Tuesday, June 28, 2011

When Distinctions Damage (and when they do some good)

It is impossible, then, that 'being a man' should mean precisely 'not being a man', if 'man' not only signifies something about one subject but also has one significance. ....
In the context of Aristotle's traditional logic, this is a remarkably precise statement of the law of excluded middle, P ∨ ¬P.
      --an excerpt from the wikipedia entry on the Law of the Excluded Middle

In these statements [that Aristotle has written in his various treatises,] the superior valuation of man over woman is explicitly stated. However, it is also present in the theory of contraries and in other aspects of Aristotle’s thought about sex identity. Aristotle stands out from his predecessors in that he gave a complete rationale for his theory of sex polarity. He developed reasons and arguments for the philosophically significant differentiation of the sexes and for the superiority of man over woman. Therefore, he is correctly identified as the founder of the sex polarity position. . . . [H]e also laid the groundwork for another theory of sex identity in his philosophy of definition.
      --an excerpt from Sister Prudence Allen's book, The Concept of Woman: The Aristotelian Revolution 750 Bc-Ad 1250

This is a tough post for me to write, for some personal reasons.  It may be a difficult post for you to read, because I may not be very clear.  It's about language, and the ways we use it.  I'm trying to represent fairly what we bloggers say and how we come across when saying what we say.  How that may damage, or how it may do some good.  (If I've misrepresented anything you've said, then I'm sorry.  Readers should find links back to the contexts from which I've lifted a few quotes of fellow bloggers.)

Well, here goes.

Aristotle is alive around the blogosphere. At least the sort of logic he used to denigrate women and others is alive and well. It's almost as if bloggers making distinctions the way Aristotle did are afraid.  It seems they're afraid that if they don't differentiate sharply then they will not be able to have any sort of discernment or judgment at all.

But the real distinction, the good one we'd do well to make, is this one:
the differentiation between 
(1) our own human language that is often good and sloppy and imprecise and sometimes playful and is embodied and yet still allows us to see difference and even to celebrate all kinds of differences

(2) Aristotle's logic that would separate the Other from oneself, logic that invariably and inherently puts oneself above that Other in some sort of hierarchical Nature, logic that would damage the Other or must view her already as naturally damaged.
Here are 3 examples:

example 1 

In his post "Spoken style correction: the iPeeve™," Mark Liberman does some good by allowing himself to be "inspired by Erin Gloria Ryan" in her confessions of using the filler like in her speech.  But Mark also really does some good by actually distinguishing Erin's more limited conclusions from his own.  He can, for example, question what she only presumes:  "whether vernacular like is genuinely female-associated," and then he can ask "the broader question of whether there's a female speech style characterized by features that weaken assertions."

However, then Mark sets himself above Erin by differentiating in a way that could damage his blog readers' perceptions of the way she speaks.  He suggests that her "incessant repetition of a low-information-content filler is annoying to listeners and should be avoided."  Yes, I know he goes on to generalize beyond Erin's own confession to say - like a logical prescriptivist would - that absolutely all of the following "should be avoided":  "like" or "literally" or "you know" or just plain "uh."  See how this prescription differentiates?  How it sets one sort of English speaker above the others.  Mark starts to sound like the logical prescriptivist Aristotle, who insisted that ambiguities "should be avoided" or else they'll make a lousy speaker.  What's really not so good is that Mark can't even follow his own prescription for the language that not good speakers "should" avoid.  In the very blogpost where he says fillers should be avoided, Mark himself fails to avoid using a filler.  He writes the filler "well"; he writes it and doesn't avoid it.  He writes the filler "well" as if he's talking:  "What am I talking about?," he asks in writing.  Then he says, pausing with his filler:  "Well, ..."  In kind reply to my comment pointing this out, Mark further differentiates the Nature of things; he says in red font:  "Sentence-initial well is what's generally called a "discourse marker" — it wouldn't become a "verbal tic" unless it was over-used."  Notice, it's NOT a "filler" or "verbal tic" when four differentiations can be made:  (a) "well" is "sentence-initial"; (b) someone writes a wikipedia article and calls "well" a "discourse marker"; and (c) until and unless "well" is "over-used" like "Ms. Ryan's" like is so overused; and (d) until and unless the speaker or writer like "Ms. Ryan" confesses to having "her (self-)conscious reaction" to using "well," a reaction, by the way, "[that] is ... quite negative."  And so notice, differentiate, how differently Mark uses his language from how Erin uses hers.

In summary, Mark makes some good distinctions after being inspired by Erin's blogpost.  Then he continues on to do some damage by differentiating the various differences between proper speech, in the way he uses it, and NOT proper speech that "should be avoided," in the way that she uses it.

example 2

In her post, "Sunday Superlatives: 6/26/2011," Rachel Held Evans does some good by differentiating some of the best blogposts she's read, on the one hand, from some bad blogposts, on the otherhand.  For example, Rachel sees how "spot-on" Jamie the Very Worst Missionary is with her post, “Human, Like Jesus,” (in which Jamie differentiates between people who tend to run down being human, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, people who tend more to go with the Jesus kind of humanity, i.e., "our humanity that compels us to treat others with kindness and respect").  Likewise, Rachel sees the "best argument" in Daniel Kirk's post, “Gay Marriage in New York” (in which Daniel differentiates between the state being in the marriage business, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the church NOT being in this business).  Furthermore, Rachel sees as "most provocative" Caryn Rivadeneira's post, “What Christians Can Respect About Slutwalks” (in which Caryn differentiates, on the one hand, the "horrific" thing that a male police officer in Toronto said from the more honorable protests by slutwalkers, on the other hand).  And then Rachel even does good by differentiating the bad:  Rachel calls "Most Un-Cool (...and not in a good way)" Karen Swallow's post “An Open Letter to Donald Miller” (since Karen differentiates how Donald Miller and how she Karen would make a list of qualities in a fianc(é)e in some Christianly way, on the one hand, and how Donald's actual fiancée has so differently made her list, on the other hand, in a not so Christianly way, i.e., in a way that "doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for God to bring a partner who can meet needs we don’t even know we have, needs God knows more intimately than we or our spouses can ever know").

However, then Rachel seems to talk about Karen by differentiating in a way that could damage Karen's blog readers' perceptions of the way she speaks.  Rachel says of Karen's blogpost:  "Unsolicited marriage advice from a complete strange in the form of 'open letter' = not cool."  And we all wonder if we can easily differentiate Rachel's unsolicited statement here about Karen's unsolicited one.  Who is above the other?  Who can call somebody's blogpost "cool" or "not cool" if the one is differentiating herself from the other but does the very same sort of differentiating as the other?  It's sort of confusing.  But the subtleties here are what can damage the Other.

And so let's look at what the ostensibly "cooler" (as if in a "good" way) bloggers do as "Christians" differentiated from the Others.  Daniel, for example, writes:  "It’s difficult for Christians to imagine a world where we are truly in the minority and subject to the power of people with alternative religious convictions."  And he adds, "As Christians, we need to learn how to hold our own religious views while seeking liberty and justice for all–not just those who happen to believe as we do."  And his clear differentiations are between "Christians we" vs. Others "truly in the minority" who cannot "believe as we do" because they're NOT Christians maybe gays - as if these are mutually exclusive categories with the middle excluded.  Isn't it damaging to find yourself without a real category, if you are Christian and gay or are Christian and some other minority or are Christian and yet still not necessarily sharing all the beliefs like Daniel's Christians do?  Similarly, Caryn says:  "While we can debate the method of SlutWalks, Christians should agree on their purpose. Christians should be leading the marches against violence toward women."  Can one not be a Christian and a feminist and also a SlutWalker?  Or is the only thing "Christians" can share with "their" debatable feminist method "their [SlutWalk] purpose"?  Can we all see how this sort of us NOT them differentiation doesn't allow people to be who they are or who they're becoming, as if one category of religious person is above the Others they're trying to "love" or at least somehow to agree with?  Doesn't the absolute differentiation damage?

example 3

Now let me point the finger at me.   I'll keep it short, but you'll have links if you want it long.   At this blogpost, I commented about two of my fellow bloggers in disagreement:  "I’m thinking that there are already two clear disagreements to note and that our seeing these differences clearly shouldn’t hurt anybody."  I was really hoping to do some good in differentiating, at least not to do damage.

However, it's clear there's been damage done late in a related conversation at a related blogpost here.  One of the conversants quotes me and says:  "Well, I don’t know about the 'not hurting' part. Of course it hurts. But ... "  Oops!  Suddenly I find myself perhaps doing not good but damage by using logic that separates instead of human language that appreciates difference.

Do you see the difference?  Can we appreciate differences in Others as we all talk, and change, and grow up a bit?  These are some of my questions this week as I listen in on and participate in blog talk and differentiations.

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