BY JON PILL
“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” – Hume
I sympathise with the many feelings in your previous letter – try some ginger tea, it could be that feeling of heartbreak at President-Elect Trump is just excess gas – but we’ve been doing a lot of political chat lately admittedly with the occasional foray into Thompson and Baldwin, but in the interest of segueing us back towards the writing which this blog pretends to be about, I thought I’d talk a little bit about language.
There are a bunch of phrases things that have been on my mind of late, mostly of which are obliquely do with Politics and the English Language. So this letter is brought to you in five parts, by four words.
Part 1 is brought to you by the word ‘mirrorwall’:
I wanted to share this relevant and interest video:
This video gives a meme – as in Dawkins not as in Grumpy Cat – based explanation of the echochamber.
The video is interesting and informative and goes further and deeper in its analysis than most of the stuff I’ve been hearing about echochambers lately. And without using either term it ties echochambers together with the other trendy word of the moment: post-truth.
I am sick of both of those terms so I’m trying to get the mirrorwall of Facebook and liarworld some traction. Expect hashtags.
Part 2 is brought to you by the words ‘nuance’ and ‘taboo’:
Another thing that happens on the mirrorwall is the gradual erosion of nuance. In an attempt to avoid straw-men I’m going to ignore the badguys here and talk about my own people: bleeding heart lefty liberals.
We’ve talked before about how when Ken Clarke suggested that consensual sex between a 15 and 18 year old is a different sort of rape to say, systematic sexual abuse or forcible sexual assault – admittedly in his usual cack-handed way – he triggered this sort of response, calling for his resignation and branding him a ‘rape-apologist’.
There was a debate to be had with Clarke’s ideas about sentencing (which didn’t seem terribly well researched). None of that was addressed though, because the issue was his phrasing at one minor point. ‘Rape means rape’ said the critics (and they were right, in so far as Brexit means Brexit), and then they suggested only other position was to be a full blown ‘rape-apologist’.
So discussion of a word with colloquial, informal, formal, legal, metaphorical and historical meanings and associations, a word which describes a range of different sorts of acts with varying degrees of severity and consequence, and which affect individuals in drastically different ways, becomes a catch all term to be treated in one way . . . mostly just with disgust and rage at the offender. The issue has fallen into the murky area of psychology and language marked taboo* and serious public discussion has become near impossible.
Nuance does not mean justification, understanding is not forgiveness, mitigation is not erasure. Drawing a distinctions between one type of thing and another, does not mean that both can’t be reprehensible, and saying x is worse than y is not to say y is acceptable.
Nuance, kids, means nuance.
Part 3 is brought to you by the word ‘cultural-appropriation’:
This and the next section contain another pair of problematic words that are just bugbears of mine: cultural-appropriation** and privilege***.
Cultural appropriation is not inherently a bad thing. In fact I would argue it is admirable. For example when Chinua Achebe took the European tradition of the novel and turned it into a part of Nigerian culture, inspiring other writers across post-colonial Africa.
3 i) Humans are cultural beings we learn from each other. We borrow and remake things.
3 ii) Using other cultures is problematic only when it becomes stereotyping or racist or offensive or exploitative or any number of other genuine problems to do with cultural interaction. These are the words are the arguments against any given act of cultural appropriation, just being cultural appropriation is a classification as a value judgment it is meaningless.
3 iii) The “say no to culture’s borrowing from one another” approach looks at culture in a static, essentialised and race/nationalistic (lowercase ‘r’, lowercase ‘n’). Cultural appropriation is a way of treating other cultures as quaint and different, when in reality culture is an ongoing, changing, living thing that morphs and rubs off on the cultures around it.
3 iv) Western culture is already whitewashed as is, without making every white artist out there avoid characters, styles, or ideas from different cultures.
3 v) Wouldn’t the reductio for this argument has us taking every Beatles LP and business suit off of every Japanese person, banning Celtic crosses from Christian graveyards, using hammers only with careful respect for our first tool using human ancestors’ hunter-gatherer culture. . .
3 ii) Reprise: Using other cultures is problematic only when it becomes stereotyping or racist or offensive or exploitative. These words are arguments against an act of cultural appropriation, just being cultural appropriation is not.
Part 4 is brought to you by the word ‘privilege’:
My deal with privilege is the same but different. Because unlike cultural-appropriation, privilege as an idea is genuinely useful and describes an actual source of cognitive blockage.
As a straight, white, educated, bourgeois, cis-male who speaks English and has full use of my body a reminder that my world view reflects that privilege is a super useful reminder to me to be empathetic and can reduce the times I assume that I can generalise from my life to the lives of others. It reminds me to think of Others complexly.
What privilege is not, is an argument against having a view on a subject. Opinions aren’t wrong because they come from a privileged person. They are wrong because of logic, or facts, or faulty assumptions. Shutting down comment from anyone not directly affected by an issue is a cheap ad hominem, that almost always has an unpleasant whiff of the self-righteous about it. It rejects the possibility of solidarity, of empathy, and shuts down debate.
Privilege as an idea is a useful thought-tool for the privileged, and reminding them of it is not a bad move when its clear that their privilege is clouding their judgment. But I rarely see it used to persuade, it’s normally just given as a reason to ignore someone.
Part 5 is brought to you by all words:
Generally, I think we’d all think better if we avoided language that allows us to too easily dismiss other people and their opinions (privilege), buzz-words that obscure clearer ideas (cultural appropriation), that make us treat all differences of opinions as if they were all the vilest (taboo) and most extreme (nuance) opposition to our own view, or debating straw-men versions of the Other with people who already agree with us (mirrorwall).
I apologise for so long a letter, I left it too close to the deadline. If I’d had more time I might have written it shorter, and made it more nuanced.
*Taboo is a generally interesting area that I would recommend anyone with an interesting in language or psychology – like, say, a writer – should look into. The best accounts I’ve read are in Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought and Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis.
**Defined by Wikipedia as ‘the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture.’
*** Defined by google as a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.