Linkage: roasting Naomi Wolf on fry

Excellent post on language: a feminist guide making a few important points to Naomi Wolf in response to a recent article in which she restates the tired and tiresome old trope that certain features of the vernacular are “damaging” to speakers—in this case, young women—and that they need to stop using them for their own good. The money shot, perfectly expressing what I try to tell people on what may well be an equally tiresome basis:

It misses the point that negative attitudes to the language of subordinate groups are just manifestations of a more general prejudice against the groups themselves.

Have a read: A response to Naomi Wolf.

Got a fair amount of vocal fry myself, by the way. Never been suggested to me that my voice imperils my status.

On quirkiness

There has of late been far too much reason and reasonableness here; I fear you may be at risk of forming the impression that I have become becalmed and moderate, that my irascibility has waned (would that then make me rascible?) or my intemperateness mellowed. So no more—for now, at least—of this fair-minded, egalitarian take on language. It is time for some inordinate and excessively opinionated dogmatism; the fact that it also happens to be right is merely an incidental detail.

I speak now of the word quirky, and I speak particularly of those who self-identify as such.

Let us set out what a quirk is: it is, in the metrics of personality, the tiniest, feeblest, most unambitious deviation from the mean imaginable. It is measured on the Planck scale: no smaller unit of character is possible. To boast of one’s quirks is like Holland boasting of its hills: better remain silent on the topic than draw attention to an absence.

To say “I am quirky”—almost universally qualified by a subsequent but—is little more than to say “I am almost the dullest, most stultifyingly drab individual you will ever meet. I am so thoroughly banal that even the facts that I sometimes wear odd socks and spread my Marmite a little bit thick stand out against the insipid dreariness that otherwise manifests my poor excuse for a personality. I feel, therefore, that I have to emphasize these, yet such a timid milksop am I that even then I do so half-apologetically, with a little self-deprecating titter, and quickly qualify it to assure you of my fundamental mundanity. There is nothing about me that is wonderful, ambitious, energetic, scintillating, or in any way within the widest gamut of the concept of characterful; even saying those words makes me blush with embarrassment. I am dreadful: run, you bright, shining things, run! For I am a black hole of charisma, the antiparticle of charm, the very heat death of the psyche.”

I hear, of course, a potential response. “We have been reading your blog,” the quirk-defenders say, “and we are not impressed. There is a thread that runs through it which, from your posturing about Art, through your sneering at the English countryside, to your defence of the vulgar and the uneducated in language, shows that you are a shallow and crass man incapable of appreciating the subtle, the sophisticated, and the sublime and who, being fortuitously possessed of some rhetorical weaponry—though more of the character of the blunderbuss than the sniper rifle—uses his firepower to, under the pose of intellectualism and egalitarianism, attempt to blast everyone else down to his own churlish and uncouth level. That you cannot appreciate the gentle delights of the quirk, the blameless pleasure of the foible, or the piquant sting of the peccadillo is unsurprising; your raging against them is but the sound and fury of the idiot.”

“This is an impressive argument,” I counterthrust, “but I am suspicious. Your assertion, with its nested subclauses, fondness for the rule of three, calculated and excessive splitting of an infinitive, and its deliberately casual nod in the direction of Shakespeare, looks remarkably as though it was written by none other than myself, and thus can be seen as little more than a callow ploy to spin this post out by a couple more paragraphs, and to descend into one of those bouts of smugly self-referential post-modern-schmost-modernism which seem be one of my—bah!—quirks, and that amuse almost certainly no-one but me. I cannot, therefore, take it seriously and must throw it out as an analysis of my character, however true it may ring.”

There is no answer to that, of course.

A to Z blogging challenge: Q

On kvetching, klutzdom, and kibitzery

There is something wonderfully satisfying about Yiddish loan-words to me. As a mother-tongue monolingual, the consonant conjuncts they offer are meaty and enjoyable, and they seem to have an pleasurable specificity in meaning: providing that satisfying feeling of having found exactly the right term that you required. But the problem with them, as a Brit, is lack of exposure. Whilst these words may be common in American English, they are less frequent in British—I was well over thirty before I actually discovered that the initial sound in chutzpah, which I had only ever seen written, was not “tch.” Consequentially I only use a few of them, and then with care, because for many I am uncertain of precisely those specifics of inference that I so relish. This is a shame, because I would love to have a few Yiddish epithets that I could apply to myself: I was recently described as a mensch, which I had to look up, and was pleasantly surprised to discover it means an honourable or decent person; especially pleasing since the person using the term is in no small way responsible for my continued employment. However, I think that there are three that can almost certainly be applied to me with some level of accuracy.

Professionally, though I am no longer strictly an editor, I cannot stop myself from providing editorial input, which almost certainly makes me a kibitz. But, to be fair, the result is higher-quality books, so it’s also this that makes me a mensch.

I may, also, be a kvetch. I certainly am when ill—of course I am, I have a Y chromosome—and when cold, but it is possible I am also so in my wider life. Not for no reason does this blog have a category entitled “Rants.” But this is where a knowledge of the detail of the semantics is necessary. Can one only kvetch about insignificant or trivial matters? Or can one kvetch about great and important affairs? I fancy to myself that it is these for which my ire is usually reserved: in my personal life, when neither cold nor ill, I like to think I am relatively easily satisfied: as long as you give me good book, somewhere soft to fall over, and plenty of lime in my gin and tonic, I’m quite a happy chap. So I am uncertain whether I’m a kvetch, though I am certainly capable of kvetching.

But there can be little doubt that I am a klutz. I spent a significant portion of the first twenty years of my life training my fingers to be really remarkably precise and rapid—nowadays my playing is rusty and awkward, but at the age of twenty-one I could knock a piano about with not unimpressive skill. However all that seems to have been at the expense of any other level of spatial awareness or precision; I suspect that we all have a finite quotient of dexterity available to us, and I squandered all mine on the Waldstein sonata and Schoenberg’s opus 33a. My absurdly underlong limbs seem to crop up with regularity upon this blog and one might presume that, giving me as they do a fairly limited range of contact with the external world, I would be compact in my effect upon my surroundings. Yet this is not the case. My blast radius is vast: I merely need to sit in a chair one side of a room to cause widespread devastation upon the other. To be frank, even if you’re simply reading this, I’d move the family china a safe distance away. I can only suppose that I exude a field that disrupts gravity in my proximity, and there is no reason not to speculate that it may be transmitted electronically.

So there it is: a kvetching, kibitzing klutz I am: confessions which amply satisfy the K requirement of this blogging challenge; though they are, I suppose, nothing to kvell about.

A to Z blogging challenge: K

On feminism

I am a feminist.

To be precise: I am a white, middle-class, over-privileged male, and I am a feminist. No caveats: none are needed. There is, in my view, very little necessary to be a feminist. You just need to assent to three related propositions:

  1. Women and men are fundamentally equal.
  2. The current structures of society deny this equality to women.
  3. This is not an acceptable state of affairs.

There is a fourth position—that if you consider a wrong to require mass social movement to rectify it, it is unethical to exempt yourself from participating on the grounds that “one voice has no effect.” This is the free-rider problem and, though I don’t think you have to assent to this fourth proposition to be a feminist, if you don’t then you’re a pretty piss-poor one—and, indeed, a fairly parasitic member of society in general. I have also been careful to express the propositions shorn of as much explicitly moral language as possible—partly due to a heated debate about what “moral” means anyway, and partly because even if you are an utterly self-interested man, you can still be a feminist. Again, I may think you are a feeble, unethical one, but the point is that feminism doesn’t even have to be an ethically-driven position, though it is for (as far as I am concerned) all decent people.

Of course the response to this from many people will be that this is no longer what “feminism” means. You will be cited aggressive misandrists, pointed to the likes of Angela Dworkin, who coincidentally died a decade ago, and whose appearance made her a convenient lightning-rod for the denigration of feminism, though she apparently did not adhere to the anti-male views often ascribed to her (I will be honest, for once, and admit I have not read any of her writings). There may well be some feminists whose views are unpalatable to most people simply concerned with equality, but none of you who are Christian avoid saying “I am a Christian” because of the vile activities of the Westboro Baptist Church, the abominations perpetrated by ISIS and al-Qaeda do not (I hope) prevent you from identifying as a Muslim if such is your religion, and I will staunchly and proudly declare myself an atheist despite the fact that one of our most vocal proponents—Richard Dawkins—increasing looks like an intolerant bigot who presumes that being an Oxford-educated middle-class white male is the default state of humankind. What has happened is a species of synecdoche whereby a term has been allowed (or encouraged, by the male-led media) to become associated with properties only applicable to a minute subset of its referents.

I do not deny the current negative connotations of “feminist.” And as a sociolinguist, I endorse the position that the meanings of words derive from their usage in the speech community and cannot be defined by fiat—indeed, those who seek to do so are exercising exactly the kind of privileged presumptuousness that is the fundamental problem here. But it is one thing to descriptively accept that, at present, the word “feminism” carries many connotations that discourage people from identifying as such, and entirely another to assert that this does not mean that we cannot seek to change that fact; merely that the change must come, as all language change does, from a shift in general usage, and not from some declaration on high. Other words which were once used to denigrate have, to a greater or less extent, been re-appropriated either by the deliberate, ironic application of the word for self-reference by the denigrated group or by a shift in wider societal usage.

And so, because I think it’s unethical to be a free-rider, and because I think this is a crucially important issue, I think that people like me, and you—because my readership is, for some reason, not so staggeringly vast that I don’t still know most of you, and will browbeat you about this when I next see you—need to reclaim “feminist” as a positive expression of a will to gender equality in our society. It is time for this word to be used in a simple, clear manner and the only way that this is going to happen is by the tiny little incremental changes of ordinary, everyday people using the word in an ordinary, everyday way.

So, I encourage you, say it with me. Don’t caveat it: “I’m a feminist, but not…” defeats the point, it allows for the pejorative connotations to remain the default. Have the, ahem, balls and just say it:

I am a feminist.

There, that wasn’t so hard, now, was it?

A to Z blogging challenge: F

A word I have needed all my life

The Guardian today has a good lambasting of Robbie Williams and cheap gay stereotyping. The article is an amusing enough rant, but mainly I appreciate it for introducing me to the word floordrobe.

Floordrobe! You remember that moment when you first had a gin and tonic, and it was both delicious and thrilling, and yet felt so natural that you could hardly believe you had lived fourteen or fifteen years without experiencing one yet? Well that’s me, now, with the word floordrobe. I have one, I have always had one. Being something of a vagrant, I have often had multiple floordrobes in a range of residences around the world. If you put me up even for just one night, I will—despite in all other circumstances being useless at DIY—erect a quick, makeshift floordrobe in minutes, and if you’re very lucky I’ll leave it to you to enjoy once I’ve gone. In fact, I don’t just have a floordrobe: I have a state-of-the-art, walk-in floordrobe replete with absolutely no fixtures or fittings of any kind. I like to pretend that there is some kind of organizational principle behind it, but the reality is that it is that quantum physicists should come and hang in my room* rather than spending all that effort faffing around with spin and particles and whatnot, because it is perfect proof of Bell’s theorem: there is no logically possible organizational system which could fully specify its distribution. There may be a small, en-suite bedchamber located somewhere in its vicinity, but generally I find it easier to slump down on the least obviously festering pile and let my freakish self-devouring brain do what it is best at.

Floordrobe. Thankyou, Patrick Strudwick, for giving me a word I have always lacked and yet never even known I needed. And, in the spirit of the original article, how nice that I heard it from a gay man. Such witty chaps, you know.

* Not a phrase heard that often, one suspects.