Jun 282017
 

Should include sub-checkbox “Have You Been Harmed By This? Yes/No”

A friend recently came across a tick-box in a scholarship application asking if he was gender nonconforming.

An interesting question for him. Because in many ways he is gender-conforming, and in many ways he isn’t. I won’t get into the details, but it was definitely up in the air, which is why he asked for help as to whether he should tick the box or not. It was pointed out that he is literally gender nonconforming, in the sense that he does what he likes and doesn’t conform to gender expectations. It was also pointed out that the doesn’t actively identify as “A Gender Nonconforming Person”, which is what the question really wanted to know.

Except the question wasn’t really even asking that. The hidden question, what the scholarship reviewers really want to know, is “Do you suffer the societal penalties that nonbinary people do, and should we help offset that with this money?”

The question “Do you suffer the societal penalties that nonbinary people do” is subjective. I wish these sorts of surveys would just ASK THAT QUESTION. Because whether you suffer social penalties depends hugely on your society. There are places where being extremely non-conforming doesn’t get you any penalties at all, and there’s other places where simply not being manly enough will get you massive penalties. Yeah, you gotta trust the person to answer honestly, but at least then we’re all clear on what the purpose of the question is. This way we’re just asking people to be honest, as opposed to asking them to guess at the hidden intentions of the question.

I hate the way these questions are currently phrased, as they discriminate against people who only use words as descriptors. A friend said: “I think the correct thing would have been to check the box so as not to participate in the disprivileging of people like yourself who want to use words to refer to underlying features of reality.”

I mean, we literally had to form a committee to figure out what the question was asking and how to answer it. I don’t feel like this is one of those situations where plausible deniability of misunderstanding needs to be preserved for face-saving. The True Question should be made explicit.

I am white, well-assimilated, and raised in the US. I was born in Poland, and my parents escaped when I was an infant, with a suitcase of clothing and aprox 2 months wages in currency. When I am asked on these sorts of forms if I am an immigrant, I check yes. But you wouldn’t know it from looking at me. Now I have to wonder “Do they literally mean Are You An Immigrant? Or do they mean Have You Been Harmed By Not Being A Native Citizen?”

And how do I even answer? I don’t think it’s harmed me in my adult life. I had a funny accent as a kid, and got picked on for that. I had no extended family as a support network. My parents struggled with English as their second language — did these things deprive me of opportunities I would have otherwise had? Why am I second-guessing a question with a factual, easily-verifiable Yes/No answer?

Likewise, I am part of one of the most hated religious minorities in America. Up until 2016 I was the most-hated religious minority in my country. It’s only in the last year that Muslims have surpassed Atheists in unpopularity.  And the advantages of belonging to a religion are well known, and I’m deprived of those. Yet I live in a liberal metropolitan area where people normally don’t talk about their religion, and try very hard not to discriminate. I don’t think that’s ever been used against me when renting or seeking a job. I suspect there are people out there who would object to my identifying as a religious minority.

From now on I’ll try to get clarification when answering these sorts of questions. But when that’s not possible, I will generally default to “answer the question factually.” I hate being forced to answer a question with a falsehood because someone can’t be bothered to actually ask what they want to know.

(In the end, the friend did not tick the “gender nonconforming” box)

  3 Responses to “Failure To Ask The Right Question”

  1. I am not certain that your interpretation of the real question is the only possible one even if I would concur it is the most likely. Just wanting to keep stats and information on the people who get scholarships has to be at least a possibility unless I am misreading the situation somehow.

  2. I’m currently listening to the Rationally Speaking backlog, and in episode 19 with Brendan Nyhan, they talk a bit about how to ask questions in surveys. They basically arrive at “it’s hard”.

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