Thinking to be polite, I just addressed a lady by the title “sir”. In the split-second in which my brain realised I would have to ask her to keep a watchful eye over my stuff it deduced that a “sporty outfit” and a bald head had a high probability of fitting the male profile.
Well… I was wrong . Technically, I was correct but any trained classifier is bound to make some misclassifications from time to time. This misclassification is perfectly palatable when we’re just working the math but becomes painful when materialized into a social encounter.
She could have been a cancer patient. I meant absolutely no harm, in fact, the usage of a title was simply done out of respect. You could say that my efforts to be “nice” inflicted some harm after all. Understandably she was visibly annoyed by this and despite the fact that I apologised, I probably contributed to one of the multiple dreaded episodes of her day.
This encounter served as a reminder that the problems we are analysing or modelling have a real impact on human lives. It’s comfortable to hide behind data and models and keep the entire ordeal an intellectual exercise, but it isn’t limited to simply a puzzle. Economic models impact families, those classifiers that identify health risks will impact lives and our deduction will too. Somewhere a doctor will eventually deliver good or bad news to someone after analysing the suggestions we generated through our classifiers or other types of machine learning models. Always remember that, self.
I know our mind generalizes and intuitively deduces things to offload some work from our active though processes. By not overanalyzing every detail, we reserve some cognitive capacity for other things which eventually allow us to do the cool things us humans do, but everything has a flip side.
Most of us are probably raised to address people by titles. Not just “no” but “no, sir”. Not just “yes” but “yes, ma’am”. How do you avoid gender titles without sounding too casual or perhaps disrespectful? At some point you are bound to offend someone it seems. Offending the prick who feels entitled to be addressed by title or offending the person who is already fighting enough bullshit to have to deal with another one of our archaic social constructs?
It’s not just about mentally modelling the world in a manner that is more accepting towards those crossing or jittering about the gender chasms, but also about not being the proverbial dick to address cancer-fighting ladies by a title society has reserved for men.
Then again you could ask… why should the recipient of the title usage be sensitive about the title they are addressed by?!? There are many sides to this.
I for one, remember being offended when I was constantly addressed as a lady before my voice broke simply because I wanted to be associated to masculinity and the title was a big part of it. I was a little nerdy and very insecure little boy. Insecurity not being a rare trait for anyone in the sensitive pre-teen and teen years. I wanted so many things as a child. Wanted to be older, wanted to be bigger, wanted to be independent, wanted no-one to tell me which vegetables to eat, wanted to be able to go to the supermarket and buy whatever the fuck I wanted… now things are slightly different. Got all of those things, lost some of the carefreeness. Pros and cons, right?!?
Mind you, I’m not saying the social construct is out of place. It is there for a reason, I suppose, however; in light of our recent understanding of the complexity and non-dichotomous nature of “gender” that it is probably wise to consider modifying our language to reflect our new understanding.
Perhaps this modification of language isn’t an active process, but more of an organic change that we’ll have to evolve through over the course of the next years, decades or perhaps centuries.
Meanwhile, I’ll be more careful about title attribution. Perhaps I’ll just talk less
If we could just apply regular expressions in natural language…
Excuse me, .*
Social constructs are so complicated, back to machines…