Coming to Grips with the Singular They

I was hesitant to say much about this topic, as the internet is full of discussion, and most people in my circles feel that ship sailed some time ago, that there is nothing left to discuss.

Let me be clear: I 100% support gender neutrality. I support gender inclusivity, and I support empowering people to explore gender identity in whatever way helps them make sense of this reality we face. This is not a commentary about gender. This is a commentary about number.

What I choke on with the singular they is the loss of yet another distinction between singular and plural. We already gave that distinction up with the second person: thou/thee got merged with you/ye into you and now we have some terrible options for distinguishing singular from plural: you guys (really?), you all (y’all, which, so help me, makes me cringe) and youse (which I almost like, it’s cute, ish). With the historical use of the “royal we” and the increasing use of we to imply solidarity, collaboration and/or togetherness (even insincerely), a future completely devoid of singular pronouns other than “it” is not all that far-fetched.

As a professional wordsmith, it is my job to help people make themselves understood. If communication is two individuals sharing and understanding an idea (thank you Pat Parelli), there has to be a mutually agreed upon way to convey that idea. It seems important in many cases to be clear about whether we are talking about one or more individuals. However, from an academic writing perspective, the rabbit hole took me on a surprising journey.

Finding clarity through being vague

I have been noticing that in many contexts, particularly in non-fiction discourse, it’s not necessary to talk about an individual. I work on a lot of books that have been translated from French, and the translations are often not great, or too literal, but they reveal a lot about nuances in English and French that I find fascinating. I recently worked on a book about maps. The translators worked diligently to achieve gender neutrality which, bless them, resulted in a few instances of singular/plural discordance, my favourite of which was, in reference to the language of maps: “They makes good use of grammar…“. But I digress. Here’s an example to illustrate the point of being intentionally vague to achieve clarity:

The author may plan to deceive his readers, or not realize that his map will often be misinterpreted.

We’re not talking about a particular author here – this is just any old cartographer who might be making a map with or without the intention to mislead. Ironically, French, a language built entirely on masculine/feminine constructs, has the luxury of gender-neutral third-person possessive pronouns that agree in gender and number with the object, with no refence to the gender or number of whoever is doing the possessing. The original French of the sentence above reads thus:

Leur auteur peut prévoir de tromper ses lecteurs, ou ne pas se rendre compte que sa carte va être souvent mal interprétée.

A simple solution to this is to remove possession, which is not necessary to convey the intended meaning:

The author may plan to deceive readers, or not realize that the map will often be misinterpreted.

The sentence that follows in this passage further illustrates the trend I find in French writing to talk about a single individual when really a category of people, such as a profession (in this case, authors of maps), is the subject being discussed:

Il peut aussi intégrer des éléments graphiques qui vont éventuellement évoquer certaines idées ou sentiments chez les lecteurs

translates literally to

He (or she) can also integrate graphic elements that will eventually evoke certain ideas or feelings in readers…

So we could use they here, but it’s even cleaner if we just eliminate the pronoun altogether:

Authors can also integrate graphic elements…

This boils down to a simple guideline that I have been trying to apply in all my academic editing: If a pronoun can be avoided, avoid it. Speak to the idea, and take the emphasis off the individual.

Showing respect and inclusivity by not specifying

In a world rife with ad hominem attacks, I find it refreshing to take the emphasis off the individual and instead focus on the idea. Good academic writing should be about sharing ideas, making arguments, presenting hypotheses, observations, and conclusions. We can show sensitivity and respect for the individual by not assuming anything about an individual, especially when that individual is representative of a group (e.g., a profession) that hopefully is made up of diverse individuals. Speaking collectively about cartographers without any assumptions about gender (or any other axis of identity, for that matter) helps me counter the implicit bias that comes from visualizing an individual cartographer, something which I cannot trust my brain to do fairly or inclusively.

Up next: the individual they

It’s obvious that none of this is helpful for the nonbinary person who wishes to be identified as such. As a straight, cis-gendered, privileged white woman, I am still learning from individuals in my circles who are not straight, cis,-gendered, privileged or white. I’m hopeful that my efforts to write inclusively by not specifying will help bring unconscious bias to my conscious mind, where I can acknowledge it and learn from the lived experience of others who are willing to share that experience with me.

Lest We Forget

Three reasons why observing Remembrance Day in a global pandemic carries special significance

Photo by Craig Dennis from Pexels

There is no doubt that our Remembrance Day activities look different this year. School services and assemblies were held online. I followed my family’s tradition of watching the national service in Ottawa from the comfort of my living room, noting the scaled-back attendance and display of face masks. To be brutally honest, in light of the state of everyone’s current state of pandemic-related chronic fatigue and stress, the whole thing had me asking myself whether any of this is worth it. What meaning can the poppy have for us in 2020?

The truth is: a whole lot.

Here are three big reasons why remembering the supreme sacrifice of our fellow Canadians is especially important in 2020:

1. The last global pandemic happened at the end of World War I.

The First World War lasted from August 4, 1914, to when Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.  Around this time, people across Europe began mysteriously dying from a respiratory illness that was later discovered to be a deadly strain of influenza.

Only Spain, which was neutral in the war, made its infection rate known to the world, because the countries still in the war did not want to alarm their troops or show weakness to the enemy. The H1N1 influenza virus thus gained the unfortunate misnomer of “the Spanish flu.”

The Great War had already taken the lives of 66,000 Canadian and Newfoundlander soldiers (over one-tenth of those who served), and wounded more than 172,000 others, sometimes terribly. By the time the flu pandemic was mostly done in 1920, the virus had claimed 50,000 more Canadian lives, and anywhere from 20 to 100 million worldwide. Imagine the compounded trauma of returning from a devastating war only to lose more loved ones to an invisible enemy. Imagine how the soldiers must have felt when they realized that this enemy came home with them.

2. Democracy cannot be taken for granted.

Last week, many, if not most, of us learned more about the American electoral system than we ever thought we’d know.

How much do you know about the Canadian electoral system? What’s the difference between a president and a prime minister? How does the vote get counted in Canada? Why don’t we elect our prime minister directly? How does our system work well? What might improve it?

These are all important questions, and all the more important in light of Remembrance Day. At its core, a democracy is about giving a voice to the people. That voice allows us to choose our leaders, to evaluate the job they have done, and to choose the same or differently the next time. In a democracy, might does not make right. In a democracy, our opponent is not our enemy. Democracy gives us the freedom to disagree, to speak out, to change each other’s minds, because deep down we know we all want the same thing: a home, a job, and people to love. It is these things that the soldiers we remember died for. They did not die so we could be divided by our differences. They died so we could be united by our strengths.

3. Life is bigger than any one of us.

The last living Canadian World War I Veteran, John Babcock, died at the age of 109 more than 10 years ago on February 19, 2010.

As of March 2019, 33,200 Canadian Veterans of World War II (1939-45) and 6,500 Canadian Veterans of the Korean War (1950-53) were still living. The average age of our war veterans is 93 years.

As of March 2019, the estimated Canadian Armed Forces Veteran Population (Regular Forces and Primary Reserves) was just over 600,000. These people have served the cause of peaceful democracy in places such as Rwanda (1993-1996) and Afghanistan (2001-2014). Their average age is 58 years.

To date, over 10,000 Canadians have died from our newest invisible enemy: COVID-19. The vast majority of these deaths have occurred in personal care homes, the kinds of places where our veterans will be living. It is worth considering that we owe our elders and our veterans extra respect this year. Many of them will not be able to attend the ceremonies and parades they hold so dear. After living and dying to protect our democracy and our way of life, they are now looking to us to protect them.

They left their homes, their loved ones, and travelled across the ocean. We are being asked to stay home with our loved ones and wear a mask when we must go out to school or work. We can do this. We can do this for those who fought for us. We can do this for each other.

Why do we remember? Lest we forget.

This Remembrance Day 2020, I can find a way to remember what was lost – and won – for all of us.

Values, Ideology and the Narrative: Making Sense of the Voice in my Head

Never before have I been more keenly aware of the effect of the narrative on my state of mind, my ability to relate to other people, and my ability to work.

reading glasses on open book

An unfortunate and unexpected outcome of the global pandemic for me has been heightened annoyance with my father, who is to date safe from harm and also geographically out of my reach thousands of kilometres away. My father and I are very different, but we are also very much alike, and that makes me uncomfortable. The source of my discomfort is not that I scorn the one who provided half my genetic material and a large part of my ideology: it is the fact that the ideology I inherited from him actually interferes with my personal growth and, much to my recent surprise, my professional work.

My paternally inherited ideology includes (among many things) a strong work ethic, equal opportunity, economic freedom, and justice. None of these things is harmful – on the contrary, they are great values. But when these values get mixed up with certain narratives, they become ideologies. Ideologies are at best annoying and at worst downright dangerous. Here’s a thought experiment:

  • Take a strong work ethic and combine it with the narrative that people are basically lazy and don’t want to work.
  • Take equal opportunity and combine it with the narrative that we are all born equal.
  • Take economic freedom and combine it with the narrative that the market will always correct itself.
  • Take justice and combine it with the narrative that the punishment must fit the crime.

If you adhere to politically conservative ideology, you will likely see nothing at all wrong with any of those combinations. In fact, they might make perfect sense. If you lean further to the left, you might be horrified, or at least repulsed, by every one of them. Either way or somewhere in between, your Feeling Brain is off and running and your Thinking Brain is scrambling to catch up. This is, for better or worse, the way we operate. Don’t take my word for it – read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind or Mark Manson’s Everything is Fucked for well-researched psychological discussions of how we know the rational mind is not the one in charge.

But I digress. The difference between the value and the narrative is that a value can’t be proven or disproven, but a narrative can. Narratives are the stories we tell ourselves that add a new dimension to our values and turn them into ideologies. Compare the four thought experiments above with these:

  • Take a strong work ethic and combine it with the narrative that most people want to live productive lives, and many haven’t been given the chance, or just don’t know how.
  • Take equal opportunity and combine it with the narrative that some of us are born into far more privileged places in society and have no idea about the impact that systemic barriers can have.
  • Take economic freedom and combine it with the narrative that governments can and should guide the market in forward-thinking, problem-solving directions through incentives and penalties.
  • Take justice and combine it with the narrative that most people just want to be loved.

Too soft for you? Or does your Feeling Brain relax a little? I’m not here to preach or try to prove that the second list is better or more accurate than the first. I wish instead to assert that ideologies – defined by me as value plus narrative – can be dangerous, no matter where on the political spectrum you might fall. Ideologies are full of unconscious bias and are at the root of so much conflict and destruction. What if, as a solution, we were to stop trying to prove how right we are and try instead to hold our narratives – all of them – loosely?

Narratives are damaging only when we hold on to them so tightly that even in the face of evidence that contradicts them, we stay stuck because to change our mind would be too humiliating. But even that is a narrative: changing my mind and admitting I’m wrong means I’m somehow less than I would be if I could stick like glue to an idea no matter what.

Here’s where I see ideologies born of immovable narratives doing the most damage:

First, ideologies keep scientists from doing science. Science is not an ideology; it is a method of guessing, testing, and guessing again. Many people lost sight of this a long time ago and now think that if there is “no evidence” for something, it must mean “it’s not true” and not “we don’t know yet,” which – I swear to you on my entire education and profession – is what it actually means. Scientists don’t change their minds on a whim; they learn and readjust to new information. Or at least, they’re supposed to. They are victims of their own systemic barriers that contaminate science with ideology. For example, the value of “shared knowledge” combined with the narrative of “no one is interested in negative results” results in a phenomenon called “publication bias,” where ten clinical trials that failed to show a drug treatment made a difference do not make it to press while the one trial that did show a difference gets published and then everyone thinks there’s a new miracle cure. Ideology at its best: getting in the way of wondering what might actually be true because “publish or perish.”

Second, ideologies keep people stuck and close off minds. Our narratives can tell us things like we know stuff better than experts do, that all governments are corrupt, that our tax dollars are wasted, that people can’t be trusted, that all men are scum, that all women are a pain in the ass, that millennials are stupid, that boomers are stupider, that people are idiots, that the world is going to hell in a handcart… Should I go on? If you carry any of these narratives with you, your ideologies will make it pretty hard to have a rousing, constructive debate with anyone about anything of importance. Just check out the comments online, where clashing ideologies run amok.

Third, the narratives that create ideologies can kill. Where do you think people get the idea that suicide is a reasonable option? Not from a value, but definitely from a narrative. Why do we start wars or hate our neighbours? Narratives. Why do we give up on our hopes and dreams? Yup – narratives.

So now for some good news: Narratives are actually there for our choosing. They are impermanent, optional, changeable, and to change your narrative is a sign of tremendous strength because it forces you to let go of pride and embrace humility. Even better: narratives colour, shape and direct your values, and you have total control over this process in your own mind. Think of the earlier contrasting ideological statements. Think of the power we have to shape our narratives consciously, constantly, and to be always open to having them change.

And the even better news: All narratives are true, and all are false. Take any narrative from this post, and I can give you at least three carefully nuanced reasons in either direction. Try it if you don’t believe me. It’s like Schrodinger’s hypothesis; it’s that profound and hard to understand. But it’s so easily experienced. Try picking a narrative and acting on it when you next encounter a stranger. Are you going to see that person as a lazy freeloader or as someone who has had a lot of hard knocks and really just needs a break? Are you going to gently question your knee-jerk reaction (i.e., your unconscious bias) even as you accept it for what it is – an involuntary reaction, not a truth?

I mentioned the negative impact of inherited ideologies on my professional life, and I should come back to that. In my work writing grant applications, I encounter things that send a voice on a rant inside my head. It can be so loud that I can’t even focus (not that focus during a global pandemic is so easy in the first place). For example, I’ve been reading a lot lately about principles of equity, diversity and inclusion, which are to be explicitly and specifically woven in to a 20-page proposal. I’m reading Canadian government sources about things like unconscious bias, microaggression, and intersectionality, and all I can hear in my head is something that sounds like my father scoffing. If I listen to “him,” I will start scoffing too, and I cannot afford to do that, never mind that I am horrified at the possibility. So I yell at the voice in my head to shut up and let me work. And I create my own narratives about my father that defend me against that voice (which, I must point out, is not actually his voice, but an invention of my own mind based on a lifetime of experience and conditioning). These narratives are damaging because they drive a wedge between us and make me want nothing to do with him – so much so that when he shares his unsolicited opinion of the state of the world with me (an opinion which undermines so much of what I am trying to focus on in my life) I tell him this and send him away. And it feels awful. And I’m no better as focusing than I was before.

I’ve spent my whole career working with people who learn for a living. I still learn for a living. Seriously: I get paid to read and figure stuff out and then write about it. I get paid to work with people who are trying every day to solve really big problems and make the world a little better for everyone. How awesome is that? Yes, there are politics and personalities that trip people up. There are clashing ideologies and there are power struggles and there is bureaucracy. But there is also an expectation that we learn about and practice principles (values) like equity, diversity, and inclusion, and that we be open to new ways of looking at things (narratives) that we had not considered before.

It seems to me that one way out of my mental quagmire is to stop holding on so tightly to my narratives – any and all of them – and start accepting them as impermanent lenses through which I view the world, myself, and my father. Such practice might help me be a better person. And maybe, just maybe, it will help me find a way to be comfortable in my father’s company, no matter what narrative he happens to be clinging to. I would like that very much.

I want to thank my friend Ken MacDonell for engaging me on the topic of narratives and helping me see them, and other people, more neutrally. I also want to thank my husband of 25 years (?!), Gilles Detillieux, for believing other people might actually appreciate hearing this perspective. Finally, to my father, and you know who you are: thank you for the gift of critical thinking, and for giving me the space to figure things out.

Zed or Zee? A crisis of Canadian identity

Recently, I have had several conversations with my children that would suggest I don’t feel as old as I think I may actually be. I am a child of the 70s. I grew up on Sesame Street, Mr Dressup, Mr Rogers and the Friendly Giant. I knew the difference between the CBC and PBS, and the difference was simple: when I watched Sesame Street on CBC, the alphabet ended in Zed and the second language was French, while in the same show on PBS, the alphabet ended in Zee and the second language was Spanish. Thus began my sense of Canadian identity, and, as for many of my generation, it was centered on how we talk and spell and how those things proved we were not American.

My kids span the line between the Millennial and Gen Zee generations – and please note that I have to write “Gen Zee”, because if I write it “Gen Z” I will say it out loud as “Gen Zed”. It took most of my childhood years to figure out why the heck a slogan like “EZ-clean” held any meaning whatsoever. And when I did finally clue in, I reconciled it by thinking “well, that’s fine if you’re American, but otherwise it’s just silly.”

More than one of my kids has taken pretty strong exception to my insistence that Canadians call it Zed and not Zee. My stubborn adherence to these subtle speech and language differences apparently causes me to come across as stubborn, petty and chauvinistic. This is not how I want to be described.

But in mild self-defence and an effort to find perspective, let’s consider that in my adult lifetime, I have watched the following sweeping changes in the way the Canadians around me speak and write:

  • We’ve moved, almost completely, from Zed to Zee
  • We call the country to the south of us America, not the United States
  • We move, in school, from the 7th to the 8th grade, not from Grade VII to Grade VIII
  • We opt to leave out the u in colour, neighbour, favour, humour, and behaviour. We increasingly choose between US and UK spelling, and there is less and less tolerance for anything in between.

Canadians have struggled with their national identity as long as the country has been in existence. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written on the subject, coming to all kinds of conclusions ranging from the sincere to the ridiculous:

  • there is no such thing, really – it’s political, not cultural
  • Canadian identity is whatever makes us not American
  • it’s about hockey, poutine, and Tim Hortons (which was, ironically, absorbed by American corporate interest)
  • it’s about balancing unity with inclusion and diversity
  • it’s about being polite and apologetic
  • it’s about being liked internationally

Recognizing the complexity of the question of Canadian identity, my simple aim here is to come to terms with “Zed vs Zee” in a way that will make me a better person. And that’s it, really: how does being Canadian make me a better global citizen?

Being Canadian is important to me because I have a life-long belief that my country stands up for decency. To me, being a decent human being means understanding my place in the world as a global citizen, as a member of the most powerful and influential species on the planet. We’ve heard it many times: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

It will take me a long time before I stop cringing when my kids say “Zee” and refer to “the 10th grade,” but I will get there. I will bite my tongue when they tell me about something they heard happening “in America” or if they spell colour without a U. I will let these things go in favour of promoting good citizenship within and beyond our national borders.

When I dig deep, what I really want is for the next generation to understand how things work in Canada and how Canada’s relationship to the rest of the world matters more than how we “identify” as Canadians. I want them to appreciate the privileges that living here affords us. I want them to vote and to exercise their right from an informed place and an impassioned state of mind. I want them to remember that of all the species on the planet, human beings hold the most power over, and thus the greatest responsibility for, life on Earth.

Our national identity is useful only to the extent that it makes us better people. Ultimately, if being Canadian means that I strive to be a decent human being, I’m all for it, regardless of how we get from A to Zed. Namaste.

We Are Not Alone

We humans are at a critical place in our journey as a species with respect to our relationship with the world around us. In my life I have seen numerous examples where human existence is reduced to just that – human existence, with the underlying belief that our survival is the most important thing at the expense of pretty much everything else.

Asgard is a people, not a place…?

I confess to being a Marvel Studios junkie. I have seen all the Marvel movies produced over the last decade or more, and love all of them. The other night I saw Thor Ragnarock for the third time (junkie, remember?), and was suddenly struck by the assertion that Asgard is not a place, it’s a people, so buggering off with your humanoid population in a stolen spaceship while the rest of your home planet dissolves in flame is a perfectly acceptable solution to an Armageddon equivalent. It suddenly occurred to me to ask myself (and remember, this is the third time I see this film) how the Asgardians survived on their home planet, if not through a symbiotic relationship with other living things? They ate grapes, for example. Someone had to grow or find them, somewhere. I assume they ate meat (I can’t imagine Thor being vegan, but who knows?), and meat comes from some other living thing. Is the food source any less Asgardian than the humanoid? So I bring this up to my family, and my husband says “Well, what can you expect from a bunch of flat-earthers?” He’s a funny man, bless him.

Humans above all else is a problem

Back to the real world, this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. We humans have a seriously over-inflated collective ego. We think we’re the best, the most important, and the only relevant species on the planet. I’m coming to the realization that if we don’t want to end up like the Asgardians (and some people are already thinking of bailing to Mars), we have to get our heads out of our asses and start looking around us. We do not exist in isolation. Every single thing we do is intricately connected to some other non-human living thing. As a species, we may be at the top of the food chain, but we need everything below us if we are to survive. And besides, does being at the top really give you the right to rule with such a heavy hand? In the Marvel world, we call those kinds of people villains. Go figure.

In a recent visit to Vancouver Island to visit my parents, the subject of coexistence came up numerous times, mostly in the context of how humans suck at it. If something gets in our way, we eliminate it. But if it appeals to us for whatever reason, it serves some purpose for us so we keep it around. So one community rallies to preserve a patch of old growth forest in their neighbourhood, while a few kilometres away there is yet another mass clearing of newer forest to build homes for people to live in between their visits to the patch of 800 year old trees. We cull the Canada Geese because they are pests, but up the road at the wildlife rehabilitation centre, we nurse eagles and ravens back to health. And God forbid if you allow your dog to chase the cherished flocks of Brandt Geese arriving for their annual fuel-up of herring.

I understand and respect that there are groups of humans out there who discuss these issues with far more knowledge about them than I have. They make the best informed decisions they can. But it just strikes me that somehow the right balance of numbers of other creatures comes down to what suits us. Furthermore, no one dares look at our own numbers, or thinks about culling us. That would be – no, has been – frowned upon.

I have no answers, but I think that’s the point: we are deluding ourselves if we think we have it all figured out. We can make decisions, but we have to keep asking the hard questions, be willing to find out we were wrong, and adjust accordingly.

Survival at the cost of … survival

I recognize that not everyone sees the world this way, and many don’t want to. It’s painful to look at the absurdity of life and feel powerless to do anything about it. It’s impossible to find total solutions, because every solution presents a new problem. It’s overwhelming, and we prefer to go back to our Facebook feeds or video games. And who am I to judge? I escape to the Marvel universe all the time, at least on the big screen, where the hero always wins. But at what cost do I escape, and at what cost does the hero win?

I don’t know why our interdependent existence isn’t obvious to more people. In politics and government, we treat “the environment” as one of many issues, and give it a respective priority when we vote. When are we, as a species, going to wake up to the reality that without an environment, we are pretty much adrift in space, cold and … dead? And what is our “environment”, anyway, and why are we the only species on the planet entitled to it? Our proprietary attitude toward the planet doesn’t even make logical sense to me. The environment we live in is made up of countless other living things – things we depend on to survive.  If we don’t take care of the things that take care of us, the obvious result is annihilation, is it not? Except for the lucky few that manage to escape on a spaceship, I suppose.

We are not alone

I am not advocating for anything, really, except that maybe we stop and think a little more often. Life is unfair, death is a part of life, and species come and go. But when are we, as humans, going to start thinking of ourselves as part of something bigger than just us? From the microbial ecosystem that lives in and on each of our bodies, to the food we eat and the air we breathe, we simply do not exist in isolation. We are not alone. This does not mean we’re not important or worth preserving. On the contrary – and here I go Marvel geek again – with great power comes great responsibility. Our responsibility is not just to ourselves, but to everything that keeps us alive. It seems to me we need to find a better way to coexist with everything we depend on. It seems our survival depends on it.