Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Our Ideas Held No Water But We Used Them Like a Dam

Ben Zimmer:

Those who looked up "misogyny" in Merriam-Webster's online dictionary would find a terse definition: "a hatred of women." Etymologically speaking, that is right on the money, as the word combines the Greek root for "woman" with the prefix "miso-" meaning "hatred" (also found in "misandry," a hatred of men, and "misanthropy," a hatred of humankind).

But given the modern usage of the word, is that definition in need of a rewrite? From the evidence that Mr. Rodger left behind, it is easy to diagnose him as having an abiding hatred for women, but few of the critics of Messrs. Limbaugh and Abbott would go so far in describing their attitudes. The "misogyny" at issue in those two incidents, as well as the kind typically discussed this past week under the banner of #YesAllWomen, has more to do with ingrained prejudices against women than a pathological hatred of them.

Language certainly does evolve. There's no reason why the definition of misogyny couldn't expand to mean little more in practice than "anything that offends a feminist undergrad." Popular usage has committed worse crimes and will do so again. This should be obvious and uncontroversial, but then again, these are largely the same people who will shamelessly turn a half-circle and argue that certain slurs were created from offensive origins, have always been offensive, and can never be anything but offensive, end of story. Political expediency rather than intellectual consistency is the name of their game.

A mere few years ago, if I had heard someone described as a misogynist, I would have been almost shocked. Goodness, what a terrible person he must be! Now? Ho-hum. The currency has been completely debased. It won't even buy you a raised eyebrow from me anymore. To expand upon a recent assertion, the word "misogyny" is currently used to describe the attitude of young men who are only really interested in women as objects of sexual conquest. It supposedly underlies the use of gendered words as insults, indicating contempt for femininity itself, rather than any particular individual woman. It's assumed to motivate the supposedly unconscious bias affecting female hires, and as with Freudianism, denial of the accusation only counts as further proof in its favor.

These and other disparate examples are then assumed to exist on a continuum with extreme expressions of male supremacy like domestic violence and actual mass murder, all logically and necessarily connected. Like a shapeshifting evil spirit, misogyny can manifest in a variety of seemingly-unrelated forms, from self-centered sexuality to murderous rage. If you protest that no single concept can meaningfully describe such a vast range of attitudes and behaviors, well, maybe you've been possessed yourself. Pilgrims must always be on their guard in this fallen world against Satanic misogynist trickery. Have you been known to consort with woman-haters and perform foul rituals in dark corners of the Internet?

Speaking of concepts, there's a useful one called congruence biasRolf Dobelli described the most famous study involving it like so:

A professor presented his students with the number sequence 2-4-6. They had to calculate the underlying rule that the professor had written on the back of a sheet of paper. The students had to provide the next number in the sequence, to which the professor would reply 'fits the rule' or 'does not fit the rule'. The students could guess as many numbers as they wanted, but could try to identify the rule only once. Most students suggested 8 as the next number, and the professor replied: 'Fits the rule.' To be sure, they tried 10, 12 and 14. The professor replied each time, 'Fits the rule.' The students concluded that: 'The rule is to add two to the last number.' The professor shook his head: 'That is not the rule.'

One shrewd student tried a different approach. He tested out the number -2. The professor said 'Does not fit the rule.' 'Seven?' he asked. 'Fits the rule.' The student tried all sorts of numbers -24, 9, -43...Apparently he had an idea, and was trying to find a flaw with it. Only when he could no longer find a counter-example, the student said: 'The rule is this: the next number must be higher than the previous one.' The professor turned over the sheet of paper, and this was exactly what he had written down.

What distinguished the resourceful student from the others? While the majority of students sought merely to confirm their theories, he tried to find fault with his, consciously looking for disconfirming evidence.

The human brain is, of course, a pattern-seeking machine extraordinaire. We see faces in the clouds, detect agency in random movements, connect the dots with a straight line, and invent elaborate ad-hoc theories to give our apophenia the appearance of solidity. In a political environment, though, such as the one surrounding the definition and use of certain words, looking for disconfirming evidence is itself perceived to be a reactionary political act. The very tool necessary to circumvent error has been politicized by ideologues, at which point there's nothing left but the shouting.