May 08, 2004

Never mind the sex, feel the rhetoric

What struck me about Rivka's writing on Respectful of Otters was not that it was like a man (I had no idea, and was conscious that I should make no hasty assumption, so in mentioning Rivka here I simply avoided using anaphoric pronouns altogether), but rather that it uses measured but sometimes extraordinarily effective rhetoric. For example, Roger Krueger of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 172 in Cumberland recently commented that the Abu Ghurayb horror "is being completely blown out of proportion" because "When a person is in combat, they have to do whatever they have to do to stay alive." Rivka's response to this ludicrous and disgusting piece of nonsense was the following acid sarcastic remark:

And sometimes, apparently, when a person is not even remotely close to combat, in order to stay alive they have to take unarmed, helpless, locked-up men, strip them naked at gunpoint, pose them as if they're having oral sex with each other, and take pictures. Who are we to judge, who have not seen the hell that is war?

I think that's one of the neatest 59 words of polemical prose I've ever seen. Aggressive, yes; but that last rhetorical question is wonderful. This is the voice of a highly skilled writer. So, is it also a male voice?

To find out, I turned to a machine. I went to the Gender Genie and simply entered the above passage. The female score was 0; the male score, 127. The Gender Genie's algorithm looks only at function words and pays no attention to the alleged facts about content (that "male style is characterized by adversiality — put-downs, strong, often contentious assertions, lengthy and/or frequent postings, self-promotion, and sarcasm" and female style by "supportiveness and attenuation" along with "expressions of appreciation, thanking, and community-building; as well as apologizing, expressing doubt, asking questions, and contributing ideas in the form of suggestions"). And according to the Gender Genie, Rivka is male. It works best with texts of over 500 words, so I gave it over 500 words of Rivka's fine writing, and again it said male.

But then according to the Gender Genie I'm female, and I have tried not to be concerned about that.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 8, 2004 09:17 PM