Friday, May 01, 2009

Language, Gender, and the Many

Wonderful questions this time around, folks. Thank you very much. Two good ones for today.

Anne asks,

"In Nigeria and parts of Cameroon, pidgin english only uses one gender to describe everyone. Men and women are both given the word man along with all associated he, him, his,... words. How do you think this lack of linguistic gender distinction changes the English language and gender issues regionally? Could this someday effect English and/or gender on a larger scale?"
There's been a lot of work done since the mid-70s on gender and language. The central insight comes from Nietzsche's work on ethics in which one of the benefits of power is the ability to define words. The meanings of words then reinforce the power structure by bringing with them connotations that presuppose the mythology of those in power. When a new group overthrows the old order, they redefine the words but traces of the old concepts remain.

This then became the jumping off point for the political correctness movement which hoped that by changing terms from those tainted by the oppressive past to shiny, new sterile words and phrases that we could affect social change. But this seems to put the linguistic cart before the social horse. Just as the standard use of the n-word within the African American community was an unsuccessful attempt led by Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor to strip the painful slur of its power, my guess is that adopting a gender-free language, or at least a language in which gender divisions are not explicitly made, would not have an effect on the place of women. Pure speculation, but my intuition is that while cultural biases are evident in the community's language, it is more effect than cause and changing the languge would not be a major cultural force.

C.Ewing asks
"What kind of problem is the problem of the many? Is it actually a psuedo-problem? Can we solve the linguistic vagueness simply by fiat and be done with it? Does this assist metaphysically? Should it be the subject of metaphysical analysis? Why or why not?"
The problem of the many is a question of individual identity. Given that things are made up of parts that are recognized as things themselves, how do we draw the line between things and collecitons? Humans are neighborhoods, including many, many little organisms that all help out the system as a whole run. Does the existence of beneficial bacteria in your gut that feed off of your system, but clearly are independent individuals and not organs of your body, mean you are not an individual?

This certainly is not a pseudo-problem as it pops up in menaingful ways in, for example, the philosophy of biology (what is a species?) and business ethics (is a corporation a moral agent in itself or just a collection of moral agents). We speak of sports teams as things. "I am an Oriole fan" is (sadly) meaningful even though there may be no common parts between the 1954 team and the 2008 team. "The Baltimore Orioles" seems to refer to something, not some collection of things. Similarly, an ecosystem.

In some cases it may be merely semantic, in other cases it is a metaphysical question. Is vagueness a piece of the solution? In some cases maybe, but I don't think it is the go-to move here. I would prefer something more functionalist -- do we consider it something that does something. Yes, the cloud is made up of water droplets, but can I meaningfully hold that the cloud dumps rain on my parade, the corporation files suit against me, the species is endangered. If it does something, it is something. This is not to say that the parts don't contribute, but if we can attribute action or intention to the collective, then that collective seems also to be an individual.