March 28th, 2008

ozarque figure

Are modern women [and men] miserable?; part four; slumgullion...

1. In Part Three of this discussion, I said:

Things that a culture doesn't want to talk about, that culture makes it cumbersome to talk about. One mechanism for creating that cumbersomeness is to keep the vocabulary for talking about those things severely limited, so that when people try to talk about them they have to "go on and on and on," so that their listeners grow restless and start demanding that they "get to the point."

If we really did have a thorough and complete discussion about the interface between biological gender and caregiving, it would wreak havoc. Our culture cannot afford to risk the economic consequences -- much less the emotional consequences -- of recognizing caregiving as Real Work [i.e., paid work, entitled to all the legal trappings and benefits that go with Real Work]...

2. I wrote about this problem in The Language Imperative, and would like to quote an excerpt here, from pages 129-131. [In the excerpt, the word "housework" is defined as including caregiving and the rest of the emotional work that goes with caregiving.]


It is simply a truth that the work done in the home, largely though not exclusively by women, is work in exactly the same way that the work done in a place of business is work. That presupposes, logically, that it deserves to be paid for in exactly the same way that picking up garbage or arresting criminals or writing magazine articles or playing pro tennis deserves to be paid for. Certainly we expect to pay for it when we have to hire someone from outside the family to do it...

So we find ourselves in a curious linguistic situation. If housewives were slaves, we'd have no language problem, but we SAME [Standard American Mainstream English] speakers abhor slavery; we can't call them slaves. If housewives were employees or independent contractors, we'd have no language problem, but referring to them that way would wreck the economy; we can't afford to do that. We have to use English to maintain the status quo in spite of the real-world facts -- and we do precisely that. ...

When Americans are asked explicitly whether they believe that the housewife's work is real work, as real as any other work, most will insist that that goes without saying. What we do, however, despite elaborate protestations to the contrary, is treat housework as a special type of work so low in status that people should be willing to do it for no compensation except the ocasional compliment. ...

"Working wives" and "working mothers" are understood to deserve the label "working" only when they hold a job outside the home in addition to doing the housework. The question/answer pair, "Do you work?"/"No, I'm a housewife" and the cliche phrase "only a housewife" are sturdy linguistic perennials in English.

Look at these pairs of sentences, please, remembering that examples marked with an asterisk are unacceptable sequences:

1-a "She's one of the top lawyers in the country."
1-b *"She's one of the top housewives in the country."

2-a "Distinguished archaeologist Mary Smith will arrive shortly."
2-b *"Distinguished housewife Mary Smith will arrive shortly."

3-a "Engineer Mary Smith and her colleagues have proposed that..."
3-b *"Housewife Mary Smith and her colleagues have proposed that..."

So far, English has rigorously preserved a lexical gap for the work that housewives and househusbands do, and for the role that they fill. ... If we had an aprt and convenient word for that-labor-which-is-done-in-the-home-in-order-to-make-the-American-economy-possible, a word to which we could add a morpheme like "-er" or "-ist" to yield someone-who-does-that-labor-which (etc.), it would become much more difficult to keep the situation out of sight and out of mind.

3. When I read the books in C. J. Cherryh's Foreigner series -- books that I love, and have read and re-read many times -- the aspect of those books that I find most seductive and most fantastic and most unearthly and most wonderful is the way Cherryh's extraterrestrials (the atevi) look after and take care of protagonist Bren Cameron. His every need is not only seen to, but anticipated; before he is even aware himself of what it is that he might want or need, it's there. With no fuss, and no complaining, and no air of martyrdom or distaste or unwillingness in those who are doing the work. What would that be like? I cannot even begin to imagine. No other writer has ever described a fantasy world that strikes me as being remotely as fantastic as this one aspect of Bren Cameron's world.

4. Maybe the solution to this problem for our culture -- supposing that our culture survives -- lies in robotics. Maybe. If we can keep ourselves from anthropomorphizing the robots who look after us and take care of us. And if we can keep the robots from becoming sentient beings.
ozarque figure

Blogging against torture...

[From pp. 191-195, in Native Tongue III: Earthsong]

The judge is sick at heart... He hasn't eaten this morning, nor will he eat this day; he never eats on torture days. It seems to him unspeakably obscene that anyone could cause another human to suffer agony and, on the same day, feed himself. He will take a little water; nothing more.

In another ten minutes it will be time for him to go into the little cubicle where the torture takes place. And it will be like it always is. He will sit down beside the table where the prisoner lies waiting for him. The prisoner will be motionless because of the net of energy fields that restrains him, but his eyes will be moving; their eyes are always dancing, frantic, trying to get away for the sake of the terrified body. The judge will sit down beside the prisoner and he will say the prayer he always says: "Merciful Lord, guide me in this work, and guide this man that he may profit by it, Amen." And then he will give the prisoner the injections.

There are two injections. The first paralyzes the vocal tract, so that there will be no screams, no moans, not even whimpering, during the torture. The second administers one hour of the fiercest pain this young world's scientists can devise; it is, they tell him a whole-body pain. ...

The judge will not do what he longs to do after he has given the injections. Unlike other judges who have filled this post, he will not get up and go away and come back in an hour, when the torture is over. He will sit beside the prisoner for the entire hour, holding the man's hand, tears pouring down over his cheeks and falling from time to time on the man's suffering flesh, and he will explain.

"My friend," he will say, "I want you to understand why this is being done to you. I want you to know that this pain has purpose. You were brought here to this place because you have tortured another human being. This procedure, this process that you are undergoing now, is administered only to torturers. Please understand that. ... If I wanted only to punish you, this is not what I would do. I know that you are not evil, my friend. And I know that when you understand what torture is, when you truly know how it feels to suffer the kind of pain that you inflict on others, you will not do it. Not ever again. I understand that."

"The point of this procedure," he will say, "is to show you what it is like, so that you will understand. There is no other way... We know that. Because everything else has been tried, since the beginning of time, and the torturers have gone out and been torturers still." ...

With some mysterious things there is at least a thread of meaning that can be grasped. If only by the grace of metaphor, there is a way to say, "I could not do that myself, but I can understand how someone could do it." Not with torture. Torture is different. There are no metaphors for torture. ...

He will go into the cubicle this morning and do what must be done, as he always has; it will be like it always is. He knows that no man could commit torture if he knew what his victim was feeling; it is just a matter of making it absolutely clear. It is a process of education, nothing more, and it must be done.

Except that this time it is not like it always is.

This time, when he leans over the prisoner to administer the two drugs, it is not the same. Because this time he recognizes the man who lies there... This man has been on the torture table before, has had the injections before ... the judge remembers this man.

The judge sets down his instruments without a word. For a moment he looks into the terrified eyes, and then he turns his back and walks away.

There is another cubicle in this facility of the Justice Department. The cubicle has no floor, and no proper door; it has a small square panel that covers an opening shaped to receive the tidy bundles of daily trash. A fat human being would not be able to fit through the opening, but the judge is thin. With almost no trouble at all, he slides the panel back and climbs into the opening. He makes not one sound, although he has had no injection to paralyze his vocal tract, as he falls toward the vaporizer.