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.

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.

Bill Maher, Rush Limbaugh, and language

I don’t think I need to update anyone on Rush Limbaugh’s controversy, but briefly: Law student Sandra Fluke testified before Congress (but really just before Democrats because Republicans don’t let women testify about reproductive health) about requiring insurance companies to cover contraceptives. She said that it can cost a law student up to $3,000 for contraception. Limbaugh did a little sneaky math and calculated that Fluke would have to have sex over 2.5 times a day in order to spend that much. Of course, he was pretending that contraception means only condoms (estimated at $1 a piece). As a result of his numbers, he concluded that Fluke must be a “slut”. He did not literally mean that she is having sex that frequently, but he did mean to say that if a woman has over a certain amount of sex, she is a slut; he used this contention to draw his wider point that it was not that expensive for contraception. Outrage has ensued and now that Limbaugh is getting screwed by his advertisers, we’re all waiting for him to post the video on the Internet for all to see.

(Incidentally, costs for certain types of contraceptives which have other health benefits for women – benefits some of them clearly need, such as they concern cysts – can run close to the numbers Fluke has given. The highest number I’ve seen comes in around $900 a year, pre-tax.)

So let’s fast forward and see where we are. The Republicans in Congress have largely refused to say Limbaugh was wrong in what he said. At best they will admit that his language was a tad saucy for their politically savvy tastes. It’s pathetic: Limbaugh said there is a limit on how much sex women should have and if they exceed that limit, they are sluts. This should be a no-brainer, but Limbaugh is a fat god to the Republican orthodoxy, so no one wants to take him down a notch. Even if he deserves it.

In fact, one part of that orthodoxy has gone so far as to look for an off-setting penalty against the political left, as Jon Stewart put it. FOX Noise has been going after the language of comedian and talk show host Bill Maher in an effort to basically say, “Look! Your guy does it, too! If you don’t condemn him, you’re a hypocrite!” It isn’t a bad strategy. If someone says Maher’s language is reprehensible, FOX and other Republicans can say everyone says bad things and there’s no reason to get in such a huff about it all, plus it’s unfair to go after someone on the right when few ever go after those on the left. On the other hand, if someone defends Maher, whether successfully or not, the Republicans have diverted attention from Limbaugh’s admonishment of women who have ‘too much’ sex.

Unfortunately, I feel compelled to chime in and contribute to the Republican plot to distract people.

First, I want to point out that Bill Maher does not enjoy the status on the left that Limbaugh enjoys on the right. Hell, as an atheist I’m not even a big fan of him. Sometimes he’ll have a good quote here and there and I like that he can be brash, but he hardly represents the left at-large, especially when he barely represents mainstream New Atheists. Second, here is his defense:

I’m a comedian – not just a guy who says he is, like Rush, but someone who – well, you saw me do stand-up last year in D.C. There’s a big difference between just saying you’re a comedian and going out and getting thousands of people to laugh hard for 90 minutes. And the one I’m compared to most is Carlin, who also had these kind of problems. Edgy is my brand – everyone wants that, but they say, “but never go over the line.” It’s like telling Tom Brady, ‘Throw into coverage 40 times a game every game but never throw an interception.'”

FOX Noise, having randomly gone after Jon Stewart in the past, knew that “I’m a comedian” would be the first line of defense from Maher, so they went about declaring as much and saying that since they knew what the response would be that the response was therefore invalid. They claimed it is ‘hiding behind comedy’. They’re wrong. There is a different context to comedy and thus language has to be understood differently in that world. Let’s look at some parallels and examples.

Say I was to discuss these words: nigger, cunt, slut, fuck, asshole, and cock. Many people would be too PC to actually say them, but I would gladly use them. I presume that if I’m having an intellectual discussion on language and the taboo aspects of it that I am speaking with an adult. People should be able to deal. But even if they can’t manage to hear some naughty words, does that mean that I am at fault for using derogatory or demeaning language? Of course not. A discussion about “nigger” does not mean I have actually called anyone a nigger. A talk about “fuck” does not mean I told someone to fuck off. Context obviously matters. Now let’s jump back to comedians.

A comedian who says something incredibly offensive does not necessarily actually believe what he has said. When Daniel Tosh says that his girlfriend recording a game on regular ESPN instead of ESPNHD is a valid excuse for domestic violence, he doesn’t actually mean that. Context matters. In this case the context is that of comedy. If President Obama said the same thing as Tosh, it wouldn’t fly. He (and most politicians) aren’t afforded those sort of luxuries of comedy. He can crack some jokes, but he’s on a very short leash. We expect different language from different people in different environments. This isn’t that hard.

Now to switch gears just a tad, here’s another piece from Maher:

To compare that to Rush is ridiculous – he went after a civilian about very specific behavior, that was a lie, speaking for a party that has systematically gone after women’s rights all year, on the public airwaves. I used a rude word about a public figure [Sarah Palin] who gives as good as she gets, who’s called people “terrorist” and “unAmerican.” Sarah Barracuda. The First Amendment was specifically designed for citizens to insult politicians. Libel laws were written to protect law students speaking out on political issues from getting called whores by Oxycontin addicts.

Maher is wrong on some of this. Nothing Limbaugh said was libelous. He used numbers provided by Fluke to create a hypothetical scenario. From there he said she was a slut which, regardless of context, is simply opinion. He is just as protected by the First Amendment as Maher is when he goes after Sarah Palin. This is part of the reason I don’t think Maher can be said to represent anyone except himself.

He does sum things up nicely, though:

Of course if you take out of context over 10 years snippets inside comedy bits you can make anyone look bad – and sometimes, I have been! Not perfect, but not misogyny. In general, this is an obvious right wing attempt to dredge up some old shit about me to deflect from their self-inflicted problems. They are the kings of false equivalencies.

Why a new campaign for black atheists does not offend me

The above title may seem odd, but it is a reference to a post I wrote back in October. In that post I wrote about a short piece by a black atheist explaining why she is an atheist. Her basic point was that she didn’t see a distinction between modern day religion and older religions we now accept as fictional, so she concluded that all religion is false. It was faulty reasoning, but that isn’t what got me. What drew my ire was that she then randomly mentioned the color of her skin. I considered that bad writing because it was a non-sequitur which she didn’t even bother to explain. I’m sure being black has contributed greatly to her perspective in life, but failing to draw a distinction between religious premises is not race-dependent. And if it is, she didn’t bother to tell anyone why.

One result of my response post was some misunderstanding by FTSOS readers. Occasional commenter Paul Kussmann, for instance, claimed I was making racial assumptions. Neil Rickert thought I was offended by the specific content rather than the writing itself. Both were wrong, Paul less understandably so than Neil. The fact is, I cringe at bad writing. In that fact is not a claim on my part to be a great writer (though I think of my skills in the area as quite strong). I simply have a considerable concern for language.

This all brings me to African Americans for Humanism. The group is currently running an ad campaign to bring atheism to the black community and/or encourage black atheists to be more vocal. It’s a good campaign because of the high degree of religiosity amongst blacks. We need to discourage religious belief everywhere, but especially where it holds strong. I support the goals of the AAH and I hope it succeeds.

All that said, could it be rightly claimed that any of this offends me? Of course not. I’ve never denied that being a black atheist is often very different from being a white atheist. It’s important to acknowledge, discuss, and understand these distinctions in order to better advance the cause of humanists and Gnu atheists. I’m confident I have never once expressed a problem with any of this. The only way I would have a qualm with the AAH or its goals is if they were ever expressed in a poorly organized, haphazardly composed, or badly written fashion.

Language matters.

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.

Context matters in language

I know the title to this post is wildly obvious, but for some bizarre reason it bears repeating. People do not seem to understand that the power any given word may have is premised in the context in which it is presented. A white Southerner in 1845 who calls someone a nigger is doing so for some awfully racist reasons. Herman Cain saying “niggerhead” had nothing racist about it (nor would it if a white person dared to say it on TV). The same idea goes for any given word, including “retard”, “faggot”, “wetback”, or even words which are often considered politically correct. For instance, “Jerry Coyne is a Jew” has no bigoted meaning behind it, at least in the majority of contexts in which it may be said. However, “I think the used car salesman really Jewed me on my purchase” is entirely different because it appeals to stereotypes about Jews screwing people over monetarily.

I wish more people could understand this. EDIT: Not that I’m advocating for the use of any of these words. While context does matter, sometimes it is too difficult to divorce a word from its historical context without being very specific.

(And context certainly matters behind this one word.)

Why this offends me

PZ currently has a series of posts going where people write about why they are atheists. If anything, it serves to debunk his claim that atheists ought to be holding up a bunch of particular progressive views: people have their non-belief for a wide variety of reasons, not due to a certain set of normative views. Attempts to place everyone under the banner of atheism, as if that’s a coherent thing to do, just won’t work. For the nth time, atheism is 100% descriptive.

I’ve only read two of these posts and maybe skimmed another one or two. I don’t care that much about why Joe Schmo is an atheist. (It’s no better than Joe the Plumber from 2008.) But one of the two I’ve read caught my attention:

Simple. I read the bible. At 11. After reading through Norse, Roman, Egyptian and Greek mythology. I recognized they were the same. My mother was ecstatic, My father not so much. Oh, and I am African American. My mother was an atheist, and so are my children…they also came there with some guidance, but of their own volition.

Gwen
California

I liked this from the get-go because of its punctuated pace. But then I got to the irrelevant part about Gwen being black. Who cares? I understand that atheism amongst blacks in America is lower than it is amongst whites, but it really isn’t important to the issue. A valid question, however, is why I have said in the title of this post that this offends me.

I remember in the first or second grade being given an assignment to write a paragraph. I chose to write about my dog. I can no longer recall the details of everything I said, but I distinctly remember writing the sentence, “He is a boy.” It was out of place and did not pertain to the topic sentence, so when the teacher asked people if they could identify possible changes that needed to be made, a few students pointed it out. The teacher agreed and I learned something.

And that brings me to why Gwen’s irrelevant line offends me: It’s bad writing. She’s black? Fine. Create a blog post expressing experiences had while living as a black atheist. It would be an interesting topic. But to randomly mention it is just an attempt to get PZ’s attention. Everyone knows he’s going to go out of his way to promote a member of a minority group if he can. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with that, but he obviously did not pick Gwen’s piece because it was the cream of the crop. At best I can grant that this is effective rhetoric – it got her posted, after all – but it is not quality writing.

I have written at other times about my concern for language. (I especially liked a South Park episode that distinguished between the gendered sense of the word “fag” and the looser, more generalized use of the term.) I’m not pretending that I’m the perfect writer – I bet I have at least one non-typo error somewhere in this post – but I do have a genuine interest in how people use words. Language has an impact on us every single day. There are even comprehensive philosophies which use it as their cornerstones. It matters. It is the most common, most important way in which we communicate with each other over the course of our lives. Let’s not abuse and misuse it.