The “creation” of Islamophobia and the challenge to free speech

March 22, 2015

Earlier this month the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), a registered British charity, announced its annual award for ‘the world’s most Islamophobic person or publication’ in 2015. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US president Barack Obama and American television host Bill Maher were among the candidates vying for the title. However, the winner was the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. Staff at the publication were unable to accept the award as many of them had been murdered for mocking Mohammed. The IHRC says their award is tongue in cheek. Bullet in the head is perhaps a better description.

According to the Muslim website 5Pillars, the award was given to Charlie Hebdo because of its “continual stoking of Islamophobic sentiment by caricaturing Muslims as terrorists and ridiculing their beliefs. …Charlie Hebdo’s repeated mocking of Muslims is part of a culture of hate that is intended to marginalise, further alienate and further endanger a community that has effectively been “otherised” in much the same way that Jews were in Nazi Germany.”

Whenever people invoke the Nazis, alarm bells go off for me. To maintain the fiction that Muslims in Europe are being “otherised” in the manner of Jews in Nazi Germany is outrageous. And as far as I know there are no plans to build extermination camps. What’s more Muslims in Europe enjoy full rights – far more so than in any Islamic country in the world today or ever.

Islamophobia seems to be the creation of political elites rather than being a grassroots campaign to win equality or liberty for a particular minority. It entered into common English usage in 1997 with the publication of a report by the Runnymede Trust condemning negative emotions such as fear, hatred, and dread directed at Islam or Muslims. ‘Islamophobia is the new racism’ has become the new orthodoxy. But are we conflating the normal prejudice that is part of the human condition with a national epidemic of irrational hatred against Muslims?  Brendan O’Neil is scathing about the introduction of this term:

Islamophobia is in essence a multicultural conceit, the invention of infinitesimally small, aloof, crisis-ridden elites keen to clamp down on any heated or overly judgmental discussion of non-Western values.”

My difficulties with this word are not because hatred of, or discrimination against, Muslims does not exist. Clearly they do. There is no doubt that Islam is seen by some as a monolithic bloc, static and unresponsive to change. When someone calls for a ban on building mosques that is clearly bigotry. I think that is a link between Islam and violence, but that this is hardly unique to Islam. Anyone looking at the Bible will find lots of references to violence. There is a well established history of religious violence throughout history. And even if I could abolish religion tomorrow, I would not eradicate violence. This, like prejudice, is part of the human condition. We cannot blame Muslims for the two world wars, the Holocaust or the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? There is plenty of violence from all corners of the globe for which blame can be apportioned.

However, invoking Islamophobia blurs the line between legitimate criticism and hatred. Any attack on Islamic doctrine can be construed as hatred. As I pointed out in a previous post about free speech, Islam is neither a race nor an ethnicity, but a set of beliefs and customs. Criticising these ideas does not mean we are suffering from a mental disorder. The conflation of criticism and hatred makes it impossible to have a rational discussion.

I do feel that Islam as a whole needs to a better job of self-criticism and modernisation. Like American fundamentalist Christians with the Bible, many seem to believe that the Qur’an is the literal word of God. I find this kind of certainty extremely dangerous. There is no truck with doubt.  Rather than engage in the soul-searching that the state of the Muslim world they prefer to blame all problems on the West. Now I do think we need to re-evaluate our role in the Islamic world. Our support of Saudi Arabia, which promotes Wahhabism, a retrograde form of Islam, cannot be justified. How apostates are treated is a litmus test. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali woman who writes and lectures about the status of women in much of the Muslim world, and is incidentally a former recipient if the IHRC Islamophobe of the Year, travels with bodyguards and has to live in hiding. There can be no possible justification for this state of affairs. And to argue that Islam has nothing to do with the oppression of women in the Islamic world strikes me as perverse.

So once again I want to defend free speech. This applies to Islamophobic speech and to awards like the Islamophobe of the Year. Banning speech is counter-productive. Free speech laws are not about the right to express inoffensive ideas. It is about those ideas which cause offence which need to be permitted.

Bill Maher On Islam

March 22, 2015

Here are a couple of videos from Bill Maher, a candidate for Islamophobe of the year. They includes an interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali:


Language and gender Part Deux: How men and women speak

March 15, 2015

Last week I looked at language and gender in relation to the importance of grammatical gender and the gradual disappearance of feminine endings in English. Today I want to examine how gender affects the way we speak.  I do not belong to the Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus school. As I pointed out in a previous post, Men are from Africa, Women are from Africa. On the other hand I do not hold with the nonsense that gender is socially constructed. What we do need is humility. What may appear hardwired, might some years later to be more a product of society. Coming back to gender and language, it does appear that gender does make a difference. However, these differences are not universal. Two important paradigms for studying are those of dominance and of difference, I shall proceed to look at both of them below:

The linguist Robin Lakoff is one of the principal proponents of dominance theory which posits that differences in speech related to gender are a result of men’s socially superior position.  I found this useful reference source online. Here are some features of women’s language that Lakoff highlighted:

  1. Hedging: using phrases like “sort of”, “kind of”, “it seems like”,and so on.
  2. Use of polite forms: “Would you mind…”,“I’d appreciate it if…”, “…if you don’t mind”.
  3. Use tag questions: “You’re going to dinner, aren’t you?”
  4. Use empty adjectives: divine, lovely, adorable, and so on
  5. Use more standard grammar and pronunciation: English prestige grammar and clear enunciation.
  6. Use question intonation in declarative statements: women make declarative statements into questions by raising the pitch of their voice at the end of a statement, expressing uncertainty. For example, “What school do you attend? Eton College?”
  7. Use “wh-” imperatives: (such as, “Why don’t you open the door?”)
  8. Speak less frequently
  9. Overuse qualifiers: (for example, “I Think that…”)
  10. Apologise more: (for instance, “I’m sorry, but I think that…”)
  11. Use modal constructions: (such as can, would, should, ought – “Should we turn up the heat?”)
  12. Avoid swearing.
  13. Use indirect commands and requests: (for example, “My, isn’t it cold in here?” – really a request to turn the heat on or close a window)
  14. Use more intensifiers: especially so and very (for instance, “I am so glad you came!”)

In combination these features make women’s speech appear weaker and more uncertain. Indeed the features the identified by Lakoff were part of what it meant to learn to “speak like a woman” in our society. How accurate was Lakoff’s analysis of women’s and men’s speech? It was based more on introspection than carrying out surveys. It was written before all the consequences of the feminist revolution had been felt. We live in a very different world to the 1970s. actually I have just finished reading Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography and I can tell you it did not contain a lot of hedging! As women’s position in society changes, so will the way they employ language. I think you can also criticise her interpretation of linguistic features. There is nothing inherent in a linguistic feature that makes it good or bad, weak or strong; instead, how its use is perceived is based on our social preconceptions.

The second frame is that of misunderstanding, as popularised by Deborah Tannen in her book You Just Don’t Understand. She argues that men and women communicate in different ways. She has a series of six contrasts. In each case the male mode of communication is listed first:

  1. Status vs. support
  2. Independence vs. intimacy
  3. Advice vs. understanding
  4. Information vs. feelings
  5. Orders vs. proposals
  6. Conflict vs. compromise

You will notice that the terms on the right are more touchy-feely. Women use rapport talk to establish feelings, whereas men are engaging in report talk giving information and establishing the pecking order. Tannen’s critics have accused her of perpetuating stereotypes. I’m not sure. I’m also unsure of the implications. Will women have to sound more like men if they want to be more successful at work?  Women who talk like men are often judged harshly – they are considered unfeminine, rude or bitchy.

There have been other fascinating studies. Sociologists Don Zimmerman and Candace West showed that in ten same-sex conversations there were seven interruptions, but in eleven cross-sex ones there were 48 interruptions, of which men were responsible for 46. Linguist Paula Fishman claimed that men used statements rather than questions twice as often as women. And of 76 topics introduced into conversation, women were the initiators on 48 occasions compared to 28 by men. However, only 17 of the women’s initiatives were taken up, while all 28 of the men’s were.

What I do think it is always good to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Gender, though, is just one of the myriad influences on how we speak, but we also have social class, age and race. I don’t think we should overplay the significance of gender. We are not like those Carib islanders I mentioned last week, who supposedly spoke in entirely different languages based on their gender.

The words men and women know

March 15, 2015

I found this online:

A study released by Ghent University’s Center for Reading Research, a research group in the Netherlands, found that there are some words that don’t usually cross the gender divide. Researchers took the results of 500,000 vocabulary tests, examined the differences between men and women, and found that there was some vocabulary that just didn’t quite translate — that is, there are some words that men rarely use, and vice versa.

Center director Mark Brysbaert looked at the first 500,000 results of the University’s online vocabulary test, focusing on differences in gender. Some words exhibited a large margin between the percent of men and women who reported knowing them.

In the online test, 100 letter sequences — which may or may not be real English words —  flash across the taker’s screen. Pressing the “f” or “j” keys, respectively, will indicate whether the participant knows, but not necessarily understands, a specific word. The test strongly penalized for marking you know a word that doesn’t exist.

We listed the words with the biggest recognition gap between gender below, along with numbers in parenthesis showing the percentage of men who knew the word followed by the percentage of women. Here are the words that men were most likely to recognize over women:

codec (88, 48)

solenoid (87, 54)

golem (89, 56)

mach (93, 63)

humvee (88, 58)

claymore (87, 589

scimitar (86, 58)

kevlar (93, 65)

paladin (93, 66)

bolshevism (85, 60)

biped (86, 61)

dreadnought (90, 66)

And here are the words that women were most likely to know over men:

taffeta (48, 87)

tresses (61, 93)

bottlebrush (58, 89)

flouncy (55, 86)

mascarpone (60, 90)

decoupage (56, 86)

progesterone (63, 92)

wisteria (61, 89)

taupe (66, 93)

flouncing (67, 94)

peony (70, 96)

bodice (71, 96)

The male words tend to be about transportation, weapons, and science, while the female words mostly relate to fashion, art, and flowers. You can take the test here.

Language and gender Part I : Is a football feminine?

March 8, 2015

European explorers claimed that men and women on the Carib Islands spoke entirely different languages. Talk about Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus! I have to say I am rather sceptical that there would be a tribe whose members spoke completely different languages. What the European settlers may have heard was a pidgin vernacular used by the men for trading with other tribes. Nevertheless, language and gender are a fascinating source of material for discussion. They may not be completely different, but some contemporary languages show patterns of different grammatical forms for men and women. In Japanese women say watishi for I, whereas men use the more abbreviated washi. In today’s post I am going to look at the fascinating relationship between language and gender

From the day we are born we are given names in almost all cultures, boys’ names can be distinguished from girls’. There are three typical differences:

  1. In English men’s names typically have fewer syllables,
  2. Men’s names are typically stressed on the first syllable, women’s names on the second.
  3. Women’s names tend to end in a vowel, men’s names in a consonant.

Many languages have arbitrary gender – their gender distinctions are grammatical quirks rather than directly linked to sex. A toothbrush is the masculine cepillo de dientes in Spanish, the feminine Zahnburste in German. If you look across languages you will find few overlaps in the gender that is assigned to objects.

The effects of linguistic gender on how people think have been a subject of investigation in recent years. I read about an advertising campaign sportswear featured a talking football. In the Brazilian Portuguese ad it had a woman’s voice, whereas in German it spoke with a man’s voice, reflecting the different gender of the word for football in the two languages. Can grammatical gender influence speakers’ cognitive processes when they’re speaking another language entirely? This is the question that Lena Boroditsky and her team of researchers looked at. Here is a summary of the experiment from Psychology Today:

They created a list of 24 objects that have opposite genders in Spanish and German; in each language, half of the objects were masculine and half were feminine. Speaking English and using materials written in English, the researchers asked a group of native Spanish speakers and a group of native German speakers —all of whom were proficient in English— to generate three adjectives for each item on the list.

Across the board, object gender influenced the participants’ judgments. For example, the word “key” is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish. German speakers in the study tended to describe keys as hard, heavy, jagged, metal, and useful. Spanish speakers, on the other hand, used words such as golden, intricate, little, lovely, and tiny when describing keys. The word “bridge” is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. Sure enough, German speakers described bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, pretty, and slender, while Spanish speakers said they were big, dangerous, strong, sturdy, and towering.

English used to have it, but gender tends to be unobtrusive in our language now. If you are meeting a friend in English you do not need to specify the gender of the person you are meeting. That is not the case with the Spanish amigo/a. Gender only affects pronouns he/she/it according to “natural” gender. We don’t make tables feminine and they could be masculine or feminine.

We do have such feminine endings as ess and ette, which came into English via French. However, these are going out of fashion now. There is something diminishing about them a kitchenette is a small kitchen. For instance, suffragette was initially coined by The Daily Mail as a derogatory term to describe the more radical and militant elements of the women’s suffrage movement. As often happens in these cases, the actual movement embraced the term. And the rest is GSCE History. Nowadays actress is still used but Hollywood prefers female actor. And nobody says authoress usherette or aviatrix. The suffix atrix, the female equivalent of ator, has been banished to the dungeon in recent years.

Where do I stand on such linguistic reforms? When it is possible, I am in favour of changing words. I think Ms as an alternative to Miss. or Mrs. is a healthy addition to the English language. Often these words will sound alien at first, but you soon get used to them. Police officer and fire fighter also make sense. But I do not like chair referring to a person. If someone says: “I had an argument with the chair before the meeting”, I may well doubt their sanity. Moreover, a language is an organism, which has grown up over hundreds of years with its imperfections. It is impossible to fix everything. We need to be aware of these biases, but we need to let them go sometimes. You never know if these stories are apocryphal, but there was said to have been a campaign by feminists to change the word HIStory to HERstory to purge it of its sexist bias. Its origins are Greek and have nothing to do with his or her.

Linguistic reappropriation

March 8, 2015

In this week’s post I mentioned how the word suffragette had begun life as a disparaging term employed by The Daily Mail, but was then adopted by the movement described. Weapons of mass destruction was coined by CND, but ended up with Bush Blair and Rumsfeld. This phenomenon is known as reappropriation. Wikipedia has a page dedicated to this phenomenon. Here are a few more examples.










Tree hugger


Yid  by supporters of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club

Roger Babson, the eccentric who invented economic forecasting

March 1, 2015

I have done a number of posts about the nature of forecasting. You will know that I am a sceptic. I have posted all those jokes about economists like:

Economists give their predictions to a digit after the decimal point to show that they have a sense of humour

He has predicted five of the last two recessions.

I also did a series called really terrible predictions. You know the kind of thing:

The Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many sceptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive. Economist Paul Samuelson

Airplanes are interesting toys, but they have no military valueMarshal Ferdinand Foch

Next Christmas the iPod will be dead, finished, gone, kaput. Sir Alan Sugar

Before man reaches the moon, your mail will be delivered within hours from New York to Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail. Arthur Summerfield

Of these, one of the most lambasted was by Yale University Professor of Economics, Irving Fisher, who made this extraordinary claim: “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” He made it on October 16, 1929 apparently Fisher was a smart guy but he will go down in history for that prediction. He was one of the first of the modern breed of economic forecasters. Today I will be looking at another pioneer in this field  Roger Ward Babson

Born in 1875, Babson was the unlikely founder of today’s economic forecasting. Babson was an avid Newtonian, whose theories were based on the Newtonian assumption that any economic expansion would be matched by an equal and opposite contraction. Babson and his staff produced Babson’s Reports, a weekly newsletter which was among the first to use systematic statistical analysis of economic data to predict future economic conditions. Babson combined several different types of time-series data into a graph of economic activity, called the Babson Chart, which he relied on to predict future business cycles. It is hard for us to imagine but before the last century commentators didn’t talk about “the economy” like we do today. There was no such thing as GDP. The Babson Chart showed a complex single system that operated according to its own internal dynamics. It was a system that could be studied and that would yield predictions. Here is a picture of his “Babson Chart:


I would not call this science. His methods may have had the patina of science, but what he really excelled at was marketing. But it’s often better to be lucky than right. His moment of triumph came in the autumn of 1929 when he became known as the primary economic forecaster to predict the famous stock market crash. On September 5th, 1929 he warned:

A crash is coming, and it may be terrific. …. The vicious circle will get in full swing and the result will be a serious business depression. There may be a stampede for selling which will exceed anything that the Stock Exchange has ever witnessed. Wise are those investors who now get out of debt.”

55 days after Babson’s speech, on 29th October, 1929, the market suddenly went into a free-fall, dropping 12% in its first day. Just about every other professional economist  had missed it. Because of the dramatic nature of the stock market crash, their failure to predict this event made them the subject of ridicule.

What fascinates me about Babson is his eccentricity. A long-time sufferer from tuberculosis, Babson liked to work with the windows open, even in cold weather, and designed special coats for himself and his staff to wear. Babson was involved in a number of campaigns including bizarre dietary reforms, eugenics and the prohibition of alcohol. Indeed,  he stood for the Prohibition Party in the Presidential race of 1940, in which he finished behind Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the Democratic Party, Republican Wendell Willkie and Norman Thomas of the Socialist Party of America. During the Great Depression he commissioned unemployed stonecutters to carve inspirational inscriptions, such as GET A JOB, TRUTH, and IF WORK STOPS, VALUES DECAY, on approximately three dozen boulders in Dogtown, Massachusetts.

What really drew me to Babson, though, was his singular war on gravity. Throughout his life, he had major beef with, of all things, the force of gravity. It all seems to go back to a childhood tragedy in which his sister drowned. He explained in it all in a 1948 essay entitled “Gravity – Our Enemy Number One”:

Yes, they say she was “drowned”, but the fact is that … she was unable to fight Gravity which came up and seized her like a dragon and brought her to the bottom. There she smothered and died from lack of oxygen.”

In the essay he argued that “Old  Man Gravity” was directly responsible for millions of deaths each year, as well as countless accidents.  Broken hips and other broken bones as well as numerous circulatory, intestinal and other internal troubles were directly due to the people’s inability to counteract Gravity at a critical moment.

In 1948 Babson established the Gravity Research Foundation (GRF). It operated out of New Boston, N.H., which was located 60 miles north of Boston, Mass.  It was situated there to be a safe distance from Boston in case the city were bombed in a future World War III.

The GRF’s mission was to collect and disseminate gravity-related information as well as fund promising research projects, including, perhaps, some kind of gravity shield. Curiously over time the foundation was able to morph into a respectable body. Its  annual essay prize has drawn respected researchers, including Stephen Hawking, mathematician/author Roger Penrose Nobel laureate George Smoot, Freeman Dyson, and Martin Rees

Babson would live until 1967, dying at the age of 91. He was one of those great American eccentrics.