Thursday, February 06, 2014

Gratuitous overly-abstract post

Over time, the definition of "human" has expanded. By which I mean, the default experience, the normal one, the one projected onto all, has come to include more categories of person. Like when Zola wrote about members of the French working class - that was a big deal at the time, because imagine that, a novel not about rich people or the bourgeoisie! Or, to step back, when the French Revolution opted to include rich but untitled sorts as full citizens. Or, to step forward, when we realized that Man includes women. When we thought to remark on it if some sphere included only men. And so it goes - same deal with race (we start to see the problem of saying 'a woman' to mean 'a white woman'), sexuality, gender identity, and so forth. It's not to say that everything improves over the years - one can think of certain obvious setbacks even to this (say, the 1930s), but that, at least, seems to be the trend. This expansion of who counts.

The question I have is, (how) can this proceed without clunkiness? Without cringe-inducing jargon, political correctness, etc.? Should we perhaps accept, even celebrate, the clunkiness, while having a sense of humor about it to the extent possible?

Consider the latest front in this battle: transgender rights. My impression from social media and such is that certain people who accept that it's possible to be assigned the wrong gender at birth based on sex, who are accepting of any trans people they happen to meet, who, in other words, are not what one would think of as transphobic, will still wince at the word "cisgender," or, more broadly, at the idea that one can no longer assume a man has one set of biological qualities, a woman another. It seems, to such people, like overkill. After all, virtually all of the time, biological sex and gender identity are as one would expect.

And yet! Most people aren't gay, but we've learned to assume that a "partner" or "spouse" could be of either gender. Even in situations where most people are Christian, "happy holidays" is often heard. We know, even if we're talking about someone in a predominately male profession, not to assume that air-conditioner-repair-person will be a man. There's some right-wing backlash to such things, but the consensus appears to be that these are small ways of showing respect. That the harm done to gay couples if the likely answer (i.e. that a woman's partner is a man) is rigidly assumed exceeds whatever minor inconvenience to straight couples who may end up spelling out what used to be the default assumption.

I could go on (and on and on), but will leave that to you, my three readers.


caryatis said...

Count me as part of the right-wing backlash here. Female air-conditioner repairers and gay people know they are in the minority. Why take offense when someone reveals, without malice, that they assumed the most likely possibility was true?

There's an even stronger case for "Merry Christmas," because it doesn't assume your interlocutor is Christian. It assumes that Christmas is an event for that person, as it is for everyone in our culture.

Phoebe said...

Re: minorities, sure, to some extent. Even Dan Savage says he assumes children he meets have a mom and a dad, because, well, most do. But if you're at a gathering and someone you don't know well mentions a partner, is it really such a struggle to keep things gender-neutral? Is it really so trying, if someone mentions seeing a doctor, not to ask "what did he say"? Political correctness is, to an extent, just what we call "manners" before whichever manners fully take root.

Re: Christmas, it's a national holiday everyone's aware of, but some people don't celebrate it. Some even really don't celebrate it. Atheists and agnostics from Christian families do seem to celebrate it; this isn't about Christianity as a belief, as in Jesus and going to church. Some people of other faiths observe it culturally, but not all.

Obviously, because manners, those who don't celebrate are generally not going to make a fuss if wished a Merry Christmas. This is not a language police issue ala the n-word. But it's a nice gesture - and the worst it does is include New Years - to say "holidays." It makes me feel, as a Jew, confident that this person doesn't wish to exclude my kind, if that makes sense. Meanwhile, I don't assume "Merry Christmas" means someone does wish to exclude.

caryatis said...

"Is it really so trying, if someone mentions seeing a doctor, not to ask "what did he say"?"

No, but is it really such an offensive thing to say? The cost of such tact is low, but the benefit is low too. I think we've had a similar discussion regarding referring to someone as your "spouse." Words have connotations, and I'd much rather have a husband than a spouse.

What I meant by saying Christmas is an event to everyone is not that everyone celebrates, but that it's...a significant thing that everyone is aware of in this country. If only as a day off work and a bunch of decorations in the background.

Phoebe said...

Yes, I remember some "spouse" conversation, but in any case, if I'm referring to my own, I generally say "husband." It's not insulting to refer to *your own* celebration of Christmas, your own husband, etc.

Again, my point is that "tact" evolves. What reads as PC and clunky one year will then become politeness. And that's not something to lament.