Subject: What Are Words?
Date: Thu 06 Aug 1998 - 16:03:51 BST
What are words? They are just symbols, tokens we use to represent meaning.
Meaning is in the shadows of words, not in the words themselves, true, but
without words we as humans would be incapable of sharing meaning.
When we debate about words, we debate meaning. If your "red" is the color
that I would call "blue," then when you say "look at the red car" your
meaning will not be clear to me. It becomes useful to have shared symbols so
that even if your pecreption of red, how you see it, is the same way that I
see the color blue, we end up using the same word to describe that color, a
shared symbol even though our perceptions are very different.
Words are slippery, no doubt. A "cold" day means something diferent in August
than in January, something different in Dallas and in Minneapolis.
Yet, one of the key reasons we get so clear about definitions is because words
define the way we see the world. What we have language for exists, but what
we don't have language for does not exist. We depend on shared metaphors to
comunicate meaning, and those metaphors are based on shared cultural
refferants. If I say "It's like the color of the chambord ice cream in the
shop on the Rue Plessy in Paris," odds are you won't know what I mean. But if
I say "It's like Breyers mint-chocolate chip" you may well understand --
unless, of course, you don't live in the US. That's one reason so many people
who don't live in the US get peeved at American cultural imperalism, because
many of the shared metaphors used on the internet, for example, assume an
American context of shared context.
The problem is, of course, that we are immersed in the context we live in.
Our descriptions of our world, including how we feel and what we want are
limited by the words we have to discuss them. Someone who has never heard the
word transsexual will describe their feelings of not feeling like the other
boys in a different way than those who do know that metaphor, that shared
In this way, the shared metaphors that exist shape our experience. Our
language defines what we can communicate and that means we can shape our ideas
feelings and beliefs to what can be communicated rather than shaping our
communications to the ideas feelings and beliefs we have.
Why do so many males assume that because they have transgender feelings they
must be transsexual and want to go though a "sex change" as soon as possible?
Is it because those words accurately convey their feelings, or they assume
that their feelings must mean those words and concepts? Do the words fit the
feelings, or do the feelings fit the available words?
For me, this issue is why it becomes important to me to create words out there
that represent my feelings and thoughts as well as I can, rather than simply
fitting my feelings to available words which don't quite fit. This is a
challenge, of course, because it means that I have to build a new set of
metaphors. Last week I was chatting with a prominent TG figure and they kept
jumping to conclusions about who I am and what I feel based on the traditional
expectations of what transsexuals/crossdressers are, which surprised me.
I love when new concepts come to the fore. For me, Holly Boswell's "The
Transgender Alternatives" was one of those moments when I saw something that
fit me, words and concepts that make sense. Maybe that's why Holly and I are
close -- we share a rich and deep pool of metaphors that facilitate
What does all this mean? It means that, simply, words mean what the person
saying them thinks they mean, nothing less and nothing more. The flaw in
communication of course is that people hear words as meaning what they think
they mean, not what the speaker meant, and that is where most miscommunication
I agree, of course, that when you listen to someone speak/read their texts,
you have to work hard to understand the words in the context the speaker
intends them, to hear the speaker's meaning. The problem is that to do that,
you have to be willing to see though the speaker's eyes, using their cultural
metaphors and meanings, and for many people, that is a challenge they resist,
because seeing the world though someone elses eyes can be a transformative
For people who embrace this sight, readers who enter into the worlds of
authors, shamans who see though the eyes of anothers, queers who engage the
diverse points of view, this is powerful stuff. I remember a few months ago
on this list when I wrote positions on transgender from a number of positions,
and people were surprised at how accurate I was, even creating surprising
responses from others. This, to me, was just a reflection of the way I shape
my theory, looking at my ideas from many viewpoints and knowing that there is
truth in each of them.
Yet, many people refuse to do this. "Explain who you are in my context. Use
words and ideas I already understand, that fit into the model of the world I
keep in my mind. Don't ask me to change my model to accomodate you -- you
change the facts rather than me changing my beliefs." This is the frustration
I have when i try to explain my thoughts to someone whose mind is closed,
because without understanding my context, how I see things, I can't tell you
People I worked with understood this. I have a habit of telling a story that
appears unrelated, and at first people would resist, but when they learned to
listen, they would find that I made a connection and a valid point. In my
mind, I was looking at the subject on the table from a different viewpoint and
to grasp that viewpoint, you had to understand the context. The same world
looks different from many points of view, and to understand it, you must be
able to see through many eyes, shifting positions.
In my writing, both here on trans-theory and other places, I work hard to be
clear and set the context I am using, to be consistent in my use of language.
Many people are not precise in their use of words because they haven't done
the hard work of making the definitions clear and that makes their
communication unclear. I am willing and able to see though Ms. Paglia's eyes
and Ms. Dee's eyes and anyone elses eyes, because I know it will help me see
To that end, I get upset with mush. When asking the question "What is a
woman?" people often answer "many things to many people." True, of course,
but not very useful.
To me, a woman is not a genetic female, if only because we do not test genes
to determine femaleness in the world. A female is an anatomical female, one
identified as female bodied at birth or shortly there after. A transfemale is
a person identified as female who also has a transgendered nature, the urge to
trangress gender roles assigned by sex, in whatever way, from butch to
crossdress, to writing to gender role changes to body changes.
A woman is someone who makes the choices of a woman, who performs a woman's
role in the world as an actor performs a role by making choices.
What are the choices of a woman? Those are culturally defined and vary from
place to place, time to time. They may, for example, include behaviors that
are also done by men, but with a "womanly" atitude. In the past 50 years or
so in the west the lines between woman's choices and man's choices have been
blurring, but because people seem to like complimentary genders, they don't
appear to ever be going away.
The only shorthand I have for those choices is that women tend to make "mommy"
choices and men tend to make "daddy" choices, which makes sense, because
gender is most deeply connected to reproductive roles that do mirror instincts
usually linked to reproductive/anatomical sex. Across mammals, mommies and
daddies have different roles, even though there is nothing as complex as the
gender system that language has allowed us to evolve.
Do our words/metaphors define our life, or does our life define our
words/metaphors? That's not a question for otters, but it is for humans, and
when we do cross cultural studies, we find that humans have defined themselves
in many ways and those ways have very much affected the society that they live
Maybe it's just memes, but I really do believe that changing words, finding
new shared metaphors will change the way our culture works, and in fact is the
only thing that has. For me, that's why finding new shared metaphors and the
words to express them is vital to having new ideas in the world, to changing
the world to a better place to live.
Sure, we each live in our own world, with our own meanings. But until we work
to live in shared worlds, with new shared metaphors that come from the
willingness to see though new eyes and accept the transformation that comes
with that, nothing changes.
This archive was generated by hypermail 2a23 : Wed 21 Jul 1999 - 18:21:27 BST