These past couple of days I’ve been following a news story in a different way: I’ve been following the Chelsea Manning story via Wikipedia’s talk page, watching each and every little change being debated, and I have to say that the whole thing has been highly entertaining, not to mention that it has been a fascinating and enlightening experience. What is an encyclopedia to do when the subject of a fairly major entry suddenly switches pronouns?
Let me be clear about it, I respect her decision, and I also think that her expressed preferences should be taken into account and given a considerable amount of weight, but at the same time there is no getting around the fact that rewriting her biography to reflect the fact that she is a she is problematic to say the least. That the name should be changed seems to me like a matter of respect (especially because the use of redirects ensures that anyone looking for the information will find it regardless of what the article is called), and the fact that the introductory text should be adapted to reflect such a major change is undeniable, but by trying to modify the entry as a whole we create a situation in which all of a sudden all those little illustrative anecdotes, descriptions and quotations no longer seem to fit. Do you edit what others have said in the past to reflect the new reality, or do you respect those quotes, even if the end result is that you wind up with a text that, truth be told, at times doesn’t seem to make much sense?
I have to admit that more than once the debate reminded me of 1984’s newspeak, but of course I think part of the problem is that this whole incident has shone a spotlight on some of the problems inherent to the way in which the world has been transformed when it comes to LGBT issues, on the fact that we are still trying to work the kinks out of the system… and on how far we still have to go before common usage catches up with those changes and we wind up with something remotely resembling a standard that can truly be described as neutral. As things currently stand it seems to be impossible to even address the issue without making some sort of statement… whether we want to or not. At the risk of being accused of mixing my dystopias, it’s a brave new world out there, one that seems to have come without a user’s manual. In fact, even as I write this I find myself struggling to avoid a word that keeps coming to my mind, a word that is necessary to make sense of this whole mess, and that word is ‘he’.
No, I am not trying to make light of the situation, and I understand why that little pronoun suddenly becomes so problematic, but at the same time there is such a thing as taking things too far, and equating a pronoun with a slur (a position that some of the most extreme voices in the transgender community almost seem to advocate) makes no sense, at least not in this particular instance. Wikipedia is supposed to be an encyclopedia. As such it should be factual, and there is this whole thing about how we can’t change the past… which is precisely what that entry seems to be trying to do at times by rewriting things as if to make it look like hers has always been a woman’s bio.
If you ask me, the solution is simple (not perfect, but simple): we should do exactly what Chelsea asks us to do in her letter:
I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun.
If we take that request literally, and then use it as our starting point, we come to a situation in which there is no need to rewrite the past as such, and while her entry will probably wind up being modified substantially to incorporate the latest developments (as well it should), this approach doesn’t require us to do it at the expense of accuracy, readability and reliability.
UPDATE: and the title of that entry is back to Bradley Manning, not that that has made things any more coherent as far as the content of the article goes. Honestly, with redirects being what they are the name is not going to make much of a difference when it comes to users looking for that particular bit of info, but it seems like there are two camps that are determined to have an all or nothing outcome. Personally I would favor renaming the entry to something like Bradley/Chelsea E. Manning, and being done with it, but I do realize that that may contradict some of wikipedia’s policies.