[guest post] Let’s Not Call People “Illiterate”

Frequent guest poster CaitieCat is back with a short piece about classism and how we call people out.

One of the things we’ve been talking a lot about recently in feminist circles is the concept of ‘splash damage’ – the idea that sometimes taking aim at one thing in a particular way ends up causing harm to other groups. Things like describing ‘people with uteri’ as exclusively women, white feminism assuming the centrality of the white upper/middle-class experience, using ‘crazy’ as a synonym for ‘person with repugnant ideas’.

In that vein, I’d like to introduce the idea that when we jibe at people as ‘illiterate’, or assert/imply that someone’s inability to spell according to the rules of ‘standard English’ means that their ideas aren’t worth listening to, or that they are inherently less worthy ideas for being expressed in a way that isn’t standard for upper/middle-class people…we are being classist.

Particularly in a US context, where educational options are very strongly influenced by class (and race, in an intertwined manner), riding the xenophobes for misspelling ‘illegals’ as ‘illeagles’, or “Muslim” as “muslin”, what we’re saying is, “You should have been smart enough to get yourself born to the right kind of parents, who’d give you access to the best education, who were educated themselves enough to teach you ‘proper’ English, and who were rich enough to make sure you never had to work after school instead of studying!”

I’m speaking from experience here. Yeah, I talk just like a toff now, but I’m from a seriously poor, working-class background.  Like, ‘familially homeless’ poor.

I’m the first person in my extended family to ever attend university (I finished a baccalaureate in linguistics, and had to drop a master’s in order to transition in the still notoriously transphobic  early 90s). Only the second to finish secondary education. Neither parent got an O level (grade 11-ish, for the North Americans).I worked after school all the way through high school, and took two jobs to get through university.

So I grew up speaking a working-class dialect, and it was very much the product of hard work and dedication, and love of language itself, that allowed me to learn to talk so good.I can code-switch now, speaking in my natural working-class accents (English and Canadian), or my learned ‘standard English’, which is solely Canadian (well, mostly).

I don’t think I need to give you examples, do I? Or much further argument?

Let’s focus our opprobrium on their ideas, and leave the classist shit to the 1%. When we are classist, we’re only helping the oligarchs, by diminishing people who should be our allies. We wonder why they vote against their class interests, and then we act as though we despise their class every time we do this. We should be better than this.

CaitieCat is a 47-year-old trans bi dyke, outrageously feminist, and is a translator/editor for academics by vocation. She also writes poetry, does standup comedy, acts and directs in community theatre, paints, games, plays and referees soccer, uses a cane daily, writes other stuff, was raised proudly atheist, is both English by birth and Canadian by naturalization, a former foxhole atheist, a mother of four, and a grandmother of four more (so far). Sort of a Renaissance woman (and shaped like a Reubens!).

[guest post] A Thought Experiment In The Style of Schrödinger

I’m traveling to Columbus, Ohio for the Secular Student Alliance conference, and CaitieCat has written a guest post so that you’re not too bored in my absence!

I was thinking about Schrödinger’s Rapist, the concept that to a woman faced alone with a man she does not know, it is rationality in action if she decides to be careful about how she interacts.

Now, this concept makes MRAs lose their NUT, and I can’t help but think it’s got to do with an inability to understand how reasoning works. That’s the charitable answer; the uncharitable ones are, I think, obvious.

So here’s an analogy: You’re walking down the street. You see a dog, loose, no collar. You don’t know whether the dog is escaped from someone’s house, or feral. You know nothing about the dog or its history.

Would you go over and start petting its muzzle?

Probably not. Why? Because you don’t know. It could be that this dog is feral and rabid, or it could be a sweet-natured lap dog. Basic rationality says that there’s little to be gained by treating the dog as anything but a possible object of fear at this point. You don’t know the dog, you don’t know its habits, you don’t know its mind, you don’t know if it’s been trained as an attack dog. You just don’t know.

Now, that rationality? That’s not in any way saying “all dogs are trained attack dogs which will bite you if you give them any chance at all”. That would be irrational; many dogs you encounter will be with people who love them, people who care about them, people who would help that dog not be a dog who bites people.

So you act as though any dog you don’t know could bite you, because it’s basic common sense, no?

Now go back up there, and change the concept of “dog” to “man”, and “bite” to “rape”.

THAT is Schrödinger’s Rapist. Not a belief that every man WILL rape. Simply a common-sense approach that any man you don’t know could rape, and when alone with such a person, taking a reasonably cautious approach.

How can men interact with this belief? By putting themselves in the mind of someone who doesn’t know what a wonderful person they really are, and thinking – hey, how would I as someone else know that I the real person aren’t a rapist? Well, they don’t. So you make a little effort to show the ways you’re not: you try not to walk close behind her, you don’t stare at her, you visibly involve yourself in other things, whatever.

It’s a simple issue in formal reasoning, the difference between:

- all dogs are dangerous animals which bite
- ANY dog could be a dangerous animal which bites.

One is an argument from the specific to the general, and is bad reasoning. The other is of an unknown-truth-value situation, where caution is obviously the prudent and rational answer.

And if you can’t see the difference between those two, maybe consider taking an intro course in reasoning.

CaitieCat is a 47-year-old trans bi dyke, outrageously feminist, and is a translator/editor for academics by vocation. She also writes poetry, does standup comedy, acts and directs in community theatre, paints, games, plays and referees soccer, uses a cane daily, writes other stuff, was raised proudly atheist, is both English by birth and Canadian by naturalization, a former foxhole atheist, a mother of four, and a grandmother of four more (so far). Sort of a Renaissance woman (and shaped like a Reubens!).

[guest post] Undigging the Hole: FOFISSAMO

While I continue to recover from what I did to myself to celebrate finishing college, CaitieCat is back with some advice about apologizing.

So you’re in a mess.

You said something in public that might have used a bit more thought, a bit more empathy, and now you’re in a hole. And people being what people are, instead of climbing out of the hole with the help of the people we’ve hurt, many of us will instead turn to digging deeper, insisting that all we have to do is dig a little deeper and then people will get it and think we’re decent people again. Some of us will bring in backhoes to really get down to the dirt.

By digging the hole, I mean frantic excuses, insistences that your best friend is such a person and that you totally let them use your bathroom and everything, screams of “reverse prejudice” and the like. As a public service, then, allow me to offer this simple four-step algorithm for Undigging the Hole. I call it FOFISSAMO, as noted in the title of the post, as a pleasantly pseudo-Italian mnemonic.

FOFISSAMO stands for:

  1. Find Out

  2. Fix It

  3. Say Sorry

  4. And Move On.

Now here’s what I mean, specifically, by each step in undigging the hole you’re in.

Find Out

Finding out. People HATE the finding out step. Ron Lindsay called it being silenced, for instance, ironically while he used a privileged platform, with a  captive audience provided, to make the complaint. So my first step is simple, despite how much people hate the thought: Shut Up And Listen. If someone’s telling you what you did hurt people, the first impulse of the moral person should be “listen to them”, not “deny that you hurt them”, “insist they’re being oversensitive”, calling them any form of Nazi, or any of the frequently-used other responses we see.

Just pay attention. Attend closely to what the person is telling you about why what you did is a problem. Treat them as a human being, worthy of the same amount of attention you expect to receive yourself. Trust that they know what they’re talking about, the way(s) that they’ve been hurt by what you did, and just as you hope your words are taken in a good and gracious light, give them that same respect. There’s a reason the Golden Rule can be found in almost any civilization’s development.

Yes, it will probably be uncomfortable. You will be feeling embarrassed that you hurt someone, embarrassed to be called on it in public, and often defensive. Remember that this is their time; you had yours when you did the hurtful thing.

Once you know what the problem was, and if it’s amenable to this, then the second step is…

Fix It

If there’s a way you can undo the harm you did, do that. If there’s a way to mitigate the knock-on effects, do that too; an example from other circumstances – if your mistake in making a bank deposit causes someone else to incur fees related to their unexpected banking error situation, you offer to cover those fees, right? Same thing here.

Often there’s no way you can actually do much to fix it, so your next important step is…

Say Sorry

This is probably the simplest part, and also the hardest. Apologize. An apology, to be effective, takes the following form (parenthetical parts are optional/situation-dependent):

I am sorry (for having hurt you/run over your dog/dehumanized you/made you feel like crap/used a slur – even unknowingly, telling them that part comes later!)”.

Don’t say, “I’m sorry if I hurt anyone,” because you already know you did. That was what step 1 was for.

Don’t say, “Mistakes were made,”: own your shit. “I made a mistake” is a much stronger and better statement for this.

Stay away from these things.

Just: “I’m sorry (I hurt you).” If you can include a statement here of exactly what you did wrong, preferably specifically and openly addressing your mistake as a way of acknowledging that you’ve learned and will try to not repeat it, you’ll be doing well.

Which brings us to Step 4…

And Move On

By this, I don’t mean “force the other person to drop the subject”, or “ignore them when they try to help you understand how not to do it again”.

I mean, don’t spend your time trying to weaken your apology by offering excuses. If the injured party wants to talk about how you got there, great, do what they want. But don’t spend time trying to make it not have happened, don’t spend effort on pretending you didn’t fuck up. Just follow their lead and leave it behind when they’re ready to.

Remember, when you bring it up again to re-apologize or get them to recognize that you’re really truly a decent person and totally not like those other people who do or say racist/sexist/transphobic/ableist/whateverist things, or whatever your motive is, you’re not putting only yourself back in that spot of shame and unhappiness, you’re reminding the person you hurt that they were hurt by you. That’s not going to make it easier for either of you to move on.

The important part in this step is to remember that you’re not the injured party here. Take your cue from how the injured party reacts. Let them drive the process, if they want to. And if they don’t, drop it when they do.

So there you have it. FOFISSAMO. Find Out, Fix It, Say Sorry, And Move On: Undigging Holes Since 2013.

CaitieCat is a 47-year-old trans bi dyke, outrageously feminist, and is a translator/editor for academics by vocation. She also writes poetry, does standup comedy, acts and directs in community theatre, paints, games, plays and referees soccer, uses a cane daily, writes other stuff, was raised proudly atheist, is both English by birth and Canadian by naturalization, a former foxhole atheist, a mother of four, and a grandmother of four more (so far). Sort of a Renaissance woman (and shaped like a Reubens!).

[guest post] Dictionary Arguments, and Why They Suck

CaitieCat, a frequent and awesome commenter around here, has a guest postI

It’s not news to any activist for any cause that people just love to whip out dictionary definitions as ostensibly authoritative guides to what words mean. Even so august a person as a fellow whose name may or may not rhyme with Shmichard Shmawkins has been known to whip out (pun intended) the old Oxford English when he doesn’t like someone else’s usage being different from the one he learned.

What’s disappointing about it is that it’s really just a common logical fallacy: the appeal to authority.

Now, I hear the defenders of that fellow who may or may not have that rhyming name leaping to their feet, cursing at me and their screens and the perfidy of anyone (especially a much-despiséd FEMINIST OMFFSM!) who’d dare to suggest the emperor would turn out to be naked commit a logical fallacy, but let me (the irony should delight you) tell you as a linguist why it’s exactly that.

First, it’s perhaps valuable to look at what a dictionary actually is. A dictionary is a compilation of language-objects (usually words, sometimes other related entities) – and this is the important bit – compiled by humans at a particular time.

Yes, they’re genuine experts in their field, and yes, they work by consensus, sort of. See, they only work by consensus within the field of dictionary writers who use the same language variety as they do. We tend to view a dictionary as a collection of objective facts: word X means meaning Y (and possibly Z, J, F, and Q). In fact, though, any dictionary is bounded by several biases which we tend not to think about when citing them as major authorities.

First, it is bounded in time. The date of publication provides an absolute limit for when the meanings are considered definitely valid; for proof, consider trying to use Mr. Johnson’s original dictionary for your English assignment today. That we can see this in Mr. Johnson’s 1709 effort, but not in the 2000 Oxford Online, has to do with our monkey-brained habit of filtering out the everyday, in order to make best use of the meat-computer we come pre-installed with.The instant it is sent to print, a dictionary is already badly out of date: words can change their meaning significantly in a very short time, as the quill flies/pixel pulses.

The filters have to do with more than time, though. There is also to be considered the makeup of the editorial board – does it accurately reflect the state of the whole of English, with different sociolects, dialects, jargons, cants, argots? There is a known demographic issue in academia generally, as well as most parts of academia, for the majority of tenured positions currently to be held by white able-bodied middle- or upper-class cis men. Are they always going to catch all possible meanings of a given word, all the nuances, when they aren’t users of a given word themselves? More diversity in such an endeavour would be evidently useful in making the dictionary more accurately reflect the true state of the language, if that were a goal of the project. It’s not: the OED is an attempt at defining what the prestige version of the language is.

Consider the privilege in dictionary-making accorded to written (i.e., “documentable”) usages, and in fact only certain types of documentable usages, which predominantly exclude those who stand outside the power-structure in today’s society. Emails between people, chat usage, comic books, zines, samizdat generally, erotic fiction/pornography, fan fiction, maledicta, rap lyrics, acronyms, and languages for the Deaf, among many other types of language usage, tend to be recorded only in the most conservative ways, and often ignored entirely, dismissed as vulgar ephemera, unworthy of inclusion in the Pantheon of English Wordhood.

Verbal usages are ignored almost entirely, as being “undocumentable”. Yet written language is only ever at its very best a vague approximation of the true richness and beauty of the spoken/signed language; great numbers of expressions and words will never make it into any dictionary, despite their usage in the millions of times daily all over the world, because they’re never written down in “acceptable” documentation. And yet we’re accumulating a humanity-wide store of thousands of hours of video of native and non-native speakers using their languages every day; there’s no particular reason to privilege written communication over spoken any more, now that the data are more readily available. Yes, it would cause a lot more work, but that’s only because we’ve only been doing half the job up til now, not a good argument for not doing it.

The primary problem, of course, is that these nominally objective (but in actuality, wildly subjective) works are cited as prescriptive authorities: they purport to describe the language as it ought to be spoken. I’m hoping that with the paragraphs above, I don’t need to describe the ways in which that view of language is of a tiny window on a huge, living phenomenon: it’s like carefully describing every pitch and swing of a baseball at-bat, and claiming that only that one at-bat, by one player, at one time, counts as a real at-bat, and that all at-bats are like that one, or aren’t real at-bats at all1.

There are real and invisible-to-us biases we all bear, having been raised in societies which are basically giant machines for inculcating invisible-to-us bias: the privilege of having a background such that one speaks the very high-prestige Received Pronunciation (the so-called “Queen’s English”) might lead one to assume that, since the OED agrees exactly with one’s internal definitions, then it must necessarily be a valid and unshakeable authority. Call it the oligoanthropic principle: “all the highly-educated Oxbridge graduates I know agree with the OED, and nobody I consider important disagrees, therefore it is an inerrant objective compilation of facts.”

But this requires not noticing that there are a lot of people in the world speaking English as their main language, and every single one of them has as much claim to say that their version is “the real one” as any Oxbridge-trained-mouthful-of-marbles has.

Like any compilation of subjective human knowledge, then, a dictionary definition is a poor premise to base an argument upon: it is too easily falsified by the simple act of noting that there are a noticeable number of people in the world using those words differently. As a linguist, I lean naturally toward a descriptive approach to language: to me, language is what the people who speak it want it to be. Language changes, as we adapt it – like any tool, as the good tool-using primates we are – to the needs we’re facing with it today. Insistence on some apocryphal golden-age idea that a given dictionary definition is a universally valid, and objectively and eternally true, premise reveals only a weak ability to recognize the numerous bounds and biases which make it at best subjective, and at worst revealing only a small part of the meaning a given language-object might carry to other people.

And that means, I’m afraid, that showing that your dictionary has a famous person’s or institution’s name on it doesn’t make it any more important or objective an arbiter of language than any random two speakers of that dictionary’s language: thus, the fallacy of appeal to authority.

Sorry, rhymes-with-Shmawkins fans: the emperor’s butt’s hanging out2.

For the turquoise ungulate crowd:

FALLIBLE PEOPLE WRITE DICTIONARIES THAT ARE SUBJECTIVE PRODUCTS OF THEIR PHYSICAL AND TEMPORAL CONTEXT.

FALLIBLE PEOPLE WRITE HOLY BOOKS THAT ARE SUBJECTIVE PRODUCTS OF THEIR PHYSICAL AND TEMPORAL CONTEXT.

WHY DO WE REVERE ONE AND DENIGRATE THE OTHER?

1 Wow, that’s a crap analogy. Anyone got a better one?

2 Big thanks to Miri the Amazing Professional Fun-Ruiner of Awesomeness for the opportunity to guest-post. :)

CaitieCat is a 47-year-old trans bi dyke, outrageously feminist, and is a translator/editor for academics by vocation. She also writes poetry, does standup comedy, acts and directs in community theatre, paints, games, plays and referees soccer, uses a cane daily, writes other stuff, was raised proudly atheist, is both English by birth and Canadian by naturalization, a former foxhole atheist, a mother of four, and a grandmother of four more (so far). Sort of a Renaissance woman (and shaped like a Reubens!).