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How Now Cow of Brown?
Towards a cow-first world
This week, the Canadian province of British Columbia announced its fealty to a naked emperor, when it introduced
new modernizing legislation to correct outdated language by amending more than 2,300 instances of outdated gendered and binary terms from 21 ministries across 210 provincial statutes.
The reason for this is that:
Trans and non-binary people, particularly youth, can be erased by laws that use only he and she…[and] this change signals to those people that they are important, and that they are included and protected by the law.
Nope. In fact, this legislative change signals to women that we shall continue to lose protections under the law, to children that the adults are missing in action, and to everyone that the government has utterly lost the plot.
Sex is binary and fixed1, “non-binary” is a fiction that serves nobody, and claiming that “he and she” are outdated terms reveals deep confusion about reality. Rigid adherence to these new rules and causes comes hand-in-hand with the belief that this is the newest civil rights crusade, and that if you don’t follow along you have outed yourself as being one of them—one of those people who are neither fundamentally decent nor caring.
This misses the point, or rather several points, among them:
Pronouns are about sex, not gender.
It is neither kind nor respectful to cater to the fantasies of the very young or very confused.
Language doesn’t change by brute force.
To that last point, though, it’s not just pronouns that are under attack. It’s adjectives, too. Or rather, it’s word order in the English language.
Long ago, we stopped saying “colored people” and replaced it, in the U.S., with African Americans, or black or brown people. Fine, although I’m quite sure we’re not allowed to say yellow people or red people, and we never thought there were any blue people, not really, so it’s not at all clear how this helps anyone. It doesn’t clarify anything. More frequently now, the preferred term is people of color.
This puts the emphasis on “person” rather than on “color.” Because it’s putting adjectives first that is the problem. Modifying a noun in the standard English way is now a kind of hate crime.
Referring to fat people is mean (and obesity isn’t bad for you!2), but referring to individuals as “people of size” somehow solves the problem. Did your doctor advise you to lose weight? Tell him you’re a patient of size, and make sure to file a complaint with the medical ethics board. How dare he try to do his job!
Don’t talk about survivors, either. These are people who have experienced…survival, I guess. Victims: same deal. Best to refer, for instance, to rape victims as people who have experienced rape.
I’m a person experiencing surprise that we could collectively be this dumb. Most of us seem to have been struck speechless by the inanity, perhaps afraid to speak because the enforcers have brutal cancellation weapons, perhaps merely watching, mute, as the confusion swirls around us.
Regarding the various -isms—sexism, racism, ableism, all of it—we were moving in the right direction. Things were getting better. Now they most decidedly are not. Politics, medicine, and public health have all failed spectacularly and publicly in the last three years, but I need to change the position of adjectives to save the world?
People aren’t disabled—they’re people experiencing disability. People aren’t mentally ill—they’re people living with a mental health condition. People aren’t addicts—they’re people with substance use disorders. Why? Stanford helpfully explains3:
Using person-first language helps to not define people by just one of their characteristics.
Among the world’s languages, a large majority put their nouns before their adjectives. Those languages, someone at Stanford might argue4, are using person-first language. In so doing, those languages are also using vinegar-first, virus-first, and violence-first language, relegating to second tier such descriptors as balsamic, dangerous, and unprovoked.
English is in the minority among world languages in putting adjectives first5. A smaller minority yet of languages use both nouns and adjectives, but don’t have a set rule about which comes first. English isn’t one of those languages, though. That doesn’t make English a language that embraces hatred. A hate language, if you will. It just makes it English.
Now imagine a world in which we want to use more than one adjective at a time. Let’s imagine it’s cows we’re talking about, rather than people. A big brown cow becomes a cow of size and color. A slow spotted cow is now a cow of reduced speed and abundant spots. That crazy wild-eyed heifer in the corner is now a cow of enthusiasm and femaleness who is experiencing a different mental state.
These changes are important because
using cow-first language helps to not define cows by just one of their characteristics.
Cow-first language puts the characteristics of cows after the cowness of it all, where they belong.
Not only do our adjectives come before our nouns in English, but when we use multiple adjectives to modify a single noun, the order in which we use them is understood by native speakers to require a specific order, despite very few of us ever having heard explicit rules about such a thing.
Consider this claim: Yesterday, I rounded a corner and stumbled upon a
grey small terrier, lying on a
French old blanket, which was spread across a
velvet antique couch, in a
fishing pristine boat.
You may not even have been able to consider what I stumbled upon, so thrown were you by the order in which I presented my adjectives. “Grey small terrier” sounds wrong, even if it has never before occurred to you that it might.
The order in which we present adjectives in English is known as the Royal Order of Adjectives. Regardless of what you think of royalty or royal things in general, this is a charming name for something you didn’t know existed, no? I think so. (But I can’t figure out the etymology of the term, or indeed, why the order is what it is—if anyone knows, please let me know in the comments.)
This for-most-of-us-implicit set of rules for how we order our adjectives in English helps those adjectives to support communication, without drawing undue attention to themselves.
Moving the adjective behind the noun doesn’t render it hidden or unreal. Quite the opposite. It makes everyone hyper-aware of language, and makes it nearly impossible to politely ignore or downrank whatever thing you just moved around. Do we want to engage with people first, and their demographic and other characteristics second, or would we like to raise to consciousness whatever descriptor is being used about them? If the latter, well, keep it up. People of color, size, disability, and the rest, are now forced to live in a world in which their color, size, and disability are constantly on everyone’s minds.
Some will argue that these things already were on everyone’s minds. We already lived in a racialized world. A world that looks down on fat people. A world that makes nods to making life easy for disabled people, but at least sometimes wishes that it didn’t have to.
Those can be true statements, at the same time that the proposed “solutions” can be recognized as counterproductive.
What language policing does is raises to consciousness the most mundane aspects of communication. This has at least two broadly negative effects. First, it makes it far more difficult to engage with people as the individuals that they are, rather than as an aggregation of demographic markers. And second, it makes it more difficult to discuss things of actual substance. Thus, we have the dumbing down of a population. When individuals in a society feel free to speak our minds—including not just that of which we are certain, but especially that of which we are not certain—we can actually educate ourselves, and become more wise.
Maintaining uncertainty is a hallmark of wisdom. The language police would force us into clear camps, with visible borders, out of which we may not stray. The language police would steal from us the ability to become wise.
Defund the language police, rather than the actual police, and then we can talk.
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We are mammals. All mammal species have two and only two sexes, and no mammal can change its sex. This is not an “outdated” claim.
Yes, it is. Science (the journal) can write as many garbage articles as it wants in its news section, but just because it has long been one of the two most important and influential science journals on the planet, and its title literally suggests that this is where you should come for the science, the whole science, and nothing but the science, doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been utterly captured by ideologues. I don’t know if the entire staff of Science have lost the ability to think, or if they have been paid to stop thinking, but yes, Science: obesity is bad for your health.
I’ve already spent time here at Natural Selections explaining just how badly Stanford has lost the plot with their Newspeak initiative, but I have to add one more. Instead of using the word “addicted,” they suggest “hooked” or “devoted.” The term addicted, they argue, “trivializes the experiences of people who deal with substance abuse issues.” Uh-huh. And suggesting that people are instead “devoted to fentanyl” really brings the seriousness home, I guess.
If you’re looking for more evidence of how far Stanford has fallen, this thread has many good links.