Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A Puzzling Sentence

Some time ago, I happened to run across the following sentence:

"I am strongly prejudiced against white men."

The reason this sentence puzzled me was that, on the face of it, it appears to be both racist and sexist. However, it is also clear that such a reading is not obvious to some people. When this sentence was articulated, nobody seemed to have a problem with it, that they voiced. In fact, upon reflection, there seem to be three distinct readings, or responses, that this sentence can give rise to. I have been puzzling which is the correct one for several days now. The three possible readings are as follows:

Reading (1): This sentence is a simple statement of a racist and sexist sentiment. After all, this reading would be immediately obvious if the term 'white' was replaced by the term 'black' and the word 'men' was replaced with the term 'women'.

Reading (2): Although in isolation, this sentence sounds deeply suspect, without understanding the context in which it was stated, or written, there is no way to assess how it should be interpreted. There may be contexts in which it can be articulated, or written, under which the apparent sexist and racist components are rendered unproblematic.

Reading (3): This sentence is entirely unproblematic, due to certain historical and sociological facts, including things like white privilege, patriarchy, entitlement and all sorts of other considerations. The fact that white males have been responsible for so many evils, they deserve, or have earned justifiable prejudice.

As someone with a professional interest in language and concepts, determining the correct interpretation of this sentence was an interesting problem.

When I tried looking at the standard definitions of terms such as 'racism' and 'sexism', it initially appeared that Reading (1) was the correct one. However, as I began to explore less philosophical literatures and several blogs, the latter two readings seemed to have people who would argue for their correctness. Thus, the puzzle remained.

However, today I had the opportunity to have a chat with an expert on such matters and I think that I have an answer.

Apparently, it is the case that, under certain circumstances, Reading (2) may be appropriate. The example the expert cited was a case where a Native-American might say such a thing, in a somewhat rhetorical manner, in order to emphasize a particular point. Under such circumstance, such a statement should not be deemed as really objectionable. However, the expert also explained that such situations would be very rare and would only happen in unusually exceptional cases. Under all most any other circumstances, Reading (1) would be the correct one. As the expert said of the sentence "Anyone can see that it is just wrong!" So, the puzzle of the sentence has been solved. Case closed.

The CP

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am having a difficult time understanding your concerns, because R2 and R3 aren't cast in the same terms as R1. R1 is explained in terms of being some "ist" or another. R2 and R3 are explained in terms of being problematic/suspect but it is unclear if you mean morally (referring to some ist or another) or logically.

I would think the natural reading is neither sexist or racist. He is not saying he is against men and against whites. He is saying he is biased against the conjunction of the two. Claiming "I don't like pepperoni pizza" is not the same as claiming "I don't like pepperoni and I don't like pizza"

3:39 PM  
Blogger The Combat Philosopher said...

Anon,
Although the conjunctive reading may be the issues, given the context, it is unlikely. Also, the author of this line is female.

Everyone I have asked (of both genders and several races) agree with both the 'ist' readings, as you call them. The point here is not logical (this author is logically sophisticated, the author of the sentence is not). It is 'evaluative' (which is also different from being moral). I would be interested in hearing a sophisticated defence of your non 'ist' reading though.

The CP

10:35 PM  

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