Sunday, March 31, 2013

Reality Has No Name

Here's a good example of sloppy, lazy use of language.  I saw an online advertisement today, consisting of the words "All Military Families Deserve Benefits, Regardless of Sexual Orientation."  Families don't have sexual orientations.  Individuals in families have sexual orientations, but they may not have the same ones: one partner may be gay, the other bisexual -- and their children, if any, may be straight.

What the ad meant, of course, was that same-sex couples should have the same privileges in terms of benefits that mixed-sex couples do.  Which, I suppose, would mean that they'd have to be married:  unmarried heterosexual couples don't get such benefits.

A related example: yesterday a colleague, moderating a GLB panel for an education class, explained to the audience that as teachers they may have students with "same-sex parents."  What she said was that a child may have a parent of the same sex; in my case, that would have been my father.  Not all children do have same-sex parents living with them.  But that's not what my colleague meant.  She meant that some children have two parents of the same sex.  That's not necessarily the same thing as having gay or bisexual parents.  A straight male friend of mine isn't married to the mother of his son; soon after the boy was born she married another man and had a child with him.  Since the boy regarded both men as his fathers, he had three parents, two of whom were the same sex.  (True, they weren't both his biological father, but the same is usually true in lesbian couples with children: only one is the biological mother, but both are moms.)  As I've noticed before, "same-sex" -- which refers to the bodies of the people who are interacting, not to their sexual orientation or other essence -- is gradually taking on the meaning of "gay" or "lesbian," as when someone writes about "same-sex acts."  (Similarly, I've seen references to LGBT individuals, but no individual can be gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered.)

We were speaking to a class for future teachers in the School of Education, and the instructor had sent the participants some advance questions and other material.  The most interesting to me was information about "microaggression," a term I hadn't heard before though it has been around since 1970.  I wish I'd saved the definition the instructor sent us, but Wikipedia's is close to it:
Microagression usually involves demeaning implications and other subtle insults against minorities, and may be perpetrated against those due to gender, sexual orientation, and ability status. According to Pierce, “the chief vehicle for proracist behaviors are microaggressions. These are subtle, stunning, often automatic, and nonverbal exchanges which are ‘put-downs’ of blacks by offenders”.  Microaggressions may also play a role in unfairness in the legal system as they can influence the decisions of juries.
My immediate reaction to this concept was positive, since it's certainly true that most racist and other bigoted behavior takes forms other than overt violence and verbal abuse.  But even people who throw around racist epithets will deny that they're racist; the real problem is getting them to recognize that such behavior and attitudes are racist (or sexist, etc.).  Invoking a word like "microaggression" is not going to help.  It can be useful for people who are discussing the varieties of bigoted behavior, but it should have no place in dealing with people whose behavior you're trying to change.  A professional who doesn't have a non-jargon translation handy in those situations needs to go back to school.

But I had reservations almost immediately.  Since most white Americans, anyway, seem to have trouble grasping that you can be racist even if you've never lynched anybody or never owned a slave,
I gather from Chester M. Pierce's words as quoted by Wikpedia that microaggressions are by definition nonverbal.  (I'm not sure whether the "often" in "often automatic, and nonverbal exchanges" is meant to modify only "automatic," or "nonverbal" also.  Another definition, also quoted by Wikipedia, includes verbal behavior.)  From the discussion in class when we spoke there, I could tell that the students were already blurring the meaning of "microaggression" to include all kinds of behavior, verbal and nonverbal, that didn't fit the definition of the term.

After the class, I looked for more information about microaggression on the Web, and found this tumblr-like blog, The Microaggression Project, discussed by the bloggers in an interview with Ms. magazine.  I noticed quickly that many of the submissions weren't about microaggressions at all, but about overt expressions of bigotry -- call them "macroaggressions."  I also noticed in the Wikipedia article that some researchers have begun multiplying varieties, "microinsult" and "microrape" for example.  There are also "microaffirmations" and "microinequities."  I don't think that these variations add anything useful to the concept, especially since so much behavior intended to reinforce power and status occurs without overt violence.  The concept of institutional or structural racism, for example, dealt with subtle as well as overt forms of subjugation and privilege.  Power isn't always exercised by violence; it's more effective if it works subtly, even subliminally.

Words like "microaggression" are easy to define, but apparently many people, even academics and trained professionals, have trouble learning and applying those definitions.  They also inflate their meaning to the point where the terms lose precision, and sometimes any meaning at all.  In the same way that "deconstruct" came to mean simply "analyze," rendering it redundant, "microaggression" seems to be headed toward meaning "racism," "sexism," or any other form of bigotry.  In which case, why use it at all?  I suspect that part of the appeal of these words is their Latinate abstractness, which has prestige for many people: using them makes the user feel powerful.  Which isn't entirely a bad thing -- it was, after all, one of the reasons Raymond Williams wrote Keywords: to give working-class people and people without university backgrounds the knowledge they needed to use such words:
I deliberately included some terms in it because I felt that people did not know their more interesting and complex social history, and so were often unsure about employing them, or recoiling from one of their meanings which had been heavily put to use by ruling-class papers or publicists. I wanted to give them confidence in their ability to use these terms [Politics and Letters (Verso 1979), p. 179].
But Williams wrote Keywords primarily for university students, and it's clear they need it just as much.  It may be for lack of such a resource that graduate students and professors keep messing up terms like "social construction," "essentialism," and other technical terms in their own fields.  It's not enough simply to wave these terms around, they must be used correctly.