Trans, cis and the default

In a recent post, I talked about one reason that the word “cisgender” was coined. I agree that it is a good idea to have ways of talking about people who aren’t trans without evoking a context of “real” or “normal” to imply that we are not legitimate or to highlight our minority status. If this were the case, something like “non-transgender men” might be enough. But many of the arguments for “cis” go beyond this.

The first step beyond simply using “cis” is asking non-trans people to “identify as cis.” The idea is that trans women are marked as “not normal” just by virtue of having a word for ourselves, while non-trans women are the default “women.” There are similar situations for women in general, for example in soccer:

@jaclynf After this game, everyone better start calling it “soccer” and “men’s soccer” #usausausa #USWNT

Asking people to “identify as cis” – possibly as a condition of being accepted as an ally – means asking them to center trans people as the norm and mark themselves as deviating from that norm, at least in that context.

Some people have gone beyond simply asking people to “identify as cis,” and made a point of criticizing the use of unmodified “woman” in contexts that do not apply to all (or any) trans women. The idea is not just to make “trans” one acceptable default, but to exclude anything else from default status.

These three linguistic goals – replacing words like “normal,” admitting “trans” as a possible default status, and removing default status from non-trans people – are all aimed at removing the stigma associated with transgender actions. This stigma is real: I’ve received dirty looks and received petty harassment for wearing women’s clothes.

Of course, I’m relatively fortunate. I have never been attacked for being trans. I have received unconditional love and support from my family, and found a reasonable amount of success in my work life and acceptance from my neighbors. Others have been fired, kicked out of their homes, beaten and even killed for “being a man” in a dress or in the women’s bathroom – or for *not* “being a man” enough in the family or the workplace.

This stigma is not fair, and it needs to stop. The question is whether a word like “cisgender” can confer default status on us, whether default status will actually help to stop it, and if so how much.

Radical categorization and the difficulty of doing justice

In my last post I mentioned three caveats that I wanted to add to Miriam Posner’s keynote address to the Keystone Digital Humanities Conference, and I discussed the fact that the categories we use to organize our lived experience are slippery and problematic and just as reified as the ideological categories employed by researchers.

In this post I want to address some of the difficulties of doing justice, which are intertwined with those difficulties of categorization. Here’s a quote from Posner that gets to these difficulties:

Of course, we can’t capture these experiences without the contributions of the people whose lives we’re claiming to represent. So it’s incumbent upon all of us (but particularly those of us who have platforms) to push for the inclusion of underrepresented communities in digital humanities work, because it will make all of our work stronger and sounder. We can’t allow digital humanities to recapitulate the inequities and underrepresentations that plague Silicon Valley; or the systematic injustice, in our country and abroad, that silences voices and lives.

There is a perception that the world is divided into oppressed and oppressors, and that if we can just restore the balance of power, oppressors will no longer be able to oppress and justice will prevail. In language this finds its expression in “say this, not that” documents like the language guide produced by staff at University of New Hampshire that claims to offer “Bias-Free Language.” In the digital humanities setting that translates into the idea that if we can just include all the relevant underrepresented communities our work will be pure.

I don’t think that Posner had anything so simplistic in mind, but there’s a good chance that several people in the room, and some more people reading the written version, came away with just such a simplistic reading. To me this spells trouble, of a kind I’ve encountered before. Here are some further cautions based on my experiences when advocating for myself and people who are kind of like me in transgender communities.

One source of trouble is the idea that oppressed groups are monolithic entities. Categories are messy and slippery, and that especially goes for categories of people, like the ones we’re trying to include. What if we include an underrepresented community, but we use the wrong definition for that community and wind up excluding an even more underrepresented subgroup? I’m serious, it happens all the time.

And it gets worse, because the oppressed can oppress. Being a member of an underrepresented community does not make anyone a saint, and it does not give anyone an omniscient view of the community. People can, and do, exclude and silence segments of their community, out of greed, fear, hate and even simple ignorance. And they often do it by manipulating those slippery categories.

It’s important to remember that collective decision-making is problematic. In the trans community we don’t hold elections, whether to name our “community leaders” or to decide which words are taboo today and which words every right-thinking ally is required to drop in their conversation before they can be invited to the cool parties.

Finally, nobody is completely honest, either with themselves or with you. Sometimes we repeat what others say without giving it much thought. Sometimes we have a nagging feeling there’s some big logical disconnect in what we’re saying but we don’t have the time to rethink it all. Sometimes we live in a fantasy world because the real world is just too painful. And sometimes we have a hidden agenda that we’re not going to share with you.

I say this as someone who’s had to sit and listen as my transgender “community leaders” regurgitated dismissive characterizations of my subgroup in radio interviews. As someone who’s read blog posts claiming that we don’t belong in the community, even though the same bloggers are happy to claim us at fundraising time. As someone who has read dozens of tweets and Facebook posts on transgender topics by outsider “allies” – friends, neighbors, colleagues, students – that center the noisiest subgroup in our community and erase the group that I belong to.

You can’t include me by hiring that genderqueer kid who gave the cool speech at campus Pride last year. You can’t include me by co-authoring a paper with the late transitioner who bent your ear about access to hormones at the Decolonizing Culture Conference. You can’t include me by interviewing the director of the local Gender Authenticity Center, or by reading the book by that woman who was on Oprah.

In fact, if you hadn’t read my blog or my Twitter feed, you might not even know that I exist to be included. And even if you find me and manage to include me, that’s no guarantee that you haven’t missed some equally important, unrepresented segment of the transgender community that I’m also completely unaware of.

You can’t include everyone. It’s just not going to happen. We need to be mindful of this and set our expectations accordingly about what we know, and how far we can generalize that knowledge.

This is why in the question and answer period, I asked Posner if she would accept my interpreting her speech as a call for humility. She responded by saying that it was actually a call for hubris on the part of the excluded and silenced groups. Later at the reception I proposed a synthesis where hubris was called for on the part of those less powerful, and humility on the part of those with more power.

Posner accepted my synthesis at the time, but thinking about it now in the light of what I just wrote about how the oppressed can oppress, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with it any more. Calling for hubris from those less powerful sounds like an invitation to self-appointed “community leaders” to promote their vision of the community, without stopping to reflect on the possibility that they might be excluding or silencing others in turn.

Humility is most important for those of us with the most power. We need to keep that perspective on what we do. But it is still important for those of us with the least power. It is never not important. If Posner will not call for humility, then I will. Justice is hard. Please, be humble. Let every feeling of power be an invitation to humility. And thanks.

Challenges for radical categorization

I enjoyed Miriam Posner’s keynote address at the Keystone Digital Humanities Conference. It was far from the only talk last week that was animated by a desire for justice and compassion, and it was good to see that desire given such prominence by the organizers and applauded by the attendees.

As a linguist I also welcomed Posner’s focus on categorization and language diversity. I was trained as a syntactician, but over the past several years I have paid more and more attention to semantics, and categorization in particular. Building on the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Eleanor Rosch, George Lakoff and Deborah Cameron, I have come to see categorization as a touchpoint for social justice.

I should note that for me, categorization is not just where I can advocate for others with less power. As a transgender person, the power to categorize myself, my feelings, my beliefs and my actions is denied to me on a daily basis. The main reason that I study categorization is to regain that power for myself and others.

Much as I share Posner’s passion for justice, her talk raised some concerns in my mind. First, digital humanities cannot bear the entire burden of social justice, and even language as a whole cannot. Second, categories are slippery and flexible, which is a great strength of humanity but also a great weakness. Third, there are limits to how much we can trust anyone, no matter how high or low they are in the hierarchies of power. These concerns are not insurmountable barriers to a radical approach to categorization, but keeping them in mind will help us to be more effective fighters for social justice.

I plan to address the issues of the burden and trust in future posts, and in this post focus on the slipperiness of categories. As I understood it, Posner drew a distinction between the data models used by digital humanists (among many others) to categorize the world, and the lived experience of the people who created and consume the data.

There is often conflict between the categories used in the model and in the experience, and there is often a power imbalance between the digital humanist and the humans whose data is being modeled. Digital humanists may be perpetuating injustice by imposing their data models on the lived experiences of others. Posner gave examples of binary gender forms, database fields for racial classification, and maps of places. She contrasted these models imposed from above with examples where humanists had contested those models, aiming to replace them with models closer to the lived experience of people with less power who had a stake in the categorization.

The problem is that our lived experience is also a data model. As George Lakoff and other cognitive scientists have shown, the categories that humans use to describe and interpret our experience are themselves conventions that are collectively negotiated and then imposed on all members of the language community, with penalties for non-compliance. They are just as distinct from reality as the fields in a SQL table, and they shape our perceptions of reality in the same ways.

Whether or not they are encoded in HTML forms, categories are always contested, and the degree to which they are contested is a function of what is at stake to be gained or lost from them. In my experience, categorizing people, whether by race, gender, nationality, religion or other criteria, is the most fraught, because these categories are often used as proxies for other factors, to grant or deny us access to valuable resources. The second most fraught is the categorization of place, because places contain resources and are often proxies for categorizing people. After that, food seems to be the most fraught; if you doubt me, ask your Facebook friends for the most (or least) authentic Mexican or Italian restaurant.

And yet, as Wittgenstein and Rosch have observed, it is normal for categories to have multiple, slightly different, meanings and memberships, not just in the same language community but in the same individual. In my observations it is possible for the same person to use two different senses of a word – a category with two different but overlapping memberships – on the same page, in the same paragraph, in the same sentence.

Responding to Posner’s talk, Matt Lincoln posted a recipe for using the Resource Description Framework (RDF) to describe overlapping, contrasting systems of categorization. I think that is an excellent start, particularly because he places the data models of lived experience on the same level as those imagined by the researchers. My word of caution would be to keep in mind that there is not one singular data model for the lived experience of a community, or even for an individual. As Whitman said, we contain multitudes. Each member of those contradicting multitudes has its own data model, and we should thus be prepared to give it its own entry in the RDF.

I and others brought up similar issues in the question and answer period, and in the reception after Posner’s keynote, and I very much appreciate her taking the time to discuss them. As I remember it, she acknowledged the challenges that I raised, and I look forward to us all working together to build a humane, compassionate humanities, whether digital or not. I will discuss the challenges of bearing the burden and of trusting the community in later posts.

Why some people like “cisgender”

The news these days is that “cisgender” has been added to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED is a descriptive tool, so if people are using the word, the editors should put it in. But as a transgender person, I don’t like the word and I’m not happy people are using it.

Ben Zimmer had a nice writeup about the word in March. When I commented on twitter that I hated the word and intended to write up everything wrong with it, he responded that he “would be very interested in your take.”

Since then, I’ve been trying to articulate what bothers me about the word. It doesn’t help that among trans people there’s a very real habit of policing not only language but ideology: I just got called out on Twitter for a related issue. So I’ve gone through several false starts on this.

I’ve decided to break it up into a series of blog posts, and in the first one I’ll talk about why the word “cisgender” is so appealing to some people. Consider the following sentences, found on various web pages:

  1. Man Chose A Transgender Woman Instead Of A Real Woman
  2. your bone structure will grow much like a normal woman’s would.
  3. She has no more muscle mass than a regular woman.

You can see why people have problems with these. If you’re not “normal” or “regular,” you’re stigmatized. I don’t think that’s right, but it would be a lot of work to change it. To many people it seems easier to simply change the words so that you’re no longer not “normal.”

Not being “real” is even more objectionable, especially to transgender people who transition. It plays into the narrative of the trans person as deceiver, a fake person constructed to defraud innocent men and women of their love and their drink money.

The idea of “real” also plays into binary constructions of gender, where everyone is “really” either a man or a woman, and many activities, spaces and forms of expression are restricted to one gender or another. Intermediate and mixed presentations are discouraged, and switching back and forth is prohibited. In the gender binary, it is impossible for a single person to be really both a man and a woman, or to be a real man one day and a real woman the next.

Before we were trans women we were transvestites, cross-dressers and transsexuals, and we had a word for women who weren’t trans: “GG.” It’s been claimed to stand for “genetic girl,” which didn’t make any literal sense because gene tests weren’t readily available then, and for “genuine girl,” which was at least as problematic as “real woman.” The second part, “girl,” was further condemned as infantilizing by feminists, which may have contributed to the word’s decline.

So yes, it is a good idea to have ways of talking about people who aren’t trans without evoking a context of “real” or “normal” to imply that we are not legitimate or to highlight our minority status. Do we need “cisgender” to do it? I’ll write about that in future posts.

The curious incident of Rachel Doležal’s accent

By now you’ve probably heard about Rachel Doležal, Africana Studies Professor at Eastern Washington University (despite what they say) and President of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, whose parents recently revealed to the media that their daughter has no known African ancestry (within the past few millennia, at least). There have been a number of interesting commentaries connecting Doležal’s actions to the phenomenon of mixed-race Americans “passing for white,” to the notion of race as a construct, and to the concept of self-identification. Many people have drawn comparisons between this case and the notion of gender identity – comparisons that have brought strong objections from many advocates for the concept of gender identity. There are a lot of things I could say about this issue, and I may have a few blog posts about it, but tonight I would like to draw your attention to the curious incident of Professor Doležal’s accent.

Rachel Doležal with long blond braids

Rachel Doležal at the Spokane Martin Luther King Day Rally, January 19, 2015. Photo: Young Kwak / Inlander

I, and many others, were immediately struck by the visual contrast between the photos of Doležal’s current persona and photos of her at younger ages released by her parents. Media articles played this up – almost every one featured two photos side by side. Doležal’s skin color, of course, is several shades darker in the recent pictures and her clothing is noticeably different, but as Kara Brown observed, what is most obvious is her hair: straight and blond in the older pictures, in towering braids in photos from a few years ago, and most recently in an explosion of reddish ringlets. It’s a style that I quite like, but I find the name “natural” particularly ironic in Doležal’s case, just imagining what unnatural things she must have done to get her hair to look like that.

What I haven’t heard anyone talk about up to now is Professor Doležal’s accent. This is where I get to imagine myself as Sherlock Holmes in “The Silver Blaze,” pointing out the negative evidence: if you listen to videos of Doležal, she sounds, quite consistently, like a white woman from Montana. I have not made an exhaustive study of every recording of her, but I’ve watched enough videos of her that I would have expected to hear some features of African American English, and I’ve heard none. Here is a video of her giving a public lecture about black hair at her university, where she reads a poem by Willie Coleman written in black English, but with white pronunciations for all the words.

Now bear with me: I know that there are plenty of African Americans who don’t “sound black.” I have friends who are like this, by their own description. It may be partly a Northwestern thing: Ben Trawick-Smith, a dialect coach based in Seattle, has observed that African American Vernacular English is “a somewhat less salient dialect” in Seattle and Portland, and Jimi Hendrix’s speech sounds more “white” to my ears than that of many other black musicians from his generation. In the Spokane area in particular, people who listed African American heritage on the census make up 2.4% of the population, or about 15,000 people, and groups that small generally speak like the people around them unless they are extremely segregated.

On the other hand, some black people in Washington State do sound black, like QC the Barber in Spokane and community advocates from Africatown in Seattle. And many white people sound black. This can be a conscious affectation, as we hear in white musicians from the Rolling Stones to Iggy Azalea. But it can simply be a natural product of socialization: one of my friends went to a majority-black high school, had lots of black friends, and talks kind of like them, even though he’s Jewish. In fact, white English has borrowed so many words and features from Black English over the past century that most of us white people sound blacker than our grandparents.

What is curious in Doležal’s case is not the simple contrast between the visual and the audible; that is common. What is curious is the contrast in effort. Doležal has clearly put a ton of time and energy into looking black, but almost no energy into sounding black. To me, as a linguist, as the child of an audiophile, as someone who pays attention to sound, and as a transgender person, this is all very familiar. This is why I have to laugh at all the transgender bloggers who speak with such outrage at any comparison between Doležal’s statements and actions and our own. Because Doležal has clearly been doing the exact thing that I see and hear from so many people in the trans community: spending hours in front of the mirror without ever listening to her own voice. There’s something there, people.

(Update, June 14: I just watched this CNN interview with Doležal’s parents, where her biological father Lawrence talks in detail about her application to the MFA program at Howard University, living in Jackson, Mississippi, “She’s immersed in the African American culture, in the community there. She sounds African American on the phone. She did to us as well, and it wasn’t a deceptive thing at that time. That’s just who she was.” This raises even more questions in my mind. Did she sound more black then, twenty years ago, than she does now? Does she sound more black to her family, and to other native speakers of Mountain West English, than she does to me?)

Sometimes bugs are not insects

I’ve talked in the past about two kinds of category fights, one involving accusations of bait-and-switch tactics, another where the accusation is free riding. Often these aspects of the fight are obscured or denied, and the conflict is instead presented as between a right way and a wrong way to think about the categories. For example, one bait-and-switch allegation is presented as “THE TRUTH about natural chicken,” and Dr. Nerdlove says that “being anxious or socially clumsy or inexperienced isn’t the same as being creepy.”

Sometimes, however, there is no evidence that the accuser suspects a bait-and-switch or free riding. Instead, it appears that the only objection is that the other person is using “the wrong word.” There is almost always an appeal to authority for the “right word”: often a dictionary, but sometimes a text of science, religion or philosophy.

If there is a consequence predicted for using “the wrong word,” it is usually that the other person will look foolish. Occasionally, accusers will prophesy, or decry, the imminent downfall of society due to an inability to communicate.

This is the most arrogant approach to category fights, because it sets the accuser up as the source of the true taxonomy and devalues all others. Because of this, it is usually a sign of insecurity on the part of the accuser.

A great example of this one-size-fits-all approach is this book I discovered one day. Maybe like me you grew up thinking that insects like ladybugs and fleas were bugs. I also thought that spiders and pillbugs were bugs. But woe, have we been misinformed!

But all that changed when I got a copy of Bugs Are Insects. It turns out that Scientists Know that ladybugs and spiders are not bugs; only an order of insects called Hemiptera are True Bugs. This looks like a cute book about bugs, but it’s actually about telling kids that they and their parents have been Doing It All Wrong for years. Their categories are worthless; the only ones that matter are the ones blessed by entomologists. Imagine saying that to a six-year-old.

Please don’t do this. Don’t write a hectoring book like this. Maybe you have come across the true meaning of “fruits” and “vegetables,” or “crimes” and “misdemeanors,” and been tempted to run out and tell the world that all along they’ve been wrong, wrong, wrong. If that’s you, please do the world a favor and keep your mouthparts shut. Just because you heard it from an Authority, that doesn’t make it right. Something can be a planet to a layman and a Kuiper Belt object to a scientist, and they’re both right. If someone else’s categories aren’t hurting anyone, let them be!

Photo: TheCulinaryGeek / Flickr

Default assumptions about sesame seeds

In a recent post I talked about how the same category (“tea,” for example) can have different default assumptions for different people. This is actually a very big deal, one that people have lost their lives over. For such a heated topic it receives relatively little attention in semantics.

These default assumptions matter because they’re an important part of the way we use categories. I could walk into a North Carolina barbecue restaurant and say, “I’m feeling hot and I like sugary beverages and the flavor of tannin. Please bring me something that satisfies those desires!” But I know that most Carolina barbecue joints sell something called “tea” that’s within my parameters, so I can just say one syllable, “tea,” and have more time for small talk. I may well have an image of “tea” in my mind, sight and taste, ahead of time.

My default assumptions when I order “tea” in North Carolina include the tea being ice cold, and there’s a fair amount riding on that assumption. Hot tea is not very satisfying when you’re looking for iced tea. This is part of the cultural background shared by most people in North Carolina, and throughout the South.

A big part of the reason these assumptions are so strong is that the experience is so consistent. If you order “tea” a hundred times in North Carolina you’ll get iced tea at least ninety-nine times. This is the way humans interact with the world: we create “schemas” for categories and update them based on our experience.

When that consistency of experience is lacking, we learn to discard our assumptions – or not to form them at all. When I was a kid I ordered a “burger” and was surprised to find it came with pickles and onions. I learned to ask for a “plain burger” until I grew to appreciate pickles and onions. My son has similarly learned that while he can reliably assume his burger will come with a “bun,” he can’t assume the bun won’t have sesame seeds baked onto it.

The greatest potential for misunderstanding is when communities with different default assumptions come into contact. My friend Lillian Robinson observed that when she ordered “tea” on airplanes, some flight attendants would ask, “Hot tea?” – and those flight attendants all seemed to have Southern accents. These flight attendants – Southerners in an environment where not everyone is a Southerner – recognized the potential for confusion and customer dissatisfaction.

Some people call these default assumptions “prototypes.” There seems to be some debate about this, so for now I’ll just stick to “default assumptions.”

Photo: rob_rob2001 / Flickr

Tea and prototypes

I once surprised a friend by ordering tea in a pizza parlor. She did not expect anyone to drink hot tea with pizza. Someone ordering that in Germany where she grew up, or Philadelphia where she lived, would be surprising. But it would be just as surprising in my hometown of New York. I asked for “tea” as an experiment.

As I predicted, the waitress was not surprised by my order, and brought a large glass of iced tea. I then conducted the second part of my experiment by tasting the tea. It was unsweetened. This was because we were not in New York or Philadelphia, but in Oxford, Mississippi.

When I ordered “tea” in Greenville, North Carolina, where I lived at the time, I always got “sweet tea”: tea that was supersaturated with sugar and then chilled and served over ice, but I had heard that in some parts of the South you got unsweetened iced tea. Here in Queens if you order “tea” at a restaurant that caters to the Indian or Nepalese populations, it will probably come with milk.

This is a difference in the sense of the word “tea,” but unlike previous semantic differences I’ve discussed, it is not a difference in the extent of the word. If you served me or any other Northerner a glass of iced tea or sweet tea and asked, “Is this tea?” most of us would say yes. If you served a Southerner a cup of hot tea, they would agree that it’s tea.

Of course, as Lynne Murphy has observed (PDF), some people argue about edge cases like rooibos or peppermint tea, but I think most of them would agree that iced tea, sweet tea and hot tea (with or without milk) are all definitely tea. The difference is not at the edges of the category, but in the center.

This is what George Lakoff refers to as a prototype effect. Iced tea is consumed much more frequently than hot tea in the South, so it has become the default “tea.” Sweet tea is consumed more frequently in North Carolina, so it’s the default there.

I’ll get into the differences between defaults, prototypes, stereotypes, radial categories, gradient effects and salient exemplars in future posts, but the main points I wanted to make here are that not all subcategories within a category are perceived equally, and that different people can have different expectations for a category. And to talk about this cool variation in the use of the word “tea.”

Know your topics

There were a couple of years when I was tremendously confused about pragmatics and information structure. I learned a lot from reading Knud Lambrecht’s 1994 book Information Structure and Sentence Form. And one of the most useful things I learned was that people use the word “topic” to mean several different things, some of which are mutually exclusive.

Here are the words and definitions that Lambrecht used instead of “topic” for these concepts, along with some commentary:

  • topic referent. “A referent is interpreted as the topic of a proposition if in a given situation the proposition is construed as being about this referent.”
  • topic expression (also known as topic NP, topic pronoun, topic phrase, topic constituent). “A constituent is a topic expression if the proposition expressed by the clause with which it is associated is pragmatically construed as being about the referent of this constituent.” Topic expressions are what the speaker/author produces; topic referents are the actual topics that the topic expressions refer to.
  • topic-announcing expression. An expression used to announce a topic shift or promote a referent to topic status. Topic expressions simply signal what the sentence is about, while topic-announcing expressions mark a change in the topic referent.
  • subject. A syntactic role describing an argument of a verb, often referring to the agent of an action. “Subjects are unmarked topics.” In traditional rhetoric, subject (also called psychological subject) meant something very similar to Lambrecht’s topic referent: “The thing which the proposition expressed by the sentence is about.”
  • agent. A semantic role describing an active participant in an action. Agents are often topic referents.
  • theme. The element which comes first in the sentence. A Prague School term, which is also called “topic” by some. Lambrecht’s topic expressions often come first in a sentence.
  • old information. Presupposed propositions. All topic referents must be in the presupposition, but not all referents in the presupposition are topics.
  • topicalization (also called fronting). A syntactic construction where a noun phrase that is normally integrated into the argument structure of a sentence instead appears at the beginning of the sentence, before the subject. Often used as a topic-announcing expression, but also for contrastive focus.
  • left-dislocation (also called left-detachment). Like topicalization, but with a coreferential pronoun integrated into the sentence. Often used as a topic-announcing expression, but also for contrastive focus.
  • “Chinese-style” topic. Where the normal sentence structure has a place for topic-announcing constituents that are not necessarily arguments of the verb. Lambrecht’s topic expressions include these and others.
  • discourse topic. What the entire discourse is about. Lambrecht’s topic referent typically covers only a particular sentence, not the entire discourse.
  • topic/comment. One of Lambrecht’s possible sentence types, discussed in more detail in Chapter 5. Necessarily includes a topic expression.
  • antitopic (also called right-dislocation and right-detachment). A construction similar to left-dislocation, but where the noun phrase appears at the end of the sentence. Lambrecht analyzes antitopics as unaccented topic-announcing expressions.
  • contrastive topic. A construction that contrasts two propositions based on their topic referents. Typically has two accented topic expressions.
  • focus. “The semantic component of a pragmatically structured proposition whereby the assertion differs from the presupposition.” Topic expressions and focus expressions are both sometimes accented, and it’s hard to tell whether a particular accented constituent is a topic expression or a focus expression.

Hope this helps!

Gatekeeping the creepers

I’ve told you about one kind of category fight, accusing someone of a bait-and-switch and this week I came across an excellent example of another one. A blogger who goes by the alias of Doctor Nerdlove wants to protect the category of Socially Awkward Men from incursions by people who are just assholes.

In this case, the Socially Awkward Men have established themselves as a disabled class and asked for accommodation. They argue that they are less capable of recognizing boundaries set by potential dating partners, and request additional clarity when those boundaries are communicated. What is key here is that they also ask for understanding if they unwittingly overstep those boundaries.

Nerdlove identifies another group of men who claim this accommodation. He argues that these men are not true members of Socially Awkward Men, but instead “creepers” who can recognize boundaries and don’t care. As Nerdlove tells it, these men do not deserve the accommodations offered to Socially Awkward Men, and their dishonesty and their abuse of dating partners has the potential to besmirch the reputation of all Socially Awkward Men.

This gatekeeping argument has close parallels with the watchdogging against Tyson Farms’s abuse of the Natural Chicken category. In both cases, a dishonest actor is claiming membership in a category in order to obtain something that they are not entitled to. The main difference between the free-riding alleged by Nerdlove and the bait-and-switch alleged by the Truthful Labeling Coalition is that the “creepers” are claiming a right to benefits based on their supposed category membership, while the seaweed-injecting chicken manufacturers are claiming to provide value based on their product’s category membership.

One key difference between the two allegations is that bait-and-switchers almost always know what they’re doing, but free riders may sometimes truly believe they are members of the deserving class. In this case there may be some creepers who pose as Socially Awkward, but I think most of the ones who claim the status of Socially Awkward truly believe it.

The besmirching is an added wrinkle to this, and probably deserves its own post. In a besmirching argument, the gatekeeper does not necessarily claim that the intruders are undeserving of the benefit, but rather that they are somehow undesirable, and that their association with the true members will ruin the high esteem that the class is held in. Nerdlove does this when he says that excusing creepy behavior as Socially Awkward “end[s] up continuing the idea that being socially awkward is inherently creepy.”

So there you have an example of the gatekeeping accusation of free riding, and its differences from the watchdogging accusation of bait-and-switch.

I personally agree with a lot of Nerdlove’s argument, but not all. In particular, Nerdlove says, “Here’s the thing about the socially awkward: they don’t want to trip over people’s boundaries.” But as my wife pointed out to me, it’s possible for a guy to be Socially Awkward and still be creepy. He can be unaware of where others are setting their boundaries and not care about them even if he finds out. But Nerdlove’s overall point still stands: there are many Socially Awkward Men who want to learn how to read feedback from others and respect their boundaries. They should be given that feedback, and a chance to learn from it.