Joho the Blog » aristotle

August 8, 2013

Definition (n) An explicit formulation of what is obvious to most other people

A mailing list I’m on is discussing GenderAvenger.com. Here’s the text from the home page:

Be A Gender Avenger
Don’t Accept It. Change It.

Panel of all men? Conference with no women speakers? Book of essays with no women authors? Do something, something simple: Point it out. Opportunities — sadly — abound. How could that be in 2013? They can be found among iconic institutions and in seemingly small bore infractions.

Seeing can be believing. Everywhere possible when women are unrepresented or underrepresented, a gender avenger will take note, take action or ask someone else to take action. No excuses. This effort requires speaking out even when it is uncomfortable. Try it. The outcome could make you smile or groan. Either way you will have a story to tell that could influence others.

The site does a poor job of explaining exactly what it wants by way of input and what the outcome will be, but the email you receive if you decide to sign up anyway cites a HuffPo article about the idea, encourages you to publicize male-dominated conferences, etc., and asks for your participation in a discussion about how to make the idea work.

In the course of the back and forth on the mailing list, one participant got angry about the site and quoted the dictionary definition of “avenger”:

a·venge [uh-venj]
verb (used with object), a·venged, a·veng·ing.
1. to take vengeance or exact satisfaction for: to avenge a grave insult.
2. to take vengeance on behalf of: He avenged his brother.

This person knows that we know (and Gina Glanz, the site’s creator, knows) what the word “avenger” means. He’s not correcting a misuse, the way he might if she’d used “revenge” as a verb. So why is he telling us what he knows we all already know?

Very likely he’s saying that the way people take a word is how the word is defined in a dictionary. But since this mailing list has been together for well over a decade, and since no one on it has ever recommended violent action (it’s moderated by a pacifist), and since the language of the site itself talks about “speaking out even when it’s uncomfortable,” to think that the site or its supporters mean “vengeance” in its dictionary sense requires dropping a whole lot of context in favor of a slavish devotion to Mr. Webster. It would be perfectly reasonable to push back on the word because it carries bad connotations or because it doesn’t quite fit the intended meaning, but neither of those conversations is advanced by citing the dictionary definition of a common word. Rather, the argument is over territory beyond the sovereignty of a dictionary.

In short (or as the kids say, TL;DR), if you’re citing a definition of a word that everyone understands, you’re probably missing the point.

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January 14, 2013

What gods and beasts have in common

“The man who is incapable of working in common, or who in his self-sufficiency has no need of others, is no part of the community, like a beast, or a god.”


Aristotle, Politics, Book One, Chapter 2, this quotation translated by Bernard Knox in Backing into the Future.

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