Wednesday, March 27, 2013

On "Josh" and "Seth"

I will admit that I first read this reference to TV writers as "white dudes with names like Josh or Seth" as a bit Jews-control-the-media. But then I thought about it and wasn't sure. Is Seth a Jewish name in this context? Maybe yes, maybe no. (I have no Jewdar, as Seth Adam Meyers is apparently not Jewish.) While half of all Jewish men of my generation are named Josh (I exaggerate, but slightly), it's just a common name all-around. Right?

But if not "Jewish," what are those names meant to indicate? "White," maybe, but since that's already in there, it would be redundant. But these things are complicated. If I can't say offhand whether "Seth" and "Josh" mean "Jewish" to most Americans, how on earth do I know if this Jezebel writer (whose name only tells me "female") is or is not someone who'd even know that these names would read that way to many people, that this would fit into a really fundamental anti-Semitic accusation. And not just some accusation one reads about in history textbooks - I've seen this criticism recently regarding the writing staff of "Girls" - that the show is not merely white but Jewish apparently does the opposite of mitigate the problem for some observers. Hmm.

Back to Jezebel. A reply to a comment calling this post anti-Semitic is both helpful-ish and itself possibly offensive: "This tells me that you have never been in the US of A ever. Josh and Seth are pretty stereotypical White non-Jewish frat boy names these days, just like Zack." The second sentence, helpful. (Old-Testament first names are confusing! If you're Jewish and you mostly know other Jews, or know mainly Catholics, these sound to you like Jewish names. And then you start wondering whether all the British Davids and Rachels could possibly be Jewish, and you realize, ah, Protestants!) The first, purest anti-Semitic assholery - a provincial American Jew from whichever Jewish coastal/suburban enclave is just as American as a provincial Methodist from Kansas. Ugh that this needs to be pointed out.


Jacob T. Levy said...

I agree with the commentator. Especially in proximity with each other, they read to me as bro-ish, not Jewish.

Sigivald said...

The first, purest anti-Semitic assholery - a provincial American Jew from whichever Jewish coastal/suburban enclave is just as American as a provincial Methodist from Kansas.

I'm not sure that's anti-Semitic (at least in the sense of "having any motivation from either explicit or latent hatred of Jews).

By which I mean, think it might just be provincialism (of the general sort, that applies to anyone who never leaves their group's area).

To wit: The speaker might really not even grasp at a fundamental level that his/her experiences with name implications aren't universal within the US. ("My experiences are not identical to everyone's? How likely is THAT?")

Thus, in that hypothesis, he's not saying "you coastal elite Jew types aren't Americans"; he's saying "all Americans are like my experience" ("because I don't realize how crazy diverse America actually really is").

If that's anti-Semitic, it's such a vague, unfocused, and somehow-not-even-Jew-related sort that I can't make myself even care about it.

(On the other hand, we can't tell! Maybe he is really anti-Semitic in a meaningful sense; that's also absolutely possible.)

Phoebe said...


Could be. Obviously not everyone thinks back to how all their Hebrew school classmates had these names.


If you knew the number of times I've had to assure people that New York Jews are in fact Americans, you might think otherwise. Calling out provincialism is fine, perhaps accurate in this context. Implying that a provincial American Jew has not been to America veers into Real America rhetoric, and is indeed anti-Semitic.

Nicholas said...

I'm not always with you on the question of whether anti-semitism is in play, e.g. the great Albert Rosenfeld debate of whatever year it was, but I actually find it more plausible that 'Jewish' is intended than 'bro' in this instance. If you want to signal 'frat boy,' you use a last name, or one of the evergreen names of WB boy actors who fit the frat bro stereotype, e.g. 'Chad.' Being two semitic-ish first names in close proximity would be too much of a coincidence.

Phoebe said...


Here, though, I'm not arguing that it is anti-Semitism. More that I'm genuinely, genuinely baffled. But it certainly might be, and since from what you've written re: faith elsewhere, I'm assuming you aren't thinking back to Hebrew school, your assessment makes me more inclined to think, might be.

Meanwhile, I have one friend named Chad... who's Jewish! Although I think it's generally recognized that this is unusual.

Nicholas said...

I am definitely not thinking of Hebrew school, though I am thinking to some extent of my own university experience, which featured a heavy contingent of people from NYC, Long Island, and New Jersey; to the best of my knowledge, I encountered one Jewish girl growing up in Real 'Murrica.

Since I am currently procrastinating in an attempt to take some time off between grading last term and finishing the syllabus for next term, I thought I'd check out the frequency of Josh and Seth as baby names: Seth never gets higher than #63, in 1999, and tails off dramatically in the last five years and prior to 1990; Joshua, however, is a top-10 name from 1979 to 2009. So the data says... results mixed. I still think there are clearer choices for bro names, even so.

caryatis said...

I don't read those names as Jewish either. "Josh" is quite common--I would think Southern Protestant if anything. "Seth" is rarer and has an upper-class feel to me.

Phoebe said...

Well, one commenter points out that Jezebel's approach is to say that if something reads as offensive, even if it wasn't intended that way, the thing counts as offensive. My own take: the answer's certainly not a witch-hunt shaming the author, but it would be a nice gesture if the author herself addressed how she came to choose those names, and, if this was simply a case of looking to emphasize just how white and male these writers are, if she took this as a learning experience re: how many Jews (some Jews? provincial Jews but really how many people Jewish or not aren't provincial?) look at this issue. Leaving it up there without comment, if the author indeed reads the comments, says either that the author will not dignify this accusation with a response, or that the worst is true, but it isn't then clear which it is.

And... another commenter says "Josh" and "Seth" read "privileged." It isn't a Jezebel thread if the P-word isn't brought in.

redscott said...

I read "Josh," "Seth," and "Zach" as stale, overused, and cliched names that make me want to slap myself in the face every time I hear any of them. That feeling doesn't alter one way or the other as applied to Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or any other faith tradition. Then I feel pity for someone forced to go through life with a name that will probably bore the shit out of him/her. Thanks, brain-dead parents!

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano said...

My two cents, speaking as someone who grew up in a part of the country where there were literally NO Jews (actually, I just looked it up, and the fair state of South Dakota now boasts...395 Jewish people), is that a name still has to be very stereotypically old-country Jewish for me to initially register it as Jewish. We're talking Tevye, not Josh or Seth or Zach. But bro names? Yeah. (Speaking of which, how does that happen? I've always wondered how different my life would be if my parents had named me something like Muffy. I guess the answer is there: They'd have to be completely different people to consider that name, ergo I would be completely different. Still.)

redscott said...

Seriously, your name is Autumn Whitefield? Now that's an interesting name. Two thumbs up to your non-boring parent(s).

Phoebe said...

OK, so, having put this out there, the verdict appears to be... mixed. As I've said from the get-go, I'm not committed to the idea that "Seth" and "Josh" did mean, or would mean to most, "Jewish." It clearly does mean this to a certain audience, so the criticisms of the response over at Jezebel that call this "reaching" miss the point. That reaction isn't about Jews searching for reasons to make a fuss. It's about Jews (and certain non-Jews - see: Nicholas above) genuinely looking at this and thinking, hmm.

While finding this offensive may stem from provinciality, or from subjective factors (people one has happened to meet over the years and what their names were), there needs to be some education (as they say in progressive-blog threads) in both directions. Jews (and Nicholas) might learn that there are "dudebro" connotations to these names.

But those who know that connotation might learn something re: what anti-Semitism consists of and why a claim that Old-Testament-named men control part of the entertainment industry would be interpreted as, well, racist. And these are the sort of things that do need to be learned. It's not immediately obvious to all audiences why, for example, it's offensive when some white model is put in black-face in a fashion magazine.

It doesn't work to say (not that that's what anyone's saying here - this is at Jezebel) that because you don't see anything anti-Semitic, those who do are officially, objectively incorrect. And I don't know that people would so readily say this if it were a different "-ism" at stake. Here, I think part of the issue really is that if what's being complained about is overrepresentation of certain groups (specifically white men) in a prestigious field, if Jews are indeed demographically overrepresented among TV writers (could be!), the thinking is, this makes Jews if anything more privileged than the regular white people whose experiences don't get on TV shows. It's... like discussing Asians and college admissions. It's difficult to discuss underrepresentation without that spilling over into a conversation about overrepresentation, even if those overrepresented in whichever discrete area are in fact marginalized in various other ways.

caryatis said...

Phoebe, but it's an awkward position to be in for the writer, right? What is she going to say? "Sorry, I didn't intend to sound anti-Semitic, I don't know where you're getting that from"---which sounds guilty and is precisely what someone who was anti-Semitic would say.

Phoebe said...


Not so awkward, really. Sometimes, if something pertains to a group you're not a part of and haven't much interacted with, you genuinely don't know which tropes mean what to that group. See the example I give above re: white models in blackface. Or: "articulate." Someone non-black might call someone black "articulate" without knowing at all why that has offensive connotations. The thing to do then is to produce an 'oops, now I know!', and the thing for those who pointed this out to do, in turn, is to take that person at their word and not insist that this was something they should have known all along, even if they arrived exactly a week ago from another country and quite simply had no idea.

Freddie said...

This educated but frequently clueless gentile doesn't read Seth or Jeff as Jewish. I just read them as exceptionally common male names. But I could just be missing it, here.

Freddie said...

I mean, if the intent is to indicate Jewishness in an offensive way, isn't what's most important that gentiles be the ones who read it that way? So I'd be interested to see if in fact most Jews identify those names as Jewish and gentiles don't. If that's the case, then it would be a failed act of signalling.

It's like in tests of racial bias in job applications. Maurice, it turns out, is a dominantly black name, at least in America. But it isn't assumed to be in surveys designed to understand which names people interpret racially. So they use names like Jerome or Kareem, which are read as black names. So they don't use Maurice or similar in that research. It doesn't signal as broadly as they need to judge racial imbalances.

Phoebe said...


If this had been blatant, unambiguous anti-Semitism, there'd either have been no post, or it would have been a different one. It's really ambiguous - some Gentiles do read it that way, and some Jews don't, even if it's likely that more Jews will. Of course, it's also the case that many Jews fear being seen as 'crying' anti-Semitism, and so insist on referring only to out-and-out Nazi-sympathizing obviousness as such.

Again, let me return to the use of "articulate," an imperfect analogy, but the best I've got for this. I'm not sure how many white Americans (let alone Asian-Americans, etc.) know that "articulate" is not something you want to say about an African-American. And it's not remotely intuitive - some people of all races are articulate, and in general, this word is flattering, not insulting. Some know, and avoid it, but others use it meaning no harm, only to hear that they're in fact really racist for having done so. And... they're racist if they knew what they were doing, but not if they didn't. Or: they could be even if they didn't, but if they genuinely don't think black people are any less articulate than anyone else on average, it's possible they just thought, oh, Obama, for example, was especially well-spoken for a person or for a president, when, well, yes.

It does matter not just how something was intended, but also how it was received. Not in a witch-hunt sense. The point isn't to 'out' some author as a secret anti-Semite, something I'd really doubt. It's to alert the author that this is how many members of a marginalized (or are we supposed to think not marginalized, what with the possible demographics of TV writers rooms) minority view the thing.

Again - I repeat myself so much - it's also worth looking into whether these names are code for Jewish in the population at large, and worth educating Jews on the fact that they're not, if indeed that's a fact - Nicholas here might not agree. What do I know, having lived in NYC, Chicago, and NJ, what "Seth" means in Kentucky? (I checked on Facebook and have not a single friend named Seth from anywhere, Jewish or otherwise. Josh, however...) But groups have their own histories, their own knowledge of the tropes bigotry will take. For Jews, 'control the media' is a big one. Even if out-of-context, a Jew wouldn't assume a Josh or a Seth was anything in particular (which I doubt, but moving on), once in this context, it's easy enough to see why this jumped out.

Freddie said...

I'm referencing a particular set of studies that have been done to identify racial bias in hiring and job interview patterns. Forgive me if you're already familiar with them. In these studies, job applications are sent out to employers who are hiring. On all of the applications, the racial demographic information is listed as "I choose not to report." However, some of the applications are given stereotypically black names. Survey instruments are used to demonstrate that people do, in fact, identify these names as "black names." Some names that are actually dominantly black aren't identified as black by survey respondents, so they don't use those names in the research.

I'm just drawing a connection between the avoidance of names that are dominantly black in reality but not perceived that way with the names Josh and Seth. For them to be an effective signal-- and effectively anti-Semitic signal-- they have to be perceived by anti-Semitic people as Jewish. So I was saying that it seems relevant whether gentiles identify Josh and Seth as Jewish names to the discussion, if the purpose in fact is to change offensive behaviors. That's all.

Phoebe said...

Freddie, yes, I know the kinds of studies you speak of, and they have these in France as well, showing that... French employers, not so fond of Muslims.

"So I was saying that it seems relevant whether gentiles identify Josh and Seth as Jewish names to the discussion, if the purpose in fact is to change offensive behaviors."

Not necessarily, which was what I was going on about re: "articulate." One is left with the question of, how does someone react to having been inadvertently offensive? How do observers react to situations in which the minority group (or many representatives thereof) is offended, but the bulk of the majority-group observers think too much of a fuss is being made? Because that whole angle - that 'they' make a fuss over nothing - is also plenty important.

caryatis said...

Okay, I guess you've convinced me. Also convincing was my non-Jewish and un-PC boyfriend immediately thinking anti-Semitism when I mentioned this.

sethg-prime said...

Jewish guy named “Seth”, representing.

I should point out that the Hebrew form of my name, שֵת, is (a) pronounced “Shayt”, which caused me no end of grief in Hebrew school, and (b) is the modern Hebrew word for “rear end”. Whoops.