Talky Tuesday: Navigating Language in a leaky boat, part 2

How certain terms that leaked out of academia have been misinterpreted by laypeople, making a giant mess of it.

Last week was the first installment of this article on words that have slipped out of academia when they shouldn’t have, with the end result being that people think they know what they mean, but they don’t. Last time, I looked at triggered, safe space, gender neutral, and latinx. Here are the rest.

Non-binary

Academically (and medically) this refers to someone who does not identify as either gender and, often, either sex as well. This is regardless of what bits they may have been born with — one, the other, or both. And their brains themselves may not click firmly into the male or female category.

As noted above, “non-binary” just means not limited to only two options.

And that’s totally normal and okay. If bisexual (which, yes, is absolutely a real thing) is the orientation version, then non-binary is the gender version. Sometimes, a non-binary person may feel like a boy. Sometimes like a girl. Sometimes like both at once, and sometimes neither.

And that’s pretty much it. It’s just one more option on the vast and varied menu of sex, gender, and sexual orientation,

Once upon a time, there were only two items on the menu — beef or fish — but they were served up by the biological sex of the patrons at the waiter’s discretion. Beef is for girls and fish is for boys.

Luckily, that menu has turned into a smorgasbord or an all-you-can-eat buffet, with a continuum of foodstuffs available to everyone — Beef, fish, chicken, tofu, pork, sashimi, salad… knock yourselves out. It’s all good, and none of it is tied down to rather useless definitions like biological sex.

Because there are more than two of those, after all. Surprise!

Pronouns

Although this is probably one of the more innocuous bits to slip out of academia to the point that someone listing their pronouns after their name in a Zoom chat window, the list of possible pronouns has gotten a bit out of hand, and this is what non-academic critics have latched onto.

Don’t get me started on all of the transphobia I’ve seen in the wild — even in the LGB community — especially the G part of it. I don’t know why it is, but I find the really queeny gay men of a certain age to be the most transphobic — which is very ironic, because this is the same group that seems to be the most into campy drag.

I think that, deep down, they have the same issues that insecure straight boys do when it comes to transgender people — that they’re going to meet them, fall for them, go home and find the wrong genitalia in the panties.

But that’s not how it works. The Crying Game was a fantasy, and no transgender person is ever going to take home a stranger without first thoroughly explaining to them what’s up — in a public place with a lot of people around.

This is doubly true if that transgender person hasn’t yet had bottom surgery, so that their genitalia and gender don’t currently match, because they know that one of the best ways to get killed is to spring surprise bits on a man in the heat of passion, whether that man is gay or straight.

Getting back to pronouns, though, to be honest, I’ve run across very few people who insist on the exotics, like zie/zim/zir, and mostly see the usual he, she, or they — but all of those odd spellings (some sources claim there are 78 neopronouns) came right out of academia, where they should have stayed.

Why? Because there’s really no logical connection between the words outside of the he/she/they and the genders or non-binary status they represent. But I have yet to run across anything explaining that certain pronouns are for transgender women and others are for transgender men, and another set are for non-binary people.

All of the transgender people I know use either the pronoun of their true gender or “they.”

Critical race theory

Whoever chose these words to describe this thing made one of the biggest fuck-ups in academic history, because what it really represents is a very good thing. But putting those three words together turned it into a lightning rod for criticism from conservatives and misunderstanding from moderates.

Progressives know what it really means, but their opinion on it never gets a lot of media attention.

The way that the right seems to read “critical race theory” is this: “Teach kids that everything white people have ever done is wrong,” but there could be nothing farther from the truth. Still, I can see how the combination of words could make people who don’t understand academia nervous.

One excellent description I’ve seen of what “critical race theory” is: “Teaching history as it really happened.”

This means teaching both the good and bad of what Europeans in general and white people specifically did — the Renaissance and Enlightenment generally managed to advance science, health, and education, and despite all of its flaws and faults as it was established and grew, America did turn into a place for immigrants to begin new lives to the point that we are probably one of the most culturally and racially mixed countries in the world — or at least we’re running neck-and-neck with Brazil.

But, while it’s okay to mention these things, here’s the other big important part of teaching history as it really happened. We have to include all of the people who were not white, Christian, land-owning males over the age of 21 — because that latter group is pretty much the one that is centered in most of those “Western History after 1500” courses that college freshmen have to take.

And… there’s another term that needs to have a gender-neutral version. How about just “frosh?” Or “paroled high schoolers who still don’t know quite how to act around adults.”

All along the way, as Europe moved into the Americas and all those new countries formed and developed, there were indigenous peoples, women, non-Christians, and yes, even LGBTQ+ people involved in that process.

We make the teaching of history stronger when we include everyone who took part in it, but more importantly — we engage the kids we’re teaching it to.

For example, what positive impact would it have on a girl in middle school to learn how many women were actually very influential soldiers and spies during the American Revolution, one of them being snipped out of history only because some man years later wrote a poem about Paul Revere instead of her — while Revere mostly got drunk in a pub and didn’t really do what he was alleged to have done, while Sybil Ludington did.

Or what about Alexander Hamilton? Casting him as a POC in the hit musical Hamilton! was not just a stunt so that Lin Manuel Miranda could play the part. Nope. Hamilton really was mixed-race, and all of his portraits through the years have probably been heavily whitewashed. Imagine a young Black boy learning that in middle school. Hell, he might even grow up to be president.

There are also indications that Hamilton may or may not have been gay, but this is entirely based on correspondence between him and John Laurens at the time, when men were much more likely to use flowery language and declare love for each other without it ever going past the platonic.

On the other hand, Baron Friedrich von Steuben probably was as gay as Christmas on Fire Island, and teaching that story likewise would inspire some young and closeted student to accept themselves.

And so on. So, rather than being a case of “teach kids that everything white people have ever done is wrong,” it’s more like “teach kids that white people did a lot of it but didn’t and couldn’t have done it alone.”

Then teach about the people who helped.

Yes, America became a world powerhouse and media titan mostly under the leadership of rich white men — but those men built their fortunes on subjugating everyone else — initially slaves, without whom the South would never have had an economy — and then immigrants, who were underpaid and exploited.

As for that “media titan” part, well, a huge part of our music was ultimately stolen from Black and Irish Americans, with jazz, rock, rap, and hip-hop being stolen from the former, and bluegrass and country being co-opted from the latter.

Ironically, punk and pop were probably the only two styles that did come from white people — the former from kids who couldn’t be arsed to really learn to play their instruments and sing and the latter from kids who really liked showtunes and the easy-listening, “safe” non-rock their parents listened to in the 1950’s.

So there are just a few of the terms that have leaked out of academia without their original context, only to be terribly misinterpreted by the media and regular people. Unfortunately, academics are constantly creating these terms and concepts, but they really need to stop — or at least stop up the leaks that let them ever escape from academic-only conferences and seminars, where they know what they’re talking about.

And, FFS, they need to translate the terms back into clear and simple English before they unleash them on rank-and-file professors, TAs, adjuncts, and students. .

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.