Sense and Sensitivity

In his invariably colorful way, Marc Randazza summed up the conflict at George Washington University:

This is a total douche v. douche fight.

On one hand, you have the YAF. I can’t see what is “un-Christian” about taking a class that makes you learn how to be nicer to other people — especially when those people are from a group that, until quite recently, didn’t have a lot of friends or supporters. When someone tells me that their religious beliefs conflict with spending a little time learning about how to perhaps not offend people, it makes me think that their religion isn’t worth a fucking damn.

This isn’t being “un-Christian,” or un-anything except hostile.

The Young America’s Foundation chapter at the Washington, D.C.-based academic institute has refused to participate in LGBT sensitivity training recently made as a requirement.

The contention was that the sensitivity training conflicted with their values, which makes little sense unless the values of which they speak is to hate people who don’t share their views on gender and sexual preferences.  But,

Now, in the other douche corner are the LGBT assholes. They’re even worse than the YAF. Mandatory fucking sensitivity training? Are you serious? Listen, if YAF wants to have as part of its oath of membership, “I pledge to hate faggots and trannies” then that’s their goddamned right.

As a student organization, the YAF student office holders were required to take, and pass, training on  “gender identities and using proper gender pronouns.”

“And their refusal to use preferred gender pronouns should be considered an act of violence and a violation of the non-discrimination clause required in all GW student organizations’ constitutions.”

This is where it all rushes into the rabbit hole, or as Randazza calls it, “douchetastic.”

Alex Pollock, chairman of the GW College Republicans, explained to the campus publication GW Hatchet that the training “should be mandatory from a sensitivity perspective.”

“Regardless of your views on LGBT people, LGBT people exist. … The intent is not to belittle political or religious organizations,” said Pollock. “The purpose of this bill is to make student organization leaders aware that we have a diverse student body and make people feel included.”

Let’s get one thing straight up front: refusing to embrace another person’s demand for sensitivity is not an “act of violence.” Punching the person in the face is. Disagreeing is not. To call it such is a perversion of language, which brings us to the second prong of this training.

Since I write a bit, the requirement for training in the proper use of pronouns was of some concern.  What are they talking about?  Is it wrong to use the feminine pronoun when talking about female? Perhaps, if that female identifies with the male gender, it will hurt her feelings to have the feminine pronoun used.

Is the point that GWU doesn’t want anyone’s feelings hurt?  Well, there is nothing wrong with that.  It does, however, present a problem in clarity in writing, and there is something wrong with that. For better or worse, our language has certain rules by which we communicate, and among those rules is that females are identified by using the feminine pronoun, males by the masculine, and mixed by the masculine as well.

This fails to take into account the various permutations that reflect the political preferences of individuals whose preferences are not reflected in our extant rules. They want to change the rules. They’re allowed to want to change the rules.

Maybe some day they will, though I doubt it largely because the elimination of gendered pronouns will wreak havoc with clarity and understanding.  They don’t care. I do. I suspect most of us would prefer to have a clue what words mean rather than subjugate human understanding to the sensitive feelings of everyone else.

But having this rammed down your throat is where this goes seriously awry.  This model isn’t a GWU problem, but a problem on campuses nationwide.  If it was truly a matter of understanding that diversity exists and we would all be better people if we respected other people’s feelings, then these schools could chisel the Golden Rule on their lintels and be done with it.

That’s not what they’re teaching, unfortunately. They’re teaching that one set of political rules is right, and any others are wrong. They’re teaching that people must adjust their thoughts, their words, so that no person’s feelings are hurt. They are teaching that the only acceptable belief on campus is theirs, and students can either embrace it or they’re out of here.

They are imposing rules based upon values that reflect one side of a political debate.  And for those of you who share those values, who believe with all your heart and soul that they are right and just, and anyone who disagrees is wrong and evil, bear in mind that the political winds shift without warning, and one day the GWU student government may require training that all black students bow in the presence of white students, and use the title “master” when referring to them.

Of course this is ridiculous hyperbole, hardly likely to happen, but it’s offered to make a point. This is the manifestation of a political trend. As society matures with regard to gender and sexual preferences, these issues may well be viewed as silly trivialities, the sort of childishness that shouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings because they’re just words, not “acts of violence.”

On the other hand, when institutions of higher education demand that its students adopt political positions, whether progressive or conservative, and thus seek to control the minds of their charges to mold them to vote for the candidate of their choice, it is, as Marco says, “douchetastic.”

Diversity is a real thing, but it includes diversity of opinion and language as well as diversity of color, gender and sexual preference.  Tolerance isn’t limited to what pleases you or me. Or the George Washington University student counsel, or the YAF or Allied in Pride.  There is no harm in learning about what others believe. There is harm in requiring you to believe it as well.

34 thoughts on “Sense and Sensitivity

  1. mirriam

    We could have a language where nouns themselves have gender. That would make things even more confusing for everyone. “How come table is male and chair is female? Huh?? Huh??” Language changes, it will by use, not by force. Remember when we used to say ‘ain’t ain’t a word?” Then it was a word, and now I don’t think it really is anymore, but tweet is a word. Language is a wonderful, beautiful, amazing thing. We all have all sorts of words, and they are all he’s or she’s or it’s.

    Now to the issue of the douche v. douche. I don’t know anything about all of that, but what I do know is that it’s good for youngsters to get their douche out now. Be douchey in college, figure out where your true douche allegiances are, then move on. If you can’t do the dumb shit and learn, what’s the point of college at all?

    Now, if you could please explain to me this phenomenon of ‘microaggression.’ Is that like punching someone in the face softly, but a whole lot of times?

    1. SHG Post author

      That may be the best definition of micro-aggression I’ve seen yet. The only problem is that I still have no clue what it means and whether you’re right. But I like it.

  2. EH

    You may read this post and wonder “what’s the training?”

    I can help.

    I have had a lot of skull-fusing discussions with some trans folk over the last few years and for those who might not actually know, here’s the deal. Hopefully Scott will allow this information, to save his readers the personal experience of having lots of detailed arguments and getting called “transphobic” and “deeply evil” and “horribly wrong” and “morally bankrupt” and so on, in order to actually nail this down.

    1) Trans_____ refers to the end gender, not the starting gender. A trans woman is a mana person who has transitioned into a woman (see #5). And so on.

    2) The specific claim of modern trans advocates is that someone’s internal identity is (and must be) controlling. In all respects. If Scott was to decide and announce tomorrow that she (see #5) was a trans woman, then one would be obliged to treat Scott as a woman, refer to Scott as a woman, let Scott use the woman’s bathroom, and so on. Doing otherwise is Horribly Wrong.

    3) Failing to use the proper gender term, and/or treating someone as a gender which they do not claim, is referred to as “misgendering.” Misgendering is generally called “violence” (though it’s not;) “dehumanizing” (though it has nothing to do with one’s human nature;) and “transphobia.”

    4) You may wonder if trans advocates are simply advocates of universal respect for self identification. No. Trans advocates do NOT subscribe to a general rule that you can tell people what to call you (I prefer “Sir,” but nobody else seems to agree) and that refusal is a horrible moral lapse. Nor do they subscribe to a general rule that you are obliged to respect someone’s self-image outside gender (I of course wish only to be referred to as a nice, kind, handsome, bright, right-thinking, shining light of humanity. Astoundingly enough, nobody agrees with this either. Except my mother, and only rarely.) Gender is in a special category.

    4) Trans status is claimed to be retrospective. This is the big one. I deliberately illustrated that when I said “if Scott announced that she was a trans woman:” that was not a typo. The claim is that Scott wasn’t a man who “became” a woman; Scott was always a woman, but recently disclosed that fact to the rest of us. So the common phrasing “a man who transitioned into a woman” is also, supposedly, wrong.

    To illustrate the communicative impossibility of this approach, consider someone like Chelsea/Bradley Manning.
    Old style conservatives might refuse to refer to that individual as anything other than Bradley Manning, the man, since that individual retains male genitalia. That’s a wholesale rejection of the claimed gender swap.

    More middle of the road folks might refer to that individual as Chelsea Manning, but would consider that individual as someone who “used to be” Bradley Manning. I’m in that category: I’ll go with “Chelsea the trans woman, who used to be Bradley the man.”

    That makes me an evil transphobe. Because Chelsea never was Bradley. Chelsea never was a man. Surprise.

    Now, you may be wondering how the fuck you are supposed to re-gender someone like Manning, since you have a whole history about Bradley and since everyone’s treatment was done based on a presumption that they were dealing with a man, and so on.

    Good luck.

    And good luck when you start wondering about your own people in your own memory: not only are you supposed to add a footnote about your childhood friend, but you’re supposed to actually think of them as having always been the opposite gender.

    You might wonder how you’re supposed to recall (or relay to friends) the funny 7th grade locker room joke with your best friend Keith, and going on your first double date with him and his girlfriend– if you are now supposed to refer to Keith as Mary (what was she doing in the locker room?) but that is, somehow, your problem to solve.

    And watch out with the “relay to friends” part. because you’re ALSO not allowed to expose or discuss someone’s prior gender without their express approval. That is bad, bad, bad. Perhaps it’s best not to talk about Keith/Mary at all. Though that might be “exclusion,” which is transphobic on its own. Like i said: good luck with that.

    Anyway, that’s it in a nutshell.

    1. SHG Post author

      I frankly have no idea whether this is accurate, or widely accepted, or something else. But I’m willing to accept it, with the caveat that every person is entitled to his (I know, his, hers, whatever) redefinition of the rules because . . . every person is allowed to create the universe of rules that everyone else must adopt. Which seems to be at the core of your point, which is why I accept your comment.

      And at the end of the day, we’re left with nothing but confusion.

      Yet, I wonder why the woman (the one who was born with female genitalia) who remained a woman (with the same female genitalia) who feels unsafe in her locker room with a woman (the one who was born with male genitalia) who identifies as a woman (with the same male genitalia she was born with) is supposed to do? This creates unresolvable conflict all around. So who gets to be the one person who’s happy because the universe revolves around them? Personally, I vote for me, but I doubt anyone, your mother included, would agree with that outcome.

      1. ShelbyC

        There are some articles that are easy to find about in incident last week where a woman had her planet fitness membership revoked for complaining about a transgender man in the shower.

        1. SHG Post author

          Guess we know who won that battle. But by what principled basis does the transgendered man win over the woman for what strikes me as a perfectly reasonable expectation of gender privacy on her part? I can’t see any.

          1. EH

            Having had this precise discussion with quite a few trans folks, the answer is fairly universal and i can repeat it here with high accuracy:

            1) The transwoman is, in fact, gendered as female, whether or not that gender matches her external physical characteristics.

            2) Because the transwoman is gendered female, there’s no “gender privacy” issue.

            3) Also, there’s no cause to be concerned with sexual attraction. Not only are trans people usually attracted to their new opposite sex (which is to say that most trans women are attracted to men, not to women) but locker rooms don’t distinguish on straight/gay anyway, so there’s no change in the concept that “someone” might look at you and enjoy it.

            4) Once you eliminate all those reasons, the main basis for protest is the “ick factor,” i.e. the complainer doesn’t want to see a penis (or other male characteristics) in the locker room. that should have zero, or at least not very much, weight.

            5) The rights of the transwoman to use her appropriate locker room by gender, and to avoid the risk to the transwoman from being a woman surrounded by males (in the male locker room) are greater than the rights of the complainer not to be “icked out.”

            1. SHG Post author

              Did anybody ask the woman who finds herself surrounded by penises in the shower if its okay with her? Or does she not get a vote about how her life is affected? Isn’t calling her feelings the “ick factor” victim blaming?

            2. EH

              When I talked about spending hours debating this, and being called some nasty things, that was because I asked a lot of those questions. Thus, I’m able to answer them on behalf of my debate partners!

              To continue parroting (not straw-manning) the folks i spoke with:

              They say that violence against transfolks is an enormous problem. So that also justifies their position. (I have no personal knowledge of whether or not that is true.)

              They claim that men are much more likely to become physically violent against non-gender-confirming folks. So, they conclude, it’s unreasonable to ask a transwoman to risk a beating (or worse) by going in the men’s room, just so that someone won’t think she’s “icky.”

              They also note that the history of violence against transpeople is real, while the concerns about transfolk abusing their bathroom privileges are speculative. To paraphrase the various quotes: “until trans women stop getting beaten, raped, and killed in the men’s room, and/or when you have evidence of a trans woman actually abusing the privilege of being in the ladies’ room, shut the fuck up about the ick factor because it’s less important.”

            3. SHG Post author

              It’s a perfectly sound argument, provided the world revolves around their concerns. The counter arg is pretty obvious, that the “ick” woman didn’t beat up anybody and how does their transpeople issue become her problem so she has to pay the price?

              In other words, I buy their problems. It’s just a little too convenient that the suffering they endure at one person’s hand is taken out on another person, making them pay the price. As for the “shut the fuck up because it’s less important,” to them, sure. To the ick factor victim, maybe not. Maybe she was a rape survivor and they are traumatizing her? Did they think of that? Do they care? Do they?

              Everybody thinks their problem is the most important one. That’s why we can’t have nice things.

            4. EH

              It’s more a claim that any trans-related discomfort isn’t substantially different from other types of discomfort.

              They make the point that plenty of other people in bathrooms are loud, odd, smelly, scary-looking, non-gender-conforming, talkative, drunk, high, unattractive, members of a group which folks may find discomfiting, and so on. But we don’t kick them out, or say that they should not be allowed.

              “So,” they say, “if the general response is just to deal with it because the world isn’t utopian, then it’s not reasonable to selectively enforce the i-just-don’t-like-it rule against transpeople.”

            5. SHG Post author

              It’s true that there are men’s rooms and women’s rooms, but not smelly people’s rooms and unattractive people’s rooms. Does their argument persuade you?

            6. EH

              Yes and no.

              On a general sense I don’t find many of their arguments persuasive. It seems pretty clear that so long as society continues to differentiate into two classes on the basis of gender–from bathrooms to sports leagues–we’re going to have to make choices about where those classes fall. Opposing that overall seems like a bad match for society,at least now.

              On the other hand, the bathroom issue in particular seems to be relatively one of their better arguments. At least until it starts to be a larger problem.

              In the end it’s the classic minority-value problem. Measured in an economic sense we shouldn’t have to accommodate transfolk at all; there are very few of them and it takes a lot of effort for a lot of people to do what they ask. But our country is strongly biased towards minority consideration and I’m therefore inclined to try to find some of the more reasonable places to cede some ground.

              Changing my whole language structure and how I view gender is not going to happen. Agreeing to be more flexible on locker rooms is more reasonable, at least to me.

            7. SHG Post author

              Well sure, it’s always easier to cede ground on things that impact/bother other people rather than you.

          2. EH

            Also, for what it’s worth, regarding “transgendered man:”

            There is universal agreement among the trans community that the term “trans” combined with a gender (for example, “trans woman”) refers to someone who is transitioning to that gender. To many people in the trans community, “transgendered man” would seem to be the opposite of the way that you use it.

            Personally, I think it makes sense to cave on that one. There’s no particular reason to choose one definition or the other (as long as we all know what definition we’re using) and it seems to be really important to a lot of trans people.

            1. SHG Post author

              I’m fine with it too. If that’s the universally preferred definition, so be it. But do they wear signs so we know who they are, or do we have to guess at our peril?

  3. Patrick Maupin

    > There is no harm in learning about what others believe.

    There’s the understatement of the day. As Paul Graham says in his “Hackers and Painters” essay:

    It turns out that looking at things from other people’s point of view is practically the secret of success. It doesn’t necessarily mean being self-sacrificing. Far from it. Understanding how someone else sees things doesn’t imply that you’ll act in his interest; in some situations– in war, for example– you want to do exactly the opposite.

  4. EricSlusser

    “Maybe some day they will, though I doubt it largely because the elimination of gendered pronouns will wreak havoc with clarity and understanding. They don’t care. I do. I suspect most of us would prefer to have a clue what words mean rather than subjugate human understanding to the sensitive feelings of everyone else.”

    Really? Consider this pair of sentences. “Oliver took the call from Penny because she was angry.” “Oliver took the call from Brian because he was angry.” (Let’s say you know that Oliver and Brian are male and Penny is female.) Is the first sentence fine but the second sentence “wreak(s) havoc with clarity and understanding”? We have to deal with pronoun reference confusion whether we have gendered pronouns or not and they only help with certain circumstances.

    Also, these people in college have a proposal, you think it would have bad consequences (wreaking havoc and subjugating human understanding), so these people don’t care about those bad consequences? That doesn’t follow. They or you could be mistaken.

    1. SHG Post author

      So you’re inability to distinguish between bad writing and a system of writing the has no rules of gender pronouns proves what?

      As for:

      …so these people don’t care about those bad consequences? That doesn’t follow.

      They care about their personal agenda, and are willing to suffer the consequences. Seems remarkably obvious and easy to follow. But then, I can only explain it to you. I can’t understand it for you.

      1. Sgt. Schultz

        Sorry, but I have no clue what he’s trying to get at. It’s totally incomprehensible. Can you explain?

        1. SHG Post author

          I think he’s attempting to demonstrate via a sentence that includes two male names and a male pronoun that you can’t tell which of the two males the pronoun relates to. The problem is that it’s just a bad sentence, which fails miserably to make his point and proves nothing more than a poorly written sentence is a poorly written sentence. To the extent that it proves sentences can still be written poorly even with the normal use of gender pronouns, it’s true, but conflates the problem.

          On the other hand, consider this sentence: “Oliver took the call from Brian because she was angry.” Does that improve the clarity? Of course not, because it was just a poorly written sentence. Similarly, his example of a clear sentence, “Oliver took the call from Penny because she was angry,” is only clear because the “she” relates to Penny, because Penny is a female name. But if Penny was male (since it’s sexist to ascribe gender to a name just because it’s traditionally female), then we’re in the same boat.

          So it was at best a trick question (that’s assuming he realized he was trying to game the argument) and at worst just a really bad effort.

            1. Patrick Maupin

              The ordinary microaggression of the statement “I can’t understand it for you” was, in this case, compounded by the violent act of not using EricSlusser’s preferred conversational terminology, e.g. “One can’t understand that for it,” further exacerbated by the deliberate and humiliating switching of pronouns such that EricSlusser itself becomes that which is not understood.

              To add further injury to this grievous assault, in subsequent comments, both you (may this unit call you you? A thousand pardons if this is not the preferred salutation) and SHG (This unit knows that SHG’s friends — wait, is it right that SHG can possess sentient beings? — may call him — oooh, is that right? Sorry if not! — that, and sometimes he — oh no, not again — lets this unit do so as well) referred to it using a masculine pronoun.

              This unit has been led to believe that, prior to these directed acts of violence, EricSlusser was going to reply to clarify its position, but has now been so traumatized by this blog that it is preparing a lawsuit. Apparently its lawyer has already drafted subpoenas to send to this blog’s ISP to determine what the perpetrators are, because Greenfield is obviously a pseudonym.

              So be careful exist carefully and remember that in some jurisdictions, it is perfectly legal for EricSlusser to escalate the verbal violence that has been done to it. That very thing happened once to this unit, and, although not anywhere near FUBAR, this unit is still not yet fully functional:

              There once was a young thing from Glasgow
              which, when called “sir”, said “No!
              You conniving witch!
              You cold-hearted bitch!
              You microagressioning ho!”

          1. EricSlusser

            You mostly got my meaning. So, why do you have a huge problem with eliminating gendered pronouns? Transitional issues? You seem to have a big problem with this idea beyond whether or not it is forced onto people by a college.

            Yes, the one sentence is unclear. The other sentence with Penny is only clear if you already know the genders, as I said.

            1. SHG Post author

              It couldn’t be more obvious. The only thing preventing you from seeing it is that your eyes are closed.

            2. Patrick Maupin

              In your initial comment, you state that gendered pronouns “only help with certain circumstances.” Which is completely true, and completely meaningless, as it is a description that applies to all language features.

              Despite my ribbing of troutwaxer about redundancy, linguistic redundancy (specifically grammatical redundancy in this instance) is an important tool that greatly aids comprehension. It is not a bug that gendered pronouns sometimes fail to clarify ambiguous meaning; rather it is a feature that sometimes they are helpful.

              There are several research papers on gender and grammatical redundancy — one, titled “German Grammatical Gender Manages Nominal Entropy,” explains how the patriarchal tool of gendered articles is the secret weapon of the vaunted German economy.

            3. EH

              Why does it matter?

              It matters because gendered pronouns convey very helpful information for almost all people, almost all the time. We live in a world where gender matters, and given basic biological differences that is unlikely to change any time this century. The argument to restrict pronouns ignores the communicative value, which is why it’s insensible.

              The main improvement in gendered pronouns recently at least IMO is the use of terms other than “his” to represent an un-gendered individual. “his” as a generic gives incorrect information sometimes, which isn’t ideal communication.

            4. SHG Post author

              Is there such a thing as an “un-gendered individual”? We’re all gendered, even if we’re not thrilled with the equipment.

  5. EricSlusser

    Thanks for the responses, everybody.
    I’m still not convinced; isn’t it the case that some other languages lack gender pronouns? Maybe I’m still missing something that will shock me into repentance once I’ve perceived it.
    EH, do you mean the singular “they”? Well, the issue there is it erases the lived experience of single people like me. (I am not multiple people. And I also don’t have a girlfriend. Or boyfriend.) 😉
    SHG, as to “un-gendered individual,” there are intersex people with ambiguous equipment, although maybe doctors can classify them with enough inspection and tissue samples. This comment thread has inspired me to look up some fascinating articles on wikipedia. So thanks!

    1. Dragoness Eclectic

      Whoever commented on it is right, the ‘reply’ button disappears when the conversation gets nested deeply.

      As far as I can tell, fiction writers have mostly settled on ‘they’ for unknown or ambiguous gendered people, because it’s actually a permitted, if archaic usage in English, and improvised portmanteaus like ‘zie’ (for he/she) and ‘zer’ (for his/her) sound like you’re inserting random foreign words into your writing for no reason, and their meaning was only understood by a small subculture. The ugliness and awkwardness of expressions like “he/she” and ‘his/her’ should be obvious. “It” is dehumanizing. Using ‘he’ for unknown gender conveys the impression that the default and normal state of life is to be male, and females are a special exception that has to be noted, and if not noted, probably don’t exist/aren’t wanted.

      So ‘they’ it is.

      1. SHG Post author

        Using ‘he’ for unknown gender conveys the impression that the default and normal state of life is to be male…

        Meh. It conveys nothing. It’s just an arbitrary rule of language, as “keep to the right” is an arbitrary rule of the road. It’s not that right is better than left, but that everybody has to play by the same rules or they crash.

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