Saying No: A Quick Linguistic Take

In observing the last several months of public discourse about sexual violence in the wake of the allegations against several powerful Hollywood men, I am both heartened and incredibly frustrated by the way this conversation is happening. It is, for me, positive to see the spaces being created for people to articulate the big and small ramifications of male dominance, rape culture, and gendered economic inequality. The structure of sexual violence is not one in which every attack is equally vicious or harmful, it is one in which there are thousands of constant paper cuts coexisting with just-say-nolife-threatening stab wounds. It is a world where the ability to say ‘no’ to powerful men is undermined not just through their use of physical force or economic coercion, but also through repeated, minor dismissals of our wishes, our pleasure, our consent.

Fast forward to this week, when a woman using the pseudonym Grace came forward with a story about a “bad date” with comedian Aziz Ansari. This story has quickly become the most hotly debated sexual encounter of 2018, as countless people are writing think-pieces about the nature of consent, digging in to the details of the interaction as Grace describes it, considering Ansari’s apology, and offering their conclusions about whether this was criminal, whether it was simply terrible, or whether Grace is just completely over-reacting. Here are a handful of the more well-done pieces on the topic:

But then there is a piece in the New York (won’t link it, sorrynotsorry) entitled “Aziz Ansari is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind-Reader”, and plenty of people are on board with that basic notion.

Here’s the thing – sexual encounters are communicative encounters, and the giving of consent is a socially rooted linguistic/communicative act. The debate about this encounter is fundamentally one about how language, meaning, and understanding work. An important ideological position is being staked out in the NYT article, and it’s one that articulates concepts ‘consent’ and ‘intent’ as properties within the various parties’ minds. Since that is their locus, we cannot possibly access through observation of their actions. How was Ansari supposed to recognize her lack of consent, the reasoning goes, if her communication was only nonverbal, if she was merely hesitating rather than outright shouting, if she didn’t get around to saying ‘no’ until after several rounds of deflection?

However, as all of the sociolinguists and linguistic anthropologists I follow on social media have been observing, this interaction reflects very common patterns used in communicating refusals. Conversation analysts Celia Kitzinger and Hannah Frith published an excellent article on this way back in 1999. Kitzinger and Frith illustrate the way that politeness expectations dictate our expression of refusal, and note that we are very strongly socialized against giving a hard no – and further, that men and women alike are, in general, perfectly capable of recognizing refusals that are communicated through deflection, hesitation, subject changes, and mitigation. We generally don’t even imagine that people wouldn’t be able to see this…except when the interaction in question is one of the most intimate possible.

Think of the last time someone invited you to do something you really didn’t want to do. Did you say “NO!” and run in the opposite direction? Or did you say “I’m busy that night”? Or maybe you gave an explanation, like “I actually really hate mountain climbing, but thanks for the invite!” What if someone offers you a taste of food that they clearly love, but you think looks like warmed up snotballs? Do you say “OH HELL NO”? Or do you hesitate, move your face away, give a bit of a grimace, and shake your head?It’s true, maybe your answer to these questions is that you jump straight to the no. And it’s worth thinking about what makes you able to do that – if you’re in a power position, it’s somewhat easier to say “no” directly, than if you’re not. If you ask your boss for a raise, they have more ability (and actual training, in many cases) to say “absolutely not” in a direct way than you have if said boss comes to you and asks you if you can take on an additional work task. So you can also think about the last time you invited someone over for a party – if their answer was ‘maybe’, you were probably considering any number of other aspects of how they said it (intonation, eye gaze, posture, other added comments) in figuring out whether they meant “I really want to but I have to check my work schedule” or “Don’t actually count on it”.

My point here is, there is empirical linguistic evidence about how refusals work in a number of different contexts, and there is additional empirical anthropological work examining how meta-discourses about our ability to interpret different forms of communication can either reproduce or reconfigure relations of social power. My frustration, then, is twofold: first, that these powerful and dangerous ideologies about consent and its elusive, gray nature are still circulating in high-profile contexts as well as in general discourse, and second, that I have seen almost no engagement with work on the linguistics of refusal and consent in any of the discussions. This is an area where our expertise is highly relevant and easily accessible (in the sense that the information presented is generally not hidden behind jargon and complex social theory), so it’s frustrating to see journalistic commentary fail to use the evidence provided to support the arguments they are making. I know linguists and linguistic anthropologists are making these points on their blogs and social media feeds, but they don’t seem (to me) to be cracking the mainstream discourse.

There’s more to unpack here about, again, the recognition of expertise and validation of different forms of empirical research, which I’ll just file away as a side point. For now, I’ll sum up – refusals are always complex linguistic acts, and we use a ton of contextual cues to identify them, because they’re a highly socially regulated territory. This doesn’t mean consent falls into so-called ‘gray areas’ or that we require mind-reading abilities to identify anything other than a direct ‘no’. It means we have a ton of skills around this, the evidence from linguistic research demonstrates our ability to navigate these acts, and we need to think about claims not to recognize refusals in sexual encounters as deliberate acts that go against all social training, rather than as accidents and natural misinterpretations.

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Do Better CBC! Thoughts on “Ice Bridge”

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Dammit CBC! You are better than this ffs.

Ok so I’m not the first anthropologist/archaeologist/geneticist/scientist to write about this extremely problematic episode of The Nature of Things but I do want to use this platform to reinforce some key critiques, elevate some important voices, and to SHAME CBC (and all media outlets producing pseudoscience especially pseudoarchaeology) into doing better.

A disclaimer: I didn’t watch it. I probably won’t. I can forgive shows that are meant to be entertaining (though this previous post demonstrates that my leniency towards misrepresentation of science is limited) but I cannot forgive shows that intentionally disregard critiques and concerns of the scientists they are engaging as experts and distort evidence to fit failed, problematic, racist, colonial ideas, and theories.

Here is a brief summary of some excellent critiques and discussions:

  • This excellent article captures not just the problem of poor representation of Indigenous perspectives, which are diverse and not singular, but also how this model and narrative of the past is used to “de-legitimize Native Americans’ connections to their own history”.

  • This twitter thread by one of the experts CBC used for this documentary, Dr. Jennifer Raff, and this blog post outline the evidence (archaeological, genetic) that overwhelmingly disproves the main arguments used to support the model.

  • Other archaeologists tweeted about issues relating to problems with giving outdated, pseudoscientific theories authority, and highlighted the colonial history and contemporary racist uses of this model:

During my first year at MacEwan I did have a student who did an independent research project on the Solutrean Hypothesis. They were very interested in why this hypothesis was usually only briefly mentioned as a disproved hypothesis and glossed over, so they approached me about looking more in-depth at the theory and the data used in support and against it. I said sure and they produced a solid poster about it with columns showing the evidence and arguments used in support and against it, and in which they rightfully concluded that it is not a well supported theory. But in retrospect I failed this student. I didn’t engage them in the broader historic and contemporary context of this theory; I didn’t challenge them to consider how it is used to reinforce colonial, racist narratives of the past. So assisting them in seeking out and critically examine evidence and arguments, and to come to a conclusion on their own is not a failure but I could have done better too.

So if I can see the need, the importance, the requirement to do better, surely the CBC can too.

Literal Nonsense

In recent years, several groups in Eastern Canada, and especially Quebec, have been pushing for recognition as “Métis”, or otherwise Indigenous. Their claims rest on a number of ideas that are, at best, dubious, and that ultimately function to undermine, erode, and erase Indigenous rights and identities. Excellent work outlining both the ideology of “métissage” that they invoke and the anti-Indigenous ways in which they function has been published by scholars like Chris Andersen, Adam Gaudry, and Daryl Leroux (academic book by the former here, excellent and easily accessible article by the latter two here). As these authors illustrate, these “self-Indigenization” strategies ultimately support the agenda of a settler colonial state in which “Indigeneity” is a meaningless concept.

I have little to add to the work that these scholars have done on the historical and political complexities of these claims and their implications for Indigenous (and particularly Métis) people, but I do want to say a bit about the ways in which words and meaning are invoked in this discussion.

It was through Leroux’s Twitter feed that this (especially heinous) example came to my attention. In this case, the leader of a white supremacist organization claims the label of “autochtone” (translated as “Aboriginal”) for himself because all it takes, in the “literal sense of the word”, is for you, personally, to have been born in the territory you wish to claim. This is, as Leroux and others make clear, a way of directly undermining the rights of Indigenous nations by rendering “autochtony” or Aboriginality something that essentially anyone can have access to. This also occurs through efforts to “prove” a shallow time depth for Indigenous presence in the Americas, a topic that Dr. Biittner dives into from the archaeological perspective in this post, and through discourses that situate Indigenous people as “just earlier settlers” in order to invalidate their positions.

In addition to dubious grasp of politics and history that these claims represent, they also draw on a view of language and meaning that is both flimsy and incredibly common in mainstream North American contexts – the idea that meaning is best determined by examining origins, etymology, and the breakdown of components of a word. Jane Hill refers to this as a “baptismal ideology” and shows, in her fantastic book The Everyday Language of White Racism, how it shapes a variety of positions in relation to the use of slurs (I unpack this a bit here). It emerges in slightly different ways here. The attempts to gain power of a particular form depend on enregistering a very specific definition of the words that are involved . “Métis” must be “directly” translated as ‘mixed’, so that Métis identity is not a political category, but rather one determined within white Euro-American biological categories. “Aboriginal” must be broken into its component parts to say that it is based on a personal – again, in contrast to a legal and political – ability to place oneself as an individual within the history of the land. Other borrowed words are allowed to undergo changes of meaning –  the story that the name “Canada” derives from a word meaning “village” does not cause anyone to object that it can’t be a real label for an entire nation, for example, so why are the Métis asked to be so beholden to etymology?

In making this claim, then, people are articulating a position on the politics of Indigeneity, and about the nature of language and the source of its meanings. And this latter element is remarkably prevalent, despite the fact that many who disagree with these political claims see it as transparently ridiculous when applied in these cases. In this example, it is further intriguing that the journalists translate the word for which the writer offers a “literal” definition (“autochtone) into English (as “Aboriginal”) and, in doing so, imply that his claim about literality and meaning transcends the linguistic boundaries. I would suggest that in translating and then uncritically repeating his claim, the authors of the newspaper article are doing even more work to assign authority to his view of how meaning works, and further revealing assumptions about some kind of permanent core to semantic connections that hold no matter what transformations happen in space and time. [Ed: What now? SS: Sorry. That’s probably more complex than I can manage for a blog post].

Mainstream dictionaries ultimately help to support this position, whether they want to or not, in the degree to which they refer to etymologies, origins, and first uses, which are then taken as markers of authoritative meaning. So, too, do linguists providing glosses of unfamiliar languages, where we love to show how we can work out a morphological puzzle and reveal how the word for ‘computer’ in some language is built out of words for, say, ‘brain+machine’. This is fun to see, but, especially as these linguistic stories are popularized for mainstream audiences, can lead to the perception that speakers of these languages perceive these objects in terms of those components, when in fact this is simply a widespread pattern of word formation.

You-keep-using-that-word“What a word really means” is a powerful rhetorical tool. The “literal” definition, often invoked by referring to “the” dictionary (a topic I looked at, along with Lavanya Murali Proctor and Michael Oman-Reagan, from another angle in this Sapiens article), by pointing to the “original” meaning, or by deconstructing the morphemes in a word, is something that North American English speakers believe in very strongly…when it suits them and upholds specific types of political beliefs. The word “literally” is a good example of this in and of itself, as many people insist that the movement to using it as, essentially, a qualifier, is the current crisis in the English language (but hint: think about the breakdown of the word “really” and ask yourself whether you always use it to describe that which is straightforwardly real).

The meaning of words (and expressions, and any number of other symbols) comes from a number of different places, and it’s difficult to pin down the notion of a single ‘true’ or authoritative meaning. What we can see well in these discussions isn’t necessarily the ‘true’ meaning of the words themselves, but in fact the beliefs that people hold about where that meaning comes from, and what they do both to the meaning of the words and their political implications by making those claims about meaning. It isn’t an accident that there is a relationship between these political positions and the perception that semantics must work in a particular way, that there is a ‘rational’ (read: rooted in white masculinist literate thought traditions) way of understanding ‘meaning’. Indigenous people and those who seek to support Indigenous rights are forced to argue not only about the political enactment of their rights, but about the very conceptual foundation of their existence, represented in the availability of terms that can describe the legal relationship that they have to the land on which they live.

I was pithy about it in my response to this tweet on Twitter, where I said “that’s not how words work”, but the point holds – this isn’t how meaning works. The so-called ‘literal’ meaning of a word is a construct, just as a legal, political, or yes, dictionary descriptive, definition of a word is a construct. The relationships of specific meaning, and the nature of meaning in general, is a highly political project, and it is one that right wing organizations like La Meute clearly understand as having power. Disrupting that power is necessary, and a lot more significant than simply “arguing semantics”.