Monday, 31 October 2011

Book review: "Delusions of Gender" by Cordelia Fine

There is an idea in popular science -- and in real science, for that matter -- that male and female brains are hardwired for different tasks. So we end up with books like "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" and "Why Men Don't Listen and Women can't read Maps".

Unfortunately, it's bollocks.

Or at least, that is Fine's hypothesis, and she makes a very convincing case for the supposedly-hardwired differences being learned in childhood. If I had to pick out just one quote that sums up the idea, it would have to be this:

One child believed that men drank tea and women drank coffee, because that was the way it was in his house. He was thus perplexed when a male visitor requested coffee.

The book is divided into three sections. In the first, Fine points out that the mind can be influenced by the subtlest of signals. (For instance, mentioning that women tend to perform worse in an assessment, or even having subjects tick a "male" or "female" box before taking a test, can influence the result.) In the second, she picks apart "neurosexism" -- the use of pretty coloured brain images to lend a veneer of legitimacy to old-fashioned confirmation bias and prove points that aren't even really there. And in the third, she explains how a continuous drip, drip, drip of gender stereotypes into impressionable young minds leads to the formation of associations that persist into adulthood.

239 pages of main text are followed by a further 98 pages of reference material which include acknowledgements, authors' notes, annotations for each chapter, a full bibliography and a comprehensive index.

Published by Icon Books. ISBN 978-184831220-3. RRP £8.99. ****

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Singular "They"

English is a funny language. Whilst it doesn't have the gender distinctions that remain in some of the Southern European languages (parenthetical remark removed as it's worthy of a whole other post), it lacks pronouns for the third person singular common gender.

This is a serious omission; not least because sometimes, you want to talk about someone you haven't met yet, and don't know whether to call them "he" or "she". Or even whether it makes a difference which order you mention the two in. Perhaps I should have said "..... and you don't know whether to call them 'she' or 'he'". And this is before we even begin to consider that even though we might have met the person, they might not want what is between their legs shoved in everyone's face.

Now, there have been various suggestions for sets of common-gender pronouns; especially, it seems, in science fiction. There's no reason why aliens should follow the same binary distinction that worked well enough on Earth. Yet none of them have really caught on — despite there being entire science-fiction anthologies without a "he" or a "she" anywhere in sight.

But hold on a second. The answer is right there, two paragraphs ago, when I referred to the hypothetical unmet person as "they". We do it all the time in informal English. So why can't it just be accepted more formally?

Outside certain dialects, English no longer makes any distinction between singular and plural in the second person, and the distinction is often blurred in the first person (traditionally, the reigning monarch has always referred to themself as "We"; and this is also often used as a literary device to indicate that the author is not alone in expressing a particular opinion. There are also instances when multiple authors have referred to themselves as "I".)

  • Nominative: They
  • Accusative: Them
  • Genitive: Their
  • Reflexive: Themself (only obvious singular form)

I think it works well enough.

The only trouble is, it could be the top of a slippery slope. If we start allowing one relaxation of the rules, what is going to be next? I have a nightmare about "it's" becoming accepted as 3rd person singular neuter genitive, or "would of" replacing "would have".