Pronouns and gender politics

The babble of political correctness

Gender politics pervades language, and it’s getting even harder to know what’s “correct.”

Tens of thousands of years have elapsed since we shed our tails, but we are still communicating with a medium developed to meet the needs of arboreal man. . . We may smile at the linguistic illusions of primitive man, but may we forget that the verbal machinery on which we so readily rely, and which our metaphysicians still profess to probe the Nature of Existence, was set up by him, and may be responsible for other illusions hardly less gross and not more easily eradicable?

C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards

Language and thought

Basic questions: does language influence thought?  And vice-versa?  I don’t know.  I just observe and try to understand.  But some people think they do know and want to manage the change.

Here’s how a great many literate folks – mostly adherents of political correctness and practitioners of exquisite and ongoing gender-consciousness (some of them, perhaps, linguists) – think about language and its supposed effect on internal cognition: if we use words like mankind and policeman, (and for some extremists who see sexism everywhere, history and woman) and sentences  like A doctor might use the new drug on his patients, then we will be continuing long-standing prejudices against women which have become embedded in the language.

Language influences thought – the hallowed and much-debated hypothesis of Benjamin Whorf.

Vocabulary and culture

Of course societies and language communities are interested in different things and will have more words for (and make more distinctions among) the things and experiences that are central to their lives.  But it is a huge leap from here to “language determines thought.”  Alas, we have no idea what goes on in the brain as regards language.

We can observe phenomena like aphasia and language acquisition and make psycho-linguistic measurements — all give us an indirect and rough idea, but they’re only output. We don’t know what happens in the brain to create thought, consciousness, and subjectivity.

Language and behavior; free thought and free speech

Still, for certain large, ubiquitous classes of communication – political propaganda, advertising/marketing, and religion — whose primary business is persuasion, repetition of the same message to the exclusion of all others can influence behavior and presumably the thought that drives it.

That’s why free speech and the marketplace of ideas are so critical.  If, through persistence and repetition, you can silence dissent and get to the point where you can say anything about a hated group, then you can do anything to them.

Language and gender

But back to language and gender.  If I hear primarily ”man” in a variety of contexts, am I bound to think that only men count?

As a speechwriter, I encountered many wise quotes from the 18th and 19th centuries.  They all refer to “a man,” “man,” and “men.”  Did they mean only men?  Or were women included in these epigrams and aphorisms?

Social change and language

Then, in the late 20th century, political and social change began to affect language.  Women started to do more and more jobs formerly done only by men, and vice-versa.  They are prominent in many more areas of life.  Language should and does reflect this change, just as it always responds to the needs of its users.

I assure you I do not think of women when I hear about hurricanes, but not only because the etymology is bogus, but also because the weather folks have accommodated to social change and named half of the storms for men.  That’s progress!

What’s in your head?

But then it gets dicey.  Nobody can tell for sure what’s going on in somebody else’s head when they’re hearing, reading, or using particular pronouns and word roots.  Does language influence thought, vice-versa, or both?

I’m a Mysterian: the brain is a black box, so let’s stick to observable data, including attitudes toward language itself.  And what’s important for our purposes is the fact that most literate people regard the language-thought hypothesis as true.  So if you don’t use gender-neutral language, you might offend your audience.

That’s especially true with indefinite expressions.  The occupational titles are the low-hanging fruit.  It’s easy to notice policeman and replace it with police officer.  There are entire books that guide us through the jungle of gender-sensitive language.

The indefinite problem – and solutions

But there’s more than just names of hurricanes and occupations: what pronoun is to be used when, later in the sentence, you want to refer to a preceding indefinite, as in the “doctor” example?   In conversation, they predominates: Everybody should have their equipment.

Another solution that avoids many pronoun problems is to switch to the plural: Doctors might use the new drug on their patients. Or how about the first-person plural – We (doctors) night use the drug on our patients?

You can also use the indefinite you, acceptable in most contexts, as I did in the second paragraph under “language and behavior” above.

Everybody has a right to their opinion, but…

Right now they seems poised to become the default indefinite pronoun in conversation or other informal communication, e.g., text messages.  I don’t foresee people using his or her or any other similarly clumsy phraseology in conversation.

But in formal contexts, written or spoken, I don’t see acceptance of they, at least not in the near future.  If I hear it in a formal speech or see it in a technical paper or journal article, I’ll let you know.

Writers sometimes inelegantly work their way around the problem.  In a recent column, Jonah Goldberg  wrote “monarchies and other systems built around one-man (or one-woman) rule…”  The traditional phrase is one-man rule, but adding one-woman in parentheses gives primacy and default status to the male-ruler model, and we don’t want that.  How about “…built around the rule of a single individual”?

A non-solution

What will NOT work is the gratuitous use of she, over and over.  Unless the audience or topic is all-female, it’s a distraction – and nothing must distract from the message.  It says, “look how gender-sensitive I am.”

Who’s “typical”?

Here’s a passage in a recent Atlantic article:

“In the 1970s, the typical American ate about 120 pounds of meat each year. In the 1990s, she ate about 130 pounds annually. Today, she eats more than 140 pounds a year, or about 2.5 pounds of meat every week—a record high, according to government estimates.”

The “typical” person is female?  Demographically it’s too close for me to call, but men are “typical people” too.  All the she’s are just going to be confusing and distracting to audiences for whom the indefinite pronoun of choice is they.  You will never hear she as an indefinite in conversation.

She may be grammatical, but it grates on those of us who advocate clear, eloquent language and freedom from political correctness.  She calls attention to itself in a way that language should not.

Similarly, they infuriates grammarians, but it’s a temporary, perhaps permanent solution triggered by broader social and linguistic changes.

But meanwhile, there are ways around the problem. Let’s get creative.