nouning

Too Big to Judge

One of the important turning points in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns comes as a citywide power outage — and the attendant escape from prison of scores of members of the violent “Mutants” gang — threatens to plunge Gotham into anarchy. The new police commissioner, Ellen Yindel, sees Batman and Robin ride on horseback into the middle of a crowd of Mutants.

Yindel has, up to this point, been a foe of Batman’s, a by-the-book cop infuriated by Jim Gordon’s willingness to turn a blind eye to vigilantism, whose first act as commissioner is to issue a warrant for Batman’s arrest. Gordon has tried to prepare her to understand the necessity of Batman by relating a story about evidence FDR had advance warning of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but let took no action to stop it, in order to motivate the US to fight a necessary war. The idea is monstrous — but so was the Axis, and US involvement was key to the outcome of WWII. Gordon concludes, “It bounced back and forth in my head until I realized I couldn’t judge it. It was too big.”

So, then, into the middle of the crowd of Mutants escaping from the jail, Batman rides triumphantly on a giant horse, and commands all their attention with the sheer power of his will. Commissioner Yindel watches the scene with several cops by her side, and one asks whether they should arrest Batman. “No,” Yindel stammers: “he’s…too big.”

I started writing this post right after Steve Jobs died, and reactions mainly fell into two camps. Many mourned Jobs as a fallen hero, a world-changing visionary, an incalculable loss; on the other hand, many castigated the first group, decrying Jobs’s perceived megalomania and his history of not giving publicly to charities, Apple’s tight controls on its product ecosystem, and especially the terrible conditions under which Apple products (as well as many other companies’) are manufactured, at Foxconn and other Chinese suppliers.

If you think I’m leading up to comparing Steve Jobs to Batman, you’re not quite right, but you’re not quite wrong, either.

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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.

Nouning Considered Harmful*

Note: I’ve taken the opportunity of Melissa McEwan’s generous offer of a guest post at Shakesville to revise this post to clarify some phrasing and expand on some areas I didn’t feel I’d covered sufficiently.

Here’s the thing: using adjectives as nouns obscures meaning, harms discourse, impairs communication, and ultimately reduces our ability to think in a careful and nuanced way about controversial issues, let alone effect social progress.  Anyone who wants to see our society become less divided rather than more, and in particular anyone who wants to combat racism, sexism, homophobia, and all other forms of prejudice and modes of oppression, should try hard to avoid the practice. Don’t call anyone a sexist, or a racist, or a homophobe. Here’s why.

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