Signaling in social justice language

Social justice activists like myself have a tendency to construct a lot of rules about which words to use or avoid. For example, “gay” is preferred to “homosexual” because the latter is too formal, clinical, and distant. On the other hand, “homosexual” may be acceptable when it’s used in parallel with “heterosexual”, or if it’s contrasted with “homoromantic”. These rules can be frustrating to learn, but they have some rationale behind them.

And then there are other rules which just don’t have any clear rationale. For instance, “gay” is to be used only as an adjective, never as a noun, and certainly never as a plural noun (i.e. “the gays”). Why? We don’t have a problem with using plural nouns for other identities, such as “Americans”, “liberals” or “atheists”. Even other sexual orientations are usually acceptable, as in the case of “lesbians”, “bisexuals”, or “asexuals”.

On an individual level, the only rationale is that “the gays” just sounds wrong, and conjures negative associations. It makes me think of conservative preachers talking about all the evil things the gays are up to.

On a broader scale, this is a clear example of signaling. Following arbitrary language rules indicates that a person has taken the time to educate themselves and exercise a little empathy.
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Performativity and bad communication

“Gender is performative” means that gender is what you do, or it is produced by what you do. The word “performative” is taken from J. L. Austin’s concept of “performative utterances“, and refers to statements that are not truth propositions, but actions. For example, saying “I apologize” is not so much a statement of fact, but an action that creates the very apology it speaks of. Likewise, gendered behavior does not merely communicate who you are, but creates who you are.

“Gender is performative” does not mean that gender is acted out, as if on a stage. It does not mean that gender is pretended. Judith Butler, the originator of gender performativity theory, says so herself in this video.

Okay, but I have complaints about this video. The first thing Butler does is state the misconception, followed by “But what I mean is different.” Debunking 101: don’t do that! Generally, you should put as little emphasis on the misconception as possible, instead emphasizing the truth of the matter. People sometimes come away with a stronger memory of the misconception than of the correction. There’s a lot of literature about this, and here’s one example.

Of course, the larger issue is that Butler has already invited misconceptions with the very choice of word, “performative”. It’s just too easy to confuse “performative” with “performance”. Butler herself has used the two words interchangeably on occasion. Even when people understand the difference, they often mentally compare the two concepts, even though they have virtually nothing to do with each other.
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Celibacy, and its use by asexuals

This post is being cross-posted to The Asexual Agenda, and is written for a general audience.

“Asexuality is not the same as celibacy” is a common line in introductory explanations of asexuality, but as I discussed in an earlier post, mocking celibacy can still be asexual-unfriendly. Here I will go further in depth.

The distinction between asexuality and celibacy plays the same role that “born this way” plays for LGBT people. The purpose of each talking point is to establish that LGBT/asexual people did not choose their orientations. The slogans can be useful, particularly in hostile environments. However, if people become more accepting, if people realize it does not matter if it is chosen, perhaps we can move beyond slogans.

Aside from the politics, there is also a question to what extent it is really true that LGBT people are always “born this way”. If you look, you will find people who subjectively experienced a choice, people who emphasize that their identity or behavior are chosen, and people who would like an honest look at the empirical evidence.

Similar questions may be raised about asexuality and the extent to which choice plays a role in it. While asexuality and celibacy certainly have distinct meanings, we want to know exactly how far that distinction goes. For example, some people take that to mean that asexuals and celibates are non-overlapping groups. But is that really true?
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You wouldn’t use “uneducated” as an insult

Several bloggers on FTB and The Orbit brought to my attention the ableism challenge, which is a call to sympathetic bloggers to try, for one month, to stop using ableist insults. The list of insults includes “stupid”, “crazy”, and “blind”.

I’m going to say a few mixed things about this. First, I’ll say why I’m critical of calls to taboo words. Then I’ll say why I’m more sympathetic to this ableism challenge. Then I’ll explain why I personally don’t use ableist insults.

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