Posts Tagged ‘language’


February 29, 2012 1 comment

I am an atheist.  As a fairly open and active atheist, I am exposed to a lot of arguments for, against, and about religion.  There is one particular idea that crops up in these arguments rather frequently that disturbs me, and unfortunately it comes from my own group.

My fellow atheists, I would like to talk to you about “crazy”.

The word crazy is a fairly common descriptor for just about anything a particular individual disagrees with or finds incomprehensible.  In the case of atheism, that would be religion, and there are two main ways I have seen religion and religious people described as crazy.  The first is a plain comparison between religious beliefs and mental illness, for example readers may be familiar with “The God Delusion”, and the other is more mindless: the speaker is simply accustomed to declaring things they don’t agree with to be “crazy” (which, again, is fairly common).  There are a number of things that are seriously wrong with this, and I am going to try to go through them in the order in which I think readers will care.


1) You sound like an idiot.

This is especially the case when you use “crazy” as an ad hominem attack, calling a religious person crazy rather than a religious idea.  When you describe anything as “crazy” what you are really saying is that you don’t have any legitimate arguments against it (this is always the case with ad hominem, so I’m just going to assume we’re calling ideas crazy from here on).  In a debate, you are signaling to your opponent that they have won, because you have nothing left to say.  “Crazy” is a cop-out here: it gives no information about what is wrong with the idea or doctrine in question.  Which is sad because many of the things I’ve seen described as “crazy” are actually serious problems—religiously motivated bigotry and terrorism, pro-life ideology, views of women and sexuality, etc.—that should be criticized for the things that are actually wrong with them.  I realize that there is no short hand way to talk about the problems with many of these issues, but in my mind that merely underlines the importance of those issues (and in any case, I am vehemently against arguments that can fit on a bumper sticker).  If you are going to criticize an idea, doctrine, or even a person, do so, but you have to actually criticize it.  “Crazy” is lazy.*

*that rhyme was entirely unintentional, I’m sorry.


2) You are misinterpreting both your opponent and “crazy”.

If a person decides that god has commanded them to blow themselves up and take a building full of people with them, that person is probably not crazy.  If a person believes that homosexuality is evil and that women are subservient to men because a religious text says so, that person is probably not crazy.  The vast majority of religious people, whether or not they subscribe to any of the fucked up ideas I have mentioned so far, are perfectly sane.  And if you are going to argue against religious doctrines or ideas, you need to acknowledge that.  When you call a religious person or idea “crazy”, you are dismissing them without really considering the full impact of the ideology.  These ideas have been thought through, reinforced within communities, and endlessly justified; they are not the result of mental imbalance or impairment and they need to be taken 100% seriously if they are to be combated, something you are not doing if you believe them to be “crazy”.

Let’s look at a real, medical definition of mental illness.  Mental illness is “Any of various conditions characterized by impairment of an individual’s normal cognitive, emotional, or behavioral functioning, and caused by social, psychological, biochemical, genetic, or other factors…” (American Heritage Dictionary)  The “impairment of functioning” part is the most important.  Unfortunately, the perception of mental illness in the general population is that crazy people are violent or malicious, when in reality someone with a mental illness is more of a danger to themselves than anyone else.  Someone with a mental illness may have difficulty with relationships, coping with stress, holding down a job, or basic self-care practices.  While most of the screwed-up ideas that are given religious justification are problematic in society, “crazy” is personal impairment that needs to be dealt with individually.  It is true that people can experience significant amounts of distress in relation to some religious doctrines, which could then qualify as mental illness of some sort, that does not make the doctrine itself “crazy”, only that specific experience of it.  The way that we deal with societal issues is very different from the way that someone would deal with a mental illness.

Calling a religious person or idea “crazy” shows a misunderstanding of the vast gulfs of difference between these two things, and that limits your ability to affectively deal with the doctrines that are actually problematic.


2.5) Religion is not schizophrenia.

I see this specific comparison often enough to give it its own section.  This seriously underlines the lack of understanding and general knowledge about mental illness.  The main reason for this is the miscasting of a religious idea or experience as a “delusion” or “hallucination”.  First of all, ecstatic experiences can be fairly easily induced in people who have no mental illness at all, so we do not need to posit a “crazy” explanation for religious experiences.  Secondly, belief in god is non-falsifiable (look it up if that term is unfamiliar to you), most delusions are blatantly and obviously false.  In fact, from the little reading I have done * people with schizophrenia can often distinguish between their delusions and there bona-fide religious or spiritual beliefs.  Also, delusions and hallucinations do not necessarily have to be distressing; I have heard of people with fairly benign delusions (believing that your record player affects the weather is not going to have a huge impairment on your day-to-day functioning—this example comes from a friend who spent some time in a psych ward and keeps in contact with some of the people he met there), and I have even heard of people with schizophrenia missing their hallucinations after they begin treatment (many mental illnesses are, after all, just coping mechanisms that have gone horribly wrong).

People are not brought up with a delusional belief, one is not raised to experience hallucinations. Once again we see that religion is a social phenomenon, while the mental illness it is compared to is personal.  I encourage readers to do a little basic research on schizophrenia and other mental illnesses to better understand the vast gulfs of difference between them and ideas that are simply incorrect or screwed up.

*I would like to stress very strongly at this point that I am not an expert in mental illness, I just read a lot of literature and blogs on the subject matter.  Take that as you will.


3) You are reinforcing the stigmatization of mental illness.

When you say that a particular thing is crazy, what you are really trying to express is that you don’t like it.  You are expressing your distaste by making a comparison to something else already considered negative.  It is a shorthand, and a fairly lazy one at that.  So saying “religion is crazy” is actually saying is “I take issue with religion and so I am going to equate it with this other thing that is stigmatized”.  It is exploiting the existing negative connotations given to mental illness in order to attack something totally unrelated.

The purpose behind fighting screwed up religiously motivated ideas and doctrines is to make people change their minds, religious beliefs are something that is chosen.  But mental illness is not chosen and can only be changed with a lot of work on the part of the individual (and an amount of outside support and possibly the aid of medication).  To equate mental illness with the chosen doctrines that you take issue with is to reinforce the idea that people with mental illnesses are dangerous and/or malicious.  In order to call anything you don’t like or agree with “crazy” you have to endorse the idea that crazy people are bad, and so does the person whose ideas you are calling crazy, resulting in  a double reinforcement of the stigma when that person reacts negatively.

Mental illness should be responded to with empathy and support, not censure, an effort you are unknowingly undermining whenever you refer to something you don’t like as “crazy”.


Even if you don’t care about any of that, and I realize that unfortunately many people will not, the use of “crazy” is not useful in a criticism of anything.  Just stop using it this way; it’s doing the opposite of helping in so many different directions it’s not even funny.

None of the Above

November 16, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve been having difficulty with labels recently (well, always but specifically over the past month). I have had a lot of trouble with labels over the years, and thought that I had finally found something that worked for me, but now I am no longer sure…

I’m good with pronouns, I love the pronouns I have chosen for myself and they really work when people bother to actually use them. There is a blip when it comes to the general usage of them, as a generic “any person” pronoun rather than “specific person who is non-binary”, but I’ve written about this before so I’ll let it lie for now.

No, the issue is the overall gender label. There are many ways to announce non-binary-ness: androgyne, neutrois, gender fluid, bigender, and the one I’ve taken to using, genderqueer (among many, many others). It works best for me out of the available vocabulary for a number of reasons, but I don’t think any gender-word neologism will be truly adequate to express my identity.

The whole thing with gendered labels is, I’m not really sure what they’re for. We call someone a man or a woman and that’s supposed to be representative of their identity somehow but I don’t really know what that label is supposed to be actually communicating. But the point is that it is communicating something, people are getting information from this and presumably those who identify as male or female find this communication adequate. I suppose it denotes a general group that an individual feels they belong to, like any label, and defines spaces that they can move through (bathrooms, etc.).

So, with that, what does a word like “genderqueer” communicate? I don’t mean within the trans-whatever community and in lgbTQ spaces, I mean to people that I interact with on a regular basis that might not have encountered the word before. What do I do if I have to define it? I say, “it means I don’t identify as male or female”. Great, that’s accurate, but how useful is it to me or the other person? First of all, if someone is unfamiliar with the concept, this doesn’t mark me as part of any community or define my spaces, it marks me immediately as an outsider with no community or spaces at all. I’ve even encountered extreme absurdities like “well then how do you pee” (because gender = your junk and if you’re not a man or a woman you have nowhere to put your urethra apparently).

What does it say about my ability to operate within society if the only way I can talk about myself is “I’m not that, or the other thing, but something else that I can’t specify”? The answer can’t be “make a social space for people of your gender” because I can’t communicate what my gender IS, I can only say what it is not. And it’s like that for all the non-binary terminology I’ve encountered. I’m very dissatisfied with the whole thing. “Man” and “woman” might be vague approximations but at least they’re accurate, the terms I use don’t even point people in the right direction. I’m not even sure where the right direction is, because I can’t talk about this with MYSELF, I only have vague pre-verbal sensations that I can’t articulate.

What I’m saying is I need a new word, something that joins me to a community but doesn’t just mean “that grab-bag of other things”. I don’t think one exists yet.

This confusing mish-mash brought to you by the confusion pudding in my brainpan.

My thougts on gender

September 14, 2011 2 comments

The more I operate within the trans/queer/activist/stuff region of the interblags, the less I like the word “gender”. It really seems to mean everything and nothing at the same time. What definition you use is based on your political/theoretical leanings, and not so much on communicating a particular idea. I’ve seen, and participated in, conversations in which everyone had different (and occasionally mutually exclusive) definitions of gender and assuming everyone else was using the same definition as them. This is when yelling begins, generally.

The problem for me is that I have certain experiences that cannot be described unless I identify them as “gendered” experiences. I have a part of my mind, nestled somewhere behind where my identity is kept*, that reacts to certain stimuli, almost like a basic instinct. The stimuli it deals with specifically are things like pronouns, socially gender-specific words, etc. and it really doesn’t seem to have many or any other functions. It is the part that gets happy when someone uses my preferred pronoun and the part that gets angry when someone calls me “he” or “sir”. It’s only job, apparently, is to help me parse these simple and omnipresent social cues, specific to me. I have no name for this impulse, even though it seems pretty important and is difficult to ignore, so I have been calling it my “gender”. This meshes a little with what I’ve heard other people say about their genders, though this is usually vague stuff like “an internal feeling about one’s identity as male or female (or neither/both/kitty)”.

*I’m sorry if my internal mind references get/are confusing, I’m neither a psychologist nor a neurologist so I have no vocabulary for this stuff. It will all be extra subjective and metaphorical.

The main important factor of the “gender” feeling is that things that are socially coded male or female are rejected: male :( >, female :( >, ??? :D > But this doesn’t hold true for all things our society assigns to masculinity and femininity, just the formalized interactions based around that dichotomy. I wonder what this means.

Unfortunately, to make things extra-special complicated, I have another experience that matches up with other people’s definitions of “gender”. I sometimes describe myself as “gender fluid”, but the internal impulse that I described above is most definitely not fluid. What I’m talking about is more a sensation that is halfway between internal identity and external gender expression. It sometimes has the standard binary markers of “male” or “female”, but there are other less obviously “gender” modes such as “punk”, “goth”, and “drag queen” that alternate in this region of my mind-face*. This sensation seems less based on internal sources of identity and more on temporary or situational identification with some external gender exemplar or prototype. Sometimes the source of these prototypes is pretty clear (read: “punk” and “goth”) and others do not seem to align with societal definitions of the terms I feel like using at all (I am at my most “female” when lounging shirtless in torn up jeans). This is less a “parse the world around me” thing and more a “how I want to present myself to the world” thing.

*I’m sorry again. This term totally makes sense in my head but I’m not sure I explain it. It’s like, where the “gender” feeling from up top is, but way forward, in my face.

The fun part? I’m not totally sure these two things are wholly separate, even though they operate completely differently. For example, when I am feeling “female” (the domain of the expressive feeling) I am more open than normal to female-coded social interactions (the domain of the internal impulse), though still not as comfortable as I am with non-gendered codes. Maybe they interact, maybe they’re two sides of one particularly confusing coin, I don’t know. I wonder how much my upbringing and general experiences influences the content/form of these two feelings, and even if it influences their apparent separation.

I feel like these things need different names, other than just “gender”, but there’s not any really satisfying vocabulary out there that I’ve seen. The first impulse might be “brain sex” or something, but that makes a neurological statement that I as a layperson am not comfortable making, and the second might be “gender expression” but that really doesn’t fit particularly well. Either or both could be “gender identity”, but that phrase is so vague and has so many active definitions as to be essentially meaningless. I’m just pretty stuck between two seemingly contradictory sensations of being N-gendered (N standing for some gender that isn’t coded by society, but is coded by my mind for me personally) and of being fluid gendered where I bounce between obvious social constructions.

So, one or both of these definitions/sensations will clash with other definitions of gender out there. I’m honestly OK with that, because I have no evidence whatsoever that my experiences are remotely common, and my “gendered” feelings might just be mine and other people have different processes. Hopefully some of my hypothetical readers understood some of this free-associating stuff. If you did, leave me a comment because I’m totally confused.

The word of the day is sex

September 4, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m fascinated by words. Words are more than just a dictionary definition; they carry minute connections and nuances coded into the lexicon. This is sometimes helpful, carrying complex cultural information, but sometimes it hinders us. Language is influenced by usage, and things we don’t talk about get the shaft lexically.

Which brings me to sex. The word sex is very loaded in our society. It is a very simple word, in many ways, but hugely complex in others. The main interest, for me, is the range of connections this word makes. Just take a look at the varied definitions of “sex”*:

1) One of the two categories male or female (both Wordnik and the OED define it in binary terms almost exclusively in all the variations on this definition, though the OED does admit the usage of the term “third sex” dating back to 1820).

2) The act of sexual intercourse.

3) The genitals.

*Just the noun. There is a verbal form that means “to assign someone to either the male or female category”, that I think sort of folds into definition one.

Does this weird anyone else out, just a little? Not even getting into the fuzzy line between the first definition listed here and the definition of “gender” (which has way too many convolutions for me to address right here), the connections being drawn here are very clear. It should be no surprise that our society links maleness and femaleness with genitals, we deal with that all over the place (even though we don’t actually use genitals to determine what sex/gender we think people around us are [hopefully, otherwise it would be creepy]). The thing that trips me up is the connection with sex as an activity.

This is how our society views the function of our sexed bodies. Men and women equal body parts equal baby making. So we use the same word for both things. But we also build up complex social constructs surrounding masculinity and femininity. What do those gendered stereotypes, often associated with (and occasionally pseudo-scientifically justified by) physical or biological sex, have to do with the act of procreation. Or sex in general, for pleasure or emotional connection or any of the myriad reasons people have sex. Are any of these things connected with sex as an activity?

What about our bodies even? The interaction between sexuality (who one is attracted to and sexual feelings about one’s own body and identity) and sexed bodies is not necessarily straightforward. I’m just free-associating here, and I’ve wandered into strange territory already.

The use of sex to mean male/female predates the intercourse definition by quite a bit of time (OED citations give it ~1400 for the former and ~1900 for the latter). So, are we to assume that the one use developed from the other? We had some other word to describe the sexual act (or maybe we just danced around the subject, talking about “knowing” or something), and then began using a word we otherwise used to describe our bodies (and social constructs created around those bodies).

This is murky to me. Are we automatically sexualizing ourselves just by referring to ourselves as men and women (or male-bodied and female-bodied)? Or are we obfuscating an act by confusing it with the equipment we use (sometimes) to perform it? Both? I’m not sure I’m comfortable with either of these explanations.

And what about the idea of the third sex? This label has been forcibly applied to homosexuals, mainly, back before even the first attestation of “sex” being used to describe the activity. So this linking between our bodies and what we do with them goes back a ways. Different sexual activities necessitates a different designation from male or female (and while “third sex” is not applied to LGB people so much anymore in Western society, there is the common idea that gay people are not “real” men or women or that they are trying to be the “opposite” sex).

Using the same word to describe two (very different) things speaks of a powerful cultural connection between them. Do we really need to link these ideas to each other so strongly? Can we disentangle our descriptions of our bodies from our sexual activities? Does it matter? What happens if we disconnect the two? I don’t feel that my body is inherently sexual, though it can be when I want.

I’m in unfamiliar waters with this post. My experience with my body has mainly been to disconnect it from the societal projections placed on it, so my instinct is to disconnect it from the lexical projections as well. I feel like the many, many ways there are to experience one’s body and one’s sexed and sexual self are stifled by this connection. But maybe the usage of the word, in the activity sense at least, is flexible enough to accommodate all of these experiences. Not the male/female definition, that’s about as rigid as it gets, “third sex” stuff not really helping and mainly being a tool for othering.

I think I tried to take on too much with this. There is so much cultural baggage placed on our bodies and our sexual activities that it’s impossible to parse them all. I think I’ve partially unearthed some of my own baggage just trying to organize this, and not very successfully either, judging from how rambly I’ve been this whole time.

I’d love to hear other people’s take on this; I find stuff like this pretty fascinating (obviously).

Women and Men

May 15, 2011 4 comments

I’ve been on the road a lot recently (moving, I fucking hate moving), and the car is pretty much the only place I listen to the radio. Advertisements are the bane of my existence right now. I think I’ve heard every variant of “men and women” over the past week or so. Every time I hear it I just think “Oh, well I’ll stay home then.” There’s a particular add for Planned Parenthood that runs pretty often on some of the channels over here that really makes me want to poke my eyes out, because that’s supposed to be a safe space, and I just get that twinge of “well, that’s not me”. Fuck, I was in a therapy group not too long ago where they did that, even after I had talked to the counselors in charge about my identity.

The problem is that they think they’re being inclusive. They’re trying, but missing the mark for a tiny percentage of us. They don’t want to specifically exclude me (often, they don’t even know that people like me exist, which is its own problem), but that’s what they end up doing. It’s always the little things. I think I could handle someone coming up and screaming in my face, just so I could have something that’s obvious to other people to deal with, but that’s not what oppression looks like most of the time anyway. People treating me like an alien is one thing, but treating me normal and still making me feel like an alien is depressing as hell. This stuff is so ingrained in our society, sometimes I don’t think I’ll ever be able to escape it.

Pronouns again: Neutral vs. Indefinite

April 23, 2011 3 comments

So, I’m seeing a lot of people around the blagosphere using “ze” as a neutral, indeterminate pronoun for when the gender of some distant or hypothetical person is unknown, unspecified, or unimportant. Can’t say I’m a huge fan. Let me explain what I mean:

“Ze” (declension ze-zem-zeir-zemself) is my preferred pronoun. For those I am actually out to, this is the pronoun I ask them to use with me. This is my “he” or “she” equivalent, one that refers to me as a person. The difference between this and the usage described above is exactly the title of this entry, a difference between gender-neutral and indefinite pronouns.

A gender-neutral pronoun is just what it says, any pronoun that does not specifically refer to the gender of the referent. More specifically, in my case, they can be pronouns that specify that the referent does not identify within the gender identities assumed for “he” and “she”. On the other hand, and indefinite pronoun is one that does not refer to anyone in particular. A good example in English is “one”, when we use “one” as a pronoun we mean anyone, but no one in particular. “You” is used in similar circumstances. Indefinite pronouns are also used when there is a specific person involved (although the person might be hypothetical), but whomever you’re talking to or the situation does not require any specific information about this person; “The doctor called” “what did they say?” In this handy example, the second speaker may not know the doctor in question and there really is no important information to be communicated about this person except that they are a doctor.

But where I see “ze” being used is with hypothetical people. Talking about an unspecified person from a certain group or performing a certain activity, an example from one of the articles I was reading this evening that sparked this post: “…you’ve got someone who won’t safeword when ze probably should.” The author here isn’t referring to a gender-neutral or non-binary identified person engaged in kink activities, this is just some hypothetical, unspecified individual being brought up for illustration purposes. This is where an indefinite pronoun would work great, a nice singular “they” or something, but instead a gender-neutral one is utilized.

I understand where this comes from, people are trying to avoid the generic “he” that assumes that any unspecified person is automatically male. But using “ze” actually produces the opposite effect for me that generic “he” does with men: when I see my preferred pronoun being used in a sense of “hypothetical, unspecified person”, the fact that it is so rare to see this pronoun used produces a sensation that “ze” is a nonperson pronoun like “one” because this is the only place I see it outside my own little self-created world of usage (I honestly only know of a small handful of people who use my pronoun actively, even among the people I informed about it). I view “ze” as being on par with “he” and “she”, and I dislike that it gets used in situations where people are actively avoiding using the gendered terms, I actually see “ze” as being just as gendered as the binary words.

I’ve mentioned singular “they” up above, and I know some people get squicky about using it and prefer to use singular ungendered terms, but singular “they” is an actual indefinite pronoun used for just the purpose that “ze” is being used for. It’s been in use for centuries, and it was made for this purpose, use it. It’s OK, I’m a linguist, I know what I’m doing here. If a grammarian gets on your case about “they” being plural, just tell them a linguist told you it was OK. It really is the proper word to be using here, instead of appropriating my identity into a generic. Please?

“Trans” is an adjective.

August 29, 2010 Leave a comment

When reading an article, usually news, about transgender issues and people, I always seem to encounter this word being used as a noun. The thing is, words describing trans people (and LGBTQ identities in general) are all adjectives. Transsexual/transgender(ed) person, queer person, gay/lesbian/bi/pan/asexual person. Talking about “transgenders” or “queers” makes this seem like this is some monolithic, all-encompassing idea, rather than one aspect of identity. I may be queer and transgendered, but I am not “a queer” or “a transgender”. These are parts of me that I feel are important, but not important enough to turn them into nouns that claim to describe all of me.

(a side note, my internet spelling dictionary for some reason recognizes the plural of “transgender” but not the singular adjective O_o)

(another note, I just moved into my dorm at my uni, so posts frequency will be based on how often I’m not super busy. But I wanted to have something, so this paragraph is what you get for the week.)