Thursday, March 5, 2009

"Gender Neutral Masculine" is an Oxymoron

Previously, I wrote about how many of our federal and state laws and constitutions exclusively use the male pronoun in reference to all human beings as opposed to using more gender-inclusive pronouns. The use of the so-called gender neutral masculine, of course, is also common in religious texts.

Sometimes, as in the Catholic Church's instance below, the usage can result in an amusing absurdity and nullification of the speaker's statement. Paragraph 2333 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

"Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity. Physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life. The harmony of the couple and of society depends in part on the way in which the complementarity, needs, and mutual support between the sexes are lived out." [Emphasis added]

I know that many would argue that "everyone just knows" that the "his" refers to "everyone, man and woman" but I think it would have been a simple concession for any such religious statement and subsequent translation to be gender-inclusive, especially since the point of the Paragraph is to elucidate how both men and women are so very important. This paragraph that is telling us how important it is that we humans have been sex differentiated as men and women is simultaneously ignoring a key half of the "complementary" pair in its language. Ultimately, I am left to wonder how important women really are to the "flourishing of family life" if they do not even garner a simple little pronoun reference of their own.

More generally, considering how simple of a concession it would be for folks to use gender-inclusive language, I have sought to understand why people continue to use the oxymoronic "generic" masculine. To me, it is self-evident that there should not even be a debate about this. But alas, some people believe that the personal cost of using gender-inclusive language is greater than the benefit. From what I have gathered, many people use the "generic he" out of custom, perhaps unaware that it alienates women. It's a privilege thing for men not to have to notice how language often excludes women. I do believe that many men don't really think about this issue or see it as problematic. In the eyes of some, women who point out gender exclusive speech are just being over-sensitive, nitpicky feminazis.

Along these lines, others take a Just Because They Can approach and use the "generic he" to demonstrate how they are capable of exercising free speech. Such people view the trend toward gender inclusive language as an uber-politically-correct infringement of their own right to speak however they like. For evidence of some of these arguments, I urge you to visit Wikipedia's "Gender neutrality in English" entry (and its related Discussion tab). I think this entry is poorly-written and far from objective, but it demonstrates how passionately people feel about the issue on both sides.

Unfortunately, proponents of the "generic masculine" misunderstand, ignore, or remain ignorant of how the usage is problematic. For one, the "generic he" pronoun sometimes really does refer only to men as opposed to both women and men. Historically, that laws, bylaws, and religious commandments were written with the "he" pronoun has been used to deny women equal rights. "In 1879, for example, a move to admit female physicians to the all-male Massachusetts Medical society was effectively blocked on the grounds that the society's by-laws describing membership used the pronoun he."

Secondly, the outdated use of the "generic" masculine pronoun can be confusing. For, "Even when authors insist that 'man' is a general term of all humans, they can lapse into meaning it as a term for only males." Observe:

"As for man, he is no different from the rest. His back aches, he ruptures easily, his women have difficulties in childbirth."

Here, the author at first appears to be talking about all human beings when writing the first clause of the sentence. At best, it is at first unknown whether the writer is referring to men only, or to both men and women. It makes for a confusing shift when, in this same sentence, he begins talking about man and "his women." This sort of double-usage occurs frequently in the Bible. "God," for instance, often commands men (meaning men and women), men (meaning only men), and women (meaning only women) and- depending on translation- uses the "generic" masculine interchangeably.

In light of the obvious problems with the usage of the "generic masculine," the largest being that it alienates half the human population, I mostly see those who continue to use it as either ignorantly privileged, willfully malicious, and/or desperately trying to retain male privilege.

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