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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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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The Democracy of Language

PronounsAs someone who works with words for a living, I always feel a little bit traitorous when I talk about the fluidity of language. My undergraduate studies in linguistics left me with a dialectic view of how language works. The conventional view of language, though, has the same deep currents of judgment and correctness and power that lie simmering in the rest of any culture.

Should I accept those? Should I treat language as brittle and defend narrow meanings and usages from shattering change? Or should I treat language as malleable clay that can and must be sculpted to best convey any idea? My inclinations lie obviously with the latter, but I retain a fondness for the certain bedrock of the former, and an empathy for those drawn to that view. Thus I am always aware that when I advocate use of the singular “they,” for example, I am casting a vote that goes against the grain for some.

The democracy of language is my bridge. By treating language as a democratic exercise, I acknowledge both the importance of the consensus view and the option of disregarding it. If a majority of English speakers believe prepositions should never be used at the end of a sentence, I can acknowledge and respect their view as a convention. At the same time, I can look at the native grammar of English and realize that prepositions are perfectly fine things to end sentences with.

Likewise I can treat pedantry with some respect, and embrace it in the spirit of inquiry rather than the spirit of restriction it so often carries. To be corrected, to hear that consensus view, is no shame—it is just a broadening of knowledge. But by receiving it as one option among many, I can just as easily and comfortably set it aside.

Still, there are some moments when pedantry slips out of the realm of mere language and becomes a channel for cultural currents. In the hands of the righteous, pedantry can acquire the sort of disdainful viciousness only well-chosen words can really achieve.

I do advocate the use of the singular “they.” I think it is a natural, elegant, and gracious choice to give respect both to those who identify outside a gender binary, and, equally importantly, to acknowledge that gender can be incidental. I should not need to know your gender to hear your ideas, to hire you for a job, to convey a delightful anecdote about you to a friend.

And so, when I read from a colleague in higher education sweeping dismissal of the use or relevance of new pronouns, the singular “they” along with, I am annoyed. I would like to receive this pedantry as a suggestion, but I find that difficult in the face of arguments that “they are entitled to their own identity, but not to their own grammar,” (and why not, exactly?) and that faculty don’t know “how to deal with this violation of basic subject-verb agreement” (no doubt the top of the educational priority list). This is followed by some hand-waving arguments about not kowtowing to “safety” and “comfort” as if those ideas have any relationship to the inclusion of a singular and a plural in the same word.

Happily, this author didn’t provide their gender, nor do I need it to discuss their work. Gender does not matter to my opinion, which is that they are engaging in the worst sort of pedantry—that sort of pedantry that is stolid and unyielding and defensive, the sort of pedantry that is the usual province of grumpy old white men and stereotypical English teachers. So I will address such pedants directly, and this author in particular, and I will do it using what, if they had any historical view of language whatsoever, would be the bane of their existence: the pronoun “you.”

For you, Melvin the pedant, who does not know this: a piece of linguistic history. The pronoun “you,” like “they,” was once solely plural. The singular second-person pronouns were “thee” and “thou.” As levels of formality began to drop out of English, so, too, did the distinction between the singular and plural in the second person. You probably don’t realize that you are using a plural pronoun in the singular every time you address one of your students. And thus does the rest of your argument, which rests on the implicit idea that language is fixed, collapse under its own decaying weight.

Please, if you must be a pedant, be an educated pedant. Make arguments out of elegance, out of convention, out of inquiry and desire for precision. Do not make arguments out of the specious idea that your own set of language is the only set, or that it should be.

Because, for the rest of us, I maintain that language is a democratic exercise. And you are being out-voted.

Guys: Feminism Needs You

It is easy for those of us men who consider ourselves feminists to sit back, contented in our belief in equality, and think that because we intellectually know women are equal, we have done our part. But the reality of our culture should shock us out of that complacent view. Simple belief in equality does not, by itself, change the experience of our society. Women are abused, raped, violated, coerced, and devalued every day. Every hour. Every two minutes.

There has been progress. Feminism has seriously challenged traditional perceptions of what women can do, and successfully made it far less acceptable (though not totally unacceptable) to talk about women as the property of men, or as less intelligent, or as less capable, or as less rational. Myths remain in many places (Google search “women driver memes”) but we are swiftly approaching a general intellectual acceptance, even among men, that women and men are equal. More often than not, 21st century men will agree that women can do anything men can do—or at least, they will say so in mixed company.

via Flickr user PeterWhat has yet to happen is for many of those men who accept equality superficially or reluctantly to accept it intuitively and personally and publicly. And guys, this is why feminism needs you.

Because this is the internet, I feel it bears repeating that feminism does not and has never proposed a reversal of positions wherein women would dominate men. That would be equality in the role of the exploiter—but feminism means the role of the exploiter is unacceptable.

So, despite some foolish claims to the contrary, feminists do not seek to replace the institution of patriarchy with an institution of matriarchy—instead, we seek a set of societal norms, laws, and assumptions that does not discriminate on the basis of gender. The basic tenet of gender equality is not that men are less important, nor that maleness is somehow bad, nor that femaleness should be favored. Rather, it is that gender should not be a starting point for evaluating everything else.

Working from that framework, maleness and femaleness are both valuable and important, but neither should have exclusive or undue bearing on governance, societal norms, valuation of individuals, or the allocation of human rights. Such a proposition is not the only alternative to patriarchy, but I and many others believe it is the most just and socially beneficial. Yes, it would mean men would no longer have some of the privilege they do now, but no, it would not mean men would have fewer rights or freedoms. Instead, it would mean that men cease to enjoy power over women that trumps women’s rights.

No moral person can object to giving that up, but likewise no selfish person will do so by choice. And again, guys, this is why feminism needs you.

Pursuing gender equality cannot solely be the province of women. By its very nature, gender equality is not a “women’s issue” so much as it is a human rights issue. We declare it unacceptable to have a lesser-valued class of people in our society—but we have many such classes, of which women are one. It is the duty of all members of our society to undermine such inequality wherever we find it, to look for and reject the privilege it may afford us, and to build alternatives wherever we are able.

Men pursuing social change should pay the closest attention to these points because men are the ones least likely to recognize the benefits they receive from patriarchy. Men are also the ones most likely to ignore sexism in ways that harm the women around them. I do not expect a self-professed chauvinist or a narcissistic billionaire to change their behavior or relinquish their privilege. I do not expect a biblical literalist who insists on the validity of Paul’s limitations on women to change his mind about the value of women’s speech. What I do expect is that we who claim to pursue social justice will not betray the women around us by failing to notice our participation in a great social injustice, or by failing to do all we are able to remedy it.

I must stress here that my injunctions are not speculative. Issues like rape and male privilege are, in my opinion, the most insidious in the progressive organizations, movements, or schools where they are given the most official attention. Now, you may think this doesn’t apply in your communities, but please consider that it is statistically much more likely that you just don’t see it. Unfortunately, many of the same groups seeking to make social change still harbor sexism and prejudice towards their female members. That is the insidiousness of patriarchy—that even men who claim to stand for equality can fall prey to it and not even notice, while our female colleagues will be suffering the weight of yet another unsafe place.

If you are a man, try to imagine how much more a betrayal it is for a woman to be exploited and marginalized by men who earnestly claim to value her. Imagine how disheartening it is to find that, in fact, there is no refuge from prejudice. That is why I direct this point so explicitly to men involved in social change. There are times when just acting on your principals is not enough to create change, but failing to reflect the principals you avow can be more damaging even than obvious exploitation.

In 1983, Andrea Dworkin gave a now well-known speech to the National Organization for Changing Men in which she pointed out that rape is protected by religions, politicians, the laws, the schools, and, she said, quoting Shelly, by “the unacknowledged legislators of the world: the poets, the artists.” These are all of us: singers, writers, teachers, readers, commenters, bloggers.

One of the most important roles male feminists can play in our communities is to be the legislators of male culture. We need to gain ground especially in groups dominated by men, which could otherwise become reservoirs of abusive culture and continually re-infect broader society with prejudice. We are already seeking to be aware—so when we hear hate speech against women, we can reject it. When we see other men treating women as less valuable, we can condemn it. When we notice our male friends teasing one another with feminizing language, we can call them out on the assumptions they are supporting. Most of all, we as men can let it be known that we will not tolerate the devaluing of women. There is great power in the habits of the group—we must exercise the power of our membership to eliminate the social license to be sexist.

So, guys, our mission should be this: those “unacknowledged legislators” among us who espouse sexist views should find their positions untenable. We can’t and won’t prevent sexism from everyone, everywhere–but we can make sure than sexism around us fails in the face of an otherwise knowledgeable, self-aware, and motivated community.

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.