Thursday, March 27, 2014

Social justice as cryptolect

My coblogger Queenie explains how "social justice" on Tumblr has been used as an excuse for bullying.  It's not really a problem specific to Tumblr or social justice IMHO, but it's worth talking about that specific case.  One of the problems Queenie identifies is the demand for perfection, the idea that we should never use any concept or word that is even slightly problematic.  As many people have observed, this results in a relatively fast language development on Tumblr.

While there are honorable intentions behind improving our language, one of the effects is that social justice language becomes a cryptolect*--a jargon used by a group in order to exclude outsiders.  Furthermore, people who do not share this language are immediately identified as outsiders, and subsequently attacked.  The consequences of this behavior goes against the spirit of social justice.  People should not halt all language development, but rather moderate it with the knowledge that there is an intrinsic benefit to sticking to established language.

*I considered several words here in place of "cryptolect", including "slang", "jargon", "argot", and "cant".  The connotations of "cant" seem to be closest, but unfortunately it has a second definition which is extremely negative.

To illustrate what language development looks like on Tumblr, I offer a few illustrative examples.  My first example is a case where I myself argued for changing our language.  I argued that "sexual" is not a very good way to refer to people who are not asexual, and that "allosexual"--a word which has been established on Tumblr--is a reasonable alternative.  Of course, not everyone is happy with "allosexual", and in fact the other week I saw someone argue that it was "confusing" and "a little appropriative".  As a third example, I refer you to arguments over the words "trans" and "trans*".  "Trans*" is meant to be more inclusive, but some people find it problematic.  I think few people get angry over that distinction though, since even trans people often aren't aware of the issue.

I don't mean to say that people are wrong to want to change our language.  These are not ridiculous issues; language profoundly affects the way we think, and the way we feel.  However, I wish to show that these arguments over language can often be quite specific and obscure.  (Of course, some of my readers are hip to Tumblr and are perfectly familiar with the examples I gave.  But try to see it from an outsider's perspective.  Wouldn't you grant that they are obscure?)  It is perhaps regretful that outsiders are unfamiliar with the language issues, but it is not the least bit surprising.

So if you get angry that people aren't hip to the cryptolect you've just developed, you may find that you are angry at everyone.  Unless you think it is productive to be angry at everyone, it may perhaps be worthwhile lowering your standards.  I think Tumblr people intuitively understand this concept, which is why they don't get angry about "trans" vs "trans*".  Even insiders often don't understand that issue, and of course we can't be angry at insiders.  I advocate extending this same attitude towards outsiders, even if you're less inclined to be sympathetic towards them.

Let me put this in the style of a social justice argument.  It's often said that "intention isn't magic": when people say problematic things, the fact that they didn't intend to hurt people doesn't magically erase the hurt.  Likewise, the social justice cryptolect has the best of intentions, but the intentions don't magically erase any harm that it might cause.  And as it turns out, it can be harmful, especially towards disadvantaged people.

In particular the cryptolect hurts people who don't have access to your particular internet community, and to people who are older.  Older people have lived through multiple iterations of language, and might have different associations with words than young folks do.  For example, it's well-known that older people are less enthusiastic about the word "queer", because it's a slur that was only reclaimed in the last generation.  And also recall that there are many reasons why people might not have access to Tumblr.  Perhaps they don't have the time because they have poverty-level jobs.  Or perhaps they feel barred from the community because of the very same bullying engendered by Tumblr's demand for perfect language.  And of course there are plenty of people who do have access to Tumblr but choose not to touch it, just as I choose not to touch Twitter.

In two of my examples, the problematic words were themselves words coined by internet communities.  "Allosexual" is known to originate on Tumblr, and "trans*" is the kind of unpronounceable word that you know had to come from somewhere on the internet.  These problematic words were themselves created in response to other words that were deemed problematic.  This demonstrates that even when you identify a problematic term, the term used to replace it may also be problematic.  Hopefully the replacement is an improvement.

What this shows is that if a word is problematic, that is not sufficient reason to get rid of the word.  Sure, the word has problems, but there are also inherent problems with getting rid of the word.  First, the word used to replace it will probably also have problems.  Second, you contribute to a cryptolect which makes your community more inaccessible to outsiders.  While this doesn't mean that we should never intentionally adjust our language, it does mean that we should avoid doing so unless there is a fairly good reason.  And keep in mind that every community thinks it has good reasons for creating its own lingo, but tends not to appreciate the reasons why other communities create their own lingo.

If you agreed with my argument, I'd like to point out that this is a situation where all options are problematic.  Keep the language we have, it hurts people.  Change the language, it hurts people.  No option is perfect.  We cannot demand perfection.


miller said...

Did you mean to link to this?
when you said "I argued
that "sexual" is not a very good way to refer to people who are not
asexual, and that "allosexual"--a word which has been established on
Tumblr--is a reasonable alternative." because... what you actually did link do doesn't seem to be a relevant link? :P I mean it's related to the discussion in some way but it feels wrong lol.

But anyway. I think you make a lot of great points here.

miller said...

Yeah, wrong link. I'll fix it tomorrow.

miller said...

I have to say that, as an outsider, I can't help but balk and shake my head at most of what I read when I visit the blogosphere - so much so that I intentionally stay out of the whole mess. All I see is a group of people pissed off at everyone else for not revolving their universe around their particular issue. I got about a quarter of the way through Queenie's post before my eyes glazed over and all I could think was, "Are you fucking kidding me?" Not that she seems like a bad person - quite the opposite, in fact - but she seems out of touch with the rest of humanity. Caught up in their own kind of technobabble, these kinds of people are so far up their individual cause's ass that they can no longer relate to the world outside of it.

Amusingly, I cannot stomach neo-feminists and men's rights advocates for the same exact reason: they only see things from their perspectives. They have built a bubble around themselves, participating only in social groups that value these things above all else, and are completely devoid of perspectives that exist outside of it. It becomes a perpetual motion machine fed by its own positive feedback loop. Feminists, men's rights advocates, hyper-focused LGBTS+KDH//E groups, religious fanatics, Glenn Beck, they all pretty much read the same way in my mind. "What my specific group believes is absolute, unquestionable truth, and anybody who feels or believes even slightly different than I do is an evil heathen who should be ostracized by the entirety of humanity." Any input from outside their community, if not consistent with their world view, is immediately discarded as not only wrong but evil, and it is their inclination - nay, their DUTY - to use any justification possible, however logically inconsistent, to shame them for their views. Many groups have lost me as an otherwise willing ally because of this.

And the homogeneity in these groups... wow. As far as I can tell, they bullwhip each other into the mindless adherence of principles simply because "that's what a (insert group here)ist believes," so that they may attack "the other." The irony in this is palpable, as the large majority of these groups are supposed to be about tolerance and inclusiveness. It's legitimately disturbing to me, and I cannot read too much from *any* of these specialized groups before I start to feel like I'm reading thoughts of somebody who lives in a culture completely isolated from the rest of society - which they are. I don't know a single person in real life who behaves or thinks like these social justice groups do. Not a single one. They shout loudly, so if you get sucked in, it feels like they're everywhere; but in reality, they only exist on the internet, and only in specific and obscure parts of them at that.

miller said...

Hey, that's my coblogger you're talking about.

I know many people offline who are into social justice stuff. Averaging between your anecdote of not knowing a single person, and my anecdote of knowing lots, I guess on average there are lots?
Oh yeah, and one thing that becomes clear offline is that people generally don't toe the line as much as it appears online. I mean, even online it seems clear to me that feminists disagree with each other all the time, but they tend to sort by website.