Nouning, Again: The Crux

About a year and a half ago, I wrote this:

Recent discussion … has reminded me, too, that this doesn’t apply solely to negative descriptions like racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.  If it were more normal to use “feminist” (for example) as an adjective, a mostly fruitless debate over whether Barack Obama is “a feminist,” which tends toward devolving into people claiming their set of views is what defines “a feminist” and anyone who doesn’t quite match up is “not a feminist,” we could be discussing how feminist he is[.]  These things are matters of degree.

In the time since then I’ve continued to think about the issue, and I suspect that I missed an important point in my original post — even though, with the Neal Stephenson and Jay Smooth citations, it was staring me in the face.  It’s still important to think about “isms” in terms of degree rather than as simplistic, binary oppositions.  But another, probably equally important way to see it is that nouns tends to be about identity, while adjectives are more easily applicable to action.

The original “Nouning Considered Harmful” post was, in part, inspired by debate over whether Barack Obama was or was not “a feminist.”  Now, some sixteen months later, a similar debate is occurring over Sarah Palin’s description of herself as “a feminist,” and the larger attempt by conservative women to “claim” (or “reclaim”) the term “feminist” to describe their generally anti-choice, anti-marriage-equality, pro-capitalist, pro-traditional-patriarchal-family policy positions.

(My responses to this are mainly 1) to note that attempting to co-opt progressive language for anti-progressive policies, or to smear progressive policies with anti-progressive labels, is standard right-wing newspeak procedure; and 2) to quote this excellent Bitch, PhD post: “My point is that it irritates the hell out of me when I see an argument about feminism in which neither side seems to actually remember that feminism isn’t about what women or men ‘choose’ to do: it’s about the way society is structured.” (emphasis mine)  That is, to claim your policy positions are feminist, when you’re actually advocating against structural changes in society that would improve the socioeconomic status of women as a class, is an absurdity.)

But the question of whether a specific person “is a feminist” or not is the wrong question, I think; it’s either a meaningless question, or it’s a meaningful question asked in a counterproductive way.  As I understand it, it’s a basic tenet of anti-oppression thought that people get to define their own identities.  And this can be kind of tricky, it turns out, and lead to some pretty fraught discussions of appropriation and self-definition, when someone like Sarah Palin calls herself “a feminist.”  Because to claim to be, or not to be, or that someone else is, or is not, “a [noun]” is a claim about identity.  People really, really don’t like to be told their identity is something different from what they themselves say it is, and people who subscribe to progressive views tend to be really uncomfortable with the idea of telling someone else “no, your identity is X, no matter how much you say it’s Y.”  Identity is personal and internal, it resides in the mind — and no one but me knows my mind, so how can anyone else contradict my claims about my own identity?

So this is the crux of the nouning issue, then: if I say “you are a racist” or “you are a feminist” I’m making a claim about your identity, and in some sense that’s just not a claim I’ve got the right to make.  If I say “I’m not a racist” or “I’m a feminist” I’m making a claim about my identity, which I’ve got every right to do, but the validity of which no one but me has any way to evaluate.

If, on the other hand, I say “the policies you support would tend to keep the political, social and/or economic status of women as a class lower than that of men as a class,” or (equivalently) “the policies you support are un- or anti-feminist,” I’m making a claim that can actually be evaluated, because it’s a claim about actions and effects in the world, not thoughts within someone’s brain.

Some further reading, from which you’ll be able to click through to all sorts of blog posts about whether Sarah Palin is a feminist, should you be so inclined: Pilgrim Soul, Kate Harding.


  1. But we can be wrong about our identities, right? I mean, we think Sarah Palin is wrong to claim she’s a feminist, right? [I know that this is somewhat dangerous water to tread in, and people have done some dick-ish things in the name of forcing identities on others. But you can't get from there to some claim about infallibility about our identities.] You seem to support the claim to infallibility about identity by saying that “it resides in the mind — and no one but me knows my mind,” but this a) doesn’t get you infallibility so much as the ignorance of everyone else, and b) just seems wrong. I mean, for various reasons, we might think that a) other people can know what we’re thinking, and b) we can be wrong about what we are thinking. I mean, interpersonal relationships would be impossible without (a), and most of modern psychology is founded on (b).

    I’m inclined to agree with you, but for different reasons. I’m deeply suspicious of any deep difference between adjectives and nouns in this sense, and I’m definitely not on board with claims about our omniscience about our identity and others’ ignorance about our identity. BUT: Words like ‘feminist’ and ‘racist’ mean deeply different things in the mouths of different speakers. If there’s a dispute over who’s a feminist, you should just drop the word that’s creating the trouble, and recast the dispute in other vocabulary. So, “I’m a feminst!” “No, you’re not!” isn’t really useful, but “I want women to be happy choosing traditionally feminine roles!” “Oh, yes you do, but you don’t want to change the social structures that make sense of those roles” makes more sense of what’s going on.

    1. You’re the philosopher, not I, but yeah, my sense is that we can absolutely be wrong about our self-identification. But as you say, it’s very dangerous to decide that some people get to tell other people they’re wrong about their identities, and I think you considerably understate the extent of the harm official judgments about whose identity is what, when the people in question disagree, have done.

      I don’t think I do imply either total infallibility in knowing our own identities, in the post, or total inability to know others’ identities; but in general if person A says “I am X,” other people, especially other people who aren’t close to person A, are not in a position to dispute that person A is X. Person A may not, in fact, know their own mind well, but absent evidence that they don’t, we should assume they do. (Obviously you can construct scenarios where this seems absurd, such as X=”a dog” or X=”a Martian”, but I think even so we ought to be cautious — some people, with whose views I at least don’t wish to align myself, think the scenario equally absurd if X=”a woman” and person A has a Y chromosome and testicles.)

      I don’t know if I’m arguing well, or clearly, here? What I think is that, yes, it’s possible for people to be wrong about their own identities; but that most of the time we really aren’t in a position to be able to know whether they’re wrong about their identities, so trying to tell them they are is both counterproductive — because it makes them angry and defensive, and lets them dismiss us as making claims about things we can’t know — and frankly not something we have the right to do.

  2. I think we agree about most of this stuff. I think I misread you as making a somewhat stronger claim than you were actually making. But you still seem to be in a little bit of an uncomfortable position, in that you seem to be saying that we can be wrong about our identity, but we can’t be called on it. (Or maybe you’re making a still weaker claim: you can be called on it, but you gotta tread lightly there, and only do it when you’re quite certain / know the person well / whatever. And if this is the case, then we do agree, and you can pretty much ignore the rest).

    Let me try this from a slightly different angle. How are we supposed to understand someone like Palin who makes a claim about her identity that you take to be patently false? The basic options (and this probably isn’t exhaustive) are 1) The person is lying to you. 2) The person is self-deceived about who or what they are. 3) You are wrong about who the person is. 4) You agree about the facts, but just not the relevant label in question. I think all of these are possible responses to Palin, but I think that (3) is the least likely interpretation of what’s going on — I don’t know Palin well, but I know the policies she openly supports. But, at least at times in your post, it looks like the answer you’re committed to saying something like (3), or at least remaining robustly agnostic (I like that turn of phrase) about it. You don’t want to respond with (1) or (2), because that’s obviously a claim that you know who the person is better than they do. And I don’t think you want to go in for (4) – at least, you didn’t suggest it. Maybe you would go in for (1) and/or (2), but think it wrong to call her on it? I could go in for that, but the philosopher in me is still more interested in the semantic analysis of her utterance.

    Anyway, that brings us to the question of whether calling people on being racist / not being feminist is counter-productive. I suppose that’s a kind of case-by-case basis judgment call, and don’t have too much to say there. But, I would say that it’s important to protect terms that are essential to the dialogue. If you let “feminism” be defined as something like “letting women make choices within the current system” or “being happy when you meet a female CEO,” then you do a disservice to people who study and advocate feminism as you or I would construe it.

    [As an aside: my girlfriend has had some experience with disputes over “I’m an Indian,” “No you’re not” kinds of claims, within a tribe. It is really, really messy, and I wouldn’t touch that kind of dispute with a ten foot pole.]

    1. OK, I took a long time getting around to replying, here, but basically, I think “you can be called on it, but you gotta tread lightly there, and only do it when you’re quite certain / know the person well / whatever” is about where I fall, with emphasis on the idea that in political discourse it’s very rarely productive to call someone on claims of identity which appear to be in conflict with their actual actions, stated policy positions, etc. Admittedly, I find that conclusion incredibly frustrating — when someone like Sarah Palin claims to be a feminist, or someone like Fred Phelps claims to be a Christian, it’s hard to have any reaction but yelling “no, you aren’t, you stand for exactly the opposite of everything that philosophy states!” And there’s probably an argument to be made, to which I haven’t yet thought through a careful response, that one shouldn’t cede rhetorical ground by declining to dispute such claims. But I still think that in terms more of outcomes than of labels, arguing that Sarah Palin isn’t “a feminist” is less productive than arguing that the specific policies she supports are harmful to women.

  3. I am so glad to see a new post, especially one so interesting!

    I agree with you that it can (and has often proven to be) very dangerous when a person’s identity is disputed. This is particularly true for identities that challenge current social systems, as do transgender people, which you mention.

    I do however, disagree with your response in the comments:

    I don’t think I do imply either total infallibility in knowing our own identities, in the post, or total inability to know others’ identities; but in general if person A says “I am X,” other people, especially other people who aren’t close to person A, are not in a position to dispute that person A is X. Person A may not, in fact, know their own mind well, but absent evidence that they don’t, we should assume they do.

    I think one only becomes an X by doing X-things, and so one can be in a position to say that someone else either is or is failing to do X-things. When I watched j-smooth’s video this was one problem I had with his analysis, too. I think he, and you, might be right that for pragmatic reasons (namely, getting around defensiveness), it might be better to criticize the behaviour of the person rather than the character of the person, but I don’t think that character is actually separable from behaviour. Character is merely stable behaviour-types demonstrated over time. So, sure, saying one racist thing might not make one a racist if it was not a habitual thing one does, but saying racist things repeatedly, without thinking or intentionally, and especially without apology sure does make one a racist in my view.

    Also, I think your post might be running together a number of different kinds of identity that would better be kept distinct. I think there is a distinction between identities like “feminist” and identities like “woman.” Namely, identities such as those based on gender, race, class, sexual orientation and so forth are socially structured identities because they are related to the ways in which society is organized and bearing these identities tends on average to sort individuals into particular social positions and influences the relative power of social agents depending on the interaction. The same is not true for identities like “feminist” or even “racist.” The latter identities are not really structured in the same way as the former type. I think keeping this distinction in mind might also help to differentiate the different moral connotations of challenging identity-claims. Because identity claims like those made by transgender people challenge current social structures, they are more likely to get harsh responses. To the extent that current social structures are unjust, the moral value of the harsh response is negative from a social justice perspective. In contrast, identities like racist do not challenge current social structures that are unjust, but instead tend to reinforce unjust social structures. The moral value of criticizing them is therefore much higher from a social justice perspective.

    Finally, there is the question about how identities develop in the first place (including both the structured ones like gender and the non-structured ones like feminist). Hegel was right, I think, when he said that we develop identities dialogically in relation to other persons in particular social contexts. So I think the idea that there could be a hands-off approach to identity, or that this approach would be better, is mistaken.

    Nevertheless, from a pragmatic standpoint, I think what you are saying makes a lot of sense.

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