Category Archives: In Which I Get a Tad Political

On the Wendy Davis Filibuster

I have a very vivid memory of the morning after Ann Richards was elected Governor of Texas. I heard the announcement on the radio and immediately burst into tears. I was seven years old, and at the time, my mother was pregnant with my third and youngest sister, Emily. I had been told at church and at my Christian school that Ann Richards was pro-choice, and having heard scary stories about the one-child policy in China, I had arrived at the weird conclusion that Ann Richards was going to force my mother to abort my sister.  A couple of years later, I would write a letter to President Bill Clinton about the evils of abortion and the urgent necessity of making it illegal under any and all circumstances. I enclosed a macabre poem about a graveyard of unborn babies and all of the amazing things they could have done with their lives.

As someone who promptly succumbed to the liberalizing influence of college, this is a part of my history that I’m frankly a little embarrassed about and that makes me uncomfortably ambivalent whenever the topic of abortion comes up in SJ circles. On the one hand, I ardently believe that abortion should be legal, safe, and accessible, and I am appalled by the intellectually dishonest rhetoric that comes out of the pro-life camp. And a big part of me would like to simply disavow my seven year old self as a product of a very conservative upbringing in a conservative community in which there was little room for nuance on this issue (among others). On the other hand, I have trouble with the lack of nuance that runs the other way. Certainly, in many ways, misogyny at the bottom of it all, but of course that’s not how most pro-lifers see it. For me and for many people I grew up with, it wasn’t about controlling women, it was about protecting babies.

Discussions of abortion in my conservative community didn’t always revolve around immorality and the destruction of the traditional home. It was also wrapped up in rather well-intentioned (though sometimes hypocritical) concerns about the specter of eugenics, about disability rights, about the ethical horrors of ridding society of the “unwanted.” Frank Schaeffer, in his memoir about growing up as a conservative evangelical crusader, describes his turn toward militant pro-life activism as inspired by the birth of his child and what he saw as a growing callousness and alarming violence of Western culture in the twentieth century.

In other words, if there is an empathy gap between pro-life and pro-choice, it’s an empathy gap produced by the fact that pro-choice people empathize with the woman and pro-life people empathize with the unborn child. And both believe that in doing so, they are righteous. At bottom, I think we tend to direct our empathy in the easiest direction, and it’s hard not to empathize with babies. In a misogynistic culture, it’s easy to find reasons not to empathize with women who don’t want to have babies. During my teenage years, I was anti-abortion because I simply could not imagine a set of circumstances that would lead me to get one, and therefore it was fairly easy to imagine that anyone who would was somehow monstrous. I could not think outside the boundaries of my own experience and the fairly simple moral boundaries that my privilege enabled.

In order to have my mind changed, I had to encounter the stories of women who had, for various reasons, not just wanted but urgently required abortions to understand that the decision to get one is one of massive emotional and medical complexity in which something, inevitably, is going to be lost. I don’t believe that women who get abortions walk away with irreparable physical and emotional scars, but I do think that it’s an enormously delicate decision and that the best possible conditions for making that decision exist when there is minimal interference from outside, when we trust women to make it without subjecting them to further (sometimes literally physical) trauma or throwing up paternalistic roadblocks.   

And it’s for this reason that I am profoundly inspired by what Wendy Davis did last night, because the complicated stories of women who need abortions have so little visibility in a debate that takes place in depressingly abstract terms. I believe that stories can help change minds, but in this case, there just simply aren’t enough of them out there. And given the polarization of this issue, it’s easy to understand why. The right wants to minimize cognitive dissonance by labeling women who seek abortions as selfish and evil, so who wants to lay out the agonizing emotional calculus of their decision for that kind of demonization? Likewise, I think it’s difficult to acknowledge that abortion is a nuanced issue because the right has done a fairly successful job of using that to argue that therefore women need to be protected from themselves.

Visibility is power, and women who feel passionately about this issue have to fight to be visible in a media culture that remains problematically uncomfortable about discussing it on more than a surface level. Wendy Davis—not a perfect politician by any means—did a pretty remarkable thing with the help of other by demanding that kind of visibility. I just hope the finer points of argument are appreciated along with the sweeping drama of the filibuster’s final moments.

So yeah. More of this, please.

(Note: I have disappeared into an archive in Boston and therefore have been out of touch with the news. When I went to bed, the filibuster drama hadn’t yet peaked, so when I saw this morning that Facebook and Tumblr had gone all Red Wedding overnight, it took me a while to catch up. This is also my excuse for why blogging will remain somewhat light over the next couple of weeks.) 

The Orange Man Sayeth: Government Jobs not Real Jobs

Call me naive, but I only just realized that some members of the GOP don’t think government employees really count:

At a press conference yesterday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) told reporters that if some federal jobs were lost as a result of his proposed spending cuts, “so be it.”

I suppose this is of a piece with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s efforts to roll back collective bargaining rights for state employees:  government jobs (except for those held by elected and/or appointed members of the GOP, perhaps) are really just an extension of welfare.  Or something.  At the very least, those jobs don’t really count.  They are doing all of those people a favor by forcing them to go get real jobs in the private sector rather than living off the federal dole.  I mean what else can you call teachers, policemen and women, firefighters, mail carriers, and criminal prosecutors but total mooches, amirite?

At least this is the only way I can understand the thinking behind my home state’s decision to fire a shit ton of people, including public school teachers at schools that are already stacking classes way over the state-mandated limit, rather than raise anyone’s taxes a couple hundred bucks.


On Definitions: HR 3

A Pro-Life poster depicting a baby with the word "Punishment" underneath it When I was seven years old, my notoriously conservative state elected a Democratic, pro-choice governor.  The child of conservative evangelical parents in a conservative evangelical community, I recall bursting into tears when I heard on the radio that this candidate had won the election.  When my parents asked why, I said that I was afraid she was going to force my mother to abort the baby sister my mother was carrying at the time.  That was basically my understanding of the abortion debate:  Democrats wanted to kill babies.  A few years later, I would write a letter to President Bill Clinton along with a (painful to recall) poem about how babies were people and therefore didn’t deserve to die because adults made mistakes, etc.

Yes, I was a child who had internalized the values and prejudices of the adults surrounding me, but it wasn’t until midway through college that I finally turned around on the abortion issue as well as gay marriage, abstinence only education and a host of other socially conservative positions.  That was also the point when I decided–three months before the 2004 election–to do the unthinkable:  vote for John Kerry.  I was terrified that my parents would find out.

I am not proud of the positions I held when I was younger, and it makes me cringe with shame to remember some of the things I said about rape victims, gay and lesbian people, trans people, single mothers, and unemployed people back when I still thought Dr. Laura was a reasonable human being.  I often feel distinctly under-qualified to comment on social justice issues due to the fact that I am still learning.  I find it is helpful, however, to remember that person whenever I find myself wishing that certain conservatives might be consigned to some god-forsaken portion of Hell for coming up with shit like HR 3.

HR 3, the bill that would restrict the federal “funding” of abortion to draconian new levels, preventing even rape victims from using Medicaid to pay for abortions unless they can prove that their rape was “forcible” (whatever that means), is a human rights fiasco.  Yet I am reminded that once upon a time, I thought abortion was a human rights fiasco for one simple reason:  it killed babies.  From my perspective at the time, it had nothing to do with the desire to curtail the rights of women or run roughshod on the rights of rape survivors or participate in slut shaming.  It was just that the plights of even unborn babies seemed immediately, palpably, even if only symbolically “real” to me at the time, whereas the plights of the women for whom pregnancy meant economic, social, psychological, and even physical death were not.  Babies were visible.  Rape survivors were not.  I was incapable of imagining circumstances in which abortion might be the lesser of two evils because those circumstances were so far beyond my experience and the experiences of anyone  I knew.

That’s privilege for you:  the ability to walk blithely through life without having to bear witness to the sheer extent of human suffering that exists in the world and the ability to allow the limits of your own experience to define the options available to everyone else.  Because here’s the thing, as a conservative religious person, I was only capable of articulating the freedoms of others according to the terms in which I understood my own freedoms.  I was not allowed to have sex before or outside of marriage, and I fully expected to be punished if I did.  For me, the fact that I was struggling to “remain pure” with my boyfriend was not (at least initially) a story about how my values had become untenable and needed to be reconsidered.  It was a story about how I was a sinner who had to overcome this particular struggle.  And in order to rationalize the pains I was going to, those standards had to be universal, otherwise what was the fucking point? Because I could not imagine circumstances in which it would be ok for me to get an abortion, therefore it was not ok for anyone to get an abortion.

This is why I so frequently vacillate between hope and despair when it comes to convincing people like the ones who support this bill that they are so deeply, unimaginably, and inhumanly wrong.  When she talks about the stases of argument in rhetoric class, a professor of mine frequently uses the abortion debate to demonstrate just how difficult it is to overcome disagreements that occur at the level of definitions, of what things actually are.  For pro-lifers, abortion is murder.  For pro-choicers, abortion is health care.  It is difficult to imagine a rhetoric that would be able to overcome that monumental difference.  It is difficult to imagine methods of mass persuasion that might make those who think they are saving the lives of babies realize that the lives of millions of women are at stake as well.

There were two essential factors in my “conversion.”  First, I finally realized that the whole abstinence thing just wasn’t going to work out for me.  Once I had removed the limits on my own expression of sexuality, it became easier to imagine a broader range of options for other people.  The second thing that happened was that a member of my family came out of the closet, and the humanity of a group I had previously been taught to fear therefore became immediately relevant and sympathetic to me.  Other factors were at work:  attending a feminist and politically liberal college, spending a summer internship in a notoriously liberal major city, a crisis of faith that made me question the whole foundation of my morality, etc.  But the biggest factor was that the invisible became visible to me.  Suddenly, I was capable of sympathizing with, respecting, and validating the experiences and choices of people who were vastly different from me.

And I have seen other members of my once very conservative family turn around on these same issues for very similar reasons.  People we grew up with and love and respect turned out to be gay, and we found we still loved and respected them.  People who once seemed righteous in our eyes now appear to be hate-filled human nightmares.  Marriages we once thought were invulnerable turned out to be living horrors.  The invisible became visible.

The anti-choice right has been very successful in convincing their followers that unborn babies represent an invisible class of people whose rights must be recognized, a class of people that pro-choice advocates wish to exterminate.  As I said, aside from the deeply personal transformations, the re-evaluations of possibilities and moral priorities that I underwent, it is difficult to imagine a rhetoric that would change their minds.  That is why I fervently hope that the organized left is able to make the plights of people who would effectively be consigned to the darkness by HR 3 visible.

Also, go check out Tiger Beatdown’s Twitter campaign, #DearJohn.

(Image found at What’s Wrong with the World)

Writes Like A Girl

Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post thinks President Obama speaks like a girl. Yeah.  There’s so much fail in that piece, I almost don’t know where to begin.  But let’s start with this one:

When he finally addressed the nation on day 56 (!) of the crisis, Obama’s speech featured 13 percent passive-voice constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century, according to the Global Language Monitor, which tracks and analyzes language.

Now, Parker doesn’t explicitly say that passive voice constructions are a feature of female speech or writing (actually, the editorial is so screwy that it’s hard to figure out exactly what she is saying), though as the Language Log helpfully reminds us:

The first thing to say is that there isn’t the slightest evidence that passive-voice constructions are “feminine”.  Women don’t use the passive voice more than men, and among male writers, number of passive-voice constructions doesn’t appear to have any relationship at all to real or perceived manliness. The “passive is girly” prejudice seems to be purely due to the connotations of (other senses of) the term passive, misinterpreted by people who in any case mostly wouldn’t recognize the grammatical passive voice if it bit them on the leg.

And let’s not forget that Obama’s head speech writer is a dude.  Parker’s larger point seems to be that women favor a more conciliatory rhetorical style, while men favor a direct, assertive style, and I guess she’s sort of saying that that’s both a good and bad thing:

The BP oil crisis has offered a textbook case of how Obama’s rhetorical style has impeded his effectiveness. The president may not have had the ability to “plug the damn hole,” as he put it in one of his manlier outbursts. No one expected him to don his wetsuit and dive into the gulf, but he did have the authority to intervene immediately and he didn’t. Instead, he deferred to BP, weighing, considering, even delivering jokes to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner when he should have been on Air Force One to the Louisiana coast.

Indeed, while she seems to be suggesting that the backlash against Obama’s handling of the Gulf Coast crisis is in some way sexist (?!?), her own tacit criticism of these acts suggests that she shares the belief that men cannot adopt a girly girly rhetorical stance without harming themselves politically.  I think.  I mean, really, WTF?

The idea that women write differently from men has been around for a long time and has even, to a certain degree, been adopted by feminist theorists.  French feminists like Julie Kristeva, Helene Cixous, and Luce Irigaray, coined the term Écriture féminine to describe a writerly voice that is distinctively feminine.  That distinctive voice, however, was more about rejecting the notion of the phallus as the source of an author’s power , a notion metaphor that appears consistently in male writing ever since women dared compete with them as authors. Gilbert and Gubar’s famous essay, “The Queen’s Looking Glass: Female Creativity, Male Images of Women, and the Metaphor of Literary Paternity” begins with that observation:

Is the pen a metaphorical penis?  Gerard Manley Hopkins seems to have thought so.  In a letter to his friend R.W. Dixon in 1886 he confided a crucial feature of his theory of poetry.  The artist’s “most essential quality,” he declared, is “masterly execution, which is a kind of male gift, and especially marks off men from women, the begetting of one’s thought on paper, on verse, or whatever the matter is.”  In addition, he noted that “on better consideration it strikes me that the mastery I speak of is not so much in the mind as a puberty in the life of that quality.  The male quality is the creative gift.

You can read just about anything by Philip Roth or John Updike for a modern example. Discovering the écriture féminine has largely been about centering women’s bodies and women’s experiences in writing.  But there are problems with this particular aspect of feminist theory, namely, it’s tendency to essentialize about the relationship between gender and style.  For example, Irigaray’s asserts that women’s experience cannot be depicted using the linear, logical mode that dominates male writing.   It comes awfully close, in my opinion, to rooting women’s distinctiveness in stereotype:  Men are logical, linear, prosaic.  Women are non-linear, emotional, jouissant, poetic.  To reify those categories is to at least partially deny the social conditioning that codes rationality, order, and science as masculine and feelings and all that shit as feminine.

Let’s return, for a second, to Parker’s assumption that women employ a less direct, less assertive, more conciliatory style in their writing and speaking, and let’s think for a second about why that might be.  Consider this post on The Awl about the ways that men and women pitch stories for their site (via Feministe).  Inquiries from dudes look something like this:

“Do you take pitches? Should I just write something and send it? Do I have to tickle the balls? I want to write for the awl, dammit.”

While pitches from women tend to look like this:

“As an long-time admirer of your site (and non-too-frequent registered commenter), I’ve been too shy to pitch as I’ve never felt like my work measured up to your fine standards.”

Every female blogger who has commented on this Awl story has confessed that they are guilty of framing queries like this, apologizing up front for taking up the editor’s time and for the inadequacies in their work.  Women frame their requests in a less assertive way because that is how we are taught to enter the world:  don’t be too aggressive, don’t be arrogant, don’t bother people, don’t make people upset, don’t step on anyone’s toes, don’t don’t don’t.  I also walk around with considerable anxiety any time I ask a professor to read an article I’m working on, or serve on my dissertation committee, or even just help me talk through some ideas.  While I also don’t wish to essentialize, I’ve noticed that my male colleagues walk around with a greater sense of confidence and entitlement (a healthy sort of entitlement) in this regard, and as a result, their work gets out there.  Now, that’s a bit of social conditioning that I am trying to overcome, as it will hurt my career if I don’t, but just the fact that I have to wrestle with it means that in the marathon that is a scholarly career, I am walking around with a concrete shoe on one foot.

But even though women tend to undersell themselves, that doesn’t mean that they are incapable of using commanding rhetoric when the occasion calls for it or that they will automatically compromise their ideals in order to avoid conflict or confrontation.  Consider the statements of Dawn Johnson, who recently stepped down as the nominee for The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, having spent a year waiting for Senate confirmation.  In a statement to the press (via NPR), she had the following to say:

In the current climate, even if you attempt a crass political calculus about how to live your life, you may as well say what you think because they can always find a footnote to twist and distort in a 20-year-old brief. […]  The one thing you didn’t want people saying at your funeral was she went to her grave with her options open.

I don’t think Obama used the passive voice in his speech on the oil crisis or seeks to conciliate Republicans and conservative Democrats because he has some inherently feminine qualities.  I think he does that because he is a politician who calculates each daily move according to polling data, according to how relationships on the Hill will help or impede his agenda, according to the impact an act or spoken word will have on re-election.  Obama does what many politicians do and is, perhaps, not as ready to cover it up with bluster and belligerence.  Suggesting that these acts are somehow womanly does nothing but gender-essentialize based on stereotype and tar women with some of the more uncomfortable and unsavory realities of political behavior.

You Don’t Get to Talk About Immigration Without Talking About Race

On television, on the internet, from members of my family, I keep hearing things like:

“I’m just concerned about the rule of law.”

“I’m just concerned about the drain on our resources.”

“I’m just concerned about the impact on our school system.”

“I’m just concerned that their children won’t have the English skills to succeed.”

Statements like these are usually preceded or followed with some variant of, “It’s not about race.”


We do not ever, EVER get to talk about the U.S.-Mexico border without talking about race. We do not ever get to talk about immigration without talking about race. We do not ever get to talk about second language issues, especially pertaining to Spanish/English, without also talking about race. Why? Because race is a part of the history of The Border, just as it is a part of the history of slavery, of the Holocaust, of the War on Terror, of apartheid, of North American Indian Reservations, and of Jim Crow. It is, in the broadest sense, part of the history of the Western Hemisphere. It is a history in which light-skinned European adventurers came to this hemisphere and displaced, enslaved, and exterminated millions of indigenous people because of greed, because of hubris, because of religion, and because of race, because they believed that the people they found here were less human than they were.

This is not a history in which you personally took part. Your family may not have been directly responsible for perpetuating those insidious crimes. This is not a history that you can go back and erase or ameliorate. It simply is. It simply is a history that resulted in Person A having a nice house in the suburbs and shopping at Whole Foods and Person B enduring a poverty so crushing that they would risk life and limb and personal liberty in order to mow the lawn and clean the house and diaper the children of Person A and harvest the produce that is sold at Whole Foods, making an hourly wage that is less than what Person A spent on coffee this morning. And it is a history in which Person A can say, without paying very many social penalties, that the problem with Person B is that she did not respect the law and hasn’t worked hard enough to perfect his English.

That’s called Privilege. If you are Person A, it is not something that you can relinquish, but it is something that you can be a total dick about if you aren’t careful. And given the history I just described, I have to say that when you say stuff like,

“It’s not about race, I just can’t understand what they’re saying.”

“It’s not racial profiling. I don’t even know what an immigrant looks like!”

You sound fucking ridiculous.

I know you probably weren’t thinking about race when you said it. I know you believe that deep down inside you really don’t harbor any ill will toward those who look and speak differently from you. I know that from your perspective, race probably doesn’t have a lot to do with anything. But that’s because in the Historical Lottery, you hit the genetic jackpot. Whether you are aware of your privilege or not, you have cashed in on it. You benefit from the historical inequities I described, and while that doesn’t mean that I think you should hand over your suburban home to an immigrant family, I do think that you should shut the fuck up until you’ve done a lot of reading and a bit of introspection on the issue.

I’m just saying.

*This post is not directed at any of the commentariat here. It is the product of an ongoing fight with a family member and the headache-inducing results of typing in “accent discrimination arizona” into Google in order to research this post.

Arizona Linguists Take on the “Fluency” Issue

Mark Lieberman at Language Log reported today on the Arizona law requiring educators to meet certain (rather vague) standards of English fluency in order to keep their jobs. This has widely been reported as an effort to crack down on “accented speech” in the classroom. The entire post is worth reading, as Lieberman attempts to suss out exactly what the law demands, but I thought the eight points submitted by the University of Arizona linguistics department to the Governor and Superintendant were worth citing here:

1. ‘Heavily accented’ speech is not the same as ‘unintelligible’ or ‘ungrammatical’ speech.
2. Speakers with strong foreign accents may nevertheless have mastered grammar and idioms of English as well as native speakers.
3. Teachers whose first language is Spanish may be able to teach English to Spanish‐speaking students better than teachers who don’t speak Spanish.
4. Exposure to many different speech styles, dialects and accents helps (and does not harm) the acquisition of a language.
5. It is helpful for all students (English language learners as well as native speakers) to be exposed to foreign‐accented speech as a part of their education.
6. There are many different ‘accents’ within English that can affect intelligibility, but the policy targets foreign accents and not dialects of English.
7. Communicating to students that foreign accented speech is ‘bad’ or ‘harmful’ is counterproductive to learning, and affirms pre‐existing patterns of linguistic bias and harmful ‘linguistic profiling’.
8. There is no such thing as ‘unaccented’ speech, and so policies aimed at eliminating accented speech from the classroom are paradoxical.

The statement, which is linked to Lieberman’s post, rigorously backs each of these points up with sources representing the best work in the linguistics field.

I’ve pointed out before just how our “what about the children” concerns about non-standard and emergent forms of English–like textspeak–reflect a not-so-subtle form of xenophobia (not to mention classism and ableism), but the Arizona law stands as a pretty blatant example of it. While I do believe that educators who are teaching English should be proficient in the language to the extent that they can be understood and communicate English-language concepts effectively, it simply is not correct to conflate accent with non-standard grammar or lack of intelligibility. If Arizona wished to apply their laws fairly–as Lieberman demonstrates–then they would have to reprimand or reassign white native English speakers who misuse words or speak “ungrammatically” as well, but that’s probably not going to happen.  And as I have pointed out, enforcing draconian standards with regard to grammar are often a way of arbitrarily leveraging privilege as well.

Additionally, as Language Log commenters Jen Mc-Gahan and marie-lucie point out, most foreign language instructors in U.S. schools are not native speakers of that language. How are “fluency” standards established in those cases? Does their Spanish pronunciation/accent have to be able to pass muster in Mexico City? Every foreign language teacher at Evangelical High, where I went to school, was U.S.-American. They were masters of the grammar and, in some cases, idiom of the language they were teaching, but even my AP French teacher acknowledged that she does not speak perfect Parisian France and probably wouldn’t be understood in Canada or Senegal, both French speaking countries with different accents. Nevertheless, she was an excellent teacher, well versed in French literature and culture and effective at teaching us high school level French.

It is also worth pointing out that the teachers targeted by laws like this seem to be those teaching English to immigrant students. Perhaps that is an incorrect perception, but it seems to me that having a native Spanish speaker teaching English to native Spanish speakers presents the very same benefits and challenges as having a native English speaker teach French to native English speakers: the baseline level of mutual comfort in the common language can help the instructor to convey difficult grammatical concepts in the foreign language in an intelligible, helpful way.

Ultimately, before U.S.-Americans can address this problem objectively and effectively, we need to take a long, hard look at the intersections between racism and language bias in this country. Why is it, for example, that we insist that some English accents (British, Irish, New Englander, even Southern) are legitimate (and even charming!) and some are not? Why are we so very uncomfortable with non-native English speakers speaking amongst themselves in their own language? Why do we insist that immigrants assimilate linguistically effective immediately, when anyone who has taken a foreign language class knows that fluency take years to develop? And whose comfort/welfare are we really considering when we make those demands? The children for whom English-proficiency will not only impact their future career prospects but the degree to which they may experience marginalization? Or those of us who just don’t want to be reminded that Other People live here too and don’t want to work a little harder to understand the person sitting across the table or behind the lectern.

Update:  From The Washington Post–Students learn a second language better if the instructor has the same accent as themselves.

Update II:  From The Journal of Extension

Communication is a two-way process. Both the speaker and the listener have a responsibility for the act of communication. While different or foreign accents can sometimes interfere with the listener’s ability to understand the message, accents can conjure up negative evaluations of the speaker, reducing the listener’s willingness to accept their responsibility in the communication process. Sometimes, it becomes easy to say, “I simply can’t understand you,” placing full responsibility for the communication process on the speaker.

Language Games: Politically Correct English and Rand Paul’s Race Fail

I have a problem with politically correct language.  I blame David Foster Wallace.  In his Harper’s essay on the politics of usage and grammar (which is even longer, way longer, than mine), which is reprinted in Consider the Lobster, Wallace decries what he calls Politically Correct English (PCE) for its ability to allow us to pretend that using nicer words equals a more just, less discriminatory society:

Usage is always political, of course, but it’s complexly political. With respect, for instance, to political change, usage conventions can function in two ways: On the one hand they can be a reflection of political change, and on the other they can be an instrument of political change. These two functions are different and have to be kept straight. Confusing them — in particular, mistaking for political efficacy what is really just a language’s political symbolism … — enables the bizarre conviction that America ceases to be elitist or unfair simply because Americans stop using certain vocabulary that is historically associated with elitism and unfairness. This is PCE’s central fallacy — that a society’s mode of expression is productive of its attitudes rather than a product of those attitudes — and of course it’s nothing but the obverse of the politically conservative SNOOT’S delusion that social change can be retarded by restricting change in standard usage.

Political correctness is a kind of language game that can be played by anyone, even people who do not share the values and goals of the feminists, anti-racists, and social justice advocates that promote it. As PCE has entered common usage, it has become a mode of self-presentation, of making oneself more acceptable to the public regardless of the ideology that usage may conceal. If one can play that particular language game and play it well, it can stand in place of true egalitarian bona fides. Even more distressingly, there are those who assume that the ability to play the language game is essentially all there is to being Not-Racist/Sexist/Homophobic/insert prejudice here, that one does not need to support actual social change or engage in the process of self-examination that social justice truly requires if one can simply adopt the right vocabulary.

Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown demonstrated this adeptly in her questioning of Sarah Palin’s outrage over Rahm Emmanuel’s incendiary usage of the word “retard” to describe progressive activists. As Doyle demonstrates, this was a classic example of the kind of language-policing that stands in place of actual efforts to change the systems of disadvantage and discrimination that plague the people whose marginalization is symbolized in those Not-Nice Words:

But, you know: Emanuel used the word. She pointed out that it was a fucked-up word. It is a fucked-up word. So, according to one specific version of the game – the game played by people who have no investment in the actual process, the actual structure, the sort of game where people get their politics through soundbites and focus exclusively and obsessively on their own comfort and just basically believe that they are Nice People so they should take whatever the Nice Person stance is today, especially if it doesn’t require too much thought aside from shaking their heads about the bad word the bad man said, or maybe (maybe at most) not using that word any more themselves – according to this version of the game, Sarah Palin wins.

It strikes me that Rand Paul was trying to do something pretty similar last night on Rachel Maddow. For those of you who may not know, Rand Paul is the son of Republican Congressman, former Presidential candidate, and ideological Libertarian Ron Paul. He just won the Republican Senatorial Primary in Kentucky. Like a lot of true Libertarians (as opposed to Libertarians of Convenience–I’m looking at you National Republicans), Rand Paul has some pretty radical, far from the mainstream views. For example, he believes in a division between the public and private spheres that is far, far more extreme than what most mainstream Republicans endorse (and further from how they actually govern). In the wake of Paul’s primary victory, it was brought to light that in an interview with the Courier Journal Paul indicated that he would have opposed the part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that forced privately owned businesses to desegregate. Then he went on Rachel Maddow to try to explain whatever it was he actually meant by that:

I couldn’t find a transcript and the video is too damn long for me to transcribe right now, but the gist of it is that Paul repeats, over and over and over again, that he thinks discrimination is terrible, awful, HORRIBLE even and that the desegregation of the public sphere was totes necessary, but he managed to avoid clarifying the statement actually in question until some point near the end. He ultimately confirms that he believes that requiring private businesses to desegregate represented an unwanted incursion of government into the private sphere. There is just so much fail here that I hardly know where to start, but let’s try to make a list:

1. Paul repeatedly accuses Maddow of taking the discussion into abstract, esoteric territory when what she is demanding is a straightforward answer on a specific, practical aspect of the Civil Rights Amendment. In fact, it is the language game of PCE that allows Paul to essentially keep this in esoteric territory, because for him, the issue of civil rights really is abstract, really does amount to little more than words, the ability and willingness to say the right stuff. When Maddow reminds him that desegregating private businesses like the Woolworth’s lunch counters was a very real event that affected real people, that real people were, in fact, beaten while staging sit-ins, he once again starts with the language games by saying “I don’t condone violence.” When Maddow presses him on the consequences of essentially allowing the entire private sector to re-segregate, he again retreats into the abstract. Because, again, this is an abstract concept for him. He has never had to, never will never have to, actually live the day to day consequences of what he is suggesting. Thus, the ability to use the language games of PCE to keep things abstract is ultimately a manifestation of a form privilege that never has to come in contact with the reality of what these abstract policy discussions might mean for in the lives of individual minorities.

2. Paul tries to reduce all of this to a simply division between the public and private spheres, when that division is, in fact, not simple. The public sector frequently intervenes in the private sector in order to protect the public interest. That’s how we get a police force and things like building safety and health regulations, fire codes, et freaking cetera. Now, I understand that as a Libertarian, Paul opposes some of these things as well, but it is illogical to act like we have not had a long tradition of public interventions for the public interest in this country. And preventing discrimination on the basis of race is pretty clearly a public interest concern.

3. Paul draws a false equivalence between forcing businesses to desegregate and forcing businesses to carry guns on their premises. Right. Because that’s totally the same: the government forcing me to allow you to bring your hobbies into my home or business versus me allowing you to bring your body onto my premises. I don’t know if I can point out the absurdity of this claim any better than The Daily Show, so I’ll just embed this clip:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Open Carrier Discrimination
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

4. Paul declares this entire criticism a red herring (I already have a post on ad hominem drawn up for tomorrow’s Logical Fallacy Friday, but perhaps I should cover this one next) because the Civil Rights Act is ancient history and doesn’t have anything to do with any legislation that Paul may or may not support as a U.S. Senator. False. This is a country where you can still be fired for being gay or trans, where you can–thanks a bunch Democratic majority–still be discharged from the military for being gay, where the recognition of gay unions still is very much at issue for both the public and private sector. We are really only just now beginning to have that debate, so to pretend that Rand Paul’s position on the implications of the Civil Rights Act for the private sector is just sort of an abstract thought problem is a very real problem.

Let me be clear, I think that Paul is a little far from the pack even for a conservative Republican here. I like to think that there is a reason why Mitch “Good ‘Ol Boy” McConnell backed his opponent, but it will be a pretty distressing state of affairs if statements like these do not translate into very tangible political consequences for Rand Paul’s election. But then again, one of the big problems with Politically Correct English is that it allows a lot of people to look good while concealing from pretty disturbing views.

Edit–Melissa McEwan analyzes Paul’s spurious interpretation of the First Amendment here.

Another Edit–Everyone seems to be talking about this today and saying great things that I feel I need to share here. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo has the following to say.

Political philosophy can never be free of history. And there is no denying that similar states rights or libertarian arguments have been the arguments of choice for those who want to defend racial discrimination since avowed defenses of racial prejudice and subordination became publicly unacceptable outside some parts of the South in the early second half of the last century. That’s simply a fact. In principle, it doesn’t delegitimize libertarian political philosophy. But we don’t live in classrooms or treatises. We live in an actual world where history and experience can’t be separated from philosophy.


Today in Cognitive Dissonance: Classroom Culture Wars

So, over the weekend, this came to my attention. Maine’s Tea Party heavy Republican State Convention met at a Portland middle school to rewrite their party platform and committed petty acts of politically charged vandalism while they were there:

When he went home for the weekend on Friday, one of [eighth grade social studies teacher Paul Clifford’s] most prized teaching tools – a collage-type poster depicting the history of the U.S. labor movement – was affixed to his classroom door. Clifford uses it each year to teach his students how to incorporate collages into their annual project on Norman Rockwell’s historic “Four Freedoms” illustrations.[…]When Clifford returned to school Monday morning, his cherished labor poster was gone. In its place, taped to the same door, was a red-white-and-blue bumper sticker that read, “Working People Vote Republican.”

Monday morning (May 10), members of the caucus began calling the school to complain about other super-offensive things they had seen in the classroom, including a box of copies of The Constitution that happened to be donated by the ACLU and student projects, at least one of which was critical of George W. Bush. It should be noted that the executive director of the Maine Republican Party has apologized, and it is to the credit of the principal and the students that Clifford was supported in his effort to get the missing classroom decorations back.

Then this morning, I learn that the Texas State Board of Education–notably far right wing board member Don McLeroy, who recently lost a primary challenge to a moderate–is up to more shenanigans. Now, in addition to recommending that Thomas Jefferson be dropped from the history curriculum in favor of Rush Limbaugh and the Moral Majority, McLeroy would now like to require discussion of the problems with social security and U.N. threats to U.S. national sovereignty.

At first, I wanted to just post this with the snarky comment: “of course, it’s only dangerous indoctrination if you don’t agree with it. LULZ.” But here’s the thing, I’m sort of having cognitive dissonance about this myself. See, I initially felt bemusement toward the conservatives who walked into Paul Clifford’s classroom and said “SOMETHING TERRIBLE HAS HAPPENED HERE.” I imagined they heard unsettling horror movie music  as they walked inside and gradually the full scale of the atrocities happening there were unveiled before their eyes in the form of posters, collages, and stickers. But then again, if I had an eighth grader and happened to see a poster charting the rise of the modern conservative movement in her classroom (I bet Don McLeroy has one already made up), I might break out into a little bit of a cold sweat, and if I were surrounded by some lefty friends who were able to convince me that this was only the tip of a very insidious iceberg, I’m not sure what I might do. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t commit petty theft or vandalism, but who knows.

In other words, I am not excited about the curricular changes that the Texas State Board of Education is considering and sort of want to jump up and say YOU JUST CAN’T DO THAT, but I’m not sure how that makes me any different from a conservative parent who walks into a classroom and sees evidence of goings on that aren’t in line with my politics or religion.  I think both of us would probably say that we live in a free society, that we celebrate a the free expression of ideas, but we might also say that we think the other person’s ideas are beyond the pale and don’t belong in the classroom.   Basically, if I think too long about this, my brain sort of does contortions:  while I don’t think teachers should necessarily be pushing an agenda in the classroom, “objective fact” and “radical agenda” frequently get confused depending on who you’re talking to, and some of the things McLeroy wants taught are “factual,”so it’s largely just a question of emphasis, and I juuuussst dooooon’t knoooooowww. It hurts.

I wish our schools weren’t culture war battlefields, but they are, and people who care passionately about what happens in them–on all ends of the political spectrum–are going to pick up megaphones and speak. They are going to run for school board and they are going to go get teacher’s licenses, and they are going to join the PTA. The best you can do is just make your voice heard too.

I went to a small evangelical school growing up, and during my junior year, I took Bible with a man that I like to think of as the conservative version of the “tenured radical” that haunts the dreams of David Horowitz. This teacher often used class time to air some crazy-ass conspiracy theories about the government and posit wild revisionist theses, such as “the Emancipation Proclamation was responsible for Southern racial tension.” I wanted this teacher to get fired more than just about anything in the world. I remember ranting about him at the dinner table, trying to get my parents ginned up, talking to my friends about him (none of them seemed quite as concerned as I was), telling some of my other teachers the things he was saying, and drafting letters to the administration.

It took me a few months to realize that this was never, ever going to happen. For one thing, this teacher had been around since approximately the Punic Wars and was a beloved football coach. He also taught photography in the art department and led the annual 8th grade wilderness trip and High School mission trip. He was an integral part of the community. Furthermore, the other Bible teacher pretty much just showed movies all the time, so it’s not like that department had high pedagogical standards in the first place. Until a few years ago, when the school began hiring fresh seminary grads who could do all of the scholarly stuff, the Bible department was basically staffed by camp counselors who were there to sort of teach “spiritual living” until it was time to do their real job, coaching Varsity to another district title.

If I take a step back and think about all of this, I realize three things:

1. People like this former teacher of mine exist, and some of them may wind up teaching your children. Your perspective on their qualifications and effectiveness as teachers is going to largely depend on the degree to which you share their view of the world. You have the right in a democracy to voice your opinion, to write letters, to call administrators, to show up on Parent-Teacher night, to run for the school board. Maybe not so much with the stealing of classroom materials, but you get my drift.

2. Your children do not exist in a vacuum. If you are worried about the messages they are getting in one class, remember that they take other classes too. Unless your kids targeted for discrimination or abuse in class, it probably isn’t absolutely vital that you get that teacher fired right this minute. Throughout their lives, they will have many teachers coming from many pedagogical and ideological perspectives. That same year in school, I had an English teacher who was sort of an Anne Lamott style boho-artistic liberal Christian feminist who caught alot of crap herself in our highly conservative community. To me, she was an inspiration, but the word “Feminazi” floated around a lot in conversation among other students and parents. She occasionally let slip some statements that would have been considered radical or crazy in that context. But she got to keep her job too and wasn’t asked to tone it down or anything, and I’m glad for that. I’m not sure that the answer to classroom culture wars is to ask teachers to be dispassionate, fact-dispensing, Thomas Gradgrind-esque drones, which means that many engaged teachers are going to occasionally espouse a viewpoint you don’t particularly care for.

3. Your children really aren’t that fragile. One result of that terrible Bible class was that I became more principled in my own views. I read books on theology so that I could argue with this teacher. I learned a bit about how to take a stand, how to argue. I learned a lot more than I did in the class with the less ideological teacher who showed movies all the time. I still can’t remember what the hell that was all about. Furthermore, being surrounded by authority figures who speak from a particular ideological perspective with one voice is no guarantee that your kids will enter adulthood believing what you want them to believe. I have classmates from that evangelical school who went to very secular colleges and became even more dogmatic (or principled if you prefer) about their faith and their politics. I have classmates that went to religious colleges and were atheists or agnostics by graduation. The point is, sometimes adversity is ok (barring egregious cases of discrimination or abuse). Sometimes it’s even good. Sometimes having the minority opinion makes you stronger, and getting to rest complacently in the majority makes you weaker.

Texting is Not Destroying the English Language

So, the kids these days, with their loud music and crazy hair and baggy pants and all that.  I hear they also have this thing called “texting” and that it has popularized all sorts of non-standard grammatical expressions and abbreviations like LOL and BRB and junk like that.  In 2007, John Humphrys got his monocle in a twist over text-speak, opining that,

[The texters] are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbors eight hundred years ago. They are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation, savaging our sentences, raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.

OMGWTF! Rape analogies! In an article about grammar. That seems entirely measured and reasonable. In 2002, John Sutherland injected overt sexism and ableism to his spittle-flecked hissy fit over texting, blaming the rise of texting on “homebound women…currently the groundbreaking texters in the laggard U.S.” and complaining that texting “masks dyslexia, poor spelling and mental laziness. Texting is penmanship for illiterates.” It’s like John Sutherland can’t stand the fact that dyslexic and/or illiterate people might be walking past him on the sidewalk unmarked, that he will never be able to trip them on the sidewalk and take their lunch money and shame them for daring to be born with a congenital learning difference (though for sweet crying Baby Jesus’s sake, John Sutherland, dyslexic people can learn how to write, they just learn differently, you jackhole) or a poverty so grinding and hideous that they were unable to obtain literacy education.

Humphrys and Sutherland position themselves as the keepers of the old ways, the guardians of the Mother Tongue, who are watching, shaking their heads and tsk-tsking, as the English speaking world self-immolates. Yet underlying all of this hand-wringing about the lack of subtlety and complexity of text speak is an open, seething animosity toward People Who Communicate Differently. Even where Humphrys acknowledges that fact that, yeah, language evolves, he claims that “texting and netspeak are effectively different languages.” Wow.

Let’s take a little walk through linguistic history, shall we? One deleted commenter who sort of aggressively missed the point of this post was kind enough to remind me that split infinitives aren’t necessarily incorrect usage and also that I am terrible. A very brief look at Wikipedia will show you that the split infinitive as a long, contentious history. Basically, at some point in the mid-nineteenth century, style and grammar experts started noticing that split infinitives were becoming more common, and thus the Culture War of the Split Infinitive began. On the one side, you had the folks who thought the split infinitive was an abomination, while others thought it was perfectly fine. Henry Alford is regarded as the standard-bearer of the anti-split infinitive camp. In A Plea for the Queen’s English: Stray Notes on Speaking and Spelling, Alford says this:

A correspondent states as his own usage, and defends, the insertion of an adverb between the sign of the infinitive mood and the verb. He gives us as an instance, “to scientifically illustrate.” But surely this is a practice entirely unknown to English speakers and writers. It seems to me, that we ever regard the to of the infinitive as inseparable from its verb. And when we have already a choice between two forms of expression, “scientifically to illustrate,” and “to illustrate scientifically,” there seems no good reason for flying in the face of common usage.

I find it interesting that Alford makes his plea on the basis of common usage, or what he thought would sound most natural to the people of his time. That’s what a lot of grammar debates come down to: whatever sounds right. The problem is that the naturalness of the split infinitive (and yes, almost no one except douchiest of Grammar Douches objects to these any more) or any other disputed construction is dependent on context. This is because fluency is inevitably contextual.  It is possible to be fluent in your native language in some contexts but not in others.
Autobiographical digression: I grew up in the Southwest, which means that I grew up hearing “ya’ll” used unironically in conversation. It’s a term that feels natural and available to me, so while I’m self-conscious about using it in all contexts, I do occasionally order it off the menu. Simply saying “you” or “you all” to indicate the second person plural does not feel quite right, but I am intensely aware of the fact that to some, “ya’ll” speaks volumes about a person’s background and education, even political leanings. At worst, it’s a sign of backwardness and unsophistication. At best it’s quaint and adorable. My mother always admonished my Dad for using it, along with “ain’t,” especially around his patients.

Back to the Culture War of the Split Infinitive, which was part of an effort to establish some usages and some linguistic communities as more legitimate than others, an effort to defend an elite version of English in the wake of rapid social change.  As European nations began to occupy spaces across the world, the world itself became smaller.  European languages were becoming world languages, and English was being reshaped by contact with other cultures in dramatic and unexpected ways.  Across the pond, the U.S. population was growing exponentially due to unprecedented levels of immigration.  Is this sounding at all familiar?

My point is that usage wars often reflect much deeper societal anxieties, anxieties that have much to do with the erosion of cultural authorities and fear of inter-ethnic contamination.  Obviously, texting anxiety does reflect the fact that many people feel alienated and frustrated by rapid changes in technology.  I, myself, was pretty slow to adopt texting, mostly because I was terrible at it.  It took me so long to hammer out a message on the standard number pad phone that I was usually just inclined to say “Eff it” and fire off an email or leave a voice message.  It took smartphones to finally get me to text with any regularity, and even then I tend to do so in complete sentences with punctuation and everything.  But that’s me.  However, there is something about the red-eyed, vein-popping anger over the notion that texting is Ruining Everything that makes me think that this is about something more.

Texting and chatspeak are the innovations of a younger, more pluralistic generation, but it has also appeared at a historical moment in which paranoia about linguistic degradation encompasses a deep anxiety about “those damn foreigners” and their refusal to learn English in a way that satisfies us and their demanding tax payer dollars for ESL education in public schools.  The immigrant backlash has been escalating in both the U.S. and Europe as cultural intermixing between the West the nations the West has helped destabilize to the point that immigration has become necessary.  Beneath all of the classist and ablist language is also the implication that People Who Communicate Differently are inherently less intelligent and/or less educated than the guardians of “correct usage.” Accommodating other linguistic groups–which require us to work harder to understand and to be understood–stirs deeply felt but little acknowledged animosity toward the Other.

And here’s the thing, recent research has shown that texting has not impaired the literacy of our schoolchildren. The thing about fluency having many contexts is that eventually we do learn what kinds of speech are appropriate in particular situations. As the Newsweek article linked above suggests:

[This] doesn’t let the teenager who LOLs in a term paper off the hook–but that’s not so much a question of language ability as judgment. It, too,should go the way of all slang ever inappropriately used in a classroom–rebuked with a red pen, not seized upon as a symptom of generational decline.  Even if electronic communication engenders its own kind of carelessness, it’s no worse than the carelessness of academic jargon or journalistic shorthand.  It certainly doesn’t engender stupidity.

Children of the digital generation don’t have a problem with language (research suggests that they are actually more sophisticated in this area) so much as they have a problem with etiquette and understanding what works in any given context. But that has always been true of children and teenagers.  The truth is that we all could probably do with a bit more civility, and that includes not being a total human fail when talking about technologies you find annoying.