Monday, November 21, 2016

For "The New Yellow Journalists," Opportunity Comes In Clicks And Bucks

We're doomed.
That is all.*

   Rush Limbaugh started this latest phase of our decline. Adoration and money was/is more important to him than the reservoir of good will that sustained our democracy. Sure, he kinda believed what he said...but he must have had his doubts. But not enough doubts to outweigh the adoration and money. So he went into the business of spinning out mythical tales of liberal traitorousness and related wickedness.
   The right has plenty of true believers, but now the production of propaganda seems to have become a purely financial endeavor for some. If someone could get rich by wrecking the country--e.g. turning us into a Mad-Max-esque distopia--how long do you think we'd last? If: more than a week, then: you're quite the optimist.
   I also think that it's informative that these patent fantasies/falsehoods are vastly more popular / effective on the right than they are on the left.
   The left has its own craziness, but at least it tends to be rather more articulate, and tends to gesture at abstruse (if absurd) theories.  It at least has a kind of theoretical / pseudophilosophical smokescreen / fig leaf. This radical-right-wing kinda have to be witless to fall for it.
   Though--come to think of it--I actually think Thinking you're a woman (or man) makes you one--one of the more prominent current myths on the left, is much more patently absurd than Obama was born in Kenya. Both should send any rational person to epistemic DEFCON 1...but at least the latter depends on hidden facts. Birtherism could, at least theoretically, turn out  true in some not-all-that-distant possible world. The transgenderism stuff is just flat-out, obviously absurd. On the order of day is night. Or: day is night if you think it is.  And I guess we could add: the right never insisted that it was obvious that Obama was born in Kenya, nor that anyone who denies that Obama was born in Kenya is an ignorant bigot. Hmm. Then is it just that the righty sites lack the veneer of sophistication? That they're filled with lowbrow popups? (Goldbuggery, magic bracelets, reverse mortgages?) That they're inarticulate? That the lefty stuff is often somewhat more articulate and urbane? Hmm... Actually, I'm not really sure about that, even. It's often pretty moronic and inarticulate too.
   There does seem to be some difference. But now I'm not sure what it is.
   I probably just don't know what I'm talking about yet again.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you likely are overestimating how much sway certain postmodern gender-theory ideas have in the actual pragmatic leftist mindset right now.

I know several transgender people, and not a single one things that biological sex is not a "real" thing, in some capacity. It is poor mischaracterization to suggest that they "think that thinking that you're changes your biological sex."

Rather, the manner of thinking that I've seen most (which is more or less correct) is that we arbitrarily tie a lot of social ritual to sexual dimorphism without any really good reason to do so - most (not all) of the differences in how we *treat* men and women has no clear biological justification. And, given this, the only really relevant thing is which of the arbitrary social categories you feel expresses your identity the best.

It is not that one's sense of self-identity changes their biological sex, but rather that there's very little social normativity that actually flows from their biological sex and so in most situations it is irrelevant.

Of course, in light of this it would probably be better if we were all in some hypothetical world where we did not arbitrary sort people into social categories, in which all of this would be totally vacuous and people could pick and choose whichever bits and pieces of "gender identity" that they wanted, but it's not really possible to snap our fingers and arrive in such a situation (socialization runs *very* deep) and so allowing people to, at the very least, pick their arbitrary social categorization is pretty clearly justified.

Of course, humanities academia is indeed full of articles about how "biological sex is socially constructed," but those segments of academia have been hopeless for a long time (Sokal, anyone?) and I don't think it's correct to infer that the thought there is reflective of the wholesale political thought throughout the left. It certainly has influence, and that influence has caused a lot of problems, but in this instance I'm pretty sure the craziness has not filtered down the way you seem to think it has.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Very reasonable response, A, but I think it's wrong.

I absolutely agree with the position you attribute to the people you know--but that's the old-school feminist position: sex doesn't determine gender; whatever your sex, you should be free to look and act like you want.

But that's not consistent with the theory that's not merely confined to academia, but now part of the public discussion--that e.g. Caitlyn (nee Bruce) Jenner is *literally a woman.*

'Woman' is a sex term meaning *adult female human.* I've got no problem with Jenner living his life however suits. Jenner's appearance and mannerisms are none of my affair. And I'm very committed to that position.

But Jenner isn't a woman, and to insist otherwise is simply false. That's not what 'woman' means, and it's *never* been what woman meant.

Furthermore, public restrooms are segregated by sex and not gender. Therefore the public pose (by e.g. the media) that aversion to e.g. Jenner using the women's room is some astonishing, new kind of bigotry is nuts. Rightly or wrongly, it's just an insistence that the traditional / presumptive norms be adhered to.

Me, I'm willing to rethink those norms. But I'm not willing to pretend that it's not a re-thinking.

So, anyway, it's not so much the practical stuff I'm opposed to--though I am *somewhat* averse to integrated public restrooms and locker rooms.

It's the bad theory--that 'woman' is a gender term, and that e.g. a male who thinks of himself as a woman is a woman.

*That* simply isn't true. It's also an impediment to thinking about the practical issues more clearly.

Sorry if that came off as strident...I have to say, I'm losing my patience with this issue...but your comment is very reasonable, and deserves a non-cranky response. Hope I've managed that.

11:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure it's as simple a distinction as you're making it out to be, though - "woman is a sex term, not a gender term" is a very strong statement, and one that I don't think is entirely consistent with the way people actually use the term in natural language.

Natural language words are wonky and have complicated meanings with fuzzy boundaries (one of the great problems with many approaches to semantics is trying to approach word definitions as if they were Aristotelian categories rather than crude quasi-boundaries drawn around heuristically around conceptually-similar clusters of things). The use of the word "woman," I'd say, pretty clearly has a lot of content that would classify as "gender" rather than "sex." It does not, unfortunately, cleanly fit into either category, because most people do not actually think of these things as separate things. I think accusing someone who thinks of it predominantly as a "gender" term of "re-definition" is wrong, and certainly unproductive. Natural language is a crude tool that cares little for our technical distinctions (hence the need for jargon).

Ultimately, what I think you're describing is not neatly a case of honest disagreement about well-defined terms, but rather a dispute of definitions where you and the people you disagree with are using the same term ("woman") to mean different things. In situations like these, it's basically impossible to figure out to what extent you actually disagree without first dissolving the contentious terms and agreeing to speak only in terms that you more or less agree on. Upon doing so, you often find that you disagree on surprisingly little of the substance. I think it's important to keep in mind that "is woman a 'gender' or 'sex' term" is not a question with any normative import per se, so you should be able to capture the substance of the disagreement purely in terms of what you think the answer to that question would imply.

Don't take this to mean that the "other side," as it were, doesn't have the same problem - declaring that "woman" is strictly a "gender" term is wrong for the same reason.

12:04 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Nicely-put, A, and thanks for it.

I absolutely agree that 'woman', like very other term this-side of pure number theory (as Peirce says somewhere) is vague. Not to mention unclear / indeterminate in other ways.

However, two points:

'Woman' is actually fairly clear as terms go. (The OED says *adult female person*). It doesn't have a whole *lot* of wonkiness.

There are *hints* of gender in it--roughly, "connotations" in the ordinary sense. But you've kinda gotta stretch for those.

Even simple thought-experiments (if conducted before the recent propaganda campaigns) would have very clearly indicated that basically *everybody* would agree that, were we to separate sex and gender 'woman' would go with sex. Just about no one would say that an adult female person who dressed and acted male had literally become a man. (Now you'd still find that if you surveyed people not affected by PC politics.)

Whatever blurring there might be between sex and gender, the vast majority of 'woman' overlaps with the sex circle. The overlap with gender is minor (this is close to the "connotation" point above.

Even some who advocate hard for the neologistic interpretation admit that the push is "meliorative" and based on moral and political ends.

Nobody on the standard side of all this is saying that (e.g.) Jenner can't think of / call himself a woman--Jenner can do whatever Jenner wants in that respect, and Jenner's friends can, too. It's the leftist side that is insisting that those who disagree with them *must* adopt their usage, and that to not do so is bigoted.

So that side can't rest content with ambiguity or vagueness--it needs undeniable univocity.

And that is not anywhere *near* being true.

The move the left pulls here is very similar to the move it pulls with 'racism'. Goes like so:

A: (e.g.) It's possible for blacks to be racist.
B: No it isn't.
A: Of course it is. 'Racism' means hating someone because of their race (approximately).
B: No, there's a "sociological" definition according to which racism is "power+privilege," so no member of the disadvantaged group can be racist against any member of the advantaged group.

But that won't do it.

(Ignoring the fact that that's merely an attempt at persuasive re-definition for political purposes) what the left needs there is NOT *there are two meanings.* Because that can't get them what they want, which is: *you are not permitted to use the term in the other way.* To get that, you need univocity, not ambiguity.

Blah, blah, blah.

I am SO cranky about this shit.

I realize that.

12:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree entirely with your judgment of redefinition - it is a terrible, noncommunicative, bad-faith rhetorical tactic. It is this even when there are underlying good-faith differences in intuition about the meaning of the terms. Your model exchange about "racism" is something I find immensely frustrating, as well.

That said, I do think that there is more good-faith disagreement about the connotations of the word "woman" than you think - for me, at least, I'm pretty sure *most* of the things I associate with the term seem to be social, not biological.

Of course, while I believe that in good faith, if I were to argue it "by definition," that would be (as mentioned) a terrible, noncommunicative, bad-faith rhetorical tactic. And yes, the left needs to stop doing this - I could not agree more.

1:09 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

You are a person of great patience, A.

That's the kind of role-model I need right now...

It's interesting to me that you think there's real, honest disagreement about the term.

I actually *don't* agree that arguing from the definition would be bad faith tactic... I, at least, think I'm arguing *largely* from the definition, and (I *think*) not in bad faith. I just think that it's clear that women are adult female humans, and that that's what the term has always meant.

I think we also have a term for the other stuff: 'feminine.' Jenner, e.g., is a feminine man--or so I'd say.

I'll admit that part of my view here is influenced by the old-school feminist view that sex is male/female and gender is masculine/feminine, and that the former need not determine the latter. It's possible that that my separation of gender from womanhood is influenced by that view...but I'm pretty sure that the previous views those feminists were battling would agree about womanhhood.

*Sometimes* one would, back in the day, hear people use the term "real man," which I take meant: masculine man... (Thanks to, I think, NovaHeel on Inside Carolina for getting me to attend more carefully to that point.)
That's hard to untangle, but I don't think it can get us very close to 'man' is a gender term.

Anyway, I'm going on too long.

I still disagree, but I'm interested in your view.

1:18 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Also I've got what are probably irrelevant moral objections to identifying womanhood with femininity (appearance, mannerisms).

Shutting up now.

1:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My view basically stems from the fact that when I try to introspect into what my brain makes of the term "woman," the vast majority of it seems to be things that you would call "feminine." I don't really think much about the person's role in sexual reproduction, or associated sexual dimorphism. Those things are there, but I don't think they constitute most of the practical information that I get when I hear that a person is a "woman." I think "female," as a term, is probably as close as it gets to stripping away the cultural connotations, in my conception of the language. As with all natural language words, this is very much a "YMMV" thing, but my intuitions seem to suggest to me that it is entirely possible that many people do feel that it is mostly a "gender" term.

Yeah, I suppose I was too strong in painting redefinition as a strictly bad-faith tactic. That requires that the person doing it know that it is not a correct argument, but use it anyway for pragmatic reasons. But for a good summary of why I feel it is not a useful/correct argument, the following LW articles give a pretty good summary:

Basically, words are tools. If there's a legitimate disagreement about the meaning of a term, then arguing about the "true" meaning of that term is almost never per se a meaningful argument - it is instead just a (usually confusing) proxy for other material concerns, and the proper thing to do is to dissolve the term in question and just discuss those concerns directly.

Though, sometimes the question actually just is "how should this term be defined in the public discourse," and I'll admit that for most such questions I've yet to come to what I feel is a satisfactory conclusion. But every effort should be made to divorce that question from other questions that are actually separate.

1:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a point of clarification that I want to bring up, and I’ll begin it with a question: is it implicit in this discussion that gender is to be construed in narrowly social terms? That is, it seems rather uncontroversial to state that gender is tied to social roles in some manner and that gender is and can be socially reinforced so as to bring about a particular regularity of occurrence between a given sex and gender (e.g. womanhood with femininity, manhood with masculinity). Is our expectation that a man is more likely to act in a masculine manner (whatever that means in this context) than he is to act in a feminine manner simply an expression of our implicit biases that have been reinforced, socially, over time? Or is the regularity with which men are more likely to act in a masculine manner have a fundament in our biology?

If we think of masculinity as something like the disposition to being more aggressive or impulsive, then we could very well construe gender as a vestigial, non-normative socio-biological property because this conditional brings to mind the picture of our ancestors, on the plains, trying to survive, where men would take on the tasks more suited for aggressive behavior (e.g. hunting large animals). It doesn’t hit my ear just right to suggest that primitive peoples would decide that men hone their aggression in an entirely arbitrary manner, especially when one observes that many cultures around the world seemingly adopted this kind of practice. It seems to me that gender has *some* important foundation in our biology.

I dunno, I’m just spit-balling here.

3:13 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

So... how about another angle:

Basically, if one takes the term "woman" to mean "an adult human female," it is typically very easy to determine to whom the term applies. Sure, there are androgynous individuals wherein this becomes difficult, but that's how that is.

If Anonymous is right, however, the term "woman" seems to me to be basically meaningless, is it not? If it doesn't refer to sex, but to gender, then I guess we'll have to define that gender with a bunch of qualities or behaviors that typify the gender and then, in order to properly refer to someone, one will need to perform a calculation based off of whatever information one is able to glean from the interactions one has had with this person so far and hazard a guess.

But then I imagine that people will protest the term's definition if it doesn't fit with their idea of womanhood, and since the matter of word choice is now entirely about a person's self-identification in regards to gender, how, exactly, would this issue be resolved?

To simplify:

If (1) "woman" refers to gender and (2) individuals determine their gender as they see fit, then (3) individuals can arbitrarily choose to be called "woman."

So if that's the case... then...


Are we just doomed to having to query every person for the person's word preferences prior to engaging with the person to any reasonable linguistic degree?

That seems stupid. And now, believing myself to have properly established the alleged stupidity, I will say something I may well have to retract should I discover I am wrong:

And for what are we doing all this? So that people can succeed in compelling me to address them per their preferred and personally customized nuance? No, thanks. There are some things we do so that society can work which we would individually prefer to be otherwise, but we bend for the sake of society. If you're not willing to bend so much as to merely allow yourself to be designated by your sex in a basic terminological sense, then aside from the seemingly prohibitive impracticality of your proposed solution, my guess is that you're going to be continually obstructive to society and we probably shouldn't let you get that foothold at all.

4:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: the possibility that social standards have developed from biological differences: Of course, this is possible. But it's much easier, for any given social gender trope, to posit a convincing-sounding evolutionary narrative for its origin (a just-so story) than it is to demonstrate that this actually accounts for its origin.

Moreover, such explanations are not expressly relevant in a normative sense - description and prescription are different things. This is the same reason that evolutionary ethics falls flat on its face. Evolutionary "fitness" is not always (or even often) a good proxy for our actual preferences.

The Mystic: I think some of your conclusions here don't really follow.

The term isn't "meaningless," because social tropes exist independently of the whims of any single individual, even if they're socially constructed and (mostly) arbitrary. So what if everyone gets to pick whether they're a "woman" or a "man?" This does not necessarily empty the term of meaning, unless said identification fails to fall along any existing identifiable social categorization (in the case of transgender people, I argue that this pretty clearly is not the case).

The balance between being reasonably accommodating of individual differences and keeping language usable is not a trivial one. I don't think that believing that we should be able to choose our gender identity means that we are thus impelled to explicitly ask everyone we meet their preferred pronouns before talking to them, because assuming them is an extremely convenient heuristic that works for the overwhelming majority of people, and abandoning said heuristic would be a massive imposition on society. But if someone then corrects you, I do think it is unreasonable to refuse to make a good-faith effort to accommodate them (within reason).

6:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My previous comment appears to have disappeared, when it was posted earlier - is something up with the comments?

7:17 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

A comment that was up disappeared??

I have no idea what's up, but I'll do what minimal poking around I know how to do.

10:30 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

I cannot find any evidence of nor explanation for a deleted comment.

Sorry, A. Dunno WTH is up.

10:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, a fairly lengthy comment about arguments from definition (with two links to relevant LessWrong articles), posted directly after your one about the moral objections. If you can't find it, I'll try my best to re-create it.

10:36 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

quoting A:

"I have a point of clarification that I want to bring up, and I’ll begin it with a question: is it implicit in this discussion that gender is to be construed in narrowly social terms? That is, it seems rather uncontroversial to state that gender is tied to social roles in some manner and that gender is and can be socially reinforced so as to bring about a particular regularity of occurrence between a given sex and gender (e.g. womanhood with femininity, manhood with masculinity). Is our expectation that a man is more likely to act in a masculine manner (whatever that means in this context) than he is to act in a feminine manner simply an expression of our implicit biases that have been reinforced, socially, over time? Or is the regularity with which men are more likely to act in a masculine manner have a fundament in our biology?

If we think of masculinity as something like the disposition to being more aggressive or impulsive, then we could very well construe gender as a vestigial, non-normative socio-biological property because this conditional brings to mind the picture of our ancestors, on the plains, trying to survive, where men would take on the tasks more suited for aggressive behavior (e.g. hunting large animals). It doesn’t hit my ear just right to suggest that primitive peoples would decide that men hone their aggression in an entirely arbitrary manner, especially when one observes that many cultures around the world seemingly adopted this kind of practice. It seems to me that gender has *some* important foundation in our biology. I have a point of clarification that I want to bring up, and I’ll begin it with a question: is it implicit in this discussion that gender is to be construed in narrowly social terms? That is, it seems rather uncontroversial to state that gender is tied to social roles in some manner and that gender is and can be socially reinforced so as to bring about a particular regularity of occurrence between a given sex and gender (e.g. womanhood with femininity, manhood with masculinity). Is our expectation that a man is more likely to act in a masculine manner (whatever that means in this context) than he is to act in a feminine manner simply an expression of our implicit biases that have been reinforced, socially, over time? Or is the regularity with which men are more likely to act in a masculine manner have a fundament in our biology?"

That's the way I think of it.

Much of gender in the sense of masculinity and femininity (the original sense in this context...though 'gender' has been mangled in order to make it serve political ends of the left of late) clearly has a biological basis.

Some of it is obviously arbitrary (pink and blue being the obvious example). But most of it was not made up from nothing.

But the old-school feminist point is basically: *don't mistake a middling-strength statistical correlation for something normative*

Which of course I agree with.

It's crazy to force men to be masculine / women to be feminine.

I'm 100% down with that point.

And that's one way to understand the confusion at the heart of the current lefty theory of transgenderism, which, in essence, holds that *being masculine makes you a man* and *being feminine makes you a woman.*

It's actually a giant step backward, and more conservative than the most ardent conservatism. At least the traditional conservative view was just *men are obligated to be masculine, and defective otherwise.* The current lefty theory of transgenderism is basically: *being masculine is constitutive of being a man.*

Of course that's only one aspect of the theory--there are other aspects, invoked when that one doesn't work. But they are inconsistent with it, and actually constitute different theories. (e.g.: the brain difference theory, the "gender identity" theory.)

10:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok, well, here's my best attempt to re-create the post:

So, my feeling about the semantics of the word "woman" comes mainly from introspection - when I think about what I associate with the word "woman" (i.e., if I hear that someone is a "woman," what pragmatically do I expect from that?), *most* of the things that occur to me seem to be social (aesthetics, clothing choice, etc) rather than biological. I think the term that I'd say most closely reflects your use of "woman," in my conception, is "female." Of course, YMMV - but my intuitions here make it fairly easy for me to imagine that people do legitimately feel that "woman" is more a gender term than a sex term.

Yeah, I suppose it was wrong to describe argument-from-definition as being necessarily bad-faith - it can only be bad faith if the person arguing both realizes it's a bad argument and decides to use it anyway for pragmatic reasons. But, as to why it's an unproductive/incorrect argument, the following LW articles do a pretty good job of summarizing:

Basically: Words are tools. When two people have different ideas of what a word means, the tool usually ceases to be useful - arguing about the "true" definition of a word is very rarely per se a meaningful argument. Rather, to what extent it is a meaningful argument, it is often a (usually confusing) proxy argument for other material concerns. In that case, the proper thing to do is dissolve the contentious term and instead dissolve said concerns directly. Without doing this, it is extremely hard to actually sort out to what degree you actually disagree, and about what.

That said, sometimes the argument actually just is "how ought this term be defined for use in the public discourse?" There, I confess that I often find myself at a loss for a satisfactory answer - it's usually a complicated utility calculus and depends critically on context and values...

10:50 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Glad you reconstructed that one, A--I wanted to discuss it.

I'd say I just read it in the queue and then accidentally hit 'delete' instead of 'publish'...but you said you saw it up, right?

Dunno what happened...

Anyway, just quickly:

First, I think that arguing over words is inevitable and necessary in some cases, e.g. like this one. I've got a good ear for the language, and am old enough to have a lot of samples, and I think that the meaning of the word 'woman' has always been *very* clear, and, until (as I would put it) the recent move to re-define it, it's *always, very clearly* meant *adult female human.* IMO there's just no significant wiggle-room, and, so, the current attempt at redefinition *is* an attempt at redefinition.

In a case like that, it's really important to dig in our heels and say: no. We're not going to acquiesce to this verbal tomfoolery. You have a new concept that is non-identical with *woman*, ergo you need to make up a new word for it.

It's especially bad *when we also have a word for the concept that 'woman' is being misused for.* That word is 'feminine.'

Caitlyn Jenner is a feminine man. Everything is in order there. 'Jenner is a woman' is simply false. 'Jenner is a man' is true, and 'Jenner is feminine' is true.

The *only* reason to deny those things that I can see is that (e.g.) men like Jenner *want* to be women, and want to be thought of as women. It's that desire--and not any legitimate believe that he *is* a woman--that is driving the show.

Honestly, do you believe that, if Jenner & co. *wanted* to be thought of as men that the PCs would be insisting that they are actually women?

I think you probably realize that there is no chance of that whatsoever.

The PC answer to "is Jenner a man or a woman" is not driven by an honest look at the facts and reasons. It's driven by a desire to say (and believe) whatever Jenner & co. want them to believe. The principle is something like "say and think whatever the allegedly oppressed group wants you to say and think."

And that's just silly.

Also, it's not really so much a disagreement about words. Our classification of men and women (qua men and women) has always been primarily biological. In actual fact, the biological facts are taken as primary, and the behavioral stuff (gender) has always been taken as secondary. No one has ever thought, for example, that homosexuality is impossible because, whelp, if men have sex with each other, one of them must be a woman, nor any such thing.

Bah, too long. Sorry.

I do want to quickly say that I'm glad you mentioned your thought-experiment about the meaning of woman. I honestly have a hard time believing you think that...but I think it might be that yo're just visualizing, and we're all so used to seeing women look a certain way that the T-X ends up being misleading.

At any rate, instead of going more deeply into that point, I'll just appeal to the OED again: the actual meaning of the word *in the English language* is clear and definitive, regardless of your or my idiosyncrasies.

Bah, time for me to crash.

11:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As per the articles I linked (my post still isn't showing up, for some reason):

"Dictionary editors are historians of usage, not legislators of language. Dictionary editors find words in current usage, then write down the words next to (a small part of) what people seem to mean by them. If there's more than one usage, the editors write down more than one definition."

Appeals to dictionary definitions generally don't ever resolve honest disagreements about the meaning of a word. I assure you, I do indeed think that "woman" conveys at least as much social information as it does biological. The dictionary is not normative here, there is no "true definition" - we simply have different social circles and thus the words have different meanings in our respective common usage. The OED cannot resolve this one way or another. This is not necessarily motivated by some desire to stealthily insinuate that one's self-identity can change their biological sex, or to exert power over other people's words for the sake of it - I know this, because I've actually talked to people about it.

I think you believe that your use of the words is normatively correct - I would reflect on this, because thinking this way is like to cause misunderstandings and unproductive arguments.

Of course, it is also wrong when people on the other side accuse those who have an honest conception of the word "woman" that more closely resembles sex than gender of malice when they use the word that way. It is the same mistake. For example, when you say:

"It's especially bad *when we also have a word for the concept that 'woman' is being misused for.* That word is 'feminine.'"

One who believes "woman" refers to gender, and not sex, could simply flip the sign bit and say:

"It's especially bad *when we also have a word for the concept that 'woman' is being misused for.* That word is 'female.'"

Neither side is "right" here (both of the above arguments are equally wrong), so long as the disagreement about the meaning of the word is in good faith (I strongly believe it is).

If you want to argue explicitly about what the meaning of the word should be, then you should be explicit that that is what you are doing, and know that it is a complicated issue and you are unlikely to generate any agreement (in part because, in a rational sense, there's no meaning to the question "what should the definition of this word be" - there are hardly any reasons to care about the specific lump of letters and sounds we use to refer to a concept except insofar as it will affect the thinking of less-rational people).

10:26 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

So, Anonymous, do you believe it's ever possible to use a word incorrectly?

11:58 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Ok sure you could put the point that way...

But where's the drama? Where's the long-winded wind-up? Where's the pedantry?

12:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sure, it's possible to use a word incorrectly - if I mean to speak of a television and call it a "loaf," no one will understand what I mean. The point of using a word is to be understood.

But if there were a population of people who all say "loaf" to mean "television," and they understood each other, then there is no meaningful sense in which their internal use of the word would be incorrect.

Now, if a person leaves that population and uses the word among a population that won't understand them, then their usage would be incorrect. But I am not convinced that "woman refers strictly to sex, not gender" is particularly universal (the dictionary certainly is not compelling evidence of this, as "sex vs. gender" is not a distinction that has been made for very long), especially given my own intuitions about the word and my interactions with other people.

And, moreover, the "wrong" usage goes in both directions - if you use "woman" to refer strictly to "sex" and not "gender," but you are among people who all believe otherwise, *your* usage of the word is "wrong." This is pretty much true regardless of the relative sizes of the populations who feel one way or the other - there is nothing normative about majority use if said majority is not expressly relevant to the context of the given discourse.

(It is very easy to see that this is the case simply by reflecting on the existence of jargon. It would be laughable to say that mathematicians' use of the word 'field' is wrong because it simply because is not shared among the general populace.)

When you have an intermixture of people who have legitimately differing views on what the meaning of a word is, it is rarely productive argue about whose definition is the "true" one. Winston seems to believe there is no such disagreement in actuality, and that people are only claiming such for expressly political purposes - but I believe, from experience, that people on the other side would (equally incorrectly) claim the same, but in the other direction. The result of two parties holding this view is that they will likely not be able to speak productively to each other.

12:23 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

So, is it your contention that transgendered individuals are not concerned with being biologically identified as males or females, but only with the social implications that result therefrom?

1:25 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

But the dictionary *is* very clearly compelling evidence. Its the best evidence we have of the actual meaning of the term, and it very clearly says that 'woman' means *adult female human.*

There's just no way to avoid that argument unless you're going to argue that, similarly, there is significant disagreement about *female*--which there isn't.

What this shows is that the group you are defending has a deviant use of the term. Deviant usage is not uncommon--but it *is* deviant.

Your friends must either speak a kind of non-standard dialect of English.

Or, more likely:
They're confusing the *meaning* of 'woman' with a *theory* roughly to the effect that *it would be better if our primary classification of people were by gender rather than sex.*

I'm skeptical of your position, A--but, make no mistake about it, value your input here--in part because I find it extremely implausible that anyone could mean actually mean *feminine* by 'woman' and never notice the massive number of inconsistencies and weirdnesses this would land them. in.

Did they never notice that men and women's sports are divided by sex, not gender?

Never noticed that "women should get periodic breast exams" doesn't make much sense by their lights?

Never noticed that gynecologists are doctors for women = females?

Never noticed that homosexuality is when two men = two males have sex?

Never noticed that cross-dressing is when e.g. males dress in ways that females usually dress?

Never noticed that, if 'woman' actually meant *feminine*, there would be nothing so puzzling about Jenner saying "I'm a woman now"? I mean...of course he would be! It would be undeniable!

I simply isn't at all plausible that someone could be older than, say, 13, and not understand that 'woman' is a biological term.

Nobody *ever* used 'woman' to mean anything other than *adult female human* until transgender activists and the rest of the left started pushing this usage. Even someone who *did* genuinely believe the deviant meaning was standard would *have* to notice at that point that something was amiss...

And, again, it *isn't* merely an arbitrary matter, given the inferential (and quasi-inferential) relationship of 'woman' to other terms, and to applications of the term.

You can't just decided to use the term 'math' to mean *history*...because there's a real difference between math and history, and your deviant usage will generate substantive errors when you try to stick to it.

What was originally arbitrary is not arbitrary once conventions concerning it are firmly in place.

2:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Winston: All of your objections are easily accounted for by the fact that words are, well, complicated - and, as mentioned, the distinction between "sex" and "gender" is a fairly modern one. There are inconsistencies precisely because people, for much of history, have generally used one term to refer to a pretty broad cluster of different things. When you narrow the term down (in either direction!), some of the previous uses will cease to work.

I have never heard anyone (outside of crazy postmodern academic circles) make the argument that a trans woman ought to disregard *all* uses of the term "woman" that clearly refer to sex (such as your examples of sports or medical care). Rather, people believe that the gender content outweigh it, on the whole. I do not think this is nearly so absurd as you make it out to be.

You keep referring to a dictionary as if it is somehow a codification of the "official" meaning of a word. It is no such thing. The idea that there exists some true, "actual" meaning of a word is erroneous - there is only actual usage. I do not think the actual natural-language usage of the term "woman" is nearly so clear-cut as you think it is.

The burden for effective communication isn't one-way here, don't get me wrong - the trans community is often pretty terrible at being clear about this, too.

Mystic: Obviously, I can't generalize about all transgendered individuals (there are lots of irrational people everywhere, especially in academia...), but for the people I know and have talked to, yes. Admittedly, there's a selection bias there.

2:49 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Dude, I don't want to be an ass about this, but you are now merely asserting that "all [my] objections can be easily accounted for" a response that fails to answer *any* of them...and which cuts against *your* position as much as it cuts against mine.

Also, your response to the dictionary argument is unsound. The dictionary *does* give the *official* meaning--in the only sense that is relevant here. It codifies the use of the term in the language. Thus proving that, though you can, Humpty-Dumpty-wise, use a word however you like (in the sense that it isn't illegal), you use it *incorrectly* if you use it in a way that is contrary to the clear and uncontroversial use of the vast majority of speakers.

I *can* use 'man' to mean *dog*...but that use is a *misuse.*

And you haven't answered my point that there are innumerable contradictions/clashes with other terms if you try to make 'woman' mean *feminine person,* whereas there are no such contradictions/clashes if you use the term in the ordinary way.

To add another example, 'mother' is often defined as, roughly, *a woman in relation to the child who whom she has given birth.* There's simply no way to square that definition with the *feminine* definition.

And, again:
Such definitions tell us how the words are actually used. If you keep trying to push that point, it can be rephrased: they tell us which uses are standard and which uses are deviant. The *feminine* usage is the deviant one.

As for the burden of effective communication: here's how we effect it: we use standard usage. Then we don't have to try to, in effect, learn a whole new language every time we meet somebody else.

If you honestly believe your view of how meaning works, there's an obvious solution here: the minority with the deviant usage should drop it and just adopt standard usage.

The very fact that they would resist this shows that there's more at stake here than arbitrary noises.

3:01 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

I'm going to quit being cranky and then making excuses...but I'm totally hungover today. Which is all cb's fault. And I'm trying to shift between grading and this stuff, and I do actually think this sort of dispute is harder than people tend to think.

And I still do appreciate your arguments, A, despite thinking, more and more, that you're wrong...but, of course, it could be me.

3:07 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Actually here's Wikipedia, which is *way, way* biased to the left on stuff like this, and is kinda sorta an encyclopedia, and definitely not a dictionary:

In short:
An adult female of the species homo sapien.

There is ONE short sentence that says: "'Woman' can also refer to a person's gender identity"--obviously a sop to PCerberus, and inconsistent with everything else in the article...and "gender identity" doesn't actually make any sense, being plagued by conceptual confusions.

3:17 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

And the attempt at not being cranky!

3:35 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

listen you

3:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, I don't buy that there's such a thing as an "official" meaning of a word outside of, say, narrow technical language (think IUPAC). Natural language doesn't work like that - people have been fighting zealously against linguistic drift for a very long time, to no avail. You can't extract any normativity from a dictionary - it is a (fallible!) record of common use, not a binding standard.

When you use "man" to mean dog, that is a misuse because no one will understand you, not because it is not what is written in the dictionary - it is extremely clear-cut that this is the case, and this is largely orthogonal to what is written in the dictionary. The same is not true of using "woman" to mean the social category.

The natural use of the word "woman," like all other words, points to a cluster of similar things (in this case, people). I (and many others) believe that many (even most!) of the things that people expect you to infer from "this person is a woman" are actually social conventions that have little to do with the actual sex of the person. You previously suggested that this may simply be due to the social conventions being inextricably tangled with our imagining of a representative member of the class "woman." I say, this is indistinguishable from the actual substance of what "woman" means - the distinction between semantics and pragmatics is largely imagined by linguists who would like to pretend that natural language is a formal system. For my part, "female" does not seem to evoke anywhere near the same connotation, so I moreover don't buy any argument that this is a problem innate to any such word.

You may feel differently, and even use the term differently - but I think you are unjustified when you suggest (with a dictionary as your evidence) that this is *obviously* not the case. And, perhaps more importantly, if you take a hard-line stance on this, you will hamper your own ability to talk to other people.

3:52 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

I happen to agree with WS on this, but I think it might be wise to bracket the linguistic discussion in favor of the more critical line of argumentation here:

Anonymous posits that transgendered individuals identifying as "women" are actually seeking not to convince people that they are female when they are, in fact, male, but rather to elicit from others the conventional treatment typically applied to females.

If that is true, can I take it that Anonymous is in agreement that it is not proper to modify birth certificates to indicate that males are females, as some transgendered individuals would like to do? What is the limit that might be imposed upon the social implications of the claim to be a woman? I'm interested in your thoughts on that matter, Anonymous.

4:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I confess, I'm fairly ignorant as to the pragmatic effects of the specified sex on one's birth certificate (I, uh, can't really recall when that's ever been relevant to me, at least). As I can't really do a utility calculus on something I know nothing about, I'll instead just outline my reaction to a few possible lines of argument that may or may not have anything to do with the facts:

The most obvious argument I can think of that would be in favor of this would have to go along the lines of "said label is actually used more for social categorizing than for biological labeling. This me (I'd need a fair bit of convincing to believe that it's true), but I'm open to at least hearing such an argument as I think the structure of it is not necessarily invalid.

On the other hand, if someone argues for such a change because "biological sex is a social construct," then yeah, such an argument is obviously bunk and should not be taken seriously.

The question "what is the limit that might be imposed upon the social implications of the claim to be a woman?" is pretty clearly the key one, and I think there's no easy answer to this other than a case-by-case utility calculus. Separating out which distinctions we draw are social and which are biological is a fairly new endeavor, since this is not a distinction that our society has made for most of its history.

5:16 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Blogger deleted one of my comments, too.

5:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you post a link in said comment? Both comments of mine that were nuked had links to external sites in them - it might be some sort of anti-spambot feature.

5:39 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


But usually it gives me final say...

I'll check other folders.

9:17 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Well, here's the point I was trying to make:

When you say that transgendered individuals want to be considered as "women" but not females, you run into a slew of real problems because language is tied to reality in an important way. The word "woman" has real-world referents, and if you argue that those referents are either males or females who fit a sort of social role, you have to contend with the fact that the word "woman" is used to refer specifically and only to females all the time.

To deal with this problem, it appears you are attempting to argue that what we're seeing here isn't really a disagreement over reality (i.e. whether or not these individuals are male or female), but rather, a disagreement over terminology (i.e. "woman" means two separate things to two separate groups). Critically, it seems you are claiming that there is no means by which to judge the legitimacy of these implementations of the term, since you argue that both make equally valid use of the word.

But what I see WS saying is that the word's definition is, outside of the transgendered group, never considered to be anything but an adult human female. Within the transgendered group, the definition of "woman" causes a lot of conceptual problems. Basically, its historic use in reference to adult human females is often incompatible with the transgendered group's understanding of the term. We have a commonly understood division between men's and women's sports, for example. This is explicitly and only a reference to biological facts about the participants, and it has absolutely 100% nothing to do with their social roles. With the standard definition of the term "woman", this makes total sense. With the new group's definition, this division is rendered inexplicably nonsensical. How can they say they're dividing the games between those two roles when no male has ever competed as a woman?

(Crazy answer: oppression! This sort of thing leads to crazy-ass neo-feminist garbage theories, if you ask me; they actually take such conclusions, reductio ad absurdum to anyone else, and they try to theoretically explain the apparent absurdity.)

If you use the term "woman" in the non-standard sense, you might be able to get away briefly with presenting its meaning as legitimately limited to a social role, but your theory will likely fall victim to Occam's Razor in comparison with the standard definition theory when your proposal is tested against the history of the language. And in the sense of developing logical systems (such as languages), I think it's hard to argue against the fact that Occam's Razor is just good engineering.

So it seems this is a valid mechanism by which to judge what one should consider the *actual meaning* of the term.

11:31 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

And this isn't just a pointless semantic game; we have these issues because language is tied to reality in an important way. We have developed ideas about women, many (most?) of which require that the word indicates an adult human female in order for expressions of those ideas to make any sense at all. If we declare the term "woman" to mean something different from an adult human female, we make nonsense of a huge amount of thought developed with that language. We could maybe redefine and adjust our way out of the issue, but then we're being crazy; making an obviously-more-complex-than-necessary system to refer to reality. That is the standard by which one judges the legitimacy of a new linguistic development.

If you don't do that, you're doomed to having to work out problems like the one I posed to you earlier; we have to run a utilitarian calculus on all future woman-concept interactions to determine if the new definition is suitable or not?

No, thanks. I'll keep the deductively valid definition which accurately describes the meaning of the term throughout all of history up to this day.
It's a mess, I tell you, a mess!

Does that make sense? I'm semi-inebriated.

11:31 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

So much of this comes down to my bafflement that anyone could actually think that 'woman' is used to mean anything other than *adult female human*... It's just virtually impossible for me to believe that anyone actually thinks that it means something more like *feminine* or *wears dresses*...

I'm not trying to be a jerk about this...but it's a bit like finding out that someone had been raised in this culture and thought that 'dog' *meant* *man's best friend.* So that if cats became more popular than *canis familiaris*, then cats would become dogs...'dog' would then mean *cats.*

And the view makes much of old-school feminism incoherent--one of its main tenets being *women need not be feminine* (need not wear dresses, etc.). And they were *adamant* about the use of the term 'woman.' And no one, even the most ardent conservatives, *ever* argued that women, as a matter of conceptual necessity, *had* to be feminine. They argued that they *ought* to be feminine...but that's completely different.

IMO, A, you and folks on your side of this are just mistaking prevailing conventions associated with womanhood for womanhood *per se*. I know it doesn't seem that way to you, but that's the way it looks from the perspective of basically everybody else not in that community. I'm not saying you can't speak like that, I'm just pointing out that it's a deviant usage that you ought to translate out when you speak to anyone outside that group. In particular because, if people don't know what's up, they will (given all the inferential connections and rules for application of the term that prevail in the wider community) draw all sorts of crazy inferences. In particular, they'll think you mean that wearing dresses etc. changes your sex--which I'm sure you don't mean.

They'll also think that you guys think that C. Jenner is a *woman* (in the standard sense), whereas (using standard terminology) you really just think that Jenner is *feminine*, which we'd all agree on.

If this *is* just a trivial difference in dialect, I really would suggest that you guys just bring your usage into accordance with standard usage--at least when speaking to the majority--it would avoid a lot of unnecessary confusion.

Of course *I* don't think that the disagreement is actually about words-but if *you're* right, then you have the power to basically nuke the confusion with one terminological adjustment.

9:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"we have to run a utilitarian calculus on all future woman-concept interactions to determine if the new definition is suitable or not?"

Yes, this is a necessary result of narrowing our terms in light of new information. We have noticed that gender roles are largely arbitrary social ritual, and many uses of the term "woman" refer to the gender role rather than to the biological sex. So, we have to disentangle these. I don't think this is an unreasonable endeavor.

You're doomed to work through these problems anyway, even if you do not accept a different definition of "woman," because the problems aren't really about choice of terminology. Even with your terminology you ought to go through the common uses of "woman" and ask, "which of these are really just referring to femininity?" It's not going to be universal one way or the other, because words are not neat and well-behaved like that.

"IMO, A, you and folks on your side of this are just mistaking prevailing conventions associated with womanhood for womanhood *per se*. I know it doesn't seem that way to you, but that's the way it looks from the perspective of basically everybody else not in that community."

This is an imagined distinction. Connotations associated with a word are part of the word's semantics. You cannot neatly divide the semantics of a word into some deductive, Aristotelian core with some "associations" tacked on. Words fundamentally do not behave like that.

Note that not *all* of the disagreements are about words. Whether or not a trans woman should use the "women's" bathroom is not actually a question about the definition of "woman" - one can phrase the question this way, but it is misleading and unproductive to do so because there is not really any "one true definition" of "woman." And, as I said before, we should try as hard as we can to divorce discussion of the actual issues from the discussion of terminology.

I strongly suggest reading LessWrong's "A Human's Guide to Words" sequence, if you have the time.

10:46 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Dude, I guess I don't know what to tell you.

You're simply wrong about very important points here. If you got that from Less Wrong, then they're wrong. They're wrong a fair bit, so that wouldn't be a huge surprise. And people get such linguistic points wrong a lot.

*Contra* your claim, words *do* work like that. They work *exactly* like that. There is a difference between the core meaning of a term, it's suggestions or connotations, and properties unrelated to the meaning that are typically correlated with members of the term's extension. Most children are under 6' tall. But *less than 6' tall* is *in no way* part of the meaning of 'child.' You are simply wrong about that point. Women typically wear dresses, but one does not cease to be a woman by ceasing to wear dresses. There's nothing Aristotelian about this point.

Finally, you're starting to repeat my points back to me, but mistake them for your own. Both I and the Mystic have been pointing out to you that *this is not merely about words.* One step toward seeing that is recognizing that you can't just change the meaning of 'woman' without running up against inconsistencies with other concepts. The bathroom point is a point I've been trying to get you to see for awhile now.

I strongly suggest that you read something *other* than Less Wrong's post on the subject.

You keep getting refuted, but then just blithely moving on as if nothing had happened.

11:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You say "there's nothing Aristotelian about this point," but there certainly is - and it is flatly an incorrect description of how people reason about the meaning of words. The only capacity in which "less than 6' tall" is somehow a "less-central" to the meaning of "child" than, say, "less than 12 years old" is due to the actual extensional properties of the cluster of people we identify as "children". It is not due to what identifiers happened to be written in the dictionary to point to the "children" cluster. You can see this pretty clearly in the way people actually use language - abnormally small people are often described (in literature or otherwise) as "childlike," even though by your standard this does not refer to the "true" meaning of the word.

You seem to believe that all uses of the word "woman" are somehow fundamentally concordant. This is false. It is not as if, should we somehow come to agreement here that "woman" refers mostly to "gender" and not to "sex," this would cause us to have to reconsider all the uses of the word "woman" throughout society. To whatever extent that would have to be done, we already have to do that regardless of what terminology we agree to use here. Those issues are separate from the issue of "how ought this term be defined in our discourse," and should be discussed separately.

11:33 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

The alternative to the utilitarian calculus approach to the definition of "woman" is to simply stick with the standard definition ("adult human female") and make use of another, more accurate term (such as "feminine") if it ever appears to be the case that someone misuses the term "woman" to refer purely to a social role and not an adult human female.

This is the counter-proposal to your proposal that we move forward by using the term "woman" to refer to a social role and work to ensure that...what? We reject the standard definition of the term, which works far better and makes far more sense in light of the history of our language, in favor of applying a new definition that causes a bunch of problems we're then forced to disentangle with a utilitarian calculus?

You're trying to jettison a good theory of the word's meaning in favor of a bad theory whose incompatibilities you propose we work through to resolve. But where does that leave us? We have to replace every historic use of the word "woman" to refer to an adult human female with... "adult human female"? And then make sure that, going forward, we only use the word "woman" to refer to a social role whose definition is vague and difficult to determine?

With the solution of the standard definition, it is easy to say something like "Women should have an 'F' on their birth certificate to indicate their sex." According to the standard definition, it is obvious that this sentence is true.

With the proposed alternate definition, it is unclear if that sentence is true or false. Should women have an 'F' on their birth certificates only if they are actually female, or should we put an 'F' there because the obligation upon us is to treat women in a particular fashion, socially speaking? Are we simply putting Fs on birth certificates for human beings who fulfill a social role, or are we accurately recording the human being's sex? If the latter, this seems to fly in face of the proposal that women are simply those human beings who are treated in part by putting Fs on their birth certificates. If the former, we are incapable of identifying sex properly (since to do so would violate the rule that we treat women in a particular fashion, which includes...calling them adult human females?).

The idea that "woman" is a social role runs against a fundamental problem since a critical part of its definition is the way the person is treated by society. The reason this is a fundamental problem is that the way a person is treated by society is not often simply arbitrary, but far more often corresponds to real facts about the person. If there are no real facts about women other than the way they are treated, you are going to have to hone that definition into something like:

"A woman is a person treated by society in the following rationally arbitrary manner: {insert list of rationally-arbitrary treatments}"

To whatever extent our society treats a woman in a manner only made possible by the woman's status as an adult human female (e.g. screening for cervical cancer), you will have to exclude this as part of the definition of a woman, lest we run into purely logical problems which cannot be resolved.

12:27 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

See what I'm getting at, here? The definition of the term "woman" which you are proposing not only renders much of the term's historical use nonsensical, but it forces us to adopt a purely rationally arbitrary meaning for the term whose understanding requires that we assess every implementation of that term to rule out its use in reference to people who are necessarily adult human females. Whatever hodgepodge of arbitrary social treatments of adult human females is left over, that will become the definition for the term "woman."

By this information, it seems clear that this is an attempt at redefining a term, not opting for a second, equally valid definition of that term. This new definition is not only new, but it is far less valuable than the original definition.

You argue that we still need to engage in the work of disentangling arbitrary social treatments of women from actual, correct responses on behalf of society to facts about adult human females, and that's true, but that work has been done over decades by feminists who never needed to redefine the term "woman" to do that work. In fact, they didn't do that because it would be so counter-productive to the development of an understanding of the matter at hand. It is a far superior solution to keep the original definition of "woman" and simply point out where that word has been misused (e.g. "Women should be submissive").

See how much better that is?

I think you're real close to seeing the point here with the women's bathrooms remark. That is very similar, as WS notes, to points we are bringing to your attention. It is analogous to the point I go over in my previous post, and a proponent of your definition theory for "woman" will run into the question: have we simply been misusing the term "woman" to classify the female bathroom, or are we obligated to allow males into the women's bathroom because we were properly using the term and to deny males access to the women's bathroom is simply irrational oppression?

Basically no one would agree with the latter. If forced, people would simply relabel the bathrooms with "female" and "male", and continue to segregate the bathrooms by sex. This would then bring us to the question I put forth above: are women entitled to be treated by society as females, thereby gaining access to the female bathroom for males, or is our treatment of women necessarily rationally arbitrary, thereby disqualifying use of the female bathroom from the range of "social treatment" eligible for inclusion in the definition of the term "woman"?

This is the point. I contend that your theory, without some very strange modifications which render it even more useless, cannot resolve it in any satisfactory manner.

12:41 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Well, again, A, you're simply wrong about all that.

There is nothing Aristotelian about the point. Period. If you think there *is*, explain what it is.

You write:
> The only capacity in which "less than 6' tall" is somehow a "less-central" to the meaning of "child" than, say, "less than 12 years old" is due to the actual extensional properties of the cluster of people we identify as "children".

That's entirely, 100%, exactly wrong.

It's true that children are young humans, and we use 'child' to refer to them. But it's also the meaning of the term. If you use 'child' to refer to an adult, then you misuse it. No children are adults. But some children are over 6' tall. Being a child is inconsistent with being old. It is not inconsistent with being tall. All children are young; all children are on earth. But when they grow up, they thereby are no longer children. Were a child fired into orbit, it would not thereby cease to be a child.

If you're confused about these very simple points, then you've got no hope of understanding the more complicated issues we were discussing about, e.g., 'woman.' Your confusions here are probably the source of your confusions there.

> It is not due to what identifiers happened to be written in the dictionary

Well, we're back to this error again.

Definitions don't "happen" to be written in the dictionary--unless it's a really, really, really shitty dictionary.

Dictionaries try to codify the *meanings of terms.* They usually have nothing to do with contingent facts about the referents or extensions of the terms.

You are confusing a dictionary with an encyclopedia. More to the point, you're confusing the meanings of terms with contingent facts.

Women are necessarily female, but only contingently feminine, dress-wearing, etc. All the sophistry in the world won't change those facts.

> to point to the "children" cluster. You can see this pretty clearly in the way people actually use language - abnormally small people are often described (in literature or otherwise) as "childlike," even though by your standard this does not refer to the "true" meaning of the word.


Not: child.

C'mon, A. You cannot seriously make that mistake. You *have* to be just bullshitting now, or arguing for the sake of argument, or whatever. You simply can't honestly think that point above is any good.

The points here are *simple* points You've GOT to understand these points before you're going to be in a position to discus more complicated cases. Even though, actually, the 'woman' case is pretty simple.

The rest of what you write in your last comment doesn't make any sense, so I don't see how to respond to it.

1:13 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

What if we take a step back and define some terms we're using so we're all on the same page? It seems to me we're discussing competing theories about meaning wherein we are reaching differences that stem either from fundamental disagreements or confusions. We can determine which that is if we settle the fundamental disagreement issue by just defining the fundamentals.

For example, can we agree that:

A word's definition is a theory which explains the word's relationship with ideas, other words, and facts about reality.


1:32 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

I don't want to just put up a wall of text that would take an unreasonable amount of effort to answer in the event that there are fundamental disagreements (which I'm trying to weed out), but it seems to me that if we agree on the idea of a definition that I propose above, we can see the argument that has proceeded to this point is roughly:

WS/M contend: The definition of a word is based on its past use throughout the history of the language. The distinction between standard and new or deviant uses of a term can be described by reference to the past use of that word. It is clear from the history of English that "woman" refers to an adult human female, and therefore a new attempt at using the word to refer to a social role which is independent of sex is just that: a new attempt.

A contends: I agree that the use may be new, but it is equally valid, for it simply isolates a portion of the meaning of the term "woman" that has been embedded in the term throughout its history, and that is the social role which is conferred upon women with rational arbitrariness. Therefore, the use of the term to refer solely to that role is as legitimate as the use which refers to adult human females.

WS/M respond: The reference to adult human females is historically an essential portion of the word "woman." To remove this essential component of the word causes a rippling series of terminological issues in which things like "women's sports" are in need of redefinition as "female sports" (or some such) in order to disambiguate the term "woman" which now has two (allegedly equally legitimate) uses which are incompatible with one another. Therefore, the new use, insofar as it is a theory of the meaning of "woman", fails to explain a large portion of the term's use and therefore is an inferior definition when compared to the standard definition.

A responds: The standard definition has its own issues, as well, for it fails to explain uses of "woman" which refer to the social role and are therefore better explained by the new definition. For example, if one says "women should be subservient", this is poorly explained by the theory that "woman" means "adult human female" since there is no normative connection between being an adult human female and an obligation to be subservient. If the new definition is accepted, then it is merely a tautological assertion, since "woman" refers to a role in which the members of that role are expected to be subservient.

11:58 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

WS/M respond: Wiith the standard definition, this misuse of the term "woman" is explained as just that: a misuse. With the new definition, this will be considered the proper use of the term "woman." This is linguisitically possible but it is a poor theory which not only has the adverse implications stated above but which also provides a poor tool for discussing the phenomenon of sexism and even offers an incorrect explanation for the phenomenon in part.

The past uses of the term "woman" to refer to a rationally arbitrary social role exists because of sexist errors in thought which are accurately represented by the assertion that women should be subservient. This is not a mere terminological error, but it is a terminological error because it is a logical error on behalf of the sexists. The conversation with the standard definition will go something like:

"There is no normative connection between womanhood and subservience."

This is the line feminists have engaged successfully for decades. It accurately responds to the false idea on behalf of the sexists that there IS such a normative connection. With the new definition, on the other hand, the conversation will have to go something like:

"There is no normative connection between femaleness and womanhood."

This does nothing to better the conversation; it merely introduces ambiguity into our terminology which can be used to actually justify the use of the term in the way sexists employ it by explaining not that they are incorrect about women (so their statements are correct), but they are mistaking one acceptable definition of the term for another. This is not what is happening; sexists aren't just accidentally suggesting that females must be women, but they are saying that women (females) must have a particular trait.

The new definition (theory) is inferior to the original definition (theory) since the original definition clearly explains the situation above whereas the new definition requires that the ambiguity it introduces into the situation above be corrected with terminological work not required of the original theory. With the original theory, we need only improve our understanding that, historically, people have been sexist. With the new theory, we have to disambiguate the term "woman" at every encounter. With the old theory, no such terminological work is necessary; simply understanding the logical error of sexism suffices to explain satisfactorily the phenomenon of the term's misuse.

11:58 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

I believe the source of the trouble here is: we make words what they are. Therefore, it seems as though we can simply choose to change the words' definition at will, for the words only derive their meaning from our use of them. But this is like modifying a programming language in a way which breaks code written with the past versions. It can be done, but at a large cost, and so only for very good reasons (e.g. to fix otherwise-insurmountable past problems).

In the current case, we have past use of a term which was rationally incorrect on account of actual misunderstandings about the ideas to which that term refers and which provided a framework for the continuation of that error (in which subsequent work was based on this erroneous thought, and therefore is, itself, erroneous). We do need to address this, but the proper way to do it is not to declare the term to have two equally valid meanings and thereby introduce seriously code-breaking ambiguity in the term which requires lots of work on our behalf. The way to do it is to recognize the misuse of the term as a result of conceptual errors on behalf of those engaged in the misuse, and to simply explain those errors so that the misuse ceases.

We have words to refer to traits typical of each sex, such as "feminine" or "masculine" and this can aid us in determining the nature of "social roles" for women (e.g. which of those social roles' qualities stem from actual trends in behavior among sexes and which are purely arbitrary assignments, neither of which provide a normative link between women and the traits) but we don't actually have a word for the "social role" you are envisioning because, in part, we don't even know what exactly the social role comprises (see the logical problems raised above with, e.g., women's sports or M/F distinctions on birth certificates).

I think this is a solid summary of what's going on here. I would love to see how this plays out as a conversation so I hope Anonymous hasn't given up; I'm totally willing to be wrong here, but the study of language and meaning is very important to me and I would be very interested in knowing if I am wrong on this count.

11:59 AM  

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