June Recommended Reading

flags_viaMaiaWeinstockAt the end of each month I compile links to articles I found thought-provoking over that month, categorized with pull-quotes for your perusal and edification. Each of these is a story that made me stop and think, and hopefully one or two of them will do the same for you.

This one, though, is a little bit different. Usually I put the things I’ve read into categories only and leave it for you to decide which you’d like to look at. This time I’ve put them in an order that reflects things I want to say about the tragedy of this month, but better than I could, and all together more clearly. Continue reading

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Bathrooms, Bigots, and Bad Logic

transflag_viaTorbakhopperThe anti-trans bathroom bills legislatures have been passing or proposing lately are obvious discrimination—yet, for an apparently significant group of people, they seem to be about protection. For weeks now I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around how anyone could think these bills did anything useful; how anyone could see them as something other than an assault on the liberties of trans people specifically. The flimsy rationalization that we have to keep people “safe” from “predators” seemed farcical—could anyone actually believe that?

Of course, part of the answer lies with bad logic. It’s easy to play the game of spotting logical fallacies in other people’s arguments, but what I sometimes forget is that bad logic feels convincing, even when stopping to think about it clearly would destroy it. The argument that we need to protect people from supposed trans predators is nonsense, but it doesn’t feel like it. Until you stop to think about it and realize that there are zero incidents of trans people doing anything untoward in public bathrooms (unlike, say, republican legislators).

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Neglecting Hate

monkeys_viaNams82It hasn’t been a good week. You wouldn’t think much could be worse than a hate-motivated mass shooting against LGBTQ people who had gathered just to be themselves; but the killer also claimed to have been driven by an ideology of hate, inspired by a small segment of religion that hates people for not thinking the same things they do. And it isn’t just ISIS that does that, because there are large swathes of American Christianity and American Politics that say the same thing. So it was a bad start to the week.

And then something worse happened: while many people were still wrestling with how to think and feel and support each other and understand this attack, while many people were wondering if they were safe or if their friends were safe, a lot of people started saying horrible things. These people started saying things steeped in judgment, scorn, and self-righteousness. They buried the dead under a series of disproven talking points, and they buried the living right along with them.

They responded to hate by normalizing it.

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Fearful Stories

Rainbow_at_half_mast_viaBrianTalbotHorror is all too common of late. It indicts us, and our inaction, and our self-righteousness. It leaves us searching blindly for narrative, for meaning, for sense. It drives us to a place of confusion and darkness because we already have a story, and the story is about being a beacon of the free world and a bastion of hope and a place where anyone can be great, and this is not that story.

Instead, this is a story about how our division and our fear and our posturing makes us weak. This is a story about a nation where horror is disclaimed, but nothing is done to prevent it. This is a story about championing liberty and justice, but refusing to ensure it for all. This is a story about the apotheosis of freedom through empty rituals, while the real freedoms we need are marked daily and ignored.

The people who died in Orlando this past weekend are our common responsibility, and the direct result of our paralysis and division. This is not the first time. It is not the second, or the tenth, or the hundredth, or the thousandth. If we continue as we have, this will not be the last time, because every other time we have done nothing.

So this is a story about us, and our monumental failure to be who we say we are.

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Replacing Old Ideas

Frame_viaRebeccaSiegelThere is a free-floating sense in some activist communities that the most powerful and compelling thing one can do is to stop something. Certainly it has emotional impact and allays a creeping sense of powerlessness. And we prove the case, or perhaps only justify it, with iconic images of marches and rallies and a man standing in front of a line of tanks. Compelling though it is, I think the ideas of stopping things appeals a bit too rashly to emotion. It encourages us to measure change by its impact on ourselves rather than its impact on others. So, important work though it be, I think merely stopping things is too narrow a focus.

When I realized that ideas, even those that are bizarre and divorced from evidence, have functional value, it changed my conception of how those ideas fit into the bigger picture. If ideas meet structural needs for individuals, groups, and societies, simply attacking those ideas will not do. If by some chance you succeed against in defeating a bad idea, there remains a void to be filled in the social and ideological structure.

Unsurprisingly, people do not like it when you take away something they were using and offer nothing in return. Often the people using that structure will just defend the idea, regardless of its value, to maintain the whole. Quite probably they’ll resent you. And maybe they’ll find an idea that’s even worse and grab ahold of it to fill the empty slot.

Thus, I think it is not enough to understand the failures of an idea—we must also understand it’s uses and value for those who hold it, and make sure whatever idea we offer in replacement does those things as well or better.

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Protecting Religious Liberty

ReligiousLiberty_via_Joel_KramerIn the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to affirm the freedom to marry for all Americans, regardless of gender and sexual orientation, a small but vocal opposition is loudly lamenting the horrific consequences. Their main argument, it now seems, is one of religious liberty. I am sympathetic. It is a good argument, and a just argument, and it is also fundamentally misapplied.

(There are some who still cling to the idea that same-sex marriage is an assault on “traditional” marriage, but they sidestep any question of how to define traditional marriage. Amanda Marcotte brilliantly deconstructs that argument here.)

So what of this argument for religious liberty? I am afraid it is well-founded. Indeed, freedom of religion is a part of our constitution and a critical pillar of our society. Without it we might have a state-sponsored religion and a set of laws imposing one set of beliefs on everyone, regardless of their person choice. So, yes, protecting people’s religious liberty is incredibly relevant here.

But the religious liberty of evangelicals is not the liberty in question.

The people talking about religious liberty right now are prominent senators, presidential candidates, judges, pastors, and Fox pundits. They have never been forced to do anything against their beliefs, but they remain terrified of the possibility. In their view, extending the institution of marriage to same-sex couples might possibly infringe on the religious liberty of evangelical florists, wedding planners, clerks, caterers, and so on—people who might be involved in a gay wedding and deprived, by this ruling, of their religious “right” to refuse to participate. In effect, they want the religious liberty to discriminate against people they do not approve of.

Of course, that isn’t what religious liberty means. If evangelicals wanted to claim religious liberty as an argument for discriminating against women or black people, society would have no trouble piercing the veil of confusing language and identifying the bigotry at its heart. And before you think that would never happen, it has. Paul’s letters have been used, and are sometimes still used, to exclude women from leadership positions in Christian communities. The argument that black skin is the mark of Cain was used to justify persecution of blacks in previous centuries. In both these cases, religious liberty is not diminished when discrimination is outlawed.

In fact, discrimination is the opposite of religious liberty. However one tries to contort around the issue, the bottom line is that religious liberty—and all liberty—is not about the freedom to fully practice your beliefs. It is about the absence of any imposition of belief. Religious liberty means no one religion’s beliefs may be imposed on those who believe differently.

And let me be clear: discrimination is the imposition of belief. Offering a service, whether that is cake decoration, wedding planning, or acting as a public servant, is stepping out of your role as a religious believer and into your role as a part of society. Within that role, denying service to people you disagree with is institutionalizing your religious belief and imposing it on the people around you.

Of course I realize that liberty, and freedom, conflict. But the freedom of one person to believe and practice as they choose cannot and does not trump anyone else’s same freedom. If, for example, sacrificing children is a part of your belief, that does not mean your religious liberty is at issue if the law says you cannot do that. When the liberty of individuals conflicts, we must negotiate an equal path, a path that preserves the most freedom for the most people.

In the case of religion, you are free to believe whatever you choose, but you are never free to impose your beliefs on the rest of society. By living in a society with freedom of religion, you are implicitly agreeing to a social contract that subordinates your personal beliefs to the ideal of religious liberty for all, including those who do not agree with you.

You are free to disagree, and to disapprove, and to believe prejudicial things. That is your right. But it is never your right to discriminate. You don’t get to pick and choose the beliefs to which religious liberty applies, because religious liberty isn’t about beliefs. Religious liberty is about people. And religious liberty means same-sex couples get the freedom to marry, and you get the freedom to disapprove. But you don’t get the freedom to stop them.

A Singular Problem

Global Gender Issues

An abandoned book

The book lay forlorn atop a small table, abandoned beside a potted plant and a faint ring of coffee. The title, “Global Gender Issues in the New Millennium,” was splashed across the cover in bold yellow letters and surrounded by a rainbow of faces from around the world. I glanced around quickly for the owner of this book, but no one was in sight. The clock on the opposite pillar reminded me that classes had begun only five minutes before.

Collecting the book from the table, I headed for the library front desk. As I handed it to the librarian, though, I paused, considering my words.

“Someone left his or her book on the table. He or she will probably be back for it.” Hardly acceptable; I couldn’t determine which, if either, of those genders was appropriate for the individual in question, and it was stilted besides.

“This book was left on the table. The person who left it will no doubt return.” An acceptable use of the passive voice to draw attention to the object of the sentence, but not an efficient way to communicate. It also seemed needlessly formal.

“Someone left their book, and they’ll probably be back for it.” Of course; this is a perfectly acceptable sentence in spoken English, and it is really only in retrospect that I hesitated. In most cases, I wouldn’t give it a second thought—and nor, I wager, would you.

Despite the shrill protestations of those who declaim on the decline of discourse, the use of the singular “they” and its derivations is by no means a new phenomenon. That vaunted authority, the Oxford English Dictionary, records usage of the singular “they” as early as 1375, and that in writing. It also notes that the third-person forms of “they” were likely borrowed as a result of “functional pressure” to “disambiguate” the third-person plural and singular pronouns. In other words, the very existence of the word “they” in English is probably because we needed third-person gender-neutral pronouns, singular and plural both.

OED: a1375   William of Palerne (1867) l. 2179 Hastely hiȝed eche wiȝt..til þei neyȝþed so neiȝh..þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere.

Why then do some grammarians rail against this useful and distinguished form of the word? For me to ascribe motivations would be rank speculation, but were I inclined to do so I might suggest of such a grammarian that they are a rule-bound pedant with no understanding of the descriptive nature of definition or grammar in a living language. I might also, if I were inclined to cast aspersions, say that the prescriptive rigidity of such a person does a disservice to the very heart and soul of language.

But rather than spending all my time rebuking such persons, I shall make my argument with the positive cases for the use of the singular “they” in writing—yes, even in formal written English. As I noted above, it is commonly used in informal speech, and likewise on internet message boards, in e-mail, and, I dare say, in blogs. (Some may disagree, naturally. If anyone has a particular disagreement, I would be happy to discuss it with them.)

The simplest benefit of the singular “they” is that it provides a gender-neutral pronoun for those cases where we are discussing a specific person, but their gender is unknown. Have you ever had someone cut you off on the highway and then groused about their driving later? Have you ever tried to speak about the owner of a lost item (as I had to above)? Have you ever tried to talk about a group by discussing its archetypical member? In all these cases, the singular “they” easily sidesteps questions of gender and lets you focus on the matter at hand.

A subtler, but perhaps more important, benefit of the singular “they” is its deft avoidance of exclusion. In cases where scientists, psychologists, teachers, reporters, or politicians must speak about members of a group, the use of the awkward “he or she” may actually introduce bias into the discussion. Defaulting to “he” as a supposedly neutral option is even less productive. In fact, some research shows that while “they” is gender neutral, the generic “he” and even the speciously balanced “he/she” still generate, for the reader, a mainly male image of the supposedly generic person in question. John Gastil, who performed this research, noted drily: “That this bias could reinforce itself in sexist thought and behavior seems eminently plausible.” Bias towards a gender dichotomy is encoded in much of formal academic language, but the singular “they” nullifies the issue with one simple step.

My final argument for the singular “they” is, in essence, an argument from linguistic conservatism. I firmly believe that language should be free to evolve as it needs to, but I also believe in making the most economical linguistic choice available. For that reason I do not think it worthwhile to employ stilted rephrasings of the sentences that come first to mind, nor to sidestep the issue with “he or she,” nor to sit quietly in the background of academia ruffling no feathers and waiting for others to lead the way.

Nor, even, do I think we should invent new words like “xe” or “ze” to cover our meaning, because it is not simply a matter of having an inclusive choice—language is a fundamentally democratic exercise, regardless of what some grammarians may tell you. While “xe” might catch on in limited circles, I think it is too dramatic to be adopted by the public at large—usages become widespread most often when they are intuitive, and “they” already fits that bill quite nicely.

The singular “they” is simple, elegant, intuitive, and has existed for centuries—and if anyone doesn’t believe that, they are welcome to look it up themselves.