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Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

What Should Be Called “Politically Correct?”

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Oddly enough, my first encounter with the term was in the mid-80s from a supporter of the concept making fun of it. That is, she used a questionable term, then said ironically, “Oops. I guess I wasn’t being ‘politically correct’ there.” Yes, she used the air quotes.*

Anyway, she then had to explain the term. I don’t remember the explanation, but I remember it resulted in a long argument.

So, when we hear the term “politically correct” we are talking, as I understand it, about two things:

1. The crazy notion that you ought not to use demeaning and disrespectful terms to describe people.

2. The equally crazy notion that our language influences our thinking.

Now, up to that point, it seems perfectly reasonable. So reasonable, in fact, that one has to wonder why the concept is described with what is usually considered a term of derision.

One reason is simple: The primary identifier with what we call political correctness is taking a noun or an adjective and adding “ism” to it.  In my opinion, you very quickly reach the point of silliness.  I mean, “ageism?”  Seriously?  That’s what you’re going with?  In fact, let’s look at that one; it provides some insights.

Yes, I recognize that it takes less time to say “ageism” than to say, “age discrimination.”  But what is more significant is the common usage.  I first heard “ageism” from someone explaining that he didn’t like “Maggie-May” by Rod Stewart because the line, “The morning sun when it’s in your face really shows your age” is ageist.  Really. That’s what he said.  From that standpoint, as a middle-aged man who is sad that more hot 18-year-olds aren’t attracted to him, I think eliminating “ageism” would be great. But, c’mon.

I have never heard “ageist” used in, “They wouldn’t hire this kid at the fast food place because there are now older, more reliable, more settled people available for those jobs,” or, “They wouldn’t hire her because she’s too close to retirement age.” And the reason is because, for those issues, the term “age discrimination” deals with an action, and “ageism” with a thought. “Ageism” isn’t about unfairly keeping people from things they’re entitled to, it’s about bad thoughts.  “Ableism” isn’t about failing to provide reasonable access to those with disabilities, it’s about bad thoughts.  “Classism” isn’t about the different living conditions of those who must sell their labor-power and those who exploit labor, it’s about bad thoughts.

Which then ties into point two above.  Yes, indeed: as a writer, I’m the last person to deny that the words we use affect how we think. But how much of an effect compared to other things?  I should tell you that, when I have a toothache, no matter how much I tell myself that it’s a soothing warmth, it still hurts just as much.

Yes, well, but what about racism? One the one hand, that is also about thinking bad thoughts. But on the other, historically, the fight to end racism was part of the fight to emancipate the working class.  Now, yes, with the “anti-racist” movement, it has turned into a tangled nest of trivialities.  But there is long tradition before that of battles for issues that were vital–that made a difference to more than a group of privileged middle-class radicals concerned that someone is making them feel bad.  It is that tradition that, in my opinion, makes all the difference.

At some point, you cross a line.

On one side of the line is avoiding disrespectful language.  On the other side is a dramatic overestimation of how much language affects thought, and an underestimation of the importance of material conditions.  This leads to people directing efforts to change others’ language–and, indeed, ideas–as opposed to concentrating on the conditions that create discrimination, and on trying to understand how those conditions can be changed.  In the fight to change conditions, of course, language is a powerful tool.  It is vital to be able to make fine distinctions–to understand and communicate with precision.  If you have two politicians who both support capitalism (hard to believe, I know, but go with me), it is very useful to be able to describe one as reactionary, the other as a reformist; they are different, and must be addressed and attacked differently.  Other shades within those are also useful.  So I’m not saying language doesn’t matter.

“Yes,” some will say.  “But ideas lead to actions.”  Well, yes, they certainly do.  But whence came those ideas in the first place?  As a materialist, I believe that being determines consciousness.  Why is it that the woman near retirement isn’t being hired; that someone younger is?  It is not because someone in Human Resources dislikes old people; it is because it is in the economic interests of the company to hire someone who may be around longer after training.   If you think it is the thoughts that are primary, you will concentrate on getting people to think right, and believe that this will change conditions.  If you think conditions are primary, you will concentrate on changing conditions, convinced that ideas–or the possibility of attacking those ideas–will follow.

In a way, of course, this all takes place in the realm of ideas.  But there is a non-trivial difference between, “Let’s fight to make sure that everyone, regardless of age, has a decent standard of living,” and, “stop using language that implies some age is better than another.”  These battles will produce different results.  Are they mutually exclusive? In theory, no.  In practice, they seem to be.  Those who concentrate on language appear to have accepted the fundamental characteristics of society as given and are working to make certain adjustments within it.

“Negroes” became “blacks” became “African-Americans” or “People of color” and it made exactly zero difference.  Black police were appointed and black mayors (and now a President)  were elected and it made exactly zero difference.  A mass movement of the black poor gathered, swept students and working class whites into its wake, and shook society to its core, and that made a difference in the lives of millions of human beings.  Yes, I know: there are those who will say that things are “no different” now than during the period of Jim Crow, because people still have racist thoughts.  People who say that can vote, and drink at whatever water fountain they chose, eat in restaurants, and date who they wish without expecting to be lynched.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but they can fuck off.

Language is a reflection of culture, much more than a determinate.  It is, in my opinion, sufficient to point out that there are several languages (at least ten) in use today that have a gender-neutral pronoun;  none of them demonstrate fewer signs of oppression of women than those that use the generic “he.”

When the concentration is on language, the issues it can address are trivialities of concern only to a privileged few.

When the concentration is on action, the issues it can address are of vital concern to millions.

My mother was often selected to chair meetings.  The speaker would frequently open with, “Comrade chairman and comrades.” At one point, a feminist berated my mother for allowing herself to be addressed as “chairman” instead of “chairwoman” or “chairperson,” and I can still remember the contempt on my mother’s face–a face that really wasn’t used to showing contempt.  “We’re trying to overthrow capitalism,” she said.  “We don’t have time for nonsense.”

So there is the real question: are you going to work to end the system that breeds–that requires–unfair discrimination among people, so that the oppressed masses will have a chance to escape oppression?  Or will you simply accept that system as permanent and see if you can change a few hearts and minds so that the middle-class can be more comfortable?  Someone who dismisses you as “politically correct” because you do not want to use demeaning terms to describe people, is just being an asshole.  But someone who uses the term for cases where ideas are seen as more important than human oppression may well be onto something.

 

 

*This was pre-internet, remember, so conversations were sometimes face-to-face.  I mean, both of you in the same room at the same time.  You’ll have to just take my word that this used to happen, and wasn’t even considered that odd.  I could probably find evidence to support my assertion, but I’m too lazy to look it up right now.

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

116 Comments

  1. Particularly good are your points about there being black police, mayors, and now a president and “it made exactly zero difference”. Indeed – all of these characters are in their places precisely to *uphold* the system at the root of the oppression experienced by the greater population, regardless of color. Changing the color or gender of the hand holding the truncheon does not change the fact of the truncheon.

    This is something to remember when Hillary runs. (Two words, just in case anyone reading thinks a “woman might be nicer”: Margaret Thatcher.)

  2. Very interesting Steve. May I edit out the F-word and share it with a teacher friend of mine to use with students? With attribution etc. of course.

  3. Rachael: Yes, by all means.

    Christie: “Changing the color or gender of the hand holding the truncheon does not change the fact of the truncheon.”

    I want to have your baby.

  4. This is a difficult one, and the fact that I am on the other side of the pond may be relevant; the only people who I have heard or read using this have been right wingers using it as a term of abuse and a means of undermining any attempt to extend human rights to human beings.

    Thus, a relatively anodyne example:

    ‘unemployed people are unemployed because they are stupid and lazy but I’m not supposed to say that because it isn’t politically correct’

    On this side of the pond I don’t think this was ever a term used by anyone to the left of Ghengis Khan; obviously it has different connotations to you…

  5. skzb

    Stevie: Yes, I have certainly heard that use as well. I just think to myself, “hanging from the lamppost” and try not to let it bother me too much.

  6. “Language is a reflection of culture, much more than a determinate.”

    Yes. Language can deeply influence people’s thinking, but when it gives them bad results they try to change their language to fit their needs.

    Benjamin Whorf was an insurance inspector. He found repeated cases where people were less careful with things like gasoline drums full of gasoline vapor, because they thought the drums were “empty”. But this was a mistake that the same person never made twice, after seeing the explosion.

    The big problem I have with the PC approach is that it nakedly tries to force people to change their language, and they object.

    “Today US soldiers killed a couple of Iraqi kids who were filling in a hole.”
    “You can’t say that. Our noble soldiers neutralized Anti-Iraq-Forces who were planting IEDs.”
    “They were kids.”
    “No. Our soldiers are Friends Of Iraq. FOI. Everyone who attacks them are Enemies Of Iraq. EOI. Anybody in Iraq who fills in a hole without our permission is planting an IED and is an EOI and deserves to be shot on sight.”

    It’s double-think a whole lot like Orwell described. When they insist that the Iraqis must be called Enemies Of Iraq while the invading soldiers are Friends Of Iraq that makes it hard to say true things without sounding really weird.

    But people don’t accept double-think unless they agree, or they’re too intimidated not to, or they just plain are not paying attention. People who disagree see it as cultural imperialism. They see it as an attempt to silence them completely. Unless they have recently lost a war and unconditionally surrendered, they will probably not put up with that.

  7. I read this with interest, Steve, in part because we are coming at this from divergent perspectives. You wrote:

    “In a way, of course, this all takes place in the realm of ideas. But there is a non-trivial difference between, “Let’s fight to make sure that everyone, regardless of age, has a decent standard of living,” and, “stop using language that implies some age is better than another.” These battles will produce different results. Are they mutually exclusive? In theory, no. In practice, they seem to be. Those who concentrate on language appear to have accepted the fundamental characteristics of society as given and are working to make certain adjustments within it.”

    In an essay I wrote called “The Angel/Retard Dialectic” (CNN changed the title), http://www.cnn.com/2012/11/16/opinion/perry-down-syndrome, I wrote:

    “Symbols, labels and representations — in media, literature and our daily conversations — shape reality. The words “retard” and “angel” represent images that dehumanize and disempower. Both words connote two-dimensional, simple or limited people. Neither angels nor retards can live in the world with the rest of us, except as pets, charity cases or abstract sources of inspiration.”

    My concern was not the pejorative speech, but the equally complicated positive speech. Smarter people than I have labelled it “inspiration porn” (http://www.care2.com/causes/the-dangers-of-inspiration-porn-the-case-of-oscar-pistorius-a-great-athlete.html, for example), which I think is a great phrase.

    So I am wondering if we are in opposition, or if there’s a both/and here to find (I’ve been reading Catholic philosophers a lot lately, and they, especially Chesterton, are obsessed with both/and solutions).

    For me, language drives representation, and representation is a kind of action. When people in a marginalized group control their representation, this is part of the pathway to reshaping power dynamics. Surely it’s not everything, but doesn’t it matter? Doesn’t it matter a lot?

    Here’s a small case: I am trying to convince people at my university to hire more people with disabilities (I am actually trying to create a complex job+job coach system, using students as much as possible for the latter). One step of the process involves convincing people that hiring someone with Down syndrome, or autism, or cerebal palsey, or some other diagnosis, is not going to destroy their precious work-flow. Shifting language, shifting ideas, helps me achieve that goal. in my experience, it’s definitely both/and.

    Marx was of several minds about this, as I understand his approach. When he writes, “It’s not consciousness that determines life, but rather life that determines consciousness,” he seems to be taking your position. Change the conditions of life, and then ideas will follow. But Marx also suggests that before you can change the conditions of life, you have to awaken people either to (depending on where and who you read), their “true” consciousness (I’m skeptical here) or at least to a state of heightened understanding of how the dominant ideology shapes their consciousness. Then, the newly aware person can start to act. Isn’t that process fundamentally linked to symbols and ideas?

    Long comment, sorry. Just on my mind a lot lately.

  8. skzb

    ProfessorPerry: Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Right now I’m incredibly pissed off about something unrelated and I am, quite frankly, hoping that answering you will settle me down a bit. If instead I am incoherent, I apologize.

    Concerning Marx, it is not, I think, that difficult. Yes, life determines consciousness. But at certain moments, consciousness of the masses can become a key element in life. The fight to increase the understanding within the working class of its historic mission revolves around the idea that in a revolutionary crisis, the greater the consciousness of the masses–that is, the more clear they are on exactly what they are doing and why–the greater the chance of the success of the revolution. This has, I believe, little to do with believing that words, symbols, and ideas are what shape life. Is the distinction clear, or have I just muddled it more?

    You say, “Symbols, labels and representations — in media, literature and our daily conversations — shape reality”

    Here is where we differ. I believe that ideas are reflections of reality, rather than reality being a reflection of ideas. To put it in practical terms, first we achieve a society in which all human beings have what they need for healthy and fulfilling lives; then (gradually) ideas and language will catch up. Obviously, that isn’t an absolute; there are times for going to war over the use of a term. Anyone fighting to lead the working class had better not be using racist language, for example. But; I think those times are relatively rare.

    There is a thing I have noticed: it is very rarely the person in the marginalized group who is upset about word choice. Two stories:

    I once went to a psych ward to visit a friend along with Nate, who brought his guitar. He played his song that made joking references to psychological conditions–if you’re the Professor Perry I think you are, you know which one. The point is, every single patient in that ward was laughing and having a wonderful time listening to the song; and every single one of the staff was frowning and looking profoundly uncomfortable.

    There is another case where, in a large restaurant kitchen, an employee was taken to task by management for bringing in a rap song that could have been interpreted as having racist lyrics. Management thought bringing the song in was “insensitive.” There was a meeting, and a discussion, and none of the black employees had trouble with the song. And then one of them said, “Hey, if you want to do something about racism, why are all the cooks white and all the dishwashers black?”

    To me, these two stories capture something important: those who are fighting the real battles don’t have time for the cosmetic ones.

  9. “For me, language drives representation, and representation is a kind of action. When people in a marginalized group control their representation, this is part of the pathway to reshaping power dynamics. Surely it’s not everything, but doesn’t it matter? Doesn’t it matter a lot?”

    I figure if you can inspire people to a new idea, and with the new idea they change their language, that’s just fine. Their language reflects their understanding. You have gotten across an idea that got them to change their language, and the change in language tells you that they probably are running with the new idea.

    If you try to make people talk your way, when they aren’t inspired to, it is very unlikely to change their thinking. Instead it becomes hard for them to communicate honestly with you. They resent it. They resent you.

    Sometimes for low-status groups, this seems like power. Before, lots of people weren’t the least bit afraid to insult them. Now they can tell people what language to use around them and people cater to their choices. It is in fact a sign they have some power. There are people who are willing to try not to insult them. It is a symbol that they have some power. It is not very much power in itself.

    So anyway, I say that if you can inspire people to use language like you do, that can help them pick up ideas like yours. And conversely if you can inspire them to pick up new ideas their language is likely to change as a result. This is all good. But if you try to constrain their language, make them talk like you when they don’t want to, it will probably backfire.

  10. I am the Professor (David) Perry you think I am. It’s just my wordpress login. I once experimented using wordpress in a classroom, so needed to be defined as such and I’m too lazy to create another one. (Also the experiment failed. I now use facebook).

    Being pissed off at capitalism (I saw your earlier tweet) seems rational. Hope an abstract conversation helped.

    Here’s a person with Down syndrome talking about language: http://specialolympicsblog.wordpress.com/2012/10/23/an-open-letter-to-ann-coulter/. I suspect I could find thousands of examples from the world of feminism and the “don’t call me baby” genre, and then move into race and sexuality without much trouble. I shall not, at this time. I basically think the evidence on whether the less powerful advocate for themselves in terms of language is mixed.

    It’s true that I am much more concerned about the words used around my son than my son is. But he’s six and has some pretty significant speech issues. So who else is going to do it?

    More importantly, I think we can argue in given circumstances about whether it makes more sense to concentrate our efforts on language or on underlying conditions, and in the abstract, I absolutely agree with you. But we don’t live in the abstract. So here’s where I disagree. You write:

    “To put it in practical terms, first we achieve a society in which all human beings have what they need for healthy and fulfilling lives; then (gradually) ideas and language will catch up.”

    To me, this is entirely impactical. The practical approach, for me, is to identify points that can be changed, and then change them, and try to push the impact of small changes outward. When you seize control of discourse, which is possible, you then do start to influence ideas, and actions, and gradually achieve a society in which the underlying conditions match the discourse. I guess I just don’t know how to make a society that is just without thousands (or some suitably larger or smaller number) of discrete acts.

    You’re right, those fighting the real battles don’t have time for cosmetic ones. I’m just arguing that the core issues of representation, which is what political correctness speaks to, are not necessarily cosmetic.

  11. wow. well written and thought provoking. now that the cat is thoroughly waxed, get back to writing Hawk. please.

  12. I think it’s worth noting that there can be variations in what kind of “language policing” is at issue/occurring “the R-word” as that letter puts it, for instance, is used in explicitly derogatory fashion, and, as the author writes, is attempting to link someone to another group, using said group’s association as an intrinsic insult.

    In the first longtime job I had, I worked in a book store, and was once “tag teamed” by a (white) couple insisting that placing Dreams from My Father in “African American Studies” was racist–and leveling the accusation at me (and another employee, separately, but simultaneously) directly. Of course, it was a corporate bookstore (the now-deceased Borders), so we had no part in it, and I hadn’t read the book myself, but I could swear I always heard it was about racial experience in large part, so that didn’t seem strange to me (I was told that no, it was not about that, but when I relayed this story, I had it reaffirmed that, yes, actually, it is–I have no idea, I still haven’t read it). White coworkers and customers would question the “African American Fiction” section, then black customers would come in and ask for it without batting an eye (ie, to find and read/purchase books from it, not to further condemn it’s label or existence).

    I worked in a Wal-Mart not long after, and was now in one of the “bad” (ie, non-white) parts of town. I made efforts to neither mimic nor “correct” anyone’s speech, and now that I was not largely surrounded by white (middle class and up) people as customers OR coworkers, there was less interest in policing language. There was not just no time, but no interest, and you could tell that it would not earn Mr. Brust’s mother’s contempt so much as bewilderment.

    I do think there are exceptions, though, for instances such as the above letter that I referred to that Prof. Perry posted previously. It’s just such a different usage, and such a different approach. But I’ve heard a slew of different reactions from people within an allegedly harmed (alleged as a result of the varying reactions–some perceive no harm) group. Some rejecting the word, some embracing it, some uncomfortable, some uninterested.

    And, of course, sometimes forgotten or semi-forgotten etymologies are called into play to prove a word long since divorced of its origins is “actually” ___ist, and so we should stop using it. Amusingly, sometimes these stories are false–eg, “call a spade a spade.”

  13. I perceive language as being much, much stronger than you do. I can see why you’re measuring its effect the way you are, though, and I wonder if it seems to you to be ineffectual compared to action because you are measuring them both on, for lack of a better term, the “action plane.” By which I mean that you are holding language up to action’s standard, when in fact they work in very different ways, and on very different timelines. Language has a subtle, long-term (VERY long-term, I think) influence that paves the way for comparatively sudden bursts of action. The big changes you describe are possible, in my view, because of decades of linguistic (and hence ideological) shift that preceded them.

    Language is yak-shaving that makes large scale action and change possible. It seems the action is the big generator of change because it takes place in an immediately gratifying way that we can see and point at, but that disregards all the nuance that went into creating a landscape where that action was even a conceivable option.

    None of which means I disagree with you about the clumsy attempts to control linguistic shifts that are most commonly referred to as “political correctness.” These are another example of people trying to use language as action rather than using language as language, and thus they are both kind of ineffective and – to me at least – distastefully ham-handed. Evolution is slow because it has to be, or that frog will jump right out of the pan.

  14. Prof. Perry, I have to admit that using John Franklin Stephens is tricky, because his father writes his letters for him: “That is why I love being a Global Messenger. I work for days telling my dad what I want to talk about and he tries to write it down for me. Then we do it over and over until we have something that says what I mean. We wrote this letter the same way.”

    Which means what we may be seeing is not what the son thinks, but what the son agrees to in order to make his father happy. Some parents love to use their children as the vehicles for their thought, and it seems dishonest to me, whether the parent is a believer in Scientology or the endless chase for words that cannot carry insult.

    Because a simple fact remains: whenever a new word appears for a denigrated group, if life does not change for the group, the new word becomes the new insult, and an even newer word must be found. As the history of “retard” shows. It was the polite term around 1890, but started being seen as insulting by 1960.

  15. skzb

    ProfPerry: If I understand you correctly, you believe a transformation of society such as I describe to be impractical. I believe that it is impractical to think that capitalism can sustain itself, and that any recourse except such a transformation is possible. My inclination is to leave it there. But I just want to make one more point.

    Jenna: “I perceive language as being much, much stronger than you do.” All right, I can respect that. “The big changes you describe are possible, in my view, because of decades of linguistic (and hence ideological) shift that preceded them.” I honestly do not believe an examination of history will bear this out. Just to pick one example because it’s easy to find without extensive research: It took the bloodshed, conflict, and heartache of the American Civil War to turn the United States into a singular from a plural–from saying, “The United States are a Republic,” to, “The United States is a Republic.” The Civil War was a revolution (that is, control of the government passed from one ruling class to another through conscious intervention of the masses). Revolutions cause a shift in language. Shifts in language do not cause revolution.

  16. Will:

    Stephens does speak for himself verbally, and I’ve heard other self-advocates, but you’re right, it’s definitely more complicated, and an issue I think about all the time as the father of my son. Language is slippery,

    But still, I’m the child of a second-wave feminist deeply engaged in the organizational battles of the time, someone who was discriminated against in the workplace, and yet still had time to fight against being called “honey.” It was both/and for her, though as an atheist Jew, child of communists, she’d probably reject being linked to Chesterton.

    At any rate, I believe that control over discourse and representation are significant components of the fight against injustice, and that there is ample contemporary and historical evidence to support that contention. That makes it not about a single word, which as you note can be so slippery, but about something bigger.

    Thanks to all for the stimulating conversation, and to Steve for starting it off.

  17. “The big changes you describe are possible, in my view, because of decades of linguistic (and hence ideological) shift that preceded them.”

    ‘I honestly do not believe an examination of history will bear this out. Just to pick one example because it’s easy to find without extensive research: It is took the bloodshed, conflict, and heartache of the American Civil War to turn the United States into a singular from a plural–from saying, “The United States are a Republic,” to, “The United States is a Republic.” The Civil War was a revolution (that is, control of the government passed from one ruling class to another through conscious intervention of the masses). Revolutions cause a shift in language. Shifts in language do not cause revolution.’

    I don’t think this example makes it clear. We got a war partly because a whole lot of Yankees were ready for one. And what made them ready was decades of propaganda that convinced them that slaves were not simple primitive souls who needed kind masters to take care of them, but full human beings who deserved to be free. That Southern masters were not kind caregivers who took care of their charges who were like their children, but brutal capitalists who wrung as much labor as they could out of people who had no recourse at all. Etc.

    But I agree about the specific phrase you used. Before the war we had the South which was fairly unified in their belief in States Rights. They obstructed the Federal government in everything they thought went against their interests. They made it be true that the USA were a republic, by preventing any hint of unification. While they were unable to obstruct, the USA was a republic. Meanwhile the Confederacy were a republic which accepted so much state’s rights that they obstructed the war effort. Not that they could have won if they had worked together better, but….

    It would not have changed anything to browbeat people into using one verbal construction or the other.

    And yet the idea that US blacks were fully human and deserved their own nation in Africa where they could be free, was a powerful one and the war might have been delayed if that idea had not spread so widely.

  18. Prof: “I believe that control over discourse and representation are significant components of the fight against injustice, and that there is ample contemporary and historical evidence to support that contention.”

    I dunno. Among the many things I love about the suffragists is that when they were mocked as “suffragettes”, instead of quibbling about the word, they embraced it and kept working.

    Jenna: “I perceive language as being much, much stronger than you do.”

    This may be the heart of the problem. Identitarians talk about validating subjectivity, which means the conversation stops at what they perceive. Is there any evidence for the notion that language shapes reality? I’ve done a little googling and found nothing convincing so far. (And I say that sadly, as Babel-17 was once my favorite book–though I’m sure I’d still love it, for all that Sapir-Whorf has been superseded.)

  19. skzb

    Will: “Identitarians talk about validating subjectivity” Wait, do they really? I mean, openly? I had thought the whole challenge was to expose that that was they were doing. Good grief, am I ever behind the times! Well, if true, that certainly makes it simpler to express my disagreement with them.

  20. Yup. See Bell Hooks’ “Black Identity: Liberating Subjectivity”. Subjectivity is very much a Critical Race Theory thing, which boils down to “We don’t need no stinkin’ facts.”

    Also, “The Gift of Identity: Embracing Subjectivity”, a section of a CRT piece by Charles R. Lawrence III that’s in Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement.

    I haven’t researched this a lot, because it makes me craugh (an attempt at merging “cry and laugh” that I will never use again, I vow).

    They’ve also got an obsession with “narrative”, which means making up stories that reinforce their points. Derrick Bell’s “Space Traders” is the most famous example, but I can’t discuss it, because his lack of storytelling chops hurt me so badly I couldn’t finish it.

  21. Will: You write, “I dunno. Among the many things I love about the suffragists is that when they were mocked as “suffragettes”, instead of quibbling about the word, they embraced it and kept working.”

    Embracing a derogatory word is a form of taking control of representation, isn’t it?

  22. “Identitarians talk about validating subjectivity, which means the conversation stops at what they perceive. Is there any evidence for the notion that language shapes reality? I’ve done a little googling and found nothing convincing so far.”

    Language has a strong interaction with perception of reality. When people recognize specific ways that it leads them astray then they want to change their language.

    The interaction goes in both directions. People are influenced by the language patterns they get taught, and the way they use language also reflects their observation of reality.

    “(And I say that sadly, as Babel-17 was once my favorite book–though I’m sure I’d still love it, for all that Sapir-Whorf has been superseded.)”

    Babel-17 supposed that a *better* language would help people think better. An artificial language let people think faster because it was so compact, and also it incorporated geometric concepts that let them solve orbital problems and 3D tactical problems faster and better.

    I think it’s possible that the speed of human languages might get set partly to fit the speed that we are ready to think, so that a faster language might not actually be useful. But science/math specialties do incorporate useful ideas into their specialized language which let them handle particular ideas faster. The trouble is, it isn’t enough to learn the buzz words. You have to understand them too.

    So for example, people who design evolutionary algorithms face the problem that whenever you improve an algorithm for one class of problems, you make it worse for some other class. Since you are doing things that affect which solutions in the solution space you check first, for any algorithm it’s possible to design problems that it will do poorly on. So it’s always a question of matching the algorithms to the problems they are likely to be useful for, and switching algorithms at the right time. But the more overhead you put into deciding when to switch algorithms, the fewer resources you have left to actually run the algorithms. So when people get into a complicated snarl where they are doing things that are self-defeating in these sorts of ways, just saying “no free lunch” can sometimes help. But the phrase is useless unless they already have the concepts that it reminds them of.

    Each community develops its own jargon for its shared experiences. The jargon is not necessarily true. In economics you can say “pareto efficiency” or “comparative advantage” and say a whole lot with a few words, but it might turn out to be a whole lot of garbage in a few words. Still, they do it.

  23. professorperry, indeed. But it’s the opposite of what gets called “P.C.”, which is all about policing words. If the suffragists had followed the modern model, they would’ve focused on how demeaning “suffragette” is and spent the majority of their time explaining why no one should ever, ever say it.

    I’ve been thinking about “classism” again. When I first heard the word, I didn’t like it because it seemed unnecessary: phrases like class bigotry and class prejudice already exist.

    Then I decided that I did like it. It was short, and (I thought) it compared class oppression to race oppression.

    But then I started noticing how it was used. The people who use it seem to think that if everyone treats the working class respectfully, the world will be just fine. And it makes sense that they think that—the people who use the word tend to be near the top of the economic pyramid.

    And when I noticed that, I noticed that the same people who redefine racism as “power + prejudice” do not define classism that way. Probably because if they did, they would realize that definition fits “classism” better than it fits “racism”.

  24. Yeah, I think there’s some conflation of issues going on here, and both Steve and Jenna are largely right. I don’t think changes in language lead to action; I think changes in narrative lead to action. (I don’t know how Critical Race Theory uses or abuses this term, Will, and don’t care to. I will go on using it for what it actually means. Fucks given: zero.) J Thomas makes this point about the Civil War; it was the new stories that people were participating in that made it possible. Language policing doesn’t change narrative, but it might be part of the groundwork for changing it.

    In Real Motherfucking Talk terms, as long as somebody has the word “nigger”, their story about black people is not going to change. However, taking away the word “nigger” is not going to change their story about black people. A lot more has to happen.

    Steve, you said: “To put it in practical terms, first we achieve a society in which all human beings have what they need for healthy and fulfilling lives; then (gradually) ideas and language will catch up.” Well, see, the thing is, we aren’t doing that, as a society. We are in many ways doing the opposite. So in order to start doing that first thing, we need people to work on it, and the only thing that has ever impelled that or will ever do so is the right story. Which is, hey, created through the use of language.

    Not, though, the policing of it, I don’t think. And I think in a lot of what you’re saying you’re basically illustrating that the current dominant purpose of language policing is to let comfortable white people participate in the story that their job in society is over as long as they remember not to use the wrong words. Which I think is the case.

    I blame Christianity for teaching people that being a good person is a question of obedience to static doctrine.

  25. skzb

    ChaosPrime: “Well, see, the thing is, we aren’t doing that, as a society. We are in many ways doing the opposite. So in order to start doing that first thing, we need people to work on it, and the only thing that has ever impelled that or will ever do so is the right story.”

    I must respectfully disagree with you there. Yes, it is possible to take the fundamental issues of the English Civil War (control to benefit by the emerging capitalist class, or by the monarchical landlords) or the French Revolution (see above) or the American Revolution (domination by a foreign monarchical system) and the American Civil War (control to benefit the slave power, or the capitalists) or the Russian Civil War (government in the interests of the capitalists, or in the interests of the working class) and reduce those to “the right story.” I beg to submit that you cannot do that without either bending them out of shape, or trivializing them. I think trivializing revolution is not going to help with an understanding of human history.

    If you are saying that revolutions are made because the masses accept a certain story, again, I must differ. Revolutions are made when the masses exercise conscious control of their own destiny. That word “conscious” is key. To you, perhaps, it means accepting a given story, or narrative; to me it means a leap in understanding of objective truth.

    A key element in identity politics, and in what is called “Political Correctness” is a denial of objective truth. I think not only is there such a thing, but that anyone concerned with changing the world is obligated to strive to understand it. There is an implication, you see, in “narrative” or “story” that what is key is how we choose to explain the world. I believe what is key is how the world actually is, and that we should try as hard as possible to make that truth our explanation. So I do not speak of story or narrative; I speak of objective truth and scientifically approaching facts to determine, as well as possible, what that truth is.

    There is considerable confusion in this discussion (as well as considerable disagreement based on mutual understanding and actual difference). Probably the confusion is my fault. Let me try it again.

    Yes, indeed, changing ideas, changing the consciousness of masses of people, is very, very important. But A) I think the way language is involved in tthat is by using precise language to make fine distinctions to increase understanding, not convincing people to speak differently to advance an agenda. B) There is a fundamental difference between using language to reveal objective truth as precisely as possible in preparation for seizing power and transforming society, and using language as a substitute for organizing and preparing for the seizure of power. One directs efforts to the destruction of capitalism; the other assumes its permanence by trying to make what are, in the end, cosmetic changes.

    I’ll repeat what I said in my original post: There are at least ten cultures in which the primary language has a non-sex-specific pronoun. Can anyone demonstrate any way in which those cultures display less oppression of women than cultures that use the generic “he”?

  26. Here’s a fine example of narrative and subjectivity by Ta-Nehisi Coates:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/07/opinion/coates-the-good-racist-people.html?smid=pl-share

    It might be meaningful if no white people had ever been wrongfully searched for shoplifting.

    Liberals love Coates. That’s his job: to be loved by liberals of all hues. This isn’t to knock his writing. I gather he’s working on a novel about the Civil War, and I hope it’ll be great, because it could be great. It’s just to observe that his job for identitarians is no different than the priest’s, to trouble them a little in ways that are ultimately comforting.

  27. I have always preferred the words “prejudiced” or “bigoted” over any “ist” that one could supply. Mainly because I have found through the years that those that are prejudiced or bigoted are guilty of more than one “ist”, and it is easier to just say, “He is a bigot” or “She is prejudiced”, rather than explain all of the ists and isms that the person being discussed happens to exemplify.

    On the other hand, I dislike “racist” and racism” above most other ists and isms.I think that is because that such terms have been applied to or retracted from me based upon my love-life.

    “Oh, you must be anti-racist, as you have dated outside of your race.”

    “Ummm, actually, I have only dated humans, so I have dated exclusively WITHIN my race. Although I keep waiting for Klingons to land.”

    “You think you aren’t racist, but do you date outside of your race?”

    “Ummm, actually, I have only dated humans, so I have dated exclusively WITHIN my race. Although I keep waiting for Klingons to land.”

    When I analyze language, I know that “ists” and “isms” are a linguistical way of making groups, and it adds to division in the mind. That is if I analyze it. In my day-to-day speech patterns, however, the names of groups, whether “istic” or not, don’t actually occur to me because I don’t divide people into groups. They are just people most of the time unless an identifier is needed to clarify a subject. Even then, the identifier is likely to be national rather than ethnic.

    About three years ago, when discussing the dropping off of some equipment, my boss told me of a rendezvous point and said, “Just look for the large, black man on top of the truck adjusting cameras.”

    At my genuinely confused expression, he added, “What, you thought that because I am management, I don’t do field work?”

    I replied, “Ummm, no, it just hadn’t occurred to my mind until now that you are black.”

    It wasn’t that I was confusing him with some other ethnic group due to physical characteristics….it is just that I don’t think that way.

    It is not that I don’t divide humans into groups, per se….I am more likely to strike up a conversation about livestock with someone dressed in overalls than I am with someone dressed in slacks and a tie. I am also more likely to get into a discussion about computers with someone that has a pocket-protector than with someone wearing club clothes. Of course, I am using identifiers with all of these people, and the person wearing overalls may be a computer whiz, and the person wearing club clothes may work with cattle every day….but there is the general chance that the image they have *chosen* to present reflects their actual interests and lifestyle.

    And even with a general assumption, I am flexible in my views. I know that people are multifaceted beings. Which is why, when I was in a terrible neighborhood, and came across a youth practicing basketball and ended up striking up a conversation, I was perfectly happy to learn that he was going to college on a basketball scholarship, and his true interest lay in biological sciences.

    “Ageism”, “sexism”, and various other “isms”, I believe, contributes to an “us and them” mentality, which is at the heart of division.

    Then again, all of the identifiers that the anti-ism crowds are trying to abolish are dividers as well. So you have a lose-lose situation.

    In that, I would have to chose to err on the side of those who wish the kinder, gentler identifiers. But that is just me.

  28. My pal Doselle says he puts all the isms under stupidism, which I like beaucoup. My biggest complaint with identitarians is they build their theories on the foundations made by racists and sexists and other stupidists. Never let the enemy choose the battleground.

    Identitarians say a statement like that shows white male privilege–which, in their terminology, erases one hell of a lot of folks who aren’t white or male.

  29. Steve

    According to Bill Lind ‘Political Correctness is cultural Marxism’.

    I have hitherto been happily clueless as to his existence, but that’s what you get for googling the origins of the phrase.

    Fortunately he’s on your side of the pond…

  30. skzb

    Stevie: You can have him. We’ll send him to you. No, no. Don’t thank me.

    “Cultural Marxism.” Pfui.

  31. Wikipedia’s current take jibes with my memory (and Steve’s): “By 1970, New Left proponents had adopted the term political correctness.[1] In the essay The Black Woman, Toni Cade Bambara says: “. . . a man cannot be politically correct and a [male] chauvinist too.” The New Left later re-appropriated the term political correctness as satirical self-criticism; per Debra Shultz: “Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the New Left, feminists, and progressives . . . used their term politically correct ironically, as a guard against their own orthodoxy in social change efforts”.[1][2][7] Hence, it is a popular English usage in the underground comic book Merton of the Movement, by Bobby London, while ideologically sound, an alternative term, followed a like lexical path, appearing in Bart Dickon’s satirical comic strips.[1][8] Moreover, Ellen Willis says: ” . . . in the early ’80s, when feminists used the term political correctness, it was used to refer sarcastically to the anti-pornography movement’s efforts to define a ‘feminist sexuality’ “.[9]”

    Now I’m trying to decide what “cultural Marxism” is. Reading Shakespeare in the parlor with your family? That was part of Marx’s culture. Fortunately, I haven’t heard of Bill Lind either, and see no reason to end my ignorance

  32. Skzb: You wrote: A) I think the way language is involved in tthat is by using precise language to make fine distinctions to increase understanding, not convincing people to speak differently to advance an agenda. B) There is a fundamental difference between using language to reveal objective truth as precisely as possible in preparation for seizing power and transforming society, and using language as a substitute for organizing and preparing for the seizure of power.

    I think this is well said, although I don’t agree with all of it. There is an objective difference between “your son is a mongoloid idiot” and “your son is a person with Down syndrome.” The latter is closer to truth because he is, in fact, a person. The consequences of his personhood, fully agreed upon by all, shift perceptions, opportunities, reactions, and so much more. But it’s not that the language changes reality, it’s that the language embraces the always present reality.

    That said, when mongoloid idiots were routinely institutionalized, they lived short lives, they developed very little, rarely developing close inter-personal relationships, let alone speech, math, reading, and complex forms of self-advocacy. People assumed that such a limited condition was part of the world of mongoloid idiots. Little did they realize (and in much of the world nothing has changed) that the limiting factor was not the extra chromosome, but the institution. Move the child into a loving home, and suddenly capacity transformed beyond our wildest dreams (at the time. Our dreams are pretty wild these days).

    But for me, part of the mechanism of achieving this shift in possibility involves representation and discourse, speech, language, the r-word, and the use of shame if necessary to shift these levers. Is that political correctness? Is that a substitute for organizing?

    I know I am talking about my son and you are talking about something bigger, but I can’t help but feeling that the both/and solution remains. I feel like you have constructed a straw man, the person who argues only about language, and you’ve knocked him down.

    Have you read Pinker, “The Language Instinct?” He’s on your side, I think.

  33. Will

    I suspect that one of the reasons I am sceptical of so many of your claims is because I know a lot more capitalists than you do; I have lived in the City of London for over 30 years. It simply goes with the territory, and the job.

    Lets face it, when a guy stumbled into my room just off the red eye to argue about how much money I was going to remove, he was not a member of the masses, since the masses can’t afford the red eye; he was a genuine bona fide capitalist, doing what genuine bona fide capitalists do.

    And they would all laugh themselves silly about your ‘never let the enemy choose the battleground’ line because it was de riguer in the trading rooms to have one or more of the seminal military texts on their desks; Von Clausitz ‘On War’, Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War, and, for the adventurous, Machievalli They actual read them as well..

  34. “If you are saying that revolutions are made because the masses accept a certain story, again, I must differ. Revolutions are made when the masses exercise conscious control of their own destiny. That word “conscious” is key. To you, perhaps, it means accepting a given story, or narrative; to me it means a leap in understanding of objective truth.”

    I think I understand what you are saying enough to kind of agree with it. When a whole lot of people accept a story and *give their lives* in the interest of aristocratic landlords or emerging capitalists, or in the interest of slave-owning capitalists or wage-slave-renting capitalists, or to decide whether they will be controlled by capitalists versus apparatchiks, in a way it isn’t real revolution. Sure, there’s a lot of destruction and a lot of deaths, and afterward maybe they get a new set of masters, but so what?

    It’s a real revolution when the masses consciously choose their own destiny, not when they accept some story that favors some new master.

    “A key element in identity politics, and in what is called “Political Correctness” is a denial of objective truth. I think not only is there such a thing, but that anyone concerned with changing the world is obligated to strive to understand it.”

    If you want to make a real difference, then you have the best chance if you actually understand the reality around you. When you believe in stories and dreams that are disconnected from that reality, you are likely to get random results.

    “There is an implication, you see, in “narrative” or “story” that what is key is how we choose to explain the world. I believe what is key is how the world actually is, and that we should try as hard as possible to make that truth our explanation.”

    As an idealist, I agree with this. The better that everybody involved understands how things actually do work (and how they potentially can work), the harder it is to fool them. They might say to some small group “Yes, you can have disproportionate wealth because you want it and you are willing to cause disproportionate destruction if you don’t get it. But we are not fooled.”

    They might say to some other group “Yes, you can have disproportionate influence because you want it and you can cause a lot of trouble, but you don’t get to be masters. We are not fooled.”

    Collectively we are all better off, the better we all understand what’s going on.

    However, as a practical matter, it’s very hard to get many people to understand much. They want to go off and understand their own things. And it’s hard to prove stuff. If you have the truth but you can’t prove it, a lot of people will prefer to believe in random conspiracy theories. They will prefer to believe whatever story they like best.

    So if you want to have a revolution in your lifetime, the obvious choice is to understand things as well as you can yourself. And then you find the best story that people will believe, to base your revolution around. During and after the revolution you can hope that you will be in control because you understand the reality better than anybody else, and that edge will let you ride the tiger and direct it toward what you think is good. Meanwhile the masses of people that you have fooled will unwittingly do good because you are manipulating them into doing good despite themselves. If you wait until people understand as well as you do, the revolution will come sometime in the distant future. But if you tell the right stories you can have it this generation.

    I disapprove of that approach. If you think you have to lie to people to motivate them, down the road you may have to do great evils to stay in power. You can tell yourself that anybody else would have done even worse, and that after you have won you can do great things to make up for it. But it just might turn out that you are worse than useless, that your revolution causes great suffering and no good, and you should have told the truth and waited.

  35. skzb

    I have read Pinker, and I’m ashamed to admit, I can’t remember anything about it. In any case, and I say this without any rancor, I can’t engage on this once it becomes personal. Can you accept that I still disagree with you on many points, and leave it at that?

  36. Of course. I didn’t mean it to become personal, though. Sorry. I don’t see how my experience is any more personal than your own deeply held convictions, but it’s your blog and I won’t bother you again. An experiment to try and have a conversation here that, I guess, failed. Be well.

  37. Digression for Stevie:

    Heh, I always think it’s funny when I see Sun Tzu or Musashi on an executive’s shelf, much less Machiavelli or Clausewitz, which I’ve never actually seen on anyone else’s shelf at all. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all interesting books and there’s nothing wrong with executives expanding their horizons, I just tend to doubt that’s why they’re mostly there.

    There is so little relevance in those books for executive decision-making and for conducting business that for the most part it’s mere faddish ostentation for them to be in an office bookshelf at all. I think the business fad for those books actually started as long ago as the late 70s and early 80s when everyone was still impressed with the Japanese system and wanted to magically absorb some far-eastern cartel wisdom that way or at least seem as if they had done. Can you seriously imagine an MBA somehow applying the Book of the Void to his next marketing meeting or a COO somehow translating Clausewitz’s thoughts on 19th century siege engineering into some kind of notions useful for upcoming M&A due diligence…. They might as well read regency romance for the same reason; and actually, regency romance is probably a lot more applicable to business than Sun Tzu anyway.

  38. profesorperry, I prob’ly should’ve said at the beginning that people who object to word policing are not automatically arguing for the right to be rude. Just an hour ago, I quoted Malcolm X to someone who was complaining about people who object to an angry tone: “Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.”

    Most things in life depend on context, which is something word policing denies. Many middle class black folks, for example, get upset when anyone uses “nigger”, which includes the black folks who use it among themselves. (There’s often a great deal of class prejudice in that, but I’ll stop that digression here.) The problem with word policing is, by its nature, it can’t allow for context: either a word is okay or it is not. If “political correctness” was only another word for “politeness”, I would be its greatest champion.

    Stevie, I spent two years at Choate, the prep school JFK graduated from. I know my share of capitalists.

    I must’ve missed what your second paragraph refers to. What guy? What money? And if your only criteria is that he took a red eye, I gotta note that some members of the working class are well-paid, and that many capitalists would pay the money to avoid the red eye.

    I haven’t read Von Clausewitz, but I have read Sun Tzu and Machiavelli. I don’t think either would recommend letting their enemies choose the battlefield. If Lee could’ve chosen the battleground at Gettysburg, we would be having a very different discussion today.

  39. Stevie, a Sun Tzu quote for you: “And therefore those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle and are not brought there by him.”

  40. Steve: Most of your points make sense to me, but I don’t see how you get from “Some people try to change language instead of working for material change” to “Most people who try to change language are doing nothing for material change” (and “Nobody who is working for material change should care about language.”) Since I’m new around here, maybe I’m misinterpreting your tone?

    I agree that changing language doesn’t automatically solve material problems, and I’ve definitely seen people use language policing as a feel-good substitute for actual hard work. I agree that insistence on basic respect (like any good thing) can be pushed too far, because I’ve heard plenty of people do it.

    However, I’ve also seen plenty of people who are demonstrably working for material change and yet still trying to change everyday language, so I can’t buy that those things are mutually exclusive. I’ve heard plenty of people talk about “ableism” etc. in terms of concrete changes, so I have a hard time with your statement that they are objectively and inherently about “bad thoughts”. I don’t see how any one person (or group) gets to have the final say about words loaded with so many different meanings.

    And finally, because I’ve been in way too many online arguments already, let me be preemptively clear on a few things. Just because I dispute your claim that concern about language generally means unconcern about concrete problems, does NOT mean that I’m arguing that language is more important than material reality. It does not mean I assume people who condemn others’ language are automatically right, or that condemnation of anything is all that’s needed. It does not mean I think anyone here is a racist, or completely unconcerned about language, or just arguing for the right to be an asshat. And it certainly does not mean I claim to know all about you just based on your words here. In fact, that’s my point: we can’t really predict what someone is like as a person based on what they say about political correctness. People are too complicated for you or I or anyone to just keyword-sort into a spam folder.

    tl;dr: Yes, some people argue about language as a substitute for practical work. No, that does not mean that language work and material work are mutually exclusive.

  41. Will

    I’m talking about people who could buy you with the contents of the coffee fund.

    And speaking as someone who attended the third oldest girls in England, founded by radical feminists, and was the first ever woman to become the Crown’s representative in the City of London, I got seriously pissed off when people decided that me doing amazingly well was not because women could handle incredibly complicated maths as well as the legal interpretations necessary, but because I have a man’s brain.

    I don’t have a man’s brain; I have my own brain.

    And to be blunt about it, I spent my entire career dealing with capitalists, US included, for very large sums of money, and anyone who thinks that since he spent a couple of years at school with guys like this then he understands them, is simply delusional. I dealt with them when they’d grown up, which is rather trickier, because it wasn’t petty little school squabbles.

    And once there’s a few million in play, with it ratcheting up, then you learn whether you can play hardball or not. Of course the guys I saw had come over first class; it would have been stupid to send them steerage if they were scheduled to meet me. Again, I think you haven’t a clue how capitalists actually behave, nor do you comprehend the way these things are structured. Thanks to the time distance it was the red eye if they wanted to see me, and they had no other choices if they wanted to get back to the US that day…

  42. Stevie, yes, I may be delusional. I tend to be suspicious of anyone who denies the possibility they’re not–only the mad are certain they’re sane. We’re subjective beings. Which is why the best of us constantly strive for objectivity, and acknowledge that our experience may not give us perfect understanding of the world and the people in it.

  43. skzb

    ProfPerry: I don’t think you did or said anything wrong. But I have trouble imagining a circumstance where I’d be comfortable saying to someone, “The way you are dealing with your family is wrong.” I don’t think our conversation could continue without the possibility of that, or something like it, coming up, because we are dealing with political issues that are of vital personal concern to your family. I’d rather just stop before we get close. Is that clear enough?

  44. “And speaking as someone who attended the third oldest girls in England, founded by radical feminists, and was the first ever woman to become the Crown’s representative in the City of London, I got seriously pissed off when people decided that me doing amazingly well was….”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Internet,_nobody_knows_you%27re_a_dog

  45. “I don’t have a man’s brain; I have my own brain.”

    I understand your feelings.

    My grandmother’s generation fought for the right of suffrage. To be politically represented by the the persons of THEIR choice.

    My mother’s generation fought for the right to work. To enter into any industry that they had the skill to do.

    My generation, it seems, still fights for the right to do these things “as a female”.

    It seems that I have been in male-dominated industries all of my life, and in every one of them, the chip on *my* shoulder has been, “Yeah, I am a woman, but what is more, I am PROUD to be a woman. I do not WANT to be a man, and I can dress, act, and BE a woman, a feminine woman, and STILL do the job as well or better than you.”

    As a teenager, I worked on the local ranches herding cattle and what-not. I wore hot pink cowboy hats, feminine shirts, and make-up while working. (I might add that I LOATHE the color pink.)

    Later on, I worked in the computer industry. Again, I dressed ultra-feminine (although never slutty), defying the male idea that “women could not understand electronics or computers”.

    Even later, I was in the construction industry, operating heavy equipment such as 150 ton cranes. My fire-retardant coveralls and hard hats were lavender purple with flowers on them.

    It was a stereotype I was fighting; that stereotype being that if a woman does WELL in a male-dominated profession, then it must be because she is masculine.

    Was I the subject to more prejudice because I did NOT buzz-cut my hair, dress in flannel shirts, or otherwise attempt to put forth a butch image? Oh yes. Very yes. Sometimes that prejudice even came from feminists.

    Did I care? No. The entire idea was to show that I, or any woman who wished to do so, did not have to give up femininity to do a job, just because it made men more comfortable. To be truly free, we must be able to dress, speak and act as suits us (within the limits of the trade or profession itself…I am not advocating the wearing of skirts while operating heavy equipment, or the wearing of high heels if one is a carpenter), whether our individual character feels masculine or feminine to us, without it effecting our career choices or paychecks.

    How may times was I told that I couldn’t do something because I am female? Ye gods, I cannot begin to count them all. How many times did I allow that to stop me if I wanted (or sometimes even if I wasn’t really interested, but DAMMIT! I was told I *couldn’t!) to do them? Not once. Now how many times in so doing did I make SURE, in dress or manner, that NO-ONE would mistake me for being butch or think that I lacked femininity? ~smiles EVER so sweetly~

    Now I am not saying that there are not differences between the sexes….goodness knows that NO amount of training at ANY stage of my life would have caused me to bench press 300lbs. I am not physically capable, as a woman, of doing so, although a male of my height and bone structure, with the proper training, should be able to meet that goal without tremendous difficulty.

    But anything that requires more brain than brawn? Yes, I can learn to do it, and learn to do it well. Not *in spite of* being female, or *because of* being female, but because I am a human of reasonable intelligence and sound body.

    And being a human of reasonable intelligence and sound body is all it takes to excel at most skills in the modern world, not matter how that human is dressed.

  46. SKZB: Well, that’s not my intention. But if we’re talking about the real world, and I can’t have a conversation if I invoke the thing I study, teach, write about, and live with … what’s the point? I haven’t put the time in on issues related to language in most other fields; but in the context of disability, I have. At any rate, I’ve taken some good pieces from both where our ideas converge and from where they diverge. I hope you have as well.

  47. J Thomas

    I’ve been commenting on matters SF etc. under my own name since the days of Usenet and Rec Arts SF Written; I’m Stevie Gamble.

  48. CalianG

    I’m awestruck.

    I don’t think I could have managed the hot pink cowboy hat. I did have a rather fetching tailored black leather dress but that’s not nearly as impressive…

  49. professorperry: I suspect Steve’s trying to avoid the possibility that disagreeing with any of your theoretical model will make you think he doesn’t care about treating people with Down Syndrome well, or that he doesn’t care about your son having a good future, or that he thinks you’re a bad father in some way. We may disagree with “the personal is political”, but the personal is mighty sensitive.

  50. An aside to an aside: Clausewitz presents a mix of incredibly high level abstraction, so high level as almost to be vacuous, with technical details relevant to early 19th century corps engagements.

    For example:

    “The best strategy is always to be very strong, first generally, then at the decisive point.”

    Well, yes, and this is no doubt true about every kind of confrontation, military, personal, and even in business, but it’s not exactly breaking news. You don’t need to struggle through an obsolete book on military strategy to figure out stuff like this; you learn in it the playground at age 6.

    Then later on, he spends a lot of time going into great detail about stuff like cantonments, marches, fortifications, and river crossings in very concrete terms that admit no application outside the scope of large-scale army combat in the Napoleonic era. Valuable material, no doubt, for the military historian or for the tabletop wargamer, but not very helpful to the corporate officer.

    Anyway for a much more interesting and well-written book on military strategy, I’d recommend Liddell Hart’s “Strategy”; but once again, it will be of no great use in the boardroom.

  51. skzb

    Remember that Clausewitz was explicitly not writing a how-to book for military leaders; he was writing for military historians to help them understand and explain military results.

  52. Stevie, it gets worse. My mother has *pictures*. 0_0

  53. This is an excellent post. I wish more people would understand that there is a critique of political correctness/identity politics that is not even remotely reactionary. Sadly the progressive side of the internet seems to be dominated by this kind of postmodernist liberal (i.e. middle-class, pseudo-radical) wishful thinking, in which the obsession with language is more important than material struggles or an internationalist perspective. Ultimately these highly vocal, constantly outraged groups and individuals do little more than reinforce the myths of capitalism and serve the interests of imperialism.

    “We must save Arab women from their patriarchal societies – by bombing them!”

    Or the version we get in Greece: “The real problem in this country is not the utter destruction of living conditions or the rise of the Golden Dawn, it is the violent language of the Left!”

  54. skzb

    Jonas Kyratzes: Sir, you have nailed it. And much more succinctly than I managed.

  55. Stevie, you’ve veered away from discussing how to make the world better and into who has the credentials to have the discussion.

    Historically, the capitalist and elite classes have tried to exclude working class thought and opinion by that very method. Their argument was that a working-class writer didn’t have the right education or experience to have the correct view of the question at hand, so his or her perspective and opinions could be ignored or dismissed.

    In fact, it takes many perspectives to see the truth, not one. The question isn’t which of you is more qualified to observe accurately, you or Will; it’s whether you’ll both continue to observe, to gather facts, to evaluate them scientifically, formulate theories and test them and be willing to speak and act on the data that results.

  56. Emma

    Clearly I have failed to express myself, so I had better try a reboot:

    I believe that there is an objective reality, and that, whilst it is difficult to exclude our subjective biases in seeking to determine that objective reality is, it is necessary to try to do so.

    I also believe that evidence based reasoning is the best way to try to ascertain objective reality, and that we should therefore look for evidence before we adopt a particular hypothesis, not afterwards.

    It is easier to do this in some areas than others; we have tackled the ‘what is science’ bit at some length, and there is at least some consensus on that point.

    One area which utilises science is medicine; most doctors accept that medicine is an art as well as a science and that there are some areas which cannot be explored by experimental science because of, for example, ethical constraints.

    What they do instead is to formulate levels of evidence and score treatments accordingly; gold standard double blind tested research published in the best peer-reviewed journals is top, and a single expert opinion is at the bottom, with intervening levels.

    I suggest that we should adopt the same approach when considering capitalism; I fully accept that everybody is perfectly entitled to their own opinions. The question of whether it is an informed opinion is one which inevitably, in my view, we must ask if we are trying to ascertain objective reality…

  57. Steve and Will: I don’t engage in conversations about complex things because I am worried about being offended. I engage in them because I want to articulate my ideas clearly, see if they stand up, and replace them with better ideas or different ways of expressing them. I’ve been thinking about this all day, wondering whether I could accomplish anything by responding. I hope so.

    I understand if my personal stake makes it challenging to disagree with me, and that wasn’t my intent. But if I’m wrong, don’t I need to know it? I mean, I teach about these things, I engage in advocacy in my local community on both my son’s behalf and in general, last year I wrote an essay that some tens of thousands of people (which may not be much for you magnificent authors, which I say without irony, as I’m a fan – but it’s a LOT for a history professor) read about issues of representation, and I’m working on an even bigger one about the future of humanity and pre-natal testing. Representation is one of my core issues. I believe that changing the representation of people with Down syndrome in American culture is one way, among many, to change the lived experience of my son and people like him and like me. If I’m wrong, I’m wasting my time.

    Moreover – why does my raising Down syndrome raise more issues than, say, a woman raising gender issues? Is it just more visceral? Is the room to offend sharper? I guess I can’t help that, and if that means you don’t think responding will be productive, I’ll accept that and just go away, albeit sadly.

    What bothers me here is the dismissive tone that I see. The construction of a paper tiger progressive, concerned only with language, and unwilling to do any work. I guess I see those people floating around the internet, but dismissing them takes nothing but a light puff of rhetorical wind. So what. The interesting question here, and what has kept me coming back to this thread, is the relationship between language (I’d rather use representation and discourse, but that’s because those terms have more rhetorical weight) and reality. I’ve read every comment in this thread, closely, and seen many interesting things – but the most polemical anti-PC, and hence anti-language (over reality) pieces in this thread are arguing against that paper tiger. Sure, there are lazy people who just correct language rather than work, just as there are people who think it doesn’t matter what words you use in any context. But just as surely, understanding this situation requires engaging complexity, rather than simplicity.

    Finally – I’ve spent much of my life, like many fans, missing social clues and offending people without meaning to. I have an especially bad track record online, where I feel like I’m doing the same thing as everyone else, but somehow I come off as insulting or abrasive or otherwise unwanted. I’m working hard on these issues, so if I come off as strident, or abrasive, or whiny, or anything else unwelcome, I apologize. I’m totally willing to return to my previously silent self and just enjoy reading your fiction.

  58. Stevie, I agree that an opinion should be supported by information. The source of that information may be experience, reading, discussion, or, probably, a ton of other things I’m not thinking of right now. The more sources of information a person brings to his or her opinions, the better-formed those opinions are likely to be, especially if that person is willing to think critically about information whatever the source.

    But if you judge opinions and ideas based on who they come from and what qualifications that person has for having them, you’re not judging the ideas themselves. If I judge your ideas based only on what I know of you from this Internet discussion, I might say, “This is someone who works in the City. Thus, this person is at the heart of the system of capitalism and is probably too close to it to see it clearly, and too much in sympathy with its methods and goals to seriously consider an opposing system.”

    But I don’t judge your ideas by their sources; I can’t possibly know enough about those sources–about you–to make that a valid basis for deciding their value.

    What I’m saying is, I think ideas should be judged for themselves, not by the credentials of the people who have them. And I think when people reduce a discussion of ideas to the checking of credentials, they’re injecting trivia into what might otherwise be a useful conversation.

    Did I express myself more clearly this time?

  59. skzb

    Professor Perry: I don’t know. On the particular issue, I can only say it feels like walking through a mine field. I may be over concerned. Let me think about it for a bit and get back to you. What I am trying to say overall was perfectly and succinctly expressed by Jonas above.

  60. Fair enough (please call me David. I don’t want to change my wordpress login, but I feel like somehow I’m trying to be formal here. I’m not). It probably is a minefield. But it’s not because I’m going to get offended. I have learned to lay myself bare on this issue so that I can get better at articulating my position, and changing my position as I grow.

    In terms of Jonas:

    ““We must save Arab women from their patriarchal societies – by bombing them!”

    Or the version we get in Greece: “The real problem in this country is not the utter destruction of living conditions or the rise of the Golden Dawn, it is the violent language of the Left!””

    That is the perfect example of my paper tiger. I don’t know anyone who says that. I’m sure they exist. That they exist has no bearing on whether or not shifting discourse is a meaningful part of effecting change – which is what I think the core question is here. I may be wrong, even 60 comments later, about the core question.

  61. David, I understand where you are coming from, and I also understand where Steve is coming from.

    Children are a super-sensitive issue, no matter what issues about them that you are discussing, or how. Look at our media, propaganda, and the many, many forums and chat rooms devoted to the subject and you will know it. Children are used to manipulate political choices (Save the children! Our children deserve……)

    Many people, such as Steve, who have not personally encountered and experienced biologically disadvantaged children believe that the parents of such children will be MORE sensitive to the issue of discussing them, even in abstract. And, in truth, a small minority are.

    However, like Steve’s quote “Truth is counter-intuitive”, most parents of disabled or biologically disadvantaged children are actually LESS sensitive to such discussions. You and I (My youngest son is severely autistic.) have talked the subject to *death* many times over, have heard the good, the bad, and the ugly from a myriad of folks, and have learned to let most things slide off, but snap up and pay attention when something of interest to us might be mentioned.

    Steve is not, and does not wish to appear to be, insensitive to the plight of such children, nor the challenges faced by their parents, even though he, himself, has been blessed in not having to face those challenges himself. Please forgive him for wishing to back away (It is to be hoped temporarily) from an obviously sensitive discussion with someone who is currently facing those very challenges himself.

    Recently I was in a wonderful debate on a forum with a worthy opponent on the topic of intelligence, the nature verses nurture theories. We were having a wonderful time and exchanging information and points when a social worker who specializes in economically disadvantaged children broke in to tell us that we were ABSOLUTE MONSTERS for even *thinking* of children, and their intelligence, in such a way, and didn’t we know that we were *adding to* the attitudes that she fought every day in attempting to help economically disadvantaged children to succeed?

    I, for one, refuse to be shamed into cutting off the sharing of information and ideas just because someone might find them offensive, and I therefore told her that her guilt trip was not going to work on me. Especially since we were speaking *in the abstract* and not assigning social worth of any kind. Simply discussing genetics as opposed to environment in the development of native intelligence. However, the worthy that I was having the discussion with was effectively silenced.

    ~smiles~ That you are an intelligent person who seeks real discourse on the subject is wonderful. Please realize that others may suffer from shell shock due to encounters such as the one I have mentioned above.

    Now, I do believe that kinder, gentler language helps to engender compassion better than insulting or derogatory language, and am therefore in favor of P.C. Not as a *substitute* for real work and progress in needed areas, but as an addition to such work and progress.

  62. David, two quick things now, and maybe more later:

    1. Tens of thousands of readers is grand. Congratulations! If those were hardcover sales, they might make you a bestseller. People who love writing regularly overestimate the influence of authors.

    2. You seem like a very nice guy. This is more reason to tread carefully when talking about something so very personal.

    Okay, one more. The people you think are paper tigers are surprisingly common among liberals. Glenn Greenwald just tweeted about the folks who will say Rand Paul has done many awful things, so he mustn’t be supported when he talks about whether the President may kill whoever he pleases, while Barack Obama has done many awful things, so he must always be supported.

  63. I know they exist. I just don’t think their existence shapes the argument about discourse to one side or the other.

    (As for readers. It was a CNN piece that moved rapidly through the disability community and beyond. I’m proud of it. But I hope I can do it better, next time).

  64. Emma

    It’s 3.15 am over here so please forgive my delayed response; I will reply to you tomorrow.

    In the meantime I think I should sound a note of caution with my medicine analogy; my medic daughter has just posted ‘You’re probably a medic if…’ on Facebook

    People might be a little offput to discover that one of the Ifs is “you have ever wanted to hold a seminar entitled “Suicide: Getting it Right the First Time’….

  65. It is a strawman that there might be people who only do political correctness and don̈́t do anything substantive. If trying to enforce PC is harmless, so what if there are people who appear to be on your side who do nothing that’s actually useful? There are lots of people who do nothing useful. There are at least as many people in the opposition who try to enforce their own PC who do nothing useful for that side.

    If it’s harmless, then doesn’t it make sense to let people do it? Effort we spend trying to make people stop doing it is wasted effort just as much as the people who do it.

    But I say it is not harmless. Trying to enforce PC language *is* trying to limit the discourse. It *is* trying to shut people up. It *is* trying to keep people from describing their own experience as they experience it, and instead forcing them to talk about it in your terms.

    No good will come of it. Bad will come of it.

    How can we get people to stop doing it? Only by persuading them to listen to other points of view. If we try to suppress attempts at enforcing PC-speak they will feel offended and threatened and will disagree. Telling people they are bad for trying to enforce PC-talk is a new form of enforcing PC-talk. It won’t work any better than the original.

  66. “I agree that an opinion should be supported by information. The source of that information may be experience, reading, discussion, or, probably, a ton of other things I’m not thinking of right now. The more sources of information a person brings to his or her opinions, the better-formed those opinions are likely to be, especially if that person is willing to think critically about information whatever the source.”

    Often it turns out that “information” is biased. Like, if you are interested in people who commit suicide and so you interview people who have survived suicide attempts, it might be that people who succeed at that the first try tend to have subtle differences from people who fail.

    If your experience of American capitalists is based on the ones who take the Redeye to see you, they may be different from the ones who are too important to take the Redeye to see you (or who don’t for other reasons).

    I have known a number of people who believe they understand American blacks better than most people do. “I work with them every day. They’re lazy and shiftless, but if you accept them on their own terms you can get a lot of work out of them.” Their personal experience is valid in its own context, but it is a context in which the particular blacks involved have no incentive to show initiative etc.

    Our experience is usually biased, if we try to apply it to populations that are not the samples we have direct experience with. But then, I can make up JustSo stories about why your experience is biased to justify discounting your experience. If I don’t have direct experience that shows why your experience is biased, if I reason it out from first principles, why should my opinion matter? Well, it might be right. But then again it might not. And if I judge from experience, what are the factors that determine my experience trumps your experience? I am almost certainly right that your experience does not generalize to things that are different from what you have experienced, but can I say for sure what the difference is? No, I can only argue for ignorance.

    “What I’m saying is, I think ideas should be judged for themselves, not by the credentials of the people who have them. And I think when people reduce a discussion of ideas to the checking of credentials, they’re injecting trivia into what might otherwise be a useful conversation.”

    Ideas should be judged for themselves. But how do you judge ideas? You can judge them for logical consistency. But if you judge them based on their truth, their compatibility with the real world, then you are back to your experience and the experience of people you trust. Measurements. Statistics. Anecdotal information. All of which suffers from bias of various sorts. When it’s scientific papers you can read the details of the papers to get an idea of the bias. Almost always, the results are compatible with the authors’ conclusions in a limited set of circumstances.

    My take-home lesson from this is that I don’t know the truth. So when it’s time for me to make a choice, I usually try to be conservative. “If I’m right, what results should I expect? If I’m wrong about this important point, if somebody is trying to fool me and it’s really this other way, then what? How can I come out OK either way?” Or sometimes that just doesn’t work. “I don’t know which is right. It’s probably A or B or C and I don’t know which. If I choose wrong I lose, and I have to choose. OK, I think it’s B. I’ll go with that.”

  67. J: “But I say it is not harmless. Trying to enforce PC language *is* trying to limit the discourse. It *is* trying to shut people up. It *is* trying to keep people from describing their own experience as they experience it, and instead forcing them to talk about it in your terms.

    No good will come of it. Bad will come of it.

    How can we get people to stop doing it? Only by persuading them to listen to other points of view. If we try to suppress attempts at enforcing PC-speak they will feel offended and threatened and will disagree. Telling people they are bad for trying to enforce PC-talk is a new form of enforcing PC-talk. It won’t work any better than the original.”

    That’s really smart and rings true. It absolutely is trying to limit the discourse.

    And then there’s the really fine hair splitting of which is worse, limiting discourse or ignoring demeaning speech. I don’t feel like I can answer that.

    When I encounter the use of the word retard/mong/triso, I try explain the reasons I’d rather they didn’t use that word as clearly as I can in order to, as you put it, persuade them. I think I’ve gotten better at it over the years.

    Here’s where I return to my core question raised by SKZB’s initial and later posts: I find SKZB’s statement about objective reality being the key, and that language should be as close as possible to reality, rather than language changing reality. This matches to my experiences with pejorative speech about people with Down syndrome. Words like “retard” impose limitations that do not match objective reality, it’s not that using different words changes the reality. I don’t think I would have put it like that before this thread, and that’s useful to me.

    But I still don’t know how we get there without diving into the world of discourse and trying to change it.

  68. “Words like “retard” impose limitations that do not match objective reality, it’s not that using different words changes the reality.”

    I like that distinction. Last night, I wrote and discarded a couple of attempts to address your CNN piece. Basically, I like all of it but this paragraph:

    “Symbols, labels and representations — in media, literature and our daily conversations — shape reality. The words “retard” and “angel” represent images that dehumanize and disempower. Both words connote two-dimensional, simple or limited people. Neither angels nor retards can live in the world with the rest of us, except as pets, charity cases or abstract sources of inspiration.”

    You effectively contradict that yourself later, when you note, “Language changes as knowledge and attitudes change. Doctors started using the word “retarded” to replace “Mongoloid Idiot.” A lot of good came with that shift, because it indicated a new understanding that people with Down syndrome were not monstrously limited creatures best locked up in an institution.”

    When only language changes, people use the new language in the same way they used the old: “retard” becomes the new “Mongolian idiot”.

    The second part of my dissatisfaction with the first paragraph I quoted is about linking “retard” with “angel”. “Angel” is different. “Retard” began as an attempt to be precise that became a metaphor for people who are unable or slow to learn. Angel was always a metaphor, and the people who use it, with perhaps a few exceptions, do not think they’re dealing with actual angels, or if they do, they mean “angels” in the sense that everyone’s an angel, that we’re all children of god, and that includes people with Down syndrome. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t reject a metaphor you don’t like. But I think you miss what’s going on with “angel” when you apply the same logic that you took to “retard”.

    Identitarian antiracists made a similar quibble about “colorblindness”. They say it erases their race, which indicates a profound misunderstanding of the nature of metaphor–no one who uses it is incapable of seeing race. And they behave inconsistently–they object to the word, yet support the practice when it helps an actor “of color”, perhaps because they know on a level deep beneath their ideology that deeds matter more than words.

    Well, no conclusions yet. Breakfast is ready, and maybe my brain will function better soon.

  69. “And then there’s the really fine hair splitting of which is worse, limiting discourse or ignoring demeaning speech. I don’t feel like I can answer that.”

    If it’s a good day and you have the personal strength at that moment, you can expand the discourse. “I feel like you’re being demeaning and it bothers me.” And then it goes wherever it goes.

    “Oh honey, when I say that X people are inferior, it’s because they’re inferior. I don’t blame them for it. Everybody has a place in this world and we can’t all be superior. We just have to work with what we’ve got.”

    “Yes. My group is in a long-term war with that group. They want to destroy us so we want to destroy them. Why would I give them any respect?”

    Or whatever. In Xugoslavia, Serbs and Croats etc did institutional rape as part of their ethnic cleansing. They didn’t want to live in peace with their neighbors, they wanted them gone by whatever means. They have a long history of not getting along. Yes, they want to demean each other. What is there for us to do about that?

    If you are ready to communicate with people, they might understand your truth and sympathize with you. Very likely you will understand them better. Nobody is up to that all the time, and I don’t say you have an obligation to do it. But depending on your goals, it may be what works. It may be the only thing that works.

    “When I encounter the use of the word retard/mong/triso, I try explain the reasons I’d rather they didn’t use that word as clearly as I can in order to, as you put it, persuade them. I think I’ve gotten better at it over the years.”

    Good! People often put meanings on those words, meanings which do not fit the reality. Objecting to the words is an opening for you to tell them about your reality. Objecting to the words has little value in itself, it leaves them assigning the old meanings to whatever new words they use instead. Telling them your truth is central.

    I notice that in the schools where I am now, it is considered racist to mention race. Anything that admits you have noticed somebody’s skin color, is wrong. As a direct result, the kids cannot talk about any sort of racial discrimination or prejudice etc. They cannot say the words. They get nervous. I am not sure this serves us.

  70. Thanks for reading it and thinking about it, Will. I’m definitely trying to have it both ways – and that’s because I do think it works both ways, but the contradiction in the essay is there and something I’ll have to think about. There’s nothing I like better than a close read and useful criticisms (ok, ok, I like a close read and effusive praise better, I’m only human).

    I think we could have a whole other thread about positive language and its troubles, but maybe I’ll leave that for now. Reading disability studies folks on “inspiration porn,” though, has taught me a lot.

    I am, though, not sure I buy the term “Identitarian.” It seems like a way to herd people into a rhetorical group so that you can then argue against them. But maybe it’s just because it’s a new term to me so I’m not familiar with the context?

  71. I first noticed “identitarian” when reading Adolph Reed Jr., who Katha Politt called “the smartest person of any race, class, or gender writing on race, class, and gender.”

    For the sake of identitarians reading over our shoulders, I must now note that Reed is black, so it’s really hard to discredit him on the basis of his race.

    Reed has long been a critic of identity-based politics. In 1996, he said this, writing about Obama: “In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices: one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable credentials and vacuous to repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program – the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle class reform in favoring form over substances.”

    I noticed Reed when I was researching ideological antiracism and found his “The limits of anti-racism”, where he notes, “The contemporary discourse of “antiracism” is focused much more on taxonomy than politics. It emphasizes the name by which we should call some strains of inequality—whether they should be broadly recognized as evidence of “racism”— over specifying the mechanisms that produce them or even the steps that can be taken to combat them. And, no, neither “overcoming racism” nor “rejecting whiteness” qualifies as such a step any more than does waiting for the “revolution” or urging God’s heavenly intervention. If organizing a rally against racism seems at present to be a more substantive political act than attending a prayer vigil for world peace, that’s only because contemporary antiracist activists understand themselves to be employing the same tactics and pursuing the same ends as their predecessors in the period of high insurgency in the struggle against racial segregation.”

    Elsewhere, he was much blunter about the problem: “The greater likelihood, and in my view the great danger, is that we will find ourselves left with no critical politics other than a desiccated identitarian leftism capable only of counting, parsing, hand-wringing, administering, and making up “Just So” stories about dispossession and exploitation recast in the arid language of disparity and diversity. This is a politics that emanates, by the way, from the professional-managerial class that remains generally insulated from the ravages of the ongoing economic crisis,11 the endless wars, and the other costs of predatory neoliberalism.”

    David Harvey, in his book about Neoliberalism, doesn’t use the term, but he describes the phenomenon from a leftist perspective: “Neoliberal rhetoric, with its foundational emphasis upon individual freedoms, has the power to split off libertarianism, identity politics, multi-culturalism, and eventually narcissistic consumerism from the social forces ranged in pursuit of social justice through the conquest of state power. It has long proved extremely difficult within the US left, for example, to forge the collective discipline required for political action to achieve social justice without offending the desire of political actors for individual freedom and for full recognition and expression of particular identities. Neoliberalism did not create these distinctions, but it could easily exploit, if not foment, them.”

  72. David, a PS: I totally get the concern about “inspiration porn”–it can be condescending as hell. I think it comes from the same impulse that makes people say victims who did nothing heroic–or who did nothing more than survive–are heroes.

    But this doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be celebrated for overcoming greater odds than most of us face.

    And some of the quibbling about “inspiration porn” just seems mean-spirited. For example, at “Did You Know Cripples Can Do Things?: Inspiration Porn and the Ableist Commodification of Disabled Bodies” there’s the example of a parent’s ice-cream truck Halloween costume for a kid in a wheelchair. The disability activist complains about how trick-or-treating is nothing exceptional.

    But making an ice-cream truck for your kid is exceptional, whether the kid’s “able” or not. That’s a parent who went the extra mile in a creative way to make sure a kid had a good Halloween. Ultimately, that case is not about disability at all–it’s about parental ability in the most general sense, doing your best with the available resources to help a kid have a good holiday.

  73. skzb

    Caliann: Yep. Well put.

    David: Okay, let’s see if I can stay coherent, on point, and only tangentially offensive. This will be a challenge. Overall, I have two matters I want to explore.

    The first is this: You and Will are discussing the term “Retard” as if it’s use were all a single thing with only one meaning. If we’re even going to talk about the degree to which language influences thinking, we need to be clear. 1. “You have Downs Syndrome? Ha ha! What a retard!” 2. “Oh, a baby with Downs Syndrome? It must be so difficult for the parents of a retard. I shall pray for them.” 3. “Anyone who thinks Obama is not breaking the law by assassinating people without due process is obviously a retard.” 3a. “Can you believe he walked up to a guy with Downs and, called him a retard? God. What a fucktard.” 4. “I have Downs. I’m getting together with some other retards to hang out and talk.”

    My point is only this: These are 4 very distinct cases, and if we want to have this conversation, we ought not to lump them together. And 3a may be it’s own case; I’m not sure.

    I tried to explore the second issue, and it just got ridiculously long, so I’m going to make it it’s own blog post.

  74. Quoth Steve: “I must respectfully disagree with you there. Yes, it is possible to take the fundamental issues of the English Civil War (control to benefit by the emerging capitalist class, or by the monarchical landlords) or the French Revolution (see above) or the American Revolution (domination by a foreign monarchical system) and the American Civil War (control to benefit the slave power, or the capitalists) or the Russian Civil War (government in the interests of the capitalists, or in the interests of the working class) and reduce those to “the right story.” I beg to submit that you cannot do that without either bending them out of shape, or trivializing them. I think trivializing revolution is not going to help with an understanding of human history.”

    That’s kinda at right angles to anything I’m trying to say. What I’m trying to say is that the people taking action in those events did so, in whatever way they did, because of the stories they were participating in. Whether it’s “we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more” or “the King’s reign is ordained by God” or what-have-you. Things like “the story of the American Civil War”, shared cultural narratives, are important mainly because they’re what we build our personal narratives out of. Our personal narratives are the difference between getting out of bed in the morning and not, and particularly relevant in regard to resistance to oppression, between learned helplessness and defiance.

    “If you are saying that revolutions are made because the masses accept a certain story, again, I must differ. Revolutions are made when the masses exercise conscious control of their own destiny. That word “conscious” is key. To you, perhaps, it means accepting a given story, or narrative; to me it means a leap in understanding of objective truth.”

    Seems like you’re mixing the ideal socialist revolution with other things that have been given the label. I dunno how many of your examples were to do with the masses doing anything but being led around by the nose, or at the point of a spear. The thing is, though, I like the idea of apprehending objective truth plenty (though every alarm in my head goes off when the prospect of it comes up in political discourse), but when it comes down to motivating people, it’s just another story and has to compete on that basis. As demonstrated by its utter and ongoing failure to make a dent in the worldviews of people who have something going on that they like better. I’d say that at best, correspondence to objective truth is one on a list of many advantages that a narrative can have or lack.

    “A key element in identity politics, and in what is called “Political Correctness” is a denial of objective truth. I think not only is there such a thing, but that anyone concerned with changing the world is obligated to strive to understand it. There is an implication, you see, in “narrative” or “story” that what is key is how we choose to explain the world. I believe what is key is how the world actually is, and that we should try as hard as possible to make that truth our explanation. So I do not speak of story or narrative; I speak of objective truth and scientifically approaching facts to determine, as well as possible, what that truth is.”

    I think that there are objective truths, and that they’re mostly things like how many protons are in the nucleus of a carbon atom, and have no tangible bearing on the conduct on 99.99% of human lives, which are spent as completely as we can possibly arrange interacting with abstractions, from which objective intrusions like your toothache example are an unwelcome distraction.

    There are probably even some assertions anybody might care to make about actual human existence that have some objective truth value, like that the world is mostly presently arranged to benefit a small set of people at brutal cost to the rest. But I tend to suspect that most such assertions — ones anyone is motivated to make — are what an economist might call “normative” as opposed to “descriptive”.

    I mean, telling people “the narrative I want you to subscribe to is the objective truth” is literally the oldest trick in the book, and all. And you know as well as I do that the truth of a proposition is a distinct property from its credibility.

    “Yes, indeed, changing ideas, changing the consciousness of masses of people, is very, very important. But A) I think the way language is involved in tthat is by using precise language to make fine distinctions to increase understanding, not convincing people to speak differently to advance an agenda.”

    Hmm. “Chairman” is a more precise term than “chairperson” or “chair”. In your mother’s case, that precision came at a dramatic cost to accuracy. I question the value of this tradeoff.

    I would say that the person your mother had no patience for was trying to achieve an identity that involved not being the sort of person who speaks as though leadership roles are all automatically occupied by men, and got the response, “we’re fighting for our lives, we don’t have time for decorating our identities”. Is that objective truth, or narrative?

    “B) There is a fundamental difference between using language to reveal objective truth as precisely as possible in preparation for seizing power and transforming society, and using language as a substitute for organizing and preparing for the seizure of power. One directs efforts to the destruction of capitalism; the other assumes its permanence by trying to make what are, in the end, cosmetic changes.”

    If we strictly increase understanding of objective truth, aren’t we going to wind up mostly thinking about how in a trillion years everything we do today will be undetectable in an even smear of cold atoms?

    “I’ll repeat what I said in my original post: There are at least ten cultures in which the primary language has a non-sex-specific pronoun. Can anyone demonstrate any way in which those cultures display less oppression of women than cultures that use the generic “he”?”

    I don’t imagine so, because I don’t think that’s how it works. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/magazine/29language-t.html seems to do a reasonable job of talking about how it does work, though, for example.

  75. skzb

    Matt: Before I jump back to matters of substance, I’ll deal with the “chairman” issue. The assumption you make is that there is, somehow an assumption in the term “chairman” that the position is male, rather than it being a term for a position that does not carry a gender bias. That when our brains see “chairman” we go to “chair” + “man” rather than the unified position. That when we hear “manhole cover” we imagine a man, and a hole, and a cover, rather than the object we call a manhole cover. I dispute that assumption. My mother had more important things to talk about than that. As you can see, I don’t.

    Maybe I’m wrong about that. I’ve been wrong about things before. But, you see, either you are right, or I am right, or perhaps it varies with the individual. In any case, there is a true answer, and I believe it is worthwhile to discover what it is. Don’t you?

    Now let’s back up.

    “Seems like you’re mixing the ideal socialist revolution with other things that have been given the label.”

    I give you my solemn word I do not consider the English civil war an ideal socialist revolution. Or any other kind of socialist revolution. Same with the French Revolution, the American Revolution, &c.

    “I dunno how many of your examples were to do with the masses doing anything but being led around by the nose, or at the point of a spear. ”

    All of them. It is a bit harder to demonstrate with the English Civil War, but the others all have sufficient testimony by participants to convince anyone who isn’t determined to ignore facts that the masses were consciously–I repeat *consciously* participating in creating their own destiny.

    ‘I mean, telling people “the narrative I want you to subscribe to is the objective truth” is literally the oldest trick in the book, and all.’

    If you are prepared to believe that the masses are ignorant fools who can be convinced that something is objectively true merely by telling them so, then you have a point. I do not agree with that position. “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time….”

    What is more significant, however, is that objective truth is not a *thing.* It isn’t a, “Okay, here, I found truth, now I must tell people what it is.” It is a process. It involves the process of discovery, of testing, of re-examining. It is a struggle. A revolutionary party strives constantly to not only engage in that process, but to bring the masses with it as part of the process of discovery.

    The heart of our disagreement is right there. You speak of story and narrative, I speak of truth and the effort to discover it; to bring one’s thinking as close as possible to objective truth. That we can never fully know what is objectively true is no excuse not to try.

  76. If “chairman” implies maleness, does “chair” imply furnitureness? And shouldn’t people who object to “colorblind” because it erases race object to “chairperson” because it erases gender? (To be serious, I like “the chair” for the same reason I like “the crown”. Metonymy rules.)

  77. “My point is only this: These are 4 very distinct cases, and if we want to have this conversation, we ought not to lump them together.”

    I grew up at a time where the “N” word was going out of fashion. Well-mannered non-AAs did not use it. Blacks were still using it among themselves as a desensitizing instrument, and low-class, uneducated people still used it as a derogatory term among themselves.

    I remember that during my younger years, the “group” that I spent the most time around was about half AA, a quarter white, and a quarter other. The AAs, of course, used the “N” word pretty often in reference to each other. One of the white young men started doing so as well.

    As my boyfriend at the time was AA, one evening he brought up to me, “I sure wish so-and-so would stop using that word. It is for US, you know? WE can use it with each other, but it ain’t right for him to use it. YOU don’t use it.”

    To which I replied, “Honey, he is trying to fit in, so he is copying ya’ll. I notice that you aren’t accusing him of being a bigot, you are just accusing him of not getting it…being stupid about people and culture. You know he doesn’t mean harm, but I think what you dislike is that you feel he is trying to hard to be black, right? And he could never BE black.”

    “Yeah, that’s it. I knew you were my girl for a reason, you’re smart. So, I don’t want to squash him, he is a good guy. But I am not the only one that is irritated with it. Someone is going to say something. How do I tell him to knock it off?”

    “The best way to do that is to stop using it AT ALL. It isn’t less nasty because ya’ll use it among yourselves, and honestly, it doesn’t actually HURT less either. Ya’ll can just pretend it *doesn’t* hurt, and that is *doesn’t* mean anything by doing so, but that puts it on the scale of some of the stupid stuff ya’ll do to prove that you aren’t afraid or that you are tough. If the word is wrong, and hurtful, it is wrong for EVERYONE.”

    “It doesn’t hurt! [Enter a bunch of male bravado crap after that, and discussion degenerates]”

    The thing is, words are only wrong because of the intention assigned to them. That is why “wrong” words change over time, because there always seem to be people that will assign negative intention to the new word. I have heard the words “American Indian” infused with all of the vitriol, hatred, and prejudice that you would expect to find in “Blanket Ass” (and I have been called both). So therefore, some of you are correct; the new words just take on the negative association of the old words, and then more new words are found.

    I am okay with that, though. I am fine with switching identifiers to the newest version that doesn’t have the built up negative connotations. ~smiles~ Mainly that is because the use of vocabulary identifies the *speaker* as well, and I’d rather be seen as sensitive to the feelings of others. By using the most compassionate identifier currently available, I place distance between myself and those who use identifiers that have build up negative connotations.

    ~chuckles~ After all, when it comes to identifiers, what is really the difference between the word “woman” and the word “dame”? Technically, the latter was even an honorific, a term of respect…but if you grew up in U.S. culture, you are imagining the latter being said with a slight sneer and more than a bit of misogynist connotation, aren’t you?

    In other words, you are associating the word with the beliefs of the user.

  78. Lots since I got back here and I now have to write about Pope Francis (it’s such an odd thing for a UU-Jew to be doing. Anyway) so I’ll try to be very brief.

    SKZB: I agree that your cases are different. My contention is that to associate “retard” with oneself (or a president) being somehow abjectly stupid is to imply that this is the natural state of retards. Since the word retard is associated with down syndrome, that’s a problem for me. Since the word idiot is no longer associate with down syndrome, that’s not a problem for me. Example: Someone you know once posted to a blog that since he had been offline for awhile, people should just assume he was the “retard in the corner” in so far as knowing what was going on. Do you feel it was incorrect of me to suggest that this wasn’t a phrase he should use? (This happened about 5 years ago, but is a real example).

    Chair: I like “chair” too. But my question about chairman is this. Does using that phrase mean that when it comes time to pick a next chairman, people will be more likely to pick a man? Does changing the word mean that people will be less likely to consider gender as a key qualifier?

  79. “Example: Someone you know once posted to a blog that since he had been offline for awhile, people should just assume he was the “retard in the corner” in so far as knowing what was going on. Do you feel it was incorrect of me to suggest that this wasn’t a phrase he should use?”

    I think that “assume I am just the dunce in the corner” would have been more appropriate to both the intent and the imagery, as well as being gentler.

    Whether or not your suggestion was correct or incorrect depends upon the situation, which can be difficult to figure out on the internet.

    In an academic or informational setting, your actions would be perfectly correct.

    In a social situation, you would have had to choose your words VERY carefully, as it is considered incorrect to correct someone in a social situation except through the very vaguest of ways.

    Blogs are *generally* assumed to be social situations, but there are no hard and fast rules on that.

  80. “Matt: Before I jump back to matters of substance, I’ll deal with the “chairman” issue. The assumption you make is that there is, somehow an assumption in the term “chairman” that the position is male, rather than it being a term for a position that does not carry a gender bias. That when our brains see “chairman” we go to “chair” + “man” rather than the unified position. That when we hear “manhole cover” we imagine a man, and a hole, and a cover, rather than the object we call a manhole cover. I dispute that assumption.”

    Okay. Well, I support it. My way of thinking is that sure, getting agitated about “history” and using “herstory” is wrong and dumb because it’s based on a false etymology — the h-i-s in “history” is not and never has been the third person masculine possessive. But the m-a-n in “chairman” is, in fact, the noun for a male human, so I think it’s legit to be annoyed by it. (No, I don’t believe that the historical usage of “man” as a generic for humanity by white dudes who didn’t consider women people was successful in making that usage other than oppressive of women.)

    “My mother had more important things to talk about than that. As you can see, I don’t.”

    Perhaps you agree with me that the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are important. 🙂

    “Maybe I’m wrong about that. I’ve been wrong about things before. But, you see, either you are right, or I am right, or perhaps it varies with the individual. In any case, there is a true answer, and I believe it is worthwhile to discover what it is. Don’t you?”

    I do! Varying with the individual, though… now, Steve, just because epistemological relativism is true for you doesn’t mean it’s true for everyone.

    “I give you my solemn word I do not consider the English civil war an ideal socialist revolution. Or any other kind of socialist revolution. Same with the French Revolution, the American Revolution, &c.”

    Whew.

    “All of them. It is a bit harder to demonstrate with the English Civil War, but the others all have sufficient testimony by participants to convince anyone who isn’t determined to ignore facts that the masses were consciously–I repeat *consciously* participating in creating their own destiny.”

    Okay. They hadn’t seemed like it to me, but I’m not the historian you are so I probably just am not conversant with the relevant facts. Though I gotta say that the American Revolution looks an *awful* lot like a change of management by landowners for landowners, from where I’m sitting.

    “If you are prepared to believe that the masses are ignorant fools who can be convinced that something is objectively true merely by telling them so, then you have a point. I do not agree with that position. “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time….””

    Hmm. It seems insupportible to make nearly any generalization about “the masses”. But clearly lots of people can be convinced of the objective truth of preposterous propositions. Rarely just by telling them so, though; rather, you tell them it is so and then present them with a potent set of socioeconomic consequences that reward them for believing you and punish them for failing to do so, and hey presto, you have a double-digit percentage of Americans who will tell you that gay people can’t get married because the story of Adam and Eve relates events which *actually happened just like it says*. In their English translation of a Latin translation of an Aramaic translation of a Hebrew text written down from oral tradition cribbed from the Egyptians. (Example chosen for its goofiness more than its relevance; the immense, and immensely successful, effort spent on convincing people that they need X product to have good lives is more salient.)

    One way or another, I think we have to acknowledge that so far, capitalism has managed to fool enough of the people enough of the time.

    “What is more significant, however, is that objective truth is not a *thing.* It isn’t a, “Okay, here, I found truth, now I must tell people what it is.” It is a process. It involves the process of discovery, of testing, of re-examining. It is a struggle. A revolutionary party strives constantly to not only engage in that process, but to bring the masses with it as part of the process of discovery.
    The heart of our disagreement is right there. You speak of story and narrative, I speak of truth and the effort to discover it; to bring one’s thinking as close as possible to objective truth. That we can never fully know what is objectively true is no excuse not to try.”

    Cool story, bro.

    Sorry, I had to. No, seriously, I couldn’t agree more.

    Of course, I agree with you because I’m participating in the story that apprehending objective truth is a worthy goal.

  81. skzb

    David: Since you’re asking about that, I don’t know if I’d address a “right” or “wrong” to it. My inclination would be to say something like, “Hey, do me a favor. That word bugs me for personal reasons, could you make it something else?” rather than attempt to “educate” the person. If that happens enough from enough people, he’ll start finding other words.

  82. Emma

    I agree entirely that the idea of someone having ‘credentials’ is pretty ludicrous outside areas like medicine and law; within those areas you are probably a great deal safer with, say, someone who has been to medical school, or a lawyer who has actually qualified in the area of the law they practise in.

    The difficulty is when we move to areas which require information which most people do not know exists; people can diligently run searches but to do that they need a minimum of information in the first place to know what to run searches on. This is the classic vicious circle; the lives of billions of people are affected by things they do not and will not know exist.

    For example, the City of London is pushing hard to become the leading Renminbi hub second to Hong Kong; China is no longer happy to hold all its reserves in dollars and euros, and at some point will open up the free conversion of its currency. Trillions are riding on when that happens; rather more modest sums hinge on who gets the hub business, though the City of London will win the hub.

    But the change in the world when China moves to full participation in the global financial markets, and thus fully exerts its power in capitalism, is vast; it dwarfs everything else, but people like yourself, who I think would be interested in considering the consequences, are not considering it because they simply don’t know it exists.

    The only way around that is for someone like me to tell people like you about it; you at least now have a starting point. You can then run searches on it, but much of what you find will be incomprehensible to you; unless you want to spend years learning to decipher it you need someone like me to translate it for you.

    Now I don’t know what term you want to attach to someone who possesses highly specialist knowledge, but the bottom line is that they do exist; it’s not some sort of elitist conspiracy against democracy. It’s a simple question of fact…

  83. skzb

    Matt: “now, Steve, just because epistemological relativism is true for you doesn’t mean it’s true for everyone.” I’m going to use that and pass it off as my own.

    “Though I gotta say that the American Revolution looks an *awful* lot like a change of management by landowners for landowners, from where I’m sitting.”

    Oops. I guess I was muddled again. It most certainly was a change of management by landowners for landowners, and I hadn’t meant to imply it was not. But it was, nevertheless, progressive, and those who fought for it knew it was progressive; they knew what they were doing. They were not taking power for themselves; they were transferring it from one group to another; but humanity made considerable progress in doing so.

    “One way or another, I think we have to acknowledge that so far, capitalism has managed to fool enough of the people enough of the time.”

    Yep, so far. But then, so had the divine right of kings up until a couple of hundred years ago.

  84. skzb

    Stevie: Sure. But at that point it becomes a matter of context, presentation, context, attitude, and above all, context. I don’t disagree with you. But I keep recalling a guy ‘way back in the old usenet days who insisted (in so many words) that he had studied literature, and thus knew good from bad, and thus we all ought to accept his judgment about the quality of various books. I’m sure you can imagine the responses. If instead of asserting his expertise he had actually demonstrated it, the results would have been different (and probably very interesting; I’m sorry he didn’t). I am not accusing you of doing something similar; it’s just that your comment triggered that memory so I’m throwing it out there.

  85. “my question about chairman is this. Does using that phrase mean that when it comes time to pick a next chairman, people will be more likely to pick a man? Does changing the word mean that people will be less likely to consider gender as a key qualifier?”

    The more I look into the beliefs of identitarians, the less evidence I find for their beliefs. If there are studies like those, I haven’t bumped into them. My wholly subjective impression is that first we had female chairmen, policemen, firemen, and postmen, and then some people decided that “man” was no longer generic.

    I gotta add that some of the same people assumed “er” endings were male, so there was a fad for words like waitron, which did not give female waiters any more dignity or money–it was the linguistic equivalent of a more modern uniform for the serving class.

  86. Stevie, if you want to be the representative of the capitalists here, that is totally cool with me. 🙂

  87. I know a lot of female actors who are quite clear that they are actors, not actresses. Whether or not it /matters/ – I’m really not sure. But they are clear on the subject.

    I still think the word identitarian, except perhaps in some highly theoretical cases, is a mistake. It makes it easier to belittle, but harder to persuade. I share the concerns about simple identity politics, but I don’t like that kind of categorization as I think it doesn’t map to how most people, in fact, encounter meaning.

  88. Just googled “waitron” and I’m kind of pleased to see its meaning has changed in the last few decades. It’s now considered demeaning:

    http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=waitron

    I should’ve added that while “-er” is generic, “-ess” is feminine. I usually refer to female actors as actors.

  89. Will

    I think that you need to do a bit more work on what capitalism actually is; its representatives don’t provide information for free…

  90. “I still think the word identitarian, except perhaps in some highly theoretical cases, is a mistake. It makes it easier to belittle, but harder to persuade.”

    Persuasion is always tough, but we need a way to discuss the way the left has changed since the 1970s. I find the distinction between equity feminism and gender feminism mighty useful. “Antiracist” became popular during that time, and it’s hard to talk about the difference between civil rights workers and modern antiracists without being able to talk about the emphasis on identity. I would speak of equity antiracists and racial antiracists, but I don’t think that’s as clear as identitarian antiracists.

    I do think “identitarian” is used by more and more leftist critics because “identity politics” is popular with the rightwing critics, and while we’re discussing the same phenomenon, we’re objecting for different reasons. The rightwing critics don’t like identity politics because it damns them for what they love about capitalism, that people like Herbert Cain and Condi Rice can seize the truncheon. The leftwing critics don’t like identitarianism because it divides people, thereby serving the interests of “racist patriarchs” like Michelle Malkin.

    Another of my favorite critics of ideological antiracism is Rev. Thandeka, the UU minister. In “What’s Wrong with Anti-Racism”, her critique of Critical Race Theorists, she notes, “They make an erroneous assumption about the nature and structure of power in America.”:

    http://archive.uua.org/ga/ga99/238thandeka.html

  91. Stevie, I gotta ask, what do you think I’m saying about capitalism that’s wrong? In many ways, I’m just a parrot for folks like David Harvey, Adolph Reed Jr., the Rev. Thandeka, etc. If I’ve said anything unusual for a socialist, I’m not aware of it, and would be very grateful for your help. Seriously. I hate being wrong and am always willing to pay the price for learning where I was wrong.

  92. Stevie, I don’t know you, and I mostly lurk here, so please don’t take this the wrong way, but after that last comment, I think I love you! 🙂

    But seriously, I know what you mean about there are times you simply have to listen to those that know the specialized information, and accept that they know it better than you ever will. My examples of that are from the space shuttle program. We lost Columbia because middle management types chose not to either not listen to or not believe the engineers…well, actually, the *rocket scientists*…and so 7 people died.

    Then, when there was talk of designing a replacement, my local paper had an opinion piece about wanting public input, etc for the new design….um no. There was a brilliant (to me, but then I can be easily amused at times) retort to that, provided by again, a real, live, rocket scientist….there are times that you may not be qualified to have an opinion…this *is* rocket science.

    That’s not completely relevant to this conversation, but tangentally so, and it made me laugh, so I just wanted to share. Back to lurking.

  93. Steve: “I’m going to use that and pass it off as my own.”

    Welll, you’ll be continuing a grand tradition in so doing. (http://www.jesusandmo.net/2007/07/05/)

    “It most certainly was a change of management by landowners for landowners, and I hadn’t meant to imply it was not. But it was, nevertheless, progressive, and those who fought for it knew it was progressive; they knew what they were doing. They were not taking power for themselves; they were transferring it from one group to another; but humanity made considerable progress in doing so.”

    Ah, okay. No quibble with that. You must be using “the masses” slightly differently than I’ve been hearing it, I guess. All right then.

    “Yep, so far. But then, so had the divine right of kings up until a couple of hundred years ago.”

    Hey, true dat. So that’s super encouraging.

  94. “I think that you need to do a bit more work on what capitalism actually is; its representatives don’t provide information for free…”

    Are you hinting you’d like to be paid?

    Or are you suggesting it’s better to follow Bill Gates than Adolph Reed Jr.?

    Or do you think capitalism is a secret?

    I ask this humbly and sincerely: If you have information that you wish to share, please do. Are there writings of your own that you would like to direct me to? Are there authors you recommend?

  95. No, Will, I’m not hinting that I want to be paid.

    Capitalists don’t hint, they get their lawyers to finalise contracts determining how much they will be paid, and ensuring that it will be paid, before they provide the information…

  96. Stevie, I’ll happily paypal you $10 if that’ll help to get an answer from you. And I’ll tug the forelock too, if that’ll help. Please tell me, what do you recommend to someone who would like to understand capitalism?

  97. chaosprime, I try to read the New York Times the way Marx and Engels read the London Times. The article you linked to is interesting, but I think the evidence of the writer’s bias is here: “Do the emotional maps imposed by a gender system have higher-level behavioral consequences for our everyday life? Do they shape tastes, fashions, habits and preferences in the societies concerned? At the current state of our knowledge about the brain, this is not something that can be easily measured in a psychology lab. But it would be surprising if they didn’t.”

    Why would it be surprising if they didn’t? Sure, gendered language makes people want to hear anthropomorphic forks speak with a male or female voice, but does that suggest that the people who expect to hear a male fork think a male fork is superior to an object that has a female gender? I’m quite fond of Project Implicit because they acknowledge that small implicit preferences about race and gender and suchlike may not affect the way people behave in the real world.

    That article also suffers from the city-dweller’s marveling that country people pay attention to the sun and their surroundings. That languages function differently is undeniable. That languages make people fundamentally different has yet to be established. Ultimately, the article strikes me as smug and condescending. When I lived near an Ojibwe reservation, I had friends who pointed with their mouths rather than their fingers. Did that make them fundamentally different than me? No.

  98. Will

    I have tried responding to you as if you are a decent human being, but the more I do so the worse you get.

    Your latest effort makes you sound like a cheap john trying to haggle down the price of a blow job to $10, paid via Paypal.

    I am not for sale, and I am personally revolted by your posts of this nature.

    There are many people here whom I have come to hold in high regard; I may disagree with some of them, but I respect them, and I can learn from them, and I have always greatly valued learning from people.

    I’m just not sure that it’s enough to counterbalance the certainty that you will be around enthusiastically throwing shit as a substitute from providing anything which might even loosely be described as thought.

    Also, it will improve my sleep patterns 🙂

  99. Stevie, I’m quite content to endure your condescension. It’s your style. I expect nothing more from people like you. When I went to Choate, I immediately noticed that the kids there weren’t any better in any objective way than the kids I had grown up with, but they believed they were.

    Okay, the Choaties did have better teeth, better health, etc.–the things money can buy.

    But they believed their schooling made them wiser. And considering its cost, they had to. To be fair to them, it was an excellent education, looked at purely in academic terms. I still have fond memories of several classes.

    But really, if you want to knock someone’s understanding of capitalism, you should be kind enough to offer something you think would be helpful. Otherwise, you just look like a guru who claims to have the secret knowledge but will not share it.

    So, once again, I beg you, if you have anything to offer, if you will not do it for me, do it for the people who are reading this thread. I try very hard to learn from anyone. To tie this back into the general discussion of identitarianism, I don’t think ideas should be judged by the people who offer them. Either ideas are sound, or they’re not. So if you have something to offer, I would sincerely be grateful if you would offer it.

  100. Will, it’s clear that you and Stevie have achieved a mutual misunderstanding. I’m not at all sure I understand Stevie’s position here, but when trying to, I got something I thought was interesting so I’d like to explain that.

    Throughout the capitalist system, each entity tries to keep secrets from all the others. You don’t know how the banking industry works unless you are a banker. You don’t understand foreign exchange manipulations unless you are a foreign exchange banker. You don’t understand how a particular branch of a foreign exchange bank works unless you are in that branch and have a position that gives you knowledge outside your specialty. Etc.

    If you are a small businessman you might feel more comfortable managing your accounts through multiple banks so no one of them knows all about your cash flow. But to get a significant loan from any of them, you must reveal everything to that bank. And if you want them to compete to give you loans, you must reveal everything to more than one of them. Will each bank that does not get the business use that information to help your direct competitors? Will the bank that you most depend on do that? Will they find your moment of greatest vulnerability and yank the rug from under you then, to get control of your company? Small businessmen try to get by without significant loans. The more they can get by with personal credit cards and lines of credit and such, the better.

    WalMart achieved a great innovation. Their suppliers *really want* to have WalMart as a customer. Tremendous volume of business. So WalMart is in a position to make extreme demands on suppliers. When a company auditions to become a WalMart supplier, WalMart insists on looking at their books and at their business. If WalMart finds glaring inefficiencies, they insist those be repaired. Then WalMart will allow their suppliers maybe 3% profit on the volume sold, and continues to monitor their suppliers’ books. In theory, WalMart has access to a tremendous amount of information that no one else has organized. I don’t know whether WalMart actually puts that information together in any organized way. That’s WalMart’s secret.

    The capitalist system works even though no one understands it. It has achieved its incredible stability by accident. We have not had a serious financial crisis for more than 4 years, because the secret system works.

    Marx thought he understood the system, he thought it must inevitably collapse because it was not stable. Today nobody can understand the feedback loops etc in the system, because nobody has access to enough of the secrets. After someone figures out a way to suck incredible sums out of the system into their own pockets and causes a panic, the system changes in unknown ways. No one today can get the information that Marx had.

    There are capitalists who will tell you how the system works. For a price. You must agree not to go into competition with them; you will not share the secret with people who have not paid. Are their secrets true? You may test that for yourself, after you have paid for them. Almost certainly, much of what they believe is in fact not so. If they knew the truth, they would have better things to do than peddle it to rich people for what amounts to pocket change.

    I think Stevie was making a point something along these lines. I probably didn’t get it right because she had not expanded it yet and I wound up taking it my own directions. But something vaguely along these lines.

    Capitalists who fit into specialized niches spend whole careers learning abstruse secrets that only their tiny specialized group understands. Some of it is correct because it is the rules they follow and that makes it correct. Some of it has history behind it. In the past when a particular situation came up and they did what they say to do when that happens, they profited. So they know what they are talking about. Some of it is wrong but nobody knows which parts are wrong and nobody knows how to find out. They can’t explain their careers in a few short essays.

    Then when you offered her ten dollars to explain her secrets, she was offended. You had missed the point.

    I’m pretty sure about the last bit. Everything else, I may have missed Stevie’s point but I enjoyed trying.

  101. J Thomas, there are times when I envy you, because my ability to shrug off insults isn’t natural. It was taught to me in grade school by the children of the Klan and in high school by the children of the US’s richest families, and I haven’t completely mastered the technique. But I know in both cases that they’re the product of their background, and blaming them makes as much sense as blaming a rattler for striking when it takes a notion to do so.

    Stevie seems to have had a bug up her butt for so long it’s crystalized. In “The Civil War: Did Lincoln Make the Right Decision?” she said to me, “And I bet the lurkers are supporting you by email as well..” That was a non sequitur, so she must’ve been feeling a need to say it. It’s a reference to something that happened over a decade ago, when Jo Walton and I had a disagreement over a literary concept that Jo called “mode”, which I could never grasp. I foolishly mentioned email I’d gotten from several lurkers, and I was roundly mocked by her side, apparently because they couldn’t imagine that anyone would be reluctant to speak out to people with the power to harm their literary careers–powerful abusive people rarely realize how abusive they are. Or they may’ve thought I was making up supporters, which would be very odd–I’ve never believed that might makes right, or that McDonalds has the best food because it sells the most burgers. If there’s a windmill, I’m always happy to charge it alone.

    Stevie and Jo are both the products of elitist schools. Stevie mentioned here that she “attended the third oldest girls in England, founded by radical feminists” which would appear to be the Maynard School. I just checked their web site. Based on their photos, they don’t seem to have any students who aren’t white, though there’s one girl who might be Indian, so perhaps they do the usual class-conscious British thang of including rich folks from the rest of the Empire.

    Stevie’s style is an interesting mix of ad hominem and appeal to authority, both of which are to be expected from people who’ve been reared among snobs. I’m still hoping she will offer something to support her repeated assertion that I don’t understand capitalism, because I will take wisdom from any source, but so far, as my people would say, it looks like she ain’t got shit.

  102. Will

    I am sorry to disappoint you but until your latest post I knew nothing about any contretemps you may have had with Jo Walton. My reference to the ‘lurkers supporting you by email’ stems from many years ago on Usenet; people, including myself, posting there used it as a standing joke. Presumably you must have been totally unaware of this when you wandered into the minefield, but I am delighted to have finally discovered Jo’s song. As for capitalism, I was endeavouring to explain that capitalists do not give things for free, but clearly you are never going to be able to wrap your head around that.

    As for the Maynard School I couldn’t comment on the socio-economic composition of its students beyond the blindingly obvious point that fee-charging schools have richer students, and that, given the ethnic composition of the population of Devon and Cornwall, they would be hard pressed to actually find more non-white pupils.

    The reason radical feminists founded schools of their own was because the small number of existing schools didn’t actually educate girls. They provided them with the skills deemed appropriate for their lives as wives and mothers; I am delighted to see that the Maynard School has subsequently become a real school, but at the time of the Schools Enquiry Commission in 1864 the shortcomings in the provision of real education for girls were only too obvious.

    Maria Grey and her sister Emily Shirreff launched the ‘National Union for Improvement of Education of Women of All Classes’ in November 1871, and shortly thereafter the Girls Public Day School Company came off the blocks; Norwich High School for Girls, founded in 1875, was the first academic girls school outside London, and the third in succession to Queen’s College and the North London Collegiate, both also founded by radical feminists who believed that women were just as intellectually capable as men. One of them was a man, Frederick Denison Maurice.

    I was certainly privileged in my education; my parents could not have afforded the fees but I won a scholarship, as did other girls. There were certainly some very wealthy parents, just as there are some very wealthy parents at the school my daughter attended, but if I wished to be wealthy I would have made different career choices. I always did prefer Robin Hood to the Sheriff of Nottingham…

  103. Stevie, if you weren’t referencing that incident, what did the comment have to do with anything at all?

    I haven’t a clue where you got the impression I thought capitalists gave things away. I’m not a Leninist, but I’ve long been fond of his “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.”

    I’m sure your scholarship is relevant to you, but I find most people are shaped by their environment, no matter how they came to be there. History is filled with examples of slaves who became slavers.

  104. PS. We do share a fondness for Robin Hood. It’s possible he and Santa Claus made me a red.

  105. “Stevie, if you weren’t referencing that incident, what did the comment have to do with anything at all?”

    That was a common Usenet etc them. People who were having arguments would indeed sometimes say that lots of lurkers supported them and only a few were opposed. They seemed to mostly use it as a bogus argument, of course. Yes, you stepped into a minefield doing it honestly, all those years ago. I can easily imagine Stevie did it as a random insult, and then you assumed she was lurking etc at your previous situation. It wasn’t a particularly good random insult.

    “As for capitalism, I was endeavouring to explain that capitalists do not give things for free”

    I guess I really blew that interpretation. I thought she was heading somewhere important. This one isn’t even true, as witness the traditional capitalist trope “The first dose is free”.

    And yet I found a claim that this is a fairly recent idea.
    http://www.gcmarketingservices.com/index.php/2012/07/the-first-free-sample-benjamin-t-babbitt/

  106. Will

    By that stage in the proceedings you were displaying all the classic symptoms; I suppose I might instead have said that you were in danger of going Godwin.

    Equally, I suppose I could have explained to you the process by which charge-out rates are calculated in the City; depending on currency fluctuations you would be looking at $700-1000 per hour for the person doing the thinking, plus lower rates for the bag carriers and assorted backup. The financial markets are pure capitalism; no capitalist gives away free samples of banknotes, just as no capitalist gives away the thinking about the financial markets. I had assumed that anyone who had ever given any thought to the matter would have understood that…

  107. J Thomas, even what’s free in capitalism isn’t free: you get the first taste free only if that improves the odds that you’ll pay for the second. If you want to understand capitalism, look at casinos and watch how the house bets.

    Stevie, I happily go full Godwin because Hitler is a historical figure. The point of Godwin’s observation is not to privilege Hitler by making him sacrosanct. It’s merely to note that he will come up in long discussions.

    I have not mentioned lurkers since that time because people who are too timid to come forward are not allies; they’re gentle folk who need protecting from the kind of people who celebrate mob justice.

    As for your assumptions about people you do not know, they are only assumptions. There’s an old saying here that goes, “When you assume, you make an ass of yourself, so here’s your carrot.” I may not remember it exactly, but I trust you catch the gist. Really, if you want any credibility anywhere, be very careful with your assumptions.

  108. Will, be nice. I’ll turn this blog right around and take us home.

  109. After considering several ways to respond to that and concluding none were as funny as I thought, I’m going with a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon that, so far as I can tell, is perfectly irrelevant:

    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_ca8N5aJ48hw/SbdE_jY-qBI/AAAAAAAACGk/clicMYAEWXQ/s1600-h/art+1.gif

  110. “The financial markets are pure capitalism; no capitalist gives away free samples of banknotes, just as no capitalist gives away the thinking about the financial markets. I had assumed that anyone who had ever given any thought to the matter would have understood that…”

    Very often you give the impression that you are having a conversation that is not much fun for you. If you look you might find people to discuss things with who are more worthy of you and who you actually do enjoy. But maybe you would like to continue here….

    It is simply not true that capitalists never give away anything for free.

    I remember the example of a city that wanted to build a hospital, and they were trying to decide which big block of land outside the city to condemn. But a landowner offered to give them all the land they needed, for free! Rather than decide how much to pay for it, and then go through the courts while he sued for more, he was just giving it away! They accepted his offer.

    Of course he owned all the land on all sides around what he gave away, land he could sell or rent for hospital-related purposes, and when the hospital expanded they would have to get the new land from him.

    But just because there’s a catch doesn’t mean it isn’t free.

  111. J Thomas, what you’re calling the “catch” is always included in the cost of doing business. The profit margin is calculated with it included. It’s only “free” in the sense that advertising is free: it’s given to all potential customers on the assumption the actual customers will pay for it. Whenever something looks free, ask the old question: qui bono? Even philanthropy isn’t free: exploiters are buying good reputations.

    Now, I am using an old definition of free: given with no expectation of reward. You ‘re using a modern one: if you walk away from the table with what you’ve won, it’s free. But the history of gamblers who quit after the big win may be on the shelf of blank books.

  112. “J Thomas, there are times when I envy you, because my ability to shrug off insults isn’t natural.”

    It isn’t natural for me either. I got taught by my cousin, who later went into politics. At the time he was years older than me and his arms were at least a foot longer. We would meet at family reunions. He would sneer insults at me until I got mad enough to hit him, and then he would beat me up. It was a game. He would not beat me up unless I hit him first, so all I had to do to not get beat up was not get so mad I hit him.

    It was a tremendous incentive. I learned to not get angry no matter what he said. He was trying to make me mad so he would have an excuse to beat me up. Why should I do what he wanted? He was not my friend.

    Then I tried insulting him. He got MAD. He chased me. I was not mad and not very scared — it was only one more beating, after all. He was not thinking and he went wherever I went, but he could outrun me. I led him to the rose arbor and tripped him. He got stuck in a rosebush and he was so mad he pulled himself out of it without being careful. He got long scratches. Now he was extra mad. I ran to the front porch where various adults were gathered. He knocked me down and started kicking me. My uncle Dalton made him stop and sent him inside to get cleaned up where he was bleeding. All the adults were upset. When they got the story from my cousin they were upset at me. When I shoved him into the rosebush he could have lost an eye. It was OK for him to hit me because he was too mad to think straight. It was not OK for me to think about how to hurt him. My broken ribs hurt when I talked so I didn’t try to say much. But I still felt like I had won something.

    I was never close to my cousin but he taught me a valuable lesson. And I think he intended to. He usually didn’t get mad when people were trying to make him mad, and he was passing it on.

    Here’s another story about him. He got interested in the Kennedy assassination and his mother said he filled up shoeboxes full of clippings and evidence about it. Then he decided to be a Democrat like Kennedy. He went to a man who was powerful in state politics and asked him for a job. The man got out a stack of resumes. “Here are two dozen people who want that job, and they all have references from somebody important. Why should I hire you instead of one of them?” Jay mumbled that he didn’t know. He was all ready to leave when the man said, “This is your first lesson. I’m choosing you because every one of them has somebody else’s string on him. You don’t belong to anybody already, so I will own you completely. Remember that.” And he got the job.

    Over time Jay got to be important himself in the state government. Once at a family reunion he explained his political philosophy. “Whenever anybody crosses me, I get them back. Maybe not right away, but they know. Everybody knows. I will get them back no matter what.” He looked me in the eye and I was glad I had moved out of state.

    My uncle Dalton told me that Jay had gotten to a level of government I’d have trouble understanding. “The rules are different for them. Sometimes if somebody gets in their way they have him killed. It’s a different life.”

    A few years later I reminded Dalton of the rosebush story. He was interested. He asked me if I would repeat it to a friend. We met his friend for breakfast at a restaurant a couple of days later and I told the story. His friend was very interested. I had the impression the friend was a small-town newspaper editor. I didn’t know what I had done but I enjoyed the sense that I might make some kind of difference.

    My cousin officially died before he was 55. They discussed it at a family reunion. “It was a closed casket ceremony.” “He was broke. His ex-wife had to pay for the service.” “That coffin was empty. He hid his money and he’s still alive somewhere.” I wondered why they were being so mean to him when he was dead. Probably dead. At his level somebody might have had him killed to keep him from getting back at them over something they couldn’t help do. It’s a risk when everybody knows you always retaliate.

    But then, he hadn’t been to a family reunion for a long time. And he didn’t do them any favors.

  113. “Now, I am using an old definition of free: given with no expectation of reward. You ‘re using a modern one: if you walk away from the table with what you’ve won, it’s free. But the history of gamblers who quit after the big win may be on the shelf of blank books.”

    I have done so. But I am not particularly a gambler. When I have even a moderate win in a game where I can expect to lose, that’s the time to quit. Of course, why even start when you can expect to lose? Sometimes I am given some money to start, and am given a win to encourage me to continue. It doesn’t happen all that often, but I seize the chance.

    I am using a third definition: if you receive it with no legal or moral obligation to return something, it is free. By this version it is free even if there is a catch.

    If somebody offers you a drink with a mickey for free, it is still a free drink with a mickey even though it might turn very expensive for you to drink it.

  114. J Thomas, my dad taught me a lot of hard lessons the hard way, so I’ll withhold judgment on your cousin.

    As for your third definition, you made me realize I wasn’t mentioning the bigger cost. What may actually be free to an individual when done by a capitalist is never free to a community: someone always pays for the capitalist’s profit.

  115. Oh, and as for your drink with the mickey, that’s almost a perfect example of free enterprise: you get the goods, then you pay the price.

  116. A thing that I very much like about the term “politically correct” is that it can be used against the left – and accepted as valid criticism.

    The right seems to not have any phrase that it accepts as valid criticism. Instead, it either denies or embraces accusations.

    Without evaluating which side needs more criticism – I believe strongly that growth requires the ability to accept criticism and learn from it.

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