Thursday, April 29, 2021

About those Pronouns...

I'm taking a linguistics class at the local university, delivered via Zoom. At the start of the semester many of the students included their "pronouns" in their display name ("Betsy Ross: she/her/hers"), but those all got wiped when the U implemented a security protocol that required the displayed name match the internal name. 

The school felt the need to apologize profusely. But, honestly, the whole pronoun thing is problematic and most likely unworkable, as this advice columnist question illustrates.

It's unworkable because it is the height of arrogance to think that everyone should know your first, middle and last names, your unknown form of address (sir, ma'am, ?), the title you prefer (Mr., Ms., Mrs., ?), whether you have some kind of title (Dr., Esq., PhD, captain, lieutenant, etc.), and three different personal pronouns (he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/them/theirs, zee/zer/zers, or whatever fanciful creation people may come up for themselves).

That's at least nine different labels that can apply to you. And many people who might refer to you won't know you, and will therefore not know what labels to apply, constantly sending you into a tizzy with microaggressions.

To implement this, people would have to walk around wearing labels stating their pronouns, or dress or groom themselves in a culturally agreed-upon fashion linked to their preferences. Sort of like making everyone wear a personal Star of David.

The motivation for this is some notion of everyone receiving equal treatment, by giving everyone special treatment.

And the thing is, it won't alleviate sexism, or gay prejudice, or trans phobia, or any of those things. 

Most European languages are heavily into grammatical gender: English has gender in pronouns only, French has two genders (masculine and feminine) that apply to all nouns, even inanimate objects: books are masculine, waltzes are feminine. German has three genders (masculine, feminine and neuter),  Russian has three and half genders (animate masculine, inanimate masculine, feminine and neuter). In those languages adjectives have different endings depending on gender, different articles based on gender, and Russian even conjugates verbs in the past tense (only!) based on gender.

Despite being heavily into grammatical gender, pronoun usage in German is confounding to English speakers: it doesn't actually depend on physical gender. The diminutive suffixes -chen and -lein change the gender of the word they modify to neuter. The words for girl and young woman, Mädchen (from Mädel) and Fräulein (from Frau), are both grammatically neuter, so the neuter pronoun es — it — would be used for them. Yes, a German man would call a hot young Fräulein "it."

But the majority of world languages have no grammatical gender, not for pronouns, not for nouns, not for anything.

The Japanese language historically avoids pronouns completely. In polite conversation people are typically referred to in the third person by their name, rather than a pronoun. You and I are usually omitted and understood from context. The same honorific — san or sensei — is used for males and females. 

But Japan (like nearly all human societies) is historically very sexist. And even though basic Japanese grammar lacks the gender markings of French and German, there is a huge difference between the speech of males and females in Japanese. Men and women utilize a completely different set of pronouns (when used) and verbs, with females using the "polite" forms and males using the "rough" forms. Which is, of course, not at all surprising.

The upshot is: even in languages with grammars that have no gender at all, gender bias and sexism still exist. The idea that the language people use will confine their thoughts and make them behave or think a certain way is pure BS.

There's this idea out there that some languages have a way of saying something that no other language can express, or that the language you speak somehow constrains your thoughts. This is nonsense: every natural language can express every notion that every other natural language can express. It may take more or fewer words to get the point across, but all languages (perhaps excepting pidgins constructed for trade or similar purposes, and ignoring discussions of quantum mechanics in every language) are essentially equal.

Now, it is totally reasonable for everyone to expect to be treated equally, with respect and dignity. But that can't happen if every person expects to have their every little whim catered to -- it's impossible for everyone you meet to know how you want to be coddled. Treating everyone differently is simply impractical, and more to the point, is the opposite of what we should really want.

Therefore, I would make the following proposals:

  • Address people by their names when you know their names, or you.
  • Dispense with sex-based titles such as Mr./Mrs./Ms. completely. Especially that outrageously sexist and antiquated practice of addressing envelopes to women with their husbands' names, e.g., Mrs. William J. Clinton for Hillary Rodham Clinton (my wife still gets letters like that!).
  • Likewise, toss out sir and ma'am. It is stilted and antiquated, and most people don't use them anyway. If you need to address an unfamiliar person directly, we already have a word for that: you. Feel free to add a "hey" if you really need their attention.
  • Address people with titles (doctors, military ranks, and specific jobs) with those titles, and their name if known: Dr. Strangelove, Nurse Ratched, Captain Spaulding, President Underwood, but not "Mr. President."
  • Refer to people in the third person by their names. This can also help clarify sentences -- it's not always clear which person he refers to when you're talking about the interaction between two males.
  • As a last resort, use "they/them/theirs" when referring to an indefinite person or one of unknown name or status. People may bicker with this, saying that it's grammatically incorrect to refer to a single person with a third-person plural they as in, "They were the first person in line." But English speakers have been doing this literally for centuries. If you're still not convinced, think of it this way: we use you are for both the singular and plural second person (thou art was the singular form before we started addressing single persons in the plural). It's perfectly reasonable to treat the indefinite third person the same way. And everyone already does it.

This way you could talk about Caitlyn Jenner all day long and never once worry whether Jenner's a she, he, they or zee.

Adopting these standards at a university would ameliorate problems like the one that came up in Ohio:

A Christian professor of philosophy who was reprimanded for refusing to refer to a trans student as a woman can pursue his lawsuit against Shawnee State University in Ohio, a federal appeals court said Friday.

Shawnee State “punished a professor for his speech on a hotly contested issue,” the appeals court said. “And it did so despite the constitutional protections afforded by the First Amendment.”

The case stemmed from a 2018 political philosophy class in which the professor, Nicholas Meriwether, called a trans woman “sir.” Meriwether said it happened accidentally, as no one informed him of the student’s preferred pronoun. After class, the student “demanded” to be called “Ms.,” like other female students, and threatened to have him fired if he didn’t, according to Meriwether’s lawsuit.

It is simply unrealistic for a professor just looking at someone sitting in class of, say, 200 students to know how each student wants to be addressed. If you get rid of sir and Ms., replacing them with the student's actual name, or hey, you, the problem just goes way: the professor can't possibly defend using sir or Mr. when the standard of discourse at the university is to use you or the student's actual name. Similarly, the student can't bitch if the professor calls them by their name or you every time he talks to them (see how natural them is?).

That wouldn't infringe on the professor's "right to free speech" or tick the student off for being misidentified. And if one or the other insists on being a dick about it, given that there's a completely neutral option that offends no one, the university could take action against either party if they persist in their obnoxious behavior/demands.

Now, I'm not fooling myself here: I know everyone is still going to assign some kind of gender to every person they meet. But no one can get away with saying that using people's names and addressing them as you is a horrendous burden and a violation of their core beliefs.

Screwing with the language, adding new pronouns, making everyone learn nine forms of address for every person they meet — none of this will change how people think or feel. It will just piss off the sticks in the mud, giving them yet one more thing to claim they're a victim of, and it will make non-binary folks feel bad every time someone accidentally uses the wrong term for them.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Things White People Don't Have To Think About

I need to drive my two-year-old to daycare tomorrow morning. To ensure we arrive alive, we won't take public transit (Oscar Grant). I removed all air fresheners from the vehicle and double-checked my registration status (Daunte Wright), and ensured my license plates were visible (Lt. Caron Nazario). 

I will be careful to follow all traffic rules (Philando Castille), signal every turn (Sandra Bland), keep the radio volume low (Jordan Davis), and won't stop at a fast food chain for a meal (Rayshard Brooks). I'm too afraid to pray (Rev. Clementa C. Pickney) so I just hope the car won't break down (Corey Jones). 

When my wife picks him up at the end of the day, I'll remind her not to dance (Elijah McClain), stop to play in a park (Tamir Rice), patronize the local convenience store for snacks (Trayvon Martin), or walk around the neighborhood (Mike Brown). 

Once they are home, we won't stand in our backyard (Stephon Clark), eat ice cream on the couch (Botham Jean), or play any video games (Atatiana Jefferson). After my wife and I tuck him into bed around 7:30pm, neither of us will leave the house to go to Walmart (John Crawford) or to the gym (Tshyrand Oates) or on a jog (Ahmaud Arbery). 

We won't even walk to see the birds (Christian Cooper). We'll just sit and try not to breathe (George Floyd) and not to sleep (Breonna Taylor). 

These are things white people simply do not have to think about. 


Thursday, April 01, 2021

The Straw Man Argument Known as The Narrative

The subject of "The Narrative" has come up recently in the news and it's way past time to address it. According to conservatives, "The Narrative" is liberal propaganda that asserts that all right-wingers are racists who prey upon people of color. Conservatives believe that they are being unfairly targeted by the left and gleefully point out when people of color attack each other as proof that "The Narrative" is a lie. 

 In reality, the concept of "The Narrative" is a straw man argument employed as a "gotcha" tactic that muddies the waters, gaslights, and conveniently avoids the facts about conservatives today. 

Those facts are: 
-74,000,000 people voted for a guy who used the racist terms "China Flu" and "Kung Flu" in describing the coronavirus. 
-White supremacists groups coordinated the attack on the Capitol on January 6th. 
-98% of mass shooters are white and male. 

If you are a conservative whining about "The Narrative," step one would be to STFU about liberals and deal with the large number of racist assholes in your party. Stop blaming everyone else for your problems and avoiding the elephant in the room. 

Being a nonracist isn't enough anymore. You have to be an antiracist. Get over your adolescent issues with someone telling you what to do and just fucking do it because it's the right thing to do. You aren't being victimized here and your attempt to pull a Goebels is pathetic. 

In short, stop making shit up