Language is Social: A Quick, Slightly Angry, Introduction by Way of Media Response

A couple of articles have crossed my Twitter path in the last few days that are, from a linguistic anthropological perspective, shockingly ignorant. They come not from random people writing about language, but actually from prominent academics, including linguists. I’m writing this in response to those articles/discussions, first in order to give a very basic, accessible rebuttal to them, and second in order to illustrate a very frustrating pattern of thinking about language from a limited, asocial perspective.

The first example is really low-hanging fruit, come from Steven Pinker, who despite his status as a Harvard cognitive scientist, frequently demonstrates a remarkable lack of intellectual curiosity or willingness to engage beyond his assumptions. He tweeted:

There are several layers about this that are fundamentally incorrect, including the idea that Plato believed that words held limited power (Plato was in fact very concerned about the potential power of speech and art). It’s also highly debatable as to what one should call “the first insight of linguistics” — there’s no reason to discuss Plato as a linguist, or to dismiss insights about language that come from outside of a very limited conceptualization of what counts as a canonical tradition of knowledge. And at the core, the statement is a fundamentally incorrect one – the idea that words are conventions doesn’t nullify their power. Taboo words, ritual words, even everyday bits of interaction like ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ cannot be explained and expressed through a mere reference to conventional representation (a form of meaning we call “denotation”). The meaning of so much of language depends entirely on how it is used and what it does socially. In addition to really well known theoretical formulations of this concern (e.g. JL Austin’s How to do Things with Words), this premise drives almost the entire field of linguistic anthropology. Language isn’t made of ‘words’ detached from their use and effect in the world – rather, it is a social and interactional practice that has immense power, “magical” and otherwise.

This is in no way a new insight, nor a particularly challenging one – which brings me to my second example, an article that came in to my feed when it was tweeted by the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) entitled “Scientists Advocate New Approach to Linguistic Research”. This new approach? That context matters in understanding meaning.

I know. Shocking, right? The article gives the example that the statement “every night I drink a glass of wine before I go to bed” would be interpreted differently if the speaker is a ten year old girl (than if, presumably, it is an adult speaking). Which is to say – the meaning of language doesn’t rest strictly on denotative content of component ‘words’, but rather requires interpretation of information about speaker identities, interlocutors, setting, etc. It goes on to say that psychological research on the processing of meaning should look at more ‘natural’ use, recognizing that laboratory environments deliberately strip context from the situation. My problem with this, of course, has nothing to do with the content of the observation – this is all 100% true. My problem lies with the claim that this is new, because it’s literally the entire basis of more than one academic (sub)discipline (linguistic anthropology, sociology of language, sociolinguistics…), not to mention of any number of Indigenous philosophical frames of thought about meaning,

giphy (1)
Self portrait of the author when reading this article today.

language, and society. The article and the LSA has been dragged on Twitter pretty quickly for exactly this reason, and while it enrages me that there are apparently linguists who think a) this is insightful and b) the best collaborators for this project come from the disciplines of “neurosciences, psychology, …and biology”, it’s worth noting there are also plenty of linguists, including those in the non-socio subfields, offering this critique.

These two stories share more than just a mockability factor of 10/10, though – they’re both based in a view of ‘meaning’ that is about words and conventional ‘definitions’. This is a position that is really pervasive in Western contexts, reproduced in educational practice, and manifested in the relationship that people have to texts like dictionaries (note here that I don’t mean the goal of lexicographers themselves – the people who make dictionaries can be profoundly aware of the instability and complexity of the meanings that they try to reduce to a clear definition and a few example sentences – but rather to the way laypeople come to use the dictionary to tell them ‘what a word means’). It also emerges frequently in fields like developmental psychology, where discussions of toddlers’ linguistic practices centres on counting the words that they know and use (or, as Nelson Flores critiques so thoroughly, counting the words that their caregivers apparently expose them to). And, of course, it emerges in discourses about racial slurs, as prominent authors like Pinker are disdainful of the very basic idea that some words carry a great deal of power to hurt, or that the meaning of these expressions is fundamentally altered by the identity of the speaker using them.

Thinking about language as a socially situated practice is actually really important in any number of ways, but this basic insight can still be dismissed, not only by laypeople, but by academic researchers and policy makers. At the very least, getting angry about things like that helps to remind me why I do linguistic anthropology, and why it matters.

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Student Guest Post: 10 things I wish I knew in my first semester as a first gen student

Editor’s Note: This post was sent to use by one of our Anthropology Honours students, Brieal M-T (@mxmoireabh for the Twitter savvy), who has been very open with us and with their classmates about the challenges they have faced in university as a result of multiple factors of their identity and experiences. Because they are a helpful soul, they are passing on what they have learned through several years of hard work here, and this is a great resource to send along to incoming students. In discussing academia, academic life, and things like the “hidden curriculum”, we often implicitly or explicitly exclude undergrads from the discussion, but in fact the challenges to accessibility and the hiding of the curriculum certain affect them, and deserve to be addressed in the conversation about how to support first generation scholars and otherwise marginalized folks.

If you’re into Academic Twitter you’ve probably seen the #hiddencurriculum hashtag making its rounds, but especially this past weekend. The first time I personally saw the hashtag was in reference to this Tweet:

https://twitter.com/travisclau/status/1021442146459684864

I was, uh, a bit salty about the language used that (to me) assumes horizontal networking begins in grad school, and immediately sent the Tweet to a group chat I’m in with some other anthropology students with the caption “Anyways I’m constantly frustrated by the idea that undergrad work isn’t academic work, thus we’re usually excluded from hidden ac talks, but anyways this is important.” Finding people with whom I can connect to as fellow students has been fantastic, and while the majority of this post was written as a personal exercise over a year ago I’m only able to share it now because I’ve been able to speak with other students and refine what all may be useful to others. While having friends who aren’t students is important as well, being able to connect with people who are experiencing some of the same stresses is invaluable!

Some backstory on me: I’m a white, queer, disabled, first-gen university student (there’s a lot of trades tickets and technical diplomas in my fam, but I’ll be the first to get a university degree), and I almost wasn’t even that because I dropped out of high school 3 semesters in primarily due to illness. While I eventually got my GED in order to attend a local technical institute, the entry requirements for the program I wanted to apply for (bakery sciences) changed literally the year I went to apply, and I’ve never actually been able to use my GED for much of anything except being proud that I eventually did get it (which is useful! I’m not knocking it!).

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s/o to my local WalMart for somehow having robes that semi-sorta fit me  [Editor: Aw, baby BMT!]
As a first-gen student hidden academia and hidden curriculum begins the moment we apply for university (ex. I applied to 3 universities between my first semester and the time I got into my BA program, and didn’t know those fees could have been waived/reduced had I contacted the respective registrar’s offices prior to my application). While there’s always going to be things I feel unprepared for moving forward in my academic career I can’t thank the mentors in my life enough for helping me wade through the muck. Being aware that there’s always going to be something I can’t be aware of is an unbelievably important skill that was unfortunately hard-won. Like the title of this post implies, here’s a few things I wish I knew before starting my degree/have subsequently stubbed my toes on a few times in order to learn…

Planning ahead:

  1. Assume that you’re going to get sick, and try to coordinate assignments accordingly.
    • Basically: sit down at the beginning of the semester with the syllabus and plan out how and when you plan to complete assignments. This is… honestly a slog… but it’s a slog that’s absolutely invaluable when it comes to actually getting your work done. Make sure you choose a calendar that you’ll actually look at regularly! I plan my assignments out using the default calendar app on my phone, in addition to in a bullet journal.
  2. Pick profs who you know aren’t assholes (this can be tough, especially if whatever you’re passionate about happens to be a department filled with assholes, BUT there will always be kind profs in any field–find them and stick with them as much as possible). Be mindful that not every prof fits every student, and speak to as many people about their experiences in someone’s classroom as possible!
  3. If your institution has an SSD (services for students with disabilities) office then go! to! them! Even if you don’t think your disability is “severe” enough to require accommodation it’s still a good idea to be assessed by a learning specialist and have them provide suggestions of how you may be better set up for success moving forward.
    • Sometimes people/things who are meant to help us end up hurting us, so can’t stress enough how important it is to find other people with similarly marginalized aspects of identity who have taken classes with specific professors (and also subsequently worked within your university’s structures) and talk to them about their experiences. Take them out for lunch, or grab a coffee together! Even if they can’t help you, at least you’ve made a friend!
  4. Campuses are awful! All of them! I would be shocked to learn of a campus that unilaterally supports every student’s transportation needs. To that end: When you settle on your classes each semester take the time before Day 1 to walk (as slow as is physically possible) between said classes to make sure you know where they are/will have time to get to where you need to be even on the worst days.
  5. Don’t live on-campus? Invest in a fucking locker. Yes, seriously.
    • In my first year out of campus housing I used my locker all of, maybe, 5 times? but those 5 times were so helpful that the locker cost was 100% worth it. I can’t stress enough: books are heavy, and your back WILL eventually revolt. If you can’t afford a locker on your own find a buddy to split the costs with! Apply for a remittance! Anything! Just save your back the trouble!

Find the things that help you succeed:

  1. Use whatever tech helps you, and don’t let profs tell you you’re doing it wrong.
    • I get wicked migraines, and have found that using a red screen overlay is an unbelievably simple (but effective) tool for preventing migraines/something that sometimes allows me to work throughout a migraine! Amber tinted glasses work in much the same way (thanks to Jamie for this suggestion)!
    • I use my phone for all of my digital readings, and on days where I can’t use my laptop for whatever reason for drafting as well (actually this entire post was written using my phone). Programs I find helpful for phone-study are Foxit PDF, Microsoft OneNote, Google Drive (suite), and both of my uni’s apps. I’ve also bookmarked the university login portal to my homescreen in case the app doesn’t work. Generally I download readings, then upload them again to my Google Drive for easy access.
    • I’ve found that sometimes writing just isn’t possible. Investing in a decent speech-to-text program can be invaluable. The program I use primarily is Dragon Naturally Speaking Home Edition 12 (my dad and I split the cost of an OEM edition so we could get multiple product keys at a discount), but honestly I’ve used the Android speech-to-text function on my phone and it’s functionable once you get used to it!
  2. If you study better with background noise: make a huge-ass playlist to turn to on the regular so you’ve got tunes on-hand and don’t always have to look for things to put you in a good studying headspace.
    • My current “Studytime” playlist in Spotify is almost 13 hours long, and primarily made up of intrumental video game OSTs, for example.
  3. Audiobooks are great, and an absolutely fantastic way to experience texts. Librivox is useful for public domain things (check Project Gutenberg for text versions), and Audible is worth it (ime) for novels. On occasion articles can be found being read aloud on YouTube from conference presentations (sometimes this means you’re missing some of the article, but in a crunch it works). Also don’t be afraid to contact the library about ordering materials in for you! Librarians are there to help!
  4. Talk to profs about handing in alternative assignments. This is something that goes with “research your prof”/”stick with who you know” but honestly if Twitter essays/podcasts/blogs/whatever are easier for you and allow you your highest chance of success then the risk in asking is worth it.
    • I’ve found that when I provide a portfolio/reference of my previous work in a medium profs tend to be more willing because they can then see how I’ve succeeded in the past. Keep track of your old notes and assignments! You never know when they’ll come in handy!

Finally:

  • Don’t give up. Or do. Sometimes people are unwilling to work with you, or your body really can’t take anymore, or whatever. Knowing your own boundaries/limitations is important! Listen to your body!
    • Note: I’ve unfortunately had to drop (without refund) an incredible number of classes because I tend to think with my good day brain instead of my bad day brain. The financial fallout from that has been fucking terrible, but overall it’s better than burning out and having to drop out entirely sans-degree. A few semesters ago I finally spoke to a case worker through my school’s mental health services office who was able to help me better plan my resources (including time!) going forward, and while the success rate with that isn’t 100% I’m still better off today for having accessed that resource than I would be if I hadn’t.

If you have the time and energy I can’t recommend reading through the #hiddencurriculum tag on Twitter enough. I’ve seen a lot of GREAT threads offering reading suggestions, and so many people offering their own personal narratives as insight (like I’ve [hopefully] done here!).

University is unnecessarily complex most of the time, so regardless of what you find works for you stick to it!(!!) Don’t be afraid to reach out!(!!) Kick ass!(!!) I believe in you!(!!)

I’d like to thank everyone who took the time to proofread this post for me, including: a few people who would rather remain anonymous, my friend Jamie Elyse, and my Mum (yes, really)!

 

Eight Years Later: Report from the Field #1

Iringa town

It has been eight years since I’ve been here – here is Iringa town, Iringa Region, Tanzania. Suffice to say much can change in eight years but things also stay the same too. For example, eight years ago I was still trying to finish my PhD and I had *only* left my husband behind while now I have not only finished my PhD but have a tenure track position at an incredible institution. My husband is the same but the arrival of my kid five and a half years ago has made me a mom. The last time I came as a student, this time I have brought along my own student to mentor (Editor: you’ll hear from Dr. Biittner’s student in a future blog post).

Upon arriving in Dar es Salaam – the City of Peace, or just simply “Dar”, after three long flights (Edmonton to Toronto, Toronto to Zurich, Zurich to Dar via Nairobi), I was happy to see the airport was pretty much the same. The line to get visas stretched long but we could bypass it having already secured our visas from the embassy in Ottawa. The lines through passport control were short but progress through them was slower than I expected as it was here I had my first sign of real change – finger print scanning technology wasn’t used the last time I passed through. The air outside the airport smelled and felt the same – different from Edmonton but still home.

I was travelling with my student Keyna and a PhD student from the University of Alberta, Jeff, who is part of our research team. We arrived at night so we did not see much of Dar as we made our way pole pole (slowly) to our hotel. It was a familiar drive as traffic was heavy (yes even at 11 pm at night) and vendors and piki piki (motorcycles) wove through the cars and dala dalas (city buses).

We checked into the Heritage Motel – a new place for me as the hotel we’d stayed in previously was unsafe to stay in any more – and the familiar greetings slowly crept back in. Hujambo (Hello). Sijambo (Hello). Karibuni (You are welcome). Asante sana (Thank you). Habari za usiku? (How is your night?) Mzuri sana (Very fine/well). Pole za safari (Sorry for your trip). Asante sana (Thank you very much). My swahili is not very good but greetings are well rehearsed and practiced.

Our rooms were clean and comfortable. I remembered that first night to let Keyna know about the call to prayer so it wouldn’t surprise her. Hearing it again first thing in the morning – as the sun rose – only reinforced my feelings of being back home. Breakfast at the hotel (included!) would trigger my other senses – delicious smells and tastes of chapati, plantains, papaya, watermelon, pineapple, donut-like pastries, and chai.

My place memory kicked in as we walked around Dar to recover from jet lag our first full day. We bought SIM cards to be able to stay in touch (though it looks like most hotels have wifi – another new change). I was able to remember the way to the kanga market at Uhuru Street, to the City Center market, and then to the National Museum. We walked every where – so I could remember again and so Keyna could experience Dar for the first time. We got caught in the rain and that was ok too. We bought snacks at the supermarket – loading up on goodies from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and South Africa. We stayed up late to try to get on local time but hit our beds hard as we’d successfully tired ourselves out.

The second day in Dar we connected with my dear friend Dr. Pastory Bushozi. It had been eight years since I’d seen him in person and I was so happy to give him a hug and share news of our families. Bushozi introduced us to our driver Nico (we’d arranged transportation through Bushozi), and then he was off to do other work – as the head of his unit at the University of Dar es Salaam and a collaborator on several international projects, Bushozi is incredibly busy but he promised to join us in the field shortly. Nico took us to a famous tourist shopping spot – the Slipway – to try to stay busy in the most relaxing way possible as we’d be heading to Iringa in the morning.

In the past we would drive straight through to Iringa but the drive often extended to eleven hours or more and for safety sake we’d decided to stop over night in Morogoro. I was surprised at what a busy city it is; we’d only passed through before so I hadn’t realized its extent. We had a pleasant night (even without water and power for most of the evening – definitely a familiar experience in Tanzania!) at a small hotel run by the most pleasant woman (we’ll definitely stay with her again on the way back).

To get to Iringa we have to drive through Mikumi National Park – my favourite part of the drive. We were treated to seeing giraffes, baboons, warthogs, zebras, wildebeest, and so so many antelopes; they were grazing on the fresh shoots of grass growing out of the recently burned landscape (note: this is prescribed burning done to address wildfires; it ensures the burn is controlled versus wild, protecting the park, people, and animals).

Following Mikumi we begin the long slow grind up into the mountains. As much as I love the animals of Mikumi, I really start to feel at home once we begin our ascent. Iringa is in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania and it is truly beautiful. Baboons frequently line the road way and it is not surprising to find men roasting full cobs of corn at small turn offs along the highway. The stands in villages sell onions, tomatoes, and green peppers but the bucket full. One valley is full of baobab trees, which are beautiful and haunting – I love them so much they are on my list of tattoos to get. The air is cooler and drier here too – much cooler than the high temperatures, high humidity of the coast.

Finally we reach the turn off to Iringa town – the highway splits with one way heading further south to Mbeya (and eventually the southern most extent of the East African Rift Valley) while the other way heads up to a flattened playa of sorts upon which sits Iringa town. The number of piki piki and boda bodas (passenger trikes) surprised me as a new development as did some of the new buildings but mostly Iringa town was the same. I was able to direct our driver to my home away from home – the Isimila Hotel. We’d been booked into the newly upgraded rooms (including a larger bed and bed nets, hot water on demand, a mini fridge, and a tv!!!). I couldn’t believe that we would even have free wifi during our stay; in 2006 we relied on internet cafes while in 2008 and 2010 we had internet sticks and plans we could purchase for our laptops.

Home and yet not-home. Same and different. It feels good to be back. Karibu sana. 

Preparing for the Field (2018 Edition)

Iringa town

It’s been eight years since I’ve traveled to Tanzania for field work so yes I’m more than a little anxious about it. I have been in the field locally (i.e., the Mill Creek field school, which I documented here, here, here, here, here, and here) but there is a heightened sense of importance when one is heading to another continent for an extended period of time even if you’ve done it several times before (I did field work in Tanzania in 2006, 2008, and 2010, and traveled there for a conference in 2009 and to Senegal for a conference in 2010 too). As I tell my students, it is not like I roll out of bed and decide one morning “time to do some fieldwork” and then just grab my trowel and go dig somewhere. There is so much preparation that needs to be done and this is often not communicated well when we talk about going to the field. In recent years I have discussed this at length in all of my archaeology courses (and my Anth101 course too) because I think it is important to demystify the process of setting up a research program including all of the steps that are required before a single shovel can dig into the ground.

Note: I’ve previously covered this topic on my personal blog but I’ve updated it as some of the steps have changed. Also this is pretty specific to Tanzania but does give some insight as to the kinds of things you should look into no matter where you plan on working. Finally, I’m presenting this from a professor’s point of view – students will likely not have to complete many of these preparatory steps but I firmly believe that they should be aware of what they are and provide input and receive updates at every stage.

The first step in any research project is to apply for funding. Our project, the Iringa Region Archaeological Project (IRAP), is currently funded through 2022 by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Grant. We budgeted two field seasons into this grant as field work is a costly endeavour (Ed. – Another blog post on this later perhaps?).

In terms of planning to do actually field work, we have to first and foremost apply for research clearance from COSTECH (The Tanzanian Commission on Science and Technology) for all participants. This is typically done approximately 6 months before we intend to go. It currently costs $50 USD to apply (one fee for the single application, does not matter how many people are associated with the project) and $300 USD per person for the permit once approved. We also notify at this time the Director of the Department of Antiquities (Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism) that we are applying for COSTECH clearance as they will be reviewing our file. We cannot receive an excavation permit, that actually allows us to dig and collect artifacts, without COSTECH clearance and will not receive COSTECH clearance without the approval of Antiquities. We are required to have a local collaborator for our COSTECH application as well; we are fortunate to be working with Dr. Pastory Bushozi.

Once we receive notice of approval from COSTECH we can apply for our visas from the Tanzanian High Commission in Ottawa. This is where it also really helps to have our Tanzanian colleague located in Tanzania to assist us as we need to include copies of our COSTECH permits with this application. Our colleague picks up and scans our COSTECH  permits to email them to us; we then include the scans with our application. There is also a cost associated with the visa (and yes, while you can apply for the visa once you arrive there, we find doing it in advance helps speed up other permissions).

Once we have our COSTECH permits confirmed we can then book our flights. While this can occur at any point during the planning process, we tend to wait for COSTECH because without that permit we cannot do the research. We need to have the dates for our visas and our departments so at this point we start to have many things on the go at the same time. We rely heavily on checklists and communication between all of the people who are going to be involved in the field work becomes really important; we schedule frequent lab meetings and are in constant email contact. Around this time we also arrange for our vaccinations and get prescriptions for anti-malarial pills and take care of any other personal medical requirements to ensure we enter (and can leave) the field healthy.

Other tasks include communicating with the appropriate people in our department and any other appropriate offices at our universities. This includes things writing up and submitting ethics approvals, field safety/hazard assessment reports, emergency field response forms, itineraries, etc. We also register with the Canadian High Commission in Dar es Salaam via their webpage (www.travel.gc.ca). This ensures that should any issue arise which may prove a concern to our safety, the High Commission can contact us and get us out if necessary. So yes SO MUCH PAPERWORK. But it is so critical and important. All of these steps ensure we aren’t only doing responsible, safe, and ethical research but also that all of the right people know what is going on and can be kept in the loop.

We also arrange to return any collections we borrowed for study in previous years; we have been fortunate to be able to export artifacts and other materials for study to the lab at the University of Alberta. While we are doing this we are also taking inventories of gear and purchasing whatever supplies we need to take with us.

Then we can pack (this takes me weeks because I pack and unpack until I am satisfied that I have the minimum I need) and also get our personal lives sorted so we can finally make our way to the airport. This is the first year I’ll be leaving a kiddo behind at home so this has added an extra layer of stress to the planning but I’m so grateful for my husband and family who will be supporting her in my absence (I’m also so happy that I can check in all the time – thanks internet!).

There are some additional steps that have to be completed once we arrive in Tanzania. This season the Principal Investigator of our project and her PhD student have gone a few weeks early to take care of some of this before the rest of us (myself, my student, and another PhD student arrive); they are currently there now! After we arrive in Dar and recover from jet lag, we now need to head to the capital city, Dodoma, to visit the Department of Antiquities to officially pay for and pick up our Excavation License (again this process is sped up by having our colleague drop off our application a few months before we plan on arriving). This application includes a short project proposal and budget, 5% of which is what we will pay for the excavation permit. Once the fee is paid, typically in USD, we receive a copy of the License, which notifies us as who is our Antiquities Officer for the duration of our field season. This Officer will accompanies us during our work to ensure that we are conducting responsible and ethical research to the standard required by the Government of Tanzania. Part of our budget requires that we pay them a salary and cover their room and expenses while in the field with us. They also provide us with letters of introduction, which are necessary for visiting government offices in our particular study area.

We also visit the Tanzanian Department of Immigration because as researchers we are required to have our immigration status changed to a Class C “resident’s permit” – our visa just gets us in the country. It is quite the process involving filling out a form (in duplicate), providing 5 passport photos, and copies of your Curriculum Vitae (CV), any diplomas received, COSTECH permit, passport photo and passport visa pages. We submit our application and are given an receipt that provides the date we can pay for and pick up the permit. We are lucky that again our colleague facilitates this  by dropping off the paperwork as soon as we can get copies of everything to them. The first time I did this it meant staying in Dar for two weeks but now we can begin working while it is being processed (though it is typically ready when we arrive).

Once all the steps above are completed we can finally head out to our field site – Iringa Region – to do some archaeology!

empire

Check back regularly for posts from Iringa!

 

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.

Nerds (& Their Student) Review Things: Black Panther

Editor: I’ve invited back Dali, MacEwan University undergrad, to co-author a post about the wildly successful, critically and fan acclaimed Black Panther with Dr. Biittner. Both have very personal and different connections to Africa. Warning: some minor spoilers follow so if you haven’t seen the film yet then stop reading this and go see it already.

Dr. Biittner: I have many thoughts about Black Panther: as a fan, as an Africanist archaeologist, as an anthropologist, as a feminist. I want to start by making explicit my connection to this film as an Africanist archaeologist. Since 2006 my research has focused on studying the origins of our species as evidenced in the archaeological Iringa Region, southern Tanzania. I spent four field seasons in Tanzania – this includes three years of archaeological survey and excavations in Iringa Region and one trip to Arusha (northern Tanzania) where I was invited to participate in a conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the discovery of “Zinj” as well as the biannual meeting of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists (SAfA). In 2010 I attended SAfA in Dakar, Senegal, where I experienced culture shock as I found myself back in Africa but not the Africa I knew and loved. I consider myself an active member of the Africanist archaeology community through regular participation in SAfA meetings and a PANAF congress. My time in Tanzania has cultivated a deep love for the place and its peoples. But I’m not African, even as someone who acknowledges that our shared ancestry as a species can be traced there. In Canada I’m a white settler, in Tanzania I’m mzungu (someone with white skin). Both terms acknowledge the privilege I have and my outsider status.

So when I watched Black Panther I was situated in myself as someone who appreciates and acknowledges the diversity of African cultures. This is captured in such a dynamic visual way in the clothing, hairstyles, jewelry, and other body modifications (including scarification) of the characters, which many others more knowledgeable about design and African textiles have already commented on. National and Panafrican identities reflected on the purple carpet premiere of the film; for example, here’s an excellent thread breaking down the traditional clothing worn by the stars of the film:

These personal identities and connections to Africa were also represented in theatres across North America.

And have also created dialogues outside of the theatre as pride in identity, in knowledge has led to exchanges such as:

 

Now even as mzungu, I can “read” some of the designs, styles, textures, and motifs. I saw inspirations of East Africa broadly and felt joy because it spoke of a place I think of as another home. In the streets of Birnin Zana, the capital city of Wakanda, I saw baskets that reminded me of those from Iringa. The bright red cloth, shaved heads, armbands, and spears of the Dora Milaje, the all female royal bodyguard, reminded me of the Maasai. Importantly these various elements of real-world culture reimagined and writ large on the big screen come together to create a panafrican-ness – a nation that can be owned and shared by all Africans. And this is important because representation matters but also because of the social issues embedded in the film.

Black Panther captures some very important points about the ongoing consequences of colonialism and slavery for people of colour. Most of the critical plot points and character development revolve around the legacies of colonialism and slavery and what is means for Wakanda to be a nation that was never colonized, what it means to have Africans who have never known colonization. Now in this post I clearly don’t have the time to go over these in depth but Black Panther nails it. The explicit and repeated use of the term “Colonizer” was powerful and had echos for the current use of settler here in Canada. The reminder of the shared history of colonialism in Africa also contributes to the creation of a Panafrican identity as does the legitimization of anger. Anger against the Colonizers and those who are complicit in the act of colonization (by, like Wakanda, removing oneself from the discourse, by not helping nor aiding those impacted) is central to the film as it is in the real world. However , the anger of women and people of colour (and now of children as seen in response to the Parkland school shooting) is something that is generally seen as something that not ok; only white males are allowed to be angry and to display it publicly and privately. However in Black Panther, anger and rage is legitimized; it is validated as a necessary response to the intergenerational trauma, poverty, disenfranchisement, criminalization of Black people in the United States and elsewhere. It is framed not just as a result of colonialism, slavery, and racism but also in juxtaposition to masculinity. Toxic masculinity is challenged consistently throughout the film through the relationships the characters have with each other (I can’t go into this so much because massive spoilers). Note: all of this also serves to create the BEST Marvel villain to ever appear in the MCU – Michael B. Jordan’s N’Jadaka/Erik “Killmonger” – whose storyline is probably the MOST important part of the film as well.

 

Dali: Black Panther was first introduced to me in my first year at Macewan (2013), which feels like such a long time ago because of the growth I’ve experienced in becoming a proud African man. The Black Panther movie is a culturally important moment for the movement of Panafricanism and I just want to explain its relevance. My heritage is much deeper than just Zambia, in fact my tribe’s (Ngoni people) history has long roots back to KwaZulu-Natal. As a result of the Zulu Wars my ancestors were dispersed as far north as Tanzania, where you can find the town/gulf Mwanza (my last name). But this knowledge and pride was something I never really had in my earlier 19 years of living. My identity has never been very clear to me since I was born South African, but was never seen as such by my peers. Instead I was seen as a “Qwereqwere” (Derogatory term for foreigner) in South Africa, and somehow Chizungu (white/English speaker) back in Zambia. So I just fell back into the category “Black” for the most part, as it felt safer than constantly feeling like no one wanted me to be apart of their national identity.

How I experienced Black Panther was sort of on two different levels. The first was how I saw myself in both the hero (T’Challa) and Villain ( Erik Killmonger), and secondly the pride of African heritage that the movie offered. In my opinion, Killmonger was not a villain but rather the voice of many black folk that have lost connection to their African heritage. He is seen to be bad, but if you really break his character down he is like most black people who are living outside of the African continent. The feelings of not being wanted by your kinsmen, not having a place to be who you are, and more importantly being created to be a demon by those who colonized and oppressed you. His fight was for all Africans who have been oppressed by colonizers all over the global and called to empowerment of these people, which quite frankly is a ideology of the “Black Panther Movement”. So watching him brought me a bit of stress because his plight was juxtaposed with a somewhat passive approach to dealing with the colonizers (Wakanda’s). Seeing T’Challa and the respect he received and power he held was more than necessary to me. The pride I felt watching an African character played in such a unshakeable light brought tears to the little child inside of me. He represented the need to be responsible for all your people, along with the fact that a black man is nothing without the black women that form and strengthen him. These images and lessons are extremely important things that I’m only now learning at the age of 22, so could you imagine what these lessons will do for young black children today? The pride they will hold in regards to their extravagant clothing and history/tradition that comes along with it. The pride in the sound of Bantu languages on a big screen and the accents we have for too long tried to remove! The understanding that yes in fact, our people have been colonized and all our knowledge and traditions were stripped away as well. These lessons the movie offer are things I struggled with for many years and many others have too, but that’s changed now. The stigma behind Africanness has been removed! Clothing is being shared across oceans (people dressing up in regalia to the movie), African hip hop artists are being featured in big named American artists albums, and the bridge between Africa and removed Africans has been rebuilt. Phew… So yeah, this movie is more than just a film to go see, it has relevance to millions of people. People that felt like they never had a identity to call theirs, people who were ashamed of their skin color and heritage, and people who desired the images of a thriving continent. Wakanda forever a reminder that black is forever. That the so called “black magic” and “deserted land” is beautiful and more advanced than we are told to believe. And as I sat through that film with my father and caught him smiling with pure joy, I knew that the lessons being taught were exactly what our world needed right now.

Editor: I love how this discussion opens up about what this movie meant to you both emotionally and intellectually – and how it shows how your identities and your anthropological perspective on them have influenced your experience of the film. Storytelling as a way of reifying and recognizing our forms of humanity and cultural experience is a big deal, and a big budget, major studio, widely seen superhero film are pretty much our most manifest forms of this. Thanks for the review, nerds (and nerds in training)! Now go see Black Panther. Again.  

(Re)considering the Genus Homo: Reflection on What was Reported in 2017

So it’s less than a month into 2018 and there’s already controversy over a femur. I started writing this post back in 2017…I’m sorry but I just can’t keep up everyone. I really wish I could and I have so much respect for those bloggers that are cranking out responses to all of the <<startling new discoveries that are shaking the foundation of everything we thought we knew about human evolution>>. So mad props y’all.

I say this because 2017 was jam packed with new articles regarding two of the most controversial members of our genus, Homo floresiensis and Homo naledi, and some new dates for the earliest members of our species Homo sapiens. These announcements have been sensationalized in the media (as I attempted to capture above with my statement italicized and bracketed above) so it can be hard to understand what these discoveries actually mean.  Spoiler alert: no foundations shook, just more confirmation that human evolution is complicated! Here’s a very concise summary of the debates/issues as I understand them followed by some of the thoughts I have regarding the most recent findings. Also I’m not going to comment on the Sahelanthropus debate I started off linking to (at least in this post) as that species is clearly not part of the genus Homo but it does serve as good reminder that even the question of who gets to be a hominin can be contentious.

 

The Hobbits

Thanks to some new publications/articles/blog posts in 2017 (like this one or this one or this one) discussion about interpreting the fossil and archaeological record Homo floresiensis was pretty hot. Homo floresiensis captured everyone’s attention when first announced because of their resemblance to Homo erectus (physically and culturally…well depending on who you ask) yet australopith-like size. Quickly dubbed “the Hobbits” because of their small or “dwarf” size, the debate was on as to how to interpret their unique morphology. Most pathological conditions were ruled out and with the recovery of more remains from a second site in 2016 the general consensus seemed to be that they did indeed represent a separate species from all previously recorded ones. The dates for the material culture from the same sites were interesting but seem to be “good” dates; initially the archaeological record indicated that these small hominins were contemporaries of anatomically modern Homo sapiens meaning that oral histories in the region talking about the little people of the forest are supported by these fossils but the lack of fossils providing an overlap means this is debated too.

 

Naledi

So this species seems to have had Kardashian-level publicity even before it was fully recovered and reported. Let me start by saying I think the whole Rising Star Expedition is very cool; I LOVE and RESPECT how open access, public this research project has been and continues to be. I loved following the excavations on social media. I really respect many of the people involved in this project (note I’ve actually never met them but through their public outreach I feel like they are “my” type of people – researchers who are really trying to do good, accessible work), but this also makes it tougher as there are a lot of personalities and public personas involved and the “dark side” of public outreach is that some academics argue it impacts the quality of the work being conducted. So let’s focus on the data because that should be easy especially considering so much is open access right!?

This is where it continues to be tough. The site, while extremely cool (a cave system with a passage called “Superman’s Crawl” – doesn’t get much cooler than that) is very complicated in terms of both recovery of the fossils and of their interpretation. As I tell my students, context is everything. The context of the finds is complicated. The primary researchers doing the excavation and analyses argue that there was intentional, deliberate, disposal of the remains but this is hotly contested.

2017 brought us the announcement of “Neo” (that the nearly complete remains of one individual had been recovered from the assemblage representing at least three individuals) and dates for the finds. The dates are particularly interesting because they are much younger than the morphology of Homo naledi would suggest, and that they overlap with the earliest dates for the members of our species, anatomically modern humans. So we have a really small brained member of our species running around at the same time as us in Africa.

 

Anatomically Modern Humans from Morocco

Up until this article came out, the oldest known anatomically modern human (AMH) remains dated to 180 thousand years ago (or kya) from East Africa, which is supported by genetic evidence that also places the origin of our species to East Africa. Now the oldest specimens of our species are directly dated to 290 kya from a site called Jebel Irhoud. They are associated with lovely stone tools dating to between 280 and 350 kya. So while this does not blow up everything we know about the origins of our species, it does demonstrate that we need to focus on Africa as a continent.

 

Summary Thoughts on the genus Homo

What links these recent discussions on H. naledi and H. floresiensis is that they both challenge what a “late” member of the genus “should” look like. Importantly both have small crania and it has been long held that we should see an increase in cranial size over time leading to us big brained humans. The Moroccan evidence simply requires us to consider a much broader region for our origins.

Now I’m sure someone has remarked this before, and remember I’m not a geneticist, but what if the reason why humans are the only hominins left is because we were the only ones who could successfully interbreed with other hominins? That successfully incorporating and retaining the genes of other hominins into our genome increased our genetic diversity making us better adapted to life on this planet, period. Further what if evidence for interbreeding really is what we are seeing, that shared genes are not simply just remnants of a shared common ancestor?

Genes are a critical piece of the puzzle because as with the new dates and location for the anatomically modern humans, they are suggesting a different origin and one that is slightly later.

As always more data (fossils, dates, etc.) clearly does not mean more answers, just more questions. What is clear to me is that we need to reconsider how we define the genus Homo and how we assign species to this genus. Maybe the genus Homo is the problem; it is honestly poorly defined so I say let us start there. Part of this new definition means that we need to decouple the fossil record from the archaeological record; I know how problematic this sounds (humans are humans because of how we think and behave and this is reflected in our material culture) but direct and clear associations between specific types of material culture and specific species are few AND fail to account for other equally plausible explanations. We assume X species were responsible for Y tools because they are found in the same sites and date to the same time periods but there are so many contemporaneous species why do we continue to insist it’s only the largest brain variants that had the culture. This seems so outdated to me and poorly supported by the very large body of evidence we have. What if some of the variations we see in the so-called tool traditions are because differences in WHO was making them?

As a colleague on twitter posted “I’d love to see a fossil discovery that makes things simpler instead of more complicated” because right now the story of human evolution seems already complicated enough.