Monday, 27 October 2014

On Human Laziness, False Limitations, And How Wordsing Is Hard.

I promised myself not to talk about GamerGate, and, actually, I'm a little lucky here, because this is something that has a wider implication than just that constant back-and-forth arguing. Let's begin our discussion of how Words Are Hard with a statement nobody reading this is going to like:

You Are All Lazy About Word Usage.

Oh dear, that's not a strong start, is it? Let's examine why. First word: "You". Not me, even though I can be just as lazy as the worst of you in the right conditions. "All". There isn't actually a problem with this, but many people will consider it a gross generalisation, until I explain a bit further. Many people won't get that far, because reading is also hard. But it's a start. Let's rejig that.

You Are All Lazy About Word Usage, And So Am I.

On the face of it, that at least appears better. But it really isn't, because it gives the impression that "I" am an afterthought. I am less important, in the context of this subject, than you are. And so somebody is going to take offense. While we're at it, people will take offense at the word "Lazy", even though it's technically true. It's not true at all times of the day, it's not true in all situations, but as a general statement (which it is), it's true. We all expend the minimum amount of effort, on average, to say what we want to say to our satisfaction. Key phrase there. Okay, one more go, and then we'll skip along to a demonstration of how easy it is to slip up.

Humanity, As A Whole, Is Lazy About Word Usage.

Much better. Everyone's included now, and... Wait, you don't want to be included? You think you aren't, or at least, your batting average is higher than everyone else's? Oh dear, I've offended someone because they think a generalisation, however true, doesn't apply to them. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

Well, let's talk about why, even if this is the case, you can't actually demonstrate it. Firstly, you'd have to have a comprehensive documentation of everything you've said, written, and thought. Yes, thought, because you think words before you say them, and sometimes, what you think and what you say isn't the same thing. What you say may have similar goals to what you think... But it might equally betray what you're actually thinking, over what you say. Then you'd have to exhaustively analyse the whole thing, and... Oh, wait, we've reached a situation where, seemingly, I can't prove you wrong, and you can't prove me right.

Except I said nothing about "all the time". I spoke about quantity of people, not a quantity of time. I even took pains to let you know that it isn't true all the time. In some cases, it isn't even true for much of the time. But you don't have to believe me that they're rare cases. Because you see it every day. In a job interview, where you were told you'd worded something so it was a yes or no answer (apparently, a bad thing in salesmanship). In a research paper, where you used the wrong definition of a word (My most recent one there was "Agency". Turns out grammatical agency and gender politics agency are ever so slightly different.) Even in a conversation. Let me show you two examples of that to bring my point across.

In a German oral exam (the one where you speak, not the one where they examine your mouth for how german it is, or a mouth examination in germany... See how easy it can be to confuse?), I made a mistake that apparently even many Germans make, to great amusement. Instead of "Ich schlafe im mein hosen" (I sleep in my trousers), I said "Ich schlafe mit mein hosen" (I sleep with my trousers). One word, and I'm now forever associated with sexual deviancy in the mind of the native German speaker who examined me. Good times!

Here's another one, and more germane to a situation that's been on my mind (and the mind of many gamers recently)... "I'm laughing with you" and "I'm laughing at you." What's wrong with the second sentence? Well, if you're even vaguely educated in English, you'll know that the first is inclusive: You're sharing the joke. But the second is exclusive: You're laughing, but they aren't, or shouldn't be. One word. One.

Now, here's where it gets fun. Single words, used often enough, can be interpreted in a negative way. Let's use some common GamerGate examples to illustrate my point. Let's start with "fallacy"

Such an innocent sounding word, it trips off the tongue, and, if you say it just right, makes you think of dicks. But homophones are an entirely different problem, let's concentrate on why using "fallacy" a lot might get you into trouble in the current GG debate.

A fallacy is a flawed argument, pure and simple. But it's what's called a loaded word, because it also has connotations in debate. Some phrases that instantly come to mind when someone uses fallacy are "You are arguing in bad faith" (because hey, that's often what a fallacy is used for), "You don't know how to argue" (because I have to tell you what fallacy you're using), and "I want to demonstrate that I am educated (whether I am or not) to argue from a position of superiority"... No shit, that instantly comes to mind whenever someone uses specialist terms like fallacy. And, in a very real grammatical sense, it is a specialist term. It belongs to a field of expertise that you may or may not possess, namely Logic. If you don't believe me that Logic is a specialist skill, try and use it on people who don't have it. And I apologise in advance for any friends you will lose for doing so.

There are other loaded terms, of course, and the language you use gives away your thoughts on how you really see things, even if you don't intend it that way. "revolt", "war", "us" and "them". When you label a person, you're deliberately not acknowledging them as a person, but an idea (Good example: A drunk on the square, yelling at the "Fookin' Paki!" who, presumably, offended him. This actually happened, and I can tell you, that there are folks from China... Folks from Turkey and Cyprus... Folks from Mumbai... But, funnily enough, nobody from Pakistan around here. Yes, I know, it's a dehumanising insult for people from India, but it was directed at the Turks, in this case... Go figure.)

To continue, though, when you think of things in terms of "war", you aren't doing this from a viewpoint of discussion. And nobody wants to discuss with someone who isn't prepared to discuss, but rather wants to stab you or shoot you very, very dead. When you think of things in terms of a "revolt", you're instantly associating yourself, in your mind, with your own ideal of what a revolt is. The most common one I (and others) got when asking what particular revolt they were thinking of was the French Revolution, which, as an ideal, was about freedom. However, the French Revolution has an entirely different connotation for anyone who actually researched it, namely, that the leaders of said revolution were, themselves, mostly given to Madame Guillotine, one of the few true victors of the French Revolution.

So yes, humans are lazy about words, and it hurts them, and others around them. How do we combat this? Well, there isn't really an ideal solution. We could limit what words people say! Ah, we tried that, and people cried foul. For, it must be said, very good reasons, because many of the folks who had that idea didn't want rather inconvenient words like "Freedom" or "Slaves" to be bandied about, because that caused dangerous ideas.

We can educate people not to use those words! Ah, that would require effort, and it's not just words that humanity's quite lazy about. For example, a couple I was talking to, long ago, were arguing about the events of their bedtime rompings. The man in the argument, unsurprisingly, was rather put out that she defecated on his member while it was being inserted into her rectum. The woman, on the other hand, immediately rejoindered that she'd done so because she didn't want him in her rectum in the first place. The man was lazy because he hadn't established a safeword (a good practice in general, folks), and, more importantly, hadn't asked how his paramour felt about things being shoved in her bottom for pleasure. The woman, on the other hand, was lazy for exactly the same reasons. I'd like to add that neither of them could be bothered to not discuss this in the hearing of someone who might turn round and mention how they really didn't want to hear this. And I am not, in fact, being lazy here, but deliberately shocking to make a point, because I definitely wanted to shock you into reading how lazy they both were. Every solution except stopping and thinking before you act (not, in and of itself, an ideal solution in life or death, instant reaction situations, but an argument on the internet, or a conversation about ethics in journalism, or even whether that boy/girl/androgyne/thing from Delta Upsilon really wants you to carry on asking them for their phone number is somewhere you can apply it) seems not to work really well.

So, with that little demonstration out of the way, let me point out that, before you turn around and tell someone they're a liar, or using a fallacy, or whatever the hell you're going to say (even in rebuttal to this article), don't be lazy. Stop, think... Look around. I know it's hard work, but you'll be rewarded with more knowledge, and less likelihood that people will stop listening to you.

Oh wait, I offended you all from word 1, and so you aren't listening to this post. Whoops. Oh, here's one final piece of laziness. Those false limitations? Think for yourself what situations you might have where you think you're limited in what you say and how you say it, but you actually aren't... Like, say, the internet.

EDIT: Folks... Well, one person so far has stated that this is "tone policing". I'd like folks to think about that phrase. Yes, it's shitty to tell someone to not be angry at each other, but is that what I'm saying? Be very careful before you answer... Because, as I noted, I'm sometimes lazy with words, and I may not have gotten the real message across that it's not what you say that's important... It's why you're saying it, and whether what you're saying is true.

EDIT 2: Here's a really good example of needing to think, to research, before you do something you'll regret.

This was posted just a short while before this edit (name has been removed because I don't wanna be a dick beyond pointing something out). The first half is quite correct. The second half, however, ignores that -gamy has a meaning already deeply entrenched. Monogamy sound familiar? Polygamy? Yes, that's right. Misogamy: A hatred of marriages/relationships. And that could have been avoided if someone thought "Hey, maybe we shouldn't be appropriating classical languages to make new terms without understanding how they're constructed!"

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