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Okay, a bit more on why I’m so down on gendered pronouns!
WHAT’S A PRONOUN?
(Source is this weird make-your-own-bingo site. I don’t know how you would play this game.)
Pronouns are words like he, she, them, it, etc. They’re words that take the place of people, so we can say “Ryan sauntered into the beachhouse. His pecs were so interesting! He always suspected as much” instead of “Ryan sauntered into the beachhouse. Ryan’s pecs were so interesting! Ryan always suspected as much”.
They are useful when you don’t want to sound like a robot.
WHAT’S A GENDERED PRONOUN?
A pronoun that tells you what the gender of the person is! He and she are two of them. They is genderless, while it suggests (to many people) a lack of humanity, and with it a lack of gender (as distinct from just not having it specified). One person might get mad if you call them “it”. Another person might get mad if you call their pets “it”.
DON’T WE ALREADY HAVE GENDER-FREE PRONOUNS?
Aha, caught me there, didn’t you? I said “One person might get mad if you call them ‘it’”, and them there is a genderless plural pronoun being used on individual, can’t we use them and they and other versions as gender-free pronouns? Couldn’t their pecs be interesting, even if there’s just one person there? Because they probably are.
Interesting, I mean.
(Hugh Jackman’s pecs, found while searching for “cool pecs”) (okay it was a Google Alert for “cool pecs”) (okay it was a Google Alert for “cool pecs +wolverine hopefully??”)
And yeah, we could. But we don’t. A lot of style guides recommend “him/her” (and, to make it more equal, making every second one “her/him” to mix it up). But that’s messy, ugly, hard to say and impossible to say often (“Ryan sauntered into the beachhouse. His or her pecs were so interesting! She or he always suspected as much”) and puts us right back to sounding like robots. Not to mention how it completely breaks down when someone who ISN’T situated in the gender binary has pecs we want to talk about.
I have a book on dog training that randomly chooses “his” or “her” every time a dog pronoun is needed. I get the idea, but the final result is a quantum dog that changes genders during a single trick. It’s distracting. It’s messy. It’s a crude hack using tools (good ol’ gendered pronouns) that were broken in the first place. And so pointless! Nobody cares about these dog’s genders. The book ITSELF doesn’t even care. It just wants to teach me how to make my dog lie down and sit pretty but it can’t do that without getting mired down in imaginary dog gender identities.
We can do better.
We need to kill the gendered pronouns.
GENDERED PRONOUNS ARE BORING AND STUPID AND WE SHOULD MURDER THEM.
(A stock photo of a body outline. I say, could this stock photo be purchased on some manner of online stock photo website? If only this could be clarified somehow??)
Here’s a sentence:
She had no more choices left. Except one. Grinning wildly, she initiated the Omega Device.
Here’s what English says about that sentence:
The most important thing to know about anyone in the world is their gender, and I need to know it the second you tell me about someone.
"She initiated the Omega Device" tells you what I wanted it to (the Omega device has been initiated by someone, and Shit is about to Go Down, Omega-Wise) but it also tells you a woman is doing it. But no big deal, right? Who cares if we have to talk about gender when talking about Omega Devices and The People Who Initiate Them? It adds colour to the scene! Now everyone can imagine a smokin-hot babe with that Omega Device, instead of a smokin-hot hunk, and rest easy knowing their imagination is correct. What’s the problem, right? We’re getting extra information about the scene for free!
But it’s not! There’s an opportunity cost. We could be bake in literally any other fact we can imagine into our languages. We could have pronouns where, instead of someone’s gender, they told you their mood. Their bone density. Heck, we could have pronouns that tell you their HOPES AND DREAMS. We could live in a world of pronouns that indicate a speaker’s certainty that the person being referred to is ACTUALLY that person, and not a robot duplicate, and we could have a different pronoun to suggest that while the person may not be a robot duplicate, we haven’t entirely ruled out illegal clone. These are crazy suggestions, but that’s the point: anything is possible in language! We invented it! And we can reinvent whatever we want!
He’s me, Ryan. Man! Don’t you wish “he” there told you something even marginally more useful than gender identity, like at least my Facebook relationship status? OH WELL, GUESS YOU’LL NEVER KNOW
And yet we’ve settled on gender.
And it is settling. It’s settling for irrelevant, for boring, for pointless. Is gender really so important to us English speakers that it is, quite literally, all we can talk about? Kill it. Kill it, and build a language with pronouns that do better.
And while we’re at it, let’s not forget to build in a full set of neutral pronouns, pronouns that say “this person or animal or object’s gender/age/android status is irrelevant here, so WHO FRIGGIN’ CARES”. Because there will be times, I promise, when we won’t want to talk about androids, the same way there are times now where we don’t want to talk about gender, but we’re forced to because that’s the language we’ve settled on. Settled for.
And then, finally and at last, we could all stop obsessing about what genders real and imaginary people are like it’s the most important thing in the world. Because it’s really not.
Especially when there could be illegal cloning going on, and the Omega Device has just been initiated.
It’s Swedish, so it’s probably not what you may be thinking about hen’s gender, but still: awesome!
I am a big proponent of gender-neutral pronouns in language, mainly because baking gender into the language that way is wasteful and pointless and stupid (TELL ME WHAT YOU REALLY THINK, RYAN?) (TOO LATE I JUST DID) (IF YOU WANT TO HEAR WHAT I REALLY THINK IN MORE DETAIL, CHECK OUT MY TEDX TALK ABOUT TIME TRAVEL WHICH ACTUALLY TALKS ABOUT THIS, EVEN THOUGH YOU MIGHT NOT EXPECT IT TO, OR REALLY, EXPECT TO SEE A TEDX TALK ABOUT TIME TRAVEL IN THE FIRST PLACE)
For English gender-neutral pronouns, I am a big fan of “thon” (in comic form, no less) but if it doesn’t catch on, in my heart of hearts I know why. It’s too awesome for this world.
Every company makes a bargain with you. They look like this:
We will provide you a comic that is hopefully funny!
We will sell you a burger that tastes exactly like you remember your last burger here tasting like!
We will deliver your package!
And so on: there’s no magic here, this is just what you expect a company to do for you. Let’s look at FedEx’s bargain a little more closely:
We will deliver your package!
is the pitch, but we know that sometimes businesses are closed, roads are difficult, etc. Not every package can be delivered, right? So let’s make that bargain more specific:
We will do our best to deliver your package!
Still a pretty good pitch, right? But we know that there’s limits: FedEx won’t try forever. So let’s bring numbers into it. And just for fun, let’s make it into a POP QUIZ: which of these do you think best captures FedEx’s value offering to you, the savvy package-having consumer?
- a) We will make three attempts to deliver your package!
- b) We will make at least one attempt to deliver your package!
- c) We will make less than one attempt to deliver your package!
In a test situation, most of us would choose a), but some might say “Aha! c) is obviously the ridiculous choice, and b) TECHNICALLY includes a), so b) is the where the smart money is.” Well, we’re all wrong. Astoundingly, their new policy is c): less than one attempt. I know, it’s crazy. I know, it seems like it’s not even possible. But they found a way.
It’s all thanks to their new corporate policy, which is paraphrased like this: “FedEx will not to reattempt delivery if you live within 5kms of a FedEx location”. In other words, if the package is going somewhere close their home base - if the delivery is one of the EASY ones, not one that’s at the end of a fifteen-mile road to nowhere - they give up early. “We got the package most of the way,” they will say, “but now we’re tired. Look, you come here and finish our work for us. Please. Deliver it to yourself.”
Putting aside how awful this policy is to people who don’t own a car and thus might, you know, employ the services of a delivery company, this is still awful policy. With only one attempt - especially with drivers who are human and thus can be less than 100% reliable - any cut corner means packages don’t get delivered.
An example: I’m a cartoonist and I work from home, which means other delivery companies love me because I’m always there to accept packages. But last month there was construction on my street, and FedEx Delivery Dude (dude in the gender-neutral sense) decided to cheat on my package and was like, “Screw it, I’m just marking it as ‘attempted’ and moving on”. But this meant I didn’t get a notice saying “Hey where were you? Come get your package!” which meant the package sat around at FedEx for 10 days before being sent all the way back home. After I asked FedEx to look into this, two versions of what happened emerged.
My version: FedEx Delivery Dude said “Screw it” and lied, saying that I wasn’t home.
The FedEx version was a story that constantly evolved in response to what I’d say. Here’s how it started:
FedEx: “You weren’t home”.
Me: “I work from home, and I was home then.”
FedEx: “Oh. Hold on, let me check with the driver.”
FedEx: “…Okay, you WERE home, but you didn’t answer the door.”
Me: “I would’ve answered the door had the doorbell been rung.”
FedEx: “Oh. Hold on, let me check with the driver again.”
FedEx: “…Okay, so you were home, but the driver knocked instead of using the doorbell [editor’s note: because the driver is an insane person? who does this], and instead of putting the notice in the mailbox right beside the door, he stuck the notice on the door. Later, it blew away.”
Me: “Had there been a knock, my dog would’ve freaked out and alerted me.”
FedEx: “Oh. Hold on, let me check with the driver one more time.”
FedEx: “…The dog was real sleepy.”
In the end, it doesn’t matter whose version is the least credible: this system is designed so that one attempt is all you get, and this is with FedEx’s own admission that things can go wrong with their notices that just blow away and disappear.
But here’s the kicker: there were actually four packages being sent to me simultaneously, each with four separate tracking numbers. Let’s imagine you have some critical piece of information that you need delivered reliably to me: what’s the most reliable way to send it? (Assume email is out for some reason.) One package could get lost, but four packages means four separate attempts, which increases our odds that at least one of them will get through! Right?
It turns out that while FedEx will gladly offer to let you pay 4x over what you otherwise would, they’ll still group your separate packages together and make just one attempt. You’re literally paying extra money for nothing. And here’s where the magic happens: because the dude came to my door only once, these four separate packages had to share, and they got just a quarter of a delivery attempt each. And in talking to the FedEx manager, he said that the number of packages sent in parallel doesn’t matter: they’ll still get grouped together.
So 1 package gets 1 attempt. 2 packages get 1/2 an attempt each. 3 packages get a 1/3 of an attempt each. This allow us to construct an equation:
The number of delivery attempts FedEx makes per package is defined as
where x is the number of packages. This equation we can, in turn, graph:
In other words, the more packages you send at once, the shittier job FedEx does of delivering each of them, with each package getting less and less of a delivery attempt. And the limit actually approaches zero, which means that if you somehow send me infinity packages through FedEx, they will not even knock on my door. They will take the infinity dollars and run. I did honestly not intend today to use math to prove precisely how bad FedEx is at delivering packages, but, um, here we are?
Ironically, this equation also shows us that if we could somehow send fractional packages, FedEx would go ABSOLUTELY INSANE trying to deliver them. This is the “FedEx Zone of Impossibility” I noted in the graph, and it’s probably why everything is rounded up to at least one package to FedEx. Pretty sneaky!
I started by thinking that maybe this insane equation is an unintended consequence of their new “one attempt” delivery system combining poorly their desire to make things as efficient as possible. But after talking to their support and managers, I’m told it’s how things are supposed to go. Four separate packages don’t and won’t get a second delivery attempt if the first one failed. This is BY DESIGN.
I recommend you use other delivery companies in the future.