Who’s wearing the pants?

A student of mine read Harry Frankfurt's "On Bullshit" a while back, and he came to me interested in thinking more about the phenomenon.  I'd suggested he read Gerald Cohen's "Deeper into Bullshit".  He liked the essay, but he was troubled because Cohen kept using a metaphor he didn't understand.  Cohen kept using expressions like:  "the bull wears the semantic trousers" and "bullshit wears the trousers, not the bullshitting".  My student had no idea what these meant.

The metaphor is an invocation of the old expression "Who wears the pants around here?" Which is supposed to invoke the natural superiority and sovereignty of men over women, especially in a marriage.  And so 'wearing the pants' means 'is the man,' which means 'is in charge'

This isn't to charge Cohen with sexism.  The funny thing is that the metaphor was totally invisible to me, too.  But to get the metaphor, you have to have been brought up in a language that uses that expression naturally.  How many other expressions with this kind of sexist heritage are still around in our language?  It seems a genetic fallacy to say that those who use them are sexist or that the language is sexist in its usage, but wouldn't we rather not have those sort of expressions?

I have to say, I am starting to feel the same way about similar animal-killing metaphors in ordinary parlance: More than one way to skin a cat, killing two birds with one stone, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush….

13 thoughts on “Who’s wearing the pants?”

  1. Great post.  There's a direct analogy here with racial metaphors.  Mitt Romney got into some hot water over his use of the phrase "tar baby."

    See here for discussion: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1221764,00.html

    In the end, however, this just might be a question of making the leopard change its spots his spots–if you make him, he'll be like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.  

  2. Despite TNC and the best efforts of other folks, the 'tar baby' is only racist if you believe that anything that sounds racist is racist, or if it's racist to appropriate ideas and images from one racial tradition to another.  The tar baby isn't important because he's black (or even a 'he'–Uncle Remus' original tar baby isn't even a person, it's a toy.)  It's because he's sticky.  I hate to defend Mitt Romney, who is perfectly capable of defending himself into nothingness, and more power to him because he's going to need it.  But caring that an expression arises from something you didn't understand when you used it is wasted care.

    How many well meaning white liberals stop their children from using "eeny meeny miney moe"?  Why would you?  It's a time-honored way to make a perfectly honest decision, by adding verses until you strike the desired choice, if you're five.  But why does that tiger have toes, and why does he holler instead of just turning around with catlike speed and eviscerating you with his three-inch razor-sharp claws?  Because he's a  'nigger'.  Tiger was the inoffensive substitution in the rhyme.  Seemed sufficient at the time.  No doubt someplace there are 70-year-old ex-Klansmen who are laughing their asses off over the widespread unknowing racism of American children choosing between Reese's and Hershey's.  (I was told recently that the Irish still use the rhyme with the original lyrics.)  By the flip side of the token, a gentleman of my acquaintance lost his seat on a prominent library board in a large suburb of a well-educated major city recently–not because he used the word 'niggardly', but because he refused to apologize for it.  The offended parties–white people, by the way–shifted the locus of their outrage when they were told that 'niggardly' didn't mean 'acting like a nigger.'  They argued that it sounded like it meant that, and that argument held. 
    The tar baby is a precise and effective metaphor and allusion; use it at your peril.  'Niggardly' is a fine word–use it at your peril.  In each case you get the choice between making an argument and becoming the story.  Eenie, meenie.

  3. Ice9,

    I think everyone here is largely in agreement.  My point was that a similar point (to Scott's orignal one) could be made with regard to racial metaphors.  TNC (took me a while to figure that out), was much less decisive than you suggest.  He said the term has racial overtones, and in the end didn't condemn Romney for overt racial insensitivity.  I mentioned the Romney thing for that reason.  Since you bring up eenie meenie,


    In any case, there would be an instance of a somewhat skewed genetic problem–the counting Rhyme wasn't originally racist, it just become that in one version, one very close to the current one.  Not a good example.

    The people in the "niggardly" example are silly and that's unfortunate.  These examples, however, make a different point from the one in the post.  Nonetheless, they serve as helpful warnings.

  4. Eenie Meenie was originally racist, fundamentally racist (I suppose genetically racist.)  The current version is sanitized, but also widespread, so it's a good basis for demonstration–that's all.  I'm interested in the question of what happens when people innocently use language that can (with a dash of genetic information)  be revealed as racist, or sexist, or liberal-gay, or teatarded, or whatever damaging category it might be useful to propose.   Still genetic fallacy territory I suppose, but every fallacy isn't automatically a bad argument
    The commenter above thought it ironic that Romney was tarred with the baby, when of course Romney used the tar-baby correctly.   Different if he'd used a baldly racist expression– "touch of the tar brush" perhaps–which would show that he'd internalized and used such language uncritically.  That's Palin/Santorum territory, and a fertile country it is.  
    No, Romney has casual control of Uncle Remus a sign of a broad education.  Not surprising given his father's liberal Republican attitudes, which are more trouble for Romney among his political base. That base is–wait for it–glad he made a racial slur even though it wasn't a racial slur.  They hear the dog whistle not because he blows it, but because liberals say he blew it, then yuk-yuk over the stupid-proving irony even when it isn't ironic or stupid. Put another way:  Romney pleaded with us not to throw him into that racist briar patch. But Brother Bear, he's just itching to throw somebody.
    I'm interested in what happens when people are presented with clear evidence that the language they're using is racist even though nobody cares or even knows it is.  I'm offering them the genetic fallacy. They discover their inner racist, frantically running back through their use of eenie meenie, probably remembering little Negro playmates who became strangely silent when the tiger was hollering.  It's obviously not actionable racism–if anything it's evidence of the successful process of pretending it never happened.   My high school students are appalled by the story of 'eenie meenie.'  This is valuable (aside from the entertainment value) because it vividly illustrates that they need to work their language.  That's it.  I'm certainly not interested in painting Romney as a racist (he's unpaintable, I think) or your student as a typical 50's sexist pig doomed to wear the lipstick, or the horns.

  5. And I guess it would also depend on where you're starting the origins of eeny meeny (Wikipedia–sorry–traces it to several other counting rhymes). 

  6. A really nice discussion.  I turn my back, and look what happens.
    One thing to remember with these discussions is the question of genetic fallacy, and one that ICE9 and John both recognize.  It is strange how there can be two kinds of cases.  Eeny-meeny is one kind of case where the speech-act's genetic story does not dominate its meaning. It is sanitized, now with 'tiger,' and that's all.  I don't use it, nevertheless, because of its history, but I don't see it as a racist usage. 
    'Niggardly' is another case, where its etymological genesis has nothing to do with the term 'niggar,' but because of the phonetic overlap, it has overtones now.  To use the term without that awareness is, regardless of the term's genesis, racist.
    Both are cases of genetic fallacy, as the crucial property of x's genesis does not obtain with its current usage.  The difference between the cases is that eeny-meeny is that a racist genesis is outgrown, and niggardly is one where the usage becomes racist (or at least racism-ignorant).
    A final question, though:  is 'wears the pants' NOW a sexist usage?

  7. Curiously, wikipedia has an entry on the controversies over "niggardly"


    A quick and unscientific perusal of the online dictionaries turns up nothing about the "new" use.  The word hasn't been redefined to mean anything new, so pointing to its origin might not be the move (a la genetic fallacy), rather, one is merely pointing to its current definition.

    One site did say, however, that it's "rare."

  8. Hey BN,

    Those are hiliarious.  Scott, some others, and I discussed this recently at a conference.  We came up with some that matched the fallacies more closely (e.g., red herring looks like a fish swimming motion. . . ).  We just need someone with the drawing skills.

  9. BN, yes!  In fact, a few faculty here at Vandy have been using the hand signals on pretty regular basis.  It has proved very useful at colloquia – we'll lock eyes and one will make, say, the circular motion with the hand (for circular argument).
    John and I (along with most anyone willing to collaborate) would love to put together something like that for fallacies. 

  10. That would be awesome 🙂 I'm sorry I can't help. I have no drawing skills; I can barely read my own handwriting.

  11. What I find interesting about this is the fact that someone who knows how to use "ennie, meanie" will absolutely pick the one he or she wants by picking the starting position.  You can have people lined up, and start from anywhere, first position, somewhere in the middle, or at the end.  Where you choose to start determines the person chosen in the end.
    If you have 4 people, and choose the first person to start, the last person will automatically be picked.  With three people, the first one you pick will be the one chosen.  It was suggested that this was a fair way to pick someone…it is not, if you know the system.
    I remember that the peoson usually doing the poem (choosing) was the one who knew how to manipulate the system to their end.  I think that if you look back at your own childhood, you will find this to be the same.

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