Monday, January 9, 2012


One of the first times I realised that current scientific thinking about the mind conflicts with the way I understand the world was from reading Stephen Pinker's The Language Instinct.  It was assigned to me in a linguistics class at the christian college I attended (there's a very long story behind that, and probably an even longer story behind the professor who would assign a book written by a cognitive scientist/evolutionary psychologist to a bunch of christians). and--I didn't like it.

At the time, I was still professing to believe in one particular god and his son who was also him, etc.., but interestingly, i'm still certain that it wasn't my adherence to those codified religious beliefs which caused me to find Pinker useless.  Pinker borrows heavily from Chomsky's idea that language is hard-wired into the brain (I hate using mechanical metaphor for organic organisms, but let's let that slip, yeah?)--that is, we're born with the mental faculty to learn and use language(s), and "switches" are turned on or off according to the general type of that language's grammar.

This isn't hard to agree with, actually.  But what I find more difficult, and probably wrong, is his assertion that thoughts are independent from words.  Consider Orwell's assertions that a totalitarian society could better control its people by reducing their access to words, and that "doublespeak" exists as a tool not just of obfuscating information, but confusing and limiting thought.  Also, the converse of this notion: along with new words (and languages) comes the possibility of new thoughts, or modes of thinking. *

It's either a primitive superstition or an ancient wisdom to believe that words have power, and even more so, names.  In multiple cultures, "naming" is an act of power; it conveys upon the named the traits of the name itself.  And consider all the esoteric ponderings of the meanings of the tetragrammaton (the four hebrew letters denoting the name-of-god), including the still-survived bann against saying the name aloud in orthodox jewish practice.

This seems to derive from an opposite (and also hard to accept) belief that power itself is contained within the sounds of a word.  I don't dislike the aesthetics of such an idea, particularly when it also comes to music and why the sound of something in D Dorian sounds so haunting on a reeded instrument and why D Minor sounds much safer (and better for pensivity than anything in F major)(fuck F major).  Formalized ancient music writing contains countless references to the magic of one mode over another, the uses and purpose and emotions that can be evoked with mixolodian vs lydian.

As I say, I like the aesthetics of it, but I'm equally uncomfortable with the notion that names possess inherent meanings as I am with Pinker's argument.  But equally, I'm frustrated by the general compromise between these two ideas, represented by the weakest section of the multiculturalist framework--words have some meaning to some people, but not to others, and therefore one should be as technical and unemotive as possible with their choice of words.

I'm writing about this because I offended someone the other day.  I said the words "freak" and "tranny" in the same sentence when describing some of my favorite co-workers, and a new co-worker, who'd I'd been training, first got very quiet and then angry, and then asked,  "Why are you describing transgendered people as freaks?"

It isn't uncommon to run into this problem in Seattle.  The actual experience of life as a lefty-fag-freak is vastly different from the academic discourse of gender studies and sensitivity.  I go to drag shows where my friend dresses up as a "retarded" child and gets abused by a cheap-liquor-swilling overweight trailer-dwelling ugly-as-hell drag-quaen.  I've lived with males who've become females but refused to shave their face.  I had a friend move here from the east-coast at the same time that I did, become a male and refuse to admit that I'd ever known him when he was a she.  A good friend of mine hugged me on the street and told me she'd finally transitioned to he, and the only difference I'd noticed was that he was a hell of a lot happier now.

Each one of them has happily enjoined the use of the word "freak" along with "tranny."  Those who've I met who oppose either of those words (I hate when someone tries to tell me I'm not a freak) have had the same certainty of what the world is really about as I've seen in both fundamentalists and materialists (left or right).  And they've all been so gods-damned normal.

Multiculturalism seems too often a stand-in for monoculturalism.  It borrows heavily from the medicalisation of human traits started by the scientific totalitarian regimes--sexual and social "deviance" can be traced somewhere to the body.  Folk who'd see themselves as a different gender than the one into which they physically appear experience "gender disphoria," that is, a medical/psychological disorder that can be remedied by therapy or surgery.  In the same way, homosexuals are now "born that way" and possess something within their genetic makeup which inclines them to have sex with someone besides the normal, expected sexual object.

There are political reasons why this has become widely considered factual.  White men of certain economic means argue very heavily that gays deserve the same rights as straight (marriage, etc.) because they don't choose to be gay, they just are gay, and besides, DSM doesn't define them as mentally ill anymore.  They use the human-rights discourse and have wagered that genetic determinism is on their side.

The attempt to create a master-narrative in which deviancy--that is, freakishness--is acceptable seems both stupid and dangerous to me.  It's stupid, because I don't see a need for it.  None of my (self-identified) tranny friends want to be "normal," and I'm a freak specifically because I reject (okay, actually, hate) monoculture.

And it's dangerous, because I do not think the need or desire to become something else should be a matter of medical, scientific, or political discourse.  It's obnoxious to evoke the Nazis, and I'm sorry for doing this, but consider the certainty that the intellectuals within Germany at that time had concerning the racially/sexually/socially different.  Consider the "work-shy," people who had medical/psychological disorders which kept them not only from working as much as others, but prevented them from wanting to (Arbeit Macht Frei--work makes you free--was not just a cynical slogan in a death-camp).

I'm quite certain that the words one uses to describe the life of another (work-shy, gender disphoric, multi-racial) define and confine the existence of that person into a tight space within the mind.  Naming still possesses power, at least within the sphere of the social and political.

That's why I've no problem calling myself a freak.  It's a word that doesn't mean what it is supposed to, or a name that now cannot be defined in any limited sort of way.  It was derogatory, and on the tongues of some is still intended to be, but we've stolen it back in the same way that many gays have stolen back "faggot" and blacks have stolen back "nigger."  It's an act of defiance, a subversion, a transubstantiation of meaning.  Freak is a word full of mirth and joy, in the same way my "gender disphoric" friends prefer "tranny."

*In many other languages, you do not ask someone what their "name" is, you ask them how are they "called."  There is an uncertainty inherent within this notion, a politeness and caution.  There's a world of difference between "what" and "how"--what assumes a concrete thing, a term, while how implies means: "by what means shall I call you?" 



  1. Okay, much here.

    First, I think you should consider a re-reading of Pinker, because I think you came away with half the picture (not that one could be expected to learn anything useful at Gordon anyway). I think he does make a point to stress that not ALL thought is language, but I think he concedes that a great deal of it is. It has been a while since I read Language Instinct or How The Mind Works, too, so I would have to do a similar reread to be clear. However, his new book which sits on my shelf as yet unread, is called "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature."

    Now, Pinker's position on language isn't going to convince you of the validity of the scientific method. However, citing one example that doesn't sit well with your preferred world view is a tad specious. And as much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news how we, as very limited mortals, "understand the world" is incredibly, incredibly limited. Thus the search for repeatable, verifiable events, that lead to accurate predictions of the future even when they contradict our armchair intuitions.

    And although I know the above won't sway you one iota, I am obliged to say it anyway. :) However, my real point was this. One man doesn't speak for science, and a book I think you would like (which I push on everyone, but no one reads) is George Lakoff's "The Political Mind." He is very left wing in the traditional bourgeois, Democrat, kinda way, which gets in the way a tad. However, he presents a very interesting discussion about "narrative frames" and how profoundly they shape our world view. Very scientific, empirical approach, and incredibly it might just line up with your own guesses.

    I enjoyed reading your post, as I have all. Please keep it up. :)

  2. But I don't even have an armchair... : )

  3. I intend to read Pinker's Tabula Rasa at some point. He was an entertaining writer, anyway.

    You know I could cite other examples that don't "sit well with [my] preferred world view," but of course that's not quite the point. More, really, it's that the political/ideological attempts to understand gender and deviance rarely square with actual experience, a point I figured you'd agree with (and made yourself, to some degree, in The Self Referential Paradox).