The word “cisgender” is anti-trans

The word “cisgender” was coined to refer to people who aren’t transgender, as an alternative to problematic terms like “normal,” “regular” and “real.” Some have gone beyond this and asked their allies to “identify as cis,” and even treat trans people as the default realization of their genders.

As a trans person and a linguist, I disagree with these last two for a number of reasons. As I wrote last month, it’s bad etymology, and there is no evidence it will work. You might ask, well, what’s the harm in trying? The problem is that there is a cost to using “cisgender”: it divides the trans community. This may seem surprising at first, but it hinges on the fact that there are at least four different but overlapping meanings of the word “transgender.”

tg-definitions1The original use of “transgender” was as an “umbrella” term including transvestites, transsexuals, drag queens, butch lesbians, genderqueer people and more. Another popular definition is based on “gender identity,” including everyone who believes that their essential gender is different from the one assigned to them at birth. A third sense is based on feelings like gender dysphoria, and a fourth is restricted to those trans people who transition. Trans people regularly argue about these definitions, but in my observations it is common for a single person to use more than one of these senses in the same conversation, and even the same sentence.

These overlapping meanings produce what I call the Transgender Bait and Switch. Intentionally or not, many trans people use the broader “umbrella” or “dysphoria” definitions to show the largest numbers, neediest cases or historical antecedents when they are looking to get funding, legitimacy, or political or social support, but then switch to narrower “identity” or “transition” senses when they are deciding how to allocate funding or space resources, or who is entitled to speak for the group, or who is an acceptable representation of trans people in the media.

This is a problem because the meaning of “cis” depends on the meaning of “trans.” Who are the “cis” people? Are they the opposite of “umbrella” trans – those who don’t belong to any of the categories under the umbrella? Are they the opposite of “identity” trans – those who do not believe they have a gender different from the one assigned them at birth? The opposite of “feeling” trans – those who do not feel gender dysphoria on a regular basis? Or are they the opposite of “transition” trans – those who don’t transition? I’ve heard all four uses.

For all their lofty claims about the goals of “cis,” when trans people use it they do so to exclude, and typically they focus on excluding the marginal cases as part of the Transgender Bait-and-Switch: people who fit in one definition of “trans” but not another. It has become commonplace to refer to drag queens as “cis gay men,” and gynophilic transvestites as “cis straight men.” Drag queens, transvestites, non-binary people and others are regularly challenged when we try to speak from our experiences as trans people, and the refrain is always: “You are cis, you have not transitioned, you do not have the same experience.” Meanwhile, the same people seem to have no problem presenting themselves as the representatives of the transgender umbrella when they want to, even when they do not have experiences of drag performance, fetishism or non-binary presentation.

The best known challenges to “cisgender” have come from people who are not trans under any definition: didn’t transition, don’t have a gender identity mismatch, don’t feel chronic gender dysphoria, and don’t fit in any of the identities under the umbrella. They claim that the word is used as a weapon against them. They have a point: many trans people blame “cis people” for oppressing them, conveniently ignoring the fact that we’re just as capable of oppressing each other as they are of oppressing us. And it is counterproductive: since almost all estimates – using any of the definitions – put us at less than one percent of the population, we can’t live without non-trans people.

But the reason I hate “cisgender,” the reason I’m asking you not to use it, is because it’s used as a weapon to exclude other trans people. When they want money, we’re trans. When they want to claim our legacy, we’re trans. But when we want some of the money, we’re “cis.” When we want representation, we’re “cis.” When we want to speak for the trans community, or even for our segment of the trans community, we’re “cis.”

“Cisgender” divides the trans community and reinforces a hierarchy with transitioned trans people on top and nonbinary people, drag queens and transvestites at the bottom. So next time your transgender buddy Kyle tells you to “identify as cis” to prove you’re a real ally and stay on the invite list to his parties, I’m asking you to tell him no. Tell him that your transgender buddy Angus said not to. And if he tells you that I don’t count because I’m not transitioning, tell him he just proved my point. And his parties suck anyway.

Will “cisgender” work?

Some people have come up with the word “cisgender” to refer to people who aren’t transgender, as an alternative to problematic terms like “normal,” “regular” and “real.” Some have gone beyond this and asked their allies to “identify as cis,” and even treat trans people as the default realization of their genders. As a trans person and a linguist, I disagree with these last two for a number of reasons.

One quick objection that I have to get out of the way: “cisgender” is bad etymology. It’s true that “cis” is the opposite of “trans,” but only in the sense of location, existing on this side or the other side of a boundary. We are “trans” in the sense of direction, crossing from one gender expression to the other. In Latin as far as I know there is no prefix for something that never crosses a boundary. Of course, that’s a silly objection. We have plenty of words based on inaccurate analogies and they work just fine. I just had to get it off my chest.

Now, for real: the simplest objection is that there is no evidence “cis” will work as advertised. First of all, default status is not necessary for acceptance or admiration. Blond hair is marked in the United States, and that can make some people with blond hair unhappy. But there is no real discrimination or harassment against people with blond hair, not like that against trans people. People with English accents are marked, but they tend to be admired.

Transgender people (under almost any definition) make up less than one percent of the population. Do we even have the right to ask to be the default? Why should everyone have to think about us a hundred percent of the time when they only deal with us one percent of the time? Why should we be the default and not, say, intersex people?

Let’s say we manage to convince everyone to make us the default and themselves the marked ones. How is that going to make them more tolerant or accepting of us? There are plenty of groups who are or were the default, and even the majority, but were oppressed anyway: Catholics in British Ireland, Muslims in French Algeria, French Canadians in Quebec before the Quiet Revolution. The people who tell everyone to say “cis” don’t mention any of this.

The proponents of “cisgender” do not point to any time that this strategy has succeeded in the past, because there is no evidence of it succeeding. There are in fact intentional language changes that have some record of success, like avoiding names with implied insults. Switching the marked subcategory of a contested category is not one of them.

The main reason to not say “cisgender” is that it probably won’t work. If it were easy to get everyone to say “cis,” and it had no negative consequences, I would say that we should all just go ahead and say it, knowing full well that it probably won’t work, to humor its proponents. But the fact of the matter is that it does have negative consequences, consequences that affect me directly. I’ll talk about them in the next post in this series.

In the meantime, if you want to do something to help us, I’ve got some suggestions for you on my Trans blog. You can ask your friends and family to take a pledge not to kill us, or not to beat trans teenagers. You can even write the missing hip-hop song where a guy treats a trans woman with something other than violent contempt.

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.

She is calling you “dude”

I was struck by this tweet from Lynne Murphy today:

For those who don’t know, Lynne is an American linguist who lives in England and teaches at the University of Sussex, and blogs regularly about differences between British and American varieties of English. I’ve heard women saying “dude” to each other, but I wouldn’t call it calling each other “dude.” Lynne and I went back and forth (and got some input from Sylvia Sierra, a sociolinguistics graduate student who uses “dude” this way), but it comes down to two questions:

– Are Lynne and Sylvia observing the same things I remember, or something different?
– Are all three of us using the word “calling” in the same sense?

Fortunately, back in 1974 Arnold Zwicky developed a taxonomy of vocatives (PDF). Basically, a noun phrase, or something more or less nouny, can be used for four functions that are relevant to this question:

  1. Will the owner of a red Ford Taurus, license plate number XYZ123, please pick up any yellow house phone? (referential)
  2. Sheree Heil, come on down! You’re the next contestant on The Price is Right! (vocative call)
  3. No, Mom, I can’t pause. (vocative address)
  4. Oh boy, I can’t wait! (exclamation)

Scott Kiesling, in a 2004 American Speech article (PDF), further divides the use of dude as “(1) marking discourse structure, (2) exclamation, (3) confrontational stance mitigation, (4) marking affiliation and connection, and (5) signaling agreement,” but for the question at hand they are all non-referential and do not imply that the addressee is “a dude,” so in this post I will subsume all five under “exclamation.”

Boy is one of a long series of noun phrases that have made the journey from referential noun phrase to vocative call to vocative address to exclamation. Along the way, this sense of boy has been bleached of all of its old meaning: it can be used in context that have nothing remotely to do with boys. Other examples include man, baby, dear, babe, and of course God and lord.

A tricky thing about these, though, is that the functions can overlap. For example, in (2), “Sheree Heil” is actually being used for all four functions simultaneously. This is not unusual: Elizabeth Traugott has written extensively about how meaning change proceeds through ambiguity. The result is that we often are unable to tell exactly what stage a phrase is on in the journey.

That said, there are some features that can exclude one or more readings. The pure referential sense of a word is often much narrower than vocative or exclamatory senses; for example, consider the following examples:

  1. The baby threw up all over herself.
  2. Baby, let me give you a kiss.
  3. Look, baby, we’ve been through a lot together.
  4. Baby, it’s going to be a scorcher today!

It is hard to read (5) as referring to anything but an actual infant, while (6) could apply to either an infant or any other animate object. We can tell that (7) does not support a pure referential reading, because it would be incongruous if anyone said it to an actual baby. Note also that in the referential sense in (5), the noun phrase is fully integrated into the argument structure of the sentence, while in the vocative senses in (6) and (7) there are coreferential noun phrases (“you” and “we” respectively) in the argument structure.

Many of these have come out the other side of the chute and are no longer used as vocatives at all. In the exclamatory sense in (8), there is no coreferential noun phrase, and baby does not require the existence of a baby at all, as we saw above with boy.

Also note that in (7) the noun phrase does not come at the beginning of the sentence. For both the vocative call and exclamatory readings, it almost always does, so this is a pretty strong indicator that this is a vocative address.

There is also an interesting category of vocatives that have not (and may never) become exclamations, but have nonetheless broadened their reference considerably beyond their purely referential sense. Examples include buddy (which is almost never used for brothers, let alone buddies), bro (also not used for brothers), guys (no longer gender specific), son (rarely used for sons), and my son (almost always used for metaphorical sons in a religious or spiritual context).

One of my favorite examples of this comes from a hiking trip in Iceland, where I was the only American. The guides, however, both women, were used to taking Americans on trips, and had a running joke on the phonetic and functional similarity of “Guides?” and “Guys?” in the English vocative.

So we all agree that dude can be used as an exclamation, and in that context is bleached of its masculine reference restriction. I would not think of this as people “calling each other dude,” and I don’t think Lynne or Sylvia would. As I understand it, they are claiming that dude is like guys, in that it is also bleached of its masculine reference restriction in the vocative sense.

I am not ruling out this possibility; I know both Lynne and Sylvia to be astute observers of language. But I have not seen any evidence of it, and here is the kind of thing that would convince me: an example of dude in an unambiguous vocative address context. The easiest is one where it is not at the beginning of a sentence, for example:

  1. So, dude, what are we doing tonight?
  2. Before you go, dude, show me that picture.
  3. I am not impressed, dude.

If we can find examples of women using dude to address each other in contexts like that, to me that would count as them calling each other dude. What do you think?

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.

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.