To ‘Sir’ without love, and the new ChatGPT language

Earlier, the flashily progressive Vijayan government had mulled making boys and girls sit together in the classroom instead of segregating them.

Published: 18th January 2023 01:31 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th January 2023 01:31 AM   |  A+A-

Image used for representational purposes only. (File Photo | Express)

It’s only too clear that one of the collateral damages of the ongoing gender war is language and, so, thought. Kerala, among the first Indian states in life indices and literacy, is at the forefront of the gender plurality and correctness movement. Indeed, last year, at least one school in Kerala enforced, to great public acclaim, unisex uniform: girls can and must wear trousers, hitherto the sartorial legacy of the male pupil. This news was greeted with tears of joy by all.

If indeed this transition was a step in the right direction, why not break even more ground by making boys wear skirts? Surely, unisex fashion cuts both ways? Could it be because the idea of correctness, in general, aspires to masculine symbols? That the skirt can only evolve to trousers but not the other way around? The parity one seeks with the dominant gender can be interpreted to be a way of actually endorsing it.

Earlier, the flashily progressive Vijayan government had mulled making boys and girls sit together in the classroom instead of segregating them. This was a painless populist reform and could be enforced without investment. Except that minorities, especially Muslims, protested. This community is an ally of the Left Front in power in Kerala. The idea was dropped.

Last week, the Kerala Child Rights Commission proposed to the state government that ‘Sir’ be removed from classroom discourse. Their recommendation was to replace ‘Sir’ with ‘Teacher’, a gender-neutral noun. More about this a moment later.

We tend to watch with dread the trend of comedians being silenced. But how does one reconcile the fact of a whole sensorium being built in place by the politically correct in daily transactions? What’s humour/thought without offence?

One of the greatest stand-up comedians of all time, an international pioneer, in fact, is Kunjan Nambiar (early 18th century). He would spare no one in the thronging audience. The bodies before him were the material of his great rap. Nambiar would die of imposed silence and starvation if he were around in Kerala today.

Simple adjectives like tall, thin, fat, dark, and sexy have taken on dark tones of oppression, even abuse. There are nouns and verbs which, if used to qualify a man or woman, would invite widespread condemnation. There have been additions to the language as well. Here is an official list that adds to the new prescriptive way of life:

He/She -- Zie, Sie, Ey, Ve, Tey, E

Him/Her -- Zim, Sie, Em, Ver, Ter, Em

His/Her -- Zir, Hir, Eir, Vis, Tem, Eir

His/Hers -- Zis, Hirs, Eirs, Vers, Ters, Eirs

Himself/Herself -- Zieself, Hirself, Eirself, Verself, Terself, Emself.

In the West, always our model, there has been a backlash. Free-thinking ideologues are emerging with data-backed arguments to question the cold, dry ‘correctness’ of things.

A few months ago, the Oscar-nominated actor Ellen Page transitioned through surgery into Elliot Page. He is now at peace, he says. Perhaps what he means is that he is less at war—with himself and the world: We are so distraught these days that we mistake the day we are less suicidal to be happy ones.

Professor Jordan Peterson, a Canadian academic, clinical psychologist, and best-selling author trashed Page’s transition as self-mutilation. Professor Jordan believes there is no such thing as a transgender since biologically, no gender can be explained beyond XX (female) or XY (male).

To complicate matters, the professor is an evangelist of free speech as well. In 2016, when the Canadian government advocated legislation (Bill C-16) to make it compulsory for all to use gender-neutral pronouns, Professor Peterson was one of the very few voices to protest against the measure, saying the Bill amounted to the inhibition of free speech. In the last fortnight, Professor Peterson has been under stricture from the Ontario College of Psychologists to undergo training in social media communication, failing which he risks cancelling his license of practice.

Elliot Page and Peterson show how complicated the evolving world of genders is and how intertwined it is with the human gift of thought. How does one speak or think anything worthwhile without giving offence—not abuse—to someone somewhere? In a Stalinist future of correctness, when society as a whole willingly submits to the mass surveillance of body and language, our thoughts can be so self-censored as not to be born at all. The arts will change. Because the way we look at them would have changed.

In Kerala, there have been suicides by transgenders after transition, the surgical process of which is supported and subsidised by the government. But if you look around, the counselling centres everywhere seem to actively encourage transition rather than pointing out the dangers of violent alterations of the body. There is no survey or study on the dysfunctions and dysphoria post such irretrievable operations.

Back to the Kerala classrooms. ‘Sir’ is a form of polite address, as is Madam. A Teacher is a function. As is a Welder. Or an Electrician. Or a Scavenger. To address someone as Sir or Madam represents a feeling—of respect—as a human being. To call someone by his or her profession is a robotic/ChatGPT thing to do. If the idea is to empower children against existing social biases, the least the Children’s Rights Commission or other state apparatuses could do is conduct debates among students so they think before they talk the new language. In our anxiety to appear progressive, the fundamentals—such as civil debates and discussions—are exactly the things lost in the transition.

C P Surendran

Poet, novelist, and screenplay writer. His latest novel is One Love and the Many Lives of Osip B



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