Gender Neutral Pronouns: Comments Disabled!

I’ve often asserted (and people are often surprised or skeptical to hear this) that comments on YouTube videos about language are for the most part positive—and often over-the-top enthusiastic!  If someone is sharing some thoughts about “Philadelphia Street Names,” “Common Welsh Phrases,” or “How to Speak Singlish,” for example, most comment threads will unfurl with agreement, praise of the language portrayal, or provision of  a few more examples or personal anecdotes to support the points being made.  Most viewers give “thumbs up” to the videos and to any positive comments. “Thumbs down” are rare.

There is, however, at least one set of language-related posts that has emerged as a glaring exception:  Posts discussing gender pronouns.  Take this video, by a YouTuber Jake Edwards, “Gender Pronouns: Get Them Right!”, for example:

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Despite what seems to me to be a relatively even-handed discussion of gender pronouns (including “singular they”) this video’s thumbs up, thumbs down ratio is starkly negative:  138 thumbs up to over one thousand thumbs down.  And, the comment thread is equally dark.  The first and most thumbed-up comment (at 210) reads: “How to generate dislikes.”

Paradoxically, it seems this YouTube video has turned into a site for affiliation—but not around respectful use of gender pronouns. Instead, there is a different group building strong affiliations here:  Those who feel strongly opposed to any non-binary framing of gender, those who consider Jake a representative of the “snowflake” generation, and those who see no reason why their personal “freedom of speech” should be restricted to attend to the needs of a “small minority” of people who want to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns.

How did this happen?  Why aren’t there more voices here chiming in on Jake’s side? Sure, there are a few comments that try to counter the thumbs-downers, but they are a small minority. Whatever your feelings about this issue, doesn’t it seem odd that the dis-likers are out in such force? Maybe Jake foregrounds the gender issue too much and too abstractly and this takes the discussion away from issues of language and from his own personal experiences, usually big draws for positivity on language videos.

This led me to a search for other sites, where affiliation around gender-neutral pronouns might, I imagined, come more freely. Sites where members of the LGBTQ community told their own stories or anecdotes about pronoun use and how it made them feel. I found a few of these, including one for the Chronical of Higher Education  and from my own University.  But, almost universally, such sites have their comments disabled.

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No doubt they feared the same treatment as Jake Edwards.  Are there no outlets for non-produced, positively affiliative public voices commenting on this issue? Thirsty for some more refreshing citizen sociolinguistic dialogue on gender-neutral pronouns, I pressed on.

Maybe, I thought, there would be more even-handed dialogue around the use of gender-neutral pronouns if I found a YouTuber who addressed this even more explicitly as a language issue, and down-played the gender-identity aspect.  Along those lines, here is Tom Scott’s video, episode 7 in Tom’s Language Files, “Gender Neutral Pronouns: They’re Here, Get Used to Them.” Despite having a title strikingly similar to Jake’s (the “they/them” word-play seems irresistible), the focus on what he calls “grammatical gender”, its role as part of his “language files” series, Tom’s much more mainstream look, and his proper British pronunciation, suggest a more, erm, neutral approach to gender neutrality.

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This video is very popular—over 1 million views—and the thumbs up and down ratio is more balanced—31,000 thumbs up to 17,000 thumbs down. And, scanning down the comments, I found some very appreciative and personal remarks, receiving many thumbs up, like this one:

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Then, Tom’s own pinned comment caught my eye. It explained the more positive ratio—and the age (posted 2 or more years ago) of the positive comments I had noticed:

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To his credit, 4.2 thousand people like Tom’s comment here.  But to me, looking for real dialogue and for personal engagement around this issue, the kind I’ve grown used to around other citizen socioliguistic videos, this seemed sad. What happened to fuel such a dramatic change in comment content that he felt forced to disable them?

A simple glance to the “recommended videos” on the right margin of my computer screen provided the answer.  Or rather, the name: Jordan Peterson.  He is a Canadian Psychology professor who made news when he posted this YouTube video (a power-point lecture with voice-over) criticizing a bill in Canada that would include gender identity and expression as subject to human rights protections.  Being legally forced to call people by gender neutral pronouns, Peterson asserted, was a violation of his freedom of speech.

He has since blanketed the internet with his views.  His followers have also mastered the art and science of trolling, attacking anyone who dares speak out about their own experiences as a non-gender-conforming individual.  For Jordan Peterson gender neutral pronouns are no longer an issue about language and linguistics. Instead, language here is a proxy for other prejudices—and “freedom” not to use gender-nuetral pronouns has become a means for suppression of difference. Peterson’s quest for his own “Free Speech,” as an individual—a white, male, Psychology Professor from Canada—has, de facto, resulted in lack of free speech for those who hold views different from his own.  Dialogue has ceased.  It seems that Jordan Peterson’s internet empire and the way it has emboldened those expressing hate and fear of difference has led to comments sections being disabled on most of those sites where individuals try to speak for themselves about gender pronouns in their own lives.

You may be wondering, what’s so bad about having the comments disabled, as long as people are still posting videos?  This is bad because when comments are disabled, the community building and knowledge-sharing fostered by citizen sociolinguists stops.  The conversations and annecdotes, the supportive comments and encouragement, have no home. As I’ve illustrated in many posts on this site, everyday conversation about language usually turns into a way to affiliate with a certain community.  Some South Philadelphian’s, for example, might coalesce around the insider knowledge of how to pronounce “Passyunk Avenue,” order a cheesesteak “wit,” fight off their cold with some ARnge Juice, or cheer on the Iggles. This is a tiny minority of speakers, and their dialogue generates shared pride and awareness of their groupiness. Sharing anecdotes or language opinions are bids for affiliation.  Haters need not apply.  But if they do, and if “comments are disabled” all that affiliation is subverted.

The potential power of citizen sociolinguistics lies in its ability to air points of view that otherwise might not be heard, to foreground local forms of expertise, and to build common ground. Often these forms of expertise might be held by a small minority of people.  That is certainly the case with the group of citizen sociolinguists who would like to talk about gender-neutral pronouns.  We need to hear from them and about their experience.  They are the experts.  And they need each other! We do not need Jordan Peterson speaking about these issues with which he has no experience or expertise, obfuscating, in the guise of philosophizing, silencing civic dialogue in the name of freedom of speech.

The old ways of dictating language via standardizing institutions and documents may be losing their hold on how we think about language—and hurray for citizen sociolinguists who are sharing their nuanced and local expertise, building community and affiliation through conversations about words and ways of speaking. But what happens when trolls and negative attention-seekers lead us to “disable comments”? When this happens—as it seems to have in the case of gender pronouns—the control over how we use language and discuss it may have become more insidious than even the most prescriptive grammarian or authorizing institution.

What alternatives are there to disabling comments?  Is it possible to counter the negative-affiliative power of huge troll movements?  Please share your ideas in the comment section below!

 

 

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Crossposting—Dumb or Delightful?

Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 8.07.40 PMHave you ever tried crossposting?

Most literally, crossposting is the practice of posting the same message on two or more of your social media accounts.

For a while, this was happening to me by accident when, unbeknownst to me, my Twitter account was linked to my Facebook account. It was dumb—and delightful at the same time.

Dumb—because suddenly all my nerdy language tweets, focused on an audience of students and colleagues were now posted to my family and friends from across the myriad phases of my life.

But also delightful! Suddenly unlikely friends from high school started tagging me on language related posts on Facebook, or sending me breaking news about the Word of the Year, or drawing on my expertise (“What is dabbin’?”).

Eventually, I figured out how to unlink the two, and I unlinked them, probably saving the majority of my Facebook friends from a lot of spam.

Through this accidental experiment, the value of crossposting came through to me. Not only did I discover Facebook friends who cared about language like I did—I also became more careful about the kinds of language posts I was making on Twitter. Would my mother be offended by this post? As long I was crossposting to Facebook and Twitter, that question always had to be in the back of my mind.

But this got me thinking about communication and social boundaries Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 8.08.53 PMmore generally. Crossposting—and its ramifications—as a metaphor for communication seems worth considering. What happens when you “crosspost” across the various social groups you are part of? Being completely oblivious of the participants and audience in each of these groups seems socially naïve—at best. And, this seems to be what happened at Yale last month, when professor Erika Christakis notoriously posted, to a college house e-mail listserve, the idea that Halloween is a chance to be “a little bit obnoxious,” countering the campus-wide e-mail suggesting students be sensitive about Halloween costumes (and, for example, avoid blackface). Bringing up the value of obnoxious Halloween costumes might be a nice debate on one of prof. Christakis’ “social media platforms”—say dinner with like-minded colleagues—but, as it turns out, it may be a dumb thing to crosspost to hundreds of Yale freshmen.

These days, social media may be making us more aware of the ramifications of crossposting in real life. People who use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., tend to mindfully tailor their messages to whomever they imagine is listening/reading/over-hearing on one of those apps.

Highschool students I work with, for example, know a lot about mindfully crossposting. As a way of exploring language in their lives, we have had them represent the various sectors of their lives as pie charts (see previous post on language diversity pies) and talk about the language they use differently in each of those sections. Many students list a dozen or more sections in their pie, making fine-grained distinctions, for example, between language used with one’s own parents, other adults, and one’s girlfriend’s parents. They include “slang” in some sections and not in others. Sometimes they include named languages in certain sections, including separate spots for “Chinese,” “Chinglish” and “English.” They seem intuitively aware that certain ways of speaking work well in some slices of their daily language pie, but that it would be very dumb to speak that way in others.

But, this does not mean students don’t engage in some forms of delightful “crossposting.” These same high school students have also mentioned that, sometimes, the most fun people are the ones who don’t keep their language rigidly aligned with a certain slice of their language pie–instead, mixing slang with formality, French with English, or purposely mispronouncing certain words.

Still, students also admit, part of the joy of this kind of language crossposting is the inherent risk involved. The danger of overstepping remains—crossposting might be dumb or delightful. It might be offensive and even incite mass protest (as in the unfortunate case at Yale). It might be hilarious and spark new ways of thinking (think Key and Peele style humor). In either case, “crossposting” reveals the borders we cross repeatedly in our everyday lives. When we start crossing those borders, we are taking risks. But they may be worth it.

Apparently, the Christakis professors are now encouraging Yale students to join them in further discussion. And, already, the general public has been made more aware of a variety of student voices on Yale’s campus. Let’s hope this leads to more crossposting across social groups there and even some new discoveries about each other. I would hate for it to lead to “delinking” our social circles permanently.

What social media do you crosspost too? How selective are you about what you post to which platform? In which sections of your life have you done more radical crossposting? What have been the effects? Please comment below!

 

 

How Do People Use Language to Get Taken Seriously?

Is speaking-like-others-expect-you-to-speak the best way to get them to take you seriously?

In response to my last post (Freedom of Speech: What you Say and How you Say it) one thoughtful reader, I’ll call him Mr. MiddleOfTheRoad, took issue my rhetorical question: Why should we let others define the way we speak?

I had asserted that we shouldn’t let others define the way we speak, because when we do, we can’t express ourselves fully, and our unique perspectives may not be heard. The more we police how we say things, the more we circumscribe what gets said.

Mr. MiddleOfTheRoad asserted to the contrary, that

“…it’s in our own interest to learn how to speak as others do. We may WANT them to teach us.”

Two questions came up for me:

  1. Which “others” are you talking about? Teachers? Police? Parents? Bosses?
  2. Why wouldn’t they also want US to teach THEM? (Don’t Teachers, Police, Parents, Bosses learn new ways of speaking from Pupils, Citizens, Children, Employees?)

Mr. MiddleOfTheRoad continued…

If you wish to be taken seriously as, say, a lawyer then you had best learn how to speak as lawyers do, etc., etc.”

Yes, perhaps you must speak “as lawyers do” to be taken seriously as a lawyer. As another wise reader (I’ll call him City Kid) put it, a defense lawyer shouldn’t go before the judge and jury saying things like “Bobo here ain’t got no problems with the law.”

But aside from basic protocols for speaking in court or other professional settings, two problems immediately come to this mind:

  1. How do generic “lawyers” speak?(I suspect there are multiple nuanced versions Lawyer-Speak, just as there are multiple nuanced ways of speaking as a politician, a poet, or a preacher.)
  2. Is just speaking as some approximation of a generic lawyer really enough? (If you have something to say, something unique, that your addressees have not understood before, if you wish that unique perspective–your own–to be taken seriously, don’t you need to add something more than what “they” taught you? Might you not need to pull out some new expressive chops?)

There are more alternatives than speaking “like a lawyer” or “not like a lawyer.”

Yet, Mr. MiddleOfTheRoad went on to make a restaurant analogy:

“What would be the sociolinguistic equivalent of going into a restaurant and eating your meal with your fingers? That’s terrific if you want to offend people but if you don’t then you’ve got to learn and practice certain things.”

Again, the same two problems rankle:

  1. What is generic restaurant behavior? (Just as there are different ways of being a lawyer, politician, poet or preacher, there are many different ways of restaurant eating. Do you eat with your fingers at McDonalds? Lorenzo’s Pizza? Dunkin’ Donuts? Ben & Jerry’s? Might you grab an endive with your fingers at a Fancy French Restaurant if you had already asked the waiter for cutlery and wanted to make a point?)
  2. Is just knowing some generic approximation of restaurant behavior enough? Don’t we acquire new ways of eating when we go to new places? For example, I use spongy bread to eat my food when I’m in one of Philadelphia’s countless delicious Ethiopian restaurants. I use chopsticks when I’m in Chinatown, but, I may ask, diplomatically, for forks for my children.

How does this apply to using language to speak our minds, to command respect, to get people to take us seriously? Speaking on the bus, or as a lawyer, a mother, a politician, teacher or poet—speaking as an individual—takes awareness and finesse. As does eating with your fingers at a Fancy French Restaurant, asking for a fork in Chinatown, or learning to use spongy bread at an Ethiopian place.

Using language flexibly and to make points, but in ways that might be unfamiliar, that may require some extra reflection, or even require our addressees to ask questions, is not the same as being ignorant or uncivilized.

Not speaking exactly like others is not “the sociolinguistic equivalent of going into a restaurant and eating your meal with your fingers.” Not speaking exactly like others can be infinitely many other things, including being

  • poetic
  • creative
  • multilingual
  • flexible
  • intelligent.

Speaking differently can also be, even when a little off-putting, a way of getting people to take you and what you have to say, seriously.

Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we are celebrating today, spoke in such a way that millions of people took him seriously, though he was also off-putting for many. He did not let others define either what he said or how he spoke. Yet, he was serious. And, he was taken seriously (in one sense, very sadly so).

How do you use language to get people to take you seriously? Are the only alternatives Offending or Not Offending? Proper or Not Proper? Correct or Incorrect? English or Not English? What other resources do you draw on? Post your responses here!

 

 

 

Freedom of Speech: What you say and How you say it

Freedom of speech has been in the news quite a bit lately. In the context of the recent Charlie Hebdo attack in France, such freedom relates primarily to the content of the message. Freedom to say what you want to say—about religious figures, politicians, the State, demographic groups…

But does this sentiment also apply to How people speak? Which language they are using? How they use that language? If they choose to say “ain’t” or “y’all,” or varieties like “Konglish” (see previous post on The Konglish Accent Tag)?

Figuring this out is an important task for the Citizen Sociolinguist. So, to explore, I sourced my Twitter friends:

 Is “Freedom of Speech” only about WHAT we say? or does it include HOW we say it?

A super-smart, zesty response came back from @nelsonlflores:

 @brymes Language policing should be reframed as an assault on freedom of speech!

What does this mean? What are examples of Language Policing as an assault on Freedom of Speech?

Here are some types of open, unconstrained, language policing mentioned by twitter friends or in stories told to me over the years:

Policing Language Code, as in, “English Only”:

  • Saying “Speak English!” to someone speaking another language when, for example, riding on public transportation.
  • Calling out to school-children speaking Spanish in the halls between classes: “Hey—English here!”

 

Policing Language Expertise, as in, “That isn’t even English”- or – “That is not Standard English”:

  • Describing “double-negatives” as “illogical” and thus “ignorant.” (Ain’t nobody got time for that!)
  • “Correcting” grammar in a way that impedes communication: Useful example provided from @joannaluz:

@nelsonlflores @brymes unlikely source: an ep of Masters of Sex depicts housewife correcting nanny–“ask” vs “aks”–as deeply violating — later the nanny deliberately uses “aks” in moment of defiance

Policing Language Boundaries, implying, “That is not Appropriate,” often done by authority figures:

  • Ignoring requests from someone younger until they follow with “sir” or “ma’am”
  • Ignoring what someone says, appearing not to understand, repeatedly saying “what?” when they sound “non-native” or simply different

 

These examples are about immediate acts of face-to-face language policing—hurtful to an individual, but momentary. However, the consequences of these acts of language policing, gradually, may significantly chip away at Freedom of Speech.

What? How? How do perhaps repeated slaps on our communicative freedoms like “speak English!”, “That’s not proper!”, or even simply passively waiting for an address term like “sir” or “ma’am” affect more substantive issues of Freedom of Speech?

This is how: The more we police how we say things, the more we circumscribe what gets said.

When we are worried about how someone is mixing English and Korean and Spanish, or sounding “ignorant” or “uneducated” or “disrespectful” in their diction, we might be missing out on what these people—who speak in a different way—have to say. I suspect we may also be missing out on an unfamiliar point of view.

The how and the what of Freedom of Speech are inseparable.

What do you think counts as Freedom of Speech? Is this freedom only about content? Is it also about how we say things? Have you experienced Language Policing that threatened your own freedom of speech? Leave your comments here!