Using the third person plural as a way to solve the gender condundrum

There are many occasions when we want to refer to an individual person, without necessarily wishing to specify that person’s gender. And there are many good reasons to want to do this. Even though, for the time being, most people are biologically, psychologically and socially clearly either male or female, this is not true for everyone, and being forced into this male/female duality for such people can be debilitating and annoying. And even for those of us who are, for a great many of us there are aspects of our cultural/social gender that don’t suit us particularly well, and it would thus be nice if it wasn’t the first thing that people know about us whenever we are referred to using a personal pronoun.

Some have experimented with gender-neutral personal pronouns (other than the impersonal “it”, of course), such as “ey”, but because they are not currently part of the English language there seems relatively little prospect of them catching on any time soon. So what a lot of people do, instead, is to use the plural “they/them/their” as a stand-in, as in, “I have a friend who has this Future of Humanity blog. They use it to post obscure articles about esoteric topics.” Or, “The average person doesn’t know a heck of a lot about theoretical physical, mostly because they reckon they have better things to do.”

The problem with this, however, is that it can be jarring for linguistic purists like myself who are inwardly screaming, “But that is grammatically incorrect!” So it remains a dilemma. Of course one can go with “he/she”, but that quickly becomes cumbersome. So how to solve the gender condundrum if not by using the third person plural?

One way round this dilemma, however, might be to consider the question in light of what we know about the essential ambiguity of individual identity. Am I really one single entity, evolving through time? I generally assume that I am, both because our tendency to do so is grounded in evolutionary psychology and because it is constantly being reinforced by those around us. But increasingly we are coming to understand that this narrative conception of identity is only a psychological construct, and is not particularly solidly supported by evidence.

This being the case then, could we not get around the gender condundrum by using the third person plural, not as a stand-in for “he/she”, but rather as a recognition that each of us is in fact multiple. So in the above examples, the word “they” would not refer directly to the “friend who has this Future of Humanity blog” or imagined “average person”, but rather to the multiplicity of ill-defined and sometimes conflicting identities that respectively make that “friend” or “average person”. Then, no grammatical sin is being committed, except in the relatively mild sense that one is somewhat changing one’s mind about who/what one is referring to in mid-sentence, we have avoided giving irrelevant and possibly prejudicial information about that person’s “gender”, which in any case might itself be ill-define, and we have raised awareness of the essential ambiguity of our individual identity.

Just a thought.

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Towards a Guaranteed Basic Income?

Recently ieet.org published a poll on whether there should be a universal Guaranteed Basic Income. Of the 5 options, the one I voted for was for a guaranteed stipend for everyone somewhere between the poverty line and the median income of their society.

Here’s what I commented by way of explanation.

“In Descendants, George Clooney’s extremely wealthy father has taken the view that his son should be given “enough money to do something, but not enough to do nothing”. The idea is that option 5, for which I have voted, would lead people to become like dissolute rich-kid playboys, squandering their guaranteed income on shallow entertainment, leading to economic collapse or early abandonment of the scheme.

It’s possible, of course, but I think the real reason so many people behave like that is that we haven’t yet broken the link in society between “work as productive contribution”, “work as doing things you get paid for”, and “work as doing things you don’t particularly enjoy while you’d rather be lying on a beach”. So the common urge, as soon as we find ourselves in a position of financial security, is to go and lie on a beach.

But the real message of the playboys is precisely the opposite, because they tell us that such a lifestyle will never satisfy us for long. This will need to be introduced with care (i.e. piloted), but it won’t take long before a vibrant economy develops on the back of this, an economy that, unlike the current one, is based not on fear and scarcity but on enthusiasm and abundance.

Fear and scarcity will still exist, of course. Whenever you pursue a project, you automatically start to fear failure, and because your project is ambitious you crave the scarce resources that are needed for its completion. But this will not be people’s primary motivation for getting out of bed in the morning, as it is for so many today. It will instead be passion for the projects they are pursuing.”

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Why empowering women is essential for the future of humanity

Since leaving on sabbatical from the Commission on 1 December last year, I have been thinking about where I want to go professionally, and the idea that Europe needs fresh air in order to avoid a catastrophic, or perhaps merely pathetic, slide into global irrelevance is one of the ideas I have been exploring in this context.

But an arguably more fundamental issue in the context of the future of humanity concerns the position of women, and it is related to the need to inject some “fresh air” into existing political, administrative and corporate structures.

Around the time that humans invented the wheel and tamed the horse, men started to dominate the public arena. These technologies suited men (as opposed to women) well, and arguably led to the paternalistic religions, ideologies, civilisations and cultural habits that we have today. With the industrial revolution came change, and in some countries an increasing unwillingness on the part of women to accept the status quo. Women started to insist on contributing to, and benefiting from society in every bit as public a way as men.

The jury is out as to whether this progress is continuing or has gone into reverse, but what I want to do here is to make the specific case that the still largely male-dominated political, administrative and corporate structures that we have are not drawing sufficiently on the intelligence of women, and that this is undermining humanity’s ability to deal with its problems and steer its way towards an ecstatic future. This is one reason why I favour affirmative action in this matter.

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Europe needs fresh air!

Europe is currently in disarray. After ruling the planet for several centuries, we tore ourselves apart in the first half of the twentieth century, and we have never really recovered. Twenty years ago things seemed to be going much better, with the dismantling of the iron curtain dividing East and West and the signing of the Maastricht Treaty that would eventually pave the way for a single currency. Now things are not looking so rosy.

In fact, this is an understatement. Europe is on the brink of disintegrating. While I don’t see a return to 1914 (and even that might be wishful thinking), there is an incredibly dangerous rise in nationalist (and even subnational separatist) sentiment, and a breakdown of solidarity that threatens, once again, to engulf the global financial system.

The fact that the IMF has been called in to address solvency problems within the EU, despite the fact that there are wealthy EU countries with AAA ratings that are borrowing from the markets at record low rates, is a travesty. The fact that China, a developing country, most of whose population still lives in abject poverty, is even thinking about (and worse, has been asked by Europeans) to step in to bail us out is simply absurd.

The situation has reached a point where I am no longer willing to sit on the sidelines and wait passively, wringing my hands in despair. I want to do something about it. But I lack ideas. Hence this blog post.

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Truth and Reconciliation for the financial crisis?

We live in dangerous times. The economy continues to flirt with recession. Ordinary citizens, who were encouraged to take loans that they might have been able to pay off while the economy was booming, are being threatened and forced from the homes. Anger mounts. The perception that we have spent beyond our means, and must now tighten out belts, is leading to policies that are only making the situation worse. Government debt, even the ultimate safe haven that used to be US debt, is looking increasingly suspect. The sustainability of currencies (notably the euro, but one day perhaps the dollar?) is called into question. And we know from history where all this can lead.

So what happens at times like these? People look for scapegoats. The favourite scapegoats now are the banks. After all, these are the ones that are threatening ordinary families out of their homes. And these, in tandem with the rating agencies whose advice they so unthinkingly followed, can quite reasonably be held accountable for the crisis that is now taking the world closer and closer to the abyss. Anything that smells like a bail-out for banks, and their overpaid CEOs, is anathema to most people.

But there’s a catch. We really do need the banks. And they really can’t afford to let home-owners simply default on their mortgages with impunity, particularly at a time when governments are requiring them to recapitalise. So blaming the banks doesn’t really solve the problem. What’s to be done?

It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot recently, and this morning I had a new thought on the subject: what about learning from Desmond Tutu’s “Truth and Reconciliation” idea for dealing with the aftermath of apartheid? There, too, entirely understandable anger risked derailing attempts to draw a line and put the country on the road to political, economic, and above all spiritual recovery. It has hardly been an unmitigated success – crime rates remain appallingly high, and at times the government’s stance on AIDS has been even more repugnant than that of the Catholic Church – but under the circumstances it seems to have worked pretty well. There are other positive, if imperfect, examples of similar approaches being applied, such as in Northern Ireland.

So what about it? Is there merit in this idea? How could it be made to work in practice? Any thoughts?

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More on the Second Law

Since writing my previous post on the second law of thermodynamics I’ve been wondering just how seriously to take the premise that human intention has the power to reverse it. Feedback so far has been limited, so I’ve mostly been focusing on other things, but I’ve also done some quick research.

One interesting thing I found from wikipedia was that there seems to be a fair amount of controversy and confusion regarding the definition of entropy. This is in some ways remarkable, given (i) the fact that it is THE key concept around which the second law is generally formulated, and (ii) the second law is taken to be so fundamental in physics. How can we be so sure of a law when we can’t even agree about the definition of the key concept around which it’s formulated?

One aspect of the controversy concerns the idea that entropy is a measure of how disordered a system is. This idea seems to be going out of vogue, at least in the teaching of chemistry in the US, essentially on the grounds that it confuses students and distracts from more precise definitions in the context of real-world, earth-bound chemical processes. But if we really want to make a fundamental law out of the idea that entropy tends to increase, then it seems to me that we need to do better than just “heat tends to flow from a hotter to a colder body”. It doesn’t, not at the scale of stars and galaxies. That’s why, in the words of Roger Penrose, the sun is a “hot spot in a cold sky”, which is basically why life on earth is possible.

In any case I would welcome views on this. Don’t feel the need to be an “expert” in order to comment. Sometimes experts get wrapped up in their own jargon, while “non-expert” views are necessary to reconnect with day-to-day reality. (Expert views are also welcome of course.)

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Could intention reverse the second law of thermodynamics?

This may be a crazy idea, but it has occurred to me that human intention might have the power to reverse the second law of thermodynamics.

The second law of thermodynamics states, roughly speaking, that entropy (often thought of as the amount of disorder in a system) always tends to increase. It is one of the most fundamental laws in physics, and is generally considered to be inviolable.

But there are various reasons to think it might be less fundamental than is generally supposed.¬†Entropy only increases over time because the Big Bang corresponds to a low-entropy state. Essentially this means that there are far less configurations of the universe that correspond to “Big Bang” conditions than to the conditions we find today. But this is only true to the extent that we have found a more precise way to describe “Big Bang” conditions than present-day conditions. By defining future states that we consider desirable, we are effectively defining a low-entropy state. If entropy increases only because we are moving away from the Big Bang, and because the Big Bang is the low-entropy state we have so far defined, then by deciding to aim for alternative, desirable, low-entropy future states, we may indeed be able to reverse the second law.

I have no idea whether this line of argument is either original or can be developed in a remotely robust way, but I thought I’d throw it out there anyway…

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