Sunday, January 13, 2008

Motivated Incomprehension

Take the following passage, written by a respected academic:
Hillary Clinton suffers from being a Clinton, as well as having one of the most unappealing public personae of a national politician in recent memory. Dick Cheney is creepier and scarier, to be sure, but “fake” is the only word that captures the impression Ms. Clinton makes every time she opens her mouth.

Now, could any competent speaker of the English language reasonably interpret this as RM does?
“unappealing,” meaning–I, Brian Leiter, would not want to sleep with her?

Because that just sounds completely loony to me. When I asked RM to explain how she[?] could possibly interpret the talk of 'appeal', in this context, as referring to sex appeal, RM wrote:
the “context” is the historical characterization of women being evaluated in terms of sexual appeal. This context is always present, regardless if it is explicitly referred to or not.

So apparently it is impossible in our linguistic community to successfully refer to any kind of 'appeal' other than sex appeal, when speaking of a person who is female. That would surprise me. At least, when I read the original quote, the "sex appeal" interpretation did not even occur to me. Yet RM leaped at it as the only possible interpretation. So one of us must be way out of touch with the rest of the speech community. (I assume it's RM who's wrong here, but I'd encourage any readers to report their linguistic intuitions in the comments, just so I can be sure.)

This illustrates one of the things that really bothers me with ideological movements: they seem to impede clear thought (to put it mildly). Paranoia leads ideologues to see threats and insults where none exist. Further, some seem motivated to twist others' statements and read them in the most uncharitable light, willfully misunderstanding them in order to get that dark rush of moralistic pleasure that comes from thinking ill of others. (Cf. Hilzoy's 'Hatred Is A Poison' - possibly the best blog post I've ever read.)

Indeed, RM repeats the debacle later in the very same comments thread. I wrote: "if we are to take sexism seriously, then wrongful accusations of sexism are also pretty serious, to my mind." To which RM responded:

This my last comment. If you feel the need to get the last word in, well, I’ll write that off to your nature.

Have you ever heard of Modus Tollens (it’s related to Transposition)? When we have a conditional statement if A then B, and if not B is shown to be the case, we can conclude not A. This means that B not being the case can, indeed, show that A is false (or as you loosely put it, call A “into doubt”).

In your example, B NOT being the case would be making false accusations of sexism, i.e. if we prove that there are lots of false accusations of sexism then we should not take sexism seriously.

So, my dear boy, given that you think that Leiter has been falsely accused of being sexist, we have at least one instance of not B that could call A (taking sexism seriously) into doubt. Granted, how many more of these “false accusations” are needed before you really begin to question sexism is not clear.

Regardless, I suggest you take a quick look at Modus Tollens. Google it. I teach it in my intro logic class.


Never mind the patronizing false intimacy, or the passive-aggressive posturing re: getting the last word in. Here we have a logic professor suggesting that "if we prove that there are lots of false accusations of sexism then we should not take sexism seriously" is the contrapositive of the previously quoted conditional (apparently misreading the actual consequent, i.e. 'wrongful accusations of sexism are serious', as the very different claim: 'wrongful accusations of sexism don't occur'). The mind boggles.


  1. I'm glad you didn't leave RM with the last word (RE: Modus Tollens). Clowns like this don't deserve to be taken too seriously, but a clean refutation is still nice to see every once in a while... =)

  2. I am with you on this one as well. When I first read Leiter's blog post, the interpretation of "appealing" as "sexually appealing" didn't appear to me at all. It still strikes me as nonsense.

    "Paranoia leads ideologues to see threats and insults where none exist."

    So true.

  3. Hillary probably does appear fake in some part as a result of sexism. And there is a question regarding whether working around such sexism (for example never putting forward a female candidate) is not the same as becoming part of the problem.
    Of course there make be bigger fish to fry, or maybe Hillary has already benefited from sexism (the pro female sort) if two wrongs make a right.

  4. I certainly didn't read that as 'sexually unappealing'.

  5. What's especially worrying is that RM felt able to make such a... curious comment without expecting to be discredited in the eyes of (?)her colleagues. Hopefully some of her logic students will read your response and learn a healthy scepticism about academic authority.

  6. While I think RM's reference to the historical context is undoubtedly correct, I think her interpretation of Leiter's statement is completely unwarranted, particularly since Leiter explains what he means by "unappealing." In fact, he does so in the very next sentence, when he writes:

    "Dick Cheney is creepier and scarier, to be sure, but “fake” is the only word that captures the impression Ms. Clinton makes every time she opens her mouth."

    In other words, Leiter finds her unappealing because she seems "fake" to him (I think she seems "fake," too, but I think most politicians seem "fake").

  7. we know the public thinks that Hillary seems 'fake'. And it is valid for Leiter to point that out for the purposes of wining an election (Dems vs Repubs) but he seems to go further to imply that he and you also have and probably should have that opinion without any argument regarding 'why'.

    For example Richard, I think, talked about Hillary being fake about the war - which is a debate that could have happened in this case - but did not.

    I think one of the major reasons why we are now presented with a woman who has a 'fake' label and a 'authentic' black man is in part due to the 'niche' that we cut for those steriotypes. I.e. sexism and racism which probably works better for Obama than for Hillary (although Hillary does get to cry for votes).

    It seems that from a feminist perspective a person could easily talk about sexist cliche and further misogyny without actually consciously considering it - and that maybe they should, and maybe feminist blogs are right to highlight it.

    of course I think RM goes too far - used poor logic and was unnecessarily insulting.

  8. The whole thing is ridiculous - Leiter is comparing Clinton to Cheney - a *man* - , saying that they're both unappealing: Clinton because she's fake, Cheney because he's creepy and scary. So, Leiter is saying *both* a man and a woman are unappealing, therefore Leiter is sexist. Yes, mind does boggle.

    I've been seriously considering taking that blog off my RSS reader for a while now, precisely because of such generalizations: one cannot even criticize a female monstrum without being labeled sexist. Apparently only white "Richlets" of European descent would even consider making such accusations. RM is just plain scary in her immaturity.

  9. Work in psychology has shown that while men may seek attractive women for some jobs (typically 'feminine' jobs, such as receptionists, and hecne that attractive women have social advantages in that respect), that in fact they prefer *unattractive* women for certain jobs (such as leadership type jobs, which are typically thought of in masculine terms, as in politics).

    You might draw in the case of Helen Clark as consistent with that finding Richard!

    In any case, this tends to throw a spanner in the works of the person you were responding to.

  10. I really needed to read this right now! As a feminist blogger I bang my head against this type of logic all the time: since we're dwelling within patriarchy, it's impossible to see outside of it, therefore everything you think is part of it and therefore tainted and possibly mistaken. Hence, any reference to a woman is sexual because we're all living within patriarchal structures that won't have it any other way.

    Because I argue against that insistant withdrawal of free will or intent, I'm often labled a traitor. But I'd rather be a traitor than a looney.

    And I while I understand why some women see threats where there are none (abuse in formative years and beyond...) and why they might insist, for example, that a man who asks for sex more than once in a row is a rapist, I cold-heartedly assert there's no good reason for bad logic.


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