By David Ottlinger
What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.
-George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”
The invention of new concepts on the internet has become something of a cottage industry. Certain terms of art like “privilege” and “punching up” have long been familiar in the “blogosphere,” itself a term of art. But the proliferation of terms seems to be accelerating, and in the past several years the internet has added to its vocabulary ‘mansplain’, ‘cultural appropriation’, ‘respectability politics’, ‘manic pixie dream girl’, ‘magical negro’ and the particularly unwieldy ‘privelobliviousness’.  In a particularly interesting and telling article earlier this year, Laurie Penny celebrated this widespread linguistic innovation. In the article is a brief interview with feminist linguist Dale Spender, who rhapsodizes: “I love the word ‘mansplaining’…It’s perfect. You know instantly what it means. And ‘manspreading’, ‘manterrupting’ – did you know that in mixed-gender conversations, 98 per cent of interruptions are by men?” Penny, for her part, was in such enthusiastic agreement that she found it necessary to swallow “[her] hero worship together with a lukewarm coffee.” 
In my usual role as a wet blanket, I am less sanguine about all this fresh minting of words. It certainly creates difficulty in communicating for those who do not keep up regularly with political blogs and journals of opinions. More particularly, I am concerned with the influence this pattern has on the way we think and argue. In 1946, George Orwell had similar concerns.  He observed a glut of technical, Latinate terms in political and literary discussion. With so many repeated words and phrases, ready-made and standing by, pieces were in his opinion being “tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.” Reading contemporary essays, I often experience the same sentiment. So in what appears to be an on-going series on history repeating itself, I will attempt to apply Orwell’s critique of the public discourse of his own day to discourse in our day and add my own thoughts, where I think it may help to update the argument. My hope is that in enlisting such powerful help I may be able to do some small service to a discourse that has once again gotten itself “in a bad way.”
In the first place, it is not always clear what these terms of art add to the discussion. “Mansplain” is a perfect example. The term spun out of an article by Rebecca Solnit in the Los Angeles Times (Solnit herself did not propagate the term directly, but her readers subsequently adopted it).  In the article a man, in Solnit’s appraisal, condescendingly explained to her and a colleague a book that, as it turns out, Solnit had written. As Solnit read the situation, this person assumed his own superior knowledge and authority on the subject, by virtue of his gender. In the idiom that was to follow, he mansplained her own book to her.
Now I have no doubt that such incidents occur, that they are motivated by sexism and that they negatively impact women. And, without having been present, I am inclined to take Solnit at her word, in her characterization of the event. My sole interest for the moment is whether such events are best conceptualized under the rubric of “mansplaining.” It seems to me that the statement “he mansplained her own book to her” is just as readily expressed in terms of ordinary discourse. Using everyday, recognizable words such as ‘condescending’ and ‘dismissive’, the statement could be re-expressed without loss of meaning. Re-expressing it in the more customary manner also would have a few advantages. It would not assume knowledge of a term that is likely to be known only by a few, and for an argument with political intent, such things matter. It also would more specifically and perspicuously capture what was objectionable about the incident, which would have the advantage of conveying more information and forcing a certain amount of rigor (about which more in a moment). So, just in virtue of adding so little, I believe such terms and phrases are suspect. And should be abolished, in a spirit of entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitate. Or as Orwell — who would not have approved of such liberal use of Latin — put it: “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”
The main concern I have, however, is the effect of liberal use of terms of art on writers. Such terms become the shorthand for an analysis that does not actually take place because the existence of the shorthand. Political writers are generally tasked with identifying regular forms of public behavior and speech and critiquing them. They judge them as helpful or hindering, necessary or obligatory and offer prescriptions and proscriptions on that basis. But pre-made terms and phrases draw writers away from careful analysis and studied observation, by giving them the ability to simply label the desired object of. Examples will illustrate.
An article, perhaps not important in itself but indicative of a general type, appeared not long ago in Salon, arguing that white women should not perform “belly–dancing,” otherwise known as “Raqs Sharqi”.  Needless to say this raised some eyebrows across the internet. The argument alleges that for white women, the performance of the dance constitutes “cultural appropriation”. The trouble is that the meaning of this popular dictum is spectacularly unclear. By the second paragraph we are told that nineteenth century white women were already “appropriating” a culture, without being told what ‘appropriating’ means or how this display counts as an example. (Apparently Mark Twain was on hand, with a film camera, to help in the appropriating.) The author goes on to describe a number of encounters with white women who perform the dance. Some do, in fact, seem to be objectionable. She describes dining with friends when a white dancer took to the stage wearing “genie pants and a bra and heavy eye makeup and Arabic jewelry, or jewelry that is meant to read as ‘Arabic’ because it’s metallic and shiny and has squiggles of some kind” and began to dance. I found it easy to share in the author’s distaste. But elsewhere she describes talking to white dancers who apparently approached the dance quite reverently and studied it under Middle Eastern teachers for many years. Here it is less clear what is objectionable. But what is striking is that the author never explicitly articulates what all these behaviors have in common, such that they all count as “cultural appropriation,” nor what exactly is objectionable about it. These lapses are disguised by the continuity of language and the assumed logic provided by the idiom of “cultural appropriation.” It gives the argument an appearance of completeness it would otherwise lack.
Philosopher Neil Van Leuween also touches on the theme of “cultural appropriation,” but his approach is entirely different.  He begins by defining ‘cultural appropriation’ and by trying to give a general account of why it is objectionable. He recognizes immediately that cultures borrowing or adapting practices from other cultures is usually innocent and seeks to distinguish such innocent cases from a class of actions that can be meaningfully deemed “appropriative,” with its concomitant negative valence. The definition he settles upon strikes me as sound and is helpful in filling the gaps left by the Salon piece. Neil argues that “cultural appropriation is where people from a group that oppressed or oppresses another group mimics or represents cultural artifacts or manners of the oppressed group, in a way that expresses or reinforces psychological elements of the racist ideology inherent in the colonialist project responsible for the oppression.” Such a definition helps to articulate why the restaurant scene in the Salon piece might be considered objectionable. It does seem that pseudo-Arabic squiggles and I-Dream-of-Genie skirts might re-inforce ideas of a decadent and exotic “Orient” that Middle-Eastern people might fairly find insulting and which played — and likely continues to play — a pernicious role in history. Likewise this definition upholds the intuitive judgment that white dancers who approach the dance with respect would not be considered to have acted wrongly. Such pieces show that these terms of art can be used carefully and not merely as cover for thin argument, but I am sorry to say I find such pieces to be in the minority. (Full disclosure Neil is a teacher and friendly acquaintance of mine.)
It would be one thing if these problems were confined to silly pieces at Salon, though Salon is read by many and has some influence. Unfortunately this pattern seems to occur more widely. Recent debates on race have been marked by the same dysfunction. Writing in the Boston Review, Glenn Loury expressed reservations about the terms in which our discussions of race are taking place. To his mind easy narratives have grown up around “pigs” and “thugs,” “choir boys” and “public menaces.”  Loury argues forcefully that in discussing the actions of individuals, we must carefully consider both social forces and autonomous, individual choice in assigning moral praise and blame. A society can be blamed for beckoning its youth to a life of crime and still blame those youths who go where their society beckons. In response Loury was accused of engaging in “respectability politics,” but the same ambiguities crowd around this phrase as did with ‘cultural appropriation’. It is not necessarily denied that people — even those under very adverse conditions — are generally expected to act in ways worthy of moral respect. It is not necessarily affirmed that oppressed people lack the autonomy to lead moral lives in a radically imperfect world. This is largely because in using this phrase, very little is affirmed or denied at all, the actual content of the phrase being remarkably indefinite.
Again I do not wish to be understood as saying that there could be no successful argument which relied on the use of the phrase ‘respectability politics’. As was the case with ‘cultural appropriation’, this term does gesture at a genuine and salient moral truth. People must not be expected to be perfect actors, in order to make moral claims. It is only that the phrase often takes the place of argument. It is never articulated exactly what “respectability politics” is or what exactly makes it inadequate. The mere presence of the familiar phrase seems to be enough to persuade both author and reader that the objection has already been made. And arguments that are not made are never successful. A person who would argue successfully against “respectability politics” would need to undertake the work Neil undertook for ‘cultural appropriation’. But generally this is not done.
I have been focusing on politics, but the case has been made that similar problems bedevil our discourse about art. This would not have surprised Orwell, who expected his critique to be relevant wherever language is being used as “an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.” Leon Wieseltier has decried the widespread use of easy allusions in reviews and discussions of art, for reasons which strongly parallel the ones we have been considering.  He was aghast at hearing a Broadway play based on Spider-Man compared to Rilke, Nora Ephron to Shakespeare and Jay-Z to nothing less than “T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Shakespeare, and Dickens.” More than the improbability of these claims, Wieseltier notices that they seemed to reflect a mode of expression that had become ingrained in literary culture. Wieseltier argues that this ever-flowing river of comparisons becomes “an associative shorthand for perceptions that we have forgotten how otherwise to describe.. I am inclined to think he is right. It is easy to call something “Kafkaesque.” It is hard to describe the agony of constantly deferred action, the paranoid feeling of always being observed, always being in public, the grinding brutality of being slowly drained of all energy, all of which makes Kafka’s work so memorable. Instead of describing specifically what works have in common with Kafka and why these common features lend value to both, they are simply labeled “Kafkaesque,” as though the reader and the author both understand what is meant by this. Indeed a literary person must know what is meant by this or at least pretend to know or else risk being exposed as unfashionable. In this way there forms “a loop of allusions that assure us of our in-the-knowness and arm us against any disruption of it”. This is helpful for those who want to feel and appear literary in public, but is decidedly unhelpful for those who actually want to understand literature.
I do not want my critique of certain concepts and the overly-free use of others to generate into a mindless hatred of the abstract. There are some concepts that have no equivalent in every-day discourse and which are beneficial, even essential to healthy political discourse. I hold the feminist concept of “oppression” to be a paradigm case. The concept receives a powerful exposition in Marilyn Frye’s aptly titled “Oppression.”  It is worth quoting at length:
The root of the word “oppression” is the element “press”. The press of the crowd; pressed into military service; to press a pair of pants; printing press; press the button. Presses are used to mold things or flatten them or reduce them in bulk, sometimes to reduce them by squeezing out the gasses or liquids in them. Something pressed is something caught between or among forces and barriers which are related to each other that jointly they restrain, restrict, or prevent the thing’s motion or mobility. Mold. Immobilize. Reduce.
Many small daily occurrences that women experience share a common logic and rationale and converge, with the effect that women’s freedom of action, even freedom of thought is constrained. Small condescensions like the one described by Solnit send signals on how to behave which, when constantly repeated, shape the way women behave and think in ways which hinder their personal and political freedoms.
This concept, unlike ‘mansplain’, allows us to express a range of propositions that would not, as far as I can tell, otherwise be expressible. It allows us to articulate certain truths of substantial political salience. Some anti-feminists argue that women earn less money than men, because women freely chose lower paying positions and positions in lower-income areas and that women do not voice opinions on many subjects out of lack of interest. They are of course right in that women who drop out of science majors or do not speak up when politics is being discussed are in one sense acting freely. They are acting autonomously and reflectively, by weighing reasons for and against acting as they do. But in another sense they are significantly un-free. Women who wish to enter scientific fields or argue politics in public often have to contend with a headwind pushing back at them, in a way that men ordinarily do not. They are oppressed. This can only be understood by means of the introduction of a new concept, ‘oppression’, because no term in ordinary discourse gathers together all these experiences in a single word and describes what makes them pernicious. Consequently, the concept enriches our discourse significantly. Current my arguments, however, even such beneficial concepts must be wielded appropriately and careful. They should not be used when every-day terms suffice and they must be used in ways which assign to it clear and substantial content. Without this it loses all its power and becomes another empty label which will be carelessly combined with other empty labels to produce familiar pieces which sound forceful but lack all meaning.
One of the more charming aspects of Orwell’s essay is that he does not address the problems of the English language, as perpetrated only by others but with regard to his own writing. He goes so far as to concede, “Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.” Doubtless the same is true for me. It may seem that I have been dumping on wide swathes of writing on the internet and to some extent I suppose I have, but the tendency I am trying to resist is a tendency to which we all succumb at some point or another. I only hope by calling attention to it we can be a little more aware of it and more effective in resisting it. The first order of business will getting rid of “privelobliviousness.”
 For ‘mansplain’ see: http://articles.latimes.com/2008/apr/13/opinion/op-solnit13
A very amusing retraction:
The above was follow up to this:
 see 
 The paper is frequently anthologized including in Frye’s important collection: