Saturday, January 22, 2011

Grammar Nazis Don't Like Women

Everyone who has read more than the odd science textbook is certain to have his very own poor grammar detection system. It’s like Spider-Sense in many ways, except that it’s far more intrusive and irritating, and of dubious usefulness too. It creeps into your psyche to the point where you want to run off with your swords and ,er, pens (they’re mightier, remember?) and impale the offenders under Shakespeare’s statue. If that’s too fanciful for your average grammar Nazi, it’ll at least corrupt your deliberately ignored prejudice circuits so that one misplaced semi-colon’ll transform your mental image of the author completely – from that of a suave, cool, smart, distinguished middle aged gentleman to that of a blithering village idiot.

But I’m not a grammar Nazi. What’s in your mind is just in your mind, and I don’t follow up on my instincts and go and troll a poorly written article’s comment pages. I’m also aware that if I slip up and do that, just once, I’ll be chopped into pieces by the nearest formatting Nazi around and fed to possessed typesetters. It’s only recently that I’ve learnt to resist the temptation to blast my readers with giant Walls of Text, and break my posts into palatably small paragraphs.

Having adequately asserted my middle-path grammar Nazism, I’ll return to the discussion on Bad-Grammar-Sensetm. Like all sneaky little bullies, it has its own authority figures whom it holds in utter reverence, and it doesn’t take rejection from them very well. If it spots a grammatical blooper in an article by someone it holds to be inferior, it whoops in joy and gloats in the satisfaction of making the world a slightly more readable, and ergo a better a place. But what if someone it believes to be the epitome of good writing hits it with what appears to be poor grammar? And to aggravate things, what if everyone around starts to do the same thing? The poor little thing finally discovers some self-consciousness and goes off to cry in a corner.

The first twinge came, inevitably, through a Facebook application. Facebook applications cannot pick up the genders of the people using them, because default privacy settings don’t let them. So how does an app called What does your crush think about you? say Sonya thinks she’s in love with you? when it neither knows your sex nor your orientation? It improvises and says instead, Sonya thinks they’re in love with you.
If that didn’t overload your bad grammar detection system with sheer cringeworthiness, you are lucky. Apparently so many grammarians have railed against this phenomenon, that there’s even a Wikipedia article on it. The Facebook app event was only a twinge, however, because Facebook apps aren’t particularly well known for being grammatically sound. It was when I started thinking through all occurrences of the singular they that I (or the part of me that the grammar Nazi had annexed) discovered something. It was everywhere.

Think about sentences that use everyone for instance. I think there are at least four in this blog post itself –so there’s no question of it being too arcane a term for discussion. Everyone is a term used when generalizing about a group of people, but as applied to a hypothetical single person, like the variable x in predicate logic. It’s a placeholder for a reference to a person independent of race, nationality, religion or sex, but today it simply cannot be used at all without contradictions. It’s no fault of the word itself – it’s sufficiently generic – the blame lies entirely with English’s inadequate set of pronouns.

You can either say his or you can say her but how do you stay faithful to your gender agnosticism? You can’t. Back in the good old days when women were chained to kitchen platforms in case they decided to trot off to work, you could get away with saying

Everyone likes to think he is happy.

with the he as an acceptable placeholder for a person of any gender. Not any more, in the world of aggressive gender equality that is today. He has got back its lost aura of masculinity and the modern mind refuses to accept it as ever referring to a woman without condescension. What’s the alternative then?

Everyone likes to think he or she is happy.

Fortunately, people quickly realized how supremely awkward this form sounded and dropped it soon enough. Some went back to the old system of using male descriptors exclusively, with lengthy disclaimers calling it purely a formatting convenience, no discrimination intended. Others found an alternative.

Everyone likes to think they are happy.

This form was acceptable in every way – the only group of people who it offended were the grammar Nazis, and that was a bonus. It slowly pervaded mass literature and through sheer pressure of ubiquity seeped into elite publications too. It unavoidably impinged on the consciousness of grammar scholars, and they reacted in one of two ways. Some of them predictably ranted and raved against the dilution of a noble language, and called for the heads of all practitioners of this sacrilegious form. A few however took it surprisingly well – they understood the limitations of the language – and even went on to become crusaders for its mainstream acceptance. Slowly, the ‘singular they’ spread through the English writing world until newer generations of grammar Nazis started to add involuntary exceptions in their own firewalls. Until Facebook, of course, when it all came crashing down.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

My Pretty Little Problem

After I published this, Binit pointed out that the chart represented the pinnacle of self-consciousness. You’re so self-conscious that you can’t think without second guessing your intentions. I pondered over this for a little while before I found myself saying aye – the great man was right as usual. A couple of months before the thoughtomaton chart, I had written this, and it suddenly became apparent to me as I recalled that piece that self-consciousness was just another manifestation of approval addiction. No, they aren’t interchangeable terms, because a desire for approval has a much wider range of symptoms – for instance, approval junkies often display an associated desire for other people to conform, be approval junkies themselves. (Of course, give such people guns and/or the sanction of religion and you've got yourself a mighty good explanation for today's problems.)

A little bit more analysis, and I found myself recanting my earlier assertion partially, because self-consciousness is not driven solely by approval addiction. A hazy term called perfectionism drifted uninvited into my mind, from a school memory of a teacher’s testimonial. (Abhinav’s a perfectionist.) Seeking perfection can make you self-conscious too, and as perfectionism exists only in your mind, it’s probably a healthier driver for self-consciousness. But is perfectionism itself driven by approval addiction? (Endless cobwebs face me how many ever I hack and slash, or is it that there’s only one and I’m turning on the spot?) Possibly, for a desire for approval, rooted in the basest of humanity’s psychic mechanisms shows its hand everywhere. But, not necessarily. I believe, or at any rate I would like to believe, that an isolated desire for perfection – a knowledge that there exists better and I can achieve it - is possible and is a satisfactory answer for the question of existence.

Self-consciousness, whether driven by approval addiction or by perfectionism, is not always bad. Isn’t it a societal definition of propriety that stops a majority of us from baring our midriff and gyrating maniacally every time we hear ‘Sheila Ki Jawani’? (Sidenote: That example strongly begs the question as to why it’s wrong in the first place. A very valid question for which I refuse to accept that there’s an axiomatic ethical explanation, but please accept for the moment that it’s merely a metaphor for self-consciousness/personal propriety being a necessary cornerstone for civilization itself.) Writing – as I’ve said in the approval junkie post - needs a fairly strong dose of self-consciousness. Not so much that you don’t publish your post after composing a 5000 worder, or worse, not so much that you don’t write at all, but enough to not post mindless drivel twenty times a day. (Sidenote: I’ve noticed a surprising vein of opinion that holds that publishing ill-formed, grammatically egregious, poorly spelt life lessons is somehow less cold and more familiar, and consequently more appealing, than a similarly informative but well written piece. Needless to say, I disagree.)

Philosophy is probably the only discipline founded in science where being self-conscious is not totally unacceptable, as I disparage gently in the thoughtomaton chart. Philosophy is big enough and broad enough to accept lines of inquiry originating from intellectual insecurity. Everywhere else, rightly, it’s just a waste of time and ability.

When you move away from intellectual self-consciousness and into the domain of the purely physical, it’s even harder to find any uses for self-consciousness. Take the example of guitaring for example. Muscle memory and self-consciousness simply do not mix. In fact they loathe each other so much that the moment you find yourself becoming even slightly aware of the beauty of your fingers’ dance, they shut up shop and go back to being the tree branch claspers they were always meant to be. Bye, bye, laboriously learnt riff.

It occurred to me as I mused over ways to rid myself of this debilitating affliction, that self-consciousness belongs to that unique class of problems that go away if you simply refuse to acknowledge their existence. Politicians have, since time immemorial, tried to pigeonhole their problems into this category, and that is probably why we’ve to work hard to convince ourselves that any such even exist. Think about it though: the more time you spend ruminating over self-consciousness, the more time you’re spending aggravating the problem. Yes, you’re two levels removed from the ordinary definition of self-consciousness, but self-consciousness it undeniably is. And so I’ve got myself a pretty little problem I can never solve, as I can never unacknowledge the fact that it's there.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Messiah Complex

Is there any better way to start off one’s day than by playing saviour to a horde of people in desperate need? Every day I see these pockets of terrified office goers cowering in corners, seeking others of their ilk, like – excuse my arbitrary metaphors – a handful of BITSians facing a Viking army. All the while, their eyes rove restlessly, trying to pick out their Messiah in the corporate uniformity that surrounds them; The One who will put an end to their helpless suffering. That’s where I step in.

I take one look at my watch and contort my face into mock shock at the lateness of the hour. Immediately, and in response, I step forward into the mire, heedless of the untold dangers that beset my path. The roving eyes settle on me hopefully, and the feet attached to the roving eyes take cautious steps behind me. I suddenly stop, as if struck by a soundless bolt of lightning, and the tentative followers are no longer tentative: they scamper back to safer ground, corporate propriety be damned. The Messiah (me) laughs inwardly, for what good is a Hero without a sense of humour? Everyone needs job satisfaction after all.

I plunge back into the ravenous beast’s gullet, steely determination knitting my brow, and this time there’s no going back. The sheeple trail a couple of steps behind, hesitant again, but this time with their fear mixed with doubt, because they aren’t sure if I’m helping or merely – excuse my arbitrary puns - pulling their leg.

Fearlessly I dodge the minions of Death Himself, manifested as variously coloured, sleekly geometric monsters as they hurtle harmlessly past. In the process, I seem to grow and transform into an impenetrable bulwark against harm for my puny followers. I raise one apparently innocuous hand in the direction of one monster that has made the grave mistake of falling into a collision course with my unstoppable march. This one is dirty, and huge. It’s several times larger than me in fact. But I’m the Messiah, and there’s no force in this hellish microcosm that can impede me. The minion almost trips over itself trying to stop in time to let me, and my band, pass.

There is an opposite bank to this river of fiends, and it’s in sight now. Ungratefulness is but a tiny little subset of opportunism, and all sheeple are bestowed with ample amounts of the latter. They skip ahead of the Saviour – the disrespectful wretches – but equanimity is a job hazard, and my face smoothes itself into an almost eerie serenity. It’s just a day’s work after all, helping people cross the perpetually traffic choked road to the EGL office.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

New Year Resolution

If I am to be totally honest with you, I’ll have to admit a couple of things. One, that this is not a post about a cheery forget-me-in-a-week list of resolutions and two, that I had completely forgotten about our favourite New Year’s Day tradition until a couple of days afterwards. In fact, while the rest of the world was busy salivating over the birth of another diseased year, the overwhelming love and joy in the air manifesting itself in clamorous commercialism, I was busy catching up on spare sleep. The story, as I regaled anyone who cared to listen the day I got back to work, was that, having faithfully stayed awake till 11:45 in the night, I was struck by a passing gust of soporific wind and swept into instantaneous sleep. Irony must flow in my veins, because I woke up half an hour after midnight.

It was only when I dragged myself to work on a lazy Monday morning, and stared bleary-eyed at an article on Y!’s internal communication website that I had partially helped draft, that the thought sowed itself back into my head. My grogginess was quickly dispelled after a couple of lines of ‘What Campus Hires of 2010 want to do (or don’t) in 2011’ – mortification has a way of doing that. I picked out my name in one of the middle paragraphs, and, sinking into the stupor you sink into when you recall doing something but can’t recall why, read my comment about hoping that 2011 has something better in store in matters of electronics and the heart.

The article by itself might not have had any effects beyond a mental retch or two, but a little while later I found myself reading Sharkey’s nice piece on change, and the combination of the two pushed my unwilling brain into the pleasantly optimistic, vaguely naive state that precedes resolution-making. It didn’t end there, however. That happy state of mind was smoothly absorbed by the background flux of solitude-induced depression that I always seem to carry some amount of, but which had peaked then after the Christmas break, and the result was a polluted, bastard child of the resolution-making process.

Many times I get the strongest conviction that I don’t really know anyone, and can’t be bothered to. This isn’t some egotistical/narcissistic mechanism where one won’t think of others, because that’ll mean taking one’s mind off oneself. It’s simply an indifference towards the need to make human connections. When this chain of thought first formed itself in my mind, I immediately felt the need to explain myself to the doubting half of my head. Of course I knew what my best friends were doing, of course I knew how they were doing and of course I knew what was happening in their day to day life.

A moment’s reflection cut through that delusion. I only had a vague idea of what my closest friends were doing, and I really had no idea what some of my acquaintances were doing at all. The painful part was that I was – at some subliminal level – aware of my indifference, and had made efforts in the past to remedy it by asking. I had heard, and I had forgotten. Instead, I find that my mind is perennially occupied with the irrelevant musings that populate this blog - some semi/pseudo scientific claptrap, and some pretentious philosophizing that would make Bertrand Russell turn in his grave, and some impersonal, meaningless mental juggling that doesn’t really impact anyone or anything. I understood my own state of moroseness enough to see that this argument, behind sheer laziness, is the biggest reason why people love dramas over science documentaries, for instance. For most people, the effort required to sustain relationships is more satisfying than some intellectual shadow sparring.

At that point, I made a resolution of sorts. I will make an effort first, and if I still find that connecting with people is too painful, I can go back to being the indifferent brain-in-a-vat anytime. This blog will see more personal chronicles (there’s an Oasis chronicle which has been on the backburner for a couple of months, after 2000 frenzied words which haven’t got me beyond the Delhi airport yet), and I won’t hate instant messaging like a warty plague.

It occurred to me, a couple of days after my temporary bout of self-loathing passed, that my five hundred word resolution could be distilled down to one crisp sentence. I will log into google talk more often.