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Bewildering Stories

Challenge 733 Response

Bewildering Stories tells how...

Words Count

There is no story so truly Bewildering as reality. — BwS motto

Gergely Berces’ “In the Crowd” is quite tendentious, but it raises important questions about language in more than one way. Bear with me. Honestly, you will be amazed...

How can the passengers on the bus be “diverse” without being individuals? How can anyone know what to do or think when they’re alone and not “in the crowd”?

Since the pronoun “I” is “banned,” as the story says, the conclusion is logical but absurd: how can anyone even go to the washroom? People would very likely find themselves standing in a quandary in front of the toilet or wash basin, thinking, “What would everyone else do?”

A similar question is implied — humorously — in Isaac Asimov’s novel The Caves of Steel (1954). According to custom, women talk freely in their public washrooms but men are not allowed to speak at all in theirs.

The word “teacher” is gender-neutral in English, but the equivalent may not be so in other languages. Which is more or less “discriminatory”: gender-neutral or gender-specific?

It depends on what you’re used to. English is an exception among Indo-European languages in having no grammatical gender. As a result, natural gender is easy to disregard. And culture causes language shifts, for example: “actor” is now commonly used where “actress” used to be called for. And who would say “aviatrix” today when “aviator” serves perfectly well?

More importantly, “man” could be used generically for “mankind” or “humanity” up to the 20th century. But culture change has made the word gender-specific. As a result, some religious denominations have taken steps to make their liturgical language gender-inclusive. That sort of thing is quite normal. The Council of Tours, in A.D. 813, ordered priests to use the “rustic Romance language” rather than Latin, which the people no longer spoke or understood.

What elements in the story might illustrate the proverb “Something that can mean anything means nothing”?

The most striking example is the “anthem” that schoolchildren are obliged to sing. It’s a grotesque parody of inclusiveness, and Jason concludes that “the real question was not its meaning, but whether it had any to start with.” In short, it’s a bad joke.

Bad it may be, but far-fetched it is not. In “What exactly is the Toronto District School Board’s ‘chief’ problem?” (Toronto Globe and Mail, October 13, 2017) columnist Marcus Gee lambastes the School Board for replacing the word “chief” by “manager” in all its administrative positions. The ostensible reason for the change: “chief” might be taken as a racial slur by Indigenous peoples, and the change was made “in the spirit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”

Wrong on both counts: the TRC has said nothing about it, and no one had complained about the word, let alone about such common terms as “Fire Chief” and “Police Chief.” In effect, the Toronto District School Board has created a racial slur where none existed.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Massey College, a part of the University of Toronto, has overreacted to a professor’s bad joke about the use of “master” — as in the master-slave relationship — by firing the professor and dropping the term “master” from its chief administrator’s title. Does the College offer “Master’s” degrees? We shall see. In any event, one might also expect the College to change its name, since “Massey” can be mistaken as a corruption of the dialect word “massah” for “master.”

Mr. Gee is quite right: the consequences are terrible. “If you go around saying that the ‘chief’ in ‘chief executive’ is racist, then no one is going to listen to anything you have to say. Spouting such nonsense drives people into the arms of [...] dangerous blowhards [and gives them] just the kind of ammunition they need to attack seekers of social justice.”

How does Bewildering Stories handle language? In two ways. The first is both conservative and liberal at the same time. We “ban” only two words: the f- and s-words, but only as expletives, not in their literal sense. It’s a matter of self-preservation. If we didn’t have the “Profanity” rule, we’d be flooded with “f- that s-.” We’d have to debate each case with writers and show them how they could do better. Such trivia is tiresome; we take “better” for granted.

What about ethnic references? We allow them only if they’re essential to the plot. Appealing to “description” amounts to “’cuz I say so” and doesn’t count. Nor do we allow nonsense, such as creating false ethnicities. All told, our "Stereotypes” guideline covers the territory pretty well.

Copyright © 2017 by Don Webb
for Bewildering Stories

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