English degrees

When I started by college career, I began as an English major. I enjoy writing and I think language is very important. However, I soon found I disliked the historical focus in my English courses. It isn’t that I dislike history – I love it, actually – but I didn’t feel I needed to know all the details of whatever issue of the day had influenced a writer. For instance, knowing that children were chimney sweepers helped me understand some of William Blake’s work because it gave me context, but the detailed politics of child labor in the 1800’s were for another type of course. And so I moved on. At first I simply went to the nebulous Liberal Studies degree. My passion was biology, but I really despised math courses, so LS allowed me to minor in biology while avoiding most math. Of course, that wasn’t quite satisfying enough for me, so I eventually just bit the bullet and declared my major to be biology. I now have two B.A.’s, one in Biology and one in Liberal Studies (with a philosophy minor), but I still think back to that English degree. I’m not going to bother ever obtaining it, but I do want to defend it.

While I was still majoring in English, I didn’t usually try to hide it. I thought, why should I be ashamed? It was a degree in a subject where, sadly, most people are utter morons. It isn’t exactly a money-making degree, but it fit a passion of mine. Of course, we can’t forget an important fact here: People are assholes. Admittedly, an English degree isn’t as hard to obtain as many other degrees, but it’s still a degree and it still requires a lot of work. Moreover, despite the contrary popular myth, an English major does not graduate with a lack of real life skills. I should know. I use my writing skills every day – and not just on some blog in the corner of the Internet. I’ll explain.

My job involves describing and interpreting a huge variety of college level textbook images. I mostly specialize in math (ironically enough), but I also do science and other books. One of those “other” books is one on which I’m working right now: an engineering mechanics dynamics book. I barely understand the title, much less anything to do with engineering. Or so I thought. The material is a lot of pre-calc and algebra II stuff on the math end and a lot of physics for the remainder, and I understand all that, but that doesn’t mean I understand engineering on a deep level at all. However, I’ve been able to easily work around that due to a higher level understanding of English. (My two or so years as an English major definitely helps, but my general interest in language is the bigger factor here.) Because I am able to write well, I am able to do this job well. In essence, because of my background in English (both formally and informally) I am better prepared to tackle a very difficult topic. I doubt the average person with an MBA could do this job.

So here’s my point. It may be true that English majors aren’t setting themselves up, on average, for huge financial success with their degrees, but it isn’t true that their degrees are of a low utility. Quality writing is one of the more important skills in society, even as we move more and more towards a money-driven corporate, business culture. I use my skills in English every single day, making me more money than I’ve made doing anything else – including making vaccines. My science degree is what really got my foot in the door where I am now, but it is my English background that has brought me success.

So, hey. Stop shitting on English degrees and the people who obtain them. They have more skills than you realize.

Dissent on feminism is not like dissent on evolution

One of the popular memes out there in the feminist blogosphere is to compare a person who disagrees with a feminist position to a creationist who disagrees with all of evolution. There are two problems with this.

First, there is a general attitude amongst caricature/Internet feminists that if a person dares disagree on even a single feminist point, that person must be a rape culture apologist who just wants to rape. Also, rape. And elevator rape. Rape. Rape. Rapey rape. Rapedy rapedy rape rape rape. That, of course, makes no sense, especially in the context of comparing dissent on feminism to dissent on evolution by creationists. A person who disagrees with one or even a few parts of feminism is not like a creationist because a creationist rejects virtually every bit of science discovered since Darwin. (If we get more specific and go with young Earth creationists, we can include every bit of science since the beginning of the Enlightenment.) A person who disagrees with some part of feminism does not think women are second-class citizens by default, nor does such a person necessarily reject other parts feminism. More importantly, such a person does not necessarily reject the basic idea of equality. This is unlike the creationist who can only reject evolution by rejecting vast swaths of science.

Second, feminism is – at best – a philosophy. It is not science. It is not fact. It isn’t any more provable than anything Kant ever said about the good being found in good will itself. That isn’t to say it isn’t useful, but it is not some established, objective observation of the world. (I have to include that last line because omitting it means I think feminism is nothing but garbage and rape is awesome.) Evolution, on the other hand, is science. It is fact. It is an established, objective observation of the world. To express dissent to it is to express an ignorance that can be countered with objective facts and education. Feminism does not enjoy that same, dare I say, privilege. If it did, then so would egalitarianism. Or any other philosophy. It would be an inherent contradiction: Philosophy is a subjective interpretation of the world, so to say it can be objectively true makes no sense. It certainly uses facts and the latest knowledge of the world to support and build its propositions, but from that use ultimately comes non-scientific, subjective interpretations. Moreover, virtually all philosophies make or are developed for the purpose of making normative claims. That is, they make value claims. The subjectivity is unavoidable.

The only reason this ‘feminist dissent is like evolution dissent’ meme is popular is because cheap rhetoric is so easy. The two topics enjoy a cross section that would be the link on a Venn diagram labeled “liberal/progressive”. By attempting to appeal to what much of that link already accepts – evolution – the feminist side of the aisle is attempting to invent a shameful comparison: ‘Why, you’re just like a creationist! Don’t you feel silly now?’ It’s hardly any different from the argument that atheism is a religion. (Oh, hey, look. Many feminists share my position that there is no God and that religion is bad, so I know a lot of them have been accused of having a religion. I also know that that accusation is annoying, so no one in her right mind would want to make it herself. Yet here we are, with feminists making just that sort of argument. I have exploited my own Venn diagram link. Isn’t lazy rhetoric fun?)

The importance of specificity in language

When I write, I make it a point to be as specific as I can with my words and phrasings. I’m not perfect at it, but I think I do a pretty good job. However, this causes some of my sentences to be longer than absolutely necessary. I try to counter that by throwing in lines and syllables that will slow down a person’s reading. My hope is that doing so will bring about a little more concentration and thus a better chance at an accurate reading. If that fails, then I have to turn to bringing up past quotes and spelling things out. It can get tedious and no one likes it, but sometimes it has to be done. For example, let’s consider Thunderf00t and PZ Myers.

I don’t want to get into the details of the kerfuffle at ‘Freethought’ Blogs here, but I have been lightly following the videos that keep popping up. As of late there have been two of note: yet another from Thunderf00t and one from PZ. I hate transcribing stuff, so I’ll give a quick summary.

In PZ’s video, PZ says Thunderf00t polled YouTube commenters about this whole incident in order to settle the issue. He then says Thunderf00t claimed (on his blog, prior to getting the boot) that the poll was free from confirmation bias because he didn’t block or ban any of the said commenters. Thunderf00t responded by first pointing out that he never claimed to have settled anything. He then went after PZ’s accusation that he had said the poll was free from confirmation bias. Here is what Thunderf00t actually wrote:

The thunderfoot channel is essentially a 100% free speech zone, with no confirmational bias due to blocking/banning people.

Do you see the important part here? Thunderf00t said there was no bias due to blocking/banning people. He did not say there was no confirmation bias at all. He was making the specific point that his YouTube channel is essentially a 100% free speech zone – just like he said in his first clause. So not only was Thunderf00t very clear in his claim regarding confirmation bias, but the context of his sentence confirms his claim.

So why does this matter? In this case, PZ was attempting to make Thunderf00t look stupid and irrational by virtue of making what would be quite a fundamental mistake and misunderstanding of a basic scientific concept. The reality, however, is that Thunderf00t did no such thing. PZ simply was not careful in his reading. As Thunderf00t says in his video, it would be as if he said there are no broken windows in Manhattan due to meteor strikes, but then PZ turns around and tells people Thunderf00t thinks there are no broken windows in Manhattan at all.

This is one small example of what happens when people don’t pay attention to language. It’s okay to have misunderstandings and the occasional slip-up, but I find this to be an all-too-common occurrence on the Internet. A little more caution would go a long way.

And the Republicans lose the rhetoric battle

I have written in the past about when I know I’ve beat someone in a debate. The best sign comes when that person starts stealing my rhetoric in a way which is not intended to quote or mock:

It’s sort of like when something embarrassing happens to a kid in grade school who in turn tries and do something more embarrassing to someone else. Or, equally, when a kid drops his ice cream on the ground, so he goes and knocks his brothers’ ice cream down too. Something negative happened to a person and that person wants to reflect that negative thing onto someone else in order to make himself feel better.

I had this in mind when I heard that the Republican National Committee released an ad contending that President Obama had a “War on Women”. Take a look:

It’s no secret that the Republicans have been facing a lot of criticism for their actions towards women in recent months. The result has been for people to popularly say the GOP is waging a “war on women”. Now the RNC is responding by simply declaring that Obama is the one who is waging a “war on women”. It’s almost hilarious.

I don’t expect very much from Republicans, but this ad is especially uncreative. It doesn’t say anything new. It isn’t well made. And worst of all, it’s just stealing the rhetoric from the other side. The RNC dropped its ice cream and now it wants to slap everyone else’s cones to the ground too.

tigtog doesn’t get it

I recently came across an old post from hoydenabouttown.com that referenced an argument about rhetoric I made on Pharyngula. Basically, I was saying that one’s argument should match one’s goals. The sexist goals of PZ and others do not match their goals of making people more aware of what they see as sexism, thus their rhetoric is just awful. That isn’t to say it is awful for their in-group discussions. I expected to see harsh rhetoric from PZ and his followers. That’s what his audience wants, so he delivered. The problem is when they want to appeal to anyone else. No one is going to listen. Try getting an event organizer to book more female speakers by calling him a sexist, privileged pig who wants to take away women’s rights to vote. See what happens. So once I made my argument and everyone thoroughly misunderstood it, I cited Cicero who made the same basic point all day long: rhetoric should match goals. Unfortunately, author “tigtog” of hoydenabouttown.com doesn’t seem to get it:

Using this quote as if Cicero thus obviously advocated politely rational rhetoric is so hilariously ignorant about how Cicero actually used rhetoric in practice to garner an audience and persuade them to his will! Nobody who was actually familiar with Cicero’s most famous successes as an orator could possibly imagine that he was recommending civil argumentation.

(I didn’t actually use a quote, but I digress.)

tigtog then went on to discuss specific tactics Cicero used. None of it got to my point. Again, rhetoric needs to match goals. The times when Cicero used harsh rhetoric matched his goals and spoke to his audience. If he did the same thing in 21st century American politics, he may have been seen as just another asshole who is petty and flies off the handle. Or not. All politics are local, so – as always – it all depends on his audience.

People just don’t seem to get it. I’m all for harsh tones when harsh tones work. I feel they are more honest, so I prefer them. Just look at the hilarious lashing Richard Lenski gave to creationists. The second letter he sent to the morons at Conservapedia was far from nice, but it’s hard to deny its greatness. And, oh gee, look at his third sentence:

I expect you to post my [second] response in its entirety; if not, I will make sure that is made publicly available through other channels.

In his first response he was fairly cordial. He was just responding to a few silly creationists. However, his second response was designed to be seen by scientifically-oriented people. That’s why he explicitly said he would make it public one way or another. So in each letter we see appropriate rhetoric: in the first he answered nicely so as to more easily move on from the situation while remaining professional; in the second he ripped them apart so everyone could laugh. That pretty much nails the sentiments and arguments of Cicero in every regard.

So, again, my argument is simply that one’s rhetoric must match one’s goals. In fact, that was Cicero’s argument. This makes tigtog wrong twice. First, she has implied that I would not advocate for harsh tones. Saying as much is to willfully disregard everything I have said. Harsh tones are great when used correctly. Second, I never argued what Cicero thought was the best or worst specific rhetoric one way or another anyway. That’s just poor reading comprehension on her part.

Oh, and using an embarrassing misunderstanding of another person’s argument as a premise for one’s own argument is also bad rhetoric. I don’t know if Cicero ever felt the need to be explicit on that point, so maybe tigtog can enlighten us all.

This is what I mean

When I argue that language matters (and get called racist for doing so), this is what I mean:

…style matters.

The register and dialect you use matter. Your word choices matter. Whether you use semi-colons or instead write two separate sentences matters. But it is a stylistic choice, not a grammatical one, and it should be recognized (and criticized) as such.

I like to use semi-colons to link related sentences; other people do not, and argue that this makes it difficult to follow what I’m writing. That is a solid argument. We can have a lovely debate on whether semi-colons are more elegant and more readable than dividing the sentence into two little sentences. However, this debate can only take place if both sides agree that their opinion is more of a guideline than an actual rule.

As the author, Hortensio, goes on, one’s goals (and I would argue intentions) matter as well. Do I want to persuade? Do I want to offend? Do I want to do both? Do I want to comes across as pithy? Ironic? Academic? All of these things matter, and they all require a writer to pay attention to his audience. Writing with only one’s self in mind will likely result in poor writing. Or at least writing no one wishes to read.

Ironically, I have no good way to transition into my next point, so here it is: In the comment section of the above linked post is a discussion on the use of “they”, “s/he”, “one”, and the like. It is only briefly touched upon, but I think the gist is this: do we want to be socially conscious or do we want to be undistracting? That is, neutralizing gendered terms in order to not arbitrarily favor men has been a popular trend in writing for quite some time. However, one result of this trend has been to use the grammatically abhorrent “they” or the aesthetically grotesque “he or she”. This tends to distract because it deviates from the vast majority of writings; I see it and tend to think the writer is making a point to be socially aware, leading me to assume a lack of genuineness. The other option is to consistently use “she” or consistently use “he”. This is my personal preference. I want people to read over my pronouns as if there really exists a gender neutral term in English. I can appreciate the idea behind exposing the lack of awareness everyone has over these sort of issues, but I’m not going to sacrifice the quality of my writing for it.

Now all I need to do is make another 500 posts about language and maybe people will believe me that I really do care about writing.