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tolerate fools gladly

(c) Halsmann with Monroe (1959)

Am I a serious man? Do I take myself seriously?

You can't quote Carnap in dialectic with Wittgenstein and not have some of that, can you? Or write poetry to people you love. (Or write poetry.) Or say things like "Shall we do a Shakespeare readthrough?" or "I can't stand Roger Scruton!" Or ask this question.


My native language is Sexist English. I have learned the thoughtful dialect of it, but some find it terribly jarring, still.

Typical arguments against nonsexist language:

(1) Arguments from cultural noncorrelation

("No evidence exists that cultures using a sexist language have more discrimination than those using a 'liberated' language. There's no evidence to suggest that nonsexist languages or dialects (e.g., Japanese, Eskimo, Turkish) result in equal treatment of the sexes.")

But you don't need to be a Whorfian to oppose it. Whether or not language just reflects existing society, or actually significantly shapes thought, it's pretty clear that, just by existing, sexist language perpetuates sexism by force of habit. The data we need to ground the norm is not "does language make people sexist?", but only whether language itself is sexist, and whether that's something we'd like to be different.

(2) Arguments from political priority

("Haven't we got anything better to do than telling people how to talk? Like combating real, physical and economic oppression?")

What's trivial about it? It's the only form that everybody experiences all the time. Anyway, activism is not zero-sum. I'll just work harder to make up for it.

(3) Argument from freedom of speech

("This is a stupid thing to coerce people over. Quit censoring me.")

Style restrictions and publication manuals exist everywhere for all formal writing. Grammar itself is a linguistic coercion. If you reject the idea that symbols can oppress, will politeness to others not be enough?

(4) Premise denial

("Denunciation of sexist language reveals the bias of the hearer rather than that of the speaker. Sexist language is not always sexist. I didn't mean just men by saying 'mankind' !")

We cannot take intention as closing off meaning (unfortunately), because this would enable the speaker to dictate whether or not the offended person was "actually" offended. This can and will be abused, but is better than the alternative: same old sociolinguistic domination.

(5) Arguments from etymology

("Use exhausts meaning. Mankind was always used for 'everyone', so it just means all human beings. Actually, although "virtue" originated in the Latin vir, or "man-qualities", there is considerable historical evidence to show that was always used for gender-neutral quality. [If and when any bloody woman showed any.]")

Even granting the dubious premise, it's the genetic fallacy. We are concerned with current, not historical meaning.

(6) Appeal to authority

("Even the OED agrees with me, giving as its first entry: '...a human being (irrespective of age or sex).'"

Yeah, linguists can't possibly be sexist, can they? Anyway, denotation is a tiny fraction of what a word means.

(7) Arguments from impracticality

("It's too ingrained. Language is a bit sexist, but it's not important enough to justify the terrible - perhaps unworkable - upheaval.")

(" is not our insensitivity to sexism in language but our consideration for the smooth flow of prose that have governed the decision...")

There is nothing "drastic" about learning a couple of new usages. Rules are only habits. It's inconceivable that new, shorter gender-neutral terms (like the much-needed singular third-person) wouldn't arise, given the right conditions.

(8) Argument from tradition/aesthetics
('"What a piece of work is a person" doesn't merit an exclamation point at the end')

One claim is that the process will require massive historical revisionism: the rewriting of literature, which is so silly.

A better claim is that our use of nonsexist English would, a generation or two in, have ruined our affinity with Shakespeare's idioms, crudesced him, created a new aesthetic reality. As if language hadn't changed in titanic ways in four hundred years already!

I didn't say they were "good arguments against..."


Audrey Hepburn

Nixon, 1960

How great is Philippe Halsmann's Book of Jump? So artistically clear, so much fun! Defying the leaden pull of gravitas as well as gravity.

The only ever Duke and Duchess of Windsor

Robert Oppenheimer

Aldous Huxley

against Contrast Ideology
(my term)

"Our good characteristics are intimately connected to our bad ones: If we weren't violent and aggressive, we wouldn't be able to defend ourselves; if we didn't have feelings of exclusivity, we wouldn't be loyal to those close to us; if we never felt jealousy, we would also never feel love."
- Francis Fukuyama,
after deeming transhumanism to be "the most dangerous idea going"

"Without Contraries there is no progression.
Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy,
Love and Hate
are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil.
Good is the passive that obeys Reason.

Evil is the active springing from Energy
- Blake

Sacrifice is nothing other than the production of sacred things.”
- Georges Bataille

"I think you have to pay for love with bitter tears."
- Edith Piaf

See also the much misunderstood structuralist project, which can be seen as the axiom "meaning exists in contrasted language" pushed as far as it can go.

Contrast ideology is the most fruitful theodicy, the most satisfying semantics and the most therapeutic secular philosophy of life.

Shall fight it.


"The Boredoms are like a moon on a lake. Only
there is no moon and no lake. Only Boredoms."
- Japanese noise band The Boredoms


Ed Sullivan

Me and James have been playing at being wardens of All Souls' College, where every year a few dozen bright young things go to play the grandest language-game in the world. (In both the Wittgensteinian and playtime senses of game.)

Our ideas for the necessarily sadistic essay topics:

  • "Why did no-one write about the distant future until after the industrial revolution?"

  • "Give four examples of conceptual analysis you consider masterful. Justify with reference to each other. No two may be from the same academic field or literary form."

  • "Biographies attempting to discuss the nature of a subject's genius should never discuss sexuality. Discuss."
  • "Which ten linguistic equivocations do you consider most severe, in terms either of their Whorfian effect on world discourse, pragmatic misunderstandings or aesthetic concerns? Give theoretical underpinnings for your answers in diagram form."


Some friends, on facebook:

"- went to Gullivers Travels it was quite good actually

- whats it about :O

- This guy fancys this girl but he's to scared to ask her out so he ends up goin to the bermuda triangle and crashes on an island full of little people and rescues Billy connolly from a fire. Then theres a bad bit where hes defeated by a robot but he wins in the end by reading out that 'war what is it good for' song."

Ah, les belles lettres!


Grace Kelly

Peter Ustinov


Brigitte Bardot