Apologies

For the last few months, we’ve experienced a growing onslaught of stories about powerful men (in Hollywood, politics, and academia) being accused of sexual violence of various forms. I will state up front that this is not a conversation in which I am willing to debate the merits of the accusations – telling these stories publicly requires great courage on the part of victims, who have little to gain and much to lose, and I believe them.

The responses from the accused have been varied, and subject to much discussion that I want to weigh in on here, however briefly, as I poke my head out from under a mountain of grading. Two in particular stand out: those of Louis CK and Kevin Spacey. Both of these have been described as “apologies”, but simultaneously criticized as non-apologies. Within the last few days, Al Franken’s statement has been added to this list of questionable apologies, even though his includes just about all the formal elements one could possibly expect to see in such a statement. One question worth asking, as Jacob Sugarman does here, is whether a ‘public apology’ will ever be judged as ‘good’.

From a linguistic anthropological perspective, there are several elements at work here that are worthy of discussion.

  1. Apologies as speech acts, and the conditions that are needed to make them felicitous.
  2. The participants and participant roles that are involved in a public apology.
  3. The social and structural motivations leading to the performance of different types of apologies.

First off, while I have talked previously about the ways we can consider multiple types of

im_sorry
xkcd gets it with apologies as a pragmatic, not a formal thing

speech as actions, apologies live in that category of speech for which the concept of ‘speech act theory’ was prototypically developed by philosophers like Searle and Austin. Speech acts are forms of language where the speaking constitutes the doing – making promises, for example – and whose meaning should be judged not in terms of propositional truth, but in terms of ‘felicity’. A speech act is judged felicitous if it works to do what it says. For promises, this is contingent on the sincerity of the speaker, both in the moment and in future, and on the  perceived or actual ability of that speaker to successfully carry out the actions associated with the promise in question (I could promise that I will get something done on time, for example, but you may have many reasons to doubt that I will successfully do so, one of which might be that you know I’m writing this blog post right now instead of doing that thing). Anthropologists have critiqued the original formulations of this theory as failing to account for widely varying cultural perceptions about the relationship between a speaking ‘self’ and the types of statements encoded under speech acts, but it remains a useful concept to examine in its culturally specific manifestations.

Apologies are, in most English speaking environments, clearly speech acts, and the set of conditions needed to make them ‘work’ has been widely discussed. These properties, for the most part, emerge as functional criteria rather than formal ones. In other words, we cannot assess the merits of an apology based on the specific words or structures it does or does not include; rather, we attune to what happens in the social relationship within which the apology is situated. Janet Holmes* describes them as ways of “restoring the equilibrium” between the parties involved by addressing the “face-needs” of the victim of the action being apologized for.

The context here is a somewhat unusual one – these are public apologies for more or less private offenses. They differ from ‘political’ apologies (a topic about which my Language & Power class had a fantastic discussion emerging from Bonnie McElhinny’s** recent article on Canadian political apologies) in that they are issued by a public figure as a result of their actions as an individual, not in their role as a representative of a political organization. In part, what this means is that there is some discussion about who is receiving the apology, and who the participants are in this speech act. There are the specific, sometimes named, victims, which would make the apologies of the ‘normal’ interpersonal type. But at the same time, there is a public that is clearly invoked as receiving the apology. There are audiences, constituencies, co-workers, and fans who are situated as having been harmed and, if the explosion of responses and assessments of these apologies is any indication, who view themselves as appropriately able to accept or reject the proffered apologies. As that linked Alternet/Salon article indicates, this is a tough crowd to please, and it’s possible that there is no way to deliver an apology of this type that will be received without contestation and pushback. One element that became clear in our class discussions about political apologies is that in North American society, we retain a heavy emphasis on “actions speaking louder than words”, especially when it comes to apologies. The best anyone of these men can hope for is that we will wait and see what kind of change may come with respect to behaviour.

Before looking specifically at the three exemplars referenced here, I want to give an overview of my third point – there is a reason this is all happening now. One element I really like about McElhinny’s article is that she examines why, in the last 10-15 years, we’ve seen such an explosion of apologies offered by states for wrongs of the past. Specifically, she highlights how it serves the needs of neoliberal multicultural politics by legitimating certain claims to redress and implicitly delegitimizing others by not offering apologies for them. It’s clear to anyone observing right now that the apologies being offered by these men cannot be detached from current political concerns and debates – not only are they occurring as a result of the dam that was opened with the Weinstein accusations, they are also a response to outrage at the election of a president who admitted on tape to sexual assaulting women simply because his power let him do it. These circumstances obviously lead us to question the sincerity of the apologies in light of the public relations necessity they have become, but they also offer useful lenses into what else the accused men invoke in their statements.

With all that in mind, let’s look at what is happening in the language of these apologies. First, how do they fit in to different apology ‘types’?  While an explicit apology (a statement that directly says “I am sorry”) is most obvious, it is possible to have a successful apology without these words – there are no formal universals, after all, and someone saying “I will never do that again” may be just as or more meaningful that “I’m sorry” in defining a victim’s response. Expressions of regret are also key components, and the way in which an ‘explanation’ is invoked in apology statements becomes subject to heavy scrutiny.

Of the three apologies in question, a formal consideration of what they do and don’t include reveals that Franken’s is the most direct and explicit in its apology. He says “The first and most important thing [to say]….is I’m sorry”. He prefaces this with a list of people to whom he is offering the apology, then expands into an explanation and reflection on the social context in which he situates both his past actions and his present apology. Various listeners will have different responses to his sincerity here, and to how this apology relates to his previous denial that the events happened as they were remembered by his accuser. His, in particular, however, clearly exists in a framework in which all of these other apologies, responses, and statements have taken place, and in which he wants to take a stance directly about violence against women and gendered power.

Spacey’s statement, by contrast, does have the words “I owe him the sincerest apology” and “I am sorry”, but they are heavily mitigated with the surrounding language, which notably avoids direct admission that the accusations are true and sets the harm in the victim’s feelings rather than in the accused’s actions. This construction is famously lambasted as a part of insincere apologies, and again manifests the ideological belief that a focus on action is paramount, because actions are the primarily source of impact. What is most heinous about Spacey’s apology, of course, is the qualifying information he offers. Although he doesn’t directly say that his sexuality is the explanation for his behaviour, the position it takes within his short apology statement clearly suggests it is intended to play that role. He aims to place his response in a political context that celebrates coming out, that recognizes the struggles that gay men and queer people specifically continue to face, and that challenges heterosexist dominance. In putting this coming out in the explanation position, however, he ultimately suggests that sexual assault is caused by gayness, as well as re-centering his apparent apology on his own closeted suffering. The felicity conditions in this one are…pretty clearly not there.

Louis CK I have saved to the last because it has been, from what I can tell, the most contentious of the three, in that there is wide variation in whether or not people believe it meets the conditions of a true apology. The statement has been labeled an apology even though, as many have been quick to point out, CK never says “I apologize” or “I am sorry”. He does, however, do many of the other things associated with an apology, which Spacey clearly does not. He admits the truth of the stories, he discusses his regret, he assesses the various types of harm that he has done, and he outlines a specific plan of action that he will take (in this case, simply listening). The key feature that is making many dismiss CK’s statement as an infelicitous apology is his explanation section, in which he seems to reproduce exactly the problem that women are calling attention to in the current climate – the ways in which powerful men justify their actions precisely through reference to their social, economic, and political power. He did not understand these actions to be wrong, he says, because he was convinced of the weight of these women’s admiration. That, coupled with the degree to which CK talks about the pain of others primarily through reference to his own experience of struggle with that pain, is a sign that his entry into this sadly-still-repeating drama of public apologies will be judged on the ‘failed’ side. He sees the politics in which the apology takes place, but he misses the mark on how they work.

What’s the takeaway message from all of this? I’m not entirely sure I have one, to be honest. I am watching with skepticism the claims emerging that we have seen a watershed moment that shifts the view of sexual violence by powerful public figures, as I’m not confident we have yet reached a point that will really change things. The debates and assessments and ideologically rooted analyses of these various apologies are examples of why I feel pessimistic. There are a great number of people who, especially with respect to CK and Franken, feel that these statements mean that discussion of their actions should be over, and to me, this shows exactly what many are highlighting that all of this is about – the basic needs of women, as humans in the workplace and as victims in a public apology, are to be put aside for the comfort, economic advancement, and egos of powerful men. And if I can fight that with linguistics, well, I’ll do my best.

*Holmes, Janet 1989. Sex Differences and Apologies: One Aspect of Communicative Competence. Applied Lingusitics 10(2): 194-221

**McElhinny, Bonnie 2016. Reparations and Racism, Discourse and Diversity: Neoliberal Multiculturalism and the Canadian Age of Apologies. Language & Communication 51: 50-68

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Student Guest Post: An Emotional Mask to Murder

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Daliso Mwanza, a student in Dr. Shulist’s seminar class on Language and Power. It was completed as a response to the book Confronting the Death Penalty: How Language Influences Jurors in Capital Cases by Robin Conley, and originally posted on Dali’s own blog.  

The topic and environment of capital sentencing is quite frankly compelling when trying to capture the essence of state level violence. I could list a few theorists such as Michel Foucault, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Antonio Gramsci, Karrebaek, and Mehan that have all discussed the mechanics of meaning, socialization, power, and the language that perpetuates these three topics.  The entity of “The Law” often referred to as something all knowing or the order to our society, but to gain such formative power, society needs to feed into its legitimacy in all of our interactions. This sort of relationship between people and a system is best described by a fellow classmate of mine and brilliant critical thinker, Ruth Werbiski. How they put it, the entity of law itself creates codified rules and responsibilities that every citizen should follow through consent and coercion, which is understood as order by society. In a way this is a form of omnipresent violence that every citizen understands but some will follow and some will break, but the power is still in the hands of the law. The law feeds from the response of citizens, because it requires society to socialize each other to follow said entity, inherently feeding into it and making it grow bigger and bigger. Other institutions such as family, education, and politics aid in the growth of “Law and Order”, sometimes with the use of discourse of safety and also fear. This is where my colleague aided me in picturing the nature of Law- The Creaturetumblr_mgz91vfI6P1rl52wjo2_400.gif

This ^ is the nature Law-The Creature. 

As Ruth stated, it is comprised of multiple different parts (institutions) in our society that teach us to conform to the system of law, giving it more power. Within this process people gain an identity in relation to Law, and this is where we see the creation of jurors in capital sentencing.

Don’t get me wrong, capital punishment is pretty fucked up for so many reasons and I will get into those reasons, BUT (yes big ol but) the structures surrounding those reasons are extremely interesting and somehow offer us anthropologists a gaze into a striking aspect of human behaviour and socialization. Recall the relationship between the Law and society that was painted oh so eloquently? Yes? Great! Well in the center of that relationship is a driving force that allows the perpetuatuation and efficiency of the death sentence, and that is Objectivity.

tenor

Throughout the book, Objectivity is what allows jurors to perform the judgement of someone’s life. Firstly, objectivity is a socialized trait that is required of each jury member to remain unbiased and most importantly keeping emotion out of their judgments. The way Emotion was tied together with empathy, therefore it was not supposed to be offered  the defendants. How I see it, emotion is something that cannot be turned off whenever a person sees it fit, especially in the highly emotional act of taking someone’s life. Secondly, there is the use of  deitics/distancing when jurors are placed in “face-to-face encounters” with defendants. In my opinion I feel that deitics sole tool that allows the jury, defendant, and state to kill and do so while feeling sure that it was the right thing to do. We see this performance of dehumanizing, distancing, and judgement in colonial violence; war and within our modern society. Distancing allows us to be rid of empathy towards another humans life, and if we are to examine deitics within socialized objectivity in court, we can see that the state has created a language towards criminals that allows the jury to perform the act of killing. Jurors are found saying such things as “Murders are not people and do not deserve the oxygen they breathe”, this is an ideology to crime that is socialized and shared within our education systems that tell us to fear the other along with their behaviour. This made me think about the Sif Karrebaek article “‘Don’t Speak Like That to Her!’: Lingusitic Minority Children’s Socialization into an Ideology of Monolingualism”,  which has a lot of similarities in language socialization within juries (2013). Jurors are constantly told to keep objective from the begining all the way to the end, and as highlighted before it usually shows through dehumanization. Discourse is what allows them to maintain the identity of law abiding, but once placed in near proximity of criminal, the mask they are wearing begins to fall apart. tumblr_inline_o7u9hoKufU1tcrsjf_540.gif

The mask is what I was truly interested in, not only because I’m a Goffman groupie, but rather the reasons why we put it on! At the first layer, we put it on for our own safe. Something we can keep separate from who we really are, and once the act of killing is complete we can walk away without it being apart of us. This is very important because of how emotionally disturbing the act of capitol sentencing can be. Once brought up outside of the event jurors shared feelings of emotional trauma throughout the book, and to me this just means the mask was not really intended for the jurors. If we examine it from the second layer we can see that the mask is in place to benefit the state who must maintain control through “The Law” (DUN DUN)

 

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Yaa, look at it growing and consuming. 

Order is why this whole performance is present. There are constant reminders of following the law throughout capitol punishment, and these reminders are what keep us from going against the law (SUPER FOUCAULT). If you ask me, this is clearly a form of discursive violence that begins to fester within our society. Only thing is, we see this system as our saviour not our oppressor.

But-Thats-None-Of-My-Business

Names and Patriarchy

Names are a remarkable form of linguistic material. Group names, place names, personal names – all have functions and social roles that are far more complex than we often credit (I’ve written before about the use of endonyms for Indigenous peoples/languages, and will put a bookmark in my brain to try to write about place names at some point as well). Names carry a lot of weight in defining identities — and this means they do a ton of social work in establishing relationships among people.

I am well behind on blogging things I’ve found interesting, so forgive me for delving into ancient internet history of a full month ago, but the story of Serena Williams’ baby’s name was too fascinating to let go entirely. As the link notes, the name is apparently highly conservative, putting a junior on the father’s name – except that in this case, Alexis Ohanian Jr. is a little girl.

For all that we, in Anglo-North American society, have moved away from many aspects of patrilineal descent (like for example in terms of inheritance), names are one of the ways we cling quite strongly to it. Without wanting to get in to any kind of discussion about the merits of name changing at marriage (seriously, don’t @ me. It’s always the same conversation), one point that’s always raised is that women choose between “their partner’s name or their father’s name”. It’s a claim that depends on the notion that our names have and will come from our fathers, and that it is primarily boy children who get to claim ownership of the name. While there is now a proportion of heterosexually married women who have, either completely or partially (e.g. using one name professionally and another personally) kept their original names, this has not yet translated into a widespread change in how offspring are named. Hyphenation has a definite presence, but the most common pattern remains that children receive their father’s names. My own family is an exception here, because I said I wanted a child that would carry my name, and my partner and I quickly agreed to have one of each. Our older child has their father’s name, and our younger child has mine.

This is meaningful to me because my lineage is marked in our family. Last names, though, are not the only ways that we put that identity forward. Giving our children family names, particularly ‘Junior’ from an immediate parent, also carries those meanings. And while the practice is generally waning, it remains much more strongly associated with father-son bonds than with any relationship involving women and girls. Gilmore Girls made a joke of this by having teenage mom and highly quirky Lorelai name her baby daughter Lorelai (called Rory) for exactly this reason – men do it all the time, why couldn’t she want her girl to carry on her name? (I have a general theory that this is why we see much greater variation in the “Top 100” baby names for girls than for boys – decade after decade, William, Michael, John, David, Daniel, and Matthew hold strong, while Sarahs and Katies – to pick two entirely not random examples – peak and fade relatively quickly. This theory is entirely the product of my brain and fascination with reading baby name lists, however, and no real stable evidence).

Little Alexis Jr. inserts another interesting exception to the pattern, having a daughter carry on her father’s name/identity. Honestly, it’s somewhat unsurprising that a powerhouse mother like Serena would be willing to push the boundaries of how her baby daughter will be named and seen. At the same time, I am a bit surprised that this little Junior is taking on the name of her much less famous parent. A Serena Williams Jr strikes me as a name that would inspire an impressive reaction (although perhaps too much weight to put on a tiny person, but that didn’t stop countless famous men from assigning that burden to their sons).

The whole conversation speaks to the way we see names and identity, and yes, the ways in which our perceptions of descent and family lineage remain oriented around fathers and sons. An era of acceptance of non-traditional family structures, including gay and lesbian couples (as well as decades of feminist pushback against the ways that names connote ownership) may have made a dent on this view, but its prevalence shows just how deeply engrained this part of patriarchy is. And this is why names are so meaningful and powerful – ultimately, this is a part of linguistic and cultural practice that holds force long after we have stopped thinking of our descent practices as inherently passing through a male line. I agree with the linked blogger that a female junior, in this context (and adding in the racial dynamic, which is also hugely important in defining young Alexis’ relationship to her white father) is a bold step. What strikes me, though, is that these bold steps seem to be taken in isolation, and I’m interested to see what it might take for them to start adding up to a march away from the status quo.

The Glamorous Side of Anthropology: Thoughts from an Undergrad Research Assistant

This summer, the nerds who write this site were lucky enough to be able to hire an undergraduate student as a research assistant. In the spirit of pedagogy, we wanted to give that student an opportunity to talk about how she got the job (because this is a thing other people should definitely try to do), what she learned, and also what was totally the worst.

Editor: Tell us how this opportunity came about. How did you find a job with the anthropology department?

SJ: Haha, the short answer is: I asked. A couple years ago I was speaking with Dr. Shulist about how difficult it can be to find summer work. At the time, it was too late to apply for anything on campus, but she told me that, if you’re early enough, there are always plenty of opportunities at MacEwan. So this time I approached her in about February and asked her if she knew of any opportunities coming up for the summer. She told me about an upcoming STEP (ed: STEP is an Alberta government funding program that helps universities, government agencies, and other such organizations hire summer students in jobs that will hopefully benefit their learning as well as the organization’s needs.) position and suggested I apply for it, so I did. That’s pretty much how I got the job. It’s not a terribly crazy or exciting story, but just goes to show that it pays (literally) to get to know your professors!

E: What kind of work did you do as a research assistant?

IMG_2697
Pile of bones that our friendly neighbourhood RA cleaned for Dr. Biittner’s fieldschool project (yes, with a toothbrush)

SJ: Anything you can think of. People often think that being a research assistant means just sitting at a desk poring over documents all day, but that only a small part of what I did this summer. I was working for three different professors with vastly different areas of expertise and goals, so I got to do all kinds of different things, from watching movies, to helping with Dr. Biittner’s field school, to transcribing interviews. One of the coolest things was learning how to use the 3D printer in the lab!

E: What did you learn in the process? How do you think this enhanced your education? What kinds of skills can you take from this into a future job situation?

SJ: I think the biggest lesson I learned is that you can pretty much do anything with

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This is the editor realizing the importance of these lessons.

anthropology.

I mean, that’s something I sort of knew before I started working as a research assistant, but this really gave me the chance to take the skills I’d been learning in class and apply them, and in all kinds of different ways. Who would have known that anthropology would be useful for putting together a film series? Not me, that’s for sure. As far as its use for my education, this job helped me hone my actual research skills. One of my tasks was helping Dr. Shulist find and analyze sources for some projects she was working on, so not only did I have to get better at using the available databases to find sources, but I had to find the information she was looking for in those sources and communicate that back to her in a way that she could apply to her work. And really, this is a skill that I think will be valuable as I go on to other jobs as well. I also did inventory in the lab for Dr. Biittner, which meant going back to my Biological Anthropology lessons to identify hominin skulls, and having to stay super organized.

E: What was the best part of your work?

SJ: This is going to sound really cheesy, but the best part of my job was getting to work so closely with my professors. Drs. Biittner, Sinclair, and Shulist are all people that I really admire, and getting to know them and the kind of work they do was truly the highlight of my summer. I got to see what kinds of things anthropologists do when they’re not teaching, and learn a little bit about what goes into being a professor (and preparing all those awesome classes we get to take!!!). I got to see how much passion they have for anthropology and for their students. It was an amazing experience that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.

E: What was your least favourite part?

SJ: Part of me wants to say scrubbing clinker with a toothbrush, but I think I would have to say transcribing interviews. It’s really interesting to hear the kinds of stories that people tell, but having to type it up sound for sound is really tedious. There were times that I spent hours listening and typing, and would only get through a few minutes of speaking, because there was so much happening in those few minutes that I’d have to go back and listen over and over again. It takes a tremendous amount of patience and skill. But that’s not to say I regret the experience. I think it made me a better listener. Not only did I have to pay close attention to what people were saying and how they were saying it, but typing it all up gives you a whole new perspective on how conversations work. It was a lot of work, but in the end I guess I can say it was pretty cool.

E: What would you tell future students looking into this kind of opportunity?

SJ: Don’t be shy. Talk to your professors. Find out what they’re working on and what’s going on in the department. The worst thing that can happen is that there’s nothing available and you’ll have to start looking for the kinds of jobs you’d have been doing anyway. The best thing that can happen is that you get your foot in the door and start being able to actually apply your degree. There’s really no downside. I’d encourage everyone try to do what I did. It’s SOOOO worth it.

 

Maps, Vocabulary, and Enregistered Identity

I admit it – I love a good map as much as the next giant nerd. As a kid, I literally spent hours in our home office, pouring over atlases that my geography major dad had kept  on hand. Maps are great tools for visualizing the distribution of social relationships in space. So language maps in particular, which help us to examine the ways language is used different across space, are guaranteed click bait for me. I’m clearly not alone on this one, as recent ‘dialect survey’ maps have gone viral over the last few years. This one for the US came out a few years ago, and includes tests that purport to guess where you’re from based on your preferred word for nine or ten common items. I tried it myself, and it wanted me to live in either Detroit, Pittsburgh, or Buffalo. While I’ve lived geographically close to a couple of those places, it still felt off.

So now, finally, someone’s done the same for Canada (though I haven’t seen a quiz version), and mapped out various expressions across the country. I’ve seen it linked a lot, and I’ve looked through it with my language/map nerd brain going ‘ooh, that’s fun’. But at the same time, I have to ask – what else is going on when we create maps like this? Note this CBC article reporting on the project, with the title “Lost in Translation“. The story suggests that English Canadians are “not all speaking the same language”, and that there is a “surprising amount of diversity in vocabulary and pronunciation”. Popularizations of research are, of course, notoriously frustrating, and it’s fairly easy to push back against this framing – are a few words, many of them relatively infrequent items in people’s lexicons (the sport either called ‘kickball’ or ‘soccer baseball’ is not one that I refer to more than, say, once a year, for example) really sufficient to define as major differences? Are we actually unable to understand each other across these differences – are people from Saskatchewan unaware of what a hoodie is? And even if these differences are significant, is it really that surprising that expressions are regionalized?

Beyond the journalistic accounts, though, there are also questions about the research process itself, and how well it captures what it says it does. Ben Zimmer touches on this in a Language Log post on the US version – the data emerges based on self-reporting, from a multiple choice format, using online participants. This has an advantage of gathering a quantity of data from a range of geographical areas, but it also has a number of significant limitations. We are often surprisingly unaware of what we actually say (especially when it comes to pronunciation), a multiple choice list may make a number of assumptions about what the options even are, and, of course, the sample of people who do online surveys is not exactly representative of the population as a whole.

The most interesting point, to me, though, is how these visualizations don’t just represent regional variations, but also create and enshrine regional variants as identity markers. I was thinking about this while doing the reading for my Language & Power seminar this week, which includes Barbara Johnstone’s (2013) article “100% Authentic Pittsburgh”. i-speak-fluent-canadian-canada-humor-funny-vacation-souvenir-blue-t-shirt-m-0b8972b813fe1ce48315898cb05ffb32One point that Johnstone makes is that the creation, selling, and wearing of t-shirts that include certain expressions, under the headline of local ‘authenticity’, do a wide range of types of semiotic work, creating a character image that is rooted in certain forms of class, racial, gender, and personal identity. It’s fairly easy to jump from Johnstone’s Pittsburgh example to Canadian versions – like the one pictured here. Artifacts like these t-shirts – or, I would argue, these dialect maps – shape the meanings of the linguistic resources that people choose to use, as well as the identities that are purportedly represented by them. As with some of the people Johnstone interviewed, I look at this list of supposed markers of speaking “fluent Canadian” and don’t really see myself in them. What are the features that we associate with supposedly Canadian phrases like “Take off, ya hoser”, and what does it imply that they are used to market an entextualized Canadian identity?

The maps are a good deal more sophisticated than McKenzie brother parodies of Canadian English, of course, but some of what they accomplish is the same – especially when they are repackaged by journalists looking to create a narrative out of them. They highlight a few select items that can be used to index certain regions, erasing many other aspects of the language in these areas, and possibly attaching other semiotic baggage to the mix.

That said, having moved to Alberta from Ontario, I really wish the maps had told me what a “windrow” was, because it took me 2 years to figure that one out.

 

So It Begins

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The beginning of a new school year is a thing. Even from my lofty, fictional, editorial position, I see the plans, the excitement, the resolutions. So as we head into this new school year, let’s check in with our people.

Ed: What are you most excited about this year?
Sarah (the Linguistic One): 
So many things! MacEwan has a new president, and while I’ve only heard her speak once, she articulated a vision for our school as a place that serve the entire community, that places justice and access at the centre of its mission, and that promises to take real action toward implementing the recommendations of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. I feel like we are at an amazing place right now.

Katie (the Archaeology One): Yeah our new president is ah-maze-ing! I’m really pumped that we are being led by someone who shares so many of the values that are important to me – community, caring, accessibility, activism, justice. Wow. I’m all fired up and feel empowered to create the kind of learning environment I think is important and needed.

Ed: What are you excited about in your teaching?
SS: Five out of the six courses I get to teach this year are linguistic anthropology! Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching sociocultural stuff too, but linguistic anthro is my one true love, and I will be swimming in it this year, with 2 seminars (Language & Power and Language & Media) and a third year course (Language, Gender, and Sexuality), along with 2 sections of intro to ling anth. I feel some definite blog incorporation work coming along…

KB: Can I sit in on your third year course? Because it sounds awesome! I’m redoing my written assignment for my Anth 110 course (Gender, Age, & Culture) to more explicitly involve this blog so that’s exciting. Anth 110 really has become my passion btw so overall I’m just jazzed to get back into it. I’m also really looking forward to finding new/better ways of bringing our lab resources into our classrooms. For example we have this rad new Neandertal skeleton, which we will definitely use in Anth 209 (Introduction to Biological Anthropology) but it could also visit our Anth 101 classes as well.

Ed: OK, you know you have one – what’s your resolution?
SS:
 This year, I swear will be the one where I finally break out of the shackles of email notifications controlling my life. Really. I promise. Hold me to it.

KB: Boundaries. I really really need to be clear about what my open door policy is and how it works. Turns out that I need to have times when my door is closed.

Ed: What advice do you want to give your students?
SS: Whatever happens this semester, you’re a human first and a student second. Take care of your needs. Admittedly, some profs are better than others about hearing that, and sometimes your grades end up taking a hit because life. A bad semester, or a bad few classes, is something that can be overcome, and there are people who want to help you with that. Find them, and let them.

KB: ^^^THIS^^^ And read the syllabus #sorrynotsorry It really is an important, useful document.

Ed: New semester on – Got meme?
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Speech, Action, and Freedom

It’s been a difficult week to be paying attention to the media. The events at the University of Virginia this weekend, where a white supremacist demonstration turned predictably violent, and many legitimately fear that the current President of the United States refuses to denounce these actions because he agrees with them. There are many things to say about these events, and many others who are better equipped to say them, but I want to zero in on the commentary about how to address the question of “freedom of speech” in light of this significant social threat.

Now, first off, remember that I’m Canadian, and while there are many in this country who believe in an absolute and unfettered “right to free speech”, our actual Charter of Rights & Freedoms places somewhat more restrictions on the concept than does the United States Bill of Rights. In particular, “hate speech” is disallowed, though in practice this remains difficult to define, and many marginalized groups in this country (especially Indigenous people) would note that a significant amount of violent rhetoric gets through the pages of our mainstream newspapers, but is never labeled as “hate speech”. These are longstanding debates, and I am only using the legal context to establish and remind others that it is, in fact, possible to develop a legal framework in which restrictions are placed on certain kinds of speech and still have a functioning democracy. This point seems often forgotten or ignored in discussions on this topic.

I’ll take a step back from the violence in Charlottesville for a moment to point to another case in which “free speech” has been on the public radar this week – the firing of a Google employee who sent out a company wide memo suggesting that the effort to get more women into engineering positions within the company was misplaced, since women are biologically ill-equipped for these roles. It was backed up with multiple pseudo-scientific arguments that have been debunked by multiple people, but nonetheless, certain segments of the internet have claimed that he was fired for his ideas and that this represents thought policing. In fact, he was fired for his actions – he wrote and sent a memo to his entire company outlining not only his beliefs, but also his suggestions for how the company should implement policies based on his beliefs. And these actions – the writing and the sending – entail acts of aggression against a specific group of co-workers (women). He has presumably thought these things for a significant amount of time, perhaps even prior to his hiring at Google, but he was never fired for thinking them – he was fired for the act of writing them in “manifesto” form, and sending it to the entire company.

The idea of “freedom of speech” in its broadest sense is premised on an ideology that posits speech is not action. There are any number of idiomatic expressions and signs that this is a commonly held belief among many English speaking North Americans. You have to “walk the walk, not just talk the talk”. “Stick and stone will break my bones” and all that. And to be clear, speech should be protected in some ways in a democratic environment – government silencing of dissent is a necessary part of authoritarianism, and people are rightfully highlighting press restrictions as one of the scary signs coming from Trump’s administration. But a robust theory of freedom of speech has to address the fact that ‘to speak’ is a verb – in other words, it is always an action.

How does this relate to what happened in Charlottesville? The march clearly crossed the line between acceptable speech and unacceptable acts of violence at some point, under all but the most hateful defenders’ definitions, as people were killed by the protesters. As many others are also noting, that point comes well before the killing, before the beating with torches even. It comes when they adopt the language and symbols of genocide as the semiotic frame for their speech. The use of swastikas, the “Heil Hitler” arm movement, and Hitler quotations on t-shirts — these are acts of symbolic violence. In and of themselves, they do harm to people (the ideas that they represent, if implemented, would do horrendous amounts of harm, but even in the absence of that implementation, their being stated publicly, justified by those in power like the police who responded only tepidly, or Trump who suggested it was somehow proportionate to violence on the left, does actual harm).

I’ve seen a lot of people suggesting “rights are rights” and that if I want to right to continue to speak openly in the way that I do here, I have to allow even actual Nazis to organize and publicly speak. That I must counter their positions with rhetorical force, and that it would be unconscionable to suggest that they should be legally silenced. This kind of argument assumes that these people can be reasoned with, and in making that assumption tacitly implies that promotion of genocide is a reasonable position that one should argue with. I refuse that assumption and its implication.

It is, of course, easy in principle to say that we will easily be able to recognize what forms of speech are acts of violence, and that we can guarantee that no democratically elected government would suppress legitimate speech. This latter point is obviously false, and the former is much more complex in practice. But at the same time, it’s not always easy, in practice, to spell out any clear cut rules that place limitations on actions. The same physical actions can, in one context, be loving, and in another, be violence, because of the presence or absence of consent. The presence of a law against arson doesn’t preclude us from setting a campfire. We are imperfect at interpreting legal and moral culpability and consequence in many of these situations as well, but it doesn’t lead to an interpretation that the underlying actions must be allowed to exist unchecked by legal authority.

All of this is to say: in order to effectively account for the impact of these forms of speech, it is important to move beyond an ideology that speech is not action, and therefore cannot be limited in the same ways as we limit physical actions. The oft-quoted statement that “my right to swing my arm ends at your nose” is meaningfully applied to the act of speaking as well. Because speech is an action, not an impactless idea floating meaninglessly in people’s minds, it can also be violence. Violence that not only can, but must, be restricted and stopped.