Also, which may elect Trump: For our money, the most important part of the news report appeared more than halfway through.
The report in question was the featured report in the National section of Thursday's New York Times. Bannered across the top of page A11, it consumed the bulk of the page.
At its start, the report discusses a new practice at one of the nation's "renowned" universities. But for our money, this later passage was the most important part of the lengthy report:
HARTOCOLLIS (2/20/20): “A lot of students who are transitioning, trying to figure this out—there’s a lot of depression, their suicide rate is high, there’s a lot of emotional turmoil attached to that,” she said. “The least we could do is make it an OK thing to be open about who you are.”No one should want young people consumed by depression. No one should want young people to be taking their own lives.
Recent research indicates that social affirmation, including the use of chosen names and proper pronouns, can help reduce the higher rates of depression and suicide for transgender and nonbinary young people, which stem in part from a lack of acceptance and frequent harassment.
Beyond that, the world is a much better place when young people experience social affirmation. Also, older people, and people of various stripes.
In our view, these are the most important points in this report from a societal and human perspective. From a journalistic perspective, we were struck by several other features of this high-profile report.
From a journalistic perspective, we're often struck by reports which don't exactly seem to make sense right from the opening whistle. We're also struck by reporting which doesn't attempt to explain basic points the readership won't understand.
On occasion, we're also struck by various manifestations which may tend to keep Donald Trump where he is. It seems to us that this Times report checked off all three boxes.
That doesn't mean that this news report wasn't well-intentioned. But below, you see the way it began.
On the surface, does this make sense?
HARTOCOLLIS: For generations of future diplomats and cabinet officials educated at Harvard’s renowned John F. Kennedy School of Government, orientation day has come with a name placard that the students carry from class to class, so their professors can easily call on them.As a general tendency, the Times likes to keep its readers apprised of events and practices at our most "renowned" schools. In this instance, we seem to be learning about stickers which can be applied to students' name cards "so their professors can easily call on them."
When Diego Garcia Blum, 30, got his placard last fall, the first-year graduate student immediately took a Sharpie to it, writing “He/Him” next to the big block letters of his name. Other students did the same thing, writing “She/Her” and “They/Them.”
“Yup! Day 1,” Mr. Garcia Blum, recalled, adding, “That’s when I thought, the students are ahead of the school.”
But despite its reputation as a bastion of the establishment, the Kennedy School followed the students’ lead, agreeing to provide clear plastic stickers this semester with four pronoun options that students could apply to their name cards: “He/Him,” “She/Her,” “They/Them” and “Ze/Hir.”
We're told that these stickers provide four different "pronoun options" that students can apply to the name cards they wear to class or in social interactions early in the year.
Just a guess! Already, we'll guess that many Times subscribers don't exactly understand what's being discussed. But even for those who may understand, let's return to the basic logic of the way this report begins:
How would third-person pronouns come into play when a professor calls on a student in class? Presumably, students are called on by name. Where do these pronouns come in?
Some will say that the answer is obvious, or that the question we've asked is hopelessly beside the point. We'll suggest that the answer to our question isn't obvious—and since we're discussing life and death issues, it seems to us that editors might want their logic to be a bit more clear right from the start.
That opening logic strikes us as opaque, and we think that a larger problem lurks there. Beyond that, though, we were struck, all through this report, by the assumption that readers understand what is being discussed, when we'll assure you that they generally don't.
The American people are pretty sharp! Public figures all know that should say that. Times subscribers are even smarter, according to tribal lore!
That said, let's recall the four stickers in question. They were described as shown:
The Kennedy School agreed to provide plastic stickers with four pronoun options that students could apply to their name cards: “He/Him,” “She/Her,” “They/Them” and “Ze/Hir.”Question: How many Times subscribers could explain the meaning of "Ze/Hir?" We'll guess that the number is quite small. But those pronouns go unexplained in the lengthy text.
In the classic way of elite upper classes, it seems to be fairly clear that you're just supposed to know what those pronouns mean. If you don't understand what those pronouns mean, you're supposed to just play along.
What the heck do Ze and Hir mean? If readers don't know, that's too bad! But in fact, it seemed to us that basic points go unexplained all through this report. Consider this later passage:
HARTOCOLLIS: Amy Hillier, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice, said her university did not have a standard gender pronoun protocol. But it is becoming more common for students and professors to put personal pronouns on email signatures and name tags, she said.In this passage, the Times drops in on another elite university. That said, we'll take a quick guess:
Despite those efforts, Loran Grishow-Schade, a 33-year-old graduate student in social work at Penn, said that when “X” appears on official documents as their gender, many professors can be bewildered. So Mx. Grishow-Schade has found that it is generally a good idea to meet with instructors and explain that they are agender.
Professors at Penn may not be the only ones who are "bewildered" by the honorific "Mx.", or by the use of "X" to designate someone's gender.
Beyond that, we'll guess that many Times subscribers can't explain what it means to be "transgender and nonbinary," as is one student in this report. Or perhaps to be "agender" or "nonbinary" at all.
That said, the Times report just steamrolls ahead. Wouldn't it perhaps be better to take the time to explain?
In our view, this report stands out for its failure to explain basic points its readership almost surely won't understand. It also stands out for the way it lingers at Harvard and Penn, and at Sarah Lawrence and Evergreen—in other words, for the way it brings the eternal note of capital v. provinces in.
Human history spills with the recurrent division of the capital versus the provinces. Our deeply dangerous current political division follows this ancient pattern.
Last night, we watched as Chris Cuomo urged Democrats to understand the way Trump voters see the world. We humans aren't inclined to function that way. This tends to produce major problems.
In our view, the most important part of this Times report involves the possibility of reducing human suffering—the possibility of reducing depression and death at one's own hand.
We shouldn't want young people to feel depressed or to feel disregarded. Then too, "social affirmation" will ideally be extended to those in the provinces too.
This Times report was full of material its readership won't understand. Reflexively, the Times blew past this problem.
Do you know what "Ze/Hir" means? Do you know what it means to be both transgender and nonbinary?
Do you know what Mx. means? What it means to list X as a gender? The chances are fairly good that you don't. When elites behave as if the rubes are just supposed to know, they tend to trigger the deluge. Trump skates behind such divisions.
We were left with one last question as we read this Trump-helpful piece. How many students at the Kennedy School choose pronouns other than the traditional pairs? How many "Ze/Hirs" attend the Kennedy School? What's it like everywhere else?
Inquiring minds might like to know the lay of the land in this emerging world. Also, in the parts of the world to which Cuomo referred last night.
We'll close with one last point. To many people all over the country, this might not seem to make sense:
HARTOCOLLIS: Three years ago, Ruth Hayes, who teaches animation at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., adopted a script to introduce herself in class: “My name is Ruth Hayes. I use she/her pronouns. I teach animation.” Her L.G.B.T.Q. colleagues had been following the formula for a while. But it knocked her off balance at first, she said—and she found that disturbing, because she had always been the radical in her family.Gender is quite close to our core, and so respect should be paid. On the other hand, does that "script" really seem to make sense?
“It’s kind of funny to be in that position where you’re the stick in the mud or the old-fashioned person,” said Ms. Hayes, 64. But she recognizes how important it is psychologically to get it right, because “gender is so close to our core.”
Does Professor Hayes "use she/her pronouns?" Yes, but in the most obvious sense, so does everyone else! At one time, teachers would settle the question in play here by writing "Ms. Hayes" on the board.
Our tribe often seems to go out of its way to adopt the arcane kinds of private language which exist, on a secret level, as a way of establishing Tribe.
Unfortunately, Tribe tends to drive Others away. And uh-oh! All across this vast continental nation, the Others are able to vote!