Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Words - gay, misogyny, with just a dash of heterosexism

Oh dear, just when you think it's safe to come out of the water.

Once there was a word called gay. It meant happy, merry, but carried with it an expressive feel . Hence gaiety. Then it was taken over, the meaning changed to mean homosexual, especially male homosexual. The old meaning started to drop away. A male who said that I feel gay tonight could well be misinterpreted or, perhaps, not. It depended.

Then there was the word misogynist meaning women hater or, at least, someone who disliked women. It was quite a useful word, appearing in popular fiction including children's fiction with phrases like "so and so was a crusty old misogynist." The Australian Macquarie dictionary  has now announced that it is including a second string to the definition:   an entrenched prejudice against women

Some of the Australian media has interpreted this as an act of political correctness by the dictionary in response to the PM's speech. If that were the case, I would be very upset. But the meaning of the word has changed. We actually saw this in the responses to the PM's speech. But I checked around, simply asking younger ones for the meaning of misogynist. They came up with the new Macquarie definition. So the definition does reflect changing use of the language. Just the Macquarie timing, intentional or not, is unfortunate.

In the meantime, we have lost another word, for entrenched prejudice against women however defined certainly need not mean hatred of women. When I expressed sadness at the loss, I was asked what word I would use to describe the new definition of misogyny. I simply said sexist.

If all this wasn't enough, I happened to read this story in Sydney's Daily Telegraph: Being straight no longer normal, students taught. I am not normally a Telegraph reader, but the paper was there while I was waiting. This introduced me to a whole new term that I had yet to hear, heterosexism.

The story was about a pilot program in NSW schools. This appeared to define heterosexism, and I quote from the story,    

....the practice of "positioning heterosexuality as the norm for human relationship," according to the Proud Schools Consultation Report.

"It involves ignoring, making invisible or discriminating against non-heterosexual people, their relationships and their interests. Heterosexism feeds homophobia."

The program should "focus on the dominance of heterosexism rather than on homophobia," according to the minutes from the Proud Schools steering committee on March 22, 2011.

Now given the Telegraph's usual market positioning, I would be far from certain about the accuracy of the reporting. Even so, heterosexism? It's really all becoming far too confusing!

While chatting, I did a little testing in terms of some of the views I expressed in Abbott, Gillard - time to stop!. Not a scientific sample, I accept, but there was great dislike for the personal venom on each side.

Yours from a confused Jim who feels obliged to report but really, really, doesn't like all this.


For other takes on all this, New England free lance radio reporter Kate Doak has yet another take on aspects of the Abbott/Gillard affair - The Tale of Two Tonys and a Julia...... It was Kate who released the tape of a young Tony Abbott talking on student radio at UNE during a visit.

Then in Misoneism?, Neil Whitfield took another direction, in so doing confirming that the Macquarie dictionary decision to redefine had been misogynist in the dictionary had been influenced by the PM's speech. I quote:

Sue Butler, Editor of the Macquarie Dictionary, regarded as the definitive authority on Australian meanings of words, said on Wednesday the political furore revealed to her fellow Editors that their dictionary’s definition was decades out of date.

The dictionary would broaden its definition from a hatred of women to include entrenched prejudice against women, she said.

“Since the 1980s, ‘misogyny’ has come to be used as a synonym for sexism, a synonym with bite, but nevertheless with the meaning of ‘entrenched prejudice against women’ rather than ‘pathological hatred’”, she said.

I think that's unfortunate. It also appears that the changing meaning of the word has been influenced  by very specific feminist debate.

In a comment on the NSW position, Winton Bates wrote: Jim, it seems to me that people who argue that hetrosexuality is not the norm for human relationships are possibly guilty of misogyny and misandry, as well as misinformation.

Misandry, the hatred of men and boys, is the dictionary opposite to misogyny. If we are going to redefine misogyny, it would seem perfectly appropriate to redefine misandry in the same way as entrenched prejudice against men. Defined in this way it certainly exists. Indeed, I have given examples on this blog. What's more, I'm not sure that it's getting better, although some have argued that things have changed. Whatever the case, we have a fruitful new ground for verbal conflict.

In his comment, Winton also shared my reservations about the content of the report, something that Neil picked up when he quoted the original objectives of the NSW pilot. The problem here is that objectives and the way those objectives are implemented are two very different things. We just don't know, for example, whether the claim about heterosexism is correct. It may be. We have seen some funny things in NSW before.

In any event, words will be words whatever I or anyone else feels. Further, life is too short to attempt to follow up the detail of every claim and counter claim.

I am quite comfortable with the position I articulated some time ago, that I support equality of opportunity independent of gender or sexual orientation. This includes attacking the barriers that reduce men's choices.

I am not posting today. Please treat this update as my post. 


Winton Bates said...

Jim, it seems to me that people who argue that hetrosexuality is not the norm for human relationships are possibly guilty of mysogyny and misandy, as well as misinformation.
However, like you, I have doubts about the accuracy of the report.

Winton Bates said...

Oops, that should have been misandry.

Jim Belshaw said...

lol! You know, I had forgotten misandry, Winton, The word, that is, not the experience.

Anonymous said...

All this angst over the changing meaning of words reaffirms my decision to remain just a plain old misanthropist.

Carry on; I've got King Parrots to feed, dogs to pat ;)


Neil said...

Misanthropy is a noble tradition!

My point about The Macquarie and "misogyny" would really be that nothing very extraordinary has happened. The recent kerfuffle alerted Sue Butler and colleagues that something was happening with the word and, on reflection, had been for some time. They responded as modern lexicographers normally do. They were not trying to please anyone.

See Rewriting the OED for example:

"Today’s historical dictionaries are not monumental, static volumes, but dynamic texts which incorporate up-to-date information and respond rapidly to new information about the language as it comes to light. So how is the Third Edition of the OED being compiled? These are the principal steps in the editorial process:

collection and sorting of quotations for individual entries
editing of entries (by specialist new-words, scientific, and generalist editors), including the provision of British English and American English pronunciations (and others where necessary)
commissioning research on and specialist review of edited entries
preparation of etymologies (by the OED‘s Etymology group)
verification of bibliographical information for quotations to be published
final review by the Chief and Deputy Chief Editor
and, only then, publication
But even this is not the end of the story. Once an entry has been published, any of the dictionary’s readers may spot more information (such as an earlier attestation), which would improve an entry. So this material is filed in the editors’ ‘forward revision’ file, and—whenever possible—dealt with before the next online update."

Neil said...

Messy comment that -- apologies. I have clarified with an update on my own post.

Anonymous said...

Neil that's very interesting.

Buried in the comments over on The Conversation - on an article about the changing/widening of the definition - was a brief note from someone to the effect that "dictionaries record use and changes in use; they do not regulate use".

I quite liked that.


Evan said...

Winton, men loving men being included in normal is hating men (misandry0?

Rod said...

Can I get myself in trouble (again) by mentioning the word faggot? I have managed to get myself in trouble by trying to reclaim the negative modern use of the word by using it its original context for lighting fires. Oh, dear. I didn't learn and tried again... got myself into more trouble. I wonder how mentioning 'faggot' and 'fire' in the same comment will be reacted to?

Anonymous said...

Rod I'd just say that if words are meant to assist in communication, and if you find yourself having to explain (or defend) your use of a word, then it's probably time to select a new word for the concept you wish to convey.

I love words as much as anyone, but they are just servants and should never get in the way of ideas or conversations.


Anonymous said...

Further, I am moved (by the merest of excuses) to reference one of my favourite poems, and one it's most perfect lines. The poem is here:

- and the line for you, Rob, is:

He turned away the good old horse that served him many days

There's a regret and respect in that, but also an acknowledgement of moving on (not never to be confused with 'moving forward' - which I think is an abomination)

Winton or Neil might say it better, but I bow only to Banjo!


Jim Belshaw said...

I do wonder, kvd, whether or not you should take a number of faggots to "moving on" in order to burn the offender to smithereens?

Anonymous said...

'Smithereens' I always associate with jolly, evil, pirates; 'faggots' with the worst of imported American culture; 'moving on' with British comedy - as in 'yes, well, moving right along'.

We each have our own influences, prejudices, and backgrounds. But over that is the fact that this is your blog, your 'space'. And sometimes I would politely disagree.