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Verb today, noun tomorrow: the grammar of identity

July 22, 2010
Probably (c) Apple.

The British edition of the Apple "I'm a PC - I'm a Mac" advert, with the signs the characters hold 'shopped to read "I'm an adjective" and "I'm a noun" respectively.

Are you an adjective, or a noun? Maybe a verb? Are you, god forbid, a preposition? It sounds like one of those supremely rubbish (and usually spammy) Facebook apps – “What Word Class Are You?” It would be appalling, and probably misspelled. However.

The vagaries of Facebook aside, word class – a banal and utilitarian property though it is – can say a lot about the person using the words; sometimes, more than they intended. It’s constantly amazing how much we say not just in our choice of vocabulary, but in our choice of grammar.

It’s easier to pin down the effect of vocabulary choices, because it’s most often a question of different sources using different words for the same concept, and so you can compare them directly. If one newspaper describes Roman Polanski as ‘the well-known auteur’ and another as ‘the well-known child rapist’ it’s pretty damn clear who’s on which side. Grammar is harder. When the same word has multiple forms – noun and verb, or noun and adjective, usually – what difference does the chosen form make, when according to the dictionary they’re versions of the same thing?

The inspiration for this post was this piece about an interview Stephen Fry gave to a 14-year-old contest winner. In it, he says that he will be presenting an upcoming BBC series on language called Planet Word, which is excellent news enough (Stephen Fry + language geekery = be still my pounding heart), but the part I found most intriguing was when he talked about how our concepts of language map onto how we think about people, and the limitations such mappings can impose:

He warned [the kid interviewing] that language could shape and limit people’s ambitions: “We are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing – an actor, a writer – I am a person who does things – I write, I act – and I never know what I am going to do next. I think you can be imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun.”

And on some sociolinguistics or psycholinguistics exam paper of the near future, this quotation will be reprinted followed by the word that haunts essay-subject students’ dreams even now – “Discuss.”

What is the qualitative difference between Fry saying “I am a writer” and “I write”? They amount to the same thing, surely? Well, no, not quite. Firstly, as he points out, verbs are dynamic, whilst nouns are static. “I write” draws attention to the fact of writing as an ongoing endeavour, a process that may be happening even now, in a way that “I am a writer” doesn’t. Today, I write; tomorrow, I act; the day after, who knows?

Secondly, there is an egotism about nouns of profession. In their usual use, they denote professionalism: the difference between “I am a footballer” and “I play football”, or “I am a painter” and “I paint” is almost always the difference between someone who does it for a living and someone who messes around on weekends. Appropriating the professional form when you aren’t a professional smells of egotism, and people recognise this, however unconsciously – I suspect everybody has known at least one pretentious wannabe who compounded the pretentiousness by insisting on “I am a songwriter” when really, they just wrote songs.

Fry is a professional, of course. He has been paid, no doubt handsomely, to write and act and present, and is therefore well within his rights to say “I am a writer, I am an actor, I am a TV presenter”. But he is rarely egotistic about the fact of being a star in the way that some stars are; perhaps this is a carefully cultivated aspect of his public persona as avuncular national treasure, or perhaps he is genuinely humbled by his fame. Either way, his insistence on the verbal form rejects the idea that he is some sort of Superior Being – an Actor, a Writer – and places him instead on a level with people who write for the student newspaper or turn out for the am-dram society.

Sincere or not, it’s a masterful manipulation of audience. When Stephen Fry says “I write” it gives me a lovely warm fuzzy feeling inside, because hey, I write too! And I suspect that almost all of Stephen Fry’s usual audience do, as well, because clandestine artistry of some sort is a class feature of the over-educated, left-wing, middle-class demographic to which Fry pitches himself. By emphasising that the verb is the superior form, Fry has endeared himself to his writing, acting, trivia-knowing audience who do the verb, but are not, and probably never will be, the noun.

The potential egotism of nouns is a direct function of their grammatical purpose, though, and is not necessarily a bad thing. As we probably all learnt in primary school, A Noun Is A Thing. Nouns are. A noun is a declaration of an identity.

Applied to professions, then, they can be misused or misinterpreted – your profession is not an ineluctable identity, despite popular usage. (Think of how anyone who has famously changed career will still be described as ‘ex-model X’ or ‘former politician Y’ long after the fact.)

Nouns would make sense, might indeed be a good thing, if they were to be confined to things that we are happy to claim as full identities. And in some areas, the use of nouns tends to bear this out: for example, part of the continuing effort to get people to understand butch and femme as distinct gender identities – something you are – has been the emphasis on the fact that both words can be nouns as well as, or instead of, adjectives. (See also the rise of capitalised identities as a way to harness the magical power of the noun.)

So. Using a word as a noun rather than an adjective can offer a kind of linguistic empowerment, a claiming of identity. Historically, though, noun-identities have been fraught. The idea that Fry raises, of being ‘imprisoned’ by nouns, doesn’t just apply to professions: the identity-bestowing powers of the noun can be taken too far, ending in essentialisation and, ultimately, dehumanisation. Consider the difference in tone and connotation – and historical usage – between ‘black people’ and ‘blacks’, ‘gay people’ and ‘gays’, between ‘disabled people’ and ‘the disabled’. Or there’s an unusual manifestation of the essentialising noun in some trans activist circles, where it’s smooshing an adjective into a noun, creating a new and distinct noun, that causes the problem: the lack of a space in such terms as ‘transwoman’ implies that ‘transwoman’ is a distinct entity from ‘woman’, perpetuating the idea that trans people’s sexes/genders are somehow inherently unlike, and distinguishable from, those of cis people.* To quote s.e. smith, “A trans woman is a woman. A transwoman is…something else.”

The noun form (the form that handily reduces whatever group to one shared, and usually irrelevant, characteristic, and also usually leaves out the verbal reminder that whoever are being mentioned are people) is almost always the one preferred by people out to insult, degrade, patronise or threaten the group in question. A case in point, and a spectacular one even by racist standards, is the recent ‘satirical’ letter composed by a (white) member of the US Tea Party fringe that squeezes the word ‘coloreds’ in nine times in a few paragraphs.

Nouns (and their cousins, pronouns) are specific, rigid, definitive; and this is what makes them perfect in some situations and really bad in others. It comes down to what you want to emphasise at any given time, and whether the trait in question is relevant to the situation or not. Somebody denying that one of your identities is real at all? Use the noun; assert its existence. Someone trying to reduce you to a single stereotyped trait? Use the adjective – remind them whatever trait describes you, rather than contains you.

Verbs perform, adjectives describe, nouns are. People, in their inconvenience, tend to do all three – we can be a noun in one context and an adjective or a verb in another, or even ricochet back and forth between forms depending on which bits of our identities we want to prioritise at that moment.

The minutiae of grammar are not always interesting in themselves, and it’s hard to teach them in interesting ways. I concede that. But I’ve seen too many people squirm and doze and stare out the window in our compulsory first-year English Language module, when we were taught the nuts and bolts of grammar and syntax, because they couldn’t see what such technical stuff had to do with the high and mighty Literature that they’d come to study.

And that’s a shame, because what we understand from a sentence is shaped as much by how the words are used as by what words they are.


*From a linguistic point of view, I do wonder how such terms as ‘transwoman’ came into existence, considering that the adjective+noun smoosh isn’t a way we usually form new nouns in English – you’d never see ‘whitewoman’ or ‘gaywoman’, for example.** If I had to guess, I’d say that trans- seems to attach more naturally to words than other adjectives because it’s used legitimately as a prefix elsewhere, and perhaps that’s why.

**Although you do get the kind of new nouns – usually in fantasy fiction of dubious quality – like ‘she-wolf’ and ‘she-orc’ and so on, where an analogous dynamic is in place, implying that she-Things are distinctly different from, and probably not like normal, Things.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. July 22, 2010 8:35 pm

    “Trans” is not only used legitimately as a prefix; it is a prefix, which some people have just recently started using as an adjective. It does make me twitch to see that orphaned prefix sitting out there on its own as a separate word: if one is going to say “trans woman”, my brain wants to either close that space, or make it “transgender woman”/”transsexual woman” etc.

    And if I may impose bias by applying different terms to similar things for a moment, I would say there’s a line between “having an interesting discussion about linguistic choices” and simply “Being A Dick About Terms”, and it’s a line that falls somewhere between Stephen Fry and s.e. smith. (I hate those lowercase initial letters, too — but this by-the-bye.) I don’t mean that it’s wrong to choose your words based on a principle like the one you quote from smith, but if such quibbling ends up at the centre of a discussion, it’s there in place of real talk about actual real things, and it shouldn’t be. I note that smith also objects to the term “biological sex”, and insists upon “assigned sex” or “assigned sex at birth”, as if the doctors and parents standing around the bed decided on the spur of the moment for me to have a penis and testicles and no womb.

    Once I got to the “assigned sex” part, I began to feel quite angry, because I think I know what smith is doing. She’s Ou’s defining the terms in which debate is carried out in order to build her ou’s view of the world into the language with which the world is described, and then dismissing as a bigot anyone who sees things, and therefore describes things, in a different way. And this produces an echo chamber akin to the one I’ve seen the Rubbish Communists of my acquaintance lock themselves into, where “debate” (that is, real debate) is held only with people within one’s own minute corner of the full spectrum of views, and one suffers a kind of atrophy in one’s capacity to engage with the other, different people in the big wide world.

    And all this is coming from a dedicated supporter of Sapir and Whorf, who never uses “he” for a person of unknown gender, who actively objects to the pejorative use of the terms “gay” and “retarded”, who makes every effort, when defining people — if at all — to define them as they want to be defined, but I will still stand here and say that restriction of terms to this extent, the extent to which smith wants to practice it, is counterproductive, antisocial, and wrong.

    Whoo. Got hotter under the collar than I meant to there. Still though: at a certain point, what one’s saying has to take precedence over how one says it, or we’ll all die in a puff of nihilism.

  2. heliconia permalink
    July 22, 2010 9:28 pm

    This is one of the best arguments for language actually mattering that I’ve ever read.

    It comes down to what you want to emphasise at any given time, and whether the trait in question is relevant to the situation or not. Somebody denying that one of your identities is real at all? Use the noun; assert its existence. Someone trying to reduce you to a single stereotyped trait? Use the adjective – remind them whatever trait describes you, rather than contains you.

    I love this. It’s much better to be aware of how your word choice emphasizes your identity in different ways and choose accordingly than to argue endlessly about whether the adjective or the noun (or the verb) is better.

    A professor of mine thought we should say “I study” to describe our status as undergrads rather than “I’m a student”, for etymological reasons (we should be eager for knowledge all our lives, not just as undergrads!).

  3. July 22, 2010 9:55 pm

    @Seamus: s.e. smith isn’t a she – smith is nonbinary/genderqueer, and uses the pronoun ‘ou’. I think it’s in the FAQ at FWD/Forward, or at least on ou’s contributor page there. (Actually, just checked: it is.) I can edit that for you if you want.

    And I have to disagree with you in the strongest possible terms that debate over the proper terminology for sex and gender is “quibbling”. You’re surely not unaware of the extent to which, whenever a transsexual person comes up in the news (usually because they’ve been murdered) there’s a minute and unwarranted focus on their “biological” or “birth sex” and the name their parents gave them, which serves only to erase their real identity and facilitate the idea that they are/were “really” the sex that the doctors thought they were at birth. The perpetration of the “really a man/woman” trope is exactly the kind of thing that gets trans people murdered on a horrifyingly regular basis.

    And that’s not even getting into the fact that “biological sex”, as well as been massively essentialising, means sod all. Do they mean the state of your external genitals, internal bits, chromosomes, your hormone levels, or what? None of those things will necessarily ‘match’ one another in terms of what sex they point towards, and there exist inbetween states for all of them – various intersex conditions, assorted unusual chromosomal patterns, and so on. It’s not only a phrase that perpetrates a damaging concept, it’s practically empty.

    “Assigned sex”/”sex assigned at birth” is clunky and still not brilliant, but it’s the best there is. Spare me the crap about how the doctors didn’t decide to make you a boy, please; they may not have done that, but they, and your parents, and society in general made the collective decision that the correct way to raise you was as a boy. In ~99/100 cases, that collective guess is accurate and no harm done, but the hundredth person is going to live a life of incredible misery if there’s no way to articulate the difference between the sex society guessed at and the sex they actually are.

    This is not a matter of merely differing viewpoints. Or if it is, the differing viewpoints in question are ‘trans people are really the sex they say they are’ and ‘trans people are not really the sex they say they are’, and the latter isn’t something I’m willing to give a pass on the basis of freedom of opinion. If you were faced with someone arguing in all seriousness that ‘women are inferior’ and ‘women are not inferior’ was a case merely of people seeing the world differently, would you bother to engage?

    Final thing: smith’s post lays out what is and isn’t acceptable language for use at FWD/Forward, which is maintained as a safe space as far as is possible, including for trans people. Safe spaces are rarely, if ever, intended for debate with the outside world: rather, they’re places for people who are sick of the outside world debating their humanity to get inside out of the rain.

    It’s probably true that a lot of safe-space-approved terminology requires explaining, reframing or just temporarily being left by the wayside in order to get your argument across outside in the unsafe space of Life In General, but that’s beside the point. It’s also possible that regular visits to moderated safe spaces give you unrealistically high standards for the behaviour of people in the real world, and/or that interacting mostly with people who share your worldview may blunt your ability to debate with those who don’t.

    None of this is relevant to the fact that the curators of a self-declared safe space – hell, any blog, safe, unsafe or otherwise – have every right to specify what kinds of speech they will and will not allow, because it’s their damn place.

    And quite apart from all this (I guess that ‘final’ up there was a lie), the English language needs a proper vocabulary for talking about trans and genderqueer people and the reality of their lives that doesn’t obscure or skew the issues, that doesn’t perpetrate bias and transphobia, and that doesn’t contribute to a system that every day puts real people’s lives on the line. Trying to build such a new vocabulary and get it incorporated into the fabric of everyday speech isn’t just reasonable, it’s fucking essential.

    Words are important, and I don’t know why I’m having to explain this to someone who I know Gets It in quite a lot of other areas, as you remind me above. If you wouldn’t accuse gay people or disabled people who won’t tolerate ‘gay’ or ‘retarded’ being used as derogatory terms of trying to close down dialogue, extend the same damn courtesy to trans people who don’t want to have to put up with constant erasure, misgendering and abuse.

    I’m sincerely hoping that there’s been a big misunderstanding, or you were feeling unusually irritable/pedantic, and that the yelling at one another can be put to bed. But I think you should know that this was right on the line for getting deleted, under the same safe-space principles as outlined above, because I don’t want any trans people who are reading to have to put up with the same tired bio-essentialising I-know-your-sex-better-than-you-do rubbish as they do in basically the rest of the entire world.

    (. . . And now, the weather.)

  4. July 22, 2010 10:15 pm

    @heliconia: Thank you!

    I love the flexibility of English, that it allows us so many subtly varied ways to communicate who we are. The adjective/noun/verb distinctions give us a way of fine-tuning what we mean at a very precise level and (a bonus) one that most people will intuitively understand. You either know an item of vocabulary or you don’t, but pretty much everybody knows the different purposes of nouns, adjectives and verbs, and their significance.

    I like your professor’s example of the noun/verb distinction – it’s a really good one for contrasting a dynamic, ongoing verb with a relatively static noun.

  5. July 22, 2010 10:22 pm

    Pardon me; I forgot to say, in my unexpected attack of rage against that particular quotation, that your posts always fall on Stephen Fry’s side of the aforementioned line, and that my anger towards those who choose to Be A Dick About Terms was firmly directed past you, not at you (though long experience of watching Newcastle United defeats with my dad have taught me that it’s not always as easy to tell the difference as one might hope).

  6. July 22, 2010 10:24 pm

    (Above comment made before I saw that you had responded to my comment: just reading it now, will make real reply shortly.)

  7. July 22, 2010 11:44 pm

    Okay, first of all, I want to hold my hands up and say I’m sorry for causing offence with the way I made my argument, and I hope you don’t read my comment beginning “Pardon me…” above and think, even for a brief second, that it was my only response to your objections, because that would be awful. It was just a correction to a part of my post, and it looks like it probably won’t get to be the last.

    But I am going to begin with what I won’t take back: if someone is born, for example, a boy, then in that moment and for that time at least, they have the body of a boy and that is what “sex”, as opposed to “gender”, describes. It’s not a mistake or a guess: it’s an educated description of the present biological state of things. Note what I’m not saying: I’m not saying that someone can’t be a woman’s mind in a man’s body, or vice versa (a gender that differs from their sex; I think my definitions of those words may be the main problem), and want their body to reflect who they are inside (“you are more authentic the more you resemble what you’ve dreamed you are”, to use Almodóvar’s phrase); I’m not saying that they don’t have the right to pursue that change, or have people’s respect for their choice; I’m not saying that an intersexed person must be identified as one sex or the other, or that they should be biologically altered in order to be one sex or the other. What I am saying is that sex, as a descriptor of a human being, is not trivial, nor is it empty. In fact, when someone changes sex from female to male or male to female (just one of the forms of trans identity, I know), that is one of the reasons why. What is a desire to take on a sex other than the one circumstances have given you, if not a recognition that sex is anything but trivial? Of course, a nonbinary/genderqueer identity like that of smith’s does not imply the same thing. I’m honestly annoyed with myself that I let that “she” get in there; I had hoped to avoid the issue by simply using smith’s name every time, but I slipped up. Go ahead, change it to “ou”; I don’t much care for the word, but neither do I take any pleasure in revealing publicly that I assume people’s gender when they have given no indication of it. I had hoped I was above that.

    I haven’t typed the above arguments because I want to hurt anyone, or make out their biological features to be more important than they are; I’ve put them there because I want to show that my original post was more than simply a random burst of transphobia or pedantry, and did reflect something I had thought about. To show, for instance that when I brought up penises and the rest, that wasn’t me saying that organs are the only defining feature of gender, but that they are the only defining feature of sex, because the fact that our language makes a distinction in sense between gender and sex strikes me as the first victory for trans rights in the way we speak, and muddying that distinction in my own language is not something I am keen to do.

    Now, the retractions.

    I was wrong to argue that a safe space doesn’t have the right to a defined and regulated lexicon: it does. I was wrong to get so preoccupied with terms that I forgot that identity, people and compassion are more important: precisely what I thought I was objecting to, but I ended up falling into the same trap in a much worse way. The strength of your reaction makes it clear that my post took on the mantle of a brickbat thrown against the trans camp in general, when I had intended only to take issue with a certain person’s attitude to language. Mea maxima culpa. I apologise.

    I may be impatient, I may be rude, but I have, I hope, got the main things right in my time. I’ve done my best to be a friend and a support to the trans people that I know in every way that I can, and I know at first hand what it’s like to be abused for transgressing against my sex. I hope that, in the light of the post, it is clearer that I did not mean to deny anyone their gender identity when I sounded off before.

  8. July 23, 2010 12:08 am

    I absolutely agree with you on the importance of sex as a property of people – my specific problem is with the term “biological sex” because it invokes vague ideas of Nature and Science and The Order of Things without having a clear meaning. If the situation makes talking about genital sex or chromosomal sex relevant, then, well, those terms exist and mean things. “Biological” doesn’t, really. Pet peeve. I’m sorry that bit wasn’t clearer.

    I agree with most of the clarified version, really.

    I’m glad that it did turn out to be a question of misunderstanding and over-reaction (on both sides, I think). The first comment really, really threw me – the reply comment took an absolute age to write because I was that jittery – because its implications seemed so far out of character. I’m sorry for misinterpreting and blowing up at you, but I’m kind of glad I did, because it at least let us clear up what was meant.

    Group hug?

  9. Seamus permalink
    July 23, 2010 8:56 am

    Awesome, I caused a fracas big enough that a group hug between two people was the only way to conclude it! Seamus: redefining reality. Yeah!

    What you say on “biological sex” turns out to make a lot of sense, and I will bear it in mind when talking about this subject in the future. Thanks for blowing up at me, really — it’s a more generous way to respond than the simpler alternative, which would have been just concluding that I’m a pillock without giving me the chance to clear myself.

  10. July 23, 2010 10:06 am

    I edited smith’s pronouns for you, but left the original ones in struck-out so that ensuing bits of the conversation would still make sense. I hope that’s okay.

  11. Paul Skinner permalink
    July 23, 2010 9:40 pm

    The basis of this argument seems to stem around the definition of the word “biology”.

    The OED says:

    “The study of living organisms, divided into many specialized [sic] fields that cover their morphology, physiology, anatomy, behaviour, origin, and distribution.”

    Now, at birth, all of these are pretty set*. It isn’t really until free-thought is possible/coherent that they change and can become clouded/changed/altered. Therefore I probably agree more with Seamus’ first comment in that it’s unnecessarily argumentative to disagree with what is the historical norm for “What is the biological sex of your child?”. If this wasn’t what he was getting at either then apologies and I’ll shut up.

    I found this definition quite interesting, because:
    A. It has the less common “specialized”.
    B. It has the Oxford comma at the end.
    and that tickles my pointless pedantry gland.

    *If there’s evidence to the contrary, that’s interesting and also is news to me.

  12. July 23, 2010 11:16 pm

    My point, to expand again, is this.

    Biology, as the OED definition helpfully suggests, is an extremely broad field, and includes such sub-sciences as endcrinology (study of hormones) and genetics (under ‘origin’ on the OED list, I’m guessing).

    There are multiple biological factors that are linked to sex, and which could in theory be used to determine it, which can and do contradict one another. It’s perfectly possible (and relatively common) for someone who is genetically XY to grow into a healthy cissexual woman with all the organs you’d expect. There are people whose chromosomes say one thing or another but who have parts of both male and female reproductive systems. And this is before you get into chromosomal multiplicity – people who have XYY, XXY, or even more surplus sex chromosomes.

    There’s also the not insignificant point that people who drag out the “biological sex” canard to try and prove that trans women are really men, or whatever, are usually basing this off the bullshit idea that Biology Is Immutable. It’s true that there are some biological markers we can’t change (notably chromosomes) but hormonal profiles and outer body shape, including genital formation, are both perfectly mutable thanks to synthetic hormones and SRS. Yet clearly both anatomy and endocrinology are covered under the ‘biological’ umbrella; you can be anatomically male, or anatomically female (externally, at least), regardless of whether you were born that way or what your chromosomes say.

    Nature is not as orderly as people would like it to be: there is no single factor in your genes, your hormones, your genitals, or anything else that can state definitively what sex you are biologically. It’s a term so broad as to be useless. In some (exclusively medical, probably) situations it may be relevant to state what sex someone is anatomically, or chromosomally, or genitally; if that’s the case, it’s worth using the specific term. ‘Biological sex’ is a meaninglessly broad umbrella term used almost exclusively by bigots, because it’s so broad it can mean anything they want it to mean, which is usually ‘whatever factor lets us exclude this group of people’.

    To recap:

    1) There is no single biological determinant of sex. There are lots.
    2) They can contradict one another.
    3) They can also contradict one’s real sex.
    4) Some of them can be changed to match one’s real sex.

    Given #1 and #2, trying to pin down a definition of ‘biologically male’ or ‘biologically female’ is impossible.

    Given #4, drawing a distinction between ‘biological sex’ and ‘post-transition sex’ is a logical fallacy, because the process of transitioning alters one’s biology.

    Given #3, this is also pointless, because all the biological markers in the world can’t say for sure what sex somebody is.

  13. July 23, 2010 11:32 pm

    Oh, and this is entirely frivolous: people rabbiting on and on and on about how festival X or blog Y is only open to ‘biological women’ is clearly discriminatory against our robotic and cybernetic sisters. Mechanical women are women too!

    (And on a slightly less frivolous note, I fully expect this to become an issue of tremendous drama if/when we create human-equivalent robots. Not just ‘are robots people?’ but ‘do robots have sexes?’ I would guess, if they’re programmed in a humanlike fashion, they will probably have, or gradually acquire, gender identities, even if the bodies we build for them are not sex-differentiated. And you just know that some people won’t be able to stomach the idea of artificial, mechanical beings experiencing themselves as wo/men in the same way that human wo/men do. And then there’ll be the people who have sex with robots, and what sex are the robots they choose to have sex with. And then there’ll be people who feel their biological bodies aren’t right, and get themselves transplanted into mechanical bodies. And then the robots themselves will probably, if they’re anything like us, develop discriminations amongst themselves, based on chipset or processor power or whatever. It’ll be a whole new axis of oppression! YAY!)

  14. Paul Skinner permalink
    July 24, 2010 11:46 pm

    “4) Some of them can be changed to match one’s real sex.”

    Ok, I’ll boil down the argument some more.
    “Biological” sex is equally as vague in meaning as “real” sex, which you just used.
    I see no pressing need, when used in the situation of sex at birth, to alter what is the social norm of the meaning which is “the dangly-or-otherwise bits on your child”, or in other words, substituting the word Physical for Biological. I’m pretty much suggesting that it’s needless to cover all the Biological bases when you’re talking about a child which doesn’t know itself yet. Just accept the social norm as it’s doing no harm. Later in life, when it’s capable of free thought, sure, by all means include the social, environmental and other factors that are included in the word Biological. It’s just not really relevant at birth.

    I’m particularly paying attention to the situation of “at birth” here, which I think Seamus was meaning originally.

    I’ve realised I’m just rambling now, so I think I’ll leave it there.

  15. Paul Skinner permalink
    July 24, 2010 11:49 pm

    R.E. Robots. Pah, not gunna happen. The world will end long before we get close to sentient robots*. If you didn’t mean sentient, then you may as well just include blow up dolls, of which I’m told there are plenty of different genres if you will.

    *or bloody soon after once the first Terminator is created

  16. July 25, 2010 1:02 pm

    Ah, it’s clearer what you’re getting at now.

    If you’re going to try and guess a child’s sex at birth, then the way we currently do it is probably the simplest way. That’s a big ‘if’, however; I dispute the idea that we even need to do that. All the hospital need be concerned with is whether the baby is healthy or not, surely? I don’t get why you have to put M or F down on the paperwork before the kid’s even woken up.

    I get that it’s important to have some kind of data with regard to sex, at least on a country-wide level, so it’s possible to monitor demographics and so on. But stamping children with an M or an F at a few hours old, and then putting a lot of bureaucratic obstacles in the way of changing it, is not the way to go. If we’re going to acknowledge that assigned-sex-at-birth is an educated guess (and that’s all it is) then it has to be easier to correct the mistakes that will inevitably occasionally be made.

    That’s the point at issue here, really – not that biological sex (however that’s determined) is a worthless concept, but that the state, society, and people in general continue to treat it as of paramount importance long after it’s become irrelevant. If we’re going to sort children by sex at all, biological sex should be something used as a rough rule of thumb before a child can tell you themselves. In practice it’s treated as some sort of immutable law beside which a person’s self-stated identification is seen as trivial or irrelevant.

    I object less to the term (or indeed the concept) than to the use to which it’s generally put, which is that of oppressing people who have enough on their plates already.

    In a slightly less sex (in the sense of the property, not the act) -obsessed society, the sex of a child would be something you registered as and when it became clear. I think most children, cis and trans, are perfectly aware of what sex they are fairly early on (I can’t remember not being sure I was a girl, and I’m sure the analogous case applies to you), so you’d only have to wait for them to tell you. But no, society has to know straight away . . .

    This intersects with something else that I was discussing with someone yesterday – children’s rights. We let people get away with things in re: their own children that would be illegal if done to anybody else. Stuff like, a marrying person has no right to force a name-change on their partner, but a marrying parent can change their children’s names by fiat. Or how the children – that is, the people whose welfare is in question – are rarely consulted at all when custody decisions are being made.

    Children don’t always have the best judgement, and certainly don’t usually have as much experience and information to draw on as adults, but suggesting that they don’t know who they are is bullshit. And they should have the same right to determine their own identities as anybody else.

  17. July 25, 2010 7:44 pm

    This is really interesting, and I’m bookmarking it for when I need to come back to it in the future. Thank you!

  18. knightofthedropdowntable permalink*
    July 26, 2010 12:01 am

    Robots being socialised into a gender role would be a good way of showing just how much influence society has over your gender, as clearly there is nothing biological involved. Comparing identically constructed robots that have been expected to behave in different ways by society would be an interesting experiment, although if they do have sentience* this probably would breach their Robot Rights. I would also be curious to see if people gave them male and female roles or if they were given some new ‘robot’ gender.

    One thing that science fiction writers always seem to assume is that robots or AIs will behave in the same way we do, when really we have no idea how they will think. Hopefully they will not be into the whole genocide thing, because humanity will no doubt come off second best in that particular contest.

    *I think robots and AI will become sentient with enough work, because I am of the opinion that we are also just complex machines – sentience is just the name we give to things that are complex enough to fool us into believing they are intelligent. Like humans.

  19. Seamus permalink
    July 31, 2010 4:26 pm

    “‘Biological sex’ is a meaninglessly broad umbrella term used almost exclusively by bigots”

    On the contrary. If one wanted to be bigoted towards trans people, one would talk simply of sex or real sex. The mere fact that a person distinguishes “biological sex” from other types of sex is already an indication that they are not a bigot.

  20. July 31, 2010 11:23 pm

    Okay, I guess the original comment was a bit too broad. I’ll try and clarify. Basically, there really aren’t many situations where someone’s biological sex (however you define ‘biological’) is actually relevant, and those that there are are almost all either medical or utterly personal or both.

    References to people’s biological details, whether in that specific phrase or not, are far more widespread than that narrow spread of situations would warrant. Too often when the question of biology or whatnot is brought up it’s with the explicit or implicit message that such biological markers are somehow more real than what the person involved is actually saying.

    But the fetishisation of biology/physicality and the insistence on the infallibility of nature is a whole ‘nother issue, and one that merits a post to itself.


  1. Sonia, Nina and Mikki « This Wicked Day

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