Confirmation Bias, Hidden Agendas, and the Challenges of Conversation

A blog post and resulting Twitter exchange point to a larger problem in our political dialog.

My early-morning blog post, “YouTube Shooter Nasim Aghdam Was Crazy,” wasn’t very good. In a rush to get something posted, I assumed a lot of reader knowledge. A hazard of political blogging, especially for those of us who have been doing it a very long time, is assuming that readers are familiar with that larger body of writing and can fill in some gaps for themselves.

In reality, there was a hidden agenda in the post that regular readers likely intuited but casual readers might not have: it’s part of an ongoing series of posts, going back to the earliest days of the blog, arguing against our post-9/11 habit of categorizing every spree shooter—especially if they have a foreign-sounding name—as “terrorists.” In most cases, I argue, they’re really just crazies without any political motive.

As regular commenter SKI noted in the discussion forum, “Calling her ‘crazy’ doesn’t help. Millions of US citizens have mental health issues. Few are murderous.” That’s certainly true. But the point of the post wasn’t to call for action against the mentally ill. Indeed, as the conclusion noted, I don’t think there was enough evidence before her shooting spree that Ashdam was actually mentally ill. I’m simply noting that, in most cases, we’re dealing with idiosyncratic situations in which people undergoing normal life stresses acted in an irrational, violent manner.

At any rate, my hidden agenda ran into another:

While I’ve never met Stephanie, I’ve known her virtually through Twitter for years and was rather taken aback by this accusation. Helpful or not, I routinely use similar language to describe male shooters. I nowhere speculated that the shooter was motivated by romantic entanglements. Further, while my opening assumption when hearing about a terrorist act is that it was committed by a man or men, I’ve written about, for example, women suicide bombers at least as far back as a dozen years ago.

So, I pushed back:

This went back and forth a bit before I understood that she wasn’t interested in whether I was personally engaging in the conduct of which I was being accused.

While I didn’t blog about Conditt, I was able to show that I had used similar language for male perpetrators:

She simply had an agenda and my post—probably, just its headline—was a convenient way to push it. Actually, two agendas:

Her first point is a variant of SKI’s.  I’m perfectly amenable to the notion that “crazy” isn’t a useful analytical term. Maybe there’s a better shorthand for someone who’s off their rocker and not motivated by a larger agenda.

The second point is also perfectly valid. If we’re more likely to call women “crazy” and apply different terminology to men, that’s a problem. And it may indeed be problematic even for people like me who demonstrably do the same thing with men if readers react to it in a gendered way. Again, that’s a discussion I’m happy to have.

Quite some time back, Dan Drezner noted that he operated on a hierarchy of carefulness,  with Tweets and blog posts on the lowest end and peer-reviewed articles and books on the upper end. I’m sure most of us do the same. Certainly, my early-morning blog post wasn’t my most detailed work. This is exacerbated when we’re blogging or tweeting about things that provide an easy target for our favorite hobby horses.

This mindset enhances the likelihood of confirmation bias. When we see an example of something that appears to fall into our particular agenda’s wheelhouse, we’re poised to swing at it. I’m sure I’m guilty of that from time to time, imputing agendas to writers and actors that aren’t there.

The discussion would have been far more useful framed as, well, a discussion rather than as an accusation. Rather than imply that I was being a bigot, why not simply @ me with a question: “Would you have implied that same label to a man?” We could quickly have established that, yes, in fact, I do it all the time. From there, she could have advanced her agenda much more readily: “It turns out that doing so isn’t useful. Here’s what my research has shown . . . .”

Again, that’s not our general tendency on social media. Grandstanding is easier than dialog and, in any case, most big name reporters and politicians use their Twitter feeds as broadcast outlets, not venues for conversation. But we can certainly try to have conversations with people with a reputation for engagement.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Best of OTB, Blogosphere, Politics 101, Society
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. KM says:

    I don’t like the whole “mental illness” excuse for shooters or violence in general. People have an inherent need to categorize those things that disturb them and “crazy” has become the new “evil” – a catchall term for those who would strike out and kill. People forget one of the first school shooters was female and her “logic” was no different then any of the males that followed.

    There is a tendency in many societies to view female violence as inherently and shockingly abnormal while male violence is seen as somewhat typical or expected of the gender. Women are not thought of as naturally aggressive or violent and it shows up ingrained in so many places it’s not funny. They are considered the more emotional gender but that’s not supposed to carry over to the physically of brute force. Therefore, when a woman does do something extreme and murderous, it’s shocking in a way to many that has to be explained away. She must be “crazy” even if the term doesn’t really mean anything other then “not normal”. Men have only started being “crazy” in the last few years as the NRA is trying to find a scapegoat for all the mass shootings.

    I don’t think you were being particularly gendered, James. I think you were using a term that has as little meaning as the word “like” does. I’d fault you for being imprecise but that exchange was rather unnecessary.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @KM:

    I don’t like the whole “mental illness” excuse for shooters or violence in general. People have an inherent need to categorize those things that disturb them and “crazy” has become the new “evil” – a catchall term for those who would strike out and kill

    That’s a reasonable argument. I’m using “crazy” as a colloquial counterweight to “terrorist” or someone motivated by a more understandable impulse. Ironically, the gendered “romantic triangle” speculation wouldn’t have fallen into the “crazy” notion for me; being pissed at a former lover or their partner is perfectly understandable. Ditto ordinary instances of rage. In this particular case, she had some really weird grievances against YouTube that she turned into a giant conspiracy. “Crazy” isn’t the most precise description for that but it seems apt.

  3. michael reynolds says:

    I get a lot of this from left wing crazies. Yes: crazies. People who don’t quite understand issues instead like to focus on words. Just like computers, actually, a human Search and Replace function. People who don’t really understand words insist on believing that if we change a word and enforce a new standard it will in some way alter reality. To which I say: Black, negro, ni–er, colored, Afro-American, African-American.

    Are black people still being gunned down by cops for using a cell phone in their backyard? Yep. Are black people still economically behind? Yep. Are black people still filling our jails and prisons? Yep. So I kind of think the ‘re-naming’ thing hasn’t really produced anything tangible.

    People don’t seem to understand words and how they work. If in your head you picture a crazy person it does not matter one single damn bit what word you apply to them. If in your head you dislike Muslims, it does not matter what you call them. Words are not magic spells. Words represent ideas, and you cannot change the idea simply by changing the word. We’re no longer supposed to call illegal aliens, illegal aliens. Great. And who got elected president on a promise to do something about . . . whatever we call them? Did changing the signifier get DACA passed? No.

    This is basically just bullying. Person A decides that Word B is inappropriate and spends their day on Twitter looking for anyone using the forbidden word so they can name-call and collect Virtue Points.

    This is not an argument for the morons among us to run around yelling, “Ni–er!” There are some words that have no positive or neutral uses and are intended and used solely as insults or fighting words. “Crazy” is not one of those words.

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  4. MarkedMan says:

    There’s a character issue here too: Carver made a statement using you as an example. You engaged her in good faith and demonstrated that the assumption she made about you was wrong. She owed you an apology, or at least an acknowledgement that her statement didn’t apply to you.

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  5. michael reynolds says:

    @KM:

    There is a tendency in many societies to view female violence as inherently and shockingly abnormal while male violence is seen as somewhat typical or expected of the gender.

    Maybe it’s the fact that males commit virtually all violent acts. 100% of rapes, 90+ percent of every other violent crime. It’s not a suspect ‘tendency to view’ it’s a realistic assessment of the available evidence. The available evidence, incidentally, through every nation, every era, in all of recorded history.

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  6. It seems apparent to me that this person you were responding to on Twitter was merely using your tweet to push her agenda, which may or may not have merit as you note. She most likely didn’t read the article (a not uncommon practice on social media) and whatever counterargument she was presented with wasn’t going to convince her that you didn’t fit into her neat little category.

    This is one of the things that makes social media frustrating at times. When I have time, I don’t mind engaging in exchanges with people provided they’re civil. However, I find all too often that people just want to argue and yell rather than discuss. Quite honestly, I have found it to be something I get from both sides of the political aisle.

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  7. KM says:

    @James:
    Yeah the love triangle thing kinda pissed me off – *there’s* the gendering in play. A woman kills a bunch of folks and it must be because someone broke her heart. I mean, it’s not like she could have a grudge for anything else or just hate their face or god forbid, randomly strike out at strange men. Nope, must be about sex and scandalous sex at that. *sigh*

  8. Gustopher says:

    @James Joyner: “disgruntled” is probably a better term, and is generally associated with shooting people.

    She had a complaint about YouTube’s policies, which had snapped into place (probably because she was posting videos of animal torture), and all of her efforts with the company likely got canned responses that made her feel like they weren’t listening to her. And they were taking away her ability to speak to others. And then there was the lost revenue.

    She felt powerless and got her gun and changed that.

    This is one of the most basic impulses people have. It’s not crazy, it’s sadly very normal.

  9. Argon says:

    This is one of the reasons I don’t Tweet or use open social media.

    FWIW – “Crazy” is perfectly acceptable to me in describing the shooter. Of course, I think anyone who would kill another person for such reasons would have to be ‘crazy’, ‘mentally unbalanced’, ‘looney’, ‘disturbed’ and/or ‘irrationally angry’. I don’t believe one always needs to consult the DSM for the correct term before blogging. The thing we know currently is that her father was worried about her (mental state?), which reinforces the belief that she was in a severely ‘messed up’ state of mind.

  10. michael reynolds says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    Social Media is a force that exacerbates division, makes rational debate impossible, and forces us into teams: Blue and Red, both sets of partisans required to mindlessly regurgitate whatever talking point they heard last from Hannity or their gender studies professor. It’s making us stupider.

    I almost completely ignore Facebook. I used to employ it mostly to put up posts intended to be seen by people in publishing – deniable whining. I’m still on Twitter but only because I need the bargaining leverage of having X number of followers. My wife has outsourced her accounts and uses them only for fan-stroking and promotion. As soon as I no longer need the leverage (threat) of social media, I am outta there.

  11. KM says:

    @michael reynolds:
    But that doesn’t mean women aren’t violent – it means women don’t commit those particular acts. Perception bias – looking at big name crimes instead a million little ones.

    I’m not saying men don’t account for the vast majority of what society demeans as violent crimes. Female violence tends to be on the micro-level, so to speak, instead of playing out in society at large. It plays out in the personal sphere like the family and generally doesn’t involve random people. That’s why it’s so shocking to see female gang members or mass shooters – people think a violent woman is someone who hits her kids or throws dishes at her spouse, not goes running around stabbing strangers.

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  12. Andy says:

    And this is why I stopped using Twitter. It’s even more troll-y than internet forums.

  13. Gustopher says:

    @michael reynolds: There are a lot of words that have an implied gender, and where some of the insult when applied to men is that they are acting like a woman. Those words reinforce misogynistic attitudes when they are used.

    When a man is b.tching about something, or is getting hysterical, or is a p-ssy, or is emotional… These words really are like a magic spell.

    I don’t think crazy is one of those words, but I haven’t carefully cataloged it’s usages. It’s not one of the first words I would stop using though…

  14. michael reynolds says:

    @KM:
    People think that, and they’re right. It’s not perception bias when it’s reality. We don’t call men crazy for raping because: men. If a woman were doing it we’d rightly suspect she was crazy. (And impractical.) Things which are extremely atypical can rightly be called, “Crazy.”

  15. michael reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:
    One of my kids is transgender and very smart and also very political. So I am sunk deep in the magical words world and have had this debate with her. I went through the ‘their’ phase which we were all supposed to use instead of ‘his’ or ‘her.’ It works where it always worked (as a plural), and doesn’t work in general because, duh, it is too non-specific and is inevitably taken to be a plural.

    I asked on Twitter whether anyone could show me some fiction writing that was de-gendered, no one could, because it doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t exist because that’s not how language works. Language evolves, you can’t use a crowbar on it. To take your example, it is easier to mentally de-gender “bitch” than to come up with a usable alternative. Take the forbidden “C” word. In the US it’s taboo, in the UK it’s merely rude, and in Australia it’s basically a substitute for, “dude.” It’s not about the word, it’s about the perception. When the perception is changed, the meaning of the word is changed. Reversing that sequence does not work.

    You can call me a kike and it would not bother me in the least, except that it conveys the possible threat of anti-semitism. But you can use the more polite word, “Jew,” but add a sneer and the very same anti-semitism is present. The problem is not the word.

  16. SKI says:

    First, thanks for the post, James. I hope you didn’t see my suggestion as being uncivil or improperly pushing an agenda (though I certainly am/was). the reality is that

    For example, when Argon claims that “Crazy” is perfectly acceptable to me in describing the shooter. he is doing it without knowledge or care about the actual implications of doing that. While I presume he is acting in ignorance not malice, doesn’t change the fact that calling them “crazy” is not accurate, useful or appropriate.

    Similarly, michael reynolds‘s comment that words don’t matter (strange coming from an author) is indubitably incorrect. Yes, forcing someone to change their verbiage doesn’t change what is in their heart but, for the majority that *don’t* have malicious intent, educating them on how their word choices hurt individuals does have tangible results.

    Does anyone really think that LGBTQ individuals would be able to have achieved so much over the past years if they were still routinely referred to as fags, queers, sodomites or freaks? c’mon….

    As for the underlying point, we have a real mental health crisis in this country and continuing to stigmatize people for having those health issues hurts our efforts to help them – and that imposes real costs on society.

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  17. grumpy realist says:

    @KM: Wasn’t it one of the big three (CBS, NBC, ABC) that almost immediately postulated a “love affair gone wrong” based on no evidence whatsoever?

    And James, that Twitter back-and-forth reads to me like a conversation with someone dialoging with herself. You had far more patience than I would have had.

  18. James Joyner says:

    @SKI:

    I hope you didn’t see my suggestion as being uncivil or improperly pushing an agenda

    Nope. It struck me as a perfectly reasonable branch of conversation.

    As for the underlying point, we have a real mental health crisis in this country and continuing to stigmatize people for having those health issues hurts our efforts to help them – and that imposes real costs on society.

    That’s fair enough. Of course, I’m mostly applying the term to already-dead people who have engaged in public acts of violence. Had we identified this woman ahead of that, I would argue that she was in need of medical attention and perhaps talked about issues of stigma and the fact that we treat mental health differently than physical health financially and culturally. But this is an after-the-fact analysis.

  19. SKI says:

    @James Joyner:

    Of course, I’m mostly applying the term to already-dead people who have engaged in public acts of violence. Had we identified this woman ahead of that, I would argue that she was in need of medical attention and perhaps talked about issues of stigma and the fact that we treat mental health differently than physical health financially and culturally. But this is an after-the-fact analysis.

    Something to think about: that analysis is seen by living people and the labeling of her, despite the fact that she is dead, impacts them both in terms of how they see the world (you wouldn’t post if you didn’t think/want to be influential) and how they think the world sees them.

  20. michael reynolds says:

    @SKI:

    Similarly, michael reynolds‘s comment that words don’t matter (strange coming from an author) is indubitably incorrect. Yes, forcing someone to change their verbiage doesn’t change what is in their heart but, for the majority that *don’t* have malicious intent, educating them on how their word choices hurt individuals does have tangible results.

    1) Yes, I am an author. 150 ish books for kids, one (so far) for adults, two years of writing a weekly newspaper column, two blogs of my own, feature pieces, ad copy, radio bits, and my first gig as a foreign correspondent writing about the Azorean independence movement. So, all told let’s call it give or take 6,500,000 compensated words. Some might suspect that meant I knew something about words; glad to see you weren’t bothered by mere ‘experience.’

    2) The people who switched from fag to gay are the polite, well-behaved people. The people already open to gay rights. The people opposed to gay rights never stopped using queer or fag and still have not. You are reversing causality. The attitudes changed and the word came along for the ride, the word did not cause the attitude change.

    Here’s a link to Google Trends for the word, “fag.”

    Here’s the same for the word ‘homo.’

    You can look at ‘queer’ at ‘faggot’ etc, and see some declining in use and most pretty steady. This includes the years 2004 to present. I do not believe a statistical analysis would support the thesis that word usage caused social change.

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  21. michael reynolds says:

    @James Joyner: Requesting moderation rescue.

  22. @michael reynolds:

    Saw your post there and released it. It was probably the number of hyperlinks that did it.

  23. michael reynolds says:
  24. Argon says:

    “For example, when Argon claims that “Crazy” is perfectly acceptable to me in describing the shooter. he is doing it without knowledge or care about the actual implications of doing that. While I presume he is acting in ignorance not malice, doesn’t change the fact that calling them “crazy” is not accurate, useful or appropriate.”

    I can see some of SKI’s points but respectfully disagree. Well I don’t disagree with ‘not malice’ point and I’m always willing to cop for ignorance…

    While ‘crazy’ perhaps doesn’t add a lot of information, I still think it’s colloquially apt. Look up the word in the dictionary. I certainly hold no malice for the shooter — it’s mostly sadness and pity. And I certainly know that the overwhelming number of people I think are crazy are not murderers or dangerous at all. Perhaps ‘murderously crazy’ is a better term?

    I can go along with the notion that ‘labels affect perception’, to a degree. Then again, this shooter clearly did what no rationally-balanced, well-adjusted person would do. Most ‘crazy’ people wouldn’t do that as well but a significant amount of mental malfunction seems to have played a significant role here. And in any discussion of the event, some shorthand or synopsis of behavior displayed is going to come up. We don’t know the exact state the shooter found herself in but I don’t feel ‘crazy’, or ‘murderously crazy’ are necessarily inaccurate, general characterizations of what we can deduce so far. Not clinically precise as the DSM, but also not wrong or necessarily demeaning but YMMV. I’ve got family and friends who’ve dealt with severe mental illnesses and I’m open to suggestions for alternative characterizations.

  25. James Joyner says:

    @SKI:

    Something to think about: that analysis is seen by living people and the labeling of her, despite the fact that she is dead, impacts them both in terms of how they see the world (you wouldn’t post if you didn’t think/want to be influential) and how they think the world sees them.

    Okay. But I still don’t understand what it is that you’re asking that I do.

    If you’re simply, as Michael Reynolds implies above, suggesting that I should switch from “crazy” or “nutjob” to “person of insanity” or some such, I’m open to it. I don’t know that it changes anything but fine.

    If you’re suggesting that we shouldn’t make judgments as to the mental health of people who try to murder roomfuls of strangers because a corporation didn’t enact their preferred site policies, I’m going to need a lot of convincing. It strikes me as a perfectly legitimate and in no way implies that everyone with mental health problems is a potential serial killer, any more than noting that Tom Petty was addicted to opioids or Robin Williams suffered from depression means that everyone with those afflictions will die.

  26. Stormy Dragon says:

    @michael reynolds:

    People who don’t really understand words insist on believing that if we change a word and enforce a new standard it will in some way alter reality.

    ‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

    ‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

    ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

    ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

  27. Stormy Dragon says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I went through the ‘their’ phase which we were all supposed to use instead of ‘his’ or ‘her.’ It works where it always worked (as a plural), and doesn’t work in general because, duh, it is too non-specific and is inevitably taken to be a plural.

    “And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame They wol come up and offre on Goddes name” — The Pardoner’s Prologue

    “‘Tis meet that some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial, should o’erhear the speech.” — Hamlet

    The singular they predates modern English. Stubborn insistence that “they” can only be plural makes as much sense as continuing to use “thou” because “you” can only be plural.

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  28. michael reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    I’ve been struck lately by the fact that we teach books, like Alice, like Fahrenheit 451, like 1984 and Animal Farm and Brave New World and The Giver – all standard in most curricula – and somehow no one seems to have drawn the appropriate lessons from them.

    1984 in particular seems to me to be a style manual for the outraged left: rewrite history, disappear inconvenient bits down the memory hole, doublethink. . . We even have the Two Minutes Hate, but we’ve made it 24 hour and called it Twitter. You know who burns books (or mulches) in this country nowadays? It’s not the Right because we all developed antibodies to their bullsh!t. The people mulching books today are all on the progressive left.

  29. michael reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    It’s not a question of ‘stubborn insistence,’ it’s a matter of having your words understood by the reader or listener. If I write, “Frank and Jane each had their shoes on,” that is understood. If I write, “Frank had their shoes on,” I sound illiterate. Whose shoes? Franks and who else’s shoes?

    The point is to communicate not to virtue signal.

  30. Stormy Dragon says:

    @michael reynolds:

    If I write, “Frank had their shoes on,” I sound illiterate. Whose shoes? Franks and who else’s shoes?

    If I write, “Put your shoes on”, are thou similarly confused as to who the other owner of thine shoes is, or do thou figure out that “your” is in this case singular from context?

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  31. Stormy Dragon says:

    @michael reynolds:

    “Frank and Jane each had their shoes on,”

    PS – “each” is a singular pronoun, so you’re actually doing what you claim to hate here. If “they” is purely plural, it should be either “Frank and Jane each had his shoes on” or “Frank and Jane both had their shoes on”.

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  32. michael reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    It’s not about what you can find in the dictionary or in the historical record. I don’t get paid to write confusing stuff people don’t understand. It’s as simple as that. “Frank had their shoes on” does not make sense to actual readers.

    Look, everyone knows how to pick up a nail and a hammer, not everyone produces a cabinet. Words are my nails and hammer. I get paid to use them. I know what works, I know what doesn’t work, which is why I offered a challenge: show me a book or even a short story written without gender references. I don’t claim to be an auteur, I don’t claim to be a ground-breaking prose stylist, so if you can show me someone cleverer who has actually done it in reality, please do.

    My job is to write stories that can be read and enjoyed and understood. I am all done with people telling me what words I can and cannot use until and unless I see proof of concept. Then I’ll decide whether it works for me, because writers are not interchangeable widgets. We don’t all like the same hammers.

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  33. R. Dave says:

    @michael reynolds: You can call me a kike and it would not bother me in the least, except that it conveys the possible threat of anti-semitism.

    Total non-sequitur, but does anyone know of an english usage for “kike” apart from the anti-Semitic one? When I was a kid in rural New England, one of the beloved locals of my grandfather’s generation went by the nickname, “Kike”, and I’m fairly certain almost no one even knew it had anti-Semitic connotations. I didn’t realize it myself until decades later when a Jewish colleague of my brother’s pointed it out to him when he mentioned the guy’s name while recounting some amusing anecdote about him.

  34. Gustopher says:

    @michael reynolds:

    If I write, “Frank had their shoes on,” I sound illiterate.

    What is Frank’s preferred pronoun? Just use that.

    “Frank had his shoes on.”, “Frank had her shoes on.”, “Frank had their shoes on.”, “Frank had novelty-possessive-pronoun shoes on.” Unless this is the first time Frank is mentioned, it seems pretty clear in context.

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  35. Stormy Dragon says:

    @michael reynolds:

    It’s not about what you can find in the dictionary or in the historical record.

    Then what is it about? Your own personal taste?

    “Frank had their shoes on” does not make sense to actual readers.

    “Frank had their shoes on” sounds perfectly normal to me.

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  36. michael reynolds says:

    @Gustopher: @Stormy Dragon:
    I’ve asked for proof of concept, a professionally-written bit of fiction: nada. But I’m open to correction. Can you show me a causal relationship between word used and effect on a social movement? My quick look at Google Trends says no. But I’m always open to new data.

    That said, no offense to either of you, but I do this, and as far as I know, neither of you do. You’re telling your surgeon where to make the first cut and you don’t know what you’re talking about.

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  37. george says:

    @michael reynolds:

    You’re not exaggerating by much. According to FBI figures, men commit 80% of violent crime. The rape percentage is harder to pin down; according to a Scientific America article (yeah, I’m a geek, I read Scientific America, comes with the territory) women raping women and men is far more common than was previously thought (it wasn’t considered a possibility until a few years ago so the stats for it were zero), though still significantly less than the number of men committing rape – the estimates are also about 80% of rape being done by men.

    But that’s today. In some first nations (the Iroquois for instance) women were in charge of ritualized torture, and often fought alongside the men. Non-violence in women is a European (and recent one at that) thing.

    It does seem that most violence, done by men or women or Indians or blacks etc, is done by a few individuals rather than the majority of the group. This makes intuitive sense, since one person can be violent many times if not caught.

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  38. Stormy Dragon says:

    @michael reynolds:

    It’s not about what you can find in the dictionary or in the historical record.

    @michael reynolds:

    That said, no offense to either of you, but I do this, and as far as I know, neither of you do.

    I’d like to note the irony of rejecting the authority of lexicographers and etymologists, followed immediately by an appeal to authority.

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  39. Hal_10000 says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Agree to a large extent. I think we *should* try to be sensitive about language, within reasonable bounds. But language qua language is just words. Trump never uses racial epithets but enacts racist policies. You can use all the approved language and still be bigoted with a smile.

  40. MBunge says:

    @Stormy Dragon: “Frank had their shoes on” sounds perfectly normal to me.

    It doesn’t matter what sounds normal to you. Other human beings exist independent of what you want or believe.

    Heaven knows I’m as guilty of this as most and more guilty than some but actual conversation or debate has to be more than snark or point-scoring or slapping the salami of one’s own moral righteousness. It needs to be about two or more objectively seeking out something that is separate from all of the participants…the truth. In this case, the truth is that Frank can’t have a pronoun just for Frank because language is something other people need to use as well and that becomes impossible if every individual can rewrite linguistic rules to suit themselves.

    Mike

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  41. Grewgills says:

    @michael reynolds:
    A couple of points:
    1. I’m assuming you chose to have Frank put on shoes as opposed to say a shirt in order to take advantage of shoes being plural to open the door to possible confusion. Still, any reasonably intelligent person isn’t going to assume multiple pairs of shoes in that context.
    2. In response to your challenge, I and my wife can’t think of an entire book without gender references off the tops of our heads, though she is convinced she has read stories without gender references and will think on it. She did immediately remember that “Embassy Town” by Mieville has a number of characters that are never referred to using gendered pronouns. The ambassadors (odd dual characters) are only ever referred to as they even when being spoken of singularly, as are some other characters. Mieville is rather dense and some find him confusing, so I don’t know how convincing you will find his ability to write professionally not using gendered pronouns when he chooses not to.

  42. DrDaveT says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I asked on Twitter whether anyone could show me some fiction writing that was de-gendered, no one could, because it doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t exist because that’s not how language works.

    Check out Graydon Saunders’s “Commonweal” series on Google Books. Not just awesomely inventive fantasy, but also gender-neutral.

    (And Jane Austen used singular ‘them’ and ‘they’ all the time… Even if recent convention has been to deprecate that usage, it’s a weak convention with no depth of history behind it. It could change in one lifetime.)

  43. SKI says:

    @James Joyner:

    Okay. But I still don’t understand what it is that you’re asking that I do.

    If you’re simply, as Michael Reynolds implies above, suggesting that I should switch from “crazy” or “nutjob” to “person of insanity” or some such, I’m open to it. I don’t know that it changes anything but fine.

    It is a fair question. Let’s see if I can help. 🙂

    I’d ask what you are trying to communicate and then tell you to say that – without labeling her. If you wanted to signal that she wasn’t thinking “normally” (itself a somewhat problematic approach), perhaps you could simply say that. If you wanted to indicate that most of us can’t relate to what her presumed mindset was (a better way), again, say that. If you are looking for particular word recommendation, I’d suggest approaching it along the lines that Josh Marshall did here – identifying her as a “disturbed individual”. I’d suggest that Josh. particularly in his lede, did exactly what you were trying to do without resorting to the harmful, dismissive cliche of “she is just crazy”.

    If you’re suggesting that we shouldn’t make judgments as to the mental health of people who try to murder roomfuls of strangers because a corporation didn’t enact their preferred site policies, I’m going to need a lot of convincing. It strikes me as a perfectly legitimate and in no way implies that everyone with mental health problems is a potential serial killer, any more than noting that Tom Petty was addicted to opioids or Robin Williams suffered from depression means that everyone with those afflictions will die.

    Here is the thing: Petty had a documented history of addition and Williams did have a diagnosis of depression. Those are facts that we actually know.

    Your statement that the shooter was “crazy” literally can’t be a “fact” as it isn’t a fact about anyone. It is a label. It has historical context and iot is wrapped up in that. It is you (or society) saying that Person X is acting strangely and I don’t want to deal with them as an individual.

    Ms. Carvin’s initial twitter response reflects that that particular label, and similar ones like hysterical or drama queen, have been used, both historically and consistently, to “other-ize” women.

    And no, I don’t think you were being misogynistic in describing the shooter as crazy. I do think you weren’t aware/thinking about the societal implications that come along as baggage in your word choice.

    At the end of the day, my best suggestion is to simply describe what it actually is that you want to convey and to steer away from labels, particularly ones that are used to denigrate, disparage or demean.

  44. SKI says:

    @michael reynolds:

    1) Yes, I am an author. 150 ish books for kids, one (so far) for adults, two years of writing a weekly newspaper column, two blogs of my own, feature pieces, ad copy, radio bits, and my first gig as a foreign correspondent writing about the Azorean independence movement. So, all told let’s call it give or take 6,500,000 compensated words. Some might suspect that meant I knew something about words; glad to see you weren’t bothered by mere ‘experience.’

    As an attorney and compliance officer who communicates professionally for a living, I was recognizing your experience without elevating it into something it isn’t – a guarantee that you aren’t wrong.

    After all, Michael, we have both been commentators here for years and I’ve seen your posts become less useful and interesting as you become more and more obsessed with the “angry left” and more and more bitter. So, while I respect your professional accomplishments, I also consider the source and that, at least in my opinion, you aren’t the persuasive writer you used to be.

    2) The people who switched from fag to gay are the polite, well-behaved people. The people already open to gay rights. The people opposed to gay rights never stopped using queer or fag and still have not. You are reversing causality. The attitudes changed and the word came along for the ride, the word did not cause the attitude change.

    Nor, apparently are you a careful reader. Perhaps you were too focused on brandishing your professional credentials as a shield against disagreement?

    Or, perhaps more fairly, you were unwilling to presume good faith to a fellow commentator? You may indeed have been spending too much time on twitter. One of the joys of OTB over the years has been the community interactions that, with notable trolling exceptions, have presumed far more good faith amongst each other than we typically see on twitter.

    To remind you, this is what I said: “Yes, forcing someone to change their verbiage doesn’t change what is in their heart but, for the majority that *don’t* have malicious intent, educating them on how their word choices hurt individuals does have tangible results.”
    And no, I’m not ascribing the dramatic change in how society deals with the LBGTQ community to simple language and yes, there is a TON of reinforcing impact in that changing perceptions changes language as much as changing language impacts changing perception but my basic point stands. Can you conceive of those gains if LGBTQ individuals “were still routinely referred to as fags, queers, sodomites or freaks?” Do you really think this point is disputable?

  45. James Pearce says:

    @michael reynolds:

    We even have the Two Minutes Hate, but we’ve made it 24 hour and called it Twitter.

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA (Breathes) HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

    Word.

    @SKI:

    I’ve seen your posts become less useful and interesting as you become more and more obsessed with the “angry left” and more and more bitter.

    The same, perhaps, could be said of me and, in fact, has been.

    But you know what’s really become “less useful” and rather boring?

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  46. teve tory says:

    Using they and them is much more reasonable and practical than the fantastically dumb idea that everyone gets to select their own matrix of rando pronouns which everyone else must accommodate. Zir? Hir? Zie? Vie? Eirs? Ters? I can’t even remember the 3 cases in German, and that’s stable. Never, ever going to fücking happen.

  47. teve tory says:

    But, to put it in perspective, a few wacko Oberlin 20-yros doing an experiment in social change which is doomed strikes me as mostly harmless. I live in a state where the republican governor has prohibited all state employees from using the term Climate Change. Speech threats from the right-wing are an order of magnitude worse than a few crunchy numbnuts drunk on crystal healing powers.

  48. Gustopher says:

    @michael reynolds: Just because someone does something professionally doesn’t mean they do it well, or that they are always correct. Are you asserting that “50 Shades of Gray” is well written?

    Language has more power than you think it does — it shapes how we think, and what we are capable of thinking of. It’s not easier to degender the word “b-tch” than to find an alternative, because the gender of the word is burnt into us.

    And, language changes to adjust to the changing world. We don’t have a singular, non-gender-specific, non-object pronoun, so for most of our history we haven’t been able to even express the idea of genderqueer people, so they’ve basically been invisible, or relegated to the status of freaks. The language shapes what is expressable, and what can be commonly thought of.

    Yes, “Frank put on their shoes” sounds odd — because you’re old, and you haven’t internalized it, and the language is still new. (Also, because you picked “Frank” which has such a strong gender attached to it — try it with a more gender neutral name, and it is less jarring)

    You ask for a sample of professionally written fiction that doesn’t reference gender, but it’s an impossible ask. Gender is one of the most important parts of a person, and it’s bizarre to dance around it and not reference it. But, for non-gender-conforming Frank, the pronoun “they” is part of their gender.

    If you were to write something with five gender nonconforming characters, each with their own novelty pronoun, it would be difficult to follow, quickly dated, and might come across as parody. But it would also be real.

    And don’t get me started on latinx.

  49. James Pearce says:

    @Gustopher:

    Yes, “Frank put on their shoes” sounds odd — because you’re old, and you haven’t internalized it, and the language is still new.

    No, it sounds odd because people who do not have gender dysphoria are usually comfortable using gendered pronouns.

  50. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    The basic problem is that English (most languages, probably, just typing about the one I’m sorta familiar with) is a remarkably flexible language when spoken, dependent as much on tone and implied colloquial meanings (for both the speaker and listener) as actual definitions. And we take even more cues from SEEING the person speak as opposed to just hearing them. And that all gets lost in written words-you need additional written context to know what I mean and not over-react to what you THINK I meant. If I say something is “bad” do I mean it’s really horrible, or do I mean it’s cool, or interesting, or…? You could tell in an instant if I was speaking to you (because you have all the verbal cues as context), but it’s not necessarily clear at all when typing. When James typed “crazy”, he tripped over someone else’s agenda in a way that probably wouldn’t have happened if he said it to her face, because all the verbal and visual cues were absent.

    Truly understanding what someone thinks is a hell of lot easier when spoken face to face than any other method people have developed. Social media like Twitter and Facebook are pretty much the worst way to convey anything (sadly, blog posts, newspaper columns, and written essays aren’t necessarily much better–they work to share NEWS, but are not necessarily clear in conveying opinions or understanding). Personally I think the fact that we (as a society) are spending so much less time talking TO each other and so much more time typing AT each other is a large part of the reason for why our political disagreements are so extreme right now.

    Also, get off my lawn (grumble, mutter, damn kids these days…)

  51. wr says:

    @michael reynolds: “show me a book or even a short story written without gender references”

    Not disagreeing with you, but John Scalzi’s Lock-In has a first-person narrator, and while I didn’t notice during the read, said narrator is never identified by gender. I’d assumed male, but when I think back I realize that all came from various cultural signifiers which in fact were not gender-specific at all. Audible picked up on this and put out two audio editions, one narrated by Wil Wheton, the other by Amber Benson…

  52. wr says:

    @Stormy Dragon: ““Frank had their shoes on” sounds perfectly normal to me.”

    It does to me, too. But it doesn’t mean that Frank is wearing shoes that belong to Frank; grammatically speaking it implies that Frank is wearing shoes that belong to two or more people.

    Which doesn’t mean it won’t sound perfectly normal in a few years. Languages change over time. Maybe this one will stick. I’m not convinced. If we need a non-gendered pronoun for people who choose not to identify themselves by gender, I don’t think using a plural is the answer. Unfortunately, our only non-gendered pronoun now is “it,” which has a decidedly dehumanizing effect when applied to a person.

    But for a long time “Ms” was controversial and sounded weird. Now it’s part of the language. Maybe someone will figure out a good new pronoun…