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Three cheers for phallocracy!

Robin Lakoff, professor emerita of linguistics | September 10, 2013

I have been listening to all the arguments, pro and con, about military intervention in Syria, and I will of course be listening to the President’s speech. But to date I find much of the rhetoric from the President and his supporters, Congress, and the punditry not merely unpersuasive, but intellectually obtuse and even morally dubious.

There are several reasons why I find the discourse shocking. First, it ignores what must be the basic consideration in questions of this kind: peace must always be the default.

This means that the arguments for war must not only numerically outnumber those for peace, but they must also outweigh them morally and intellectually. That is very far from the case here.

Some of the arguments against intervention:

  1. Make war only when your own stuff – persons, property, or territory – are directly threatened. In this case, none of that is true.
  2. Avoid intervention in civil wars. They are none of your business and tend to end badly. Remember Vietnam?
  3. Do not intervene when you do not understand the culture in which you will be intervening.
  4. Do not intervene when the populace already hates you. No matter what you do, intervening will only increase their hatred.
  5. Do not intervene when both sides are despicable, especially when the side you propose to support is likely to be even worse than the current leadership, given the chance.
  6. Do not get into a war when you are in no position to afford such adventures.

On the other side, surprisingly few arguments have been brought forth:

  1. The children! The children!
  2. U.S. “credibility” is at stake.
  3. The President’s manhood is in jeopardy if we don’t do what he wants.

These arguments are not only obviously fewer than those on the other side, but are childish at best. The argument that we must intervene because Bashar al-Assad has (in all probability) used poison gas which has killed (among others) children is purely an exercise in emotional manipulativeness: a form of the rhetorical fallacy, argumentum ad hominem. Of course, the use of gas is reprehensible – but how much more reprehensible than our use of nuclear weapons in World War II or napalm and Agent Orange in Vietnam?

The “children” argument would ring especially hollow if Americans had longer memories. In 1982 Bashar’s father Hafez, a member of the minority Alawite sect of Islam, in an attempt to destroy the majority Sunnis in Syria  sent his army to the town of Hama, a Sunni stronghold. With hoses they piped cyanide gas into private homes, killing everyone inside… including, of course, many children.

The dead numbered far more than after the most recent such attack, and it seems to me that piping gas into houses is even more horrific (if these things can be weighed against each other in any meaningful way) than merely spraying people randomly with gas.  Yet our then president, Ronald Reagan, never so much as suggested that we get involved – although Reagan could be pretty pugnacious: Go ahead, make my day.

The other arguments on the list are, if anything, even more dubious. (Dubiouser and dubiouser, one might say.) Both could be subsumed under a new category of rhetorical fallacy, as argumenta ad mentulam. (Mentula is a Latin word for “penis.”) Somebody’s manhood or potency is at stake if we don’t act. America will look like a wimp, a “powerless, helpless giant,” in the Vietnam-era phrase; the President will appear weak and lose his, you know, gravitas (where gravitas is a euphemism for mentula).

These are purely political arguments about symbolic power of one sort or another, and as such carry no weight against a policy likely to eventuate in the loss of many more American lives and dreams, in one way or another – not to mention causing even more death and destruction in Syria than Assad and his opponents have caused already.

But if the pundit class must weigh in with domestic political arguments, here’s one I have not heard discussed: suppose (as is all too likely, given recent history) that we enter the war with no “boots on the ground,” but inevitably those boots show up before very long. And pretty soon we are stuck in another quagmire from which we cannot extricate ourselves with dignity or success, with great loss of “blood and treasure” to no discernible purpose. Then … it’s 2014! And which party do you suppose will bear the brunt of the blame? Are Democrats (including Nancy Pelosi) ready to trade the possibility of regaining the House for salvaging the President’s mentula?

If we are considering domestic politics, though, here is the clincher for me: It is estimated that around 90% of Americans in virtually every Congressional district are opposed to intervention. In that case, how dare Congress and the President to act as if their only job were to figure out a way to override popular objections? How dare they resort to base emotional manipulation, both of “the children” sort and “our manhood” sort, when they know there is no genuine  case to be made?

If we are won over by this rhetoric, the United States has changed from a democracy to a phallocracy: a government of illegitimate macho power, by and for the same.

Comments to “Three cheers for phallocracy!

  1. And to empty polemic, Robin Lakoff asserts a post-modern TRUTH. Phallogocentrism is real and it affects us in the deeply encoded map of our brains. Neural science is currently mapping these electro-magnetic pulsion points and the science of artificial intelligence holds many keys and clues to furthering the evolution of the human species which is guilty of domestic abuse, child sexual slavery, massively unfair wage earning dichotomies which privilege male over female and which has been thusly encoded since before the Tower of Babel.

    So THREE CHEERS for ROBIN LAKOFF and I don’t mean it sarcastically. I insulted her last comment but immediately apologized. That is the best paradigm I have found as male, so far. Right after I mess up I just apologize, take responsibility and try to do better next time. But to dismiss the very real concerns of FEMINISM is to dismiss the central problem on Planet Earth, in my humble opinion.

  2. Prof. Lakoff, we need a Voice of Berkeley version of VOA to promote:

    Peace on Earth using Worldwide Cooperation by All Peoples to Protect the Long-Term Future of the Human Race

    The Golden Rule, Truth and Morality

    Equal Rights for All

    As a linguist and women’s rights spokesperson, you appear to be very well qualified to make the right things happen.

  3. What an abysmal pseudo analysis full of sloppy reasoning and post-modern obfuscation! The situation is actually simpler than the way it is presented in this piece and doesn’t require invoking the President’s manhood, or other irrelevancies. It is a breach of international law for a regime to use chemical weapons against one’s own citizens. It is from this simple but absolute violation that provides a strong case for a military response from the wider international community.

    Let’s clarify a few things that are grossly misrepresented (by implication), or simply wrong, in the above piece. A targeted punishment is not a declaration of war, barely even an intervention, and it’s, in principle, neutral to the ends of the opposing parties in the civil war, though it may – god forbid! – precipitate the demise of a despot.

    Further, don’t claim all history has to teach us is to avoid intervention. We have two kinds of examples, occasions when a policy of non-intervention led to genocide or escalation and occasions when intervention led to deescalation of a conflict. If you can’t think of examples of either you need to do some reading.

    • People interviewed on Cairo streets consider that military intervention over a poison-gas attack requires esoteric reasoning in view of the loss of 100,000 lives in the Syrian civil war.

      Odd that Bill Clinton and the United States Congress considered the Glass-Steagall Act to be anachronistic in our modern economy, but yet the United States executive leadership is keen to invoke a 1925 Act which became totally anachronistic after Trinity, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.

      One should not worry about poison-gas, which was never much a weapon anyway when the British invented and used it in WWI. One should rather worry about a nuclear exchange in the Middle East and the entanglement of alliances there which have some resemblance to the pre-1914 treaties binding the Great Powers to Serbia.

  4. Very well said Prof. Lakoff, I have to believe that Socrates ran up against the same culture of oligarchs, politicians and sophists we have today. As Socrates was contemplating the hemlock he must have thought something like life without Truth and Morality is not worth living.

    We keep proving that we never learn from the lessons of history, at our increasingly out of control peril. We need more intellectuals like you and your Berkeley Blog colleagues to explain the facts of life to peoples around the world so as to motivate us to save our civilization from the oligarchs, politicians, sophists and false prophets who control us today.

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