Quick Quiet Life

I realized today that I have come to appreciate the phrase “off the reservation” in comments. I hadn’t thought about it being racist at all. But I had started to notice a correlation, how like 60-70% of the time, if someone uses the phrase “off the reservation,” they’re probably not going to have a lot of things to say that I need to engage with because I’m not going to find them interesting or informative. And then, of course, once you think about what it means–that someone is somewhere they don’t belong, somewhere that makes no sense, like an Indian off the reservation–voila, it’s not surprising that a majority of people who use it are not people I would want to talk to.

It’s a nice sorting tool.

If I heard someone described as a patriarch, depending on the context, I would assume that either the writer was signalling that the “patriarch” in question had some serious, annoying character flaws to go along with his leadership skills–in other words, that the person being described was an exclusionary asshole–or I would assume that the writer was an exclusionary asshole. The term is another nice sorting tool. I hear it used benignly and I figure there’s a 60-70% chance of the situation it’s used to describe being not worth my bother to try to be a part of.

It kind of doesn’t matter what the dictionary definition of the word “patriarch” even is. Because it is a signal word, also, to women who are trying to navigate spaces where there aren’t a lot of women. No matter what the dictionary says it means, to us it means, “keep your eyes open for the good ole boys club.”

So, you know, I’m not offended to hear Marcus Whitney and Nicholas Holland described as our tech patriarchs. Fine, if I’m around them, I should keep my eyes open for the good ole boys club. Glad to have that clue about them.

But if I were Whitney or Holland and that weren’t true? If I’m not at the heart of some woman-unfriendly hierarchy, I’d be at least confused, if not pissed, about having that signal associated with me.

The funniest part–in a funny ouch way, not a funny ha ha way–is that I would bet you good money a woman wrote that press release, so engrained in all of us is the idea that men have their little tech club and most women, if we’re going to participate in it, do so in supporting roles.

Anyway, words. They mean shit. Some of what they mean isn’t in the dictionary.

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20 thoughts on “Quick Quiet Life

  1. Hmm. OK, yikes. I am usually very careful with my language, as you know. Further, I am of (heavily diluted) American Indian extraction myself. And yet I do use “off the reservation,” and I use it to mean “batpoop crazy.” I’m going to have to think about this. Thanks for the gut-check.

  2. It’s not something I really thought that much about, myself, until I recently recognized the high correlation between using the phrase and being a general douchebag. In other words, seeing these folks aggravating assholishness and that they use that phrase quite a bit is what led me to actually think about what the phrase meant. I guess that’s the opposite of how it usually works, where you know a phrase is problematic and then notice all the assholes who use it. I noticed all the assholes that used it and that’s what led me to think about just what, exactly, that phrase meant.

  3. I’m not very thoughtful, but I’ve always considered it more of a nature reservation type thing. As in the elephant that wanders off the reservation and BOOM.

  4. Thanks for the comment on “off the reservation” – I really hadn’t thought about that one previously.

    Another damn clear signal: describing oneself as not “offended” because you’re a “rational human being” while denying what women are telling you about the implications for them of “patriarch” in an industry already rife with gender problems. Naw, women never get their legit concerns dismissed as “irrational.” (via a defender on Twitter).

  5. To my shame, I have never parsed that phrase before. I have no excuse. It came to prominence (AFAIK) in 80s-90s cop/spy movies when the hero acts against his (always his) agency’s dictates.

  6. Aunt B.,

    I associate the phrase “off the reservation” with a person or group that takes a stand in opposition to the established power structure. For example, the term was surely applied to both the Tea Party in 2010 and to the McGovernites in 1972.

    It is often used as a term of some respect in that it takes courage and risk to break from the fold. When someone strays from the party line so far that it becomes a real negative, it is more likely that one will hear other comments than ‘off he reservation.’

  7. I’ve got reservations. I’ve used the phrase from time to time as Mark describes–as on the positive side, for somebody working an arena that’s generally hard-defined and limited, and then strikes out to do something original, against the grain. That, to me, is “going off the reservation,” and I figure a lot of Native Americans would be more than happy to do it. A phrase that comes from a similar situation but has mainly a negative connotation, unless maybe used ironically, is being “beyond the pale.” The reference originally could be to (or from) the Irish in British-run Ireland, or to Jews in Russia, who had “proper,” limited “pales” of settlement they weren’t supposed to live outside of… But I don’t think I’ve ever heard any behavior called “beyond the pale” in a good way, whoever uses it!

  8. I think the important thing is not to dismiss someone out of hand because they use a particular word or phrase, but to gauge their reaction when you tell them why it’s problematic.

  9. Barry,

    Thanks for bringing up ‘beyond the pale.’

    Chris,

    Excellent point.

    Do you think it proper to use ‘niggardly?’ Or is this a word that should fall out of usage despite its lack of linguistic relationship to certain other words?

    If ‘off the reservation’ is problematic, then niggardly would seem to be even more so.

  10. Mark, here’s my thought. If you’re not a 19th century person, it’s highly unlikely that, when you think of a person like, say, Ebenezer Scrooge or Montgomery Bell, the word that pops to mind to describe them is “niggardly.” It’s just not a word in common usage these days and it’s a word that has a lot of synonyms that are more recognizable.

    So, yes, if someone in the contemporary U.S. wants to use the term “niggardly” instead of “miserly,” I do, in the back of my mind, suspect it’s because they like the thrill of using a word that sounds so close to nigger without being that word. In fact, I would further suspect that they like to use it both because it sounds like nigger and then, when called on it, they get to have a smug little discussion about how it’s not related.

    If someone were to attempt to have that smug little discussion with me, though, I would point them to the discussion in the etymology section of “niggardly”‘s entry in the OED which goes into great detail about how the two words have separate beginnings, but that by the second half of the 18th century, the coincidence of the sound of the two words caused negative attributes associated with the term “nigger” to leak into the meaning of the word “niggard.”

    The “mean, stingy, or parsimonious person; a miser; a person who only grudgingly parts with, spends, or uses up anything” sense of the word has been there since the beginning. The “harsh, insensitive, or thoughtless person; a lout, a barbarian. Also as a more general term of abuse.” sense of the word “niggard” didn’t come into being until “nigger” began to be used as a slur. Their original meanings may have been separate, but they share a common history as a “general term of abuse” now, due to being homophones and have for a couple centuries.

    So, no, I wouldn’t use niggardly and I wouldn’t pretend to be surprised when people get upset that it is used. And I won’t be bummed if it falls out of use.

    But I’m not the language police. I don’t give a shit about stopping you from using whatever terms you like. But no one has the right to say whatever they want and to always be met with a kind of fake naivety on the part of the person they’re talking to. I certainly have the right to note how often certain terms and phrases are used by assholes and to be less likely to give the benefit of the doubt to people who use those terms.

    I don’t even know if Native Americans have a problem with “off the reservation.” As I related before, I noted the correlation between its use and asshole opinions I would rather not waste time on. It’s been a handy guide and I will continue to employ it. It doesn’t mean that I think everyone who uses it is an asshole. Or that it’s wrong to use it. I don’t know. I’m sure I’ve used it in the past.

    I’m just not going to from here on out, because I like to be an asshole on purpose and because I like my assholish barbs to land only on their intended victims.

  11. I would have my characters use “niggardly” if I were writing historical fiction set in an English-speaking location at the time of Shakespeare or earlier. And, of course, if they were describing a miser. But really, it’s one of those words like “ostensibly” that you have to work hard to fit into ordinary discourse. Which suggests that people who use “niggardly” these days want to offend, but ostensibly are just using unnecessarily long words.

  12. “So, yes, if someone in the contemporary U.S. wants to use the term “niggardly” instead of “miserly,” I do, in the back of my mind, suspect it’s because they like the thrill of using a word that sounds so close to nigger without being that word. In fact, I would further suspect that they like to use it both because it sounds like nigger and then, when called on it, they get to have a smug little discussion about how it’s not related.”

    I think that David Howard, the gay and liberal aide to then-DC Mayor Anthony Williams and who was forced to resign his job might disagree. As would the the Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who used the word in teaching Chaucer and was condemned by a student who had her feelings hurt.

    “If someone were to attempt to have that smug little discussion with me, though, I would point them to the discussion in the etymology section of “niggardly”‘s entry in the OED which goes into great detail about how the two words have separate beginnings, but that by the second half of the 18th century, the coincidence of the sound of the two words caused negative attributes associated with the term “nigger” to leak into the meaning of the word “niggard.”

    The only thing worse than the gratuitous use of the word as a goad is assuming, absent any proof, that someone using the word in its proper context has an ulterior motive. I think that someone who takes public offense at a word’s proper use because it ‘offends them’ or ‘hurts their feelings’ may have an agenda of their own that is not in the public good.

    “But no one has the right to say whatever they want and to always be met with a kind of fake naivety on the part of the person they’re talking to. I certainly have the right to note how often certain terms and phrases are used by assholes and to be less likely to give the benefit of the doubt to people who use those terms.”

    True. But one has an obligation to back up such claims with facts. I think that such keeping score is not the best use of your time or considerable talents but that is your choice.

  13. Mark,

    My point is that the word’s proper context, now after two hundred years, is, in part, the same as the proper context for the word nigger. Two hundred years they’ve been entwined. If a liberal gay person (who, what? Is supposed to be immune from racism?) and a professor don’t know that, the burden isn’t on me to be understanding.

    Here’s the deal. A lot of people have, for a long time, said hurtful shit. And now they’re having to adjust to the fact that people don’t have to endure their hurtful shit while pretending it’s not hurtful. They can, instead, complain.

    I’m sure it was nicer for the people who don’t like to hear complaints about their hurtful stuff when they didn’t have to hear it.

    It wasn’t so hot for the rest of us.

    And, believe it or not, people who say racist and sexist crap over and over again, aren’t good people. They’re not misunderstood poor souls who need to be taught. They are just who they appear to be–jerks. Therefore, you, too, can benefit from believing them when they tell you what kinds of people they are, even if you are not a member of the group they’re offending at the moment.

  14. Let’s see, Mark, who’s worse: people who want to hurt other people, or people who like to dramatize themselves? I’d say the former, but YMMV and all that.

  15. Aunt B.,

    That is thin comfort for an innocent civil servant with impeccable liberal credentials who is forced to resign for using the word properly {as in there was no allegation that he ever behaved in a racist manner} or for a professor who is accused of hurting someone’s feelings for using the word in a class.

    In the Wisconsin case, according to Salon, the professor attempted to explain the meaning of the word as it was used: http://www.salon.com/2002/01/22/kennedy_22/. So much for academic freedom when balanced against one individual’s demand to not be offended.

    The point being that context matters. Repeated use of a fairly obscure word would suggest an instance where your position is correct. But what about the civil servant or the professor? Don’t they deserve a full-throated defense since their usages are singular and appropriate?

    A quote by the offended student in Wisconsin suggests the danger of excessive sensitivity.

    “I was in tears, shaking,” she told the faculty. “It’s not up to the rest of the class to decide whether my feelings are valid.” So much for academic freedom.

  16. “Who’s worse: people who want to hurt other people, or people who like to dramatize themselves?”

    And what happens when there is no evidence that one person intended any hurt but was only doing their job? Are you suggesting that everyone who uses ‘niggardly’ is doing so to hurt others? That is going to make teaching Chaucer interesting.

    By the way, ‘Huck Finn’ is a favorite book and ‘Blazing Saddles’ is one of my all-time favorite movies. Given the dialogue in both, does that make me bad person? Where do you draw the lines? Or is this a gnostic thing where secret knowledge allows for some to divine racism or bigotry in others?

  17. Mark, I answered your question (Which is worse, those who seek to offend or those who seek to be offended?). Now you seem to be annoyed that I didn’t answer a different question (maybe: which is worse, those who offend unintentionally or those who seek to be offended?). But I don’t see how the question you wish I had answered arises out of anything I’ve contributed to this discussion.

    But since you insist: there is a happy medium between firing from the hip at those who accidentally hurt others and saying that intentionally seeking to hurt others doesn’t matter. I would even suggest that the happy medium, in this case, isn’t very difficult to arrive at. To wit: “the innocent civil servant” offered his resignation for having been stupid enough to cause a brouhaha, it was accepted on those grounds, and he was then promptly rehired; in “the Wisconsin case” there was a protest against the instructor talking about the word “niggardly”, and that was the end of it (unless you are saying that the professor’s feeling of being hurt by the demonstration somehow trumps the students’ feelings of being hurt by his language) — his academic freedom wasn’t affected; etc. In fact, these happy mediums are so very easy to achieve that I almost want to suggest that you’re the one getting “deliberately offended” in this discussion. I don’t like thinking that, because you generally like to argue from the facts. But in this conversation you’re distorting them.

  18. NM,

    When someone innocently uses a correct word with no intent at any other agenda, how can you say “or having been stupid enough to cause a brouhaha”? If a black city employee were forced out of a job under similar circumstances, would you be as willing to blame him or her and suggest that, by getting another job, we should all call it a tie and go our merry ways?

    As for the professor, the pertinent point is that a college student who refuses to listen to the professor and then claims that her {or his} feelings are more important than the class, probably ought to change classes. Not to mention needing a bit of instruction in what college is supposed to be about.

    Until Aunt B.’s post, I was unaware of a rise in anti-Indian sentiment measured by use of the term ‘off the reservation.’ And I am apparently not alone here in thinking that the term is not per se disrespectful but more descriptive of a willingness to stand out against the mainstream unlike, for example, “bat-shit crazy.”

    More and more, I tend to get very defensive where free speech is concerned. In neither of the cases involving niggardly did either person do anything wrong but both stood to be punished. Both were help up to public scrutiny and accused of misbehavior. And for nothing more than doing their jobs and being well-educated.

    But even if we grant that niggardly is an out-dated word, save the Chaucer stuff, where does it stop? Water buffalo? Dutch treat?

  19. Well, Mark, I think that you confuse “free speech” with “speech without consequences.” Look, I appreciate that you consider intention to trump results. And I appreciate that you are sure you can divine my intentions (at least, you have been attributing them to me and others who don’t agree with you all over the place in this conversation), but are equally sure that I can’t divine the intentions of those who use language that hurts others. I think we had better leave it at that.

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