Recognizing the Language of Toxic Masculinity

It’s been a bad couple of days here in Canada, and especially for anyone with a connection to Toronto. Acts of violence such as the van attack that killed ten people and injured many more are always difficult to process. In this heavily mediated world, there is a rush to find explanations, there is often misinformation, and there is rampant speculation. As the dust is settling, it is becoming more apparent that Alek Minassian identified with what is called the “incel” (‘involuntary celibate’) movement, which is essentially a community of men who validate and amplify their resentments at the fact that women don’t want to have sex with them. There has been some discussion about a Facebook post, which was the primary indicator of Minassian’s membership in this community and the role that membership played in his violent attack, and whether it was in fact real. It is increasingly the consensus that it is, but regardless, even if it wasn’t, it’s worth talking about this particular community and its role in enabling and encouraging acts of violence, both large and small scale.

This Twitter thread by journalist Arshy Mann outlines the research that he has been doing about various types of masculine internet subcultures, including incels, which he identifies as “the most virulently misogynistic” (which…in a race that includes Men’s Rights Activists and Pick Up Artists and others, is not an easy prize to win). As that thread notes, people paying attention to these spheres have been saying for a long time that these communities are ones that we should be very concerned about. They are the petri dishes in which the violence of toxic masculinity is being mixed and allowed to grow. As (terrible) luck would have it, two of the students in my Language, Gender, & Sexuality class this semester did research projects related to this theme – this set of tumblr posts by Vega Ewanovich, directly about incel language and culture, and another essay by Dorian about 4chan more generally. I told both students their work was very relevant even before the events in Toronto took place, and I’m saddened to have been proven so right. But given the timeliness, I want to highlight some linguistic/anthropological points that are raised by these two students that we can use to better interpret this form of misogyny and violence.

  • First, the label. “Incel” is a term that was actually coined by a queer woman from Toronto in the ancient days of the internet (aka the mid 1990s). She had frustration and pain in her life about her loneliness, and she created a label in order to allow for the creation of a community of support around that. This is a powerful act – naming something can solidify a conglomerate of vague emotions, experiences, and practices into a comfortingly comprehensible thing. In ling anth terms we talk about this as ‘entextualization’, and it has a lot of power to enshrine and attach meanings to texts. This power is unclear though, as the story of this particular term shows – texts escape into the wild and it isn’t predictable how they will be picked up, used, and transformed by different speakers. The literal meaning of a term like “incel” can be either productively transformative (getting support and creating a network of understanding folks) or violently toxic (justifying and blaming others for one’s personal circumstances). Nothing in the language allows us to see how this will happen until it happens, but a detailed examination of the transformation of a term like this and its movement across contexts can tell us a lot about that particular brand of misogyny that is premised on male entitlement to women’s bodies.
  • The context in which this labeled identity develops is a meaningful one, and Dorian examined the broader world of 4chan based on the thematic idea of “no girls on the internet”. I found his framing to be fascinating because it allowed them to trace how contemporary examples of extreme toxicity (manifested in Minassian) are rooted in patterns that seem much more innocuous, like default masculinity. Basically, “no girls on the internet” refers to older text-based play where, because some users would create fake female identities in order to receive apparently “preferential treatment”, anyone identifying as a woman is probably lying (Ed: woooow layers to that concept, but I’ll let it go). Dorian offered an improved phrasing to say that, since there obviously are girls (or you know, women) on the internet, it’s actually more like everyone is “Assigned Male at Login”. 4chan, which does not require profiles, creates a heightened anonymity context, which further amplifies the dynamic of default masculinity. As we discussed in our class, “male only” spaces are often licensed as ones in which specific forms of masculinity are reinforced and transmitted linguistically (think “locker room talk”). 4chan becomes dominated by those users who not only see it as default/solely masculine, but also work to actively enact it as such, demanding that anyone who identifies as a woman “prove it” by posting a picture of her breasts. Anything this person says is to be responded to only in this manner – “Tits or GTFO” – until they either comply or leave. The process here is significant – there is a presumption of the default male online, which leads to the establishment of male-only online spaces, enacted in part through the routine sexual harassment of anyone who claims to be a woman, which then tap into common narratives of masculinity (including elements of sexual and social dominance, hostility to anything feminine, and lack of empathy/compassion), which are then used to situate and transform experiences of sexual/romantic rejection.
  • Vega’s post about the role of jargon in incel communities is a particularly useful one. Here, they discuss how we can see fractal recursivity at work in the classification of a fundamental divide between members of this community and outsiders (“normies”); this means that one category of experience (sexual rejection) is not only encoded as one part of a binary (rather than any kind of spectrum), it is also mapped on to binary distinctions in other aspects of character and life, so anything “normie” must be fundamentally wrong/incompatible with being “incel”. They further illustrate the role of authentication and the use of specific terms that work within this community of practice to socialize members into the expected attitudes, behaviours, and belief structures, specifically regarding hatred toward women and expectations about the possibility of love/relationships.
  • Dorian also spends some time discussing the implications of trans and non-binary gender identities in the 4chan environment, and it’s worth noting that all of this vile misogyny is premised on very strict adherence to the notion of binary, biologically stable sex and gender, as well as an apparently objective ‘attractiveness hierarchy’ of male and female traits. Dorian illustrates how the systematic denial and mockery of trans and nonbinary gender identities within these contexts is central to how “incels” and other 4chan users situate their experiences of gender and sexuality – non-binary identities destabilize their claims about “biological” foundations for sexual needs, as well as about the justifiability of violence, specifically against women who are failing to meet those needs.
  • The creation of the symbolic “God” of the incel movement in the person of a man who committed what was, until the last few days, the most obvious example of incel public violence is also significant. One point that I made in my comments to Vega about their work is that there is a tendency in the post to distinguish between the ‘real world’ and ‘the internet’, and I would push back against this, because the internet is a way in which real humans engage with other real humans using tools that shape the materiality of that interaction, but that don’t detach them from ‘reality’. And this is important. What we have here is a group of people who call themselves a movement. This means they aren’t forming a community to support each other, but rather to change the world. In these spaces, they socialize each other into how to behave, and they collectively construct their vision of an ideal world and ideal humans (men) within it. The creation of a hero is a powerful symbol to a movement, since of course it works to provide the exemplar of what community members should strive to be. Their hero – their unapologetically labeled ‘God’, chew on that – is someone who went on a public rampage and murdered people because of his anger at his “involuntary celibacy”. In this world, creating more of these instances is not just an unfortunate potential consequence, it’s the goal.

The online conversation over the last few days about this event has not been pretty. This is a compilation of some of the types of responses that are being posted as a result of news reports about Minassian’s apparent motivation for his rampage:

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There is another project entirely involved in examining the ways in which a killer like this is construed as the victim deserving of sympathy, and how suggested solutions to the problem include “government provided sexual relief”, as though it’s a welfare service. On Twitter, I noted, in light of not only this event but any number of others, that toxic masculinity is the biggest threat to public safety in North America (I’ll concede the possibility of hyperbole and would be willing to entertain a few other contenders for the “biggest” label, but it’s easily in the top 3). Responses from people I’ve never talked to before included both mockery and questioning of my mental health and the claim that in fact, “intersectional feminism” was the biggest threat because of the degree of “cultural damage” that it does. This idea is also reflected above – “a guy can’t win”, this is the “male version” of #MeToo.

We desperately need to talk about toxic masculinity, and I think examining the linguistic and social practices of so-called incels and other “manosphere” webspaces are vital aspects of this conversation. We also need to consider the ways in which non-group members take stances and position themselves in relation to these stories – who is construed as the victim, what solutions are advocated, whose voices are amplified and given authority in relation to these questions. I love that anthropology classes are giving my students some of the tools they need to think through these issues, but I hate that they are so tragically relevant.

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Student Guest Post: The Cat Kicks the Language Because it is Tired.

Shulist’s introduction: The following is a guest post by my student, Harry dal Bello, who was brave enough to work on constructing a language with me as an independent study project. The story behind this is that last year, after seeing the ConLanging documentary (which, as my review here noted, I loved), I was inspired to think about ways to use language creation in my teaching (and for fun, but I’ve had less time for fun lately).

Enter Harry. Harry has, from the first day of my introduction to linguistic anthropology class, had a passion for the topic, and in September, will be entering a graduate program at my own alma mater, the University of Western Ontario. Given that MacEwan has no courses in linguistics proper beyond the first year level, Harry lamented that he hadn’t had a chance to learn more about grammatical description and other key elements. And here was my guinea pig – an opportunity to use the ConLang creation process as a way to teach a lot about language in a relatively short period of time and a fun way. 

On the whole, it turns out it worked fairly well. We definitely had fun. We formed an informal “ConLang club”, and a few interested students joined us, and met weekly so that I could give a very quick lesson about different linguistic concepts – how do nouns work, what is agreement, what is case, whoa holy crap verbs, etc. Harry’s reflections on his first experience with ConLanging and learning about language in general are below. 

Language is hard. This is something I don’t think that people think about enough, just how complex this thing we call language is. We take it for granted every day that we are able to communicate with each other. There is an uncountable number of different systems at play when we use language. I just finished spending the last 4 months trying to make one from scratch and have acquired a whole new appreciation of just how complex language can really be. So when Shulist (the linguistic one) gave me the opportunity to look back on this project and write a post about it I jumped at the chance. I thought I’d take the time to give you some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way so hopefully you can avoid some of the pitfalls that caught me if you ever give it a try.  So without further ado I present: Tips for making a language from someone who’d never done it before.

  1. Know a language other than English (at least know someone who does)

Let’s take a quick detour to talk about the most commonly used word in the English language: “the”. How do you define “the”? Well the Miriam Webster dictionary does it in 507 words and only uses “the” 24 times to do it. Why so long? Because “the” does a lot in English: It’s a determiner we use for almost everything and yet it still finds time to be an adverb. “Harry”, I can see you asking, “what does this have to do with learning another language, let alone making one?” Well there are a lot of things a language has to do, and English make things like “the” and word order do a lot of it. This is great for us, but makes using English to make examples difficult. Learning a new language is hard, if it wasn’t we would all be polyglots, but I’m not saying you need to go out and become fluent in Portuguese. Even my tenuous grasp of Spanish grammar was invaluable when it came to understanding things like conjugating verbs and nouns.

  1. Get yourself some IPA (the alphabet not the beer)

Do you have a favourite sound? Mine is probably either / n / or / ʃ / . Now if you just sounded those out in your head as you read them then you can probably skip this section but for the rest of us: let’s chat about IPA. The International Phonetic Alphabet was an invaluable invention to linguists everywhere, a universal set of glyphs that corresponded to every possible human mouth sound. A way to bypass cumbersome Latin alphabet transcription. There is only one problem: It’s not very user friendly.

This is something I can’t stress enough: if you have no experience with IPA you are going to have a hard time making a language that sounds like anything other than English, a problem you are going to have anyways. While you are at it start to play with sounds, see if you can make some of the strange ones (read: any missing from English) by arranging your mouth in the right shape. This aspect of language making is probably the one that will get you the most weird looks, I know I got some when I spent a 3 hour flight trying to untangle the difference between / ɳ / and / ɲ /. Don’t worry about it though, because a good grasp of what symbol sounds like what and why will save you a ton of time down the line.

  1. How does your cat sit? (use example sentences)

When I started my language I had no idea what I wanted it to sound like, let alone what it’s structure would be, but I quickly started to fill out long list of parts you need to make a functional languge. How big is this list? I’m still not sure, but It certainly isn’t all written somewhere for you to read. This is where Example Sentences come in to play. Starting with short, simple ones, come up with a list of phrases that you would like to be able to say in your language. From there take a crack at translating them. Uh oh, you can’t translate this sentence because you forgot about pluralization? Well guess what, now you can add pluralization to that list of things to do. Using this method of trial and error I was able to find what I had finished and what I was missing in a way that is easy to visualize.

Cat sits /sɨh ɵoɳ wol/
Cat eats rat /loh ɵoɳ wol ɲɨlɵoɳ/
The cat eats the rat because it is tasty /loh ɵoɳ wol  ɲɨlɵoɳ ɵolɨlan/

Above are a few of my example sentences with English on the left and / ʃɨðʎom / (read something like sh-ith-yom) on the right. Note how I keep as many words the same between sentences as I can. This is so I can avoid having to make to many words up while I am still playing with the grammar. It would suck to come up with a whole collection of plural nouns just to later decide that you don’t need them. This way I can focus on just filling out what I need to make a fully functioning grammar. This is actually the biggest perk of example sentences. They let you slowly put together your  language in a modular way, so that even if you don’t have verb conjugation sorted out (like I don’t) you can still see how it works in a practical situation.

  1. Verbs do things. LOTS of things. (and this makes them hard)

In the over 4 months I worked on this project I found again and again that verbs only made things harder. Verbs were about as complex as nouns but three fold. Think back to your last English grammar lesson: what were the parts of a sentence? Well you had verbs and nouns, nouns were things and verbs were what those things did. Simple right? Well not so much unfortunately. English teachers have been lying to us for YEARS now telling us that “verbs are action words” when they are so much more than that. If a noun is a thing then a verb is what you know about that thing, what it does, what it’s like, how it feels, all kinds of stuff. These are just the beginning as well. Verbs can (and often do) encode all kinds of other information such as tense, gender, number, aspect, mood (don’t get me started on modality), voice, and any number of other grammatical categories.  Add adverbs to the mix and things get even worse. In fact a lot of things we call adverbs are just stuff that didn’t fit in another category. So enough doom and gloom about verbs then, whats my advice about them? Well unfortunately I don’t have much except: worry about it later. I haven’t even made a verb system for my language yet. Don’t get bogged down trying to perfect your verbs until after you sort your nouns out. If you are working with example sentences like I recommended then just make some placeholder and don’t worry about conjugating. This is exactly what I did, and you can see it in my above examples If you look close enough. You can always leave verbs to another day.

Languages, Linguistics, and Legislation: Some Reflections on Supporting Revitalization Programs in Canada

Sometimes, I am amazed at the opportunities afforded to me by my life and work as an anthropologist. I have just returned home after an 8 day visit to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, where I had the opportunity to teach a course on Language Policy and Planning for Indigenous Language Communities, run through the University of Alberta’s CILLDI program. The goal of CILLDI (the Canadian Indigenous Languages and Literacy Development Institute) is to provide training in linguistics, language planning, and pedagogy to Indigenous communities in Canada in order to support their language documentation and revitalization efforts. Students are typically members of Indigenous communities, either native speakers or learners of their Indigenous languages, working in various capacities to support these languages (many are language teachers, others are coordinators or staff members of language programs or cultural centres, others are translators, some are students, etc). I could talk for a year – and if you know me in person, you may confirm this is true – not only about the value of a program like this for supporting language work, but also about how being involved with CILLDI is a life-changing experience for students and staff alike, but I want to focus here on what I learned from the opportunity to deliver this particular class in Yellowknife.

In order to better serve the needs of Indigenous language communities, and with the support of various funding agencies, CILLDI has increasingly been offering its courses outside of its standard venue (hosted at the University of Alberta campus in Edmonton for three weeks each July). These new versions mean that the instructors come to the students (or closer to them), at various times throughout the year, instead of always having all the students relocate for several weeks in the middle of the summer, often at considerable inconvenience and expense. The course I taught last week was part of a block of three courses organized and funded by the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) Department of Education, Culture, and Employment, which houses their Indigenous Languages and Education Secretariat. Students were from all over the territory and included speakers of Nehiyawewin (Cree), Dene Zhatie (South Slavey), Dene Yati/Sahtu (North Slavey), Gwich’in, Tɫicho, and Inuvialuktun. They were regional language coordinators, language project workers, teachers, translators, and administrative personnel, some were fluent speakers and others were learners, and ranged in age from Elders to a 24-year-old social media guru. It is a truism of any teaching situation that the best part is always the students, but this was a particularly powerful example, as this group brought energy, creativity, and strong knowledge of their languages and communities. They came with different levels of experience and comfort in project planning and thinking big picture about language revitalization, and each one of them took the opportunity to learn something new about how to best do this work.

It’s always incredible to be in a room where there is so much positive energy and a commitment to action in support of language, culture, healing, and Indigenous autonomy, but it was especially so during a week in which the discourse about Indigenous people in this country has been so ugly, so dismissive, and so violent. There is a need to confront all of that awful reality, but there is also a need to be able to take concrete steps toward improving things, whether the rest of the country wants to come along for the ride or not.

It was also an eye-opening experience to have led this course with the direct support of the territorial government, and to spend time with some truly great public servants who are genuinely dedicated to making Indigenous language revitalization work. The NWT has had an official language policy in place since the 1980s, which recognizes 9 Indigenous languages alongside English and French, and which emphasizes the revitalization of these languages as a formal priority of the official languages act. My work in the Brazilian Amazon, where official language policy has also been used as a strategy for revitalization, has made it very clear to me that while such policies can be important symbolic acts, examining how they work and what they mean requires much more careful consideration of how they are being enacted, taken up, and talked about by the local populations (here’s a recent article I wrote about this, apologies for paywall). To say that colonial governments are inevitably fraught with problems in relation to Indigenous peoples and languages is the understatement of the last several centuries, but one thing I saw in Yellowknife was what it can look like if a government actually wants to see Indigenous languages succeed. The primary outcome, for students, of the course is the preparation of a mock (or actual!) grant proposal for a realistic potential project for supporting their language, and in this case, we were able to get a lot of help and guidance about what kinds of projects would have the potential to receive government funding, and how students could reframe their ideas in ways that would strengthen their chances of success.

I admit: “reconciliation” is a Canadian politics buzzword that is eminently critiquable, both in its overall framework (which implies that there was a positive, healthy, mutually sustaining relationship that we will be able to return to, somehow, rather than an entire foundation of violence and theft) and in its incredible overuse (seriously, doesn’t it seem like people throwing a few coins in the cup of a homeless person who appears Indigenous will then write a Facebook status about their contribution to reconciliation?). But with that caveat in mind, I feel like this course was driven by the spirit that the term ‘reconciliation’ should imply. The foundation for this is, in part, the way that Northern Canada operates on a different set of rules than we do here in the South (Ed: South? Shulist: Why yes, it is weird to call Edmonton the South, but all such things are relative). One of those rules is that movement toward Indigenous self-government is much more of a reality, and several groups have either an established agreement or are working towards one. Indigenous languages also have a distinct presence on signage, on the radio, and in other aspects of public life (this could definitely be strengthened, but it is far more significant than in much of the rest of the country). This was my first visit to the North, and there is much that I don’t know, but I learned enough to know that I want to know more, and to think that lots of others should want to know more as well (just because it was -50 one day while I was up there doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go! It’s actually totally great).

This is an important moment for Indigenous languages in Canada as a whole, as the Trudeau government is currently developing the research around how to create the Indigenous Languages Act they promised after they were elected, and in light of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Sadly, I don’t really have a lot of faith that the federal government is going to create something truly meaningful with this act. I think such an act has the potential to be an important symbol, and while I’m definitely not someone who dismisses symbolic change as meaningless, I think that the primary goal of any Indigenous language revitalization legislation at the federal or provincial/territorial levels should be to get the funding in to the hands of Indigenous people who can do the work of making their languages viable again. And in order to do this most effectively, a genuine commitment to Indigenous self-government is needed. Language programs that rely too much on expensive, university-based resources and researchers*, that are incredibly narrow and specific in their requirements, and that create endless mounds of paperwork people must do, are doing everything they can not to actually work on language revitalization. While this may be the topic of another post (because complicated), we also need to seriously engage with the ways in which official bilingualism and the political influence of French influences our ability to focus attention on the needs of Indigenous languages and communities (again apologies for the academic paywall, but this article by Eve Haque and Donna Patrick, if you have access, is a great primer on this). It is true that the federal government has made funding available through programs like the Aboriginal Languages Initiative, but I’ll leave it to the reader to consider whether the process and requirements outlined on that website really make this opportunity accessible to those that need it.

I left Yellowknife feeling really invigorated, but also angry. Invigorated because the students did such excellent work, and because I think there is the real possibility that their projects will get support, and because taking action to support change is so much better than sitting in the narrative of decay and death in which we ‘tsk tsk’ about

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Your friendly neighbourhood linguist blogger outside the best-named business in Yellowknife, featuring multilingual English/Tlicho wordplay

language loss without ever attacking it as a problem. But angry because throughout Canada, the political story remains one in which Indigenous people and communities are portrayed as incompetent and incapable, requiring oversight and paternalistic intervention. This emerges from both the left and the right, with the difference being that the right places the causes in some kind of cultural dysfunction or backwardness, while the left acknowledges the role of colonialism, but still situates the pathology in Indigenous communities, with the solutions coming from benevolent outsiders. This obviously isn’t just about language revitalization, but that’s my entry point in to it. I’m not sure we’ll be able to get out of the damn way enough to enable real change, but I want to believe that it’s possible. At the very least, we can look to the North for some paths to improvement.

*Yes, this includes me. We definitely have a role to play in this, but we don’t belong at the centre.

Symbols, Poetics, and Change: A Quick Thought on the Canadian National Anthem

There are certain situations in which changing just one or two words can become matters of immense political significance. An example of such a situation has been brewing in Canada for some time, with the introduction, by a Member of Parliament who has since passed away, of a bill to change the English lyrics of “O Canada” to a more gender neutral form.

The relevant words are in the opening lines of the anthem (emphasis mine):

Oh Canada! Our home and native land
True patriot love in all thy sons command

The changed version replaces this last phrase with “in all of us command“. Earlier this week, this bill was passed by the Canadian Senate, after receiving “overwhelming” support in the House of Commons when it was voted on last year. This means that, barring some truly unusual behaviour by the Governor General, we will be singing the new form in the very near future.

download (1)Observing both the heatedness and the specific nature of the debate about this has been interesting, as in many ways both sides share certain fundamental positions about language use, rather than coming at it from completely opposite perspectives. The heart of the debate, on both sides, is about the value of the national anthem as a profound symbol of identity, and about the performative function that singing it has. Changing the lyrics is intended to signify an inclusive form of Canadianness, and to allow those of us who don’t identify with the word ‘sons’ to more fully feel the nature of our belonging as we sing these familiar words. In other words, the whole reason to change it is because this song and its words matter a lotRefusing to change the lyrics is also centered in the importance of the anthem, with the claim being that history, continuity, and the aesthetic quality of the lyrics are more significant aspects than transparent inclusiveness. Manitoba senator Don Plett, for example, said that “A nation’s national anthem is not meant to be edited and revised periodically, but rather, it is meant to stand the test of time and to allow us to remember where we came from” (quoted here). The whole reason not to change it is because this song and its words matter too much.

There are obviously some differences in beliefs about language that emerge in each of these positions. Many people who favour the ‘sons’ lyric also express a general belief that it’s okay to use words that are semantically masculine to refer to humans in general (ranging from pronouns to words like ‘mankind’, or even to common expressions like ‘Hi guys’, used in gender diverse settings). Those who prefer the change see these terms as enshrining images of men as the default and others (including women, trans, and nonbinary folks) as marked deviations from this norm. There are also positions about what constitutes “grammatically correct” language, as well as opinions about the aesthetics of the change – the move from an archaic second person possessive reference (thy sons) to a first person voicing (of us) is clearly troubling some people, as that same article above also includes an ‘ardent feminist’ who nonetheless opposes the change as ‘grammatically incorrect’. Plett himself, apparently, was willing to allow for some change to national continuity if it would keep that second person (and archaic) structure, suggesting “thou dost in us command” as a ‘less clunky’ alternative. This amendment move, of course, may simply have been an unsuccessful delaying tactic to avoid passing the bill at all, but that’s pure speculation on my part.

To my mind, what this story illustrates is less about debating moves toward gender neutral language and more about the poetics, politics, and performativity of national anthems and other similar texts that carry immense symbolic power. On that, it seems, there is much more agreement than conflict across the political spectrum.

 

 

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.

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”.

Language & Power Student Projects

In my teaching, I’ve been experimenting more and more with inviting my students to use a variety of formats for communicating their research projects, and not necessarily to produce a standard academic essay. My reasoning, heavily influenced by pedagogical blogs like The Tattooed Professor, is that the central skill I am helping them to develop is not “write an academic essay”, but “develop, organize, and transmit your thoughts about a topic”. Depending on their post-undergraduate goals, they may benefit from learning how to do this in, for example, a podcast form, or as an informative website, or as a video. They may benefit most from developing their essay writing skills, in which case, they are encouraged to write an essay, but it’s entirely up to them whether that’s the approach they want to take.

In my advanced seminar on Language & Power this term, I included an “unessay” option for presenting their research project results. Reader, the outcome was wonderful. As a

Suppotter
The “suppotter” (supportive otter) became the class mascot to mark the emotionally and intellectually sustaining environment the group created for themselves. (Suppotter artwork by Amanada Cole

colleague said on Twitter – it’s amazing what students will do if you let them. Since a few of their projects were web-based, or easily shareable on the web, I’ve asked for and received permission to link some of the great work that they did here. Another principle I’ve been working on encouraging, inspired by a talk given by Rajiv Jhangiani (@thatpsychprof) at MacEwan’s Faculty Development Day this past August, is sharing their work with people other than me, as their professor. It truly is tragic how much pedagogical effort goes in to an exchange of information between two people – the individual student, and the professor grading their work. The students whose work is linked here are fully on board with this idea, have been developing their ideas in collaboration with one another all term, and have expressed to me that these two premises have helped them to learn more from this class than from any they’ve previously taken – which I consider to be the highest possible student praise, and I’m immensely glad to be able to share their work through this medium.

 

  1. Hear My Words. This is an ethnographic film produce by Daliso Mwanza (@prophetdali) and Megan H. about “how artists of colour experience double consciousness…in a society that speaks in a dominant white voice”. It’s an extremely ambitious project to have undertaken in a one-semester course, and well worth watching.
  2. Deconstructing Constructs. A tumblr by Delainey Neddow (@apatheticpotate)  about the language of sexual violence, inspired by and drawing heavily on the news stories from the last few months and the #MeToo hashtag campaign (read backwards, of course).
  3. Broification. A tumblr by Shannon Jubinville (@shannjub) about the linguistic construction of  “bro” culture and identities. She investigates how this playful piece of language is an important part of the establishment and maintenance of hegemonic (hetero)masculinity.
  4. Language Standardization zine. This Twitter thread includes the digital form of a zine produced by Ruth Werbiski that examines the various ways in which language standardization and standard languages constitute tools for upholding unequal power dynamics. As I have told Ruth, I find this project to be particularly strong as a possible teaching tool to use in my introductory linguistic anthropology classes, because it captures so many themes in concise and accessible ways.

This is just a sample of some of the topics and approaches that students used – I also received podcasts, presentations, an invented Twitter account with analysis, and many more. The success of this semester makes me suspect this type of post will become a semi-regular thing, so stay tuned for more in April.