My Brother on Emotionally Sensitive Topics

My brother should have become a lawyer. I have never met anybody who debates as well as he does. He easily spots logical fallacies and argues with great clarity and never gets emotional. And yes, if he’s wrong, he will see it if it’s presented to him in a clear, logical, and convincing manner. It’s impossible not to question your own positions after debating with him. If only he were on Twitter when some of these shitstorms (you know what I’m talking about!) break out!

In the wake of some bloggers and Tweeters referring to celebrity photo leaks as sexual assault, my brother had this to say on his Facebook page:

I was going to write a post about some of the terminology that has been used to describe the recent celebrity photo leaks, but this article says much of what I would have. For the record, I have neither viewed nor attempted to view any of the photos.

I’m sure this will generate a lot of hate, but this is a subject I have particularly strong feelings on and have thought about a great deal over the past couple of years. I certainly welcome comments and am open to having my mind changed.

There’s something that happens when we discuss emotionally sensitive topics: a linguistic sleight of hand, a kind of insidious verbal acrobatics, a possibly unconscious abuse of language that seeks to equate substantively different things by applying the same broad label to them and then judging the specific by the general. A type of reasoning where as soon as you can slap a broad label on something, as soon as you can categorize it, further thought, further discussion is killed, because the label comes with its own judgment, its own axiom, even if it ends up equating an ostrich and a sparrow because they’re both called birds.

To be clear, although the article makes this clear enough: what the hackers did and what the people affected suffered is awful, but by calling it “assault” we’re smearing the definition of the word to absurd near-meaninglessness and in the process trivializing the seriousness of physical assault. If you want to call this incident something, fine, come up with a word for it, but choose your words responsibly and thoughtfully.

One of my brother’s friends went on to say that you don’t have to even be touched to feel victimized and violated, and that therefore “assault” is a proper way to describe this. My brother then said:

Why stop at “assault”? Clearly there was a sexual aspect to this, and it happened without the victims’ consent, so why don’t we call it rape and treat it as such?

Or perhaps “forced prostitution”? These people involuntarily had sexual aspects of themselves appropriated and shared, which were presumably used by others in a sexual way, so why don’t we call it that?

My brother’s same friend then talked about the etymology of the word “assault” and why it therefore is an accurate term to describe celebrity photo leaks. My brother the should-be lawyer, never missing a trick, said this:

Language is malleable and words change, but not overnight. We’re not talking about the word “assault” as it was used half a century ago as compared to today.

Dictionary definitions aside, the world “assault” is nearly always used in both legal and everyday situations to refer to something physical. A physical attack is the sine qua non of an assault as any English-speaking individual typically understands it as it relates to human beings.

So what is happening here, is that you and the posters of these tweets are expanding the definition of the word by fiat, in order to encapsulate something that is essentially, substantively different from what the word signifies in current usage.

I want to point out that more than one of the tweeters suggests that even the act of LOOKING at these pictures constitutes assault.

This is where the “sleight of hand” comes in.

Let’s see where we’re at: before these tweets, we knew what “assault” was, and the definition was at least limited enough that we could find something in common between different instances of the crime, namely, that they involve a physical attack. We have centuries of human history to look at to realize the nature and extent of harm a physical attack can do, both mentally and physically, and to have formed a certain moral judgment against someone who perpetrates one.

With these tweets, people have arbitrarily expanded the definition of the word, by fiat. So now it suddenly has a much broader meaning. The essential characteristic of an assault, the physicality of it, is no longer defining or even central to the word. It’s become a much vaguer word. However, despite the fact that these tweeters have redefined the word, they seem to be judging it based on the moral and ethical implications of the older, more specific definition.

Relatedly, when you say that you or I would feel “assaulted” if this were to happen to us, you’re speaking metaphorically. Do you honestly believe that the subjective experience of being physically attacked is of the same nature as what the victims of the photo leak experienced?

Would you claim that a musical artist experiences the same thing if someone leaks mp3s of their album online as he would if someone broke into his home and stole hundreds or thousands of dollars in cash from him?

And once again, I am NOT saying what happened wasn’t horrible, and I am NOT saying it wasn’t a violation of privacy. But I’m saying use a word that reflects what actually happened. It was theft, it was a violation of privacy, and perhaps you can say it’s worse because it was a violation of sexual privacy. But it’s not “assault” by any definition of the word.

Language shapes thought, and thought shapes language, and we impoverish both when we blithely throw things into broad, easy categories that we have preformed judgements about, rather than examining their specifics.

The same friend then told my brother he should be debating with a feminist lawyer. My brother responded:

Why a feminist lawyer? I’m not talking about the law, I’m making a point about language and thought. As for the feminist part, if the victims were men, would it make leaking and sharing their pictures any more or any less of an “assault”?

The friend argued that my brother’s definition was confined to the legal definition of “assault”, and that this is why he should debate with a feminist lawyer. My brother said:

No, it’s tied to the commonly-used common sense definition of “assault” as it is nearly always used in the 21st century in English-speaking countries.

Again, the friend kept urging my brother to research the etymology of the word “assault”:

Etymology has no relevance here, historical usage has no relevance here – the people tweeting the accusations of assault and writing blog posts about it were not talking about the roots of the word or the historical usage of it (if they were even aware of it), they were — obviously, excruciatingly obviously — using it in the modern, English sense. Etymology is fascinating, but it’s not germane to this topic.

The expressive power of words and language comes not only from what words signify, but from what they do NOT signify.

Like, if we call this “assault” and the people who did it “assailants”, what meaning do those words even have? What ISN’T an assault? Is every transgression by one human against another an “assault”? It seems to be that we’re stretching the meaning so widely that it becomes useless. You may as well use it as a synonym for “crime against another person”. But what use does that serve?

Why not just call things “doubleplus ungood” and be done with it?

Another friend of my brother’s (a woman this time) said that etymology was important in this debate. And she went on to say that because there is lack of consent, the transgression of celebrity photo leaks is therefore assault. My brother’s response:

Nobody is disagreeing about anything having to do with consent, in any way. And explain how etymology is of supreme importance.

My brother’s male friend then challenged my brother with the term “assault on the senses”. My brother said:

It’s a metaphor, obviously. If I say I feel “crushed” by something emotionally, it has exactly zero to do with the sensation of having a piano dropped on my head.

Then my brother’s woman friend said that she felt that my brother was telling women how they should define sexual assault and of dismissing their disagreements with him by using terms such as “emotional” and “sensitive” to define the topic being debated. My brother responded (to both people, I think):

I can’t really argue with you any more than I could argue about evolution with someone who took the Bible as the literal word of God. The very basis of your thought, the lens, the axis that you view things along seems to undermine the very principles of debate. If, as you have said before “objectivity” is a construct of male privilege, if attempting to have a philosophical or moral discussion divorced of gut feelings is sexist and invalid, how is it possible to have a meaningful discussion or come to a conclusion about anything?

The woman felt that my brother was discussing topics that disproportionately affect women, marginalizing her feelings as “gut” or “emotional”, and using his male privilege to tell women how they should speak about themselves. My brother then said:

If this photo leak had happened with male actors and people had labeled it as “assault”, my reaction would have been the same.

Again, again, and a thousand times again, if you think the original post’s point was specifically about the photo leak, you are missing the point. I am talking about the careless use of language to twist one thing into another and kill critical thought.

We could likely have a similar discussion regarding the way people talk about any charged (not “sensitive” or “emotional” if I need to use a different word) subject. I think we would see similar broad categorizations, judgments that brook no argument, that kill thought and discussion, if we were on a subject like the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima, racism, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 9/11.

The woman argued that the Tweeters were using their Tweets to make people think more about the issue of consent. My brother then said:

These tweets were not isolated though. Before I even came across this particular article I had read another where the author equated it to assault.

I feel like there is this logical fallacy inherent in a lot of thought about things like this. A therefore B does not imply B therefore A. While a lack of consent may be a necessary component of “assault” that does not mean that anything where consent is lacking constitutes “assault”, unless you want to argue that I am assaulting artists if I download their music without consent.

The man kept coming back and telling my brother he was falling back on the use of “assault” as defined by the law. My brother said:

At no point have I focused on the law. In fact, I have explicitly said I’m NOT talking about the legal definition. I am saying that the word “assault”, as it is commonly used in English in the 21st century Western world, essentially entails physical violence. I’m saying that is the way 99% of the English speaking world understands the word “assault”.

And you never answered my question, [male friend’s name]  why can’t we go so far as to call this “forced prostitution” or something similar? This is not a rhetorical question.

I don’t know, I’m exhausted by this and I don’t know if I have the words to make my perspective any clearer. Look up Ignoratio Elenchi, Begging the Question/Circular Reasoning, Equivocation, Etymological fallacy, Thought-terminating cliché.

The guy said that, no, he doesn’t think of the links as forced prostitution. He then told my brother he was being dismissive of how harmful celebrity photo leaks can be to the women in question. My brother said:

If after all this, you think that I don’t think this is harmful, and don’t view it as “reality”, then I have utterly, utterly failed to make myself understood.


One thought on “My Brother on Emotionally Sensitive Topics

  1. This blog post is beyond fantastic! Your brother is my hero now lol. It’s one of my goals to be as reasonable as him but it’s really difficult for us not-so-smart folks

    But as long as there’s gradual progress I should be fine! Shouldn’t I? o.o

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