From The Mercury Archives: Nov. 15, 1995
Yes, it’s true. Sexism still exists in this country; we have failed to stamp it out with our Birkenstocks-laden feet.
The concept I’m here to discuss is Gender Neutrality in Language. The concept is a simple one. We should begin to alter our language to reflect the evolution of social graces and the progression of civil rights. Language does influence thought and vice-versa. It is a two-way street with no clear median.
I sense the continued presence of a few Doubting Thomases out there. (And I’m not just talking about Clarence.) For men who disagree with my thesis, try this test. Call your girlfriend a “wench” consistently for one week and just see if it influences her thoughts about going to Homecoming with you. Also try to determine if the experiment has influenced your thoughts concerning masturbation. Women can encourage their boyfriends to call them “wench” for a week and see if they can refrain from killing them. Is the connection between thought and language lucid now or what?
The point of all this is that cultural anthropologists agree (I asked two) that language is the single most representative factor in a culture. If this is true, we must use our words carefully, they are very powerful and they influence people. Whereas it is very easy to see how thoughts affect language, it requires a perceptive double-take to see how language affects thought. I’m sure my erudite readership needs no further explanation, but if you do, God loves you anyway.
Some might be inclined to say, “Gordon, are you claiming that the use of ‘she/he’ in lieu of the less cumbersome and simply stated ‘he’ will effect a mass reversal of generations of gender bias? Are you advocating some sort of linguistic social engineering to forcefully adjust peoples’ freely chosen attitudes towards the sexes?”
My answer is a qualified yes. All Limbaugh fans must pay careful attention to context here. Those right of center as well as those to the left of it both need to realize that, in this case, changes will come gradually. Gender relations has always been a touchy area where angels fear to tread, lest they should be stood up some weekend. Patience is requisite for true change, and militancy will always be a turn-off to the masses. So, to the left I say be patient and don’t ask for too much at once because that makes it all the easier for the other side to say no. Measured progress will always be better than two groups screaming at one another. To the people on the right I say don’t accept simple-minded arguments of “They can apply for the same jobs as me. That’s all the equality they need. Why do they keep making demands?” You are smart enough to figure out that it may alienate and discourage young girls to always hear references to a generic doctor, or any other professional, as “he” or for boys to always hear nurses referred to as “she.”
I must admit I possess no scholarship on such matters. (Posterity can sort it out when I release “On Being a Eunuch and Other Short Stories,” my much anticipated posthumous collection of prose.) But if a simple alteration in my vocabulary makes someone else feel better about themselves, it is worth the change. And if I am correct, my words on the outside will affect my thoughts on the inside and I’ll be a better person for it.