Monday, December 3, 2007

Big Brother Checks Every Word

Racism used to be about lynchings, beatings, the KKK. Nasty slurs and hatred. Discrimination. Threats. Now it's also about your choice of words when describing cake decorations.


jeff said...

Your interpretations are so...odd...sometimes. First of all, "Big Brother"? Big Brother generally refers to state-sponsored surveillance fascism, not to individuals making arguments on blogs.

Secondly, where in the world does Andrea say that racism is all about your choice of words when describing cake decorations? She's pointing out that cultural appropriation can be subtle and, yes, racist. She's surely not advocating that we ignor lynchings, beatings and the KKK. So-called 'subtle' forms of racism can be quite harmful, even if they aren't as obvious as burning a cross on somebody's lawn--which is part of the point Andrea is making.

If you think that her take on cultural appropriation isn't a good take on a kind of racism, then I'm eager to hear your arguments, but starting from such straw-person arguments seems like a poor place from which to begin.

Sweating Through fog said...

Ugggh! This is not the first time I didn't choose my words carefully, and it lead to a completely different interpretation. The careless "all" in ". . .it's all about your choice of words" was careless, and I'll remove it, since it implies "only" I'm still new at this and have lots to learn.

What I was trying to suggest that the heroic energy invested in the civil rights movement - people died for justice then - is now invested in policing insignificant minutia. In policing the tiniest of thoughtcrimes. I wasn't referring to the original post so much as the stream of commentary on it, particularly Katie.

There is just something about using the same word - racism - to discuss the KKK and someone who uses the word "costume", or creates costumes about gods.

Regarding Big Brother and Fascism. It has been decades sine I read 1984, but I recall it wasn't so much about fascism, but about living in a totalitarian society where the tiniest actions, and thoughts even, are under constant, threatening scrutiny. In the blogsphere we have millions of eyes scrutinizing every word. The ability to write is liberating - the scrutiny might be oppressive. It can go either way.

Funny but we had a similar reaction. I was reacting to an unreasonable extension of the word racism. You were reacting to an unreasonable extension of fascism.
I should have written a longer, clearer post about what I meant.

But regarding scrutiny - as a new blogger, there is nothing I welcome more than the close scrutiny of my words. This is not the first time I've been corrected, and the feedback is invaluable. I am grateful.

jeff said...

Hey STF. I appreciate the response. I suppose I was reacting to an extension of 'fascism' which I found sort of unreasonable.

I think I understand what you mean--but I also wonder how many people would equate concerns about using the word 'costume' with burning crosses on lawns and/or lynchings.

That said, I think you and I might also disagree as what counts as 'insignificant minutia'. The little things add up. And they can be invisible if not pointed out explicitly (so the fact that they add up plays into things even more, because there are many more of 'em to add up).

Eric said...

The artist reducing a wedding dress to an ethnic costume takes what is a beautiful work of art and turns it into a clear-cut example of what Sara was saying about Western privilege. It’s not an artist seeing beauty and wanting to share that beauty with others that I see; it’s a conqueror taking another culture’s “quaint” customs and using the exoticism to enhance their reputation as “worldly” and “sophisticated”.

STF, she is talking less about racism proper in her posts and more about Orientalism as defined by Edward Said.

I'd suggest checking out the book
Orientalism by Edward Said to understand what is fueling her argument.

If you take the time to read that, I'd also suggest reading some of the critiques of Said's work and thesis:
Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and its Discontent by Robert Irwin and Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said's Orientalism by the apostate Ibn Warraq, which if you ask some people has basically disproved forever anything Said had to say and thus most people who try to make similar arguments.

Personally, I think the use of the word "costume" has very little to do with Orientalism (i.e. defining an Eastern culture (the Orient) as inferior and exotic in comparison to the rational, logical, technologically superior West (the Occidental), basically Said's thesis and what Tekanji is talking about) and is a better example of a poorly chosen word just like your use of the phrase "big brother."

However, upon doing a little more research . . .

According to the The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000. costume can have three meanings NOUN: 1. A style of dress, including garments, accessories, and hairstyle, especially as characteristic of a particular country, period, or people. 2. An outfit or a disguise worn on Mardi Gras, Halloween, or similar occasions. 3. A set of clothes appropriate for a particular occasion or season.

If you look at both 1 and 3 you notice the baker uses the exact meaning of the word. Now if Tekanji wants to argue that the word itself is infused with racist (more specifically Orientalist) meanings then she can make that argument, but that's not what she is actually arguing. What she claims is that it is the baker's use of the word on this occasion that makes it racist as if costume can only mean definition 2. Yet, I just showed that the baker's use of the word fits squarely with one, if not two, of its other definitions.

These definitions and usages are repeated in other dictionaries.

The Etymology
of the word points out that it has a very close relation to the word "custom" in Italian (?): "1715, art term, from Fr., from It., from L. consuetudo "custom," and essentially the same word as custom but arriving by a different etymology. From "customary clothes of the particular period in which the scene is laid," meaning broadened by 1818 to "any defined mode of dress." Costume jewelry is first attested 1933."

So basically her argument is wrong, in my opinion, because it ignores this etymological history. If she wanted to make a valid argument, she'd have to prove the word itself is racist, which would then require her to do an elaborate history of the word (where did it first appear in English?), what were some of its earliest uses, etc. As I just showed, however, costume is NOT an inappropriate word in this instance based off its definition in English.

Eric said...

I also didn't mean to suggest that you haven't read Said's work or the other two, that would be presumptuous of me and I hate when people automatically make those kind of assumptions with me. For all I know you have read it. I sort of went into excited librarian "oh I get to make book recommendations" mode.

Sorry about that!

Sweating Through fog said...


No problem - in fact I hadn't read any of the works you cited.

I really do have to write a more extended piece about what I was trying to get at. What troubled me was using words like racism (katie's comment) and conquerer(the comment you quoted) to characterize a person based on how they describe a dress or cake decorations. It seems to call for the self-censorship of every thought we have, everything we say, to make sure it is free of any colonialist, sexist, racist, orientalist, homophobic etc. tinge that a vigilant inquisitor might be able to detect.