Friday, May 27, 2016
Bathrooms and Grammar
The current debate about transgendered bathrooms reminds us how easy it is to put the cart before the horse, to serve grammar when we should know grammar serves us instead. Language is one of our tools for dealing with the world. When language works well, we should use it as it is. When it fails to work well, we should fix it just like we do any other tool. We shouldn’t get things backwards and somehow try to make the world fit the tool instead. Sensibly, we didn’t refuse to use automobiles or televisions because we didn’t originally have words for them. We introduced words so language fit the world. Sensibly, when we learned that germs and not demons or wrong balances of “humors” caused disease, we tweaked our language accordingly. The same thing is going on now with the terms “Men” and “Women” as used on bathroom doors. Transgendered people have always used the restroom where they fit in. Let’s fix our language here and get over it. Otherwise, we risk looking as foolish as poor Zeno whose slavish following of unworking words led him to the positions I parody in my sonnet below. Zeno evaluates what is possible in the world only by looking at his current understanding of words. He simply assumes that the world must fit those words when of course he should assume the reverse instead. Words often fail and when they do sensible people fix them as they do their other tools that fail. Instead of doing this, Zeno foolishly thinks he can't eat his food while it's warm, that he can't win a race against anyone or anything, and that he can't even take off his coat if he's hot. Let's not duplicate his foolishness with bills like North Carolina's H.B. 2 that also leave us in equally-silly states of paralysis and confusion.
With flawless logic, Zeno bowed to proof
He could not eat a meal while it was hot
(Since moving spoons would put spoons where they're not,
A contradiction of such wares). Aloof
In flawless logic, Zeno bowed to proof
He couldn’t win a race however hot
The chase (since endless points on lines cannot
Be crossed as needed to advance). Aloof
In flawless logic, Zeno bowed to proof
He could not doff his cloak when he was hot
(Since it was where it was and thus could not
Be elsewhere, too, in doffing it). Aloof
In perfect sense and nonsense, he betrayed
The fool who merely did as grammar said.
Though I’d like to end with humor, that wouldn’t capture the damage “Zeno Phobia” can do. When we don’t fully think about how our words actually fit the world, the results can result in more than just foolishness. It can result in tragedy. Those suffering from North Carolina's H.B. 2 of course already know that. For a different sort of example from a different place, the human sacrifices of the Aztecs shocked the Europeans who tried to erase the words and doctrines that required such awful sacrifices, However, trying to "fix" improperly-tested words with other words needing testing themselves isn't necessarily the best of "fixes." Simply ripping cultures from their grammars and stuffing them into foreign ones is likely to be a bloody and messy affair--especially when the imported categories and words need their own testing and refinement in themselves and even more so when applied in a radically-new environment. In sonnet form, I'd put it this way:
Europe’s knights of course were horrified
At butcher priests who did as heaven bids
In taking hearts and wearing others’ hide
On Aztec nights on hills and pyramids.
Presumably, such high minds judged a word
By how it bettered man or made him worse.
Indignant, Europe’s knights thus sepulchered
Such priests and burned their codices and verse
Though somehow missing their own words that wear
Men in the Aztec fashion. Those, too, stitch
Freak costumes out of flayed and tortured skin
Of men to fit the text, an awful switch
Of roles where essences poke here and there
From out grim wrappings sewn to hold them in.
As both the Zeno and Conquistador sonnets suggest (both by their subjects and by their flawed delivery), words like all other tools need maintenance and repair. We are free (and I’d say duty bound) to continue fixing our language so that we may get on with our all too brief lives unhampered by avoidable faulty words.
© Harold Anthony Lloyd 2016