1. A Puzzling Speech Act
At the 12th Annual Governor’s Awards (an awards ceremony held by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences), a man named Bird Runningwater came to the stage and initiated the proceedings with an acknowledgement of the Tongva people, who historically lived on the land on which the ceremony was then taking place. (Runningwater is not a member of that tribe.) He stated that he wanted to honor them, then added, “Thank you, Tongva.” He went on to acknowledge the Native tribes who had occupied the neighboring lands as well:
That’s an example of a “land acknowledgement”, a practice in which one opens a public event by acknowledging the particular native groups who originally occupied the land one is presently using, before being displaced and/or killed by Europeans. The practice is said to pay respect to those tribes. But some things remain puzzling.
a. In the above example, Runningwater thanks the Tongva, as if they had generously given their land to the white people for a movie awards ceremony, rather than being forcibly expelled generations ago. (I don’t know that particular tribe’s history, so I’m not sure if they were expelled, killed, or both.) This is sort of like if someone had their car stolen, you knowingly bought the stolen car from the thief, then you tracked down the original owner and said, “Hey man, thanks for the nice car!” before driving away. Of course, you have no intention of giving up the car. I’m not sure this is respectful. I don’t think it is converted into a respectful act by merely saying that you’re paying respect.
b. It seems unlikely that the Tongva were actually watching, either in the room or on television. So it’s like if you said, “Thanks for the car” when the original owner wasn’t even present. Normally, the person to whom a speech act is directed needs to be present, or at least expected to receive the message. So whom was this speech act really directed at?
A shibboleth (from the Hebrew word שִׁבֹּלֶת) is a word or phrase that members of a social group use to identify each other and to distinguish themselves from outsiders. The term comes from one of those charming Biblical stories that all good parents love to read to their children:
Jephthah then called together the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim. The Gileadites struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, “You Gileadites are renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh.” The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead asked him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he replied, “No,” they said, “All right, say ‘Shibboleth.’” If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time. (Judges 12:4-6)
Fortunately, not all shibboleths are used to decide whom to kill. Also, in most cases the outsiders are not literally unable to pronounce the words. More often, the outsiders simply haven’t been habituated in their social group to say those particular words. They may not know how the words are being used by your group, or they may have different beliefs or attitudes that would make it very unlikely for them to say those words.
Humans develop shibboleths because we are tribal. We love segregating ourselves into competing groups, and when we do this, we really want to know who is “on our side” and who is an outsider, so we can decide what attitudes to take towards people and how to treat them. Likewise, every new generation of “cool” kids make up new slang to signal their membership in the in-crowd and to distinguish themselves from older people as well as non-cool peers.
3. Land Acknowledgement as a Shibboleth
That’s what Runningwater and the AMPAS (who recruited him to do the land acknowledgement) were doing: They were using a shibboleth to signal their affiliation. In this case, the social group is not racially or geographically defined but ideologically defined – it is the group of adherents to ‘woke’ left-wing ideology.
Why think they were doing this? First, there are the puzzles noted above. They purported to be trying to pay respect to a particular tribe, but it’s dubious that they were actually expressing respect in a way that the members of that tribe could reasonably be expected to appreciate, let alone that they were actually benefitting that tribe to any degree at all. Since the tribe presumably wasn’t present, it is more likely that the main intended effect of the speech act was on the elites who were present, plus perhaps the modest television or internet audience.
Second, note that this would in fact be highly effective as a shibboleth. 0% of conservatives open events with land acknowledgements. Even old-school (pre-woke) liberals don’t do that. It’s pretty much a 100% reliable indicator of woke ideological affiliation.
Note also that this is an intrinsically plausible thing for them to be doing, in that humans are independently known to be tribal and to frequently seek to signal group affiliation.
The people who do these sorts of land acknowledgements probably don’t expressly think of themselves as signaling affiliation via a shibboleth. But this doesn’t block the interpretation that that is in fact what they are doing. Human beings often fail to understand their own actions. People feel like saying a particular thing, without understanding why they feel that way. It’s completely plausible that the actual reason why saying these sorts of things feels appropriate is that it helps one to signal group affiliation, even if the people themselves don’t think that’s what they’re doing.
It is also plausible that these people think that they are striking a blow for their ideology, i.e., that some listeners will be converted to woke ideology by hearing a sufficient number of woke-oriented messages. And they might even be right – perhaps some audience members, upon seeing a sufficient number of elites signaling woke affiliation, will wish to join that group. Of course, this conversion would operate through non-cognitive mechanisms.
4. Pronouns as Shibboleths
It’s increasingly common among woke elites to introduce yourself with your name and “your pronouns”. At a high school Ethics Bowl event that I witnessed recently, all ten of the students from the two opposing teams introduced themselves at the beginning of the round. Every single one of them included “my pronouns are …” or “I use … pronouns”.* Every one listed the obvious pronouns that you would have assumed immediately upon seeing them – the males (who all looked obviously male) said “he/him”; the females (who all looked obviously female) said “she/her”.
[*Only in one of the rounds. In the other rounds I saw, pronoun-reports were less unanimous. But all appeared to be from binary cisgender people.]
What were they doing? On the surface, they were helpfully informing the audience about their genders. But they weren’t in fact doing that, since their genders were visually obvious, and none of them was transgender or non-binary. Their genders were also irrelevant in any case, and no one had asked them about that.
Oh, but they were informing us about another group-membership characteristic. They were signaling their woke political orientation. Again, this is an approximately 100% reliable signal; no non-woke person introduces themselves with “my pronouns are …”.
5. And What Is Wrong with That?
Why not repeat shibboleths?
a. It is divisive.
Introducing shibboleths into a conversation politicizes that conversation. It makes controversial political issues, and our conflicting positions on those issues, salient. It also helps to publicly identify for everyone who is on which side, so those with conflicting political orientations can direct their hostility at each other. Think about that annoying relative at Thanksgiving dinner who insists on ranting to you about whatever conspiracy theories he’s picked up from watching Tucker Carlson. He somehow keeps thinking you’re going to “see the light”, but all he ever does is ruin Thanksgiving.
But that’s completely different from you, because your views are the right views, right? That’s what Uncle Bob thinks too. Grow up. You’re not going to convert everyone to your ideology, and you don’t need to ruin every interaction by turning it into an opportunity to fight over things we’re never going to agree on. Other people are being cooperative and pro-social by not mentioning their politics, and you’re trying to bait them by injecting your politics into everyday conversation.
b. It is exclusionary.
In some contexts, shibboleths function to exclude people with diverse viewpoints. If you’re participating in some event which you thought had no particular partisan orientation, and everyone at the event signals a political orientation opposed to your own, then you’re going to feel unwelcome – and probably rightly so, as most ideologues are very unfriendly to other ideologies.
Say you’re a liberal democrat. Say you show up at a new job, and every single coworker in your office has “Make America Great Again” bumper stickers. When they talk to you, they ask you questions that presuppose that of course you must be an alt-right republican, like, “Can you believe that Biden speech last night?” You would probably feel that you don’t belong there.
That’s probably how conservatives feel in nearly every classroom in nearly every university. And in the Ethics Bowl. And speech and debate. And the whole field of education. And every other area that woke ideologues have taken over. Because the ideologues will not stop constantly repeating left-wing shibboleths.
c. It is prejudicial.
In some contexts, it is prejudicial. If you’re in a context in which someone is supposed to make some impartial decision that affects different people’s interests (distributing resources, evaluating performance, etc.), and you openly signal your political affiliation, you are prejudicing that person’s judgment. If you’re in a courtroom, you could be prejudicing the judge; if it’s in the workplace, you could be prejudicing your boss; etc. If the judge shares your political orientation, you’re biasing him in your favor; if not, you’re biasing him against you. In either case, you’re undermining the process, because (we’re supposing) your political orientation is irrelevant to the correct decision. Therefore, you should not provide that information.
d. It short-circuits reason.
More generally, shibboleths appeal to the irrational side of human nature. They attempt to influence people’s beliefs by social pressure, which builds a habit of irrationality. When we form a belief irrationally, we then often form more irrational beliefs to explain and justify the first one, so the initial transgression can snowball.
Beliefs should be determined only by the evidence and rational arguments, not by social pressure.
I’ve seen this concept described as “magical words”, a few years back. There was a good little video essay series a guy made called “Magical words and how to fight them” illustrating how words like “Capitalism” and “Racism” are not used to refer to consistent concepts, but to establish friend and foe. Shibboleth is a better term
This will sound more antagonistic than I intend it to: Is using pseudo-scientific jargon like "cisgender", or "binary" and "non-binary" not just another form of shibboleth?