Firing (fill-in-the-) blanks

I have my reservations (as diplomats might say, or travel agents with a planeload of clients) about the shape the "gay apparel" controversy has taken; I certainly think Justice Cruz was in error, and his column a confession of (some) intolerance disguised as an essay in nostalgia. But I also believe that some of his fiercest critics, John Silva among them, have fallen afoul of the very same error they accuse him of.

A secondary error has also drawn my attention. I am referring to one type of argument used against Justice Cruz’s unfortunate opinion; I had seen it used before, at least once in Deannie Bocobo’s well-argued Philippine Commentary, but I had not given it much thought. It nagged at me then, but (like many other attacks of conscience) it passed quickly enough. I mean the substitution or fill-in-the-blanks argument.

Dean used it again recently to criticize Justice Cruz. A letter-writer sent off a short missive to the Inquirer employing the same argument. Even one of the most affable bloggers in the entire country, Nick Nichols in Davao City, hinted at it (although to be scrupulously fair he stopped short of actually using it; I can’t find the post, though — perhaps it was a comment in another blog).

Let me use Dean’s post, not only because it is ready to hand, but also because it stood out from his usual run of entries; usually, Dean argues from a much higher plane. (Goodness knows he is confident enough in his persuasive skills to never, ever, use snide.) He gets to the point in the following paragraph.

But if you were to substitute "NIGGER" wherever Isagani Cruz uses "HOMO" or "QUEER" you would get an embarrassingly racist screed worthy of the antebellum Old South in slave-era America, where quiet, submissive niggers were praised for knowing their place and abolitionists were niggah-lovahs. Instead of the purity of the races as racists then decried, Isagani Cruz worries over the loss of gender purity, or at least, the acceptable, social concept of it in his own formative years.

He then proceeds to quote Cruz’s concluding paragraph.

Is our population getting to be predominantly pansy? Must we allow homosexuality to march unobstructed until we are converted into a nation of sexless persons without the virility of males and the grace of females but only an insipid mix of these diluted virtues? Let us be warned against the gay population, which is per se a compromise between the strong and the weak and therefore only somewhat and not the absolute of either of the two qualities. Be alert lest the Philippine flag be made of delicate lace and adorned with embroidered frills.

After a completely apropos side-comment just this side of snarky,  Dean returns to the main theme, before offering a re-statement of Cruz’s last paragraph:

(Seems to me that the fanciest Philippine Flags I’ve seen do have beautifully embroidered frills and tassels along their borders. Hmm…) But the same statements could have been made about Negroes in the era of American slavery, or during the period of anti miscegination laws before World War II, when Filipinos were prohibited by law from marrying whites in California, (thus starting the first mad rush to Reno and Las Vegas in Nevada). A direct translation from skinheads might sound curiously similar to the above:

Is our population getting to be an abominable mixture of incompatible races? Must we allow racial integration to march unobstructed until we are converted into a nation of raceless mulattoes without the purity of the white race and the brute strength of the Negroes, but only an insipid mix of these diluted virtues.? Let us be warned against an impure population with inter-racial marriages compromising the strength of one with the weaknesses of the other. Be alert lest the emancipated Negroes demand to put the dirty color BLACK in Old Glory?

It all reads well, of course; Dean must be one of the best writers among the country’s active political bloggers. But let me concentrate on the method of argument. Is it logical to substitute one loaded word for another, to treat words as though they were merely numbers? 5 may be restated as 3+2; that is an example of an answer to what E. F. Schumacher, that infinitely wise man, once called a convergent question. But is "predominantly pansy" really substitutible with "an abominable mixture of incompatible races"?

A quick look at the re-stated paragraph tells us that what we might all call "direct translation" (I’m sure Dean is not alone in this) is no such thing; a whole lot of interpretation is needed, before the re-stated paragraph can make sense. That is because words are in fact not numbers; each one carries a world of meaning, and whole worlds can be lost (or added) in the substitution.

I can think of only one exception to this basic principle, and that is when a particular word needing substitution is in fact code. For "Great Satan," read "the United States." For "capitalist running dog," read … you know what I mean.  Is Justice Cruz’s use of the word "pansy," for example, code for something other than the lifestyle choice or human condition he disapproves of? Does he, in fact, and in his unfortunate column, call for inhumane treatment of black Americans? Or pine for Nazi rule? Or wax nostalgic for apartheid?

He doesn’t. What he actually suggests is bad enough, but the fill-in-the-blanks argument either (a) ignores his main points by arguing about something else together, preferably something dramatic and cut-and-dried; or (b) tries to obliterate his main points through guilt by association.

Analogy or metaphor is one thing; actual substitution, altogether, is another.

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