Friday, May 23, 2008

Language and Morality

I'm annoyed. This is going to be one of those entries. Be forewarned...

Well, today at work a guy accused me of being judgmental.

He was complaining about our manager giving him an overloaded schedule this week in response to his request to work more hours, and another guy chimed in that maybe he asked her (the manager) while she was PMSing. As I overheard, I remarked casually, "Well now, that's a sexist comment." And the guy jumped down my throat--not the one who'd actually made the comment (who acted apologetic and kind of shrugged it off as a bad joke), but the other one. He asked me why it was sexist, and I responded, "Well, by definition--making an assumption based on a person's gender and treating them as merely a stereotype of a group rather than as an individual... that's sexist by definition."* "You don't think women behave irrationally when they're PMSing?" he challenged. "I think that some individuals will behave irrationally under certain circumstances, like when they're tired or uncomfortable," I explained, "and that others may just be a bit irrational in general--but no, making a statement about an individual based on the assumption that all women are irrational during their periods [a generalized stereotype based on a person's sex] and that they cannot control their irrationality as well as men, who don't 'PMS' [a devaluation of women based on that stereotype, see definition below]... I think that's sexism plain and simple and no, I don't believe it to be true." He then accused me of just trying to force everyone to be "P.C." and of being judgmental because I was "making a judgment about someone else's judgment instead of actually listening to that person."


Okay, firstly--words. Words have power. Let me say that again: words have power. I try to avoid saying things I don't mean, and I try to respect the amazing and beautiful power of words when I do speak (including their ability to communicate subtlety, humor and irony--all of which I'm pretty good at picking up on and I don't call people out on sexist remarks when I can tell they're just trying to be funny and not meaning it seriously--though I also think that kind of humor is a bit distasteful). I'm a writer. I love words. I'm also a feminist (i.e. I believe that men and women are equal) and I believe that it is important to treat people as unique individuals in any circumstance, rather than merely as a member of particular groups, biological, cultural or otherwise. To treat a person merely as a member of a group to which they belong is an act of existential violence against the unique and complex individuality of that person (even if attributing positive qualities to the group, like saying Obama must be good at basketball; and even if that person chooses to be a part of the group through lifestyle, association or activity, like saying all [golfers/cat-lovers/police officers/etc.] behave or think the same way.

Of course, it gets tricky, because often people don't want to count positive stereotypes as a form of racism/sexism/classism/etc., and at the same time plenty of individuals like to associate themselves by choice with particular groups because they want to benefit from the image or ideas that group evokes (think of the teen who dresses "goth" so that her peers will get a particular view of her as a hard-hearted, poetry-reading rebel). All the same, striving to connect with individuals as unique beings is something we owe each other and ourselves, because otherwise we're walking through a shallow world of warped reflection, like a hall of mirrors. By treating people as stereotypes, what we're saying is, "Everything I know about you is just something I know about myself, projected out into the world." If you treat all women as potentially irrational during "that time of the month," then you're acting on your own beliefs and opinions warped to suit a projected "other", rather than learning something about the individual women in your life and responding to their unique realities. In short, you've cut yourself off from actually being present to the real world; you've substituted your assumptions about reality for reality itself.

Of course, I didn't have the opportunity to explain any of this to this particular coworker because he was too busy righteously defending others' right to be "politically incorrect." Now, apparently the term "politically correct" was invented in the 1980s by conservatives trying to undermine liberal efforts to increase awareness of--you guessed it--the power of words (in particular, the power of words in relation to group and social identity). To throw out the accusation of "P.C." at a person was basically a way to shut down any attempt at rational discussion by using a similar circular logic that this coworker today tried to use on me. The argument goes that if you attempt to think carefully about people's word choices and encourage yourself and others to speak with more accuracy, sensitivity and awareness, then you forfeit your right to criticize others' unthinking use of language. Obviously the argument is clearly fallacious when stated in such clear terms, so let me put it the way it's more commonly phrased: if you make judgments about appropriate language, then you're being just as "judgmental" as you're accusing someone else of being, and therefore you have no right to criticize them because you're just as bad.


In addition to assuming that the problem with sexist/racist/etc. language is that it is "judgmental" (when it is, in fact, just the opposite--it eschews any actual judgment, accurate or otherwise, in favor of unthinking prejudice), this faulty logic relies on obscuring the multiple meanings of the word "judgment" itself. Since it is an argument in favor of the thoughtless use of words, this actually seems rather fitting.

Being "judgmental" has a strongly negative connotation, because it evokes the sense of imposing our own moral judgment on another person, usually with a verbal condemnation and/or poor treatment. What is the difference, though, between making a moral judgment about a person, and making a "mental judgment"** about a statement or concept? It seems to me that there's a big one, and while the former may be personally, socially or even philosophically offensive, the latter is essential to living a thoughtful, inquisitive life. What P.C. nay-sayers tend to do is confuse the two kinds of judgment, reducing them to one and the same thing, and then badger those of us trying to make thoughtful "mental judgments" into feeling guilty for imposing "moral judgments" on others, when that is precisely what we are trying to avoid. Then there are "mushy-thinking liberals" (a term a friend of mine adopted from, I believe, Chomsky), who focus on the censorship of language, rather than on an investigation of what such language actually communicates. This overly-P.C. crowd is often too greatly worried about hurting people's feelings or coming across as morally "judgmental", but they fall into the very same trap as the conservative anti-P.C. people. Whatever the motivation (attempting to shut down rational discussion as a kind of power-play, or wanting to appear all-accepting of others for the sake of one's personal gratification at the expense of actual thoughtfulness), the end result of such a reductionist definition of "judgment" is the same: it makes thinking itself look like a social and personal flaw.

One way to avoid this is to make a careful distinction between imposing moral judgments on other people, and making mental judgments about "objective" facts. Notice that in the conversation that began this post, I remarked that the comment was sexist, not the person. According to the definition of "sexism" and the nature of the comment itself, this was a fair assessment of objective reality, rather than a projected moral claim. Of course, it is generally agreed in our culture that sexism is more or less "immoral." (Of course, as I've already noted, language also affords the opportunity for satire and irony, for instance by utilizing "immoral" language deliberately and self-consciously to undermine the power of such language. I love Stephen Colbert's humor for this very reason. He has mastered the art of making claims or asserting ideas in such a way that he lays bare their utter absurdity, and his feigned sincerity heightens that ridiculousness while putting us on guard against individuals who actually would assert such claims in all seriousness. If the comment had been made with ironic intent, then my observation that it was sexist would not hav been a moral judgment at all, but rather just stating the obvious, kind of like ruining the punchline of a joke by observing the particular play on words and/or expectations involved.)


There are many good reasons why sexism, racism and all forms of prejudice are considered inherently immoral (as I've already outlined above). However, once again, there is a difference between claiming a statement is sexist because it is immoral, and claiming that it is immoral because it is sexist. In the first instance, I am imposing my own moral judgment on another person and attempting to censor them based on those moral claims, essentially trying to make them play by my own moral rules. In the second instance, I am observing that a given statement, as an objective entity, fits the established definition of "sexism" and should probably, therefore, be reevaluated for its moral implications. See the difference?

Take another example: the other day, a different (male) coworker called another (female) coworker a fat cow who looks like she spends all her time out drinking instead of home taking care of her kids. My knee-jerk reaction was to criticize him for making such a mean-spirited comment, because to me such maliciousness is never justified even if the observations it attempts to communicate are accurate (which I don't think they were this time, in any case). This is a moral issue on my part, growing out of my belief in loving-kindness and respect for others, and so my attempt to censor his behavior was, in this case, a moral imposition on my part (one that he rightly pointed out I have no real right to make). I wanted him to play by my moral sense of fairness and kindness, but he has the perfect right to be a nasty jerk to another person if he likes, regardless of what I think of his behavior. On the other hand, I do have the right to guide my own actions according to my moral commitments, and since I believe that sharing my beliefs with others in a respectful, open way is also a moral act on my part, I have the right to communicate my opinion of his behavior and explain my reasons behind it.

So is calling out a statement for being "sexist" morally judgmental? Well, in some ways, it is a moral act on my part, since I probably wouldn't have bothered to do it if I didn't think sexism was wrong, offensive and morally damaging to both the person making the comment and the comment's target or object of reference. I feel that it is morally right to point out the harmful or thoughtless behavior of others--in a kind and respectful way--not as a way of condemning them or imposing my beliefs (which would be morally judgmental), but in order to encourage dialogue and discussion--an equal, free exchange of information and ideas for the betterment of all involved. It would appear that, since my coworker took offense to me calling the statement sexist, he too most likely believes that sexism is basically immoral, and so I have no need to impose my own values on him as we already agree about the fundamental moral issue at stake and differ only in its application. (Either that, or he's playing by the social rules that say a person should act offended when they feel a remark is intended as a slight or insult, whether or not the remark actually offends them. I tend not to act offended unless I'm actually offended, which confuses people sometimes, because I laugh off mean-spirited jibes while occasionally being hurt by comments that people intended to be complimentary but are, in fact, not. See below.)


The fact that this coworker has three times now suggested that my intelligence is not a desirable quality but rather an unfortunate idiosyncrasy (twice in accusing me of being "judgmental," and once while actually hitting on me(!) by saying I needed to be "relieved" of the thoughtful expression I'd developed while reading an interesting book) has me generally annoyed, but also feeling a bit despondent.*** This last exchange--during what he clearly considered a flirtatious encounter--was obviously meant to be some kind of complimentary come-on, an appeal to my romantic feminine nature. Why I would want to be "relieved" of my thoughtfulness in favor of some frivolous romantic "fun" is beyond me. I find conversation and discussion to be fun, and more than that, fulfilling. I also appreciate levity and joy, though rarely would I characterize such things as mindless or frivolous, at least not in their ideal forms.

So yes, I am discouraged, even gloomy, about the social relationships I often find myself in. It might sound arrogant to say that I am more intelligent than most of the people I know and work with on a daily basis, but the truth is that, intelligence (whatever that is) aside, I am definitely more thoughtful. I have no need to make this claim about myself--they make it for me. But while they seem to think it's an unfortunate side-effect of having no "life" and nothing better to do, I see it as one of my best qualities, something I really love about myself and that I want to share with others. Thus, I often feel drawn to people who exhibit a similar thoughtfulness or at least hint at it through off-handed remarks. Sometimes the very same people who intrigue me with such remarks also come across as being judgmental and kind of rude, for the very reason that they're willing to make controversial statements based on personal convictions. Right now, for instance, I'm crushing on a guy who, I'm pretty sure, thinks I'm just another thoughtless, good-because-the-Bible-says-so kind of girl. The very fact that he might be indifferent to me because of this incorrect perception has me intrigued (unlike those who are indifferent to me because they know I'm not an easy lay, who don't interest me at all, and sadly make up the vast majority of guys I know). But it's also frustrating because I'm afforded so few opportunities to demonstrate my depth and personality, and he has no real reason to give me any, as far as he's concerned. I don't want to make the same mistake with others. Which is why I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt, to engage them in conversation, to explore the reasons behind their actions. I don't want to make the mistake of assuming someone is just silly or shallow when they're just quiet or reserved.

Which is why I agreed to go on a date with someone who has been dropping hints of his interest for, gosh, over a year now, despite my friendly indifference and my interest in this other guy. I had some qualms about it--is it right to go on a date when you have a feeling it's not going to work out? Am I obligated to inform him of my interest in someone else, or would that just be needlessly hurtful? Have I come to treat men as a commodity, waiting for a perfect guy to come along who has all the right "features" (like a compatible morality, similar interests, thoughtful mind, sense of humor, self-control, reserved nature, cute little goatee and a nice smile) instead of focusing on the feelings a person might be able to evoke (or, on the other hand, is it right to allow feelings alone to dictate relationships rather than attempting to engage another person on all levels, mental, emotional, philosophical, etc.)? Sometimes, I admit, I may over think things. I want to do what's right. In the end, though, right or not, I agreed to go on the date.

And I sat here all evening waiting for his call.

And it never came.


*sex·ism (noun)
1. attitudes or behavior based on traditional stereotypes of sexual roles.
2. discrimination or devaluation based on a person's sex.

**judg·ment (noun)
1. an act or instance of judging.
2. the ability to judge, make a decision, or form an opinion objectively, authoritatively, and wisely, esp. in matters affecting action; good sense; discretion.
3. the demonstration or exercise of such ability or capacity.
4. the forming of an opinion, estimate, notion, or conclusion, as from circumstances presented to the mind.

***de·spond·ent (adjective)
1. feeling or showing profound hopelessness, dejection, discouragement, or gloom


  1. Sometimes I think I never will understand guys.

  2. Now wait a second here......I read a very intellectually driven treatise on sexism and then in the comments section I read two women state that "guys can't be understood..."

    Am I the only gender seeing the irony here?

    You had me there till you lost me.

  3. Jeff is not a woman, Michael, and so I assumed he was being ironic. Making a statement, perhaps, about the abounding lack of self-knowledge as well as the struggle to understand others, even those who are assumed to be similar to ourselves.

    Also, nobody said "can't".

  4. You nailed my meaning, Ali.

    Which tells me this: there is a lot of mutual understanding between us -- I, a married 35-year-old male with four children, and you, a twentysomething year-old single female, who have never met.

    And neither of us understand the actions or thoughts of this other male person you describe.

    So much for sexism. :-)

  5. beautiful post, Ali! Good for you in standing up for your boss, too. I often start workshops by defining terms because too many people either don't know the actual definitions of words -- or I just want to ensure that everyone knows my definition of a term.

    You also make me very glad to be married. Beyond the whole I love my husband very much thing, I'm just grateful not to be dealing with the whole dating thing! Now I just have to deal with communication issues in my own house. ;)

  6. Brava! Excellent post! Ketzirah Carly sent me the link because I've been known to have the same struggle with personal thoughtfulness and the responsibility of using language intentionally.