Go, Soul, the body's guest,
Upon a thankless errand:
Fear not to touch the best;
The truth shall be thy warrant:
Go, since I needs must die,
And give the world the lie.
In a February 2021 Facebook post, Eliezer Yudkowsky inveighs against English's system of singular third-person pronouns: as a matter of language design, English's lack of a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun is a serious flaw: you shouldn't be required to commit to a stance on what sex someone is in order to say a grammatical sentence about her or him.
This seems fine as a critique of the existing English language. However, Yudkowsky then goes on to proclaim, in connection with pronouns for transgender people, that "the simplest and best protocol is, '"He" refers to the set of people who have asked us to use "he", with a default for those-who-haven't-asked that goes by gamete size' and to say that this just is the normative definition. Because it is logically rude, not just socially rude, to try to bake any other more complicated and controversial definition into the very language protocol we are using to communicate."
However, this allegedly "simplest and best" proposal fails to achieve its stated aim of avoiding baking controversial claims into the language grammar. The reason trans people want others to use their designated pronouns is because they're trying to control their socially-perceived sex category and English speakers interpret she and he as conveying sex-category information. Yudkowsky's proposed circular redefinition is functionally "hypocritical": if it were actually true that he simply referred to those who take the pronoun he, then there would be no reason for trans people to care which pronoun people used for them.
The "meaning" of language isn't some epiphenominal extraphysical fact that can be declared or ascertained separately from common usage. The word "dog" means what it does because English speakers use the word that way; if you wanted "dog" to mean something different, you'd need to change the way English speakers behave. Thus, circularly redefining he and she as purportedly referring to pronoun preferences rather than sex doesn't work, if people are still in practice choosing pronouns on the basis of perceived sex.
Given that she and he do in fact convey sex category information to English speakers, some speakers might perceive an interest in refusing demands to use pronouns in a way that contradicts their perception of what sex people are. This does not constitute a philosophical commitment that pronouns can be "lies" as such.
In the comments of the Facebook post, Yudkowsky seemingly denies that pronouns convey sex category information to English speakers, claiming, "I do not know what it feels like from the inside to feel like a pronoun is attached to something in your head much more firmly than 'doesn't look like an Oliver' is attached to something in your head." This self-report is not plausible, as evidenced by previous writings by Yudkowsky that treat sex and pronouns as synonymous.
I'm not claiming that Yudkowsky should have a different pronoun usage policy. I agree that misgendering all trans people "on principle" seems very wrong and unappealing. Rather, I'm claiming that policy debates should not appear one-sided: in order to be politically neutral in your analysis of why someone might choose one pronoun usage policy over another, you need to acknowledge the costs and benefits of a policy to different parties. It can simultaneously be the case that pressuring speakers to use pronouns at odds with their perceptions of sex is a cost to those speakers, and that failing to exert such pressure is a cost to trans people. It's possible and desirable to be honest about that cost–benefit analysis, while ultimately choosing a policy that favors some parties' interests over others.
People with gender dysphoria who are considering whether to transition need factually accurate information about gender-transition interventions: if you have the facts wrong, you might wrongly avoid an intervention that would have benefited you, or wrongly undergo an intervention that harms you. This includes facts about how pronouns work in the existing English language. If it were actually true that the simplest and best convention is that he refers to the set of people who have asked us to use he, then asking for new pronouns despite not physically passing as the corresponding sex wouldn't be costly. But in fact, it is costly. As someone with a history of gender problems, this is decision-relevant to me. Thus, Yudkowsky is harming a reference class of people that includes me by spreading disinformation about the costs of asking for new pronouns; I'm better off because I don't trust Eliezer Yudkowsky to tell the truth.
In a February 2021 Facebook post, Eliezer Yudkowsky inveighs against English's system of singular third-person pronouns. As a matter of clean language design, English's lack of a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun is a serious flaw. The function of pronouns is to have a brief way to refer back to entities already mentioned: it's more concise to be able to say "Katherine put her book on its shelf" rather than "Katherine put Katherine's book on the book's shelf". But then why couple that grammatical function to sex-category membership? You shouldn't need to take a stance on someone's sex in order to talk about her or him putting a book on the shelf.
This affects, for example, science-fiction authors writing about AIs or hermaphroditic aliens (which don't have a sex), or mystery authors writing about a crime suspect whose identity (and therefore, sex) is unknown. In these cases, she or he are inappropriate, but the English language offers no alternative lacking its own downsides: it is understood to refer to non-persons, they gets conjugated as a plural, and neopronouns like ey/em/eir—or ve/ver/vis, as used in some of Yudkowsky's juvenilia—are hard to rally adoption for because pronouns are a closed class—not something people are used to new members of being coined, in the way that people are used to seeing unfamiliar nouns, adjectives, or verbs.
It doesn't have to be this way! If you were fortunate enough to be in the position of intelligently designing a language from scratch, you could just include a singular third-person gender-neutral pronoun (like it, but for persons, or like they but unambiguously singular) in the original closed set of pronouns! If you wanted more pronoun-classes to reduce the probability of collisions (where universal ey or singular they would result in more frequent need to repeat names where a pronoun would be ambiguous), you could devise some other system that doesn't bake sex into the language while driving the collision rate even lower than that of the sex-based system—like using initials to form pronouns (Katherine put ker book on its shelf?), or an oral or written analogue of spatial referencing in American Sign Language (where a signer associates a name or description with a direction in space, and points in that direction for subsequent references).
(Although—one might speculate that "more classes to reduce collisions" could be part of the historical explanation for grammatical gender, in conjunction with the fact that sex is binary and easy to observe. None of the other most salient features of a human can quite accomplish the same job: age is continuous rather than categorical; race is also largely continuous (clinal) and historically didn't typically vary within a tribal/community context.)
If you grew up speaking English, gendered pronouns feel "normal" while gendered noun classes in many other languages (where, e.g., in French, a dog, le chien, is "masculine", but potatoes, la pommes de terre, are "feminine") seem strange and unnecessary, but someone who grew up with neither would regard both as strange. If you spoke a language that didn't already have gendered pronouns, you probably wouldn't be spontaneously eager to add them.
All this seems fine as a critique of the existing English pronoun system! However, I argue that Yudkowsky's prescription for English speakers going forward goes badly wrong. First, Yudkowsky argues that it's bad for stances on complicated empirical issues to be part of the language grammar itself: since people might disagree on who fits into the empirical clusters of "female" and "male", you don't want speakers to be forced to make a call on that just in order to be able to use a pronoun.
Fair enough. Sounds like an argument for universal singular they (and eating the cost of increased collisions where it's ambiguous which subject an instance of they would refer to): if you don't think pronouns should convey sex-category information, then don't use pronouns that convey sex-category information! But then, in an unexplained leap, Yudkowsky proclaims:
So it seems to me that the simplest and best protocol is, "'He' refers to the set of people who have asked us to use 'he', with a default for those-who-haven't-asked that goes by gamete size" and to say that this just is the normative definition. Because it is logically rude, not just socially rude, to try to bake any other more complicated and controversial definition into the very language protocol we are using to communicate.
The problem with this is that the alleged rationale for the proposal does not support the proposal. If your default pronoun for those-who-haven't-asked goes by perceived sex (which one presumes is what Yudkowsky means by "gamete size"—we almost never observe people's gametes), then you're still baking sex-category information into the language protocol in the form of the default! Moreover, this is clearly an "intended" rather than an accidental effect of the proposal, in the sense that a policy that actually avoided baking sex-category information into the language (like universal singular they, or name-initial- or hair-color-based pronouns) would not have the same appeal to those who support self-chosen pronouns: why is it that some people would want to opt-out of the sex-based default?
Well, it would seem that the motivating example—the causal–historical explanation for why we're having this conversation about pronoun reform in the first place—is that trans men (female-to-male transsexuals) prefer to be called he, and trans women (male-to-female transsexuals) prefer to be called she. (Transsexuals seem much more common than people who just have principled opinions about pronoun reform without any accompanying desire to change what sex other people perceive them as.)
But the reason trans people want this is because they're trying to change their socially-perceived sex category ("gender") and actually-existing English speakers interpret she and he as conveying sex-category information. People who request he/him pronouns aren't doing it because they want their subject pronoun to be a two-letter word rather than a three-letter word, or because they hate the voiceless postalveolar fricative (sh) sound. They're doing it because, in English, those are the pronouns for males. If it were actually true that she and he were just two alternative third-person pronouns that could be used interchangeably with no difference in meaning, with the only function of the distinction being collision-avoidance, then there would be no reason to care which one someone used, as long as the referent was clear. But this doesn't match people's behavior: using gender pronouns other than those preferred by the subject is typically responded to as a social attack (as would be predicted by the theory that she and he convey sex-category information and transsexuals don't want to be perceived as their natal sex), not with, "Oh, it took me an extra second to parse your sentence because you unexpectedly used a pronoun different from the one the subject prefers as per convention, but now I understand what you meant" (as would be predicted by the theory that "he refers to the set of people who have asked us to use he [...] and to say that this just is the normative definition").
You can't have it both ways. "That toy is worthless", says one child to another, "therefore, you should give it to me." But if the toy were actually worthless, why is the first child demanding it? The problem here is not particularly subtle or hard to understand! If the second child were to appeal to an adult's authority, and the adult replied, "The toy is worthless, so give it to him," you would suspect the grown-up of not being impartial.
"Pronouns shouldn't convey sex-category information, as an apolitical matter of language design," is a fine motte, but it's not consistent with the bailey of, "Therefore, when people request that you alter your pronoun usage in order to change the sex-category information being conveyed, you should obey the request." Even if the situation is an artifact of bad language design, as Yudkowsky argues—that in a saner world, this conflict would have never come up—that doesn't automatically favor resolving the conflict in favor of the policy of keeping both she and he but asserting that the difference doesn't mean anything.
This may be clearer to some readers if we consider a distinction less emotionally and politically fraught than sex/gender in the current year. Many languages have two different second person singular pronouns that distinguish the speaker's relationship to the listener as being more familiar/intimate, or more formal/hierarchical. In Spanish, for example, the familiar pronoun is tú and the formal pronoun is usted: one would address friends, family members, children, or personal servants as tú, but strangers or social superiors as usted. Using the wrong pronoun can be the cause of offense or awkwardness. A speaker switching from usted to tú for an interlocutor who they're getting along with might ask if it's okay with ¿Te puedo tutear? (Can I call you tú?) or Nos tuteamos, ¿verdad? (We call each other tú, right?); this is somewhat analogous to an English speaker asking if they may address someone by first name, rather than with a courtesy title or honorific (Ms./Mr. Lastname, or ma'am/sir).
One could argue that the tú/usted distinction is bad language design for the same reason Yudkowsky opposes the she/he distinction: you shouldn't be forced to make a call on how familiar your relationship with someone is just in order to be able to use a pronoun for them. The modern English way is more flexible: you can indicate formality if you want to by saying additional words, but it's not baked into the grammar itself.
However, if you were going to reform Spanish (or some other language with the second-person formality distinction), you would probably abolish the distinction altogether, and just settle on one second-person singular pronoun. Indeed, that's what happened in English historically—the formal you took over as the universal second-person pronoun, and the informal singular thou/thee/thine has vanished from common usage. (People still recognize it as a second-person pronoun when encountered in old poetry—"The truth shall be thy warrant", &c.—but most probably aren't aware of the formality distinction.) You wouldn't keep both forms, but circularly redefine them as referring only to the referent's preferred choice of address (?!).
Similarly, when second-wave feminists objected to the convention of Miss or Mrs. forcing speakers to identify a woman's marital status, the response was to popularize the marriage-agnostic alternative Ms., not to circularly redefine Miss and Mrs.
Or consider how previous generations of public intellectuals considered this exact problem. In 1983, Douglas R. Hofstadter also expressed disapproval of she and he as a matter of language design, and to illustrate the point about how alien and unnecessary gendered language would seem if you weren't already used to it, wrote a satirical piece, "A Person Paper on Purity in Language", in the persona of a conservative author in a society with race-based (!) language conventions, including the pronouns whe/wis for whites and ble/bler for blacks. In neither the piece itself (during which Hofstadter's alter-ego brings up and rejects a couple of reform suggestions from the liberals of whis Society, including singular they), nor the Post-Scriptum in its subsequent anthologization, does Hofstadter entertain the idea of redefining he and she (or whe and ble) to refer to the subject's pronoun preference.
It's worth asking: why not? The statement of the objective language-design flaw (pronouns shouldn't denote sex, that's dumb; why would you define a language that way) was the same in 1983 as it is in 2022. If it's so clear to Yudkowsky in the current year that self-identification is just the "simplest and best protocol" to repair the objective flaw in English's design, why didn't that simplest and best solution occur to Hofstadter in 1983?
Could it, perhaps, be the case that public intellectuals in the current year might have some other motivation to conclude that "he refers to the set of people who have asked us to use he", that was not present for their analogues in 1983? But if so, they'd tell us that ... right?
Really, the circular definition shouldn't satisfy anyone: people who want someone to call them usted (or tú), do so because of the difference in meaning and implied familiarity/respect, in the existing (pre-reform) language. (Where else could such a preference possibly come from?) From an AI design standpoint, the circular redefinition can be seen as a form of "wireheading". You want people to respect you as a superior, and if they respected you as a superior, they'd call you usted. That could make a policy of coercing people into calling you usted seem superficially appealing. But the appeal solely rests on confusing the pre-reform meaning (under which the choice of usted implies respect and is therefore desirable) and the post-reform meaning (under which the choice implies nothing). Whether or not the proponent of the change consciously notices the problem, the redefinition is functionally "hypocritical": it's only desirable insofar as people aren't actually using it internally.
Indeed, when I look at what contemporary trans activists write, I don't see them approving of this idea that pronoun choices don't mean anything. In the words of one Twitter user:
misgendering sucks, but what feels even more violent is when people get my pronouns right and i can tell they still perceive me as a man
a lot of cis people use 'learning someone's pronoun' as a copout from doing the important internal work of actually reconsidering their impression of the person's gender
like let's be real—the reason you have a hard time "remembering" her pronoun is because you don't really think of her as a her. if you practiced thinking of her as a her, her pronoun would just come. and then you wouldn't be privately betraying her in your head all the time.
These authors are to be commended for making their view so clear and explicit: in order to not betray your trans friends (according to this view), you need to think of them as the gender that they say they are. Mere verbal pronoun compliance in the absence of underlying belief is insufficient and possibly treacherous.
This point that pronoun changes are desired precisely because of what they do imply about sex categories in the existing English language is a pretty basic one, that one would think should scarcely need to be explained. And yet Yudkowsky steadfastly ignores the role of existing meanings in this debate, bizarrely writing as if we were defining a conlang from scratch:
It is Shenanigans to try to bake your stance on how clustered things are and how appropriate it is to discretely cluster them using various criteria, into the pronoun system of a language and interpretation convention that you insist everybody use!
There are a couple of problems with this. First of all, the "that you insist everybody use" part is a pretty blatant DARVO in the current political environment around Yudkowsky's social sphere. A lot of the opposition to self-chosen pronouns is about opposition to compelled speech: people who don't think some trans person's transition should "count"—however cruel or capricious that might be—don't want to be coerced into legitimizing it with the pronoun choices in their own speech. That's different from insisting that others use sex-based non-subject-preferred pronouns, which is not something I see much of outside of gender-critical ("TERF") forums. That is, in the world I see, the pronouns-by-self-identity faction is overwhelmingly the one "insist[ing] everybody use" their preferred convention. Characterizing the issue as being about "freedom of pronouns", as Yudkowsky does in the comment section, elides the fact that freedom to specify how other people talk about you is in direct conflict with the freedom of speech of speakers! No matter which side of the conflict one supports, it seems wrong to characterize the self-ID pronoun side as being "pro-freedom", as if there weren't any "freedom" concerns on the other side.
If you actually believed it was Shenanigans to bake a stance on how clustered things are into a pronoun system and insist that everyone else use it, then it should be equally Shenanigans independently of whether the insisted-on clusters are those of sex or those of gender identity—if you're going to be consistent, you should condemn them both. And yet somehow, people who insist on sex-based pronouns are the target of Yudkowsky's condescension, whereas people who insist on gender-identity-based pronouns get both a free pass, and endorsement of their preferred convention (albeit for a different stated reason)? The one-sidedness here is pretty shameless!
Perhaps more important than the speaker-freedom vs. subject-freedom issue, however, is that in discussing how to reform English, we're not actually in the position of defining a language from scratch. Even if you think the cultural evolution of English involved Shenanigans, it's not fair to attribute the Shenanigans to native speakers accurately describing their native language. Certainly, language can evolve; words can change meaning over time; if you can get the people in some community to start using language differently, then you have ipso facto changed their language. But when we consider language as an information-processing system, we see that in order to change the meaning associated with a word, you actually do have to somehow get people to change their usage. You can advocate for your new meaning and use it in your own speech, but you can't just declare your preferred new meaning and claim that it applies to the language as actually spoken, without speakers actually changing their behavior. As a result, Yudkowsky's proposal "to say that this just is the normative definition" doesn't work.
To be clear, when I say that the proposal doesn't work, I'm not even saying I disagree with it. I mean that it literally, factually doesn't work! Let me explain.
The "meaning" of language isn't some epiphenomenal extraphysical fact that can be declared or ascertained separately from common usage. We can only say that the English word "dog" means these-and-such four-legged furry creatures, because English speakers actually use the word that way. The meaning "lives" in the systematic correspondence between things in the world and what communication signals are sent.
There's nothing magical about the particular word/symbol/phoneme-sequence "dog", of course. In German, they say Hund; in Finnish, they say koira; in Korean, they say 개. Germans and Finns and Koreans (and their dogs) seem to be getting along just as well as we Anglophones.
Nevertheless, it is a fact about contemporary English that "dog" means dog. If you thought this was bad for whatever reason, and you wanted to change that fact, you'd have to change the behavior of actually-existing English speakers. If you tried to stipulate on your Facebook wall that the word "dog" should mean tree now, and all of your Facebook friends nodded in agreement at your clever argument and then continued to call dogs "dogs" and trees "trees" in their everyday life just like they always had, then your language reform attempt would have, in fact, failed—even if the fact that it failed would be less obvious if you only looked at the Facebook thread full of people nodding in agreement.
Or suppose I wrote a Facebook post arguing that it's bad language design that "billion" means 1,000,000,000 instead of 2001. You see, the etymology comes from the prefix bi- (meaning two, from the Latin bis), combined with mille (Latin for 1000), combined with the augmentive suffix -one. How do you get 10⁹ from that, huh? (It turns out there's an explanation, but I don't find it intuitive.) Clearly, it's better language design if the meaning of number words straightforwardly reflects their parts, so "billion" should mean 2001 (bi-, mille, -one; 2, times 1000, plus 1).
Even if you found this argument compelling from an theoretical language-design perspective after it had been presented to you, if I were to subsequently go around calling myself a billionaire (and condescendingly Tweeting about how anyone objecting to this usage is ontologically confused), you would probably suspect that I had some other reason to come up with this particular theoretical language-design argument—probably a reason having to do with what "billion" already means in the usage of actually-existing English speakers, even if you honestly think the existing English language is poorly designed in that aspect.
The inseparability of meaning from behavior-and-usage may be clearer if considered in a context other than that of natural language. Take computer programs. Sometimes programmers make bad design decisions. For example, in the C programming language, it's standard to represent strings (textual data) in memory with a sequence of bytes ending in a zero (null) character; the machine only knows where the string stops when it reaches the null at the end. This convention has a lot of disadvantages relative to the alternative of prefixing the string data with the length; a missing or misplaced null character could cause the machine to erroneously read or write data in adjacent memory, causing serious bugs or security vulnerabilities.
Given the existence of strong arguments for the length-prefixed string convention, replacing old software that uses null-terminated strings with new software that uses length-prefixed strings, sounds like a good idea! But the thing is, you do have to upgrade or replace the old software. If you just start sending data in a new format to the old software that doesn't understand the new format, your code is not going to yield the expected results. It would be convenient if you could just declare a new semantics for your existing data on your Facebook wall and be done, but that just doesn't work if you're still using the old software, which is programmed to behave according to the old data-interpretation convention. This continues to be true even if the convention you're trying to retire is very bad (like null-terminated strings), and if the old software is widely deployed and would be very expensive to systematically replace. The backwards-compatibility trap is real and can't be defied away even if it's very unpleasant.
Natural language faces a similar backwards-compatibility trap. The English language, as "software", is already "deployed" to 370 million brains as native speakers, and another 980 million second-language speakers. And among those hundreds of millions of speakers, there is already a very firmly entrenched convention that she refers to females and he refers to males, such that if you say, "I met a stranger in the park; she was nice", the listener is going to assume the the stranger was (or appeared to be) female, even if you didn't say "The stranger was female" as a separate sentence. If the listener later gets the chance to meet the stranger and the stranger turns out to be (or appear to be) male, the listener is going to be surprised: your pronoun choice induced them to mis-anticipate their experiences.
Bad language design? I mean, maybe! You could argue that! You could probably get a lot of Likes on Facebook arguing that! But if 370 million native English speakers including you and virtually everyone who Liked your post are going to continue automatically noticing what sex people are (or appear to be) and using the corresponding pronouns without consciously thinking about it (in accordance with the "default for those-who-haven't-asked" clause of your reform proposal), then the criticism seems kind of idle!
The "default for those-who-haven't-asked [going] by gamete size" part of Yudkowsky's proposal is trying to deal with the backwards-compatibility problem by being backwards-compatible—prescribing the same behavior in the vast majority of cases—but in doing so, it fails to accomplish its stated purpose of de-gendering the language.
To actually de-gender English while keeping she and he (as contrasted to coordinating a jump to universal singular they, or ve), you'd need to actually shatter the correlation between pronouns and sex/gender, such that a person's pronouns were just an arbitrary extra piece of data that you couldn't deduce from secondary sex characteristics and just needed to remember in the same way you have to remember people's names and can't deduce them from their appearances. But as far as I can tell, no one wants this. When's the last time you heard someone request pronouns for non-gender-related reasons? ("My pronouns are she/her—but note, that's just because I prefer the aesthetics of how the pronouns sound; I'm not in any way claiming that you should believe that I'm in any sense female, which isn't true.") Me neither.
But given that pronouns do convey sex-category information, as a fact about how the brains of actually-existing English speakers in fact process language (whether or not this means that English is terribly designed), some actually-existing English speakers might have reason to object when pressured to use pronouns in a way that contradicts their perception of what sex people are.
In an article titled "Pronouns are Rohypnol", Barra Kerr compares preferred pronouns to the famous Stroop effect. When color words are printed in text of a different color and people are asked to name the color of the text, they're slow to respond: the meaning of the word interferes with our ability to name the color in front of our eyes.
Kerr suggests that preferred pronouns have a similar effect, that "a conflict between what we see and know to be true, and what we are expected to say, affects us." As an exercise, she suggests (privately!) translating sentences about transgender people to use natal-sex-based pronouns.
Unfortunately, I don't have a study with objective measurements on hand, but I think most native English speakers who try this exercise and introspect—especially using examples where the trans person exhibits features or behavior typical of their natal sex, with things like "she ejaculated" or "he gave birth" being the starkest examples—will agree with Kerr's assessment: "You can know perfectly the actual sex of a male person, and yet you will still react differently if someone calls them she instead of he."
Let's relate this to Yudkowsky's specialty of artificial intelligence. In a post on "Multimodal Neurons in Artificial Neural Networks", Gabriel Goh et al. explore the capabilities and biases of the CLIP neural network trained on textual and image data.
There are some striking parallels between CLIP's behavior, and phenomena observed in neuroscience. Neurons in the human brain have been observed to respond to the same concept represented in different modalities; for example, Quiroga et al. observed a neuron in one patient that responded to photos and sketches of actress Halle Berry, as well as the text string "Halle Berry". It turns out that CLIP neurons also exhibit this multi-modal responsiveness. Furthermore, CLIP is vulnerable to a Stroop-like effect where its image-classification capabilities can be fooled by "typographic attacks"—a dog with instances of the text "$$$" superimposed over it gets classified as a piggy bank, an apple with a handwritten sign saying "LIBRARY" gets classified as a library. The network knows perfectly what dogs and apples look like, and yet still reacts differently if adjacent text calls them something else.
I conjecture that the appeal of subject-chosen pronouns lies precisely in how they exert Stroop-like effects on speakers' and listeners' cognition. (Once again, if it were actually true that she and he had no difference in meaning, there would be no reason to care.) Pronoun badges are, quite literally, a typographic attack against English speakers' brains.
Note, I mean this as a value-free description of how the convention actually functions in the real world, not a condemnation. One could consistently hold that these "attacks" are morally good. (Analogously, supernormal stimuli like chocolate or pornography are "attacks" against the brain's evolved nutrition and reproductive-opportunity detectors, but most people are fine with this, because our goals are not evolution's.)
Is susceptibility to Stroop-like effects an indication of bad mind design? I mean, probably! One would expect that an intelligently-designed agent (as contrasted to messy human brains coughed up by blind evolution or lucky neural networks found by gradient descent) could easily bind and re-bind symbols on the fly, such that a sane AI from the future could use whatever pronouns without dredging up any inapplicable mental associations. But it seems kind of idle to criticize humans for not having a capability (natural language fluency without Stroop-like effects) that we don't even know how to implement in a computer program.
Back to Kerr's article—importantly, Kerr is explicitly appealing to psychological effects of different pronoun conventions. She is absolutely not claiming that the use of preferred pronouns is itself a "lie" about some testable proposition. She writes:
I've heard many people tell me they don't mind doing this, as a courtesy, although it takes some effort to keep up the mental gymnastics of perceiving one sex, but consistently using pronouns for the other. That's a personal choice, and I respect the reasons why some people make it.
I've also heard many people declaring that anyone who won't comply (usually directed at a woman) is obnoxious, mean, hostile, and unpleasant. 'Misgendering' is hate speech. They say.
But I refuse to use female pronouns for anyone male.
Note the wording: "That's a personal choice", "I refuse". Kerr knows perfectly well that people who use gender-identity-based pronouns aren't making a false claim that trans men produce sperm, &c.! Rather, she's saying that a pronoun convention that groups together females, and a minority of males who wish they were female, affects our cognition about that minority of males in a way that's disadvantageous to Kerr's interests (because she wants to be especially alert to threats posed by males), such that Kerr refuses to comply with that convention in her own speech. (Compare to how a Spanish speaker might refuse to address someone they disrespected as usted because of its connotations, without thereby claiming that using usted would make the sentence literally false.)
Relatedly, critics of this blog sometimes refer to me as she, reflecting their belief that I'm a trans woman in denial, even though I think of myself of a man (adult human male not trying to appear otherwise). I never correct them—not just because it's kind of flattering, and not just because I don't think of myself as having the right to dictate how other people talk about me—but because "she" is the correct pronoun to convey the meaning they're trying to express, whether or not I agree with it.
I take pains to emphasize that pronouns can have meaningful semantics without being denotative statements that can be straightforwardly "false", because Yudkowsky misrepresents what his political opponents are typically claiming, repeatedly trying to frame the matter of dispute as to whether pronouns can be "lies" (to which Yudkowsky says, No, that would be ontologically confused)—whereas if you actually read what the people on the other side of the policy debate are saying, they're largely not claiming that "pronouns are lies"!
This misrepresentation is a serious problem because, as Yudkowsky pointed out in 2007, "To argue against an idea honestly, you should argue against the best arguments of the strongest advocates. Arguing against weaker advocates proves nothing, because even the strongest idea will attract weak advocates." By selectively drawing attention to the weaker form of the argument, Yudkowsky is likely to leave readers who trusted him to be fair with an unrealistic picture of what people on the other side of the issue actually believe. (Kerr's article seems representative of gender-critical ("TERF") concerns; I've seen the post linked in those circles more than once, and it's cited in embattled former University of Sussex professor Kathleen Stock's book Material Girls.)
Anyway, given these reasons why the existing meanings of she and he are relevant to the question of pronoun reform, what is Yudkowsky's response?
Apparently, to play dumb. In the comments of the Facebook post, Yudkowsky mentions encountering exotic pronouns on LambdaMOO at age 13 and no one thinking anything of them, and goes on to claim:
I do not know what it feels like from the inside to feel like a pronoun is attached to something in your head much more firmly than "doesn't look like an Oliver" is attached to something in your head.
I'm sorry, but I can't take this self-report literally. I certainly don't think Yudkowsky was consciously lying when he wrote that. (When speaking or writing quickly without taking the time to scrupulously check every sentence, it's common for little untruths and distortions to slip into one's speech. Everyone does it, and if you think you don't, then you're lying.)
Nevertheless, I am incredibly skeptical that Yudkowsky actually doesn't know what it feels like from the inside to feel like a pronoun is attached to sex categories more firmly than a given name is attached to someone's appearance.
I realize this must seem impossibly rude, presumptuous, and uncharitable of me. Yudkowsky said he doesn't know what it feels like from the inside! That's a report out his own mental state, which he has privileged introspective access to, and I don't! What grounds could I possibly, possibly have to think he's not telling the truth about his own mind?
It's a good question. And my answer is, even without mind-reading technology, people's minds are still part of the same cause-and-effect physical universe that I can (must) make probabilistic inferences about, and verbal self-reports aren't my only source of evidence about someone's mind. In particular, if someone's verbal self-report mis-predicts what we know about their behavior, it's far from clear that we should trust the report more than our senses.
And the thing is, Eliezer Yudkowsky is a native English speaker born in 1979. As a native English speaker born in 1987, I have a pretty good mental model of how native English speakers born in the late 20th century use language. And one of the things native English speakers born in the late 20th century are very good at doing, is noticing what sex people are and using the corresponding pronouns without consciously thinking about it, because the pronouns are attached to the concept of sex in their heads more firmly than proper names are attached to something in their heads.
I would bet at very generous odds that at some point in his four decades on Earth, Eliezer Yudkowsky has used she or he on the basis of perceived sex to refer to someone whose name he didn't know. Because all native English speakers do this. Moreover, we can say something about the cognitive algorithm underlying how they do this. People can recognize sex from facial photos alone (hair covered, males clean-shaven) at 96% accuracy. In naturalistic settings where we can see and hear more secondary sex characteristics than just someone's face (build, height, breasts, voice, gait, &c.), accuracy would be even greater. It's not a mystery why people can get sex-based pronouns "right" the vast majority of the time without having to be told or remember specific people's pronouns.
Conversely, I would also bet at very generous odds that in his four decades on Earth, Eliezer Yudkowsky has very rarely if ever assumed what someone's name is on the basis of their appearance without being told. Because no native English speakers do this (seriously, rather than as a joke or a troll). Now, it's true that the "doesn't look like an Oliver" example was introduced into the discussion by another commenter, who recounts once having called someone Bill who had introduced himself as Oliver:
It did feel a little weird calling him Oliver, but everyone present knew what I was doing was being a jerk and teenagers are horrible. The "feels like lying" principle seems like it lets me keep calling him Bill, now righteously. I just can't even really bring myself to play in that sandbox in good faith.
But the "everyone present knew what I was doing was being a jerk" characterization seems to agree that the motivation was joking/trolling. How did everyone present know? Because it's absurd to infer a particular name from someone's appearance.
It's true that there are name–feature correlations that observers can pick up on. For example, a "Juan" is likely to be Latino, a "Gertrude" in the current year is likely to be old; a non-Hispanic white Juan or a young Gertrude may indeed be likely to provoke a "Doesn't look like an X" reaction (which may also be sensitive to even subtler features). But while probabilistic inferences from features to low likelihood of a particular name are valid, an inference from features to a particular name is absolutely not, because the function of a name is to be an opaque "pointer" to a particular individual. A Latino family choosing a name for their male baby may be somewhat more likely to choose "Juan" rather than "Oliver" (or "Gertrude"), but they could just as easily choose "Luis" or "Miguel" or "Alejandro" for the very same child, and there's no plausible physical mechanism by which a horrible teenager thirty years later could tell the difference.
Thus, I reject the commenter's claim that "feels like lying" intuitions about pronouns and sex would have let her "keep calling him Bill, now righteously". What algorithm you would use to infer that someone's name is "Bill" based on how he looks? What are the "secondary Oliver characteristics", specifically? People for whom it was actually true that names map to appearances the way pronouns map to sex, should not have trouble answering these questions!
If there were a substantial contingent of native English speakers who don't interpret pronouns as conveying sex category information, one would expect this to show up in our cultural corpus more often—and yet, I'm actually not aware of any notable examples of this. In contrast, it's very easy to find instances of speakers treating pronouns and sex as synonymous. As an arbitrarily chosen example, in one episode of the animated series The Amazing World of Gumball featuring the ravenous spawn of our protagonists' evil pet turtle, the anthropomorphic-rabbit Bumbling Dad character says, "Who's to say this pregnant turtle is a her?" and everyone gives him a look.
The joke, you see, is that bunny-father is unthinkingly applying the stock question "Who's to say X is a he/she?" (which makes sense when X is, e.g., "the nurse") in a context where there's an obvious answer—namely, that the referents of "her" pronouns are female and only females get pregnant—but the character is too stupid to notice this, and we enjoy a laugh at his expense.
The Amazing World of Gumball is rated TV-Y7 and the episode in question came out in 2016. This is not a particularly foreign or distant cultural context, nor one that is expected to tax the cognitive abilities of a seven-year-old child! Is ... is Yudkowsky claiming not to get the joke?
Posed that way, one would imagine not—but if Yudkowsky does get the joke, then I don't think he can simultaneously honestly claim to "not know what it feels like from the inside to feel like a pronoun is attached to something in your head much more firmly than 'doesn't look like an Oliver' is attached to something in your head." In order to get the joke in real time, your brain has to quickly make a multi-step logical inference that depends on the idea that pronouns imply sex. (The turtle is a "her" iff female, not-female implies not-pregnant, so if the turtle is pregnant, it must be a "her".) This would seem, pretty straightforwardly, to be a sense in which "a pronoun is attached to something in your head much more firmly than 'doesn't look like an Oliver' is attached to something in your head." How else am I supposed to interpret those words?
Perhaps it's not justified to question Yudkowsky's "I do not know what it feels like [...]" self-report based on generalizations about English speakers in general? Maybe his mind works differently, but dint of unusual neurodiversity or training in LambdaMOO? But if so, one would perhaps expect some evidence of this in his publicly observable writing? And yet, on the contrary, looking over his works, we can see instances of Yudkowsky treating pronouns as synonymous with sex (just as one would expect a native English speaker born in 1979 to do), contrary to his 2021 self-report of not knowing what this feels like from the inside.
For example, in Yudkowsky's 2001 Creating Friendly AI: The Analysis and Design of Benevolent Goal Architectures, the text "If a human really hates someone, she" is followed by footnote 16: "I flip a coin to determine whether a given human is male or female." Note, "is male or female", not "which pronoun to use." The text would seem to reflect the common understanding that she and he do imply sex specifically (and not some other thing, like being named Oliver), even if flipping a coin (and drawing attention to having done so) reflects annoyance that English requires a choice.
A perhaps starker example comes in the comments to Yudkowsky's 2009 short story "The Hero With A Thousand Chances". A commenter (in the guise of a decision theory thought experiment) inquired whether Yudkowsky flipped a coin to determine the protagonist's gender, to which Yudkowsky replied (bolding mine):
Ha! I tried doing that, the generator came up female ... and I realized that I couldn't make Aerhien a man, and that having two "hers" and "shes" would make the dialogue harder to track.
Sometimes a random number generator only tells you what you already know.
But the text of the story doesn't say Aerhien isn't a "man"; it merely refers to her with she/her pronouns! If Yudkowsky "couldn't make [the character] a man", but the only unambiguous in-text consequence of this is that the character takes she/her pronouns, that would seem to be treating sex and pronouns as synonymous; the comment only makes sense if Yudkowsky thinks the difference between she and he is semantically meaningful. (It's possible that he changed his mind about this between 2009 and 2021, but if so, you'd expect the 2021 Facebook discussion to explain why he changed his mind, rather than claiming that he "do[es] not know what it feels like from the inside" to hold the position implied by his 2009 comments.)
In the Facebook comments, Yudkowsky continues:
My current policy stance is that anybody who does feel that way needs to get some perspective about how it can be less firmly attached in other people's heads; and how their feelings don't get to control everybody's language protocol or accuse non-protocol users of lying; especially when different people with firm attachments have different firm attachments and we can't make them all be protocol.
The sheer chutzpah here is jaw-dropping. Someone's feelings don't get to control everybody's language protocol, huh? But—the causal–historical reason we're discussing pronoun reform at all is precisely to let trans people's feelings control everybody's language protocol! The original post is very explicit about this! It says:
Even before considering all gender issues, there is some sense in which somebody saying "help help pronouns attacking" sounds to me like a sympathetic innocent asking to get out from under a bad system, not like a law-deuniversalizer asking for exceptions from a good system.
In terms of important things? Those would be all the things I've read—from friends, from strangers on the Internet, above all from human beings who are people—describing reasons someone does not like to be tossed into a Male Bucket or Female Bucket, as it would be assigned by their birth certificate, or perhaps at all.
Okay, so Yudkowsky never thought sex-based pronouns were a good idea in the first place. But the important thing, he says, is that some people ("who are people", Yudkowsky pleonastically clarifies, as if anyone had doubted this) don't want other people to use language that refers to what sex they are.
Personally, I have a lot of sympathy for this, because in an earlier stage of my ideological evolution, I was one of those people. (I tried to use an ostensibly gender-neutral nickname and byline for a while in the late 'aughts, and while I never asked for new pronouns, this is probably a matter of Overton window placement rather than any underlying difference in sentiments; it seems pretty likely that my analogue growing up in the current year's ideological environment would be a trans woman.)
But it's important to not use sympathy as an excuse to blur together different rationales, or obfuscate our analysis of the costs and benefits to different parties of different policies. "Systematically de-gender English because that's a superior language design" and "Don't misgender trans people because trans people are sympathetic" are different political projects with different victory conditions: victory for the de-genderers would mean singular they or similar for everyone (as a matter of language design, no idiosyncratic personal exceptions), which is very different from the ask-and-share-pronouns norms championed by contemporary trans rights activists.
Perhaps it might make sense for adherents of a "degender English" movement to strategically ally with the trans rights movement: to latch on to gender-dysphoric people's pain as a political weapon to destabilize what the English-degenderers think of as a bad pronoun system for other reasons. Fine.
But if that's the play you want to make, you forfeit the right to honestly claim that your stance is that "feelings don't get to control everybody's language protocol". If you piously proclaim that the "important thing" is trans people's feelings of "not lik[ing] to be tossed into a Male Bucket or Female Bucket, as it would be assigned by their birth certificate", that would seem, pretty straightforwardly, to be participating in an attempt to make it so that "[someone's] feelings [...] get to control everybody's language protocol"! Again, how else am I supposed to interpret those words?
There's nothing inconsistent about believing that trans people's feelings matter, and that the feelings of people who resent the Stroop-like effect of having to speak in a way that contradicts their own sex-category perceptions, don't matter. (Or don't matter as much, quantitatively, under the utilitarian calculus.) But if that were your position, the intellectually honest thing to tell people like Barra Kerr is, "Sorry, I'm participating in a political coalition that believes that trans people's feelings are more important than yours with respect to this policy question; sucks to be you", rather than haughtily implying that people like Kerr are making an elementary philosophy mistake that they are clearly not making if you actually read what they write.
(In general, an honest "sucks to be you" from someone whose political incentives lead them to oppose your goals, is much less cruel than the opponent distorting your position to make you look bad to their followers.)
All this having been said, Yudkowsky is indeed correct to note that "when different people with firm attachments have different firm attachments [...] we can't make them all be protocol". It's possible for observers to disagree about what sex category they see someone as belonging to, and it would be awkward at best for different speakers in a conversation to use different pronouns to refer to the same subject.
As it happens, I think this is an important consideration in favor of self-identity pronouns! When different parties disagree about what category something should belong to, but want to coordinate to use the same category, they tend to find some mutually-salient Schelling point to settle the matter. In the case of disagreements about a person's social sex category, in the absence of a trusted central authority to break the symmetry among third parties' judgments (like a priest or rabbi in a tight-knit religious community, or a medical bureaucracy with the social power to diagnose who is "legitimately" transsexual), the most obvious Schelling point is to defer to the person themselves. I wrote about this argument in a previous post, "Self-Identity Is a Schelling Point".
But crucially, the fact that the self-identity convention is a Schelling point, doesn't mean we have a one-sided policy debate where it's in everyone's interests to support this "simplest and best protocol", with no downsides or trade-offs for anyone. The thing where she and he (which we don't know how to coordinate a jump away from) imply sex category inferences to actually-existing English speakers is still true! The Schelling point argument just means that the setup of the social-choice problem that we face happens to grant a structural advantage to those who favor the self-identity convention.
Although they're not the only ones with an structural advantage: a social order whose gender convention was "Biological sex only; transsexualism isn't a thing; sucks to be you if you want people to believe that you're the sex that you aren't" would also be a Schelling point. (Trans people's developmental sex is not really in dispute.) It's the moderates who want to be nice to trans people without destroying the public concept of sex who are in trouble!
Still, I think most people reading this post are "moderates" in this sense. Schelling points are powerful. If we're not culturally-genocidal extremists who want to exclude transsexuals from Society (and therefore reject the "pronouns = sex, no exceptions" Schelling point), isn't it reasonable that we end up at the self-identity Schelling point—at least as far as the trivial courtesy of pronouns is concerned, even if some of the moderates want to bargain for the right to use natal-sex categories in some contexts?
Sure. Yes. And indeed, I don't misgender people! (In public. Only rarely in private, when someone's transition doesn't seem legitimate or serious to me, and the person I'm talking to doesn't seem liable to object.) I'm not arguing that Yudkowsky should misgender people! The purpose of this post is not to argue with Yudkowsky's pronoun usage, but rather to argue with the offered usage rationale that "the simplest and best protocol is, '"He" refers to the set of people who have asked us to use "he", with a default for those-who-haven't-asked that goes by gamete size' and to say that this just is the normative definition."
As I have explained at length, this rationale doesn't work and isn't true (even if better rationales, like sincere belief in gender identity, or the Schelling point argument, can end up recommending the same behavior). No one actually believes (as contrasted to believing that they believe) that she and he aren't attached to gender in people's heads, despite Yudkowsky's sneering claim in the comments that he "would not know how to write a different viewpoint as a sympathetic character."
Again, without attributing to Yudkowsky any conscious, deliberative intent to deceive (because of the tragic human tendency to unconsciously introduce distortions in the heat of a rapid argument), the pants-on-fire audacity of this ludicrous claim to ignorance still beggars belief. As the author of one of the world's most popular Harry Potter fanfictions, Yudkowsky clearly knows something about about how to simulate alternative perspectives (includes ones he disagrees with) and portray them sympathetically. And he claims to be unable to do this for ... the idea that pronouns imply sex, and that using the pronouns that imply someone is the sex that they are not feels analogous to lying? Really?!
Well, I'm not a popular fiction author with thousands of obsessive fans who pour over my every word, but if Yudkowsky claims not to be up to this writing challenge, I'm happy to give him a hand and show him how it might be done—
A cis woman is testifying in court about a brutal rape that horrifically traumatized her. The rapist has since transitioned.
"And then—" says the victim, reliving those awful moments, "and then, he took his erect penis—"
"Objection!" says the defense lawyer. "The witness misgendering my client is prejudicial."
"Sustained," says the judge. Then, to the victim: "Her erect penis."
"Wh—what?" says the victim.
"You will refer to the defendant with the correct pronoun, or I'll hold you in contempt of court."
"Oh. O–okay. And then—then, she took her—" The victim breaks down crying. "I'm sorry, Your Honor; I can't do it. I'm under oath; I have to tell the story the way it happened to me. In my memories, the person who did those things to me was a man. A—"
She hesitates, sobs a few more times. In this moment, almost more than the memories of the rape, she is very conscious of having never gone to college. The judge and the defense lawyer are smarter and more educated than her, and they believe that the man who raped her is now (or perhaps, always had been) a woman. It had never made any sense to her—but how could she explain to an authority figure who she had no hope of out-arguing, if she was even allowed to argue?
"And by 'man', I mean—a male. The way I was raised, men—males—get called he and him. If I say she, it doesn't feel true to the memory in my head. It—it feels like lying, Your Honor."
The judge scoffs. "You are ontologically confused," he sneers. "At age 13 I was programming on LambdaMOO where people had their choice of exotic pronouns and nobody thought anything of it," says the judge. "Denied."
"O-okay," says the victim. She doesn't know what ontologically means, or what a LambdaMOO is. "So then—then sh-she took her erect penis and she—"
She breaks down crying again. "Your Honor, I can't! I can't do it! It's not true! It's not—" She senses that the judge will imply she's stupid for saying it's not true. She gropes for some way of explaining. "I mean—the Court allows people to testify in Spanish or Chinese with the help of a translator, right? Can't you treat my testimony like that? Let me say what happened to me in the words that seem true to me, even if the court does its business using words in a different way?"
"You're in contempt," says the judge. "Bailiff! Take her away!"
Not a sympathetic character? Not even a little bit?
I suspect some readers will have an intuition that my choice of scenario is loaded, unfair, or unrealistic. To be sure, I chose it an unusually clear-cut case for why someone might have a need to use pronouns to imply sex in their own speech. (If the scenario was just talking about someone borrowing a vacuum cleaner, fewer readers would have any sympathy for someone not wanting to concede the trivial courtesy of preferred pronouns.)
But what, specifically, is unrealistic about it? Is it the idea that a trans woman could have raped someone before transitioning? Of course most trans women are not sex offenders—just as most non-transsexual males are not sex offenders—but instances of trans women committing the kinds of sex crimes that are overwhelmingly the provenance of men are a documented thing.
Is it the idea that the legal system would penalize someone for pronoun non-compliance? But this is also an occasionally documented thing, as in one case where a Canadian father was jailed for violating a court order not to refer to his natal-female child with she/her pronouns. As liberal intellectuals debating optimal communication policies, we usually hope to govern by consensus: we want people to use preferred pronouns voluntarily, rather than being forced. But maintaining a collective norm in the face of those who have their own reasons to object to it, does ultimately require some sort of enforcement. In the vignette above, given the defense lawyer's objection, the judge does face a forced choice to Sustain or Overrule, and that choice has consequences either way.
In the comments, Yudkowsky continues:
This is not the woke position. The woke position is that when you call somebody "she" because she requested "she", you're validating her gender preference. I may SEPARATELY be happy to validate somebody's gender preference by using the more complex language feature of NOUN PHRASES to construct an actual SENTENCE that refers to her ON PURPOSE as a "woman", but when it comes to PRONOUNS I am not even validating anyone.
Right, it's not the woke position. It's an incoherent position that's optimized to concede to the woke the behavior that they want for a different stated reason in order to make the concession appear "neutral" and not "politically" motivated. She requested "she" because acceding to the request validates her gender preference in the minds of all native English speakers who are listening, even if Eliezer Yudkowsky has some clever casuistry for why it magically doesn't mean that when he says it.
Again, I'm not saying that Yudkowsky should have a different pronoun usage policy. (I agree that misgendering all trans people "on principle" seems very wrong and unappealing.) Rather, I'm saying that in order to actually be politically neutral in your analysis of why someone might choose one pronoun usage policy over another, you need to acknowledge the costs and benefits of a policy to different parties, and face the unhappy fact that sometimes there are cases where there is no "neutral" policy, because all available policies impose costs on someone and there's no solution that everyone is happy with. (Rational agents can hope to reach some point on the Pareto frontier, but non-identical agents are necessarily going to fight about which point, even if most of the fighting hopefully takes place in non-realized counterfactual possible worlds rather than exerting costs in reality.)
Policy debates should not appear one-sided. Exerting social pressure on (for example) a native-English-speaking rape victim to refer to her male rapist with she/her pronouns is a cost to her. And, simultaneously, not exerting that pressure is a cost to many trans people, by making recognition of their social gender conditional on some standard of good behavior, rather than an unconditional fact that doesn't need to be "earned" or justified in any way.
You might think the cost of making the rape victim say she is worth it, because you want to make it easy for gender-dysphoric people to socially transition, or because you think it's dumb that pronouns imply sex in the actually-existing English language and you see the self-identity convention as an incremental step towards degendering the language.
Fine. That's a perfectly coherent position. But if that's your position and you care about being intellectually honest, you need to acknowledge that your position exerts costs on some actually-existing English speakers who have a use-case for using pronouns to imply sex. You need to be able to look that rape victim in the eye and say, "Sorry, I'm participating in a political coalition that believes that trans people's feelings are more important than yours with respect to this policy question; sucks to be you."
And of course—it should be needless to say—this applies symmetrically. If you think speakers should be able to misgender according to their judgment and you care about being intellectually honest, you need to be able to look a trans person in the eye and say, "Sorry, I'm participating in a political coalition that believes the freedom of speech of speakers is more important than your gender being recognized; sucks to be you."
Or if you have more important things to worry about (like the fate of a hundred thousand galaxies depending on the exact preferences built into the first artificial superintelligence) and don't want the distraction of taking a position on controversial contemporary social issues, fine: use whatever pronoun convention happens to be dominant in your local social environment, and, if questioned, say, "I'm using the pronoun convention that happens to be dominant in my local social environment." You don't have to invent absurd lies to make it look like the convention that happens to be dominant in your local social environment has no costs.
Really, "I do not know what it feels like from the inside to feel like a pronoun is attached to something in your head much more firmly than 'doesn't look like an Oliver'"? Any seven-year-old in 2016 could have told you that that's just factually not true; if you grew up speaking English in the late 20th century, you absolutely goddamned well do know what it feels like. Did the elephant in Yudkowsky's brain really expect to get away with that? How dumb does he think we are?!
At this point, some readers may be puzzled as to the mood of the present post. I agree with Yudkowsky's analysis of the design flaw in English's pronoun system. I also agree that not misgendering trans people is a completely reasonable thing to do, which I also do. I'm only disputing the part where Yudkowsky jumps to declaring his proposed "simplest and best protocol" without acknowledging the ways in which it's not simple and not unambiguously the best.
Many observers would consider this a very minor disagreement, not something anyone would want to spend 12,000 words prosecuting with as much vitriolic rhetoric as the target audience is likely to tolerate. If I agree with the problem statement (pronouns shouldn't denote sex, that's dumb; why would you define a language that way), and I don't disagree with the proposed policy solution (don't misgender trans people in public), why get so hung up on the exact arguments?
(I mean, besides the fact that it's arguments that matter rather than conclusions, as a completely general principle of correct cognition.)
I guess for me, the issue is that this is a question where I need the correct reasoning in order to make extremely impactful social and medical decisions. Let me explain.
This debate looks very different depending on whether you're coming into it as someone being told that you need to change your pronoun usage for the sake of someone who will be very hurt if you don't—or whether you're in the position of wondering whether it makes sense to make such a request of others.
As a good cis ally, you're told that trans people know who they are and you need to respect that on pain of being responsible for someone's suicide. While politically convenient for people who have already transitioned and don't want anyone second-guessing their identity, I think this view is actually false. Humans don't have an atomic "gender identity" that they just know, which has no particular properties other than it being worse than death for it to not be recognized by others. Rather, there are a variety of reasons why someone might feel sad about being the sex that they are, and wish they could be the other sex instead, which is called "gender dysphoria."
Fortunately, our Society has interventions available to approximate changing sex as best we can with existing technology: you can get hormone replacement therapy (HRT), genital surgery, ask people to call you by a different name, ask people to refer to you with different pronouns, get new clothes, get other relevant cosmetic surgeries, &c. In principle, it's possible to pick and choose some of these interventions piecemeal—I actually tried just HRT for five months in 2017—but it's more common for people to "transition", to undergo a correlated bundle of these interventions to approximate a sex change.
On this view, there's not a pre-existing fact of the matter as to whether someone "is trans" as an atomic identity. Rather, gender-dysphoric people have the option to become trans by means of undergoing the bundle of interventions that constitute transitioning, if they think it will make their life better. But in order for a gender-dysphoric person to decide whether transitioning is a good idea with benefits that exceed the costs, they need factually accurate information about the nature of their dysphoria and each of the component interventions.
If people in a position of intellectual authority provide inaccurate information about transitioning interventions, that's making the lives of gender-dysphoric people worse, because agents with less accurate information make worse decisions (in expectation): if you have the facts wrong, you might wrongly avoid an intervention that would have benefited you, or wrongly undergo an intervention that harms you.
For example, I think my five-month HRT experiment was a good decision—I benefited from the experience and I'm very glad I did it, even though I didn't end up staying on HRT long term. The benefits (satisfied curiosity about the experience, breast tissue) exceeded the costs (a small insurance co-pay, sitting through some gatekeeping sessions, the inconvenience of wearing a patch or taking a pill, various slight medical risks including to future fertility).
If someone I trusted as an intellectual authority had falsely told me that HRT makes you go blind and lose the ability to hear music, and I were dumb enough to believe them, then I wouldn't have done it, and I would have missed out on something that benefited me. Such an authority figure would be harming me by means of giving me bad information; I'd be better off if I hadn't trusted them to tell the truth.
In contrast, I think asking everyone in my life to use she/her pronouns for me would be an obviously incredibly bad decision. Because—notwithstanding my clean-shavenness and beautiful–beautiful ponytail and slight gynecomastia from that HRT experiment five years ago—anyone who looks at me can see at a glance that I'm male (as a fact about the real world, however I feel about it). People would comply because they felt obligated to (and apologize profusely when they slipped up), but it wouldn't come naturally, and strangers would always get it wrong without being told—in accordance with the "default for those-who-haven't-asked that goes by gamete size" clause of Yudkowsky's reform proposal, but really because pronouns are firmly attached to sex in their heads. The costs (this tremendous awkwardness and fakeness suffusing all future social interactions involving me) would exceed the benefits (I actually do feel happier about the word she).
I used to trust Yudkowsky as an intellectual authority; his Sequences from the late 'aughts were so life-alteringly great that I built up a trust that if Eliezer Yudkowsky said something, that thing was probably so, even if I didn't immediately understand why. But these days, Yudkowsky is telling me that 'she' normatively refers to the set of people who have asked us to use 'she', and that those who disagree are engaging in logically rude Shenanigans. However, as I have just explained at length, this is bullshit. (Declaring a "normative" meaning on your Facebook wall doesn't rewrite the actual meaning encoded in the brains of 370 million English speakers.) If I were dumb enough to believe him, I might ask people for new pronouns, which would obviously be an incredibly bad decision. (It might be a less bad decision if done in conjunction with a serious gender transition effort, but Yudkowsky's pronoun reform proposal doesn't say "she" is the pronoun for fully-transitioned trans women; it just says you have to ask.) Thus, Yudkowsky is harming a reference class of people that includes more naïve versions of me by giving them bad information; I'm better off because I don't trust Eliezer Yudkowsky to tell the truth.
(I guess I can't say I wasn't warned.)
I think there is a question of whether current LessWrong is the right place for this discussion (there are topics that will attract unwanted attention, and when faced with substantial adversarial forces, I think it is OK for LessWrong to decide to avoid those topics as long as they don't seem of crucial importance for the future of humanity, or have those discussions in more obscure ways, or to limit visibility to just some subset of logged-in users, etc). But leaving that discussion aside, basically everything in this post strikes me as "obviously true" and I had a very similar reaction to what the OP says now, when I first encountered the Eliezer Facebook post that this post is responding to.
And I do think that response mattered for my relationship to the rationality community. I did really feel like at the time that Eliezer was trying to make my map of the world worse, and it shifted my epistemic risk assessment of being part of the community from "I feel pretty confident in trusting my community leadership to maintain epistemic coherence in the presence of adversarial epistemic forces" to "well, I sure have to at least do a lot of straussian reading if I want to understand what people actually believe, and should expect that depending on the circumstances community leaders might make up sophisticated stories for why pretty obviously true things are false in order to not have to deal with complicated political issues".
I do think that was the right update to make, and was overdetermined for many different reasons, though it still deeply saddens me.
I kinda disagree that this is a mere issue of Straussian reading: I suspect that in this (and other cases), you are seeing the raw output of Elizer's rationalizations and not some sort of instrumental coalition politics dark arts. If I was going for some sort of Straussian play, I wouldn't bring it up unprompted or make long public declarations like this.
Zack is hypersensitive to this one issue because it interacts with his Something to Protect. But what I wonder about is where else Eliezer is trying to get away with things like this.
Yeah, I agree with this in this specific instance, hence the "at least do a lot of straussian reading", part. I do think that there is a spectrum from radical honesty to straussian reading to something that looks like this, and that I do think it makes sense to consider the straussian case in many situations.
I think this is a good place for this post (especially because it respond directly to Eliezer, but even if it didn't), and I would like to read more such posts here, and more posts related to Wokeness (as long as they meet the usual standard for posts here, like for any other topic). I don't know if I want to start another "politics on LW" discussion, because there were already so many and many of them were good, but I'll echo again the feeling that this distancing from politics often interferes with truth-seeking rather than helping it.
Is that a different relationship to the "rationality community" or just to Eliezer?
(I also maybe should mention that I don't mind this (i.e., Zack's) post.)
I think it changed my relationship to the community overall. In that relationship, Eliezer is actually still the single person I would probably trust the most, despite posts like this.
Um -- why? I guess I can think of some mechanisms by which this would make you trust the remaining community less, but none that seem convincing. And I guess I don't personally have the impression that the community is deteriorating.
I mean, evidence of an instance is evidence about the class. Also, again, I think all of these updates were pretty overdetermined, and my previous relationship to community leadership was quite naive and overly hopeful. I also don't think the community is deteriorating and never intended to say anything like that! I think this is a normal relationship to have to the community and it's leadership.
Do you mean Zack's post or Eliezer's post?
Zack's post. (Can see how that was unclear; I've mentioned it because I've been on record saying that some things shouldn't be on LW in the past.)
I wouldn't gloss over this with a presumption. In another context Yudkowsky writes:
Yet his "simplest and best protocol" doesn't tell me what pronouns I should use for almost anyone, nor does it give any concrete examples. As soon as I plug in a concrete example, the protocol blows up. For example, Yudowsky hasn't ever told me what pronouns I should use for him, and I haven't ever observed his gamete size. This is literally the first concrete example I thought of. I don't think I should need to search the internet to find his gamete size and preferred pronouns "merely in order to speak in passing" of his pronoun reform proposal.
A better protocol might be "use the pronoun you most expect is someone's preferred pronoun". It at least seems simpler and more usable in practice.
I think the protocol I actually use is something like: "use the pronoun with the highest expected their-utility", which is why I use "they" when I know literally nothing else about someone, and not "he" because there are slightly more men than women. (Hardly anyone objects to being referred to with "they" in this context, even if they would otherwise object to using "they" when you knew more about them.)
My standard language protocol is "say the thing most people will understand", and is very rarely "say things about person X that person X will like".
With respect, that sounds horribly inefficient unless you're applying "standard caveats" to that. Maybe the world I move in is different enough from yours to make this not true, but there are many times when the goal <create understanding> is at odds with the goal <get value from this interaction>, and I can often get to the latter easier by following expected social conventions.
I’m not sure, I have a hard time thinking of a concrete example where the two are in conflict.
To try one: if someone was talking about how excellent their product was gonna be and implicitly inviting me to vibe with them on that, I think to have an “enjoyable” interaction I used to vibe with them on it and say things I didn’t believe. Nowadays I might vibe with them but instead I’m much more likely to say orthogonal things like “it’s great that you have something you’re excited about” or “good luck with that” or ask for detail on how they came to believe it would sell, and if they push me to say something I’ll feel little compunction in saying “for the record I currently don’t know anyone who will use your product”. I’ll even do this if I want something from the other person like an invite to a party or whatever, if that’s what you mean by “value from an interaction”. I’ve shifted toward staying in reality over getting valuable things out of people or locally vibing with them (although I still like both of those!).
I think people often overestimate the cost of plurality ambiguity with singular "they". Most people don't even bat an eyelid at the "you" plurality ambiguity. One can imagine how people would react to somebody trying to reintroduce "thou" to make the plurality ambiguity go away. I would expect that people would find it bothersome with too little upside. Agreeing to a strict upgrade is easy but balancing tradeoffs is less straightforward. The situation could be that those that gender dysphoria touches care a lot and those that it doens't don't care. Then having a situation that overall or on average would be less harmful is blocked because some party would go from no harm to slight harm.
As a speaker of a native language that has only genderneutral pronouns and no gendered ones, I often stumble and misgender people out of disregard of that info because that is just not how referring works in my brain. I suspect that natives don't have this property and the self-reports are about them.
For crime related stuff, there is atleast some specialised vocabulary that needs finer lines. I don't know whether enliglish has it but, "astalo", a thing that could be a melee weapon or a firearm, which has uses in that an investigator can communicate that an implement capable of "grievious bodily harm" is involved while still benefitting from people having additional detail on which specific kind of weapon is involved ("Did they find the pistol?" could out you for knowing a firearm is involved). Similarly, appearances are way more appropriate to define even if they cut close to ethnicities. In that sense it is way more justified to have corresponding thing going for sex and gender. So defaulting to "they" makes more sense and steering away from he as "assumed male might be either" is justified.
I would believe a competent laywer would object that "It is not prejudicial to refer with 'he' to a person in an event that in that event was gendered man.". Referring to the party in the court room with such would be bad form, but in the past that is not so. The education cap between wittness and lawyer is addressed in that both sides are represented with a competent lawyer. The other side is oblicated to to counterobject. So its lawyer vs lawyer rather than vs wittness (and with sufficient gap in the skills of the laywers would be grounds to mistrial because of incompetent advocate).
Since writing this post I have connected that then-unnamed-to-me-thing which is contrasted to pareto improvement is probably Kaldor-Hicks improvement .
Reflecting on the post topic and wikipedia criticisms section (quoted so it can't be changed underneath)
If everybody keeps doing Kaldor-Hicks improvements then over different issues everybody racks minor losses and major wins. This is a little like a milder form of acausal trade. Its challenge is similarly to keep the modelling of the other honest and accurate. To actually compensate we might need to communicate consent and move causal goods etc. Taking personal damage in order to provide an anonymous unconsented gift with no (specified) expectation of reciprocity can be psychologically demanding. And in causing personal gain while costing others it would be tempting to downplay the effect on others. But if you can collectively do that you can pick up more money than pareto-efficiency and get stuck in fewer local optima. If the analysis fails it actually is a "everybody-for-themselfs" world while everybody deludes themselfs that they are prosocial or a world of martyrs burning down the world. The middle zone of this and pareto-efficiency is paretists lamenting a tragedy of coordination failure of lacking reassurances.
What language is this?
The one that has the word "astalo".
(I am keeping my identity small by not needlessly invoking national identities)
I seemed to also have a misunderstanding about the word. It is rather something used as a melee weapon that is not a melee weapon as an object. Something that in DnD terms would be an "improvised weapon". But it seems that affordance of ranged weapon is not included in that, the "melee" there is essential (and even that blunt damage is in and slashing and piercing are out). Still a term that is deliberately very wide, but as the function is also to mean very specific things getting it wrong is kinda bad.
I think the length of this post detracts a lot from its clarity. There is a summary, but it's hard to have an opinion about it without having read the whole rest of the post, which I only skimmed.
Yudkowsky's point as I understand it is just that the position of maximal abstention when it comes to linking gender to pronouns is to use the same default anyone else uses, but then allow anyone to have their personal preference about which term they feel most comfortable referenced by. This is not specifically to exert a stance in favor of transgender people being named by the transitioned-to gender, nor is it to deny that there is any preexisting connotation to the pronouns, it's just because to object to someone's request by saying the answer is anything else is to make a nominative statement about how gender should relate to pronouns, which is what you're abstaining from.
My comment was a lot longer than this, but I deleted the rest because these conversations feel like knives.
Linguists are actually quite certain that this is the case. There are many languages that have more than two noun classes though, using other features or arbitrary classification that simply needs to be memorized. One common division is also animate/inanimate, and obviously for that (and many other divides), all people are in one category.
I'd be curious to hear about more of those classes—speaking as someone who only knows English and one year's worth of French, and doesn't know anything not stated in the OP. So English has pronouns that distinguish gender, something like personhood ("it" vs "he/she"), and plurality; then there are gendered nouns in French and probably other Romance languages; also there's the pronoun formality of "tu" vs "usted" in Spanish described here, and "tu" vs "vous" in French. I've also heard that Japanese has formality/deference built in, possibly more deeply than just pronouns (? I have no idea). Lastly, I once heard there was some language in which you had to know which way was north to speak grammatically...
Hmm, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noun_class has some info. Heh:
Japanese has formality as verb conjugations - http://www.japaneseverbconjugator.com/VerbDetails.asp?txtVerb=%E8%A1%8C%E3%81%8F - iku 行く as "will go (plain)" and ikimasu 行きます as "will go (polite)". Translators try to preserve this, but I personally find translating that to be kinda hard. "I'll go" and "I will go" is the best I can do off the top of my head (watashi wa iku/watashi wa ikimasu - and as a more realistic example, kaisha ni iku/kaisha ni ikimasu - I'll go to the office/I will go to the office - "watashi/I" being left out because Japanese is contextual).
I agree with these criticisms, I don't understand what Eliezer was doing with his conclusion. (How did the word "simplest" get in there?)
I just wanted to mention that regarding this quote:
As a cis person who has interacted occasionally with trans people for the past ten years, it literally never occurred to me until last year that what trans people were asking me to do was actually reconsider my impression of their gender! I sincerely thought they were just asking me to memorize a different word to call them. I will at least try out a "reconsidering" process the next time I regularly interact with a trans person IRL and see whether it works. (I have also never read about what kind of "reconsidering" processes work for people, but I have some guesses for how I could approach it.)
It seems bad that the huge focus on pronouns completely obscured the actual request! I wonder if a lot of other people also don't know this.
Can you elaborate on this? I am extremely surprised by this attitude and want to learn how to prevent similar miscommunications in the future.
Not OP, but for what it's worth, I consider it unreasonable to request that other people think of you in a certain way (be it gender, or having personal traits or skills or anything), or at least for there to be any sense of expectation or obligation that they will fulfill such a request. That would be actual thought-policing, and abhorrent to me. It's reasonable to want people to think of you a certain way, to hope that they will, to take actions that will hopefully increase the likelihood of it, and possibly to only be close friends with people who do think of you that way (although I think it's usually wise to try not to care too much about what others think about you). But I feel strongly that people have a right to think whatever thoughts they want, and that anything that seems to be punishing people for thoughts (as opposed to actions or speech) should raise major alarm bells.
Therefore, to the extent that people are told "You should accommodate the desires of trans people, and will be told you're a bad person and possibly face social consequences if you don't", expected accommodations of the form "Think of them as female even if your brain naturally classifies them as male" are unreasonable. "Avoid speech or other visible actions that rub in their face the fact that you think of them as male" is polite, and may be reasonable to expect; "Use these pronouns when referring to this person in front of them" is an obvious example of that.
So that is the strong-request/demand that it's reasonable for people to get from "society". (If people in power were unambiguously saying "In order to be polite and not be called bad, you must think of these people in a certain way", then I think there would be revolts.) If someone hasn't become emotionally close friends with any trans people, I'd say it's not too surprising if they haven't picked up on something subtler than "socially enforced rules".
I'm not even going to pretend to address the first half of your comment. You're making extreme jumps of logic that are in no way justified by the conversation.
The content of the sentence "I am a transgender man" is more or less "contrary to popular opinion, I am in fact a man and not a woman." This has nothing to do with socially enforced rules and everything to do with the basic meaning of language. I did not realize that it was common for people to not know what the word "transgender" means.
You're talking as though there is some background you don't share with me, so I shall establish that background.
I tried googling "fired for not using pronouns", and the results page had news articles pointing to several different cases of that—usually teachers—as well as this page, seemingly written by lawyers, titled "What Can Employers Do About Employees Who Refuse To Refer To Transgendered Employees By Their Preferred Names Or Pronouns?".
The page basically recommends firing them; it says "Even if the employee has “for cause” protection through an employment contract, there’s a pretty good chance that intentionally misgendering their coworker is sufficient cause to terminate"; it further says that "allowing them to call transgendered employees by something other than their preferred name or pronoun [...] amounts to allowing one employee to discriminate against their transgendered coworkers" and cites a court decision saying that something like that would create an "increased risk of liability" for the company.
There are plenty of U.S. companies (especially tech companies) and academic and other institutions that loudly proclaim their support for trans people, and, although I'm not sure if it's usually spelled out in their public policies, I think that if an employee or teacher said (as calmly and politely as possible) "No, I don't believe that you're a man, and I will continue to call you 'she'" and stuck to it, then I'd expect the majority of observers would say there's at least a 50% chance of that person getting fired for it. If the above lawyers' page is correct, then presumably most U.S. companies who listen to their lawyers (which is most U.S. companies of nontrivial size) will tend to behave like that.
Social groups have much less in the way of top-down enforcement, and I expect lots of variation there. Still, I think there are plenty of social groups—especially involving those who've recently attended school—where deliberately not using someone's requested pronouns is considered rude at best and carries nontrivial risk of ostracization.
Is any of the above new and surprising to you? If so, congratulations on somehow avoiding it—are you in the U.S.?
Anyway, with that background, I think it's clear that, when someone says something like "I'm a trans man"/"I'd like you to use male pronouns for me", socially enforced rules have a lot to do with it. ("Threat of being fired" is arguably not "social" enforcement, but it's certainly enforcement.) It is possible that, to the trans-person in question, all they're doing is sharing information about their personal feelings, and they may be not thinking about the enforcement aspect—some of them probably oppose it (and a few are probably unaware of it), and it's not their fault that the enforcement mechanism exists. Nevertheless, it does exist, and that is relevant for the other person.
The sociology of this is interesting. I suspect that only a small minority of trans people would say "Yes, I think other people should be fired if they don't use my requested pronouns", yet here we are. I think there are several mechanisms involved that tend to boost some signals over others; also, once some legal precedent is in place, fear of legal liability creates an institutional response (the fear could be exaggerated; I wonder if company lawyers have an incentive to exaggerate legal fears to make their services seem more vital), and the institutions' social environments evolve in that direction.
What does the word "man" mean in the sentence "contrary to popular opinion, I am in fact a man and not a woman"? Given that popular opinion is, in fact, wrong about this, we should be able to describe some observation or experimental test where the man makes better predictions than the populace, right? What is it, specifically? (I think there are real answers to this, but I'm interested in what you think.)
What are the extreme jumps of logic? I confess that I can see none, in the post you’re responding to. If you think otherwise, I should like to see you defend that claim.
Basically, my experience went like this:
Interesting. Thank you.
To be clear, you now understand that the content of the sentence "I am a transgender man" is more or less "contrary to popular opinion, I am in fact a man and not a woman"? And that pronouns only even come up because they are one of the many ways people convey assessments of gender?
n=1: A trans person I once knew told me that it was important to her that other people think of her as her chosen gender, beyond just pronoun usage. (I have zero other evidence about how widespread this is.)
Thanks for the summary at the top. All seems accurate to me. (I only read the summary.)
At the time when I read EY's FB post, I thought it was a pretty interesting perspective that baking such things into the grammar was an awful design choice and should be treated with disdain.
That said I kind of skimmed over this part (at the time), which you emphasize in the summary:
It isn't a self-report I could make. Names and sexes are very different things, and sex is a sufficiently deep part of our mind design that it can't really be otherwise for basically any human, even one as strange as Eliezer. I guess it's possible he has a sufficiently alien relationship to language itself that he cannot even empathize with someone who would feel as I do, but I don't expect so.
Edit: Re-reading the original thread, I actually think it's fairly likely that Eliezer has a more alien relationship to pronouns in particular, and finds it effortful to empathize with others about this.
To clarify my position on the overall point, I agree with Zack that a bunch of norms around "stating the truth" are violated when non-standard pronouns are demanded inappropriately, even though a better language for more ideal agents would not store any truth-claims in the pronouns, and some people view them more as arbitrary customs than as truth claims. My shoulder!Zvi goes further and suggests that pronouns were actively selected for violating the "stating the truth" moral as much as it could get away with.
Edit2: I feel like if I speak directly on this subject, the broader world will attempt to punish me quite severely for doing so, making writing this comment irritatingly difficult. Not talking straightforwardly about what is going on in the world makes it hard to get such questions right, for the reasons I described here.
Man I almost regret commenting on this post, it's taking way too much of my time to speak clearly without tripping some societal tripwire for attack.
At the risk of facing a lot of potential backlash for this comment, I am just disappointed to see this discussion being upvoted so high in LW. I don't think it is relevant or important for the vast majority of people. English happens to use gendered pronouns. Most people can be categorized into two categories and gendered pronouns refer to those categories. The fact that there are exceptions to the rule does not mean that those categories are not meaningful. Redefining the categories won't change the perception of most people. Changing the language or the definitions won't solve that most people will still perceive the world as divided roughly 50%/50% men and women because it is. And yet, most people will choose to treat trans people with respect and use whatever pronouns they prefer if they think it is important for them.
I don't understand why you don't think it is relevant. LessWrong is a site founded by Eliezer Yudkowsky, and dedicated to reasoning better. Is it not important to know when the founder (who is still an influential figure) of a community dedicated to a principle is being a poor example of that principle?
Maybe you are right, if we frame this issue on "Eliezer not following good rules" and not so much on "What pronouns we should use", which in fact is what the OP intended I think.
I think OP is fairly clear about it being about the former, rather than the latter? E.g.
That would be easier to believe if Zack ever posted anything here that wasn't overtly or covertly (1) about trans issues and (2) on the "trans Xs are not real Xs" side of the usual battle lines.
Zack is clever and insightful and I agree with most of the specific things he says. But I am wary of the fact that pretty much all he ever does here is to point out errors made in support of one particular side of a live sociopolitical debate.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. For instance, it might be a good thing if the following things are true (which I suspect Zack thinks they are, and which it's certainly not inconceivable that they might be):
Even so, the situation concerns me a bit.
[EDITED to add:] Concerns me because (perhaps counterintuitively) it's possible for one's thinking to be made worse overall by a process of correcting errors, if the choice of which errors has enough bias in it, so someone who corrects errors but only when they point a particular way is not necessarily doing us a favour. The point of the preceding bullet points is that they're more likely to be doing us a favour if the bias they introduce points the opposite way from some preexisting bias.
In the present instance, I'm pretty sure Zack is right that Eliezer doesn't really have (or at least shouldn't have) such difficulty understanding how someone might have a stronger "this person doesn't look like a she" sense than a "this person doesn't look like an Oliver" sense; and that it's better to have accurate information about the likely consequences of any given intervention (such as asking everyone to say "she" rather than "he" when referring to you).
But the final portion of Zack's post feels off to me in very much the same way as Eliezer's original comment does. Zack tells us that Eliezer's wrongness on this point matters because of the possible harm some people in situations like Zack's might suffer if they ask everyone to use particular pronouns for them while not appreciating the likelihood of awkwardness because the people doing so will often deep down not perceive them as being of the gender they want to be referred to as. (My apologies for the cumbersomeness of that sentence.) For this to be a good explanation of Zack's 12k-word article, there would somehow need to be a non-negligible chance that Zack's writing it leads to that not happening, and I can't see at all how that's plausible. What sequence of events would do that?
It seems to me that anyone contemplating asking other people to change what pronouns they call them by already knows that there will be awkwardness and already knows that the pronoun-change will not necessarily go along with an actual change in their instinctual judgement of the other person's sex or gender. How's any of that going to be changed by what Zack wrote here? Even if it completely changes your idea of Eliezer's attitudes, that's not going to make much difference to what you want people to call you unless most of your interactions with other people are specifically with Eliezer.
(Also: it seems to me hard to reconcile the stated motivation -- save some gender-dysphoric people awkwardness by warning them that getting others to use different pronouns won't actually change how the others see them -- with the fact that a substantial chunk of the post is actually trying to argue that getting others to use different pronouns is a "typographic attack on [their] brains" that does to some extent change how they see the person they're referring to with those pronouns. Or with the recurring "sucks to be you" motif which is clearly presenting the matter as a conflict between the interests of those seeking to be called by different pronouns and those of the people they're asking to use those different pronouns.)
I dispute this. I think the relevant test is, "Is it plausible that I could have produced the text of this post in the counterfactual universe where I wasn't on a gender-political crusade?"
(I find this counterfactual very easy to imagine, because from my perspective, the crusade feels like a defensive effort in response to cultural trends that stabbed me in the face after moving to Berkeley in 2016, not something I would have done if everyone else hadn't "shot first". I (of course) wouldn't necessarily expect strangers on the internet to uncritically accept my self-report about this, but for some third-party-visible data, you can look at some pre-2016 posts on my real-name blog and imagine the same author writing more longform Less Wrong posts.)
When I ask this question about my Less Wrong non-linkposts over the last two years, I get:
Yes (9): "Comment on 'Deception as Cooperation'", "Feature Selection", "Communication Requires Common Interests or Differential Signal Costs", "Message Length", "Maybe Lying Can't Exist?!", "Algorithmic Intent", "Optimized Propaganda With Bayesian Networks", "Comment on 'Endogenous Epistemic Factionalization'", "Zoom Technologies, Inc. vs. the Efficient Markets Hypothesis"
No (4): "Blood Is Thicker Than Water", "Reply to Nate Soares on Dolphins", "Unnatural Categories Are Optimized for Deception", "Philosophy in the Darkest Timeline" (this one was almost a Yes, but the "cult" jabs and neighbor's playing-dumb behavior push it over the edge)
So, as an estimate, I'd say it's about a third of what I do here? It's true that many of the posts on my Yes list clearly wouldn't have happened if not for the crusade which happened in my actual history, but I'm claiming that the relevant test is whether they could have happened in the counterfactual where I had some other reason to get intensely interested in the philosophy of language.
As a separate illustration of the proposed methodology here, consider a post about how erasure codes work that I published in 2015 in honor of my employer at the time (RIP) integrating an erasure coding feature into our object storage product. Causally, the reason I happened to write about erasure codes in particular was because it was relevant to my employer; if I had worked somewhere else, I wouldn't have written that exact post. But it doesn't seem fair to accuse me of being a biased shill for Big Object Storage, because if you cut off the parts at the beginning and end talking up our product, the post is visibly the kind of innocent technical exposition I "would have done anyway" on some topic.
If it helps, I think I'm almost done?? (I need to do one more memoir-megapost telling the Whole Dumb Story about how I wasted the last six years of my life on this, but after that, I think my grievance with the so-called "rationalists" will be totally played out and I won't be tempted to pollute this website with it anymore.)
I strongly agree that selective argumentation is a problem, which is why I do put effort into searching for and publishing arguments on the other side of the usual battle lines, which you likely haven't seen because I usually don't linkpost or crosspost object-level stuff from my secret ("secret") blog to Less Wrong unless I have a specific rationale for why it's relevant to Less Wrong.
Specifically, "Self-Identity Is a Schelling Point" is a novel consideration in favor of the self-identity criterion (the politically-clean generalization of which for Less Wrong was "Schelling Categories, and Simple Membership Tests"), and "On the Argumentative Form 'Super-Proton Things Tend to Come In Varieties'" is rejecting an argument from Yudkowsky that supports my position that "dysphoria" is more than one taxon, because I think it's a bad argument. (It seems plausible that he published that as a "concession" to my agenda in order to get me to stop emailing him—which makes it especially important that I published a criticism rejecting it, because I don't want concessions; I want a discourse that actually gets the right answer.) I also want to write up a "pro-trans" argument based on the idea in Stuart Armstrong's "Declustering, Reclustering, and Filling in Thingspace", but I haven't gotten around to it yet.
So, my output certainly isn't balanced around the usual battle lines (I definitely put out a lot more stuff that would code as "anti-trans" rather than "pro-trans" if you orthogonally project into the subspace of the usual battle lines, and it's fine for you to notice that), but I also don't think I should be optimizing for that kind of balance; I think I should be running a search of argument-space relevant to the questions I'm legitimately interested in, and I think I'm doing an okay (not perfect) job of that.
It's probably mostly (2). I don't think I have any illusions about the issues I'm obsessed with being particularly important in the grand scheme of things. I do think they're easy to get right, and that if people who are much smarter than me are repeatedly getting them wrong, that's a warning sign for much deeper pathologies that could affect the things that do actually matter.
I think statements from public figures like Yudkowsky do affect transition decisions on the margin. (And that my reponses to those statements have effects on a much smaller margin, in proportion to my much smaller megaphone.) We actually have documentation of one case of this! Soon after a 2016 Facebook post in which Yudkowsky claimed that "for people roughly similar to the Bay Area / European mix, I think I'm over 50% probability at this point that at least 20% of the ones with penises are actually women", he published a followup post reporting, "Just checked my filtered messages on Facebook and saw, 'Your post last night was kind of the final thing I needed to realize that I'm a girl.'"
I think that person's life would potentially be different if the Yudkowsky of 2016 was willing to say some of the things that the Yudkowsky of 2009 said that made a big difference to my life (even though—especially though—I didn't want to hear it at the time). If Yudkowsky changed his mind between 2009 and 2016 because of new evidence, that would be one thing. If, on the other hand, he changed what he says in public because of new political incentives, that would be another thing altogether. (Lots more to say on this in a forthcoming memoir-megapost.)
Zvi Mowshowitz has written about how the claim that "everybody knows" something is typically used to silence attempts to tell the thing to people who don't know. I think that applies here. In general, people don't know things! People especially don't know things that no one talks about on the grounds that everyone allegedly knows!
I think the conflict of interests is already there whether or not I write about it!
I argue that the present post is relevant because it takes a direct shot at Yudkowsky's reputation, "Sexual Dimorphism" was relevant as commentary on the Sequences, the review of Charles Murray's Human Diversity was relevant for recapping some of our core ideas in an novel context, the review of The Origins of Unfairness was relevant for being game theory, and "Blegg Mode" was relevant for being Sequences fanfiction. That's five linkposts in three years, which I think is reasonable. If I were sharing everything from that blog here, that would definitely be a problem. ↩︎
(Replying to note that Zack's pushback on my "Zack pretty much only posts about gender-related things" seems to me entirely fair, and to apologize for posting what I did without actually checking the numbers. Obviously Zack's comment deserves an actual proper reply, but I've been busy. Soon, I hope.)
(Terribly belated reply, sorry.)
So, first of all, I agree: not everything you write on LW is explicitly or implicitly part of what you call your gender-political crusade, and it was unfair of me to say that it is. I think I still think that said crusade is a sufficiently big part of your posting here that it's reasonable to consider the OP to be somewhat "about" pronoun issues and not merely about a bit of bad thinking on Eliezer's part that merely happens to involve pronoun issues. Backtracking a bit to see why that question was ever relevant: mukashi was saying OP doesn't deserve all its upvotes because LW doesn't need extensive discussions about pronouns; I think the fact that OP is inter alia about an apparent motivated-reasoning error of EY's is sufficient explanation for why it's here. I can't agree with mukashi's criticism. (If they'd said something more like "this topic is inflammatory and we could use less of it here even if it turns out to be leading EY to make errors of reasoning", there'd be a stronger case though I don't know whether I'd agree.)
I indeed hadn't seen the UGS posts you mention that are "on the other side" (when one does the usual 1d projection, which I agree is as always a potentially dangerous simplification) -- I read your blog only occasionally. Actually, no, looking again I think I had seen the "Schelling point" one before and forgotten it, but not the "super-proton" one.
Your documented case of Yudkowsky-triggered transition is intriguing. Seems like the sort of thing where the difference he made was more "it happened a couple of weeks earlier" rather than "it happened and would otherwise not have happened", though, don't you think? And if the point here is that EY is a public figure, then there's still at least one highly-attenuating step between your post and such changes. I dunno, it still just doesn't feel plausible to me that your main reason for writing what you wrote was to save gender-dysphoric people from the awkwardness-for-them that might ensue if they started asking people to use different pronouns. If you say that really was your purpose -- well, as I said before, I think I feel about it roughly the same way as you feel about Eliezer claiming not to know what it feels like to have a strong association of a particular pronoun with a particular person.
The "everybody knows" pathology you cite Zvi as describing is a reasonable thing to be concerned about. It seems to me that our case is, at most, an extremely non-central instance of what Zvi describes. Almost all of Zvi's post is about cases where someone says "everybody knows X" when X is in fact false; in this case we agree that X is true (it's something like "if you ask people to use non-obvious pronouns when referring to you, awkwardness may ensue"). But he does mention in passing the possibility of using "everyone knows X" to discourage telling people X (in cases where X is revealing a fraud and the person saying "everyone knows" is trying to suppress knowledge of the fraud; I mention this just because I'm sure you wouldn't want the rather serious accusation you're throwing at me to go unnoticed and I'd like to acknowledge that I noticed it). So I guess the question is: among people on LW who might read your 12k-word piece, how much underestimation do you actually think there is of the awkwardness that might ensue if they ask others to use nonobvious pronouns for them?
I completely agree that any conflict of interest between pronoun-requesters and pronoun-requestees is there regardless of whether you write about it. I'm not sure why you think that needs pointing out. The observation I was making is that it's hard to reconcile (1) your stated motivation of making life less unpleasant for gender-dysphoric people by saving them from the awkwardness that might ensue if they ask others to use pronouns for them that match their internal gender-perception, with (2) the fact that a large fraction of what you actually wrote postulates an adversarial relationship between those people and the people they're making the request of, and complains of the harm the former are inflicting on the latter.
(If the argument at the end of your post were "gender-dysphoric people need correct argumentation on this to make correct decisions because they might not ask people to use different pronouns if they appreciated the harm they were doing to those people by making the request" then there wouldn't be that inconsistency. But it's not, it's "gender-dysphoric people need correct argumentation on this to make correct decisions because they might not ask people to use different pronouns if they appreciated the awkwardness they were bringing to themselves by making the request".)
The marginal impact of any one bullet on the outcome of a war is very small, but it would be very odd to therefore proclaim that it's implausible that a soldier's main reason for having taken a shot is to win the war. Of course, it's true that one shot won't make much of a difference, even if it hits. The soldier knows that, but fights anyway, because a tiny impact is nevertheless more than zero impact. Or maybe, because his decision to shoot is logically correlated with that of other soldiers. Or maybe—to die with dignity.
It's the same thing with culture wars. (And with ... culture-steering and knowledge-creation efforts that are hopefully doing something a little more sophisticated and productive than the usual one-dimensional war.) Nothing I write is going to have a huge impact on the world, because I'm very small in comparison to the world. I know that, but I write anyway. With dignity.
Yes, that's exactly what I meant.
Is that this is the continuation of an argument between me and Yudkowsky that has gone on for years. (Long, dumb story for a future memoir-post.) You can't expect me to let him have the last word!
A lot, but mostly because people haven't thought about the question, rather than because they'd necessarily get the wrong answer if prompted to spend five minutes thinking about it as measured by an actual, physical clock.
I have a dumb personal anecdote to explain where I'm coming from here. Back in the late 'aughts, there was a period when I tried using my first-and-middle-initials ("Z.M.") as a nickname: my reasoning was, I wanted a gender-neutral byline (I didn't like how "Zack" marked even my writing as male, even if I couldn't expect people to not notice what sex I am in real life), and I wanted my byline to be the same as what people called me in real life, and I didn't want to pick a new name unrelated to my legal name.
In retrospect, this turned out to be a terrible idea that caused my a huge amount of completely pointless identity-crisis emotional pain before I eventually ended up reverting it—partially because "Z.M." never really "felt like a name", even to me, and partially because of the backwards-compatibility problem (where I wasn't comfortable being known by different names to different people, and I wasn't bold enough to nag everyone who already knew me to switch, especially for something that didn't really feel like a name, even to me).
(Also, "Zachary" is an order of magnitude more common than "Zoë" and "Zelda" put together, so the gender-neutral rationale almost certainly never held up in practice—but, you see, it was the principle.)
I think I would have made better decisions if I had read a careful 12,000-word blog post arguing that nickname changes are actually hard (especially if you anticipate not being comfortable being known by different names to different people, and aren't bold enough to nag everyone who already knows you to switch) and that not all possible pairs of initials equally "feel like a name" to many native English speakers, even if using initials as a name isn't uncommon for some pairs of initials.
(I'm actually still not sure what's going on there psychologically! Why does "Z.M." sound terrible, but "A.J." or "J.T." work? Does there need to be a J; is that the rule? Just "Z." (zee) would have worked better ...)
It's not that I couldn't have anticipated these points in advance, if I had spent five minutes with an actual, physical clock thinking of ways in which changing nicknames might be a bad idea. I just—didn't think it through; I hadn't considered the possibility that an idea that appealed to my ideological whimsy might be different from what I was actually happy living with.
The reason this dumb anecdote is relevant is because I think all the factors that caused me to underestimate the awkwardness of asking for a nonstandard nickname for gender-feeling-related reasons in 2007 (and therefore end up inflicting a lot of pointless identity-crisis emotional pain on myself) are substantially worse for people at risk of underestimating the awkwardness of asking for nonobvious pronouns for gender-feeling-related reasons in 2022. At least my dumb decisions of 2007 took some initiative on my part; no one pushed me.
I ... don't think this is true in the current year. If you don't already see why, it's probably more useful for me to explain at memoir-length rather than comment-length.
Hm, I don't think I meant to come off as that altruistic. (I don't think most gender-dysphoric people thinking under the distribution of ideologies in today's Society would say I'm correctly advocating for their/our interests; a lot of them think I'm a traitor.) In my mind, the point was to explain my personal stake in getting this topic right. I'm open to wording suggestions if there's some way to make my selfishness come through more clearly.
I think it's a fair critique that it seems implausible for Zack to be simply motivated by wanting to help other gender-questioning people. (You don't see many other gender-questioning people do the same as what Zack is doing, after all.) However, I don't think this implies that one has to go all the way to "What pronouns we should use" as being what this post is about. (Heck, people on the anti-trans side of that question also don't do what Zack is doing, showing that this motivation can't explain Zack's behavior either.)
The post is explicitly about pronouns, so I'm not sure what you mean by "I don't think this implies ...".
(I am not suggesting that Zack's purpose is to get everyone to refuse to call people by the pronouns they prefer; I take him at his word when he says he almost always goes along with people's requests and thinks that others should generally do likewise. If anything I wrote sounds as I think he wants to change that, then I screwed up and I apologize.)
Hm, then I'm not sure what you meant by
as a topic.
Like if you see Zack taking a position on "What pronouns we should use", and you don't see him taking a position that pronouns should be used in accordance with biological sex, then what position do you see him taking?
I think we're somehow at cross purposes. To whatever extent that's my fault, please accept my apologies.
The phrase "what pronouns we should use" wasn't mine. mukashi proposed two options for what Zack's post is really about: "Eliezer not following good rules" and "what pronouns we should use". I wouldn't pick either of those exact phrases myself, and took them as gesturing at two broader possibilities: "about general principles of thinking" and "about gender issues in general and pronouns in particular", and either way I couldn't agree with your statement that it's definitely "the former rather than the latter": I think there's as much of "the latter" as of "the former" in it.
More precisely, what I think is that Zack's purpose is something like to correct any cognitive errors he sees that tend to encourage the idea that trans Xs are real Xs or should be thought of as such. Eliezer is a mere target of opportunity; pronouns happen to be the specific issue; Zack's post is "about" both, though not exactly about Eliezer not following good rules, I think, and not exactly about what pronouns we should use.
I think Zack's position on pronouns is that we should generally refer to people with the pronouns they prefer, that we should take care not to let that manipulate us into thinking that those pronouns are correct in any sense beyond social convenience, and that it would be better if fewer people whose self-image and what-Zack-considers-actual-sex diverge asked others to use what-Zack-considers-less-accurate pronouns for them. (More precisely, each bit of those is a thing I think to be Zack's position, but I may have some parts wrong and there's a very good chance that the whole thing therefore fails to be an accurate summary.)
Oh, my bad, I hadn't realized you and mukashi were different people.
So I think there are two things to say here.
First, yes, Zack seems to be motivated partly by a point like this, more so than by general correctness (judging by the difficulty I've had getting him to engage with various critiques that are orthogonal to the whole trans issue). It seems like a general thing to me, that one cannot really get people to summon the energy to care about getting things correct if they don't happen to be about topics that they care about.
But secondly, my impression is that this is less stuff that he wanted to write about, and more stuff that he felt forced to write about because people kept dismissing other of his concerns with "trans women are women". If there's a cognitive error that entirely shuts down discussion about a topic, then that seems like something worth addressing?
I don't really like the phrasing "what-Zack-considers-actual-sex". It seems to me that Zack's position on "actual sex" is quite popular, even among trans people. Specifically, Zack and many others seem to favor something along the lines of taking a number of socially relevant sex characteristics, and defining actual sex to be the first principal component of those characteristics. (Essentially, the thingspace-cluster definition.)
This position has a number of challenges, which Zack mostly seems to bite the bullets on. Zack regularly points out that e.g. trans people cherry-pick what characteristics they use for defining the principal component, but that's disagreements within this conception of sex; as long as the conception remains popular, it seems a bit sketchy to blame it on him.
I wasn't intending "what-Zack-considers-" to come with an implied "wrongly", and I'm sorry if it sounded as if I was. What I intended was merely for it not to come with an implied "rightly", since pretty much everything in this area is controversial. I agree that something like (what I take to be) Zack's understanding of "sex" is both reasonable and widely held.
My understanding of Eliezer's argument is something like
It does not seem to me that he is claiming that no one associates pronouns with socially-perceived sex categories or anything like that, though I haven't read everything he has said on the topic. I agree with a lot of the points you made, but they feel unrelated to the ones Eliezer made.
I think your assessments of whats psychologically realistic are off.
I think before writing that, Yud imagined calling [unambiguously gendered friend] either pronoun, and asked himself if it felt wrong, and found that it didn't. This seems realistic to me: I've experienced my emotional introspection becoming blank on topics I've put a lot of thinking into. This doesn't prevent doing the same automatic actions you always did, or knowing what those would be in a given situation. If something like this happened to him for gender long enough ago, he may well not be able to imagine otherwise.
It's unreasonable, but it seems totally plausible that on one occasion you would feel like you know someone has a certain name, and continue feeling that way even after being rationally convinced you're wrong. That there are many names only means that the odds of any particular name featuring in such a situation is low, not that the class as a whole has low odds, and I don't see why the prior for that would be lower than for e.g. mistaken deja vu experiences.