Posts by D

Word Spotlight: Bitch

September 5th, 2013
posted by

Preface
As this is the first of these “Word Spotlights” I should preface it by explaining the idea behind them. The words available to us exert some control over what ideas we are able to think and express. I am neither an expert linguist, nor have I even executed the most superficial of internet researches, yet this idea seems self-evident to me. Lacking a certain word will remove certain ideas from our collective consciousness. Furthermore, many words carry with them a set of meanings; their frequent repetition can enshrine these meanings in our minds.

My first interest was to examine some of the words/usages that I have suspected of possibly being pernicious– e.g. gay, rape, nigger, bitch, slut, player– with the goal of answering for myself: are these words (or usages) I should avoid? That I would recommend others avoid? I suspect in advance, that I won’t always be able to conclude yes or no. Regardless, along the way, I imagine there will be other interesting lessons about our society.

Meanings
Literal meaning:
Female dog.

Colloquial meanings with examples:
She’s such a bitch.
Someone who is nasty and very unkind to others.
Don’t be a bitch about it./ Quit your bitching.
Whiny, timorous, fearful/ Complaining.
It was a really bitchy thing to do.
Backstabbing, petty.
Life’s a bitch.
Painful, full of disappointments and tough times.
He really bitched him.
Put him in a position of subservience, taught him who was boss, made clear the current unequal power dynamic or disempowered the other to establish such a dynamic.
John is Sarah’s bitch.
John is either in a position of extreme subservience towards Sarah or is dominated by her in some other way.
I’m sorry, I’ve been acting like such a bitch lately.
Moody, unsympathetic, critical, mean.
Hell yeah, I’m a bitch.
Assertive, knows what they want, unintimidated by men.

There are these meanings and many similar to the first seven. All but the last are absolutely mainstream, common meanings; and I can not think of a single positive meaning for “bitch” that I am leaving out. If there is one, I’m confident that it represents a minute sliver of the total usages of the word.

What do these meanings mean?
For this word to carry so many negative meanings, it most likely must be based on a widespread negative impression of either dogs or women. And it’s not hard to see that in this case almost every one of these negative meanings aligns with a popular misogynist trope; only the one about power could possibly apply to dogs, and thus might have originated from the “dog” part of bitch. For example:

– Moody, unsympathetic, critical– there is an idea that women are more emotional than men, both during the heightened hormonal stage of their period, and just normally. This supposed heightened emotionality is then linked to being overly critical, saying nasty things to hurt people, snapping before thinking, and a generalized lack of self-control.

– Whiny, timorous, fearful– there is a dichotomy established between men who bear pains and disappointments with a firm upper lip (“men don’t cry”), and women who will give expression to their emotional state more frequently. Here, this “expression of your emotions” is implicitly severely devalorized. Additionally, there is the idea that men are supposed to protect women, since they are on average physically larger, and that idea has been extended to the notion that men are braver, while women are more cowardly (image of a female cowering behind a male).

– Backstabbing, petty– this is in opposition to the supposedly male-gendered way of dealing with problems or disagreements, which is to face the thing head on, address it openly and directly, and employ a code of honor (chivalry being one example) while fighting (whether through words, weapons, politics, trade). Consider the phrase “man up;” what is understood in this use of “bitchy” is the opposite of “manning up.” So this phrase carries the ideas that women are not honest about their disagreements, present a false face while scheming to hurt someone, and don’t employ a code of honor in their conflicts. Further there is an additional notion here, which goes back to the over-emotionality idea: that often women are upset over trivial things; that they are over-reacting and attacking even their friends over unimportant slights that would not trouble a man.

– Subservient, dependent, another’s property– this one could come from the fact that dogs are typically at the beck and call of their master, following orders and being entirely dependent upon them. However, there has been a very unequal power dynamic between men and women for a long time in most human cultures, so it is easy to see this use as being derived from or designed to reinforce that inequality.

– Assertive, knows what they want, unintimidated– this newer use of the word has been put forward by feminists, in an attempt to reclaim a word that has been used against them. Part of the point is to simply turn something on its head: the ideas of the oppressors are so wrong, that any criticism from them can be seen instead as a badge of merit. This usage opens up the broader debate of whether a word historically used as a tool for oppression is better reclaimed or relegated. Regardless of where we fall on that debate, I personally don’t like this use of bitch, as the qualities being played up tend towards selfishness to me, and thus I fail to see the positive message here. Just as women becoming CEOs of big companies thanks to scheming and immoral behavior does not strike me as an important avenue in the struggle for gender equality.

Why/when is this word used
One notable occasion for the use of “bitch” is when a woman becomes powerful. The totally common ways that powerful men act are often accepted without the blink of an eye (though I don’t excuse them), but when a woman acts at all like that, she is immediately criticized harshly. Which is funny, since theoretically, “bitch” is supposed to refer to these awful female characteristics, yet in this instance it is applied in particular when a woman acts more like a man. The purpose of this application of the word is to censor women who take power, discourage other women from taking power, and in some cases to take away from the accomplishments of more “accomplished” women, by implying that they have achieved what they have through methods other than hard work, like conniving. Never mind that this applies to almost all “high-accomplishment” men in a capitalist society.

Another ubiquitous application of the word is in the “war of the sexes” going on endlessly in heterosexual mating couples. Here it is part of an intense power struggle, and is designed to establish the general framework that women are over-emotional and hyper-critical. It follows that with their partner they should criticize less, apologize for themselves and their behavior, be thankful for the men who put up with their moodiness, and consider many of their complaints to just be the conjurations of their hormones, rather than based in any actual shortcomings of their male partner. This is a massive long-term strategy, of which the use of the word bitch is just one facet. See for example the invented medical condition of “Female Hysteria.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_hysteria

I recently discovered that this word is now popular in the San Francisco gay community. One example: when I assumed that a man who appeared twenty years my senior was older than me, he told me (in apparent good humor) that I was “such a bitch.” (The implication being that it could be hurtful to tell someone they are old). I was surprised and dismayed to find this word has become popular in this community. For one thing, gay men have suffered from rhetorical de-masculinization, so you’d expect them to be sensitive to such a gendered word, especially one designed to call out false weaknesses based on gender. For another thing, they must have experienced the colloquial uses of the words “gay” and “homo” at some point in their lives, and thus should be sensitive to the power of taking a word that refers to a group of people, imbuing it with tons of negative meanings, and then throwing it around ad infinitum.

So I asked around a little, and here’s what I understood: it’s another instance of a reclaiming of a word. People are taking something that has been thrown in their face as an accusation (a lack of masculinity), and by using the word themselves (in reference to either themselves or friends), calling into question the idea that it’s a bad thing. Similar to how the word “slut” is bandied about as a means of arguing that promiscuity is not a sin. These usages aim to really take away a lot of the power and sting from the harassment and aggression that has been aimed at a group of people. “Bitch” is also sometimes used as a warning when teasing is pushing the bounds between friendly fun and something that could be hurtful, as a humorous rejoinder that allows people to back off without a conflict. This is enough to allow me to make some sense of this usage of “bitch,” but I am still concerned about it. It seems to me that the meaning being used is in the ‘moody, unsympathetic, critical, mean’ area, and I don’t see why we’d want to continue using a gendered word for a set of generally unpleasant characteristics.

Impacts
This is a very widely-used word in the English language today, and almost every time it is used, it bolsters untrue and negative stereotypes about femininity. I could only think of one single colloquial use of the word that is not part of a rhetorical war to increase the power of straight men and decrease that of women. It de-values the opinions, emotions, feelings, words, actions, and thoughts of women (and non-traditionally masculine males). It continues to feed us false notions about the difference between men and women. Even in the cases of reclamation, it’s not convincing to me that any positive ideas are being advanced.

Conclusions
I used to use this word– perhaps not a lot, but sometimes. In the context of both a power dynamic and the brave-cowardly dichotomy, the term is quite common in the world of competitive chess. I would also sometimes thoughtlessly toss it out in reference to a mean person who happened to be female. When I first started pondering this topic, I quickly felt this was a word with a lot of negatives and no upside. After further thought, I decided to weed “bitch” out of my vocabulary, and after a few months the slips are tapering off. I have not yet determined with confidence whether this is a word I would want to actively discourage others from using: for now I’m hoping to hear what some others think about it.

Why I Quit my Dream Job

August 6th, 2013
posted by

[Update: The situation at Chess.com has changed! You can read about that in a new post here. I believe the points I bring up in this article are still relevant for a very large proportion of American corporations.]

For four years, I worked a job with so many good aspects– educating people, entertaining people, being creative, working in a field that I love and am an expert in, fun co-workers with similar interests, flexible hours, the ability to work from anywhere, good compensation, constant flattering feedback– that almost anyone would call it a dream job. And so it came as a shock to many of my friends, coworkers, and customers when I quit.

Initially, Chess.com had no income, and thus there was no question of how to divide it. But in 2011 and 2012, the company did extremely well. How was our hefty income distributed? In 2012 we had about 35 full-time employees, 8 owners (7 of whom were employees), and dozens of contractors. If we leave out Chess.com’s second co-founder, the CEO took home as much in 2012 as the other 30+ full-time employees. While the other employee-owners (including myself) had sizable incomes, most of Chess.com’s employees were compensated far below what they deserved.

As I grew more aware of the developing exploitation of our workers, I was sickened. The possibility reared its head that the primary goal of the company was not to create the greatest chess site for the world, but to create the greatest profit for one person.

I hoped this was not the case. For years I had thought the CEO was my friend, a man with values different from most corporate executives’. He had once agreed it seemed a good idea to have a maximum ratio between the highest and lowest salaries in a company, suggesting the ratio should be between five and ten. Now in our company that number exceeded forty. Did this not trouble him? No. I pleaded for respect and fair compensation, suggesting multiple mechanisms for the company to share its profits with the fantastic people who created them. And my requests were quite modest: for example, I was willing to work for one quarter of my previous pay if the company would share 1% of its profits among its workers. All were rejected. It became clear that the status quo was indeed what he wanted, and that it would not be changing.

There is an interesting argument that continuing my work would provide value to millions, while the numbers in one person’s bank account are of little consequence. Much as I long for a day where the numbers in bank accounts are as meaningless as those in videogames, we currently live in a world where money is largely interchangeable with power. I further consider concentrations of power to be the greatest threat to humankind (this contention is the subject of a future essay). To expend the greater part of my time and energy increasing the concentration of money and power in a single pair of hands seems like an extremely dangerous occupation, so, regretfully, I had to walk away from the coworkers, friends, chess-lovers, and projects that I so loved.

How is it that a wonderful group project, with fifty plus people working on it, and millions actively engaged in the community should be used for this purpose of a single person’s enrichment? The answer lies in the structure of the economy, and the corporation specifically. Chess.com has a single person who can make any decision he pleases (the CEO), regardless of anyone else’s opinion, and a single person who chooses that CEO (the majority owner, the same person). In other corporations, there may be a small group of two or three owners who amongst themselves hold decision-making sway. This means lack of accountability, lack of input from many people, conflict of interest, and almost no check upon selfishness and corruption. And so throughout the economy we see bosses and their buddies setting their own compensation arbitrarily high while relegating the vast majority of the workers to poverty.

Within our present legal framework, there is no recourse. The law is written by and for the few wealthy and powerful individuals, so its goal is merely to perpetuate this situation where one person dominates many. In retrospect, I can only regret the damage I have done, wishing I had not fallen for the typical “the boss is your friend” trick, and that I’d been more savvy about the horrors that are corporations.

I have felt for months that I owed this explanation to the people I worked with and for over the last four years. Its publication was postponed for a long time because when I left I was sad, upset, insulted, disappointed, angry. I did not want to do anything based on those feelings, and so I waited and considered at length how to communicate this message. Even when lies were posted on Chess.com, I held my tongue. I needed to be sure of my feelings, thoughts, and expression.

One important question I had to resolve was: could we the various stakeholders in Chess.com do anything to save the site from its owner? I’ve spent months reflecting upon this question, without coming up with any satisfying answer; my ideas and hopes seem unrealistic. I think any number of letters from customers, co-workers, and co-owners would fall upon a pair of deaf ears. I think my co-workers do not have the economic independence to leave and start over without the boss. Still, I hope one day to help build an online chess community without a greedy overlord.

Another Argument for Being Charitable

July 31st, 2013
posted by

Another Argument for Being Charitable[1]

If you live with another person, or group of people, it is extremely likely that at one time or another, the division of household work will be a source of tension. This often explodes when someone who feels that they are being put-upon, exploited, or free-riden upon broaches their frustrations in a very accusatory manner. Surprisingly, they will usually find the supposed miscreant perfectly stunned and convinced of their own virtue; in fact, they will often be suffering from the opposite impression: namely that *they* are carrying a greater share of the collective burden. The ensuing disputations are seldom productive, and often costly in their emotional and time toll upon all parties. There are also those who never enter into open argument, but carry, like a thousand burs, little resentments inside of them every day: that they do more housework, that other people are littering in their local park, that a co-worker is not putting in the hours that they are.

There is a simple yet powerful phenomenon of which you should be aware, which may allow you to escape this fate.

When you accomplish a piece of household work, you are painfully aware of it. When another member of your intimate community does the same, there is a significant chance that you will remain unaware of it– or even if you realize they have done it, you will experience that realization as a brief moment of gratitude, rather than as a 30-minute chore; in other words, it will weigh less with you than your own work does. This means that each person will by default place more weight on whatever work they accomplish and less on what the other person accomplishes, thus our perceptions of the balance of work will be each person feeling they have done a relatively greater percentage of the household work than they actually have!

The same holds true for *creating* household work. By definition when we leave a mess, or fail to clean something we tried cleaning, or leave food to go bad, there is a very high chance that we are unaware of it. That means, when another person comes through and cleans up after us, we are not even aware that we created that extra work for them, or that they did it for us. On the flip side, we will be acutely conscious of the work our living-mates have created for us. Just as explained above, this will skew the accuracy of our estimation of how much work we create for our living-mates compared to how much work they create for us.

Similar arguments can be made in other departments of our life: working on a collective project at work, or maintaining public spaces and resources. We will always over-estimate the size of our contributions compared to others’, while under-estimating the size of our impositions compared to others’.

So while justice is quite important, and it is legitimate to have expectations of others and to not want to spend our lives laboring on behalf of lazy layabouts, before starting into an emotionally-charged confrontation, make some mental adjustments in your head for the probable mis-estimations that have lead to your sense of outraged justice. Give the other members of your community some benefit of the doubt, that they have probably contributed more than you have noticed. And in return, hopefully, you can receive the same charity from them.

Another strategy you can employ is trying to become more mindful of what others do for you, and more aware of the ways you may actually be imposing on others. This is a much more difficult long-term project, which will necessarily still fall short of accuracy, but which offers various other positives: very genuine increased appreciation of others, the possibility of reducing some of your destructive behaviors (like driving a car!), and a clearer understanding of yourself and your community.

Before closing, I must point out that in current American society, with nuclear families the most common living unit, women do far more housework than men.[2] Thus women will also be more likely than men to complain about the lack of help they receive from their domestic partners. In many cases, these complaints are quite justified, and I want to be clear that this essay is not meant to be understood as an attempt to bolster male privilege by exhorting women to stop speaking up against it. That seems to me a very necessary thing. At the same time, I hope that applying charity to this dimension of our human relations may move us towards a more harmonious existence, while other steps move us towards a more just one.

Footnotes

  1. Charitable, in addition to the common meaning of “giving generously” also has the meaning of being generous in your estimation of someone else. []
  2. A further essay might be possible on the topic of “why?” but here I’ll just point out two reasons:
    1. It has only been 1-2 generations that women en masse have moved into the workplace, prior to which they were by default homemakers. Mothers pass these skills on to their daughters, while fathers do not pass them on to their sons, and it will take some time for this historical inheritance to dissolve.
    2. Men still earn significantly more than women for the same work, and have better job opportunities, therefore their job is often seen as more important, and the woman continues to pick up slack at home so the man can work more away from home. []