Re: Gender bias (was Evolving language or laziness)

Subject: Re: Gender bias (was Evolving language or laziness)
From: Tim Altom <taltom -at- IQUEST -dot- NET>
Date: Mon, 18 Mar 1996 12:20:00 EST

At 11:30 AM 3/18/96 -0500, you wrote:

>>"If anyone wants to smoke, it can do it outside?"

>I know you posted a deliberately absurd example, but it's also a good
>one for illustrating the approach I prefer.

>You ask, "Why does that sentence make us cringe?" I think it does so
>because it calls attention to itself. The reader can't help wondering,
>"What was the writer thinking here?" and then reflecting "Oh, yeah.
>The writer started with 'If anyone wants to smoke, he can do it outside',
>but then decided that's sexist and decided to change 'he' to 'it'."

>The likely original, "If anyone wants to smoke, he can do it outside,"
>also calls attention to itself because for a significant minority of
>readers, to whom in fact it gives offense.

>The solution is simple: write something that doesn't call attention to
>itself, such as "If anyone wants to smoke, do it outside." If the
>context makes that too informal, 100% correct alternatives are
>numerous: "Anyone who wants to smoke should do it outside" and "Anyone
>who wants to smoke will please do so outside" for starters. (Then
>there's the less wordy "No smoking indoors, please.")

>Is there always an easy alternative? Of course not. But I maintain
>that obviously gendered sentences as a group are no harder to edit
>than any others. And just as we should avoid most split infinitives --
>not because they're necessarily wrong, but because they draw attention
>to themselves and away from our actual subject matter -- so we should
>avoid both gendered and clumsily degendered language, because both
>draw attention to themselves and away from our subject.

I must disagree with your logic. In fact, using "he" doesn't distract most
readers, because it's a default condition, not an abnormality. It's the
unusual that distracts, not the expected. A cold day in February is hardly
noted. A warm day in February is cause for office comment. That's why using
"she" for the indeterminate pronoun distracts, rather than enhances. We
naturally flow past items that we expect to see, and they cause no cognitive
problems. My example using a neuter pronoun DOES call attention to itself,
precisely because it uses a construction that's unexpected and hard to process.

My whole point is that even language that gives offense to a minority is
not, ipso facto, wrong, ill-advised or subject to immediate change. There
are always subunits of society that are put off by actions or language of
the majority, but that is not, by itself, a reason to change anything. I'm
offended by many things in our society, but I don't press the issue because
I know it's futile. I suspect we all have secret irritations that we merely
put up with. Why should I have to contort sentences built with Anglo-Saxon
words that have long and honorable pedigrees to satisfy a minority's

There is a wavering line between compassion and paralysis by political
correctness. I feel this issue falls on the nether side of the river. I
would no longer use "nigger" when writing about blacks, but that's because
"nigger" has a harsher undertone, a sense of slavery, misuse, whippings,
servitude, and subjugation. It signals the listener that I'm talking about a
human pack animal, not a fellow human. However, I don't put "he" or "his"
into this category. Why would I be accused of insulting women by simply
referring to generic humankind as "he"? Who is a rabid enough feminist to
shriek in anguish merely by being mistaken in generic, unknown, faceless
terms for a male? Are males really such dismal creatures that being referred
to as "he" is tantamount to being called a "bitch" or something even more
insulting? And is that admittedly minority loathing for masculinity enough
of a reason to gut a basic language construction? I think not.

Tim Altom
Vice President
Simply Written, Inc.
317.899.5882 (voice)
317.899.5987 (fax)

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