LINGUIST List 3.796

Mon 19 Oct 1992

Sum: *dog* as sexist language

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Message 1: Sum: *dog* as sexist language

Date: Sat, 17 Oct 1992 15:38:44 Sum: *dog* as sexist language
From: <GIVENsbchm1.chem.sunysb.edu>
Subject: Sum: *dog* as sexist language


 On *Dog* As Sexist Language

 To summarize the *dog* discussion:

 If Your Date's a Dog, Get a Vet

This ad slogan appeared on an auto dealer's billboard. Is it ``sexist'' ?
Informal surveys showed some people thought it was. Various social
mechanisms were suggested that might complicate interpretation of such data.

 I was distracted by changing jobs (see new address below) and failed to
make a point I had intended to make: that increasing economic and psychic
autonomy
of women tends to symmetrize the meaning of such ads vis a vis gender. In
particular, I know many women and men that display their affluence in
the ownership of expensive clothes and cars, one strong motivation
being the search for mates/companions that are upwardly mobile. They go to
expensive nightclubs and bars for the same reason. The above slogan speaks
to such people. So again, the slogan is simply not sexist per se. (A very
similar point was made by another respondent.)

 But a reader might well ask: what in the world can be proven by this
wanton enumeration of possibly important, more or less relevant, social
mechanisms? Certainly a scientific explanation of a sociolinguistic
phenomenon will first enumerate many possibly relevant mechanisms, then
systematically test one against another to find their relative importance.

 What precisely is in question in this study? I asked earlier whether the
term ``sexist'' implied gender asymmetry. One respondent claimed that it
didn't. They seemed to adopt a traditionalist, somewhat Puritannical
valuation of the billboard in question. Certainly the author of the original
survey used a definition based on gender asymmetry. So the respondent may
agree with the practical purpose of the study (I mean its stated goal of
seeking action against the auto dealer). But the two have not agreed on
any statement of sociolinguistic value.

 I think this discussion is important for methodological reasons. I am
troubled by the persistent methodological ambiguities in innatist or rationalist
 studies of grammar between the role of the linguist as native speaker, the
linguist as trained professional, and the linguist as exemplifier of/
posessor of a copy of/ the universal grammar. Perhaps such attempted unities
are underwritten by an innatist linguistics only within a rather narrow
context of formal syntactic operations. In practice, however, this
anti-empirical, example-driven methodology seems to have pervaded
many studies of semantic and sociolinguistic issues. Is the study being
discussed here (i.e., the survey of atitudes toward the billboard)
atypical or sub-standard?

 To be fair, I add a historical not. Many gender-based studies of
linguistic usage seem to
rely on some variant or other of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic
relativity, that is, that our choice of language actively influences and
molds our thinking about objects and people. The history of anthropological
studies along these lines is one marked by methodological sloppiness. Perhaps
the methodological difficulty of such studies lies in the fact that they set
out to establish ``obvious'' points about human use of language. I suggest
here that the innatist use of the ``obvious'', i.e., of rationalist
``clarity'' resonates all too easily with socially ``obvious'' or
received opinion.

 The ambiguities noted above in the status of a linguist via a vis their
data correspond directly with ambiguities in relations of power. A number
of conversations in LINGUIST have discussed ``linguistic activism'', that is,
the testimony of linguists in courtrooms concerning the meaning and impact of
particular speech acts. But in addition to the relations toward ones data
already noted, there also occur in this context the linguist as social
activist and the linguist as advocate. Again, the purpose of the original
survey as stated was precisely this type of activism. I am of course not
denying the right of scholars to be social activists. I am however noting
that questions of authority and responsibility occur here ( beyond those
present in the appearance e.g. of an empirical scientist as ``expert''
witness), questions usually discussed in the context of the Platonic Dialogues,
 in particular the Meno.

 In the discussion of/ enumeration of/ possibly relevant social mechanisms
that occurred earlier in this exchange, a respondent claimed that I was
``bending over backwards'' to find possible motives for the auto dealer.
I accept and applaud this characterization of good empirical research. I
claim that this type of thoroughgoing critique of a theory is the only
way to avoid canonizing ones theoretical and personal prejudices. (The
last chapter of Dick Feynman's book ``Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman''
contains an eloquent plea for this point of view which I greatly
recommend to the reader.) Empirical methodology incorporates this basic
insight into human self-deception and human nature. Rationalist methodology
has no way to do so.
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