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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Review: Hits and Mrs.

Content note: this is a spoiler free review. The book depicts rape, which is briefly discussed here.

PZ Myers brought to my attention to Hits and Mrs., a new novel by Karen Stollznow. The book is about Claudia Cox, and her efforts to expose her ex-fiance Gil Godsend, a famous psychic medium. This book was of particular interest to me, because of its topical nature, and because PZ mentioned its negative view of organized skepticism. Although, as it turns out, the negative view of organized skepticism plays only a very minor role.

The first thing that struck me about the book was its similarity to TV series Jessica Jones. Jessica Jones is a former superhero, currently working as a private detective specializing in cheating husbands. In the series, she faces off against an abusive ex slash supervillain with the power to control people. In Hits and Mrs. Claudia Cox is a former skeptical activist, currently working as a private detective specializing in cheating husbands. In the book, she faces off against a manipulative ex slash villain with the power to read people.

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Five awful things about “God’s not Dead”

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2014.  I thought it might be relevant, given that God’s Not Dead now has a sequel.

I saw God’s Not Dead, a Christian film that appears to be based on that absurd chain e-mail about the brave Christian student who faces down an atheist professor.  This movie got a 16/100 on metacritic, but still ended up a big box office success.  If you want to know what happens in it without watching it, I recommend this synopsis.

In the world of God’s Not Dead, atheists are horrible people who mock their girlfriends in public, abandon people close to them when they’re dying, and secretly hate god.  The movie joyously depicts atheists dying by cancer or car accidents, and gloats over their last minute conversions.  Also, all atheist arguments are arguments from authority or assertion (oddly, so are the Christian arguments).

But a lot of that has already been said.  So here I present five things that were awful or bizarre about God’s Not Dead that had nothing to do with atheism.

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Linkspam: May 12th, 2016

It’s time for more links, along with my brief comments.

Hot and Cold Cognitive Empathy – Ozy distinguishes between hot cognitive empathy, which is intuitively felt, and cold cognitive empathy, which is deliberate.  Ozy observes that many autistic people develop the latter, and comments of the advantages and disadvantages.  I am not autistic, and experience hot cognitive empathy, but I find it fascinating how different people have different private experiences, and develop different mental processes to fulfill the same function.

Aphantasia: How it feels to be blind in your mind – Blake Ross, cofounder of Firefox, explains a revelation he had: “Picture it in your mind’s eye” is a literal expression for most people, but not for him.

This is another case in point.  Many people have different private experiences, but it can go under the radar for a long time because so much of our language describes only the function of our private experiences, rather than the experiences themselves.  And yet, contra Wittgenstein, comparing private experiences is at least possible.  This makes me wonder if I have other private experiences which are atypical.  For example, I suspect that fish doesn’t taste the same way to me as it does to other people.  Also, I don’t think I experience this “mystic emotion” thing that Einstein says is necessary to being alive.  Einstein: what a jerk!

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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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I’m glad it has come to bathrooms

This may be a contentious statement given that I am: a) not trans, and b) not living in North Carolina, Mississippi, or Alabama. But I am glad that bathroom bills have brought discrimination and harassment against trans people to national attention.

The fact of the matter is that denying trans people access to public restrooms did not start with bathroom bills. It was already an ongoing problem.

In the last few years, when US marriage equality was imminent, LGBT activists were worried about what would come next. For so long, marriage equality has been the LGBT issue in the US, as perceived by allies and outsiders. Activists themselves knew there were plenty of other issues like employment discrimination, trans healthcare, and de facto health and economic disparities. But if the general public starts to believe queer issues have already been solved, just like they believe for racism and sexism, then activists would run out of steam and funding.
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Paper: Do memes really go viral?

When a meme becomes popular, we often say that it has gone “viral”. This word suggests that memes become popular by being particularly infectious. In analogy to epidemics, a particularly viral meme hits a critical threshold where it just won’t die, because each new infection spreads it to even more people.  But is this epidemic model actually true?

A paper titled “The Structural Virality of Online Diffusion” puts into question the very idea that popular memes are viral. They point out another mechanism by which memes can become popular: the broadcast. Rather than infecting multiple generations of followers, a meme may become popular simply by infecting one person with a lot of followers.

Transcript: two tree structures are shown. The first is a single root node with many children. The second is a root node with two children, each of which have two more children, and so on.
Figure 1 from the paper. The tree on the left illustrates a broadcast, while the one on the right illustrates viral spreading.

The paper considers a massive amount of Twitter data to determine whether the most popular links are broadcast-like or virus-like. On average, they more resemble broadcasts, but there is a huge amount of variation.
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