Posts tagged ‘semantics’

2015/11/04

Demographic substitution does not preserve truth

When I was in kid-school, a Social Studies teacher pointed out to us that there was no entry in the index of our textbook for “Women’s history” or “Women” in general.

I flipped through it and raised my hand, and said that hey, there was nothing for “Men’s history” or “Men”, either!

This is because I was a smug little shit who didn’t have the first clue how the world actually works.

(I like to think that this is a bit less true now.)

The teacher more or less adored me just because I was smart and (usually) well-behaved, and rather than giving me the smack-down I really needed, she (I vaguely recall) just said something like “It’s not the same thing”.

Which is entirely correct.

It’s easy to see why we might expect statements about one group to have the same status (truth, objectionability, etc.) as the same statements applied to another group.  In many contexts, there is basic fairness involved.  “Women should be able to participate in government” and “Men should be able to participate in government” are both true.  “Men should not be jerks” and also “Women should not be jerks”.  Or simple fact: “Most white people have toes”, and “Most people of color have toes”.

On the other hand, a few moments of thought reveals lots of statements for which this doesn’t work.  “Most pregnant people are women” is true; but “Most pregnant people are men” is false.  “Until comparatively recently, the law considered women to be essentially property” is true; but “Until comparatively recently, the law considered men to be essentially property” is false.  “Western society grants extensive privilege to white men per se” is pretty clearly true, but “Western society grants extensive privilege to disabled women per se” is implausible at best.

So far these examples are all of “ought” statements that survive under demographic substitution, and some “is” statements that don’t.  But in any plausible morality, situated “ought” statements are implied by “is” statements about their situation; their context.

A very strong case could be made, for instance, that “Western society grants extensive privilege to white men per se”, and “Mainstream study of history has been from a heavily male-oriented perspective” are both true, and that as a result “It is unfortunate that there is no entry about women in the index of this history textbook” can be true, while “It is unfortunate that there is no entry about men in the index of this history textbook” is silly (because, as I vaguely recall my Social Studies teacher pointing out, the whole book is about that).

More significantly (and I imagine more controversially, although perhaps not among y’all weblog readers), there are sets of “is” statements that don’t survive demographic substitution, from which we can conclude that for instance “Women, people of color, and LGBTQ people have a legitimate need for safe spaces that exclude those not in the relevant group” is true, whereas “Men, white people, and straight people have a legitimate need for safe spaces that exclude those not in the relevant group” is not. Or in shorter words, Women’s Rights and Black Power are not necessarily in the same moral categories as Men’s Rights and White Power.

And I am happy to have written that down, because I’ve had the argument rattling around inchoate in my head for some years.

Now there are a significant number of people posting things on the Internet who would claim that that the concluding sentence, that Women’s Rights and Black Power are not necessarily in the same moral categories as Men’s Rights and White Power, is just obviously false, and unfair, and sexist / racist, and so on. Some of them are, I imagine, smug little shits who don’t have the first clue how the world actually works; some others are just doing a good imitation.  To avoid the argument that we would use to get to the conclusion, they would either deny some of the initial “is” statements (denying that there is currently structural oppression of women or people of color, for instance), or deny in one way or the other that those statements imply the conclusion.

Or, perhaps more commonly, they would just repeat that the concluding sentence is sexist / racist, because what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, because fairness, and so on.  Because, that is, demographic substitution ought to preserve the truth of “ought” statements, and saying that it doesn’t is sexist / racist / etc.

What finally pushed me over the edge to write this down was some Twitter discussion of this rather baffling story on the often-odious “Breitbart” site, by the often-odious Milo somebody.  It’s still not clear to me what the intent of the story is, aside from a general suspicion that it’s supposed to be humorous in some way (I do like the part where someone asks what direction they’re driving, and someone else looks at the GPS and says “up”; that’s funny!).  But at least some of the Milo supporters in the Twitter thread that I foolishly walked into, thought that it was obviously a parody of feminist claims that various aspects of technology are gendered against women.

The argument would be, I guess, something like “I have written this piece claiming that an aspect of technology is anti-male, and the piece is silly; therefore other pieces, claiming that other aspects of techhnology are anti-female, are also silly.”  Or, perhaps more charitably, “See how silly this claim that a technology is anti-male is; claims that technologies are anti-female are similar to it, and are just as silly!”.

And this brought to mind some sort of claim like “It’s silly to analyze technology for signs of structural oppression of women, because it’s silly to analyze technology for signs of structural oppression of men, and demographic substitution preserves silliness!”.

But (whatever other additional things might or might not be going on in the case), demographic substitution doesn’t preserve silliness.  Or various other properties.

So there we are!

Advertisements
2013/08/05

It was a red beach ball

I wrote my 750 words again! Haven’t done that in months.

And they sort of hold together (I wanted to avoid the “write 750 more or less random words as wordily as possible” effect this time, but still without taking much time or with the internal editor very active).

For what it’s worth…

In London, it was a red beach-ball, thrown over the heads of the crowds of commuters coming out of the underground station early on a Monday morning, and kept bouncing up in the air for long minutes by a few hundred different hands. All brimming with warm and vulnerable cells.

In Lisbon, it was a broken crate of plastic-wrapped tee shirts for a popular Indy band, left by the side of a building.

In New York, it was the liquid dripping from a hole in a black plastic trashbag swaying in the grip of a shabby man walking from Harlem to downtown and back over the course of the day, stopping for sandwiches, occasionally muttering to himself.

In the high Arctic, it was an explosion, a large one, that flung a quantity of earth and snow and other things into the air, where it was picked up by currents and flowed down in a dissipating waves around the globe.

Any of these things, by itself, could have started an epidemic, sparked chaos, begun the end. None of them did. All of them, together, pushed something subtler over the edge, and a dozen people, initially scattered around the world, began to see differently.

They would talk about it, sometimes, later on, up in one of their satellites circling in the airless sky, or sitting a late watch with the humming patient machines in some sub-basement in a secret room under an obscure street.

“Was it just a coincidence?”

“Was it something that would have happened, had to happen, eventually, and that was just when the day that it did?”

“Did someone, or something, plan it, intend it, make it happen, in a way that, despite it all, we just can’t see? Even though as far as we know we can see everything.”

What do you see? Whether your eyes are open or closed, whether it is dark or light, chances are that you see just whatever photons happen to hit your retina, and then whatever labels the quite dark parts of your brain sticks on to them automatically, so you see a redness that is (probably) a box, and you see things that are (probably) your hands, and probably a bus, and most likely the street.

And, as far as anyone knows, as far as they know even, that is mostly all that any of them saw, either, before that day. Most of them (ten of the twelve, if you were to pin them down and dig into the question) had had times, more or less brief, flashes where they saw more in the world than that. Where things came together and impressed themselves on them in a different way.

But then so had thousands of others, even just that same year, and none of them went over the edge on that day, or on any day since.

No unusual contaminants leaked from that bag, or spun wetly from that bouncing ball, spread with those gradually and guiltily unwrapped shirts, or flew into the sky from the high Arctic. But they could have, and that potential spread, and those four webs of spreading potential somehow came together in a dozen points in the world, in a dozen people, and they changed.

Were there more points, more knots in that global web of spreading might-have-beens, where if there had been a person that person might also have been changed, Changed, and become one of the twelve. Probably there were. They would know, but they are not telling.

What is it like, to see the world directly as connected bundles of meaning? To see potentials and relations directly, rather than colors and shapes and probable labels? They have tried, some of them, to describe it and write it down. Four of them have even published books, but they are generally acknowledged to be opaque, more or less incomprehensible. Two of them are highly regarded as poetry, and one is still being analyzed as a possible cryptogram.

More of them have written, or crafted, or constructed, internal memos, stored in their own network of computers, available onto to each other. These may be more successful, although they are surely less necessary.

When you can see it directly, what need for words?

What would you have done, if you had been one of the twelve? It’s impossible to say, of course, without being one of them. Even knowing oneself deeply, as who of us really does, it’s impossible to say how you would have reacted, without knowing what you would have seen. And they are still not telling us, for whatever reason, just what it is that they have seen.

This was partly inspired, I think, by Embassytown, which I recently finished and keep meaning to do some sort of writeup of, and which is also the reason I posted that old micro of mine the other day.

Semantics everywhere! :)