Tag Archives: Language

Why I Will Not Call You ‘Homophobic’

One of the hardest things about trying to fight for a just cause is realizing just how much you compromise yourself.  In retrospect, this shouldn’t be surprising.  We were born in a century where fighting for class equality spawned Stalinism, ‘stabilizing the world economy’ bred secret police, a movement for racial equality attacked gender equality, and a movement for gender equality attacked trans people.  Of course, these things also overthrew oppressive regimes, secured civil rights, prevented violence and warfare, and formed the foundation for contemporary notions of justice.  It’s important that, sitting at the current moment of these historical motions we recognize that a just movement is never fully formed, and that we ourselves must always be a target of our criticisms, that we must continually reexamine and renegotiate our actions and relationship with history, and must always avoid falling into the sclerotic dogma that divides communities and breeds distrust, violence, and, on rare occasions, genocide.

Which all stands as an introduction to what I want to say today: I will no longer use the words ‘homophobia’ or ‘transphobia’ to describe the bigotry directed toward people of marginalized gender and sexuality.  The phenomena commonly understood to be the meaning of these words is absolutely real, and I will continue to critique it.  However, I will not use the words because they are ableist–which is to say, bigoted against disabled people.  To explain:

Phobias are real psychological conditions.  They effect real people, sometimes in detrimental ways.  There is nothing “wrong” with having a phobia, any more than there is something wrong with having a physical disability.  However, they are still affected by the stigma of ‘mental illness’ in our contemporary culture, a stigma that associates psychological disability with degeneration and deviancy.  As people interested in equality, queer rights activists should be working to remove this stigma.  Even if it weren’t a general moral imperative, it’s especially significant withing the queer rights movement because disproportionately more queer people are affected with a number of these issues.  The stigmatization of psychological disability both results in a double dose of marginalization for disabled queers and is part of the general network of bigotry toward gender and sexuality minorities, since these minorities are often assumed to be in some way “mentally ill” or “sick in the head” by bigots.

And yet, despite this, queer activists have been comfortably using the words ‘homophobia’ and ‘transphobia’ to refer to what is, in fact, straight-up bigotry.  Yes, most people understand the meanings associated with those words, but that is in a sense the problem.  Rather than people thinking we’re talking about phobias when we’re actually talking about bigotry, we’ve got people thinking about bigotry while using the word ‘phobia’.  This creates an unnecessary, inaccurate, and unwarranted negative association with the word phobia, and thus contributes to the marginalization of phobic people.

Equally problematic, these terms create a pathological association with bigotry.  Attacking bigotry by treating it as a pathology means basing your attack on ableist norms–the assumption that pathologies will be received as negative.  Let’s not forget that for a good chunk of recent history, homosexuality was regarded as a pathology.  Let’s not forget that being transgender is still referred to as ‘Gender Identity Disorder’.  Rather than distancing ourselves from this pathologizing of queer identity, we should be fighting the negative stigma of pathology, itself a holdover from inaccurate fascist notions of biology.

Furthermore, using a pathological representation of bigotry exoticizes it insomuch as pathology means, (according to Encarta Dictionary 2006) “a condition that is a deviation from the normal.”  The sad fact is, bigotry is the norm, and it is a norm that needs to be destroyed.  But as long as we treat it as a sort of ‘condition’, we’re misunderstanding the origins and nature of bigotry.  Bigotry is immanent to the social fabric; it is the result of how our society is structured.  The responsibility lies with no one and everyone, and as something that flows through our everyday discourse we all stand at a point to stop it and fight it.  When someone says, “you’re gay,” as an insult, they are not demonstrating the symptoms of a condition called ‘homophobia,’ and to treat it as such would be a mystification.  Rather, they are reiterating a bigoted use of language that they have heard before and that others will hear from them.  To fight bigotry is not to point out ‘homophobia’ or ‘transphobia,’ it’s to cut off the continued repetition as acceptable and try to encourage an empathetic understanding.

Recently I argued that we all have privilege.  I would like to extend that argument a little further to say that almost certainly we have all been bigots at some time.  Being a bigot is not a matter of identity, like being queer or even having a temporary psychological disability.  It is a state brought about by our actions or our words that we only occupy so long as we maintain those behaviors.  The difficulty is that since bigotry is premised on ignorance, we often cannot move out of it on our own.  We require someone else to remind us of our privilege and the bigotry it has produced.  As a relatively able-minded person, I had not thought about the harmful effects of using the word ‘homophobia’ until someone referred to the word as ableist.  Responsibility for our bigotry always rests on our own shoulders, but it is also important that one of the easiest ways to fight it is to point it out to others, and insomuch as we live a life devoted to creating a just society, it is important to not remain silent.

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On Plain Speech and Academic Language

Often on forum discussions of political language in contemporary academia we see the same tired examples trotted out to attack contemporary academic writing.  The most common bogeymen are Alan Sokal, who will no doubt be the subject of a sometime future post, and George Orwell, specifically his views on language as put forth in the essay, “Politics and the English Language”.  I want to first address the essay on a few points, and then focus on the way it seems to be used in contemporary amateur discourse.

The main attack of the essay is an argument on the perils of circuitous and imprecise language.  To be direct, this is all kinds of bullshit.  First of all, Orwell attacks phrasing that is indirect.  He seems to fail to understand the value of the way the first half of this sentence is constructed; no doubt he would prefer to simply ‘miss’ the value, and therein throw off the whole structure of pragmatic equivocating that makes English, for me, a fun language.  Language is not just the transmission of information, it is a form of social interaction.  Awkward subordinate clauses and circumlocutions are the body language of what could otherwise be a straightforward message, and straightforward direct language is as exciting as a social interaction with no physical cues.  There’s a reason contemporary textbooks on biology and physics tend to lull one to sleep much faster than Daniel Dennett or Michio Kaku.

At another point he attacks this language for its euphemistic approach to issues like the Stalinist mass-murder, but to be frank this is also a ridiculous critique.    Orwell says,

Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.”

But of course he is attacking a straw man here: the English professor in question most likely does not simply believe in achieving ‘good results’–by cutting off the argument there Orwell makes the person sound petty and insincere, which he then goes on to accuse the person of being.  Wow, you proved that a character you created exhibited the traits you gave him, amazing,bravo,etc.  While I wouldn’t defend the Stalinist murders, I acknowledge that there is an argument to be made in their defense, and it doesn’t derive from the issue of good results so much as the fact that, for a Stalinist, those results constitute the eventual achievement of a Utopian society.  This becomes a “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”–at least for one who genuinely believes in the potential of Stalinism to achieve Utopia, which I think few now do.  What Orwell has done is to obfuscate by directness: by stating the thing simply, he strips it of the context that gives it meaning.  Also, he makes the assumption that the reader is too stupid to figure out that the phrase “a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition” is a cover for killing, which may have been true at the time of writing (I wasn’t there, couldn’t say) but definitely doesn’t apply to a contemporary society that is used to drawing truth from complex situations–complexities that characterize the world we live in.

Complexities that characterize the world we live in dictate language.  That is what is at stake here.  After his listing of six rules, Orwell says “I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.”  That’s great and all but it’s also impossible.  Once again, I acknowledge that the 1946 timestamp on this document puts it a good twenty years before Derrida and his friends started making trouble, but they were hardly the first to observe how the ambiguities of language and life interrupt the art of “expressing and not … concealing” in communication.  As I mentioned in the above example, a short, quick expression can be just as obfuscatory as a long circuitous one.  But the long circuitous one makes the reader aware that they are being confronted with complex ambiguities, whereas the short direct speech does not–it puts the reader at ease, and thus can be more misleading simply by implying the existence of non-misleading speech.  Again I will draw on one of my favorite pieces of writing, Melville’s “Benito Cereno”.  The language is full of that ‘not un-‘ construction that Orwell mocks, as well as other complex and circuitous phrasing, precisely because of its ability to create a fog over meaning, to show the fog that is always present.  The denouement is presented as a plain legal document which should be robbed of such confusion, but which is not because its context is already polluted by confusion.  The actual story of “Benito Cereno” does not lie in the text, it lies outside of the text, only implied by it.  (Likewise with Moby-Dick and a number of Melville’s other works–he was one of the great predecessors of postmodernity, and surpassed most of its own writers in expressing its ideas.)  By contrast one can think of the ‘plain speech’ of Ronald Reagan or John McCain.  The discourse of the GOP has largely been defined in recent years by a return to plain speech, a move away from ‘elitist’ college language, and it is precisely this plain speech which is misleading.  Reagan at one point, upon hearing about isoprene monomers naturally produced by plants which contribute to troposphere ozone immediately jumped to the conclusion and statement that trees pollute more than people.  There are ways this could be seen as true, but those simplistic ways are completely false to the nature of reality, a reality which is more complex than can be portrayed in plain speech.

So we return to the old forum debates over contemporary academia.  People in academia toss around terms like ‘reification’, ‘post-structuralist’, ‘jouissance‘, ‘biopower’, and ‘ideological state apparatus’.  First of all, these don’t even precisely violate Orwell’s rules, since in many cases there is no better word to replace them.  The people who often attack this language as degrading the practice of English fail to realize that this is a specialized vocabulary, a jargon of philosophy of literature the same way that ‘RNA-transcriptase’ is a much easier term to describe a certain protein than a name in ‘plain speech’.  The reason this bothers people is because a lot of people don’t think literature needs a jargon–it comes back to that old hard science/soft science/liberal arts hierarchy that believes that something like studying literature is below the need of a specialized speech.  But more importantly, a specialized speech is important with political philosophy because it confuses the reader.  It stops the reader, disrupts the flow of thought while reading, and therefore confronts the reader with his or her own lack of knowledge about what is being said.  It thereby forces the reader to examine the work critically.  I would argue that those who get frustrated at the language have made a key error: they’re examining the presentation of the ideas critically but without making any effort towards reconciliation.  They stand on their shore of meaning and mock what they see happening without the effort to complete the bridge.  Granted, not all bridges need to be completed, and one must show discretion in where one is willing to put mental effort.  But if no attempt is made to understand the text on its own terms, then meaning really has been lost, and obfuscation is complete.  The worst English writing is not complex and confusing, it is the English writing that the reader can glide over without ever going outside their own perspective.

As a final case study, let’s look at a sentence that, according to ever-reliable wikipedia, Judith Butler won a ‘bad writing’ award for:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Of course, this could be rendered into plain speech.

When people stopped thinking about capital as doing the same thing everywhere and started paying attention to how it did similar things in different ways at different times and places it made us think about how time is important in how things are being done and meant that people agreed less with the philosopher (Althusser) who said things all happen in about the same way and instead were able to think about how the place-and-time-dependent things-happening-ness means we can thing about all things happening as being made of little things always happening.

Yes, it’s a crude mockery, but no more so than that often held out against academic language, and I think it demonstrates the point I’m trying to make: words mean things that you don’t know.  They always do, unless you just wrote those words, and even then they still usually do.  We need to always approach language critically.  But tied into that approach is the way that words can direct our thinking to certain thought patterns.  What’s missing here is how a word like ‘hegemony’ conjures up for the right reader a whole lineage of Gramsci and Situationist perspective on capital, how ‘totality’ resurrects Lukacs and the discussions of the Frankfurt school–in a way, any specialized sentence can be unpacked like a line of Milton.  That is what ‘plain speech’ advocates are promoting: a true death of culture, a homogenized world where language would mean the same thing to everyone, as if that were even possible.  It is, indeed, the dream of a certain type of America, and even a certain type of England–but that dream belongs to the past, with all the corpses it was built on.  If we want a language of the future that will help us avoid mass graves we need a language that makes us constantly uncomfortable, constantly aware of the ambiguities and frustrations of existence, that will avoid the soothing lie of plain speech.

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