Reader Mail: Linguistic Borrowing, Rightside Norms, And More

And yes, another book giveaway

Book Giveaway: Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society

Very excited for this one: Little, Brown Spark has generously offered two copies of Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society by the Yale University physician and sociologist Nicholas Christakis to give to Singal-Minded readers. (That name might sound familiar.)

To the publicity material:

For too long, scientists have focused on the dark side of our biological heritage: our capacity for aggression, cruelty, prejudice, and self-interest. But natural selection has given us a suite of beneficial social features, including our capacity for love, friendship, cooperation, and learning. Beneath all our inventions -- our tools, farms, machines, cities, nations -- we carry with us innate proclivities to make a good society.

In Blueprint, Nicholas A. Christakis introduces the compelling idea that our genes affect not only our bodies and behaviors, but also the ways in which we make societies, ones that are surprisingly similar worldwide. With many vivid examples -- including diverse historical and contemporary cultures, communities formed in the wake of shipwrecks, commune dwellers seeking utopia, online groups thrown together by design or involving artificially intelligent bots, and even the tender and complex social arrangements of elephants and dolphins that so resemble our own -- Christakis shows that, despite a human history replete with violence, we cannot escape our social blueprint for goodness.

Let’s go with the random drawing for this one: Send an email with the subject line ‘Blueprint’ to by midnight tonight. I’ll pick two at random and the lucky winners will, if I am understanding the premise of the book correctly, be granted true and total and infallible knowledge of humanity’s innermost nature.

The rest of today’s Singal-Minded is devoted to emails from readers. I have gotten a ton of them lately and they’ve been great. Keep ‘em coming…

Readers Respond To “Is It Offensive To Use The Term ‘Totem Pole’ Informally?”

Elisabeth says she mostly agreeds, but suggests I reconsider on the “spirit animal” front:

I agree with your take on about totem pole and pow-wow in today's newsletter, but I'd like to ask you to reconsider on spirit animal.

My problem with the term is less the appropriation aspect, and more the word "animal," which causes a problem because so many "spirit animals" are nonwhite. So if I say, "Cardi B is my spirit animal," at one level, I'm saying I feel a deep connection to Cardi B -- but at the purely literal level, I'm saying I, a white woman, see a black woman as an animal. And that has such a loaded history in this country that I think white people shouldn't use the  term when talking about people of color, however they mean it.

I don't know how that applies if it's not a white person saying "spirit animal" about a person of color. The term feels icky enough that I'd probably avoid it even if I were discussing another white person, but that's me.

Ben makes a somewhat similar argument:

One thing I think makes "totem pole" and "pow-wow" different than "kosher," at least, is the idea that people who use the former terms do so while pretending to know the original context, but without a level of *real familiarity* which would make the informal reuse respectful.

Here's what I mean: your description of the use of "kosher" and its transition into regular English is a story of people basically understanding the original term but then using it in an informal way. I think with "pow wow" and "totem pole" those terms correspond to more of a stereotype for non-native people. Thus, by trying to use them in an informal way a la "kosher," they're actually being offensive by presuming familiarity with the original cultural context and perpetuating a stereotype. The idea that a pow wow is "just" a certain kind of meeting degrades the original meaning of the term and contributes to the general sense of loss that many native people feel towards their traditional culture.

(Another point on "pow wow:" to the extent that "pow wow" refers to a meeting of indigenous people, using it to refer to a meeting of non-indigenous people is just flat out *wrong* in a significant way. Yes, language always changes, but we can't ignore that when meaning shifts, people who care about the original meaning of a term may experience some loss of meaningfulness.)

As I write this, it seems more like a difference in degree rather than in kind, but that is OK. People will disagree about how much understanding of the original context is necessary for the reuse of a term to be respectful or non-offensive.

Here's a drastic example, again from the native North American context: suppose people began using "putting on a feather headdress" to refer to the general practice of emphasizing one's native roots. I think that is pretty offensive! Many Native American / Indigenous people never wore feather headdresses. There's a famous example of a Cherokee man in western NC who worse a feather headdress to pose for tourists for years. Generally that mistaken assumption is hurtful to a people who already feel as though their traditional culture is under attack. Again here the hurtful thing is not so much the informal use of a term that "belongs to someone else," but the fact that it is based on a mistaken understanding of the original cultural context.

Also, in this context, I think of a friend of mine who is a white woman. She uses the term "tribe" to refer to a close group of friends from whom she draws emotional and (in her mind) spiritual support. She does so knowing that she is borrowing meaning from the original sense. (This another thing people do: borrow from other cultures while giving nothing back, or while actively hurting people in that culture.) Anyway, her usage of "tribe" just seems so blithe and disrespectful to anyone who knows anything about the struggles of *real, actual* Native American tribes nowadays, who are faced with myriad social and economic problems, and the fact that some tribes actually struggle for recognition as such from the federal government. In this case, "tribe" is a designation that people of indigenous descent really care about and has a material effect on their lives. Her usage of the term isn't offensive on its face, just a little offensive because it indicates her lack of engagement with what actual native tribes are dealing with right now.

These are fair points, but I think I (mostly) disagree. I guess it just comes down to questions like, to take the Jewish example since I’m Jewish, “Do I find it offensive if someone uses the word kosher informally despite being ignorant of actual kosher law?” And the point I was getting at in the original post was that from my point of view, there’s nothing offensive about it — this is just a sign that Jewish people have been part of American culture for a while and that some of our, well, stuff has gotten mixed into the big burbling messy stew that is American English. I also think that, pragmatically speaking, it would be difficult to really follow or enforce a rule that whether or not it’s offensive for a given person to use a given phrase depends on their level knowledge. It just seems too specific, I think? Whereas I have way less of a problem with the rule that certain groups shouldn’t use certain (usually reclaimed) words, generally speaking. At least in those cases the rules are clear(ish) and don’t rely on knowledge of someone’s internal mental state.

David, a friend from real life, sent in a quick email:

I do wonder about the casual use of words like jihad and crusade -- does it diminish horrible acts and beliefs to use these words casually, to broaden the definition far beyond the original meaning? Unlike "kosher," I'm not sure that the dictionary has adopted, or ever will adopt, a definition of jihad that allows the word to just mean strong but innocuous opposition. It does seem like the definition has broadened on crusade, although I've been chastised more than once for using the word to just mean "campaign." Sort of relatedly, I also really enjoy long hikes (as you know) and, for a time, had been calling them death marches. One of my friends then chastised me because she said it made light of and minimized the Holocaust. Bummer.

I guess I just have trouble latching on to ‘diminish’ here. It seems like it has to mean either that David’s friend believes David is seeking to diminish the Holocaust, or that his word choice has the unintended effect of diminishing the Holocaust. David, who is Jewish, is certainly no Holocaust-diminisher, which leaves the second option. But who does it have that effect on? Is there someone who, upon hearing the term “death march” used casually, will become less convinced that actual death marches are moral travesties? I’m skeptical. (This is more or less the point I made in my article about the ostensible offensiveness of using phrases like “space colonization.”)

Natalie had some good analysis:

This reminds me of something I have often said as regards AAV [African-American vernacular]: it would be deeply depressing if Americans didn't sound at least a little black.

I understand why people get sensitive about appropriation when white people have taken the credit in shitty ways for a lot of things, but I feel like in modern times there is much less obfuscation of where trends come from and the conversation itself has done a lot to ensure that cultures are credited. I'm a white person who grew up in a very integrated environment and has always had few white friends and many friends of most other ethnicities, and it seems to me hardly anyone in real life cares about appropriation and instead finds it anywhere from funny to flattering when others adopt their language. These are "woke" people, just not the monomaniacally woke of the online world whose brands depend on continued controversy, and we've had specific conversations in which they expressed to me that they find the concept often irritating -- especially the creatives. Though everyone has specific emotionally loaded things they'd rather not see appropriated or their meaning diminished, those tend to be pretty understandable; for example, "thug life" is one example where something complex and difficult got turned into a joke to the extent of not just overwriting the original meaning in the larger culture's minds, but being used against black people in caricatures.

By contrast, it's hard to see some significant level of harm happening here with totem pole, powwow, spirit animal, kosher, etc, because people aren't even really referring to those cultures when they use the terms casually. When someone says "thug life" like it's a joke, they're at the very least evoking black culture, sometimes maliciously or sometimes for an oblivious self-effacing contrast. But no one is thinking about Native Americans when they say "higher up on the totem pole"; they're not making a statement about Native culture or people, they're not evoking any real comparison, positive or negative, to anyone. Just about every spiritual practice I can think of ends up acquiring some second, casual metaphorical definition. Besides, wouldn't it be even more messed up if we had erased Native culture to the point of not even having any of their words in our language?

It just seems in real life, or perhaps in my sheltered one, most people just want to have fun and bond with each other, and they only care about genuinely hurtful appropriation -- and even then, they seem capable of recognizing when malice was intended or the hurt was accidental. They understand that their concepts being incorporated into the larger culture is a sign of influence and legitimacy, and often respect or admiration.

I can appreciate that Natives in particular may feel they have not been respected in the ways we've begun to respect other groups, but then, I wish there were some sort of opinion polling about how many of them find these terms offensive when used casually, because wasn't there some sort of polling that showed most of them did not care at all about the Washington Redskins? (Which honestly surprised me, because it seems incredibly and obviously racist to me.) [yep — 90% said they thought it was fine, which surprised me too] I'm beginning to feel opinion polls are the best defense against hyper-wokeness, and there aren't enough of them. The smaller a community is, the more people leap to signal boost the few opinions that come out of it, and the less they know whether those opinions are representative. Allies nowadays just seem to bumblingly ensure groups are represented by their angriest, most anxious members, while the majorities in those groups are too well-adjusted to be bothered by minutiae or form coalitions. Instead they speak up rarely and individually, and get torn down by the pre-assembled mob their "allies" abetted.

Finally, the thing that bothers me about the fight over "spirit animal" specifically is that spirit animals aren't even merely a Native American concept. They're something literally anyone can experience with psychedelics or endogenous chemical/spiritual experiences, even if they've never heard of spirit animals prior. Spirit animals are simply part of the human psyche (or something broader, if you're into that). It reminds me of the idea that dreadlocks are purely a black hairstyle when they've existed in many cultures because they're just something that will naturally happen to hair. Which, of course, is a separate discussion to how awfully black people get treated for having them. But the solution is not to lay spurious claim to them and harass other people for having them, it's for everyone to quit treating black people shitty for wearing dreadlocks. Similarly, if Natives feel "spirit animals" are sometimes a way they get caricatured or disrespected, they should address the instances of disrespect, not police casual conversation to the extent of forcing everyone else to pretend they invented something that is fundamental.

Eric expressed some shorter agreement:


Doesn’t this idea make you a little sad? The idea of only historically powerful groups getting to have their ideas and words borrowed by and integrated into English? Wouldn’t we be missing out on something?

And by so doing, it would manage to suppress any infiltration of language from relatively oppressed groups into the mainstream, and thus further isolate and marginalize those peoples[...] Not to mention, it becomes comically tedious then when trying to factor which groups are allowed to co-opt words and phrases of other groups based on their relative levels of historical oppression. Call me mashugana (sp.?), but perhaps someone should make a totem pole of them all for easy reference and thereby avoid any - if I may be so bold as to use this term - faux pas?

A Quick Break From All These Emails To Look At Photos Of My Parents’ Cats, Carmela And Chelsea

I’m typing this from my childhood home outside Boston. One of the nice things about visiting is seeing Carmela, who is I think approaching 20 years old, somehow? Or maybe she’s already blown past that milestone? Can’t find her birth certificate so I’m not sure.

Anyway, just look at her:

She is such a good cat. SUCH a good cat. Just so sweet and affectionate and vocal. Big fan.

There’s also Chelsea, one of her daughters — Chelsea was the runt of the litter and is much more flighty and less into people:

I prefer Carmela. Which might be mean, but cats can’t read.

Readers Respond to “Rightside Norms, Accuracy Norms, And Internet Garbage-Fights”

Jake has a suggestion:

I think you're right about the accuracy vs rightside dichotomy. You've crystallized something that I feel I already understood instinctively but didn't know how to articulate, and, now that you've articulated it, seems obvious. I suppose it's another way of characterizing the struggle between ends-justify-means folks and means-undermine-endsfolks.

Also, the example of Erik Kain is yet more evidence for the theory that everything about our new socio-political paradigm goes back to GamerGate. Have you ever considered trying to really, really dig into that affair and sort out fact from fiction? I think the internet is sorely missing an even-handed, thorough play-by-play of those events that doesn't presuppose insider-knowledge of games journalism or 4chan.

I appreciate what you do.

The whole GamerGate thing is fascinating on multiple levels but I have such a slippery grip on my sanity as it is, especially when it comes to internet-culture-warring, that I just don’t have it in me to revisit that controversy on a deep level.

Paul takes issue with my claim that a lot of rightside-norm stuff is restricted to online:

Your dichotomy of right-side norms compared to accuracy norms is 100% accurate in my life experience. However regarding the "dogpilers" syndrome, when you wrote that "This isn’t normal behavior in real life"...I literally groaned out loud.

I so wish that were true! You have no idea how much I wish it.

To be clear my personal frame of reference is overwhelmingly the "blue" side of modern American society. I'm born-and-raised in that world, raised my own kids in it, attended a leading liberal-arts college, have spent my professional career in it, etc. These are my people and when push comes to shove they always will be.

But I've long had a social problem which is that I'm strongly rooted in the accuracy-norm view of things. Indeed I quite frankly regard it as the correct view, for several reasons including that it is in the big picture the best foundation for progressive social change.

During my adult lifetime (I started college shortly after Reagan became president) that view has been steadily losing ground in Blue America. The rightside norm dominates and has done so since before there was even a World Wide Web, never mind Twitter.

You wrote:

If you’re in a group in which rightside norms prevail, you face a weird set of incentives:

1) It will often harm your group standing to point out that a false claim is false.

2) It will often benefit your group standing to pile on a figure who has been unfairly accused of something by broadcasting evidence pertaining not to the claim in question, but to his or her broader (ostensible) moral worthlessness.

3) It will often benefit your group standing to punish those who seek to debunk false claims against ‘bad’ figures.

Yep, yep, and yep. That has been the dominant groupthink in Blue America for at least 30 years now. That is literally a thousand dinner parties and family gatherings that I've attended in places like Ann Arbor MI and Oak Park IL and San Francisco and the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago and etc.

In my personal view (as my wife is tired of hearing about), this has been a major unrecognized fuel source for Trumpism. A major fuel source. It is a gigantic chicken that finally came home to roost on progressive America. And there is as far as I can see zero self-recognition underway about it, so my dark fear is that we will just keep repeating this collective mistake.

I agree that social media has both boosted and revealed the syndrome. (This perspective on that rang true for me, and of course applies to Red and Blue alike if not equally.)

But the syndrome is unfortunately older and deeper than Twitter/Facebook. And at least in Blue America it is not changing or fading even a little bit. Which is very very bad for us and for the kinds of change that we hope and strive for.



P.S. I am a recent subscriber to Singal Minded and am enjoying it, and would be happy to try a paid subscription.

I could be at a disadvantage when it comes to my understanding of real-world analogues to the online dysfunction I write about, because most of my real-life friends are normie Obama liberals. This is very good for my mental health — when I’m with them, I am reminded that so much online bullshit doesn’t matter — but it means I lack access to more radical types.

I’ve generally been skeptical about claims that some form of liberal or leftist behavior, whether political correctness or, here, rightside norms, led to Donald Trump’s election. It was just such a close race, he lost the popular vote, and one can point to so many other things — Comey, voter suppression, the lack of a Wisconsin visit on Hillary Clinton’s part, etc. — that I don’t see a good reason to focus on this one. How large is the population of people who are really upset by PC/rightside norms/etc., and who also really would have otherwise voted for Clinton if not for their frustration?

And I think there’s a risk, in any close election, of people just pulling out the explanation that flatters their own politics and worldview. To people worried about what they see as an uptick in racism in American society, Trump was swept in by a wave of racism. To lefties who hate the Democratic Party’s tendencies toward bloodless centrist technocracy, that — meaning Clinton — was what got Trump elected. And to people who hate political correctness, that was the culprit. (To be clear, I’m not accusing Paul of this sort of myopia — he defended his argument well in his email.)

All that said, I have heard from so many people who are frustrated by certain tendencies in the left-of-center world, whether they describe what bugs them as “political correctness” or (more often, in my experience) “callout culture” or ‘identitarianism’ or something else. Plenty of the complainers are quite far to the left, and in fact some of the people who respond most angrily or dismissively to criticisms of callout culture (or whatever) aren’t all that left. So this stuff is complicated and not easily boiled down to liberals-versus-leftists or anything like that.

I’m a bit torn on all this, in short. There’s something real and not-great going on, for sure, but I’d need more evidence before agreeing that it’s the sort of thing that could swing a presidential race.

But I dunno — I’ll think about it more.

Natalie On Gender Identity

Natalie (the same one from above) sent me this as part of an exchange we had on gender-identity-related issues. It isn’t really apropos of anything, but it’s very thoughtful:

[T]here's a lot more pressure on butch lesbians (and to some extent, femme gay guys) to just identify as trans, or at least nonbinary or genderfluid -- the latter two of which don't have any lasting consequences if they change their mind, but we never had to explicitly label or identify as those things before either. It's been a double-edged sword to have such a focus on identity in the queer community. On the one hand it's very helpful for people in less accepting environments to see specific aspects of identity validated; on the other, I think it puts a ceiling on how well-adjusted a person can become, because it's a bit hobbling to sit around overly fixated on one's traits instead of one's thoughts, hobbies, relationships, etc. Older queer people don't even think about that stuff and just live their lives, while the younger queer people seem to get stressed out about it all even though things are objectively much easier and society cares little about most of it. A lot of it is just in-group signaling and staking out internet territory, and it's exhausting.

I've always just felt like a somewhat masculine woman and never worried about it; I still don't call myself nonbinary or any similar term, because I'm very whatever about it all. I feel that's been pretty good for me. I appreciate that not everyone has that luxury, especially if they're genuinely trans; I was lucky to grow up in an environment where it didn't much matter. But I feel like the end goal of social justice is to allow for more people to grow up in environments like mine, where my marginalized status wasn't an issue that required much of my attention. I was barely marginalized in any significant way, so I got to just be a person and spent very little time thinking about being queer. But instead, social justice objectives have gotten convoluted such that one's marginalized status becomes more an object of attention and rumination, and it's become so many people's source of validation instead of the traits/talents that they built or chose for themselves, and that's somehow considered a success even though everyone is developing psychological disorders and interpersonal difficulties around it all.

I just wish the internet didn't lend itself to bubbles of obsessive thinking, then the inevitable fear of being attacked by or isolated from those bubbles. If a kid is fortunate to question their gender and sexuality in a broadly queer or even just progressive environment, they'll tend to find their way, whether it's trans or some other label or no particular label. But the internet really narrows some people's horizons depending on the path they take, which is so counterintuitive. All it takes is one person speaking very authoritatively and persuasively to put blinders on them, and then they're in a bubble.

Part of the reason this email resonated for me was that it echoed a lot of the stuff I’ve heard from desisters and detransitioners — that is, people who identified as trans, or who had gender dysphoria, at one point, but who no longer do. For example, Delta, one of the subjects of my Atlantic article on youth gender dysphoria, went through a period in which she “announced to her parents that she was genderqueer, then nonbinary, and finally trans.” At that time, she told me, gender identity was basically all she or anyone in her peer group thought or talked about. There seemed to be little room to develop one’s identity in deeper ways unconnected to these gender labels.

Eventually, things changed:

Delta’s gender dysphoria subsequently dissipated, though it’s unclear why. She started taking antidepressants in December, which seem to be working. I asked Delta whether she thought her mental-health problems and identity questioning were linked. “They definitely were,” she said. “Because once I actually started working on things, I got better and I didn’t want anything to do with gender labels—I was fine with just being me and not being a specific thing.”

This sounds quite similar to the sentiments expressed by a group of four young women who detransitioned, and who have formed what they call The Pique Resistance project, in this video.

Note that I am making no claims about how common detransition is. We don’t know. But I do think there’s something to the idea that fixating on labels can, in some cases, do more harm than good — especially to people who are young, struggling with mental-health problems unrelated to gender identity, or both.

Questions? Comments? Responses to the responses to the responses to the responses to the responses to the responses to the responses to the responses to the responses to that one post I did a few weeks ago? I’m at, or on Twitter at @jessesingal. Today’s lead image, of everyone’s famous mailman, is via QuickMeme.

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