Racism on AskMe. June 21, 2006 7:46 AM   Subscribe

Is it really OK to promote ethnic stereotypes? If not, why do we have this?
posted by Kirth Gerson to Etiquette/Policy at 7:46 AM (147 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

I think it was a completely legitimate question. Asking about something doesn't "promote" something.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:48 AM on June 21, 2006


No, it's not. We have it because it's an interesting question. I don't think discussing the topic is itself promoting stereotyping - it's examining reality.
posted by peacay at 7:50 AM on June 21, 2006


Because we mustn't ever talk about such things.
posted by mcwetboy at 7:53 AM on June 21, 2006


We shouldn't promote the malicious deployment of ethnic stereotypes. Knowing about them, on the other hand, is a non-issue. Educational, even.

On a related note: there are a lot of books about Hitler.
posted by cortex at 7:56 AM on June 21, 2006


I found it fascinating. Knowing how others feel doesn't change the way I feel, so I don't think there's any harm.
posted by iconomy at 7:58 AM on June 21, 2006


::covers ears::

LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA !!!
posted by SeizeTheDay at 7:58 AM on June 21, 2006


It could have been useful if the poster would have asked the question I've always wanted the answer to: over in Asia, are there like gazillions of car wrecks daily?
posted by dios at 7:59 AM on June 21, 2006


Kirth Gerson posted "Is it really OK to promote ethnic stereotypes?"

No.

Kirth Gerson posted "If not, why do we have this?"

Because it isn't promoting them, it is discussing them.

dios : "over in Asia, are there like gazillions of car wrecks daily?"

No, but the rickshaw jams can be mighty frustrating.
posted by Bugbread at 8:01 AM on June 21, 2006


I think it is promoting stereotypes, and I agree with this comment in the thread:
I were to ask, "I'm Asian, and don't know anything about America. I'd like to know more about the culture there. So what are some of the stereotypes do people hold against one another there? Do black people in state A make rude jokes about black people in state B? Do (some) gay people think that all Jewish people are like (X, Y and Z)?" the thread would probably be deleted in a flash. This question reads that way to me.
There's a difference between saying, "many people in other Asian countries dislike X people, probably because of the historical conflicts between their countries" and posting a list of insulting words that various groups use on each other. I notice that that list was marked as a best answer, which leads me to think it was the sort of response the questioner wanted.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:02 AM on June 21, 2006


As a white man with an Asian username, I find these stereotypes offensive.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 8:04 AM on June 21, 2006


Ahh, bugbread! You have insider info! Is it true that Disney World failed in Japan because no one was tall enough to go on the good rides?
posted by dios at 8:04 AM on June 21, 2006 [3 favorites]


I think it is promoting stereotypes,

Well, why don't you sacrifice a donkey or something to ward off the evil spirits. Good lord, I couldn't have asked for a better illustration of the quasi-superstitious attitude some people have about racism, sexism, and homophobia. It's roughly similar to the way fundies think about Satan.

Making it the boogeyman won't make it go away, people.
posted by jonmc at 8:06 AM on June 21, 2006


I feel like shit for laughing at that, dios. Damn you to hell.
posted by Plutor at 8:08 AM on June 21, 2006


Disney Land (Disney World is the one in Florida) is kicking ass, and has the excellent, excellent Disney Sea, which y'all don't get.

And I disagree with the following:

"I were to ask, 'I'm Asian, and don't know anything about America. I'd like to know more about the culture there. So what are some of the stereotypes do people hold against one another there? Do black people in state A make rude jokes about black people in state B? Do (some) gay people think that all Jewish people are like (X, Y and Z)?' the thread would probably be deleted in a flash. This question reads that way to me."

I would hope that wouldn't be deleted. That smacks of "let's just pretend bad things don't happen".
posted by Bugbread at 8:10 AM on June 21, 2006


I'm with bugbread. I think the example question would stand, and be interesting.
posted by cortex at 8:14 AM on June 21, 2006


There was a question about what stereotypes 'east coasters' had about 'west coasters' on metafilter way back. It was rather interesting, of course there's not really anything bad. Of course there are 'cultural gradients' across the US but they're pretty muted due to the high transplant rate inside the US. People move all the time.
posted by delmoi at 8:24 AM on June 21, 2006


Den Beste et al are right, it's a perfectly legitimate question. and the resulting thread's very interesting -- racism, jingoism, and hatred for different cultures are a very real phenomenon, they won't go away if you pretend they're not there
posted by matteo at 8:27 AM on June 21, 2006


The linked question isn't promoting anything, it's asking for knowledge. The fact that the answer to the question is yes doesn't make it any more a promotion. It is not, as K G's reworking of it would have it, a "When did you stop beating your wife" question.

I find this callout completely baffling. It's hard not to read it as the worst kind of frightened misunderstanding of the consequences of social differences.
posted by OmieWise at 8:29 AM on June 21, 2006


So if I were to post a question asking what racist slurs have been used for Afrcans or Jews, nobody would have a problem with that? Well, OK, then.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:42 AM on June 21, 2006


It's not quite Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany's is it?
posted by longbaugh at 8:44 AM on June 21, 2006


None, whatsoever. But because of your indignance, they're saving a place in heaven for you.
posted by jonmc at 8:44 AM on June 21, 2006


Dear AskMe: Why do people call me whitey when my skin is more of a mottled beige?
posted by blue_beetle at 8:46 AM on June 21, 2006


I found the question offensive because as an American, I'm not required to know anything about any country or culture other than my own, and this forced exposure to knowledge about history and ideas beyond the sacred borders of Jesusland completely violated my fundamental right to remain ignorant and xenophobic.

Damn you Metafilter!
posted by junkbox at 8:48 AM on June 21, 2006


Talk about ignorant stereotypes! Thanks for showing us them in application, junkbox. You get the gold star fucktard hack award.
posted by dios at 8:52 AM on June 21, 2006


If you really believe that question was promoting stereotypes then the best that could be said is that you are in the minority.
posted by boo_radley at 8:56 AM on June 21, 2006


Oh, so now there's something wrong with minorities? Racist.
posted by solotoro at 8:56 AM on June 21, 2006


Kirth Gerson : "So if I were to post a question asking what racist slurs have been used for Afrcans or Jews, nobody would have a problem with that? Well, OK, then."

Well, I doubt nobody would have a problem with it. I'd guess that, at the absolute very least, you and Misozaki would have problems with it. But that's absolute minimum: in reality, I think there would be quite a few more people who would have a problem with it. But I, personally, wouldn't have a problem with it.
posted by Bugbread at 8:56 AM on June 21, 2006


I'm offended that the question perpetuates the stereotype that there are Asian people in Asia.

And Kirth, in case your parents added Merriam-Webster to your cybersitter blocked list, here's the definitions:

slur: an insulting or disparaging remark or innuendo.

stereotype:: a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment.
posted by Gamblor at 8:59 AM on June 21, 2006


Honored, sir. I'll pin it right here next to my George W. Bush '08 campaign badge.
posted by junkbox at 8:59 AM on June 21, 2006


Uh, no pun intended there.
posted by boo_radley at 9:00 AM on June 21, 2006


My people believe that mefi members with usernames of fewer than five letters are profane and excessively quick to anger, with a distinctly trollish temperament.

That said, I'd like to say that I agree that KG is being ridiculous and hypersensitive. The question is a valid one, and discussions of racism are not inherently racist.

Find some other tree to bark up, Kirth, This one's got nothing in it.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 9:01 AM on June 21, 2006


blue_beetle: Dear AskMe: Why do people call me whitey when my skin is more of a mottled beige?

Suggest that they call you "cracker" instead.
posted by Gamblor at 9:02 AM on June 21, 2006 [1 favorite]


The moment I saw it (after seeing it here and looking for stereotype promotion) I thought about how it might change if the question were directed at an outsider asking about America, and I realized it's just fine.

You could answer that americans on the west coast and east coast make fun of the midwest and south, and vice versa, and you could talk about racism persisting everywhere and how segregation still takes place with "white" parts of town and "black" parts of town through a combination of zoning laws, tradition, and maybe even choice (I noticed it more prominently in the south, but it's everywhere).

There's nothing wrong with the question, I'm fascinated by how stereotypes develop and persist everywhere and it's good to hear what sorts of things other cultures hold as a stereotype -- usually as an outsider they sound silly or unfounded and you realize that maybe all stereotypes, even the ones you thought were true are equally silly and unfounded.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 9:12 AM on June 21, 2006


Why do you all with capitalized usernames feel so damn superior?
posted by mischief at 9:19 AM on June 21, 2006


Also, I have to say that I really like the thread because, while the question was fine, the thread had the potential to get really ugly, and yet didn't.
posted by Bugbread at 9:20 AM on June 21, 2006


So if I were to post a question asking what racist slurs have been used for Afrcans or Jews, nobody would have a problem with that? Well, OK, then.

Pretty sure that a year or two ago somone asked for any/all slang for female/woman/girl and there were a bunch of derogatory terms among the answer. It didn't get deleted and I don't think anyone objected in the thread or on MeTa. Actually, if I remember correctly, a woman asked the question.
posted by dobbs at 9:29 AM on June 21, 2006


Dobbs: Here it is.
posted by Bugbread at 9:35 AM on June 21, 2006


It seems we're all in agreement that racism is a bad idea. The two camps here seem to be: fight-bad-ideas-with-censorship vs. fight-bad-ideas-with-knowledge. I am happy to see the latter is in the majority, because the former has consistently failed in every instance I've ever seen it applied.
posted by scottreynen at 9:36 AM on June 21, 2006


I flagged it, not because it offended me, but because it seemed like an open-ended discussion Chatfilter question.
posted by orange swan at 9:37 AM on June 21, 2006


orange swan : "it seemed like an open-ended discussion Chatfilter question."

I dunno. There are specific correct answers. Japanese don't see Thais as industrious. Thais don't see Japanese as laid-back. If it were "what do you think of different Asian ethnic groups", I'd agree that it was chat, but in this case there are good answers and there are bad answers, and the quality of a person's answer doesn't depend on what that person thinks about the issue personally.
posted by Bugbread at 9:41 AM on June 21, 2006


Jason's_planet probably just works for Bellevue Community College and is in charge of rewriting their math curriculum.
posted by hermitosis at 9:53 AM on June 21, 2006


From hermitosis' link:

"The hour-and-a-half meeting, attended by more than 150 people, opened an important dialog, but more needs to be done..."

Is that an accepted variant when discussing something other than dialog boxes? If not, I'd like to know which software it is they're using to mediate this crisis.
posted by cortex at 10:00 AM on June 21, 2006


Kirth Gerson writes "So if I were to post a question asking what racist slurs have been used for Afrcans or Jews, nobody would have a problem with that? Well, OK, then."

Yeah, but you realize that you just completely changed the rules, right? That isn't anywhere near what the question was asking, and if you thought it was then you need to learn to read more carefully. Do you think it makes it easier to talk about racism when you lie about it?
posted by OmieWise at 10:04 AM on June 21, 2006


What's so funny about short people anyway?
posted by econous at 10:18 AM on June 21, 2006


"So if I were to post a question asking what racist slurs have been used for Afrcans or Jews, nobody would have a problem with that? Well, OK, then."

Chatfilter.
posted by klangklangston at 10:20 AM on June 21, 2006


"Japanese don't see Thais as industrious. Thais don't see Japanese as laid-back". ..an insuperable object to peace..
posted by econous at 10:24 AM on June 21, 2006


Kirth... seriously.
posted by Witty at 10:34 AM on June 21, 2006

I feel like shit for laughing at that, dios. Damn you to hell.
You feel bad? I've now laughed because of dios twice today. I feel dirty!
posted by sequential at 10:51 AM on June 21, 2006


I think this is fine. However, my desire to feel self-righteous and better than other people is not satisfied unless there is a problem against which I can take the role of Righteous Avenger. None of you will realize what a hero I am for the oppressed minorities of the world unless I have the opportunity to fight racism, no matter how imaginary.
posted by shmegegge at 10:51 AM on June 21, 2006


and I like this new, funny dios.
posted by shmegegge at 10:52 AM on June 21, 2006


So if I were to post a question asking what racist slurs have been used for Afrcans or Jews, nobody would have a problem with that? Well, OK, then.

Some people feel that words themselves have power (magic power?), and the fewer people who know the dangerous words, the better. I'm highly skeptical.

I'm a Jew, and I really don't want there to be more people hating Jews, but I'm happy to tell you that the words "kike" and "Yid" have been used to slur Jews. I don't think I've created more anti-semitism in the universe by typing those words, but I guess I would think so if I believed words have intrinsic power.

It's fine if you believe in "the power of words", Kirth, but if you do, it's pure faith. And you can't expect others to take on faith what you take on faith.

What if someone has never heard of the word "kike" and now, based on my actions, they learn the word and start using it? Again, it comes down one's belief about the power of words. Did that person hate Jews before they knew the word "kike"? If so, there's no new Jew-hating in the word. Sure, a Jew-hater can use a new word, but his beliefs haven't changed. Can knowing the word "kike" make someone a Jew-hater if they're not one already? I say no, but we're back to faith again.

What about the fact that the word "kike" is hurtful to Jews? Well, it's not hurtful to ALL Jews. It -- the word by itself -- is hurtful to Jews who believe in the power of words. As a Jew who doesn't, I'm only offended by the intent behind the word. If the word is used without intent to hurt me, that's fine. If someone attempts to hurt me by calling me a "fucking Jew" instead of a "kike", I'm offended. The specific word doesn't matter.
posted by grumblebee at 10:57 AM on June 21, 2006


I've always found "Yid" kind of funny. I mean, I've never personally heard someone deploy it with ill intent, but I think if I ever did I'd just bust out laughing.
posted by cortex at 11:02 AM on June 21, 2006


In what way was that question "promoting" stereotypes?Cuh! Typical over-sensitive PC yank bullshit!
posted by Decani at 11:07 AM on June 21, 2006


I'd like to add that every time someone makes a joke about Brits having bad teeth I weep piteously inside.
posted by Decani at 11:09 AM on June 21, 2006


Doesn't the salt from your tears just further corrode your bad Limey teeth?
posted by COBRA! at 11:17 AM on June 21, 2006


Wow, I am completely floored by all the people who have somehow divined some belief system I must have, and feel justified by that in putting words in my mouth. Magical thinking, indeed. Is attacking me personally because I find lists of insults applied to ethnic groups offensive a valid argument that those lists are not offensive? Thanks to those who managed to answer my questions without implying that I have some kind of character disorder.

omiewise, I don't think I have "completely changed the rules." My last post was an attempt to clarify what bugsbread and jonmc, et al, think is acceptable. In fact, what I asked apparently would be acceptable to them. Does characterizing a clarification like that as lying mean you ought to read more carefully?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:25 AM on June 21, 2006


I think that talking (as opposed to promotion) about pretty much anything (short of the undeniably criminal) is fine with me. But then again I don't run this place.
posted by jonmc at 11:29 AM on June 21, 2006


Kirth Gerson writes "Does characterizing a clarification like that as lying mean you ought to read more carefully?"

No it doesn't you sanctimonious creep. You weren't clarifying, you were asking something constructed as a rhetorical question as if it were a restatement of the views expressed regarding the linked thread. It was not, as the linked thread was of a completely different nature. Agreement or not with your "Well, OK, then" bullshit has no bearing on the fact that it was bullshit. You're the one whose suggestion was completely without merit and was unsupported by anything other than righteousness.
posted by OmieWise at 11:33 AM on June 21, 2006


This question was answered in the first comment by SDB.
posted by vacapinta at 11:39 AM on June 21, 2006


Is attacking me personally because...

No one attacked you personally outside of your own subjective perception of the comments here. Several people suggested that you're overreacting by equating the mere mention of racism with racism itself. Because you were. And now you're overreacting again by equating these criticisms with personal attacks. grumblebee's magic words comment is spot on. You're giving words power they don't have.

Find some other tree to bark up, Kirth, This one's got nothing in it.

Indeed.
posted by scottreynen at 11:39 AM on June 21, 2006


I like the new mean OmieWise.
posted by klangklangston at 11:40 AM on June 21, 2006


Mean OmieWise sounds like a gunslinger who wears specs, so the other gunslingers underestimate him. At their peril.
posted by jonmc at 11:45 AM on June 21, 2006


Is attacking me personally because I find lists of insults applied to ethnic groups offensive a valid argument that those lists are not offensive?

Attacking you personally? Kirth, you need to grow a thicker skin...
posted by Stauf at 11:48 AM on June 21, 2006


Kirth can't help it. He's one of them and you know how they are.
posted by klangklangston at 11:55 AM on June 21, 2006


Queers?
posted by sonofsamiam at 11:59 AM on June 21, 2006


Mefites.
posted by jonmc at 12:00 PM on June 21, 2006


I hope you don't think I was attacking you personally, Kirth. That certainly wasn't my intention.

Is attacking me personally because I find lists of insults applied to ethnic groups offensive a valid argument that those lists are not offensive?

There's no excuse for a personal attack. But it would help if you explained WHY you find such lists offensive. Is it because you think such lists breed racism? (If you think this, do you have any evidence for it?) Or do you find them offensive for some other reason? If you state your reasoning, it will give us something to discuss.

I should come clean that there are plenty of things that offend me just because they offend me. Spitting on the sidewalk, for instance. If you ask me why that offends me, I'll say, "because it's OFFENSIVE!" But I can't expect others to naturally share my view. If I can muster an argument about germs, I might be able to convert some people over to my view. Or they might be able to change my view by explaining how spitting on the sidewalk isn't a risk to public health.
posted by grumblebee at 12:02 PM on June 21, 2006


cortex : "I've always found 'Yid' kind of funny. I mean, I've never personally heard someone deploy it with ill intent, but I think if I ever did I'd just bust out laughing."

Ditto, because I've never heard someone use it seriously, but the first time I heard it used was in the phrase "Billy the Yid". It's really hard to take seriously when that's where you first hear it.

Anyway, Kirth, I have no problem with you. We just disagree about the topic at hand. I don't really understand your position, but I certainly don't think you're stupid or evil or anything.
posted by Bugbread at 12:07 PM on June 21, 2006


Oddly, most anti-Semites I've met don't use any slurs, simply the word 'Jew,' usually spat out, occasionally prececeded by 'fucking' or 'followed,' by 'bastard.' Hope that helps you in your quest for truth.

(That's the only ethnic group I've ever heard that with. Nobody ever says 'Fuckin' Pole,' or 'Italian Bastard,' it's always Polack or Guinea. Odd quirk)
posted by jonmc at 12:10 PM on June 21, 2006


Something else that might be going on here (Kirth, correct me if I'm wrong). Although most people in this thread don't find lists of slurs intrinsically offensive, I suspect that MOST people do. Why? Maybe it's magical thinking or whatever. By my logic, these people aren't rational (about this issue), but put that aside for a moment. Whether it's rational or irrational, right or wrong, smart or stupid, many people find slurs offensive.

So there's something a little perverse about that fact not entering the conversation. It's like me walking into a church and saying, "As we all know, God doesn't exist." Now I sincerely believe that God doesn't exist, but unless I'm stupid, I know that -- even if I'm right -- most people in the church don't share my view. So there's something odd (passive-aggressive?) about me not acknowledging that. At the very least, I should say, "I know most of you are believers, but as an atheist..."

Since no one is acknowledging this, Kirth may feel like he's being attacked by people who (a) are massively different from the norm but are trying to make him feel like HE'S the oddball, and (b) are trying to pretend that they don't know the norm, which seems passive-aggressive. He may feel like saying, "Come ON, everyone KNOWS what I'm talking about." (Kirth, I can't read your mind. Please correct me if I'm wrong.)

Kirth, I can state that on my part, I had no passive-aggressive intent. I was just writing my feelings without thinking about their context. I was the atheist who forgot he was in a church. (The analogy doesn't hold, because my views are the majority here, but from Kirth's standpoint, that may not be emotionally important.) I DO know that most people find slurs offensive. But I think these people are wrong (not that THEY are offended, but that such lists are intrinsically -- cosmically -- offensive).

I suspect most people here share my view, and weren't trying to make you feel like an "Anthropologist on Mars." Like me, they were probably just bluntly stating their ideas and feelings.
posted by grumblebee at 12:20 PM on June 21, 2006


I'm sorry, my last response was over the top. I do think racism is a very serious problem, and I've been involved with and lead plenty of anti-racism activism. I think that too often the subtlety of prejudice and racism is dismissed or minimized, especially in communities which are generally liberal and seem to rely on good intentions as a substitute for honest reflection.

I also really think that you're wrong about this Kirth, and that rather than examine why that might be true you were more interested in tarring the people who didn't see a problem with the post as (at least) complicit in racism. My personal response to you was unfortunate, and for it I apologize, but it's only fair to note that you've essentially suggested that the people who disagree with your reading, everyone in this thread, in other words, are promoting prejudice.
posted by OmieWise at 12:22 PM on June 21, 2006


Allowing Asian slurs on Mefi is a slippery slope.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 12:46 PM on June 21, 2006 [1 favorite]


Kirth Gerson writes "So if I were to post a question asking what racist slurs have been used for Afrcans or Jews, nobody would have a problem with that? "

I don't think there would be any problem with this question; afterall if we can't talk about "bad" words how can we educate others on why they are bad? How could be instruct our childern not to use ethnic slurs if we can't tell them what they are.

Now if the question was: "What are some good slurs I can use against my new Cablinasian1 neighbour in order to harress him from the neighbourhood?" I might have a problem with the question. But the concern would be the actions not the list of words itself.

[1]Tiger Woods has called himself "Cablinasian" to mark the combined European, African, Native American, Thai and Chinese elements that constitute his background
posted by Mitheral at 12:52 PM on June 21, 2006


cortex : "I've always found 'Yid' kind of funny. I mean, I've never personally heard someone deploy it with ill intent, but I think if I ever did I'd just bust out laughing."

Ditto, because I've never heard someone use it seriously, but the first time I heard it used was in the phrase "Billy the Yid". It's really hard to take seriously when that's where you first hear it.


You know what's funny about that? "Yid" is the Yiddish word for "Jew". My Grandmother will often say things like, "As we say in Jewish, gornisht helfen!" Yid as a slur is a funny thing.

/derail
posted by kosem at 12:53 PM on June 21, 2006


Words by themselves are not always indicative of attitude. Context, and or inflection modifies a word or statement. Talking about slurs and or stereotypes is not the same as holding those beliefs, and the more we ascribe taboo status to those words the more powerful they become in their ability to shock and offend. Words change in their intensity all the time, we use euphemisms to avoid referring to something offensive and over time that euphemism may in of itself become offensive. The reverse process of de-tabooing (!) words also takes place. I think, and I may be wrong, that discussing those taboos can lessen their power to offend.
posted by edgeways at 1:10 PM on June 21, 2006


mr_crash_davis writes "Allowing Asian slurs on Mefi is a slippery slope."

Give me back my orange juice you bastard!
posted by peacay at 1:16 PM on June 21, 2006


huhuh orange jews
posted by sonofsamiam at 1:21 PM on June 21, 2006


must be all that Florida sun.
posted by jonmc at 1:24 PM on June 21, 2006


crash: Booooo! Hee hee hee.
posted by elwoodwiles at 1:26 PM on June 21, 2006


mr_crash_davis wins.
posted by lord_wolf at 1:47 PM on June 21, 2006


omiewise, I accept your gracious apology.

But -
I also really think that you're wrong about this Kirth, and that rather than examine why that might be true you were more interested in tarring the people who didn't see a problem with the post as (at least) complicit in racism. My personal response to you was unfortunate, and for it I apologize, but it's only fair to note that you've essentially suggested that the people who disagree with your reading, everyone in this thread, in other words, are promoting prejudice.
Please point out to me just where I did this tarring and suggesting. Some people did not share my feelings about the AskMe post. I did not call anyone names, or suggest that their parents were controlling their computer use, or say that they were intellectually deficient or racist. I asked a hypothetical question to clarify what the limits of their tolerance were. Some answered calmly and honestly; others preferred to ascribe motives and characterisitics to me.

I could have contributed several anecdotes about Chinese attitudes toward other groups to the AskMe thread. I didn't, because the thread didn't really seem like a discussion about stereotypes as much as it was a collection of stereotypes. Hence my hypothetical question.

I do, in fact, find insults offensive in general. Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Jim Davis's Garfield, and all the other insult humorists are not at all funny to me. MeFites calling each other names annoys me. And yes, racial and ethnic stereotyping bothers me. I realize I am probably more sensitive than a lot of people on this, and definitely more sensitive than many MeFites, but so what? This thread was intended to find out what the consensus is on chatty listing of that kind of stuff. Probably I should have not used the word "promote," but that's what it seemed like to me. Others don't see it that way, which is fine. The scorn is not very persuasive.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:01 PM on June 21, 2006 [1 favorite]


I could have contributed several anecdotes about Chinese attitudes toward other groups to the AskMe thread. I didn't, because the thread didn't really seem like a discussion about stereotypes as much as it was a collection of stereotypes.

Wow. "I could have given a helpful answer and pushed the thread in a useful direction, but I preferred to stand back and let it go in a direction I don't like so I could bitch about it on MeTa." Way to go!
posted by languagehat at 2:25 PM on June 21, 2006


Kirth Gerson : "racial and ethnic stereotyping bothers me."

I guess the hard time I'm having understanding your position is that, except for your disagreement about the post's validity, I agree with you on the other stuff. Racial and ethnic stereotyping bother me as well. However, merely listing them doesn't. The analogy may be weak, but some of what the government does bothers me, but I don't think someone saying "the government did A, B, and C" is a bad thing. The doing is bad, but not the statement that it was done. In the same way, if person A called my wife a slant-eyes, I'd be annoyed at person A, but if person B said "bugbread, person A is an asshole. He called your wife a slant-eyes", I wouldn't be annoyed at person B. Person B is just reporting about person A.

So with this case, the stereotyping annoys me a lot, but people saying "these stereotypes exist" doesn't annoy me remotely.
posted by Bugbread at 2:28 PM on June 21, 2006 [1 favorite]


Please point out to me just where I did this tarring and suggesting.

Is it really OK to promote ethnic stereotypes?

This is a loaded question right up there with "When did you stop beating your wife?" It implies that anyone who disagrees with you about the specific AskMe in question is racist. Given that implication, I'd say the responses were remarkably restrained.
posted by scottreynen at 3:04 PM on June 21, 2006


So "discussion" equals "promotion"? I think not, though I think some would like to see that the prevailing attitude for some reason I don't understand.

I'm not normally one for musical theatre, but, as Stephen Hopkins said, "never seen, heard, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn't be talked about."
posted by absalom at 3:09 PM on June 21, 2006


scottreynen : "It implies that anyone who disagrees with you about the specific AskMe in question is racist."

I agree that it's begging the question, but I don't agree that the question it begs is whether the commenters are racist or not. From what I can tell, it begs the question about whether the commenters are promoting ethnic stereotypes. It is possible to do that without being racist. I disagree that those comments promote stereotypes, but I certainly didn't read Kirth as saying that we were all racists, just that we were all promoting racism.
posted by Bugbread at 3:10 PM on June 21, 2006


Thanks, bugbread - I really did not intend to imply that anybody was necessarily racist, but the thread had a kind of bad smell to me.

scottyrenen, absalom - I already said that my use of promote was probably wrong, but don't let that get in your way.

Lhat -Wow. "I could have actually made some kind of useful answer to the questions in this thread, but I preferred to stand back and snark at the poster." Way to go!
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:23 PM on June 21, 2006


scottyrenen, absalom - I already said that my use of promote was probably wrong, but don't let that get in your way.

Get in my way of what exactly? Why don't you just come out and say whatever you're vaguely implying? After saying your use of "promote" was wrong, you asked where you might have been seen as tarring those who disagreed with you. And I pointed out exactly where I saw you doing that. You asked a question and I answered it. Are you suggesting that was wrong to do? And if so, why? Because the answer hurt your feelings? Why did you ask?
posted by scottreynen at 3:39 PM on June 21, 2006


I do think it would be helpful if people explained more clearly why certain groups feel the way they do about others--it's touched on in that thread but not extensively enough. We could use all the historical (and other) reasons for all the different stereotypes.
posted by amberglow at 4:39 PM on June 21, 2006


How many times in the last hundred years has some ethnic or racial group turned on another and and killed hundreds, or thousands, or millions of them? How many places in the world is that happening right now? Until we understand a little better how that happens -- and more crucially how to keep it from happening, and how to keep it from spreading like a fire in a munitions factory once it does start, I think it's not quite sane not to be a trifle more receptive to questions like Kirth Gerson's than some of us are being, here.
posted by jamjam at 5:05 PM on June 21, 2006


Jamjam, if that's true, then by the same token, it's probably a good idea then to be a bit more receptive to the opinions countering Kirth Gerson's.
posted by Bugbread at 5:27 PM on June 21, 2006


jamjam, where is the evidence that discussing stereotypes promotes them? Kirth already disclaimed that correlation, so if you want us to act as if it exists, you should provide some evidence that it does. Here is some evidence that education reduces prejudice. Acting on unfounded assumptions might make us feel better, but it does nothing to help those billions of people who suffer as a result of racism.
posted by scottreynen at 5:28 PM on June 21, 2006


Also, I'm not sure what you mean by "receptive". There haven't been many arguments about how the post promotes stereotypes (which, admittedly, is because Kirth is on the defensive due to the particular skew of opinions in the thread), so there's not much to receive. You can't really be receptive to questions, only to arguments. Still, yes, I'd hope that if arguments about how this promotes stereotyping were offered, we wouldn't dismiss them out of hand, but be receptive to them and judge them on their individual merits.
posted by Bugbread at 5:32 PM on June 21, 2006


That question could be viewed as a request for anecdotal experiences. And many valid answers to it would only serve to break down stereotypes (like: "NO").
posted by scarabic at 5:45 PM on June 21, 2006


Ahhh, irony.
posted by Ryvar at 5:58 PM on June 21, 2006


Hi, everybody.

My name is Jason and that was my first post on MetaFilter. I was stunned to learn that it led to such a shitstorm.

Kirth, when I was reading your criticisms of my item, a historical metaphor came to my mind. Your hyper-sensitivity about matters of racial/ethnic prejudice reminded me of Victorian attitudes towards sexuality. In the Victorian era, people would put little frilly covers on piano legs because they were, you know, legs, and if a leg were exposed . . . well, you know where that would lead.
So people pretended that the body didn't exist, that we weren't sexual beings at all. At the same time, Victorian London supported a small army of prostitutes, servicing those good hypocritical burghers who wouldn't dream of referring to a chicken "breast" in polite company. The repression of sexuality led to a sexualization of every aspect of life.

Later, we became more enlightened and learned to deal with sexuality in a mature manner, not as an overwhelming force that had the power to upend us and scatter reason to the four winds, but as a basic bodily function, normal, natural, and easily integrated into a mature adult personality. Sex was no longer dark, mysterious and daimonic. It was normal. It was part of who we were.

An important part of this process was learning to be open, to talk freely about The Forbidden, even when that was difficult and emotionally trying for many people.

Does this metaphor make sense?
posted by jason's_planet at 7:12 PM on June 21, 2006 [1 favorite]


if I were to post a question asking what racist slurs have been used for Afrcans or Jews, nobody would have a problem with that? Well, OK, then.

Late to the party, but I just wanted to step in and say that I'm a Jew who would not be offended by such a question at all.
posted by bingo at 7:20 PM on June 21, 2006


jason's_planet: I wouldn't worry too much about the stupid fallout from your post.

I'd say on the plus side, the "fallout" in this MeTa thread serves as a wonderful illustration / proof of concept that people are so incredibly hypersensitive to frank discussion about topics that may be controversial.

The victorian analogy does make sense, and we're the same way about racism today, amongst other things.
posted by twiggy at 7:20 PM on June 21, 2006


Bingo— So, what, you speak for all Jews now?
(Just fucking with you).
posted by klangklangston at 7:22 PM on June 21, 2006


It's a pretty unhelpful question, for the most part, if you want to get rid of stereotypes.

It's only acceptable right now because Asians are an acceptable minority to bash these days.
posted by 1fish2fish at 7:36 PM on June 21, 2006


What twiggy said and...

jason nails it of course. It took almost one hundred posts to get down to the meat of the issue. I think the reason these threads get so long and pointless is that Metafilter can't deal with frank and direct discussion (see also Feisty saga). Cynical commenters don't trust this and will look for meaningless scabs to pick. The resulting nastiness is all for nothing, because the scab wasn't that tasty and now you have to wait a few days for the scab to heal. In the meantime you're self-conscious about your bleeding wound and get all defensive in front of strangers for no reason. And no one likes to talk to defensive people so they all leave. In the end you're stuck talking to yourself.

The moral of the story? Cut out the non-sense and write what you really think.
posted by Pacheco at 7:44 PM on June 21, 2006


"It's only acceptable right now because Asians are an acceptable minority to bash these days."

Right, because that question totally bashed Asians.
posted by klangklangston at 8:01 PM on June 21, 2006


"Asians are an acceptable minority to bash these days"

Yeah, fuck them and their high math scores.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 8:05 PM on June 21, 2006


Oh, boy. The criticisms keep getting sillier.

Anyway, I'd just like to thank twiggy and Pachecho and everyone here -- too numerous to name -- who supported me and my right to freedom of expression.

Thank you very much!
posted by jason's_planet at 8:28 PM on June 21, 2006


Later, we became more enlightened and learned to deal with sexuality in a mature manner, not as an overwhelming force that had the power to upend us and scatter reason to the four winds.

Man, a bunch of people didn't get that damn memo. Didn't people boycott the movie Kinsey?

I get your point, though. Prohibition and silence have probably never netted positive results. (whatever that means). Additionally, it certainly follows that education reduces racism. I mean, understanding and interacting with other cultures makes people less likely to irrationally hate them? A thought too stunning for many to cope with, I think. (Part of the reason the Irish finally got to become "white." Most places.) It's not like humans have a long, proud tradition of general xenophobia and absolute fear of the unknown.
posted by absalom at 9:03 PM on June 21, 2006


another example would be mark twain's use of the word "nigger" in huck finn. its use in the novel does not rank among america's contributions to the proliferation of racism, but people objected to its use in any form whatsoever, because of a simple failure to accept the value of public discourse and education.

and also, there was that whole war, so people were probably a little uptight.
posted by shmegegge at 9:08 PM on June 21, 2006


Calm down. I never said the question shouldn't be asked.

I'm just saying if you want to reduce prejudice or sterotyping, asking this question doesn't help things. Maybe it fulfills someone's idle curiosity or some other purpose, but I don't understand how you can say this question doesn't encourage it, even to a small degree.

Hey, no need to justify your curiosity to me though. People sure get sensitive about people getting sensitive. LOL
posted by 1fish2fish at 9:18 PM on June 21, 2006


"It's only acceptable right now because Asians are an acceptable minority to bash these days."

Right, because that question totally bashed Asians.


No, you misread that post. Sorry I couldn't be of more help.
posted by 1fish2fish at 9:25 PM on June 21, 2006


Racism is just like sex. If it feels good, do it!
posted by delmoi at 9:50 PM on June 21, 2006


Asians are an acceptable minority to bash these days.

This is true (although 'bash' is too strong a word -- ridicule is more accurate).

It's only acceptable right now because

This is nonsense. There is no connection between the two clauses.

In other words, asking and talking about the way that people are shitty to and about each other is not the same thing as being shitty yourself. Just the opposite, in fact.

It's always acceptable to talk about (and make jokes about) whatever you like (if not always appropriate in some situations), and, as others have said, there was nothing wrong with the question.

In other other words, I think 'if you want to reduce prejudice or sterotyping, asking this question doesn't help things' is exactly wrong.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:01 PM on June 21, 2006


It's always acceptable to talk about (and make jokes about) whatever you like (if not always appropriate in some situations)

?! No, it's not always acceptable. Your audience and the amount of respect you plan to maintain following the conversation dictate the subject. You make it seem like people can say whatever they want, whenever they want (even though it may not be appropriate). The most obvious example of this being completely untrue is the old "yelling 'fire' in the theatre". There are limits to speech, rules that may or may not have been codified. Of course, my comment has very little to do with the original post, but stavros, you're wrong. There is no such beast as "free speech" in the way that you've described.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 10:26 PM on June 21, 2006


Dude, did you even fucking read my comment.

Acceptable, always.
Appropriate, sometimes. That is: 'your audience and the amount of respect you plan to maintain following the conversation dictate the subject,' exactly.

There is no such beast as "free speech"

Right.

in the way that you've described.

Wrong. We're saying exactly the same thing.

But bickering is pointless (not least because you're imputing beliefs and statements to me that I do not hold, when in fact the ones I do hold seem to be similar to your own), because I was also saying that that is totally irrelevant to the AskMe question at hand, which, in this context, was both acceptable and appropriate.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:35 PM on June 21, 2006


I think maybe there's some signal interference happening right now with the word "acceptable." you guys are saying the same thing, but the words are getting in the way. they tend to do that. i don't know if it's worth getting worked up about.

i am, after all, the model of civility and decorum.
posted by shmegegge at 10:52 PM on June 21, 2006


Absolutely, bug bread. I read your particular contrary opinions in the original thread and this one with an avid interest. I've never heard from anyone with experiences such as yours, and I find your perspective extremely valuable. I will say, however, that I am surprised to see "you can't really be receptive to questions" from a parent and a grandparent.

Ethnic stereotypes and slurs have been at the center of every Lynching, pogrom, cleansing or genocide of which I have any knowledge; that this is not mere correlation is confirmed for me by manifold first person accounts of victims who report perpetrators screaming these slurs as they raped, murdered, burned, tortured, and committed infanticide, among other crimes; and by perpetrators themselves, who report that epithets and slurs played a role in allowing them to dehumanize victims enough to permit them to do these awful things to fellow human beings in the first place.

The idea that we can take these bloody, reeking artifacts of the worst of human history, and very recent history at that, run them under the faucet for a few moments, declare them safe and work them like so many children's toys for our amusement and instruction, is at the very least to spit on the graves of the victims and mock their suffering. Worse, we risk blinding ourselves to the harm these words may yet do if it should turn out that we are living not in DisneyWorld or on jason's_planet, but on an Earth where oil and fresh water will become increasingly scarce, and Global Warming may make it impossible to feed six billion, much less the ten billion most demographers seem to expect.
posted by jamjam at 10:56 PM on June 21, 2006


Yeah, I don't really like the usage of the word "acceptable". Have any synonyms you'd like to throw in there instead?
posted by SeizeTheDay at 11:42 PM on June 21, 2006


jamjam, you're having a serious cause/correlation issue here: the epithets don't inspire the racial hatred. It doesn't work that way. No one—no one—has ever said, "oh, wait, they call black people wogs? Fuck black people!"

You want to talk about scrabbling over increasingly limited resources in an aging world, you need to accept that having a historical perspective on the things Thais think about Japanese, and even the things they called each other, has fuck all to do with man's inhumanity to man. I guarantee you a deaf/mute could devolve just as well as any slur-slinger.
posted by cortex at 6:21 AM on June 22, 2006


1fish2fish writes "It's a pretty unhelpful question, for the most part, if you want to get rid of stereotypes"
and
1fish2fish writes "I'm just saying if you want to reduce prejudice or sterotyping, asking this question doesn't help things. Maybe it fulfills someone's idle curiosity or some other purpose, but I don't understand how you can say this question doesn't encourage it, even to a small degree."

True, but the OP wasn't trying some grand social experiment to rid the world of stereotype. He was just trying to find out what those stereotypes were. As to your second point if post the question: "What are the biting insects found in SE Asia?" I'm not enouraging the spread of those insects, not even a little bit.

jason's_planet writes "My name is Jason and that was my first post on MetaFilter. I was stunned to learn that it led to such a shitstorm."

This isn't a shit storm, hang around a while and you'll see one.
posted by Mitheral at 7:14 AM on June 22, 2006


People sure get sensitive about people getting sensitive.

This is more or less what I've been thinking about this whole thread since I decided to give it a rest for a while. It's a mystery to me why my finding some speech offensive means that I'm out to censor MetaFilter, or that I'm some kind of repressed Victorian, or that I want to ignore racism and stop peple from talking about it. None of those things are true. Again, to those who are able to discuss ideas without having to attack anyone who expresses something different - kudos!

ryvar - I don't see what's ironic about my comment in that thread from a year ago. Somebody made a remark that others got warped about, and I said I thought it was a joke. How is that in any way related to this? I bet if you really wanted to, you could find something in my posting history that makes me look foolish, but that's not it.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:51 AM on June 22, 2006


I don't think the question was particularly awful, but aguing that it's somehow the one thing standing between us and the next Holocaust is a bit much.

It was a slighly flippant question, asked in a way to encourage not-particularly-thoughtful answers. Which is fine; not every question needs to engender masterpieces. But a tone of "Whoa, Asia is like, different countries! Wonder if they have different opinions, too?!?!" is not exactly the first step toward world peace.
posted by occhiblu at 9:13 AM on June 22, 2006


I thought it was a good honest question and handled well and honestly by the responders - and I learned some things to boot. That kind of detail humanizes people - an abstraction, of course, but a preferable one to 'all Asians are the same.'
posted by waxbanks at 9:57 AM on June 22, 2006


Is it just me? When person A pulls something out of person B's posting history, its usually my respect for person A that goes down.
posted by vacapinta at 11:07 AM on June 22, 2006


Cortex, I'm pleased you used ambivalent "having a serious ... issue" instead of 'make the blunder of,' or 'don't have the wit to grasp the difference between.' I do "have a serious cause/correlation issue." People have become so terrified of this kind of accusation they often appear almost to argue that strong correlation militates against the possibility of a causal relationship. In fact, causation and correlation are highly correlated; there is a relationship of logical necessity between them.

In this case the argument is straightforward. To say that forceful, intense racial and ethnic slurs and epithets do not promote hatred and violence is like claiming that Roman and Arabic numerals are equally effective for calculation, or that there is no difference between shouting 'I see a markedly exothermic chemical reaction with strong features of positive feedback!' and 'fire!' in a crowded theatre.

I think hateful and violence-inspiring speech is one of the intrinsic and incurable pathologies of language, and something all of us are obligated to work to ameliorate. As Burroughs so brilliantly and presciently said, "language is a virus."
posted by jamjam at 1:57 PM on June 22, 2006


Yes, but that hateful people speak hatefully does not implicate bare words as causal agents. The only thing that renders the words into "forceful, intense racial and ethnic slurs" is their malicious deployment by the assholes in question.

Slurs are not necessary to express hatred, racial/ethnic/sexual/whatever. Plain words suffice. A racist with a slur is like a thug with a hammer—the hammer didn't make him a thug, no matter how hard he swings it, and banning hammers won't make him a nice guy. And making hammers, discussing hammers, studying how hammers have been used (even violently!) is not promoting violence.

For the record, I used "having an issue" for precisely the reason that it's ambiguous and (I hope) not dismissive—I disagree with your position and think it's wrong, but I'm happy to hash it out with you.
posted by cortex at 2:49 PM on June 22, 2006


"To say that forceful, intense racial and ethnic slurs and epithets do not promote hatred and violence is like claiming that Roman and Arabic numerals are equally effective for calculation, or that there is no difference between shouting 'I see a markedly exothermic chemical reaction with strong features of positive feedback!' and 'fire!' in a crowded theatre."

No. Slurs CAN promote hatred. Or they can be used in a neutral context. This was clearly a neutral context.
posted by klangklangston at 3:04 PM on June 22, 2006


For a fluent speaker of a given language, words can never be "bare." Words are always causal agents. Yes, "a racist with a slur is like a thug with a hammer." A racist without a slur is like a thug with mittens on. I prefer my racist thugs in the latter condition, thank you very much. The appreciation I expressed for the ambivalent term was not at all ironic, and I'm happy to have the chance to reiterate that here.

Klangklangston, please feel free (but not obligated) to demonstrate a neutral context for the 'N-word.'
posted by jamjam at 4:28 PM on June 22, 2006


How about this?

"There's a great deal of historically negative meaning tied to word 'nigger'."
posted by cortex at 4:47 PM on June 22, 2006


I don't even know why you're going off on racial slurs--that wasn't really what the original question was about. The same question could be asked about the British Isles, and whether the Irish have stereotypes about the English or the Welsh, or whether different regions within England itself have stereotypes of other regions--how would that be racist? If anything, I saw the question as seeking a greater cultural understanding. Wondering about such stereotypes isn't a realization that "Asians are people too", as someone said earlier; it just stems from curiosity about other cultures and the fact that most Americans are largely ignorant about Asian cultural norms.

Words are always causal agents.

That's fundamentally ridiculous. If I type the N-word here, right now, regardless of context, someone's going to get lynched or something because of it?

Here goes: "Yesterday, our English professor reviewed our coursework in the section on James Conrad, including Nostromo, Lord Jim, The Nigger of the Narcissus and Heart of Darkness."

Please post the body count tomorrow.
posted by LionIndex at 5:03 PM on June 22, 2006


Words are always causal agents.

I appreciate what you're getting at, and it is an interesting question, but I think you're wrong. Words do not in and of themselves have power, much as we lovers of them might wish it to be so.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:44 PM on June 22, 2006


jamjam,

"the word 'nigger' is used a slur to deride blacks in america and elsewhere."

that's a neutral context for the word.
posted by shmegegge at 6:26 PM on June 22, 2006


Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for civil rights for blacks who were discriminated against in America.

Well, there you go. By using words that relate to and discuss racism, I've therefore increased the amount of racism in the world, and armed all the racists with ammunition. I have effectively spit on MLK's grave. This comment should probably be deleted.
posted by Bugbread at 7:19 PM on June 22, 2006


flagged, bugbread
posted by cortex at 7:21 PM on June 22, 2006


Valiant tries all, and more effective in my mind than I thought they'd be, but 'nigger', for me, like the blood of the creature in Alien, can burn a hole in almost anything meant to contain it; nor is that by any means a property unique to that word.

I have no idea what people are objecting to in the notion that words are causal agents. Quite a few words in English have been around for hundreds of years, they are in and of themselves acts that have been committed by millions of people billions of times, and they have been powerful determinants of how people feel, what they think, and what they do. If you want more of a causal agent than that, I can only conclude that I failed to notice the point at which the conversation drifted over into Theology.

Words and phrases are the vectors for racist hatred and violent expressions of that hatred. The body count is in the many millions. If you, Lionindex, have failed to grasp this elementary fact already, I do not delude myself that waking up tomorrow and reading this post will allow you to do so. You will very probably get up and read, what is in doubt is that you are capable of waking up at all.
posted by jamjam at 7:29 PM on June 22, 2006


All I can make of your argument, at this point, is this, then: you say that words must always, without exception, be causal agents, must carry in all contexts and under all circumstance whatever is the most terrible burden they have every carried. That a word used in hatred can never be used unhatefully. Is that your position?
posted by cortex at 7:34 PM on June 22, 2006


In fact, let's drop the phrase "causal agents". Can you either verify or counterpoint the above in different words?
posted by cortex at 7:35 PM on June 22, 2006


jamjam : "Valiant tries all, and more effective in my mind than I thought they'd be, but 'nigger', for me, like the blood of the creature in Alien, can burn a hole in almost anything meant to contain it"

If you really, truly believed that, you wouldn't have just used it. However, your use of it indicates that you believe that there are some cases where using taboo words does not arm racists or increase racism.
posted by Bugbread at 8:10 PM on June 22, 2006


A while back, jamjam wrote:

Ethnic stereotypes and slurs have been at the center of every Lynching, pogrom, cleansing or genocide of which I have any knowledge; that this is not mere correlation is confirmed for me by manifold first person accounts of victims who report perpetrators screaming these slurs as they raped, murdered, burned, tortured, and committed infanticide, among other crimes; and by perpetrators themselves, who report that epithets and slurs played a role in allowing them to dehumanize victims enough to permit them to do these awful things to fellow human beings in the first place.

Let's look at a post in my item:

What Kyrgyz think of:

[snipped]

Dungan:
farmers, good cooks, illiterates

[snipped]


Do you seriously think that this post is going to inspire a pogrom? Do you think I'm going to leap up from my desk in Midtown Manhattan and start running down Sixth Avenue hollering "DEATH TO THE DUNGAN! KILL THEM NON-READING BASTIDS! FUCK THEM AND THEIR CASSEROLES!"

I mean, for fuck's sake, I didn't even know what a Dungan was until today.

I have to wonder, did you actually read my item? Even if you had a valid point about the magical power of ethnic slurs to overwhelm reason and turn us into axe-wielding beasts (and you don't), I can't recall any actual Asian-language slurs being discussed there.
posted by jason's_planet at 9:04 PM on June 22, 2006


I have no idea what people are objecting to in the notion that words are causal agents.

Honestly? It's an important thing (to me, at least, and insofar as philosophical beard-tugging can be important), and it's something we've talked about here many times before.

The question of whether it is words themselves or the mental state, intentions, and circumstances of the person who utters or writes them and the people who hear or read them that is at the heart of the power language has is a big one, and lies at the centre of many arguments we could (and have had) about things like the media manipulation and lapdoggery, government chicanery, ideological warfare, tolerance and multiculturalism, and political correctness. It's a Big Idea, and, of course, an unresolved question.

Germane to this discussion, if tangential, is the shitfight over politically correct speech, and the limitations placed on speech, by, for example, some American (and other) universities. There are those that would limit what we can say, and as near as I can figure, those people are mostly people that believe that words have some inherent power. I disagree with them, as I do with you, although I can't tell if you've thought it through or not.

My stand is that it is not words themselves that have any power. Any power -- any causality with regard to actions in the world, if you like -- comes from the relationship between speaker and listener, and from the intent of the speaker in using the words, and from the manner in which the listener reacts (or allows him or herself to react) to those words.

There is nothing of that inherent in the words themselves. From this stance, much of my personal philosophy (to be grandiose about it) derives. It's arguable, of course, and fun to talk about, but that's where I sit, anyway.

It's hairsplitting, you could argue, but there is fruitful hairsplitting, and the other kind. I think in this instance, it's important to think about what you believe about the issue, because so much about the way one conducts oneself, and the way one understands the nature of 'freedom' (of speech, and conduct, and the role of government and so on in our wordy world) grows out of it.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:22 PM on June 22, 2006


What does 'germane' mean? Is it like 'to do with' or whatever.
posted by econous at 9:36 PM on June 22, 2006


So the implication here is that you're proud to be ignorant, right?

Kewl, d00d.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:34 PM on June 22, 2006


One last post in this thread from me. I am not in favor of censorship of any kind, or of any sort of campaign to limit what people think, discuss, say or write. I think the aspects of language I have made all these alarmed statements about, ethnic and racial slurs and hate speech, deserve and require much more intensive and extensive discussion, consideration, and exploration than they are likely ever to receive. I strongly disagree, however, with what I perceive as an attitude of fond and arrogant superiority to the people who have gone before us, and the purely silly assumption that we enlightened and educated modern human beings are no longer subject to the ills of language. Language has been and is as dangerous as any other virus, in my view, and my evidence for this are the millions who have caught their death of it just within the last 100 years.

As jason's_planet points out, slurs were almost entirely absent from his thread (and is it my imagination, or has your veneer of placid civility peeled up a bit, there?) simply because, I guess, we instinctively tend to avoid them because they are so dangerous. Cortex, even I don't think we have much to fear from the curses written in Hieroglyphics on potsherds which archaeologists continue to uncover in numbers, or from Babylonian execration texts, but living hate speech comes out of our mouths trailing clouds of malice no matter how pure our intent may be, and I think we must always keep that in mind.

Stavros, I respect your view, but I have never been satisfied by any of the efforts I have seen to distill meaning and intent out of language. When the language changes, or goes, so does meaning and intent. I have begun to wonder, in fact, whether the attempt is a linguistic version of Descartes' Homunculus. I would also point to the memoirs of translators and bilingual authors such as Beckett and Nabokov, who seem universally to declare that it is impossible to say the same thing in two different languages, even for the same person.
posted by jamjam at 12:47 AM on June 23, 2006


jamjam : "As jason's_planet points out, slurs were almost entirely absent from his thread...simply because, I guess, we instinctively tend to avoid them because they are so dangerous."

I guessed they weren't discussed because he wasn't asking about them, he was asking about stereotypes.
posted by Bugbread at 1:36 AM on June 23, 2006


That language can be dangerous is not in dispute, that certain language must be dangerous is what's open to question here. And frankly, jamjam, your suppositions don't seem plausible and without them you argument, such as it is, falls. Using the lack of slurs in the thread as evidence that slurs are inherently damaging makes no sense, and in fact the lack of them suggests that disucssion like the one inspired by the AskMe should be left to proceed on their own without the intervention of loaded MeTa threads.

(Also, a little thought will probably show you that the malleability of meaning across and within language is an argument for stav's position, not one for yours, for if indeed Beckett could not get The UnNameable to say exaclty the same thing in English as he had in French, and yet the book exists in English, it must be something on the order of intention which authorizes the translation.)
posted by OmieWise at 5:26 AM on June 23, 2006


"Valiant tries all, and more effective in my mind than I thought they'd be, but 'nigger', for me, like the blood of the creature in Alien, can burn a hole in almost anything meant to contain it; nor is that by any means a property unique to that word."

That's your malfunction, frankly. Dick Gregory's book Nigger is much better than Callous on my Soul.
posted by klangklangston at 6:20 AM on June 23, 2006


A racist without a slur is like a thug with mittens on

Boy, is that a ridiculous thing to say, and it illustrates what's wrong with your position in general. You've taken a minor insight (language has power—gosh, nobody ever thought of that before!) and blown it up into an all-encompassing world view that makes you take Jason's perfectly harmless (and interesting) question as the first step on a journey into the heart of darkness and think what racists need is words. Get some perspective.
posted by languagehat at 6:52 AM on June 23, 2006


Language has been and is as dangerous as any other virus, in my view, and my evidence for this are the millions who have caught their death of it just within the last 100 years.

No. Words are vessels, my friend. We supply the hate, the irony, the humor. They are not platonic missiles.

Language did not kill a damn nobody, wild ipse dixit inference of causation notwithstanding. Hate, ignorance, greed, disease, famine, swords, bullets, zyklon-b, and land mines killed those millions.
posted by kosem at 8:31 AM on June 23, 2006


what languagehat said.
posted by shmegegge at 9:47 AM on June 23, 2006


jamjam: My questions still stand.

Do you honestly believe that discussing a silly stereotype of an obscure Central Asian ethnic group is the first step on the road towards genocide?

And did you actually read my item?
posted by jason's_planet at 5:13 PM on June 23, 2006


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