A couple of weeks ago I stopped by Duncan "Atrios" Black's blog
Eschaton to find that he had branded former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller "the worst person in the world," attaching a link to an article Keller had written about a woman named Lisa Adams, who has been trying anything and everything — "mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, biopsies and scans, pumps and drains and catheters, grueling drug trials and grim side effects" — in her fight against a cancer that has spread to her liver, lungs, bones, and spine.  This approach is often termed "taking heroic measures," and Keller expressed discomfort with the implication that people who accept that they are going to die are somehow unheroic: "it suggests that those who choose not to spend their final days in battle, using every weapon in the high-tech medical arsenal, lack character or willpower."  He even went so far as to broach the topic of whether, in a society whose infrastructure is crumbling and in which all but a fortunate few have seen their standard of living stagnate or fall since 1980, it is really wise for us to devote such an outsized proportion of our resources to prolonging the agony of the dying.  Atrios's conclusion was that Wonkette was right to therefore call Keller "a fucking monster in human form."

Interestingly, the comment section of Atrios's post, which is normally a cheering section and echo chamber (and in-joke incubator), took issue:

  • "I fail to see what was so terrible about what he wrote."

  • "I can't find much to complain about in that article. There have been multiple studies suggesting that American medicine is too focused on length of life over quality, that we refuse to consider death a natural process."

  • "It's a tough topic to tackle and I find nothing egregious about his treatment of it."

  • "I can't find the problem either […] I'm flummoxed by negative responses to this article."

  • "I think that's a pretty sensitive column. I'm not getting what the big objection is."

There were many more comments in that vein.  Then I encountered one that added an interesting angle:

  • It's generating a lot of outrage in the twitterverse, where Atrios mostly dwells.

And others chimed in:

  • As was said below, maybe that Twidder thang is making the boss go in a strange direction.

  • I think Twitter does terrible things to people's perspective. It's like getting into the habit of yelling everything you think out loud.

  • Raises interesting questions about Twitter hive mind.

The extent to which Twitter has become a place for people to chase the target du jour with 140-character torches and retweeted pitchforks was on display again a few days later, after Grantland, a spinoff of the ESPN web site, published an article called "Dr. V's Magical Putter."  The article started with reporter Caleb Hannan discovering a Youtube video about a weird-looking putter developed by an MIT-trained physicist named Essay Anne Vanderbilt.  The story told by golf commentator Gary McCord was that "Dr. V" had taken technology she'd developed working on the stealth bomber and applied it to golf club design.  Hannan found that Vanderbilt acted a little squirrelly when asked for an interview, saying that she would agree only to a "nuncupative off the record collogue" due to her "association with classified documents"; he then discovered that no one by her name had ever attended MIT, nor the Wharton School where she had supposedly received her MBA.  In fact, no one by her name seemed to have existed prior to the 21st century.  Moreover, when he did find records of her existence, they didn't match her account of her whereabouts: at a time when she claimed to have been working on hush-hush projects for the Pentagon, she had actually been coordinating car repairs for an Arizona town — and, after getting fired, had sued the town, only to drop the suit upon refusing to verify her name.  Hannan did some more digging and discovered the rest of the story: that Essay Anne Vanderbilt had, prior to 2003, been Stephen Krol, an auto mechanic with no MIT degree or Wharton MBA.  Other claims "Dr. V" had made to investors — that she had helped to invent Bluetooth, that as a Vanderbilt she had an in with the Hiltons, etc. — also proved to have no basis in reality, and those investors had lost all their money.  When confronted with these discoveries, Vanderbilt made frantic attempts to intimidate Hannan into dropping the story — "you are in reversal of your word, as well as neophytic in your modus operandi of understanding the science […] You have no idea what I have done and what I can do."  What she actually did was commit suicide.

Hannan's article went up on a Wednesday; for the first couple of days response was positive, but on Friday, Twitter got hold of it.  Hannan was accused of having essentially murdered Vanderbilt, and found himself on the receiving end of death threats.  Many accused Hannan of conflating Vanderbilt's change of gender with her career as a con artist, essentially portraying gender changes as a species of fraud.  Many also took issue with the pronouns Hannan used, in that he switched from feminine to masculine ones when discussing Vanderbilt's life as Stephen Krol.  Which, at long last, brings me to my topic for today.

It is idiotic that sex is encoded in pronouns in the English language.  This is far from an original observation.  Perhaps you have encountered Douglas Hofstadter's "Person Paper", which demonstrates how ridiculous gendered pronouns are by presenting a world in which the pronouns "whe" or "ble" are assigned to each person depending on whis or bler race.  The idea is that by reminding us that we get by very well in the real world without attaching race to every single reference to a person, we might take another look at our gendered pronouns and see the absurdity that overexposure leads us to overlook.  Here's a sentence from my last article, about the movie Margaret:

And, indeed, reviews of the eventual 150-minute theatrical release noted that it was clear where chunks were missing — a character saying that she’s going to the kitchen and then the film cutting to the bedroom, that sort of thing.

What possible difference does it make that the character in question is female?  It makes no more difference than that she's white.  In the world of Hofstadter's satire the latter is mandatory information; in ours the former is; neither should be.

This isn't just an academic or even a political point.  As a practical matter, pronoun wrangling is a pain in the ass.  Here's a sentence from the same article:

On the one hand, I get where he’s coming from; it is indeed irksome to ask someone what she thought of a story and have her reply, “Well, I liked this character and that character, but not this other character…”

Why did I go with "she" and "her" here?  I considered several alternatives.  One was to pair up pronouns, to be more inclusive:

On the one hand, I get where he’s coming from; it is indeed irksome to ask someone what he or she thought of a story and have him or her reply, “Well, I liked this character and that character, but not this other character…”

I might well have gone with the "he or she" formulation if not for the "him or her" following right on its heels.  Using both pairs just looked silly.  I could have replaced the "him or her" with something like "that person," but that would have just been trading one kind of awkwardness for another.  So, how about resorting to the plural?  Here's how that looked:

On the one hand, I get where he’s coming from; it is indeed irksome to ask people what they thought of a story and have them reply, “Well, I liked this character and that character, but not this other character…”

That makes for a smoother read, but… it's not what I meant to say!  It conjures up a scenario in which I'm wandering around the neighborhood knocking on doors and asking this question, receiving the same reply every time.  Or perhaps I'm in front of a classroom and I pose the question to everyone at once, receiving the unfortunate reply in unison.  These are subtle but important distinctions.  Here's another example — again, same article:

The world may not have a protagonist, but the world is only experienced through individual consciousness, and each individual is the protagonist of her own life.

Compare that to the attempt to evade the gendered pronoun through pluralization:

The world may not have a protagonist, but the world is only experienced through individual consciousness, and individuals are the protagonists of their own lives.

That's not terrible, but it's not ideal; one does not emphasize the individual nature of consciousness by using the plural.  The point was, consider one single human being.  Just one.  That person is the protagonist of that person's own life.  It doesn't matter what sex the person is, but English forced me to pick a gender if I wanted to use the singular, which I did.  So, since I was writing about a movie with a female protagonist, I went with the feminine pronoun.  (I trust that in this day and age I don't have to waste time making a case why the traditional rule that "for a singular pronoun referring to someone of either sex, use the masculine" is unacceptable.  Being male is not an unmarked default.)

In the earlier example, I went with the feminine pronoun for two reasons.  First, I converse with women more often than I do with men, and so in the scenario I posited, "she" and "her" were more likely to be correct.  Second, the feminine seemed to follow more naturally, since I was commenting on a tweet in which Mike D'Angelo wrote:

“I didn’t feel a lot of sympathy for the characters,” says the woman near me who I’m heroically not punching in the head.

Note that it totally doesn't matter that this person is female.  And it's true that in this case English didn't force the writer to specify a sex.  He could have written, "says the person near me"… but that looks a little strange, like he's deliberately withholding information about the person's sex for some reason.  Meanwhile, if he had written, "says the African-American near me," there would have been hell to pay in the form of dozens of replies asking, "What does that have to do with anything? Exactly what the fuck are you trying to say?!"  The English language, everyone!

So what's the solution?  The most common, especially in colloquial speech, is not to cast the entire sentence into the plural, but instead to use the appropriate plural pronoun where a gender-neutral singular pronoun would go if such a thing existed:

The world may not have a protagonist, but the world is only experienced through individual consciousness, and each individual is the protagonist of their own life.

The agreement error is too painful for this to be the answer.  I mean, it's obviously fine by the millions of people who never internalized pronoun agreement rules and therefore have no qualms busting out a singular "their" as the mood strikes them, but I did, so this wouldn't have helped me crank out my Margaret article any more quickly.

Another option would be to just make up a set of gender-neutral pronouns.  When I was in high school I once ran across a book in the Cal State Fullerton library that used "co" and "cos" for "he/she" and "his/her"; my freshman year of college, I knew a guy who was a fan of "thon" for such purposes.  On the Internet, I've occasionally seen people gamely attempt to stick with "ze" and "hir" for an entire article.  I am less of a skeptic about deliberate attempts to change the language than most; the word "Negro" has pretty much gone away, and not because it just spontaneously fell out of fashion.  "Ms." was a deliberate invention that was initially scoffed at but is now universally accepted.  But even I have to admit that these particular gender-neutral pronouns don't seem to be making much headway.  I have toyed with the idea of using my own, more intuitive set in my articles, which could be turned on or off with a sidebar button.  These only really work in print, but since I never really talk to anyone anymore that's fine by me.  We can start with the possessive: "his or her" would be replaced by h’, as indicating possession is one of the most common uses of apostrophes.  By extension, "his or hers" would give way to h’s.  For a gender-neutral object pronoun, "him or her" would be replaced by h/h.  The reflexive "himself or herself" could be replaced by either h’self or h/self; the first looks better, but the second more logically follows from h/h.  The subject pronoun is the trickiest.  The natural solution is to turn "he or she" into ’e, but that would instantly make an article sound like it was written in Cockney dialect.  Cor, 'e says 'e wants gender-neutral pronouns, wot wot?  Something like xe doesn't look terrible to me, but that's really just a less pronounceable "ze".  Maybe /e or -e could work.

But as long as I'm dreaming, here's what I'd really like to see.  Consider the following sentence:

John drove Paul to the studio, where he played him his latest song.

That doesn't work, because we don't know who the antecedent of each of these pronouns is.  This is one advantage of gendered pronouns: if you happen to have one male and one female in your sentence, it's a lot easier to avoid ambiguity.  For example:

John drove Yoko to the studio, where she played him her latest song.

Go is one of my hobbies, and in the English-speaking go community, the player with the white stones is always referred to as "she" and the player with the black stones as "he", for this very reason.

Another of my hobbies is writing interactive fiction, and the language that I use, Inform 6, has a different approach to unambiguously referring back to antecedents.  Here's an (edited) excerpt of the code from my latest IF piece, Endless, Nameless:

   if (noun ofclass Gold) {
      if (second has seller) {
         "Better to just buy what you want!";

What's going on here is that the parser is passing a command to this routine in the form "GIVE WAND TO SORCERESS" or "GIVE COIN TO BARTENDER".  Normally the program would just print a message telling the player not to give h' possessions away, but "GIVE COIN TO BARTENDER" is a special case, because the player character does have to buy a drink at some point.  But the program handles purchases by having the player type commands such as "BUY GROG", at which point the cost is automatically deducted from the player's store of gold — I didn't want the player handing over coins one at a time.  So, this code goes through the sentence and asks, is the first noun mentioned a piece of gold?  If not, then this is not an attempted purchase, and the routine ends.  If it is a piece of gold, then is the second noun mentioned a person who is selling something?  If not, then this is not an attempted purchase but merely a matter of giving money away, and the routine ends.  But if the routine is still active, that means that the player is attempting to give gold to someone who's selling something, and the message telling h/h to just buy what -e wants is printed.

Having spent a big chunk of my life writing routines like this, it has long seemed to me that if we're going to use pronouns to differentiate between nouns, the way to do it is to distinguish the first-mentioned noun from the second-mentioned one.  For the moment let's use fi and se, respectively.  We'll use the same pronouns for both subject case and object case, because I hear abominations such as "that's between he and I" and "it's a dream come true for she and her husband" so often that it's pretty clear that trying to get people to use the correct pronoun case is a losing battle.  And we don't really need it: after all, we don't distinguish between subject and object case where nouns are concerned, because word order in English is fairly strict.  That gives us this:

John drove Paul to the studio, where se played fi ses latest song.  Fi suggested, “How about we play it backwards?”

No, I don't expect anyone else to adopt this, nor to read my articles if I do.  But to cure English of the curse of gendered pronouns while at the same time making antecedents so much clearer!  If anyone says that -e doesn't think this is a worthy goal, I emphatically disagree with h/h.

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