Unspun Logo

Language & Sexism

Posted by Rick · December 6th, 2004 · 13 Comments

There’s a discussion that started over at Chepooka’s concerning what was believed to be — at least potentially — a sexist comment.

I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that the guys haven’t seen it that way. 😉

Since I’m in the midst of mid-terms — Evidence this Wednesday; Advanced Criminal Law and Constitutional Law next week — my blogging time is limited. In order to avoid neglecting my own blog while participating at Chepooka’s, I post my response here.

Besides, as Taughnee pointed out, the “philosophy of language” path I’m taking here has taken the discussion off-topic from the original post.

Advance warning: Sometimes when I get pedantic in my writing — a major flaw of mine — it can sound like I’m being (shall we say?) “cantankerous.” (Except the word most people would use starts with a “b”.) That’s not my intent at all. It’s really an attempt to be thorough and precise. (I’m saying this so no one accidentally thinks I’m refusing Taughnee’s offer for discussion as opposed to argument [used in the non-logical meaning of the term].)

Language is certainly powerful. And, unfortunately, no one (including me…or you) can avoid the fact that our upbringing and our societies influence us in ways of which we’re never completely aware, including the way we speak.

Language is weird, too, because it’s both a product and shaper of that. The language you speak not only often carries “hidden” content, but actually impacts what you’re able to see. The most famous “example” of this is the fabled story about Eskimos having 5000 words for “snow.” (That’s an exaggeration, but, then, so’s the original story.)

According to that fable, non-Eskimos just don’t have all the concepts available to them that Eskimos have. We look at a pile of cold white stuff and we say, “I’d prefer dark meat, please.” Oh, wait…wrong story. We say, “Snow.” But — so the story goes — Eskimos see something else. It’s not just snow they see, it’s “snow that quickly collapses into an avalanche if you cough” — and that’s different from “snow that collapses underfoot if you laugh too loud.” (That’s one place the fable kinda falls apart. After all, if it’s describable to us, it’s not really a foreign concept.)

The fable about the Eskimos is just that — a fable — sometimes called “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax.” But the principle behind it appears to have some validity.

For those interested in more, google “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,” which is a theory about the relationship between thought and language and is the basis for some of these comments. And to my way of thinking, both W. V. O. Quine and Donald Davidson extend this line of thought. For what might be a slightly different point of view by a contemporary and extremely intelligent philosopher of language — I met him once years ago in San Francisco at a meeting of the Society for Philosophy & Psychology, of which I was a charter member — check out Steven Pinker. And I stressed the word “might” because I read his comments on the page I linked in as a potential explanation for the indeterminacy-of-translation theories of Davidson.

At any rate, back to the point…

The comment Mr. M made in his post on Chepooka (“most women vote the way their husbands do”) appeared to be based on a belief about something veridical and it did not appear that he was saying it because he believed women were stupid or sheeplike. It appeared that he meant that if you looked at the votes of married women, you’d find that they tracked the votes of their husbands. And if you dug into it, you’d find that they did that because their husbands voted as they did.

If this is true, there could be a variety of reasons why, most of which would probably be indicative of sexist underpinnings of our society. Women might do it because they worry about their husbands finding out they voted differently and getting pissed off (sexist underpinning). They might do it because they think their husbands are smarter about such things (major sexist underpinning). But it could also be because people who get married tend to share some common beliefs and so they both vote the same way because they both like the same candidate (possibly non-sexist reasons). And — probably Taughnee’s point — it could be that husbands voted the same as their wives; i.e., that the wives were the driving force. And while that might be sexist, too, it’s not what we traditionally think of when we say sexist, because, after all, we usually think of “sexism” — rightly or wrongly — as denigrating women.

Regardless of what the reason was, you could actually tabulate this, if you wanted. Just look at the votes of husbands and wives and see if they vote the same, then ask if men voted the way they did because of their wives or vice-versa. (But then there’s the problem of whether their answers to your questions might be driven by societal concepts of gender discrimination!)

The statement, “Many men tend to make decisions about voting without putting much thought into it,” on the other hand, is different in kind. It might be true. But the statement itself carries with it negative connotations in a way that the statement “most women vote the way their husbands vote” does not. For while you can think of ways in which the latter statement is true that are possibly not overtly sexist — indeed, possibly not sexist at all (in the case of married couples who share similar values) — the statement about men making voting decisions without thinking can only have a negative interpretation. Furthermore, it would be virtually impossible to empirically test it. What person — man or woman — is going to say, “Yeah, I vote without thinking.” Maybe some Republican complete ditz, but most people think they have good reasons for what they do (even if they don’t)…and that requires at least thinking that you think before doing what you do.

So, to my way of thinking, one is a potential insult, but a testable hypothesis; the other is just an insult. 😉

I really have to find a way to explain things more succinctly… 🙁

Categories: Philosophy


13 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Chepooka // Dec 6, 2004 at 10:43 am

    I think we’ve established that the phrase, “many women vote the way their husbands do just because they vote that way” is very different than “many husbands and wives cast their ballot for the same candidate.”

    The encoded original message is undoubtedly more like “Wives and husbands vote the same” … decoded, it’s “Women are subservient and incapable of making their own decisions.”

    Therefore, it’s the same insult. Which is the point I was trying to make. The message decoded is different from person to person (perhaps because you’re a man, perhaps because I am an overly-sensitive feminist, most likely a little of both), the emotional response is different, so I was trying to get you to understand how the original message made me FEEL in order for you to understand why to me, it was an insult.

    It’s irrelevant whether we can test this statement or not. It’s safe to say that it’s true that there are many women that vote the way their husbands do just because they vote that way. Or that kids vote the way their parents do or husbands vote the way their wives do. Or that some men are incapable of thinking for themselves. And so on.

    We’re working with stereotypes and forming generalizations. This is what makes a feminist’s claws come out (and overreact, too, admittedly lol)

    Sure, stereotypes almost always contain a nugget of truth. Or a lot of truth. But are they harmful? Well that’s a whole other discussion. Or argument in the logical meaning of the term.

    As for “sexism” — by definition, is predjudice based on sex “esp. against women” according to websters. But I have my own definitions for things and I think the dictionary is wrong on this (I have balls, don’t I?) unless it is taking into consideration matriarchal societies where women are the dominant social group (if so, kudos to websters!)

    Racism is predjudice based on race. But I would argue that unless you’re a white person, you can’t be “racist.” At least until the white race is no longer dominant.

    Anybody can be predjudiced or discriminate, though. Equal opportunity assholes, hurrah! 🙂

    Anyway I’m undoubtedly wrong about the last two ’cause webster is not backing me up. But I do think that we look at things differently depending on where we are on the totem pole.

  • 2 Rick Horowitz // Dec 6, 2004 at 11:21 am

    Well, Webster’s doesn’t have to back you up — or not — for you to be wrong. *grin*

    I’m not sure I agree with some of your contentions. But, then, I don’t have to! And the fact that I don’t doesn’t mean (of course) that you can’t continue to hold them.

    There’s no question that words can be offensive — that things can be stated offensively — even without intending it.

    The reasons for that are complex and are probably not totally related to language itself (as you pointed out when you noted the different social contexts in which the interpreter is positioned).

    You really might enjoy reading the Pinker interview I linked above.

    To make it easier for people who might want to check it out, there are four parts:

  • Are our thoughts constrained by language?
  • How we understand language
  • The evolution of language
  • Consciousness and cognition
  • As to my disagreeing with some of your contentions, the idea that another cannot be “racist” is a good example. If racism means that you have to be part of the “dominant” race, as you contend, then one of the problems would be that you’re a racist for holding a certain world-view, or not, depending on where you travel. A white bigot at home in California is a racist, but when he travels to some country where non-white people are the dominant culture, then he’s not. Unless you think that somehow white people are the dominant culture world-wide, even where they aren’t. (That’s kind of a private pun in a way — my Evidence instructor likes to say things like, “So the rule is always _______, except when it isn’t.”)

    Another variation on this theme — harder to see, but a variation nonetheless — is when people tell me that I can’t possibly critique Christianity, because I’m a Jew.

    No doubt one’s social position makes one see things differently. No doubt it also causes words to “mean” something different for one person than they “mean” for another.

    That’s what makes Pinker’s second interview (link number two above) so interesting.

    But I think one has to take care not to make the potential for communication hope by insisting that no amount of discussion, education, attempts at understanding, etc., can make it possible for someone to “get it.”

    Incidentally, I didn’t say you said that. It is a natural danger, though, in the path of insisting that words “mean” what the interpreter says they mean. Sometimes, when someone is offended by something that someone else said, it’s really “too bad,” because in a very real sense, “offense” — at least a deliberate offense — requires intent.

    And to allow for the possibility of callousness as constituting intent, just take the legal definition: “Intent is present when someone knew or should have known that . . ..”

  • 3 Mr. M // Dec 6, 2004 at 1:12 pm

    Since I’m the one that started this mess, I’ll finish it.

    First, Rick, as much as you defended me whilst my DSL was down, you made a very severe misquote that actually hinders the message and makes it difficult to academically study.

    But before I reproduce the entire quote, I want to reiterate an apology I’ve already made once.

    I really am sorry Che that the statement offended you, and in no way was I intending to make a sexist statement, nor was I intending to profess a generalization that is not true, as I’m about to show.

    Here is the quote in its entirety.

    “It’s kind of sad too Viki, because your friend is actually not all that uncommon either. There are many women that will vote the way their husbands vote because their husbands vote that way.”

    First, I want to bring to light the first sentence which puts things into context. Note the word “sadly.” This was my attempt at showing that I was not particularly happy about the practice I was pointing out. Also note that I said, “your friend is not all that uncommon…”
    This part of the quote is important because the statement I was making was directly related, as I saw it, to the conversation at hand.

    Now, the big misquote comes in replacing, “many,” with “most.” I agree full heartedly that had I said “most,” it would be inarguably a sexist statement because that would be making an unmistakable generalization that would be used to characterized the gender as a whole.

    But I didn’t say “most,” I said “many.” “Many,” is subjective. The only quantity that “many” can irrefutably be attributed to is that amount greater than one. Beyond that, “many” is subjective. In the context of my usage, I used many to describe a quantity that was high enough to deserve attention.

    For example, if I said, “many black kids today are killing each other in useless acts of violence,” this isn’t a declaration of racism. I am not saying that black people are violent. The intent behind the word “many,” is that there are more of these occurances than I think should happen (which would be zero).

    As my friend Christina (an avowed feminist herself) pointed out is that what I said should not invoke ire. In her opinion it was a statement of enlightenment that should be addressed. (She then gave me a little history lesson, explaining that one of the difficulties that women suffragists had to face when fighting for the right for women to vote was that some women at the time believed that they had enough influence over their husbands that they felt confident that their husband’s vote could count for their own. She than explained that some of the cases she knew where women voted their husband’s will at least seemed to stem from this mentality).

    Ultimately, the original point of the statement was not to attribute to all women, or even a majority of women the qualifier that I did. It was to point out a problem that I do know exists.

    In fact, if memory serves correctly, this was also a topic that flitted about in the liberal punditry for a small spell during the election. I think it was Air America that touched on it… by a feminist.

    But also, as my wife has pointed out, the comment I made could sound like a very sexist generalization. Again this stems from the word “many.” I used the word many to describe a quantity that I felt was too much (in this case, like the hypothetical one above, the only acceptable number would be zero). But as Rick has proved, the word many can be misconstrued to be a quantity that resemble the majority, or “most.”

    And, Che, you do make an erroneous assumption regarding bigotry. Your place on the social totem pole does not affect whether or not your beliefs are bigoted. The only thing that prominence affects is one’s ability to enact oppression.

    To hate a white person because that person is white is still racist. It’s not reverse racism either (a term that still gets kicked around that kind of irks me. Reverse racism is hating your own race). Now a black man may not have any power to oppress the white man, but to hate him solely because of the person’s color of skin is still racist.

    Keep in mind, this is because the black person is not taking into account anything about the white person other than that person’s ethnicity. Not personality, demeanor, intelligence, personability, integrity, ethics, or actions. Essentially that black person is hating based off of a generalization. Sadly, I’ve seen plenty of this happen as well.

    To me, bigotry is perhaps the vilest thing humans are capable of. It precludes actually understanding the people with whom we share this earth, and unless all of us, despite race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender, can come to grips with this fact, we’ll never find peace.

    Also, to assume that being a minority precludes you from bigotry is a very irresponsible stance. Eventually we are all going to have to bridge the gaps, and to claim that you are granted your hate because you are a minority only makes it that much harder for the bridges to be built.

    I’ve probably just flamed up Che even more, and for that I’m sorry, but hate is hate and should not be tolerated no matter who it comes from.

    Mr. M

  • 4 Chepooka // Dec 6, 2004 at 1:23 pm

    My point was that racism depends on the context. But really — my mind is calculating examples and it’s making smoke come out of my ears so I’d better think on that some more.

    Anyway I think we’re in agreement. Mostly.

    When you say “intent” — well, how can you prove intent? Stereotypes are pretty deeply rooted and we don’t always even know we hold them. I give Mr. M a pass because I have a pretty good idea that he is most certainly not sexist.

    But what if you don’t even realize the stereotypes you hold? We may say things and not intend to insult, but that doesn’t make it any less harmful. Why? Because language shapes our perceptions of the world. And not in an obvious way, but in a subconscious way. And it does leave a mark on how others are treated in society.

    Here’s an example: My mother always says “cottonpicker” — she doesn’t like to cuss but she’ll say, “You cottonpicker.”

    One day I said to her, “You know, that’s a really racist comment.” To me someone who picks cotton evoked an image of slaves picking cotton on a plantation in the south. So to me, I thought – she’s saying N***er!

    She was SHOCKED and APALLED that I would suggest such a thing. Of course she’s not racist, and she didn’t intend to say something bad. To her it was no different than, “Oh you little dickens.”

    But when we say things without realizing what we’re saying, on some level MEANING is attached and it shapes our view of the world. Is it ok to say cottonpicker because she didn’t intend it the way I interpreted it? I don’t think so.

    If people don’t interpret what she said as being racist, is there any harm?

    Well this is the whole “joke” about the “PC revolution” isn’t it. People taking themselves too seriously and being ultra-cautious about offending someone.

    But sometimes you have to shake people awake and make them aware of what they are doing. They may not THINK they intended to use a stereotype (or even have them — but maybe, just maybe they DO deep down) and apply it to a whole group of people, but they still MIGHT HAVE. Language really doesn’t sit too high on the surface of our conscious mind imo..

    My boyfriend has a friend that is quite fond of using the word N***er. It offends me. He doesn’t intend to offend, he just jokes around. It’s like he’s saying “Big strong badass football player.” Does that make it ok? I mean, I get pretty upset about that one too.

  • 5 Chepooka // Dec 6, 2004 at 1:29 pm

    Mr. M I agree with you. You articulated my point FAR BETTER than I did in my original attempt.

    I said that ANYBODY can be predjudiced (bigoted) and discriminate.

    What I attached to the word “racism” was the ability to oppress. Thank you for making this point.

  • 6 Rick Horowitz // Dec 6, 2004 at 1:37 pm

    First, let me ask, are we “mostly” in agreement? Or are we “manyly” in agreement?

    Apparently, I misquoted Mr. M. I’m not sure how that impacts the argument I laid out. In fact, it almost appears to reinforce it — in the sense that my argument points out the interpretative contribution to the original “offense.”

    There’s a lot going on when people communicate. It’s one reason I find cognitive science — not just philosophy of language — so fascinating.

    I contend that the alteration of “many” or “most” in the phrase discussed doesn’t create sexist content all by itself. There’s a lot more that needs to be added.

    Taughnee’s point about the “PC revolution” is a good one, although I would say “taking the words too seriously,” instead of the “themselves.” Words carry meaning. But they usually don’t carry it all by themselves. As Mr. M pointed out, they usually are found to have a context that imbues them with additional meaning (or perhaps “alters” their intended meaning). And then they get interpreted.

    Fascinating discussion, really. And it’s not nearly as simple as this conversation might make it sound. If it were, well, people like Steven Pinker would have to get “real” jobs. 😉

    And, why, Mr. M, would you want to “finish it”? Don’t you enjoy the give-and-take of trading ideas? I do! It’s one reason I blog!

    P.S. In response to the offensiveness of certain words, like the so-called “N-word,” think again of context. I would argue that the historical context of that word is such that people who think they can use it non-offensively are likely wrong. However, there’s also the whole other issue of “reclaiming” or “neutering” words. (And let’s not get into the potential implications of the word “neutering”! You see how this can get complex and “out of hand”?)

  • 7 Chepooka // Dec 6, 2004 at 1:40 pm

    Ok and just one other thing. Mr. M I apologize too. I get your point.

    But to be totally honest with you, it’s not the “many” word that struck me most, it was the “just because they vote that way.”

    I’m not going to “go there” and pick this thing further apart because I’ve gone a little off the deep end and now realize that you were making a valid point and in the context of the original conversation, it fit.

  • 8 Rick Horowitz // Dec 6, 2004 at 2:00 pm

    Incidentally, good points have been made by all here. My disagreement with some of those points doesn’t change my opinion of that!

    As Chepooka points out, people — all people — fail to realize the stereotypes they hold. I’ve written about this before — either in my blog or in my journals that pre-date the blog — and I’ll try to find that again, if I can. The essentials are that people stereotype because that’s how brains are built. If they weren’t, we’d have never learned “sabertooth tiger = run! hide!” And there might not be humans around to hate (use that verb either transitively or intransitively, it won’t matter here).

    But, as I said once in an old blog article, when I took the Democrats to task for potentially giving Cruz Bustamante a free ride for something they’d fry Republicans on, “Animals live by that code; humans should not aspire to it.”

    All that said, it’s been a pet peeve of mine — and I dislike the so-called “PC” movement for this reason, even though I consider myself a proud, card-carrying liberal — that people think the fact that someone was offended means that an offense was intended.

    Language is an ambiguous thing. If, in interpreting what someone says, you fail to differentiate what you added to the “meaning” of something from what they intended, communicating with them will fail.

    Nevertheless, that said, there’s nothing wrong with learning from our accidental offenses of one another and not saying things a particular way. (I’ve tried to be more careful, for example, in discussing Christianity on the blog for that reason.)

  • 9 Mr. M // Dec 6, 2004 at 3:27 pm

    Oh, I didn’t want to end the academic discussion, I just wanted to end the part of it where I was a bad guy.

    Actually, I love talking about language. Despite my relaxed prose, I am an English major, and therefore love all the inherent intriquacies involved with language.

    The part of this discussion that we are putting to bed is pretty much miscommunication. The funny thing about this is that it brings to mind something you hear all the time. “It’s so hard to put emotion in typing.” People miss sarcasm, implied meanings, dual meanings, and much nuance through internet communication. The interesting thing in this is that they seem to miss these things in written communication much less frequently.

    I think it’s a lot about tone and voice. Those of us who write a great deal understand our internal ear, and write to it adeptly. Those who aren’t that proficient in writing have the tendancy to struggle with this.

    But then the question is, what caused the error here?

    Well, if you think about it, say you read the same comment, one from someone on the internet, and one from a favorite author.

    If it’s from the favorite author, than you probably understand the author’s tone and voice to a point where you can pick out things like sarcasm without batting an eye. Authors spend a great deal of effort honing their voice to a point that their words leap out of the page and carry the same, if not more meaning, than the spoken word.

    But in the case of the internet writer, you don’t already have all those previously held notions regarding the persons voice, therefore, you aren’t initially able to assign any kind of implied meaning to anything that particular writer writes.

    This is probably because of the sheer amount of written material shared over the web with no editorial restraint. You have to take words more at their face value than for someone whom you know well.

    It’s just a theory.

    As for epithets, that’s tricky. Personally, a word is a word. Granted I’m mostly white, and male, therefore there aren’t too many epithets geared towards singling me out, and the ones that do exist, I’ve never taken seriously as a result of no real social context to load them up with (though I’ve definitely experienced my fair share of poverty, I’ve never lived in a trailer park, therefore calling me trailor trash doesn’t really hit home for me).

    So I think a word is a word is a word initially. It’s the intent behind it that lends it its power.

    For instance, the F-word. Now I don’t just like to cuss, but I like to think that in my twenty-seven years that I’ve become something of a master. Here’s the thing that gets me, people who use words like “flipping, fricking, fudging, etc.” They use it in the exact same context as the other word, with the exact same level of malice (or more, remember, I use the F-word like a comma sometimes), and yet it’s more socially acceptable.

    Cutting closer to the quick, the N-word. If you’re white (and not me. Apparently my brothers and sisters have made me a card carrying black person), you are not allowed to use the N word at all. Period. But if you are black (or have the handy card that I have) than it’s a word of friendship. Even outside of my brothers and sisters and cousins, I can’t use the word really. So there is a duality in meaning and social context.

    But the N-word is different. Japanese don’t go around calling each other Japs (actually, and this is kind of funny, the Asian gangs that I’ve seen go around calling each other the N-word). Women may go around calling each other bitch (my mom had a great relationship with the lady across the street when I was young. The lady across the street was Super Bitch, and my mom was Junior Bitch), but you never hear women call each other the C-word (incidentally that is the one word I won’t use. You could call my step sister any name in the book, but you pulled out the C-word, and you were getting chased around the block with a baseball bat).

    Ultimately, all words are given power by the user, and the listener. Keeping this in mind, there is an equal responsibility of both with regard to the usage of words.

    As Che pointed out in the anecdote about her mother, her mother had no idea that it was a racial epithet, and therefore didn’t put any racial power into the word. So in this case, her mother couldn’t be held responsible for what she said, however; Che being a little more in the know, did have a responsibility to a) not take offense since none was being intended, and b) inform her mother that the word could have racial implications.

    I think the main thing is that each word has a differing social awareness attached to it, and all any of us could do is try and understand that through our every day speech.

    Mr. M

  • 10 Viki // Dec 6, 2004 at 8:38 pm

    Ah haaaa! there really is a Word Police Force!

    LOL! Seriously, it is dangerous in this PC world. You really have to take care and be within context or your entire meaning can get hijacked by those who read between the lines.

    I think it is unfortunate that people get offended at the nearly every form of adjective…because somewhere, someone at sometime used the word or phrase in some way with the intent to show disrespect to a person or group of people.

    And….usually the offending word or phrase is circled in red and highlighted without the context in which it was used, so it then becomes this raw offending word that we project our own meaning to.

    Is it possible to guard ourselves from falling into this vicious circle by not always projecting our own thoughts, but rather really trying to “listen” to the message without reading between the lines.

  • 11 Chepooka // Dec 6, 2004 at 9:22 pm

    Well done everyone. This is really … nice. It’s nice to have a meaty conversation, isn’t it?

    For the record, I did give my mom a pass because she’s a SAINT and I did inform her that her commonly-used phrase could have an unintended meaning. To which she replied, “Oh go on.”

    At the end of the day, it’s nearly impossible even in everyday life for a message to be encoded – transmitted – then decoded and have it all work out perfectly.

  • 12 Rick Horowitz // Dec 6, 2004 at 9:35 pm

    Dang! You guys are impressive!

    I feel almost guilty for studying for my Evidence mid-term! 😉

    I can’t wait to get into this conversation.

  • 13 Mr. M // Dec 6, 2004 at 9:47 pm

    To be honest, I really wish people would put a little more emphasis on intent than the word itself.

    Because we give words themselves more credit than they deserve, we have seriously crippled this language of ours.

    Okay, that’s not the only reason, but it’s one of them.

    One of the most detrimental real problems that this has caused today has been book banning.

    Case in point, my most favorite book of all time, Of Mice And Men, is one of the ten most banned books in this country because it uses the word “nigger.”

    Also, another one of my favorites, To Kill a Mockingbird, is also on the esteemed top ten. The irony is that while it too is often sought to be banned for the use of racial epithets, the entire point of the story is that one shouldn’t mistreat another because of their outward appearance.

    (The first college paper I’ve ever written was on book banning, could you tell?)

    George Carlin says that the practice of clipping our language so as not to offend anyone softens the language.

    To a degree he’s right. But by softening the language, we are in effect trying to bury our heads in the sand.

    Did you know that there were people after September 11th that were trying to get the word “airplane” removed from the lexicon?

    Mr. M

    ps. I think I figured it out, I’m not controversial enough on my own blog. I’m wastin’ all the good stuff on everyone else.

  • Leave a Comment