Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Gender Neutrality and Language

I'm politically liberal. I'd probably even go so far as to classify myself as very liberal--I'm a registered member of the Green Party, I give money to the ACLU, and support a whole slew of liberal social causes (e.g. gay marriage, drug policy reform, gun regulation, etc.). I do, however, consider my identity as a philosopher to supersede my identity as a liberal, so I'm careful to critically examine even the issues I support, and never blindly endorse a position just because it's the "liberal" thing to do; this often results in shock and/or outrage from friends and acquaintances when I refuse to support traditionally liberal causes that make no logical sense--affirmative action and militant feminism being two that come to mind. It's the latter that I want to talk about today.

A good friend of mine linked me (indirectly) to a story on Feministing (a feminist blog, in case you can't tell) criticizing another article published by a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. AEI is a very well known conservative think-tank specializing in policy papers decrying all sorts of progressive ideas; I'm loath to agree with an AEI fellow on anything, but this guy is correct, at least in part.

His position, basically, is that the huge feminist campaign to remove 'he' and 'him' as gender-neutral pronouns is, not to put too fine a point on it, idiotic. His reasoning is that it breaks down the elegance of the English language, making it difficult to teach students to write without sounding hopelessly awkward, which including 'one' or 'he/she' in a sentence almost invariably does. See--even that sentence was awkward. Most of his argument revolves around the historical roots of the language and, in typical conservative fashion, his desire that things stay Just The Way They Are; I don't agree with that part, but I think his point is valid nontheless. Here's why.

The crux of the feminist argument is that words like 'mankind' (which apparently conveys the idea that male is the "default" human) and 'woman' (which apparently conveys the idea that women are just afterthoughts to men) perpetuate "The Patriarchy" (which presumably is some kind of ruling cabal of giant penises ruling the world from a smoke filled bunker somewhere) by...well, somehow. They're not too clear on that, but they are clear on the fact that The Patriarchy is a very bad thing, and that it's responsible for most (if not all) of the trouble in the world. This irritates me for much the same reason that Communism irritates me--it blames incredibly complex social problems on a single issue, which is disturbingly myopic--but that's a post for another day.

Several comments on the original Femisting post point to the fact that 'werman' and 'wifman' were the original words for 'woman' and 'man,' and that the suffix -man simply meant 'human.' Eventually, as the language evolved, the prefix was dropped from one and changed on the other; nothing more insidious than that, and only a paranoid mind could think that there was some kind of male conspiracy behind it. As I said, though, I find these historical arguments more or less irrelevant, as language certainly is alive and constantly evolving; it's a symbolic means of expression, and the symbols have meanings only because we, as speakers of the language, think they do. There's nothing inherent to 'man' that means 'male,' and we can only legitimately say that it means (and only means) 'male' if most of the English speakers think it does.

Suppose I say 'The citizen approached the monarch with a deep bow.' You understand just what I mean--that is, that the supplicant bent over a the waist when approaching the monarch. There's no confusion about whether I was talking about the bending action (a bow), the weapon used to fire an arrow (a bow), or the front of a sailing ship (a bow). Why is this? Clearly, it's because English is a context-dependent language; the meaning of words is determined (in part) by the other words around them. That's why we can have so many referents represented by the symbol 'bow' without being confused; when you add in spoken English, things can get even more complicated (as in the bough of a tree). We call these sorts of words (the first set anyway) homonyms--words that are spelled (and often pronounced) the same, but have different meanings in different contexts--and I'd like to submit that words like 'man,' 'his,' and 'he' function similarly in our language.

I can say 'men have beards' and you will understand that I am using 'men' in such a way as to refer specifically to males--you get it based on context. However, I can also say 'all men are created equal,' and you similarly understand that I'm using 'men' in such a way that I mean 'all people.' The two words function differently in different contexts in just the same way that 'bow' functions differently when I say 'Bow before me, mortals!' and 'Hand me my bow so that I might shoot the apple from his head.' Homonyms. The idea that there's some kind of latent sexism in this seems absolutely ludicrous to me; no matter how the language evolved, the most pertinent fact of the matter is how words are used now, and most people don't think for a minute that I'm talking about the males in the group only when I say 'I'll see you guys at 6 for dinner.'

My friend pointed out that, as a philosopher, I should be concerned with getting the most precision in language that I possibly can. I agree that absolute precision is needed when talking about complex philosophical issues, which is why the specialized philosophical vocabulary has evolved (just ask a philosopher of action what 'freedom' means sometime to see what I'm talking about). However, I don't think that every day conversation requires this level of precision, simply because absolutely crystal-clear definitions with NO ambiguity at all aren't necessary for day-to-day communication; I can rely on your knowledge of English grammatical and linguistic conventions and your ability to deduce what I'm talking about from context to get my meaning across without a specialized vocabulary.

For any academic inquiry, we should ask ourselves "what does it add?" See my Pithy Mission Statement over to the right side of your screen for more on this. One of the reasons many academics in other fields (myself included) have difficulty taking disciplines like "Women and Gender Studies" seriously, I think, is that so many of the issues championed by those fields are utterly specious--this is a prime example. The struggle to rid the English language of 'gendered' words (which, if I'm right, aren't gendered at all) doesn't seem to add anything to the academic discourse, and doesn't seem to advance human (oh no! even 'human' has the word 'man' in it!) knowledge at all. Instead, it seems that the only thing it does accomplish is the creation of a problem that wasn't there in the fist place: no one was thinking about 'mankind' in terms of gender until feminist 'academics' made it an issue.

For the record, I'm all in favor of gender equality. I know it's a virtual certainty that if this post gets seen by the right people, I'll be called a "chauvinist pig" and/or an "agent of Patriarchal oppression." I'm not. There are lots of great women, and there are lots of sucky women, just like there are lots of great men and lots of sucky men. We're all people. Get over it. If that's not feminism, I don't know what is.


Chelsea said...

That's all very well and good, and I completely agree that the campaign for gender neutrality in language is useless, not to mention something that only English-speaking feminists could have cooked up, (English being the least gender-dependent language in its family). Try taking gender out of Spanish language and you'll just confuse the shit out of yourself, not to mention the hell of a time you'll have deciding if it's sexist that the word for "skirt" is feminine while the word for "dress" is masculine--gender in language is something that, regardless of whether it was arbitrarily assigned in the beginning, has become random through time and usage.

However, you've made one true patriarchal faux pas, and that is to assume that when the statement "all men are created equal" was written, it referred in the least to women. It's true that I wouldn't presume to attack the crafters of this great statement; however, I think the best credit we can give them is to assume that they honestly intended to say that among men, all men are equal, and among women, all women are equal, but never that women might be equal to men in any area. In a sense, perhaps we are okay with the "separate but equal" philosophy of gender equality; however, I do not think that even that was the concept rooted behind "all men are created equal." It was an idealistic statement shrouded in the shortsightedness of the era; this is why we must both recognize its shortsightedness while also being able to use it today to understand that it really means that "all of us are created equal."

Jon said...

I figured someone would say that. Like I said in the post, I think that that's actually rather irrelevant--the historical context in which the word was created, or even the way the word was used 250 years ago, doesn't seem to matter to the current discussion. The feminist point is that we need to get rid of any apparent gender-reference in language right now, because it's adding to the oppression of women right now. My point is that, no matter how it might have begun, 'all men are created equal' now means something gender neutral to most people, meaning that the symbol 'men' in that sentence is functioning differently than it is in 'all men have beards.' Like you said, today we use it to mean 'all of us are created equal;' that's what matters.

Saint Gasoline said...

I bet you're only saying that because you're a high-ranking member in this super-secret cabal of penises.

Jon said...

....that's what she said!

Michael said...

I think you dismiss the original meaning of "all men are created equal" too easily. Way too easily. Men may have been endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, but until the last century the men with penises got to vote and the men with vaginas did not. And the men without penises only got these rights that all men have by having it explicitly specified that men with penises as a separate class (women) did legally have those rights.

The distinctions between men with penises and men without penises persist to this day quite oppressively in societies ranging from Saudi Arabia (where only men with penises can drive and where a man without a penis needs the permission of a man with a penis to leave) to Afghanistan (where men without penises would be beaten by men with pensises if they went out without very full body coverings and where education for men without penises was very much more unusual than education for men with pensises) to many places in Africa, where men without penises routinely have their little mini-penises cut right off! while men with regular penises get to keep their junk.

If we could teach and learn "all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights" for hundreds of years without ever wondering why it only seemed to actually apply to men with penises, then I think we can safely say in real life usage that "men" meant something quite different from "people" or "humans."

I am a red-blooded heterosexual american male, happy to view pornography and visit strip clubs, happy to hold doors open somewhat more readily for women than men, and do all these other sexist things. But I am also an engineer, a former professor, and perhaps most importantly, and old guy (50). I KNOW how much stronger male/female stereotyping as a directive thing was in my own lifetime, from school dress codes forbidding pants to men without penises (had to wear dress or skirt) to 99.99% male professions all over the place like my father's engineering floor at Grumman Aerospace.

I find it more helpful to think not so much of morally wrong or right in using "man" to sometimes mean all men, other times only men with penises, but rather to think of where we are and where we would like to go. For every Berkeley where brilliant women and men do what they want with effectively no outside constraints based on sex, there are 20 hispanic, moslem, or a host of other households where the allowed behavior for women is QUITE different from that allowed for men.

Interestingly, as society has changed to be less sexist, the language has evolved itself, so that many people now DO use "they" and "them" for the 3rd person singular gender neutral pronoun. What better evidence that it does matter and that "man" means "humans with penises" and not "humans" than that in real life, people move the language to reflect the usage they want all on their own, without waiting for the academics to lead them.

Have a good one,

Michael said...

Remarkably, having said all that, I don't even label myself a liberal. I would call myself a "social libertarian," I strongly believe the law has no place distinguishing between male and female, black and white, gay and straight, and so on. I find the juxtaposition of my position against your position amusing considering you self-label as a liberal and I do not. Hmmm.

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