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Ask Stupid Questions

So many times we’ve heard someone say “There are no stupid questions.” They’re trying to invite us to ask any question that comes to mind. But we don’t trust this phrase because too often even though this is said, we still worry about appearing stupid or foolish.

And the truth is: There are stupid questions.

And the other truth is: Those questions are often the most important ones to ask.

If someone has a basic or naïve question (aka a “stupid” question), then it might mean that we haven’t explained things well. Or it might mean that we’ve been overcomplicating something. Or it might mean that there’s a perspective that we haven’t considered yet.

It might mean all kinds of things that we missed or didn’t notice because we were so busy “knowing” and “explaining.”

So I’d offer up instead that we stop saying “there are no stupid questions” and replace it with:

“I hope you ask some stupid questions because we all need to know what we haven’t thought about or made clear.”

my destructive self-talk

My destructive self-talk often stems from having an over-abundance of interests duking it out with over-achieving perfectionist expectations.

“If only I could focus on something and commit then I could actually get REALLY good at it!”

I know this is both deeply forgetful of what I have accomplished, unduly dismissive of skills I have, and damn out of touch with reality. But there it is.

As I embark on new projects, I find the need to remind myself often that this anxiety/doubt/DEBILITATING FEAR is a key part of the process. It means I’ve found something that matters to me and that I want to do well.

on using “their” vs “his or hers”

The question of whether or not to use “their” to replace the awkward “his or hers” has been the eye of a grammarian hurricane for some time now. I’ve found that this usage has been generally accepted, particularly in the latter half of the 1990s in the wake of efforts to reduce the level of sexism built in to traditional grammar constructions.

The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996) has this to say about the history of the controversy around the word their:

Fowler (1926) was among those who objected to the use of their in contexts that call ‘logically’ for his (though this use of the masculine gender to cover both has lately been called into question) or his or her. The issue is unresolved, but it begins to look as if the use of an indefinite third person singular is now passing unnoticed by standard speakers (except those trained in traditional grammar) and is being left unaltered by copy editors.

Notably, this controversy does not apply to the word them:

As the OED says, it is ‘often used for “him or her”, referring to a singular person whose sex is not stated, or to anybody, nobody, somebody, whoever, etc.’. Example: Nobody else…has so little to plague them.—C. Yonge, 1853 (ibid.)

Some traditionalists, like Strunk & White, do not appreciate this change and strongly advocate the wholesale rewriting of passages which would historically have utilized “his” as a catch-all pronoun meant to signify all genders. In the Fourth Edition of “Elements of Style” (2000) S&W defend this tradition: “The use of he as a pronoun for embracing both genders is a simple, practical convention rooted in the beginnings of the English language.” However, even they state:

“Substituting he or she in its place is the logical thing to do if it works. But it often doesn’t work, if only because repetition makes it sound boring or silly.”

What’s interesting to me is that the most traditional usage of “they” was as a singular pronoun in the first place:

“He” started to be used as a generic pronoun by grammarians who were trying to change a long-established tradition of using they as a singular pronoun. In 1850 an Act of Parliament gave official sanction to the recently invented concept of the “generic” he. In the language used in acts of Parliament, the new law said, “words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females.” – Excerpted from article by Carolyn Jacobson, English Department, University of Pennsylvania

The Mirriam-Webster Pocket Guide to English Usage takes a completely different stance from Strunk & White, understanding the difficulties of making English more gender-inclusive:

They, their, them. English lacks a common-gender third-person singular pronoun that can be used to refer to indefinite pronouns such as everyone, anyone, or someone. Writer and speaker have for centuries supplied this lack by using the plural pronouns <everyone should try it once in their life><anyone who know their grammar knows this>. This use is well established in speech and writing, even in literary and formal contexts. You have the option of using the plural or singular pronouns according to which one you think sounds best in a given context <someone on my left kept bumping me with his or her [their] elbow>.

The Oxford English Dictionary (which is, to be fair, not recently updated – last edition 1993), acknowledges the controversial usage of their in this manner. The OED states:

their 2. In relation to a singular n. or pron. of undetermined gender: his or her (Considered erron. by some.)

Because I tend to turn to Oxford as the final authority (yes, I know my Ivy League roots are showing), and because we’re in the U.S., you should know the 1999 edition of the Oxford American Dictionary provides this definition for their:

their 2. disp. As a third person singular indefinite meaning ‘his or her’ (has anyone lost their purse?)

Finally, while some “grammar purists” take issue with this reworking of “their” as a feminist attack on the English language, this usage is really nothing new. As proof, here are examples from two rather well known authors who appear to have no argument with this construction:

“I shouldn’t like to punish anyone, even if they’d done me wrong”
–George Eliot

“It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses”
–George Bernard Shaw

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Originally published in 2000, in a zine that was printed on paper.

Having Compassion for the Wealthy

I’m currently reading The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist. In it, I was struck by this:

My fund-raising work with the very wealthy taught me that, surprisingly, wealth is no protection from human suffering. …People with excess wealth – not all of them, but many – struggle in lives disconnected from the qualities of the soul. They live trapped in a prison of privilege in which material comforts are plentiful, but spiritual and emotional deprivation are real and painful. …For some, wealth only serves as a weapon that expands their capacity to do harm.

I felt challenged, noticing that there’s been a hard stop to where I extend compassion. I’m mulling this over and feel that I need to work on this, particularly in the context of some things that are currently happening with people in my life.

Movements Then and Now

Last night I gave a talk about my history in activism. I started with a description of coming out as bisexual back in 1985 and what it was like to try to organize a national network in 1990.

I was presenting at Stanford and I felt the need to point out to the young people in the room that this was all before the Web. I painted a picture of standing in room with people from all over the country and feeling the pressure to get a decision out of them before everyone boarded their planes that evening because once they were gone they were gone.

I talked about becoming a pointperson for the movement because I was the one left holding the literal key – the one that unlocked our P.O. Box where letters written by hand would start to pour in from around the country. I spent the next two years writing back (also by hand) to people coming out in rural towns, suburbs, and cities, to reassure them that yes, there were others out there.

It’s hard to remember sometimes what it was like before we all used the Internet. Back then, I had never met or even heard the story of a bisexual before I came out. The people I wrote to hadn’t seen any videos reassuring them it was going to get better. None of us had seen comments on articles written by people like us that let us know others were thinking about similar things.

Nearly all means of mass communication were still in the hands of large companies. Communication between individuals was largely invisible to the wider universe. I used the phone and mail to collect articles from around the country for a newsletter I assembled and then photocopied to mail out. Finding out who was talking about what and how to reach each other was a difficult and somewhat random process.

It was not a better world. It was not a worse world. It was just the world as it was and it’s a different world now.

I am thinking about this as I read what is happening in the Occupy movements. I get updates and see photos within minutes from people who are there and read commentary from around the world. I read the stories and send my support to other activists in all corners of the globe and their updates come to me in real time via Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.

We are just learning how to use these tools effectively. The power is clear and has already been realized in more than one situation. It’s exciting and wonderful to see how these tools are used to get information out and to coordinate actions online and off.

As Occupy encampments are getting cleared out around this country, I maintain hope that they have sparked a dialogue that is still gaining momentum. I hope that the energy becomes simply relocated, not stalled.

In the past it was hard to gain momentum because communication tools were slow. This time the momentum picked up swiftly and has been reacted to just as fast, but it’s not clear what’s happening next. Even the challenge of this question and the confusion of responses is happening quickly.

Past movements had only physical presence to convey a message. The current movements have that plus online tools that can weave us together and involve many more than those who are able and willing to put their bodies on the line.

This has been called a leaderless movement. I beg to differ. It strikes me as a movement that calls on each of us to bring out our own leadership and creativity to create a world that believes in the rights of individuals and the collective good. If everyone does a part, there will be no limit to what we can achieve.