No, It’s Still Bad to Call People Mongrels

I was pretty sure when I clicked on William Saletan’s piece “Ted Nugent Called Obama a Mongrel Like It’s an Insult. It’s Not.” (the headline that appears on the article’s page is “In Defense of Mongrels”) in Slate magazine that I would disagree with him. I just wasn’t sure how. I don’t generally recommend this as a starting point for discussion, but I was unable to avoid it this time, since I firmly believe that it’s indefensible to call someone a mongrel, especially when that someone is of mixed race and especially when it’s modified with “subhuman”. I couldn’t conceive of any reasonable defense of the word and now, having read the piece, I still can’t.

Saletan’s piece is tongue-in-cheek and my principle objections are to the uncautious headline-writing that Saletan has no part of and to the selection of this incident to teach us about hybrid vigour. Sure, it would be great if everyone were a little more knowledgable about genetics and the benefits of cross- and selective breeding, especially given the current debate over GMOs in our and our livestock’s food. Still, at the risk of sounding overzealous, I say that hooking people in with the catchy and topical context of calling a person of mixed race a mongrel is wrong.

He’s wrong about the problem with calling someone a mongrel and wrongheaded in trying to “correct” it without even a mention of the word’s history and current usage. It’s just not OK to make a joke that boils down to “We can call people of mixed race “mongrels” because of hybrid vigour, hahaha,” when the word “mongrel” and its verb “mongrelize” have been at the heart of some seriously bad stuff.

He’s just not quite with the cultural climate:

A mongrel, according to Merriam-Webster, is “an individual resulting from the interbreeding of diverse breeds or strains.” The Oxford dictionary gives a more precise definition: “a dog of no definable type or breed.” Many people use mongrel as an insult because they think it’s better to be purebred than to have mixed ancestry. They’re wrong. Mixed ancestry is healthier.

Firstly, I’m not sure too many of the people currently using the word mongrel to refer to people (Google informs me this is mostly Aryan nation-types) would agree that mixed ancestry is better, whether or not people of mixed race are healthier. Plus, Saletan doesn’t actually make a case that “hybridization” between white and black people actually is healthier. He compares…dogs. And then early hominids. Sure, early Homo Sapiens picked up some handy traits from Neanderthals and Denisovians, but the argument that people of mixed race pick up resistance to disease or some such from their multiple racial backgrounds rests on the idea that people of different races are significantly genetically distinct in characteristics other than physical appearance. Unless Saletan would like to present us with evidence that certain genetic disorders are uniquely racially linked and at such high prevalence that endogamy within that race leads to a high risk of babies with that disorder, that just sounds like racism.

The other of Saletan’s mistakes is alluded to in his own writing. “Mongrel” when applied to a person isn’t derogatory only because it assumes single racial lineage is superior to mixed, but because it’s a word people use about dogs. For evidence, I present the fact that a Google search for “mongrel” turns up the Wikipedia page on mongrel dogs, not the Mongrel (disambiguation) page, which would turn up if “mongrel” were used to describe various hybrid plants and animals just as often as dogs, as Saletan suggests. It is also of note that the word “mongrel” doesn’t appear on the Wikipedia page for hybrid plants and animals, and the page about mongrel dogs explicitly defines a mongrel as the stock of dogs who mated “without planned intervention of humans”, as opposed to a cross- or mixed breed, who is intentionally bred of varied stock. (Should I even mention the nastiness around talking about two people getting married and deciding to have children with the language of breeding? Is everyone else with me on how that’s especially bad given the history of black people being literally owned by white people?) Wikipedia isn’t a definitive source on biology or taxonomy or dog breeding, but it is a good barometer of public understanding of a concept, because of its wide readership and authorship.

So yes, William Saletan, it is an insult to call someone a mongrel. And joking that hybrid vigour makes it OK is putting a carpet over the hole in the floor. You’re going to end up with more people falling into the basement.

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If What You Hate About The Big Bang Theory Is That It Does Geeks A Disservice…

I was excited at first when I saw WIRED had a post about The Big Bang Theory and its faults. I became less excited when I saw it was a two-minute video by someone called Angry Nerd, but I thought I’d give it a watch just in case. Here it is:


Now, I don’t expect anyone to mount a full takedown of The Big Bang Theory in less than five minutes. I have had hours-long conversations about it in the past. The Big Bang Theory is a bad show for so many reasons, it can be tough to tackle all of them at once. I don’t intend to do that here. Instead, I’m more interested in the implications of choosing Angry’s Nerd’s particular beef to talk about, especially in a publication like WIRED, which has in the past shone a big spotlight on some of the very people both Angry Nerd and The Big Bang Theory are pushing to the side.

Who am I talking about here? It’s not that Angry Nerd is wrong, exactly. The Big Bang Theory’s laugh track goes off every time a character mentions anything related to geek culture, as if reference were humour. That’s not very funny. And the show does have a laughing-at rather than laughing-with vibe to it to a sizeable portion of the geek population. But let’s be real, self-identified geeks only make up about 17% of the population according to a survey done for the Modis Group for Geek Pride Day 2013.

So who makes up a larger portion of the world? How about women? Women make up slightly more than half of the world’s population. Ten out of 24 members of the National Science Foundation’s Board are women. One quarter (two of eight) of the National Research Council’s executive are women. And yet, it takes The Big Bang Theory two seasons before it writes a female scientist who sticks around for more than eight episodes. And even then, Bernadette and Amy are only in half of the episodes (two thirds of the episodes if we discount seasons before their characters are introduced). For goodness sakes, Penny doesn’t even have a last name. These men have lived across the hall from her for seven seasons and her last name has never come up? Not even on a piece of misdelivered mail?

And we can talk about the lack of representation of real-world female scientists. Why not try to get Roberta Bondar instead of Buzz Aldrin? Or Elisha Cuthbert, who went on to be the babe in House of Wax and Girl Next Door, but who started her career as Elisha from PMK, which every young Canadian scientist watched growing up. What’s Kari from MythBusters up to? Or Grant, for that matter, since there don’t seem to ever be any East Asian people on The Big Bang Theory. (Plus, apparently, Grant drove R2-D2 and is the guy responsible for the Energizer Bunny’s movement cycles. How’s that for geek cred?)

All this is to say that if your biggest problem with The Big Bang Theory is how they treat geek culture, you’ve put women on the back burner. There exist women, both inside and outside of science, technology and geek culture. They have important and influential careers, both as pure scientists and science educators. They have intellectual lives and emotional complexities. They have last names.

None of this even begins to address racial mis- and underrepresentation, which I’m sure would be better left to someone else. Like Karen Chau as a guest on Racialicious or Zondrah at nimbygirl.

When I went to to watch the video, the front page stories were as follows: the main story was about the benefits of the Polar vortex, next to that, we had a story about the new Getty Images Lean In collection of stock photos, a design article about cool playgrounds and a profile of Diana Markosian‘s “Goodbye, my Chechnya” series of photos mostly of Chechen women in all kinds of situation–with kids, at prayer, in school. The most recent cover features Questlove, a black man. I first learned about Limor Ladyada Fried when WIRED did a cover story on her in March 2011 (not that she wasn’t a big deal before then). WIRED’s senior editors are about half women, as are their contributing writers. So WIRED has a pretty good track record showcasing women and people of colour in a subculture that largely ignores them (at best). So why give voice to this viewpoint?

It may well be true that Angry Nerd is “square in the targeting sights of The Big Bang Theory”, but if “[y]ou’d think he’d love the show,” you’d have to just ignore how horribly it treats women. Let’s work on getting network shows through the “accurate and sensitive portrayal of women” and “accurate and sensitive portrayal of people of colour” filters before we start worrying about “accurate and sensitive portrayal of geeks”. The problem is not in recognizing that The Big Bang Theory is engaging in negative stereotyping of geeks. The problem thinking that’s the only negative stereotyping going on.

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