Friday, October 31, 2014

Not Pride and Not Prejudice: Is "Pride" Right for Uses like "Gay Pride"?

Yesterday, presumably following Apple CEO Tim Cook's announcement that he's "proud to be gay," philosopher Peter Boghossian raked some serious muck with social progressives by tweeting:
Knowing him, and having bothered to discuss it with him more thoroughly, Peter's point is that the term "pride" carries certain meanings (here: in reference to achievement, in particular) that may make it somewhat inappropriate to apply to a concept like "gay pride." As he has done in the past--controversially with groups wedded to certain other terms and ideas connected with them--he has asked for a disambiguation of the term "pride" in this context. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though for some legitimate reasons, there was a rather substantial blowback to his request to carefully consider the terminology being employed as dispassionately as possible.

So here, after having spent an interesting twenty-four hours thinking on-and-off about the topic and discussing it with a handful of different people, I feel like it's probably worth picking apart the meanings of the word pride to try to get at that dispassionate examination of the use of this term. Of course, this will require me to deploy a flotilla of should-be-superfluous caveats from the start.

Caveat: Nothing here seeks to diminish the dignity of any person whatsoever nor to hamper any attempts to promote equality, fairness, or the undoing of socially harmful mores and norms. Perhaps surprisingly, the goal of such a disambiguation is to effectively further attempts to secure equality and dignity for all people, particularly those who have been marginalized and oppressed by insensitive social circumstances.

Caveat: Nothing here seeks to diminish the experience, feelings, or sense of strength, community, or belongingness of any person.

Caveat: Nothing here diminishes the significant social struggle experienced and still experienced by any marginalized group, and it, indeed, honors and seeks to clarify the situation so that credit can be given everywhere it is due. 

Caveat: I don't really care what terms people use to help themselves feel legitimately good about themselves, particularly when there are copious reasons for them to rally around something that improves their sense of self-worth and authenticity while abolishing shame that has been unjustly laid upon them and simply doesn't belong to them.

Caveat: This is just a discussion about words and the ideas they represent, one that is intended to be a bit deeper than semantics, and it is unhelpful in all regards to shout down such explorations when engaged in by genuine, curious, well-intended folks (even if they end up being wrong, which is okay).

Those listed, let me add, in bold so it won't be so easily missed, there is a completely legitimate definition, and thus usage, of the word "pride" consistent with the meaning apparently intended by phrases like "[group in question] pride." Furthermore, there are legitimate reasons to be proud related to the social situations at hand, and those deserve to be recognized and honored.

Now, to necessary tedium--definitions.
One definition of pride matches Boghossian's question, as given by Google:
Pride: a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one's own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.
On that definition, as being born how someone is born, phrases like "gay pride" are more political slogans than anything else, and it seems that the connotation of the word "pride" flowing from this definition of the word lies at the center of Boghossian's request to look at things more carefully.

Another definition, as mentioned above, fits perfectly, again given by Google:
Pride: the consciousness of one's own dignity.
On this definition, every person is entitled, even encouraged, to be proud of who they are. Boghossian's point seems to be that this meaning, while technically applicable to pride, is not congruous with the connotations usually applied to that word, some of which are unquestionably negative.

Now, while every person is entitled to consciousness of his or her own dignity, those who are subject to social circumstances opposing that basic human right constitute a special case. For them, owning this meaning of pride--which is synonymous with "unashamedness" and "unabashedness," close to "self-esteem" and "self-worth," and seems to be an expression of personal authenticity--is hard; it is therefore an accomplishment to overcome the social mores working against the oppressed to own one's own identity and claim consciousness of one's own dignity. Thus, for these people pride in the sense of satisfaction derived from one's achievements also applies.

I would like to argue that "unabashedness," for what it lacks in rhetorical punch, is probably a better word to use than "pride" in the context of phrases like "gay pride," although when it comes to social movements, rhetorical punch is of great value.

There is, though, of course, another definition of pride. Turning yet again to Google,
Pride: the quality of having an excessively high opinion of oneself or one's importance.
The connotation in this case is explicitly negative, and because of the nature of words and their connotations, this nasty sort of pride comes as part of the package for anyone wanting to assert pride in who they are, especially as a political slogan in a charged, reactionary, sensitive social arena. Those who want to have "gay pride" should realize that those who oppose them will hear this connotation of the word pride more clearly than all others when it comes up, and the result can be the kind of reactionary attitudes that make driving a worthy social agenda much more difficult than it needs to be.

To summarize quickly, there is, then a sense that the term "pride" doesn't fit--as being born who one is doesn't constitute an accomplishment or a quality which equality seeks to elevate to a status of admirability. There is also a sense in which "pride" fits perfectly: every human being is entitled to his or her dignity and to conscious awareness of it, this being a basic human right. The meaning here, then, is mostly in negation of "shame," imposed by an unjust social milieu, and so unashamedness is a more fitting term than "pride." Further, there is a sense in which the term "pride" can be turned back against a well-intended social movement, particularly by those who demonize "sin," among which they count both homosexuality and pride.

On those grounds, it seems pretty clear-cut that while the use is technically legitimate, Boghossian's call for disambiguation and, perhaps, application of better terms is not as far out of bounds as many people seem to believe.

For a bit more context, philosopher Russell Blackford expressed some disagreement with Boghossian's point about achievement being necessary, tweeting

He added, further, in direct reply to Boghossian, that he doesn't see a problem with being proud, as he has indicated, even if the person with pride did nothing to achieve the relevant qualities. 

Another meaning?

I drew a comparison on Twitter to nationalistic pride, hoping to poke a little at progressive hypocrisy, though as was noted, the analogy is imperfect.
This raised a somewhat tangential discussion that brought to fore another question about the meaning of the term "pride" and its application in this circumstance. A genuinely interesting conversation with Helen Pluckrose (@HPluckrose) followed, where she sought to connect the idea of pride to something I would describe as being akin to belongingness. She went on to ask Peter Tatchell (@PeterTatchell), of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, his thoughts about "pride" in "gay pride," and he specifically says that he "thinks and hopes" that pride there means all three of "achievement, self-esteem, and celebration." Here is Pluckrose's tweet and Tatchell's response:
This is seriously confusing to me. Because I think Pluckrose is genuine, and because Tatchell is apparently a voice of some significance in this discussion, one who embraces something that sincerely confuses me, I would like to elaborate. The necessary context was provided in the first half of this post.

Being gay simply is not an achievement. It is (in very high likelihood) intrinsic to the person in question. Now, being openly gay in a gay-hostile climate (and only in such a climate) is an achievement. It takes guts and work, real work, to embrace authenticity in a social climate that wants you not to. Embracing personal authenticity for anyone is an achievement, but it's particularly celebratory in the context of being authentic against pressure trying to force you to be inauthentic. All socially marginalized people, including gay people, who stand up and embrace who they are authentically should be proud of that fact, for the achievement that it represents and for the quality of character it exhibits. We might call that "pride in being openly gay," and it fits without a shred of doubt.

Still, it is significant to pull apart the ideas of "pride in being who I am" and "pride in having fully accepted who I am." The first seems inappropriate, at least at the connotative level, as was Boghossian's point. The second is clearly appropriate, but they aren't the same thing. Though it seems to have been widely missed, Boghossian explicitly stated that he understands this nuance:

Moving on, Pluckrose's use of the term "self-esteem" is the meaning of "pride" that is unashamedness or unabashedness. Again, it is the one legitimate use of the term pride in the context of being able to be proud of who one happens to be, though it suffers in that it doesn't do a great job of matching pride's usual connotations. Recognizing these two facts is critical to the disambiguation of the term that Boghossian is calling for (including that he should note that the definition does apply legitimately).

A majority of the connotations of the term pride, specifically, are largely negative, especially within contexts like Christianity, which lists pride as one of the seven most deadly of sins. Note, in fact, that despite behavior clearly consistent with the theme, we do not very often see overtly named "Christian pride" initiatives. This is important. Labelling oneself "proud" when one's primary social opposition comes from a powerful, well-populated, moralistically motivated organization that sees both your behavior and pride as sinful is going to drag down the efforts. If there is a better word than "pride," it should be adopted. Disambiguating the terms is needed to find out what term might work better.

Back to Pluckrose and Tatchell's three terms, "celebration" is the most confusing. Pride isn't celebration, not in any of its meanings. Here, I think Pluckrose is trying to articulate succinctly the fact that she has tied a sense of belongingness (necessarily to a framework-moral community) onto the term "pride," but it is also being conflated with the sense of achievement inherent in authentically owning one's person, even against a hostile social climate. To underscore this point, she tweeted the nearest thing she could write to the feeling she wishes to capture as being inherent in the term pride:
That's fine, but we must be careful with the idea that pride and belongingness are synonyms, even if a feeling of belongingness can evoke a sense of pride at being part of a broader (morally positively evaluated) group. This, in fact, is likely to be the seat of self-esteem in general, and as discussed, self-esteem is, loosely, the definition of the term "pride" that actually fits the context in question.

Still, to consider "gay pride" in the context of celebration is bizarre because it is insinuating that gay people should be celebrating being how they were born for the sake of having been born that way (with the added implication that others, or at least certain others, shouldn't--the term "straight pride" is rightfully considered rather abhorrent). Maybe this is connected to authenticity--celebrating the acceptance of themselves, which is legitimate--and maybe it has to do with belongingness to a community breaking the shackles of a shitty social climate, but it doesn't make sense for "gay pride" to hitch itself prima facie to a celebratory wagon. Indeed, with the gay pride events, this is exactly what causes the most polarizing recoil, the kind of stuff that may have shaken up society and helped to move things forward but also that mobilized the (well-funded, highly motivated) resistance the most effectively.

So we come back to the point about achievement, which is, perhaps, the main reason disambiguation is needed. To remind, Google's first definition of pride is "a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one's own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired." So, what is the achievement? Being gay is not the achievement, as already discussed. Embracing oneself authentically in the face of unjust adversity is, and there we find something worth celebrating. (And, if I might say so, what appears, in fact, to be what is being celebrated.)

Hopefully the case is strong that disambiguation is important here, and it's utterly fascinating that there's such staunch resistance to it, particularly with so many more positive terms available to us. It's as if the progressives and LGBT activists have defined themselves in terms of "gay pride" and their relationship to the set of ideas represented by that phrase and are unwilling to consider whether it has flaws, including some that can be trouble for the very agenda that they seek to push. Few words are more positive than "authentic," and the footholds for (Christian) opposition against it are far fewer.

These motivated groups also seem to fail to recognize that "gay pride" is necessarily asymptotic to zero in all applications except "unashamedness." (There's an analogy to the term "atheism" here, for those interested in that discussion.) As being gay becomes more and more perfectly socially accepted, all meanings nested within "gay pride" but "unashamedness in who one happens to be" fall apart. If being gay were suddenly 100% accepted right now, "gay pride" would become as peculiar an idea as "white pride" is, though not quite for the same reasons and patently less offensively for social and historical reasons.

But here's a problem: celebrating "gay pride" and defining oneself (as moral) in terms of the meaning of such a phrase is a kind of limit to its natural asymptotic nature. That is, it sets being gay apart in some, but not all, ways from being human. In reality, if being gay were suddenly 100% accepted right now, "gay pride" wouldn't go away because people have invested their senses of self into that idea. For gays who have spent their lives dealing with an unfair lack of acceptance, that's one thing. For progressives, that's another--they'd be fighting a battle that no longer needed to be fought on behalf of someone who would no longer needed it, and so it becomes a kind of bigotry of lowered (or at least different) expectations.

The word we're looking for, then, may be "authentic." I mused about it on Twitter earlier, wondering aloud how "Authentically Gay" would stand up as a slogan in comparison to "Gay Pride." One advantage that springs to mind is its immediate generalizability. "Authentically Me" sounds like something everyone should be able to get behind, whatever "me" happens to mean, and it works in a way that "Self Pride" simply wouldn't.

Edit: The original of this post incorrectly named philosopher Russell Blackford as Russell "Blackwell." I have corrected and regret the error (and have no idea how my fingers managed to mistype that--sorry Russell!).