gender, language, other topics, politics

A Sampling of Snortlets



Here are a few items for your delectation:


  1. Beware of machines!


Barbara McMahon, a reporter for the London Times, writes to ask my opinion of “a new app that encourages women to stop writing the words SORRY and JUST in their emails. “


My response:


Well. Where to begin?


First of all: it seems as if it’s not enough that, over many millennia, men have been telling women how (and especially how not to) talk, and so have women. Now there’s an app — which means that now MACHINES can tell women how to (and how not to) talk. Clearly this is progress.


There seems to me to be so much wrong with this whole idea that I hardly know where to begin. But for starters:


How come nobody has an app for telling men how to talk or not to talk? Because they wouldn’t be interested, that’s why. But you can always embarrass or guilt a woman, and this app is just the latest way to embarrass women about how they talk.


I know that the developers of the app would say, in all sincerity, that they were trying to help women by telling us how to talk, and since language is what makes us human, how to be more human or at least better humans — just as people, male and female, have always been wanting to improve women by telling us how (not) to dress, walk, smile, think, be sexy, be intelligent, and so on and so on…. But these helpful hints never make anyone a better speaker (or anything else): their effect is to make women less articulate (etc.) because they suppress our spontaneity and make us embarrassed about whatever we do. We are damned if we do (too weak) and damned if we don’t (too strong).


In short, telling women how to talk is about discouraging women from using their voices. That is about the last thing we need.


Moreover: It is folly to think that any word (including “sorry” and “just”)  has one and only one meaning or function. That is the assumption made by those who would tell women never to use those words, or any words. Whether a word is rightly or wrongly used is a function of the context (linguistic, psychological, social) in which it is used. There are times when “just” or “sorry” is inappropriate; there are times when it is le mot juste (or just). Only the speaker in the discourse knows which it is in that discourse. One size fits all is not a sophisticated way to understand language.




And more moreover: Using words like these (pragmatic particles/discourse markers/ hedges) is very often the very best thing a speaker can do. These words (there are a great many) have, among their wide range of use, the ability to soften what a speaker is saying so as to make it easier for a hearer to hear, understand, and respond to — a way to make difficult utterances more comfortable and make everyone feel better and get along better. This is what members of a social species like ours most need to know how to do, and it is something women are more likely to do well than men. One way women do it well is to employ these words, denigrated as “weak” or “empty.” But they are not. They are the best things we’ve got, and the fact that so many people (and machines) are delighted to dump on them and their users illustrates the extent of misogyny and the damage it does.

  1. Watch That Verb!


David Brooks begins his New York Times op-ed column on January 8 as follows:


Last month Fox News released a poll showing Hillary Clinton leading Bernie Sanders in Iowa by 14 points. But the amazing part of the poll was the generation gap. Among likely caucusgoers under 45, Sanders was crushing Clinton 56 to 34 percent. Among the older voters, Clinton was leading 59 to 24.

What’s most interesting here is not so much anything Brooks is explicitly saying about Clinton vs. Sanders. Rather, it is his choice of verbs in the last two sentences of the paragraph: Sanders was “crushing” Clinton 56 to 34% among younger voters; among older voters, Clinton was “leading” 59 to 24.

Do the math. Sanders wins over Clinton in the first poll by 32 points; in the second, Clinton is ahead by 35. According to the figures, Clinton is doing better (if marginally) than Sanders. Yet, if you didn’t actually do the arithmetic but let yourself be guided by lexical semantics alone (“crushing” vs. “leading”), who would you think is doing better?

Word choice counts. This point was made powerfully in an article published in 1974 by the psychologists Elizabeth E. Loftus and John C. Palmer. They were looking at how juries might respond to two different kinds of automobile accident reports. They showed subjects a short video of two cars colliding. The subjects each got one of the following five questions to answer:

“About how fast were the cars going when they smashed/ collided/ bumped/ hit/contacted each other?”

Depending on the verb used in the question, subjects gave different estimates of the vehicles’ speed, from an average of 40.8 for “smashed” to 31.8 for “contacted.” Remember: they had all seen the same video!

Brooks’ verb choice is apt to have a similar effect. Readers are likely to come away with a sense that, overall, Sanders is doing a lot better than Clinton. I can’t swear that Brooks intended this interpretation, but it is available for the taking.

  1. The Dowd Cloud.

Here’s another personal fave, Maureen Dowd, writing in the New York Times “Sunday Review” on January 10. She is giving some support to the immaculate Donald’s repeated critiques of the Clintons’ “tangled conjugal life.” But at least the D. mostly manages to direct his criticism toward the actual wrongdoer, President Bill.

Not Dowd, who charges Hillary Clinton with “hypocrisy” for declaring in Beijing in 1995 that “women’s rights are human rights” while condoning (Dowd says) Bill’s sexual proclivities. She also assails Hillary for hypocrisy because she is “running as a feminist icon when she was part of political operations that smeared women.” Dowd also attacks HRC for having friends like Anthony Weiner “who have been ensnared in seamy scandals.” And so on.

It is a curious and unfortunate truth that all too often men who are sympathetic to women’s rights really like women, sometimes perhaps a bit too much. I am not nearly as able as Dowd purports to be to draw a bright line between “sexual predators” and “feminist men.” I can think of quite a few males about whom there has never been a breath of sexual scandal, and whose official words and actions with respect to women have been horrendous: Marco Rubio, Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, George W. Bush (remember Harriet Miers, anyone?) — a list that could go on forever. Possibly they abstained because they “cherished” women so very highly. Or perhaps they were terrified of adult female sexuality, which certainly had something to do with their stands on women’s reproductive (and other) rights. If I had to choose one kind of predator over the other as the more “feminist,” I’d take the first, and fast. I certainly think I’d rather spend eternity in the company of Bill Clinton, or Teddy Kennedy, or any of the others who maybe were a little too fond of women, than with anyone on the “virtuous” list.

But that’s not the worst part of Dowd’s case. She, like Ruth Marcus a couple of weeks ago, and like too many allegedly “feminist” women during Monicagate, blames the woman overtly or covertly for her man’s misbehavior. It’s always her fault. So fifteen years ago too many feminists were calling HRC an “enabler” — when they weren’t chiding her for driving Bill into Monica’s, er, arms by her sexual coldness.

It is not feminist to blame women for their men’s bad behavior. It is not even pro-male, since doing so implies that men are children incapable of making moral decisions for themselves. And while Clinton may have said harsh things about Monica (saying “to friends” that she was a ‘troubled young person’ and a ‘narcissistic loony tune’), I am loath to see her as un-feminist on that account. First of all, the latter comment was made to privately to a friend, Diane Blair, who recorded it in her diary, which came to light after her death, when it was made public against her wishes (a case of a woman not being allowed to maintain even her most sacred boundaries). Secondly, when embroiled in a horrific scandal brought on by Lewinsky’s unfortunate choice of confidante (remember Linda Tripp?), HRC had, as I see it, every right to feel furious with both participants in the game, nor was it in the least un-feminist for her to do so. (And, incidentally, Lewinsky was fully complicit in the Oval Office goings-on; Bill certainly behaved inappropriately, but he was not exactly a predator. To heap all the blame on him is to imply that Monica Lewinsky was a child incapable of making moral decisions.)

Dowd equates HRC with the D.: both are “bullies.” But Clinton’s venting of anger at a woman who had caused her chagrin and almost brought down her husband’s presidency (and, yes, imperiled her future career) are not in any way equivalent to Trump’s mud-slinging and outright lies against someone who had done him no wrong. Maybe Hillary could have behaved more elegantly; I defy Dowd, or me, or any other woman, to do better under the circumstances. Feminism is, perhaps more than anything, a willingness to understand and sympathize with other women. Dowd is no feminist and has no business calling Clinton out on those grounds.

As Hamlet remarks to Polonius (Act II, Scene 2):

Polonius. My lord, I will use them [the players] according to their desert.

Hamlet. God’s bodykins, man, much better. Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?

And yes, HRC has for a long time been close to Huma Abedin, which means that she had to have some sort of relationship to Abedin’s husband, the oafish Anthony Weiner. That doesn’t mean Clinton knew, or approved, of Weiner’s tweets or anything else, and has no bearing on Clinton’s feminist credentials. We can’t always choose the spouses of our friends.

And besides, none of us knows enough about anyone else’s marriage to pontificate on it, as Dowd and too many others have done with the Clintons’ marriage over the years. The only people who know enough to comment are the couple themselves, and the Clintons know enough not to comment. It is true that we look to POTUS and FLOTUS to tell us how to be married and what contemporary marriage means in America. But we should at least be cautious in making interpretations of something that we know nothing about, as much as we think we do.

And one final thought: On the one hand, the public and the media are down on Clinton because she is not enough of a woman: she’s too aggressive, crosses too many gender lines, isn’t “warm” or “authentic,” whatever those words mean. On the other, she is too much a woman – stands by her man, displays ferocity when her marriage comes under attack. Clinton is as always Everywoman, all of us: she’s damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t.

  1. Here We Go Again.

The latest Iowa and New Hampshire polls show Sanders pulling ahead of Clinton, some by significant margins. It’s not clear just what these polls mean, or how they should be read: national polls still have Clinton far ahead of Sanders. But the local polls give me pause.


The January Quinnipiac poll shows a “yawning” gender gap:

Men: Sanders 61, Clinton 30

Women: Clinton 55, Sanders 39.

Most interesting, or distressing, is that earlier Iowa polls had Clinton holding a significant lead over Sanders among both genders. So what’s happened with the men?

The pundits blather: after San Bernardino and Paris, security becomes paramount and men see men as being more trustworthy on security. Trump’s attacks on Clinton’s husband are having an effect on men. Economic worries are driving men (but not women) into the Sanders camp.

Or…could it be…that as the caucuses grow closer (February 1) and become palpably real, men in Iowa are beginning to feel the pricklings of the usual old gender terror: the threat of a woman in the Oval Office becomes just too scary? If so, then the gender gap should increase in every state as its primary gets closer, and we are in for a repeat of 2008, in which the “inevitable” Clinton becomes just too horrible for males to confront. If this is true, we will never see a woman president unless we deprive men of the vote.

On a related theme, Joe Biden had some comments about Clinton. He praised Sanders for his attention to “economic inequality,” and said further that Clinton had only recently espoused the issue of inequality.

This analysis, if such it can be called, echoes a lot of what one hears in Clinton-Sanders comparisons. The pundits have made “inequality” synonymous with “economic inequality,” about which there has been a good deal of vigorous discussion.

But that is not the only kind of inequality that there is, nor is it the most virulent. Somehow, as the discussion of the poll results suggest, nobody is willing, or able, to form and express an opinion about gender inequality and its effects on this race. I have heard nothing said about Biden’s overlooking of this problem, no doubt because nobody among the punditry thinks it is a problem. If you listen to the political discourse, you could easily forget that there was a candidate of an unusual gender in the race: the only mention of this fact is the use of an unusual (in this context) third-person singular pronoun.

So it looks like the gender gap is alive and well, and women are not rising to the occasion as might be hoped, and nobody wants to talk about what’s really going on.