Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Too much of water hast thou, Sue Nelson

"[O]ne of the reasons Hunt’s words mattered and resonated with so many women [is that c]asual sexism, even if unintentional, has a wearing drip, drip, drip effect. The wrong choice of words can undermine women in so many ways." (Sue Nelson)

The Tim Hunt case brings to light the axioms of a particular kind of "feminist linguistics". There is, after all, a particular theory of language beneath the assumption that "unscripted and thoughtless" words can do a great deal of harm. This theory of language rejects what we might call the "folk theory" of linguistic action, often expressed in a slogan about the difference between sticks and stones, on the one hand, and words on the other.

In her essay, Sue Nelson has given apt expression to one of the theses of feminist linguistics. We can call it the "drip, drip, drip" thesis. The idea here is that a woman—presumably her self worth—can be "undermined" by the careless use of language—perhaps especially by a man, and especially if the words (wrongly) chosen somehow take aim, not at her person, but at her gender. On this view, it's not wrong to ask a woman to calm down if she's irate, but it is wrong to imply, by saying "Calm down, dear," for example, that the reason she is irate is not that she, herself, is being irrational, but that her irrationally derives in some essential way from her femininity.

I agree that such an implication is wrong. But it takes a particular theory about both language and women (i.e., a feminist linguistics) to believe that to imply such things "can undermine women". "The idea that women cannot think logically is a not so venerable old stereotype," Rosmarie Waldop once said. "As an example of thinking, I don’t think we need to discuss it." A feminist linguist of the kind I'm thinking of would disagree with Waldrop. There is much here to discuss, Nelson would say.

The "drip, drip, drip" thesis, I presume, suggests the metaphor of a dripping faucet in the kitchen, which, if left unfixed slowly wears down your mood with its tiny, almost imperceptible interruption of your attention. (Nelson invokes a "wearing down" not a "running over".) If you let it go, I guess (though I'm not quite sure this is true of dripping faucets) this annoyance becomes a part of your general comportment, your demeanor, your personality, your way about the world, presumably making it less pleasant than you'd like. Metaphorically, of course, the solution lies in replacing the washer (O-ring), which is a simple and inexpensive operation. I have found that fixing a leaky faucet is a good way of reconnecting me with the machinery of my ordinary life, offering a Zen-like understanding of the "things" of practical experience. But it's also perfectly legitimate to call in some "professional help", a plumber, to carry out the repair, if you want.

Perhaps you know where I'm going with this. A "feminist linguist" (of the particular kind that Nelson represents, of course) clearly has a very different take on the metaphor. Sue Nelson, it seems to me, thinks that the local linguistic plumbing in the minds of actual women is beyond regular repair and ordinary maintenance and the only solution is to call the water company and get them to turn down the pressure until the washer is able to handle it. Literally, all men have to stop saying things that might "dismay" any woman because the resulting "harm" simply cannot be dealt with in the situation. It will, as Nelson say, eventually, inevitably "undermine" her.

Please don't tell me I'm "trivializing" sexism. The dripping faucet metaphor is not mine, but Nelson's. We are here talking about, precisely, trivial, i.e., "casual" acts of sexism. We're not talking about violent physical aggression ("sticks and stones") or even boisterous verbal abuse.

But I do, of course, have a more serious point in mind. If we solve the problem of your dripping faucet by turning down the pressure in the pipes throughout the whole city we're going to be unable to do a lot of the things we normally like to do with water (like take our showers at the same in the morning). Likewise, if we take the "pressure" out of our language—if we lower the intensity—we're not going to be able to do the things with words we'd like to be able to do (like insult or seduce each other). Even some of the things that feminists, I'm sure, would like to with words will become impossible. Since there wouldn't be enough "water", perhaps we could start doing them with tears. Male tears?


Elegant Axe Handle said...

I think your extension of the metaphor fails in a couple of respects.

First of all, I don't think it is particularly strange to suggest that if a person is faced with constant, consistent undermining by other people (including authority figures who are supposed to mentor them), that their self image is going to be affected. That's what the "drip" theory is describing; very different from the "sticks and stones" situation.

Second, I'm not sure you're identifying clearly what the "water" is in the metaphor. The water is not all speech, it's sexist speech. And the water source is not the ability to "do things with words," it's sexist thought. If people stop having sexist ideas, they'll stop saying sexist things. There, no more dripping.

But in the meanwhile, trying to reduce the "drips" has two effects. One, it reduces the wear and tear on women who are trying to overcome the daily negativity they face while going about their business. And maybe gets people to start confronting their own biases. Two, if there are fewer drips, then maybe sexist ideas are not transmitted to the next generation...and that's how sexism ends.

So as trivial as this "feminist linguistics" you've described may seem to you, it seems to me to have at least some worthwhile aspects to it.

Anonymous said...

Why is this a gendered issue? It seems that they are saying women can't handle this kind of "negging" and men somehow can. Is there some essential quality of men that they can take criticism and women can't? Seems sexist to me. So, feminists need to invoke the patriarchy to defend this position. According to feminists sexism is only sexism if you also have power (ie sexism + power = sexism). Therefore, women can't undermine men, men can't other undermine men and only women can be undermined by men. Convenient.

Thomas said...

I appreciate the comments. I guess I'm wondering what fixing a metaphorically dripping faucet implies here, and what the consequences of eradicating sexist thought, or silencing sexist speech are. Like I say, if we're going to maintain a language that is capable of rich expressive uses like insult and seduction (I hope you're not proposing to eradicate such uses of words) then I think it will be difficult to distinguish sexism from animosity, on the one hand (even with no sexism, some men will still dislike some women), and sexiness on the other (even with no sexism, some men will be acutely aware of women as women). I think the power of language to express sexist thought also gives it the power to do other things. It's like a knife that wouldn't be useful if it wasn't also dangerous.

I think we need to get sexism out of institutions. And I think that is largely achieved. After that, it's up to individual women to win the respect of individual men that have no formal institutional power over them by virtue of their gender, only by virtue of seniority (where applicable). That's the way men have been doing it for millennia, of course. (And actually a lot of women too.) It's not an unequivocally pleasant experience, to be sure. But it is, I think, simply human

TLITB said...

This is interesting from Sue Nelson piece.

"Having heard and viewed Hunt speak online, it’s easy to imagine [Tim Hunt] being unintentionally inappropriate."

Somehow, something - I'm not sure what - is going on in Sue Nelson's head that observes Tim Hunt's behaviour and then goes on to imagine that Tim Hunt could say something "unintentionally inappropriate" in the future. How can she do that I wonder?

Does she simulate sexist thoughts in her head while somehow not really *thinking* them herself? Or, if she acknowledges that Tim Hunt isn't having sexist thoughts but he still says things that seem "unintentionally inappropriate" (to her) i.e sexist, then what could be letting Nelson know he *isn't* actually having sexist thoughts? Whatever it is I'm impressed.

It seems Sue Nelson has prepared herself for his future utterances and she is robust to any effect. And yet she doesn't tell us that it is a particular strain for her to do this. She can easily imagine him doing things in the future that she can't put her finger on, so, I expect, she will give him the benefit of the doubt. And why shouldn't she? If she doesn't know the source of the thought-well of his utterances?

But Nelson's also clearly of the "drip, drip theory" that says that some people can't do this - inexperienced people I guess. So it seems she thinks it is her duty to protect these people who are vulnerable to "drips" by inculcating an atmosphere that will prevent them ever being exposed to a single "drip". i.e. Preventing them ever hearing "unintentionally inappropriate" utterances.

I think Nelson is being rather unintentionally selfish. I mean, she clearly has acquired some skills in anticipating that not all utterances are what they may seem to be to herself at first -- but yet seems to not understand that this could be a useful skill. That others may see value in those words that she misses at first. That shocking people out of their self policed "intentionally appropriate" mindset might be a good thing.

This zero sum idea of peoples' personality, that it they will *always* crumble when exposed to "inappropriateness" and never develop, seems quite insidious.

I rather think that peoples' personality are, in the words of Nassim Nichoas Taleb actually *Antifragile* Ie. Things That Gain From Disorder, they *need* inappropriateness.

Are we now witnessing the last generation of people like SUe Nelson who can handle "unintentionally inappropriate" utterances? ;)

Thomas said...

Yes, TLITB. I had a similar reaction to Philip Moriarty's "prior" understanding of Hunt. How, in point of departure, was it possible for Hunt to do so much "damage" with an obviously "unintentional" utterance, i.e., with words that could only be even mildly offensive when interpreted counter to his own (plausible, reasonable) intention.