Letters of the week

Readers reflect on "guyhood," use of the word "retard," smell advertising, and more.

Published September 20, 2008 10:22AM (EDT)

Read the story "Now Smell This"
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First, all senses except for olfaction are routed through the thalamus, not the hypothalamus as you say. That said, olfactory pathways do go through the limbic structures associated with emotion and memory (the amygdala and hippocampus, respectively). Many researchers believe that this anatomical pathway right into our brains' emotional and mnemonic processors makes the cognitive and affective influence of the sense of smell far more insidious as we are less aware of such influence than we are aware of the influence of information associated with our other senses.

So what does this mean? The larger social question seems to be: Are we okay with advertisers taking advantage of our human, animal natures? Appealing to our emotional responses bypasses our rational, cognitive capacities (which for some people seem to be highly questionable in the first place). Scent advertising is but the newest version of this, and I'm sure that Karl Rove is already looking for ways to leverage this phenomenon. What's truly insidious is the formation of new associations in our minds between pleasant-smelling, emotionally appealing fragrances and some product or idea somebody is trying to peddle.

Aren't these cognitive abilities among the very foremost traits that make us human? While some advertisers appeal to our pseudo-rational abilities (e.g., Buy Super-GLO - it does everything that 5 different cleaners do!) many others appeal to our emotions (I'll admit that I've gotten dewy-eyed at more than one Kodak commercial). Using scents to appeal to our emotional selves is but one more way to get us to "buy shit we don't need" to quote Chuck Palahniuk's great line in Fight Club.

We are subjected to enough sensory stimulation overload on a daily basis, including our sense of smell. With pollution, car exhaust, cigarette smoke, strangers’ cologne and perfume – do we really need advertisers inundating us with smells?

-- A.R.Bender

Read the story "Dude, Where's My Manhood?"
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From where I sit as a soccer mom...

... out here in burbland...

It's OK for girls to do a range of activities, but not boys. My daughter tried soccer and didn't like it. Now she's trying gymnastics and plays the violin. Perfectly fine and acceptable. She's better at drawing and reading than at math. She'd rather sit inside and play quietly than ride her bike. All fine. The world can hold a range of types.

Now what if she'd been a boy with those tendencies? Doesn't like competitive, athletic sports like soccer but would rather play the violin and do gymnastics? Would rather play quietly inside than ride a bike outside? Prefers drawing and reading to math? Put "boy" with those characteristics rather than "girl," and all of a sudden you have "gay" instead of "straight," if we're sticking with the stereotypes.

My daughter's sexuality is not in question for liking what she likes. If she'd been athletically inclined, society wouldn't immediately assume she's a lesbian. She'd just be an athletic girl. Plenty of her friends play soccer, paint their nails, catch bugs, collect rocks, AND play dress-up. But boys don't get that luxury. If a boy wants to play dress-up, fugeddaboudit. He MUST be gay.

One of the boys in my daughter's violin class is also on my son's soccer team. Already, in the fifth grade, my son is convinced that it's "weird" for a boy to both play the violin AND play soccer. When I ask him why, he says he doesn't know, but "it's just weird, Mom."

And in the ubiqutous middle-school band? There have always been "girl" instruments and "boy" instruments. If you don't believe me, try being a boy and playing the flute. Nope, boys play trumpet, trombone, tuba, drums, or saxophone. Girls play flute or clarinet. And again, it's perfectly fine for girls to cross over into the boy zone, but not for boys to go the other way.


-- froggy

Read the story "The 'Retarded' Renaissance"
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At any given time, and for any given minority group, there's the respectful description and a couple of disrespectful ones, and, often, one or two that are truly nasty.

As time passes, though, the "respectful" word will begin being used in a mocking way and will thus become "disrespectful." A new euphemism will be coined to take its place.

"Retarded" used to be the polite way of referring to a person we'd now call "developmentally disabled"; it supplanted words like "idiot" and "moron" because people had started using those as insults. "Special" is following the same trajectory right now, and the only reason "developmentally disabled" hasn't is because it's such an impossible mouthful of syllables.

You can track the same movement over dozens of trails: colored --> Negro --> black --> African-American (or person of color); crippled --> disabled --> differently abled; invert --> homosexual --> gay --> LGBT, etc., etc. The strategy seems to be to keep on trying until we come up with a word or phrase that's so awkward to say that using it as an insult is simply too much work.

However, no word is inherently insulting; what makes it insulting is the intent to insult. And as long as people feel the urge to insult each other, new words will devolve into insults.

-- JHinOakland

While I haven't seen Tropic Thunder, I'm not offended by the use of the word "retard" because I don't think of my daughter that way and I don't think a lot of other people she comes into contact with do either. As more and more people become educated about autism and other "developmental disablities" (which is the term that best describes the situation) words like "retard" become less and less related to my daughter or other kids with special needs.

That being said, my son got really mad at a friend that called another kid "retarded." He said, "Hey, my sister has special needs!" His friend didn't see the connection between "retarded" and my daughter, so maybe it just points to the fact that kids use "retarded" when they really mean "stupid."

In any case, I think it's a waste of time to focus so much energy on a word here and there. We'd be better off spending more time educating people of all ages about developmental disabilities because it makes them more acceptable and common, and less conditions to be feared and stigmatized.

-- tmunar

Read the story "No Undie Sunday!"
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I don't know about the state of your underpants, but I can't imagine that standing at a bar with a line of used panties dangling above my head would make me, at least, feel like having a beer.

obviously you are not a horny guy.

-- dick dworkin

By Salon Staff

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