Dominant Cultures

As a common practice, “dominant cultures” and “majority cultures” are used interchangeably. When I argue that easily misused expressions like “dominant” should be used very carefully, I am told that it really doesn’t make a difference.

And that may be correct. What, after all, is lost in the current (mistaken) expression “pin their ears back?” The old expression “put their ears back” referred to something dogs do. It indicates something about the dog, possibly a reaction of fear or timidity. On the other hand, “pin their ears back” indicates something that would be done, metaphorically, to the dog. It connotes [1] an aggressive action toward the dog, a scolding perhaps. The common choice of football commentators is that on third and long, when a pass is more likely than a run, the defense “pins their ears back” and comes after the quarterback. Obviously, that is not what they meant to say. “Put” has been transformed to “pin” and nobody cares.

Does it make a difference? Not much. It removes an expression from the context that once gave it meaning. It becomes a rote expression. It is not meaningless because hearers understand what it means. It is the relationship between the original context and the expression that is lost. If anyone new to the expression were to say, “Why do they say that? we would not know how to answer.

That’s the loss. It doesn’t seem, like much, does it?

But “dominant cultures” is more serious. Dominant cultures dominate. Presumably this is not received well by the people who are being dominated. It is commonly said that that “men dominate” in this profession and that “women dominate” in that one. That means that in the first profession, there are more men than women and in the second, more women than men.

That means that majority describes what is literally the case; “dominant” is an implicit accusation. Unless, of course, you hold that one group of people really ought to be dominated by another group of people.

Is it worth fixing? I think so. It is not that great damage is done, but rather than the point is made by the kind of comparison that is used, not by any truth about the relationship. No data are relevant to the question of whether one sex is “the dominant sex” in the field of accounting, let’s say. Yes they are, you say, offering sex-based employment records; No they aren’t I say, asking for any evidence of domination. It is worth being clear about such questions because of how easily they slide over into blaming.

It is an argument based on the choice of one metaphor rather than another. It is not based on evidence of any kind at all. And, in fact, no evidence could be offered that bore on the question. That is not how one chooses metaphors.

Obviously, you cannot resolve an “argument” that is based on the choice of metaphor. I think we are better served by arguments that can be supported by facts and logic, as these cannot.

We don’t lose much when people say “hang up the phone” when they have never seen a cradle onto which a phone (a “receiver”) could be hung or to say “throw out the baby with the bath,” when they have never seen a bathtub that could be emptied by throwing out the water. Cultures change and the words once based in them remain. It can be charming. It can’t be dangerous.

“Dominant cultures” can be dangerous.

[1] As “the Grammarian” says, “to have one’s ears pinned back and to pin one’s ears back are two phrases that are extremely similar but have very different meanings. We will examine the difference in meaning between these two phrases and where they are most often used, as well as some examples of their use in sentences.”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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1 Response to Dominant Cultures

  1. Michael Hale says:

    Agreed re: “dominant”. I have always preferred “prevalent” or “in the majority”. What is intended is the relative percentage of people within whatever demographic is being cited; what is implied is which group holds sway over the other members. These are certainly NOT the same thing.

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