This past weekend, the Association of Native Americans at Yale put out a strongly worded statement condemning Shaka, a Polynesian dance group on campus. Shaka, they claim, is guilty of the “hypersexualization and appropriation of Hawaiian and Tahitian cultures.” Haylee Kushi ’18 goes even further in a public Facebook post, arguing that Shaka contributes to “continued violence against [Polynesian women].”
I don’t know nearly enough to make a judgment in this specific matter, and it’s not my place anyway. Members of both the association and Shaka probably care deeply about Polynesian culture, and I hope that the two groups resolve the situation amicably. My problem, however, is that the terms used in discussions like these have become incomprehensible. The number of denotations of words such as violence and appropriation has ballooned to such a point that I’m not sure I understand what they mean anymore.
I’m not the only one. In a recent column, Oren Nimni of Current Affairs magazine maps out various right-wing and left-wing definitions of the word violence. The right often refers to violence in the context of protests: When protesters smash windows, for example, protests are said to have become violent. But calling such actions violent fails to distinguish attacks on one’s property from aggression that causes bodily harm. That has some ludicrous implications. As Nimni notes, this means that, if I “eat your nachos when you’re not looking,” I’m being violent. It also justifies reciprocal violence. Does someone throwing a rock through your window justify chucking a rock at their head? I certainly don’t think so.
Building on the work of sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu, figures on the left make the case that gentrification, appropriation and many other issues constitute violence because they can cause just as much trauma as physical abuse. Such violence is thought of as systemic or structural violence. This, too, seems like overstepping. Gentrification and violence can both cause trauma, but that does not mean that gentrification is violence; such reasoning would necessarily imply that, as Nimni puts it, “every bad thing is every other bad thing.”
In the Shaka case, it’s worth noting that Kushi likely wasn’t arguing that Shaka causes systemic violence. She was probably suggesting that, by hypersexualizing women, Shaka contributes to physical violence and sexual misconduct against them.
However, other instances when people decry actions as “violent” or “cultural appropriation” aren’t so direct. What is appropriation anyway? Clearly, wearing a Native American headdress for Halloween is appropriation, but the line isn’t always so clear. Can a non-Japanese person who has studied the history and traditions of sumo ever become a sumo wrestler without disrespecting Japanese culture? Is it appropriate to criticize Janelle Monae, a queer woman of color and a victim of oppression herself, for singing a song that sexualizes the ancient Indian tradition of yoga? My personal pet peeve is hearing a situation described as problematic, a term which seems like a lazy way to avoid specifying exactly what problem the situation poses.
But, you ask, who cares whether words aren’t defined precisely? Surely, people understand what such terms mean in context. I’m not sure I agree. In May, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay wrote a satirical paper titled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct,” which humorously argued that “penises are not best understood as the male sexual organ” but rather as a “damaging” and “problematic” social construct. The pair bet that, if they implied that maleness is intrinsically bad, they could get published in a respectable journal, and, just to underscore the absurdity of their claims, they argued that the conceptual penis was to blame for climate change too.
Nevertheless, the peer-reviewed journal Cogent Social Sciences published their piece. There are likely several factors to blame for such shoddy work slipping past the peer review process, but I’d wager that an important one is this: The buzzwords of social science have become so all-encompassing that it’s hard to figure out what authors are truly saying anymore. If terms that the duo used liberally, such as “violence,” “post-structuralist” and “discursive” had clearer definitions, it would be far more difficult to succeed with such a hoax.
There is certainly value in forsaking some amount of precision for ambiguity; it would be a nightmare to have to learn a host of oddly specific vocabulary to discuss sociological phenomena. But I think we can afford to put just a little more legwork into specifying what we mean. We overuse words like violence because they evoke emotional responses — but the more we employ them to describe mundane, or at least not immediately shocking behavior, the less effective they will be moving forward. To have productive discourse, we must first understand what we are actually saying to one another.
All it takes is one simple question: What do you mean?
Shreyas Tirumala is a senior in Trumbull College. His column typically runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .