October 11, 2007

Fantasies of illicit peeve-ranting behind the bikesheds

On Monday, I linked to a sort of semi-interview of Deborah Cameron in the London Sunday Times, and I commented that the writer seemed "patronizing (though perhaps he's only being British, it's sometimes hard for me to tell the difference)". A friend who was born, raised and educated in the U.K. wrote to say that to him, the article gave off "a whiff of personal animus bordering on misogyny", and I used that reaction as the basis for a post yesterday about lexical clues to sentiment classification.

This afternoon, a strongly contrary reaction from a British reader reached me via Arnold Zwicky, to whom the author had sent it out of frustration at being unable to reach me by inventing possible addresses at Stanford University, which knows me not. (A note to others who may encounter the same problem: there's this new-fangled American invention called "google", and if you ask it about Mark Liberman, the first item is my home page, which has my email address on it.)

I was going to add his critique as an update to one of the original posts, but it's both long enough and entertaining enough to merit a post of its own. However, you might want to (re-)read the original discussion before plunging in ("Are pop gender studies from Uranus?", 10/8/2007; "Sentiment classification at the Sunday Times", 10/11/2007). The Sunday Times article that started it all off was Ed Caesar, "Talking tosh on Mars and Venus", 10/7/2007.

The reader's comments:

To me, as a Brit, the Mars/Venus article you quote comes across as rather strongly upbeat, and without any clear "negative markers" against the author or the work. I shall translate, as best I can, into American for you.

"So it turns out" → "As anyone with sense suspected all along," (with extra irony. This is not a phrase ever used to express surprise, or at least, verging on never in heavy-irony passages like this one).

"that after all the rows about the washing up, the shopping and the school run,"→ "despite much petty silliness to the contrary"

"men are not from Mars nor women from Venus." → "the obvious is true."

"Both sexes are, rather prosaically," → "Both sexes are, as expected by any normal rational person not living in an ivory tower or cloud cuckoo land" (prosaic does not mean "boringly" but something closer to "common-sense" or "rational")

"from Earth."→"from the bloody obvious place that we all knew they were from, at least all of us who weren't dropped on our heads as babies."

"And, despite anecdotal evidence"→"Despite unreliable, unfounded andunrespectable evidence" ("anecdotal evidence" is a hugely strongnegative marker, considered synonymous with "filthy lies of the deluded", and carries the strong suggestion that the people reportingthe anecdotes are crystal-waving charlatans or six-fingered country hicks taking a break from reporting alien anal probes and encounters with Nessie).

"to the contrary, men and women do speak the same language." → "another blatantly obvious thing is also true"

[In summary, this first paragraph then, is pouring heavy sarcastic scorn onto those who ever believed the Mars/Venus thing. There /are/ negative markers in the heavy emphasis on the blatant obviousness of the points, possibly the strongest being "anecdotal evidence", but "the school run" is also heavily derogatory, sumonning imagery of the Wrong Type of middleclass Better-than-the-Joneses Helicopter parenting.]

"At least we do according to Deborah Cameron, Britain's pre-eminent" → "Deb C says this, and she's ours, Britain's, and we are proud - she is pre-eminent, which means awesome, and it is of this pure British awesome that she is made." ("Britain's" and "pre-eminent" are two huge positive markers here: the reviewer is being almost American in his slavish adulation).

"feminist philologist (not often that you meet one of them)" → "She is that rare breed, the feminist philologist. Not just a linguist, because that sounds like something you can get a GCSE in just for turning up, but a philologist, which sounds like you need to be smart for it. And feminist ones don't grow on trees, no siree, you don't get many of them for a pound".

"and the current Rupert Murdoch professor of language and communication at Oxford University."→"She has some more claims to awesome, too. She knows her stuff, and is better qualified than those pop-science 'tards on the M/V theory.

[This second paragraph could hardly have been more glowing. "Please excuse me while I flaunt her qualifications some more. I am clearly a fan and possibly in love with her. Odds are the editor had to forcibly prevent me from including her whole CV."]

"Cameron, 48, is a firebrand" → "Cameron, not a n00b, is a vehement fighter against establishment nonsense" ("firebrand" is another strong positive marker, about the most positive way to describe an anti-establishment thinker: compare the negative markers of which there is no shortage: "malcontent", "rabble-rouser", "rebel", "revolutionary", "troublemaker", "provocateur", "heretic"...)

"with an impressive list of" → "with a wonderful list of" ("impressive" is a clearly positive marker, contrast "tediously long", "lengthy", "weighty", etc.)

"pet peeves," → "things about which she is outspoken" (definitely not a negative marker, more a trying-to-be-neutral marker. There is no suggestion that these are things about which that one should not become irate, but rather the suggestion that she understands not everyone would become as riled about them as she would.)

"including Tories, Darwinists, GNER's passenger service announcements, Big Brother's language "so-called" experts, man-hating "pseudo-feminists" and societies for the protection of the semicolon. Don't get her started on Lynne Truss."→ "everything that every rational person loathes, and any sensible person will love reading a good rant about." (Here he is careful to temper any possible negative connotation of the earlier use of "feminist" by distancing her from the "man-hating" ones; the remainder of the list is an itemisation of things that his readers would be expected to share; note the scornful use of "Tories" rather than "Conservatives": it is clear that he shares these points of view and agrees with their selection as things to have a "pet peeve" about.)

[This paragraph is even more glowing than the last. The reviewer doubtless has pinned a picture of the author up by his desk and gazes at it for hours at a time, indulging in fantasies of illicit peeve-ranting behind the bikesheds.]

"But the subject that has irked her most recently -- enough for Cameron to dedicate an entire book to bludgeoning its brains out" → "Cameron served up a sound and well-deserved thrashing to an irksome subject"

"-- is what she calls The Myth of Mars and Venus, published last week by Oxford University Press." → "I like making confusing sentences, so you can't tell if this is a book, or a thing against which she is arguing, or what"

[Incoherent though it is, this final paragraph shows Cameron as a powerful and dynamic author who can deliver a categorical smackdown to long-held but incorrect beliefs.]

If you had read the original article in the tone of Jeremy Clarkson, you might have more readily understood where he was coming from and understood where those negative markers were aimed. He was not aiming them at the author: so much is clear from all the positive markers. He is aiming them at the hypothesis against which she is arguing.

OK, I cry uncle. If the "sound and well-deserved thrashing" hadn't won the day, the "fantasies of illicit peeve-ranting behing the bikesheds" certainly would have done the trick.

Clearly, I failed to take into account a crucial characteristic of British culture that I had no excuse to forget, since I've blogged about it. In the memorable words of AA Gill:

The English aren't people who strive for greatness, they're driven to it by a flaming irritation. It was anger that built the Industrial Age, which forged expeditions of discovery. It was the need for self-control that found an outlet in cataloguing, litigating and ordering the natural world. It was the blind fury with imprecise and stubborn inanimate objects that created generations of engineers and inventors. The anger at sin and unfairness that forged their particular earth-bound, pedantic spirituality and their puce-faced, finger-jabbing, spittle-flecked politics. ...

Anger has driven the English to achievement and greatness in a bewildering pantheon of disciplines. At the core of that anger is the knowledge that they could go absolutely berserk with an axe if they didn't bind themselves with all sorts of restraints, of manners, embarrassment and awkwardness and garden sheds.

[Underlining the difficulty of interpreting sentiment by ethnographic methods in the British isles, this note arrived recently from a third anonymous source:

The tone of the original article is definitely patronising at the start, but not towards Deborah Cameron and/or her ideas in particular, nor towards those of her opponents (as your anonymous correspondent somewhat bizarrely claimed). Rather it is the ingrained flippancy of the British journalistic classes towards academics - the main purpose of science is merely to provide funny stories to entertain normal, decent humanities-educated folks at the end of a hard-working day.

I think your anonymous academic friend read it wrong too. If I had a pound for every expat-Brit I've met who blames their expat status on endemic "tall-poppy syndrome" back home, I'd be a man with quite a lot of pounds. There was no particular misogyny - I think Caesar would have been equally flippant if he'd been interviewing a male academic. And seeing as Mr Caesar is an employee of Rupert Murdoch, it'd be surprising if he truly believed "thou surely shalt not hold a chair named after the Dirty Digger".

I'm still trying to figure out which planet the second anonymous commenter was from :-)


[And yet another British cultural consultant has yet another reaction, this time fairly close to my original impression:

I guess that column reads differently to every Brit who reads it.

To me -- as, I would guess, to you and to your academic friend -- "Britain's pre-eminent feminist philologist" sounded like damning with very faint praise by virtue of the (presumed) smallness of the set. If praise had really been meant, he could have written, say, "one of Britainís pre-eminent feminist academics, philologist Deborah Cameron"; that would have been a deal less mealy-mouthed, while still including the same information. Instead, he even hammers home the point of the smallness of the set in which she has such status ("donít meet one of them every day").

The list of "pet peeves", too, seems calculated to make the reader sneer in its eclecticism (she's obviously a real winger) and irrelevance (she even winges about wingers!), and to my eye the inclusion of Darwinism made things especially bad (what, she's anti-evolution too? What kind of intellectual credentials are these?). He adds to this belittling by introducing her book as a "bludgeoning to death" (strong word!) of a phenomenon which he had previously framed quite clearly as a load of very self-evident tosh -- thus neatly suggesting that she is breaking a very insignificant butterfly upon a far too large a wheel.

This, again, is hammered home by the ironic description of 'MafM, WafV' as 'seminal': here, he is saying, is a woman who is throwing the entire weight of her big-fish-in-a-little-pond authority into tearing a new asshole for a book which any half-sentient life-form is going to know from before even opening the cover is a lightweight bit of trash. Tremble, oh ye mortals!

What's really odd is that aside from a snark about her "rehearsed" Uranus quip the tone is not sustained through the remainder of the interview/article. Maybe he was just trying too hard to write amusingly; or maybe he took against Dr Cameron personally (consistent with your academic friend's sense of personal animus). Either way, I can't concede that this was a gushing eulogy. As to reading it like Clarkson? The man's a pillock-- it just makes the article sound insufferably arrogant and unthinking as well as rude.

No, no -- I have to agree with you and not with your anonymous British correspondents. Ghastly introduction.

For those of you who are (as I was) unfamiliar with the evocative but obscure word pillock, the OED explains it:

1. orig. Sc. The penis. Now Eng. regional (north.) and rare.

2. Chiefly Brit. colloq. (mildly derogatory). A stupid person; a fool, an idiot.

With that gem of antique gender stereotyping, perhaps we can declare the subject closed, if not settled.

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 11, 2007 03:37 PM