Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Taking my grandfather’s axe to the politically correct

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Among the many things that annoy me about the politically correct is their wide-spread inability to differentiate between word and concept/intent/meaning/…. At the same time, I have long been annoyed by the pseudo-paradox of the “grandfather’s axe”. Below I will discuss some related, partially overlapping, points.

One of the most popular “pop philosophy” questions/riddles/paradoxes is (with variations):

This axe belonged to my grandfather. The head has been replaced occasionally and so has the handle. Is it still the same axe?

At the same time, we have the old saying “you cannot cross the same river twice”. How then can it be that I have crossed the Rhine hundreds of times? (Not to mention many crossings of other individual rivers, including the Main and the Isar.)

In the first case, we have a question that simply cannot be resolved by logic, because it is ambiguously formulated; in the second, the apparent contradiction arises out of a very similar ambiguity:

The meaning of “same”* is not defined with sufficient precision, because “same” can be used to refer to several (possibly many) different concepts. When we say “same axe” or “same river” do we mean e.g. that it is the same basic entity, although changed over time, having some constant aspect of identity; or that it is identically the same without any change? Something in between? Looking at the axe example, it might actually be too unrefined to bring the point over, because it only has the two parts (with some reservations for the type of axe) and it might not be obvious that more than one interpretation is reasonable. Consider instead the same example using a T-Ford: Someone has an old T-Ford standing in a barn. His great-grand-parents bought it, and several generations have made sure that it has been kept running over the years, be it through sentimentality, interest in old cars, or hope for a future value increase. By now, every single part** of it has at some point been exchanged. Is it still the same car? If not, when did it cease to be the original car? Similarly, is this still the same hands I am typing with that I used seven years ago***? Fourteen years ago? That I was born with more than 42 years ago?

*Alternatively, the ambiguity could be seen to lie in “axe” and “river”, or a disagreement about what part of an entity carries the identity. In the case of river crossings this might even be the more productive point of attack.

**Assume, for the sake of argument, that this happened a single part at a time and that any part that might have been taken to carry the identity of the car was not changes as a whole in one go—if need be through intervention by a welder.

***Assuming that the common claim holds true that all cells are replaced within a space of seven years. (This is an over-simplification, but could conceivably be true specifically for a hand.)

As is obvious, understanding what someone means by a certain word, means understanding which concept is intended. Conversely, it is in our own best interest to avoid such ambiguities to the best of our abilities*, to be very careful before applying a word in manner that implies a different concept than is normally intended, and to prefer the use of new words when a new differentiation is needed.

*Doing so perfectly is a virtual impossibility.

To exemplify the last point: In today’s world, words like “man”, “woman”, “male”, and “female”, that used to have a clear meaning/make a differentiation in one dimension, can be used for at least two meanings/making a differentiation in one of two dimensions. It is no longer necessarily a matter of whether someone is physically, biologically a man or a woman—but often whether someone self-identifies as man or woman.* Now, this in it self is merely unfortunate and a cause of confusion—the second differentiation should have been done by adding new words. The real problems arise because some groups of politically correct insist** that the new*** meaning is the proper meaning; that other uses would be “sexist”, “discriminatory”, or similar; or, with a wider net, that the concept behind the new meaning is what should dictate discussion.

*For the sake of simplicity, I leave e.g. post-op transsexuals and unusual chromosome combinations out of the discussion.

**See the excursion on “Tolkningsföreträde” below.

***Whether “new” is a good phrasing can be discussed. A possible interpretation of events is that these potential concepts happened to coincide sufficiently in the past that there never was a need to differentiate. If so, which concept or word should be considered new and which old? There might well exist situations where this question cannot be fairly answered or the outcome is a tie. In this specific case, it seems highly plausible to me that e.g. a nineteenth century human would have taken the biological as the sole or very strongly predominant meaning; and the use of “new” seems reasonable. (However, the point is mostly interesting because it gives another example of how tricky word and meaning can be. No reversal of which meaning is old and which is new will change the problems discussed in the main text—on the outside a marginal shift of blame can take place.)

In many cases, words are redefined in such a grotesque manner that I am unable to assume good faith, instead tending towards intellectual dishonesty as the explanation. A prime example is a sometime use of “racism”* to include a strong aspect of having power—with the ensuing (highly disputable) conclusion that black people, as a matter of definition, cannot be racist… At extremes, this can be taken to the point that all white people are, !as a matter of definition!, racist. Similarly, some feminists redefine “rape” in a ridiculously manner, notably to arrive at exaggerated numbers for rape statistics in order to justify their world-view. At the farthest extreme, although thankfully very rarely, I have even seen the claim that if a woman consents today and changes her mind tomorrow (!!!) then she has been raped…

*Generally a very abused word, including e.g. being used as a blanket replacement for “racial” or as a blanket attack against anyone who even contemplates the possibility of racial differences.

Quite often lesser distortions take place (often driven by a general tendency in the overall population), including the artificial limitation of “discrimination” to mean e.g. unlawful or sexist/racist discrimination: Discrimination is generally something good and positive—there are only rare specific types of discrimination that are problematic. Hire someone with a doctorate over a high-school dropout and you have just discriminated—but in the vast majority of circumstances, no reasonable third-party will take offense.

Yet other cases go back to simply not understanding what a word means or through having been so overwhelmed by figurative use that objectively perfectly fine uses are unfairly condemned. There is nothing wrong, e.g., in calling a tribe that still lives in a stone-age society primitive—it is primitive. (In contrast, calling someone with a different set of ideas primitive is either an abuse of language or an insult, depending on preference.) This phenomenon is reflected in the concept of “euphemistic treadmills”, were one word is replaced by a second to avoid demeaning connotations (e.g. through school-yard use), then a third/fourth/fifth/… when the resp. previous word also develops demeaning connotations (or is perceived to have done so). The problem is, of course, not the word it self, or the connotations of the word, but the connotations of the concept—changing the word is a temporary band-aid, and in the end it does more harm than good. To cruel children, e.g., it will not matter whether that other kid is formally classified as a spastic, as a retard, as being “differently abled”—he still remains a freak to them. (Or not, irrespective of the word used.)

The last example brings us to the related issue of word and intent: There is, for instance, nothing inherently racist or otherwise “evil” in the word “Nigger”. The word might very well signal a racist intent (especially with its current stigma), but, if so, it is that intent that is problematic—not the word it self. That “nigger” is not an evil word is, in doubt, proved by its common use by black people without any negative intent, possibly even with a positive intent. Other uses can have yet other intents and implications, including (like here) the purposeful discussion of the word it self. Still, it is quite common that politically correct extremists want to, even are successful in, censoring this word it self in works written when its use was accepted or where its use reflects what a character would realistically have said—not just a negative intent, or even an “outdated stereotype”*, but the word it self. This to the point that similar attempts have been directed at the cognate Swedish word “neger”, which never had any of the implications or the stigma that “nigger” had, nor its historical background**—until some point in (possibly) the eighties where it suddenly grew more and more “offensive”. (No doubt under the direct influence of the, strictly speaking irrelevant, U.S. situation.) Similarly, “bitch”*** is not inherently sexist: There is nothing harmful in my referring to my dearest childhood friend, Liza, as a bitch—it is an objectively true and value-free statement****.

*I strongly disagree with any later interventions into literature, even children’s literature like “Tom Sawyer” or the various “Dr. Dolittle” books, considering them a fraud towards the readers and a crime against the original author. However, that is a different topic and censoring based merely on words is more obviously wrong with less room for personal opinion.

**In my strong impression, even “nigger” only took on its negative connotations over time: There does not seem to have been an original thought-process of “I hate those damn blackies and I want to demean them; ergo, I’ll call them `niggers’.”. Instead, as in an earlier paragraph, the word was in use, just like “lamp”, by people by a certain attitude, speaking with a certain intent, and that intent over time came to dominate the connotations. However, there was at least a somewhat rational and understandable process in the U.S.—in Sweden, it was just an arbitrary decision by some group of political propagandists.

***To boot, “bitch” (and many other words) do not necessarily fall into such categories, because they do not necessarily make statements about e.g. women in general. Often, they are simply sex (or whatnot) specific insults used to refer to an individual woman. Similarly, “son of a bitch” is usually simply a sex specific insult for men. A rare instance when “bitch” could be seen as sexist is when referring to a man as a bitch (“Stop crying, you little bitch!”), because this could be seen to express that his behavior is simultaneously negative and feminine (“only weak women cry—are you a woman?”).

****She was, after all, the family dog…

Excursion on “Tolkningsföreträde”: A very common problem in Sweden is the incessant assumption by groups of politically correct, feminists, …, that they have tolkningsföreträde—originally a legal term, assigning a certain entity the right of interpretation of e.g. a contract in case of disagreement. (I am not aware of a similar term in e.g. the U.S. legal system, but it might well exist. A similar metaphorical application does not appear to present, however, even if the same attitude often is.) Its their way or the high way: They decide what a word should mean. They decide what is sexism. They decide what is acceptable. Etc. Have the audacity to question this right, even by pointing to the possibility of another interpretation or by pointing out that their use does not match the established one, and what happens: You (!) are accused of demanding tolkningsföreträde… (And, yes, they appear to be entirely and utterly unaware of the hypocrisy in this—or possibly they use the claim as a deliberately intellectually dishonest means of undermining opponents: I sometimes find it hard to resist the thought of there being some form of commonly taken course or set of guide-lines for the politically correct in how to sabotage one’s opponents…)

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Written by michaeleriksson

September 10, 2017 at 9:09 pm

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