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.”
A problem with those Zika warnings February 6, 2016
OED accused of sexism January 26, 2016
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!)
Pronoun tantrum in Philosophia Mathematica book review January 11, 2016
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.
When truths convey falsehoods March 21, 2015
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.
Jonathan Chait embraces extended notion of silencing February 2, 2015
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.)
‘Black’ VS ‘African American’ December 31, 2014
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.
Gender neutral pronouns in Vancouver schools October 17, 2014
Students and teachers in Vancouver, British Columbia, can now use the gender-neutral pronouns “xe,” “xem,” and “xyr.” The move is designed to accommodate students for whom “he” and “she” does not fit or is deemed inappropriate.
For more, go here.
Is civility a professional error? September 26, 2014
A guest post from MM McCabe
Amid the debate about academic freedom which has been in the professional news recently, there has been a parallel discussion about the nature and importance of ‘civility’. It is a category mistake (as I have argued) to take civility to be the converse of academic freedom. But some have argued that civility is still a professional error: that we may or even should use uncivil language and a hostile stance at times in dealing with opposition and criticism. And the demands for incivility are heard more acutely when we face attack on our very institutions and seem to be fighting for our academic lives.…..
Begin, however, with the ordinary case. In the corridor or the classroom or the seminar, civility is at least an aspiration – that we speak and listen to each other in a civil manner: it is an aspiration within an existing community – hence the political overtones of the word. Why should we bother? Civility is an attitude displayed in the content of what one says, revealed by tone or linguistic choice, but it is fundamentally an attitude to another person – of taking them seriously, of treating them with respect and care, and without prejudice. This, I take it, matters intrinsically – just because whatever enterprises we are engaged in, we are engaged together. This explains the shock and outrage and the sympathy for its target when civility seems to be cast aside.
But civility matters practically and instrumentally, too. For discussion – not only in philosophy, but perhaps philosophy is a paradigm case – is a fragile thing. In its full sense it relies both on each party’s having the confidence to speak without hesitation or fear and on each party’s ability to listen to the other. Shouting, of course, precludes listening; and so does its behavioural counterpart, incivility – where the damage may be done at a distance, or over a length of time. For these are exercises of power; and they distort and damage and stunt each party over time. (As a young graduate student, in seminars with an array of philosophical heavyweights, I said not a word in public for years; and the sense, both of terror at speaking up, and of hubris in daring to think I have something to say, has remained with me ever since, only overcome, regrettably, by a natural garrulousness). The wielding of power is bad for each party; both the silenced and the speaking end up with a view of what they each think that comes from their squinted sense of themselves, rather than from some better assessment of what they (might have) said. That is bound to limit what we think about – since some stuff never gets said; and some gets said too much. And it is bound to limit us.
For all this has both a narrowing effect and a broadening one. Incivility relies on an assumption of being right; and that assumption itself may make a speaker risk-averse (this is the Mastermind syndrome – you too can be a specialist within a vanishingly narrow scope…) or pontifical everywhere (this is the God syndrome – to which both those who believe in a god and those who do not are prone…). Both syndromes affect both parties to a discussion where the balance of power is out of whack: but they are the assumptions of power, not of careful inquiry.
For the hearer, civility has an obvious epistemic advantage, that it does not tempt us to accept beliefs whose warrant is sustained only by force majeure; it allows us to see the limits of expertise or authority; and it encourages us to think that we too might have something to say. Moreover, in eschewing particular attack, it allows us to turn our attention better to what is impersonal and abstract; it has that instrumental value.
For the speaker (or the writer) it may be hard to remember that we might be wrong, or that we could think again, or that others might have thought about the same things too; and in the grip of a passionate conviction it is especially difficult to make oneself look at the passion from the outside, from the perspective of another, from the abstract stance of the discussion itself. But discussion gives us these other perspectives: if we are able to listen, then we can think about what we think is different ways. If we are sure we are right about something, we can surely afford the patience to listen to a different view; and if the different view is worth hearing, then perhaps we are not so right after all. But that sense of perspective arises only if the other party to our discussion is able, not only to listen, but also to speak. Listening, if you like, goes both ways; and each of us has to have courage to speak, as well as the patience to hear, if the deep intellectual benefits of discussion are to be reaped. That courage can be very hard indeed to find. Civil exchanges, where the exercise of power is absent, are one condition for finding it.
Civility is hard, though: it is easy indeed to feel oneself under threat and to respond without hesitation, seeking to defend ourselves. This escalates – one remark construed as uncivil provokes another and another; and then the history of the offence is just repeated and rehearsed. This is the rhetoric of the playground, of ‘she said, he said, she said…’, the endless recapitulation of grievance, the constant repetition of what was done, by whom, to whom, and under what provocation. Such disputes, legalistic in their detail, may be not only interminable, but utterly indeterminate, since the original offence is often lost in the retelling itself. Both parties, of course, take themselves to be in the right, and to have behaved impeccably. Either may be right. But in such a situation, remember Jarndyce v. Jarndyce: we are all the poorer for it (apart, perhaps, from the Court of Chancery). Return, then, to the nature of the aspiration to be civil. The prospect of restoring good will and the possibility to speak and to listen together demands that the endless detail is, at last, abandoned. The future of collaborative discourse is more important than its past.
In all of our exchanges, perhaps, we fall short: civility is under construction, but it continues to be an aspiration. But there is still a question of the role of rage: are we never right to express fury, or righteous indignation? Communities, after all, are not only the place for polite discussions of an afternoon in the study, but the locus of structures of power, places where wrongs can be done and go unnoticed or unprotested. When that happens, there is another demand upon us, a different kind of courage called for – the courage to protest, to object, to stand up for one party against another – a courage that is demanded even where there is no risk of physical harm. So in counterpoint to the aspiration to civility, there is a proper demand to call out wrong, and to insist on expressing disapproval or disdain or condemnation. This may be a case, merely, of objecting to a wrong; or a protest against the improper wielding of power. (It should not, I think, for all the reasons above, simply call out an intellectual mistake – accusations of stupidity promote the wretched ‘smartness’ competition). Such a protest may indeed express other responses than civility: anger is the properly moral emotion in response to some appalling injustices. And that rage may be, not only about the content of the injustice, but directed against the perpetrator – after all, we regularly think that there is a connection, sometimes, between the views that someone holds and their moral character. As so often, there is a matter of fine judgment here between the demands of moral indignation, and the demands of attentiveness; and this, we might think, works within any community, whatever its boundaries. But once again there is a difference of category: moral indignation may be a moment or a stance against some particular offence; but it should not be a general attitude, nor a repetitive trope, nor, indeed, a policy. Instead, in general, civility serves us well; for it underpins the virtues that promote freedom of inquiry: modesty, a sense of community and intellectual courage.
Published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, here.
We propose and test a new theory explaining glass-ceiling bias against nonnative speakers as driven by perceptions that nonnative speakers have weak political skill. Although nonnative accent is a complex signal, its effects on assessments of the speakers’ political skill are something that speakers can actively mitigate; this makes it an important bias to understand.
There are interesting tie-ins with an earlier post in this blog on bias and foreign languages.
Germany moves toward gender-neutral language March 24, 2014
Now, with the federal justice ministry emphasising that all state bodies should stick to “gender-neutral” formulations in their paperwork, things are changing again. Increasingly, job ads use the feminine form as the root of a noun, so that even a male professor may be referred to as der Professorin. Lecturers are advised to address their students not as Studenten but Studierende (“those that study”), thus sidestepping the gender question altogether.
For more, go here.
(Thanks, Mr Jender!)