A week or so ago, I posted what was supposed to be the first two of a series of entries about climate change, logical fallacies in arguments, the psychology of climate change denial, other areas of politics where similar denials and obfuscations take place and so on. It was actually proving to be quite therapeutic to do this, because it’s what I’m currently studying and it proved to be a distraction from my usual internal musings and probably quite negative behaviour elsewhere. Why not continue in this vein then?
This could be seen as yet another example of something which belongs on transwaffle, which if I’m honest to myself I consider moribund by this point but would allow me to witter on unobserved, as would a notepad. The reason it’s not on there is that it can be re-stated in a gender-neutral way, but before I do that I’ll state it in terms of gendered relationships because it serves as a good illustration of stereotypically feminine and masculine language use.
I usually apply a rule to myself that in a meeting I will only start to contribute when at least six cis women, as I perceive them, have spoken. A common result of this is that I never actually get to say anything, which is fine by me. However, this tends to get messed up if I actually give an introductory address of some kind, as I did last week. It’s then difficult to know what my position is, as I have already contributed to the discussion and people are then likely to ask me questions, to which of course I should respond. This makes me feel I’m building up a deficit which I need to remedy later. However, there is a problem when I don’t contribute because there often ensues what feels to me like a baffling and uncomfortable silence with people failing to make contributions to the conversation, and whereas I don’t want to speak just to fill the silence, there are often a load of things I’m burning to say, which I imagine are in other people’s minds but which they are unaccountably not saying, assuming their reasons are unlike mine.
Often my contributions are further delayed by men contributing to the discussion, because this means I have to wait even longer for six women to have said something. The thing about this is that to some extent the onus is on the other people either to speak or refrain from speaking in order that I can speak. At first this looks like a gender-based issue, but there are reasons for supposing that it isn’t. Two women I know pretty well have themselves said that they often find themselves in situations where other people are quiet and not contributing noticeably to a conversation, and they speak and end up feeling that they’ve said too much compared to others. The fact that this may not even be a gender issue is one reason this is here.
Also, in practicing this rule I have to presume the gender identity of the other people present. Among the six women and the various numbers of men who say something, not all of them may be cis, and not all of them may be gender “euphoric” as it were. There might be trans men, trans women who pass well and closeted gender dysphoric people. Given the current incidence of gender and sexual minority people coming out of the closet, and the nature of the meetings that I go to, this is a bigger problem than it might otherwise be. Consequently I feel even less like contributing.
Getting back to this blog, this post is more or less the text of my introduction to the subject. Putting this through Gender Guesser yields the following result:
(This will probably turn out to be the featured image, which is a bit annoying).
Gender Guesser is not marvellously accurate of course. However, its algorithm is based on the features of language which I focus on myself, and in fact my dysphoria is substantially focussed on psychological aspects of my assigned gender rather than aspects of physical appearance. Consequently, claims that I am on the autistic spectrum depress me because of Baron-Cohen’s “extreme male brain” view of the nature of autism, for instance.
Analyses of female and male authorship of texts and speech have tended to throw up the same kinds of differences in use of language, but different interpretations have been made of these differences. For instance, Otto Jespersen, the male Danish linguist who fluorished at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and might therefore be expected to have attitudes typical of the time regarding sex and gender, claimed that the differences betrayed women’s inferior intelligence. One example of this was that women use coördinating conjunctions such as “and”, “or” and “but” more than men do, and use subordinating conjunctions such as “therefore”, “although” and “because” less than men do, which Jespersen interpreted as meaning that women use language in a less intelligent way. Later feminist commentators acknowledged these differences but attributed the cause to men being conditioned to be more confident in their use of language than women.
Deborah Tannen is probably the most important influence on me in this respect. My understanding of stereotypically feminine and masculine use of language is that women are more emotionally involved and engaging, try to build empathy, share and put the reader at ease, and that their language is closer to the language of fiction even when they are writing factually, whereas men use language to hoard information, establish their superiority, write to inform and draw attention to themselves, and that their language is closer to factual text even when writing fiction. Of course these are stereotypes and there is a big overlap, and other factors come into consideration such as copy-editing by people whose gender is different than the writer, attempts to adopt personas in fictional writing and the adoption of a particular style considered appropriate for a given passage. However, the description I’ve just offered is of course very much wedded to traditional gender roles and caricatures of femininity and masculinity. Therefore, at this point I choose to remove gender-based labels from these features and simply call them different styles of language use.
My claim is that a style of language that doesn’t hoard information but shares it is more positive and progressive than one which does the opposite. This means, among other things, clarity and brevity, and efforts to avoid jargon, which is anti-language. Anti-language is language created to exclude outsiders from understanding. It can have positive uses, for instance Polari, the GSM argot, was effective in preventing homophobic persecution in Britain in the mid-twentieth century and possibly before. As someone who is very interested in language, I have a strong affection for jargon and anti-language which is possibly unhelpful if I actually mean to communicate. Knowledge is power. That means that power-sharing involves effective communication of practically applicable information. There are limits to this, for instance avoiding jargon can interfere with memory and strain attention span because more words may be needed to get the same point across and a jargon word which aims to lasso a bit of reality and refer to it can be a very helpful shortcut here. I realise I don’t communicate well, and that if I was signing, I’d be signing towards myself a lot of the time. It’s less obvious that I’m doing this in writing, but it’s still going on. This is in a sense all mirror-writing, because I’m holding the page up and writing for my own sake, and it’s reversed for the reader. Nonetheless I do want to communicate effectively.
People who didn’t know me before the 1990s probably don’t realise this, but it wasn’t always this bad. It was mainly postgraduate work which led me to use language in this way. Before that, I was even able to edit other people’s work for clarity and brevity. The kind of language used in particular by French-language philosophers amounts to an anti-language. Jacques Lacan is a notorious example of this. “The less you understand, the more you listen” was one of his dicta. His aim was apparently to generate a mystical-like meaning in the listener or reader rather than to be understood. I wouldn’t say this attitude is unconnected to his emotionally abusive approach to “therapy”, and it’s not to be emulated. It’s a disease, an attempt to fiddle while Rome burns which is rife in critical theory, and it needs to stop. Anyway, this is the source of my own obscurantism, and I wish it would go away.
When I’ve written on such subjects as Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt, climate change denial or climate change itself, it’s an attempt at factual writing, but the question arises in my mind as to whether this is in fact the best approach. Although knowledge is indeed power, it feels like there’s a sense in which using information in this way is playing the same game as one’s opponents. I still feel there’s a place for it. The question is whether it’s my place. I’m expressing all this stuff, communicating all this information, but that’s informative rather than engaging writing and something I constantly struggle unsuccessfully against doing. It’s informative rather than engaging, which I struggle endlessly but unsuccessfully against doing. I would much prefer to engage my readers’ feelings than tell them about stuff, or show them stuff.
This brings me to the thorny issue of women-only shortlists. I am now a member of the Labour Party, and of course I’m trans. I believe it’s vital that Labour win the next election, and also that politics become “feminised”. The quotes around that word are about the fact that it needn’t be labelled that way. I want political debate, such as goes on to decide law in Parliament and elsewhere, to be a different kind of conversation, using a different approach to language, and I believe that in order for this to happen, trans women need to be excluded from women-only shortlists unless they’re using language in a less typically masculine way. But they’re not. I’ve taken extensive passages authored by trans women and put them through the Gender Guesser algorithm. Every one showed up as having male authorship. Likewise, I’ve taken ten passages by non-gender conformist cis women such as Germaine Greer and done the same. They all came out as female. Whereas the accuracy is only sixty percent, the chances of this being a mistake multiply each time, thereby reducing the probability of this being so. By the time it’s happened ten times in a row, the probability of each being by chance is about one in a thousand, on each side. Multiplied together, it’s one in a million.
To defuse this from a debate about trans issues, look at it this way. We desperately need politics to be based on a different kind of interaction and communication than it is, and to have people with diverse experience in Parliament. Assuming that trans women on women-only shortlists got elected, which is an unwarranted assumption, the fact that we tend to use language in the same way as a typical man strongly suggests to me that this would lead to it being politics as usual. For this reason, unless you’re right wing in which case it serves your needs well that non-Labour candidates are likely to win in elections with trans women as Labour candidates, it’s a politically conservative move to allow people who use language in that way onto women-only shortlists. There are several other good reasons for doing so too. However, rather than basing it on gender identity, it could be based on analysis of language use. It would be a politically expedient move to dodge the gender issue, but it would still have the same result.
Getting back to the subject of this blog, the reason I’ve gone quiet is similar to the incident, which you may remember, of when I started a home ed wiki, put a lot of effort into producing material, then realised nobody else had contributed and deleted everything. There needs to be diversity in such things. I say stuff, but other people are remaining silent. Maybe they should start saying things, because then I will have permission to express myself, but as it stands I’m very reluctant to do so, which is a shame because I still believe that what I want to communicate is important. Recent experience has shown me that a heck of a lot of people are poorly-informed and have opinions which are quite clearly spurious, but continue under the impression that they know stuff in a manner which endangers the survival of the species and the well-being of themselves and others. But I don’t feel right about communicating this unless other people are also making a contribution. So for now, I’m saying nothing.