The Way We Talk: My Competitive Disadvantage and Your Laziness, My Reasonable Solution and the Sexists Who Disagree

I am firm; you are obstinate; he is a pig-headed fool.-Bertrand Russell

I have great respect for Gloria Steinem. That is why I was a bit disappointed by the framing in an article by Michael Kimmel and Steinem in yesterday’s New York Times. The article concerned a change in sexual assault law from a standard of “no means no,” which requires a victim to actually say “no,” to “yes means yes” which assumes no unless a partner says “yes.”

Until this bill, the prevailing standard has been “no means no.” If she says no (or, more liberally, indicates any resistance with her body), then the sex is seen as nonconsensual. That is, it’s rape. Under such a standard, the enormous gray area between “yes” and “no” is defined residually as “yes”: Unless one hears an explicit “no,” consent is implied. “Yes means yes” completely redefines that gray area. Silence is not consent; it is the absence of consent. Only an explicit “yes” can be considered consent.


What bothered me about the article was this sentence, “This is, of course, completely logical, and fully consistent with adjudicating other crimes. Nevertheless, it is bound to raise howls of protest from opponents of women’s equality and their right to make decisions about their own bodies.”

In other words, if you disagree with the authors you are either sexist or pro-rape.

This type of argument– assuming that anyone who disagrees with you does so for the most offensive reasons– is not useful. It does nothing at all to advance discussion or understanding.

In fact, there is much room for debate of this policy even by people who have genuine concerns about safety and respect of people’s sexual boundaries– and I might add, not all victims of sexual assault are women.

When I read this, for example, I thought of Steven Pinker’s Ted Talk on the use of language.

Now, relationship types can be negotiated. Even though there are default situations in which one of these mindsets can be applied, they can be stretched and extended…


Now, mismatches — when one person assumes one relationship type, and another assumes a different one — can be awkward... In dating, the transition from friendship to sex can lead to, notoriously, various forms of awkwardness…


Well, language, as a social interaction, has to satisfy two conditions. You have to convey the actual content — here we get back to the container metaphor. You want to express the bribe, the command, the promise, the solicitation and so on, but you also have to negotiate and maintain the kind of relationship you have with the other person. The solution, I think, is that we use language at two levels: the literal form signals the safest relationship with the listener, whereas the implicated content — the reading between the lines that we count on the listener to perform — allows the listener to derive the interpretation which is most relevant in context, which possibly initiates a changed relationship… a similar analysis, I think, can apply to the potential awkwardness of a sexual solicitation, and other cases where plausible deniability is an asset. I think this affirms something that’s long been known by diplomats — namely, that the vagueness of language, far from being a bug or an imperfection, actually might be a feature of language, one that we use to our advantage in social interactions.

Using indirect language, innuendo, shy suggestion is all part of the language of seduction, and when it goes right– when both parties are interested in changing the status of the relationship– then it doesn’t matter much whether the word “yes” was used. It becomes a problem when a person’s spoken or indicated no, or indeed–lack of yes, is not acknowledged by the other party. Let me be clear, I am not arguing against “yes means yes,” what I am saying is that human communication is messier than this article acknowledges, the grey area may not be so easily legislated away, and that vilifying anyone who has a different take on the law is not at all useful.

Today I read an article on the conservative blog Red State and I found some of its mental gymnastics to be quite interesting.  The article talks about how difficult it is for people to move up from the middle class to the upper class, much harder than it used to be. (This is an area, incidentally, where mainstream conservatives and liberals seem to be in agreement and where, unfortunately, they point at one another rather than uniting in a shared cause.) What I found most interesting, though, was that it was an extended argument for why conservatives who are against “government handouts” are forced to take them.

In short, individuals in the Middle Class recognize that if they cut the strings on the safety net underneath them and take their own risks to make their way in the world, they are putting their own family at a competitive disadvantage to their neighbors who refuse to cut the strings.

The government has forced the Middle Class to put the livelihood of its families ahead of its principles. That is where the resentment comes from.


We see this everyday. We see this in the New York Times article. Should someone dare to suggest that student loans are driving up the cost of higher education — an economic fact — someone will attack the person for having taken student loans. When someone laments paying out 99 weeks of unemployment, they too will be attacked if ever they took social security disability, unemployment benefits, or the like. And when the person rebuts that they had to do it so as not to fall behind in a world turned upside down by the government, their complaints will fall on deaf ears by the conformists who embraced their federal masters.


Did you get that? When I take government funding it is only because it would put me at a competitive disadvantage if I did not. When you do it, it is something I have to “pay out.”

There is actually a reasonable argument to be made at the heart of this, because the real question is not is government spending good or bad, it is what do we as a society think it is important to support and what do we consider wasteful or unhelpful.

(Incidentally, the Red State article begins ostensibly in sympathy with the poor by saying that because the government now needs to prop up the middle class it is ignoring the poor, but it ends by dismissing the needs of the poor as not worth considering: “A stable society depends on a stable Middle Class…When the really rich and the really poor are upset, rarely does the society apple cart itself get upset or overturned. But when the Middle Class is upset, you can bet the apple cart will be overturned.”)

Dismissing those with different opinions as “conformists who embrace their federal masters” or “opponents of women’s equality and their right to make decisions about their own bodies” only encourages people to argue from entrenched ideological positions and shuts down nuanced and reasoned discussion.



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