On Writing, ChatGPT, Harry Potter, and Evil Equity Language

What a week. One of the low points was the discovery that Clarkesworld magazine has temporarily halted short story submissions due to an overwhelming influx of fake content generated by AI tools. Clarkesworld is one of the venues where I was planning to submit a work of mine, so needless to say, I’m ticked at ChatGPT right now, and my interest in its emergence as a new technology has been sullied.

What I’m doing at work: I finished a description of a really cool new software product our company is building. I submitted it for review, and one of the product managers laughed when I claimed it is full of “gorgeous, user-friendly prose”. Now that that’s done, I’m onto the next 20 tickets in my queue.

What I’m writing in my spare time: As part of my research for an essay about sexuality and the early church, I reached out to my friend Byron Borger, a Christian bookstore owner I know from my college days (whose bookstore is wonderful, go check it out). I asked if he knew of any books or essays which address a lingering theological question I have, and I was surprised when he replied that he doesn’t and that he is almost as confused as I am on the matter. Still, he shared some good titles which address the topic more generally; and, later on, sent me a very helpful essay. Now I just need to digest it all and tie together the final strands of my thinking.

I have another essay in the works about the importance of good design in technical documentation. I also managed to write a very short story, in the style of Frog and Toad, about two children who find themselves in a magical section of the local library. I was inspired to do it when my kids and I wondered one evening what it would be like to encounter talking books. It was hastily written but I think there’s a germ of something there.

What I’m reading: I’m still on Paradiso by Dante Alighieri, hovering right at Cantos 10 and 11. Sadly the only time I get to read it is when I’m exhausted at night. Yet it is easily the most beautiful piece of writing on my nightstand.

My kids and I are also reading an illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. This will be my third time through the book, and it’s even more magical doing so with little children who are experiencing the fantastic world of wizardry for the first time.

A page from the illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Source: onceuponapicture.co.cuk

Favorite articles and quotes: I was delighted to come across a host of thoughtful, absorbing essays this week, almost all of which are relevant to my professional and/or parental interests.

In Defense of JK Rowling‘: Speaking of Harry Potter, there’s an excellent op-ed in NYT about Rowling’s views on transgender matters, and the horrifying abuse (including threats of sexual violence and death) that has been thrown at her: “You might disagree — perhaps strongly — with Rowling’s views and actions here. You may believe that the prevalence of violence against transgender people means that airing any views contrary to those of vocal trans activists will aggravate animus toward a vulnerable population. But nothing Rowling has said qualifies as transphobic. She is not disputing the existence of gender dysphoria. She has never voiced opposition to allowing people to transition under evidence-based therapeutic and medical care. She is not denying transgender people equal pay or housing. There is no evidence that she is putting trans people ‘in danger,’ as has been claimed, nor is she denying their right to exist.”

Can engineered writing be great?‘: “Good writing isn’t just the selection and ordering of words, the output; good writing is the product of good reading. Writers aren’t indiscriminate generalists, but tend to be rather choosy and personal about what they read. As humans they also have a fairly limited reading capacity, which means that their styles are highly influenced by idiosyncratic reading histories, by their whim. Good readers can often discern which writers a writer has read, as little stylistic quirks pop up here and there — a recognizable artisanal blend, mixed with some individually developed ingredients. It is hard to see how great writing can come from a model that is a generalist, or from a prompt asking for “a story in the style of” just one writer, or even from an LLM (large language model) trained on a discerning, highbrow corpus, although each of those might have interesting, skillful outputs.”

Nationalism and the Decline of English‘: “Is the decline of interest in literature in modern languages really just the result of the ubiquity of the iPhone and the 25% decrease in government funding? Or could it have something to do with the near total abandonment of regional and national cultures among the international elite in favor of a border-free, interconnected one-world state that attempts to obliterate all distinctions between peoples and places to which literature has always been naturally connected?”

The Moral Case Against Equity Language‘: Probably the most poignant essay I read this week is this eloquent (and much-need) articulation of the severe injustice of so-called equity language. An extended quote is warranted:

The universal mission of equity language is a quest for salvation, not political reform or personal courtesy—a Protestant quest and, despite the guides’ aversion to any reference to U.S. citizenship, an American one, for we do nothing by half measures. The guides follow the grammar of Puritan preaching to the last clause. Once you have embarked on this expedition, you can’t stop at Oriental or thug, because that would leave far too much evil at large. So you take off in hot pursuit of gentrification and legal resident, food stamps and gun control, until the last sin is hunted down and made right—which can never happen in a fallen world.

This huge expense of energy to purify language reveals a weakened belief in more material forms of progress. If we don’t know how to end racism, we can at least call it structural. The guides want to make the ugliness of our society disappear by linguistic fiat. Even by their own lights, they do more ill than good—not because of their absurd bans on ordinary words like congresswoman and expat, or the self-torture they require of conscientious users, but because they make it impossible to face squarely the wrongs they want to right, which is the starting point for any change. Prison does not become a less brutal place by calling someone locked up in one a person experiencing the criminal-justice system. Obesity isn’t any healthier for people with high weight. It’s hard to know who is likely to be harmed by a phrase like native New Yorker or under fire; I doubt that even the writers of the guides are truly offended. But the people in Behind the Beautiful Forevers know they’re poor; they can’t afford to wrap themselves in soft sheets of euphemism. Equity language doesn’t fool anyone who lives with real afflictions. It’s meant to spare only the feelings of those who use it. (emphasis mine)

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