SciShow and Gendered Language
Last week, we posted a video on SciShow about why humans have menopause (it’s actually fairly rare in mammals, only a few other species are known to have older females that lose their ability to reproduce significantly before the average age of death.) In this video, we did our best to separate gender from biological sex, because we don’t find it inconvenient or exceptional to make videos that recognize the existence of transgender people.
This resulted in not an insignificant amount of shouting in the comments. Gender essentialists (who maintain that there are only two genders (and also, I suppose, that biologically intersex people are too small in number account for)) argued with trans rights advocates and, frankly, it got pretty ugly pretty quick.
Eventually, I decided to post a comment making clear our position. Here’s what I said:
There are definite and dramatic physical differences between biological males and biological females. There are also psychological tendencies and cultural expectations, and those things are in the mind and in culture and so fundamentally come down to individual experience.
Because of that, gender has started to be considered separately from biological sex. This seems perfectly legitimate to the entire editorial staff of SciShow, and we are happy to discuss biological sex in a way that recognizes the existence of transgender people.
There are also a number of (probably not as rare as you think) intersex conditions in which people’s biology does not fall into either of the two sexes, but those people usually identify with particular genders.
For these reasons we don’t find it inconvenient or extraordinary to separate gender and biological sex. We understand that this will cause discussion, but we appreciate the discussion being thoughtful rather than ideological, if that is at all possible.
The response to that comment has been overwhelmingly positive. But there was also, of course, a conversation in the replies to that comment. There were some honest moments on both sides, which made me somewhat proud of SciShow’s audience.
There was also some significant discussion of me “policing language” and caving to PC culture. I wanted to respond to those comments, but I was also aware that these arguments aren’t the kind that get won, they just get perpetuated. Within a day, the comments were devolving into name-calling on both sides.
And then, this morning, I saw this comment, and I had to share it more widely.
There are a lot of people calling out that the host’s phrasing was somehow “policing language,” which is a little confusing. The channel hasn’t done anything to tell anyone how to speak, and nothing in the way they speak came across as awkward or hard to understand. I really think this needs to be said:
Getting angry and claiming that someone is policing language if they phrase things any other way than the way that suggests agreement with your worldview is attempting to police language.
Demanding that a group of people is too small a percentage of the global population to acknowledge the existence of (and yes, it’s generally not nearly as small a group as people saying this make it out to be, but that’s beside the point) is literally attacking a minority group for being a minority.
Calling out “PC” as a catchphrase remains as baffling as ever. The phrase “politically correct” suggests dishonesty- that someone is saying something they don’t believe because they think it will be better received, but that’s obviously not happening here. People are just using it as a buzzword to lean on when people say something they don’t like. More specifically, throwing out “PC” irrelevantly is a way to argue against the way someone says something, literally and ironically because it’s more politically correct than saying outright that you don’t like whatever group of people is being acknowledged.
It’s a load of hypocritical doublespeak, frankly.
If you hold a gender essentialist or gender critical (they’re effectively the same thing, the way each term is used) world view, that’s one thing. But if this video, the phrasing in it, or the explanation given in the comment annoys you because the creators haven’t taken an explicit, overt gender-essentialist stance and decided to express that in their speech, it would be better for all involved if you’d just say so.
It would be a step up from finding veiled ways to say “I’m offended by the way you said that, you need to change the way you speak to fit my specific world view.”
That’s all, honestly. I just felt really grateful to that commenter and wanted to share.