Decoding Pronouns

During the past several years, new pronouns have emerged to resist the gender categories that English pronouns designate, limiting humans to the binary choices of male and female. While the emergence of new pronouns has ignited a heated debate about whether or not more than two genders really exist and whether the use of gender-neutral terms should be legislated, the LGBTQ community has challenged cisgender thinking with pronouns that reflect and respect gender fluidity. Initially, wordsmiths felt the need for an entirely new lexicon, so Ze and Zir emerged. Yet, these pronouns have not become as prevalent as They and Their for those who identify as gender non-binary. This may be due to the fact that the pronoun set They and Their, which has increased in usage since the 1970s, has been used as a singular, non-gender pronoun since the 14th century. In terms of choosing the appropriate pronoun, one point of confusion is that people tend to rely on visual codes when determining someone’s gender. But, because gender relates more to one’s social and cultural, rather than biological, differences, visual codes can mislead people, causing them to mislabel someone as binary, and this can signify deep disrespect and disregard for another human being’s identity. 

Even in terms of binary pronouns, decoding is useful for understanding the psychological differences between people who identify as cis female and those who identify as cis male. In a 2011 article with Scientific American, psychologist James Pennebaker notes, “Most people assume that men use I-words and cognitive words [because, reason, think, believe] more than women and that women use we-words, emotional, and social words [he, she, friend, cousin] more than men. [… ] However, women use I-words and cognitive words at far higher rates than men.” Pennebaker also explains that even though “we are all bombarded by words from women and men every day of our lives,” our brains are trained not to pay much attention to “junk words” like pronouns, so “most of us have never “heard” these sex differences in language.”

Perhaps our pronouns are not “junk words” after all.

Coded Codes of Conduct  

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The technology of writing was invented in ancient Sumer around 5 thousand years ago. The function of writing in ancient Mesopotamia was to preserve the truth, and the two most essential truths were the laws and the stories of the gods who generally instituted those laws and granted them to the citizens through the institution of kingship. The first human laws were written in cuneiform script in stone. Writing is, of course, a notational system that allows humans to translate their speech into a code that can be reproduced and, most importantly for ancient cultures, preserved. Most of the laws in the ancient world were preserved in stone until the Romans. With the proliferation of Roman law which netted a quantity of jurisprudence heretofore never seen, the practice of preserving laws on wooden blocks, a codex, was instituted.[1]The Latin word codexor caudexhas a deep etymology that goes back to Indo-European languages invariably related to various related words for types of wood or wood blocks.  The Romans eventually developed wooden tablets for writing, sometimes of multiple wood blocks bounded together. Later, codexbecame the term for books in general; thus, the Roman word codexbecame "codex," the term for a papyrus or vellum manuscript in the early Christian era, a term that remains in use for the cataloging of ancient manuscripts, as well as "code" as in code of conduct. 

It is interesting to note the primordial connection between code, in both its senses as the location of writing, the book, and as a code of conduct, and language. A code is literally a set of laws for reproducible communication, which is of course what language is. And a code is also a culturally and legalistically sanctioned way of living. In both of these senses, codes are connected to mastery and control. Codes administrate communication and conduct. And the transgression of a code is always a violation of the law(s) of codes: breaking a code is equivalent to breaking the law, whether it be a legal or moral transgression (lawbreaking, sinning) or breaking a code (hacking, cyberpiracy). 

Interestingly, codes of conduct in traditional religions are based on the correct reading of ancient texts preserved in codices and manuscripts. Whether you are indeed reading the text (code) correctly is crucial for religious codes of conduct. Of course, this raises the twin issues of translation and interpretation. The history of the development of Christian orthodoxy is replete with debates about the meaning of words. In Islam, according to tradition, the Quran cannot be translated only paraphrased. And these issues about codes are entrenched in that quasi-religious American text, the Constitution, where questions of correct readings are at the center of so many contemporary political and ideological battles. 

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The ultimate code is the genetic code, which is literally the biological code of life itself, on the one hand, and the code of human agency on the other: what we are biologically and what we do as human beings. The possibility of genetically edited babies is now a reality of science’s unquenchable thirst for mastery of everything. We are thus at the brink of the posthuman future where the imbrication of code as law and code as language will merge into Foucault's idea of biopolitics and biopower: the manipulation of the genetic code will be used to code codes of conduct. 

[1]The Lex Duodecim Tabularum, The Law of the Twelve Tables, was created 450 BC. as a consolidation of earlier traditions. Eventually, the codes were preserved in bronze of perhaps ivory tablets. It is likely that the previous, probably numerous codes were written on wood blocks

Codes from the Crypt

By now most humans have at least heard of (usually through an epically boring HR training video) of encryption, the most used method of securing data when it is transmitted through digital networks. Encryption is basically the coding of a message to make it unintelligible to those without the code. It’s a system for facilitating secret information or for secretizing messages. Encryption is basically the art of cryptography, which has a long and stealthy history. The first use of the term cryptograph was in perhaps one of the first detective stories, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold-Bug” (1843). But in fact, the art of cyphering or encoding secret messages, is as old as civilization. The first coded messages can be found in Mesopotamian tablets, and more mysteriously, in Egyptian tombs. The latter case is but the first of a long line of conflations between secret messages and messages from beyond, literally from beyond the crypt. The etymology is not coincidental. 

Perhaps as an instance of humans’ obsession with the ultimate unknown, the ultimate secret, death itself, encrypting and cryptography, codes, have always been deeply related to messages from beyond, literally. The word crypt comes from the Greek kruptw, “to hide, cover, cloak,” and seems likely to be related to kleptw, “to steal, flinch, purloin.” The notion of hiding is transposed to the Latin crypta, “vault, or covering,” which develops into the word in medieval Latin for tomb, mausoleum, sepulcher, hence, crypt. 

The code itself of a cryptogram was the cipher, which comes from the Arabic word for zero (from ṣafara, “to be empty”) and later the Latin cifra(“number or digit”). The code is, of course, the cryptographic algorithm which hides the secret. In medieval Europe, where there was no concept of zero, cipher came to mean simply concealment. When medieval Europeans could not understand someone’s speech, they would mutter “speak clearly and not as nonsensical as a cipher.” 

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In ancient Jewish texts, we also find many uses of the Hebrew words cypher (“book or storytelling”), and cipher (“counting”), with deep relations to the cryptic deciphering of the Kabbalah. These Hebrew terms are also related to the Greek zofoV(“darkness, west,” as in Zephyrus, “the west wind”). The west for many ancient cultures is synonymous with the land of the dead.

Humans of course always want it both ways. Obsessed with privacy and secrecy, in need of encryption and keychains so as to prevent unwanted eavesdropping on our precious data, modern secular humans are simultaneously obsessed with deciphering the secrets of the universe, the primordial search for the beyond, the great search for the sacred secret, now cloaked as the quest for scientific singularity, the code of everything. We will probably die looking.

Coded Threat or Free Speech?

In 2010, a poll worker refused Minnesota resident Andy Cilek the right to vote because he was wearing a t-shirt with the Tea Party Logo and a pin that read “Please I.D. Me.” At the time, Minnesota upheld the 1912 law that prohibited voters from wearing political clothing at the polls in an effort to eliminate the rowdy electioneering 19th-century voters endured. Cilek returned to the polls a third time with his lawyer and was ultimately allowed to vote, and The United States Supreme Court overturned the 1912 law in June 2018. While overturning the law was a win for freedom of speech, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer, dissented, suggested they give Minnesota the opportunity to outline the law’s parameters more clearly, as the 1992 court decision states that speech can be limited if it poses a threat to free voting. Sotomayor added that the "please I.D. me" pin could intimidate people by implying Minnesotans needed identification to vote.

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So why did the court rule 7-2 in favor of overturning the law? The law was too broad. Judge Alito argued that what is deemed political is in the eye of the beholder and too difficult to enforce. For example, in 2012, a Denver voter wearing an M.I.T. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) shirt was stopped by a poll worker who believed she was electioneering for Mitt Romney. There are many similar cases.   

So what does this mean for election day? It means everyone can exercise their freedom of speech and their freedom to vote, but perhaps everyone should follow the unwritten code of conduct or golden rule: Do unto others as you would want others to do unto you. 

In other words, don’t be a d-bag like the Shameless character Frank Gallagher, who uses a small army of white men in t-shirts that read “White Man” to intimidate Latinos and Blacks away from the polls. Who is the man Frank is campaigning for? A pedophile named “Mo White.” 

Frank campaigns for Mo White