The Trouble with Real

I’ve been thinking over on of the comments on the last post and it’s taken me back to some of my earlier discussions of language.   It’s seems clear to me that the words we use matter a great deal.   Sometimes we think we disagree (I mean this as a general observation, not related to a specific discussion) because we might be using the same word to mean slightly different things or different words to mean the same thing.   Sometimes it takes quite a while to figure out exactly what we disagree about.

Part of the problem is that many of the words we use have layers of meaning some of which are necessarily imprecise.   Think of “family” for instance.   I sometimes use family to mean my immediate household but other times I use it to mean a much wider array of kin.    I know what people mean when they say ‘are you planning to start a family,” too, even though that’s not a phrase I use.  

It’s easy to see how this can lead to dispute.  Suppose a business offers “family memberships.”   Who’s included?   My (theoretical, because I am an only child) adult sister?   My parents?   Would it matter if my parents lived with me?   My kids?  My kids only if they are under a certain age?  

There’s a second issue besides clarity, however.   Language has power.  The language that is used helps to shape our understanding of the world.  So when a lesbian couple is raising a child together, the assertion “this child has two mothers” is a meaningful one.   Equally, it might be important to say “this child does not have a father.”    This is not a denial of biological reality–it’s a statement about the structure of the family involved.  

This brings me to the problem with talking about mother/father/parent.    Some people are going to look at that statement–“this child does not have a father”–and want to argue.     Would it be satisfactory to rephrase that as “this child does not have a social father?”    I think that many people who would make the statement in the first place would find that an unacceptable substitute.   That’s because the word “father”–like the word “mother” and maybe even “parent”–has content even when it is modified by “biological,” “social,” “legal,” or whatever. 

I am sympathetic to this concern and so have tended towards terms like progenitor instead of biological father.   That’s what I’ve talked about in the past.

All of this leads me to another language problem I’ve been thinking about recently, one related to the word “real.”   I’m beginning to think it is an entirely unhelpful modifier.    What it generally does is to diminish the importance of whatever the “real” thing is being compared to.   So when someone says “but X is the real father” there’s almost always someone else around–Y, say–whose status is diminished by this move.    This is also why two parent lesbian families find it problematic when someone asks “who’s the real mother?”–as though one of them were not real. 

I’m fairly sure I’ve used the word “real” in this way myself in the blog, but I think I’m going to try to stop doing it.   I don’t see that the word adds useful content.  It’s just a subtle way of advancing an argument that ought to be out in the open.

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12 responses to “The Trouble with Real

  1. “I don’t see that the word adds useful content. It’s just a subtle way of advancing an argument that ought to be out in the open. ”

    I like this closing statement very much. That is why I like this blog. It aims for honest debate.

    • Thanks. I’m all in favor of debate and (as you can probably tell) I rather like argument, but somehow I do think we need be as clear as possible about what it is we mean.

  2. marilynn huff

    I finally took the time to look all this up. I’d been having the feeling I was getting played with all this talk of words meaning different things to different people. It feels like a clever way to lie without facing any consequences and the only way to have a conversation with the person is to accept that the meaning of the word has changed. It felt like it was not so innocent, it felt like an attempt to remove the common definitions of words from my vocabulary so that I could no longer say what I wanted to say or draw the distinctions that I wanted to draw. Agreeing that words mean different things to different people means that in order to have a conversation with you I have to be willing to aknowledge a change to the common definition of words rendering me completely speachless and unable to say what I actually think. This all seems like it would have been written down in a psychology book somewhere so today I looked it up. I was wrong, its not in a psychology book but it turns out that all of the things like not telling the whole truth and word swapping – are the technique styles for debate and propeganda. Everything that felt shady is shady, none of its innocently ascribing a different meaning to something. The writers are not trying to communicate whats going on with me they are trying to make me think what they are doing should be thought of as if it were something its not. That’s messed up. What’s worse is that there are college text books on it and all the smart people know its just a mind game intended to sway public of people who did not go to college and study that stuff. I even read all about hitler writing the big lie and all you have to do is repeat it over and over until people just accept it. So all the people in that fertility industry with their PR campaigns have read these textbooks and they are just following these like 40 steps to successful propoganda and debate? Some of the terms are in Latin too and they sound like lawyer phrases which means there are no innocent differences in the understanding of a word. If you wanted to make sure everyone understood the situation you were talking about you’d speak to the audience using words that are not vague ambiguous or easily misinterpreted.
    If words were defined diferently by each individual then it would cease to be a language and there would be no point in talking. Now I feel like an idiot to ever have entertained the idea that the wrong words were being used. If I think about it English has over 1000000 words, its not like there was not one to suit the situation already that needed no redefinition. I mean we don’t innocently call newborns sexy when we mean that they are cute because just because both words describe something visually pleasing.
    Its one thing to redefine words for yourself and your intimate group of friends. I buy into that, there are people in my own life that I call brother or grandmother that absolutely are not really either of those things, but to me it feels like they are and so therefore in our group that is what I call them. If I go outside my group the rest of the world would not see it the way we do because its not the truth. I work on Sundays and call Thursday my Friday, that’s cute at home but not good for making dates with new people. Because Thursday is not really Friday and some people are not really Parents. Everyone gets 2 that reproduced to create them, so that is who everyone is going to assume your talking about when you say parents – that commonality. Not everyone has other people that they call parents and so if you want to be really really clear you’d say that they are your mother’s boyfriend who is more of a father than your own dad, say for instance. Not “this is my Dad”, then next week they meet your Dad that made you and think you play games with the truth. I get it people prefer the reaction they get when they think someone unrelated is related. Got it. So they tell them that the person is related because the reaction to the truth is a less enjoyable experience than the other. In reality other people don’t care. They just want to be clear on whose who. Two women say they are the mother of the same child first thing pops into everyone’s head is which one of them is the mother of that kid – who reproduced and made that kid. Has nothing to do with the emotional bond. Imigration, they get real specific about biology and parenthood, they would not entertain 2 mom’s 2 female parents yes 2 moms no.

    • I’m not sure I understand what you looked up. You’re right to be concerned about the manipulation of language. Isn’t it in 1984 that there are slogans like “War is Peace” and “Freedom is Slavery.” And you are right that the possiblity of communication is impaired if each of us gives words their own meaning.

      I’m not sure if we agree or disagree in the end, though. Family terms seem to me particularly slippery. Different people use the same words to mean somewhat different things sometimes and on occasion individuals even use the same words differently at different times–that was the point I wanted to make about “family.” I think that does indeed make communication difficult.

      For instance, you say 2 female parents yes, 2 moms no. I’d say that a mom is a female parent, which makes your statement logically impossible. To resolve this we have to go behind the words we are using and ask “what does each of us mean by the word “mom” or the word “parent.”

      I do think if folks are going to have an extended conversation about this stuff it’s worth taking the time up front to make sure you are using the terms the same way or at least that each participant knows how the others are using words. This does not strike me as sinister or devious.

  3. marilynn huff

    Ok so as I am getting over being the typical joe shmo uneducated person that does not see this stuff coming at them because it does fascinate me. I see terms in this list like straw man and others used here and on other blogs. I guess I’m on blogs where everyone is aware that word games are part of debate. I did not know. I wondered why you kept saying I thought DNA outweighed caregiving when I kept saying that is not how i felt, but that is one of the debate tactics, act like someone thinks something different than they do. I noticed some of the things on this list like annecdotes that I’ve tried to stop doing. Yes it was a way to sway opinion. I believed it, it happened its true and real. But I did want it to make a difference in how others thought. Here is a list from one of the sites. Its helpful in understanding how real real is.

    Tell The Truth
    Lie
    Lie By Omission and Half-Truths
    Lie With Qualifiers
    Lie With Statistics
    Observational Selection
    The Statistics of Small Numbers
    Bury The Lead
    THE BIG LIE
    Reversal Of Reality
    Make a Virtue out of a Fault
    Unsupported Claims
    Imaginary Evidence
    Use Association
    The Glittering Generality
    Exaggerate
    Confusion of Correlation and Causation
    Reverse a Cause-and-Effect Relationship
    STRAW MAN
    Hypnotic Bait and Switch
    The Either/Or Technique — Bifurcation — the Excluded Middle
    False Dichotomy
    The Enemy Of My Enemy Is My Friend
    “Hobson’s Choice”
    Alternative Advance
    “Somebody’s got it worse”
    Faulty Syllogism
    Non Sequitur
    POST HOC, ERGO PROPTER HOC — “IT HAPPENED AFTER ‘X’, SO IT WAS CAUSED BY ‘X'”
    The Norm of Reciprocity
    Guilt Induction
    Play On Emotions, Appeal To Emotions
    Ad hominem, launch personal attacks on opponents
    Engage in Name Calling
    Delegitimize One’s Opponent
    Apply Labels
    Stroking Ploys
    Blame A Scapegoat
    Blame Somebody Else (Anybody Else)
    Blame A Non-Factor
    Claim That There Is A Panacea
    Claim That There Is A Panmalefic
    Flattery
    *PROOF BY ANECDOTE
    Double-Talk
    Unprovable Statements
    Undisprovable Statements
    THE LANGUAGE TRAP
    VAGUE, UNDEFINED, GRANDIOSE LANGUAGE
    LOADED LANGUAGE, EUPHEMISMS, AND REDEFINED WORDS
    USE SELF-REFERENTIAL DEFINITIONS — DEFINE SOMETHING IN TERMS OF ITSELF
    DECEPTION VIA MISLABELING OR MISNAMING THINGS
    MISUSE WORDS
    Moving The Goalposts
    Set Low Expections
    SLIDING ADJECTIVES
    VAGUE ADJECTIVES
    UNDEFINED TERMS
    Pseudo-intellectual Bull
    Confuse With Technicalese
    Simplistic Slogans
    Over-simplification
    Wrap Yourself In A Higher Power
    Repeat Old Memes
    Everybody’s Doing It, Everybody Knows, and Everybody Says
    Pomp, Ceremony, and Ritual
    Humor and Ridicule
    Assume The Major Premise
    Petitio Principii, Assume Facts Not In Evidence
    Hidden Assumptions
    Assume Futures or Future Results
    Fallacy of Presupposition
    Affirmation of the Consequent
    Irrelevant Conclusion (Ignoratio Elenchi)
    CONFUSION OF BELIEFS WITH FACTS
    SUBSTITUTE FEELINGS FOR FACTS
    CONFUSION OF ABSTRACTIONS WITH REALITY
    Circular Reasoning (Circulus in Demonstrando)
    Appeal to Evil
    Appeal to Higher Principles
    Appeal to Authorities (Argumentum ad Verecundiam)
    Appeal to Force (Argumentum ad Baculum)
    Appeal to Popularity — Appeal to the People (Argumentum ad Populum)
    Appeal to Numbers (Argumentum ad Numerum)
    Dismiss by Numbers
    Appeal to Averages
    Appeal to Antiquity (Argumentum ad Antiquitatem)
    Dismiss by Antiquity
    Appeal to Novelty — Newness (Argumentum ad Novitatem)
    Dismiss by Novelty
    Appeal to the Exotic
    Appeal to Tradition
    Appeal to Poverty (Argumentum ad Lazarum)
    Appeal to Wealth (Argumentum ad Crumenam)
    Appeal to Common Folk
    Appeal To Stupidity
    Antirationalism
    Appeal to Desperation
    Appeal to Pity Ad Misericordiam
    EXPLOIT WISHFUL THINKING, AND TELL THEM WHAT THEY WANT TO HEAR
    It Ought To Be True, So It Is.
    It’s Too Terrible To Tell
    Argue from Adverse Consequences
    Argue from Beneficial Consequences
    Apply Time Pressure
    The Real Scotsman Fallacy
    Inverse Real Scotsman Fallacy
    Inconsistency
    Compare Apples To Oranges
    Special Pleading
    Self-Sell
    Repetition for Emphasis (Argumentum ad Nauseam)
    Reification
    Take Undeserved Credit
    Create A Granfalloon
    Spin Doctoring
    The Semi-Attached Figure
    Use Exact Numbers
    Avoid Specific Numbers
    Hide Behind Others
    The Preacher’s We
    Put Words Into Other People’s Mouths
    Tokenism
    Testimonials and Stories
    The Fallacy of One Similarity
    The Fallacy of One Dissimilarity
    If It Looks Like X, Then It Is X.
    A Distinction Without A Difference.
    Sly Suggestions
    Misleading Inference
    Unsubstantiated Inference and Groundless Claims
    Introduce Irrelevant Information as Supporting Evidence
    False Analogy
    False Equality
    Double Bind
    Project Future From Past
    False Analysis Of History
    It’s Never Happened Before
    I Didn’t See It Happen, So It Never Happened
    Argue Inevitability
    Pollyanna’s Ploy — Unbridled Optimism
    Chicken Little’s Pessimism
    Generalize, and the Sweeping Generality
    Take Quotes Out Of Context
    Argue from Ignorance (Argumentum ad Ignorantiam)
    Begging The Question
    Meaningless Question
    Blame The Victim
    Claim to Have Special or Secret Knowledge
    Bad Math
    Use the Passive Voice
    Use Slanted Language
    Use Inflamatory Language
    DEBATING TECHNIQUES:

    Refute By Example
    Refute By Exposing Contradiction
    Minimization and Denial
    Instant Denial
    Understatement
    Admit a Small Fault to Cover a Big Denial
    False Comparison
    Give a Non-reason Reason
    Divert Attention — Change the Subject
    The Positive Accomplishments Sidestep
    Declare Victory
    The Story Sourcing Distraction
    The Drama Queen, the Prima Donna Ploy
    The Personal Loyalty Red Herring
    Deflect Criticism and Blame By Deligitimizing It
    Deligitimize Criticism and Rebuttal in Advance
    Spurious Delegitimization of Evidence or Criticism
    Spurious Rejection of a Question
    Answer A Question That Was Not Asked (To Avoid Answering One That Was Asked)
    Answer a Question With A Question
    Surfeit of Questions (Plurium Interrogationum)
    Monopolizing the Question (Hypophora)
    Obfuscate
    Attack Without Appearing To Attack By Using Paralipsis or Apophasis)
    Sarcasm, Condescension, and Patronizing Attitudes
    Damn with Faint Praise
    Reductio Ad Absurdum
    Rationalize
    Exchange A Term
    Frame The Argument
    Argue with Unrealistic Hypothetical Situations
    Misrepresent Your Opponent’s Position, or Mischaracterize Your Opponent, or Mischaracterize His Statements or Questions
    Nit-Pick and Split Hairs
    Quibble
    Hit And Run
    Hifalutin’ Denunciations
    Make Unreasonable Demands
    Make False Demands
    Shift the Burden of Proof Onto Your Opponent
    Double Standards
    Demand an Uneven Burden of Proof
    Demand Uneven Standards of Acceptance
    Specious Argument
    Spurious Agreement
    Escape via Ignorance
    Escape to the Future
    Escape via Relativism
    Escape via Irrationality
    Pack the House
    Embarrass Your Opponent
    Obtuseness — Refuse to See the Point
    Laugh It Off
    Dominate the Conversation, Talk Non-Stop, and Interrupt Constantly
    Escape via Bullying and Intimidation

  4. marilynn huff

    You’d say “his father was anonymous and he’s not involved in his life; my partner is legally his other parent and is also the only other parent he’s ever known besides me. She’s his other mother and she loves him just the same as I do. Thanks for asking”

    • Perhaps this would be an acceptable answer to you, but for the majority of people I know it would not be, if for no other reason than the details included her are no business of the supermarket clerk or the rental car agent or whoever it is asking.

      This leads me to another point: What is it the person who asks this question is trying to get at? Are they essentially asking “how was this child concieved?’ What an odd question that would be. Are they asking about the genetic heritage of the child? Are they asking about social roles?

      If the question is ambiguous and if some of the formulations of the question are offensively intrusive (like how did you conceive this child–I don’t think salespeople and the like get to ask this question) then perhaps I get to answer as though they asked a more appropriate question–who functions as this child’s family? (I don’t actually see why they get to ask that, either, come to think of it.) And if I am answering the social question then the answer is “this child does not have a father and we are both mothers.”

      Accepting the formulation that one woman is the real mother while the other is not draws a distinction between the two women they may not wish to draw. There’s no question that being “real” is better than being “not real,’ is there?

      • marilynn huff

        No, Julie I think its you that is drawing the conclusion that being a child’s Mother is somehow better or has more value than being the spouse or partner of the Mother or the other legal parent of the Mother’s child. The fact is, when a child is introduced as having more than one Mother, one of them would not be there were it not for the express permission of the other.
        I do agree that it would be horribly out of line for a stranger to press into the details of a child’s conception absolutely. The topic of your post was what happens when the subject of who is or is not real…well if two women introduce themselves simultaneously as the same child’s mother only the boldest will venture to ask which of the two women is the mother and which is the other parent. Only a clod would ask which of you is the real mother. I would never be that rude especially understanding its a sensitive topic and important for them to feel equal. The only thing I’ve ever done is taken a couple girlfriends to task on their use of the D word when I babysit I use the terms used in the house for both 2 normal variations of mother but not the same because that would be stupid.
        I do have manners and I think most people do. There is a real when things boil down outside the intimate confines of the family home there is a distinction that might occasionally need to be drawn especially if the mother who is there by permission has no legally enforceable clout (the friends I mention there is the other mom, she’s just a girlfriend (they missed the marriagemini-window)and there is in fact a father he is quite real but in their house one is mamma and i don’t flinch) I’m actually pretty polite Julie.

        • I don’t want to argue when neither of us is likely to budge, but I think it is worth being clear what we disagree on.

          First, I don’t think it is just me who has the view that being the mother is better than being something else (or that being the “real mother” is better than being whatever sort of mother the other person is.) I think many people have that sense, but I’ve no idea how I could prove it–a study? A survey? Anyway, I think the word “mother” (as well as the word “father) has a lot of power/status so people want to claim it when they can. I suppose we can both ask around, not because it is scientific, but because it might be interesting.

          Second, I am afraid the ‘who’s the real mother” question is pretty common (for two mother families). I’ve heard it any number of times. I’m happy we can agree that it is rude and inappropriate. I wish you were right about this one–that it is rarely asked. Maybe someday it will be so.

          • Fair enough. It is not just you that thinks it and in rereading my comment I was flippant and I am sorry. Appologizing after the fact does little good but I am sincere. It sounded harsher than i meant it. I think the person devaluing the actual situation is not the audience so much as the person because there is this need to present themself as something different.
            There is a guy who is the boyfriend of my friends daughter. Happens to be a masaginistic Ahole and hes defacto-ing like a crazy guy. And if shes not careful shes going to loose her kid to him. Hes got the kid putting his name on her school work and he calls her is daughter. It does not help that the mother does not like the childs father the poor little girl has no idea who he is she calls him by his first name. There are plenty of nice men that have done this, but this man is a control freak and will not go away. I dont want my girl going over there anymore he creeps me out. Hes been around for like three years and the little girl thinks of him as her father but hes sleezy and gross. So bristle when he calls her his daughter. My friend keeps kicking him out he has no place to go. You see he is not really her father the other guy is – maybe neither is great but , one is and one is not real. The real one might have half a chance if the fake one would get out of the way.

          • I believe that all other things being equal, a biological parent is better than a non biological parent.
            Of course, many times the situations are NOT equal and the favor is weighted in favor of the non biological parent.
            But choosing terminology that avoids reality is often geared towards the child itself, the nosy neighbors are but an afterthought.
            I’m reminded of that video in which the kid is explaining how he ws born “The donor gave the sperm to my MOMS”. That is biologically incorrect. (Of course many kids are not told the real facts of life!)

            • I can only speak anecdotally here, but I think that most children with two mothers know who was pregnant/gave birth. There’s an age at which so many stories contain the “and you were in _____’s tummy” sorts of line and I’ve never known anyone to lie about that. Not in two mom families. (It’s a problematic question for adoptive families as well, but here, too, I think the current practice tends towards honest answers.) In the end, I do not agree that the insistence that both mothers are “real” is an effort to conceal historical facts (who was pregnant) from the child.

              Perhaps the problem here is that some people hear “real” and equate it to “biological”–in which case they are not both real mothers. Other people hear “real” and equate it to “functioning socially” or perhaps “legally recognized.” In either of these two senses, it could be true that the child has two real mothers. Ambiguity is not a good thing here–hence, more trouble with “real.”

              Also–and perhaps this is overly picky–the statement “the donor gave the sperm to my moms” might well be literal truth. The man gave it to the two women–knowing that only one would be pregnant—in order that they might engage in this joint undertaking. I think it quite probable that from the point of a view of a man providing sperm for a female couple, he is giving it to both of them.

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