20 October 2007

Gender studies

The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages?, by Deborah Cameron (Oxford)

Men and women, it has long been thought, speak in different ways. But curiously, people can’t quite agree on what the difference is. Deborah Cameron cites a 1777 passage by Lord Chesterfield:

Language is indisputably the more immediate province of the fair sex: there they shine, there they excel. The torrents of their eloquence, especially in the vituperative way, stun all opposition, and bear away, in one promiscuous heap, nouns, verbs, moods and tenses.

The giveaway here is the word “promiscuous”: Chesterfield’s theory of women’s language is informed by his fantasies about their sex lives. Let us note, however, that Shakespeare in As You Like It had Rosalind express the opposite stereotype, that women are incapable of aggressive speech: “Women’s gentle brain / Could not drop forth such giant-rude invention”. Whom to believe?

It is Rosalind’s version (which Shakespeare, the summoner of Lady Macbeth, plainly did not take for truth) that is closer to the modern popular wisdom summed up by John Gray’s book title, “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus”. Men’s speech is combative and functional, when they can even manage to articulate their lips around their manly cheroots; women’s speech is a gentle torrent or promiscuous heap of emotion.

Deborah Cameron, a linguist and author of the excellent Verbal Hygiene (1995), is having none of it. In this vigorously argued book, she also combats the cliché by example, writing in an enjoyable mode of pugnacious sarcasm. Among the Mars and Venus literature through which she has courageously waded, there is apparently a tome, written by a man, called If Men Could Talk. Cameron’s response is delicious: “A book called If Women Could Think would be instantly denounced: why do men put up with books that put them on a par with Lassie or Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (“hey, wait a minute — I think he’s trying to tell us something!”)?”

Well, I put up with it because it doesn’t threaten me; on the other hand, Cameron argues persuasively that the Mars and Venus myth does threaten women. Consistently, as she shows, aspects of the way our society is currently structured are taken to be clues to some basic difference in the nature of men and women, which always turns out to be to women’s disadvantage, a “natural” reason to keep them in lower-status roles. Cameron discusses Simon Baron-Cohen’s book, The Essential Difference, which posits a distinction between the male and female brains and concludes that “people with the female brain”, supposedly more empathetic, are better at jobs like nursing (just as Rosalind’s notion of “Women’s gentle brain” would predict), and the male-brained, supposedly more analytical, make better lawyers. Cameron comments aptly that nurses also need to be analytical and lawyers need people skills: “These categorizations are not based on a dispassionate analysis of the demands made by the two jobs. They are based on the everyday common-sense knowledge that most nurses are women and most lawyers are men.”

Some gender differences do exist: for example, “Men are more aggressive and can throw things further.” But even then, there is as much if not more variability within the groups as between them. (Your correspondent cannot throw anything as far as Tessa Sanderson threw her javelins.) Ethnographic studies of young girls in LA or male university students, meanwhile, show the girls acting confrontationally and the boys gossiping. Nor does the inherently “speculative” nature of evolutionary psychology inspire Cameron’s confidence. Where there do seem to be empirically attested variations between women’s and men’s language use, such as that women use more “tag questions” (“It’s a nice day, isn’t it?”), Cameron argues that this, again, is owed to the present gender-biased distribution of social roles. That men and women habitually “miscommunicate” owing to some notion of direct versus indirect speech-habits is also, as Cameron shows, a useful get-out clause for men, as well as being highly implausible. Cameron cites a rape case in which the accused claimed he didn’t know the woman was not consenting, and ripostes: “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out that someone who feigns unconsciousness while in bed with you probably doesn’t want to have sex.”

Cameron is to be applauded for having resisted the temptation to conclude that John Gray is from Uranus.

In the end, the most economical disproof of big theories about innate differences in language-use is that things are actually the opposite way round in other cultures. The men of the village of Gapun in Papua New Guinea prize indirect and subtle speech, while the women practise a form of highly abusive monologue called a Kros. As Cameron comments: “In John Gray’s terms, Gapun would seem to be a place where men are from Venus and women are from Mars.” She is to be applauded for having resisted the temptation to conclude that John Gray is from Uranus.

Last year, a book claimed that women talk three times as much as men, on average speaking 20,000 words a day against men’s 7,000. This nugget raced around the world, fuelling countless newspaper headlines, before it was pointed out that it was a factoid, based on zero evidence. Cameron suggests that such “news” is welcomed by those who resent the fact that women no longer meekly stay at home to cook and look after babies. “Culture change is hard: it causes anxiety, conflict, and, in some quarters, resistance. That is why the myth of Mars and Venus has had such a warm reception from the educated western middle classes.”

At one point, Cameron mentions a website called the Gender Genie that, by counting the frequencies of various words (“the” is supposed to be a “masculine” word), predicts whether the author of a supplied text is male or female. Excitedly, I raced to perform an experiment. The Gender Genie told me that an essay by Susan Sontag was written by a man, and an extract of my own work in progress was written by a woman. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, isn’t there?

  • thea

    Steven. A characteristically elegant and graceful review. But I detect a reflexive fairness bordering on pc-think in your approval of Deborah Cameron’s arguments. Highly commendable, but maybe not quite right.

    There most certainly are marked differences in styles of speech and writing to which the sexes broadly conform. But in my experience, fwiw, individuals conform to their gender patterns to degrees that can vary stunningly. I’ve always found it fascinating that the best artists seem to have brains which, if not exactly bisexual, have many characteristics of the opposite sex.

    As for other professions – well, a nurse will, as you say, have to combine compassion and nurturing with analytical ability. But in the women surgeons I’ve met, analytical detachment is the most striking characteristic. And I doubt that reasonable women, even extreme feminists, would disagree that such detachment is far more common in men than women – not least because when pathological, as in autism, male sufferers far outnumber female ones.

    Gapun in PNG is certainly remarkable – and likely to be my one reason for reading DC’s book (unless I can satisfy my curiosity about the village on the internet). But would it be too simple-minded to call it be the exception that proves the rule? Does DC consider that possibility?

    Those of us who aren’t scholars in this field will mainly judge the arguments by our own observations. The best book I’ve ever read on the subject of gender communication styles is Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand. Despite the silly pop psychology title that I’ll bet the publisher insisted on, DT is a good researcher.

    One of the most persuasive findings she mentions is studies showing that _both_ men and women who grew up mainly with brothers are more comfortable with a direct conversational style with lots of joking and a preference for objective, abstract or practical subjects; those who grew up in households in which female siblings set the tone prefer more empathetic conversations as adults; enjoy fine and lengthy dissections of feelings, and are far less comfortable with, for instance, teasing. I had a “eureka!” moment, reading that part of the book.

    Of course there are women more blunt and even brutal than any man and men more petty and waspish than any woman, but would anyone not afraid of being labelled sexist honestly disagree that those stereotypes reflect reality?

    Doesn’t the fear of sexism get in the way of scientific objectivity, here – as in the study of differences between races?

    Does Deborah Cameron deal with any of these points? Does she mention Tannen’s work at any length?

  • thea

    Sorry, that should have read, “but would anyone not afraid of being labelled sexist honestly disagree that THE stereotypes reflect reality?”

    As in this stereotype: ‘“Women’s gentle brain / Could not drop forth such giant-rude invention”.’

  • Hello Thea,
    It seems to me that your response is simply to assert what is at issue, when you say:

    There most certainly are marked differences in styles of speech and writing to which the sexes broadly conform.

    Cameron does mention Tannen, not in admiration, as in this bit extracted in the Guardian:

    [T]he research evidence does not support the claims made by Tannen and others about the nature, the causes, and the prevalence of male-female miscommunication.

    Wrt Gapun and “the exception that proves the rule” – a fascinating phrase in itself, which meant something pretty standard when it was generally understood that “proves” meant “puts to the test”, and yet the opposite sense came to gain the upper hand, perhaps because it has the piquancy of paradox (and can often be used to ignore annoying counter-evidence). I’m not sure when this happened.

  • thea

    “Cameron does mention Tannen, not in admiration,”

    Right, so the “experts” don’t agree, which is why I said that until they do — if this ever happens —

    “[t]hose of us who aren’t scholars in this field will mainly judge the arguments by our own observations”

    and mine overwhelmingly support

    “marked differences in styles of speech and writing to which the sexes broadly conform”

    . . . with striking exceptions . . .

    Nice point about the changed meaning of “the exception that proves the rule,” and there have been lots of such stunning reversals of meaning over the centuries, haven’t there? I think it was Umberto Eco who once wrote that computery has been responsible for a disproportionate number of them — and “default” is the only one of those I can think of at the moment.

    I haven’t yet had a chance to read about Gapun — anywhere — but might post again when I do.

  • Well, as in many other cases, if the “experts” appear to disagree, we can either say “The experts disagree, so I’ll make up my own mind”, or we can look more closely at what kind of evidence each “expert” is adducing to his or her claims, and so come to a more reasoned evaluation of them.

    In the case of Tannen vs Cameron, this is not something I’m likely to do myself any time soon, but I can tell you (having gone back to check) that Cameron spends a fair amount of time in her book rebutting certain claims of Tannen’s, and Cameron’s arguments seemed persuasive to me. Not having read Tannen, of course, I don’t know whether Cameron is giving a fair account of her opponent’s views. Although given what I know of Cameron’s previous work (particularly the excellent and nuanced Verbal Hygiene, as mentioned), my default assumption, open to overturning by counterevidence, would be that she is a respectable scholar in this regard.

  • thea

    “or we can look more closely at what kind of evidence each “expert” is adducing”

    Quite right, S, which is why I said I’ll be investigating Gapun — since that might supply one index of the quality of DC’s analysis and conclusions.

    “a fair amount of time in her book rebutting certain claims of Tannen’s, and Cameron’s arguments seemed persuasive to me”

    And if I didn’t admire and enjoy your reasoning on all sorts of vexed questions, I wouldn’t be worrying away at your opinion of DC’s book . . . The problem with this particular subject is that the evidence is always going to be mixed — and liable to be read by both sides as proof of their theories.

    There are for instance people who argue that there’s absolutely no doubt that men and women have different communication styles — but that “nurture” accounts for all or most of a divergence that, to them, is chiefly superficial. I don’t personally believe that anyone honest would take the all-nurture tack, so we’re really looking at nature _and_ nurture to account for differences that we perceive to be more significant, or less so. . .

    Which has the bigger role surely varies with (historical) time, place and culture, and I suspect that an overall reckoning, as in, “On balance, after reading virtually all the available literature, I would say that . . .” could only ever be a matter of individual judgement. (Unless someone devised the perfect experiment.)

    I can live with this. But I am hugely irritated by people who, for chiefly political reasons, are either-or absolutists on the question. Human behaviour is so complex that “and” rather than “either/or” should be a far more popular conclusion on all sorts of questions IM(not in the least U.Heep)O. :)

    It wasn’t btw Eco but Anthony Sampson whose example of “default” I mentioned earlier.

  • There are for instance people who argue that there’s absolutely no doubt that men and women have different communication styles — but that “nurture” accounts for all or most of a divergence that, to them, is chiefly superficial.

    This is grosso modo indeed the tack taken by Cameron, who does not deny the existence of any measurable differences in speech usage between the sexes but, where they exist, argues that they are very plausibly attributable to the social context (cp Gapun etc again), given inadequate evidence for natural difference. (Not that there is anything necessarily “superficial” about cultural as opposed to biological differences, in case you meant to imply that; I couldn’t quite tell.) Perhaps I did not emphasize this point about Cameron’s argument sufficiently in the review, but it is buried where I wrote:

    Where there do seem to be empirically attested variations between women’s and men’s language use, such as that women use more “tag questions” (”It’s a nice day, isn’t it?”), Cameron argues that this, again, is owed to the present gender-biased distribution of social roles.

    You go on to say:

    I don’t personally believe that anyone honest would take the all-nurture tack

    Hmm. Well, I personally believe that any attribution of difference to “nature”, genes etc had better be based on robust empirical evidence rather than some hand-waving “It must be a bit natural, mustn’t it?” It would indeed be my strong bias to think that nurture explanations of social phenomena ought to be the default unless and until a nature explanation can be shown to have some actual substance to it.

  • thea

    You say, “I personally believe that any attribution of difference to “nature”, genes etc had better be based on robust empirical evidence”

    Completely agree. I’d want that evidence for an insistence on either “nature” or “nurture” as the overwhelming determinant.

    “rather than some hand-waving “It must be a bit natural, mustn’t it?””

    But the hand-waving is usually about “nurture” — as in, “Ooo, it must also have something to do with the way people are brought up, don’t you think?” . . . since we are, unarguably, biological beings first, and only creatures of culture and conditioning after that.

    I was a bit taken aback when someone I know once said, “The trouble with these people who say there aren’t any differences between men and women is that they think humans aren’t animals” . . . but on reflection, I concluded that he was essentially right.

    My main problem with the idea of DC’s book is, why the urgent need to settle the matter one way or another — unless you have a political agenda?. . . Out in the real world — in, for instance, the US, more women in their twenties now have college degrees than males of the same age. I’m fairly sure that enrollment at US medical and law schools is close to evenly split between men and women. If DC is arguing as a militant feminist, surely she sees that these trends in higher education must eventually change attitudes so that men and women are reflexively _treated_ as equals in every way, in spite of our differences? And surely that’s what matters, in the end?

  • I’d want that evidence for an insistence on either “nature” or “nurture” as the overwhelming determinant.

    Well, cultural explanations are just not the same kind of explanation, and resist empirical systematization to the same degree. Nonetheless, I consider cultural explanations to be by default the right kind of explanations for cultural phenomena (as I tried to emphasize in the last sentence of #7); just as biological explanations are the right kind of explanations for biological phenomena. In my view, the burden of proof lies squarely on anyone who wants to posit a biological explanation for cultural phenomena.

    we are, unarguably, biological beings first, and only creatures of culture and conditioning after that.

    Depends what you mean by “first”. Of course a newborn baby doesn’t have much culture. But if we are speaking particularly of humans as users of language in social situations, I can’t see that it makes much sense to say that they are “biological beings first”.

    My main problem with the idea of DC’s book is, why the urgent need to settle the matter one way or another — unless you have a political agenda?

    Well, on her account, it is the other side who have been making the scientific claims all this while, and she is arguing that they are not good enough. I think that’s a perfectly respectable position to take. Indeed, she claims to be showing that the political agenda of her opponents is not warranted by the evidence they adduce.

    If DC is arguing as a militant feminist, surely she sees that these trends in higher education must eventually change attitudes so that men and women are reflexively _treated_ as equals in every way, in spite of our differences?

    Leaving aside militant feminist, her argument is that the innate-difference crowd are so popular precisely because of a widespread resentment at the developments you cite, as the penultimate paragraph of my review says.

  • sw

    Judging from the collaborative, compromising, and emotionally intelligent posts of “Thea”, I’d guess she’s a woman. The belligerent, macho, and hairy-knuckled posts of “Steven” peg him as a man. And the photo. Definitely looks like a dude in the photo.
    ;-)

    I don’t want to be patronising (what an unjust and sexist word!), and I don’t want to make anybody uneasy, but I’ve really enjoyed Steven’s review and the subsequent thread. And, I’ve really enjoyed it despite the fact that it is about the nature/nurture debate and despite the fact that it is about men and women and what astrological explanations we can come up with to explain their differance.

    There are a few unhelpful comments I’d like to make.

    Nonetheless, I consider cultural explanations to be by default the right kind of explanations for cultural phenomena (as I tried to emphasize in the last sentence of #7); just as biological explanations are the right kind of explanations for biological phenomena. In my view, the burden of proof lies squarely on anyone who wants to posit a biological explanation for cultural phenomena.

    I agree completely!

    But then, well, can biology and culture be so neatly and completely teased apart? We know, of course, that we ought to avoid the terms “nature” and “nurture”, because, as it turns out, much of “nurture” depends on “nature” and because evoking “nature” is often a sociopolitical strategy rather an appeal to the untouched objectivity of the physical world around us. There is fairly good evidence that mother rats “nurture” their pups in ways dependent on both single-gene and epigenetic phenomena, so their complex mothering behaviour is thus a function of “nature” – and perhaps this too applies to humans in some primal way. So what happens if we get our categories confused? Isn’t the demand for “cultural” explanations for “cultural phenomena” and “biological” explanations for “biological phenomena” always at risk of reifying a difference that doesn’t quite exist? Or at least, that doesn’t quite exist in the same way as we are conceptualising it in the very demand that we conceptualise it a certain way?

    Of course a newborn baby doesn’t have much culture.

    I love the way the right hook “of course” completely stuns the reader into overlooking the suckerpunch of “much”. How “much” culture does a baby have? How does one have “much” or, for that matter, any culture? But, of course, Steven is right in what he is saying: because we can’t really answer these problems, it’s a knock-out sentence. A “baby” already has (“some”, “much”) culture – it is born into a cultural world to which it responds uniquely (if loudly and somewhat predictably), while being immersed into cultures from its first gasp – a way of being touched and held, a way of being looked at, a way of being wrapped, a way of being cleaned; the little sprog is already immediately learning about self and other, about race, about gender and sex – biocultural (!) constructs all – and is indeed already defined by its culture (what is a “baby”? When did it become a “baby”?) Such things may make us re-think what comes “first”, and may make us think that our biological beings emerge out of a cultural broth, like little lizards coming out of a bowl of alphabet soup.

    Going back to your review, I would make one comment:

    the most economical disproof of big theories about innate differences in language-use is that things are actually the opposite way round in other cultures.

    My fundamental distrust of anthropologists and what they report about “other cultures” has more empirical evidence to support it than most anthropologists’ claims about what “other cultures” do, I’m afraid. It’s an “economical disproof” – but also a cheap one.

    Ah, another point, responding to Thea’s questions:

    surely she sees that these trends in higher education must eventually change attitudes so that men and women are reflexively _treated_ as equals in every way, in spite of our differences? And surely that’s what matters, in the end?

    If there are fundamental differences, based on some unholy quagmire of biological and cultural combat in the body politic, do we really then argue that “equality” is the ideal? Of course, to my mind, I think that there are all sorts of differences, emerging out of genes and societies and midi-chlorians,; and so, an ideal would not be “equality” but “justice”.

    I must go – I’m over-exerting my bisexual brain.

  • Hello sw!

    But then, well, can biology and culture be so neatly and completely teased apart?

    No, they can’t, and it is a relief to me that you insist on this.

    evoking “nature” is often a sociopolitical strategy rather an appeal to the untouched objectivity of the physical world around us

    Naturally, I agree. But…

    Isn’t the demand for “cultural” explanations for “cultural phenomena” and “biological” explanations for “biological phenomena” always at risk of reifying a difference that doesn’t quite exist?

    Well, arguably, no difference really exists between any things, absent our preferred filters or ways of slicing the world up. (It’s all the blanket, as Dustin Hoffman says.) The distinction between cultural and biological can often be subtle and difficult to make, as in your excellent example about rats. But this does not allow us to say that the difference does not exist at all. In many other cases the distinction is not difficult to make. It can make perfect sense in some conversational contexts to wish to distinguish between cultural phenomena such as novels and hard-rock ballads on the one hand, and biological phenomena such as the workings of the dopamine system in the brain on the other. (Even if we think the latter probably has something to do with the way the former are produced or consumed.)

    Perhaps my point is better phrased thus: Just as there are different levels of appropriate explanation within the study of the human animal itself – it makes no sense to try to discuss the workings of the kidney in terms of quantum physics, even if in some theoretical sense the workings of the kidney, like everything else, should be reducible to quantum physics; and then there is all that stuff about “systems biology” and so forth that recommends higher-level explanations than those about the canonical organs or systems as hitherto defined – so biological and cultural explanations are different levels of explanation which are more or less appropriate to different kinds of discussions.

    In response to my perfectly reasonable statement “Of course a newborn baby does not have much culture”, you say:

    A “baby” already has (”some”, “much”) culture – it is born into a cultural world to which it responds uniquely (if loudly and somewhat predictably), while being immersed into cultures from its first gasp – a way of being touched and held, a way of being looked at, a way of being wrapped, a way of being cleaned; the little sprog is already immediately learning about self and other, about race, about gender and sex – biocultural (!) constructs all – and is indeed already defined by its culture (what is a “baby”?

    Well, you might do me the service of supposing that I chose my verb carefully. Of course a newborn baby (remember, I said “newborn”) is born into culture and all that, but a newborn baby does not have much culture in the sense of being able to talk to you about John Coltrane or Haruki Murakami. (I added the qualifier “much” because of the purported existence of Chomskyan deep grammar or whatever — which itself raises lots of tricky questions about to what extent language itself is biological or has a biological substrate or whatever we shall say.)

  • about self and other, about race, about gender and sex – biocultural (!) constructs all

    Meanwhile, I will happily take this as an opportunity to reproduce the following:

    Biology Is Ideology (II)

    [Int. hospital, night. MADGE, on bed, exhausted. DR HUFHUHRR, holding BABY. There is the sound of CRYING.]

    Dr Hufhurrh: Congratulations, Madge, it’s a boy.

    Madge: What?

    Dr Hufhurrh: Your baby, he’s a boy. You should rest.

    Madge: What do you mean, ‘He’s a boy’?

    Dr Hufhurrh: [pause] Um, well, he’s male. He has male genitalia and so on, all perfectly formed, so there’s –

    Madge: Your categories of “male” and “female” are just ideological constructs! How do you know my child won’t grow up and realise she is actually a woman?

    Dr Hufhurrh: Well, um, it’s difficult to say at this stage. There are many factors in, ah, ‘gender issues’ of course. But we have already tested and found no chromosomal abnormalities, so –

    Madge: Your categories of “chromosomes” and “abnormalities” are just ideological constructs too! A new child has come into this world, and already you have to violate the freedom of a unique person by imposing your pathetic binary ideological scheme! Because you’re an obstetrician, you feel you have to sort babies into “boys” and “girls” so you can buy a new Lexus! Did you ever consider that the world might be a better place with no “boys” or “girls”?

    Dr Hufhurrh: Um, not really.

    Madge: Exactly! You doctors are all the same! You just want to exercise your phallocentric ideology over my own flesh and blood! Well, I refuse to submit to the system! You –

    Baby: Jeez, mom, don’t you think you’re being a bit hormonal?

    [MADGE and HUFHURRH look at BABY, astonished]

    Baby: Waaaaaaaaaaah!

    [finis]

  • PS Why do you distrust anthropologists so fundamentally? And:

    It’s an “economical disproof” – but also a cheap one.

    A single counterexample suffices to disprove a theory, doesn’t it? (Cameron cites more than a single one, in fact.)

  • sw

    Regarding #11, first part: Yes, I agree.

    Regarding #11, second part:

    In response to my perfectly reasonable statement “Of course a newborn baby does not have much culture”, you say

    I’m so sorry, I didn’t notice how perfectly reasonable it was; in the future, I will not comment on anything that is perfectly reasonable, even when I’m agreeing with it (“But, of course, Steven is right in what he is saying”). Sigh.

    Well, you might do me the service of supposing that I chose my verb carefully.

    I will. Is there any other way I might service you?

    Of course, it was precisely the question of how one might “have” culture that I was asking: do I “have” culture when I plug in my Right Said Fred album? Do I “have” culture when I put down my copy of Unspeak and pick up my copy of Maxim? Do I “have” culture simply because I can talk about it, as you suggest? My point is that we “have” culture by being immersed in it, not by doing anything about it, and therefore that is how even a newborn baby “has” culture – and, indeed, might have “lots” of it, with or without Chomskyian deeeeeeep language structures buried in the Locus Noam, somewhere between Shatner’s Bassoon and the amygdala.

    Regarding #13:

    A single counterexample suffices to disprove a theory, doesn’t it? (Cameron cites more than a single one, in fact.)

    Well, it depends on the type of theory – a counterexample might suffice to require that a theory change shape; but, in the terms of this particular debate about these questionable gendered laws of behaviour, a single counterexample would suffice to disprove the ubiquity and absolute necessity of a law about communication. I wasn’t arguing that it didn’t do so, was I? I do have concerns though about anthropology, as you notice. You ask why. Well, having seen first hand how anthropologists distort and misinterpret what they see, I remain suspicious of vague claims that anthropologists have seen something in some “other” culture that challenges commonly held beliefs; anthropologists have likewise worried about this, as in the delightful paper “Body Ritual among the Nacirema”. There are also anthropologists I respect deeply, amongst them the great scholar Mary Douglas. I over-stated my case in the heat of the moment. Unlike you, I am not perfectly reasonable in my blogging, and you may well do me the service of ignoring my hot-headed, clammy-pawed, weak-kneed excesses. ;-)

  • Ah, sw, if we get on to the subject of the myriad ways in which you might service me, we will be here for ever.

    In the mean time, you say:

    My point is that we “have” culture by being immersed in it, not by doing anything about it

    No: and I’m absolutely sure that you do not yourself believe that the developing brain is merely a passive sponge. Of course, if we didn’t do anything about it by perceiving, interacting, learning and thus rewiring our brains, the immersion by itself would not suffice to let us “have” culture, just as immersing a dog in culture by forcing him to watch hundreds of hours of Star Trek DVDs would not result in the dog having culture either, beyond his baseline doggy culture of walks and chewy bones. Thus, a newborn baby does not have (much) culture.

    Perhaps we can agree that we are merely choosing to use the verb “have” in different ways, and do not disagree on substance here. I am aware that this is an uncharacteristically feminine stance of conciliation on my part.

    I am very glad you mentioned Shatner’s Bassoon, though.

    I remain suspicious of vague claims that anthropologists have seen something in some “other” culture that challenges commonly held beliefs

    What gives you to suppose that the claim in question is “vague”?

    I commend to you the excellent discussion about chess that ejh has begun.

  • thea

    sw and Steven, sorry for my seeming lack of interest, I had to go away on a short trip.

    sw, you said:

    ‘If there are fundamental differences, based on some unholy quagmire of biological and cultural combat in the body politic, do we really then argue that “equality” is the ideal? Of course, to my mind, I think that there are all sorts of differences, emerging out of genes and societies and midi-chlorians,; and so, an ideal would not be “equality” but “justice”.’

    I’d say, no – there can be no argument: equality is the only choice. Because the differences don’t neatly sort themselves into classes, even if you allowed for more than just “men” and “women”. I believe that a spectrum is what we’re looking at, for variations in human communication and thinking styles. Though there are broad differences between male and female patterns, there’s no easy way of saying where particular individuals belong on the spectrum – as, for instance, in deciding a particular person’s aptitude for or skill in a particular line of work (with a few exceptions). That makes it impossible to see an alternative to treating men and women as fully equal in potential, salary, benefits, and so on. We can only rate individuals as better or worse “horses for courses”, and reward or value them accordingly.

    As I was preparing to go away, in a quick look at the thread I saw S say,

    ‘Nonetheless, I consider cultural explanations to be by default the right kind of explanations for cultural phenomena’

    . . . to which my reaction was, this is so exquisitely elegant that I’m tempted to agree – but on any topic related to human behaviour I’m an empiricist and rabid pragmatist first, and an abstractionist a long way after that. As the true S must surely be himself, as he’s shown not just by saying,

    ‘so biological and cultural explanations are different levels of explanation which are more or less appropriate to different kinds of discussions.’

    . . . but also by reproducing that decisive transcript in which young Jeez-mom puts an end to the waffling of Dr. H and Madge. (‘Madge’ – _really_, S ??? Then good grief, there must still be people called Constance and Honoria out there . . . )

    And if this were an entirely a serious discussion, I’d have to insist on tossing out pure logic and concentrating on recent findings in neuroscience and endocrinology. . . . How much of DC’s book is devoted to these, I wonder.

    sw:

    ‘My fundamental distrust of anthropologists .’

    Quite. Think of Margaret Mead’s reputation after her inventions in Coming of Age in Samoa were exposed. . .Then I’m sure that there are innumerable examples of dire misinterpretation due not to sloppy research or fraud but to cultural blinkers that warped observation.

    sw if it matters, what means midi-chlorian?

    :)

  • thea

    I am so glad that sw has joined this discussion. A two-way conversation with mein host with no one else apparently interested was beginning to make me wonder whether Steven wasn’t merely answering from politeness.

    sw: thank you, you responded to all my cues in my little gender bias experiment. :) I usually pick a gender-neutral screen name like yours on blogs. More often than not, I’m taken for male – almost entirely, I’m sure, because of my interest in certain subjects that most women find boring. Discussing these topics at length in early posts on a popular and extremely informal blog meant that even without any plan to sound either male or female, nothing – not even a steady accumulation of remarks like, “if X says that again, I’ll scream,” or “I nearly wept for joy,” _and_ frequent mentions of tidying, shopping for food or cooking – inspired any reconsideration of my category until a fellow blogger with access to our email addresses outed me in a tease. He did this with broad hints – and even then, many people I’d been talking to for weeks didn’t catch on.

    The clearest example of gender bias I’ve experienced on the internet was in a discussion years ago of something I wrote under my unmistakeably girly real name, when at least half of over 300 posts, virtually all of them by men, referred to me as “he”. . .Yes, it was an un-girly subject in the extreme degree.

    For Steven’s blog, where there is an extreme scarcity of women bloggers, or certainly of female screen names, I had a bet with myself that if I took pains to write in the way you’ve captured so well – “collaborative, compromising, and emotionally intelligent” (as you imply, most women’s style as corporeal beings, from which blogging liberates me) – I’d be ignored. It took even the punctilious S a few days to answer my first post. ;) !

    I’ll also admit that the name I chose for this trial was intended to be provocative, since I have the strongest impression of the S blog as monopolised by worshipful Dawkinsites. I’m strictly Switzerland in the war between the pro-religion and pro-science factions. But many people here seem sensitive to etymology, and I was sure that my screen name would by itself raise hackles . . . So I confess I’ve been naughty. It’s almost as if I streaked this site, and I expect that S will soon tell me that all my posts will have to be taken down because they lower the tone abysmally.

    I’ll promise to go peacefully as long as I’m pointed to the predecessor of Biology Is Ideology (II). . . which shows that S.Poole only likes to pretend here – but fortunately not in the incisively sensible Unspeak – that nothing thrills him more than counting angel pinheads, . . . no, no, cross that out, I mean angels dancing on . . or something like that. . .(frantic feminine hand-waving)

  • thea

    Correction: in my 16.10 post I should have added ‘a priori’ here, after ‘saying’:

    there’s no easy way of saying where particular individuals belong on the spectrum – as, for instance, in deciding a particular person’s aptitude for or skill in a particular line of work (with a few exceptions)

  • I’m as glad as you are that this is not an entirely serious discussion, because if it were I would be driven to ask: what on earth might recent findings in endocrinology, fascinating as they might be in themselves, tell us about whether men and women use language differently, and if so, why they do? And then I might idly reach for the phrase “category mistake”, as I perhaps too often do, and it would be all downhill from there.

    on any topic related to human behaviour I’m an empiricist and rabid pragmatist first, and an abstractionist a long way after that.

    I dunno, surely observations of the way humans behave are pretty empirical, if we are talking about human behaviour? So if we are talking about language-use, looking at people’s use of language seems a pretty good, and appropriately empirical, place to start. Seeking a molecular cause for it in endocrinology, by contrast, seems fairly abstract to me. (I don’t think Byron’s club foot explains his poetry either — nor would all the facts about his physiology and neurobiology, supposing they were available.)

    As for neuroscience widely defined, I might be wrong but it’s my understanding that it’s not even close to beginning to provide answers to such questions. And when it is, the next hurdle for its being helpful with regard to the question at hand will be discounting the developmental contribution of a lifetime’s environment and culture to the structure and functioning of the individual’s brain at the time of examination. Which seems at least from this vantage point pretty much impossible. So we are going to need to do vast and invasive longitudinal brain-scanning studies of identical twins from the moment of birth until adolescence, at a minimal guess. Essentially, a totally reliable or if you will “scientific” answer to the question of whether men and women innately use language differently will have to await a full scientific understanding of the question of how the brain makes and uses language.

    In the mean time, I haven’t seen any evidence of there actually being any such difference that is not plausibly addressed by cultural explanations. But perhaps I am just lucky in having avoided the books that traffic in such stuff.

    I’m glad you ask sw about his notion of justice. I would add: sw, on what is your notion of justice, contrasted as it is so decisively with “equality”, predicated — if not equality (in at least some flavour)?

  • I have the strongest impression of the S blog as monopolised by worshipful Dawkinsites

    That’s a curious impression: the vast majority of the commenters here so far have been the warm crowd of fellow word-processing geeks responding to the briefly popular post Goodbye, cruel Word; and I don’t think anyone’s discussed religion or the desirability of its annihilation here yet. (For my part, Dawkins-as-celebrity-atheist bores me to tears. “Brights”? For pity’s sake.) Anwyay, your wish is my command:

    Biology Is Ideology (I)

    [Int. hospital, day. BOB, on gurney. DR HUFHURRH, with clipboard, standing over him.]

    Dr Hufhurrh: [examining ECG] Well, Bob, I’m afraid you have some abnormal heart function.

    Bob: What?

    Dr Hufhurrh: Your heart has periods of not keeping a proper rhythm. This puts you at risk of stroke. I’d like to conduct a procedure whereby I insert a catheter and zap the troublesome cells. This is usually very successful.

    Bob: Wait wait wait, back up. So, my heart doesn’t work exactly like the next guy’s, and you call that abnormal?

    Dr Hufhurrh: Well…

    Bob: Your categories of “normal” and “abnormal” are just ideological constructs! The way my heart works is an intimate part of me! It’s part of what makes me such a unique individual!

    Dr Hufhurrh: It’s part of what could make you a unique and dead individual if I don’t –

    Bob: Your categories of “alive” and “dead” are just ideological constructs too! Your convenient equation of “death” with “brain death” exposes your impoverished Western-materialist prejudices! Because you’re a cardiologist, you have a vested interest in finding something “abnormal” about my heart so you can buy a new Lexus! Did you ever consider investigating my poignantly nuanced relationship with Morrissey?

    Dr Hufhurrh: Um, not really.

    Bob: Exactly! You doctors are all the same! You just want to exercise your ideological power over my body! Well, I refuse to submit to the system! You – [stops talking, seizes, flops to side with tongue lolling out]

    Dr Hufhurrh: [sighs] Crash team!

    [finis]

  • thea

    ‘what on earth might recent findings in endocrinology, fascinating as they might be in themselves, tell us about whether men and women use language differently, and if so, why they do?’

    Erm, have you heard of hormones . . . ? I could explain with an anecdote and example or two, but you’d be disgusted because they’d be far more graphic and biological than even Dr. H at his bluntest. And they certainly wouldn’t fit the look and feel of this irreproachably airy and cerebral place. . . With more time, I could probably say what I want to obliquely, but some work has to get done before I can take another delicious blogging break.

    ‘As for neuroscience widely defined, I might be wrong but it’s my understanding that it’s not even close to beginning to provide answers to such questions.’

    Quite right too. But it does raise interesting new questions and make DC’s (apparently) firm conclusions about her subject unpersuasive.

    ‘That’s a curious impression: the vast majority of the commenters here so far have been the warm crowd of fellow word-processing geeks responding to the briefly popular post Goodbye, cruel Word.’

    Wicked, wicked S, deliberately misunderstanding yet again. Of course I don’t mean just this (new, gorgeous) part of your online enterprise. I was mostly thinking of the closely consanguine unspeak.net. . . and btw I loved Goodbye, only it had gone bye-bye by the time I wanted to post about it.

    Ah, thank you, (so _fast_!) for Biology Is Ideology (I): you are graciousness personified, probably because sw is almost certainly wrong about hairy-knuckled, etc. The putative S.Poole in the picture is only an avatar and you actually have long golden curls down to your waist and never wear anything but miniskirts. . .

  • Oh right, it’s the hormones. Stands to reason. Straight line from there to innate differences in language use, with a bit of hand-waving in between. Easy peasy!

    it does raise interesting new questions and make DC’s (apparently) firm conclusions about her subject unpersuasive.

    The conclusion “The so-called evidence for X is flaky” is not the same as the conclusion “X does not exist”.

    I was mostly thinking of the closely consanguine unspeak.net. . .

    Brothers and sisters are we all over there, but “worshipful Dawkinsites”? I don’t see it myself.

  • sw

    First and foremost, leave Morrissey out of it.

    Second,

    Your categories of “alive” and “dead” are just ideological constructs too! Your convenient equation of “death” with “brain death” exposes your impoverished Western-materialist prejudices!

    Oh it’s your comic skit again! Ha ha ha. It keeps getting funnier and funnier! So, take that, Giorgio Agamben! Yeah, fuck off Agamben with your poncy lines of inquiry!

    But

    I’m glad you ask sw about his notion of justice. I would add: sw, on what is your notion of justice, contrasted as it is so decisively with “equality”, predicated — if not equality (in at least some flavour)?

    Let’s go back to what I was saying.

    Ah, another point, responding to Thea’s questions:

    [Thea:]surely she sees that these trends in higher education must eventually change attitudes so that men and women are reflexively _treated_ as equals in every way, in spite of our differences? And surely that’s what matters, in the end?

    If there are fundamental differences, based on some unholy quagmire of biological and cultural combat in the body politic, do we really then argue that “equality” is the ideal? Of course, to my mind, I think that there are all sorts of differences, emerging out of genes and societies and midi-chlorians,; and so, an ideal would not be “equality” but “justice”.

    Oh, but first: midi-chlorians!

    Now, I argue that in a world of difference, “equality” is not necessarily “what matters in the end”. If men talk more than women, an ideal of “equality” might insist that conversations entail “equal” amounts of time, or “equal” amounts of content – or, context-based variants on this theme. Justice would not be so materially re-distributive, and would, in each case, decide uniquely what is right and what is wrong based not necessarily on the weightings of “equality”. Will some flavours of equality appear in a world of justice? Certainly they might, but they are secondary to the principle of justice. Equality is not, as you put I put it, contrasted … so decisively with justice but is not what, in the end, matters. Responding to Thea’s response, I would say that those categories of false difference, implying a lack of equality that does not exist, ought not exist, or need not exist, will be rendered “equal” by justice. Thus, the contrivance of inequality would be rectified with equality, but justice is justice proper when it spots and targets the moment of contrivance rather than teetering on the scales of “equality”.

    Hoorah, Justice!

  • When I follow your first link, Google Book Search shows me adverts for Giorgio Moroder ringtones. I do love Giorgio Moroder. So thanks for reminding me of some of his great tunes.

    Equality is not, as you put I put it, contrasted … so decisively with justice

    Well, you put it like this:

    an ideal would not be “equality” but “justice”.

    A phrase of the form “Not X but Y” indicates a contrast between X and Y.

    As for your elaboration of what justice is: it appears to be sort of a contrivance-rectifying device that can “in each case, decide uniquely what is right and what is wrong” — based on what, you are not seeing fit to explain, beyond that it is “not necessarily” based on equality. How, then, does it work? And why is contrivance its focus? Some contrivances are excellent. Man is nothing if not homo conturbans.

    Suppose an inequality in ability between two groups were not in fact contrived but shown irrefutably to exist, and the two groups were therefore treated inequably by society as a result. What then would your Justice say? “No contrivance here; equality’s not my job; move along”? Hooray, indeed. Please imagine that I have here sarcastically provided Google Book Search links to Hobbes, Mill, Paine, Rawls etc etc etc.

  • sw

    A phrase of the form “Not X but Y” indicates a contrast between X and Y.

    vs.

    decisively

    Yes, a contrast. Not decisively.

    Suppose an inequality in ability between two groups were not in fact contrived but shown irrefutably to exist, and the two groups were therefore treated inequably by society as a result. What then would your Justice say?

    It depends, doesn’t it? What in your world of equality is being equalised? What is the homogenisation that is taking place? Does not your ideal of “equality” risk denying or seeking to erase this very difference (what you term an “inequality in ability”)? Did I not provide my answer to these already: justice is justice proper when it spots and targets the moment of contrivance rather than teetering on the scales of “equality”. Oh, but you object to how I use the word “contrivance”, right?

    Please imagine that I have here sarcastically ended this thread.

  • sw

    The supplement to which should be: I am having a lot of fun with The Force of Law and The Animal that Therefore I am; I suspect that you, Steve and Thea, are not having so much fun with my attempt to have fun with these texts. If so much is the case, apologies.

    But, at the end of this day, “equality” is just too much like “free speech” – another universal that does not exist, which we do not actually want, and which is the muse for so much drivel, and yet which we somehow end up defending because really bad people benefit nefariously from our differences, those things we enjoy, the little things, and really bad people stiffle what liberties we would like to exercise. We rally under compromised banners.

    And this is why I would like to separate justice from equality. Not decisively, but moment to moment.

  • Ah, if you are just having a private party of literary allusion without wishing to explain what you actually mean, then good luck to you, prost, etc. Nonetheless, of course there is such a thing as equality. What do you suppose the principle “All men are equal before the law” means?

  • sw

    QED

  • No, it doesn’t mean QED. Try again!

  • sw

    Q.E. cocking D.

  • This was an excellent read! I’m a performance poet, trawling the male-dominated arena of dark clubs, stages and swanky arts cafes all over the country, and during my time doing this, I have been told more than once, by men as much as women, that they had one thought in their head when I walked out on stage:

    “She’s going to be shit.”

    Thankfully, I do change their minds on occasion…

    However, there exists an assumption that female poets will harp on about sunshine and lollipops, or occasional rants about their bastard exes, while the ‘important’ ‘serious’ ‘political’ poetry is best left to those clever men. Neither is true: in fact, the backlash against PC means that many a young whippet of a poet with an assymetrical hair cut and his boxers pulled up over his low cut jeans, will jump on a stage, ask how many feminists it takes to change a lightbulb, rhyme ‘crime’ with ‘palestine’ a few times, then finish with a poem that he claims is ‘postmodern’ that has the title ‘I Miss That Bitch.’ Or something. Wait: I’ve used the word ‘the’ many times here – does that make me a dungaree-wearing, bra-burning, ball-breaker? According to many people, by doing what I do, it does. By virtue of having an opinion and ‘daring’ to write and perform poetry, I either need ‘taking down a peg or two’ or am trying to be a man. Because the men? They eat of the beef, they like the boobies, and they love the attention. Women? They speak of the baby, they want a hug, and they want to be left alone at the same time…Because they’re all irrational.

    Anyway, I digress. The point is – and I have read neither book, nor all of this thread – but the point is, I think, that claiming that the language each sex uses is somehow indicative of their inherent ‘natures’ is not only backwards, its frankly dangerous. It’s certainly dangerous for my bank balance…

    Im always impatient of recourse to human ‘nature’ to explain (or, as is more often the case) justify our actions. ‘Experts’ will deal in majorities: ‘the majority of women use purple prose and flowery metaphors, which shows their inherent flowery natures.’ Instead of dealing in majorities, how about explaining why everyone does NOT conform to these…what?? Ideals? At the risk of sounding like a post-suicidal goth kid who never grew up, “natural” is a construct. Actually, i’d never have said that when I was a suicidal goth kid. I’d have said, “define NORMAL you big bully.” Aye.

    Thea wrote that the author of the book must have a ‘political agenda’ behind writing the book. Good. If only there were more people trying to save plain language from the acid bath. The failure of feminism as a political project has been due, at least in part, to the timidity women feel they must exude. “I’m not a feminist, but..” seems to be as far as most women of my age (25) will go. And don’t even get me started on the ‘liberation’ issue: ‘liberation’ is not a ‘handbag-gene’,laxatives, a corset (“because I want to!”) and downing pints of Guinness quicker than your boyfriend. Though, of course, boys can be anorexics too now. Great. Exactly the kind of ‘equality’ we were after.

    Good God, what a rant. How dare I?

    Anyway – i only came on here to find a way to thank Steven for Unspeak, which I read a month ago after being put on to it by my dissertation tutor, whose study area is Orwell’s political thought. So: Unspeak was excellent. I can no longer read a newspaper without a highlighter handy. Ta.

  • Oh crikey. I just finished reading the entire thread. I’m afraid I’ve ruined the mood!

  • Hi Jenny — you have improved the mood immeasurably!

    It’s very interesting to hear about the prejudices you face as a female performer, which seem remarkably persistent.

    Women? They speak of the baby, they want a hug, and they want to be left alone at the same time…Because they’re all irrational.

    Yes, the idea that women are irrational seems to be at the heart of many of these linguistic arguments, even the ones that claim to be sympathetic to women (hey! rationality’s not all that! let’s celebrate our difference! and so on). It reminds me a bit of the puffing geezers who love to state that terrorists are “irrational”, about which there is tediously much on unspeak.net. (And thank you very much for the kind words about that book.)

    claiming that the language each sex uses is somehow indicative of their inherent ‘natures’ is not only backwards, its frankly dangerous.

    Yes, it is dangerous. And yet to point this out is often to be accused of “having an agenda”, letting politics get in the way of some pure, disinterested science. Cameron points out early in her book the self-congratulatory tone of her adversaries, who are always primping themselves on their courage to come out and Speak Truth even if it is not “politically correct”.

    (At the back of my mind during this whole exchange has been the analogous argument about black people and IQ scores — most recently because of Watson’s remarks — in which the “difference position” is demonstrably based on no respectable data at all.)

    The response to this kind of thing, I think, is to say: sure, this kind of thing is potentially dangerous, but in saying so we do not seek to obstruct or “censor” real science, if it is real science. The burden of proof is on those making the claims of difference. If they come up short, it is not for want of trying. (And why, we might very well ask, do they persist in trying so hard?)