January 23, 2008

Yale sluts and Princeton philosophers

Insane over-interpretation of laws against such things as "hate speech", sexually harassing speech, and defamation will not be disappearing any time soon, it seems. Recently there appeared on Facebook a picture of a group of Zeta Psi fraternity pledges in front of the Yale Women's Center with a big sign saying WE LOVE YALE SLUTS.

And the Women's Center immediately threatened to sue.

Rolling over immediately, the president of the Yale chapter of Zeta Psi has issued an apology and expressed a willingness to meet and discuss; and the Facebook entry has disappeared. Legal authorities do not think there was much hope of success in a legal action anyway. The amazing thing to me is that any educated person would have dreamed, even for a second or two, that there might be.

The word slut received some discussion on various blogs in 2004. There is a sensitive rumination on it in this post by Mark Liberman. Says Mark, "I wouldn't use the word myself, not so much because it's offensive as because it projects bad associations based on a framework of ideas that I don't endorse"; but he also notes that in the Oxford English Dictionary entry for the word "bad housekeeping, loose sexuality, general uppitiness and terms of endearment have been all mixed together since the middle of the 17th century." It is not an obscene word, and has often been used with some affection down the years (note the perceptive analysis by Maureen Dowd in this NYT article). It is an extraordinary poor word to pick as a casus belli for that reason if no other. The OED entry stresses that it often occurs in a "playful use, or without serious imputation of bad qualities".

(Consider, for example, Eugene Volokh's remark about himself: "I like to talk to the media, both print reporters and radio and TV, and do a good bit of it; so a friend of mine told me that I was a media whore. And then it dawned on me: I, and most of my academic colleagues who do these things, are not media whores. We're media sluts -- whores get paid.")

It is ludicrous to think that legal action might be taken when a group of college boys (probably on a dare, to show they are brave enough to be worthy of being Zeta Psi men) hold up a sign saying that they love the sluts of Yale. Legal authorities lost no time in stating that to the Yale Daily News today, and I'm sure no suit will ever even be filed.

The fact is that the young Zeta Psi pledges in question are fantasizing: I'm sure they would love to find a few promiscuously inclined babes hanging around the Women's Center, but they probably couldn't get a Yale woman to have sex with them if they got down on their knees and wept for it. So they will fantasize about meeting some of the more sexually active of the 5700 women students at Yale (many of whom will doubtless outshine them academically; it's tough life), and at night they will masturbate in their dorm rooms as normal, and by day they will sometimes find ways to be casually offensive to girls in standard college-boy manner, and the First Amendment will protect them if they announce their fantasies on Facebook.com, and the world will go on turning, and the sky will not fall, and I really don't think anyone needs to go to court about such things. Surely Yale women can find more important lawsuits to work on than this.

Just to add one indisputably linguistic point to make this randomly opinionated post eligible for its illustrious site (for this is indeed, let me remind you, Language Log, not the Zeta Psi national organization newsletter or a libertarian broadsheet): one thoroughly intimidated would-be frat boy told the Yale Daily News remorsefully: "We're all terribly sorry, and at that moment we didn't actually think that Yale girls are sluts." But methinks he protesteth too much. Part of what makes this whole incident so non-serious is that (irrelevant though it would be to the plausibility of any lawsuit) nobody could think that We love Yale sluts entails or implies that Yale girls in general are sluts. It merely affirms a love of those Yale girls that are. Compare with We love Princeton philosophers. It doesn't imply that Princetonians are all philosophers, or typically philosophers, does it?

[Update, a few hours later: Perhaps that last linguistic point is invalid. Breffni O'Rourke makes the excellent point that things are different with Princeton bastards, which does tend to imply that all Princetonians are bastards. Terms of abuse do not behave exactly the way descriptive terms do. Nice observation, Breffni.]

[Further update, several days later: I got a certain amount of critical mail on the post above, naturally enough, but what I wish someone had done was just to send me a picture of the scene. In due course I did find one. And if ever there was a case where the non-linguistic context changed just about everything, this was it. Take a look at the picture:

Not quite the witty, good-natured, non-threatening poster disply one might have imagined, is it? A dozen unsavory-looking guys looking roughly like street gang members blocking the door of a building in which rape counseling takes place. If you were a young woman who did not want to be physically roughed up, would you have taken the risk of trying to enter through that gang after dark?

All of my remarks above about how the message on the sign couldn't possibly be a cause for action still apply (except that I originally said that what they did was "erect" a sign; apparently all they did was hold up a symbolically limp piece of paper). The lawsuit talk just caused people like a commenter at to ask, quite reasonably, "what would you sue them for? Being assholes? Misogynists?: in America, and you have a right to be a misogynist asshole, and express your views. But my contempt for the young men involved just went up a substantial amount, and I no longer think that it was silly of the Women's Center to see this event as deserving of disciplinary charges — but relating to the apparently threatening behavior, not the sign.

Among the long list of comments at IvyGate, many were obscene and threatening misogynist garbage ("You broads need to chill the fuck out", "silly cunts, they should shut the fuck up and go make me dinner", that sort of thing — good examples to look at if you ever wonder why Language Log has no open comments feature). But one from a commenter called Englishman seemed to me to hit the nail on the head very nicely:

Wow, i am truly amazed at the bravery of the free speech activists/men of america, standing outside a rape victim help centre with a little bit of paper saying yale girls are sluts. Kinda shows everything that is wrong with your pathetic, penis envy driven society.

These are your most "intelligent" minds?

no wonder you're still in iraq...

One of the unpleasant things about First Amendment rights, which we must never forget, is that we are forced to extend them to the wankers of Zeta Psi. But one of the nice things about First Amendment rights is that they extend to those on the opposite side too.

They also extend to those readers who are invited to submit guest posts; curiously, the new (January 28) post by Jane Acheson was posted by Mark Liberman while this update was being written. There is some overlap, including the picture, but I did not see her post until a couple of hours after I wrote the foregoing remarks. The way things look to me right now, I'd say she has it all just about right. Except about me writing "ham-handedly", of course.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 23, 2008 10:09 AM