Sunday, November 19, 2017

About preferred pronouns

Oh dear, this one has the potential to get me into all sorts of trouble, so I should state at the outset that I fully support the right of trans people to be accepted as whatever gender (or none) they present and, er, that’s it.

OK, the current series of the venerable TV quiz show Mastermind is trundling merrily along and until now the only real controversy it’s spawned is whether creaky old sitcoms should be allowed as specialised subjects alongside such solemn, improving material as Mussorgsky’s Paradiddles and Endangered Invertebrates Of The Isle Of Wight.

But a few days ago (well, it was broadcast a few days ago, would have been recorded a few months ago, but you get my point), one of the contestants made an unusual request — and here’s where things get particularly awkward because it’s very difficult to describe what happened without effectively taking sides. Charley Hasted (specialised subject Sherlock Holmes) is a non-binary person who prefers to have the pronouns they/them applied to them. (See what I mean?) The occasionally-irascible host John Humphrys apparently didn’t accede to this request on the show. As the respected archivist of all things British and gameshowy, Iain Weaver described it:
Extreme discourtesy from host John Humphries [sic], who refused to address Charley Hasted by their preferred pronoun. “It would be confusing,” fumed the question-asker off screen. No, it’s not confusing. It’s terribly simple, it’s basic manners.
It seems to be an open-and-shut case of a curmudgeonly septuagenerian stick-in-the-mud refusing to acknowledge that traditional gender roles and identities are merely arbitrary social constructs and he ought to check his cis privilege, right? Well, yes and no. It is indeed polite to use address people as they wish to be addressed (and I’m not sure whether Weaver’s misspelling of Humphrys’ name is passive-aggressive snark or just a goof) but it can also sometimes be confusing. While Charley may prefer to be addressed as “they”, there are reasons this isn’t such a great idea that are nothing to do with stomping all over anyone’s gender identity. “They” has a very specific grammatical meaning, as a third-person plural pronoun. It refers to more than one person or thing, none/neither of whom is either the person speaking or the person being addressed. If it’s used in other ways, it gets very confusing. Consider this extract from an article about record shopping:
I spoke with Glenna of Gramaphone Records about dealing with the woes of “bros being bros” over plates of shrimp in a small mariscos restaurant. They perform under the name Sold and serves as techno buyer for the Lakeview shop that’s been providing DJs dance music since 1969.
OK, so we start with Glenna, singular; one infers (from the name) female, but that may not be the case. Then suddenly “They” throws us into the plural world, especially as it’s followed by “perform” which implies plurality; but “under the name Sold” could denote either be a solo or group identity; but then, retrospectively, so could Glenna. And then “serves”, which suggests third person singular. It’s a grammatical car crash, leaving the casual reader to worry more about how many people are talking than what’s being said. Maybe Humphrys has a point after all.

There are two potential objections to my (and JH’s) objections. One is that the third-person plural has long been accepted as a way of creating a gender-neutral third person singular; for example, “if you call for a plumber, they’ll come within the hour”. Well, to be honest, I’ve always hated that, while applauding the core sentiment behind it. There are multiple ways to construct a sentence that avoids both the implication that all plumbers are male, and the implication that plumbers always work in groups. “A plumber will come within an hour of your call.” There, not that difficult, was it?

Others might infer that my objection to the use of “they” in this way is something akin to the response of reactionaries who grumbled about the hijacking of the honest, innocent word “gay” to describe all sorts of frightfulness. Well, no, because there are any number of synonyms for “gay”; “they” and “them” and “their” mean what they say and are pretty much irreplaceable, unless you’re going to avoid pronouns altogether, which would sound a bit like:
Charley took Charley’s place on the black chair and did very well on Charley’s specialist subject, although Charley’s general knowledge round let Charley down a bit, as Charley would be first to admit.
But, as I said, I fully endorse Charley’s right to live as Charley likes and be treated as Charley likes. Language changes, evolves, sure, but it can only do that successfully if it allows people to keep up, otherwise a move that aims to encourage acceptance and inclusiveness will only breed resistance and hostility, not to mention unnecessary confusion and ambiguity.

So here’s my suggestion: think up a new set of pronouns, applicable specifically to people who’d rather not be stuck in either of the boring old “male”/“female” boxes. There are plenty of monosyllables that don’t have any particular meaning. “Zoy”, maybe. “Zoy” as subject, “zom” as object, “zor” as possessive. It really doesn’t matter, so long as everyone knows what it means.

Essentially, it’s perfectly OK to ask to be excused from petty rules and restrictions, especially because it might wake people up to the fact that such rules are rather outmoded and needn’t be applied to anyone. But every now and then, we find out that such rules do actually serve a purpose, which is nothing to do with forcing non-binary people into restrictive cis boxes, just ensuring that we can all say what we mean. Anyway, this:

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

About my non-existent book

I’ve long been fascinated by the saga of Jim Crace’s Useless America, a book that never existed but, thanks to a typing error or a misheard phone call or something, came to life within the Amazon hive mind. In fact, such occurrences aren’t that unusual. A few years ago, I was supposed to be writing a book about Lady Gaga, but after a few thousand words, the publisher decided the market was glutted with such products and elected not to go ahead with it. (This sort of thing is also fairly normal practice.) However, the title, cover and provisional release date had been released to the online and high-street retailers, so the book now had a virtual existence that would never be realised. And it’s still there, hovering amidst the ones and zeroes; as I type this, it’s the 10,363,298th best-selling book on Amazon.

Over at GoodReads, though, things have progressed to the next level. Not only does my non-book exist, but you can find out how good or bad it is; three people have bestowed upon it an impressive five stars. Which makes me wonder how well it would have done if I’d actually written the bloody thing.

(One of the people who was so nice about my masterwork is called Miley Cyrus, although I assume she isn’t really. Which adds another level of postmodern wonder to the whole thing.)

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

About Schiele

Yesterday’s Evening Standard featured an advertising wraparound that makes a virtue of society’s prim and proper attitude to the naked body. But I suspect many people would be more shocked by the pubes on the original than the nudity per se. (See here, here and here for past musings on the subject.)

Monday, November 13, 2017

About clever

Now, I’m not one of those bleating, entitled lefties who thinks that every supporter of Trump and Brexit is by definition thick as a pound of economy mince, notwithstanding the Pennyslvanian supporter of The Orange Toddler who explained his choice thus: “When he speaks you can understand what he’s saying, you don’t have to look up the big words that he’s trying to use to confuse you.” But the antipathy towards education on the populist right almost goes without saying. It’s most forcibly expressed by those, like Trump and Farage, who have experienced high-quality, expensive schooling and clearly failed to benefit from it; I wonder, were they bullied for their inability to grasp the second law of thermodynamics, maybe forced to stand on a chair and conjugate Latin verbs in their vests and pants?

Whatever the deep-seated motivations of the leadership, though, it’s a statistical fact that the higher up the educational ladder you’ve travelled, the less likely you were to vote for Trump or Brexit. And as far as I can see, only in the Anglo-Saxon world can “clever” be used as a pejorative.

Friday, November 10, 2017

About Billy Joel and that sort of thing

Something I wrote for Rock’s Back Pages in 2003 is available for free for the next week. I believe you need only cough up an email address to read it. Contains dead white men, guitar solos, swears.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

About myth

Am proceeding crisply through Laurent Binet’s excellent  The 7th Function of Language, which starts off with the death of Roland Barthes and then turns into The Da Vinci Code for people who can read without moving their lips: he describes Barthes’s most famous book as being about “the contemporary myths erected by the middle classes to their own glory.”

I think what often gets lost in discussion of RB is that he wasn’t celebrating the elevation of such phenomena as steak-frites or wrestling to mythological status; he’s (at least trying to be) an iconoclast. But his tactics have been recuperated into a sort of wistful pop culture nostalgia; and Binet’s book, in a way, makes a dangerously entertaining myth of Barthes himself.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

About a word

I’ve just used the word “ouroborically” in a piece of academic writing and I think I need a lie-down.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

About Benjamin (again)

More classroom antics. We’ve been nosing around the lower reaches of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, a massive, unfinished tome that’s superficially about Paris in the 19th century but manages to pull in Marxism, surrealism, postmodernism, flânerie and more; I’m tracing lines from here to Borges, Perec and more. It’s delightful and frustrating in equal parts that what we have left is a vast selection of fragments, but it does occasionally give a hint of the average writer’s working method. For example:
Play on words with “-rama” (on the model of “diorama”) in Balzac at the beginning of Pere Goriot.
which is essentially a placeholder, a comedian’s [INSERT JOKE HERE]. Another particularly appealed to me with my restaurant reviewer’s hat on, although this is one I’m almost glad he didn’t finish:
There is, to speak once more of restaurants, a nearly infallible criterion for determining their rank. This is not, as one might readily assume, their price range. We find this unexpected criterion in the color of the sound that greets us when [broken off]