Revisiting slurs and the argument from etymology

When the most recent wave of discussion about the Washington NFL football team’s name first began to gain some steam, I wrote a bit about the use of the “argument from etymology” as a means of denying the offensiveness of the term. As the conversation is again becoming heated, and the owners and (some) fans are digging their heels in, Ives Goddard is quickly becoming the “linguist for non-linguists” du jour. A Language Log post by Bill Poser from 2006 also analyzes the etymology of the term, in less academic prose, and with reference to the counterpoints by Suzan Harjo, one of the original leaders of the movement to remove the name. Harjo (apparently – this is not linked or referenced in the Poser post) argues that the term originates in violent practices and displays of “bloody red skins and scalps”.

There are some pretty strong parallels between this case and the case of “Squaw Peak” that Jane Hill discusses in the book The Everyday Language of White Racism. Hill shows in that book how, in the debate about whether or not a name should be changed because it contains a slur, those (predominantly white) people who are uncomfortable with the name change use various resources to defend their self-perception as “non-racists”. Within these justifications, they will often invoke what she calls the “baptismal ideology” (what I had been referring to as “the argument from etymology”). In that case, just as here, Goddard is brought in as the authoritative source that the term has an innocuous origin, with the – totally erroneous, as Goddard never weighs in on the question of whether either of these terms should be considered a slur in contemporary contexts – next-step claim being that the sanction of a credentialed linguist means that it’s not a problem.

The baptismal ideology recurs over and over in discussions about slurs and the seemingly desperate desire of white people to use them while also reassuring themselves that they are not racists. I have similarly seen word origins – invented or well-supported – used to debate which slang terms for female body parts are positive and affirming and which ones reflect patriarchal sex roles, to suggest that a well-known slur used against gay men is among the most heinous possible words, and to suggest that we should also remove from our lexicons additional, relatively common terms with opaque but problematic histories. While I, personally, find these arguments politically unconvincing, something about them clearly resonates that leads to their being brought up so frequently. Hill traces it to the Christian myth of degeneration/loss of the true meanings of things, originally coming from God and having been lost through the Tower of Babel story. The original meaning of something, as best as we can access it post-Babel I suppose, therefore becomes the true meaning. Those who argue that it is a slur may still have a sense that origin matters, and draw on hypothesized or alternative etymologies to support the idea that the true meaning of the term is a problem.

The power of this baptismal ideology is, academically speaking, intriguing to me. Morally and politically speaking, I find it frustrating. Because for me, the most relevant question is how the term is used, perceived, and interpreted now. Speaking as an academic, I also feel as though articles like Poser’s and other commentary often make us look bad, as they reinforce the sense that we are out of touch with an disengaged from the realities that matter to the people we are talking about. As a case in point, during a twitter conversation in which I was briefly involved, a critic of Native American mascot imagery responded to a Goddard link with the comment

As others noted in response…from the perspective of linguistic history? Sometimes, yes. Goddard has spent an awfully significant amount of time over many, many years doing this as his full time job. But from the perspective of why it matters in the contemporary context, of how a term like that makes them feel, of the ways in which it constitutes a slur and a reminder of their status as outsiders, others, racialized inferiors, of course notOverall, I do think that the evidence points in Goddard’s favour, and he likely is correct that both the football team name and the name of the mountain in Arizona were not originally hateful or violent terms. I also think that both of these terms are clearly slurs now and have no business standing in as the names of public entities/landmarks.

But more than that, I wonder about the erasure of the in-between history of these terms, the process by which they have become slurs, and within that, the possible sources of the racist/violent/hateful etymology stories offered by Harjo and others who have been the target of these terms. The tweet above criticizes both linguists and those who cite them for claiming a stronger understanding of the true meaning of the terms than those who experience them most viscerally, and this is a valid critique on a lot of levels. Even if Goddard provides evidence to support the idea that the non-racist meanings are older than the ones that Harjo invokes, that certainly does not imply that these alternate meanings are invented out of nowhere. We owe it to the slur’s victims to listen to these stories, to consider where they might come from, how they have become a part of the history of the term, and where these meanings have been erased from the written, if not emotional, record of its use.

Emotionally weighty and politically controversial words like slurs have meaning far beyond their literal denotative meaning, either historical or contemporary. In case it is in any way unclear, I side completely with those who believe the name should be changed. I think all contrary arguments, etymological and otherwise, are spurious and irrelevant in the face of a not insignificant number of people saying it hurts and demeans them. I have yet to see any argument that convinces me that changing the name would cause any other people and equal or greater amount of pain. And that, to me, is the point that matters. This additional conversation is mainly about how the story has become one of truth, meaning, and authority, and what we can do to move beyond the “linguists vs. Indigenous people” dynamic that comes into play here.

Individualism, Confidence, and Care

I’ve been thinking a bit about the recent conversation about the female “confidence gap” as the latest anti-feminist wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s old news, really – another installment in the seemingly never-ending series on how to blame the victims of structural power imbalances while appearing to offer concrete, helpful suggestions. And I do understand how this is important, because structures are overwhelming, and the human need to feel like there is something we can do to improve our personal circumstances is very much a need, as my dear friend @anma_sa pointed out on Twitter last week.

And this connected, in my head, anyway, to something I’ve been thinking a lot about with regard to the discourse of “self-care” that has become, it seems to me, ubiquitous. Now, the significance of convincing people, especially women, and especially those involved in caring professions and/or activist efforts, that putting themselves on the list of people who have needs to be met is certainly not lost on me. I have watched many a loved one burn out and suffer serious health issues because they feel they cannot stop working to meet the very real and very deep needs of others for long enough to meet their own, which inevitably seem smaller, less significant, easier to put aside. When you are caring for others who are facing addictions, suicidal thoughts, abusive relationships, and whatever else, it seems selfish to just feel tired and want a break. In that regard, I am grateful for this discourse that helps shift us from feeling “selfish” to recognizing the need for “self-care”.

But on another level, I am frustrated by it. Because in some ways, it feels like a much more well-meaning version of the individual solution to structural problems, another reinforcement of individual agency that simultaneously becomes a reinforcement of individual responsibility. I started to draft this post last week, at a time when I was feeling particularly exhausted, and basically started over because it came out really whiny, but one of the things I was feeling then was that self-care very quickly becomes yet another thing I can fail at, and yet another way I am not living up to my own expectations. The thing is, I am terrible at self-care. I can’t even tell you how many people in my life, from academic supervisors to friends to counsellors, have given the “reward yourself after finishing X task” suggestion, and I always smile and nod, and have absolutely no idea what such a reward should really look like. And the daily stuff – the exercise, the eating, the sleeping, the taking time to do something just for me – requires a level of routine that I have never managed to implement. So mostly, really, self-care for me looks like not expecting these things of myself, maybe making a few incremental comfort changes here and there, and getting okay with that.

My own strategies for self-care, though, are not really the point here. My point is that I’m frustrated by the limitations of an ethic of care that perpetuates individualism and in some ways, reinforces the mercenary mentality of capitalist society. The sense that “if I don’t do it for myself, no one is going to do it for me” may be true, but it’s sad, to me. And in saying it to the people that have been caring for others, I can hope that we are helping to prevent that burnout and those health issues I mentioned above, but we are also telling them that the “everyone is in it for themselves” mentality is, on some level, true.

Like the many others who have critiqued the ‘confidence gap’ and Lean In and all of the other versions, old and new, of capitalism in heels, I don’t want to practice an activism that focuses on individual effort to overcome barriers on behalf of the individual. I also don’t want to practice an ethic of care that emphasizes the self. I know this puts me in a position where my only personal course of action is to not really embrace ‘self-care’, and I know this puts me in a position of caring for others as a primary means of fighting what I believe to be a destructive and anti-communitarian impulse within North American society. It’s probably fortunate that I suck at self-care anyway, because I’m not missing much in the end.

Being in the Academy

A week or so ago, I had a brief twitter exchange with Aberdeen PhD student Zoe Todd, after she asked

I responded at the time, among other things, that I sincerely believe that the simple act of having a conversation about ourselves as spiritual beings in the academy counts as something. As anthropologists in particular, we have an ability to talk about diverse forms of spirituality and diverse ontologies in ways that can be quite radical in contrast to the dominant public discourse. But as scholars, we  – particularly those of us who are not also members of Indigenous or other marginalized communities – also have a tendency not to apply those ways of thinking to ourselves and our own lives. This becomes, ultimately, a way of perpetuating the idea of a detached observer, no matter how reflexive the observation process may become. We discuss engagement and collaboration, but this engagement happens in the context of our fieldwork, as a way of bringing our academic knowledge to bear on the spiritual, political, and personal experiences that are happening to others. While I do believe that the reverse happens, and remains, as Todd points out, the default state of being for many Indigenous academics, I don’t feel as though we have a set of commonly accepted ways of talking about that side of the equation.

This short article by Ilana Gershon summarizing some of her work on media ideologies and neoliberalism made me think about these questions in a different way, and it is clear that this is a state of being that is, of course, not unique to the academy. The neoliberal self, the self that requires that state of constant flexibility and responsiveness to the conditions being asked of us in order to ensure that we can meet our basic, material needs, is inherently not a personal one, and it is most certainly not a spiritual one. What is different in the academy is the degree to which we – and again here, I especially mean scholars who belong to dominant cultural groups, with recognition that this is not an either/or binary of dominance/marginalization or belonging/not – study what it means to be a spiritual self, and talk about ways of being in the world, and analyze, and detach, and represent, while at the same time struggling to apply that to manifesting our own selves. The uncertain and precarious nature of academic employment, especially in the early stages, creates an anxiety about being anything other than a properly critical academic citizen.

I am speaking here from a place of preliminary senses based on my personal feelings and observations, mostly as a way of getting some ideas and impressions out on the topic. I do know that there are spaces for talking about these questions among some groups of academics, and I certainly know that the ways in which such anxiety and uncertainty can be dehumanizing and inhumane is being discussed among many who contest the adjunctification of academic labour. By coincidence, I have just now come across this piece from last year by Andrea Smith in which she takes on some of these gut feelings of mine in a much more thorough and extensive analysis. As Smith highlights,  white/settler confessions of privilege become ways of achieving an ally identity, of constructing a critical self that is above/beyond the politics of recognition because it does not require recognition, it chooses it. Quoting Hiram Perez, she discusses the “abstract theorizing” used by the white subject to constitute him or herself in light of a consciousness of anti-racist/colonial struggles that make the default assumption of self-determination clearly problematic – but that continue to rely on an abstract theorization about and in relation to the concrete, material realities of “fixed, brown bodies”. Likewise, in discussing the acceptance of different ways of being spiritual, different ways of being personal, different ways of being and how these might contribute to a reshaping of the academy, the self-reflexive white settler academic works primarily to make space for it, to recognize it, to describe it, to theorize it – not to be it. Being it remains primarily the purview of those who are stuck in their political bodies. Being different, being spiritual, being personal, being political are all elements that are of course extremely challenging and dangerous for those who do not fit the white/settler mold, and I don’t in any way mean to suggest that this is an easy thing to do or space to occupy. What I mean to point out is that in the way we have made these realities something that we talk about for them, we have yet to detach ourselves from a one-way ethnographic gaze.

And of course, I think much of this is as related to the academic self as part of the great machine of capitalist production as it is to identity dynamics. In that regard, the academy is just one workplace among many, and as Gershon discusses so well, the increasing merger of our professional identities into our personal lives is pervasive and stressful. One of the privileges of academic life, though, is that we get to talk about this and we get to ask these questions. And the question is becoming, for me at least, not how to adapt my personal self to better achieve my professional goals – though they are important to me, and I value those goals as a part of who I am, politically, personally, and spiritually – but how to be fully human within my professional realities. In returning to Todd’s question above, I think that while a very small way to think about those goals, it is the only way that I have to start.

Reflections on my first job-having semester

As I sit here, working from home on the first day of the final exam period that marks the end of my first semester in a real, grown-up academic job, I find myself repeatedly mulling over some thoughts that I suspect I will want to remember in future years.

It has, on the whole, been a fantastic semester – I’ve been more productive than I anticipated in terms of research/writing goals, and less terrified of the still-steep learning curve I’m on in regard to teaching expectations. My instincts about the department I would be walking into have generally borne out in all the right ways. Even the weather has been cooperating with me, as a polar vortex consumed the part of the country I flew out of and this Northern prairie town has seen some flashes of downright warm weather dating all the way back to January.

It has also been a far more difficult semester than I imagined, characterized by constant adjustment and a still-in-flux sense of how to return to a mindset of juggling multiple brain-intensive tasks and fitting them into short and frequently interrupted time spans. The trajectory of post-secondary schoolwork goes gradually from this type of scheduled structure with multiple small tasks that require organization and deadline tracking to an increasing focus on self-directed mini-goals towards the production of one giant tome. And then in my case, immediately after finishing said tome, I have been rather jarringly thrown back in to a calendar with lots of “busy” slots on a daily/weekly basis and even more deadlines occupying the “all day” zones of my planner. The difficulty comes partially from being out of practice at this type of work and partially from the much higher expectations about the quality of work I will be able to produce in those suddenly re-shortened windows of opportunity, not to mention trying to do so on an unpredictable amount of sleep. My ever-slow-to-teethe child seems to have chosen this week to molars, for example, when I was hoping to focus some brain power on some real writing now that my daily workload has been lessened somewhat by the end of classes.

I am grateful for the experienced academic friends and acquaintances who have reached out when they saw some fraying around the edges – or possibly nearing the centre – of my sanity, simply saying “This is normal. It will pass”. I continue to hold out hope that this will also be true of the sleep uncertainties, but so far, working towards acceptance seems the more productive solution to that form of suffering. And maybe the “It will pass” aspect will come as I am more able to accept the new normal of a constantly changing schedule at both home and work, and the reality that “routine” is something that I will always feel is just out of my reach, or that I managed to develop for a week or a month before being diverted into a new semester schedule, a new service position, a new childcare dropoff/pickup regime, or a new molar.

There are particular challenges – but also some weirdly intangible advantages – to starting mid-year, when people are already established in the rhythms of the academic calendar and the introductions and welcome back structures aren’t quite so prevalent. The sense of being out-of-place and constantly one-step behind has become paradoxically comforting, and the light at the end of the school-year tunnel is closer, like I’ve gotten to try out a half marathon instead of the full one my first go-round (though it comes immediate after completing the Iron Man triathlon that was the dissertation wrap up/job market process of last semester).

With all the busy-ness and the schedule shifting and the disentangling myself from the feelings of pressure, it’s easy to lose sight of what the real learning process has been here. It occurs to me that a lot of the adjustment I’m currently experiencing comes down to the fact that for the first time, in what feels like a rather sudden but has in fact been quite a gradual process, I have lost any illusion that I am not yet a Grown Up. I am not a student anymore. I have a Real Job. The past few years of my life have been characterized by near-constant transition, not just in the recent past (as is of course still the case now, what with the cross-country move and the double take I still do when I look at my license plate) but also in the coming future, often with a heaping dose of uncertainty piled on top. And it’s actually surprisingly hard, after all of that, to sit still and realize I’m just here. I’m not moving to the next thing, or halfway between one and another, or wondering about the next disruption to my efforts to settle down.

Nothing I have to say about this is particularly insightful or enlightening, but for my own sake, at least, I feel the need to demystify and rehumanize some of what it means to be where I am in my career and in my life. Most of these experiences are learning of the practice variety rather than of the instructional or informational variety, so their utility to the broader public is likely limited, but I suspect that my future self might read them and realize that for whatever reason, I will need to learn them again in future forms, and so it goes.

Being Political

I was not able to attend nearly as much of the final national event for Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission as I would have liked, but between discussion about it around the city and watching the livestream online, I have been thinking about what is happening, and maybe more importantly, what is not.

In the middle of an otherwise very positive contribution to the event, journalist Shelagh Rogers made an offhand joke about how Torontonians are looking on enviously at the mayors of Alberta’s two largest cities, whose statements of reconciliation were extremely well received around here. She then transitioned back to her panel facilitation with the phrase “not to get political, sorry”.

I have long been frustrated at the degree to which the term ‘political’ has come to stand in for party and electoral campaigning and posturing, rather than the pervasive influence of power in how our everyday lives are run and how we interact with others in our immediate and not-so-immediate surroundings. When politics is limited to the face at the head of the table and public decision making occurs only behind a temporary cardboard wall, it becomes so easy for so many Canadians to say that politics doesn’t matter to them, that it remains the unseemly and eye-roll-worthy business of the few who might sit at that table.

But to hear something like that said in the context of the TRC was much more striking.

As though truth and reconciliation are not political. As though apologies, restitution, healing and forgiveness – or the lack thereof – are not political. As though the assimilationist practices and acts of violence we were theoretically talking about were not and are not themselves political. As though the commitment – or the lack thereof – of non-Aboriginal Canadians to making reparations and restitution for these acts is not political. As though settler colonialism is not political.

As though it just is.

And then I heard, via Twitter contacts, stories of Aboriginal people in downtown Edmonton being arrested in places they go to seek support, for various types of socially unacceptable behaviours that relate directly to their experiences in residential schools or as intergenerational trauma survivors. And I saw another layer to the work of depoliticizing the life and death stakes of this political process of truth and reconciliation.

Writing about an unrelated (or at least, not directly related) story of racialized differences in perception and understanding of cause, effect, blame, and responsibility, Tressie McMillan Cotton observes that

Black anger about white violence, white racism, and the veneer of white civility is acceptable to white liberals only when it is in service to their role as caretaker. It is a role that requires the illusion of hope.


Of course, requiring hope is not functionally different from requiring drug tests for public welfare (when you are one of the publics, no less) or requiring women wear long johns to be justifiably victimized by a rapist or being told to bide your time as the majority catches up to the idea of your humanity.

Those Aboriginal people being arrested for publicly manifesting the unacceptable consequences of colonial violence and white racism are breaking down the illusion of hope, the illusion that reconciliation has already happened.

The big picture story I see around me reminds me that white settler Canadians are not ready for the political realities of reconciliation. We are not ready for a conversation about power, how we use it, and the terms we impose on sharing, or heaven forbid, relinquishing it. We want to attend the final sessions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission while also being able to say ‘this is not political’.

As though that, in itself, is not political.

Satire, Power, Criticism, and Ideology

I’ve been sporadically following the hostility leveled at Suey Park on Twitter following her criticism of a racist tweet by The Colbert Report (Storify here). On the one hand, I find it depressing, if unsurprising, that people are so incensed by these critiques as to respond with language that is unequivocally threatening and violent. On the other, I think that the critiques, from Park and from other people of colour (women and feminists in particular), highlight a conversation about satire, humour, and power that needs to go deeper than “You didn’t get it” or the “Punching down/up” dichotomy. And on the whole, I think there is an ideological debate happening about how, and whether, racist language can be used to make points against racism, and what it means for satirists to adopt different voices in communicating multiple levels of meaning and intent.

I wrote a draft of this post yesterday afternoon, using lots of nice big academic speak, then realized that Park and Eunsong Kim made all the points I wanted to without the benefit of jargon and theory, so.

Refocusing here, one point I find worth considering is how different people were focusing on different types of context. Broadly speaking, I would say that people who became hostile towards #CancelColbert – generally speaking, white people, though occasionally some non-white men popped up on that side – emphasized a very narrow form of context. The relevant points in interpreting the tweet were the writers’ intent and the relationship to the segment that had aired on the show itself, where the topic of discussion was the recent absurd PR move by Dan Snyder, owner of the Washingont RacistSlurs. Park, Kim, and other supporters – predominantly, but not exclusively, women of colour feminists – oriented towards a broader context, bringing in points about the (literal, non-satirical) meaning of the anti-Asian mockery and slurs that were used to make a satirical point, and the underlying presumptions (which were made explicit by several commenters) about how Asian-Americans should have reacted to the joke. This latter point includes recognition of the broader context of Asian-American “model minority” stereotypes, and invokes the assumption that they are not like other, easily angered or overly sensitive groups.

As Park and Kim point out in that article, no one thought that the joke should be taken literally. But the narrow-context people suggest that the satirical intent not only essentially reverses the connotative implications of the racist language used, but paradoxically, also basically erases the ostensible topic of the utterance (Asians or Asian-Americans) from relevance entirely. The broad-context people recognize that intent, agree with the criticism of Snyder, but do not accept the complete erasure of the literal referents or their being used as rhetorical points (even rhetorical points against other examples of racism).

The narrow vs. broad context difference works in another way among people who responded to the critical voices by initially calling them stupid for failing to realize that the @ColbertReport twitter account is not managed by Stephen Colbert (and in fact, Colbert himself made this type of a point in a tweet from his own @StephenAtHome account that feigned ignorance about the very existence of the other account and its connection to his program and character). From the narrow context view here, the relevant point was that Park and her supporters were targeting and naming Colbert as the source of the tweet and the racist ideas. This discursive narrowing works to suggest that if people are wrong about these elements, they are both factually and morally wrong about everything. It also works to again erase the bigger picture, which in this case is that the conversation is not really about Colbert as an individual and his beliefs, but about the degree to which racism is supported and sustained on corporate media outlets, even and perhaps especially among “progressive” voices.

It’s not just that satire is particularly difficult to do well – it is – and it’s not just that the objects of satire/humour should be the powerful and not the powerless – Colbert’s target was Snyder. The interpretation of the original comment as “not racist” depends on a narrow ideology of context – and I have a suspicion that this difference extends well beyond this particular incident into a much larger conversation not about the definition of satire (we are, after all, not talking about anyone who is “not getting it” on the level of those who wind up on Literally Unbelievable) but about the ideological and social meaning of satire. And at this point, I do think it’s worth examining whether satire is possible or can be effective in a corporate media supported context, and coming from voices like Colbert’s and Stewart’s, which have now undeniably become a part of that establishment.

Resenting Balance

I have no idea how some parent bloggers find the time to write as many posts as they do. I had the munchkin home with me for a little over a week, and neither the physical space nor the mental energy for a blog post was in any way forthcoming. Maybe it’s just because it’s not part of the things I make a point of carving out for myself in my spare time, not yet anyway, but it was pretty darn easy to go AWOL from the internet.

I’ve been thinking about that carved-out-space and what I do with it a lot lately, as I realize the semester ahead is actually one with a lot of obstacles that must be carved around, though at some point it seemed like it was going to be easy. I’ve never been particularly good at self-care around stress – I have trouble coming up with a way to “reward” myself for accomplishments, for example, or filling those free moments with things that genuinely relax me. So as I’ve been strategizing ways to deal with the semester ahead, I came across, and downloaded, an App called “Balance”, which lets me fill in frequencies of “take care of myself” type goals and reminds me when I need to do one of them.

Possibly needless to say, “Balance” has started to piss me off relatively quickly. When my phone beeps and it gives me a “You should think about Reading For Fun soon” or “You really should Write a Blog Post now”, I glare at it and go “Oh, shut up, phone”. When I randomly open the phone up to send a text or check my email and the screen says “What have you done for yourself today?”, I think my phone is a condescending ass. And when I accomplish a few things on my list and mark them off, it tells me to pat myself on the back or give myself a reward, and I think “Don’t patronize me, phone”.

The idea that technology can’t mediate the inherent problems I have with finding balance is not exactly difficult to grasp, but I was surprised at how resentful I get about the reminders and even the praise. Maybe, again, building it in to my sense of routine will make it easier, or at least make me less angry about being made aware of my slips and challenges.

Because for all that said, I’m here, writing a blog post, just like it’s been telling me to do.

Feminism, Work, and Identifying with Something

Lately, I’ve been circling a lot around a general anger with the social ordering of labour, and specifically, the point I made a few weeks ago about the pressure to identify with one’s work and take satisfaction with the work itself as reward enough, rather than expecting, say, fair wages and a decent standard of living. This gets another layer of complications when you look at it from a feminist angle. On the one hand, I’m all for reducing the kinds of discriminatory practices and assumptions that have led to the perpetuation of the pay gap, the shortage of women in positions of authority/power, and the continued reverse imbalance in unpaid, unappreciated home labour. But on the other, the emphasis remains primarily on either increasing the opportunities for women to have the kinds of positions that are worth identifying with in the labour market, or on finding a way to shift the discourse so that genuine appreciation and fulfillment – but not necessarily economic security – can be seen in care work that is often gendered as female.

A lot of non-white feminists, womanists, or other gender-based activists do a better job of examining the question of capitalism and inequality as a whole, rather than “just” the gendered components. I don’t say that to dismiss the gendered components, but as Rania Khalek pointed out in the #solidarityisforwhitewomen conversation (quoted in a lot of places, like here), talking about the pay gap without looking at the fact that white women categorically outrank men from several racialized groups is a myopic view. And maybe that’s why women of colour recognize the layers of problems that are far deeper than the old boy’s club.

From both a feminist and a personal perspective, I feel more and more like I’m playing the game even though I know the house always wins. The feminist version just means I’m using different tools to play it.

I’ve been blogging in a very off-the-cuff kind of way, trying to get something going just to have something to write about and see what sticks, but I think there are sets of themes here that deserve some more time and real energy in unpacking. This means I definitely have to leave it until after I’ve had my coffee.

“Subtle” racism: The argument from etymology

I was extremely interested in the conversation last week about Slate’s decision to stop referring to the Washington NFL team by its nickname. I like the recognition from the news agency that they don’t have to wait for the team’s owner – who is apparently rather adament in his refusal to see this as a cause for concern – to act before refusing to perpetuate the racism by themselves using the word. There are plenty of alternatives, though it may sometimes result in awkward constructions (“Washington’s NFL team”) or the inability to form pleasant parallels with the names of other teams (“the 49ers vs. Washington”). In this case, awkwardness strikes me as a bonus, since it creates an impact that reiterates the point being made in this announcement by calling attention to itself. (Mascots and symbols are a bit more difficult to work around without an actual change, since I can’t think of a way that someone other than the owner or team itself could consciously and conspicuously refuse to use the mascot — you can buy merchandise that avoids those images and uses others, for example, but no one will really notice the shift without that linguistic awkwardness).

As the title of this post indicates, though, there’s another part of the story that I find interesting in a different way. As I’ve seen others point out (like Erik Loomis at LGM), I don’t think the name is “subtle” in its racism at all.  Slate’s perspective on why it is subtle, however, is one that I’ve seen tossed around a lot in conversations about the appropriateness of various labels for minority or oppressed groups (including debates about in-group re-appropriation of hateful terms) — the ‘argument from etymology’. This argument gets used on both sides of the debate – here, it’s used to downplay the racism and make the case for a level of ‘subtlety’ based on the innocuous, possibly in-group, and descriptive origins of the expression. In other examples, a racist origin that has become relatively opaque (such as the expression ‘gypped’, derived from the offensive label for the Roma people) is used to inform people about the inappopriateness of the term. I’m not going  make a claim in favour of terms like the latter, but I find this reliance on etymology-as-arbiter-of-offensiveness very strange. My own perspective is that in the context of current race relations and semantic transparency, the name of the Washington football team is far more clearly racist than the swindling verb, partially because many users of the latter have to be informed about the relationship between the term and a marginalized group that has a relatively limited presence in North American communities and politics. This is not to say that Roma people in North America are not subject to racism, but that beliefs about this group do not carry a lot of symbolic power in the minds of most non-Roma, and they don’t make the connection about swindlers and cheaters coming from this group unless they are informed of the word’s origins. In the present moment, however, the Washington NFL team’s nickname is so obviously linked to a term that has become derogatory towards a group that people actually have to be informed that once upon a time, it was an innocent expression.

Like I said, I’m not trying to make an argument that an opaque origin automatically erases the racist connotations that emerge from a term, but I certainly want to make a claim that current semantic conditions are more relevant to determining the “subtelty” of an expression than etymology. I mean, seriously, if you have to cite several sources in your claim that something is subtle, despite the loud voices of everyone around you who are saying that they see the racism right in front of them, you might want to rethink your definition of “subtle”.

Narcissism, Self-Presentation, and Doing Good

Another of the common themes in the ‘what’s this generation coming to’ discussions is that young people are becoming increasingly narcissistic, and this is directly associated with the ‘self-esteem’ movement as well as with the phenomenon of social media and increasing consciousness about the presentation of a constructed self. There is academic research suggesting that a genuine increase is happening, and other academic research contesting these findings (I’m not in a position to evaluate either side right now, but my initial reaction is similar to this post on Language Log from a couple of days ago). I do find it noteworthy that confirmations of narcissism and self-centredness are far more likely to become popular media articles than refutations of those claims, but such is the way with popularizations of academic studies.

The thing that I find frustrating about these claims of narcissism is that it assumes there is something fundamentally different happening among the younger generation, often with new (or newish) technology being blamed for creating socially incompetent monsters. This is kind of a generational version of ethnocentrism, where people who have been raised entirely around one conceptualization of interpersonal relationships evaluate the interactions of others who have been raised in a different technological and interactional framework. Which is basically a long winded way of saying that it’s fundamentally silly to think of people who spend all their time on social media as socially incompetent.

I was thinking of a slightly different angle on this theme as I read this lovely piece by John Scalzi on an agnostic interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. This part, in particular, made me think of the generational assumption issue:

I struggle with this because one of my failings is a desire for recognition (hello, I’m a writer). I like to be seen and I like to be seen doing things of value. I like the response I get from them; I like being known as a good guy. I can even argue that there is value in me being seen doing good “out loud,” as it were.

While Scalzi highlights his role as a professional writer as indicative of a personal inclination towards seeking recognition, I don’t think the arguments he mentions are unique to writers (or artists, or politicians, or others whose vocations create a public-orientation by necessity). I especially don’t think that’s the case in a world that is, as I said above, increasingly dominated by a much more conscious construction of public self on social media. In the same breath that the older generation denounces young people for thinking too much of what they look like, they also criticize them for not thinking enough of the image they’re portraying with their Facebook and Instagram photos, the language choices in status updates and tweets, or their blog comments. The suggestion isn’t that they shouldn’t think about self-presentation, it’s that they should make sure they think properly about it.

I guess a lot of what I’m saying here comes down to a basic point that is clear from Scalzi’s use of a centuries old text criticizing a kind of behaviour that is being attributed to Kids Today. That seems to make it abundantly clear that narcissistic self-presentation is not a recent phenomenon.