April 19, 2007

Adjectival stereotyping

I missed something in reading John Colapinto's New Yorker piece on Dan Everett and the Pirahã, and apparently the magazine's editors missed it too. Here's the passage in question, which deals with the background of Peter Gordon's research on counting in Amazonia:

During a two-month stay with the Pirahã in 1992, Gordon ran several experiments with tribe members. In one, he sat across from a Pirahã subject and placed in front of himself an array of object—nuts, AA batteries—and had the Pirahã match the array. The Pirahã could perform the task accurately when the array consisted of two or three items, but their performance with larger groupings was, Gordon later wrote, “remarkably poor.” Gordon also showed subjects nuts, placed them in a can, and withdrew them one at a time. Each time he removed a nut, he asked the subject whether there were any left in the can. The Pirahã answered correctly only with quantities of three or fewer. Through these and other tests, Gordon concluded that Everett was right: the people could not perform tasks involving quantities greater than three. Gordon ruled out mass retardation. Though the Pirahã do not allow marriage outside their tribe, they have long kept their gene pool refreshed by permitting women to sleep with outsiders. “Besides,” Gordon said, “if there was some kind of Appalachian inbreeding or retardation going on, you’d see it in hairlines, facial features, motor ability. It bleeds over. They don’t show any of that.

There's a serious slur-by-presupposition in there: "Appalachian inbreeding". They all marry their cousins, y'know. Or rather, not.

Needless to say, the folks affected by the implicit slur didn't miss it, as Lee Mueller in the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader explains ("Slur against Appalachians stirs furor; Columbia university professor spoke of 'inbreeding'", 4/17/2007):

In the wake of insults to Rutgers University women that cost the CBS Radio talk-show host his job, sensitivity to political correctness reached a point where a well-regarded Columbia University linguist was apologizing for a quote about "Appalachian inbreeding" in The New Yorker magazine.

Interviewed by writer John Colapinto for an article titled The Interpreter, Columbia assistant professor Peter Gordon defended the intelligence of an Amazonian tribe he had been studying: "Besides ... if there is some kind of Appalachian inbreeding or retardation going on, you'd see it in hairlines, facial features, motor ability. It bleeds all over. They [the Piraha] don't show any of that."

The quote splattered against academic computer screens in Appalachia this week like a large cud of chewing tobacco.

"Shame on you and on the institution you represent for perpetuating such ugly and untrue stereotypes," wrote Penny Messinger, a history teacher at Daemen College in Amherst, N.Y. "I eagerly await your 'evidence' documenting the tradition of Appalachian inbreeding/incest."


At Ohio University, Jack Wright dug out a letter he wrote to The New Yorker a few years ago after it ran a cartoon depicting the breakup of a rustic couple with a caption, "Can we still be cousins?"

"Appalachia has long been fair game as the nation's whipping boy and, unfortunately, The New Yorker has jumped to the head of the line," he wrote. "In Appalachia, we call this cultural strip-mining."

Judy Hensley, a Harlan County teacher, observed: "If ignorance, prejudice, and social ineptitude were physical characteristics, this guy would be the poster child."

Gordon, 50, who left the University of Pittsburgh six years ago to teach at Columbia, said in a telephone interview that he did not intend to offend anyone. His wife's family lives in Northern Kentucky, he said, although he realized it is not considered part of Appalachia.

"It was just a reference," he said. "I'm really sorry. I really was just talking about a tribe in Brazil."

Would that be the Hatfield tribe, or the McCoys?

[Update -- Eric Bakovic writes:

My wife Karen and I read the Pirahã article together last week. I recall specifically pointing out the 'Appalachian inbreeding' slur to Karen, who's from Louisville, KY. But Karen is also a feminist theorist, and she (only) recalls being struck by the 'permitting women to sleep with outsiders' bit.

Louisville's not technically in Appalachia, but of course people from anywhere in KY face the stereotype every time they tell someone they're from KY. Karen tells a story about how a Rutgers polisci prof once singled her out as someone who was likely to know what a 'goiter' is. (She did know, but because she's a word-geek and read the dictionary as a child.)

I was also struck by the "permitting their women" part. I decided to reserve judgment about how to interpret it: does "they" mean the men of the tribe, indicating both male (belief in) control over female sexuality, and more general identification of the men as representing the decision-making powers of the group; or does "they" mean the tribe as a whole, both men and women, indicating general social sanction for this particular kind of exogamy? ]

[Update #2: I want to underline that there is no reason to think that Peter Gordon intended a slur against residents of Appalachia, even by presupposition. In the first place, it's not clear how exactly Colapinto's quotation tracks what Peter said, or the context in which he said it. And even if the quote is exact and the surrounding discussion not relevant, people sometimes make such presuppositional references to stereotypical characteristics, especially in a counterfactual hypothetical contexts like this one ("if there were some kind of Appalachian inbreeding..."), without in any way endorsing them.

For example, a quick web search turns up this quote from a letter to jewishjournal.com:

Goremberg's failure to provide this narrative robs his explanation of the "accidental empire" of true historical context, transforming a dream which is thousands of years old into a mere land grab, driven by Jewish acquisitiveness and nationalistic imperialism.

The letter-writer, who is defending the Jewish residents of West Bank settlements, clearly does not endorse the apparently-presupposed implications of the phrase "Jewish acquisitiveness", which he is attributing to a point of view that he rejects.

I should have made this clear in the original post. On the other hand, the possibility for misinterpretation would also have made it prudent for Peter Gordon -- if indeed he was quoted accurately here -- to provide an explicit disclaimer, or to avoid the phrase in the first place.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 19, 2007 10:42 AM