When sitting it out is an act of white privilege


When I first learned of the concept of white privilege, it seemed perfectly plausible to me, but it also seemed kind of abstract and vague. Because I am white, and male, and well off by local standards, there are lots of worries other people have that I don’t have. But I would have been hard pressed to think of a specific, concrete example of white privilege in my life that felt convincing and ‘real’ — though what I mean by ‘real’ here is unclear, unless it’s just another word for ‘concrete and specific’. (“WHEN did you not have those worries, Michael? Concretely?” “Well, I never had them.” “I’m not asking you when you HAD them, white boy. I’m asking you when you DIDN’T have them!” ” Well, sir, I always didn’t have those worries.”)

But now I can say what at least one concrete example of white male middle-class privilege looks like, up close and personal. It looks like this: when someone posted a racist message on the Humanist mailing list, I took one look at it, wrinkled my nose, and said “I want no part of this discussion”. Then I moved on to the next message in my inbox.

Why that moment now looks to me like an instance of white privilege is the topic of this piece.

[Note for those inclined to outrage on behalf of the poster whose message I am describing: the text above reads “a racist message”, not “a racist’s message”. I do not know the poster and make no claims about them; the message, on the other hand, I do call racist — it was nothing but a small collection of racist tropes centered around the idea that white people are under attack, victims of a newly normalized bigotry against them. A fuller discussion of the post can be found in an earlier blog post.]

Having scanned some messages from Humanist and ignored most of the rest of my inbox, I spent pretty much the rest of the week thinking about context-free grammars. It was hard work, but I have the sensation (possibly, of course, illusory) of having understood better than before how to do certain things with them and how to describe the effect of those operations to basic theorems about context-free languages, like the pumping lemma.

Now, though it was very pleasurable, it was in some ways inconvenient, almost alarming: every time I wanted to break for lunch or turn to the paying work on my to-do list, it seemed a new question would pop into my head that demanded to be written down, or a conjecture about an approach to some earlier question, or a counter-example to a generalization I had relied on the day before, and while I was writing down the question or conjecture or counter-example, something else would occur to me, and by the time I got enough of it in writing for it to be safe to leave my desk, I would find myself breaking for lunch at 5 pm. The thinking process felt exhilarating but almost out of control; I was not in charge, the thoughts were. Was I thinking them, or were they thinking me?

Also, I have mixed feelings about having spent the week that way, because of that paying project I have been neglecting.

But the primary reason I have mixed feelings about the week is that while I was reasoning feverishly through algorithms for operations on grammars, it turns out I was at the same time letting some people down. I was needed elsewhere, and I wasn’t there.

The failure to be where I was needed makes me think badly of myself, and this post is an attempt at coming to grips with that sense of failure. Readers who find it tedious and meandering have my permission to skim, but yes, it will be on the exam.

Humanist and me

Some background may be in order.

The first thing to say is that I have been a subscriber to the Humanist mailing list on the topic of digital humanities for a long time. In the 1987 conference on computers in the humanities in Columbia, South Carolina, I was in the room when Willard McCarty first raised the idea of a mailing list for people like him and me. In the first years of the list, I was a prolific contributor. When Willard wanted software to allow the construction of hand-curated digests, I wrote that software (long since replaced and re-implemented several times over). When a long concatenation of events led to what appeared to be the death of Humanist, I was one of the group Willard consulted about the steps he might take to resurrect it. (The Mothers of Humanist, he likes to call that group.)

I have wanted Humanist to thrive, because I wanted people interested in what is now called the digital humanities to have a home on the net.

Because of this history, Humanist is intimately bound up with my identity as a digital humanist. But over the years, Humanist and I have grown apart in some ways. It has been a long time since I read every new Humanist mail as eagerly as I did in 1987, and recently I have been selective even in choosing which issues to scan, let alone read in full.

Reasons for sitting it out

So it was not out of character for me to look briefly at Humanist 34.220, see what it contained, and decide to let the ensuing discussion take its course without me. I do that for most Humanist mail.

After some introspection, I think I can identify three factors in my decision to ignore issue 34.220. One is specific to Humanist and me, the others more general.

1 Shut up and let someone else have a chance for a change.

During the first year of the Humanist mailing list, I was easily one of the most frequent contributors to the list, if not the most frequent. (Frequency of contributions often follows a Zipfian distribution, like word frequency — I was one of the high-frequency data points in the upper left part of the curve.)

When the list reached its first anniversary, someone did some rudimentary statistics on the postings to the list: number of posts, number of posters, countries represented (as far as revealed by email addresses), etc. They observed the Zipfian distribution of frequency of posts, and characterized it as a case of some posters drowning out all the others and silencing other voices. As a high frequency poster, the bit about silencing other voices struck me as unfair, since the number of posts to a list like Humanist was not a tightly constrained resource and I not only had not said anything to make others feel unwelcome, I was quite happy when others joined in. I sulked over the unfairness for a while, until my wife asked “So, no one has said anything directly to you, but you have somehow been made to feel that your contributions are unwelcome?” Yes, exactly. “So, it IS possible, then, to be made to feel unwelcome, even without anyone saying anything overtly unwelcoming?”

Posting on Humanist (or any other list) didn’t feel quite so simple after that, and I began to try to limit my Humanist contributions to cases where a question or comment seemed to be aimed at me or where it seemed I had information others did not have and could provide a perspective others could not provide.

2 Pick your battles.

Life is too short to argue with everyone who says something wrong in my hearing, or to call out everyone who seems to me to be saying something that needs to be called out. I have things I need to do, things I would like to read, things I would like to write, while I can still read and write. Time and energy taken to try to instruct someone who does not wish to be instructed by me are time and energy taken away from tasks where they might be put to better use.

It is sometimes said that silence in the presence of any act entails complicity in that act. I don’t know how to rebut that principle, though I think there would be practical difficulties if I tried to speak out against every thing in this world in which I do not wish to be complicit, since I doubt that that set is finite.

So even if I wish to accept the principle, I will want to haggle a bit over what exactly counts as being “in the presence of” the act. The more narrowly I can define “presence”, the more readily I can avoid battles I do not want to spend time fighting. Is this a flimsy, transparent excuse for cowardice and going-along? Or is it a necessary survival tactic in a world full of battles and other people who think that we should be fighting those battles? I fear that the answer is “yes”.

3 Don’t feed the trolls.

In netnews groups and on mailing lists, I learned long ago that some people will give voice to views they know or think will be objectionable to readers of the group or list, not because they hold those views but because they are amused by the heated responses they can generate. A successful troll can suck up all the oxygen in a discussion group and produce a protracted flame war that distracts the group from the topics it was created to discuss.

In public groups like those on netnews, where it is not feasible to restrict anyone’s ability to post, the control method most often advised (and, probably, the one most often followed, though not as often as it was advised) was the simple rule: do not feed the trolls. When you see a provocative message from a troll, do not respond. If you see a provocative message that looks as if it MIGHT have come from a troll, do not respond. It only encourages them. If the trolls cannot elicit an outraged response, they will get bored and go away. (This often worked with human trolls; it was less successful with the automated trolls which were used by some people to lay waste to some netnews groups and effectively prevent any public discussion of certain topics.)

This principle seems to me in general a good one. Silence may sometimes be complicity, but it is also an important part of effective ostracism.

Reasons not to sit it out

Although all three of these principles seem to me plausible enough, and usually benign, it seems to me that they did not really apply to the case at hand, and that they led me astray.

It is true that I don’t have more insight into questions of race than anyone else, so I was not singularly called to respond to the racist posting in Humanist 34.220. But those who care most about a discussion list — and I guess a thirty-three year subscription, going on thirty-four, qualifies — do have a heightened responsibility to encourage good behavior on the list and to make clear, when views are aired that will make some members of the community feel unwelcome, that those views are those of an individual and not of the community as a body. And the rule against feeding trolls does not apply here — certainly, the post in question had its trollish properties and seemed likely to lead to a discussion with more heat than light. But a short, sharp rebuke can be written (though not always by me) without inviting or engaging in a flame war.

The Humanist contributor Jim Rovira provided a nice example in his response to the racist message. He was terse and to the point:

Critique of colonialism and its legacy isn’t “bigotry,” Gabriel. You should look up the word.

(He sent me his response offline, at my request; I reproduce it here on the theory that since he sent it to Humanist, he intended it to be public.)

So, yes, I had good reasons for looking at the post in Humanist 34.220, shaking my head, and moving on. And none of them were good enough.

I should have spoken up.

Yes, it’s true that when senior academics in Britain or elsewhere start making themselves mouthpieces for racist rhetoric, it’s not peculiarly my problem. It’s not usually a problem for me at all: they can cause very little inconvenience to me, beyond wasting space in my inbox and lowering the signal/noise ratio on Humanist or other lists.

But that, dear reader, is precisely why, in this case, I should have spoken up. For some readers of Humanist, racist attitudes and rhetoric are not a distant and uninteresting problem but an unpleasant part of the reality they inhabit. Those readers who occupy what Rianna Walcott’s response called precarious academic positions did not, last week, have the privilege of ignoring the racist post on Humanist; I did. They risk alienating people they need for their professional life; I am in the utterly impregnable situation of not having an academic job and not having to give a feathered flamingo what any academic search committee in the world (or, with rare exceptions, anyone else) thinks of anything I say.

White middle-class privilege, up close and personal

So my decision to set out the discussion that might be started by Humanist 34.220 was, it now seems to me, a perfectly clear example of white middle-class privilege.

Instead of reacting to the racism that had unexpectedly invaded Humanist, I spent the week thinking about context-free grammars, producing some interim results and a line of further work I’m rather happy about. An imaginary non-white version of me might conceivably have found it easy to laugh off the tone-deaf reading and bad logic of Humanist 34.220, and move on, and spend the week as I did. Or maybe not. Things like that mount up and have a way of overshadowing other things. As the speaker of Countee Cullen’s poem “Incident” says of the racist incident: “Of all I saw in Baltimore, that’s all that I remember.” At the very least, for a non-white me reminders of racism would be a constant distraction. (A bit, I suppose, like the constant reminders that many digital humanists build important digital resources in proprietary formats destined to disintegrate in years, only certainly much much worse.)

Would a non-white me have managed to be receptive to those furious thoughts about the regular approximation of context-free languages? Or would I have been consumed by furious thoughts of a rather different character? If the two of us were competing for some job somewhere, wouldn’t the white me have the unfair advantage of not having been distracted from context-free grammars by constant nudges from the culture at large, even in the professionally important context of the Humanist mailing list?

People in the gig economy who are in urgent need of money, meanwhile, didn’t have the privilege of ignoring their gigs and doing something fun instead. I did — the work I neglected does need to be done, soon, but it did not absolutely positively have to done by last Friday. (On the other hand, if it’s not done tomorrow, my head is gonna roll.) In that respect, the privilege I unconsciously exercised that morning is not just white privilege but white middle-class privilege.

Thank you, Rianna Walcott and Bethan Tovey-Walsh

A few days further on, as it happens, I lost my white middle-class privilege of ignoring that message.

A friend of mine (and in this case a mentor), Bethan Tovey-Walsh, called my attention to the fracas on Humanist. What had happened there, while I was busy with other things, is that Willard had realized, some time after hitting Send on issue 34.220, that it was a Molotov cocktail and had every likelihood of starting a worse flame war than Humanist had ever seen. He had therefore written privately to some of those who responded to the post in 34.220, saying he proposed not to post their responses lest Humanist go down in flames.

Unsurprisingly, they objected. Blog posts were written; tweets were tweeted; as Matthew Kirschenbaum later pointed out, Willard’s attempt to suppress the discussion had called more attention to the matter than it would otherwise have had, thus providing a textbook example of the so-called Streisand effect.

Recalled to his senses, or feeling his back to the wall, Willard posted Humanist 34.224, with an apology and at least some of the posts that had come in in response to Humanist 34.220 — not all, since in at least two cases what appears in Humanist 34.224 is not the author’s response to 34.220 but their response to the private mail in which Willard told them he would not post their response. Some of the missing responses have been posted in public elsewhere.

It is the response from Rianna Walcott, a doctoral student at King’s College London, that has (temporarily at least) deprived me of my white male middle-class privilege to ignore this entire discussion. She explains some of what is wrong in the message contained in Humanist 34.220, and she concludes with these words:

The tone here was alarming, and only reinforces the alienation I’ve felt since I set foot in the university. The chasm between myself and senior white academics widens, rather than closes. As a Black PhD student I felt moved to respond, and I must say I wish someone more senior, in a less precarious academic position, had felt moved to respond before I did.

When I read this, I lost the ability to think that this was a discussion I could legitimately sit out.

As a graduate student, as someone suspended delicately between the worlds of academic humanities fields and the worlds of computing and information / communications technology, trying to pursue the connection between them without a secure academic position, Rianna Walcott is one of the people for whom Humanist was originally created, one of the people Willard and the others and I wanted to feel at home on Humanist.

And what her closing paragraph showed me is that when I exercised my privilege of moving on from that post in Humanist 34.220 to think about other things, I let her down — her, and an unknown number of other people in precarious positions, who may never say anything, but who watch and who draw their own conclusions about what Humanist is about and whom Humanist is for. And who may now have learned that when full professors send racist diatribes to Humanist, many of the senior members of the digital humanities tribe see no reason to intervene.

I could and should have used my privilege to speak up in this case.

To those whom I let down by my omission, I’m sorry, and I’ll try to do better next time. I do not volunteer to police the internet for objectionable behavior, because I do still have a lot of other work I want to do. But in venues I value because I have been able to feel at home in them, I will try not to let things slide quite so readily.


This blog is called Messages in a Bottle because I have sometimes wondered whether by our own efforts we can ever reach the people we want to talk to, and I have often felt that even if we sometimes can, the effort involved may be so great that we no longer have any energy left to say whatever it was we wanted to say. I started this worklog as a place to write down things that I wanted to say to someone, when I didn’t know who that someone was or how to reach them. If my message reaches an audience, it’s an accident, like a message in a bottle thrown into the sea reaching someone who can understand it.

If you are still reading this post now, dear reader, then accident or fate has made you my audience. Listen. This message is for you. There will be an exam. Sooner or later, life will give you a clear test: someone will say or do something wrong, and you can either speak up and insert yourself into what is guaranteed to be an uncomfortable situation and almost guaranteed to take time away from other things you would rather be doing. Or you can exercise the privilege of moving on. There will be people you do not know, but whom at least in the abstract you say you care about, who do not have the privilege of moving on. Some of them will be ill positioned to speak up for themselves. You can speak up, or you can leave them in the lurch.

Do better on that test than I did. Reader, listen to me. This message is for you.

Racism invades the Humanist mailing list

[18 August 2020]

Earlier in August, in Humanist 34.215, my friend Willard McCarty posted without comment a quotation from an essay “This vast conspiracy of memory“, by Khalid Warsame, which I reproduce:

Google has this handy and terrifying feature called Timeline, which shows you everywhere you’ve ever been, how many times you’ve been there, and how long you’ve been there each time. It collects data from your phone, constantly if you have an Android, and if you have an iPhone, it logs your location every time you open the Google Maps app. Nothing disappears: your every movement is a collection of data points, fed into algorithms that use this information to do everything from alert you to traffic jams in your area to notify you when you’re running low on nappies for your newborn.

But here is what I know: there are some things that I remember and some things that I do not, and time as I experience it is not the same as time as it happened: I’ve shed far too many cells and memories and gained nothing in return for it except for some fading memories. Perhaps that’s what is so obscene to me about the idea of an app or website telling me things about myself that I know to be true.

I didn’t have anything useful to say to that, so I closed the mail and moved on.

(I mean, yes, the feature is terrifying, and I suppose that in some circumstances it might be handy — a participant in the TEI once sent me mail asking for a list of the overseas trips for which the TEI had reimbursed them, since they were applying for a security clearance and needed a list, and they figured the TEI’s records were probably more organized than their own. But part of me wants to ask how anyone can be terrified, in 2020, to discover that Google has been — gasp! — gathering information about them and their whereabouts for the past couple of decades. You don’t pay for Android, and you don’t pay for Google Maps. Has no one ever explained to you that that means you are not the customer but the product? How can it happen that you find it terrifying now that Google knows too much about you, but you didn’t find it terrifying when you were choosing your phone or your map application? [It should be noted that while these remarks seem a fair comment on the extract Willard posted, they completely ignore the function within Warsame’s essay of the reference to Google’s app, where the important point is the persistence of hidden traces of past events, which can be brought back to visibility in ways perhaps best described as uncanny.])

Other people apparently also found this post hard to relate to. (It happens in any seminar: you throw things out to spark a discussion, some of them work and some don’t.) There were no responses.

Except one.

A few days later came Humanist 34.220, with a response by Gabriel Egan, a professor at De Montfort university, whom for brevity I will refer to in what follows as GE. I will not reproduce his message in full, because the first paragraph and the beginning of the third suffice to give a sense of its tone and content:

A new kind of bigotry is being normalized in literary culture. In the essay “This Vast Conspiracy of Memory” by Khalid Warsame that Willard points us to, the author remarks “Think of Western civilisation: 500 years of war-making and theft and murder and for what? A barren hothouse of a planet to show for it”.

But the really objectionable part of Warsame’s essay is its casual anti-white racism. He describes the phrase “sites of significance” as “a white phrase–it reeks of detachment, a heinous dodge”.

When I scanned this post, I remember thinking that once again, there was no useful response for me to make, and I moved on. I may possibly have paused long enough to think “Oh, peachy. Another aggrieved white man of a certain age who is outraged by the fact that the odds of success in academic life are now stacked in favor of white males of a certain age, against (say) BAME females of a younger age by a factor of, what is it now? A mere 340:1, instead of the 1573:1 which white males of a certain age and a certain geographic disposition were brought up to expect. Tragic. Yawn.”

I do remember thinking “This will not end well. I want no part of any discussion this post starts.”

For reasons I will examine in more detail elsewhere, in retrospect I find this reaction completely understandable, and wrong. Among those who made me rethink my reaction, I should name Bethan Tovey-Walsh and Rianna Walcott, who (among others) posted trenchant responses to GE (see various blog posts and also Humanist 34.224, which includes some but not all of the responses to GE and some email objecting to Willard’s initial plan of suppressing the entire discussion in a vain attempt to bury and forget the entire embarrassing mistake of having published GE’s remarks in the first place), including in the latter’s case a quiet but devastating critique of those like me who, although in perfectly safe situations, decided to sit this one out instead of challenging the racist content of GE’s posting. My thanks to them for calling me out, and I’m sorry I’m late.

So although I am late to the party, I would like to comment on GE’s comment on Warsame’s comments on … things.

Having now read Warsame’s essay, what strikes me most forcibly about GE’s remarks is that they are tone-deaf and inattentive in ways that ought to be surprising in a professor whose job includes the close reading of texts with attention to nuance. He ignores the slightly ironic context in which the remark about western civilization is made — and even if it were un-ironic, who here can raise a hand to say they have never thought anything similar? (Those with your hands up, homework for next time: essay on the civilizing effects of the inquisition, with special attention to the Albigensian crusade and the benefits it brought Europe. Yes, you may count Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie as a benefit if you wish, but I wouldn’t if I were you.)

And he appears not to have understood what Warsame actually says about the phrase “sites of significance”. The phrase is used several times in the essay before it is examined, laid aside, and then interrogated again. At one point the essayist writes:

I told Izzy that I was trying to write an essay about the relationship between place and my body, and she asked me why I chose the phrase ‘Sites of Significance’. I thought about it for a moment. I can’t remember. It’s a very clinical term, and perhaps that’s what drew me to it in the first place. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. She then explained to me how the phrase is most commonly used in a very specific way by the government to denote places that are historically or spiritually important to Indigenous people with the aim of identifying and preserving them.

Identification and preservation of locations of particular importance to a community seems, in general, like a good idea to me; why run a freeway through a sacred site when you can just as easily bypass it? But it should not take superhuman efforts of interpretation to realize that lists identifying locations to be treated with particular reverence (or at least care) also serve to identify (by their absence from the list) locations in which special care is not needed. In any context, lists of special cases are often made in order to make the handling of other cases simpler, faster, more routine. Where I live we have zoning rules to indicate the circumstances under which the planning and zoning commission has to take particular care over issuing a building permit (for example, certain uses of the property are not allowed in close proximity to a school), and what they need to do specially in those cases. This simplifies cases where the special circumstances do not arise, and makes it easier to issue the building permit. It is not hard to see — I would have said it is very hard NOT to see — that a category like “sites of significance”, as Warsame explains it, intrinsically carries within it the point of view of the provincial government, or of the planning and zoning commission. A reader need not find the idea heinous in order to agree that it does suggest detachment and a view from outside. And in Australia, that view is, well, white.

Deplorable though it of course is, inattentive reading is in itself not a particularly unusual occurrence, even among posters to Humanist. Nor are badly misjudged formulations of one’s thought, badly thought-out thoughts, or just plain bad days. It happens.

What is perhaps more interesting about GE’s post is the double bind it shows in operation when discussions of race are considered. (My apologies in advance to the large number of people who know all of what follows much better than I do. I am still trying to explain things to myself. You know how some people are; don’t know what they think until they hear themselves explaining it to somebody.)

When societies create race as a cultural category and build complicated structures to confine some members of the society and draw boundaries between a dominant group and subordinate groups, then race becomes an inescapable category in the lives of members of subordinate groups defined by the larger culture in that way. Readers who need examples of how this works may be directed to Countee Cullen’s short poem “Incident”, or, James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time”. (But a warning is in order; you will not escape unscathed from either text.) I suspect that the same would also be true for any other cultural construct used to distinguish powerful groups from powerless groups. (Hmm. Gender? Check. Minority religious affiliation, especially in a state with an established church? Check. … “Suspect” may be an instance of litotes, the rhetorical figure of understatement.) But I am not a social scientist and this is not sociological advice. Readers with questions in this area are encouraged to consult a qualified anthropologist or sociologist and not a bloviating digital humanist of a certain age and complexion who is fatally inclined to mansplaining.

No one reading this is likely to need me to point out that race has no particularly firm grounding in biological facts (but here it is, just in case: race is to biology roughly as sorting books by size is to comparative literary history), and if it did, the cultural rules for classification of mixed-race people would in any case soon separate the cultural construct from any moorings it might once have had in something more or less kind of like biology.

Now, since race has been and is still used in some countries (including mine) as the basis for invidious discrimination, there is a certain desire among those who dislike invidious discrimination to downplay or even eliminate race as a category. So there are people (including me) whose instinct is to treat it as a taboo subject, to be treated with care if mentioned at all, and better avoided entirely. A bit like the fact that the family fortune was made by a swindler who successfully evaded prosecution. Dirty laundry. This is, I willingly admit, not always a healthy or helpful attitude. For example, it makes it indelicate to point out that George Washington claimed the right to own other human beings, or to point out that a number of U.S. military bases are named for men who committed treason against the U.S. But experience has taught me, or so I think, that if a white person brings up race, in a conversation that is not already about race, the odds are good that I am going to find the ensuing conversation excruciatingly unpleasant, and that my interlocutor is going to turn out to be either an unapologetic overt racist, an unacknowledged racist who wants to persuade me that birtherism was not motivated by racism but by an honest concern over the archival document retention policies of the state of Hawaii, or some other kind of racist (but I am losing interest in this classification). There are doubtless exceptions. But if someone offers you an even-money bet that the next white person who brings race up will turn out to be a racist, reader, where I come from that would be a good bet.

It is perhaps this fact that leads GE to the erroneous conclusion that when Warsame talks about race, it is a signal of “anti-white racism”. Not so fast, GE. I think it would be more accurate to say that when society has made race an inescapable category in someone’s life, then when that person tries to understand their life as it exists, race is — how shall I put this? — likely to come up. When an Australian of Somali descent is talking about life and brings up race, it is not a signal that they are a racist; it is more likely a signal that they have a functioning cerebral cortex.

It may not be comfortable for readers who belong to a dominant category to be reminded of the way society’s categories for the world interact with each other, and the way categories like race can turn up in places where we might prefer not to find them. (But — as you, o reader, are perhaps beginning to suspect — I do not believe the comfort of the reader is always the summum bonum of essay writing.) In any case, pointing out instances of those interactions is not anti-white racism: it’s just attempting to understand a world so much of which is explicable only by considering its origins, and whose origins are so tightly inter-connected with race and in particular with — sorry to be the bearer of unwelcome tidings — white racism.

For what it’s worth, this reader saw no racism at all in Warsame’s mostly thoughtful, often self-ironic essay. GE thinks that Warsame is being inconsistent, not ironic, in following his remark about western civilization with an anecdote that takes place in an airplane. Really, Dr. Egan? No irony there? Really? Try again!

Well, if as they say no text is complete until the reader completes it, then it seems to be true that in this case GE and I have not read, and cannot read, the same essay by Khalid Warsame, because the words turn into one thing in GE, and into an apparently rather different thing in me.

In members of the dominant group, as I said a moment ago, mentioning race when it has not already come up is often a troubling sign. In members of a non-dominant group, not so much. If we generalize from “white people who bring race up are disproportionately often racists” to the same proposition applied to people in general, we risk missing an important distinction (N.B. ‘risk’ here is litotes — again), and we also make it harder for members of disadvantaged groups to talk about and understand life. That would be a good way to ensure (and litotes yet again) that racial categories cannot be discussed and understood and that invidious racial discrimination will remain in force. And it is for that reason (if for no others) that raising accusations of “anti-white racism” whenever someone observes that a phrase like “sites of significance” is a “white phrase” will itself be taken by some to be a racist act, as well as a hostile one.

And that is why I have overcome my initial reluctance to dignify GE’s post with a reply.

Normally, I don’t feel that dyspeptic British academics of a certain gender and age who think the world is filling up with anti-white bigotry are my problem. Their animus will not make my life worse in any measurable way, unless I manage to get trapped in an elevator with them, and I can usually avoid that by taking the stairs.

But the Humanist list is one of the first places I ever felt at home on the net as a humanist (and, in particular, as a humanist who had no tenure-track position but served as a member of the professional technical staff) who was also interested in the use of computers not just as consumer tools but as instruments for humanistic research. I have wanted Humanist to thrive because I want people who share that combination of interests to have a place to feel at home, intellectually. I wanted that for all humanists interested in computing and was even broad-minded enough to counsel Willard to allow full professors and heads of humanities computer centers to subscribe if they wanted to, instead of limiting it to those in what Rianna Walcott’s post calls precarious academic positions, which was Willard’s original plan.

And I fear that there is a risk that if careless accusations of bigotry and “anti-white racism” are leveled on Humanist against anyone who describes their attempts to come to terms with a world shaped by European colonialism, and no one objects, then some of those who should feel welcome on Humanist will not feel welcome. (Again, there’s that bad habit of litotes. There is no ‘risk’ that some people ‘might’ not feel welcome. There is a direct causal connection. The postings in 34.224 contain documentation of specific cases.)

So let me say it loud and clear, from someone who was in the room when the idea of Humanist was born, who is a charter subscriber, who many systems back wrote the first version of the digest-curation software Willard McCarty uses: postings like that in Humanist 34.220 are not welcome. Not just because they exhibit tonedeaf reading, bad thinking, and hyperbolic writing, but because they do so in a way that is actively hostile to the people for whom Humanist was created.

The graduate students whose complaints appeared in Humanist 34.224, and the silent nameless others similarly situated, are the people for whom Humanist was created. They made me think that this discussion was not, after all, one I could afford to sit out.

If the Humanist list has to choose between the full professors and the graduate students, then I say we choose the graduate students. They are in any case a lot more fun to hang around with.

Working on your Spanish

[18 November 2017; copy edits 18-24 November]

In just over seven months, the annual Digital Humanities conference will take place in Mexico City. I doubt that I’m the only digital humanist in the world who is surreptitiously trying to improve my Spanish before next June.

If you are trying to improve your Spanish (whether for that reason or for others), here are some things I am finding useful.

First, a textbook.

  • The French publisher Assimil has a Spanish volume in their sans peine series: L’espagnol sans peine. It’s available in several versions for speakers of different languages: English (Spanish with ease), German (Spanisch ohne Mühe), Italian, Dutch, and Portuguese. The series is described, quite accurately, as suitable for “beginners and pseudo-beginners” (débutants et faux-débutants).

    I bought the book and CDs direct from the Assimil web site and had them shipped to me in the U.S. without any difficulty; the only catch for some potential buyers is that the site is in French. Period. (Wait, aren’t they specialists in books for foreign-language learners? Don’t their web people realize the firm has non-Francophone target readers? Ah, well. There are some English-language resellers one can use, or you can grab a Francophone friend and make them babysit you through finding the book you want and making your purchase.)

    I won’t attempt to describe the Assimil method here. The linguist John McWhorter has given a good account of their results in his piece on the NPR web site (and there is some useful concrete advice at the site ‘How to Learn any Language’, for those who find the books’ instructions vague). I will say that for those who like me are attempting to learn (or re-learn) a language on their own and not in a class, the Assimil sans peine series has no equal that I know of.

    I bought the combination pack with the printed book, sound CDs with recordings of the dialogues, and a CD with MPEG versions of the recordings; I have downloaded the MPEG recordings to a directory on an Android tablet, imported the directory into the Podcast Addict app as an audio book, and I use Podcast Addict to play the day’s recording on continuous loop while I fetch the paper, wash dishes, etc. Listening in a podcast player has the advantage that I can speed up the early lessons to something approaching normal conversational speed.

Second, a supply of relatively easy reading and listening material. My searches for podcasts for learners of Spanish as a foreign languages turned up large numbers of results, some of which were obviously irrelevant and some of which I was able to delete without qualms after listening for a couple of minutes. I now listen to three:

  • Español automatico, prepared by a personable teacher of Spanish named Karo Martínez; in some installments, she speaks in relatively simple Spanish about assorted topics (the relative merits of the various actors who have played James Bond, the history of Catalonia, how to learn Spanish, and others; self-help topics of the how-to-be-more-organized variety are not uncommon), in others she specifically discusses issues of Spanish idiomatic usage and vocabulary. Episodes generally range from twenty to forty minutes (although when she got going on her introduction to the history of Barcelona, it ran over an hour). Transcripts and other additional materials appear to be available from the web site, some for purchase, which I hope pays for the cost of producing and publishing the podcast, and others for free (but you have to give them your email address, which induces a spasm of irrational privacy paranoia in me, so I have no idea what form the transcripts take). The only blemish for me is the repeated plea for listeners to file a five-star review of the podcast in iTunes.

  • El oso latino habla español — para mejorar su español, a quirky podcast put together in Sherbrooke, Québec, produced by a Québecois Spanish-learner named Pascal Dion and featuring the Peruvian Oswaldo Horna Montes (known, I gather, to his friends as El oso latino) as the main speaker. Episodes often include interviews with visitors from Latin America, with other Latin Americans living in Sherbrooke, or with anyone whom the host and producer think will be interesting; topics of discussion regularly include differences among varieties of Spanish and idioms peculiar to this or that regional variety. In one show, Montes narrated the preparation of a Peruvian dish for dinner. Dion appears in a regular segment on language-learner errors called Crónica del gringo, and Montes’s daughters in the segment Los chistes de Celia y de Marisol, which makes me laugh til I cry even though I have not yet understood a word of any of the jokes they have told. Lots of music. The most personal and thus the most memorable of these three podcasts. Generally around 30 minutes per episode.

  • News in slow Spanish, which is more or less what it sounds like: a weekly podcast with news stories in Spanish (there are similar News in Slow X podcasts for a number of different languages). There are several versions (intermediate vs. advanced, Castilian vs. Latin American), but oddly only one that I was able to locate from within Podcast Addict (Spain, Advanced, which proves not too advanced for me). News in Slow Spanish (Latino) does appear in the Tune-In Radio app (the only thing I miss there is continuous looping).

    I shied away from this at first; I have decades-old bad memories of unconvincing ‘newscasts’ specially for language learners filled with soft news (to give them a longer shelf life) and painful explanations of words. But I ended up trying the podcast, after I failed to find an app or podcast that would give me a conventional five- to fifteen-minute radio news broadcast on demand, preferably updated once a day or once an hour (something along the lines of the NPR News app, or the Radio Canada app, which will play you the most recent hourly newscast on demand — still looking; if you know of anything let me know). And I was convinced. The news items are real, current, and interesting, and the editorial comment feels lively and intelligent. In the Latin-American version, particularly, it is interesting to listen to the friendly discussion between hosts with slightly different political leanings.

    I’ve been listening to the initial free portion of the podcast; a longer episode with more news items and some discussions of Spanish grammar and idioms is available as a paid service. The free portion runs about five minutes. (Every now and then there is either a slip or an intentional freebie, and the entire thirty-minute program is included.)

On easy reading material, I’m not doing too well. Children’s and young-adult books are an obvious choice, but I don’t know an easy way to know what’s worth buying and what’s not. Well, actually I do. The next time I’m at my public library I’ll ask at the information desk for recommendations.

And third, a supply of normal Spanish for listening and reading, ideally interesting and not over-challenging. Here, of course, the choice is limitless and the expanse of possibilities feels as trackless as Borges’s Library. (If you need more motivation to work on your Spanish, think about it — you could be reading Borges in the original!)

There is always the news (which tends to have a relatively manageable vocabulary, and to have a lot of short pieces). There are Android apps for any number of Spanish-language newspapers, most of which I haven’t heard of and some of which may or may not be worth reading. With my mind focused on Mexico City, I have looked only at apps and web sites for Mexican newspapers. A Mexican colleague (whom I thank, but who shall remain nameless here because I haven’t asked permission to name them here) has suggested:

  • Animal politico (left wing); the web site is fine on a desktop machine and a bit hard to navigate on a tablet. I didn’t find any app.
  • El Universal (center right); I did find an app but did not find it usable.
  • La Jornada (left wing); I find the Android app usable (though I wish it allowed me to adjust the font size), so I haven’t worked with the web site.

At the moment, I confess to finding Mexican newspapers slightly heavy going.

Since I’m a digital humanist, and I’m looking forward to DH 2018, I read the blog run by the Red de humanidades digitales with great interest, even if sometimes with imperfect comprehension.

Eventually, I’ll be looking for Spanish-language detective stories and the like: page-turners are a real boon for a foreign-language learner, so I will happily read many things in a foreign language whose English equivalents I wouldn’t normally be caught dead with. (I’m told that on the same principle, some adult literacy programs in this country do great work with Mickey Spillane.) Suggestions welcome.

Finding good podcasts aimed not at language learners but at intelligent adults has been a challenge, but looking around for podcasts on the sites of UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónomo de México) and IMER (Instituto Mexicano de la Radio) has produced dividends, as have some journalistic think pieces I found on the Web on new media in Latin America. Right now my subscriptions include the following. (At the moment, all of these are tough sledding for me, but they repay repeated listening. The ability of podcast software to slow the playback helps — it’s like being able to say “¡Demasiado rápido! ¡Más despacio, por favor!” and have the podcast nod and slow down.)

  • Azul Chiclamino, a podcast by Rodrigo Llop. I have no idea how to describe this; perhaps the subtitle will do: La realidad de lo absurdo. This is sometimes characterized as a humorous broadcast; for a sufficiently nuanced definition of “humor” (think Mark Twain) that’s probably true, but I find the podcast much more appealing than that label would lead me to expect.
  • Radio Ambulante, an NPR-affiliated podcast. Feels a bit like Radio Lab or This American Life, in Spanish: thoughtful, serious, well produced. Has the advantage that its stories are often about Hispanic affairs in the US, so I understand some of the background; has the drawback that its stories are often about the US, which doesn’t help break out of a US news bubble.
  • Ráfagas de pensamiento, a series of short pieces by the philosopher Ernesto Priani Saisó of UNAM, often reacting to a passage in an earlier philosopher (Nietzche, Husserl, Leibniz, More, …). Produced with atmospheric music and read by what sound like professional voice actors. Has the disadvantage for me that the background music can make the words harder to hear; has the advantage that it’s worth listening to. Usually 3-5 minutes per piece.
  • A multipart dramatization by Radio UNAM of Así asesinaron a Trotski by Leandro Sánchez Salazar, the man in charge of the investigation of Trotsky’s murder. I have no idea what Sánchez’s book is like as a historical source, but it has the virtue of strong narrative drive — even though I already know how it turns out. I may need to read the book in order to understand some of the broadcast.

Netflix and Amazon appear to have rather thin selections when it comes to Spanish-language films but they do have some. If anyone reading this knows an effective way to search by language on either, I’m all ears; surely searching for “Almodovar” should not be the only possibility (I am going to save Buñuel for later, when my Spanish is better and I can tell the difference between surrealism and not understanding the words). YouTube has a fair bit of Spanish content, though again I have not found any good way to find it except for searching on random Spanish words. An impulsive search on “Así asesinaron a Trotski” turned up several documentaries on Trotsky’s assassination, Trotsky’s life, Trotsky and Stalin, and Ramon Mercader (the man who killed Trotsky), as well as a few seminars on Trotskyite political theory.

[Addendum: on Netflix, selecting Browse / Audio & Subtitles takes the user to an interface where one can browse items with audio, or subtitles, in a given language. This is imperfect, but probably better than nothing. Looking for something to watch in the resulting display feels like looking for a book to read in a library arranged by color; for every ten times you feel irritated by its apparently random arrangement and the inconvenience of having to click on something every time you would like more information than is given in the icon, you may once or twice feel pleased by some serendipity.]

All of this is, of course, just my two cents. As may be clear from the above, my language learning work happens mostly on an Android tablet, not on a desktop machine.

More digital than thou

[16 December 2013]

An odd thing has started happening in reviews for the Digital Humanities conference: reviewers are objecting to papers if the reviewer thinks it has relevance beyond the field of DH, apparently on the grounds that the topic is then insufficiently digital. It doesn’t matter how relevant the topic is to work in DH, or how deeply embedded the topic is in a core DH topic like text encoding — if some reviewers don’t see a computer in the proposal, they want to exclude it from the conference.

[“You’re making this up,” said my evil twin Enrique. “That’s absurd; I don’t believe it.” Absurd, yes, but made up? no. The reviewing period for DH 2014 just ended. One paper proposal I reviewed addressed the conceptual analysis of … I’ll call the topic X, to preserve some fig leaf of anonymity here; X in turn is a core practice of many DH projects and an essential part of any account of the meaning of tag sets like that of the Text Encoding Initiative. I thought the paper constituted a useful contribution to an ongoing discussion within the framework of DH. Another reviewer found the paper interesting and thoughtful but found nothing specifically digital in the proposal [after all, X can arise in a pen and paper world, too, computers are not essential], graded it 0 for relevance to DH theory and practice, and voted to reject it. It should be submitted, this reviewer said, to a conference in [another field where X is a concern] and not in a DH conference. I showed this to Enrique. For once, he was speechless. Thank you, Reviewer 2!]

At some level, the question is what counts as work in the field of digital humanities. Is it only work in which computers figure in an essential role? Or is digital humanities concerned with the application of computers to the humanities and all the problems that arise in that effort? I think the latter. Some reviewers appear to think the former. If solving an essential problem turns out to involve considerations that are not peculiar to work with computing machines, however, what do we do? I believe that the problem remains relevant to DH because it’s rooted in DH and because those interested in doing good work in DH need the answer. The other reviewer seems to take the view that once the question becomes more general, and applicable to work that doesn’t use computers, the question is no longer peculiarly digital, and thus not sufficiently digital; they would like to exclude it from the DH conference on the grounds that it addresses a question of interest not only to DH but also to other fields.

[“Wait a second,” said Enrique. “You’re saying there’s a pattern here. Isn’t it just this one reviewer?” “No,” I said. “This line of thought also came up in at least one other review (possibly in a more benign form), and it has also been seen in past years’ reviews.” “Is that why you’re so touchy about this?” laughed Enrique. “Did they reject one of your papers on this account?” “Oh, hush.”]

The notion that there must be something about a topic that is peculiar to the digital humanities, as opposed to the broader humanities disciplines, makes sense perhaps if one believes that the digital humanities are intrinsically different from the pre-electronic humanities disciplines. On that view, any DH topic is necessarily distinct from any non-DH humanities topic, and once a topic is relevant to the broader humanistic fields (e.g. “what is the nature of X?”), it is ipso facto no longer a DH topic.

This is like arguing that papers about the concept of literary genre don’t belong at a conference about English literary history, because there is nothing peculiarly English about the notion of genre and any general discussion will (if it’s worth anything at all) also be relevant to non-English literatures. Or like trying to exclude work on the theory of computation from computer science conferences because it applies to all computation, not only to computation carried out by electronic stored-program binary digital computers.

[“I notice that leaders in the field of computer science occasionally feel obliged to remark that the name computer science is a misnomer,” said Enrique, “because computers are in no sense an essential element in the field.“ ”Perhaps they have the same problem, in their way,” I said. “My sympathy,” said Enrique.]

Another problem I see with the view my co-reviewer seems to hold is that some people believe that DH is not intrinsically different from the pre-electronic humanities disciplines. I didn’t get involved with computers in order to stop doing traditional philology; I got involved to do it better. Computers allow a much broader basis for our literary and linguistic argumentation, and they demand a higher degree of precision than philologists typically achieved in past decades or centuries, but I believe that digital philology is recognizably the same discipline as pre-digital philology. If the DH conference were to start refusing papers on the grounds that they are describing work that might be relevant to scholars working with pen and paper, then it would be presupposing an answer to the important question of how computers change and don’t change the world, instead of encouraging discussion of that question. (And it would be excluding people like me from the conference, or trying to.)

[“Trying in vain, I bet,” said Enrique. “Well, yeah. I’m here, and I’m not leaving.”]

These exclusionary impulses are ironic, in their way, because one of the motive forces behind the formation of scholarly organizations like the Association for Computers and the Humanities and the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing (now the European Association for Digital Humanities) and behind their journals and conferences was that early practitioners in the field were often made to feel unwelcome in the conferences and journals of their home disciplines. The late Paul Fortier was eloquent on the subject of the difficulties he had trying to publish his computer-assisted work on Céline in conventional journals for Romance languages and literatures; he often spoke of Computers and the Humanities as having made it possible for him and others like him to have an academic career.

It will be a sad thing if the recent growth in degree programs devoted to digital humanities turns out to result in the field of DH setting up signs at all boundaries reading “Outsiders not wanted.”

Searching for patterns in XML siblings

[9 April 2013]

I’ve been experimenting with searches for elements in XML documents whose sequences of children match certain patterns. I’ve got some interesting results, but before I can describe them in a way that will make sense for the reader, I’ll have to provide some background information.

For example, consider a TEI-encoded language corpus where each word is tagged as a w element and carries a pos attribute. At the bottom levels of the XML tree, the documents in the corpus might look like this (this extract is from COLT, the Bergen Corpus of London Teenage English, as distributed by ICAME, the International Computer Archive of Modern and Medieval English; an earlier version of COLT was also included in the British National Corpus):

<u id="345" who="14-7">
<s n="407">
<w pos="PPIS1">I</w>
<w pos="VBDZ">was</w>
<w pos="XX">n't</w>
<w pos="JJ">sure</w>
<w pos="DDQ">what</w>
<w pos="TO">to</w>
<w pos="VVI">revise</w>
<w pos="RR">though</w>
<u id="346" who="14-1">
<s n="408">
<w pos="PPIS1">I</w>
<w pos="VV0">know</w>
<w pos="YCOM">,</w>
<w pos="VBZ">is</w>
<w pos="PPH1">it</w>
<w pos="AT">the</w>
<w pos="JJ">whole</w>
<w pos="JJ">bloody</w>
<w pos="NN1">book</w>
<w pos="CC">or</w>
<w pos="RR">just</w>
<w pos="AT">the</w>
<w pos="NN2">bits</w>
<w pos="PPHS1">she</w>
<w pos="VVD">tested</w>
<w pos="PPIO2">us</w>
<w pos="RP">on</w>
<w pos="YSTP">.</w>

These two u (utterance) elements record part of a conversation between speaker 14-7, a 13-year-old female named Kate of unknown socio-economic background, and speaker 14-1, a 13-year-old female named Sarah in socio-economic group 2 (that’s the middle group; 1 is high, 3 is low).

Suppose our interest is piqued by the phrase “the whole bloody book” and we decide we to look at other passages where we find a definite article, followed by two (or more) adjectives, followed by a noun.

Using the part-of-speech tags used here, supplied by CLAWS, the part-of-speech tagger developed at Lancaster’s UCREL (University Centre for Computer Corpus Research on Language), this amounts at a first approximation to searching for a w element with pos = AT, followed by two or more w elements with pos = JJ, followed by a w element with pos = NN1. If we want other possible determiners (“a”, “an”, “every”, “some”, etc.) and not just “the” and “no”, and other kinds of adjective, and other forms of noun, the query eventually looks like this:

let $determiner := ('AT', 'AT1', 'DD',
'DD1', 'DD2',
'DDQ', 'DDQGE', 'DDQV'),
$adjective := ('JJ', 'JJR', 'JJT', 'JK',
'MC', 'MCMC', 'MC1', 'MD'),
$noun := ('MC1', 'MC2', 'ND1',
'NN', 'NN1', 'NN2',
'NNJ', 'NNJ2',
'NNL1', 'NNL2',
'NNT1', 'NNT2',
'NNU', 'NNU1', 'NNU2',
'NP', 'NP1', 'NP2',
'NPD1', 'NPD2',
'NPM1', 'NPM2' )

let $hits :=
[following-sibling::w[1][@pos = $adjective]
[following-sibling::w[1][@pos = $adjective]
[following-sibling::w[1][@pos = $noun]
for $h in $hits return
<hit doc="{base-uri($h)}">{

Such searches pose several problems, for which I’ve been mulling over solutions for a while now.

  • One problem is finding a good way to express the concept of “two or more adjectives”. (The attentive reader will have noticed that the XQuery given searches for determiners followed by exactly two adjectives and a noun, not two or more adjectives.)

    To this, the obvious solution is regular expressions over w elements. The obvious problem standing in the way of this obvious solution is that XPath, XQuery, and XSLT don’t actually have support in their syntax or in their function library for regular expressions over sequences of elements, only regular expressions over sequences of characters.

  • A second problem is finding a syntax for expressing the query which ordinary working linguists will find less daunting or more convenient than XQuery.

    Why ordinary working linguists should find XQuery daunting, I don’t know, but I’m told they will. But even if one doesn’t find XQuery daunting, one may find the syntax required for sibling searches a bit cumbersome. The absence of a named axis meaning “immediate following sibling” is particularly inconvenient, because it means one must perpetually remember to add “[1]” to steps; experience shows that forgetting that predicate in even one place can lead to bewildering results. Fortunately (or not), the world in general (and even just the world of corpus linguistics) contains a large number of query languages that can be adopted or used for inspiration.

    Once such a syntax is invented or identified, of course, one will have the problem of building an evaluator for expressions in the new language, for example by transforming expressions in the new syntax into XQuery expressions which the XQuery engine or an XSLT processor evaluates, or by writing an interpreter for the new language in XQuery or XSLT.

  • A third problem is finding a good way to make the queries faster.

    I’ve been experimenting with building user-level indices to help with this. By user-level indices I mean user-constructed XML documents which serve the same purpose as dbms-managed indices: they contain a subset of the information in the primary (or ‘real’) documents, typically in a different structure, and they can make certain queries faster. They are not to be confused with the indices that most database management systems can build on their own, with or without user action. Preliminary results are encouraging.

More on these individual problems in other posts.