on antsand feminist philosophy of language.
There’s a really interesting new piece by Jason Stanley over at the The Stone in the New York Times on Trump and authoritarian propaganda. Excerpted below; the whole piece is here.
Trump regularly says that America’s “inner cities” are filled with Americans who are impoverished, and of African-American descent. According to Trump, these are places of unprecedented horror. In a tweet on Aug. 29, 2016, Trump wrote: “Inner-city crime is reaching record levels. African-Americans will vote for Trump because they know I will stop the slaughter going on!”
This has continued as one of the central themes in his campaign; there is supposedly an unprecedented wave of violent slaughter. In November 2015, Trump tweeted an image of the following statistics about race and murder from 2015, supposedly from a source called the “Crime Statistics Bureau of San Francisco,” which does not appear to exist. It included wildly inaccurate figures that indicated that a large majority of white people killed were being killed by black people.
In the United States, around 14 percent of the population is of African-American descent. White Americans make up around 75 percent. If 81 percent of white American citizens who were murdered in 2015 were murdered by a small minority group of American citizens with some kind of vaguely generalizable profile, it may be worth addressing in policy. However, F.B.I. statistics from 2014 tell us that 15 percent of whites are killed by their black fellow Americans, and 82 percent of white Americans are killed by their white fellow American citizens. Fact checkers of Trump’s tweet were displeased.
. . . The chief authoritarian values are law and order. In Trump’s value system, nonwhites and non-Christians are the chief threats to law and order. Trump knows that reality does not call for a value-system like his; violent crime is at almost historic lows in the United States. Trump is thundering about a crime wave of historic proportions, because he is an authoritarian using his speech to define a simple reality that legitimates his value system, leading voters to adopt it. Its strength is that it conveys his power to define reality. Its weakness is that it obviously contradicts it . . . Denouncing Trump as a liar, or describing him as merely entertaining, misses the point of authoritarian propaganda altogether. Authoritarian propagandists are attempting to convey power by defining reality. The reality they offer is very simple. It is offered with the goal of switching voters’ value systems to the authoritarian value system of the leader.
Some super-important points here.
For several days, I’d been watching the media pundits salivate over last week’s poll results, in which Donald Trump rated 16 points better than Hillary Clinton in a question asking which one was “better” at “being honest and straightforward.” These astonishing results, amazingly, merely afforded the media an opportunity to chew yet again over one of their favorite topics: “Hillary’s honesty problem.” This week, it could be freshly juiced up because Bill Clinton had just put his foot and mouth into the wrong airplane. This allowed Chuck Todd, on Meet the Press, to smoothly segue into a discussion of how the “optics”of that event showed that “The Clintons” [sic] “don’t play by the same rules as other people.” Never mind that Hillary and Bill are, last time I looked, two separate people. As usual, Bill and Hillary, fact and “optics,”got smooshed together in the favored “narrative”of Hillary’s troubles getting people to trust her.
It never occurred to any of the pundits (or simply wasn’t journalistically hot enough) to question the poll question itself. As in: Which quality did respondents have in mind? Truthfulness? Or straighforwardness? As my daughter correctly pointed out, they aren’t the same thing at all. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, “straightforward= easy to understand, simple; without unnecessary politeness” while “honest=truthful or able to be trusted; not likely to steal, cheat, or lie.” So, it’s perfectly possible to lie in a straightforward way (the best liars, in fact, do so baldly) OR to be truthful but not in a straightforward way—for example, when one is trying to tell someone something that will be hurtful or explain something complex or contradictory.
In fact, a good argument can be made that Trump is a perfect example of a straightforward liar, while Hillary, who (surprise!) is rated by PolitiFact as the most honest of all the candidates (Sanders runs second, Trump last), has, after decades of concocted scandals, developed her famous “honesty problem” precisely because she has learned to speak the truth so cautiously it seems phony.
Yale philosophy major, Karléh Wilson, brings philosophy of language to bear on the recent controversies surrounding Yale’s decision not to rename Calhoun College in the Boston Review:
A few weeks ago Peter Salovey, president of Yale, made a controversial decision: he rejected the students’ argument and opted to retain the name. The decision has significant national consequences. If Yale, by reputation a liberal bastion in a liberal state, retains the name of Calhoun College, what does this signal for colleges and universities engaged in similar struggles in states where racial equality is yet more elusive?
Calhoun College was named in 1933 in honor of John C. Calhoun, an antebellum statesman who played a critical role in articulating the southern defense of slavery. In 1837 Calhoun, serving at the time as senator of South Carolina (he had previously been Andrew Jackson’s vice-president), told the Senate:
“In the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good.”
President Salovey’s reaffirmation of the college’s name has been taken by some as a sign of disrespect for African Americans. He has defended his decision by recourse to a novel and intriguing argument: he was motivated, he wrote, out of a sincere desire to remind subsequent generations of Yale students about our nation’s troubled past. The reaffirmation is thus intended to serve Yale’s educational mission, not to honor Calhoun. According to Salovey, from this point forward the name “Calhoun College” no longer honors Calhoun’s dishonorable legacy, and therefore no longer communicates disrespect for African Americans. “Ours is a nation that often refuses to face its own history of slavery and racism. Yale is part of that history,” Salovey emphasized. “We cannot erase American history but we can confront it, teach it, and learn from it. The decision to retain Calhoun College’s name reflects the importance of this vital educational imperative.”
President Salovey supposes that his decision can change the meaning of “Calhoun College.” It cannot.
. . . Speaking is a social act. Our social world is constituted by familiar practices, myths, symbols, and stories. Words therefore acquire social meanings. A use of a word has a certain meaning because of facts about the culture, such as entrenched social practices. Salovey’s argument presupposes that his decision can change the meaning of “Calhoun College.” Since it cannot, his argument fails.
To appreciate the point, consider the Wikipedia entry “List of places named after people.” The long list attests to a worldwide social practice of naming places, cities, towns, countries, and continents to honor respected figures. Because of the ubiquity of the practice of naming in order to honor, it is reasonable to assume that when a place is named after a person, its name honors that person’s legacy. Indeed, otherwise the practice is totally illegible. This accounts for the widespread practice of renaming streets, towns, cities, and institutions as political regimes change. Vladimir Lenin’s and Joseph Stalin’s names have been removed from institutions, cities, towns, and streets throughout the former Soviet Union, as have the names of many other former tyrants. Germany has no universities, colleges, cities, or streets named after Adolf Hitler or other Nazi leaders; previously, it did.
She concludes by noting that while Salovey has a significant amount of power as the president of Yale, it is not so significant as to enable him to change the social meaning of naming places after persons. The whole piece is here.
Hard to believe that just a few weeks ago, hardly anyone had heard of the Zika virus or the condition to which it is now suspected to be linked. Microcephaly is a rare congenital condition where infants are born with undersized craniums. Though Zika’s exact relationship, if any, to this lifelong condition has yet to be determined, WHO has declared Zika a global emergency, and government officials in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and El Salvador are “advising women to avoid getting pregnant, for fear that the fast-spreading Zika virus may cause severe brain defects in unborn children.” Officials outside affected countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are advising women to “avoid traveling“ to those areas.
Notice anything odd about these warnings? No? Let’s continue:
As many commentators have pointed out, it seems mind boggling that countries without contraception, and where abortion is illegal even in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother, are now recommending that women stop having babies for at least two years, or until medical researchers have a better understanding of Zika’s impact on developing fetuses. Human rights advocates and health workers have rightly pushed back against those recommendations. “Even if women attempt to follow the recommendations through abstinence,” writes Charlotte Alter for Time, “sexual violence is so pervasive throughout the region that many women may get pregnant against their will.”
Here is the problem: All of these warnings to women about getting pregnant have managed to avoid a particular word. That word is “men.”
After Michael Oman-Reagan, an anthropologist and Ph.D. candidate, tweeted the Oxford University Press that their dictionary included sexist language in some of their example sentences, the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary agreed to review them.
Oman-Reagan pointed to “rabid feminist” under the word “rabid,” as well as several others…
The word “shrill” uses “the rising shrill of women’s voices” as an example…
Under the word “psyche,” the example sentence is “I will never really fathom the female psyche.”
For more, go here. (Thanks, C!)
Thanks to reader R for pointing out the following passage from a recent book review in Philosophia Mathematica, an OUP journal.
“The author constantly uses the pronouns ‘her’ and ‘she’ in a gender-neutral setting. This juvenile affectation seems now to be de rigueur among male academic writers. I wonder if it helps them attract women or if it just makes them feel like cool dudes. Maybe they simply enjoy offending people, pour épater les bourgeois.”
I will not tag the book being reviewed, since it is not the book author’s fault that the reviewer has included this bizarre sexist outburst, nor that the editorial process allowed it to be published.
The general idea should be pretty familiar to philosophers of language. But its political ramifications remain under-appreciated. This article does a great job. Those who have jumped on the generics bandwagon will have lots to say about the role of generics in conveying these falsehoods. I’m less convinced that the generics are doing crucial work, but the examples are all excellent. A small sample:
There is an infinite number of facts about any one ethnic group; so the issue isn’t whether certain facts are correct or not; but which facts are chosen.
If the only time Romanians are spoken of is when they pick pockets, or when they’re seen as unwanted migrants, then the public will end up with a totally skewed view of them. We’ll learn nothing about their history or why they came to Britain, or even get a decent idea of what they do here.
When we hear about white criminality, such as football hooliganism, lager louts or paedophile rings, we already have enough other information about white people to be able to contextualise this, so we don’t leap to conclusions, and we don’t have high-level discussions about a “crisis within whiteness”. But in the absence of counterbalancing stories, it’s all too easy to begin to build stereotypes about minority communities.
There are many things to be said about Jonathan Chait’s recent article attacking Political Correctness, and Lindsay Beyerstein says most of them, incredibly well. But what I want to talk about is a small, fascinating fact. This is that he has embraced one of the more controversial ideas of 1990s feminism– that speech can silence other speech, and in ways that are so difficult to fight that a free speech advocate should be concerned. Not all of his examples are like this– as Beyerstein rightly notes, a couple of them are examples of vandalism and theft on the part of leftists. But I’m interested in the ones that are.
First, some background. Feminist critics of pornography like Catharine MacKinnon, Rae Langton and Jennifer Hornsby have famously argued that pornography can silence the speech of women. There are lots of ways that this claim can be criticised (and I myself have criticised Langton’s version of it). But one of the most standard sort of criticisms is to insist that women aren’t silenced– that they can and should fight back through speech. It doesn’t make any sense, this line goes, to suppose that speech can silence in the way that they suggest. (Though of course even those making this argument acknowledge that speech in the form of censorship laws can silence.)
Often, the debate between “free speech” proponents and their critics is cast by free speech proponents as a conflict between those who think all speech should be seen as contributing to the free flow of ideas (defenders of free speech) and those who make the misguided claim that some speech silences, and thus works against the ideal of free speech. That’s what Chait at first seemed to be doing in his article. But then he turned his attention to those who “call out” microaggressions, and gave extended examples of how this sort of criticism, especially online, can have a silencing effect. He also discussed the case of a writer who felt silenced by an outpouring of online criticism of her views. In these discussions, he was clearly taking the side of those who felt silenced by speech of others. And he was clearly outraged.
This move of Chait’s is interesting as it means that in his case both sides are in agreement that speech may be silencing in such a pernicious way that one shouldn’t just shrug and say that more speech is the remedy. The disagreement, then is simply over which kinds of speech are of this kind. And a fascinating fact about Chait’s article is that the kind he is critical of is actually the kind that “free speech” advocates usually consider the most untouchable– substantive political criticism.
(I think there’s a huge amount of interesting work to be done, by the way, on ways that “calling out” can silence, and on the issue of when such silencing is problematic and when it isn’t. I don’t have settled views on this. But I’d rather not get into that in comments.)
A study, to be published next month in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found that “Black” people are viewed more negatively than “African Americans” because of a perceived difference in socioeconomic status. As a result, “Black” people are thought of as less competent and as having colder personalities.
For more, go here.