Privelobliviousness

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’. [1] 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.” [2]

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. [3] 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). [4]  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”. [5] 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. [6]  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.” [7] 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. [8] 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.” [9] 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.”

Notes

[1]  For ‘mansplain’ see: http://articles.latimes.com/2008/apr/13/opinion/op-solnit13

and

http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2012/11/a-cultural-history-of-mansplaining/264380/

“respectability politics”:

https://www.google.com/trends/explore#q=respectability%20politics

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/oct/12/respectability-politics-wont-save-black-americans

‘MPDG’

http://www.avclub.com/article/the-bataan-death-march-of-whimsy-case-file-1-emeli-15577

http://www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/2013/06/i-was-manic-pixie-dream-girl

A very amusing retraction:

http://www.salon.com/2014/07/15/im_sorry_for_coining_the_phrase_manic_pixie_dream_girl/

‘Magical Negro’

https://www.google.com/trends/explore#q=magical%20negro

http://www.yale.edu/opa/arc-ybc/v29.n21/story3.html

http://www.salon.com/2010/09/14/magical_negro_trope/

‘privelobliviousness’

Men Explain Lolita to Me

The above was follow up to this:

80 Books No Woman Should Read

[2] http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/feminism/2015/09/gender-neutral-language-coming-here-s-why-it-matters

[3] https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm

[4] see [1]

[5] http://www.salon.com/2014/03/04/why_i_cant_stand_white_belly_dancers/

http://www.salon.com/2014/03/18/i_still_cant_stand_white_belly_dancers/

[6] http://www.philosophytalk.org/community/blog/neil-van-leeuwen/2015/11/what-cultural-appropriation

[7] http://bostonreview.net/forum/glenn-c-loury-ferguson-wont-change-anything-what-will

[8] https://newrepublic.com/article/81393/excellent-new-art

[9] The paper is frequently anthologized including in Frye’s important collection:

81 comments

  1. David,

    It’s not at all clear where the text quoted from Marilyn Frye ends. Could you add some quotation marks? Thanks.

    Otherwise, thanks for a thought-provoking essay.

    Like

  2. ‘Mansplain’ seems a perfectly good word to me. It is a widespread phenomenon, I have done it myself on more occasions that I care to remember. It seems definitely something that needs a name. I can remember back in the late sixties my grandmother feeling it necessary to point out to her son that she spoke 7 languages fluently and had been National Secretary of a major political party.

    Any term could be replaced, you could write a book about oppression without even once using the word. That doesn’t mean that it should be replaced. The same with ‘mansplain’.

    But words serve a number of functions. “Oppression” carries the connotation of victimhood and most women, most feminists do not want to accept that card. “Mansplain”, on the other hand, represents a more light-hearted attitide, a rolling of the eyes. Even ‘condescend’ and ‘dismiss’ have gathered to them connotations that the condescender or dismisser had some sort of status that allows them to take this position.

    Neither ‘oppress’, ‘condescend’ or ‘dismiss’ have the connotation that you are ridiculing a person for doing these things. ‘Mansplain’ does, although it is a gentle ridicule which invites the man in question to join the joke and laugh at himself.

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  3. David: You were doing so well until you got to the stuff about “oppression” and then you completely lost me. Indeed, it seems to me, you cut your own legs right out from under yourself.

    Were women once — as a general matter — oppressed in the US? Absolutely. Are they — as a general matter — oppressed today? Absolutely not — at least, not if you don’t want to abuse the word ‘oppress’ until it has no meaning.

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  4. Daniel Kaufman,

    We debated previously whether women are oppressed or not. I’ve noticed that you like J.S. Mill and I’m sure that you’re familiar with his book, On the Subjection of Women. Would you accept that women are often subjected to male power or dominated by male power? We might be able to reach some kind of consensus to avoid using the word “oppression” and to use “subjection” or “domination” instead.

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    1. I should add that I do believe that there is sexism (of course), but I do not take that, in itself, as meaning that women are oppressed as a class. Antisemitism exists in the US, after all, but I wouldn’t say that I or other Jews are oppressed in the US.

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  5. David,

    Some interesting discussion here, but I think it has a problem (which also may have something to do with DanK’s initial response). Basically, you’ve folded two issues here. “Mansplaining” is not really a ‘term of art’ but an in-group slang (if you’re in the group, you’ll ‘get it,’ otherwise it’s meaningless). Admittedly the group it was originally active with has been considerably enlarged (and dispersed) by the term’s becoming ‘viral’ on the internet, but it remains a loose reference to a presumed attitude, reflecting back to the group intended to ‘get it’ and use it in a humorous way.

    On the other hand, ‘respectability politics’ or ‘cultural appropriation’ are indeed terms of art within certain given theoretical constructs. (The construct validating ‘respectability politics’ is largely journalistic, but ‘cultural appropriation’ actually has an academic-historical component.)

    So elaborating the problems with the dissemination of these terms really requires some distinctions. Is there a common element to them? Probably; but this can only be discovered and articulated properly once the distinctions are made.

    Actually, you raise yet a third problem when you discuss the sloppiness of current cultural comparisons and references. When we find Jay-Z (a songwriter, I take it?) compared to T. S. Eliot, what is interesting is no longer the construction of a phrase and its relating reference, but the audience expectations (and the expectation the one deploying the phrase has for the audience). Why? Because one can’t really meaningfully compare a contemporary songwriter to Eliot without a) actually having read Eliot, and b) engaging in a critical analysis of the possible comparison. But the reviewer who claims such a comparison in a brief remark, eg., ‘Jay-Z is certainly as good at verse as Eliot,’ probably expects his/her audience has heard the name of ‘Eliot’ and has a sense of the cultural significance of the name, but hasn’t read Eliot (and such a reviewer probably hasn’t read much Eliot either).

    Finally, there’s the problem of the use of the term ‘oppression’ esp. in regards to women’s issues. The problem here is that it is somewhat more than a term of art, since it signifies a fairly well-defined concept, and has an academic-historical component as well. However, it has, since the early 19th century, born the weight of considerable rhetorical usage and implication – it is now always necessarily ‘loaded.’ Feminist scholars argue women are ‘oppressed’ by masculine biases – and the right-wing militia terrorists in Oregon say they are ‘oppressed’ by legal decisions they don’t like. ‘Oppression’ is always a claim of ‘right’ in the face of ‘injustice.’ Consequently, though it may have important political value in given situations, it has limited use in theory or understanding.

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  6. I was pleased to be pointed to all the Solnit articles, and I’ll put another vote of support in for “mansplain”. It looks like there have been ~100 neologisms coined in English each year since the 1960’s – hopefully the useless and ambiguous ones will keep dropping out. As to “cultural appropriation”, it is a definitely useful concept to introduce, even though sorting out free speech, ownership and membership, intellectual property, inspiration, borrowing and theft are a bit more complicated than just claiming racism or colonialism to be at work (in Australian indigenous art, we are also talking about money…)

    http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/visual-arts/the-ethics-of-cultural-borrowing/story-fn9d3avm-1226538593187

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Daniel Kaufman,

    Given that women, even middle class women, not to mention working class women, are discriminated against, often sexually harassed, objectified and taught gender stereotypes that do not contribute to their flourishing, what word, if any, would you use to describe their situation, given that you reject the use of “oppression” , “subjection” and “domination”? I’m open to new ideas.

    By the way, I know that no one forces women to conform to traditional gender stereotypes and that they are free to break them, but the fact that they have to dedicate energy to breaking gender stereotypes in order to flourish indicates that they have a certain disadvantage with regard to males.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This was a fun one David, and especially since I’m not entirely sure how truthful you were being. How seriously should we take a piece where the writer calls himself “a wet blanket,” when his point is that we must stop using terms such as “wet blanket”?

    So yes, I’m calling “Bullshit!”

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  9. Wallerstein,

    Thanks for the heads up. (Dan, thank you for attending to that.)

    Robin,

    “Any term could be replaced, you could write a book about oppression without even once using the word.”
    On the latter point I’m not sure that that’s true, at least from a practical standpoint it doesn’t seem feasible. There just is no word which conveys the kind of restriction of freedom in the relevant way. Unless of course you invent a perfect synonym for oppression which is cheating. I suppose in principle any term is replaceable but it strikes me that “mansplain ” is much more readily replaceable. When replaceable it ought to be replaced because of the inherent risks involved with terms of art.

    “Neither ‘oppress’, ‘condescend’ or ‘dismiss’ have the connotation that you are ridiculing a person for doing these things.”
    All of them have negative moral valence. Also ridicule is another thing which an author should do and not an author’s words.

    Dan,

    “Were women once — as a general matter — oppressed in the US? Absolutely. Are they — as a general matter — oppressed today? Absolutely not — at least, not if you don’t want to abuse the word ‘oppress’ until it has no meaning.”

    Well we have stumbled on to a considerable disagreement here. I believe there are forces which still exist in culture which more than qualify as oppressive in the meaningful sense. Joan C Williams is an excellent person to read on these subjects. She has combed through thousands of workplace evaluations and has found that women are perceived as and reported to be aggressive far more often and for much slighter things than men. This matters when women are consider for promotion or for raises. If everyone reacts strongly to perceived “aggressiveness” it is a lot harder to negotiate a raise. There is also a lot of evidence of evidence that women choose to leave a number of professions or even majors before they advance very far. Some people try to explain this by way of the idea that women are born less interested in the law or foreign affairs. I think the much more reasonable answer is that society sends signals to them that they should not be interested in such subjects and should not speak to them. Claude Steele’s notion of stereotype threat has also been compellingly invoked in connection with such matters. These kinds of things are what add up to the under representation of women and the gender pay gap. It means women having less opportunity and less freedom of expression. (Remember we agreed in our freedom of expression discussion that these social forces matter.) Frye’s exposition is brilliant because it captures the way such forces act. Women are not stopped or turned back they are simply nudged away again and again and again. Certain forces *press* against them and lead them away. Little steers add up.

    Some work some friends of mine did on this:
    https://pitthpswip.wordpress.com/2014/02/21/women-and-philosophy-why-is-it-goodbye-at-hello/

    ej,

    “Admittedly the group it was originally active with has been considerably enlarged (and dispersed) by the term’s becoming ‘viral’ on the internet, but it remains a loose reference to a presumed attitude, reflecting back to the group intended to ‘get it’ and use it in a humorous way.”
    It originated in the LA Times, not Jezebel.

    “the reviewer who claims such a comparison in a brief remark, eg., ‘Jay-Z is certainly as good at verse as Eliot,’ probably expects his/her audience has heard the name of ‘Eliot’ and has a sense of the cultural significance of the name, but hasn’t read Eliot (and such a reviewer probably hasn’t read much Eliot either).”
    Very true.

    ” ‘Oppression’ is always a claim of ‘right’ in the face of ‘injustice.’ Consequently, though it may have important political value in given situations, it has limited use in theory or understanding.”
    I don’t get it. I would have thought discourse about rights and justice. are exactly what we use in “theory and understanding”.

    “Feminist scholars argue women are ‘oppressed’ by masculine biases – and the right-wing militia terrorists in Oregon say they are ‘oppressed’ by legal decisions they don’t like.”
    Yep. One of them is right and the other one is wrong. Doesn’t make the term meaningless.

    Like

  10. David, I’ve already, in a sense replied to this. I agree that sexism exists in the US today. I don’t agree that this constitutes “oppression” in the way the word is commonly used. Some of our disagreement, in fact, may be over the meaning of that term, which you seem to be using in a theoretical, rather than an ordinary sense.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. S. Wallerstein. I’ve already replied to this. That there is sexism does not mean that women are oppressed any more than the fact that there is anti-Semitism means that Jews are oppressed. I don’t deny that there is sexism. What I deny is that women, in the US, as a class, are oppressed.

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  12. David,

    “It originated in the LA Times, not Jezebel.” The original appreciative readership still forms a group, regardless of size; and the group enlarges (while growing diffuse in profile) as the term goes ‘viral’ among those who share a common understanding of its usage. (I first heard the term on the Stephanie Miller show, where its usage was clear, without any need for conceptual framework).

    “I would have thought discourse about rights and justice. are exactly what we use in ‘theory and understanding’.”
    Discourse *about* rights and justice (and claims) are used in theory and understanding. *Claims* of right and justice are made in the political arena or in courts, or in other situations evoking social power relationships. They are not adjudicated along lines of wrong or right, since having a profoundly subjective element; rather they must be considered as ‘strong’ or ‘weak.’ The Oregon militiamen certainly feel oppressed, but their claim is weaker than that of feminist scholars (many of whom spend their careers trying to find evidence and develop interpretations strengthening their claim).

    However to build a substantial ‘Theory of Oppression,’ one would have to strip the term of its subjective elements, except as analysis of social-psychological response patterns, and that would leave those wanting to use the term as a claim in rather a weakened position. Part of the use of the claim is to persuade those having similar experiences to one’s own, that they ought to respond to those experiences, like the claimant, by feeling ‘oppressed.’ A Theory of Oppression would have to deal with people just as they are in their given cultures, and a Los Angeles woman’s ‘oppression’ might reasonably be expected to be some Saudi woman’s sharia. A Theory of Oppression could account for this socio-psychologically, but not in a way that would persuade the Saudi woman to see her situation as the same as, or similar to, that of the woman in Los Angeles.That has always been a frustration for Western feminist scholars – how can a theory of the oppression of women be developed that would persuade women in other cultures that they’re oppressed? Well, theory just can’t. That’s a political project, and has to be engaged in rhetorically.

    Which goes to your final remark: Rhetoric is not meaningless. It either works or it doesn’t; but the terms deployed are never lacking in signification.

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  13. It strikes me as somewhat unfortunate that we are having the same argument re: feminism / women’s “oppression” that we already had in the discussion on Mark English’s piece. David’s essay is about language, not feminism, and he could have made exactly the same case using terms that have nothing to do with feminism.

    Perhaps, we could talk about that, instead of having the same argument again and again. It’s quite clear that we are not going to convince one another, so at this point, it’s just an exercise in signalling.

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  14. Daniel Kaufman, Isn’t sexism in the U.S. isn’t a bit more oppressive (for lack of a better word) than anti-semitism (and less oppressive, by the way, than racism against blacks)? I’m Jewish, lived in the U.S. for many years on both coasts (your experience in middle America may be different, I admit) and I very very infrequently heard an anti-semitic remark or felt discriminated against because I’m Jew. From what I can see, outside of a few universities and corporations which do make real and effective efforts not to discriminate against women, they face lots of discrimination, not to mention sexual harassment and have to deal with gender stereotypes which make flourishing more difficult.

    There are degrees of oppression (for lack of a better word, again) and in a previous discussion you brought in the experience of your family members during the Holocaust, considered to be one of the worst crimes against humanity on record: obviously, the Holocaust constitutes an almost infinitely worse degree of oppression than sexism in the U.S. today, as do slavery and colonialism, but that does not mean that sexism in the U.S. isn’t somehow oppression (for lack of a better word).

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    1. As I said in my last comment, I am rather disinclined to continue this conversation, as it is essentially the same conversation we had over Mark English’s piece and really isn’t the subject of David’s essay, which is about language. I will, however, say a few more things in reply, here.

      1. Re: anti-Semitism and sexism, your observations are clearly geographically dependent. As the only Jew in her middle school (in a town dominated by evangelical Christianity), my daughter’s Jewishness is a far bigger problem than her femaleness. Nonetheless, I would not characterize her predicament as “oppression.”

      2. There are, indeed, degrees of oppression, but your — and others — use of it strikes me as excessively elastic, to the point at which the word, if not losing its meaning entirely, loses all of its impact. I do not believe that some Manhattan law partner, no matter how many times she gets whistled at by far lower paid construction workers, is, in any relevant, meaningful, interesting sense “oppressed.”

      And now, really, I think it’s enough.

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  15. Eric,

    I assure you I am in dead earnest. As to my potential hypocrisy, I went out of my way to say, in the last paragraph, that I am not holding myself up as a saint of discourse and that I would probably make the mistakes I was talking about as well. If I did, I did. I can’t do much with “calling bullshit”. If you tell me what you think was wrong and why I will try to respond.

    ej,
    “Discourse *about* rights and justice (and claims) are used in theory and understanding. *Claims* of right and justice are made in the political arena or in courts, or in other situations evoking social power relationships. They are not adjudicated along lines of wrong or right, since having a profoundly subjective element”
    This simply is not true and I am afraid it undercuts everything you say hereafter. Of course political claims of right are adjudicated in terms of right and wrong both in law and in society. We chide people for racist speech because it is not *right* to treat people that way. This is not any less the case when someone’s subjective experiences are involved. Think of awarding damages for emotional distress.

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  16. Daniel Kaufman,

    Ok. However, for the record, you yourself brought up the subject again (yesterday at 8:05PM) when you criticized David for using the word “oppression” and when you affirmed that women today are not oppressed in the U.S.

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  17. I think Dan is right on the whole. I’m happy to make some comments about oppression since I talked about it at length but I want to keep everything on track and focus on the reasons *why* I talked about oppression. I think comments thus far have aided in that but I don’t want to go too much farther with it for fear of losing the thread.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. David:

    The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the initial case you want to make is undermined by your later effort to split various differences. Either we are against this sort of morally stacked, rhetorically charged, implicitly accusatory type of language or we are not. Thus, I don’t think “oppressed” is any better than “appropriated” or any of the others.

    The point is this: You got a beef? Tell me, *specifically* what it’s about. Someone’s paying you less than someone else? Let’s talk about that. I’m dancing in a way that you think only certain people — not including me — should do? Let’s talk about that. Some guy whistled at you, in a way that you don’t like? Let’s talk about that. But be prepared for the possibility that you might lose any or all of these discussions — that the person with whom you are having them may have better reasons for his/her views than you do.

    The use of these charged expressions is precisely to bypass all of this and thus, to assure victory, without having to actually engage in and win arguments. It’s this that renders them ultimately dishonest, uncivil, and hence, objectionable, at least in civil discourse.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Daniel Kaufman, It must be hard on your daughter being the only Jew in a school in a town dominated by evangelical Christians. Let me express my solidarity. I can more or less imagine what she goes through……

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    1. It is, but I also think it provides a really important opportunity for her to develop certain character traits and strengths that are absolutely crucial to both a successful and happy life.

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  20. DanK,

    I was only using feminism as a topic by way of example, as was David. My more general points in reply were, first, that use of colloquialisms, however recently invented (and all were invented at some point in time), doesn’t really require a conceptual framework to be meaningful. Frankfurt’s theory of “bullshit” may be interesting, may even be right; but I doubt anyone gives the matter thought before using the word.

    Secondly, most terms used rhetorically, while they may develop considerably greater substance than simple colloquialisms, are not thereby necessarily drawn from theoretically useful conceptual frameworks, and may not fit easily into any conceptual framework for the purposes of theory. (I also hopefully implied that there are actually pitfalls in using theory-construction for political purposes; one being that this may weaken the rhetorical claims that are politically more useful.)

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  21. David,

    The “adjudication” I was referring to was not legal but rhetorical-analytical (and I apologize for using a word that could be so easily misunderstood).

    It is certainly hoped that when one makes a rhetorical claim of right, that one has determined for one’s self the ethical verity of the claim. But it should be noted that such determinations are not certainties. The claim will be made as though certain, and the claimant may feel it is; but history has an odd way of unraveling our certainties. In 1982, 85% of the American people felt certain that the ‘claim of right’ was in favor of the conquest of Iraq. (Being part of the other 15% at the time, I feel somewhat pleased to have most of my reading of that misadventure – and its consequences – completely validated; but that’s the only pleasure I can find in the situation.)

    This is all because a rhetorical claim of right is only partly about what is known, but largely about predictions for the future. We are hoping that by chastising people for racist speech, and thus bringing social pressure to bear to reduce the incidence of it, we will produce a society of greater equanimity. But it may be that the hope is ungrounded; that there are issues at play that will mean either that reduction of hate speech will not reduce racist attitudes or non-verbal behaviors, especially those institutionalized; or that even should racism on the whole be reduced effectively, other considerations will be triggered to maintain social injustices.

    At any rate, rhetorical analysis, to be convincing, must be able to judge rhetorical usage apolitically, even when the motivation for the analysis is undeniably political. For one thing, using rhetorical analysis as a weapon risks a backfire: “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,” notes Orwell; in a heated contest, with charge and counter-charge of informal fallacies flying back and forth, that sort of thing can get very messy.

    As I noted elsewhere, I once wrote a rhetorical analysis of Mein Kampf, noting its rhetorical strengths and weaknesses within its cultural context. If the government of the time had been able to address some of its stronger claims, such as the impoverishment of the workers due partly to the ‘war reparations’ of the Versailles treaty, Hitler might never have been able to make his weaker claims, particularly those anti-semitic, appear stronger than they were. And had a richer criticism of his rhetoric been mounted by his opponents, he might never have achieved political power.

    At any rate, I could never have written that analysis if I had started it with ‘this guy is the most narcissistic, sadistic, warmongering wretch in history,’ which is what I felt at the time.

    That the ‘claim of right’ made by an anti-semite is ‘weak’ because its evidential ground is impoverished, doesn’t make it ‘wrong’ as rhetorical claim. Anti-semitism is wrong, for a host of reasons – biological, sociological, psychological, political, and of course ethical. But we are discussing language here, and I am arguing that it is necessary to distinguish usage and rhetoric from other, deeper, theoretical conceptualizations, or we will find it difficult to discover what those are and articulate them properly.

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  22. If you weren’t assigned Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” in high school, then it’s likely you might have in a freshman college comp course. It’s message seems to be enduring. While Orwell’s prose style continues to merit iconic status in England, his place in the US is of lesser stature, though oddly enough, the following two pieces would suggest otherwise:

    http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jan/17/my-problem-with-george-orwell

    http://articles.latimes.com/2013/nov/08/business/la-fi-mh-orwells-language-31108

    There is no need here given comments of others in exploring the phrases that you identify as exemplars of lazy prose. It is clear that you are not addressing a luncheon of ladies enjoying a laugh about the mansplaining of a currently popular chick flick. Instead, your concern is with the clarity of written language and whether jargon or neologistic phrases are properly employed to scrutinize language that presumes a facile understanding of the intent in using them. Like it or not, many such uses, as you no doubt know, are meant to appease and to appeal to the preconceptions of particular audiences and to accomplish little more. Even in Orwell’s case, his concerns are not meant to resonate with a low common denominator. Instead, his concerns are aimed at written language that truly conveys meaning to the largest possible audience of readers. As such, his tips and examples remain relevant as broadly construed. What deserves greater emphasis, though, is one’s responsibility as a reader.

    PS, thumbs up on your final paragraph. As a mentor noted as he blue penciled an essay of mine, “Don’t be unduly dejected. Everyone’s a better editor than a writer. Just remember you are writing to be read, so keep in mind who it is you’re addressing.”

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  23. Hi David, I’m ambivalent. Basically I think language should just go where it goes, as people use it the way they will. That includes inventing new words. However, as far as professional writing goes I’d agree (very much) with the points you make and would advocate cutting them out.

    This sort of runs close to one of Larry Niven’s Laws for writers (maybe he got it from Orwell):

    If you’ve nothing to say, say it any way you like. Stylistic innovations, contorted story lines or none, exotic or genderless pronouns, internal inconsistencies, the recipe for preparing your lover as a cannibal banquet: feel free. If what you have to say is important and/or difficult to follow, use the simplest language possible. If the reader doesn’t get it then, let it not be your fault.

    Of course it is arguable that Solnit, having nothing important to say, is perfectly free to invent all the lame, bigoted words or literary concepts she wants.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. [note to moderator: I see there were two near identical posts of mine before this one, please remove the first… thanks!

    Hi Robin and Davidlduffy, I don’t get either of your “support” for “mansplaining”. I have to admit I had seen it used before and had no problem with it. But that’s because it was not used in the way Solnit (apparently the person whose article inspired the term) discusses.

    Yes, it’s true that guys like this pick on other men’s books, and people of both genders pop up at events to hold forth on irrelevant things and conspiracy theories, but the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered.

    Do you guys agree that men are the only people that cut others off to deliver monologues, odes to their great mistaken intelligence or experience?

    Perhaps I’ve just not lived around the defeated, wounded, fragile creatures Solnit seems to hang out with. From my experience, women can have egos. Monstrous ones. And those that have them do exactly what she described men doing. And they do it to men and women alike.

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  25. I can’t see why you would need to be part of any sort of ‘in-group’ to understand ‘mansplaining’. I understand it and I can confidently assure you that I am not and have never been part of any ‘in-group’. I imagine that my grandmother, as described above, would have understood it. I wrote an article for a fanzine back in the 80’s in the voice of a fictional character called Denis Rodent, who was a mansplainer, although the term had not been coined yet. Everybody who read it, that I spoke to, recognised the attitude. It was a phenomenon crying out for a word.

    In fact I think you would have to be part of an in group not to get it.

    The term ‘Priviloblivious’ probably won’t take of just because of the clumsiness of the word. Even had we a more euphonious word I am not sure that it is a recognisable enough phenomenon. After all privilege is a relative thing. Back in the early eighties some heterosexuals would accuse gay activists as whiners and having a sense of entitlement and ‘pushing it down our throats’. But a heterosexual couple could then go and spend the night together and not, thereby, be committing a criminal act.

    Maybe Shakespeare put it better ‘He jests at scars that never felt a wound’.

    As for ‘oppression’, as I said earlier, most feminists, in my experience, avoid the term as smacking of victimhood. But then again, what is the cut off point for oppression? Gays were oppressed when their love was a criminal act, did the oppression end neatly with the repeal of those laws, where they have been repealed? Or are we still dealing with the tail end of that oppression even in Western countries? I don’t know, but it seems like just another hoop to jump through, to require people struggling against prejudice or hate to try to develop a language which will be acceptable to everybody.

    Not everyone is Shakespeare, we all use words as best we can for the purpose in hand.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. HI Dan,

    The point is this: You got a beef? Tell me, *specifically* what it’s about. Someone’s paying you less than someone else? Let’s talk about that. I’m dancing in a way that you think only certain people — not including me — should do? Let’s talk about that. Some guy whistled at you, in a way that you don’t like? Let’s talk about that. But be prepared for the possibility that you might lose any or all of these discussions — that the person with whom you are having them may have better reasons for his/her views than you do.

    The use of these charged expressions is precisely to bypass all of this and thus, to assure victory, without having to actually engage in and win arguments. It’s this that renders them ultimately dishonest, uncivil, and hence, objectionable, at least in civil discourse.

    But then you must meet the same standard. Don’t speak generally about certain groups, some of whom use the word ‘oppression’

    Tell me “specifically” what person used the word “oppression” or “appropriation” and in what context and what you think is wrong with the way they used it. Let’s talk about that. But be prepared for the possibility that you might lose any or all of these discussions – that the person with whom you are having them may have better reasons for his/her views than you do.

    You are using emotive, accusatory language about how some non-specific set of people are using certain words and expressions, and thus to assure victory without having to actually engage in and win arguments.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Er…no. It’s not intolerant to be intolerant of intolerance. And it is the language that David is talking about that has hostility, accusation, and presumption of bad motives all bundled into it, not my criticizing it.

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  27. Dan,

    Remember I did not argue against terms of art but only terms of art replacing arguments. Some ToAs I did say can be given the boot but as I said regarding Neil’s piece, ToAs can like “appropriation” can be used effectively and sometimes they strike me as irreplaceable. Hence there is no contradiction. Not all uses of ToA’s are to “bypass” argument.

    And I think we can lose perspective if we try to tackle each issue independently and don’t see how they all converge. Frye was particularly brilliant on this point. She compared oppression to a wire cage. See one wire and you do not see the cage. You have to look at them all together to see how people’s freedom of action can be circumscribed. Abstract and general terms help us to conceptualize these realities. You need to see each instance of oppression as being oppression in the same way you need to see the each wire as belonging to the cage. Only then does the problem present itself.

    Part of our difference here is that I probably think more can be said about morality or the good life in general than I gather that you do. I am also suspicious of enlightenment style “theories” of morality if that means providing anything like necessary or sufficient conditions. However I do think that talking in general about morality can be profitable and yield important results.

    ej,
    “I was only using feminism as a topic by way of example, as was David.”
    Yes you were and I think it was helpful I’m just trying to keep us from going to deep down the rabbit hole after this point.

    “The “adjudication” I was referring to was not legal but rhetorical-analytical”
    I’m not sure what that means. The adjudication I was thinking of was political and social including but not limited to the legal.

    “That the ‘claim of right’ made by an anti-semite is ‘weak’ because its evidential ground is impoverished, doesn’t make it ‘wrong’ as rhetorical claim.”
    Anti-semitism is wrong ethically and unjust. That is all I care about and all I commented on.

    Thomas,
    Thanks for the articles.

    db,
    “Basically I think language should just go where it goes, as people use it the way they will. That includes inventing new words.”
    Both I and Orwell would push back on this. Orwell remarks that it is important to view language as a tool to be used and directed not as some natural, evolving phenomenon which cannot be influenced but just grows haphazardly in every direction like coral or undergrowth.

    On Solnit I do not think she is really wrong. The sentence you quoted strikes me as quite reasonable and true. I *certainly* would not refer to her as bigoted nor do I think she played the victim as much as you suggest. I only think the term “mansplain” is not the best way to conceptualize that experience.

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    1. David, it seems to me that all TOA’s can be used to bypass arguments. Your selection of the good/bad TOA’s just refelect your own personal ideology. Others may select a different set based on theirs, and I see no way of demonstrating that yours is the correct selection and theirs is the wrong selection.

      Better not to use this sort of pre-loaded vocabulary at all.

      Liked by 1 person

  28. Hi Dan,

    I am not sure who your last post was addressed to – I certainly didn’t mention intolerance.

    I was saying that you cannot have one standard for others and another for yourself. If you require others to be specific then you cannot resort to generalities yourself, you must also be specific.

    It is easy enough to vaguely allege that some non-specific group are using certain words out of “hostility” or “intolerance” or to try to bypass arguments and are thus “dishonest”, “uncivil” and “objectionable”.

    But if you are to ask others to be specific then you must also be specific. If you are allowed to restrict yourself to generalities, then you must not tell anyone else that they cannot do the same.

    dbhomes,

    You speak of “lame, bigoted words” and accuse a group of people of being “defeated, wounded, fragile creatures”. That sounds a little hostile to me. Is there any evidence that Solnit or anyone who agrees with her are bigoted? What, specifically is she bigotted against? Why is someone “defeated, wounded, fragile” for gently mocking the arrogance of others?

    Do you guys agree that men are the only people that cut others off to deliver monologues, odes to their great mistaken intelligence or experience?

    I am not sure if anyone has suggested such a thing. What she is suggesting, and it accords with my experience too, that this sort of behaviour is particularly common with men addressing women.

    Maybe you disagree. But the fact that someone has come up with a word for this and that it has become somewhat popular seems to be a source of resentment.

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  29. Robin: Your response smacks of “tit for tat” and really isn’t responsive to the substance of my point, which I think was quite clear. All you need to do is jump into any discussion on Gawker or Jezebel or Vice or any other such venue to see this sort of loaded, argument-circumventing terminology used constantly.

    So, no, I don’t think there are any double standards involved. Dishonesty maybe, if someone wants to deny that this sort of language has become ubiquitous, especially in the SJW community.

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  30. So you expect them to meet the standard you impose and you don’t have to meet the standard you impose on them.

    And that is not a double standard.

    Level playing field is not tit for tat.

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    1. Sorry, but I reject your characterization, both of what I wrote and of what constitutes a “level playing field.”

      I am going to return to talking about David’s article. This sort of sniping is exactly what I don’t want to be doing in a discussion thread.

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  31. @Rodin Herbert:

    “Tell me “specifically” what person used the word “oppression” or “appropriation” and in what context and what you think is wrong with the way they used it.”

    “If you require others to be specific then you cannot resort to generalities yourself, you must also be specific.”

    From the essay itself:

    “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”. [5] 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. [6] 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.”

    I’m not understanding your objection, Robin. The contents of the essay are understood as background for comments. Dan is not obliged to repeat the details of the essay. Rather, the reader ought to remember the contents of the essay as context for the comments, especially when responding to other comments. The essay referenced a Salon piece using “appropriation” and then discussed a philosopher expanding on it in terms of “oppression.”

    Sounds specific to me.

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    1. But we are all talking about the essay!

      That’s the point. You say that I offer no specifics and am just doing what I decry. The specifics are in the essay. That we are talking about. Which I don’t need to repeat, in the course of the discussion.

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  32. Very well, if that is your position I am happy to accept that your remarks so far apply only to the specifix examples provided so far and not to anybody else, not some SJW community (whatever the term of abuse may mean).

    Liked by 1 person

  33. David,

    I wasn’t entirely happy with my last comment and thought its later remarks could be misconstrued. So to clarify, in part, I wrote a post at my own blog: https://nosignofit.wordpress.com/2016/01/06/justice-in-the-court-of-rhetoric/ – because I think a part of the difficulty we’re having here is clarifying differences between rhetorical practice, theoretical practice, and common usage.

    I would also like to thank you for your explication of Neil Van Leuween’s essay, which sounds interesting, and has the matter about right, I think; I haven’t been able to access his essay, but will make a stronger effort at that tomorrow.

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  34. There is one more personal remark to make, that I think important here. Although later genealogical research by my sister revealed that we had Jews in my mother’s ancestry, my mother’s family was in denial of this, and my mother could be quite a nasty anti-Semite while I was growing up. So, why did not I become one?

    That can be answered in four words – Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo. The Marx Bros. brought light into an otherwise dark childhood, even before I could entirely understand all that they did or said. And when I could understand, I devoted some time and effort researching them, and thereby learned the history of Jews in America in the early 20th century, and through that the history of Jews in Europe, and so on…. But this would never have happened had not my heart been touched by Groucho’s insightful wit, Harpo’s angelic anarchism and heavenly music, Chico’s coy ironism, Zeppo’s innocence.

    “Logic and arguments never convince,” wrote Whitman. But rhetoric is the touch-stone of all our most deeply held beliefs. (Or a good joke at the right moment…. Now, what’s the difference?)

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  35. So where is the specific example of someone using “oppressed” or any version of that? The Salon “belly dancer” writer does not use it, as far as I can see.

    In fat the only example I can see is Neil Van Leuween using it and perhaps someone should pass it on so that he can feel suitably chastened.

    I’m not understanding your objection,

    I don’t recall making any objection. I simply said that if you set a standard for others, then you have to live up to it yourself. I am not sure what is to understand about that.

    If you tell others ‘ou got a beef? Tell me, *specifically* what it’s about’ then that is not just a rule for others, but for yourself. You can’t just have some generic complaint about some people in some “SJW Community” using the word “oppress” in a way you don’t like and alleging heinous motives for it.

    Now you tell me that the specifics are some usage of of “oppress” in or referred to by the article. As I say, I am not sure which instance of “oppress” is being referred to.

    But really, I am not sure what anyones point is here any more.

    I get that some people here are very cross, for some reason, about how some people use certain words. Beyond that it gets hazy. Most of these terms, “magic negro”, “pixie something or other”, “privelobliviousness” I had not even heard until I read this article.

    Lots of people use lots of words in many different ways and in the internet era quite a lot of these get published on it.

    I don’t see how you can make generalisations about some terms good, some terms bad, it depends entirely on the context, each instance has to be judged on its merits. And people wanting to say something then they should be allowed to say it in the way they see fit.

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  36. David, I believe that I hate the pre made credibility which “in the know” terms can provide a writer, no less than you do. In certain areas of the academy I see entitled cultures which utterly bath themselves in such terminology, and somewhat in order to hide their lack of progress.

    My issue however is that you seem to merely be attacking the use of such terminology, rather than the mentality behind those terms. For example, let’s say that we could restrict them no less effectively than a government might restrict guns. I’ll give you that some might then speak somewhat more clearly, though for the most part I think that most would still find ways to be vague. Furthermore this would generally rob us all of anecdotes from which to actually make our points.

    Consider how our good friend Massimo Pigliucci was recently able to challenge an argument of mine. Here he said, “No thanks, I’ll take the red pill any time.” (Found here: https://platofootnote.wordpress.com/2015/12/25/platos-suggestions-christmas-edition/comment-page-1/#comment-1675). Thought the epitome of what you seem to be fighting against, I thought it was brilliant! I was then able to tailor my reply to this sort of criticism, as well as ask if he was able to provide a more explicit challenge?

    If clarity is indeed our cause, should we not argue this directly rather than attempt to deny everyone of tools which are themselves potentially quite valuable for effective communication?

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  37. Robin: I thought the article was quite clear about what people are concerned about. The same thing that Orwell was concerned about. Now, perhaps you don’t see what Orwell was concerned about either — “your remark that Lots of people use lots of words in many different ways” could just as well be pointed at him — but that, indeed, is what this is about.

    It’s OK. Not everyone has to be moved by the same issues. But to suggest that there is *no* issue, even when the subject of politically/morally loaded euphemisms and rhetoric have been a concern of essayists, novelists, journalists, and philosophers for at least a century or so, just isn’t credible.

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  38. Dan,

    It is always possible to say that a person is just being motivated by ideology instead of argument but I did try to give criteria by which we can judge TOAs good or bad or, better, more helpful or less helpful. There is of course no perfect touch stone which we can find and in practice we would have to make judgments like we brush alligators’ teeth: very carefully. But that is not to say that such judgments cannot be made.

    Eric,
    “My issue however is that you seem to merely be attacking the use of such terminology, rather than the mentality behind those terms.”
    I am attacking the use of TOA’s when they are used knowingly or unknowingly in place of argument. Remember I am not saying never to use them I vindicated Neil’s use of a term and introduced one myself. I am saying we should not let them become overly familiar and think and write by stringing them together when we should be making arguments.

    As to Massimo’s comment, it was just that a comment and one which does not seem eager to take the bait. I think if he were elaborating in a post, maybe discussing Frankfurt, he probably would unpack thew whole thought exercise and what “red pill” and “blue pill correspond to and so on.

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  39. David: I guess my point is that this language just begs to be made mischief with and really does very little that is positive. Rather than wrangle over whose uses of it are legitimate and whose are not, why not just dispense with it altogether?

    Orwell did not describe Newspeak only to then go and distinguish noble and ignoble uses of it. The very thing itself is bad, because of the way in which it bypasses the rational, autonomous person. That someone might use it to good ends is not relevant, because its very modality is objectionable.

    I feel the same way about the sorts of expressions you discuss in your essay.

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  40. Dan,

    There’s more to say but we should probably worry about declining returns. Good exchange.

    Eric,
    I also forgot to say that Davidson argued compellingly that if you tried to coerce people to speak in a certain way we could not afterward know what they meant because we could not undertake the normal interpretation which we use to understand language. It’s a good argument in an unholy bastard of an article called “On The Very Idea of A Conceptual Scheme.”

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  41. Daniel Kaufman,

    Can you really compare the jargon we’re talking about with Newspeak in 1984? Newspeak was a deliberate attempt to distort or conceal the truth, while this jargon is an attempt by generally well-intentioned people to describe situations that do not correspond to any word in our normal lexicon, for example, mansplaining. Now we can debate over whether mansplaining is as common as they claim it to be and in my experience, women interrupt as often as men do and at times males have to struggle to have their opinion heard in a group of women, but the invention of “mansplaining” is not a totalitarian strategy for brainwashing the masses as Newspeak is.

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    1. I think this is just as deliberate. The only difference is that it is not the product of State actors — although, increasingly, it is enforced by State actors.

      But, yes, I think these terms are a deliberate attempt to distort and conceal, by way of loading all sorts of value judgments, ascriptions of motive, and moral standing into what are ostensibly, on the surface, descriptive terms.

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  42. PE, most disciplines have “terms of art” whose denotative meaning is established and understood by specialists in those disciplines. Many, however, enter meme-like into common usage where their usage becomes fuzzy, used as buzz words with the intent of signifying some broadly construed affiliation with an ideology. The Monty Python skit “Hint Hint Nudge Nudge” satirizes this sort of code speak in banal circumstances. There was a time when this sort of thing bothered me. But popular usage of this sort only serves as a red flag for me now. I don’t foresee anything similar to an Academie Francaise for written or spoken English being convened. David’s concerns, as well as Orwell’s, address the responsibilities of the writer. I also think that the reader too has responsibilities.

    Note, for example, David’s citation from a piece in Salon:

    “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.’.”

    Well, that’s a mouthful! But at least the author attempts to make his usage transparent to the reader, regardless of one’s assessment of his prose style. At the same time, the term “colonialist project” in my case was unfamiliar. To unpack this quote, I had to google the phrase and decide whether I was interested enough to read a SEP or Wikipedia article on the topic.

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  43. Daniel Kaufman, Once again I disagree completely with you. The movement feminists whom I’ve met personally or online sincerely see themselves as victims; that they are victims is an important part of their sense of identity; the or one of the main narratives that they frame their life-story with is that they are victims of sexism or machismo. To what extent they are victims or not is open to debate, but their sincerity is evident.

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  44. Hi David,

    Orwell remarks that it is important to view language as a tool to be used and directed not as some natural, evolving phenomenon which cannot be influenced but just grows haphazardly in every direction like coral or undergrowth.

    Well that is his (and your) opinion. I’m not seeing a concrete argument why it shouldn’t be allowed to flow that way . Remember that in the case of serious communication I’m agreeing with the points you made. But I think languages can, in informal settings, change and generate useful terms or phrases that can be picked up (where useful) and added into formal communication.

    Let me run with your evolutionary example. In microbiology, scientists sometimes allow bacteria to grow and evolve on their own, no direction, then study them to see what genetic or functional changes have occurred and if this could be of use for something. I sort of think of informal communication like the bacteria, and professional writers as scientists finding what could be of use in formal communication. Yes, don’t pick up all changes, choose only what is necessary or useful for the function you need. But to not allow flexibility at the informal level seems a bit stifling and overprotective and might have us overlook potentially useful tools that did not come about through prior planning.

    One problem factor is that the internet has made informal conversation public such that it enjoys the level of audience (and unfortunately credibility) that formal communication used to have to itself. So again, I support your argument for people writing on the internet for public consumption, even if it is meant as informal conversation.

    On Solnit, I will address that in my replies to Robin.

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  45. Daniel Kaufman, There’s a lot of psychological research that shows that when one is against a political position, one tends to attribute Machiavellian motives to those who hold it and doubt their sincerity. For example, being on the left (as I am), I tend to see wealthy people who want to lower taxes for big corporations as cynically pursuing their class interests, while in reality many of them may believe, as they claim, that lower taxes increase economic growth and thus, benefit both rich and poor. I don’t know you well, but couldn’t it be that your political and philosophical differences with feminism lead you to attribute Machiavellian motives to feminists?

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    1. Don’t know. I have been on both the Right and the Left and today, continue to hold ideas from both places, so my overall orientation is probably uncharacterizable. Classical Liberal is the closest I get.

      That said, I think there is zero mileage in debating peoples’ personal experiences. Yours are yours and mine ar mine. You’ve had good experiences with movement feminists and I have had rather bad ones.

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  46. Hi Robin (part 1 on lameness), it appears I should have left in a paragraph expanding on my second sentence which stated that originally I had no problem with “mansplaining.”

    Remember that the topic is about terms that are of little to no value. You already agreed that “privelobliviousness” would count as one of those. So you already agree with me that Solnit has made at least one “lame” term/concept.

    Mansplaining. I had heard it used before in the context of the examples given at David’s second link, specifically men telling women about something they could not know, when clearly a woman would know better. The context had been obvious and would remain generally so, even with little detail given. For example: “Then he mansplained what I feel about the fetus growing inside me”, “Then he mansplained what I really need to be fulfilled as a woman.”

    Yeah, that’s an amusing way to puncture some inflated male ego who is obviously acting in an absurd fashion. I laughed. No problem with that being popular.

    I had not read Solnit’s essay before, which supposedly started the ball rolling for the term, by riffing on her “men explain” concept/phrase. Unlike the previous examples, that fit right into the problem David was discussing about such terms of art. If she had written, “Then he mansplained a book to me”, or even “Then he mansplained my book to me”, or even more accurate “Then he mansplained my book on Eadweard Muybridge” I would have no idea what she was talking about. Would you? How? There is no obvious absurdity of conduct relating to the subject being explained and the gender of the explainer or the explainee (assuming you knew her gender).

    Remember, her example was a guy who began explaining her own book to her, without realizing it was her book. Her claim, and I’m sorry but that is what she clearly argues, is that only men do this kind of thing. Hence “men explain”. That is a bizarre idea, and completely counterfactual.

    In any case using that term in this case would be so stretched (from the original context where I had seen it first and made sense) as to be useless. Lame.

    And this does not get into the lameness of using this concept (as a writer) to connect being the recipient of some minor, though agreeably stupid, faux-pas at a dinner party to some common union with women who are/have actually faced oppression.

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