Language: April 2007 Archives

Oxford Singular 'They'

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I was going to post this a week ago, but I didn't get around to it. Rick Mansfield found an occurrence of the singular 'they' in the Oxford American Dictionary.

If you're a pro-choice Republican running for president, by all means go ahead and try to downplay your pro-choice views in order to emphasize what unites Republicans. Feel free to try to make the case that pro-life Republicans should bracket that issue. You won't convince everyone, but I have no problem if you make the case.

But please don't try to use disingenuous rhetoric masked as an argument when you try to make your case. It's simply deceitful to pretend your opposition to laws against abortion is emphasizing "what we are for" rather than "what we are against" and that others' promotion of the inherent worth of the unborn is "what we are against" rather than "what we are for". Virtually any policy you approve of can be characterized in terms of being for something or against something, and Rudy Giuliani himself regularly characterizes his view on abortion as being against putting people in jail for having abortions, which is a disingenuous mischaracterization of the pro-life view to begin with, but even aside from that it's very much being against something.

Thanks to Nancy French for noticing this.

One more voice enters the fray to support the minority report that Don Imus' primary offense is against women, with his offense against blacks only secondary. Roland Martin (who it is worth recognizing is black) argues that, while the nappy-haired qualifier restricted Imus' comment to black women, it's very clear that calling them hos made it an attack on women.

I wouldn't say some of what he says, and I'd word some more of it very differently than he does. I think you could be critical of Hillary Clinton as an opportunist without basing it on her violation of gender stereotypes that we'd prefer her to conform to. But I do think enough of the criticism she receives comes from what he's getting at. The same is true of Condi Rice. People can criticize her views or even slander her character without necessarily being sexist. After all, they do the same to other members of the Bush Administration, most of whom are not women. But sometimes it takes on a particular flavor with her in ways that you couldn't see if the attack were against a man. The same is true of Janet Reno. Just consider the SNL parodies of all three of these women, especially Will Ferrell's Reno.

Compare someone who refers to some black people (sex unspecified) as nappy-headed and someone who refers to some women (race unspecified) as hos. The former makes fun of someone's physical characteristics, deriding a distinctive characteristic of the appearance of black people. The latter invokes a double standard (men who are promiscuous have no similar negative term) and usually involves a moral judgment about sexual behavior based on evidence that often isn't closely (or isn't at all) tied to sexual behavior. It is a particular insult against women to take part in that game, regardless of whether the insult in a particular case is restricted to a particular sub-group of women, even if the context also insults that sub-group.

Both are immoral, but the second seems much worse to me. So when both are done together, why is it that people focus just on the former? Is it that we're just incapable of seeing an insult against black women as being an insult against women? Or is it that we've got a heightened sensibility toward seeing slights against black people that we don't have toward seeing slights against women? Or is it some combination of the two?

Don Imus' recent racist and misgynist comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team have gotten him suspended from his MSNBC morning show and the CBS radio network for two weeks. Two weeks? Forget the nappy-haired bit. How many people do you think could call some college students hos on a major cable news network and not be fired permanently on the spot? Not very many. All Imus gets is two weeks of presumably unpaid vacation. ABC and CBS are basically collaborating to let him get away with this with minimal impact on his career.

Isn't it interesting that the people who have been bearing the burden of responding to this are black people who have been offended by the racist connotations of his "nappy-haired hos" comment (and the more explicit epithet of his conversation partner)? Why aren't we hearing as much of a response from feminists about the misogyny of calling college women hos, even aside from the race issue? I wonder if it's got something to do with the fact that most feminist don't consider themselves-as-women insulted when it's only black women who have been spoken of this way. The lack of feminist response itself is an interesting example of hidden racism.

A friend of mine overheard some university students yesterday morning talking about this in Starbucks. They were actually defending Imus on the grounds that the people he was talking about really do have nappy hair. Even aside from the racial issues some might raise about such a statement (which I'm guessing people will disagree about), isn't it kind of silly to defend someone who called some people "nappy-haired hos" by saying they do have nappy hair? It's kind of like defending someone calling a Jewish person a "Jew-nosed liar" by saying that since the person really is Jewish then it sort of follows that they have a Jewish nose and then not even mentioning that they accused the person of lying too.

Update: I didn't hear about this today, but some are comparing this incident with a similar one in 2003 when Michael Savage called someone a Sodomite and wished he'd get AIDS and die. MSNBC fired him on the spot. Now wishing someone's death on the air is much worse than what Imus said, but does one justify immediate firing and the other just a two-week vacation'? I have no idea if this piece is trustworthy, but it suggests that Imus is just too connected to influential people for this to affect him long-term.

Update 2: Apparently MSNBC has fired him now. See the comments. I'm curious how they're going to spin their change of mind. They very clearly had not wanted to do that and were hoping a slap on the wrist would pacify any outrage.


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Someone arrived at my blog via the following search this morning: 

is +"gal" a derogatory term

Excellent question. If a derogatory term requires that the speaker intends it to have a negative connotation, I don't think it's derogatory. And I do think that's what it means to be derogatory. But I've never been comfortable with the term. It's always seemed like a diminutive. I understand that it's intended to be a substitute for 'girl' to refer to people who are supposed to be old enough that 'girl' feels inappropriate but who aren't quite women yet. Or at least that's the intent. There's never any negative intent with this word as far as I've ever known, but something about it just rubs me the wrong way.



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