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Tue Jun 10, 2014, 01:12 PM

Divided by a Common Language

Let's start with the assumption, I think widely agreed with (but often for reasons that are individually divisive, alas...):

Our culture is at best dysfunctional, and more accurately pathological, when it comes to gender, gender expression, sexuality, and sexual expression (Which, by the way, are all different things. Not dealing with that is part of the dysfunction/pathology.)

We've made progress. Great progress, amazingly fast in historical terms, but agonizingly slowly in terms of individual lives.

Speaking of "in historical terms," perhaps one of the oldest and strongest tools that retards progress, is also one of the most indispensable elements of human life and culture: language.

Here in the US our primary languages are mostly Indo-European derived. Let's stick with English since it's the basic language of this message board. Modern English carries no grammatical gender; that is, we do not assign gender-based construction elements to nouns or other parts of speech.

Old English, which split off from Germanic/Saxon centuries ago, carried grammatical gender and the remains of this are visible in our pronouns: We have pronouns for three genders; masculine, feminine, and neuter. Or, "he," "she," "it."

Straightforward enough on that level, but then layer in the baggage of our confusion around gender, gender expression, sexuality, and sexual expression-- the fruit of myriad cultural elements including religion, economics, and various sociopolitical constructs. All of which essentially devolve to "norms."

Norming is a tool we use to build and reinforce communities. Language is a key element of norming.

As we try to work our way out of the dysfunction, we smack our noses against language-related social norms. This thread illustrates some of the issues.

The first practical issue raised in the thread brought me up short. I'll paraphrase: "But I work in customer service, and we are required to address people politely, using 'Sir' or 'Ma'am,' and adding 'Mister' or 'Ms.' If it's insensitive and rude to ask someone about their gender, I can't do my job."

Setting aside, for the moment (it DOES matter and should be part of a larger discussion) the cultural norms around adding honorifics as a signifier of politesse, the thing that occurred to me was this:

First, we bump up against the deeply-engrained contemporary prejudice that dictates "neutral" pronouns are so hostile and dismissive that they completely dehumanize the object thereof: ("OMG, check out what just walked in the door! Is it alive?" We also smack into the reality that we're backed into a lose/lose corner that only gets worse as we attempt to expand the language artificially to reflect the reality of the gender/expression spectrum.

That is, while it may be practical to develop new pronouns (hir, shim, etc.) not only is norming their use a formidable challenge, it represents an ephemeral response to a rapidly-evolving reality, and one that presents powerful backlash issues.

(Yes, I know we can't allow backlash to discourage us. It will always be there. We overcome it, again and again. But it slows progress, in some cases significantly.)

As our understanding of the gender/expression spectrum evolves, we are realizing that there is a growing number of general classifications we identify with.

Because that, at the root, is the issue: Identity.

I have it, I want you to recognize it and respect it.

I want how you interact with me to demonstrate that.

Language is part of how you interact with me.

Making language into a flexible tool that allows us to do this freely, without placing each other in difficult/uncomfortable states, is essential. Whether it's the chicken, or the egg, it's an important strategy that will ultimately be critical to progress in human relations and human rights.

In the mean time, we're in this awkward space where we want to recognize each others' humanity and respect each others' identities, even when we're in unfamiliar territory as regards gender/expression, and sexuality/expression.

To complicate matters further, we're also up against those who are strenuously opposing social and cultural evolution, and who will push to subvert, invert, and pervert any efforts to achieve useful consensus.

I don't know any answers.

But sometimes it helps to think about and discuss the questions.


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