False Friends and Tone Policing

False Friends and Tone Policing June 18, 2014

When I went on a two-week exchange trip to China, it was clear the cultural briefing was informed by whatever mistakes or misunderstandings had occurred on previous trips, recorded and relayed to us so that we wouldn’t think, for example, that our host siblings were hitting on us if they took our hands while we were walking.

But the most memorable warning had to do with Mandarin filler words.  While English speakers cover gaps with “uh” “um” “ah” and so forth, the equivalent filler words in Mandarin had an African-American student on a previous trip pulling aside our tour leader and saying he felt a little uncomfortable since his host family appeared to be peppering all of their comments with “nigga, nigga, nigga…

As a result, we all got warned ahead of time.  The filler word (那个 – nèige) was a false cognate that, although innocuous to the speaker, sounded quite off-putting to us.  It helped to be warned, but it still required some deliberate, cognitive effort to remind myself that I wasn’t actually hearing something awful and to rephrase it in my head.

When I’ve wound up in arguments about tone, trigger warnings, and taboo words, I’m often reminded of that experience in China.  Limiting language can prompt suspicion of closing off conversations, but in a number of cases, when my friends have asked me to rephrase, it’s because the word or image I was using was as distracting (however well meant) as 那个 was in Beijing.

It’s possible to continue a conversation with someone whose every statement is laced with “nigga” but it takes effort.  And no one is obligated to expend their energy on having a conversation with me if I’m making it painful or difficult for them, even if it’s as the result of a false cognate (or, as the French would say, false friend) that sounds innocuous to me but awful to my interlocutor.  If I want to have a debate at all, I need to stop doing the verbal equivalent of assaulting my friend to make any progress.

It’s worth it to pause and reconsider your language even if the offensiveness of a word or idea is exactly the subject of your dispute.  When I hosted a debate on “R: Fire Eich” one of the early speakers made it clear that, in his opinion, opposing gay marriage was logically equivalent to endorsing gay genocide (he invoked a slippery slope argument back to the dark days of criminal indifference to AIDS).

Pretty much no one in the room (whatever their stance on gay marriage) agreed with this equivalence, but we could all agree it was pretty lucky that this person had spoken early in the debate, so that we understood how he was hearing our speeches.  If every time someone said “conscience objection,” this speaker was appending “to enable genocide,” the fervor and horror with which he questioned us made a lot more sense, and didn’t feel like personal viciousness.  Knowing how high the stakes felt to him made it easier to have a useful conversation.

This is a large part of why I objected to PZ Myers’s deliberate obtuseness during the brouhaha he sparked when he asked readers to steal him a consecrated Host from a Catholic church so that he could desecrate it.  PZ ridiculed Catholics for getting upset that he was going to “hurt” a piece of bread, even though the Eucharist is a fairly obvious example of a false cognate that is heard/received differently by Catholics and atheists.  (After all, if it wasn’t holy to someone, he wouldn’t be able to profane it).  In PZ’s incident, it was as though we had informed our Chinese hosts about the 那个/nigga confusion, and they had started using it more boisterously, so that it would be clearer to us that they didn’t find it offensive.

We were only able to defuse the awkwardness in China for two reasons.

  1. The host family was so nice, aside from this one provocation, that the student noticed he was confused and sought advice.
  2. There was someone on hand who understood both groups well enough to serve as an interpreter.

In an ordinary argument (especially one that takes place online) it’s up to you to be visibly virtuous enough that, if you happen to be using a vicious false cognate, your interlocutor will find that odd, not of a piece with your other behavior.

That’s one reason my debating friend did bother explaining explicitly the connection he saw between opposition to gay marriage and passive support of genocide — he trusted us enough to think that we wouldn’t endorse the implications of our arguments if he made them obvious.  In the P.Z. dispute, when Catholic readers found him as the result of the stunt, they didn’t have any such trust.

It’s nice to work to cultivate that trust, and to be the kind of person your friends do approach with requests for trigger warnings and tone shifts.  For one thing, I don’t want to use emotionally intense false cognates and not know it, any more than I would want to be gesticulating hard enough to strike my friend in the face without noticing.  For the most part, I prefer to excise the distraction, so it’s easier for both of us to focus on the heart of the dispute, but, even if you think that the controversial term is essential to your point, it’s helpful to know it causes your friend pain, so you have the opportunity to salve it some other way.


P.S. Arnold Kling’s The Three Languages of Politics is a short read and a nice introduction to what political language you’re using that sounds like horrible false cognates to people rooted in different ideologies.

P.P.S. I’ve cross-posted this on LessWrong, but, since the commenting culture is a little sui generis, I’d recommend not commenting over there unless you’re already a regular reader.

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