Irrational Rationalists

The other day while perusing a few of my usual skeptical and atheist haunts online, I came across a conversation that seemed rather out of place; two individuals were having a serious discussion about the plausibility of extraterrestrials having constructed the pyramids. The cheerleader for the aliens had linked more than a few YouTube videos, conspiracy theory sites, and a book or two into the conversation, and appeared for all the world to be a die-hard ‘ancient aliens’ enthusiast. “Really?” I thought to myself, and then moved on.

A couple of sites later – again one deeply aligned with the atheist movement – I read another conversation; this time the topic of discussion was the “weather-controlling” abilities of the U.S. HAARP program. Specifically, the debaters were arguing whether HAARP was responsible for all of the ‘weird weather’ this summer, or just the droughts that have been punishing parts of the United States. “Or how about none of it?” I muttered to myself, clicking away from the site, “Jackasses”.

Throughout the rest of the day’s online browsing, I stumbled across even more of these conversations – some focussed on aliens or the paranormal, others centred on 9/11 conspiracies. In each of these discussions, I noticed individuals – many of whom had proudly been displaying their atheist bona fides – abandon reason entirely and plunge headlong into logical fallacy after blindingly obvious logical fallacy. But these flights into fancy weren’t the real source of my growing frustration; after all, flights of fancy can lead to remarkable places. No, the primary source of my angst was the fact that I knew from previous browsing, discussions, and even a debate or two that these same people were often the first to write theists (and believers of all sorts) off as ‘delusional’, irrational, or ‘crazy’. If only there was a word to describe someone condemning another person’s behaviour while behaving in the same way themselves…

“Hey, aren’t theists crazy? I mean seriously, who the hell is dumb enough to believe in a zombie-saviour who was his own father and who kicked the first humans out of paradise for taking the advice of a talking snake? How pathetic! By the way, have you checked out my latest YouTube video? In it I proved that the stories in the Bible were actually the mythologized accounts of ancient alien visitors who came to earth, saved the genetic information of every life form from a catastrophic comet strike (that caused the Flood), and then repopulated the earth with genetically modified clones!”

Stories like these – anecdotes, if you will – are an indication that just because a person is an atheist, a secularist, a humanist, or a skeptic, it doesn’t mean that they are entirely rational. Because they aren’t. We aren’t. We evolved as paranoid animals whose brains were constantly seeking patterns in the world around us – patterns that might indicate a potential threat. Our brains trick us into seeing monstrous shapes in the skeletal branches that bang on our windows at night, because while the vast majority of the time the branches are just that, there is always the chance that the banging might one night be caused by a predator and if we ignore it, we die. Our paranoia and our pattern-recognition mechanisms allowed us to survive where a more reasoned “don’t be afraid, those shapes beyond the fire aren’t really sabre-tooth cats” kind of attitude might have doomed us. We have to train ourselves to think rationally about things – or we at least need to train ourselves not to fall victim to the kinds of cognitive biases, and ‘gut’ level thinking that have been with us since our species first evolved.

We are, in other words, hypocrites for the most part – if we are the kinds of people who deride others for being ‘irrational’. Because we are irrational too. Why do theists frustrate me? It’s certainly not because they’re being irrational – that’s just normal*. More importantly, ‘irrationality’ isn’t something that’s going to be going away any time soon. Those of us who align ourselves with the skeptical movement recognize that the process of training ourselves to become less irrational is a life-long endeavour, and most people will never even start. No, theists frustrate me because around that point of irrationality, many of them have constructed moral systems and social institutions that are repugnant to me. Irrationality per se isn’t the problem; the systems and practices constructed around the irrational belief are. I have an irrational fear of needles, which in itself isn’t really a problem. If however, I use that irrational fear to construct an organization aimed at the merciless annihilation of all pointy objects, then we’ve got an issue. In the same vein we shouldn’t be railing against the ‘irrationality’ of theists; we should be railing against those theists whose irrational belief in a supernatural all-father lead them to do and say objectionable things. Mocking people for being irrational is silly; it’s like mocking people for using language.

So what’s my point? Well, it’s this: We’re all irrational – just in different ways, at different times, for different reasons. The primary difference I see between atheists and theists is which irrational beliefs we compartmentalize. Many Christians compartmentalize their faith in order to insulate it from criticism and doubt. Some atheists compartmentalize their beliefs in homeopathy, naturopathy or chiropractic, or aliens in the same way. And as we’ve seen in the last few months (years), many atheists and skeptics alike seem hell-bent on compartmentalizing their privilege in similar fashion. “Sexism isn’t really a topic of skeptical inquiry.” “Atheism and feminism have nothing in common.” “Sure, some atheists might hold racist beliefs, but that’s neither here nor there. Better to have them in here fighting alongside us than have them out there fighting against us.” “I feel comfortable and welcome at skeptical gatherings (and you should too, and if you don’t, then that’s your problem).”

The often brutal online and in-person debates that have been taking place within the skeptical and atheist communities lately are, to me, a prime set of examples of the kind of compartmentalization I have been talking about. It is reasonable to have simple and clear codes of conduct at large gatherings of mostly-strangers; it is reasonable to ask for a modicum of self-restraint or consideration when posting in large online communities. It is unreasonable – irrational – to argue against such policies, given the explicit purpose of most of these gatherings is to build community and recruit new members. It is irrational to desire the growth of one’s movement while behaving in ways that absolutely stymie that effort. It is irrational to condemn religious communities for opposing social equality, while at the same time making one’s own community uncomfortable and unwelcome to marginalized groups. By shutting our beliefs about race, gender, class, able-ness, etc. away from scrutiny or critical reflection and refusing to engage with them, we are choosing to instead pretend that our beliefs are entirely unproblematic – that they are completely rational and therefore correct – which is as irrational as it is troubling.

* For an interesting (and troubling) look at the irrationality of human decision-making, check out the book “Risk”, by Dan Gardner.

Find Edwin on Twitter!


  1. says

    ‘gut’ level thinking that have been with us since we first crept out of Africa.

    What ‘we’, white man? Pretty sure there’s at least a couple people still living in Africa.

  2. Jean says

    So would you say that ‘we’, as a species, spread out from Africa rather than crept out of it?

  3. John Horstman says

    Interesting; while the statement probably wasn’t intended as such (‘Whoops, pardon my privilege’), it implies that those humans who didn’t creep out of Africa didn’t develop problematic cognitive biases. Why do you hate the White man, Edwin??? 😛

  4. Paul says

    Great article, and really gets at the heart of some of the recent drama.

    You’re a better writer than I by far, but I noted that you spent most of the piece talking about how it’s not the irrationality that matters, so much as objectionable actions that are done on behalf of that irrationality. However, in your last paragraph that seems to be really intended to wrap up and make your point, you seem to focus on how the alienation and social equality problems are irrational, instead of how they are objectionable/abhorrent. It gets the point across, and probably makes it easier for the people involved to hear, but it made it feel a little disjointed with the earlier content.

  5. says

    ON topic, it seems as though moving away from calling people “irrational” or “delusional”, we can solve a great deal of this problem by shifting out focus to their ideas being that way. Rather than ‘skeptics’ being the “rational” ones, we are the ones who have made a commitment to using reason. The difference may be subtle, but it certainly makes it easier for someone to recognize when ze has fucked something up – it ceases to be a threat to one’s self-concept and is instead a new piece of data to incorporate into hir worldview.

  6. says

    One of the problems of calling religious believers “irrational” or “delusional” is that they generally sort of aren’t, in the same way that believing anything incorrect that your parents or teachers taught you doesn’t make you irrational or delusional. You can be wrong without being crazy or stupid, and you can even be wrong for reasons that are pretty normal and understandable. I’m not an expert on every subject, and so I take the word of people who are experts or at least who claim to be. So if one of my teachers taught me that Washington chopped down the cherry tree and I believed it, how does that make me irrational or delusional?

    Once you get that, you can begin to realize that there are lots of things that you believe that are “just so” that can easily be wrong because you didn’t really do any of your own research and you’ve trusted the wrong set of experts.

  7. says

    That’s pretty much exactly how I see the world. Calling a person ‘irrational’, ‘delusional’, or ‘crazy’ is a sure-fire way to ensure that their defence mechanisms get activated (in addition to being offensive to people with mental health issues), which might make it more difficult to constructively engage with them. Tackling the substance of their actions however, seems to me to be a more subtle – and effective – way of fostering a kind of partnership where both parties can tackle the issues together.

  8. says

    You’re right Paul, and I certainly don’t want to sanitize the nature of the problem we’re talking about here. The attitudes and behaviours that I’m talking about are incredibly harmful in addition to being irrational and even if we weren’t opposed to them on the grounds that they don’t make a lot of logical sense, we should be doing our best to stamp them into the ground anyway.

    It wasn’t so much that I wanted to make these issues ‘easier to hear’ for the people who are actually engaging in objectionable behaviour but rather I wanted to present the issue in a way that they might not have considered. Does that make sense?

  9. says

    I think it pays to get out of the habit of invoking reason and/or rationality as a value with a settled list beliefs and topics, not the least of reasons being that it short circuits the effort to apply that value in real life. It takes time and dialogue to pin down the reasonability of any given claim, and so we shouldn’t be surprised to find perfectly rational people believing a wide range of (absurd) things. In some cases, it is just a question of having those discussions and getting people to reconsider. When you’ve done that (and if you’ve done it well) there may come a time when you can start drawing conclusions about people who persist in believing unsupportable things.

    For myself I don’t figure theists to be irrational, at least not by definition. Their beliefs are another matter, but they often say the same of me. Getting down to the particulars helps; invoking reason as cultural capital doesn’t.

    I would add that the whole notion that aliens created the pyramids, etc. is a particular pet peeve of mine, not the least of reasons being that it usually involves assumptions about what certain people are capable of on their own. A Mormon friend of mine considered irrigation proof positive that Jesus had visited the Americas, …because of course we all know they couldn’t have thought of it themselves. The notion that someone extraordinary had to be responsible for (insert impressive ancient technological feat here) usually relies on similar inferences of one kind or another.

  10. left0ver1under says

    One doesn’t have to go out to the fringe to find irrationality amongst atheists. Take alien life, for example, and I’m not talking about von Daniken-type nonsense.

    I’ve lost count of how many supposedly expert astronomers (e.g. Michiko Kaku) who assume that finding life elsewhere is an eventuality. They are guilty of assuming that “it’s true, that we just haven’t found it yet”.

    I’ve met people who won’t even tolerate reasonable questions like:

    “What if ours is the only planet with life or the first planet with life?”

    “What if their life is extinct or never produced technology capable of radio waves, let alone rocketry?”

    “What if the timing is wrong – we arrived too early or too late to pick up such signals as they travel through space?”

    Such people act as if their wishful thinking were a foregone conclusion, blinded by what they want to be true rather than what is.

  11. oolon says

    By creating a community of atheists, either in reality or virtually, and then denigrating other communities because of their belief systems as if they were homogeneous across the community then we are falling into the same trap of any racist, homophobe or sexist? By that I mean by denigrating the community at a whole – their individual beliefs as expressed by individuals in books or by individuals in written or spoken form are obviously fair game. Things like saying all Catholics ‘believe’ in transubstantiation – or they are not proper Catholics if they don’t so there is no way in our minds that any in that community could possibly be rational – then smugly self-aggrandising that *we* would never be so stupid to believe in shit like that! De-humanising a community like that leads to my group is better than your group thinking.

    The ‘slimepit’ is a good example as there are many in FtBs who say they are ‘all misogynists’ and ‘rape apologists’ etc etc. The very act of naming them all as a derogatory grouping will reinforce the differences and lead to irrationality. On Thunderf00ts blog there are a bunch arguing that FtBs and Skepchick is some sort of feminist conspiracy to undermine atheism or something, so they are beating FtBs on the irrationality side. They are about as rational as any bigfoot believer and it seems to stem from a fighting for my side mentality. Once they identify with a group and they have been taught to de-humanise other groups that have different views from them then is it really surprising when they do exactly that? Actually on some levels it is especially as TFs latest post is all about laughing at a skepchick because she felt so unwelcome at TAM that the cried – only by some pretty serious dehumanisation could you manage such an epic empathy block.

  12. smhll says

    A Mormon friend of mine considered irrigation proof positive that Jesus had visited the Americas, …because of course we all know they couldn’t have thought of it themselves.

    Very small children playing with sand and water at the beach show amazing inventive abilities. Sigh. Superskepticism may require actually burying one’s head in the sand and not looking up.

  13. aziraphale says

    Those are reasonable questions, but I see why they would annoy anyone who wants to keep listening for signals. After all there could be another technological species quite close, and if we don’t listen we will never know.

    Your second and third “What if?”s are essentially about the lifetime of a technological civilization. We don’t know, of course, but I would think that any civilization that spread off its home planet – for which we already have credible plans – would be rather hard to kill. It’s surely unlikely that we are the first planet with life – our Sun is much younger than the universe.

  14. Jesse says

    you know, I wonder how much of the alien-love when it comes to the pyramids or irrigation systems in the Americas or the freaking moan on Easter Island is a subset of the racism. I’d argue it is.

    I mean, I never hear anyone say that Notre Dame was built by aliens from Zantar. It’s so freaking ridiculous. Now, one of the things that colors my view is that I have actually worked as a carpenter. Some of the techniques are thousands of years old and require nothing more sophisticated than a good eye and a piece of string. You can make a good joint without even a tape measure. Want to make a straight road? A bowl of water and a second spotter will let you keep it level as far as you want.

  15. says

    This seems to assuem atheism is rational, when it isn’t necessarily. These people aren’t always compartmentalizing to allow themselves to hold rational and irrational beliefs. THey believe a true thing for bad reasons in many cases. Zeitgeist is one prominent example. Or, look at anything Pat Condell has said about religion. A lot of them think religion is just another conspiracy.

  16. says

    I wasn’t assuming that atheism was rational in this post, I was implying that many within the movement seem to equate it with rationalism, when the two – while often overlapping – are not synonymous. As the examples I used illustrated, there are any number of people within the atheist, secularist, humanist, and yes, even skeptic communities who hold irrational beliefs, yet either don’t recognize them as such, or refuse to examine them out of a disinclination to abandon them. Atheists who are devotees of the ‘Ancient Aliens’ hypothesis for example, or skeptics who are skeptical of everything except for chemtrails; the communities built by atheists, skeptics, and humanists are often just as rife with people who believe strange, silly, or irrational things as religious ones. It often seems to me that the only difference is found in which silly beliefs people build their worldviews around. I’ve pointed them out before, but for an interesting look into an exceptionally bizarre atheist community, check out the Southern Poverty Law Center’s information on the “Creativity Movement” (Also sometimes known as the World Church of the Creator) – spoiler alert: they’re atheist white supremacists who are trying to build their own ‘racial religion’.

  17. says

    I mean, I never hear anyone say that Notre Dame was built by aliens from Zantar.

    That’s because the aliens that built Notre Dame were from Molag Prime. Sheesh.

  18. left0ver1under says

    Hey, I didn’t say “Don’t listen for signals,” I said don’t assume that finding them is an inevitability. Big difference. I’m all for the search, espcially considering how little SETI costs compared to one jet fighter (about 1/100th the cost).

    Time and timing are huge question when it comes to extraterrestrial life. Radio waves aren’t just going to sit around on the edge of the solar system waiting until we’re ready to receive them, they’re going to pass Earth when they arrive, whether we’re ready or not (sorta like Cosmos being on TV in 1980 when most people didn’t own VCRs). The only way we’ll hear anything is if our existence and another’s occured at the same time, or the difference in time was exactly the same as the difference in light years. The only other way for us to know is if an intelligent species put up a beacon that outlasted their civilization.

    The universe is 13 billion years old, the Earth is 5 billion, and humans are less than 500,000 years old and likely not to last much longer at the rate we’re damaging the planet. The radio age is barely 100 years; if the existence of the universe were a 24 hour clock, our ability to hear alien intelligence came in the last 1/1000th of a second before midnight. Who knows how much has passed by and we’ll never know because we weren’t around to see it? Or more likely, nothing passed by because there’s nothing there.

    As for your last point, what do you mean “it’s unlikely we’re the only planet”? How do you know? The Earth was lifeless for a billion years after forming, 9 billion into the universe’s existence. The heavier atoms on Earth are only here because of a prior supernova, not from the big bang, which means such material on other planets would also require a lot of time and a supernova to come into existence. So many events had to come together in the right order just for us to exist, never mind elsewhere.

    Life here may only be a fluke or accident, not an repeatable inevitability of chemistry. I’d like it to be true that there’s life elsewhere (“no UFOs to save us”, to quote Public Image Ltd.), but I won’t believe or assume it exists until it’s found.

  19. mynameischeese says

    A few years ago, I made a fake “documentary” about how aliens built the World Trade Center. I spliced footage from a real documentary about the WTC with commentary from one of those aliens-built-the-pyramids videos. Bascially, I did it because I agree with you that people must be a bit racist to assume that the Egyptians didn’t build the pyramids themselves.

    Youtube took it down, though, for copyright infringment.

  20. says

    The main difference between rationalists and non-rationalists (including theists and those conspiracy theory nuts) is that rationalists will admit when they’re being irrational. Just as you did with your irrational fear of needles. You know it’s irrational so you don’t act on it in damaging ways. Sure, you may look away as you get a vaccination but you get the vaccination. Theists (and other nutters) refuse to examine their beliefs at all so are unwilling to learn of and admit their irrationality.

  21. smrnda says

    My take on the term ‘delusional’ for whatever it’s worth:

    I’ve actually had delusions because I’ve had serious mental health issues most of my life. I don’t get offended when someone attacks irrational beliefs as ‘delusional,’ but I feel that it’s a really inaccurate take on what’s going on.

    When a person is delusional, they aren’t always getting accurate sensory input from the outside world. If you are having hallucinations, you’re going to reach faulty conclusions and behave strangely because you’re behaving consistently with what you actually do observe.

    Now, when a person holds highly irrational beliefs, they are (most of the time) privy to the same information and observations as everybody else. Unlike a truly delusional person, they are getting all the correct information, but for some reason the they aren’t employing logic and reason properly.

    Part of this still could be psychological – some people are more prone to magical thinking than others.

    Some people are worse at evaluating the relative plausibility of different hypothesis for lack of an adequate knowledge base. The latter often happens when a person simply doesn’t take the time to assess what they know and what they don’t and to close the gaps in their knowledge. Again, this could also be partly psychological (plenty of people are prone to be opinionated on topics they know little or nothing about, and many people resist doing research since it requires time, patience, and enough humility to admit you need to do it.)

  22. says

    The main difference between rationalists and non-rationalists… is that rationalists will admit when they’re being irrational.

    If this were true, then I wouldn’t have to spend time every single week explaining to the self-proclaimed ‘rationalists’ I know that, as a matter of fact, Fascist-style corporatism and eugenics are not perfectly reasonable things to endorse, and that performing gruesome experiments on prisoners is not morally or ethically acceptable, just because they’ve committed a crime (apparently if you’re busted trafficking dope, you ‘deserve’ to be experimented upon – up to an including vivisections without anaesthesia ). Sure it could be argued that they ‘aren’t real rationalists’, but my hunch is that if we went ahead and tried to purge the category of ‘rationalist’ of anyone and everyone who holds even a single irrational idea, we’re going to end up with a category that includes only chess-playing supercomputers… and maybe not even them.

  23. A Hermit says

    I ran into this one recently…sceptics have been wrong in the past about stuff like global warming, therefore we shouldn’t be talking about things like feminism or rape culture because we might be wrong about them too.

    Yeah I know it makes no sense, but this was from someone calling themselves a sceptic…

  24. A Hermit says

    When a person is delusional, they aren’t always getting accurate sensory input from the outside world. If you are having hallucinations, you’re going to reach faulty conclusions and behave strangely because you’re behaving consistently with what you actually do observe.

    Now, when a person holds highly irrational beliefs, they are (most of the time) privy to the same information and observations as everybody else. <Unlike a truly delusional person, they are getting all the correct information, but for some reason the they aren’t employing logic and reason properly.

    Interesting and important distinction there. Thanks for that.

  25. says

    There’s a difference between illusion and delusion though. A person who watches the television and believes that the anchor is sending hir coded messages is deluded, not because ze is receiving different sensory input than someone who doesn’t come to the same conclusion, but because there is something in hir head that says that there is something personally meaningful in the broadcast. Hallucination and illusion are separate from delusion, at least psychopathologically speaking.

  26. Dunc says

    The sad fat is that, for a lot of people, “atheist” or “sceptic” are just tribal identifiers. People use them as talismans*, to assert their membership of the group and assert their difference from Those People.

    That’s not to say that’s the case for everybody, obviously… But it’s a lot more common than many would like to admit.

    * Looks like the wrong plural to me, but wiktionary assures me that it’s correct.

  27. Corvus illustris says

    Both sides of this subthread appear, on closer examination, to be making statements about the probability of life existing on planets of other solar systems. The probability estimates seem to be based on off-the-cuff assumptions that might not survive closer examination. This context is one in which reasonable persons might want to think of William Dembski, fold their papers, put them in a desk drawer, and think harder about the subject.

  28. smrnda says

    Thanks for the distinction. I tend to fall into the habit of using one word since I’ve never had delusions without some sort of hallucination going on at the same time. Sloppy of me though.

    I’m actually really curious as to what an hallucination-free delusional episode would be like.

    Also, are some delusions just dismissed because they are too popular? If someone began thinking that their neighbor was “the Antichrist” that would be tagged as a delusion, but if a bunch of people think “Obama is the Antichrist” somehow it’s regarded as an irrational but pervasive belief, because it’s about a famous person. I’m sure that it takes an actual clinical professional to assess the person though.

  29. says

    So much of mental illness is defined by comparison to a standard of “normal” that is never really defined (and, more than likely, is a goddamn lie). The DSM actually removes religious beliefs from the category of things one can be (medically) deluded about. You can’t have a religious delusion according to the DSM, because religious belief is in fact the definition of delusional. The standard way of looking at mental disorders is that when they start interfering with your ability to live your life (however that’s defined), they become pathological. Until they reach that point, they’re just “quirks”.

    Have you ever had a crush on someone and weren’t sure if they felt the same way? Have you ever ran that person’s actions through a filter of attempting to divine what their intentions are? Have you ever been convinced that someone had feelings for you based on seemingly-incontrovertible evidence, only to later find out that you were reading too much into what was, to them, neutral behaviour? If so, or if you can appreciate what that would be like, I’d imagine you’d have some insight into what it is to be deluded without hallucinating. Of course, the difference between that comparatively normal* experience and a destructive obsession is a matter of degree, not type. If I think my favourite bartender has a little thing for me, I’m a sap. If I think I’m in a relationship with her even though we don’t spend any time together, I’m a deluded sap. If I follow her home based on our “relationship”, I’m a stalker. Degree, not type.

    Of course, there are ways to use other information to check for delusion. Does she answer my phone calls? Do we spend time together outside of work? Does she ask me to spend time with her that doesn’t involve her serving me drinks? If the answer to any of these is ‘no’, one could reasonably assume that it is too early to define whatever I have with the bartender as a “relationship” of the type I would perhaps like. If, however, I have no ‘reality check’ aside from my personal feelings, I can find myself in seriously dangerous ground (particularly for her). This is why religion, based on faith, is inherently dangerous – no reality checks.

    *Or maybe it isn’t normal and I have just outed myself as a stage-III creeper.

  30. says

    I ran into this one recently…sceptics have been wrong in the past about stuff like global warming, therefore we shouldn’t be talking about things like feminism or rape culture because we might be wrong about them too.

    Yeah I know it makes no sense, but this was from someone calling themselves a sceptic…

    That’s because if you are ‘skeptical’ about things that are demonstrably true or correct, you are being a failskeptic XD

  31. RuQu says

    I think we can safely include “thinks using made up pronouns in any way benefits communication or makes the world a better place” in the list of irrational, perhaps even delusional, thinking that many in the secular/humanist/atheist/skeptic/et al community buy into.

  32. says

    Well praise Vecna you showed up to set us all on the right path! I mean, here I was thinking that the use of more inclusive pronouns might actually serve the purpose of making communication you know, more inclusive or something – like maybe using pronouns that don’t by definition exclude whole segments of the population from the discussion might actually help foster a more respectful and welcoming environment. Good thing you came in to let us all know how wrong we were. Pack it in folks! We’re done here!

  33. RuQu says

    In the interests of rationality, did you pause to consider the full implications of these decisions? Did you consider the other options?

    Did you consider that perhaps, using made-up words such as “ze” and “hir” constitutes a form of jargon that is actually exclusionary? The simple decision to use those words sets you apart from the general English speaking world, and makes anyone who doesn’t know them an outsider.

    Consider also the implications of your response(s). The obvious implication is that anyone using actual English is both disrespectful and unwelcoming.

    To pull a quote (of a quote) from the wikipedia article on gender-neutral pronouns (which I found when looking up “hir” as I’ve seen it a few times in the past few days and have come to the conclusion it wasn’t a typo):

    Like most efforts at language reform, these well-intended suggestions have been largely ignored by the general English-speaking public, and the project to supplement the English pronoun system has proved to be an ongoing exercise in futility. Pronouns are one of the most basic components of a language, and most speakers appear to have little interest in adopting invented ones. This may be because in most situations people can get by using the plural pronoun they or using other constructions that combine existing pronouns, such as he/she or “he or she”.

    The article also lists other attempts at this in English going back to 1858 or earlier (at least 1745 if you count acknowledging the problem and saying “screw it, just use ‘he'”).

    So, let’s recap:
    This effort has been tried, and failed, for 150+ years.
    The use of such made up words excludes those not familiar with your jargon.
    There is an inherent judgment in their use that standard English speakers are disrespectful and sexist.
    It completely ignores the commonly accepted and massively popular “singular they.”

    It’s fun?
    You get a feeling of moral superiority?
    It helps you fit in in certain crowds.
    It avoids a confusion of number (s/pl You/You and They/They).

    It is interesting also that in an article where you talk about how we are all irrational and choose to ignore it when it is one of our pet beliefs, you immediately respond with knee-jerk sarcastic attacks to anyone who even suggests a belief you hold is irrational.

  34. says

    Well actually you didn’t “suggest” that it was irrational. You just out-and-out asserted it, with absolutely no reason behind it. Which is a boffo trolling technique, but barely scratches the surface of reasoned critique.

    By the way, love the exhortation for me to use “actual English”. Shall I point out the various errors and use of vernacular in your posts, or can we simply skip past your several hypocrisies and simply conclude that language is a rather plastic entity?

    The obvious implication is that anyone using actual English is both disrespectful and unwelcoming.

    That’s true to the extent that the “obvious implication” of me going to work in the morning is that anyone unemployed is a lazy asshole. I use gender neutral pronouns for a number of reasons. One is that despite your argumentum ad Wikipedia, gender-neutral pronouns are widely used in many social justice blogs (of which this is one). He/she covers only two possible gender expressions, and I try my best to avoid gender essentialism because I recognize the harm it does. It’s also a useful consciousness raiser. This barely qualifies as a “pet belief”. It is a preference of language. Every writer has them. This is one of several that I have.

    Furthermore, I’ve been using ‘ze’ and ‘hir’ for quite some time now, and amazingly you’re the first person who’s ever been so overwhelmingly confused by it that ze felt it necessary to comment about it. I realize my use of language is a barrier for some people. If you’re finding it that difficult, I suggest Dr. Seuss instead.

    Also, and this isn’t really relevant to your dickish response, but it was not I who wrote this post. And, if you read the post, you will see that Edwin (the post’s author) makes the specific point that everyone has irrational beliefs. It’s not “everyone except us”; it’s the exact opposite of that.

    Hop on Pop is a classic. Start there, work your way up to the Lorax.

  35. says

    Also, for the record…

    you immediately respond with knee-jerk sarcastic attacks

    I don’t have to say something smart just because you say something stupid. That’s not how this works.

  36. RuQu says

    First I should point out that I replied to you (the second time) not Edwin because of limitations on the comment nesting. There is no dedicated reply to Edwin. Your post didn’t warrant any response.

    Edwin said:

    like maybe using pronouns that don’t by definition exclude whole segments of the population from the discussion might actually help foster a more respectful and welcoming environment.

    Which does pretty explicitly condemn standard English of being disrespectful and exclusionary.

    I made no such deductions from anything you said except to conclude that, like so many people, you don’t like criticism. Tongue-in-cheek short-formatting for comments aside, the slightest implication that your pet belief (using made up words promotes social justice) was irrational provoked an emotional response far in excess of what was intended.

    I don’t think anyone is suggesting that language is a static entity. What I was saying, and clearly, was that the attempt to substitute made up words for gender-neutral English pronoun that includes humans (as opposed to “it”) has been going on for a very long time, and is unlikely to ever succeed.

    “Widely used in social justice blogs” simply translates to “this is part of the jargon of my community.” I conceded that it was jargon in my previous statement, but find it ironic that you rationalize exclusionary language as helping to promote social justice based on your own selection bias. As the title of one of your articles says(which I haven’t read but I happen to have queued in another tab from when I stumbled on it yesterday), “You’re not a racist, you’re just racist.” You’re not an irrational person, you’re just irrational and the amount of venom you have over this one issue suggests it strikes a deep emotional cord that bypasses your rational thought.

    Implications by a random blogger about my intellect are pretty much irrelevant, as I am aware of my credentials (no need to cite them as anyone can be anything on the internet). I am also quite aware of my position on issues of social justice, seeing as I’m married to a very passionate feminist (which again I am sure is irrelevant to you). Your personal attacks, besides being based on nothing but anger and an attempt to discourage conversation (ironic) are based on absolutely zero information about me except that I think your choice of made up pronouns is silly.

    I’d like to point out that you had an opportunity, if you wanted to promote social justice, to “enlighten” me after my first comment. Instead you went with sarcasm. Edwin also passed on this opportunity. Instead, especially in your second post, you decided to go with personal attacks.

    That’s quite a solid defense you’ve put up there. I commend your rationality and the clear dedication to inclusion, social justice, outreach demonstrated by the mature level of discourse you’ve shown so far. Kudos.

  37. says

    I’d like to point out that you had an opportunity, if you wanted to promote social justice, to “enlighten” me after my first comment. Instead you went with sarcasm. Edwin also passed on this opportunity. Instead, especially in your second post, you decided to go with personal attacks.

    Translation: “You said some mean things in response to me acting like a total asshat, therefore I will ignore the whole part where you explained yourself”

    You’re not a special snowflake. Your arguments are lazy and old and uninteresting. And if you think this is “venom”, you should see how I write when I care about something. Your dumb ass is simply a whetstone that I’m happy to use to sharpen my wit for when someone who really deserves it comes along. “Random person who gripes about hurt fee-fees because of gender neutral pronouns” isn’t even a setting on my Offend-o-meter(tm).

    Your personal attacks… are based on absolutely zero information about me except that I think your choice of made up pronouns is silly.

    Please point to the personal attacks. I’d characterize them more as personal dismissals. Because your points are bad and your should feel bad. I’m just super concerned that you don’t personally think that gender-neutral pronouns will catch on. It means the world to me. I’ll stop forcing you to use them when you write.

  38. RuQu says

    So, ignoring the ranting diatribe and ad hominem and attempting to glean a point in all that, let’s look at what you are actually saying in all that.

    1) Ze/Hir avoids the harm that you claim is caused by words like he/she/his/her.

    2) Edwin says, and I assume you believe due to your claim to support social justice, that these new words “foster a more respectful and welcoming environment.”

    Now you also suggest that I was clearly a troll (I posit that I am not, and that, while I do think your made up pronouns are silly and ineffectual, I don’t honestly believe that they are delusional. That was tongue-in-cheek hyperbole expanding on your comments about people being deluded.). If I was a troll, I should have been ignored by the old rule of “Don’t feed the trolls.” Assuming you aren’t an idiot (an assumption), your engagement with me suggests you didn’t actually think I was troll, but merely thought I was ignorant (in either the insulting connotation or the more neutral meaning of “unaware of key points.”)

    Now, seeing as you engaged me, let’s assume that that I am simply “some random stranger ignorant of your social activist language norms.” Let’s work on the assumption that I am not a special snowflake, which I make no claim to be.

    Now look back at your response, and Edwin’s. Does anything you have said or done look respectful or welcoming? Note, that if you think only special snowflakes are deserving of respect and welcoming, you are probably not suited to any sort of social activism.

    Let’s also assume that I was unaware of your blogger jargon. You had the option to be bitter, disrespectful, rude, and insulting. Or you could have taken the stance suggested by this awesome xkcd comic:

    Of the possible ways to spread your message of inclusion, respect, welcoming environments for everyone, and social justice you chose to use these methods:

    1) Preach to like-minded people on the internet.
    2) Use the words “ze” and “hir”

    You chose to ignore these methods:
    1) Being respectful
    2) Creating a welcoming environment
    3) Seeing what you think is ignorant and taking the opportunity to spread your message
    4) Not being an asshole

    Now, to be fair, you are the super important internet blogger man, and I am simply “random commenter number 8712.” I’m sure there are very rational reasons backed up by lots of sociological experiments that show how your method accomplishes your goals far better.

    I only recently stumbled across FTB via the WWJTD blog about the high school teacher actively suppressing a secular club, a link shared with me by my wife who found it on jezebel. In the time since then, I have come to do a fair amount of reading here and on related blogs, and a certain incident involving elevators has only just now come to my attention despite it being about a year out of date. I see frequent comments about “FTB is unwelcoming and hostile to new people.” I wasn’t sure what was meant by that until now.

    Now, you can continue with insults and ignoring what I’ve said. I think most people reading through here will see a difference in the tone of my posts and yours.

    I am not a social activist.

    You claim to be.

    You should really be aware of the messages you send, the atmosphere and environment you create, and how you react to criticism, ignorance, and trolling. I say this as a Hispanic man who does support efforts to eliminate racism in this country (which is highly anti-Latino right now), and efforts to encourage inclusion of non-white males in the skeptic and secular community.

    As it stands, with the way you behave and treat others, I don’t expect your efforts will ever amount to much. Hopefully there are others who will be more effectual.

  39. says

    Interesting that you would link to that comic, because it IN NO WAY describes your behaviour. Please don’t confuse the way I behave and treat “others” with the way I treat you. You decided to show up and snark about gender-neutral pronouns. You’ve since offered derail after derail, and generally acted as though I owe you something. I don’t. I gave you an explanation, along with some abuse for being a dick. You climbed up on your high horse of “you didn’t treat me like I am entitled to patient hand-holding, therefore you’re UNREASONABLE”. I am not creating an unwelcome environment generally. I am creating an unwelcome environment for YOU, because YOU are generally being a giant tool. If you had simply, oh I dunno, ASKED why I use gender-neutral pronouns, I would have told you. You instead chose to vent a bunch of speculations about my motivations. I am in no way obligated to provide a “welcome environment” for people who come into my home and shit on the rug. Sorry, snowflake, that ain’t how the world is.

    I think most people reading through here will see a difference in the tone of my posts and yours.

    I’m fairly confident that most people reading here are as annoyed by arguments about “tone” as I am. Maybe you’ll be wrong and this site will spiral into oblivion because of how UNWELCOMING I am to people.

    with the way you behave and treat others, I don’t expect your efforts will ever amount to much. Hopefully there are others who will be more effectual.

    Well let’s hope you have better luck than I do. I’ll just be over here, fostering an unwelcome environment.

    Also, that’s not what ad hominem means. I said I didn’t care about your opinion because your arguments were bad, not the other way around. Again, that’s not really relevant to anything, but I would advise you to look up the fallacy before attempting to identify it.

  40. RuQu says

    There is a whole lot of “you are stupid, you’re arguments are stupid, you can’t read, you’re a tool, etc” and no actual discussion of my arguments. They are simply rejected out of hand, apparently on the sole basis of my stupidity.

    Of course, in my first, light-hearted post that you chose to interpret as an attack, there was no argument at all. Simply a statement.

    In your current post your response to my claim that you would be better at activism if you created a welcoming environment is met directly with “you’re a tool, so you don’t deserve it.” Never mind that this is based on your default stance of being the victim and assuming that you are being attacked.

    As for my odds of success at activism, they are very slim, considering I explicitly said I am not an activist. I’m sure you missed that on accident since it is clear you are a competent reader who reads the entirety of a post in context and doesn’t just fly into a rant on the first thing that supports your argument.

    Let’s be honest, if I had said “Made up words are silly. Why not use ‘singular they?’,” would you have responded any differently. I think it’s unlikely, though I admit that it is possible.

    Was your “explanation with abuse for being a dick” that first eloquent response?

    Boooyah! PRONOUN BURN! Oh man, I just got schooled SO HARD! IN THE FACE!

    Very informative.

    Or was it in your next post where your reasons were: “my friends use it” (other social bloggers), “he/she/his/her does harm” (asserted with no support), and “I’ve been doing this for a long time.” Note that those are the only three points you raise in its defense over multiple paragraphs. You do, however, find time to call me a troll, a hypocrite, disregard my whole argument because I referenced wikipedia, call me easily confused, suggest I have a language barrier, suggest my reading comprehension requires I go start with Dr. Seuss, call me a dick, and go back to the Dr. Seuss line one more time.

    Your priorities were pretty clear there.

    Now, I’m sure that there are plenty of people who will just skip these comments. I’m sure there are plenty who will read them and not care, or read them and say “that was rude, but RuQu was a bit of dick in that first post.”

    The more relevant question is, since they are public, who reads them and says “Wow, Cromunist really is an asshole.” Not only that, how many of them come away thinking your an asshole, and still haven’t learned anything about why you use made up pronouns because insulting me is your priority?

    Being a public asshole to anyone who you feel even slightly criticizes you doesn’t just create an unwelcome atmosphere for the person you are interacting with, it has the ability to alienate others who see it and read it.

    I often judge others not by how they treat me, since I am usually in a position of authority in my workplace and therefore there is a reason to treat me well. Far more telling is how people treat those who have nothing to offer them. That is when you really get the true measure of a man.

    And your true measure appears very small indeed.

  41. smrnda says

    I don’t think using ‘hir’ or ‘ze’ is elitist or exclusionary. Crommunist hasn’t been forcing anyone to use those terms, he just uses them himself.

    I used to use ‘they’ and ‘their’ as a gender-neutral pronoun as a way to get around using ‘her’ (being female, I tend to default to ‘she’ and ‘her’ but I would prefer to be more inclusive.)

    At first I thought that ‘hir’ and all this was just never going to catch on, so I stuck with ‘they’ and ‘their,’ though I would never have criticized someone for using the invented pronouns. But now that I’m seeing the terms more often, I feel okay about using them.

    Using these terms is no more elitist than using any other word that isn’t used by absolutely everybody. It’s elitist if it’s done with a kind of snotty attitude, but I’m not seeing it used that way on this post.

  42. smrnda says

    Oops. It is probably incorrect to call ‘ze’ or ‘hir’ ‘invented pronouns’ as if other pronouns were somehow less artificial. Just wanted to clear that up because I think it’s worth saying.

  43. RuQu says

    I would certainly call them “silly” more than I would call them exclusionary. They are exclusionary only in that they identify their users as members of a club, and their non-users as outside of that club. This club also stakes claim to being more inclusive and respectful, which carries a connotation that non-members of the “hir”-club are less inclusive and respectful.

    The wikipedia article on gender neutral pronouns lists “hir” and a great many other attempts at this goal under the heading of “invented pronouns.” This isn’t derogatory, just as there is nothing derogatory about calling Esperanto an invented language. “Hir” and “ze” did not evolve naturally as part of a local dialect and then spread as their utility was recognized by the masses. They were intentionally thought up as a solution to the problem of gender-neutrality and then promoted.

    I don’t think the use of the terms “ze” or “hir” are hurtful, particularly because they are so rarely used outside of a small community that the odds of suffering any social ramifications of not using them are slim to nil. I’ve only recently encountered them, primarily through discussions with John Horstman (who comments here on FTB under that name) on another site. I just assumed it was a typo until I saw Crommunist use it as well.

    I’d be interested to hear, from someone like you smrnda who doesn’t default to insults, what the perceived advantages of new pronouns are over the far more common “singular They.” You say you use them more now because you see them more, but that is clearly related to sampling bias. A certain sub-community (FTB and, presumably, other blogs) uses those words, so you use them in the context of that community. Do you use them in spoken communication? Do you use them in documents at work or school? When doing so, do others understand what you mean (the purpose of communication)? When people ask, and you explain, do you observe their reaction? Does it appear that they feel like they have just been accused of being insensitive or rude? Does it make them uncomfortable? In the end, do you think it actually effectively accomplishes the objective of making people think about how some people don’t fit into standard gender norms? For that matter, do you think making people think about how some people are different actually accomplishes social justice, instead of focusing more on how people are the same?

    I know that’s a lot of questions, but, as they say “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Suggesting that a set of new pronouns are needed to replace using They as a singular gender neutral is fairly extraordinary.

  44. says

    (Thread’s too deep to respond to this directly.)

    I’m actually really curious as to what an hallucination-free delusional episode would be like.

    I assume you know the basic criteria of delusions: certainty, incorrigibility, and impossibility or falseness.

    As an example, I have severe social phobia. I get severe anxiety in any social interaction that doesn’t involve clear relationship definitions: I can deal with professors, classmates (during class), bosses, and coworkers, and to a lesser extent friends, but have a lot of problems going to a party, meeting people (outside of work/class), or in the initial stages of romantic relationships. I can give speeches to crowds of hundreds, but not tell jokes in front of a few people at a party.

    A number of times when I’ve managed to ask someone on a date and they say yes, I’ve later been convinced that they said ‘yes’ to get me to go away and don’t actually like me. This has been, in all cases, entirely irrational. I have literally no reason to believe this, and sometimes abundant evidence to disbelieve it, but I still do. I also interpret any new information (e.g. them not calling… for a day, them having fun with friends) as supporting this idea even though it’s completely unrelated.

    Thankfully I’ve learned that these beliefs are completely irrational and can recognize them as false even when I’m having them. I now only believe them in the same way I believed in god for a while after I realized intellectually that god almost certainly doesn’t exist. The belief is there, my emotions are pretty much beholden to it, but because I know it’s not true I don’t have to act on it.

  45. says

    Being a public asshole to anyone who you feel even slightly criticizes you

    You and I clearly have a very different view of your actions on this comment thread. Bear in mind that this is far from the only comment thread that exists on this blog, and there are a lot of people who have disagreed with me on a lot of topics. While this back-and-forth represents your total interaction with me, it does not represent the whole of ‘Crommunist interacts with someone who disagrees with him’. So the question you have to ask yourself is why did you get singled out for abuse?

    Never mind that this is based on your default stance of being the victim and assuming that you are being attacked.

    I feel attacked? Merciful heavens! Someone alert the gendarmes! I don’t feel attacked in any way shape or form. I feel annoyed that you continue to take this posture of “tut tut, you must only disagree with me because you’re angry” rather than, oh I don’t know, reading what it is that I’m saying. But attacked? Like I said, random internet comment drama ranks very very low on the list of things that I care about enough to feel anything besides bemusement.

    Let’s be honest, if I had said “Made up words are silly. Why not use ‘singular they?’,” would you have responded any differently. I think it’s unlikely, though I admit that it is possible.

    Oh neat! Testable claim! Let’s see, shall we? Here is a whole comments thread essentially devoted to the same issue. There’s even parts where people disagree with me! Amazingly they all escape censure. And yet you don’t. Mysterious.

    Was your “explanation with abuse for being a dick” that first eloquent response?

    No, I gave a level of response commensurate to the quality of the criticism. That is to say, you give me a content-free criticism (i.e. “this post is about rationality – gender neutral pronouns are irrational!”), I give you a content-free response. You then followed it up with a diatribe about how excluded you felt by my choice not to use “real English”, while speculating about my motivations for my choice (instead of just asking like a decent person). I responded to that bit of snark with some of my own. And then you turned up the whining to 11 and started talking about how “unwelcome” you felt, and how I had some kind of DUTY to explain things to you, and that somehow I was failing in that duty and would ultimately be a failure in my efforts because I don’t treat every person who says something dumb as though they were a special snowflake whose education was my responsibility.

    So yeah, I’m actually pretty comfortable with how this whole thing reads. Incidentally, if someone points out behaviour that matches the insult they follow it with, that’s not a blind contentless attack; it’s a description of your actions. So “this is actually really clear, and if you’re as CONFUSED by it as you say you are, perhaps the problem is your reading comprehension” is not a smear that ignores your statement – it is a smear that specifically addresses it.

    And your true measure appears very small indeed.

    It’s not the LONGEST, but it’s pretty thick around. I dunno, I haven’t had any complaints so far.

  46. RuQu says

    I have a good friend with a very similar anxiety. We are only friends because we met as classmates. I was extremely extroverted, liked him and his family, and had no problems hanging out in places where he felt safe (mostly home).

    He does well online, and at work. He seems to be doing okay, although I live in a different state and don’t see him much anymore. However, it was severe enough that he couldn’t attend my wedding because of it. His mom came, and I understood and don’t resent his refusal to come.

    I think another example of delusions without hallucinations is false memory. Memory is extremely malleable, and you can easily convince yourself of things that never happened just by intentionally retelling a story wrong enough times.

    My mother has suffered some traumas in her life. Some were real. Some were not. The problem is, she gets an idea in her head that something happened, and she insists that it is true. She retells it and retells it with more detail each time, until she has fleshed it out in vivid detail. Despite some of these memories involving the presence of multiple people all of whom insist the event never happened, her (new) memories are so vivid that they have become true for her. Sadly, she refuses to see anyone mental health professionals, and is consistently insulted by the suggestion, which makes sense in the context of her memories and worldview. To her, we are the crazy ones with flawed memories.

  47. says

    Okay this is has ceased to be amusing, and it was never productive. I’m sorry for misinterpreting your initial remark and then your subsequent line of argument. Clearly the problem is in my understanding of your intention, and it was not generous of me to immediately write you off.

    As far as your substantive points go, I will reiterate in snarkless terms. I made a choice, a long time back, to use ‘ze’ and ‘hir’ because I have always found him/her or she/he to be clumsy both when spoken and written. Singular pronouns are much more suited to my style. It was shortly thereafter that I realized they have a secondary effect – they also include people who do not identify within the gender binary. The fact that this signals to others that they should think about how they conceptualize gender is a bonus, but it is certainly not done to exclude anyone or make anyone else feel ‘lesser’ (or to mark myself as superior). If you feel that way then I’m sorry, but if I have to make the choice between ‘having my language reflect a better understanding of gender’ or ‘making allowances for what I view as an unreasonable feeling of exclusion’, it’s not a tough choice for me to make.

    The fact that it has been tried before is irrelevant to the fact that I have chosen to adopt this language form for the reasons I describe above. I think it has utility, and I know from discussions with trans gendered people that gender binary constructs are inherently problematic – not just for trans people but for society in general. If you’re interested I could make an effort to detail them, but you’d be better off reading a blog that deals specifically with gender issues. There are a few on this network I can recommend.

  48. RuQu says

    I had a response to your previous post mostly written up, and then my phone buzzed a new email and I stopped to check it. I’m glad I did, and that other post shall remain unposted.

    As I said, I was not trolling, I was wrapping a short (comment-section length) observation (“made up words are silly”) in, what I perceived to be, a mildly humorous contextual wrapper (the talk of delusions).

    I will repeat some of my questions I had for smrnda, although the context is different here since you chose to go this route and they (see what I did there?) adopted it due to its prevalence in this community.

    What advantage does it have over “singular They?”

    I think everyone on Earth agrees that h/she and his/her are awkward and a poor solution to the problem. However, very few people are opposed to singular “you” or feel that “you” (singular or plural) or plural “they” casts any gender assignment or judgment. Neither “you” nor “they” creates any gender binary to exclude those who don’t identify as he or she.

    From your post it seems that is simply a matter of preference, in that you said you prefer singular pronouns. Are you opposed to singular “you” as well? If not, what benefit is there in “ze/hir” over adopting singular “they?”

    It appears that you think the other benefit is social activism by drawing attention to these issues.

    How effective do you think this is?

    As per the story related in the link to the other comments you posted, how many people do you think, even non-traditionally gendered, respond with “Really?” when they hear those terms?

    While I know some people feel that highlighting differences is the key to solving these problems, others feel that focusing on differences instead of similarities only highlights and entrenches those differences and creates an “us vs them” mentality. A nice short clip of Morgan Freeman on the topic that expresses the view I (a Hispanic male, if we have to place labels) agree with:

    Why does it matter that you are transgendered, or gay or straight? How about, instead of putting a name on you, I just agree that you are a person entitled to all the rights of a person? Or call you by name?

    Now, I can foresee an argument that “ze” fully replace “he” and “she” for even those of us who identify as fully male/female in all the traditional senses of the term. That isn’t going to happen. I’m stationed in the South right now, and I can assure you, there is no chance you will ever convince many of these people to call themselves “ze” just to make people who they disapprove of feel better. Sad, but true. What you can do is encourage the use of the already common “singular they.” It seems innocent, with no direct LGBT(etc) agenda, and through regular use on things like movies and television it can permeate an entire culture without upsetting a single member of the Christian Right.

    I’m not saying you should stop using it, although I will continue to find them silly and absurd.

    I am simply suggesting that perhaps you should identify your goal and ask if your methods are getting you there.

    If the goal is to remove gender-binary language to create a more inclusive English, then “singular they” is your guy. It can get the job done, won’t create opposition and is already largely accepted.

    If your goal is to raise awareness, to make people think about gender and realize it isn’t binary, then keep going with “ze/hir.” But do so knowing that it perpetuates an us/them mentality and has no chance of ever becoming standard because it will induce a massive cultural backlash in people opposed to the LGBT lifestyle, which is still a substantial part of the population. They are wrong, and history will prove them so, but not because of strange word choice.

  49. RuQu says

    I should probably clarify that this was what I meant by saying it was irrational, and thereby a case of irrational rationalists.

    Rationally, we should adopt policies that further our goals.

    As I said in my previous post, depending on your goals, “ze/hir” either furthers them, or actually hurts them. If the goal is awareness, then it is rational. If it is eliminating gender-binary language, than I would argue that it is not (see above).

    If the issue is awareness, I would also argue that the issue itself is unsettled about whether or not it helps or hurts. Again see Morgan Freeman video about wanting to not be called a “black man” but simply call him a man, or call him Morgan. Different people will feel very strongly about this, and I certainly don’t know enough about the sociological studies done on the subject (if any) to take a firm stance, except to say that as a man with a Hispanic name and mixed background, I feel the same way as Morgan Freeman in that video.

    Similarly, watch Dr. Who. In America, it is usually a big deal when a black man and a white woman are in a movie relationship. Their race is defining them, because we insist on calling them black and white. In Dr. Who, these relationships are commonplace, and treated as if they are no big deal. No special attention is drawn to their races at all. They are simply a man, and a woman. Both of the white lead actresses (2 of the past 3) have serious relationships with black men, and the third actress is a black woman who has a romantic interest in the Doctor. Again with “Love Actually,” another British treatment of black men simply as men. The insistence on labels to establish otherness perpetuates that otherness.

    I’ve wandered off-topic, and it is well past my bedtime.

  50. says

    I have seen that Morgan Freeman clip several times before. It is a constant source of groaning among those of us who understand racial dynamics. Ignoring differences or hiding them is not a path to solving them. One of the reasons I write this blog is because, despite the many protestations otherwise, racism is not solved by pretending it isn’t there. Much contemporary racism happens at levels that are either subconscious or delivered sotto voce specifically because people are trying to avoid the racist implications of their words and actions. I am aware that ‘some others’ disagree – those others are deeply mistaken and ignorant of a lot of the facts. I can’t think of any major social change that was accomplished by accommodating the majority group until they eventually just gave up being exclusionary. More awareness is needed, not less.

    The above is the beginning of a veeeery long conversation, and I suggest you at least browse through the site FAQ before posting a reply (at least to this issue of ‘ignoring’ vs. ‘highlighting’).

    Some people choose to use “they”. I had that red-penned out of me by so many English teachers over the years that I have developed a distaste for it. However, since it does no harm, I have no objection to its use. I also recognize that the use of words can spark discussion – “they” does nothing to raise consciousness about gender binaries or the harms they cause – ‘ze’ and ‘hir’ specifically do. It’s a teensy drop in a massive bucket, but it costs me nothing (except the time taken for these occasional conversations). As far as “you” goes, I actually prefer to use “y’all” whenever I can. The singular/plural issue often ties me in knots.

    there is no chance you will ever convince many of these people to call themselves “ze” just to make people who they disapprove of feel better

    While it sounds callous to say so, I am really not speaking to people who are so deeply invested in their bigotry that they will reject just about anything that isn’t a gender binary. Nor am I interested in the hurt feelings of the Christian Right. They have demonstrated repeatedly that their bar for offense is set incredibly low, and will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into modernity. The person I write for is the person I was 4 or 5 years ago – I write in order to persuade him. I harbour no illusions about being able to change the world on my own, but I have heard from a handful of people that I have changed their perspective on some of these issues, and that is far more than I hoped for when I started this site.

    I’m also not trying to make people “feel better”. I am recognizing for myself that certain social constructs like race and gender are harmful and in need of serious scrutiny. I also recognize a moral imperative for me to practice the same level of consideration for disempowered and excluded others that I constantly demand for myself as a black person. It would be monstrously hypocritical of me to talk about the need for consideration without being considerate to others who face many similar issues.

    Why does it matter that you are transgendered, or gay or straight?

    There are two concepts I encourage you to incorporate into your lexicon: “heteronormativity” and “cisnormativity”. It doesn’t matter if you’re straight – the world is set up under the default assumption that everyone is. It similarly doesn’t matter if you’re cis gendered – ditto. It does matter if you’re queer or trans because you are in a constant struggle to try to live according to rules that presume your non-existence. This dovetails closely the concept of ‘privilege’, because I don’t face constant reminders that I live in a “cis world” or a “straight world” – I just live in “the world” (with regard to my gender identity and sexual preference). Part of the problem is that the mere existence of queer people (less so) and trans gender people (much MUCH more so) is denied or otherwise omitted from the list of people we consider “everyone”. Using language that simply obscures the fact that I reject a gender binary does absolutely nothing to address this particular problem. Is it the most important thing I could possibly do? Absolutely not. But it is a small thing that I have within the compass of my control.

  51. RuQu says

    I think saying “those of us who understand racial dynamics” invokes “special knowledge” and discourages conversation. If the goal is winning arguments, perhaps useful. If it is communication, I’d suggest not.

    While I recognize that you mean “social activists” in this case, it is also often a shorthand in American culture for “I’m a minority, you are white, you can’t possibly understand, so stop questioning me.” This does little to improve discussion of minority issues. Again note that I realize you meant it in the more specific context here.

    The “soft sciences” are notoriously difficult, not to mention a bit reflexively looked down upon by those of us who work in the “hard sciences.” As I said before, I am not familiar with the sociological work on the subject, but as it is something very hard to test, and extremely hard to blind and remove biases, it would take a substantial body of research, or clear and efficient results to convince people with different anecdotal experience than you.

    I would suggest that Morgan Freeman and I, a non-Latino Hispanic, have different preferences and experiences than you on this. I would argue for saying “We are the same, why are we treated different” instead of “look at how different we are, now treat us the same!” I have had limited opportunities to implement either, but I have managed to stop some “accidental racism” in the workplace (not directed at me) by means of the first method, namely pointing out how a white man in the same situation would be treated and stating that there is no excuse for treating anyone else different.

    You are right, however, that that is all much too long of a conversation.

    On topic to the original thread, I would just ask that you ask yourself, are your views on this rational? Does rejecting any attempt at outreach to the Far Right make your goals impossible? Is there sufficient evidence to dismiss the “focus on similarities” approach? Are you rejecting that as “ignoring racism” by intentionally misrepresenting it? Focus on the abuses themselves, not the differences in the people, that is what is being suggested. It is the act that is racist, not the person.

    As to heteronormative, I recently had a similar discussion with my wife. I had run into the term “LGBTQIA” and I told her “Enough. Why can’t we just say non-heteronormative? If we have to include every new sub-variant as a distinct letter in that acronym, communication will quickly become impossible.” She pointed out that defining everyone else as “non-,” especially “non-(word including a root that states it is normal)” can be offensive. It establishes “us” (heteronormative) as correct, and “them” as different.

    I certainly think the “non-heteronormative” community needs to sit down and come up with a term that is all inclusive while carrying the same meaning. I think this very problem goes to the root of what I was saying before. Let us not focus on all of the differences (and keep tacking letters onto LGBT). Let us instead focus on the goal: equal treatment for everyone regardless of sexual identity. Adopt whatever term you like for your particular community, but societies goal should be to blindness, except for the purpose of abuse oversight. Not blind to the problem, but blind to the differences.

    Although, this too is certainly a long discussion for another time.

    In parting, I hope that the next time you encounter a comment that annoys you and you assume is trolling, that you remember this incident and consider approaching the initial reply from a different angle. I realize we can get jaded fast on the internet, but as humans we should strive to have our default interaction be one of respect.

  52. says

    I would suggest that Morgan Freeman and I, a non-Latino Hispanic, have different preferences and experiences than you on this

    As I said, I suggest you read the FAQ. This is not an issue of different preferences and experiences; this is an issue of what works and what doesn’t. Ignoring race doesn’t work; specifically addressing it does.

    And for the record I didn’t mean “social activists”, because that’s an incredibly generic term. I meant people who have studied race specifically. Many social activists would make the same recommendation you and Mr. Freeman did. Those people are wrong insofar as their approach will not accomplish the goal they state (reducing the burden of racism in interpersonal and systemic environments). Mr. Freeman is dealing with a much more tangible and obvious paradigm of racism, and so I can forgive him his inaccuracy. I have no idea what your personal history is, so I will merely state that your suggestion is noted and will be ignored.

    Similarly ignored will be your several recommendations about the proper tone for me to take. While you are quite entitled to your opinion, you’ll have to forgive me (or at least accept it) if I am entirely unswayed by your views on how I conduct this part of my life. There are people whose opinions matter to me, and random people from the internet are not among them. It is clear that you are new to this particular area, so I suggest that you continue reading and learning, because so far you have offered the kind of freshman ‘thoughts’ that accompany a tenuous grasp on the relevant information. I was once there too, so I can sympathize.

  53. RuQu says

    I will accept the argument from authority since I am far from an expert on race relations, and presumably those who study them as a career are, so far as the soft sciences can arrive at universal truths at all.

    As for choosing to ignore my suggestion of defaulting to a more charitable view on newcomers, that is certainly your call. I was hoping that the fact that my original intentions, poorly conveyed on my part, were eventually understood to be good would serve not to say “Listen to me, random person from the internet” but to say instead, “Huh, that guy communicated poorly, and I incorrectly assumed the worst, and it lead down a bad path that would have been avoided if either he had communicated better or I had been more charitable from the start.”

    That our conversation started so poorly was a mutual error. Mine was one of poor communication, wrapping my actual comment in a joke that could be seen as insulting. Yours was the lesser mistake of assuming the worst interpretation and then escalating it. The root fault is mine, but there are lessons for both of us, and any readers, to be taken from both sides. I realize, as you clearly stated, that you don’t care about my opinion, but it is unfortunate that you would willfully choose to learn nothing from an interaction.

    I know I took away a reminder of the lesson “Don’t assume people know your intentions, especially when interacting with a new group.”


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