Thursday, January 22, 2004


There's a wonderful interview with Professor George Lakoff on why the liberal left is so flummoxed by the conservative right. I read Lakoff in school as a linguistics student and could barely follow; either he's gotten simpler or I've somehow gotten smarter. I'm inclined to believe the former. Anyway, he's still on his "frames" kick, and talks about how the Republicans have systematically set about framing the national debate since 1973. It's definitely worth a read.

Speaking of frames, but not of politics, I'm paging through a guide to mammals that my mother sent. It's informative and beautifully illustrated (and heavy on lemurs, which is all to the good), but I just stumbled across something that always makes me nuts.

My gripe is with the common habit of referring to a group of animals where females outnumber males as a harem. I wish I could remember who I was just talking to about this; someone who told me that the practice goes back to the Victorian-era explorers. it may seem like a little thing, but it definitely creates a 'frame', an easily-grasped mind map that carries with it certain assumptions that may be dead wrong. The word 'harem' alone is loaded--if your first thought when you hear it isn't of scantily-clad women waiting around to service their master, you're a better man than I, Gunga Din.

And it doesn't begin to cover the reality of the family groups to which it is applied. One really good example (and nobody who knows me will be surprised by this) is the ringtail lemur, lemur catta catta. At first glance, you might think, 'harem'. There are a lot more females than males in the group, and the males have little to do with raising offpsring. Mostly the males engage in 'stinkfights', where they rub their tails against glands in their wrists and then wave their tails at each other. But it's not even fighting in the bloodshed sense; it's more like, oh, extended name-calling. If there's real defend-the-group fighting to be done, it's usually done by the females.

None of which is obvious from the term 'harem.' Another way of framing our perception of these groups would be to imagine them as groups of female creatures who keep some males around for that thing males can do, and ignore them the rest of the time. It's just as accurate, and not as connotative.