Misoneism?

Is that all it is? The hatred or distrust of new things or ideas?

Australia’s Prime Minister did not define “misogyny” wrong in a blistering attack on a male rival, the dictionary did.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s fiery speech last week in which she branded conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott a misogynist for a string of allegedly sexist comments he had made in recent years has been lauded by feminists around the world.

However, Ms. Gillard’s critics have accused her of hyperbole, pointing to dictionary definitions of misogyny as hatred of women.

Sue Butler, Editor of the Macquarie Dictionary, regarded as the definitive authority on Australian meanings of words, said on Wednesday the political furore revealed to her fellow Editors that their dictionary’s definition was decades out of date.

The dictionary would broaden its definition from a hatred of women to include entrenched prejudice against women, she said.

“Since the 1980s, ‘misogyny’ has come to be used as a synonym for sexism, a synonym with bite, but nevertheless with the meaning of ‘entrenched prejudice against women’ rather than ‘pathological hatred’”, she said.

Ms. Gillard’s speech in Parliament last week came after Mr. Abbott attempted to move a motion to oust the House of Representatives Speaker Peter Slipper over crude and sexist terms Mr. Slipper made in text messages that came to light in a court case.

“If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives; he needs a mirror,” Ms. Gillard told Parliament. “Misogyny, sexism every day from this leader of this opposition.”

She complained Mr. Abbott had questioned in a media interview whether it was a bad thing that men had more power than women in Australian society and had described abortion as “the easy way out”.

Ms. Gillard said she was offended when Mr. Abbott once told her in Parliament — “If the Prime Minister wants to, politically speaking, make an honest woman of herself …”

The term “making an honest woman” in Australia traditionally refers to a man marrying a woman with whom he has had a sexual relationship. Ms. Butler said while the Oxford English Dictionary had expanded its definition of the word from a psychological term to include its contemporary meaning a decade ago, it took the debate over Ms. Gillard’s speech to prompt Macquarie to review its definition.

She said the decision had drawn complaints.

Among the critics is Senator Fiona Nash, a member of Mr. Abbott’s coalition, who accused Macquarie of making the change to suit Ms. Gillard’s centre-left Labour Party.

Ms. Gillard and Mr. Abbott declined to comment on the change.

That is from The Hindu, reflecting both the amazing international interest in Julia Gillard’s now famous speech, and the fact of course that Ms Gillard has been lately visiting India.

Julia Gillard Prime Minister Julia Gillard 9I3q2VcdPwfl

First, you will have noted that I was conservative in my attitude to the word misogyny last time I mentioned it, endorsing Annabel Crabb’s opinion that misogyny was a “big call” as an accurate descriptor for Tony Abbott. She cited the Oxford Dictionary. However, the illustrative citation on the Oxford Dictionary web site is “she felt she was struggling against thinly disguised misogyny” – which perhaps reflects, if you think about it, more the sense in which Julia Gillard and others have used the word.

david-malki-in-which-there-is-taunting

Whatever you may think of the Macquarie Dictionary modifying its definition of misogyny, the assertion that it is “making the change to suit Ms. Gillard’s centre-left Labour Party” is nonsense. On reflection, whether you like it or not, it is clear that a combination of contemporary usage and academic specialist usage has extended (or weakened?) the meaning of the word, and that this predates what happened a few days ago in the Australian parliament. Some idea of this shifting of meaning may be gleaned from Wikipedia and from About.com.

Definition: Misogyny means the hatred of women. The word comes from the Greek misein, to hate and gyne, woman. Misogyny is often used to describe contempt for women as a whole, rather than hatred of specific women.

In feminist theory, misogyny often describes an attitude that is perceived to be negative and demeaning toward women as a group. While it is rare to find someone who actually despises all women just because they are female, feminists more commonly observe prejudice against women or an assumption that women are less deserving than men. This usually leads to actions that harm women. People, usually men, who display hateful behaviors that oppress women are said to be misogynists.

Feminists and other scholars have often discussed misogyny in religion. They have examined the misogyny behind historical incidents such as the Salem witch trials and social traditions such as polygyny.

It is entirely appropriate for the Macquarie – or any dictionary – to take account of the development of the word as shown in the paragraph I have highlighted.

People can be very naive about dictionaries, but also very passionate or protective. See Descriptivism vs. prescriptivism: War is over (if you want it) from Stan Cary’s Sentence First. See also Joan Acocella in The New Yorker.

For a long time, many English speakers have felt that the language was going to the dogs. All around them, people were talking about “parameters” and “life styles,” saying “disinterested” when they meant “uninterested,” “fulsome” when they meant “full.” To the pained listeners, it seemed that they were no longer part of this language group. To others, the complainers were fogies and snobs. The usages they objected to were cause not for grief but for celebration. They were pulsings of our linguistic lifeblood, proof that English was large, contained multitudes.

The second group was right about the multitudes. English is a melding of the languages of the many different peoples who have lived in Britain; it has also changed through commerce and conquest. English has always been a ragbag, and that encouraged further permissiveness. In the past half century or so, however, this situation has produced a serious quarrel, political as well as linguistic, with two combatant parties: the prescriptivists, who were bent on instructing us in how to write and speak; and the descriptivists, who felt that all we could legitimately do in discussing language was to say what the current practice was. This dispute is the subject of “The Language Wars: A History of Proper English” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), by the English journalist Henry Hitchings, a convinced descriptivist…

Writing about such matters has been a staple of letters to the editor for as long as I can remember, and I guess that’s not entirely a bad thing – but oh my, what a lot of nonsense has been generated! For some common sense see linguist David Crystal’s “Thinking about Dictionaries” (PDF).  See also his blog, for example On complaining about the tide coming in (2006):

A journalist from the Observer, writing a ’fun piece’ for the Christmas edition, phones today to ask my views about the way some English words have become ‘loaded’. She had apparently read a piece in the current issue of the journal of the Queen’s English Society in which someone is complaining about the way certain words have changed their strength of meaning – likemassive being reduced in power to mean ‘huge’ (as in ‘a massive heart attack’) or incredible used so as to mean ‘very fine’ (as in ‘an incredible restaurant’)…

The writer is against people loading words ‘with powers beyond their meaning in the dictionary’. If that was a valid principle – you must only use words with the meaning recorded in the dictionary – English vocabulary would hardly have developed at all, and we would have cut ourselves off from the kind of expressive richness we see in, say, Shakespeare, who was one of the best meaning-extenders the world has ever seen. It is also a misconception of how dictionaries come to be written: lexicographers record meanings as they change, and if there is a widely used meaning currently missing from a dictionary’s pages then it is a weakness of the dictionary rather than of the language.

But the writer was wrong, in any case. Factually wrong. The senses of massive, incredible, and so on are in the dictionary, and have been for some time. But ignorance of the facts of English usage has never stopped people complaining about it…

Words change their meaning. To adapt a phrase rapidly becoming a catch-phrase at the moment (courtesy of the Bishop of Southwark): that’s what they do. They are there to help us talk about our world, and as our world changes, or our ways of looking at the world change, so do the words. It is important to be aware that the changes are taking place, of course, so that we are alert to possible ambiguities and misinformation. We need to know that generally is one of those words which writers often use in a misleading way. That is one of the driving forces behind lexicology, and why it is so important: it helps us manage vocabulary change. But to complain about words changing their meaning is as pointless as complaining about the movement of the tides.

Finally, in the course of looking around I saw for the first time the wonderful OUP blog site, specifically entries tagged “dictionaries”. Lovely stuff. For example:

It cannot but come as a surprise that against the background of countless important words whose origin has never been discovered some totally insignificant verbs and nouns have been traced successfully and convincingly to the very beginning of Indo-European. Fart (“not in delicate use”) looks like a product of our time, but it has existed since time immemorial. Even the nuances have not been lost: one thing is to break wind loudly (farting); quite a different thing is to do it quietly (the now obscure “fisting”). (This fist has nothing to do with fist “clenched fingers” and consequently isn’t related to fisting, a sexual activity requiring, as we are warned, great caution and a lot of tender experience. This reminds me of the instruction Sergei Prokofiev gave to his First Piano Concerto: “Col pugno,” that is ‘with a fist’.)

Both words for the emission of wind (fart and fist) were current in the Old Germanic languages. Frata and físa (the accent over the vowel designates its length, not stress) turned up even in Old Icelandic mythological poems. According to a popular tale, the great god Thor was duped by a giant and spent a night in a mitten, which he took for a house. He was so frightened, as his adversary put it, that he dared neither sneeze nor “fist.” In another poem, the goddess Freyja, notorious for her amatory escapades, was found in bed with her brother and farted (apparently shocked by the discovery)….

Those interested in the subject and not only in words may want to read the book by Valerie Allen On Farting: Language and Laughter in the Middle Ages (Palgrave 2007), but should skip the short section on etymology with its erroneous conclusion. Here I will comment on several etymologies about which I have often been asked. Latin perditio(from its oblique case, via Old French, English has perdition) is not allied to the words discussed above. Perdition goes back to the past participle of the verb perdere “destroy; (hence) lose.” It has the prefix per-, and the root –der-, so thatr and d do are separated by a morphemic boundary. But if Latin perdix had the ancient root with r, preserved in Old French perdriz, then its English continuation partridge belongs here. According to the usual explanation, a partridge makes a sharp whirring sound when flushed (and thus behaves not unlike a petard – not an overly convincing etymology).

Engl. petition and petulant, from Old French, have the root of Latin petere “seeks; attack. Pet “peeve” should probably be dissociated from collywobbles and the rest, but for Engl. wolf’s fist ~ wolves’ fist and German Bofist ~ Bovist(originally vohenvist “fox’s fist”) “puffball” reproduce Greek lykóperdon “wolf’s fart” and allegedly like partridge, owe their origin to the sound they make when pressed). Few people will remember that in the days of Nikita Khrushchev the only woman in the Soviet Politburo was Ekaterina Furtseva, the minister of culture. That family name made every mention of her in German media a rude joke, for the Germans of course spelled Furzeva or Furtzeva. However, it was derived from the proper name Firs, not from the German verb…

Also doing the rounds

Jim Belshaw posted something related this morning. He also alluded to the panic attacks in the Murdoch press about a pilot anti-homophobia program in NSW. Here is the announcement of that program from January 2011:

A pilot program designed to tackle homophobia in schools will start this year in 12 public schools across Sydney, the Hunter and the Central Coast.

The $250,000 Proud Schools program aims to build a culture of understanding and respect in NSW public schools through the professional development of school staff, student and parent  workshops and the development of  resources to assist schools build their capacity to support same-sex and gender questioning young people.

Recent national research highlights the impact of homophobic attitudes on young people, including the fact that about two in three same-sex and gender questioning young people reported they had been verbally abused, and that one in five had been physically abused.

The research, conducted by La Trobe University, also showed that the majority of those young people were abused at school and that once the abuse had taken place they no longer felt school was a safe place for them.

Young people who had been abused were also found to be three time more likely to think about harming themselves.

Education minister Verity Firth said bullying or abuse in public schools was not tolerated for any reason.

"That’s why the Proud Schools program aims to replace ignorance with understanding, intolerance with acceptance, and shame with pride," Ms Firth said.

"Proud Schools recognises that for this change to take place whole school communities will need to work together, with parents and teachers playing a key role in identifying and addressing homophobic attitudes."

More from SBS Insight:

The pilot program began this year involves around 12 public high schools across Sydney, the Hunter and the Central Coast.
The aim of the program is to build on the culture of understanding and respect in NSW schools and includes:

Professional development:
In NSW we have sophisticated training materials to help promote awareness among school staff of racial and sexual discrimination, but there are limited training opportunities to help teachers improve their awareness and understanding of discrimination and abuse of same-sex attracted or gender questioning students. Professional learning will be developed that will include key modules for school leaders and school staff.

Supporting resources
Work is being conducted to inform the development of the program and to identify the kinds of resources and support materials available to support staff and students participating in the program. It is important that we identify early in the program how best to assist schools build their capacity to support same-sex attracted and gender questioning young people.

Student workshops
Consultation sessions will be conducted with NSW students to find out what they think needs to be done to help address homophobia in schools.

Parent Workshops
Experience has shown that when school communities work together real improvements in promoting understanding and reducing discrimination can be made. In every pilot school a parent information workshop will be held to explain the aim and goals of the pilotprogram and to seek their input about how the pilot program can be tailored to suit the needs of their local community.

Steering group
A steering group comprising government and non-government agencies has been established to monitor the pilot program. At the end of the pilot it is anticipated that the steering group will provide a series of recommendations that will inform the development of a final Proud Schools program that can be rolled out across the State.

This is pretty much what I and my colleagues were  trying to do during the past decade or so. See my GLBT Resources Page.

The theme of this page may offend some, but my position is that such offence is less than the needless suffering, failure of self-esteem, depression, and even sometimes suicide, that dishonesty about this subject can lead to.

Nor am I advocating a “lifestyle”: to quote from an article mentioned below:

There is a big taboo about converting straight people to homosexuality. (Personally I think the chances of that actually happening are as good as your chances of getting kicked to death by a duck.)

This page is dedicated to understanding at least and acceptance at best.

To quote Jim’s post:

If all this wasn’t enough, I happened to read this story in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph: Being straight no longer normal, students taught. I am not normally a Telegraph reader, but the paper was there while I was waiting. This introduced me to a whole new term that I had yet to hear, heterosexism.

The story was about a pilot program in NSW schools. This appeared to define heterosexism, and I quote from the story,  

….the practice of "positioning heterosexuality as the norm for human relationship," according to the Proud Schools Consultation Report.

"It involves ignoring, making invisible or discriminating against non-heterosexual people, their relationships and their interests. Heterosexism feeds homophobia."

The program should "focus on the dominance of heterosexism rather than on homophobia," according to the minutes from the Proud Schools steering committee on March 22, 2011.

Now given the Telegraph’s usual market positioning, I would be far from certain about the accuracy of the reporting. Even so, heterosexism? It’s really all becoming far too confusing!

Jim spots the problem, as he often does, and I’m afraid I can’t really be bothered following the story too seriously or even reading the crap the Tele (and Miranda Devine) are flinging around. I find that as reported it is at best a total parody of what may really have happened – if anything! (How someone as sane as Maralyn Parker can work in that environment amazes me, but I am glad her balanced views on schools and schooling are there as well.)

Rather than raise my own blood pressure I will let you read what Same Same has had to say.

Toxic newspaper columnist Miranda Devine’s outlandish concern over a new program designed to stamp out homophobic bullying in schools has created a nonsensical front page story today.

The Proud Schools program, being trialed in twelve high schools across New South Wales, simply aims to spread the message that diversity is OK and encourages conversations around homophobia and the use of anti-gay slurs – even the widespread use of terms like ‘that’s so gay’ to mean something best avoided.

“You have the right to be proud of who you are and you have the right to be safe at school,” says the program, which was based on a similar one trialed in Victoria and gained cross-party support in NSW.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph today, Devine points to concerns from several Liberal MPs who believe the program goes too far when it calls for heterosexuality to no longer be portrayed as the only ‘norm’ for relationships.

“It’s not up to academics to dictate attitudes to society via indoctrination of captive children in classrooms, and it’s irresponsible of politicians to allow them to do so,” Devine opined.

She also sought a comment from notoriously anti-gay NSW Upper house MP Fred Nile, who can never resist putting the boot in. “I’m totally opposed to the brainwashing of high school students, especially when they are going through puberty,” he said, labeling the program “propaganda.”

Devine has a history of wading in unhelpfully on LGBT issues – which culminated in her most embarrassingly irrational opinion piece of last year, where she wrote that Finance Minister Penny Wong’s new baby with her female partner was symbolic of a ‘fatherless society’ which results in situations like the London riots.

Greens MP Cate Faehrmann is among those who’ve been quick to blast Devine’s views this morning. “Her attempt to stir fear about the Proud Schools program will fall flat because the fact is, people have grown up on this issue – it’s time she did as well,” she says.

“The rest of us have moved on from the days when people thought being gay was somehow abnormal. It’s ‘60s era thinking and Ms Devine should catch up.

“Unfortunately homophobia in schools is still a big issue, with homophobic abuse and bullying causing significant distress and harm to young people. That’s why programs like Proud Schools exist in the first place – to make sure young people understand that same-sex attraction is perfectly normal.”

NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli has today also defended the Proud Schools pilot program, which he says is helping to assist schools to provide a safe and supportive environment for all students.

Recent national research highlights the impact of homophobic attitudes on young people, including the fact that about two in three same-sex and gender questioning youth reported they had been verbally abused, and that one in five had been physically abused.

Update

I made a messy comment on Jim Belshaw’s post:

My point about The Macquarie and "misogyny" would really be that nothing very extraordinary has happened. The recent kerfuffle alerted Sue Butler and colleagues that something was happening with the word and, on reflection, had been for some time. They responded as modern lexicographers normally do. They were not trying to please anyone.

I then referred to Rewriting the OED as an example of lexicography today –  which is where the comment began to look messy. So:

Today’s OED offices in Oxford and New York are a hive of lexicographical activity. Over seventy editors work on updating the text of the dictionary for its Third Edition (2000-). Every three months the entire OED database is republished online, with new words added for the first time and older entries revised according the exacting standards of modern historical lexicography.

The Oxford English Dictionary is changing. In the first comprehensive revision undertaken since the original volumes were published between 1884 and 1928, every word in the Dictionary is being reviewed to improve the accuracy of definitions, derivations, pronunciations, and the historical quotations.

Every word in the Dictionary is being reviewed…

Once the huge task of updating the existing work is finished, the editors will continue to add new information to the Dictionary database as they receive it, instead of storing it away for the next print revision. Readers will be able to access an online version of the Dictionary, giving them the latest information on every word in the Dictionary as soon as it is inserted in the database. These technological advances, plus the enormous number of content revisions, ensure that the Oxford English Dictionary will be an even more authoritative record of the English language in the twenty-first century…

Today’s historical dictionaries are not monumental, static volumes, but dynamic texts which incorporate up-to-date information and respond rapidly to new information about the language as it comes to light. So how is the Third Edition of the OED being compiled? These are the principal steps in the editorial process:

  • collection and sorting of quotations for individual entries
  • editing of entries (by specialist new-words, scientific, and generalist editors), including the provision of British English and American English pronunciations (and others where necessary)
  • commissioning research on and specialist review of edited entries
  • preparation of etymologies (by the OED‘s Etymology group)
  • verification of bibliographical information for quotations to be published
  • final review by the Chief and Deputy Chief Editor
  • and, only then, publication

I doubt whether in the Macquarie the “new” definition of misogyny will “replace” the current usual definition; rather it will supplement it, perhaps with an added usage note. The dictionary is a record of the language and also, properly used, a guide for speakers and writers, but it is not, despite what so many think, THE holy writ on what words might actually mean in use.

That aside, I really am rather fond of The American Heritage Dictionary myself, you know.

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3 thoughts on “Misoneism?

  1. I read Mike Seccoombe’s piece in ‘The Global Mail’, and then ignored all the letters, and even some of the articles, especially the one from Mr Sheahan. Did you mean to change the vowel in Mr Abbott’s christian name?

  2. I note that Annabel Crabb appears to have settled for the abridged (free) oxforddictionaries.com definition instead of the unabridged (subscription only) definition available at oed.com. Don’t journalists have institutional access to an OED subscription? Shouldn’t they have?

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