Grammar as metaphor

I’ve been noticing more uses of grammatical metalanguage in non-technical senses, either because people thought they were using it in the technical sense but were wrong, or because they’re using terms with a metaphorical, expanded meaning. Here, I just mean to catalog 2 of them. I don’t mean to point my pallid, vitamin-D-starved linguist finger at normies and make fun of how little they understand their own words, but just to point out that with linguistics going a tiny bit mainstream (I hope?), some of its technical jargon has been adapted, with modifications, for general use. If this trend continues, maybe linguists will begin to understand the frustration of psychologists and neuroscientists trying to explain what remember means.

Passive Voice Confuses, and People Are Confused

The term “passive voice” has been recruited as a metaphor for a few different features of discourse, almost always ones that the writer/speaker does not like. It always seems to refer to some attempt to obscure responsibility for an act, whether or not the utterance being called out includes what grammarians would call “passive voice”. Here are some examples of the various ways that people use “passive voice” in senses that range from technically correct to clearly not.

Here we see it used in a way consistent with its technical definition to criticize hiding the agent:

While this is technically correct, it is still interesting to see a grammar term used on Twitter as a form of criticism. If it were up to me, people would criticize each other much more for using the present simple. And incidentally, I don’t find anything problematic about this instance of passive voice – the patients are the focus of the article, and no reasonable reader would misinterpret the situation.

Here we see it used to describe an active, but unaccusative verb. It is noteworthy that people don’t attack newspaper headlines on Twitter for using unaccusative verbs – “passive voice” has made the leap to popular consciousness while more esoteric terms have not.

I assume if you’re reading this that you know what passive voice is, but you might not know the slightly less common term unaccusative (I often confuse it with unergative myself). Unaccusative verbs are intransitive verbs (verbs that don’t take an object) that lack an agent; their subjects undergo some process like fall, end, or break with no implication that the subject intended it. Perhaps contributing to the confusion around passive voice is that some verbs like break can also be transitive and used in the passive voice.

The vase was broken. (transitive and in passive voice, hiding the agent)

The vase broke. (intransitive and in active voice, without an agent)

Apparently, and in one of the linguistic fun facts I learned from Steven Pinker before my MA, causative alternation (“I broke the chair” : “The chair broke” :: *”I fell the vase” : “The vase fell”) is one of many rules with many odd exceptions that adult speakers take for granted but that learners and children take quite some time to get down.

Here we see a version of “passive” which extends the “supine, acquiescent” meaning from outside of linguistics of the word into a quasi-grammatical term:

On Twitter, I made an early attempt to capture what people mean when they use “passive” in this way:

But clearly, people mean “passive voice” as a criticism of utterances or discourse that are insufficient in clarity or strength of blame, not merely grammatical agency. You can see this below, in which the writer (correctly) identifies the passive voice, but as a remedy, also changes the verb from injured to the more impactful shot.

Being a Verb is a Gerund

The extended meaning of “verb” is a bit easier to define than that of “passive voice”. In examples like those below, people define “verb” as any deliberate action. Obviously, in grammatical metalanguage, actions can be expressed with any part of speech, and confusingly, the words “action” and “verb” are both nouns (except in the case of verbing), meaning that when we say “a verb is an action word”, the only verb in the sentence we just used to define verbs as action words is the non-action verb “is”.

Clearly, the technical meaning of “verb” includes a lot of things that aren’t actions (like “include”), but in the popular parlance, a “verb” is an action taken with effort and thought.

In the example below, the writer means to emphasize that being an anti-racist educator requires active effort.

There is a discussion separate from whether “be” is a verb (as of this writing, it is) that is focused on whether “be” is always stative, like “seem” or “think” (as in “I think so”), or can be a dynamic verb like “swim” or “regurgitate”. Obviously, in senses like “to be an anti-racist educator”, most people would call “be” stative, undercutting the intended implication of the utterance since stative verbs do not denote any kind of deliberate action. On the other hand, I remember a Louis CK bit (no link, but you are free to look it up) where he describes his boredom of watching his kids “be children”, which sounds to me like a dynamic verb meant to capture the various actions that being a child entails. Note that in this case, “be” also seems not to take its normal conjugations – he said “they be children”, not “they are children”. I wish I had another, less scandalous, example.

The writer below also seems to think “word” itself has a negative connotation, and that a “word” is a more sterile (and maybe “passive”) thing than a “verb”.

Here, “noun” is counterposed with “verb”, probably for its supposed inactive qualities. Of course, anyone with basic knowledge of grammar can see that “love” is only used as a noun in this tweet.

In the cases of both passive voice and verbs, some stereotyped characteristic of the grammatical feature seems to be the source of the extended meaning – dishonest framing in the case of passive voice, and deliberate action in the case of verbs.

Let’s speculate on what could be next idea from linguistics to make it to the mainstream. I have long hoped for the idea of “markedness”, something being slightly off from the norm (usually with intent, unless the subject doesn’t know the code by which his/her behavior is being judged) without being technically wrong, to make it into people’s explanations of, for example, culture shock, driving habits, or joke writing. Another is the phenomenon by which indirect references are reinterpreted as direct references by cutting out the middleman, aka the dead metaphor, which explains how the suffix “-gate” can be an indirect reference to scandals in general to the generation that saw Nixon’s scandals firsthand to just the name for any scandal to subsequent generations.

I definitely hope for more recognition for the linguistics/philosophy version of “performative” (as in “comes to be through its performance”) instead of the currently en vogue definition, “putting on a show for the benefit of audience perceptions”. I imagine when people hear some version of “gender is performative” alongside “… politician’s apology was performative” and “performative activism”, they might get the wrong idea about how trans people see their gender.

Then again, the next linguistics term to make it big might be totally out of left field: Maybe “argument structure” will come to mean “speech format”? Or “wug test” for comparison shopping for floor decorations? “U-shaped development” for a diet program?

Identity Creep

We are all familiar now with the idea that people can be sized up and determined to be inherently suspicious, to be inherently criminal, and (somehow) to have inherently have just committed a crime based on appearance. A theoretical lens on identity can help shed light on this process, and is one of the most common discoveries my students make when looking at narratives through that lens.


Psychologist James Paul Gee’s conception of identity is useful and instructive for its overall thesis – that identities are not so much what is true, but instead are what is recognizable and recognized – and for its helpful breakdown into four categories: N (nature), I (institution), D (discourse), and A (affinity). Let me give a few choice quotes that explain each before moving on to the topic that the title of this post refers to, that tendency of one identity, thought to be biologically determined, to usurp the roles of the others, changing characteristics that should originate in other facets of social life into innate, “natural” traits of one’s race or gender.

First, all of Gee’s conception of identity is distinct from the commonsense view of identity, that it is something deep inside of us that we know to be true of ourselves and that others can be wrong about. On the first page of the article that lays out his theory of identity, Gee describes it thus:

When any human being acts and interacts in a given context, others recognize that person as acting and interacting as a certain “kind of person” or even as several different “kinds” at once… The “kind of person” one is recognized as “being,” at a given time and place, can change from moment to moment in the interaction, canchange from context to context, and, of course, can be ambiguous or unstable.

Gee 99

Already, we see that under Gee’s formulation, identities will change depending on the points of view of those around us, as different people naturally have different relevant “types” available to categorize each other with. Therefore, identity in Gee’s formulation is clearly dynamic and culture-dependent.

With this in mind, consider Gee’s definition of N (nature)-identity:

I label the first perspective the nature perspective (or N-Identities). Let me first use an example from my own life. Part of my identity, one way of looking at “who I am,” is that I am an identical twin. Being an identical twin is a state that I am in, not anything that I have done or accomplished. The source of this state – the “power” that determines it or to which I am “subject” – is a force (in this case, genes) over which I had no control.

Gee 101

Given what he has said earlier in the article, he can only mean “nature” as the “source of power” in the minds of others, not necessarily in reality. While it is hard to imagine a category like “twin” as anything other than objectively true or false, bear in mind that Gee is still talking about being a “type of person”, and to the extent that a twin is a “type”, that “type” includes images, stereotypes, and assumptions that do not flow directly from whatever objective facts about being a “twin” may exist. I usually use blood type in my explanation of the disconnect between what one “is” and what forms one’s N-identity. Blood type, of course, is the same wherever one goes, but only in some societies is it a “kind of person”.

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Source: A breakdown of personality traits associated with each blood type. It says, for example, that type A are “literalists” and type B “hate being tied down”.

Gee explains as much himself:

Of course, natural identities can only become identities because they are recognized, by myself or others, as meaningful in the sense that they constitute (at least, in part) the “kind of person” I am. Thanks to “nature,” I have a spleen, but this (at least, for now) does not constitute anything meaningful, for me or others, in terms of my being a certain kind of person.

Gee 102

It is easier to see the distinction from the “source of power” and the content of an identity in people’s minds for the other 3 categories. Of I (institution)-identity, Gee writes:

The second perspective on identity I label the institutional perspective (or I-Identities). To take another example from my own life, it is part of my identity, one way of looking at “who I am,” that I am a professor in a university. Being a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is a position. It is not something that nature gave me or anything I could accomplish by myself. The source of my position as a professor- the “power” that determines it or to which I am “subject” – is a set of authorities (in this case, the Board of Trustees, the administration of the university,and the senior faculty in my department). In turn, the source of this power is not nature, but an institution (namely, the University of Wisconsin).

Gee 102

Of D (discourse)-identity:

The third perspective on identity I call the discursive perspective (or D-Identities). Let me here take as an example a close friend and colleague of mine. It is part of the identity of this person that she is “charismatic”-this is one way of looking at “who she is.” Being charismatic, in the sense I intend here, is an individual trait, a matter of one’s individuality. It is not something that one just “is” (“born with”; note that one cannot be charismatic all alone by oneself on an island), and it is not something that some institution creates and upholds. However, to say that being charismatic is an individual trait is decidedly not to say that it is something one can achieve all by oneself. The source of this trait – the “power” that determines it or to which my friend is “subject” – is the discourse or dialogue of other people. It is only because other people treat, talk about, and interact with my friend as a charismatic person that she is one.

Gee 103

And of A (affinity)-identity:

The fourth perspective on identity I call the affinity perspective(or A-Identities). Here I will take the example of someone who is a Star Trekfan in the sense and way the people portrayed in the movie Trekkies are. This is one way of looking at “who this person is.” Being a Star Trek fan, in the sense I intend here, is composed of sets of distinctive experiences (e.g., attending shows, meeting actors from Star Trek at such shows, chatting on the Internet, collecting memorabilia, trading such memorabilia, dressing like a character in Star Trek).

Gee 105

Gee points out that some identities are assigned without the permission or acquiescence of the individual. A-identities seem to be by definition voluntary, but as for the others:

Like I-Identities, D-Identities can be placed on a continuum in terms of how active or passive one is in “recruiting” them, that is, in terms of how much such identities can be viewed as merely ascribed to a person versus an active achievement or accomplishment of that person.

Gee 104

That is, one can try to be shy or simply be regarded that way. One apply for and be hired for a job in a prison or be sent there by the state. On the other hand, N-identities are by definition out of the control of the individual, and people can feel a great transgression has occurred when one tries to intentionally alter an N-identity.

Identity Creep

My students have been using Gee’s theory for academic writing since at least 2017, usually for a typical ESL set of papers: one in which you apply a theoretical lens to one’s own experience, and one in which you apply it to a book (a text-on-text essay). The first text-on-text essay with NIDA identity as a lens that I assigned asked them to compare and contrast two identities of a single character in Farewell to Manzanar. Essays of this type (with different books) have become staples of my classes.

To take a famous character as an example, one might break down the N-identities of a character like Tom Robinson, the Black man wrongly accused of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird this way:

Based on a student essay excerpted below. “Criminal” here is meant as a matter of disposition rather than legal status (in which case it would be an I-identity).

Note that, as Gee’s identities need to be recognized, and therefore need a person to recognize them, these identities are from the perspective of the white townspeople who eventually kill Tom. Taking the perspective of Scout, Atticus, and some other characters in the story would completely change the contents of the chart.

One consistent observations in my students’ essays is that N-identity frequently does the work of other identities, and that this phenomenon targets members of certain groups. In Tom’s case, the “criminal” and “dishonest” identities that he carries don’t actually come from the “discourse or dialogue of other people” (Gee 103), or at most are affirmed by rather than emerge from discourse. In truth, he is assumed to have those characteristics because of his N-identity, which fills in the blanks in his other identities through the power of negative stereotyping.

Through slightly indirect means, his N-identity also affects his I-identity, by leading to both his arrest in the first place and later his conviction. In this case, strictly speaking, the N-identity isn’t directly supplying characteristics that might otherwise be established by how “other people treat, talk about, and interact” (Gee 103) with him, but making them much more likely or inevitable. It’s not true that white townspeople looked at him and thought “That man is a convicted rapist” before the incident that resulted in his arrest. However, it is possible that the community will also begin to retroactively attribute his imprisonment or conviction of a specific crime to facts of his birth.

That leaves his A-identity the only category not usurped in this way by “a force (in this case, genes) over which [Tom] had no control” (Gee 101), although this is probably due to a lack of detail from the novel than any limit on the power of stereotyping. I probably don’t need to explain to you that N-identities can both supply assumed affinities and affiliations and indirectly encourage them as much as for I-identities.

I’ll let my former student clarify (excerpted with their permission):

Tom Robinson’s N-Identity as an African American in the U.S. negatively influences his D-Identity because of his passivity in a scene in which he is falsely arrested. First of all, the story of TKAM takes place during the 1930s in Maycomb, Alabama, which is the so-called “Deep South.” This means that Tom lives in one of the most racially polarized societies, where African Americans are marginalized and racism is espoused by most white people after the Civil War. Under such circumstances, Tom’s N-Identity is the most conspicuous trait to others, and there are few differences between his N-Identity and D-Identity. Within this context, Tom is falsely accused of raping a white woman. Despite the fact that Tom is innocent, most of the white people in Maycomb consider Tom to be a liar and a violent criminal merely because he is an African American. At this point, the neighbors’ recognition of Tom can be classified as D-Identity because Gee defines D-Identity as being merely ascribed to a person through others’ recognitions (104). That is to say, in Tom’s case, his N-Identity as an African American directly leads to his D-Identity as a violent criminal. One problem is that Tom himself reinforces this unhealthy connection between N- and D-Identity by running away from the jail when he was arrested. In explaining an unintended consequence of his action, the narrator of TKAM describes that Tom would “expect to live long, so he took the first opportunity to run — a sure sign of guilt” (Lee 261). This indicates that running does not save Tom at all, but rather it merely emphasizes his passivity and underlines the neighbors’ derogatory recognition that Tom is a violent criminal because he is an African American. Tom does not reflect on a related effect between his negative N-Identity and his action, but just acts out of fear. As a result, Tom’s negative N-Identity as an African American maintains and/or reinforces his neighbors’ stereotype of him – D-Identity.  

Student paper, unnamed

Those of us who have lived abroad, or who have been a member of a stereotyped minority group, are probably well-used to the phenomenon of our ethnic group (whether the one we feel we actually belong to or not), our gender (ditto), or some other N-identity supplying more of our characteristics in the eyes of others than we are comfortable with. One could easily make up a graph similar to the above with the I-identity “English teacher” and the D-identity “gesticulates when speaking” supplied by the N-identity “foreigner” in the cultural contexts of Japan or China, or “engineer”, “good at STEM”, and “into League of Legends” for an exchange student from Asia in an American university.

This seems to be a phenomenon that afflicts historically marginalized or disempowered groups, precisely and tautologically because historically marginalized groups are likely to have N-identities that are salient and meaningful in the cultures where they are marginalized. White males, in the United States at least, are relatively unburdened with the classification of N-identity – “raceless” and “genderless” in (what I glean is) the modern understanding of how conceptual whiteness works. Women, especially white women, are less affected by N-identity creep now than previously, but it is easy to imagine contexts in which the N-identity of “woman” was capable of providing characteristics that nowadays would are more likely to be derived from discourse (such as “natural caretaker”) or institutions (“domestic worker”). A benefit of looking at this phenomenon through Gee’s lens is that it makes clear that these identities are not inherent to the people with them; they are recognized, and the sources of their power attributed, by other members of society. As Racecraft puts it, the phenomenon of using inherent characteristics of the marginalized as a shorthand for the process of their marginalization is “the great evasion of American historical literature, as of American history itself: the substitution of ‘race’ for ‘racism.’ That substitution, as I have written elsewhere, ‘transforms the act of a subject into an attribute of the object'” (Fields 48). Gee’s lens of identity makes clear that to the extent that stereotyped characteristics are attributed to membership in racialized or otherwise marginalized groups, it is because other people actively attribute them, not because those characteristics are inherent in those groups. Gee’s lens helps to turn agentless passive voice states into active voice processes.

Gee’s article later points out an opposing process to what I’ve called identity creep, what might be term the “discursivization” of identity, by which identities previously attributed to nature or relationships to durable institutions are instead seen as achievements which one strives to have recognized by others. Here, Gee’s theory dovetails neatly with theories of the performativity of gender and other social categories, the understanding of which among some intellectuals has moved from the public appearance of a biological reality to a phenomenon whose public performance is the only reality (e.g. Butler). This is another implication of Gee’s framework that is frequently noticed by my students – that all identities can be D-identities if people refuse to attribute them to nature or institutions, removing their assumed “natural” foundations. Just as identity creep seems to be a phenomenon that affects marginalized groups more, it may be true that identity discursivization is more possible the less marginalized one is. It may be easier for a celebrity like Caitlyn Jenner to have her gender identity recognized as an achievement than someone without the social capital of a former Olympian, who may continue to have their “biological” gender insisted upon as the only relevant criteria for recognizing an identity. Although Rachel Dolezal, a “biologically white” woman who has claimed a discursively achieved Black racial N-identity, has not been nearly as successful as Caitlyn Jenner in having that identity recognized, it has been pointed out that her attempts have been more successful than someone from a disempowered racial group claiming a white identity might have been.


This has been a long and pretentious blog post.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge, 2011.

Fields, Barbara J. “Whiteness, racism, and identity.” International Labor and Working-Class History 60 (2001): 48-56.

Fields, Karen E., and Barbara Jeanne Fields. Racecraft: The soul of inequality in American life. Verso Trade, 2014.

Gee, James Paul. “Chapter 3: Identity as an analytic lens for research in education.” Review of research in education 25.1 (2000): 99-125.

Dr. Brute Facts doesn’t care about your feelings

Of all of the world’s doctors, and particularly at St. Jude’s Hospital, Dr. Judd Shapiro is a physician with a rare gift. While most doctors consider the physical body a vessel for a living, thinking person first and foremost, and the apperception and treating of the physical body a worthy enterprise because of the comfort that it might bring such a person, Shapiro considers the person to be a mere collection of physical phenomena, of value only as the sum total of the stuff of which it is made. To be even more precise, “it”, the physical body, barely exists to him; it demands no more recognition of oneness or continuity than does the air in a balloon or the water that makes up a particular section of river. This is not just a matter of point of view, but more of the acuity of his senses: he sees the interactions of particles and waves in front of him much like you or I see a fly landing on a window, and thinks primarily on that scale, the scale that is most intuitive and meaningful to him. The scope of his thought can be widened to include constructs we might call “life”, including human life, and on some occasions he be persuaded to adopt our conventions of grouping matter into “cells”, “organs”, and “people”. In this way he has a grasp, in both the general and particular senses, of the true inner workings of the human body, and any body that happens to be in his examination room. He knows both the sequences of DNA (that is, can recite the base pairs) that commonly predispose one to abnormal hemoglobin production as well as the precise location and corpuscular hemoglobin concentration of any given red blood cell in the bloodshot, overworked eye of any of the nurses. The difficulty of working with him lies not in his intellect but where he is inclined to focus it, in convincing him to think of the physical phenomena that he is attuned to as part of a “body” or a “patient” at all. To him, arrangements of matter in the coordinated pattern we call a “human” are but a convenience, a mental shorthand, for those without direct access to the atomic motion that underlies it all. When his opinion is solicited, he has the habit of emerging from a trance-like state to declare, “facts, not feelings” – which, as far as we can tell, is an enjoinder to let go of our parochial attachment to bodies and minds of the patients under our care and focus on simply what is objectively there. To him, a “body” is a random selection of the possible arrangements of matter, only intrinsically appealing to humans because we appreciate things of roughly our own size, and in particular things whose cells contain DNA recombinable with our own. He seems to see no point in putting his answers to us, when we can get them, in body-scale terms, instead phrasing them in the the brute factual language of nature. They often come in descriptions of the states of electrons somewhere nearby, which would be useless to us even if it were clear that these electrons were in the patient’s body and relevant to his complaint. If we manage to elicit a comment on a particular condition, we find that just as often as not he has taken the side of the disease over the patient. At one point, a fellow doctor contributed weeks of study to discern the meaning of one off-hand comment Dr. Shapiro had made about a T being where a C should be (we were lucky that in this case he favored us with an explanation in terms of molecules rather than quanta), thinking that it might hold a clue as to the particular mutation in liver cells that led to a patient’s hepatoblastoma, only to find that Dr. Shapiro’s remark was about the liver’s healthy cells – Dr. Shapiro seemed to see no reason that the patient’s whole liver should not be cancer. Apparently, cancer displays all of the hallmarks of what we call “living”, with the added bonus of not disturbing his trances with irrelevant questions.

I wonder if it would not be a terrible burden on his gift of perception to favor the intuitions of others as to the relative value of different arrangements of matter, seeing that he accepts the incomparably more arbitrary construct that is “employment” as a “doctor” and the remuneration it brings.

Theistic Performatives

I spent some time talking about performativity with a content-based class this summer, in both the linguistic “I now pronounce you man and wife” sense and the Butlerian “gender is created through its performance” sense. I didn’t anticipate to find the principle illustrated in the responses to two mass shootings in the days after our class ended, in the usual round of “thoughts and prayers” (sometimes in those words exactly and sometimes in other words as the original phrasing has become a bit of a cliché) being offered for the victims.

To be precise, he describes “thoughts and prayers” as a feigned interaction rather than as a performative utterance.

(To be clear, although this post is about language, I think the news and the banal responses are horrifying. This is a topic for a separate post, but you can always count on an ESL teacher not to buy arguments based on national exceptionalism – they seem more ridiculous the more of them you encounter.)

Continue reading “Theistic Performatives”


As with the same class last semester, and as happens to me often, I have been spurred to blog by an unusual utterance by a student, or should I say an utterance which in its non-target-likeness highlights an interesting linguistic phenomenon.

Some verbs, like “know”, say something about the mind of the subject of the sentence as well as the mind of the sentence’s speaker. That is, if Kim says, “Eva knows that 3 students will fail the class”, not only Eva but also Kim believes that the proposition “3 students will fail the class” is true. If Kim believes that Eva is wrong about those 3 students, she will probably choose a different verb, like “believe” or “think”, because if Kim says “Eva thinks that 3 students will fail the class”, she avoids giving the impression that she agrees with Eva.

(It’s an interesting question how many clauses deep these verbs have to be before the speaker is no longer presumed to agree with the proposition. For example, if Laura thinks that Kim believes that Eva knows that 3 students will fail the class, is it implied that Laura agrees? Does the factivity of “know” leap out of its clause and infect every person in the sentence, or does one non-factive verb break the chain? I tend to think that if Laura heard a sentence like “Eva knows that 3 students will fail”, but thinks she’s wrong, she’ll change the verb to a non-factive one in relaying that information to someone else.)

As you see from my aside, these verbs are called factive. In short, they imply that the content of noun clause that follows is factual. “Know” is one of these, as are “understand”, “realize”, “prove”, and “remember”.

The error that I saw that inspired this post was the opposite: a verb being used to imply that the content of the noun clause was false, as in “deny”, “disbelieve”, and “doubt”, which all mean that the subject believes or says that the proposition that follows is false. These words, unlike factive verbs, don’t presuppose that the speaker agrees. When the newspaper says, “Dems doubt that Trump will leave willingly”, the newspaper isn’t taking the position that they are right about him. The newspaper is simply relaying the Dems’ state of mind.

(Confusingly for Japanese learners of English, “doubt”, 疑う utagau in Japanese implies that the subject has a sneaking suspicion that the proposition is true, rather than false as it is in English. Another strike against grammar-translation.)

The error that I saw used a factive verb with a negative prefix and was followed by a noun clause that the writer intended to say was false. It was something like “Many people misunderstand that the earth is flat”. The writer, as I understood it, was trying to say that many people believe that the earth is flat, but they are wrong. This left me sitting and re-reading the sentence for a few minutes as I tried to figure out just what seemed so strange about it. I did my customary COCA search and found a relative lack of noun clauses after “misunderstand” compared to “understand”, validating some of my intuition, but it didn’t give me an answer as to why.

One factor that occurred to me is that “deny”, “disbelieve”, and “doubt” still leave the proposition standing on its own two feet epistemologically. They don’t bring up the proposition and in the same breath invalidate it – they just say that the subject disagrees with it. It is still free to exist as a proposition and be believed by other subjects. It seemed perverse to me that “misunderstand” would have a noun clause following it that was presupposed even by the speaker to be false.

As I was typing this though, I remembered “disprove”, which shares with “misunderstand” a factive root and a negative prefix. To my understanding, “disprove” is a true unfactive – if I say “Einstein disproved that matter and energy are distinct”, I am also stating my agreement with Einstein. If we accept the premise that some propositions are true and others are false, the above sentence can only be true if the proposition contained in it (“matter and energy are distinct”) is false. Therefore, the combination of negative suffix with factive verb to mean “the noun clause following this verb is definitely not true” cannot be the source of the strangeness of “misunderstand that…”

Another factor may be that unlike “deny”, “disbelieve”, and “doubt”, and even “disprove”, the speaker’s and the subject’s opinions of the truth of the proposition in “misunderstand” are different. When “Trump disbelieves that” his approval ratings are low, Trump believes that the proposition is false, and the speaker doesn’t take a position on it. When “Einstein disproves that” matter and energy are distinct, Einstein and the speaker agree. However, in my student’s usage of “misunderstand”, the speaker and the subject definitely disagree. “Trump misunderstands that millions of illegals voted”, in my student’s usage, means that Trump believes it, but he is wrong. In my limited exploration of this issue, this is the only case where the speaker uses a verb to imply both that the speaker believes the proposition and that the proposition is false.

Perhaps for an unfactive verb to make sense, as “disprove” does, it has to say not only that the proposition is false, but that the subject is right that the proposition is false. Anything else is uncromulent.

Virtue Signalling, feigned interactions, and In-N-Out

Virtue signalling” has sort of become this generation’s “politically correct”, a term of abuse for supposedly vacuous public communication by the political left. Much like political correctness, it actually describes something universal across political groups, and use of the term is itself is an example of the phenonemon it describes (i.e., calling something out as “virtue signalling” is a way of virtue signalling to one’s peers, much like decrying “political correctness” is a literally politically correct thing to do in certain circles).

Certain kinds of virtue signalling consist of messages ostensibly sent to the out-group, actually meant for the in-group to see, where the appearance of communication with the out-group is an important part of the real message. The real act of communication seems to be, “Look at me, trying to talk to these savages! That’s how committed I am to our cause!” Unfortunately, a lot of political communication these days really consists of ostentatious displays of self-sacrifice to one’s own tribe, where the sacrifice lies in having to tolerate communication with members of the other tribe.

I’ve covered this ground before, but have a few new insights:

  1. The proportion of apparent communication between tribes which is really feigned communication designed for consumption by members of one’s tribe may be increasing
  2. Some communities place a higher value on communication with out-groups than others, perversely raising the likelihood that it is feigned

The first is just a result of the increasing siloing of discourse; communities have more opportunities for self-selection with cable news and social media than any other time in history. Few conservatives watch MSNBC, and fewer liberals watch Fox News. Odds are, when you see a commentator or guest that appears to be ideologically opposed to the main viewership of whichever cable news network you are watching, you are seeing a feigned communication in which the fact that the host is trying hard to “reach the other side” is the real message of value, and that message is solely intended for his or her own political tribe. Any bonafides that the heel commentator may possess only serve to increase the value and validity of the real message. This has been true of talk radio and conservative commentary since at least the days of Wally George, but the fact that any subculture can now have a facebook group or YouTube channel all its own makes the incentive for in-group signalling so much more valuable than genuine out-group communication that a high proportion of fake out-group communication is inevitable.

The second was brought to my attention by my wife, who asked me what the “Revelation 3:20” on the bottom of our In-N-Out burger wrapper meant. She had heard that In-N-Out food comes with Bible verses written discreetly somewhere on the packaging, but still couldn’t decode this apparent combination of TOEFL vocabulary and time of day. It hadn’t occurred to me that In-N-Out’s Bible verses could also be an example of feigned communication, but of course I grew up in a household that at least pretended to think that church was important and hadn’t thought of how opaque something like “Nahum 1:7” (on the bottom of a Double-Double) looks to someone raised without any exposure to the Bible. A straightforward interpretation of the presence of these phrases is that to Christians, this is like whispering a codeword, a message which shows insider knowledge and expertise, while to non-Christians, it is pretty much indistinguishable from “Xanthan Gum”. If that were the sum of its meanings to both groups, it would be either straightforward in-group communication or simply failed communication rather than feigned communication. However, I doubt the owners of In-N-Out, conservative Christians though they are, would waste ink telling fellow Christians something they already knew or giving non-Christians the equivalent of a Dewey Decimal number to look up. They might instead be communicating something to their fellow Christians besides literal Bible verses – they are communicating the fact that they are trying to reach non-Christians, a message with special currency among evangelical Christians. Seen this way, the use of Bible verses makes more sense – it is vastly more important to put the message in an emic form that Christians recognize, since they are the true recipients of the message, than in a form that non-Christians would, since they are only the feigned recipients. In a community where outreach is a core value, feigned communication with out-groups is an especially tempting form of in-group signalling, and although I haven’t been to church in many, many years, I suspect feigned communication with non-Christians is pretty common. I noticed feigned communication first in Japan, but clearly this type of feigned communication takes place in other groups with similar ways of defining themselves.

Source. Hard to believe this was ever questioned.

The affective issues cliff

Some issues that exist in students’ lives affect their academic performance in ways that are unfair and impossible to ignore – kids and jobs are two massive time-sucks that interfere with schoolwork, but everything from mental illness to changing bus routes in the city mediate how well students do academically. Particularly at community colleges, which exist specifically to serve non-traditional students, teachers have a duty to incorporate some treatment of what we call “affective issues” such as anxiety, work or family obligations, or negative self-image into our courses. The duties can be written into law, as with mandated reporting of suspected abuse (a legal obligation) or simply commonly accepted but not required “best practices” such as accepting late work or generally making yourself available to meet with students outside of class. Then there are the students who don’t have anything that has been recognized as an “affective issue” but are clearly affected away from classwork and towards League of Legends, and not much in our training says we owe these students’ issues any particular redress at all.

In American healthcare, there exists a phenomenon known as the “Medicaid cliff”, which is an income threshold below which you are provided with cheap and reliable healthcare, and above which you are required to buy expensive, complicated private insurance. A lot of people decry the existence of this drop-off in public coverage even if they support Medicaid in principle (that principle being that people who cannot afford health insurance still deserve to live). The cliff comes about because our definition of “poverty” has to end somewhere, and once you’re out of poverty, the government no longer takes an active interest in how you afford to stay alive. Thus, you could have an income of 130% of the federal poverty line and qualify for single-payer health care in the form of Medicaid, or get a raise to 140% of the federal poverty line and suddenly have to buy a private health insurance plan with a $7500 deductible. Pass the magic line and you transform magically from a victim of forces beyond your control to an upstanding and responsible citizen.

Read on if my point isn’t obvious enough yet.

beach blue sky cliff clouds
Photo by Danne on

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Circular thinking in deterrence

Back in my undergrad criminology classes, the professors would often raise interesting case studies of crimes where the benefits to society of punishment were unclear. Often, these were cases where giving “just deserts” to one party harmed another innocent party, for example the accused’s dependents. Inevitably, one classmate would respond to such case with “they knew what they were getting into” or simply “fry ’em!”

The punitive impulse is strong. It effects an attitude toward crime that one sees everywhere, and especially these days toward illegal border crossing. The reactions to people being punished for crossing the border show this clearly in part because of the inhumanity of the punishment being delivered – in this case, as in many others, not just to the accused.

Here’s exhibit A:

As hilariously disingenuous as the first part of that is, it’s the last part that I want to focus on today – the part where she says that children were brought to the US under “irresponsible” conditions. In her mind, and in many others’, the irresponsibility of bringing kids across the border under threat of separation justifies the harsh punishment of separation, because only irresponsible parents who deserve to lose their kids would cross the border. (Left out of the discussion, as always, are whether children of such parents “deserve” institutionalization and lifelong trauma). That one word, “irresponsible” encapsulates a lot of the circular thinking of deterrence.

That thinking always follows this path: the more severe a punishment, the more deserving of it a rational person will be for committing a crime that carries that punishment. If the punishment for jaywalking were squassation, only a truly irresponsible person would jaywalk, ergo that person would deserve squassation.

The weaknesses of this logic are first, that people aren’t rational in avoiding punishment or in any other domain. Criminology, like economics, has undergone a reevaluation since its purely rationalist days (I want to say it started with Beccaria…), but this post-rationalism hasn’t permeated the collective consciousness.  Just as people aren’t solely motivated by marginal dollars, they aren’t solely motivated by the sticks and carrots of criminal justice. Also, people tend to apply this philosophy of punishment unequally – for populations with which they have little empathy, they see only sticks and carrots, but for their own community, they want trust, norms, and the restitution of dignity to victim and transgressor.

Criminology (at least at the undergraduate level) divides rationales for punishment of criminal behavior into 4 categories: retribution, rehabilitation, incapacitation, and deterrence (specific and general). My feeling is that people feel highly retributive towards people that they feel little connection too, and that this feeling is often recast for public discourse in deterrent terms – terms that are self-justifying.

As a bone to throw my remaining TEFL readership, let me say that I think this idea of self-justifying punishment has some importance in syllabus design as well – we could design a pop quiz on an assigned reading that is 30% of final grade, and it would be justifiable in the same sense that public flogging for vandalism is.

NIDA identities in ESL essays and Love Wagon (あいのり)

The last day of class, instead of having the potluck that my students were probably hoping for, we did a very quick analysis of the book we had just finished reading (Farewell to Manzanar) using Gee’s NIDA identities.


To briefly summarize what those are:

N-identity (nature identity) is the part of identity which is supposed to come from nature. It often includes visible traits like gender and race and the palette of traits and abilities that are thought to stem from them. As the Rachel Dolezal controversy shows, what is N for some people is I or A (see below) for others, and people can be quite unforgiving when they think an N characteristic is being wrongly taken on or rejected. My students were astute in noticing that even N identities change when the people around to perceive and interpret them change – the main character in Farewell to Manzanar has different N-identities when surrounded by other Japanese-Americans than with other Americans.

I-identity (institutional identity) comes from institutions of which one is part. For example, my ability to pass as a teacher comes mostly from my employment by schools, and not many people would accept the legitimacy of a “teacher” identity without it. It can be fun to imagine which kinds of jobs require institutional recognition to be considered a legitimate claim to identity – to me, “artist” is not an I-identity, but “animator” is. “Philosopher” is not an I-identity, but “researcher” is. My students said many characters in FtM lost their I-identities (in most cases, fishermen who worked together) when they were forced to move into the camps.

D-identity (discursive identity) comes from interactions with other people wherein one comes to be known as a certain “type” of person. This tracks what most people call a “personality”, but unlike “personality” has no implication of permanence. That is, one can have different D-identities among different groups of people. The Papa character in FtM is a bit of a stereotypical alpha in the way he interacts with others, which shifts from comforting to ironic as his life circumstances change from independent businessman to unemployed drunk.

A-identity (affinity identity) is similar to I-identity in that it relates to larger social groups of which we consider ourselves part. Unlike I-identity, A-identity doesn’t require any kind of actual membership in a group, only affinity for it. One can have an A-identity as a Premier League fan without any formal affiliation in the form of membership in a team or fan club. Notably, and as some of my very clever writing students mentioned, A-identity can be almost entirely imaginary – Papa from FtM imagines himself to be the inheritor of a samurai legacy, although the samurai ceased to exist before he was born and are well on their way to being more a cultural trope than a social class at the time the story takes place. One student mentioned this aspect of A-identity in a presentation, which was a great example of critical thinking.

What I like about these categories of identity is that they make clear both that identity is a multifaceted and context-dependent phenomenon and that it depends on other people and society. That is, you can have multiple identities, and none of them are purely a result of you choosing the type of person you want to be after doing some deep thinking alone or “finding yourself”.

My students did a very good job applying these on short notice to a book they’d probably grown quite sick of on a day when many people were already mentally on vacation. What they said reminded me of some things I’d been seeing on Netflix recently.

Continue reading “NIDA identities in ESL essays and Love Wagon (あいのり)”

Ancestry dot dot dot

Around junior high school, when I realized that “races” were a thing and I had one too, I started making my schoolwork Japan-themed wherever possible and ex nihilo informing my classmates that “taco”, in addition to being a receptacle for beef or chicken, meant “octopus” in Japanese.

(I wonder if the age at which you first realize your own race is a reliable shorthand for the stigmatization of the race of which you are a member…)

My classmates and teachers were nice enough not to call me out on this strange behavior. In fact, it probably would have been seen as improper if they had – after all, I was celebrating my heritage. I had Japanese ancestry, and that earned me the right to “rediscover my roots”, even in an awkward, teenage way.

(It’s funny how learning something new is frame as recovering it if you’re in a demographic thought to be born with that knowledge.)

Later, in high school, there was a club called Asian Cultural Enlightenment (ACE), which I somehow felt that I should join, although I never did. Several of my classmates in Japanese (the only Asian language elective) were members. I think I was putting a little bit of distance between me and Asian-ness, or simply taking advantage of the fact that as a stealth minority (i.e. capable of passing as white – many people assume my last name is Irish), I didn’t need to affirm any particular ethnic identity. I was fine with un-discovering my roots at this point.

Looking back, I wonder if the other members would have thought it was strange that someone with basically one toe in the pool of Asian identity would try to join an almost explicitly ethnically-based club. I also wonder how far back in my family tree I could have an Asian ancestor to legitimize an Asian identity if I had wanted to embrace one. If I merely shared with the other Asians the 99% of DNA that all humans share, would that not count as enough?

This journey down memory lane was spurred by yet another news story about cultural appropriation.

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