How I Outsmarted a Sexist Psychology Professor

14 12 2011

If there’s one thing I’ve learned getting to know university professors, it’s that pride is alive and well in academia, despite many claims to the contrary. I always expected such persons to be paragons of fairness and objectivity, but it turns out that they, too, harbour secret prejudices of their own—and sexism is no exception to this rule. I did, however, have the opportunity to turn the tables on one such individual, who thought he knew what he was talking about, but didn’t. Knowing at the outset that his facts were wrong, I graciously burdened myself with the task of correcting him on his assumptions on a topic which often goes unexamined—sexism in language.

(By the way, I must apologise to Nobel Prize-winning economist Leonid Hurwicz for using a photograph of him at the beginning of this article. I’m sure he isn’t a sexist old fogey; it’s just that he really looks like one! But he’s dead now anyway.)

Now, my friend is no dolt—he’s a professor of psychology at an eminent Canadian university—but he’s also an eccentric. He hails from Romania, loves opera and English literature, and pines for the days of the old British Empire, which, in relative terms, imposed a much gentler form of imperialism on its colonial subjects, or so he would say. “The British had an ideal behind their imperial mission–-to teach and to elevate benighted peoples”, is something he would say, “and they carried out this mission much more humanely than the Dutch, French, Spanish, or other European colonial powers.” Anyway, he sounds rather like Dracula and smokes like a chimney. And he’s gay. So he’s like a gay, chain-smoking Dracula. He comes across as sophisticated and quaintly nostalgic, but he has some rather ugly opinions—for they are certainly not facts—about feminists.

One of these opinions is that feminists don’t know what they’re talking about. You see, my friend once encountered a group of women in his milieu who complained that the word manhole was sexist because it contained the word man, but not woman. But, he argued, feminists shouldn’t be complaining that the word manhole is sexist, because man derives from the Latin word manus, which means hand”, not “adult male human being”. So the feminists are just being angry, stupid women, he suggested.

Well, that’s just plain bullshit, as I soon showed him. It is what in diachronic linguistics (historical linguistics) we call “folk etymology”: derivation of a word from a false, popular, made-up origin. Anyway, what follows is the general sequence of exchanges we made, in which I disprove his argument and prove its irrational, sexist underpinnings. It is not to be taken verbatim; the quotations are actually paraphrases, not direct discourse, but they accurately reflect the logic behind the points made. And to make a distinction between speakers, I will refer to my friend as simply “Dracula”. Now be patient and closely follow the line of argument to see how I arrive at my conclusion.

“These feminists shouldn’t be complaining that the word manhole is sexist”, said Dracula. “It is not, because the man in manhole comes from the Latin word manus, which means ‘hand’, not ‘adult male human being’. It refers to people who labour with the hands.”

“But the feminists aren’t incorrect to call manhole sexist”, said I, “because the man in manhole doesn’t come from manus; it comes from the Old English word man, which does mean ‘adult male human being’ in our present-day usage. So, yes, the feminists do have reason to complain that words like manhole are sexist.”

“Brandon”, cooed Dracula in a thick yet articulate Romanian accent, “if you want to show that the word man doesn’t mean manus, you have to show that the English didn’t borrow man from Latin.”

“They didn’t.”

“But the Romans conquered the Anglo-Saxons, and conquered peoples borrow words from their conquerors. Hence, the Anglo-Saxons must have borrowed the word man from manus, the Latin word for ‘hand’.”

“That is incorrect. The Romans didn’t conquer the Anglo-Saxons; the Anglo-Saxons settled Britain after Rome left. The Roman conquest of Britain began in 43 under Claudius. The people they conquered were Celtic, not Germanic. After a series of Anglo-Saxon and Irish raids, the Romans abandoned Britain in 410 to concentrate their legions on Rome in response to a massive siege there by the Visigoths, who attacked the city under the leadership of Alaric. It was only then that the Germanics had free rein to settle Britain en masse, and even then they only did so several decades later, beginning in 449, under Hengest and Horsa of the Jutes. This means that the Anglo-Saxons [the Germanic tribes in Britain] couldn’t have borrowed man from a ruling Roman elite. The Romans had left before the Anglo-Saxons could borrow anything from them. So, no, the feminists aren’t wrong about the etymology of man.”

“But, Brandon”, purred Dracula affectionately, “The Celts and the Germanics are the same people with the same language group, so when you say that the Romans conquered the Celts, you say that the Romans conquered the Germanics, too. Thus there was still a Germanic people borrowing the word man from the conquering Romans.”

“That’s just plain wrong”, said I, patiently. “The Celts and Germanics are two totally different peoples with two totally different language groups. Look at any Proto-Indo-European Language Family tree. Italic (from which Latin is derived), Germanic (from which Old English is derived), and Celtic (from which Welsh and Irish are derived) are linguistic sisters. Germanic is no more closely related to Celtic than it is to Latin itself, the language you incorrectly purported as the donor language to the Germanics. They’re all equally distinct. The Celts spoke Celtic languages when the Romans arrived, and the Anglo-Saxons spoke Germanic languages after the Romans left. So, no, there was not a Germanic people borrowing the word man from the conquering Romans, and, yes, the feminists are correct in analyzing man as meaning a type of ‘person’, and not ‘hand’.”

To be honest, I was thinking to myself, “Girl, you’ve got your chronology backwards.”

“Besides”, I continued, “words aren’t borrowed just because they come from a conquering culture; they’re borrowed because they represent something special, hence prestigious, about the conquering culture. The English didn’t borrow the word ‘chicken’ or ‘goose’ from the invading French, because chickens and geese were common to the English; poor English people ate fowl, too. But they did borrow the words for pork, beef, and venison from the French [cf. French porc, boeuf, venaison], because these words respresented something special, hence prestigious, about the invading culture. Only the invading French could afford to eat these choice meats. However, ‘man’ was a concept common to both the invading French and the English, just like ‘finger’ or ‘hair’, so the English didn’t bother borrowing this word from the French. So, again, no, man wasn’t borrowed from an invading culture, and the feminists are right about its etymology.”

Here Dracula sat for a moment, truly puzzled, then drew a copy of Roget’s Dictionary [Please, really? At least obtain a fresh copy of the Oxford English Dictionary] from his mammoth, heaving bookshelf, breaking it open on his dining table next to a glass of rosé and a thick stack of fresh cigarettes. Scanning the pages intently between puffs of smoke, he told me he would find out once and for all the etymological root of man, and how it proved that the feminists didn’t know what they were talking about. Ultimately, though, all he found was a derivation which stated that the origin of man was OE, or Old English. Not Latin.

“Drat!” he seemed to be thinking behind his cigarette, his brow furrowed in deep cogitation. Even then he was wrong, and the feminists were right. And so he slowly slouched back in his chair and puffed on his cigarette, still staring at the page in the dictionary, whilst I politely summarized my argument against him. We eventually drifted off into other topics of conversation, but I think we both left with an understanding that his analysis of the feminists he encountered, and perhaps women in general, was wrong. If this one person can be so deliberately remiss about sexism in language, just tally up all the other culprits. I think that what we’re seeing here is a form of academic hubris which seeks comfort inside its own stubborn, old-fashioned shell, but which hurts girls and boys in the real world of today by promulgating snobbish, stupid myths about women.

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Christians vs. Witches: the Atheists Arrive

3 07 2011

Previously, we discussed how the armies of Republican Christian politician Sarah Palin and pagan high-priestess Laurie Cabot were bearing down on one another. After an initial onslaught, they decided to withdraw and hold a match between the choicest champions of either side. Palin was not impressed with “losing” her champion to the side of the witches, and called on her forces to resume the onslaught against Cabot’s pagan forces. It is the ultimate duke-out. Thus, we continue.

Palin assumed the form of a huge and matted grizzly bear, wielding a Bible in one paw and a shotgun in the other. Cabot assumed the form of a flying cat-woman with a sleek, black body and batlike wings, wielding a staff in one paw—the staff, made of yew, was etched in an ancient Ogham incantation and glowed white—and a ball of blazing blue fire in the other. Palin levelled her gun on her shoulder, aimed at the flying witch-demon, and fired, but the shot was deflected partly by Palin’s own poor marksmanship and partly by the ball of fire, which shot from Cabot’s fist and burnt Palin’s paw, sending the shotgun a-flying.

“You’ll never best me, you Satan-worshipper!” cried Palin, rubbing her burnt paw.

“Satan?” asked Cabot, quizically. “I don’t worship Satan,  because I don’t believe in him. How can I worship something I don’t believe in?”

“Oh, he’s real enough!” cried Palin. “And he’s seducing you with his pretty words! He is the ultimate sleuth!” She was reading a page in her Bible when she said this. “Ever read C.S. Lewis?”

“Actually”, responded Cabot, “I think evil is the work of man, not some demon scapegoat. Satan is just an excuse humans use when they don’t want to take responsibility for their own actions. Humans cause evil, so humans should correct it. All evil comes from humanity, and it is the obligation of humanity to correct this error, not foist it conveniently on to some other force. It’s all about personal responsibility.”

“Lord in heaven above”, pleaded Palin, scanning a page in her Bible, which boasted a pastel-coloured, floral-print book-jacket edged with lace, “smite mine evil enemy as you would have an innocent babe of Canaan for being the child of a tribe occupying the land that your chosen people sought to conquer!” With those words, a stream of blood shot forth from the book and knocked Cabot to the ground—well, not quite to the ground, but she crashed into the Christ Church Cathedral spire. From the mass of crumbling roof she rose upright to meet her nemesis.

“You may abide in such a bloodthirsty lord”, spoke Cabot in a ringing baritone, “but I cannot!” With that, she pointed her staff at Palin, spoke a series of strange and mystical words, and shot a ray of pure light at her enemy, blasting her through a rooftop in the city-centre below. Her enemy struggled to her feet and found herself inside an Oxfam shop, asking, “What curious thing is this?”

“It is a shop where one selflessly donates to the poor and needy by buying things, such as books”,  cried the shopkeeper, a surprisingly spry old matron, “you know, those things one reads—without feeling the need to invoke capitalism or the myth of trickle-down economics in order to protect one’s wealth! Not that you would know what that means, you daft old chattering voicebox”, she snapped, pushing the bear-woman out the door and slamming it shut in her face.

“Curious indeed!” pondered Palin pawfully. “I never thought of that.”

“Chief-witches”, cried Cabot, “let us gather at the site of your fallen foe!” With that, Cabot and her chief battle-witches descended through the spires and steep roofs till they reached the cobble-stone street in a cluster before the pitiful Palin, who pawed vainly at the doorstep of the Oxfam shop. “Here”, said Cabot, “we must consider our next course of action while the armies battle above, given her”—and here she pointed at the bear-woman—“temporary disadvantage.”

“Well, we can’t just kill her”, said Doreen Virtue in a sweet voice. “At the very least, we have to judge her, but we have little time to spare at the present moment. Let us incarcerate her for the time being.”

“Ugh, such minor tasks use up my power”, sighed Cabot, considering both the army above and her fallen foe below. She could not await any further assaults, nor the re-ascent of Palin, either. She waved her staff in the air above, and the crystal atop the staff glowed with a beam of bright, opalescent, blue-white light. When this had acquired a sufficient luminosity, she pointed the crystal at the she-bear and blasted her with a cold ray of light, freezing her where she lay in a giant heap of ice. This task accomplished, she returned her glace to the enemy’s host above. They had metamorphosed into a bevvy of flying, braying moose-women. Startled by this spectacle, she raised her staff in the air once more, this time holding it horizontally with both hands, and recited a mysterious, arcane incantation. There was a brief pause.

“Witches, assume panther mode!” she bellowed. With that, a purple mass of light burst forth from her, weaved through the spikey Oxford skyline, and showered her soldiers above, transforming them into a throng of giant black cat-beasts.

“We still haven’t enough numbers!” yelled evolutionary psychologist Nigel Barber from the side.

“Nigel Barber?”, mused Doreen Virtue with a soft but quizzical expression. “What the fuck are you doing here?”

“Oh, I don’t know”, he responded dully. “I guess I kind of like you guys!”

“Great!”, she said. “We’ll need all the help we can get. General Cabot, perhaps we can summon some friendly non-pagan forces with our psychic abilities!” she beamed, bloated with the soul of Michele Bachmann inside her.

“We are already here!” squawked Richard Dawkins, landing on a perch above in the form of a giant pteradactyl. “I have brought my forces to assist you, lady, as I see a need to protect humanity from the forces of evil.” Behind him hovered philosopher Daniel Dennet and evolutionary psychologist Susan Blackmore, in their normal human forms, as well as a number of other hardcore classical materialists.

“The atheists!” rejoiced Cabot. “I never thought you’d have come to my aid, given our differences on spirituality, the afterlife, and the mind-brain relationship. Your reputation for being cold, mean, stubborn, and blindly egotistical does precede you. Obviously it is not entirely deserved!”

Stay tuned to find out how the witch-friendly atheists fare against the Christians, and how the atheists are able to cope. Also, stay tuned to find out how the Christians and witches begin to employ their greatest assets against one another. The battle is peaking, and we need some serious forces to ensure that it is as tumultuous as possible. Expect the oddest things to transpire.