I want to direct everybody towards “A Person Paper on Purity in Language,” by Douglas Hofstadter, which I’ve read several times now, and never ceases to impress me with its relevance, even though it was written in 1985. It begins thus:
It’s high time someone blew the whistle on all the silly prattle about revamping our language to suit the purposes of certain political fanatics. You know what I’m talking about-those who accuse speakers of English of what they call “racism.” This awkward neologism, constructed by analogy with the well-established term “sexism,” does not sit well in the ears, if I may mix my metaphors. But let us grant that in our society there may be injustices here and there in the treatment of either race from time to time, and let us even grant these people their terms “racism” and “racist.” How valid, however, are the claims of the self-proclaimed “black libbers,” or “negrists”-those who would radically change our language in order to “liberate” us poor dupes from its supposed racist bias?
Most of the clamor,as you certainly know by now, revolves around the age-old usage of the noun “white” and words built from it, such as chairwhite, mailwhite, repairwhite, clergywhite, middlewhite, Frenchwhite, forewhite, whitepower, whiteslaughter, oneupuwhiteship, straw white, whitehandle, and so on. The negrists claim that using the word “white,” either on its own or as a component, to talk about all the members of the human species is somehow degrading to blacks and reinforces racism. Therefore the libbers propose that we substitute “person” everywhere where “white” now occurs. Sensitive speakers of our secretary tongue of course find this preposterous. There is great beauty to a phrase such as “All whites are created equal.” Our forebosses who framed the Declaration of Independence well understood the poetry of our language. Think how ugly it would be to say “All persons are created equal,” or “All whites and blacks are created equal.” Besides, as any schoolwhitey can tell you, such phrases are redundant. In most contexts, it is self-evident when “white” is being used in an inclusive sense, in which case it subsumes members of the darker race just as much as fairskins.
It’s a bit long, but I strongly recommend reading the whole thing. The metaphor only grows more powerful, covering the use of gendered pronouns, and “Mrs” and “Miss” for women but only “Mr” for men, and changing one’s name upon marriage, and the tendency to refer to adult women as “girls,” and more! Here, have a second link to it!
Now I’m linking this not only because I think it’s well-written (and especially useful as an eye-opener for those who don’t think sexist language is important), but also because I’ve been thinking a lot about the uses of analogies to highlight systematic problems. When I posted about environmentalism earlier, for example, I frequently used analogies to the feminist movement to articulate my thoughts about the environmental movement. To quote myself:
I don’t want to fall into the “WHAT ABOUT WOMEN IN SAUDI ARABIA” sort of argument that feminists face when they try to talk about comic books– I get that talking about the little things does not preclude talking about the big things, and that it’s important to pay attention on both. But this seems somehow… not even one of the little things. As if a feminist was trying to complain about women no longer being put on a pedestal. It’s missing the point, somehow, aiming for a goal other than the one that out society needs.
I was trying to articulate that I didn’t object to the innovations in question merely because they were small, but because I thought they were missing the point entirely; any sustainable action, no matter how small, would be worthwhile, but something selling itself as “green!” that didn’t work towards sustainability would be problematic. I was having trouble expressing that idea, though, since I am not as well-versed in environmental issues, so I went back to something I did understand, and which I thought my readers would be more likely to understand, and tried to reason from there. I wasn’t totally successful (the comments were a hoot!) but that was my goal, and my reasoning behind using the feminist movement as an analogy.
I find that I also try to work from my feminist framework to understand other “isms” which I do not directly experience. But this is where I start checking myself. I truly do think that thinking by analogy can be enlightening and not appropriation, and the article I began with is an example of a usage I find acceptable. But I could be totally, totally off base. There are definitely example of “analogies” being drawn between oppressions (especially using the black civil rights movement!) that are not acceptable. For example: Gay is the new Black!
The biggest flaw that I can identify in usages like this is the way that they pretend the black civil rights movement is over, which is a bit of a lol/sob situation. Barack Obama did not end racism! Seriously! I may still have some embarrassingly obvious moments where my privilege is showing (like, possibly, this post!), but at least I don’t try to pretend I don’t have privilege. Any attempts to draw parallels between the black civil rights movement and any subsequent civil rights movement is going to be fatally flawed (and probably worthless) if it doesn’t accommodate the fact that we’re not done yet.
But even more importantly, even though all oppression is connected, all oppression is not the same. The analogies break down when you get into the details. Using analogies like the ones I’ve mentioned earlier might be useful as an introduction to one’s privilege, but they have to be replaced with an actual understanding of the topic at hand for the conversation to go farther. Trying to only think via analogy can be seriously harmful.
Does the essay I started with fall into that category? I’m not sure. It’s definitely working from the assumption that “we all know that Racism Is Bad,” but I’m not sure that it’s positing that racism is gone. I’m not sure that saying “we all know Racism Is Bad” is the same as saying “racism is fixed now”– in fact, my impression is that one of the problems with eradicating racism is that We All Know Racism Is Bad, and therefore any attempt to say “that was pretty racist” gets translated to “you are A Racist, and therefore Evil!” and shuts down the conversation. So my first response is that the essay is OK on that level, but what about the fact that some of the instances it uses– especially gendered pronouns– were not oppressions that (male) people of color faced? Is that minimizing the ways they they were (and are!) oppressed, making it look like sexism is somehow worse or more widespread? Are we getting into an Oppression Olympics here? (The first half of the link is more relevant, though the whole thing is good.) But the whole point is revealing that they are oppressive acts, by applying them along race lines instead of sex lines, to trigger our Racism Is Bad response. This particular essay isn’t trying to say anything about racial oppression; it’s assuming we already know how it happens. Maybe. Is it only my privilege that makes an essay that relies so much on race-related language seem to somehow be “not about race” to me?
I guess my big question is, when is thinking via analogy helpful, and when is it hurtful? Is it ever all one or the other?
My gut response is that of course you have to engage directly with the voices in question to get to the actual paradigm shift, the real understanding. But, however easy it is for an analogy to be misguided and hurtful, there are exceptions, and it can be a good way to start things, by forcing people to realize that their paradigm isn’t quite right.
But, of course, I could be way off base. What do you think?