[Smt-talk] Gender Terminology in Music Theory

laurence willis laurence.willis at live.co.uk
Wed Apr 30 12:29:15 PDT 2014

I am writing to describe my discomfort with the content of the last few days of SMT-talk.  I have been very disappointed to see discussion turn towards sexism in such an egregious way.  Some of the messages are offensive and evidence some pretty backward views.  Seeing as academia is certainly not a place free of discrimination (see this study for an example) http://blogs.nature.com/news/2014/04/discrimination-starts-even-before-grad-school-study-finds.html I find the content of the thread worrying.

I will quote the messages I found particularly offensive below.  Before that I would like to say, it brings the whole society into disrepute when people are express such discriminatory opinions.  Threads like this turn people away from the mailing list which is a great shame since it limits the range of discussion and viewpoints on music theoretical topics available.  
Further than that, what type of example is being given to graduate students by the thread?  Should they believe that academic discussion can seek to undermine and bully individuals?  Professor's conduct, and the content of SMT-talk, should be examples of good scholarly behaviour and debate.  In my view, part of SMT-talk has failed in this by the way that the discussion has evolved. 
Dimitar Ninov writes:"Also, one must not forget the traditional terms "masculine cadence" and
"feminine cadence" as referred to the metric position of the final tonic.
This, of course, is not sexist language, although I do not rule out some
future "original contribution" referring to a third gender cadence, which
is neither masculine, nor feminine (ha-ha)."Here, he gives no reasoning why these terms are not sexist, but then goes further to make a "joke" that seems to be aimed at transgender people.  Is it acceptable for a message on this thread to make jokes at the expense of others reading the thread? Dimitar later opines: "I think that contemporary editorial committees in the filed of literature and scholarly publications have fallen victims of what I call "a twisted mentality" which rests on the idea of purging all writings from (imaginary) discrimination."As a wonderful comedian once said (Stewart Lee FYI): Political correctness seems to be a form of institutionalized politeness at it's worst. If there is some fall out from this which means that someone might get in trouble one day because they couldn't work out if what they said was racist or sexist or homophobic, it is a small price to pay for all the benefits it has made for previously misrepresented minorities.  Perhaps this is something that Dimitar and others on the list might consider.
Carson Farley writes:"In a humorous way this reminds me of a controversy at Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean ride in which some complained that in the course of the ride men pirates were chasing women and that this was sexist and gave children a negative perspective! Did pirates chase women around at that time in history? Probably, as I'm sure that men of former ages considered women the weaker sex and men to be the strong sex!"Carson fails to realize that Disneyland's ride was controversial because it portrayed the prelude to rape as humerous. Notice the word "probably" in his prose.  Carson is unsure of his ground and is making a spurious connection to in some way vindicate his or other's use of 'historical' language.  While he later goes on to say he wouldn't use these terms (whether this is believable or not is questionable) he is making similar arguments to those that felt comfortable with racist terms because of their historical import.  It seems to me that this is unacademic and not befitting of a learned society.
MW Morsez:"Like "sexist," the attributions "masculine" and "feminine" are ascriptive, not descriptive. Adjectives have no direct prescriptive power in reality, despite their undeniable if merely occasional affective influence; that matter was sorted out in 1324 by William of Ockham. Today, 1991 is every bit as much ancient history as 1324."This was in reply to Jennifer Bain's assertion that gender categorization of 'strong' and 'weak' is sexist.  MW down plays the effect that language can have, particularly in a classroom.  By making light of Jennifer's concerns, relating them to a frankly unrelated and outdated description of philology, and seeming to claim that occasions in women's rights should be written off as distant history, MW might as well be claiming that Jennifer should "get back in the kitchen".  Just because the language is fancy doesn't mean it shouldn't be seen for what it is.  This kind of reply by MW smacks of bullying to me.
Conor Cook writes:"It's an interesting duality, the choice between descriptive (if they're even possible) and associative adjectives, and I don't think scholars agree (I know they don't) that only descriptive language is best, lest ideas like pitch space, for example, be scrapped. But how to decide what associations are at best unproductive, if not harmful?"Conor seems lost in this conversation.  He can't decide where to draw the line - finding it an interesting topic, seemingly where each side is right in it's own way.  However, the 'protectors of historical language' are using terms that categorize people by gender, that places men in a hierarchically superior position and holds on to that "Pirates of the Caribbean" attitude.  On the other hand, Jennifer Bain, Paul Cadrin et al are asking people to use a description which is technical.  So how Conor is lost, and why he should be rhetorically arguing that there is no answer to the duality, is beyond me.  His assertion that terms like pitch space are similar in kind seems to me misguided.  Who is offended by the term pitch space?  Who does it reductively categorize?
I would like to congratulate Jennifer Bain, Laurel Parsons, Stephen Jablonsky, Paul Sheehan, Nicolas Meers and Paul Cadrin for their robust and sensible comments.
I look forward to an improved SMT-talk discussion in the future, and I hope this kind of episode can be avoided.
Laurence WillisPhD StudentMcGill University

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