Showing posts with label culture. Show all posts
Showing posts with label culture. Show all posts

Saturday 15 August 2020

Should the Washington Redskins Be Renamed the Washington Rednecks?

The Washington Redskins' name controversy

Wikipedians have outdone themselves in outlining the multiple aspects and perspectives of the Washington Redskins' name controversy. Personally, I have always interpreted the expression "redskin" as a racist slur. However, despite complaints, protests and a number of court cases, "Redskins" has survived as the name of the Washington NFL team since 1933. Justification and defense of the name include the fact that some Native Americans support its use and even use it themselves as an object of pride. Additionally, the expression's origins are etymologically neutral and only took on negative connotations from the way the locution has been used.


How language evolves

As I've pointed out elsewhere, in the evolution of language, usage trumps definitions and origins. How a word gets used eventually becomes its meaning. "Redskin," particularly as it has been dominantly used in American culture, is an intentional disparagement. Nonetheless, we might ask if "redskin" could be reappropriated as have other insulting epithets over the years. For example, in the art world, the word "impressionist" was understood as a criticism until the painters to whom the disparagement was applied--Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cézanne, Matisse--began to describe themselves as impressionists. Similarly, words like "Yankee," "Jesuit," "Protestant," and "Suffragette" were originally intended as insults but have been reappropriated as labels to be proud of. In more recent times, members of the LGBT community have begun to self-describe as "queer" and "dyke." Even "gay pride" would have, not so long ago, seemed a contradiction in terms--which, of course, is why the expression exists and is paraded today.

Red skins and black face

As with Blackface (see Blackface and Best Evidence), there is nothing inherently immoral about the expression "redskin." The locution is racist because it has a long history of derogatory usage, and the insult has gone hand-in-hand with the mistreatment and genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas.

Cancel culture

The first defense of "Redskins" to appear in my inbox was a video of a Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist  who described the call to change the name as "cancel culture."  Merriam-Webster traces the origin of the expression "cancel culture" to "#MeToo and other movements."  It seems impossible not to notice that the people decrying "cancel culture" are typically privileged communicators:  celebrities, office-holding politicians,  journalists in the mainstream media, established authors, the already famous and affluent in general.  As my guru has pointed out to me, there is a difference between "free" speech and "privileged" speech.  Being a blogger for over seven years now and having written 104 posts which have been viewed 50579 times, I recognize that I am no competition for the Kardasians nor, at the other end of the spectrum, for Desmond Cole who reports that for two of his pieces as a freelance journalist writing for the Toronto Star: "each one had earned well over fifty thousand views"  (Cole, Desmond. The Skin We're In [p. 73]. Doubleday Canada. Kindle Edition).  In short, I appreciate the difference between "free" speech and "privileged" speech.

If you already enjoy some notoriety or you have the support network of a newspaper,  yours is a privileged position.  Whatever you do or say might put that privilege at risk.  Cole was eventually not employed by the Star (you can't be "fired" when you're a freelancer because you do not strictly speaking have a job) ostensibly for (overly?) actively supporting Black Lives Matter in Toronto.  Was his dismissal an example of "cancel culture"?   Or was it just a plain, old-fashioned case of being "let go," "your services are no longer required," "pack up your pencils," "here's your hat, what's your hurry!"?

Reductio ad absurdum

According to the Pulitzer laureate's reductio ad absurdum discourse, "cancel culture" is about hyper-sensitivity and alleged triggers. (Consider Do No Harm.) He goes on to suggest, ironically, that the name "Washington" should be changed because George Washington was a slave owner and a tobacco farmer. He might want to reconsider his irony (see Avoid Irony and What Is Irony?). In my country, Canada, the name and statues of our founding Prime Minister, John A. MacDonald, are under attack for his role in establishing residential schools and policies of assimilation of indigenous peoples.

The Washington Rednecks?

The Washington football team will eventually be renamed but no, the new name won't and shouldn't be the "Rednecks."  Such a switch would just be changing one racist epithet for another.  In fact, it could be rightly argued that the name "Washington Rednecks" would be a celebration of racism.  However, the question is an interesting thought experiment.  How many privileged white people would be happy with the choice of the name?  We need look no further than Jeff Foxworthy's early"redneck" jokes to get the gist of the expression's unflattering intentions. (As in:  "You might just be a redneck if you go to your family reunion to pick up women.")

However, the expression "redneck" (like "redskin") seems etymologically neutral.  A white farmer's red neck from a hard day working in the fields might even be considered an icon of pride.  Certainly, many white people have taken on the appellation as an object of pride.

People who are revolted by "cancel culture" and mocking of sensitivity seem to be showing signs of hyper-sensitivity themselves.  Whatever Washington's new name turns out to be, as my guru wisely advises, "It's always better to err on the side of empathy."


Apparently, the leading contender for the new name is the "DC Sentinels"--the same name used for the fictional NFL team in the movie The Replacements.

Sunday 16 February 2014

How to Make Love to a Logophile?

What does it mean when John gives Mary flowers?

For more than a dozen years, I taught an introductory literature course to 60 or so first-year undergraduates, 80% of whom were young women--a number of whom would typically report being interested in questions of love and romance.  Every year in the first class I described the following scenario and asked the class what word they would use to describe this young man’s actions.

John’s eyes always light up when Mary enters the room.  He always talks in a tender, flattering manner to her.  He takes her out to dinner and buys her flowers and small gifts. Etc. Etc.

What is the verb for when a man pursues a woman?

As I presented this hypothetical heterosexual scenario, I could feel Judith Butler and the gender police breathing down my neck, but bear with me. So what do we call what John is doing?  Over the years I noticed a shifting in the tenor of the answers.  The typical mid-90s answer was that he “was cruising,” “on the make,” “hitting on her” and, cutting to the chase, “trying to get laid.”  At the millennium the answers became strident:  “he’s a sexual predator,” and “it’s patriarchal oppression” and “hegemonic domination.”  In more recent years the pendulum swung back slightly and it was typical to hear reported that it’s not about him but them:  “they are friends with benefits” or “they’re dating” or “hooking up.”

Without "wooing" and "courtship" is romance dead?

As I called the room to order, I reminded my students of what they already knew: that the expressions they had given me did not include the correct verb for the scenario I had described.  When pressed, someone would eventually come up with the proper expression:  “to court.”  Eliciting the older and much more English verb “to woo,” even among students who claimed to have read Romeo and Juliet where the lexeme is used a half dozen times, was a much greater challenge.  I eventually asked my students when they had last used the expressions “to court” or “to woo” in conversation.  The point of my questions was to provoke philological reflection on the relationship between language and culture using an example that I knew mattered to a lot of them.  What does it mean that there are no current, earnest words for courtship?  Does this gap in the vernacular prove that romance is no longer part of our daily culture?  The number of advertisements I see for dating and match-making companies and web sites tell me that there is a void in the culture which consumer capitalism has been moving rapidly and vigorously to fill. 

"Making love" before 1920 and after

The scenario I have described used to be called “making love.”  Thanks to Edith Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence, we can now date the shift in meaning to what Wharton called the “French sense” of the expression (i.e., having sex) to just before 1920 in the USA.  We might also associate this American shift of mores with the automobile, which F. Scott Fitzgerald likened, in his famous essay on the 1920s, to a bedroom on wheels.

"Making love" in the 19th century

It would be perfectly reasonable for us to imagine a conversation between two men in the 19th century in which one mentions fairly casually to the other, “I noticed you making love to my sister last night.”  Modern readers are likely to misinterpret Algernon’s meaning when he tells Jack, in The Importance of Being Earnest, “The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her, if she is pretty, and to someone else, if she is plain.” Not a very nice sentiment, but not quite as bad as it sounds. “To make love” in this context means to display the courtship rituals I have described above; it does not mean to copulate.

"The Rules" for making love

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates the earliest usage of “to court” meaning “to pay amorous attention or make love” as 1580.  The OED dates the Old English verb “to woo” as 1050.  Oddly, the OED describes “to woo” as “Now somewhat homely” but contradicts itself by adding “also poetic.”  (Much as we might love the OED--and I do--we should remember that the original version was significantly compiled by a homicidal maniac confined to a lunatic asylum.  See:  The Professor and the Madman.) “To court” is also a problematic expression because of its elitism since it explicitly refers to what goes on in the royal court and more specifically what went on in the court of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine where the rules of “courtly love” were first written.  The rest of us peasants and plebeians were to get by in whatever way we could, clubbing women over the heads in Neanderthal fashion and dragging them off to our caves I suppose.  I feel like the Grinch in saying so, but a lot of the behaviours which people today point to as evidence of “true love” are the remnants of the rules of “courtly love” codified in the 11th century under the supervision of Queen Eleanor and her daughter.  Over the last 30 years,  Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider have turned their version of The Rules of “courtly love” into a not-so-cottage industry.  

Making love to a logophile 

Oh yes, the answer to the question posed in the title of this post:  a “logophile” is a lover of words, so the answer is almost redundant-- with words!

Sunday 23 June 2013

Do No Harm Part III: Don’t Joke about the Bible

Do Not presume

I hope I have made it clear that I have not lived up to my own recommendation that teachers should avoid irony.  The best I have been able to do, and I suspect this will be true for most teachers, is to be careful and to be wary of the pitfalls of irony.  In recent years I saw a dramatic increase in the multicultural mix in my classes:  students from Africa, the Caribbean, the former Yugoslavia, Iran, China, Japan and various Arab countries.   Over the years, I had learned from lecturing on feminism and what used to be called “women’s liberation” not to presume to know what individual women want or, worse still, should want.  Even though, I was supposed to be the expert on “culture” and “intercultural communication,” I think I knew enough not to presume that I understood my students' lives, and to recognize that I had a lot to learn from them.  In general, I was in awe of their openness and resilience.  H.G. Wells’ short story “The Country of the Blind” provided a perfect framework for discussing the challenges of respecting, adopting, adapting to and negotiating new cultures. I think I did alright with these students.  The group of students which proved the greatest challenge for me and who were increasingly present in my classes in the new millennium were what I would describe in general terms as “evangelical Christians.”

On Being "born again through Jesus"

A professor teaching at a university in Alabama once told me that he could not invite students to say anything personal in their essays.  As he explained, if there were 50 students in the class, he would get 45 essays describing “how I was born again through Jesus.”  The proportions I faced were about the reverse; around 10% of students in my courses would express Christian convictions if I invited them to express personal opinions as well as knowledge of literature and theory in their essays.  The presence of evangelical Christians in my classes was the opposite of a problem.  They were typically among the nicest students in the room:  they were punctual, attentive, polite, respectful, typically sat at the front of the room, participated actively and asked questions.  You can’t argue with those kinds of behaviours. 

Why question when God is the answer to everything?

Nonetheless I was compelled to announce in my classes that while I was aware and respectful of the psychological comfort which a belief in God and religious faith might afford individuals, the context of the courses I gave was science, rationality and reason. I typically explained to students that Nietzsche’s aphorism “God is dead,” which had taken hold in the 20th century, was a pithier version of the physicist Laplace’s much earlier declaration that “God is a hypothesis of which the world no longer has need.”  We created God (and gods) because we needed answers to so many questions about the world we found ourselves living in.  As science began to answer these questions, the need for God as an answer to these questions faded.    The disadvantage of a firm belief in God and of religious faith dominating our thinking is the same reason we call the Middle Ages the Dark Ages and the Age of Reason which followed the Enlightenment:  God can be a quick and easy answer to every question  and consequently slow down if not outright prohibit rational and scientific inquiry.  Why go through the hard work of thinking if you have a ready-made answer to every question?  God did it!  It is so because God wants it to be. 

How to talk about the Bible?

This was the warning I issued to students:  don’t use God to avoid the hard work of thinking through an issue.  This caveat was accepted with varying degrees of willingness, but where I was eventually taken to task was on how I talked about the Bible.  My comeuppance came in the form of a mature and able student, a mother of adolescent children, who was planning to open a religious-based school with her husband after graduation.  The student made an appointment with me to discuss very seriously (“complain about” would be an accurate locution but one she avoided using) the way I talked about the Bible. 

The Bible is a book worth reading

Her concern was that I was discouraging students from reading the Bible.  This was a contention that I took very seriously.  In the first place, I counted myself among a relatively small number of professors in my field who required students to read parts of the Bible as a prerequisite to the study of literature.  More importantly, I regularly informed students that, although it did not sound particularly elevated or refined, what I taught was reading. (Although the titles used to describe what I taught kept changing—English, English Studies, Rhetoric, Comparative Literature, Cultural Studies—the skill set I was passing on and encouraging students to develop remained the same: reading and writing.  I must confess that my secret desire has long been to be known as a “philologist,” which not only has a high sounding tone but fairly accurately described what I researched and taught.)  While I thought she was wrong to think that I discouraged students from reading the Bible, she gave me pause to reconsider the ironic tone with which I exposed the Bible to students.

Adam and Eve; Pandor and Epimetheus

I typically began an introductory course comparing the Biblical story of Adam and Eve with the Greek myth of Pandora and Epimetheus, noting for example how women consistently get the blame for introducing evil into the world. Do these stories prove that this is the way women are?  Or maybe what explains the stories is that they were written by men.  However, what got my student on my case came much later.  To introduce Shakespeare, I had to explain the Elizabethan Age, which of course meant introducing Elizabeth, which in turn meant explaining Henry VIII and at least the first two of his many wives, Catherine of Aragon and Elizabeth’s mother, Henry’s mistress and second wife, Anne Boleyn.    

Henry VIII, Deuteronomy and Leviticus

Henry’s problems began with the Bible.  When Henry’s older brother Arthur, the heir apparent, died, political exigencies dictated that Henry marry Catherine of Aragon, his brother’s widow, to maintain an alliance with Spain.  Henry was worried that marrying his sister-in-law might be incest.  Such moral dilemmas were of course resolved by reference to the Bible.  Luckily for the political wonks of the time, the Bible seemed quite clear, even insistent on the subject:

Deuteronomy 25:5   If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband unto her.

The Bible indicated not only that Henry could marry his sister-in-law, but that he must marry her.

However, as time wore on and Catherine failed to produce a male heir (yes, despite biology, women always get the blame!) and things were getting cozy (for now) with Anne Boleyn, Henry had a second look at the Bible.  This time Leviticus confirmed his original suspicions and gave him grounds for divorce.  Sleeping with your wife’s brother was incest.

Leviticus 20: 21 And if a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother's nakedness; they shall be childless.

As you can probably tell already, my tone in discussing the Bible was not as serious and reverent as many people might think it should be.  Nonetheless, up to this point, I think I was on fairly solid academic and pedagogical ground, but then I strayed into a number of irresistible tangents that were not directly relevant to my lecture on Shakespeare and his times.

Leviticus is that part of the Bible which explicitly condemns homosexuality. 

20: 13 If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

I’m not sure how people who claim to read the Bible literally, as the word of God, can square this pronouncement with contemporary laws against hate crimes.  As they read this proscription, I encouraged students to put it in context, noting, for example, that Leviticus commands that children who curse their parents be put to death.  I also found myself asking students if they agreed with Leviticus that brother and sister who saw each other naked or husband and wife who had sex during a menstrual period should be expelled from the community.  I should have stopped there, but I didn’t.

Levitcus also commands that:

20: 15 [. . .] if a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death: and ye shall slay the beast.

Sometimes the Bible made me laugh and I shared the joke

No matter what your sexual morality, it seemed unfair, to me, to kill the animal.  (Okay, definitely a tongue-in-cheek observation.) At the same time, I couldn’t help noticing that among these numerous, detailed rules governing sexual behaviour there was nothing against lesbianism.  (At last, one small advantage in being woman!) I should have stopped there, but I didn’t.

Deuteronomy 25 outlines a scenario that is oddly specific.  I would imagine it to be quite an anomalous situation, but Deuteronomy treats it as a regular occurrence which must be governed by a specific law.  Imagine two men are fighting, and you are the wife of the man who is losing.  Seeing that your husband is about to be killed, you enter the fray and grab your husband’s attacker by the testicles to subdue him.  (I’m not making this up.  It’s in the Bible.)  The question is:  what should happen to you, the wife who saved her husband?  Deuternomy’s answer is that you should have your hand cut off, the one you used to grab the attacker’s gonads.

Here’s the exact wording from Deutoronomy:

11When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one draweth near for to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets:

12Then thou shalt cut off her hand, thine eye shall not pity her.

My Student was right to complain

My student was right to complain that I had no particular reason to draw attention to this passage (beyond the fact that it had drawn my attention).  It seemed clear to me that this passage was not “the word of God,” but I could imagine it having been written by some man who had once had his gonads savaged by the wife of some guy he was putting the boots to (make that “sandals”). (Despite postmodern gibberish about “the death of the author,” it is always useful to consider who the author might have been as you attempt to fathom the meaning of a text.)

And yet I was right to question the Bible as a guide to modern morality

To my surprise when my student had discussed the problem with her pastor, I had to agree with what she reported his opinion to be.  The Bible was written by relatively pragmatic individuals, with a narrow range of experience, dealing with the specific, down-to-earth problems of their tribal group or community.  I couldn’t agree more, but I was left to wonder how evangelicals get from this reasonable observation to the idea that the Bible is “the word of God” and should be used to determine modern morality.

But Toning down the irony was the right thing to do

Nonetheless, I had to agree with my student that I should (and I did) tone down my irony in discussing the Bible and avoid lingering tangentially over Deuteronomy.  I think we reached an agreeable compromise and managed to maintain mutual respect.  The student chose to do at least one more course with me and when I met her a couple of weeks ago in the grocery store she suggested I might want to teach in the school she and her husband were setting up.  (Of course, now I have to wonder if she wasn't being ironic.)

What Does Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty Actually Say?

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