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If you use a verbal shotgun....

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Dimensions' loiterer
Staff member
Global Moderator
Library Mod
Sep 29, 2005
The great white north, eh?
....don't be surprised when people object to getting birdshot in the buttocks despite not being your target.

This post was most directly inspired by this post by SuperOdalisque: http://www.dimensionsmagazine.com/forums/showpost.php?p=2129880&postcount=9, but really, this issues shows up in Hyde Park all the time: "Tea Partiers want X" "Progressives say Y" "Women don't like Z" and so on.

I’ve gotten into it with friends when they’ve said ‘women’ or ‘men’ when really they mean ‘some women’ or ‘men who are similar to me’ or ‘my wife’ or ‘an idealized macho-man’ or something. I’ve gotten on my son’s case very hard when he’s made lazy generalizations. And I’ve made similar points on these boards, I’m pretty sure. This is not aimed specifically at SuperO—my target is ambiguous wording that can easily create more upset than good discussion, because I think that such wording really hurts the quality of discourse.

We are not Humpty-Dumpty*, we don’t get to have words mean whatever we choose them to mean. If you mean ‘some men’ then say ‘some men.’ Your mastery of the English language is obviously strong, so that is no excuse. Any of us may, at times, be lazy in our writing, leaving out important adjectives or qualifiers—but I would hope that when this is brought up, we’d then acknowledge the unintended ambiguity and agree to clarify it. Basically, when you use ‘shotgun’ language, you are apt to hit a lot besides your target, and those who are hit incidentally will naturally care more about the bird-shot in their backside than about whether you meant to hit them--but at the least you can clarify that they were not the target and that you’ll try to be more careful in the future.

Certainly I would hope that a reader would object were I to write “The defining struggle for women is career versus motherhood” or “Native Canadians struggle with alcoholism holds back their economic development” or “Until black men behave as proper fathers, black children will be at a disadvantage.” Those are all sentences which apply to some of the people in the class that is mentioned, but not all, and I think that people should bloody well get upset at such generalizations.

So next time that you blithely make a statement about women, men, democrats, red-necks, Californians, immigrants, or any other group and you don’t put any qualifiers about not meaning all of that group...... Expect that people will be upset -- and if you don’t apologize and clarify then expect that your point will get broadly ignored. Usage of language matters, and if you want people to actually listen to the meaning of your words, take care not to put in irritants that will distract them before they have considered those points.

No sympathy from me for this sort of sloppy language.

* Per this passage:

"I don't know what you mean by 'glory,' " Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't—till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!' "
"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument'," Alice objected.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."

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