“Purely Semantic”

So Richard Dawkins tweeted this morning. I know, but bear with me. What came out was this.

Now, as usual, it’s a good idea to wait a little bit and find out what the Great Communicator meant in the place of what he said. Doing that, we get this.

Better, in that it conveys exactly the opposite implication of the original. There’s still a problem, though. Well, there are a couple, but other people are working to educate Dawkins on the nuances of the word “courtesy”.

Me? I want to focus on this idea that this question is “purely semantic”. Spoiler: I’m writing this because it’s not.

Semantic: of or relating to meaning in language.

In this case, Dawkins is telling us that this isn’t a question to get upset over because it’s meaningless. It’s just about language. Sticks, stones, and why are people getting all worked up over words? Absurd.

The problem is, as timberwraith pointed out recently, that this isn’t how this works.

Look, if societies treated one’s ability to produce particular gametes in ways as neutral as nose shape, eye color, thyroid function, or hemoglobin levels, then the designation of male or female wouldn’t be much of an issue. No one would care if some felt compelled to employ medical procedures in order to assume secondary sexual characteristics and genital configurations commonly associated with certain modes of gametes production. It would be akin to changing one’s hair color or eye color—a medically intensive process, but still socially trivial.

timberwraith was talking about one of the biological arguments, but the point stands. If this were a minor disagreement over classification, we wouldn’t keep having it. In particular, we wouldn’t keep having it in public among people who have done the background research to support their positions.

This is like the species-and-subspecies debate. There’s some disagreement in the scientific community about exactly how each term is defined and whether “subspecies” adds more to our understanding than it obscures. However, the argument itself is held in obscure academia–right up until someone wants to claim that their racism has some basis in reality.

If the competition to define “woman” were an argument only over semantics, a handful of people would care. It would be happening in academic journals, not on Twitter and in blog posts and opinion columns. People would only dream that anyone would care about their opinion on the topic.

If the definition of “woman” were “purely semantic”, the answer wouldn’t determine:

But those are the stakes we’re talking about. They are not academic. They are not semantic. Real people have political stakes in these discussions–high stakes.

The answers we give to that question, and the way we work to get to those answers, make a difference. Sometimes that is literally the difference between life and death. That goes far beyond the “purely semantic”.

When our debates have the potential to affect lives on that level, that creates an ethical imperative to have the best debates we can have: highly informed, humble, rigorous, compassionate, cognizant of bias, willing to leave unsettled questions open, and until we’re comfortable that we’ve met these standards to the best of our ability, perhaps even private.

Does that sound like a lot of work? It is. Does it sound like too much work for you? Then maybe it’s your interest that is “purely semantic”, because it isn’t the topic. And maybe you want to think about that the next time you decide you need to weigh in.

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“Purely Semantic”

11 thoughts on ““Purely Semantic”

  1. 2

    I feel as though if this were the opinion of an average Joe it wouldn’t matter. I myself am a transwoman and am not particularily offended by anything he has said. The question remains about what is or isn’t a woman?

    The answer from a linguistics stand point is fairly straightforward. “Woman – an adult human female.” The word has it’s roots in the old english word wīfmon – denoting a man’s wife. It goes further back to the word wife. So, no answers there. The next word to analyse would be “Female – of or denoting the sex that can bear offspring or produce eggs, distinguished biologically by the production of gametes (ova) that can be fertilized by male gametes.”, which gives us a very straightforward answer that can be applied to most cases, but doesn’t account for the modern view of gender. For that we need to move on to another word.

    “Gender – the state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones).” which is derived from the latin word “Genus – denoting a person’s birth, family, or nation.”. Which leads us to a more correct answer, it’s more about who you are. The word gender is plastic in that it can be many things.

    So really, the debate only exists in the form of language. The transgender people of the world simply want people to recognise that their genders are not attached to their DNA, and are rooted more so in their personalities and traits. Which fits our biological and linguistic views, and is thusly the correct one. It would have been nice if he’d simply said that he calls women by female pronouns, ALL women being the emphasis. But overall, doesn’t come off as being overly-malicious and I’m not overly bothered by his statements.

  2. 3

    judging from the second tweet, what he seems to have wanted to say is that “woman” is a socially constructed category and therefore there is no society-independent (i.e. “real” or “objective”) definition for who qualifies.

    But that would be social science jargon, and possibly even post-modernism; cannot use that, so he just went and used the completely wrong terms instead :-p

  3. 4

    I think the list of “Richard Dawkins is clueless about but pontificates on” has pretty much extended to “everything”. Yes, “woman” as a gender is a social construct. So is “woman” as a biological entity. Unless you want to evoke a god who forged an eternal and true link between certain chromosomes and a certain sex/gender.
    We only have language to construct our understanding of reality with and that is always flawed.

    I also would give special mentions to his repeated insistence that because he’s a native speaker, his language use is quite infallible. Seriously, he is Humpty Dumpty reincarnate. As if there was ONE English language which is determined by white Oxbridge educated men whereas everybody else is simply deficient should they understand him differently from his intended meaning. I’m afraid this extends to you, my American friends.

  4. 5

    I guess for The Dawk, an ageing aristocrat sitting in his cosy office tapping away on his iPhone, looking up occasionally to glance out at the world that has passed him by, this issue is “purely semantic”.
    After all, isn’t this just one man offering his opinions on a microblogging network?

  5. 6

    AAutumn, I don’t think I said you or anyone needed to be offended by what Dawkins said. Also, I gave several examples of how this debate plays out in ways that aren’t just language. Feel free to address those if you think they’re wrong.

  6. 7

    AAutumn, your argument that Dawkin’s blunder has to do with “just” language would suggest that language is not the vehicle by which a person describes their understanding of the world.

    If I’m offended by Dawkin’s choice of words, it’s because I’m tired of white old cishet twits commenting on lived experiences they haven’t, you know, lived.

  7. 8

    If the definition of “woman” were “purely semantic”, the answer wouldn’t determine:

    I thought that all definitions are purely semantic, by definition 😛

    Notice what is really determining things in each of your examples: beliefs about the person in question. So even if you defined gender words differently (or tabooed them entirely) these issues would remain. Because the issues are related to beliefs about the facts of reality, not the words we use to label those facts.

  8. 9

    Guess what, Brian – this is why Dawkins’ tweet (at least without the additional clarifications he made later) is pretty poor work. Trans women know this isn’t just about what linguistic signifiers you choose to use.

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