Thursday, November 24, 2016

Description and Prescription

"Even the most strictly constative scientific description is always open to the possibility of functioning in a prescriptive way, capable of contributing to its own verification by exercising a theory effect through which it helps to bring about that which it declares." (Pierre Bourdieu, "Description and Prescription" in Language and Symbolic Power, p. 134)

Here's an upbeat linguistics lesson by Tom Scott that may soon be declared "hate propaganda" in Canada (or at least in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia):

For most of the lesson he's altogether politically correct. Note his admirably halfhearted struggle to remain "descriptive" as he describes the quirks of natural language—its "stupid" and "silly" features. He clearly doesn't approve of grammatical gender, and he's appropriately open minded about people who don't equate gender with biological sex. He's even humble about his qualifications to speak to the issue. Everything seems to be going well, even as he argues for the singular "they". But then he gets all transphobic at the end about "trying to force invented pronouns [like "co", "ne" and "xe"] into English." Clearly unaware of the awesome power of Canadian lawmakers, he tells us that this "has never worked."

Compare Michael, a "trans dude who likes to talk". He's altogether more with the program (let's remember that Bourdieu defines "theory" as a "program of perception"). He doesn't pussyfoot around with a descriptivist pretense. Rather, he tells you (!) what the simple, "easy" new rules of pronoun usage are.

The first rule, of course, is to "RESPECT PEOPLE'S PRONOUNS. Always. There should be no questions. There are no exceptions. If someone says, 'This is the pronoun that I want you to use to refer to me,' that is the pronoun you will use to refer to them." And he emphasizes how absolutely important this is. "To do otherwise is offensive, and invalidating, and humiliating, and, at best, awkward." And we wouldn't want to use language in offensive and awkward ways, of course! Indeed, there should probably be a law against it: "Respect people's pronouns. Easy."

I'll let you watch the rest of it yourself to get all of Michael's rules and tips. I just thought the juxtaposition of these two videos, which are three and two years old respectively, was very interesting. And it reminded me to go back and read Bourdieu's essay, which I may draw into this more explicitly soon.


Presskorn said...

Here is a prescription, which is grammatically (superficially) descriptive: The whole thing about gender neutral pronouns is inherently idiotic.

Also, the following sentence strikes me as ill-composed:
"To do otherwise is offensive, and invalidating, and humiliating, and, at best, awkward."

That sentence should be composed with disjunctions rather than conjunctions in order for the last "at best" to make sense.

Thomas said...

I mostly agree. But I think as a reductio of "postmodern" gender studies, it's an interesting thing to think about. (See this morning's post.) It shows that we never really recovered from from the crisis of representation. And that's really what I think I'll be writing about here on this blog for the next few years!