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On language and the use thereof

Sat 2 Oct 2010 by mskala Tags used: , ,

Hatred is not the same thing as fear, not even if they often occur at the same time to the same people. When you pretend that those two things are identical to each other, and attempt to build that pretense into the language instead of admitting that it is an activist position - for instance, when you use words like "homophobia" - you make the world a less good place and you harm those of your goals that are worth promoting.

This is important.

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I'm going to suggest that the distinction may not actually be all that important. This might be going off on a bit of a tangent, but according to Machiavellian power-politics style philosophy, nations start wars for two abstract reasons: the desire to dominate and the fear of being dominated. Wars of ambition versus the first-strike doctrine. Mind you, if we're talking about some manner of intrinsic sins, that's Avarice vs. Fear rather than Hate vs. Fear. Also, that's coming from the least respectable of Machiavelli's work (the Prince), assumes that Machiavellian philosophy is respectable in the first place, regards the state-level and not that of the individual, and is about an entirely different form of conflict. So, I'm really pushing the limits of the analogy, but the central question that I want to ask is this:

Does it matter what emotion is driving the conflict?

The answer is probably yes, in some circumstances: if you want to get someone to reconsider their fear or hatred, you'd probably take a different approach for each, and you'd probably have different chances of success. But what about in other domains? If someone kills a gay person, does it really matter what motivated their actions? What about if they drove that person to commit suicide? Does the loss of accuracy and the confusion of meaning in the use of the term "homophobia" matter in these cases?
Jeremy - 2010-10-03 14:49
It matters because it's used as an excuse for smugness - that person hates me because he's afraid of me, ha ha! - given that fear is considered shameful and hate isn't necessarily. Smugness, in turn, is bad because it destroys any possibility of cooperation. That's evident, for instance, when I try to talk to atheists about the issues they think are important between atheism and religion; the productive conversation lasts exactly as long as it takes someone to start displaying smugness about it. Depending on the individual, that could be "forever" or "about half a second." Guess which atheists are my friends and which aren't? If you're going to be smug about your superiority over your enemy, you guarantee that that person can't be anything but an enemy.

Maybe hate should be considered shameful; we can work on that, but we're not there yet. Maybe fear shouldn't be considered shameful; but that's even further away. Maybe someone can deal rationally with an opponent who is motivated by fear, without using "ha ha, s/he is motivated by fear!" as an excuse for superiority over that opponent - but the person capable of that much mental maturity wouldn't be a human being as I know them. The human beings I know seem to be almost completely unable to resist the addictive poison of smugness. So if someone really wants to make the world a better place, they would do well not to deliberately make themselves sound smug every single time they open their mouths, because eventually (like, maybe, IMMEDIATELY) it'll stop being a clever rhetorical trick and become an actual feeling.
Matt - 2010-10-03 15:10
Okay, I think I see where you're coming from now. There are models of dialogue wherein contempt is the most destructive (aside from I don't know...actual physical violence) form of communication between people. It's a pretty good way to ruin relationships of any nature. So yeah...smugness, contempt, disrespect...however you want to look at it, it's bad for debate and conversation.

It's just...some things that people hold to seem so beyond the pale that I don't know if there is room for debate, conversation, cooperation, or even respect. Or, maybe I just don't want there to be room for such things. The thing about bigotry is that at some point people stop saying nasty things and start doing nasty things (incidentally, I have been reading more about racism towards economic/mercantile minorities across cultures and time periods, recently. It's rather interesting, if you like that sort of thing). Of course, that's a slippery-slope argument, but it seems to happen frequently enough. I just don't really know what triggers that transition, and my inclination is to try to quash it whenever it appears. Holding certain things in contempt or casting a negative moral or emotional light to them may discourage some from adopting them, however it also seems to cause those who already hold them to become defensive and form camps. Not to mention the personal consequences. Huh...I seem to be arguing for/against being civil in some situations...

I definitely agree with you that the superiority/inferiority aspect of smugness is bad, though. I mean, really, how does one go about evaluating such things? A giant look-up table (or set of tables dependent on values), where you slot in personality aspects and opinions until it spits out a sum? Sorry, I'm being flippant there, but really...I don't know, I just grew up while getting the idea pounded into my head that you should hate the behaviour and not the person. But in some cases, I really hate the behaviour, and maybe I just don't want to consider that to be a bad thing.
Jeremy - 2010-10-05 19:15
I think you're drifting off the topic I intended to raise: I'm not in any way saying you shouldn't object to bigotry. I'm saying you shouldn't call it a phobia.

As for "at some point people stop saying nasty things and start doing nasty things," that's one of my points: deliberately using insulting words about your enemies - which definitely includes words that infer shameful emotions such as fear - is "saying nasty things." So if that's the vocabulary you use and promote, then when I listen to you I wonder when you will start "doing nasty things."

I'm very interested in what we do or don't consider to be beyond the pale; I was getting at that in my recent postings on the book-cover thing (https://ansuz.sooke.bc.ca/entry/83) and the writer-similarity thing (https://ansuz.sooke.bc.ca/entry/86). The Web logger who posted the book covers thought that one of them was so far beyond the pale in terms of racism that they didn't need to mention which one that was; it was supposed to be obvious, but it sure wasn't obvious to me. Similarly, one of the commentators on the writer-similarity thing thought the Web toy creator's response was obviously beyond the pale even though I and Steve C thought it seemed pretty reasonable. It's hard to hold out much hope for communication when people's values are that far apart. Bumper-sticker summary: if you think it's a no-brainer, that means you have stopped using your brain.
Matt - 2010-10-05 19:42
Blah, links were not linked in previous comment. Let's try again:


Matt - 2010-10-05 19:43
The distinction you make is important - the phrase should really be 'anti-homosexualism', perhaps, in the same vein as 'anti-semitism'. (I would argue that at least some of it is inspired by fear - specifically of unwanted sexual advances, like the fear/hostility some women feel towards straight men - but that this literal phobia appears to account for a minority of instances.) But I take your more general point to be that you can't sneer at somebody and then hope to win them over.

This is entirely true. However, it presumes that a good-faith intent to persuade actually exists. You don't negotiate with terrorists, and if your opponents are similarly 'beyond the pale', you don't stoop to actually addressing their arguments. You might put on a performance for the benefit of your allies, using bad rhetorical tactics for their dramatic value, but that's to establish your own position rather than to change anyone else's. Most of the 'culture wars' seem to boil down to this, as does a lot of evangelism. If the idea of sharing any common ground with your opponent is icky, you don't work all that hard to find any.
Meg - 2010-10-05 23:37
Oh come now. And here I thought the use of the word "nasty" was a rather tame adjective to use to describe situations where groups of people start off saying unkind things about other groups, eventually leading over time to pogroms, ethnic cleansing, and wholesale slaughter. Kind of difficult to keep the language clinical, neutral, and presentable to all possible readers. : )

But...looking at this entire conversation, I think it just serves to illustrate your central point....or at least what I think is your central point. Or maybe goes beyond it...argh, how do I say this...we're both failing to communicate a little bit here, but it's not just due to a matter of a difference in values. There's also the failures of inference and implication. I hold a set of meanings for words that differs from yours, and somewhere along the line whatever I'm trying to say will not be conveyed properly. Maybe. And vice-versa. Maybe. Even bringing this up just now may not have added much to the conversation if you're already familiar with that aspect of the communication problem (which you probably are, but what do I know?)

One other thing though...at some point you have to stop using your brain. There's only so much of that that you can throw around, and only so much time that you have to throw around in. Right. I should probably be going to sleep now. Pardon the randomness...
Jeremy - 2010-10-06 00:11
Sorry, I think I was nitpicking the "nasty" part there a bit too much. If you were pointing out the intrinsic "sameness" to hating hate, or using hateful language towards belligerents, then I certainly agree. However, part of the reason that I brought it up is that I believe you are arguing for a rule that certain language (or classes of language) should not be used, and I am wondering if there should be exceptions to that rule. What do you think?
Jeremy - 2010-10-06 08:20
I'm not objecting to the word "nasty" but to the word "homophobia" - maybe my using quotation marks wasn't the right way to convey that, since people use quotation marks both to indicate literal quotations and to distance themselves from the words inside. What I meant there (let's forget "nasty") was: you're saying that opposing bigots is important even when their bigotry is only revealed in what they SAY and hasn't yet escalated to violence; I say that for precisely that reason, using language to describe your opponents that isn't factually accurate and could be seen as offensive, isn't a harmless activity.

So, I say, and I think you agree, that we have to watch the language we use. Does that mean that a word like "homophobia" should NEVER be used? Well, it goes against the grain for me to say that any word should NEVER be used. But I think it's very seldom a good idea to use the word "homophobia," because it has a lying implication ("Hatred and moral objection equal fear and each other.") built into it. People who recognize the lie will be disinclined to listen to the liar - and liars who aren't careful will come to believe their own lies, to the detriment of their own ability to think clearly.

So I'm not only saying you shouldn't say it to bigots because it will offend them, though that reason *is* more important than it may appear at first glance; I'm also saying you shouldn't use it privately among fellow travellers, because it isn't true and believing it will lead you into defeat. I suppose that if there ever comes a day when it is necessary to talk about the hypothetical existence of a literal, medically diagnosable phobia of homosexuality, really including the symptoms of phobia which are not the same as those of hatred and moral objection, then it might be reasonable to have a word for that disease; though even then, "homophobia" is less than perfect because it should literally mean "fear of sameness" or something. (See also: http://bit.ly/12Wtrh )

A big part of what I'm objecting to here is the aspect of deception: words like "homophobia" purport to be neutral descriptions, but encode contentious assumptions that the speaker doesn't openly admit *are* contentious. Anyone who consciously or subconsciously perceives those assumptions is likely to perceive the usage as deception. It looks like, and I think it usually is, an attempt to frame the debate.

Another example would be "pro-Choice," which isn't about the general concept of "Choice" in general but mostly about privileging some choices over others: the baby doesn't have a choice, nor the father, despite both being accountable for the consequences of the mother's choice. Someone claims to think that that's a neutral descriptive term; someone who doesn't think it is, will perceive anyone promoting it as a neutral descriptive term as practicing deception. As for things we may think are so obviously beyond the pale they need no explanation of why, one thing like that for me is the "Brights." Lest it be thought I'm picking on the Left, there's also "traditional marriage," which when you think it about it really ought to include both polygamy and a much reduced age of consent, just from the meanings of the words.
Matt - 2010-10-06 16:41
Meg: "You might put on a performance for the benefit of your allies, using bad rhetorical tactics for their dramatic value, but that's to establish your own position rather than to change anyone else's."

Yes, and I think that's the only reasonable way to explain the behaviour of some of the political groups I've tangled with. If a person of ordinary or higher intelligence really wanted to promote specific stated goals, it seems hard to believe that they would persistently choose tactics that are well known to always fail. But people who really wanted to cement their own positions in the social structure might use tactics that succeed at that, with the openly stated goals being only a pretext for invoking such forces.

That's getting into psychoanalyzing opponents, which is itself a questionable tactic. A more positive version of the same thing might be in an item I'm working on about "community-based spirituality." I hope to post that in the not too distant future.
Matt - 2010-10-06 17:01

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