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Awesome satire about offensive language - Synchronicity swirls and other foolishness

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June 11th, 2010


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04:00 am - Awesome satire about offensive language
Here's an awesome, if also quite bitingly satirical essay about the use of offensive language, by the ever-brilliant Douglas Hofstadter. It's worth reading it before reading I'm fairly hard-line about sexist language, and by that I definitely include using "he" as the generic third person singular pronoun, as well as the use of -ess and similar endings to denote female authors, sculptors, priests, or whatever- especially since such endings are also diminutives. Unsurprisingly, I think that Hofstadter expressed my feelings about this far clearer and more directly than I ever could have.

On the positive side, I have watched language change since 1985. In college, in the mid 80s, I trained myself to write in a non-sexist manner, using (as various organizations and also historical precedent has approved) "they" instead of "he" for a third person singular pronoun, and various other changes, which also included simply avoiding using third person singular pronouns more than absolutely necessary. In less than a year, doing this became completely natural. I then needed to change this when I started writing RPGs. In the early and mid 90s there were a few assignments where the developer had no problem with the use of the singular "they", but most assignments used "he". Then, by the late 90s, various companies, including White Wolf, alternated pronouns, which seemed clumsy to me, but also acceptable. However, on two recent assignments, all authors have been asked to use "they". Of course, one of these was Eclipse Phase, where I'm the one that suggested the idea, in large part because using gendered pronouns in a game where characters can change their physical sex or even their physical species as rapidly as we change our hair color seemed remarkably silly. In any case, I see change happening, slowly, but happening, and the above essay helps explain why I think this issue is so important.
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From:andrewducker
Date:June 11th, 2010 11:34 am (UTC)
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Wasn't it WW that used to use "He" for players and "She" for GMs, which felt like a reasonable compromise to me.

I use "they" most of the time myself.
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From:zornhau
Date:June 12th, 2010 12:29 pm (UTC)
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They was used by Jane Austin, I believe. So I use it. Also, it's the least annoying way of degendering the language.
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From:andrewducker
Date:June 11th, 2010 01:35 pm (UTC)
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Hang on, Hofstadter is arguing in _favour_ of changing speech patterns. He's engaging in satire to show that sexist language is offensive.
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From:hasufin
Date:June 11th, 2010 06:30 pm (UTC)
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When I see things like this, I think of this webcomic. And no, I'm not accusing anyone of going that far, but...

Well, bear in mind that what you're seeking to do is change the language patterns of everyone in order to forward your own social agenda.

First off, people who have been using the existing patterns are not *ist (sexist, racist, whatever). They're using the existing language as they were taught, and to them this has no special implications.

Second, a great many people just don't care about said social agenda. They have no particular desire to remove supposed *ist patterns in the English language. The expectation that they'll change the way they speak and write for something they simply don't care about is pretty unreasonable.

Third, not everyone agrees that all of these things are *ist. I'm not going to try to justify or explain such, but it is a valid viewpoint - one which is in fact just as valid as your own.

Fourth, unlike many languages, English doesn't have an authority which defines the language - it's determined by usage. At best, this means that the old usage is just as right as the new. Realistically, until a new usage is commonly accepted, it is considered "wrong". And, well, that opinion is just as, if not more, valid than the one wanting the new usage.

Fifth, speaking of other language... well, perspective is worthwhile. I've been studying Arabic on and off for a while. When it comes to implicit sexism, English has absolutely nothing on that language.* And bear in mind that the things being railed against are not really in the same league as many other causes of sexism; not everyone thinks that this battle is even worth bothering with right now.

Lastly, and most importantly, disagreeing with a language change for any of the reasons above - and most that I haven't listed - doesn't make a person a *ist. It means that they don't want the language change; that's all. And they have every right to have that opinion. Being judgmental about people who disagree does not in any wise help the social agenda in question.



So, to sum up... I'm okay with making English less gender-oriented and hopefully less sexist. It would certainly make my job a little easier. It is, however, most distinctly not an agenda to which I subscribe, and those who are pushing it need to proceed with care, sensitivity, and respect for others.

Oh, and when trying to reformulate the language, please keep it from sounding too silly. I will not use "hir" ever, and "xie" only works in SF settings.




* - I am unconvinced that the implicit sexism in Arabic languages causes sexism; one might consider that it reflects the sexism in the culture. Or it may not be related at all. If language and sexism do truly have a causative relationship, I strongly suspect that it's a weak one which is readily overpowered by other factors. Which, yes, means I also suspect that removing sexist patterns in English won't reduce actual sexism in any way.
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From:heron61
Date:June 11th, 2010 07:22 pm (UTC)
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First off, people who have been using the existing patterns are not *ist (sexist, racist, whatever). They're using the existing language as they were taught, and to them this has no special implications.

While mostly true [[1]] for some and perhaps many people, I also consider this irrelevant, since this sort of speech serves to reinforce existing attitudes.

[[1]] Sexism and racism are exceptionally widespread in this culture. That in no way means that most people are bigots, but it does mean that we live in a culture with pervasive & institutionalized sexism and racism and both sexist and racist attitudes are exceptionally widespread, even among people who are trying not to be.

Oh, and when trying to reformulate the language, please keep it from sounding too silly. I will not use "hir" ever, and "xie" only works in SF settings.

Here I am in complete agreement. I avoid using such created pronouns because they are quite honestly ugly and awkward.

Edited at 2010-06-11 07:23 pm (UTC)
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From:hasufin
Date:June 11th, 2010 07:24 pm (UTC)
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I'm sorry, but I'll need to see evidence before I believe that language causes sexism. Or any other ism, for that matter.

Until then, to me it looks like you're just trying to find a way to feel superior to people who don't act like you.
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From:hasufin
Date:June 11th, 2010 07:29 pm (UTC)
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This was a "wait, what?" for me... you mean that the fact that people are simply using the language forms which they were taught in school is irrelevant and you're going to judge them on that anyway? Seriously? Are you trying to be a strawman, or is it just a happy accident?
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From:mindstalk
Date:June 11th, 2010 07:18 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, it's an awesome essay.
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From:xuenay
Date:June 11th, 2010 09:54 pm (UTC)
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That essay is indeed made of pure awesome. I'd encountered it before, but re-reading it was still cool.

Oh, and I was wondering, would you have help or advice to provide for a person trying to break into the RPG-writing market? I have a friend (alicorn24) who's looking for a job and has, among other things, a bachelor's degree in world-building. She's expressed interest in working for a game company, among other things. (I might also have an interest in trying to get some writing done for one of the bigger RPG companies at some point, but that'd be more of a hobby and extra source of income for me, while Alicorn's looking for actual sources of "primary work".)
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From:heron61
Date:June 11th, 2010 11:26 pm (UTC)
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It's very difficult now, in large part due to the wretched state of the economy. There are two paths:

Get involved in the fan community of a game put out by a small to medium sized company, and when you hear about some upcoming project, ask to write part of it (and tell them your ideas about what you'd do).

As for large RPG companies, at this point there is exactly one - WOTC (White Wolf is moving to pdfs & on-line gaming only). For them, you need to submit articles for Dungeon Magazine, and keep doing it until you have several that have been accepted and then email folks at WOTC asking for work.

Actually working for a RPG company as a writer is something you need a large amount of luck and also several published RPG products to manage these days.

Sorry to not have better news - 2 years ago the situation was far better, and once the economy improves, I expect things in the RPG industry to improve, but currently the situation is fairly dodgy.
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From:xuenay
Date:June 11th, 2010 11:29 pm (UTC)
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Alright, I'll relay that forward. Thanks for the reply in any case.
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From:iainjcoleman
Date:June 13th, 2010 01:00 am (UTC)
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Mongoose, a generally fine RPG publisher, has a house style that insists on using "he" as the gender-neutral pronoun. This annoys me - perhaps most of all because they publish my favourite RPG (Traveller) and are in many other respects an excellent RPG publishing house.

And it's not just pronouns, it's artwork too. There are some Mongoose supplements for Traveller which give the impression that there are no women at all in the future. Even Slave Leia was a step up from that. It annoys me in two ways. First, as a point of principle, women should be depicted as a part of society. Secondly, if I'm going to spend time in an imagined future universe, I don't want it to be a universe without women. How boring would that be?

It's particularly annoying because the original publishers of Traveller, GDW, were relatively progressive: their publications in the 80s and 90s had a mix of genders, and indeed races, that was unusual for the time, and sadly remains unusual to this day.
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From:bodlon
Date:June 15th, 2010 04:40 am (UTC)
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I confess that I'm not a lover of epicene they, but I frequently rewrite things as not to need a pronoun, or use both.

This was such a brilliant essay, though, because it raises multiple questions about multiple things an a most uncomfortable way. Good food for thought.

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