Category Archives: Humanity

Should we record an Own Goal or just Exterminate this from the record?

Right. I haven’t written anything here for a while and now I’m going to pick apart/rant about an article in the New Statesman (a publication I usually like) that annoyed me. Let’s get this over with.

This is the article comparing science-fantasy television programme Doctor Who to football (specifically soccer) in a manner that seems (to me) to assume a supercilious attitude towards both.

Was the person who wrote this deliberately trying to offend anyone with and interest in football, Doctor Who, or both?

First of all, the title “Why Doctor Who is football, but for geeks” suggests that geeks like Doctor Who (alienating people who self-identify as geeks but do not watch Doctor Who), that people who watch Doctor Who are geeks (alienating those who watch Doctor Who but do not self-identify as geeks), that football is not for geeks (alienating people who self-identify as geeks but watch football) and that people who watch football do not watch Doctor Who (alienating anyone who watches both).

Before we even get to the main article it also says “In the same way that complete strangers can bond instantly over the latest football news, Doctor Who gives geeks an easy solution to awkward silences in conversation”. What? Because no one could actually want to talk about either of these things? We just use them where there’d be an awkward silence otherwise? Are people who discuss football or Doctor Who just failing to think of anything else to say?

On Doctor Who, it says “The show isn’t ever going to be held up with the same critical acclaim as Breaking Bad, The Wire or whatever the hot new HBO production is – because that is not what Doctor Who is for. Doctor Who is football, but for geeks.”

Why wouldn’t it be held up with that? It’s a long-running programme with a biggish budget that can address any possible issue because the protagonists can go anywhere in time and space (whether those times and spaces exist or not) and Neil Gaiman (who sometimes gives the impression of unable to leave the house without collecting a literary award of some kind) wrote two episodes ( one won the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)). Maybe the series hasn’t been at HBO-level (whatever that means) but that doesn’t mean it can’t be in the future (future? get it? Time-travel).

Straight into the next paragraph, the writer appears to assume that no one who likes football could possibly be reading this:

“Now I know what you’re thinking: how dare I make such a comparison? After all – while everyone knows that all of human existence is futile, sport – especially football – is even more futile than that. Football is a game enjoyed by idiots – not cultured geeks like us, right?”

Who thinks that? Why would anyone think that?

“Now steady on there with your geeky arrogance and hear me out. Doctor Who provides the same social function for geeks that football does for normal people.”

What geeky arrogance? Your strawman’s geeky arrogance is not my geeky arrogance. Also, Doctor Who is not for normal people? Football is for normal people? What even are normal people? Can people not like two things? I think this why we can’t have nice things.

“Crucially, it fulfils a function as a social lubricant. It can be a brilliant ice breaker. Football is perfect for this: complete strangers will bond instantly over the latest football news.”

Hang on…. Wasn’t this a joke from the IT Crowd? Is this article just a joke? It doesn’t seem like a joke. It’s a very irresponsible joke if it is a joke.

“The same is true for Who: it is something fairly universally followed by geeks of all stripes thanks to its accessibility (it is free to air, and on telly on Saturday evenings).”

What’s a geek? How many stripes do they have? Why can’t they have a likes-football-stripe? Why do they like Doctor Who so much, anyway?

“Unlike politics, religion and other stuff that actually matters it is unlikely that the conversation will end with someone throwing a punch”

Because obviously Doctor Who has nothing to say on either topic [laughs sarcastically, points out that Daleks are more or less explicitly meant to be Nazi-analogues]. Also, these things are relevant to football, how do you think they decide where the World Cup will be held?

The article claims: “The only major aspect of football that I can’t explain in Doctor Who terms is the public health aspect. Part of the reason why the establishment puts up with many of the negative consequences of football (hooliganism, etc) is because ultimately there is a net positive for public health: the game’s popularity means that millions of people are getting more exercise by playing.”

Hooliganism isn’t a consequence of football, hooliganism is a consequence of hooligans who would probably hooliganize otherwise if denied that opportunity (correlation does not mean causation); likewise hooliganism is the action of a tiny segment of football fandom and thus more likely a consequence of the mass-appeal of football allowing some people who happen to be fans an outlet for anti-social behaviour than anything inherent in the game.

Doctor Who could be argued to have a public health aspect in that the themes and values expressed in the programme can influence fans to some extent which can be either good or bad (the Doctor is skeptical of authority-figures, ergo the programme subtly encourages a skepticism of authority-figures). Like any work of art, it can have many contradictory effects at once and people will read their own ideas into the work but the tone is usually optimistic and optimism is usually considered both psychologically healthy and contagious.

“Some of the kids who tune in on Saturday night could be at huge risk of heading down a dark path. They could only be a D20 roll away from some of the more dangerous geeky hobbies like D&D or LARPing.”

This one’s a joke, even I got that this is a joke. I really hope the rest is a joke.

I didn’t go through every paragraph. I know there’s a jocular, tongue in cheek aspect to the whole thing but it’s a denigrating belittling thing. An elitist, malicious humour without cheer. That’s what it seems to me to be. Just another attempt to divide people up into little groups by things as arbitrary as a sport and a television programme. It just strikes me as stupid and mean-spirited and I really didn’t like it.

I didn’t mean to write all this. It started out as just a few words of complaint to accompany my sharing the offending article on Facebook. But then I just kept writing. There are so many more important things I could be writing about but I wrote about this, which seems trivial but it’s all part of the same stupid, in-group/out-group, us-and-them nonsense that we can’t afford in a globalised society, even if it is just a joke. Nothing’s ever ‘just’ a joke, a joke needs context and this kind of joke perpetuates the tribalistic context it begins from. Despite that wink-wink, nudge-nudge maybe-they’re-not-so-different apparent thesis, it’s still trying proposing a dichotomy between football and Doctor Who and between “geeks” (whoever they are) and “normal people” (whoever they are). Rant over.

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Floodgates Opened by Pantigate

If you live outside Ireland, you may not have heard of a national scandal referred to as “Pantigate”. If you do live in Ireland, it’s a near-certainty that you have heard and/or read about it.
For those unfamiliar with the story, a performer and pub-owner named Rory O’Neill (aka Panti Bliss, hence the gate) was being interviewed on The Saturday Night Show (a popular light-entertainment chat-show) when he was asked for examples of contemporary prejudices facing members of the gay community (which includes O’Neill). After naming certain journalists (specifically John Waters and Breda O’Brien) and a conservative Catholic lobby group (namely, the Iona Institute), things kicked off.

O’Neill pointed out that “the problem is with the word ‘homophobic’, people imagine that if you say “Oh he’s a homophobe” that he’s a horrible monster who goes around beating up gays you know that’s not the way it is. Homophobia can be very subtle. I mean it’s like the way you know racism is very subtle. I would say that every single person in the world is racist to some extent because that’s how we order the world in our minds. We group people. You know it’s just how our minds work so that’s okay but you need to be aware of your tendency towards racism and work against it. And I don’t mind, I don’t care how you dress it up if you are arguing for whatever good reasons or you know whatever your impulses…”

The journalists in question and members of the Iona Institute disagree with the characterisation of their efforts as homophobic and threatened legal action, which led to a section of the interview being removed from RTÉ’s website (Raidió Teilifís Éireann or RTÉ is the national broadcaster of Ireland), though a transcript can be found here. Furthermore, RTÉ has paid out a large sum of money to the offended parties (id est, not Rory O’Neill/Panti Bliss). As might be expected, this has occasioned two separate but closely related debates on A: Freedom of speech and opinion in the mass media, and B: prejudice facing people of gender, sexual and romantic minorities (GRSM) in Ireland and abroad.

There has been an enormous amount of coverage in the Irish news-media and blogosphere (which I’m adding to) but I’d like to suggest this article on The Global Echo for a look at some of the fallout in the GRSM community  especially as it contains Panti’s excellent speech from the Abbey Theatre (by the way, I’m following The Global Echo’s convention with regard to this acronym, rather than going for LGBT et cetera).

I didn’t originally intend on writing anything about this myself, because it’s been so well-covered elsewhere but I found myself reading an article on An Tuairisceoir which questioned the use of the term homophobia in this case. I think that it’s a question worth answering, so I commented with my take on the issue, which, while essentially semantic, has had and continues to have a major effect on many people in Ireland and around the world.
Obviously, my comment is in the Irish language but I’ve translated it below, underneath the original wording as Gaeilge.

Original:
“An príomh-fhadhb atá ar phlé, dar liom, ná cé chomh láidir is a bhfuil an téarma “homafóibe”. Dar le Iona, Waters agus a leithéid, is dócha, tá an téarma ceangailte le iompar thar a bheith frith-homaighnéasach, foréigean oscailte nó mar sin, an taobh is antoiscí don speictream.

Ar an taobh eile, tá an téarma ceangailte le iompar ionsaíoch, nó iompar a dhéanann éascú ar ionsaithe i gcoinne siúd le gnéaschlaonadh homaighnéasach.
Níl sainmhíniú dlíthiúil ar homaifóibe agus mar sin de, tá ceist an chlúmhilleadh spleách ar léirmhíniú aonair.
Ní raibh RTÉ sách cróga an cheist a thógáil chun cúirte agus sainmhíniú dlíthiúil a chur air.
Tá’n nós agam féin aontú leis an comhluadar faoi ionsaí ó thaobh cén saghas iompar atá ionsaíoch.”

Translation:
“The prime-problem being discussed, in my opinion, is just how strong is the term “homophobia”. According to Iona, Waters and and the like, presumably, the term is tied to behaviour that is overtly anti-homosexual, open violence or so forth, the most extreme side of the spectrum.
On the other side, the term is tied to attack-like behaviour, or behaviour that eases attacks against  those with homosexual orientation.
There is no legal definition on homophobia and therefore, the question of defamation is dependent on individual interpretation.
RTÉ was not sufficiently courageous to take the question to court and put a legal definition on it.
I have the tendency myself to agree with the community under attack with regard to what kind of behaviour is attack-like.”

A note on the translation here: I haven’t quite translated word for word but I’ve gone a little closer than is conventional. The word “ionsaíoch” which I rendered as “attack-like” comes from the root ionsaí (attack) but would be more usually translated as hostile or aggressive. I don’t think either term is really strong enough in the context which is why I used attack-like (though it’s more than being just like an attack).

Homophobia’s not necessarily a great term from an etymological point of view (literally, it would mean something like “fear of sameness”, where xenophobia might be a better descriptor of what’s going on) but it is widely used and now we have a huge debate over what it means when it is used.
Here’s the thing, this argument over a word opens the floodgates for any number of other issues like journalistic freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of response, freedom of religious expression, and the limits on each of these. Beyond words however, this is about the freedom of people of gender, romantic and sexual minorities to exist safely in a world where many hate (misos) and fear (phobia) them.

Comments are welcome.


What a Piece of Wording is Man!

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason!
How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how
express and admirable! In action how like an Angel!
In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world!
The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is
this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me;
no, nor Woman neither; though by your smiling you seem to say so.

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Act 2, Scene II), William Shakespeare

In the passage above, Hamlet plays on the double meaning of Man as a term for any human being regardless of sex/gender identity on the one hand and Man as a sex/gender identity distinct from Woman on the other. So in the first sense, every woman is a man, as every man is a man, but in the second sense a woman is not a man as a man is a man.

When I use the word ‘man’, I usually mean a human being with anatomical features that distinguish them as a male of the species. Masculinity is thus caused by the balance of steroids in the body: more androgens and less oestrogens making the person male rather than female, and the balance of steroids influenced by chromosomes (XY for male, XX for female), along with other, epigenetic, factors.

Not everyone will necessarily mean this when using the word ‘man’, however. Some use the word to refer to a (somewhat nebulous, in my opinion) gender identity; others will use the word to refer to the human race as a whole; often all three senses would be used by the same speaker but in different contexts (or even together, as Hamlet did).

J. R. R. Tolkien used the capitalised ‘Man/Men’ for humans in general but ‘man/men’ and ‘woman/women’ (without capitalisation) for human individuals with an identifiable sex/gender. Thus in The Silmarillion, Haleth the woman demonstrates the valour of Men to Carathir the (male) Elf. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien plays a similar game to Shakespeare’s Hamlet above (yet maybe more like Macduff’s revelation in Macbeth) when Éowyn (a woman) faces the Witch-king of Angmar (“not by the hand of man will he fall” according to Glorfindel). The reasons why these puns of species and sex or gender are possible in Modern English are what I’m writing about in this article.

Modern English ‘man’ is derived from Old English mann, which meant a human person with no distinction made between male or female and could also be used as an indefinite pronoun, equivalent to the Modern English ‘one’, as in “One wonders how many people are actually going to read this”. Man is still used this way in Modern German, while mann in Modern German means male human but the related word Mensch means human regardless of sex/gender. The sex/gender connotations did not show up until about a thousand years ago, when Old English was being replaced by Middle English (with the aforementioned French influence). That’s not to say that there were no sex/gender distinctions in Old English, there were; in fact, there wer.

An adult male human in Old English was a wer (cognate to Latin vir, as in Modern English ‘virile’, and to Old Irish fer which became Modern Irish fear meaning an adult male human) and an adult female human was a wif (Modern English wife). Now wer has more or less disappeared except for words like werewolf (literally man-wolf, a modernised spelling for Old English werwulf) and wergild (literally man-gold, blood money owed for a dead man), the latter of which is more or less limited to so-called fantasy fiction or academia. The original sense of wif survives in ‘fishwife’, the phrase “Old wives’ tales” and in the ritual language of a marriage ceremony “I now pronounce you man and wife” (the terms husband and wife are not equivalent, in this sense).

The sense of ‘man’ as a human person, regardless of sex/gender identity survives in mankind, manslaughter, chessmen (which include the Queen) et cetera but eventually ‘man’ replaced wer far more completely than any word managed to replace wif. The meaning, if not the entire pronunciation of wif survives in the Modern English word ‘woman’, which comes from late Old English wimman (wifmann or wife-man, female human).

So ‘man’, left to its own devices (not undergoing any major phonetic changes) develops into a word for a male human unless wif is added to make a word for female human, which is practically the opposite of what happens in human embryonic development where the embryo, left to its own devices becomes a female human unless the SRY gene (usually located on the Y chromosome) is added to make a male. Obviously this is a gross oversimplification of biological sex-differentiation and there are exceptions when androgen insensitivity syndrome is present or if the SRY gene is defective or whatever. Anyway, ‘man’ plus wif is woman; embryo plus SRY is male.

So, that’s biological sex with genes and chromosomes, and oestrogens and androgens, and gonads et cetera. Then there’s gender with uh…. Whatever gender is…… Something about who gets to wear dresses?

Gender as applied to human beings is a strange thing. The terminological differentiation between gender and biological sex did not exist before 1955 when it was introduced by the sexologist John Money. Before Money (the man, not the currency), gender was used almost exclusively to describe grammatical categories. He used the word ‘gender’ as distinct from sex to describe societal roles as distinct from biological realities.

Money’s usage did not become widespread until the 1970s and seems to have undergone a shift in understanding since then. I recently had to fill out a form where I was asked whether my gender was male or female but was not asked about my biological sex. It seems that ‘gender’ is now used for biological sex as well as societal roles, ignoring the distinction that it was originally called on to make.

The Modern English sense of gender described above also seems to be creeping into other languages. German, which has traditionally used Geschlecht for biological sex and for the social norms which become attached, has now begun to use the English word Gender to describe the societal concept.

Whereas French, apparently taking its cue from English has used the word genre (to which the English word ‘gender’ is cognate). Of course, English in the meantime has decided to use the French word to describe types of art. So, science-fiction is a literary genre and therefore science-fiction is a gender of literature (but not a biological sex of literature).

English ‘gender’ and French genre are both derived from Old French gendre, which was borrowed into Middle English along with many, many, many other French words around the time of the Norman conquest of English. The Old French word meant ‘type’ or ‘kind’ and came from Latin genus which means ‘type’ or ‘kind’. Genus (apart from its use in biology) is also the root of words like ‘generation’ and ‘genocide’.

So gender has nothing to do with men but everything to do with men and women (if you see what I mean). Also, all women are men, all men are women with an SRY gene, and mankind is not necessarily a gendered term but womankind certainly is. However, referring to women as men can be controversial. You can probably do so in sentences like “Hey man, what’s up?” (where ‘man’ is interchangeable with ‘dude’), though if in doubt as to how offended your female friend might be if you call her a man, you may want to say “Hey woman what’s up?” (where ‘woman’ is interchangeable with ‘dudette’ or more likely ‘dude’ because ‘dudette’ is a rarely used word).

Any thoughts?