads to a shit storm on the internet when American social justice activists and UK social justice activists try to talk to each other.

Then there's a whole other thing with people reclaiming terms and the difficulty that can lead to when people don't realise that you're using the term in a reclaimed way. This can get particularly tricky if you're invisibly a member of a marginalised group and on the internet it's even harder to tell if someone is a member of a group. For example, my husband is invisibly disabled and the term he is most comfortable using to describe himself as is 'cripple'. Obviously it's fine to use that term in private with people who know about his impairments and why he prefers that term. We wouldn't use it in conversation with people who might get offended or didn't know the context. However, there is a private/public continuum in which you need to decide where to draw the line about what's appropriate. When people draw those lines in different places it can lead to people getting very huffy with each other.

I agree with you that people should try not to use offensive terms and constantly facing offensive language is worse than occasionally being told you've used the wrong word, but I wanted to give some examples of things that are causing some push back.


Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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